Monthly Archive for September, 2012

On Not Having A Dog In The Fight

I didn’t have a dog in the fight. I didn’t have a dog full stop. And there wasn’t a fight, exactly. It was more of a skirmish. One gang of warriors armed with swords charged, screaming, at another gang of warriors, also armed with swords. There were one or two clangs of blade against blade, but then the second gang ran away, back to their bivouac, and the first gang, still screaming their heads off, took possession of the area of land on which the skirmish had taken place. It was not quite land, being more accurately described as sodden marsh, but the warriors were well pleased with themselves. Their bloodcurdling screams turned to chanting, and they chanted their victory song, which went something like this:

We have vanquished our foes
Our swords are caked with their blood
Truly they have been ripped to shreds
And the sodden marshland is ours

That is a translation. In the original, the lines rhyme and have a pleasing rhythmic flow. You will note, however, that it is not strictly accurate. The foes ran away before they could be ripped to shreds, and not a drop of blood was spilled. It remains true, however, that I didn’t have a dog in the fight. It doesn’t matter that I had no dog, that there was no fight as such. The statement has its own inner coherence and logic.

Would things have been any different if I did have a dog, and there had been a fight? Let’s imagine that, instead of running away, the second gang of warriors, sploshing about in the sodden marsh, were determined to keep possession of it. When the first gang came charging at them, screaming, the second gang were not cowed, and instead started hacking wildly at their attackers, who hacked back. Swords clashed, stabbings occurred, limbs were lopped. There was much bloodshed. By the time they finished fighting, most of the warriors on either side were either dead or splayed upon the sodden marsh, groaning. Those who could still walk upright retreated. The sodden marsh remained disputed territory. Which gang of warriors took possession of it would depend upon further fighting, perhaps tomorrow, after each side had had the chance to replenish their numbers.

Meanwhile, what about me and my putative dog? For the purposes of vividness, let us bestow upon it a breed and a name. It is a Jack Russell terrier and its name is Skippy. For even more vividness, let us posit that Skippy is celebrated in song, by a chorus of tinies. They sing:

Skippy the terrier, o! what a hound!
Watch him scamper across the ground!
Be it sodden marsh or meadow
Skippy’s a jolly good fellow!

That is not a translation, as you can probably tell by the rhyme in the first couplet and the half-rhyme in the second. By the way, do not fret that the tinies assembled to sing Skippy’s praises are in any danger from the screaming, sword-wielding warriors. We shall place the tinies off to one side, safe behind some kind of barricade. In fact, that is where Skippy, my putative dog, is, and I am too. That explains why I don’t have a dog (Skippy) in the fight. I would not want him to come to any harm, if he existed, that is, not out of any overwhelming love for dogs, for in actual fact I detest and fear them, but because I like to think that if I did have a dog, as a pet, I would do my best to protect it from bloodthirsty screaming warriors armed with swords. I would not be much of a dog owner, would I, if I picked Skippy up and chucked him over the barricade, and commanded him to go and fetch a stick I threw into the clashing melée of warriors? Dogs can be very trusting, and the likelihood is that Skippy would gaze at me adoringly and scamper unquestioningly into the sodden marsh, there to be torn to bits by the razor-sharp blades of the fighting men. They might not stab Skippy purposely, but if he were caught up in the violence, by going to retrieve the thrown stick, he would almost certainly fall victim to what is known as collateral damage. So, if I did have a dog in the fight, even peripherally or circumstantially, he would probably come to a bad end.

I would have to placate the grieving tinies, too, whose hearts were filled to bursting with love and admiration for Skippy, as attested by their song. Though his violent death was caused by the chaotic hacking of swords in a battle which was nothing to do with him, nor with me, whose only action was to throw a stick for him to fetch, the tinies might well blame me. They would cease singing and turn on me, with looks of reproach and accusation. I am not sure how I would go about placating them. I suppose I could produce another putative dog, another Jack Russell terrier, also called Skippy, and by sleight of hand and misdirection pretend it was the same dog, unbloodied and in one piece and alive. But where would I get such a dog, quickly enough to convince the tinies?

All in all, I am thankful that I did not have a dog in the fight. Without the dog, there would be no call for a chorus of tinies to sing its praises from behind a barricade, nor for me to throw a stick into the midst of a mad tangle of clashing screaming blood-drenched warriors for the putative dog to fetch. And with no dead dog, the tinies would not turn on me, with a rage and wildness more terrible than an army with banners.

On Gew And Weg

Gew and Weg, the palindromic chums, went on many exciting adventures. In one such adventure they took a spaceship to Pluto and planted tulips. This was about as close as they ever got to having a palindromic adventure. Had there been a planet Pilut, they would no doubt have gone there instead, but they had to make do with Pluto.

On their way back from Pluto, Gew and Weg discovered they still had a couple of tulip bulbs, forgotten at the bottom of their burlap bag. So peckish on the long journey and far, far from any canteen or cafeteria, they ate them. Soon enough they had flowers sprouting from their ears. It was a look they liked, so they did not cut them.

Interviewed by press hounds when they landed back at the spaceship station on Earth, Gew and Weg had to fend off questions about the tulips in their ears. Would all visitors to that distant planet become human flowerpots?, they were asked. Are those normal tulips or are they some sort of weird Plutonian tulip?, they were asked. Their replies were drowned out by the eager babbling of other newshounds and the sudden blaring of hooters warning of a calamity.

Gew and Weg always liked to intervene in cases of imminent calamity, so they cut the press conference short and scampered off to the hooter control hut. They were mightily disconcerted to discover that whoever had pressed the control knob that set the hooters blaring had already fled. Thus they had no way of finding out the nature of the impending calamity. Whatever it might be, they agreed that the hut was a safe place to be, so they slammed the door shut and flung themselves into a pair of armchairs. They copied this flinging movement from Nayland Smith in the Fu Manchu books by Sax Rohmer.

Outside the hut all was pandaemonium. But the hut was windowless and soundproofed with cork panels. There is not much chance of a palindromic adventure involving cork panels, observed Gew. Hmm, responded Weg, Kroc le nap? That means nothing. Was Kroc not the surname of the man who started McDonald’s?, said Gew. Yes, said Weg, or rather Yar. Ray Kroc, though he was not the founder of the company, he merely built it into today’s behemoth. Well then, mused Gew, we might have an adventure revolving around Kroc taking a snooze in France, le nap Kroc. Too late for that!, rapped Weg, he died in 1984. Weg copied his rapping intonation from Nayland Smith in the Fu Manchu books by Sax Rohmer.

After a while Gew creaked the door of the hut open to peek outside. There had been some sort of cataclysm, that was for sure. Come and look at this, he said to Weg. Gosh!, said Weg, when he too peeked outside and saw the results of the terrible cataclysm, No wonder the hooters were blaring! I suppose we can depress the control knob to cease the hooters now, said Gew. Yes, I suppose we can, said Weg.

But as they went back into the interior of the hut and past the pair of armchairs towards the hooter control console wherein the knob was set, the hut door slammed shut by dint of a sudden galey gust, and they found they were unable to open it. We seem to be trapped in the hut, said Gew. Lawks-a-mercy!, said Weg. This was not a phrase that was ever used by Nayland Smith in the Fu Manchu books by Sax Rohmer. He must have picked it up somewhere else, from a cockney street urchin, perhaps, or a costermonger.

There is not much opportunity for adventure confined to a hut, observed Gew. No, agreed Weg, but we can console ourselves that “tuh” would in any case provide no palindromic excitements. Though the thought occurs to me, he added, that we might embark on an anagrammatic adventure if there are any containers of UHT milk in this hut. Have you taken leave of your senses?, rapped Gew, What possible kind of adventure could we have, trapped in a hut with a carton of UHT milk? Alright, alright, keep your hair on, said Weg, I was merely musing.

Gew and Weg flung themselves back into the armchairs. There was a bit of a fug in the hut because the man who manned the hooter control console was a chain smoker. Though he had fled he had left his fug behind. Both Gew and Weg feared their tulips might wilt in the stifling atmosphere.

I liked Pluto, said Gew, It had a certain something. Agreed, agreed Weg, I found it agreeably Plutonian. Mind you, this hut would be equally agreeable were it not so fuggy. Yes, said Gew, I could quite happily slump in this armchair for a considerable period of time. My only concern is the wilting of our tulips. Well, that and the fact that we are trapped. Now there’s a thought, said Weg. What?, said Gew. Well, said Weg, what with the windowlessness and the soundproofing by cork panels, one wonders if the hut is completely sealed. And if it is so sealed…?, asked Gew, allowing his question to peter out as the penny dropped. If the hut is so sealed, said Weg, then not only will our tulips wilt, but we will wilt too, fatally, as the supply of oxygen is gradually depleted.

Lawks-a-mercy!, said Gew, Then it seems we are to have an adventure after all! A daring escape from a sealed hut! Yes, said Weg, And an anagrammatic adventure, for look!, over on that shelf I spy a carton of UHT milk! How is that going to be germane to our escape?, asked Gew. I don’t know yet, said Weg, But I will hatch a plan.

Next week in The Thrilling Escapades Of Gew And Weg, find out how the derring-do duo escape from the sealed hut using a carton of UHT milk!

On Ping Pong, Imagined

In his fascinating new book, beardy intellectual gadfly Slobodan Gadfly posits a world in which the game of ping pong does not exist. He then proceeds to “invent” it through the power of imagination. It would be easy to dismiss the work as pointless pseudointellectual twaddle, and many critics have adopted precisely that line. Here, for example, is Rolf Gutentag, writing in The Pingpongist:

Seldom have I read such a blithering farrago of drivel. My cat could write a more sensible book than this. In fact, he has done. Meat In Jelly, Daytime Naps, And The Torture Of Birds is available now from all good bookshops. But I digress. Even if we accept Mr Gadfly’s preposterous premise of a ping pong-less universe, must we be subjected to page after page of his strenuous mental groping towards some sort of fully-imagined tabletop-based indoor sport played with bats and lightweight balls? As if that were not piffling enough, there is further piffle in store, in the shape of an entire chapter devoted to a wholly imaginary scoring system which turns out, on close inspection, to be identical to the actual scoring system used in actual games of ping pong in the actual world.

Gutentag is positively enthusiastic in comparison to Seebohm “Not Susan” Sontag, writing in The New Pingpongist:

Never, ever, in all my days, have I read such a blithering farrago of drivel. As soon as I finished reading it, I burned it. Then I went out to the bookshop where I had bought it and burned all the copies they had in stock. Then, for good measure, I burned down the bookshop. As the flames licked the sky, I held in one hand a ping pong bat and in the other hand a ping pong ball, and when the fire brigade arrived, with bells clanging, I challenged every man jack of them to a game of ping pong. Look!, I was saying, the game exists! Why pretend it doesn’t and then try to imagine it? The fire brigade could only nod in agreement, thus proving the utter futility of Gadfly’s thesis.

I cannot help but think that Messrs Gutentag and Sontag are missing the point of the book. Quite what that point is I am not sure myself, but I have neither the time nor the inclination to worry my little head about such niceties. And it is indeed a little head, not much bigger than a ping pong ball, on account of certain mishaps in the maternity ward where I was born. I am often asked if life has presented me with insurmountable difficulties due to my tiny, white, and almost spherical head, and my invariable answer is “no, it has not”, for I carry myself with aplomb and meet the astonished gazes of those I encounter with a steely gaze of my own. If they continue to gaze, or to prod me with their fingers as if I were a circus freak, I take from my pocket the ping pong bat I always carry about my person and I thump them smartly on the head with it, several times.

I do not think it is necessary to understand the point of Mr Gadfly’s book to enjoy it. I would go further, and say it is not necessary to understand the point of any book to enjoy it. What, after all, is the point of Rolf Gutentag’s cat’s book? Does it give us new insights into feline life? It does not. Does it, more importantly, tell us of a cat’s approach to the game of ping pong? It does not. Indeed, save for one passage in which the cat-narrator chases a ping pong ball around a confined space, in a state of frenzy, there is no mention of ping pong at all. This absence, or lacuna, makes it a highly unusual book, at least in my experience. And that, perhaps, is the point.

And as much as I enjoyed the cat’s book, so I enjoyed Slobodan Gadfly’s. The opening chapter, in which he paints a vivid picture of a universe in which ping pong does not exist, and never has existed, is a tour de force. It is a world very much like our own, in almost every particular. It even has a few people in it like myself, with ping pong ball-size heads, though of course we are not described as such, for in this alternative universe without ping pong, there are of necessity no ping pong balls. Gadfly has to invent them, just as he has to invent the bat and the net and the rules and the scoring system. And invent them he does, each in turn.

He does not spare us the details of his mental agony. There are false starts, wrong turnings, red herrings, and mind-bogglingly stupid decisions. In chapter four, for example, Gadfly recounts his struggle to imagine a ping pong ball. As yet, he has no concept of either the bat or the net or the rules or the scoring system. He has not even arrived at the idea that the game might be an indoor one played on a tabletop. Indeed, he has not even thought of the game. At this stage, his only concern is the ball – in his parallel universe, a wholly new type of ball which he challenges himself to bring into existence. Laughably, the first ping pong ball he conceives is the size and shape and texture of a medicine ball. It is not absolutely identical to a medicine ball, of course, for they already exist in his ping pong-less world.

While I was reading this chapter, with its tragic undertone, I could not help but become engulfed by my own imaginings. I wondered what my life would be like if, instead of having a ping pong ball head, I had a medicine ball head? It was easy enough to posit a slightly different maternity ward mishap that could have had such an outcome for my head. But I found it far more difficult to picture how different things would have been for me. Would I still go about with a ping pong bat in my pocket, ready to strike the impolite? And if I did not, how would I deal with such people? Trying to fathom the answers to these questions made me all the more admiring of Slobodan Gadfly’s great act of imagination, in inventing, from nothing, the game of ping pong.

Hooting Yard Rating : Seventeen stars.

You may also enjoy : Ping Pong For Cats by Rolf Gutentag, The Fantastic Architecture Of The Burning Cities by Seebohm “Not Susan” Sontag, Ipsy Dipsy Doo Dah by Jeanette Winterson & Will Self.

Swan Dabbling

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Earlier in the week I posted one of my rare snaps, of an urban swan. It is reproduced today in my cupboard at The Dabbler, accompanied by a brief explanatory text – a text which is basically an excuse to bang on for the umpteenth time about that curiously persistent obsession of mine, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies and his fondness for dining on electrocuted whooper swans.

On The Spittle Of Donkeys

I am delighted to post another article from Miss Blossom Partridge’s Weekly Digest. This one is from her invaluable series “The Expectorations Of Various Quadruped Beasts”. Permission to reproduce it here was granted after I made a donation to Miss Blossom Partridge’s Lovely Bucolic Donkey Sanctuary. Though small, the donation exacted was double the amount paid for permission to post Miss Blossom Partridge’s piece on giant albino kangaroos. I have decided to set up a fund to meet what I fear may be ever-increasing costs demanded by the mysterious Dr Grimes, who claims to be Miss Blossom Partridge’s accountant. If you would like to contribute, and so guarantee the opportunity to read more of her excellent work, please whack that PayPal button over on the right of the screen and give generously.

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Last week in Miss Blossom Partridge’s Weekly Digest we considered the sputum of giraffes, so this week, following the extremely complicated scheme devised for this series, we turn inevitably to the spittle of donkeys. We looked at giraffe sputum in a necessarily abstract, theoretical manner, but when it comes to the spittle of donkeys we are going to take a more practical approach, so roll up your sleeves, wash your hands with swarfega, and let’s get down to business!

The first thing you need to do is to find some donkeys. Do not for one minute think you can come a-trespassing in my Lovely Bucolic Donkey Sanctuary, however! It is surrounded by an electrified fence and every hundred yards or so there is a watchtower in which is perched one of my sentries armed with a high-velocity sniper’s rifle. Step over the whitewashed line parallel to the fence and you will be shot in the centre of your forehead. I do not bandy about the word “sanctuary” loosely.

Far better that you go to the seaside, where donkeys are often to be found giving rides along the beach to overexcited tinies. The seaside donkeymaster may not take kindly to you collecting spittle from one of his donkeys, so what you will need to do is to lure one away from the pack. Pick a donkey that is not, at the time, laden with a squealing infant on its back. A small bale of straw ought to be sufficient temptation for the donkey, but you will need to ensure the donkeymaster’s attention is distracted. This can be accomplished by, for example, setting fire to an ice cream kiosk elsewhere on the beach. While the donkeymaster is gazing, open-mouthed at the conflagration, wave the small bale of straw in the face of your chosen donkey and lure it away until you are concealed by sand dunes or some similar seaside beach feature.

Do not fret your little head about being charged with donkey abduction. Once you have collected its spittle, you are going to return the donkey whence you found it, no harm done. Before so returning it, you will again need to divert the donkeymaster’s attention. For this purpose, it can be useful to have an accomplice, a stooge who swims out to sea and then pretends to be drowning, frantically waving their arms and shouting. But we are leaping ahead of ourselves.

Duly hidden behind dunes, or similar, you can begin to feed handfuls of straw to the donkey. As it munches, spittle will be produced from various glands in its mouth. I will not go into the precise physiological details. Just bear with me. Now, while with one hand you tear off portions of straw from the bale and stuff them into the donkey’s mouth, with your other hand you should be holding a bowl under its chin to collect such spittle as it dribbles and drools. Remember that some donkeys slobber while eating more than others, and do not hit any panic buttons. Provided the donkey munches straw for about ten minutes, it should almost certainly produce sufficient spittle to fill your bowl, if not to the brim then as near as dammit.

When you are happy with the amount of donkey spittle in your bowl, transfer it to a flask by means of a siphon and funnel. Pat the donkey on its head to show your appreciation. Then use your walkie-talkie to alert your accomplice, who should come scampering out of a chalet in his swimming costume and hare across the beach and plunge into the sea and swim out and then pretend to be drowning and wave and scream. Peering out from behind the dunes, make sure the donkeymaster is distracted, and lead the donkey back, inserting it among the other donkeys as if it had never been away. If an infant is loitering nearby, pick it up and plop it on to the donkey’s back. Thus, when the donkeymaster turns around to scan his donkeys, he will be even less likely to think one of them has been lured away behind the sand dunes to have its spittle collected. You can now go home.

In your kitchenette, pour the donkey spittle out of the flask into a container. There will almost certainly be a few strands of munched straw intermingled with the spittle, so pick them out with a pair of tweezers and discard them in your bin. Do the same with any other foreign bodies that have found their way into the container until you have one hundred percent pure donkey spittle. This can then be used for a vast range of different purposes, most of which hark back centuries and have come down to us through rustic lore and wisdom.

While you ponder to precisely what purpose you intend to put the spittle of the donkey, take a moment to thank your lucky stars that you live in an enlightened age. Had you been found poring over a container of donkey spittle at virtually any time in those past centuries, you would have been burned as a witch.

On Giant Albino Kangaroos

Over the past year or so in Miss Blossom Partridge’s Weekly Digest, Miss Blossom Partridge has been publishing a fascinating series entitled “Female Missionaries Of The Victorian And Edwardian Eras”. I was particularly enchanted by a recent piece on the Edwardian missionary Mrs Diphtheria Croak, and sought permission to repost it here – that permission being granted after I made a small donation to Miss Blossom Partridge’s Charitable Fund For The Relief Of Distressed And Destitute Bus Conductors’ Widows And Orphans (Penge). Read and enjoy!

One of the most venturesome of the female missionaries of the Victorian and Edwardian eras was Mrs Diphtheria Croak, widow of “Chippy” Croak, the one-legged country parson and amateur wrestler who went down with the Titanic. She did not accompany her husband on the fateful voyage, being, by her own account “paralysed with terror by the vast pitiless sea”. Yet within a few years of “Chippy”’s death, she was rarely to be found on land, plying the oceans aboard a series of liners and clippers and packet steamers. Eschewing the comforts of a cabin, she spent most of her time out on deck, scanning the waters day and night through her pince nez. Many thought that, unhinged by grief, she was searching for her lost husband. But that was not it. That was not it at all. Mrs Croak was in the grip of a mania, sure enough, but it was a mania of a different, and far stranger, kidney.

I first became aware of the existence of a colony of giant albino kangaroos, she wrote, when sorting through my late husband’s papers after his death. In among the drafts of sermons, newspaper cuttings of amateur wrestling bouts, and mad hysterical screeds scratched in ducks’ blood in an unknown alphabet, I chanced upon an article torn out of a periodical which made mention, inter alia, of giant albino kangaroos.

Immediately my heart went out to these poor benighted creatures. What kind of life must it be?, I wondered, to be gigantic and albino and to go hopping about like an abomination of nature? I determined at once to go among them, bringing succour and Christ, that they may know the Lord has abandoned none of his creation. But first I had to discover where they dwelt.

This was easier said than done, for Mrs Diphtheria Croak was a geographically obtuse woman who had absolutely no sense of direction. Often, leaving the country parsonage to buy eggs from a peasant who lived but a few yards away to the right, Mrs Croak would turn left out of her door and wander for hours, or days, eggless and ditsy. She had no understanding of the visible horizon, thinking there was something amiss with her eyesight, and demanding ever more powerful pince nez from her eye doctor.

Thus it was that she embarked upon her senseless series of sea voyages. Sooner or later, she reasoned, if she peered with sufficient intensity from the railings of an ocean-going vessel, she would spy land. She further reasoned that the albino kangaroos being giants, they ought to be easy to spot, hopping about in their abominable Godless fashion.

And so for seven years she sailed hither and yon, from continent to continent, port to port, keeping a lookout. In her reticule she kept several Bibles and a bag of millet, the latter a gift she intended to present to the leader of the giant albino kangaroos as a token of her goodwill. She was not sure kangaroos ate millet, but consoled herself with the idea that, if they did not, they could find some other use for it. Eventually she ended up eating it herself, to keep body and soul together when marooned for a month on a remote atoll following a maritime mishap.

Brrrr!, I said to myself one morning, it is very chilly and no mistake!, she wrote, This was seven years into my search, and to date I had seen no signs of the giant albino kangaroos. But I am a single-minded widow of great determination, and I knew in the very depths of my immortal soul that without me, the giant albino kangaroos would never bask in the magnificent effulgence of Christ Our Lord. It was quite impossible that I should abandon them. Now, as I leaned over the railings peering with great intensity into the distance, I saw enormous and forbidding cliffs of ice. No wonder it was chilly! A sailor was swabbing the deck nearby, so I asked him where we were. ‘That is the Antarctic, madam,’ he replied, ‘So you had better wrap up warm!’ I was glad he warned me, for when we made landfall some hours later it had grown colder still.

Some instinct must have told Mrs Croak she was, at last, on the right track, for with a dainty wave to the sailors she set off across the ice towards the enormous and forbidding cliffs.

Several years later, a ship landed at the same spot on the Antarctic coast. As the sailors played an impromptu game of ice hockey, they were astonished to see, emerging from the cold white expanse of nothingness, a country parson’s widow. She was carrying a reticule and peering at them through her pince nez. It was Mrs Diphtheria Croak.

“Might I board your ship and sail back to Blighty?” she asked, “My work here is done.”

And back in Blighty she wrote an account of her years in the Antarctic.

Nothing had prepared me for the look of joy on the faces of those giant albino kangaroos, she wrote, When I dinned into their big kangaroo heads the overwhelming love of Christ Jesus. Now when they hop about in their freezing ice-girt wasteland, it is no longer the hopping of Satan’s spawn. They hop for the Lord, who they see as a giant albino kangaroo much like themselves, only bigger and whiter. It is an image of Christ I have come to share, hence the somewhat unusual wood-carvings that keep me gainfully occupied and have become a feature of my country parsonage garden.

Mrs Croak died in 1934. Her wood-carvings were carted off by a rascally tinker. It is not known what became of them.

Wonderful, Terrible, And Ridiculous

The Antarctic continent in mythology and literature has abounded in creatures and phenomena that appear wonderful, terrible and ridiculous by turns : polar spirits, demon ships, vampires, routes to Mars, routes to Jupiter, routes to the interior of the earth, enormous polar whirlpools, alien monsters buried in ice, the lost city of Atlantis, dinosaurs, giant lobsters, giant insects and giant albino kangaroos.

Elizabeth Leane, Antarctica In Fiction : Imaginative Narratives Of The Far South (2012)

On Bobnit Tivol, Mossad Agent

Mossad! They’re Israeli, they’re a secret intelligence service, their agents fan out across the globe engaging in skulduggery including the targeted assassinaton of ne’er-do-wells! What’s not to like? If I had my life over again, I think I’d like to have been a Mossad agent. Granted, I am not Jewish, I am a bit weedy and very myopic, and when once I attempted to play the online game based on the BBC serial Spooks I found it impossible to progress beyond the preliminary screen, but a man can dream.

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Confidential papers recently released under the Release Of Confidential Papers Pertaining To Fictional Athletes Act reveal the startling information that none other than fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol was a Mossad agent. Who would have thought it? His all too real coach and mentor Old Halob would have been a more probable candidate, what with his murky past and trenchcoat and Homburg hat. Yet now we learn that all along it was the spindly fictional sprinter who was the Mossad agent. Old Halob had not the merest inkling of his protégé’s secret activities.

The world o’ sport is of course the perfect cover for espionage. A tiptop sprinter like Bobnit Tivol will be forever flying around the world from one athletics meet to another, an entourage in tow. When he is a pole-vaulter as well as a sprinter, he will have a good deal of “kit” to cart about with him. You might be surprised at just how many high-velocity sniper rifles, laid end to end, would equal the length of the average pole-vaulter’s pole.

Bobnit Tivol had the added advantage of being fictional, which meant that his Mossad “handlers” could easily invent brand new cover stories for him for each operation on which he was sent. In those days, athletics was still chiefly the realm of amateurs. Bobnit Tivol might fly into Helsinki, say, posing as a dentist and amateur sprinter and pole-vaulter, and while there, absent himself for a couple of hours from the cinder track to pop across town to a Helsinki hotbed of ne’er-do-wellery and, with ruthless Mossad efficiency, use a high-velocity sniper rifle to “take out” several Helsinki ne’er-do-wells who were, for whatever reason, on the Mossad hit-list. Or he might fly into Hobart, posing as an ornithologist and amateur sprinter and pole-vaulter, and while there, absent himself for a couple of hours from the cinder track to pop across town to a Hobart hotbed of ne’er-do-wellery and, with ruthless Mossad efficiency, use a razor-sharp hatchet to “take out” several Hobart ne’er-do-wells who were, for a similar reason, on the Mossad hit-list. In Helsinki and Hobart, his cover as an amateur athlete, taking part in a sprint and a vault at the same time as he was registered as a participant in a dentistry or ornithological conference, would pull the wool over the eyes of local law enforcement, who would scratch their heads in dimwitted consternation and be thankful that some of their home-grown ne’er-do-wells had been so ruthlessly and efficiently despatched. The very last person they would look for would be a spindly fictional athlete in baggy shorts.

Ironically, on several occasions suspicion did fall on Old Halob. With his murky past and trenchcoat and Homburg hat, and above all his brute non-fictional reality, he was the kind of person dimwitted local law enforcement officials would haul in for questioning when, for example, a gaggle of ne’er-do-wells were found garrotted in a cellar beneath a hotbed of ne’er-do-wellery in, say, Helsinki or Hobart. And wherever fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol went, his coach Old Halob would invariably be there too, stop-watch in hand, chain-smoking high-tar Serbian cigarettes. So it happened on more than one occasion that, while Bobnit Tivol was pounding round and round and round and round the running track, or vaulting over the bar into the sandpit, Old Halob would be dragged from the side of the track or the pit and bundled into the back of a police van.

Because he was not himself a Mossad agent, Mossad did not provide Old Halob with any kind of cover story. The sole account he was able to give of himself, in various Helsinki or Hobart interrogation chambers, was that he was the all too real coach and mentor of fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol. Look, he would splutter, in between catarrh-racked coughing fits, here is my stop-watch! Here is my fictional athletics meeting accreditation! I may look, sound, and act like a Stalinist secret policeman, as indeed I may once have been, possibly, but that does not make me a ruthlessly efficient Mossad agent! Unhand me this instant!

Sooner or later, the dimwitted local law enforcement officials would let him go. He usually had to find his own way back to the athletics stadium, and was thus in an even fouler temper than usual when he got back just in time to watch his protégé winning, or failing to win, a sprint race or pole-vault jump.

The release of these papers will allow diligent researchers to tidy up various unsolved killings of ne’er-do-wells around the globe over several decades. By matching the killings to fictional athletics meetings in which Bobnit Tivol participated, we might see the hand of Mossad where it has been least suspected. New light, too, should be cast on Bobnit Tivol’s fictional Memoirs. It goes without saying that the spindly fictional athlete never openly acknowledged his role as a Mossad agent – he was too ruthless and efficient ever to make such a slip – but a thorough rereading, and even more thorough rerereading, may grant us a new perspective on the history of the second half of the twentieth century. If nothing else, we might be able to cobble together a convincing explanation of the targeted assassination of Gliptow and his ne’er-do-well pals in their HQ slap bang next to the athletics stadium in Helsinki (or possibly Hobart) in May 1968, when the world’s attention was diverted by shouty students throwing pebbles at the gendarmerie.

On The Stoat

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I bet you lot would be impressed if I wrote a learned article about stoats.

“Gosh!” you’d say, “We must admit to our suspicion that half the time Mr Key hasn’t got a clue what he’s blathering on about. But with this piece about the small scurrying mammal known as the stoat he has demonstrated extraordinary erudition and a breadth of learning with regard to the natural world which knocks us for six. Never again will we question the fact that he is the greatest writer of the age apart from Jeanette Winterson!”

That is the kind of thing I like to hear, and to make sure you say it I turn my attention today to the stoat, and a learned article thereupon. To bruit my erudition from the outset, I shall begin by giving the Latin name of the stoat – Mustela erminea – and immediately chuck in a literary quotation which makes mention of stoats:

Weasels – and stoats – and foxes – and so on. They’re all right in a way . . . but they break out sometimes, there’s no denying it, and then . . . well, you can’t really trust them, and that’s the fact.

You will note that by employing this quote from Ratty in The Wind In The Willows (Kenneth Grahame, 1908) I am also hinting at my knowledge of weasels and foxes as well as of stoats. You may already be feeling vaguely intimidated, which is all to the good. “Clearly Mr Key’s learning covers a wider and vaster array of subject matter than that to which he is confining himself on this occasion!” you are thinking, “Today he chooses to enlighten us about stoats, but it may equally well have been weasels or foxes, or the Lord knows what else! Truly we must ask what we have done to deserve the privilege of living at the same time as this most versatile of writers apart from La Winterson!”

Pausing briefly to allow you to get your breath back, to prostrate yourselves in the muck before my shrine, or indeed to get out your chequebooks and donate goodly sums of money to me, I then proceed to throw in another quotation, from another eminent writer, to show that my stoat-reading has not been limited to bestial fiction:

Stoats, though not as numerous as weasels, probably do quite as much injury, being larger, swifter, stronger, and very bold sometimes entering sheds close to dwelling houses. The labouring elder folk declare that they have been known to suck the blood of infants left asleep in a cradle on the floor, biting the child behind the ear.

That is from The Gamekeeper At Home. Sketches Of Natural History And Rural Life by Richard Jefferies (1878). Now, if I started wittering on about vampire stoats sucking the blood of peasant infants asleep in their cradles, the likelihood is that you would throw up your hands and cry, “Lord love a duck! There goes Mr Key, wittering on about vampire stoats sucking the blood of peasant infants asleep in their cradles, painting an unnecessarily gruesome picture of rustic life when it is quite obvious that he has never lived in the countryside and knows little or nothing of its bucolic charms! Why we ever gave him the benefit of the doubt is inexplicable! Let us cast him aside and turn instead to the manifold genius of Saint Jeanette!”

And you would stand up from your prostrate grovelment, tip over the Key Shrine with a contemptuous kick, and tear up the cheque you had just written in my favour. That is what you would do had I not mustered the authority of Richard Jefferies to bolster my picture of rustic gruesomeness. As it is, you can only scratch your heads in wonder, acknowledge that my stoat-learning is greater than your own, and grovel more, grovel better. You probably also feel compelled to double the amount of money for which the cheque is made out. You do that, in a shaking hand, as you await further stoat-revelations from the keyboard of Mr Key. I do not disappoint.

Most people’s encounters with a live Stoat are limited to a glimpse of a sleek, sinuous, brown creature dashing across the road in front of a car to disappear among the roadside vegetation. Seen at close quarters, Stoats are chestnut-brown above, with a sharp demarcation line to pure white underparts. There is always a black tip to the tail. Should you ever have the opportunity to examine a Stoat closely, do not be tempted to look too closely at their teeth: a Stoat bite is unforgettable.

It is safe to say you are overwhelmed. “Mr Key is really pulling out all the stops!” you say, “Not only does he give us a vivid picture of the stoat’s colouring, such that we might draw one with crayons, but he demonstrates his care and concern for us by his warning to avoid the stoat’s vicious fangs! We cannot recall the last time Jeanette Winterson sounded the tocsin to alert us to the biting of small sleek mammals!”

But therein, dammit!, lies my undoing. I have prompted you to cast your minds back – to the view of a dashing stoat through a car window, to remember if or when Winterson ever showed she cared about you as much as Mr Key does. Worse, I have reminded you that some things are unforgettable. Not just the bite of a stoat, but, you now realise, that precise combination of the Latin tag and the Grahame and Jefferies quotations and the paragraph that follows. They seem strangely familiar, the more so when you consider the idiosyncratic capitalisation of “Stoat”. In a flash, you remember that you have read them before, word for word, at the beginning of the entry for Stoat in Stefan Buczacki’s Fauna Britannica (2002).

“Can it be?” you wail, “Can it possibly be that Mr Key knows nothing whatsoever about the stoat and has merely been copying passages wholesale from a truly erudite author?”

At which point I might try to claim a case of unconscious plagiarism, or coincidence, or haunting by the spirit of an (albeit still-living) author. None of which would be remotely convincing, would they?

Benson’s Step

Over at Pseudopod you lot can listen to a recording of Mr Key reading “The Step” by E. F. Benson.

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Urban Swan

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On The Song Of The Grunty Man

Apparently, the Grunty Man, that figure of childhood nightmares, has a song. It begins:

I grunt at the sun, I grunt at the moon, my grunts do not follow a tune.

I grunt at the stars, I grunt at the sky, my grunting makes household pets die.

One day in March 1967, the Grunty Man went into a recording studio. He was accompanied by a hand-picked gaggle of musicians who later became some of the biggest names in prog rock, including future members of Yes, Emerson Lake & Palmer, and Spooky Tooth. Also present was the youthful Gordon Sumner, now known to the world as ‘Stig’ [sic], who was drafted in for his ability to whine in a high-pitched caterwaul. I say they were hand-picked, but in fact the Grunty Man arranged for each muso to be plucked from their mundane doldrums by the Claw of Gack. It was an experience none of them ever forgot.

Eschewing the use of a producer or sound engineer, the Grunty Man barred and bolted the studio doors and whirled about in a grunting frenzy until all the musicians were suitably cowed. It would be unkind to state which of the ELP trio was so frightened that he hid in a cupboard and piddled in his loon pants until coaxed out with the promise of Garibaldi biscuits.

Ten thousand years old and covered in sores, the Grunty Man had recently started to use a guide dog. This dog, Alan, was some kind of beagle, and was hopelessly inadequate for its task. It was blind itself, in one eye, suffered from muscle spasms and liver failure, and harboured a doggy desire to take part in the space programme rather than have to drag around with the Grunty Man. It spent most of the recording session curled up inside Carl Palmer’s bass drum, dreaming of the stars.

The Grunty Man decided to call his one-off band Ruddiman’s Rudiments, after the Latin primer used by generations of schoolchildren. With such a name, he thought, he would not be dismissed merely as a grotesque grunting ogre from the earth’s primeval past, but as a somewhat more sophisticated being. Having a hit record would give him even more charisma, and his long-cherished desire to win social acceptance would be fulfilled. Perhaps he wanted too much.

Certainly the auspices were not good, as the band huddled in a corner of the studio quaking with terror, Alan snoozed, and no one bothered to locate the light switches. When little Sumner whimpered that they would need at least some light to work by, the Grunty Man unleashed great bellows of his sulphurous, phosphorescent breath. The studio was lit by a dim green mist which hung in the air, and the band stumbled reluctantly to their positions.They ran through the music a few times, but never to the Grunty Man’s satisfaction.

“Less Herman’s Hermits! More Scriabin!” he shouted, and as they could not understand his grunts, he clawed the words onto the walls with his talons. But none of the band, not even the bombastically-inclined future Emerson Lake & Palmer, were familiar with the works of the Russian composer*, and they stuck to a toothsome sort of pop pap. The Grunty Man kept bellowing to maintain the phosphorescent light levels. Alan woke up briefly and savaged Carl Palmer’s piddle-stained loon pants. And then a janitor arrived.

Old Ted Cargpan’s intention was to throw the intruders out of the studio. In the event, he saved the situation. Completely calm in the face of the hideous Grunty Man, and contemptuous of the young musicians, he at once sized up the scene, set the tapes running, and put the whole lot of them through their paces. Even the Grunty Man deferred to the janitor, retreating to a spot up in the rafters and allowing the little Sumner boy to take on the lead vocal, while Alan the guide dog, refreshed after his nap, howled backing.The instrumentalists, too, seemed energised by the crusty old janitor’s presence, Greg Lake in particular demonstrating the sort of skills that would, in a few years time, make Brain Salad Surgery such a millstone. Sorry, I meant to type ‘milestone’.

The track finished, Old Ted Cargpan sent the musicians packing and brought the Grunty Man down from his perch near the ceiling to record the B-side, a duet with Alan the guide dog. The Grunty Man grunted, Alan slobbered, and the janitor moulded their din into a majestic three minute miniature rock opera, subsequently plagiarised by everybody from Ultravox to swan-eating Peter Maxwell Davies.

So whatever happened to the recordings? Some say that the adult Gordon Sumner, wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice but still, as a middle-aged man, calling himself ‘Stig’, opposed any reissue of the disc and even had the master tapes destroyed. Another rumour has it that Alan the guide dog somehow managed, in 1977, to get himself blasted towards Saturn on a space rocket, and took the tapes with him. The Grunty Man himself remains silent on the subject, merely grunting horribly in his cave, or next to his pond, haunting the nightmares of tiny children, tuneless once more, and resigned to his immortal fate.

* NOTE : Much of the work of the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915) was written for piano. This is surprising when one considers how tiny his hands were. Indeed, there were two occasions during his short, fraught life when he injured them while relentlessly practising piano pieces which called for hands larger than his own.

Tiny his hands may have been, but this puny neurasthenic Russian cultivated a pair of decisive mustachios.

Scriabin

Among his orchestral works, the Poem of Ecstasy, opus 54, is a supremely bonkers piece which, long before Spinal Tap, goes up to eleven. One critic imagined he was hearing a graphic portrayal of the players all having sex with each other. Another refers to the “malignant sneers from muted trombones… was music ever more evil-sounding”?

Not everyone appreciated Scriabin at the time, of course. The man who was chosen to conduct the premiere of his Second Symphony complained “After Scriabin, Wagner lisps sweetly like a suckling babe. I think that I will go mad any moment now. Where can one hide from such music? Help me!”

My favourite Scriabin piece is the Mysterium. This was designed as a total art work, involving an orchestra, dance, light, and exotic perfumes, to be performed in the Himalayas, its playing ushering in Armageddon. Mysterium would be “a grandiose religious synthesis of all arts which would herald the birth of a new world” and the emergence of a Nietzschean Superman. Whether this Superman would have tiny little hands and decisive mustachios we do not know, for Scriabin succumbed to septicemia when the composition was barely begun. It thus has a place in the museum of lost or non-existent works of art, about which I shall write more soon.

[Previously posted in 2006.]

Mont Blanc In A Box

Another Englishman who drew public attention to the Alps . . . was Albert Smith. He was a prototype of the young hiker, camper and mountaineer of to-day who, with limited means, spends a short but infinitely precious holiday in the hills. Thus far mountaineering had been, and was to be for many years, the almost exclusive preserve of the eclectics, of Government officials, University dons and professional men generally who with ample time and money at their disposal could afford long holidays in the Alps and the expense of guides. In 1838, Smith, then twenty-two years old, arrived at Chamonix with twelve pounds in his pocket. Instantly he fell under the spell of the mountains and was so anxious to make the ascent of Mont Blanc that he offered to go as a porter for anyone who would take him. He failed in his ambition, but returned to the attack in 1851 with some Oxford undergraduates who were delighted to climb with him when they learned that he was “Mr. Smith of London, the well-known comic author”. This time he succeeded, but the ascent provoked much undesirable publicity. In the course of an article, the Daily News wrote, “De Saussure’s observations and reflections on Mont Blanc live in his poetical philosophy; those of Mr. Albert Smith will be most appropriately recorded in a tissue of indifferent puns and stale fast witticisms, with an incessant straining after smartness. The aimless scramble of the four pedestrians to the top of Mont Blanc . . . will not go far to redeem the somewhat equivocal reputation of the herd of English tourists in Switzerland for a mindless and rather vulgar redundance of animal spirits”.

But Albert Smith remained unabashed. He was by nature a born showman, and such are impervious to criticism and abuse. He wrote an interesting and amusing book about Mont Blanc and, constructing a model of the mountain, set out to describe it and his experiences to all and sundry. His Mont Blanc in a Box show was a popular success and, however much it may have been scorned by the eclectics, undoubtedly did much to bring the beauty and interest of the Alps to the public attention.

from British Mountaineers by F. S. Smythe (1942)

On The Great Panjandrum

Panjandrum, The Great. The term applied to a country worthy who fills every public office available in a village. It was a word invented by Samuel Foote in a string of rigmarole as a test for the memory of Macklin, the actor. Macklin had boasted that he could remember anything he had read once. Foote wrote this:

So she went into the garden to cut a cabbage leaf to make an apple pie, and at the same time a great she-bear came running up the street and popped its head into the shop. ‘What! No soup?’ So he died, and she – very imprudently – married the barber. And there were present the Picninnies, the Joblilies, the Guryulies, and the Great Panjandrum himself, with the little Red Button a’top and they all fell to playing the game of catch-catch-can till the gunpowder ran out of the heels of their boots.”

Macklin, in a fury, refused to repeat a word of it.

- from Encyclopaedia Of Phrases And Origins by Edwin Radford, Editor, “Live Letters” of the Daily Mirror , Eighth & Cheap Impression, 1950.

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Frankly, it is difficult to see what Macklin, the actor, was getting in a tizzy about. Perhaps he was just having a thespian moment. He was, after all, a tempestuous character who killed a fellow actor, Thomas Hallam, by thrusting a cane through his eye during an argument about a wig. The cane went straight though Hallam’s eye into his brain. Accused of murder, Macklin defended himself at his trial and was convicted of the lesser charge of manslaughter, for which he ought to have had his hand branded with the letter ‘M’, though it is unclear if the penalty was carried out. When he died at the age of 98 in 1797, his memorial tablet in St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden, included a relief of a dagger piercing the eye of a theatrical mask. Next time you are in London, you might want to dress up as the Great Panjandrum, with the little Red Button a’top, and go and take a look at it. I have not paid such a visit myself, partly because I do not think ill-tempered roister-doister Irish thespians ought to be encouraged. Lord knows there are enough of them, from Macklin in the eighteenth century to such as Richard Harris in the twentieth.

Had I been presented with Foote’s rigmarole, I would not have fallen into a fury, nor been tempted to pierce his brain with a cane through the eye. Instead, I would have questioned him closely about the sources of his story. You see, having done a certain amount of research into this kind of rigmarole, I think Foote was actually reporting a real historical episode.

The difficulty lies in pinning down the identities of the unnamed “she”, the fleeting, fugitive “he” who dies, and of course the Picninnies, the Joblilies, and the Guryulies. The Great Panjandrum, we can assume, is Celtic hothead Macklin. As for the barber, I have cobbled together a theory that this was one Punchkin Lampwick, a murderous barber, well-known to members of the eighteenth century theatrical profession, whose locks he chopped, and who was the real life model for that Victorian bogeyman barber Sweeney Todd.

Unfortunately for us, Lampwick appears to have been bigamous as well as murderous. He had several wives and more than several paramours, thus making identification of the “she” who – very imprudently – married him a matter of conjecture. Could we trace all those three hundred-year-old women, and say with certainty which one used a cabbage leaf in their apple pie recipe, we would be on firmer ground. It may be, of course, that a cabbage leaf was an essential ingredient in one particular type of eighteenth century apple pie, in which case that firm ground would crumble beneath us, leaving us dangling over a precipice. Such are the risks of historical research.

Further and more intractable problems occur when we try to work out who in heaven’s name Foote was talking about when he refers to the Picninnies, the Joblilies, and the Guryulies. Picninny – more commonly given as Picaninny – is a word one deploys at one’s peril these days, as Boris Johnson found to his cost. Although a plain reading of his original text makes clear that the object of his amused scorn was Tony Blair, nobody actually bothers with plain readings of original texts when certain hand-grenade words are used. There will probably be some righteous airheads who would prefer that I rendered it as P********, or as ‘the P-word’. In whatever form we put it, we are unclear to whom precisely Foote was referring.

At least that word, with its added ‘a’, has survived, along with Panjandrum. The same cannot be said for either Joblilies or Guryulies, neither of which I have come across before. They would seem to have been born and died with Samuel Foote and his rigmarole, no doubt leading to the misunderstanding that he was writing nonsense. Of course, the idea of writing deliberate nonsense simply to irritate an Irish thespian is an appealing one. Clearly it has inspired those charged with writing scripts to be performed by Liam Neeson, for example.

So I am afraid my theory regarding the factual basis of Foote’s rigmarole is but a fledgling. There is as yet so much I don’t know. I don’t know who these characters are. I don’t know what they want. If they are looking for fictional immortality, I can tell them I don’t have that gift. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills; skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for characters like them. If they let me cease this prattling now, that’ll be the end of it. I will not go on about them, I will not pursue my theory. But if they don’t, I will look for them, I will find them, and I will kill them.

NOTE : The photograph of Macklin’s memorial is by Kieran Smith, via findagrave.

On Guns Before Butter

I have been watching, with something akin to hysterical overexcitement, reruns of the long-running television game show Guns Before Butter. It really is the most fantastic example of Bismarckian light entertainment ever devised. As is often the case with these things, the basic format is very, very simple, one might almost say simple-minded. A contestant, plucked from the studio audience, is faced with two small tables. On one table is a stack of guns, on the other a packet of butter. All they have to do is choose. If they choose correctly, they win a souvenir propelling pencil and a spiked helmet. If they choose incorrectly, the studio audience hisses and boos, and the shamed contestant is bundled backstage to face who knows what godawful fate. The simplicity of the game lies in the fact that, of course, the guns are always the correct choice. That much is evident from the show’s title.

One might think that the format drains any possible dramatic tension from the show. Nothing could be further from the truth. As each new contestant is hustled on to the stage to be embraced in a bear hug by the smarmy host, one never knows if they will have sufficient wit to chose guns before butter. I have been unable to gain clearance to show a clip here, so I have done the next best thing and made a partial transcript of a typical episode.

Smarmy Host : And let’s have a big and deafening round of applause for our next contestant!

[Big, deafening, round of applause. Hooters, klaxons, screaming.]

Smarmy Host : And your name is?

Contestant : Horst.

Smarmy Host : And where are you from, Horst?

Contestant : Obergrumpelschwittenzollern, Trevor.

Smarmy Host : Fantastic! And what do you do for a living in Obergrumpelschwittenzollern, Horst?

Contestant : I have a small business manufacturing cowbells.

Smarmy Host : Fantastic! And I believe your lovely wife and lovely children are with you here tonight, is that right?

Contestant : That’s right, Brian

[Camera shot of lovely wife and lovely children in audience.]

Smarmy Host : Well let’s hope you do them proud, Horst. Are you ready to play . . .

[Dramatic drumroll.]

Smarmy Host : . . . Guns Before Butter!?

Contestant : [Swallowing nervously] Yes I am, Alan.

[Smarmy Host ushers Contestant towards a curtain, which sweeps back to reveal two small tables. On one is a stack of guns, on the other a packet of butter.]

Smarmy Host : Okay, Horst. I’m sure you know the rules, but let’s just run through them again for the viewers at home. There are two tables. On one is a stack of guns, and on the other is a packet of butter. All you have to do is to choose, either the guns or the butter. You’ve got that?

Contestant : Yes, I think so.

Smarmy Host : Remember, guns or butter. You can only choose one.

Contestant : Yes.

Smarmy Host : Okay. Let’s play . . . Guns Before Butter! Horst, you have one minute, starting . . . now!

[Big clock starts to tock noisily. Contestant looks solemn, gazing from one table to another.]

Smarmy Host : It’s your choice, Horst. Take your time. You still have fifty seconds.

[Contestant dithers.]

Smarmy Host : It looks so easy when you’re watching at home, doesn’t it?

Contestant : Phew! Yes, Ted, that’s right.

Smarmy Host : Forty seconds, Horst.

[Contestant looks as if he is about to choose, then dithers a bit more.]

Contestant : There’s part of me that wants to go for the guns, but . . .

Smarmy Host : Thirty seconds, Horst. Half way to the bell. It’s louder and more resonant than one of your cowbells, I expect.

Contestant : [Chuckling] I expect so, Dax.

Smarmy Host : What do you think the good folk of Obergrumpelschwittenzollern are yelling at their television screens right now, Horst?

Contestant : I wish I knew, Graham!

Smarmy Host : Fifteen seconds.

Contestant : Okay, okay. I think I’m going to go for . . .[Dithers again]

Smarmy Host : Ten seconds.

Contestant : Um . . .

Smarmy Host : Nine . . . eight . . . seven . . .

Contestant : Okay! I’m going to choose butter, Bob.

Smarmy Host : You choose butter? Is that your final decision?

Contestant : Yes . . . butter!

[Loud, resonant bell clangs. Audience silent as the grave.]

Smarmy Host : That’s your time up, Horst. You chose butter. Well I can tell you now . . . butter was the . . . [extends pause to wring as much tension from the situation as conceivably possible, then pauses a bit more] . . . wrong answer, Horst!

[Audience groans, then starts to hiss and boo.]

Smarmy Host : I’m sorry, Horst. The correct choice was guns, as it always is on Guns Before Butter. But you weren’t to know that. Well, actually, you were, so you must just be incredibly, incredibly stupid.

Contestant : I suppose so, Rolf.

Smarmy Host : You’ve been a great contestant, Horst. Let’s have a bloodcurdling din of hisses and boos for Horst!

[Brutes appear onstage and bustle Horst away, to face who knows what godawful fate.]

I have written to dozens of television light entertainment commissioning editors pleading with them to revive the show, thus far without success.

STOP PRESS : One of my letters might have paid off! It was apparently retrieved from a waste paper bin by Stephen Fry on one of his regular night-time prowls around commissioning editors’ offices. He is reportedly planning a dumbed-down version of Guns Before Butter for BBC Radio Four. Marcus Brigstocke, David Mitchell, and Alan Titchmarsh have already been lined up as contestants.