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Over in my cupboard at The Dabbler today I try, as best I can, to come to terms with the most seismic event in our national life for centuries. I am not ashamed to admit that I wept, wept I tell you!, and copious were my tears, and salty were they too, at the self-willed downfall of perhaps the one true political colossus of the past five hundred years.

On the other hand, it might be that, with The Miliband Resignation, I was trying my hand at devising a convincing Robert Ludlum-style title, in preparation for a forthcoming cinema franchise. But who would star as David Miliband?

I Was Puny Vercingetorix

Following my dabblings in the world o’ art – dabblings which may yet continue – I thought it would be a good idea to repost this, from 2009:

I Was Puny Vercingetorix : a novel by Lars Talc (2003) is not a novel and it is not by Lars Talc. It is not a book at all. It is an objet d’art.


In the words of art critic Cosmo Hoxtonwanker, “it is a bold, transgressive, edgy work, interrogating notions of authenticity, desire, and jouissance while incorporating both dippiness and a Playmobil figure holding a vacuum cleaner under some streamers. If it was for sale, I would pay millions for it.”


It is not for sale.


A Meditation At Breakfast

Man is never more spraingue than when he is toffee. Or, to put it another way, cheek by jowl, as it were, there is in man a faculty of rejubment best exercised in plectrum. It was out of some grosser tin that our forefathers beat their washbasins. When Pangbourne calls, so the trellis trembles, and it was ever thistle.

These reflections were occasioned while boiling an egg, frying a rasher of bacon, and toasting a slice of bread. Aha!, you exclaim, he is fixing his breakfast! And you would be right, as right as rain. But is rain right? Pips are spat onto hissing coals when we consider such questions. The puddle of infirmity is plashed through on scorched plimsoll soles. The nougat is both pink and white.

But yes, it was breakfast, the egg and the bacon and the toast. It always would be breakfast, in this dispensation. Who was it who wrote that the careworn man dips his tootsies in the duckpond only for his hair to stand on end when struck by lightning?

Freedom, then, we can unhitch from the fork. What glue was, and what glues wert, that is a bird’s pinion of a lack. The spark is crunched, the ear bought, and winter’s booming ever splat.

Breakfast! Digest it how we may, it was innocent of the sausage. And, aye, there is a lesson there, one wiped with a rag on a panel. Beat that panel as your forefathers beat their basins out of tin. It is a spraingue nougat we covet, nor toffee formidable.

In The Socks Of The Mighty

“Behold the socks of the mighty!”

These were the words I heard declaimed in my dreams, in the moment before waking on a windy winter’s morn. It was later, as I was scoffing breakfast (eggs, plus a surfeit of lampreys), that I realised their significance. I slapped my forehead and went to retrieve, from the cupboard under the sink, my battered tin crown. The time had come to stake my claim to the Iron Throne. I would reign o’er the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros!

First of all, of course, I would have to eliminate all the other pretenders to the Throne, of whom there were many. Oh!, many, so many, I had not thought death had undone so many. But for all the corpses piled up along the pathway to the Throne, there yet remained innumerable claimants who were very much alive, alive and in brutish good health, and heavily armed, and of psychotic temperament. If I was going to take my rightful place sitting on that Throne, with my bauble and sceptre, I was going to have my work cut out.

What I needed was a troop of minions. The presence of minions lends a kingly air even to the weediest of Throne-claimants. Straight after breakfast, then, I popped to the newsagent’s to pick up the latest issue of the directory or register or whatever it is, that invaluable publication which lists, in alphabetical order, with contact details, and accompanied by skilful line-drawings with much cross-hatching done in a spidery pen, all minions currently available for hire. Sitting on a municipal park bench, buffeted by the wild winds, I leafed through the lists and plumped for the Minions Of The Pointy Sticks. Alas, on closer inspection, this turned out to be “a knitting group composed of some wild and crazy folks”. The last thing you want in a minion is wildness or craziness. Rather, what you are looking for is slavish devotion, slobbering, and a propensity for violence. Being armed with a pointy stick is a definite advantage, which is why I had been initially attracted to the knitting group. In the event, I picked some other minions from the directory, and gave them, as their first task, the foraging from forests of sticks, and the sharpening of those sticks, until they were pointy.

I accomplished all this while still sitting on the park bench. The wind, as I said, was wild. Wild was the wind, and I heard the sound of mandolins. The sound grew louder, and I realised that, across the park, on the other side of a swan-mad lake, came the approaching forces of a pretender to the Iron Throne. It may have been Stannis Baratheon, or possibly Balon Greyjoy. Whichever one it was, his army was strumming frantically at mandolins, playing, I think, “Listen, The Snow Is Falling” by Yoko Ono, which I recognised as the B-side of “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)”, recorded with that Beatle she married.

“Ha!”, I thought to myself, or rather spoke aloud, in a kingly way, knowing my minions would hang on my every word, whether it made any sense or not, “This puny pretender’s army sings of the snow falling. Windy it may be, and wild may be that wind, but snowfall there is not, not here. As any fule kno, snow falls far north of here, by the Wall. Clearly the army is geographically obtuse and disorientated. They will be easy prey, particularly as they are armed only with stringed instruments.”

And then I issued a command to my minions, ordering them to rush at the pretender’s nincompoop army, and poke at them with their newly-sharpened pointy sticks. Thus was the scene set for what history books would call the Battle of Blister Lane Municipal Park. We routed the enemy, and I was one step closer to the Iron Throne. It was time for lunch.

I headed off to a nearby stable, tore the heart out of a living horse, and gobbled it down while it was throbbing and hot and bloody. Unfortunately there were no barbaric Dothraki present to witness this gustatory feat. We are not all as media-savvy as the Khaleesi, who had the cameras present during her own horse-heart-eating lunch scene. But I was not troubled by her, far away in the Red Wastes with her grunting savages and baby dragons. Other claimants to the Throne had to be dealt with first, not least Robb Stark.

It was at this point I realised the knitting group could be of use to me after all. Who would dare to stop me, I reasoned, if I came bashing upon the city gates of King’s Landing wearing a pair of socks emblazoned with a knitted motif of the Black Bat of Harrenhal? Truly, so attired, would I walk in the socks of the mighty!

So cheered was I by this thought that I took my minions to the tavern for some celebratory carousing. It was only mid-afternoon, but they had acquitted themselves well, and were deserving of reward. Little did I know that, shortly before we fetched up at that snug rustic hostelry, the Unreconstructed Stalinist, creeping away from it in his asp-like way was Petyr Baelish, the Lanisters’ Machiavel. He had dripped poison into the ear of the taverner, and the taverner in turn dripped poison into our flagons of grog!

By teatime, my minions lay sprawled in the sawdust dead and dying, and I myself was so sick I could barely bring myself to scoff a second horse-heart for dinner. But I forced it down, and set off alone for the castle wherein the Minions Of The Pointy Sticks did their knitting. But in my weakened state, I became hopelessly lost. Lost, too, is my memory of what happened. All I can remember (I remember) is standing by the Wall. The guns shot above our heads, and we kissed as though nothing could fall (nothing could fall). Who was I kissing? Why, a Minion Of The Pointy Sticks, a knitwoman who had rescued me from a ditch somewhere along the way, and had brought me to the Wall.

And it is here at the Wall I have stayed. I no longer stake my claim to the Iron Throne. I am happy here, fighting off wolves and wildlings, listening to the falling snow, while my knitwoman, the Minion Of The Pointy Sticks, knits me sock after sock after sock after sock, each emblazoned with a motif of the Black Bat of Harrenhal. I am no king, but I trudge through snowdeep in the socks of the mighty!

Knitting And Catastrophe

“Knitting And Catastrophe In The Cinema”. Who could resist a talk with such a title? Certainly not me, which is why I pranced majestically through the south London streets in freezing temperatures yesterday evening to go and listen to Jonathan Faiers explain all.

Unfortunately, Dr Faiers turned out to be an academic, so his talk – which contained some interesting and intriguing snippets – was couched in dreadful brain-numbing postmodern gobbledegook. I realise that to carve out a career in modern academia you have to talk and write like that, but how one yearns to hear a simple, straightforward sentence! Instead, it’s all “discourses interrogating notions of the Other”, blah blah bollocks. I think “interrogate”, in its various forms, popped out of Dr Faiers’ mouth half a dozen times in little more than twenty minutes. I would happily have subjected him to a proper interrogation, tied to a chair in a secret police basement with a Klieg light shoved in his face.

Things were not helped by the fact that he was unable to master the technology to show us the film clips with which he meant to illustrate his blather. These would have included scenes from The King Of Comedy (Martin Scorsese, 1983), Breakfast At Tiffany’s (Blake Edwards, 1961), Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968), and Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944). You see what I mean? It could have been very interesting indeed.

In spite of all, I do applaud Dr Faiers for his title. “Knitting And Catastrophe In The Cinema” deserves its place in any list of highly amusing academic studies, alongside the one I devised thirty years ago, in tandem with my then colleague, the journalist and television person Tracey MacLeod. We planned to insert, in a bibliography, reference to a paper entitled “Topiary And Miscegenation In Contemporary Cinema”. Alas, it never appeared, for reasons I cannot now recall.

Travels In Arabia Deserta

One of Dobson’s more preposterous follies was his attempt to rewrite Charles Montagu Doughty’s mad, massive classic Travels In Arabia Deserta (1888).

“What do you mean, ‘rewrite’ it?” asked Marigold Chew, when the out of print pamphleteer announced his plan to his inamorata over breakfast one rainswept March morning.

“I mean,” spluttered Dobson, choking on a mouthful of goosefat toastie, “That I will enter Doughty’s head, as it were, see what he saw, hear what he heard, smell the very same fumes his nostrils smelled, and from those sensual prods I shall weave a spell of words to create a new and improved Travels In Arabia Deserta, no less mad, no less massive, but better, grander, more true.”

*It is an intriguing, if foolish, idea,” said Marigold Chew, “But I wonder if you have thought it through. You will know, from Doughty’s book, if not from other sources, that the desert is a vast and pitiless place of burning heat upon which the sun beats down relentlessly. You, meanwhile, are a man whose hatred of bright sunlight – and hatred is not too strong a word – has often led me to think you have the constitution of a vampire. You are a man who thrives under overcast skies and in drizzle, Dobson, not a sun-worshipper.”

“Two points,” replied Dobson, swallowing a forkful of shredded radish, “First, I have not actually read Doughty’s book. Oh, I have skimmed it here and there, gained a feel for its strange and highly-wrought prose, weighed its mad mass in my hands, but I could not claim to be familiar with every last nook and cranny of the text. Second, I do not intend actually to travel in the burning sands of the hellish sun-bashed desert. If you listened carefully, you will have heard me say that my plan is to enter into Doughty’s head, from the comfort of my escritoire, and to summon forth the new Dobsonized Travels In Arabia Deserta through the majestic powers of imagination alone!”

“And you will enter his head how?” asked Marigold Chew.

“I snipped from a periodical a photograph of the Doughty head,” said Dobson, “And I have affixed it to the wall by my escritoire with a drawing pin. As soon as I am done with breakfast, I shall sit and gaze at the picture, in awed concentration, and as I gaze, slowly but surely the lineaments and integuments of the Doughty brain will become fused with my own brain, and swimming before my eyes shall come wondrous mirages. Mirages, after all, are the stuff of travels in Arabia Deserta, are they not? And then I will take up my propelling pencil and scribble down, in impassioned prose, all I see, all I hear, all I smell, while thus entranced. My plan is sound,” he concluded, “And I shall give birth to a masterpiece!”

Marigold Chew drained her beaker of milk slops and turned her head to look out of the window at the downpour.



It was still raining later in the afternoon when Dobson returned from a trudge along the towpath of the filthy old canal. He came crashing through the door, sopping wet, leaving a trail of puddles in his wake. Marigold Chew eyed him carefully.

“Who is this come a-crashing through the door?” she asked, “Is it Dobson or Doughty, or some zany minglement of both Dobson and Doughty?”

By way of reply, the pamphleteer merely grunted.

“You are sopping wet and leaving a trail of puddles in your wake,” said Marigold Chew, “Nobody could look less like they had been travelling in Arabia Deserta. I’ll put the kettle on.”

As she went to the kitchen sink, Marigold Chew saw, in the waste bin, the snipped-out photograph of Charles Montagu Doughty’s head, torn in half and scrunched up, the hole pierced by Dobson’s drawing pin visible in the centre of the Doughty forehead.


“How are you getting on with your visionary rewriting?” asked Marigold Chew that evening, as she and Dobson sprawled on the sofa. From the Dansette on the sideboard came the finger-tapping hoo-cha of Xavier Cugat and His Orchestra.

“I may have to rethink my plan,” said Dobson.


“I gazed and gazed at Doughty’s head for hours,” said the pamphleteer, “But only one mirage, or vision, came swimming into my head. I could neither replace it nor dislodge it. There is not enough material there for a mad and massive book in two volumes, which was what I hoped to be able to wreak from the wild imaginings boiling in my doubled Dobson-Doughty brain. Instead, I shall have to make do with a recipe book. Or rather, a recipe pamphlet, for I have but the one recipe. That was my mirage.”

“Well, people are always on the lookout for an exotic recipe, Dobson,” said Marigold Chew, “Get it scribbled down and I shall have it typeset in the morning on the Gestetner machine in the shed.”


Whole Stuffed Camel

1 whole camel, medium size
1 whole lamb, large size
20 whole chickens, medium size
60 eggs
12 kg rice
2 kg pine nuts
2 kg almonds
1 kg pistachio nuts
110 gallons water
5 lbs black pepper

1. Skin, trim and clean camel, lamb and chicken.
2. Boil until tender.
3. Cook rice until fluffy.
4. Fry nuts until brown and mix with rice.
5. Hard boil eggs and peel.
6. Stuff cooked chickens with hard boiled eggs and rice.
7. Stuff cooked lamb with stuffed chickens.
8. Add more rice.
9. Stuff the camel with the stuffed lamb and add rest of rice.
10. Broil over large charcoal pit until brown.
11. Spread any remaining rice on large tray and place camel on top of rice.
12. Decorate with boiled eggs and nuts.
13. Serves eighty to a hundred famished travellers in Arabia Deserta.

[My thanks to James Beckett for drawing to my attention this splendid – and genuine – recipe.]

The Stupid Milk

The Stupid Milk is the first in a new series of blockbuster paperback potboilers by Pebblehead. The threads linking the projected series of a dozen books are the protagonist, tiptop secret agent Jug Souptin, and the titles, each of which is a translation from the Welsh of a near-anagram of the name of a twentieth-century American female avant garde choreographer. The use of such an Oulipian constraint is something of a departure for Pebblehead, and we can perhaps see the influence of his new literary agent, International Woman of Mystery Primrose Dent.

Frau Dent has long conducted her mysterious affairs according to dazzlingly complicated rules derived, ultimately, from the kinds of constraints employed by the writers of the Oulipo. So inexplicable are her doings that few can work out what it is she actually does, let alone the constraints she applies. All we can say for certain is that many, if not most, of her enigmatic schemes involve the use of Fuller’s earth, Coddington lenses, and Leyden jars.

Certainly all of these materials have appeared, in varying quantities, in the grounds of Pebblehead’s so-called “chalet o’ prose” since he was taken under the wing of Primrose Dent. And it is surely no accident that, in his very first adventure, tiptop secret agent Jug Souptin is called upon to foil a dastardly plot conceived by a criminal maniac whose chief weapons are given as Fuller’s jars, Coddington earth, and Leyden lenses (pp. 46-49).

Souptin himself is a curiously bashful hero for a Pebblehead book. He is winsome, distracted, and pale, with impossibly dainty hands and girly eyelashes. On page 9, we learn that “he would not say boo to a goose”, and not long afterwards (p. 12) he indeed encounters a goose on a canal towpath and signally fails to say “boo” to it, instead skipping away to hide behind a splurge of lupins until the goose has gone away. (The goose reappears, incidentally, on page 149, marching at the head of a gaggle of its fellows, honking, in a thrilling scene which ends with the criminal maniac toppling into a crevasse.)

The stupid milk of the title is goaty milk into which has been injected a serum which renders stupid anybody who drinks it. As ever with Pebblehead, a great deal of research has gone into the book, and he provides a recipe for the serum which any of us could whip up in a lab in five minutes. For the purposes of this review I did just that, then injected the resulting serum into a carton of goaty milk and fed it to several guinea pigs, including a guinea pig, a stray cat, a guide dog, a leafcutter ant, and the Labour Party MP David Lammy. I can confirm that Pebblehead certainly seems to know his stuff, but luckily I am not a criminal maniac, so I have not, like Jug Souptin’s foe in the book, concocted millions of gallons of the stupid milk and poured it into important reservoirs around the globe.

On a scale of fabness, I would deem this blockbuster to be tremendously fab. It has its faults, of course, particularly in Pebblehead’s portrait of the goose, which is unlike any goose one might meet in the real world. Indeed, I am not convinced the author knows exactly what a goose is. But we have been here before with Pebblehead. For all the diligence of his research and fact-checking in non-ornithological matters, he seems to have a blind spot when it comes to birds. Who can forget the tiny airborne ostriches which marred the otherwise excellent potboiler Tiny Airborne Ostriches!? Or the talking linnet in The Talking Linnet?

Interestingly, that linnet speaks Welsh. It may be worth going back to the book to see if anything it says is a near-anagram of the name of a twentieth-century American female avant garde choreographer. Then we might be able to make educated guesses at the forthcoming further adventures of tip top secret agent Jug Souptin!

Eerie Mavis

Readers will be familiar with the plucky fascist tot Tiny Enid, but I have only recently learned of the existence of her cousin and sometime playmate, Eerie Mavis.


Eerie Mavis spent much of her time loitering in a barn, mucking about with lengths of string and rotting fruit and pliers. She is said to have had an affinity with jackdaws, though it is not clear how this manifested itself. Eerie she may have been, but she did not have the power of flight, and her speaking voice was more akin to the mutter than the caw. Indeed, one of the eeriest things about Eerie Mavis was her constant, incomprehensible, and somehow menacing muttering, which began as soon as she woke from sleep on her straw pallet in the barn, and continued all bloody day until, in eventual exhaustion, she flung herself back on the pallet, and the Land of Nod. Even then, she was known to mutter in her sleep.

You could trust Eerie Mavis with a box of matches. She showed no signs of pyromania, and indeed could be counted on to douse any conflagrations which may erupt in the farmyard. She never seemed to be far from a spigot, and showed both delicacy and determination when handling a hosepipe.

She was not a musical tot – the eternal muttering put paid to any ambitions she may have had as a songstress – but could be spellbound by the sound of electric guitars played in the screeching heavy metal style, and also by the softer toots of the piccolo. When so spellbound, she would drop her string and fruit and pliers, and stand stock still, close by a spigot, in her slightly lopsided way, and shut her eyes, and levitate, an inch or so off the ground. Her muttering did not entirely cease at such times, but it became quieter.

Her slight lopsidedness had no apparent physical cause. She did not, unlike her cousin Tiny Enid, have a club foot, and wore no corrective boot. Passing farmyard adults would occasionally try to straighten her up, by means of gentle coaxing, to no avail. In a tape recorded interview, conducted decades later when she had become a crone, Eerie Mavis revealed that she had always stood bolt upright, and it was the farmyard itself that was lopsided. Alas, it had by then long been covered by concrete, and no land surveyor could attest to the truth of her claim.

A double biography of Eerie Mavis and Tiny Enid is long overdue. There is one in the works, from the pen of Pebblehead, but many obstacles lie in his path, not least the fact that each time he completes a page, no sooner has it rolled off his typewriter than it is snatched and borne away in the beak of a jackdaw, up into the blue Alpine skies, irretrievable, irretrievable, lost, lost, lost.

Birds And Bolshevism

I am indebted to Ruth Bosch for drawing to my attention this photograph from Paraphilia Magazine, captioned “Russian children taking part in a parade celebrating birds helpful to farming, 1934”. It is instructive to realise that Soviet Communism was not an unalloyed disaster, at least in ornithological terms. Needless to say, I am agog to learn precisely which birds were deemed “helpful to farming”. Skylarks? Peewits? Pratincoles? Any readers equally expert in birds and Bolshevism should contact me immediately.



The time has come for me to update the enormously useful Hooting Yard Pontiff Mnemonic. Before I wrestle with the most appropriate F word, however, I think I am right in saying that there could be no more Hooting Yardy Pontiff than a one-lunged Jesuit bus passenger.

Vatican Pope

UPDATE : I managed to pluck from the dictionary the definitive F word to add to the Pontiff Mnemonic just in time for today’s episode of Hooting Yard On The Air on ResonanceFM. You can find out what the word is by listening to the show, archived on soundcloud here.


Damp bag, hot talc. Flimflam of the highest order. Cutthroats aboard ship, the ship of state, flying under a false flag, a flag of convenience, registered in a distant port. Pettigrew snarled. Melville writes somewhere of “inhuman hooting”. A prize for the first to find out where. I already know, because I read the words this morning, by dawn’s early light, or by candlelight, or both, or neither, squinting at the small print.

Does Peter Quint ever squint, in The Turn Of The Screw? I don’t know. That was Henry James, of course, not Herman Melville, both Americans, but only one of them ended his days in the grip of mad delusions. Or perhaps they both did.

Both did. Both did. If you say it aloud, over and over again, its meaning becomes lost, it becomes a kind of atavistic chant, to be chanted while leaping and capering around a bonfire in a night swarming with demons, in a forest clearing, your body painted with woad.

Both did, both did. It could be the name of a god, but what sort of god? The god of bees, the god of herons. Perhaps, at a pinch, the otter god. I can well imagine, if daubed in woad, shrieking a prayer to Both Did the otter god, by the light of a bonfire in a forest clearing, waving a tally stick, thousands of years ago. Thousands and thousands. Or just last week. But if last week, the kind of thing you might get arrested for these days.

Imagine the interrogation, in the cold bare room of the police station. You would have to explain yourself to win your freedom. Otherwise they might lock you up, judging you as mad as the aged Henry James. I think Herman Melville’s wife, at some point, was under pressure to have her husband declared insane. She refused.

“His wife refused”. The title of a piece from David Byrne’s score for The Catherine Wheel. Choreographed, as I recall, by Twyla Tharp. Now there is a woman who lends herself to anagranmatization. Especially in Welsh. And while we are on the subject of Welsh, however fugitively, is it not splendid that the Welsh language word for a microwave oven is a popty-ping? That, at least, is the claim made by Roger Lewis, in one of his newspaper articles.

It has ever been a wonder to me that I am not employed by a newspaper to write a column. I could bash out a few hundred words on any subject required. Prongs, tines, and nozzles would be three examples of topics I could blather about. Not to mention damp bags and hot talc, with which we began, if you remember. But what of damp talc and hot bags? What then, what then?

I used to know a couple whose idea of sightseeing, when on holiday, was to gaze into the windows of butcher’s shops, appraising the meat on display. What curious behaviour. I recall that I was both amused and a little disgusted, not a common combination of emotions. I think there may, too, have been an admixture of contempt.

Contempt. Le mépris, in French, and the title of a 1963 film by Jean-Luc Godard. I have seen it twice, both times on television, both times long ago, and all I remember of it is a shot – or shots – of an impossibly blue sea, the bluest sea I have ever seen in cinema. I think the film is considered a masterpiece. But then there is a certain type of film buff who will forever wax preposterous about Godard.

The auteur Godard and the otter-god. Now there is a pairing, almost homonymic, a pairing that lends itself, as Twyla Tharp does to anagrams, to the method outlined by Raymond Roussel in How I Wrote Certain Of My Books. I could write a piece about a wholly imaginary Godard film, one in which the blue, blue sea is reflected, blue-dazzlingly, in the glass window of a butcher’s shop. The film could begin with a quotation from Herman Melville and end with one from Henry James. And in between? In between, for roughly ninety minutes? I have no idea, for as I explained to a French art critic in New York only the other day, I do not have a visual imagination. That is why I work with words.