As you know, I am currently keeping my eye out for chickens. Thanks, then, to Ruthie Bosch for sending me this snap of a chicken alongside a smoking child, from a century or so ago. I will probably receive a stern directive from some governmental agency insisting that I airbrush the gasper out of the photograph, but history is history. Weirdly, it seems that in the early twentieth century not everyone was in thrall to some kind of Blairite-Cameronian-Third-Way-Consensus, in spite of what the BBC tells us. (See Lark Rise To Candleford, and any other period drama.)
Dough, a dear, a female dear, a dear one, made out of dough. This was the bold conception of Istvan, the eerie Mitteleuropean baker whose pastry shop was hidden down an insalubrious alleyway in an insalubrious provincial town at the foot of a huge important mountain range. You will find it on most maps.
Lugubrious, insanitary, and topped by a pudding basin haircut, Istvan was beset by constant pangs. He longed for companionship. Alas, he was a stranger to that paradise of which the Brothers Johnson sang, the Land of Ladies. Though there were many women among his customers, they all hurried away as soon as they had bought their baked goods, alarmed and distressed by Istvan’s unbecoming personal appearance, his filthy manners, and his lack of charm.
So it was that he decided to make his longed-for dearest out of dough. Ignorant of women, he chose as his model a nun, specifically Maria in The Sound Of Music, played by Julie Andrews. Having prepared sufficient dough for a life-size nun, he kneaded and kneaded and moulded it into shape. When he was done, he placed it in a reclining position on the sofa in the back room of his pastry shop.
And so, for a while, his evenings were happy, happier than they had ever been. He would sit at one end of the sofa, his hand patting his dough companion gently, and he would talk to it, or sit in contented silence. He no longer felt alone. And “Maria” was unabashed by his lugubrious and insanitary person, did not look askance at his pudding basin haircut, and tolerated his filthy manners.
But Istvan grew dissatisfied. His pangs returned, more intense than ever, for he wished that his dough dear would do more than merely sprawl on the sofa. How much dearer she would be if she were a true companion, one who laughed and sang and helped out with the baking of pastries! If only she could be imbued, Frankenstein-fashion, with the spark of life!
And then one day into the pastry shop came a mysterious wizardy type of fellow, swathed in a black cape and wearing a pointy hat. He made purchase of some Mitteleuropean pastry delicacies, but before he swished his cape and strode away, Istvan dared to ask him if by any chance he knew of spells to bring to life a nun made out of dough. I do indeed, said the wizard.
A bargain was struck, and Istvan ushered the mysterious fellow into the back room. He stood over the dough nun on the sofa, slowly waving his arms in strangely significant passing movements, and babbling gibberish. Istvan looked on, goggle-eyed, which made his appearance even more unbecoming than usual. When he was finished, the wizardy man turned to Istvan and told him that the final stage of the spell, the part that would bring his dough dear to life, was to bake the dough in a pre-heated oven on 220ºC, 200ºC for fan-assisted ovens, or Gas Mark 7, for 40 minutes. And then he swept out of the back room, swishing his black cape, out of the front door and into the insalubrious alleyway in the insalubrious provincial town, in the shadow of an important mountain range, and Istvan never saw him again.
Barely able to contain his excitement, the eerie baker picked up his dough dear from the sofa and cradled her in his arms, then shoved her into the oven, which was already preheated, what with all the baking the baker did. For the next forty minutes, Istvan sat gazing at the hands of his Mitteleuropean cuckoo clock, ticktocking through the time with agonising slowness. At last the baking time elapsed. But just as Istvan was about to open the oven, the door swung open from inside. Of course! His dough dear was alive! Out she would step, into his arms!
But in the baking, the transformation was greater than Istvan could have imagined. It was not a living dough Julie Andrews that emerged from the oven. It was a living pastry Christopher Plummer! As it lumbered towards Istvan, it plucked from nowhere a guitar, and began to sing “Edelweiss”. The baker fell back upon his sofa, stricken with horror.
They found him there the next morning, his unbecoming features twisted in an awful rictus. Of the pastry Christopher Plummer, there was no sign, though some say that, on clear bright days when the air is still, he can be heard singing in the mountains that loom over the insalubrious provincial Mitteleuropean town.
Don’t forget you can donate to keep the wolf from Mr Key’s door.
Today’s insight into the mysterious world of rustic persons – courtesy of BBC Radio 4’s Farming Today – came when the presenter spoke of “towers of cheese”. I am not sure whether these resemble the Towers of Trebizond or Leonard Cohen’s Tower of Song, but I shall investigate, and let you know.
On Farming Today on BBC Radio 4 this morning, I heard the following piece of rustic wisdom, or perhaps it was a spell or incantation:
I see the chicken – good thing happens.
I have decided to test this by taking the first opportunity that presents itself to look at a chicken. I will then wait for something good to happen, and – whatever the eventuality – will report back, in vivid detail.
Few experiences in life are as rewarding as being part of a mob. And of all mobs, the baying mob is the best, particularly at nightfall, on the outskirts of the village, holding aloft flaming torches and pitchforks, surrounding the hovel of a witch or an oddball, forcing them to choose between fleeing or being burned.
As a veteran of several such baying mobs, I find it exasperating that the witch or the oddball so often elicits sympathy. If one were to give credence to the witterings of the biens pensants, the do-gooders, and the chattering classes around their sophisticated dinner party tables, one might think that there is something wrong with brandishing a burning tarry torch and baying for the blood of a social misfit. What planet do these people live on?
If you are going to be an oddball, a mild eccentric, or a witch, then you have to take the consequences. And the consequences, rightly in my view, are that me and many many like me, simple credulous peasants though we may be, inarticulate and ignorant, will gather in the village tavern and grab our pitchforks and torches and march, as dusk descends, towards your shabby insalubrious hovel, baying. You may then choose to stay put and burn, or make an attempt to flee, bearing in mind that you may not succeed, given that we will chase you and overpower you and tear you limb from limb and chuck what’s left of you into a ditch with a stake driven through your heart. That is simply the way of the world or, in contemporary jargon, social cohesion.
There is much talk of the so-called “madness of crowds” as if, in allying oneself with one’s fellows in a baying mob, one somehow loses all reason. Let us not forget that it is the witch, or the oddball, who is the enemy of reason, sitting in their hovel with their toads and newts and books, plotting dark and devilish deeds. Give them free rein and who knows what foul world they would have us inhabit. Better by far that they be stricken with terror at the sight of our pitchforks and our flaming torches, at the sound of our blood-curdling baying.
So come and join us. We meet in the village tavern. Bring your pitchfork and your torch. Be part of the mob. It’s an experience you won’t forget.
The bestselling item in the Pointy Town Toyshop. The only item in the Pointy Town Toyshop.
Thanks to OutaSpaceman.
News comes in that the entire western half of the United States has been shut down due to the presence in Los Angeles of a plague-infected squirrel. Something along those lines, anyway. While I do a spot of fact-checking to ensure I haven’t exaggerated the threat, it seems apposite to repost this piece from nine long years ago.
Dobson was afraid of squirrels. Here’s why. It was a damp and ruinous Thursday and he had not had any breakfast. He slapped his hand on the table and shouted “I must have marmalade! I must have some marmalade!” There was nobody to hear his complaint except for an ant which was making its way across the floor of his hovel, and the ant didn’t care, being an insect. Dobson had not even noticed the ant, in any case. He leapt out of his chair, put on his big reindeer-hide anorak brought back from one of his Arctic expeditions, and trudged outside, muttering now instead of shouting.
Have I ever told you there were several important trees on the path outside Dobson’s door? There was a sycamore and a yew, a larch and a pine. Dobson was fond of trees, usually, although he was unable to tell the difference between them. Gone were the days when he would festoon his hair with fallen leaves and twigs, inviting ridicule from the local whippersnappers. Dobson in the days of which I write had adopted a sober mien, indeed a gloomy one.
“Dobson, Dobson, don’t look so dismayed,” his acquaintances would say, to which the out of print pamphleteer’s response was to look heavenward, as if in great pain, adopting the air of an early Christian martyr, one lined up for some particularly bloodthirsty persecution. Dobson often skimmed through the pages of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs to pick up tips. But I digress.
On this damp marmaladeless morning, Dobson walked past the sycamore, the yew, the larch and the pine, onward past a repulsive ditch, past the post office and the pig huts and the vipers’ nest and the glue factory, up the lane towards the Big Unexplained Building On The Hill. The wind howled. It always did. Back in the hovel, the ant had vanished into a crevice in the wainscot, just as Dobson arrived at the gates of the Building. These gates were enormous and forbidding and strange and rusty and locked and bolted and unnecessary, for there was a wooden door set in the base and brickish wall which skirted the building, and it was only a few feet away to the left of the gates, or to the right, I cannot remember precisely, I have never been there myself, I am only reporting this as it was told to me by Marigold Chew on the day after Dobson’s death, after she had had her bath, and was sipping tea from an inelegant tin mug in the shabby parlour of a horrible hotel hard by the banks of the River Wretched in Sibodnedwabshire.
Dobson knew all about the wooden door, so why did he tarry by the strange rusty gates? Was he confused, was his mind a jumble due to lack of marmalade? Or did he have a tryst? We do not know. We do know that Dobson stood at those gates on that damp Thursday, peering intently through them, for a full quarter of an hour before turning around and heading off to Old Jack Blothead’s Foodstuffs Tent, where he bought a jar of marmalade and some pastry and a pot of some kind of edible paste which Old Jack Blothead had left unlabelled. The year was 1952. Dobson and the vendor of foodstuffs had their usual argument about the pamphleteer’s promissory note, a page torn from his notebook on which he had scrawled words to the effect that sooner or later he would do right by Old Jack Blothead, and if he did not then may the heavens smite him and may all his days be leavened with woe. It was advantageous for Dobson that Blothead was a man of great charity and puny intellect, and after a few minutes he left the tent through its great grimy flaps, armed with his jar and pot and a paper bag for the pastry. They would not fit in the single pocket of his anorak, so he carried them in his ungloved, unmittened hands.
What pangs led Dobson back to the strange enormous rusty gates of the Big Unexplained Building On The Hill? There was a fallen log, a log fallen from a trembling poplar, slap bang next to the gates, and Dobson sat on it and ate the pastry, and he stayed sitting there despite the fact that it began to rain heavily. He didn’t even bother to pull up the hood of his anorak, although that may be because it was rife with holes made by starving moths and his head would have got wet anyway. Wet, but surely not as wet as it did get, as he sat on the poplar log in the downpour eating pastry with his pot of paste and marmalade jar beside him outside the forbidding and strange and rusty and locked and bolted gates of the Big Unexplained Building On The Hill on that Thursday morning in 1952 when he first became terrified of squirrels.
“Why,” I asked Marigold Chew as she sipped her tea in the shabby hotel parlour, “Why did Dobson become so fearful of squirrels on that particular day?” She glanced at me briefly, and I was disconcerted by the weird look in her eyes. “Those bushy tails….” she began, then fell silent, turning to stare out of the window. I followed her gaze, and saw the gravedigger walking across the lawn, toting his spade jauntily over his shoulder. “Those bushy, bushy tails…” Marigold Chew repeated. She drank the rest of her tea, put the mug down on the floor by her feet, and stood up. “I must go and have a few words with the gravedigger,” she said, and swept out of the room as breezily as a bereaved woman on crutches can sweep breezily from a hotel parlour on the day after the death of her one true friend on this magnificent and baffling planet.
If you know where to look, you will find, somewhere in the deep and dark and wet vastness of the sea, Triton, surrounded by minnows. You will need a boat and some diving gear. Now it is said there are seven seas, so you will ask which one you should plunge into, and some will tell you to try the Aegean Sea, for that is where Triton has been rumoured to hold court. But others place him elsewhere, and in any case, if you think about it for half a second, there is only one big deep dark wet sea, seven-tenths of the globe, all the so-called seven or however many seas flowing into one another. Somewhere down there, deep below the surface, is Triton, with his minnows.
Triton is fond of the minnows, for, being very tiny fish, like dabs, their presence around him, swarming in shoals, serves to exaggerate his own colossal Goddy stature. The sea, as you know, is vast, it is enormous, and even a God like Triton is swallowed up in all that water. He might roar like a great wild beast through his conch shell, and make a tremendous racket, but even so, the sea is huge enough to lose him in it.
That is why you have to know where to look. That is why you do not catch sight of Triton, with his conch shell and trident, and his minnows, whenever you plunge into the sea and submerge your head and look about you. You might see minnows, or indeed dabs, but they are no guarantee that Triton is nearby. Only certain minnows, those that are hopelessly lost in admiration of Triton, swim in his surrounding waters. Other minnows, in fact most of them, couldn’t care two pins for Triton, and are happy to go about their minnowy business hither and thither in the sea, with never a thought to bask in the reflected glory of a God. Precisely what kind of thoughts spark in the brain of a minnow is a profound mystery. I doubt we would understand them even if we knew what they were.
As for the brain of Triton, that too is something of a puzzle. If you were a God, with Godlike powers, would you choose to spend your time somewhere in the deep and dark and wet vastness of the sea, clutching a conch shell and a trident, your shoulders barnacled with sea-shells, surrounded by minnows? I suppose you might. Such a life has certain advantages, chief of which is that you would not be pestered constantly by puny humans. As I have suggested, it is the devil of a job to find Triton down there, even if you have the requisite boat and diving gear. In all my countless conversations with ancient mariners and seafaring folk, whom I buttonhole on the piers and jetties of seaside resorts and docks and harbours, I have yet to meet with one who has clapped eyes on Triton – or, at least, one whose tale stands up to the merest scrutiny. Oh, they will tell all sorts of tales, these seafaring folk, and I have listened to most of them. I listen, and then I dip my little net into the sea and scoop out a minnow, and take it home to toast it for my tea.
My latest project is to stage a series of tableaux vivants. These will take place daily over the coming week. Each one will last for a duration of no more than one minute, at a push, at various locations in the hustle and bustle of the London streets, what Keith Pratt termed “the hurly-burly of the urban conurbation”, and each one will be a vivid, static, solo re-enactment of a significant historical event. I have thus far chosen six subjects:
The death of Socrates
The sinking of the Lusitania
The Punic Wars
The relief of Mafeking
The second resignation of David Blunkett
My first choc-ice
I would be grateful to readers for suggestions for the seventh and final tableau vivant, which it is intended will outshine the other six in both vividness and historical significance.
A snippet from Memoirs Of A Public Baby by Philip O’Connor:
The hut on the hill was in a fairly detached part of a holiday camp, the most “select” of several on this hill in Surrey. The signs of this selectiveness were the wide spaces between the huts; their decorum in colour and lack of fantasy in architecture; and the absence of radios (though the loudspeaker was still young), and the quality and size of the cars arriving at week-ends; and the good-quality plus-fours of the younger set. They were, in fact, of the class most disliked by my guardian, mostly prosperous shopkeepers, with a sprinkling of teachers, whom he also didn’t like. It fairly pleased him not to like anyone in the camp except a certain scoutmaster. This was the quintessence of scoutmasters, and I feel certain he came from Roehampton, because of a particular greenhouse wildness in his appearance (I caught him acquiring a tropical tan artfully behind a bush once). He liked to stand most erect on the brow of the plateau and scan the horizon, eyes narrowed, ready, I believe, for eventualities.
I have never watched a single episode of the BBC soap opera EastEnders, so I had no idea who Cockney matriarch Lou Beale was. I do, however, read obituaries with great interest, including those of people of whom I have never heard. And when reading the Guardian obituary of Anna Wing, the actress who played Lou Beale, I learned that “between 1953 and 1960, she was the partner of the surrealist poet Philip O’Connor” and “she encouraged [him] to write his first book, the extraordinary Memoirs of a Public Baby (1958)”.
I had never heard of O’Connor either, and my interest was piqued – rightly so, I realised, when I read his 1998 obituary in The Independent. Here I learned, among other things, that his mother abandoned him twice during his childhood, and the second time
he was again adopted, this time by a one-legged bachelor civil servant who wore size 13 boots and owned a small wooden hut on Box Hill near Dorking
The impression that he created as a young man in wartime Fitzrovia was of utter precariousness. As thin as a skeleton, his face already eroded, his smile never calm, he lived off doughnuts and Woodbines, ogled at women and spoke in cryptograms, spoonerisms and jingles, delivering sentences backwards and falling about in drunken exhilaration
Many people knew him simply as The Man Who Stood Behind The Door And Said “Boo!” To T.S. Eliot
Who could read those snippets and not want to read the Memoirs? So I borrowed a copy from the library, and am already delighted, by page 35, to learn that Philip O’Connor had “a lasting fear of monkeys . . . feeling horribly near to them and that I have a secret they might discover which would involve me in some unconscious activity consequent upon the discovery of a bond between us.”
Self-consciously “bohemian” drunkard poets are tiresome, particularly when convinced of their own genius, and no doubt in person O’Connor was – as Stephen Spender says in his introduction to the Memoirs – “a menace”. But they can also, sometimes, write wonderful books, and Memoirs Of A Public Baby – what I have read of it so far – is one. Bear in mind, too, that the Independent obituary notes that O’Connor “dabbled interestingly with chickens”.
For Tim Henman
I was walking along the towpath of the old canal when, suddenly and out of nowhere, a maddened swan came flapping at me in stormy rage, and thumped me so hard with its wing that it broke my arm.
“Confound you, swan!” I cried in my distress, but the swan had already returned to the canal, gliding through the water, a vision of elegance.
By one of those curious coincidences with which my life is stippled, the physician who tended to my fractured bone at the canalside clinic was called Dr Swanfracture.
“I suppose you must have to set quite a few bones broken by swans,” I said, through the haze of anaesthetic with which I had been, unnecessarily, injected.
“Actually, you are the first such patient I have had to attend to in twenty years of practice at this clinic,” said the doc, “For the swans on this canal are known for their placidity. There is perhaps something in the canal water.”
Later, convalescing, shattered on an Alpine balcony, I reflected on this, and my reflections were unhappy ones. If Dr Swanfracture was correct, and the canal swans were placid, then what had I done to provoke one of them to such uncharacteristic violent frenzy? Or, was it not something I had done, but simply me, my being, my essential self? Was I, without realising it, a danger to swans?
A man can come undone when faced with such an uncomfortable truth about himself, and I did indeed come undone. I raved and spluttered and rolled about. It never occurred to me that Dr Swanfracture was talking through his hat.
Many years passed, the majority of them spent trussed and medicated and bewildered in a series of lunatic asylums, before, one day, I was visited by an ornithologist. This saintly chap was convinced that the mad and the lunatic and the bewildered could be brought to their senses through a better appreciation of birds. He it was who enlightened me regarding the ineradicable savagery of swans. When I explained that there was something in the canal water that made placid the swans that glid therein, he laughed, like a drain. When eventually his gurgling ceased he said he had never heard such poppycock in his life. There is no drug on earth, he said, that could pacify a swan. Indeed, his own studies had shown that the only way to render a swan harmless was to wring its graceful neck.
Dr Swanfracture’s neck was anything but graceful. Rather, it was scrawny and bepimpled and wrinkled, as I learned when I clamped my hairy hands around it and wrung it, having stridden into the canalside clinic and through his waiting-room, where sat several patients nursing swan-broken arms.
In the introduction to his Les Vies Imaginaires (1896) – a profound influence upon Borges – Marcel Schwob writes:
If Boswell’s book took up ten pages it would be the book we were looking for. Doctor Johnson’s common sense comprises the vulgarest of commonplaces: expressed with the bizarre violence that Boswell has the art to depict, it has a quality unique in this world. Only this ponderous catalogue resembles the doctor’s dictionary; from it one could extract a Scientia Johnsoniana with an index. Boswell has not had the aesthetic courage to select.
(Translation by Iain White.)
I was delighted to note, elsewhere in the introduction, that Schwob makes mention of “the conjectures to which Boswell abandons us concerning the use Johnson made of the dried orange-peel he liked to keep in his pockets” – as noted recently here.
NB : Hooting Yard’s in-house anagrammatist R. will, I hope, get to work on the title of this postage.
Newspaper reports of the annual swan upping on the Thames reminded me of an amusing swan-related matter which I had unaccountably forgotten to mention. During the Wimbledon tennis championships, I forget which game exactly though it may have been one of the men’s semi-finals, during one of the breaks between sets, the BBC cameras drifted off to the surrounding scene, and showed a jetty by the river around which sunbathers sprawled. Also present was a swan, approached by a tiny tot who looked as if she was wanting to feed it a sandwich. The proximity of tot to swan led one of the commentary team to observe that, belying their elegance and grace, swans are of course savage and aggressive creatures. Whereupon fellow-commentator Tim Henman – whose surname suggests he knows a thing or two about birds, or at least about poultry – said (and I paraphrase from memory):
Whenever you see a swan, someone always points out that they are capable of breaking your arm. Have you ever met anybody who’s had their arm broken by a swan? I haven’t.
Sadly, the cameras then returned to the tennis, and we were not treated to any further swan-talk from Hen-man.
Swan upping in the last century
I have just started reading a collection of stories by Marcel Schwob (translated by Iain White) and was pleasantly startled by the opening sentence of “Train 081”:
The great terror of my life seems far distant from the shrubbery in which I am writing.
Marcel Schwob (1867-1905) was a friend of Alfred Jarry, and the dedicatee of Ubu Roi. I may have more to say as I read the book, The King In The Golden Mask & Other Writings (1982).