Doughty In Rye

Over at the indispensable Nigeness, Nige occasionally writes a postage about a fortuitous find in a secondhand bookshop. I thought I would follow his example, for yesterday I was in Rye, and in a tiny bookshop called the Tiny Bookshop I was happy to come upon a 1956 Penguin copy of Passages From Arabia Deserta by Charles Montagu Doughty, for a mere three pounds.


This is an abridged version of Doughty’s best-known work, Travels In Arabia Deserta, which was extolled by The Observer thus: “Charles Montagu Doughty was one of the great men of our day, the author of a unique prose masterpiece. For many readers it is a book so majestic, so vital, of such incomparable beauty of thought, of observation, and of diction as to occupy a place apart among their most cherished literary possessions”.

I have written about Doughty before, with particular reference to his strangely hypnotic prose. Never having had the courage to tackle the Travels in their vast entirety, I shall look forward to reading this abridgement – still over 300 pages.

Egg-Based Pudding Discussions

It is a rule of thumb that in any egg-based pudding discussion, at some point the phrase “over-egging the pudding” will be deployed, whether or not it is pertinent.

It is entirely conceivable that you have absolutely no idea what I am talking about, so to clarify matters for the dull-witted I shall give an example of a snatch of dialogue from a fairly routine egg-based pudding discussion. This is not something I have made up, woven out of whole cloth from the fuming phantasms of my inner head, but a genuine extract from an egg-based pudding discussion I tape-recorded especially that I might transcribe it for an eventuality such as the present one. I hope all this is crystal clear.

Snippy – I must say for as long as I can remember I have been fond of egg-based puddings.

Cleothgard – Some might say “overfond”, ha ha ha.

Snippy – No, I don’t think I could be accused of being overfond of egg-based puddings. It is not as if I am forever guzzling them. Perhaps once or twice a month I might treat myself to an egg-based pudding, which seems a reasonably moderate rate to me.

Cleothgard – Now you are adopting a very defensive posture.

Snippy – I am not. I am merely saying that by calling me overfond of egg-based puddings you were, let us say, ha ha, over-egging the pudding yourself.

That should make clear to you the point I was making, which – to repeat – is that the phrase “over-egging the pudding” will make an appearance, usually fairly early on, in any egg-based pudding discussion. I hasten to add that the extract from the conversation between Snippy and Cleothgard is absolutely genuine, a transcription of a tape-recorded egg-based pudding discussion held at the edge of a field, next to a filbert-hedge, on a somewhat damp Thursday afternoon in the latter years of the last century. The exchange was recorded on a cassette tape and that cassette tape has been kept, securely, in the locked drawer of a desk, the desk being in the private cabin of a trusted sea-captain, trusted by me, at any rate. This sea-captain is captain of a ship which has been roving the high seas almost continuously since the cassette tape was entrusted to the captain and he locked it in the drawer of the desk in his private cabin. Interestingly, the captain’s name is Captain Pudding and his head resembles an egg.

If you have been affected by this discussion of over-egging the pudding, please call our helpline.

Tales Of The Riverbank And The Marshes

The riverbank of which I speak was inhabited by glamorous moles. There were dozens of them, each more glamorous than the last, and the one who engages our attention on this damp Wednesday is the most glamorous mole of all. Her name is Hortense. Before you start complaining about the regrettable practice of anthropomorphising riverbank creatures, please bear in mind that not a jot of that is going on here. The mole was called Hortense and she was extremely glamorous. She wore a sort of mole version of a cloche hat, but there was nothing remotely human about her. She was just a mole, albeit one so glamorous that other moles swooned in her presence. Have you ever seen a mole swoon? It is quite a sight, and you will do well to have your camera at the ready. On the Wednesday of which I speak, there were many swooning moles to be seen by the riverbank. And we have not even begun to explore the marshes!

Out in the spooky marshes, at dead of night, nothing stirred. Nothing except tiny nocturnal creatures whose habitat was marsh and fen. Cock an ear and you might hear scrabblings and scurryings, fugitive wisps of sound in the otherwise eerie silence. There you sit in your concrete pillbox, a primed grenade in one hand and a mug of tomato soup in the other. The dampness of your socks is most distressing. You are distressed by the dampness of your socks, in the marshes, in the night, but why are you holding a hand grenade? Is this wartime? Surely in wartime you would not be fobbed off with damp socks? A bat appears near your head, and you flinch. These marshes are known for their colonies of bats. Wisely, you sip your soup. It is piping hot. The air around the marshes is not.

Dabbling Times

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Over at The Dabbler, my cupboard contains a selection of newspaper headlines which appeared in The Times in 1789 and 1790. Was it really true that the Irish were not refined enough for opera? Did the paper have a regular “Elopements” column? Is it seemly for a clergyman to eat filberts while conducting a burial service? You will not get answers to these important questions, but they are well worth thinking about, are they not?


What with all this book research, Hooting Yard is taking on a rather neglected air, I’m afraid. But a man can only write so much, even Mr Key!

What is happening at the moment is that instead of sitting down with my goose-quill and my parchment and painstakingly inscribing sweeping paragraphs of majestic prose for the elves in the cellar to tap out on a keyboard and post on Het Internet, instead of that more or less daily routine I have devised a quite different routine, which involves browsing through various dusty tomes on the creaking bookshelves of Haemoglobin Towers, winnowing from them choice snippets about the lives and absurdities of persons part and present. Persons such as, to pluck an example at random . . .

Peary, Robert (American explorer, 1856 – 1920). Peary had idiosyncratic views on how best to survive the harsh polar climate. On his expeditions, he never slept in a tent, preferring to remain out in the open with his dogs. He chewed frozen chunks of pemmican (concentrated fat and protein) rather than cooking it.

Today I have also added to my manuscript Britney Spears, Cecil B. DeMille, the ornithologist and aviator Angelo d’Arrigo, and the tearaway son of Edward G. Robinson, among others. No wonder by this time of day (just after 8.00 PM) my wits are addled. (Actually, they were addled simply from considering the activities of Angelo d’Arrigo, but you will have to wait for the book to come out to find out about him.)

So I am going to do my best to inject a bit of vitamin-enhanced vim ‘n’ verve into Hooting Yard, but I hope you will bear with me. Of course one way to hasten my completion of the book so we can all get back to blessed normality is for you lot to send me your own choice snippets of odd and unlikely biographical flapdoodlery (with a note on sources).

Remember In Your Prayers E. V. Rieu

So witless are the worlds of television and pop music that when, from time to time, a figure emerges in their midst who is capable of stringing a few coherent sentences together, they are held up as intellectual titans of our age. One thinks of Stephen Fry, regularly – if inexplicably – acclaimed as the possessor of the largest and most pulsating brain on this or any other planet. It is a case of Triton among the minnows, the majority of television persons being so vacuous and stupid that someone like Fry can dazzle simply by using words of three or more syllables.

The delusion is even more pronounced in pop music, and nowhere more preposterously than in the adulation of the lead singer of The Smiths, a band that split up a quarter of a century ago. His autobiography has now been published as a Penguin Classic. Reread and digest that sentence, please, for it tells us much about the pitiable state of our culture, if indeed we could still be said to have one.

What we have here is a combination of overweening vanity (on the part of the pop singer) and the sacrifice of any literary credibility to hard-headed marketing (on the part of the publisher). It would be bad enough had Penguin issued it as a Modern Classic, the usual imprint for suitably recognised works written after 1918. But no, this solipsistic screed is deemed worthy for inclusion in what the Penguin website still maintains is an imprint devoted to “the best literature of several thousand years and countless cultures”.

When the pop singer said “I’d like my book to be published as a Penguin Classic”, the correct response would have been “You are ridiculous. Go away.”

My thoughts are with E. V. Rieu, a proper scholar, the original editor of the Penguin Classics list, who died in 1972. The poor man will be turning in his grave.

The Book

So … this book I am working on, due out next year. It will be a whole volume of Brief Lives, as posted recently in The Dabbler. As I explained there, the entries are not really “lives”, in the sense of potted biographies, but a single snippet about each subject, which could be an amusing or bemusing fact, an anecdote, a quotation by or about the person, or in some cases simply the preposterously lengthy title of a book they have written, as in this case:

Mowbray, Jay Henry (American writer, 20th century). Mowbray was the author of the 1912 book Sinking Of The “Titanic”, Most Appalling Ocean Horror With Graphic Descriptions Of Hundreds Swept To Eternity Beneath The Waves; Panic Stricken Multitude Facing Sure Death, And Thrilling Stories Of This Most Overwhelming Catastrophe To Which Is Added Vivid Accounts Of Heart-Rending Scenes, When Hundreds Were Doomed To Watery Graves, Compiled From Soul Stirring Stories Told By Eye Witnesses Of This Terrible Horror Of The Briny Deep.

Much of the material I have gathered thus far (including Mowbray) lies buried deep within the Hooting Yard archives, but of course my research is taking me further afield, to dusty tomes on library shelves. And you lot can be of assistance, by bringing to my attention bits and bobs of information that deserve a place in the book.

The criteria for entries are that they are : amusing or bemusing (or both) ; true, or at least attested as true by a reliable source ; not widely known (though I realise that is a subjective judgement) ; and, oh, there was a fourth, but I cannot recall what it was.

I know all of you will be panting with eagerness to assist Mr Key in his endeavours, and all assistants will be thanked by name in the book. Please send your suggestions to hooting [dot] yard [at] gmail [dot] com. As this will be a scholarly work of reference, please give details of your sources.

Meanwhile, here, for your amusement, is another brief life lugged out of the archives:

Nazário de Lima, Ronaldo Luís (Brazilian footballer, b. 1976). During a football match in 2009, referring to a footballer named Rolando, a television commentator wondered “how long is it since Ronaldo was marked by an anagram of himself?”

Sparse Potsages

I noted the other day that potsages [sic] would be sparse for a while, but I do not want you lot to think I am staring vacantly out of the window with nothing going on in my noggin. If anything, the Key Cranium – soon to be declared a national monument, or possibly even an international monument – is fizzing and bubbling like unto a potion in a test tube on a bench in a laboratory wherein Dr Fang and his grotesque assistant Mungo do whatever it is they do in old crackly black and white films.

So there is much tippy-tapping taking place at Haemoglobin Towers, but none of it is being posted here, or indeed anywhere. The reason for this is that I have somehow found myself having hit upon a scheme deemed to be “commercially viable”, and I am preparing a book to be brought mewling into the light by a reputable publisher next year. For that reason, too, there will not be a Hooting Yard paperback from Lulu this year, although there will be something for you to get your grubby mitts on in time for Christmas – more news of that soon.

Chaps Oozing Charm

Further archival witterings, again from long ago in 2004. This was said to come from a collection called The Vitamin B Pirate Gang & Other Maritime Doggerel by Gervase Beerpint, presumably some relation to your favourite poet and mine, Dennis Beerpint.

Chaps oozing charm wedged in a chest.
There’s no knowing who’ll come out best.
One is called Billy, head made of cork,
Shoulders cast iron, arms and legs chalk.
Mythology enwraps him like a shroud.
His voice is grating and horribly loud.
And then there is Cedric, aquatic, with fins.
He likes to muck about with a box of pins.
He has no ears but his feet are huge.
His entire head is covered in rouge.
Hummingbirds pain him, as do owls.
He’s always had trouble pronouncing vowels.
The third of our trio is Swivel-Eyed Dan.
His head is the shape of a frying pan.
He once went south, looking for bees,
But all his dreams blew away on a breeze.
You have to give credit where it’s due –
But not to Dan when he’s dribbling goo.
Three of them, then, wedged in a chest,
Each one wearing a red satin vest,
Oozing insouciance, polish, and charm.
Let us hope they come to no harm.
But the chest has been stowed in the hold of a ship
Whose captain is moody and curls his lip.
As they sail out from port, the captain growls:
“Damn the beakers! Damm the owls!
Damn the crackers! Damn the flaps!
Damn the chest of charming chaps!”
Two hours later, the ship just sank,
And all that remained was a single plank.
It floated for weeks and was then washed ashore.
I found it on the beach and used it for a door.
So when you come to my stinking hut,
Bringing some food for my stinking mutt,
Go careful by the door and remember your prayers:
“Get wedged in a chest, he who dares”.


Continuing my trawl through the Hooting Yard archives, I found this, from 2004:

Ack spun dig hod bulk frag mint. Shog nit pan get hole tap pote. Rag snout cot bag hag ack ack tix. Nod goo pin pan sap tot foo. Ack ret bit pig nip pap lop fret sip. Pipi ut snap tog tog hoo flap toggle bin pan get hat sop tin ack pan fop. Chap.

I have no idea what it might mean. Perhaps I was trying to devise my own version of Real Orghast.

A Snapshot From The History Of Athletics

Here is another potsage [sic] exhumed from the archive. It is from July 2005 and marks the very first appearance on these pages of fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol who, I am somewhat alarmed to note, I claimed was my father. What this might mean is for a quack brain doctor to unravel.

When I turn my mind to the great sprint champions of the past, I often think of Bobnit Tivol. He came from the Tyrol, and he was such a fast runner that it was said he could outrun an express train, which was a strange thing to say, for at that time there were no trains, express or otherwise, in the Tyrol. But of course Bobnit Tivol was famous throughout the world, and he often raced in foreign countries, so it is conceivable that he was tempted on one of his travels to compete against a railway train. His trainer was cranky old Halob, who himself had been a very great sprinter. Making his champion run in front of, rather than alongside, a speeding train is exactly the kind of technique Halob would have used. Once, it is said, he made Bobnit Tivol run an uphill double marathon wearing an iron vest, twice in one day.

One has only to consider the records broken by Bobnit Tivol to recognise him for the superb sprinter he was. Leafing through old athletics almanacks, his name appears again and again and again, invariably in capital letters, annotated by one, two, or even three stars, at the top of every list. They say he had to rent a warehouse to store all his cups and shields and trophies. To think that he had won all the major Tyrolean sprinting events before he was twenty years old is to gasp in wonder.

Could he have succeeded without old Halob? They made a striking pair, the whippet-like runner with his mop of golden hair and the wheezing, elderly man, who smoked four packets of Black Ague rolling tobacco every day, dressed always in his Stalinist cardigan, a stopwatch in each pocket, leaning on a stick he claimed to have broken off the Tree of Heaven.

If I shut my eyes I see them still, my father and his mentor, Bobnit Tivol and old Halob, heroic figures from a past I have had to invent anew, for none of it is true.

Sixty Unassailable Facts About Birds

Delving in the archives, for reasons related to Project Thrilling, I came upon this postage from 2008 which, my memory being the puny thing it is, I had completely forgotten. Well worth rereading.

1. A raven called Dot-son-paa created the world.

2. Startled blackbirds emit piercing cries because they think they are about to be attacked by demons.

3. Each legion of the Roman Army had a Pullarius, whose job it was to look after the cage of sacred chickens they carried with them.

4. If a dove flies over a coal mine, disaster is likely to follow.

5. The souls of unbaptised children take the form of nightjars.

6. Cuckoos in Herefordshire buy horses at a country fair, and sell them at another.

7. Beowulf was reincarnated as a woodpecker.

8. Every single corncrake in Siberia got there by riding on the back of a crane.

9. If you want to provoke someone to commit suicide, send them a picture of an owl.

10. A splinter of wood from a coffin will keep sparrows at bay.

11. If you drink boiled magpie broth you will go mad.

12. If a woman befriends a stork, it will bring her jewellery.

13. In an apotheosis, an eagle is hidden behind a blazing waxen image of a dead emperor, and released when it has melted away.

14. Epileptics can transfer their illness to a chicken by carrying it three times around a well and then spending the night with it asleep under a church altar.

15. It is a good idea to place a wooden diver atop a tall post at the corner of a grave.

16. Robins can speak Latin.

17. Jesus turned a woman into a lapwing after she baked him a cake.

18. On every beach there is a magic stone that cures blindness, but only swallows know how to find it.

19. One way to find gold is to carry with you a stone vomited up by a crane.

20. If you hear a cuckoo before eating your breakfast, ill fortune will follow, possibly to include a loss of feeling in your arms and legs.

21. Nightingales used to be one-eyed, but borrowed the eye from a blindworm and never returned it.

22. Ireland has been called “the swan abounding land”.

23. Pelicans are the most pious of birds.

24. To avoid being bitten by a rabid dog, tuck the heart and right foot of an owl under your left armpit.

25. Cranes migrate south for the sole purpose of launching savage attacks on miniature people, about seven inches high, who they gobble up.

26. You can protect your house from lightning strikes by keeping a blackbird in your living room

27. Crossbills watch over children who fall asleep in direct moonlight and may therefore otherwise come to harm.

28. If bird eggs are incubated by frogs, the birds that hatch from them, irrespective of the parent birds, will be stonechats.

29. Migrating quails are terrified of the sea, and shut their eyes when crossing it, thus often colliding with ships.

30. Nail a dead owl to your barn to protect against storms.

31. The earth was created from mud collected by white-billed divers.

32. If you eat roasted swallow, you are likely to be attacked by dragons.

33. A crossbill tried, but failed, to wrench the nails from Christ’s cross during the crucifixion.

34. You can kill gnats and flies with a handful of soil taken from where you are standing when you hear a cuckoo call.

35. If you are lucky enough to find a stone known as an alectorius in the gizzard of a chicken, you will become invisible.

36. The Virgin Mary decided to marry Joseph after she saw a dove land on his head.

37. Three Roman emperors died after owls perched on the roofs of their villas.

38. If you dissolve the eyes of a quail in water, then mix with oil and rub it onto a burning rag, you will take on the appearance of a devil on fire.

39. Eagles can look at the sun without blinking.

40. The god Asmodi appears in the form of a goose and envelops Frisian peasants in darkness while they engage in sex orgies.

41. Cuckoos turn into birds of prey around June or July.

42. Widowed doves only drink from muddy puddles after dark.

43. Barnacle geese are hatched from shells attached to waterlogged timbers tossed along the sea, and are at first like gum.

44. You will be admired by everyone you meet if you keep in your pocket the eyes of a hoopoe.

45. It is advisable to be sitting down when you see a swallow.

46. If you hear a lapwing call, you should throw a bowl of water into the air.

47. Kingfishers live on riverbanks because they are searching for Noah’s Ark.

48. Magpies have a drop of human blood on their tongues.

49. When putting on a play, avoid having any peacock feathers on stage, or disaster will strike.

50. Nightjars attack cattle with their beaks and give them a disease known as puckeridge.

51. You will not get a proper night’s sleep if you have the heart and eyes of a nightingale in your bed.

52. Pelicans are known to set fire to themselves by flapping their wings excessively near bonfires.

53. You can forecast wind direction by hanging a dead kingfisher upside down from a length of thread, and watching which way its breast faces.

54. The liver of a hoopoe, pounded to a pulp and mixed with crocus, is a surefire cure for lung disease.

55. The god Odin had two pet ravens called Hugin and Munin, who spent all day flying around the world, returning at night to perch on his shoulder and tell him what they had seen and heard.

56. If you are holding a robin when it dies, your hand will never stop shaking.

57. On Sundays, rooks sit quietly on branches and do not carry sticks in their beaks.

58. To encourage rainfall, it is a good idea to get some swallows and throw them into a pond.

59. Sometimes you should pretend that a wren is a beast of enormous size, and drag a dead one into town on a wagon drawn by four oxen.

60. There are some trees which fall into the sea and become birds.

My source for much of this information is Flights Of Fancy : Birds In Myth, Legend & Superstition by Peter Tate. Highly recommended.

A Clanking Thing

Once upon a time there was a thing that clanked. Clank clank clank, it went, clank clank clank clank clank. It kept on clanking, monotonous and tireless. The clanking had some connection with steam. Then it so happened that one day it went clank clank clunk. It clunked a second time and, after a long pause, a third time, and then it wheezed, and then it was silent and still.

A man came. He had a wrench and a hammer and other such things. He carried them in a pippy bag. The man deployed his wrench and hammer and other such things, clambering up on the thing that used to clank and burrowing beneath it too. Every now and then he would step back to gaze at it from a distance and at these times he would furrow his brow and rub his chin with his hand.

Then it began to rain, oh a proper old downpour, almost Biblical. The man hauled a tarpaulin over the thing that once had clanked but now clanked no more. He trudged off to a hut to smoke his pipe.

It was while he was smoking his pipe that he heard news on the transistor radio in the hut. The announcer in a plummy voice said there was an uprising of peasants. The peasants were in a flap about several matters, one such matter being the clanking thing. Its clanking disturbed the birds and the birds shunned the area around the thing, yea even unto a radius of two miles. The uprising peasants did not explain why they were in such a flap about the absence of birds.

The man smoking his pipe in the hut realised that the clanking thing must have been sabotaged by the peasants. It struck him that if he fixed it, with his wrench and hammer and other such things, as he had been trying to do when the rain began to fall, that the peasants would be in an even greater flap and they would likely hunt him down and beat him to death with their shovels. So when the rain stopped, at last, he popped his wrench and hammer and other such things into his pippy bag and he trudged away, back to his chalet on a mountainside somewhere far away.

But before he left he turned to take a last look at the clanking thing, now silent and still and covered by a tarpaulin. And he saw that five or six birds had already come to perch upon it. And as he walked away, more and more birds arrived, swooping down to perch on the tarpaulin, until there were thousands of them, in serried ranks, terrible as an army with banners.