Poptarts Redux

Here is the piece I wrote for BlackberryJuniper And Sherbet a couple of weeks ago, reposted here for the sake of The Complete And Utter Mr Key Prose Experience.

It is an exciting time in the world of breakfast. I learned as much last week, when I had the good fortune to be invited to a new product launch. The do took place in a swish and sophisticated hotel, and as I am neither swish nor sophisticated I was a bit worried that I would be thrown out on my ear, if indeed I was allowed in at all. I decided that I would cut something of a dash by wearing spats. Unfortunately, my footwear adviser misconstrued what I said, and I arrived at the swish and sophisticated hotel wearing galoshes. But I need not have fretted. Such was the atmosphere of new-breakfast-product excitement and hubbub that I made my way into the throng without incident.

And what a throng! The hotel ballroom was packed to the rafters with the great and the good, the movers and shakers, the glitterati, and Krishnan Guru-Murthy from Channel 4 News. I grabbed a glass of aerated lettucewater from a tray held by a minion, and leaned against a mantelpiece in what I hoped was an insouciant manner.

After a series of speeches from big names in the breakfast world, the new product was eventually revealed – smokers’ poptarts! After we had oohed and aahed at the gorgeous packaging, we were treated to a demonstration of how best to prepare this toothsome breakfast-related snack item. Apparently, you remove the smokers’ poptart from its greaseproof-paper wrapping, pop it into a toaster, and wait. It was rather unfortunate that the toaster used at the launch was a 1972 model from the former Soviet Union, for it malfunctioned, with a lot of buzzing and hissing noises, before a billow of black smoke rose from it and choked several celebrities standing nearby, one of whom I think may have been Yoko Ono. The smokers’ poptart itself was burned to ashes, of course.

By this time we were all growing very peckish, and had been looking forward to munching this delicious new breakfast product. Instead, the hotel chef rustled up a vast quantity of bubble and squeak. It was rather like the miracle of the loaves and the fishes (Matthew 14:13-21, Mark 6:31-44, Luke 9:10-17 and John 6:5-15), except with bubble and squeak rather than bread and fish.

By the time an oompah band started up, we were all stuffed to the gills, albeit not with smokers’ poptarts. But we accepted our brochures, information sheets, and balloons with good grace, and it was a reasonably happy crowd that spilled out into the hotel carpark. Interestingly, the carpark was pitted with puddles, oh! puddles innumerable, and all the great and the good and the movers and shakers and glitterati got their shoes and socks soaked through. I thanked the Lord for my galoshes, and Krishnan Guru-Murthy thanked the Lord for his galoshes, thoughtfully provided by an unpaid intern from Channel 4 News.

As I wended my way home through certain half-deserted streets, the muttering retreats of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels and sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells, I resolved to buy a carton of smokers’ poptarts for my breakfast at the earliest opportunity. Alas, I have yet to see them on the shelves of the local poptart shop. As Jagger once observed, you can’t always get what you want.

NOTE : As this was written for an audience largely unfamiliar with the Mr Key Prose Experience, I deliberately inserted a number of my common obsessions, phrases, tropes, and touches. A small prize to any Hooting Yard reader who can spot all of them.

Upon A Hired Bed In Sidmouth

The little dry leaves are blowing against the windows of a house near the sea, with a sound like the whispering of small pale ghosts; they are blowing along the parade, over the edge of the century, they are floating away and away into the far-off plantations where the country gentlemen are rooted in the mould.

Here they come, these small ghosts left over, drifting over, from the eighteenth century – dry ghosts like the Beau and Beelzebub or Wicked Shifts, Bogey and Calibre, Gooserump and King Jog, Mouldy and Madagascar and Snipe, and Mr Creevey himself brushing those leaves together with his old hands. Soon there will be no leaves left.

On the 22nd day of January in the year 1820, whilst the threadbare-looking sea beat thinly upon the shore, a man of fifty-two years of age, his once robust and reddish face now yellow, his thin dyed black hair, that had once been shining and carefully brushed (where any remained), now dull with sweat, and with the grey showing through the black and with the skull showing through the hair, lay dying upon a hired bed in Sidmouth.

The magnificent opening paragraphs of chapter one (“The Death Of The Duke Of Kent”) of Edith Sitwell’s 1936 biography Victoria Of England. They don’t write ’em like that anymore.


Sops And Fillips

I have never been able to decide whether I prefer a sop or a fillip. To be given a sop can be immediately gratifying. But when you are able, at leisure, to consider what you really wanted, and then to be thunderstruck at the realisation you have been fobbed off with a sop, gratification can curdle swiftly into frustration, resentment, and, in certain circumstances, psychopathic violence. A fillip, on the other hand, can come out of nowhere, unbidden, and set you up for the day, or at least for a few minutes, until your innards are once again gnawed at by whatever gnaws at them. That differs from person to person.

The tonic effects, then, of both the sop and the fillip tend towards the ephemeral. One could argue that, notwithstanding, the fillip is preferable. This is because, when it wears off, and you are again plunged into remorseless misery, there is not the concomitant dejection you get with the wearing off the sop, viz. the knowledge that you have been fobbed off. You can’t be fobbed off with a fillip. That is not in the nature of fillips, though it is part and parcel of the sop.

We can perhaps grasp this more firmly by considering a concrete example. Here is Dobson, from his pamphlet What I Have To Say, In Toto, About Sops And Fillips (out of print):

It was a day in that blue month September, silent beneath the plum trees’ slender shade. A nice juicy Carlsbad plum, I thought, would be just the fillip I needed. It so happened that I was plunged in remorseless misery and my innards were being gnawed at by their intractable enemies, a legion of mental and emotional horrors it would take far too long to list. Yes, the more I thought about it, sprawled beneath the plum trees’ slender shade, the more I craved the fillip I would get from munching one of those plums.

I have never been the sprightliest of tree-climbers, but on that day in that blue month September it so happened that I was wearing my Bolivian Rain Forest Warden’s Tree-Climbing Boots. What a happy accident! I stood up, dusted the duff from my duffel coat, and prepared to clamber a little way up the trunk of the plum tree, just high enough to pluck a plum. It was a strangely tall plum tree, as were all its fellows in this orchard.

Just as I was about to begin my climb, I was disconcerted to see, striding towards me, aiming a shotgun, the orchardist. I knew he was the orchardist because of his proprietorial manner of striding across the loam, and the badge affixed to his duffel coat, over his heart.

“Oi!” he shouted, “Do not think for one minute you can climb and pluck a plum of mine from my plum tree!”

“Nothing was further from my mind,” I lied, “I am not the plum-eating type.”

He shoved the barrel of his shotgun into my belly.

“I’m pleased to hear it,” he said, “Often I find picnickers and other reprobates lurking in my orchard who think the munching of a nice juicy Carlsbad plum is just the fillip they need to wrench them, albeit temporarily, out of their misery and horrors.”

“Don’t you fret about me on that score,” I said, “I am as happy as a lark.”

This ornithological sally was a blatant fib, as my countenance was downcast and gloomy. It served, however, to bamboozle the orchardist. He hoisted the shotgun over his shoulder and mumbled something about the nesting habits of larks.

I thought it best to skedaddle out of the orchard and find somewhere else to slump on that day in that blue month September. As I trudged along the towpath of the old canal, past the cement works and the marmalade factory, I still craved the fillip of a plum to munch. Pausing to sit on a canalside bench placed there in honour of Robert Fripp, I took from the inside pocket of my duffel coat the Gazetteer of Fruiterers which, in those days, I always carried with me. If I could not steal a plum from an orchard, I could buy one from a fruiterer! I was young then, you see, and my brain was in proper working order.

Having ascertained that the nearest fruiterer was a short bus ride away, I made my way to the bus stop and waited for a bus. When the bus arrived, I boarded it. I sat down. The bus conductor took my fare. Peering out of the window at the sky, I became lost in thought about my imminent plum. I could almost taste it. What a fillip it would be!

Shortly afterwards I alighted from the bus at another bus stop and crossed the road to enter the fruiterers’. He was a curiously monkey-like man, though his manners were polished.

“How may I be of assistance to you on this day in that blue month September?” he asked.

“I would like to buy a nice juicy Carlsbad plum, please,” I said.

“I am afraid I sold my last plum, Carlsbad or no, just fifteen minutes ago to a communist German playwright,” he said, “So may I recommend instead a conference pear?”

There would be no fillip for me. Instead, I was being fobbed off with a sop!

Careful study of this passage will reward the reader with a dazzling insight into the fillip and the sop, and this in spite of the fact that Dobson does not tell us whether he accepted the fruiterer’s offer of a conference pear. It was long thought that he addressed this in his pamphlet The Blue September Of Conference Pears (out of print), but recent textual exegesis by hot-headed young Dobsonist Ted Cack demonstrates pretty damn conclusively that the September referred to in that pamphlet was after, not before, the Tet Offensive.

Ash. Box. Elm. Yew.

I could speak to you today about pine and plane and sycamore and larch, but instead I wish to focus your attention upon ash and box and elm and yew. Ash. Box. Elm. Yew. Four trees in alphabetical order. It is not necessarily the best order in which to arrange trees, certainly not if one were planting an orchard, but for our present purposes it will do, it will do. Each is a three-letter word for a tree, each has a trunk and leafage and, of course, roots. These are not the roots of which Alex Haley wrote, but gnarled and twisting roots which anchor the ash or the box or the elm or the yew in place, wherever that place may be. It is the presence of roots, under the tree, submerged in the muck, that account for your inability to push the tree over with one mighty heave.

So when we consider the ash and the box and the elm and the yew we must keep in the forefront of our minds that they are rooted, anchored, not easily toppled. This helps us to tell them apart from toppleable things, which are countless. There are more things in the world that topple over than do not. I would have you take a few moments to think about that.

You, for example, are the sort of thing that could be toppled, while standing there lost in thought. You might be knocked over by a ferociously high wind, shoved by a shover, or suffer from a sudden and catastrophic weakness at the knees. In certain circumstances, the same is indeed true of ash and box and elm and yew. High winds have toppled trees, shovers armed with chainsaws have toppled them, even weakness in a tree-trunk, caused by blight or disease, can topple a tree. The point I am making is that it is much easier to topple you than it is to topple a tree. Unlike a tree, you are not rooted to the ground, at least not in your natural state.

Do not confuse the homophones you and yew, by the way.

It is not just trees with three-letter names that require might and main to topple them. The aforementioned pine and plane and sycamore and larch are also firmly rooted. The reason they do not concern us today is that their names contain more than three letters. When dealing with a subject as wide-ranging and breathtaking and complicated as trees, we have to focus our attentions more narrowly if we are to get anywhere, at least in the short term. Only those with the most fanatical interest will go the whole hog and devote the best part of their lives to the study of trees. The rest of us must make do with partial, limited knowledge. We will wish to be sufficiently familiar with certain types of tree so that we can hold our own in a tree-based conversation.

For example, we might be at a swish and sophisticated cocktail party and be buttonholed by a person who, to break the ice, says something regarding trees.

“It is interesting you should say that,” we can reply, winningly, “For just the other day I read a piece about the ash and the box and the elm and the yew.”

“Oh really?” says our interlocutor, and before we know it the two of us are babbling away nineteen to the dozen and getting on like a house on fire. Such social success is always rewarding. Had we not had a ready reply, we might have been left flailing and dimwitted, clutching our cocktail glass and flushing with discomfort.

It is not overwhelmingly important to be able to tell an ash from a box or an elm from a yew or a box from an elm or a yew from an ash or a box from a yew or an ash from an elm. If you can do so, all well and good, but depending on the company at the cocktail party you are attending you might want to keep that knowledge under your hat. If you begin to prattle on in detail about the trees and their characteristics you might be taken for a fanatic with no interest in, or knowledge of, any other topic. Nobody wants to get stuck next to a monomaniac at a cocktail party.

Conversely, if you are the one who finds yourself trapped with a tree-fanatical nutcase, intent on describing to you in brain-numbing detail the ash and the box and the elm and the yew, you can always topple over. They will interpret this as a swoon, and call for smelling salts and perhaps a snifter of brandy. You can then sit up and rub your head and look disconcerted. You might be ushered outside for a spot of fresh air, and if the party is taking place in a rustic location, there could be a coppice or spinney nearby. But in your fragile state, or let us say your pretence of a fragile state, nobody, not even the nutcase, will call on you to identify the trees, which may or may not include the ash, the box, the elm, the yew.

Bank Holiday Services At St Bibblybibdib’s

Masses will be held at St Bibblybibdib’s today as follows:

6.00 AM – Adoration of the Lamb
7.00 AM – Slaughter of the First-Born
8.00 AM – Veneration of the Avant-Garde Japanese Beatle-Wife
9.00 AM – Veneration of the Avant-Garde Japanese Beatle-Wife’s Late Beatle-Husband
10.00 M – Special Ringo Service
11.00 AM – Slaughter of the Second- and Third-Born
12.00 AM – Adoration of the Beatnik
1.00 PM – Blessing of the Little Cotton Socks
2.00 PM – Interfaith Service With Goat-Slaughter
3.00 PM – Blessing of the Underpants Bomber
4.00 PM – Singalonga Dan Fogelberg Service
5.00 PM – Personal Appearance With Autograph-Signing by Krishnan Guru-Murthy of Channel 4 News
6.00 PM – Remembrance Of Things Past
7.00 PM – Days Of Future Passed
8.00 PM – Nights In White Satin
9.00 PM – Cold-Hearted Orb That Rules The Night
10.00 PM – Tea And Biscuits
11.00 PM – Tea And Oranges That Come All The Way From China
12.00 PM – Slopping-Out

The 13th Century And The 1960s

Between 1218 and 1260, you couldn’t set foot outside your house between Peking and Prague without having a Mongol horde sweep past and lop your ears off while flaying your grandparents and eating your dog, all without dismounting. By moving quickly, travelling in large packs and placing important people in highly visible positions of authority, the Mongols created a daunting illusion of ubiquity and numerical superiority.

The same situation prevails with Baby Boomers. While it may be true that tie-dyed, hemp-toking countercultural hipsters were never an absolute majority of Boomers, it certainly seemed like it at the time.

Joe Queenan, Balsamic Dreams (2001)

The Elephant In The Room

There is an elephant in the room. It is pushing the envelope and thinking outside the box, and what it is thinking about is not rocket science. Elephants are among the more intelligent members of the animal kingdom, but their brains cannot cope with the complexities of rocket science. It is more likely that the elephant is thinking about food, and when next it might find some vitamin-rich leafage to munch. Not that it would have any concept of vitamins, any more than of rocket science.

So, anyway, there is this elephant in the room, with an envelope and a box. It must be a reasonably big room, for an elephant to fit into it, and one, moreover, with a l’age d’or. Sorry, I mean a large door, sufficient in height and breadth to allow the passage through it of a great big galumphing elephant. The lobby of an important hotel fits the bill.

Somebody has placed in the lobby an envelope and a box. They may have been put there before the arrival of the elephant, or after. It doesn’t matter, for Christ’s sake! With regard to the envelope, it is a pretty straightforward matter that the elephant has chosen to push it across the floor, by exercising its trunk. Whether or not the envelope is sealed or open, whether it is empty or contains some document – a legal writ, a love letter, a coupon snipped from a magazine – the elephant neither knows nor cares. We might surmise that it is pushing the envelope because that is something for it to do, to keep it occupied, or because the presence of the envelope on the floor of the lobby is an irritant, to the elephant, which would prefer an unsullied space in which to plod about.

That the elephant is thinking outside the box is blindingly obvious. Unless it is an enormous box, the elephant is not going to fit inside it, is it? Even if the box is big enough to receive an elephant, it would have to be an elephant of rare daintiness to succeed in clambering into the box without crushing it in the process. It is, after all, a cardboard box. We can assume that, not only is the elephant thinking outside the box, it is ignoring it, at least for the time being, while it is busying itself pushing the envelope across the floor with its trunk and thinking about food.

Everything might change, of course, when the elephant pushes the envelope as far as the wainscot and can push it no further. It is anybody’s guess what will happen next.

A Bag Full Of Goo


In her mad poem Daddy, Sylvia Plath makes mention of “a bag full of God”. I have always taken this to be a misprint. If we consider that God is inexplicable and ineffable, outwith the scope of our puny human comprehension, then the idea that we could get hold of Him and stuff Him into a bag is plainly laughable. We can apply David Hume’s argument against miracles, where he writes “When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened”. Similarly, we may ask which is more probable, that somebody has managed to cram God into a bag, or that a typesetting error has occurred? I am as sure as eggs is eggs that what Plath originally wrote was “a bag full of Goo”. A slapdash printer made “Goo” into “God”, and the error has persisted for half a century.

Now it is true that goo is more often found in bottles and jars and squeezy tubes than in bags. But there are so many different types of goo, for so many different purposes, that a bag full of goo is still a far more likely proposition than a bag full of God. Just wander along the aisles of your nearest supermarket and you will see goos for cleaning, for cooking, for cosmetic purposes, and for all sorts of other uses. Too, goo can vary from thick pastes to semi-liquid gloop, and no matter what its consistency, any goo can be transferred from its original container into a bag, be it a plastic bag, a paper bag, a greaseproof paper bag, a satchel, a haversack, a pippy bag, or any sort of bag you care to mention.

While we can only guess at the type of bag Sylvia Plath has in mind – and I strongly favour the duffel bag theory – we are on firmer ground when it comes to the goo. For, later in the mad poem, the mad poet specifically refers to “gobbledygoo”. Quite what the nature of this goo is must remain a matter of conjecture. In the context of the poem, it has some connection to the Luftwaffe, the German word for national military aviation services. Might gobbledygoo, then, be some kind of lubricant goo for aeroplane engines? If so, that would explain why, when I went to my local supermarket and asked at the customer services counter if they stocked gobbledygoo, I was met with blank looks of incomprehension. Aeroplane engine lubricant goo is not the kind of goo you will find in even the best-appointed supermarket or general goods store.

Such fearless textual analysis casts Daddy in a new light, and will necessitate the urgent revision of the thousands of scholarly books and articles about poor mad Sylvia – so get to work, litcrit persons!

One final note : goo must not be confused with goop, which is a digital media and e-commerce company founded by Gwyneth Paltrow, who is inexplicable and ineffable and outwith the scope of our puny human comprehension.

Banished To A Pompous Land

So resonant is the phrase “banished to a pompous land” that it was adopted by one expatriate Hooting Yard devotee as a pseudonym. You will, I trust, be familiar with Mr Banished not only for his comments here but for his own blog – where, in the sidebar, you will see the quotation from A Lecture Delivered In The Big Tent At Hoon where the phrase appeared.

As far as memory served, this 1987 story was the only incidence of the phrase. However, while researching the Bill Hatworn letters, I discovered this earlier usage, which I think dates from about 1984 – almost thirty long, long years ago. It is a piece called Golden Gate, and is a good example of the kind of thing I was writing at that time, before the advent of the Malice Aforethought Press. Make of it what you will.

Banished to a pompous land where I knew no one, I set about mending my ways. There were flags to be darned, ceremonial shields to be polished, hospitality to be dispensed. At night, I was seconded to stand guard at a gateway. The gateway was made of solid gold. It was enormous. I sat hunched on a wooden stool, alert and eagle-eyed. I brandished my pike at the hint of a passer-by. But few passed by, and in the tiny hours I pondered, and pondered hard. There was me, felon, rascal, thief, and behind my back a gigantic gateway cast in gold. One night, I took a rasp. All was dark and still as I began to shave the gold from the gate. At dawn, my satchel held a cellophane packet of gold, and each night I added packet after packet. It is dawn again now. In an hour, they will take me away and behead me.

Smokers’ Poptarts!

My recent lassitude – which I think is now behind me – was occasioned in part by ResonanceFM’s August break. I realise that having to babble into a microphone for half an hour every week is an effective spur to composition, and without that deadline I can happily gaze out of the window at crows and Not Get Anything Done.

(Oh, by the way, throughout the month ResonanceFM is broadcasting old episodes of Hooting Yard daily at 12.30 PM, so that should help to keep you lot from chewing your pillows in anguish.)

Anyway, just as I was sloughing off my indolence and clambering back into my toboggan o’ prose, I was further inspired by being asked to write a piece for another blog. Meeting someone else’s deadline always concentrates the mind.

So over at BlackberryJuniper & Sherbet you can read a brand new piece – written yesterday – together with a little introduction explaining why I was asked, and one reader’s understanding of the Glory That Is Hooting Yard. Off you go!

Dabblers’ Light Railway

Dabbler-3logo (1)

In my Dabbler cupboard this week I make a convincing argument that the names of the stations on the Docklands Light Railway are as worthy of having their own dedicated forecast on the radio as those oh so evocative shipping areas.

And while we are on the subject of BBC Radio 4, I should note that I learned something very fascinating on Farming Today this morning. Apparently, on no account whatsoever should you ever tell anybody how many sheep you have, even if they have the gall to come out and ask you directly. Remember that.

Hatworn Letter No. 2

A second, previously undiscovered, letter by Kenya correspondent Bill Hatworn has surfaced. It was found in a junk shop in Junkshop.

I want my art to be in cars, or somewhere lacking proper food. You know the sort of place I mean. One book contains my art and crap. I sit and sweat in sordid bars, or on a stack of broken wood. I’m dumb. Barbaric. I am keen. My art’s my life. My life’s my trap. You’ll always make me very sick. It’s not your lips, it’s not your hair. I spat out the cake you bought for me. These are the boys. These are the girls. This is the torch. This is the stick. This is the foliage and this is the chair. This is the lumberjack hacking a tree. This is the worst of all possible worlds. My rake, your spade, here’s our vegetations. We hop and stammer by ourselves. I want to share the flu I’ve caught. Your raincoat’s the colour of the windowsill. I’m cross, or am I doing the stations? All I hear is the clank of bells. I’m so tall and you’re horribly short. You’re unspeakable. My name’s Bill.

Hatworn Letter

Kenya correspondent Bill Hatworn was one of the very greatest letter-writers of the twentieth century. Although most of his correspondence has already been gathered in the forthcoming Collected Letters Of Bill Hatworn, new items continue to come to light, including this unsigned and undated example, sent to an unknown recipient:

Meet me at the fireworks factory. I’ll be wearing red. You in your shoes, and me at the end of my tether. Speak to me – fourteen words. You can make them up. I will listen, but I won’t swim in your muddy waters. Truth, or grit, or something foreign to my senses – you had better see me right re: my expenses. I paid through the nose and it hurt me much, but where I goes is such and such.