The Greek philosopher Theophrastus (c.371 – c.287 BC) was a man with a wide range of interests. He wrote “Three Books of the Gods; one of Enthusiasm; an Epitome of Natural Things; A tract against Naturallists; one Book of Nature; three more of Nature; two Abridgments of natural things; eighteen more of Natural things; seventeen of various Opinions concerning Natural things; one of Natural Problems; three of Motions; two more of Motion; three of Water; one of a River in Sicily; two of Meteors; two of Fire; one of Heaven; one of Nitre and Alum; two of things that putrifie; one of Stones; one of Metals; one of things that melt and coagulate; one of the Sea; one of Winds; two of things in dry places; two of Sublime things; one of Hot and Cold; one of Generation; ten of the History of Plants; eight of the causes of them; five of Humours; one of Melancholy; one of Honey; eighteen first Propositions concerning Wine; one of Drunkenness; one of Spirits; one of Hair; another of Juices, Flesh and Leather; one of things the sight of which is unexpected; one of things which are subject to wounds and bitings; seven of Animals, and another six of Animals; one of Man; one of Animals that are thought to participate of Reason; One of the Prudence and Manners, or Inclinations of Animals; one of Animals that dig themselves Holes and Dens; one of fortuitous Animals; 1182 Verses comprehending all sorts of Fruits and Animals; A question concerning the Soul; one of Sleeping and Waking; one of Labours; one of old Age; one of Thoughts; four of the Sight; one of things that change their Colour; one of Tears entituled Callisthenes; two of hearing; one of the Diversity of Voices of Animals of the same sort; one of Odours; two of Torment; one of Folly; one of the Palsie; one of the Epilepsie; one of the vertigo, and dazling of the Sight; one of the fainting of the Heart; one of Suffocation; one of Sweat; one of the Pestilence”.

A Hefty Catalogue

When I have finished writing my book of Brief, Brief Lives, I am going to embark on a long-cherished project. This is Mr Key’s Catalogue Of Everything In The Known Universe, Arranged According To An Abstruse Taxonomic System Partly, But Not Wholly, Related To The Standard Alphabet, Together With Fantastic And Occasionally Hysterical Supplementary Passages Of Piercingly Acute Flimflam, And Several Diagrams With Pointy Arrows, Wavy Lines, And Unseemly Smudges, The Whole Printed In Tiny Type And With A Magnifying Glass Included For Ease Of Perusal.

Though I have not yet written a word of the text, I have made several smudges, with soot on blotting paper, and while doing so have given much – well, no, not much – thought to the abstruse taxonomic system. At the moment I am minded to begin the book with geese, fireworks, and the Tet Offensive, though that may change as I delve deeper into everything in the known universe.

Prospective publishers are not beating a path to my door. I suspect they are intimidated, not so much by the sheer bulk of the book – it will be hefty!, hefty! – but by the fact that nobody is ever going to need to read anything else, ever, and book sales will slump accordingly.

But first I must crack on with the Lives...

Lobster News

Nappa Gisburn brought to my attention a television programme entitled Lobstermen : Jeopardy At Sea, screened on something called the Quest Channel. I did not see it, but then, as Mr Gisburn himself noted, it was probably less exciting than its title promised.

It served to remind me, however, that some years ago I encouraged readers to join the Adopt A Lobster scheme. Some of you in fact did so, and have the certificates to prove it. What I find both worrying and perplexing is that nobody seems ever to have received any news of their lobster. Much as I would like to think that Babinsky and Bobnit Tivol and Tiny Enid are scuttling happily across the ocean floor, snapping their claws at minnows, I just don’t know, and it’s the not knowing that leads me to lie awake at night, thrashing around on my pallet, biting my pillow, and generally making a sorry spectacle of myself.

Readers will recall that I undertook a special study of lobsters and consider myself, if not an expert, than certainly as someone qualified to embark on a worldwide lecture tour, all expenses paid. Should you, or anybody you know, wish to invite me to some far-flung yet luxurious corner of the globe, and to put me up in an exquisite hotel for a week, I will be happy to deliver a five- or ten-minute unillustrated lecture on lobsters while waving my arms about in a foolish, hysterical manner.

Father Hopkins

Those of you who hold Gerard Manley Hopkins in awe – which I assume is every last one of you – should turn today to The Dabbler, where my sister Rita Byrne Tull explains how the great Victorian Jesuit priest was instrumental in setting the course of her life.


This sketch of Father Hopkins was drawn by my son Edwood Burn. A finished version of it will appear in Mr Key’s Shorter Potted Brief, Brief Lives, alongside a score of other portraits.

The Ornithologist And His Helpmeet

“Hand me that chaffinch,” said the ornithologist to his helpmeet.

Now it so happened that the helpmeet was a dimwit who could not tell one bird from another. They all had beaks and feathers, so far as he was aware, but beyond that he wallowed in a seething maelstrom of bird-ignorance. How then, we might wonder, did he get the plum job of ornithologist’s helpmeet? And be assured it was a plum job indeed, as both plums and jobs go. It had been advertised as such, in the “Plums” section of the Daily Ornithological Helpmeets’ Situations Vacant listings magazine, price fourpence, available from several tobacconists’ kiosks in Pointy Town and environs.

On the night before he saw the advertisement, the dimwit slept in the open air, under a viaduct. This was not because he had no home to go to, for a home he had, and what a home!, a manse, with serried belvederes, and too many servants to count. But the dimwit, the day before, had foolishly gone a-wandering, and become hopelessly lost. This was what usually happened when he strayed from the grounds of the manse. Not only was he ignorant of birds, but he had absolutely no sense of direction. His Papa had tried to teach him to orient his position on our spinning globe by studying the sun in the day and the stars in the night, but such matters were not within his grasp. He had difficulty craning his neck at the correct angle so that his head, and eyes, were pointing at the sky. This was not on account of any malformation of his neck. It was more a case of absent-mindedness. He would begin to adjust his head to the correct angle and then be distracted by, say, the ground-level sight of a heron eating a mole, and forget what he was doing. He could not, of course, have identified the heron as a heron – nor the mole as a mole, he was such a dimwit! – but he would be transfixed by the spectacle, and gape, tongue lolling from his mouth, drool dribbling down his chin, until one of the servants was dispatched to come and collect him, tie him to the end of a tethering rope, and pull him gently back into the manse, where Papa, despairing, stood hunched between a globe and an orrery, spinning them turn and turn about, his eyes wet with tears.

Waking under the viaduct at dawn that day, the dimwit dithered and dawdled and found himself, some hours later, at a tobacconist’s kiosk hard by Sawdust Bridge. Anent the kiosk, in a puddle, sat a pile of unsold copies of the previous day’s edition of the Daily Ornithological Helpmeets’ Situations Vacant, tied up with string. What prompted the dimwit to undo the bundle and take a copy of the magazine and repair to a verdant arbour where courting couples had long ago scratched their initials and cackhanded hearts entwined on the now rotting wood of the ruined bench and sat upon the bench and leafed through the puddle-wet magazine and read and read again and read a third time the advertisement for a plum job as helpmeet to tiptop ornithologist Bruno La Poubelle we shall never know. What we do know is that, as chance would have it – or was it written in the stars? – Bruno La Poubelle himself came clattering into the arbour for a shifty fag break.

Clattering, because he was wearing his scarecrow suit, hung with myriad scraps of tin. Shifty, because his ornithological research station hut had been declared a No Smoking Zone by ornithologists even more tiptop than he.

The ornithologist and the dimwit fell into conversation on the shattered bench. At this date we cannot piece together what they spoke of, but far far away the Gulf of Tonkin Incident had recently occurred, so it may be that it acted as an ice-breaker. However it was, Bruno La Poubelle was persuaded, within fifteen minutes, that the dimwit would make a splendid and devoted helpmeet. He tied a tethering rope to his new employee and pulled him gently back to the hut.

After a cup of tea and a guided tour of the hut and another shifty fag break, the ornithologist uttered the fateful words.

“Hand me that chaffinch,” he said, only to be met with a look of staggeringly fathomless incomprehension. Shortly afterwards, one of the servants from the manse appeared, having tracked down the dimwit with bloodhounds. He found Bruno La Poubelle slumped in his chair with his head in his hands, and the dimwit standing beside him, clutching a marsh warbler.

Sinbad Hoonjaw

Sinbad Hoonjaw ran amok. He fried some bean sprouts in a wok. And then he stuffed them in a sock, for he is quite the nutter.

Sinbad Hoonjaw went astray. He lay down on a bale of hay. He ate a bowl of Special K, then threw up in the gutter.

Oh dearest Sinbad, take this clump, a clump of posies for your sprains, I plucked it at the council dump, oh dear dear Sinbad rattle your chains.

The finest fellow that ever there was, I sing for Sinbad today because Sinbad Hoonjaw’s eyes are blue, and the number of eyes is thirty-two.

Thirty-two eyes? Can that be so? And twenty feet from top to toe? A giant Sinbad with too many eyes? Or is it just a clever disguise?

Is he a dwarf in a paper suit? Does anybody give a hoot? You say he’s twee, you say he’s cute. For he is Sinbad Hoonjaw.

But I have news you’ll hate to hear. He is about to disappear. Oh do not sob a salty tear. Weep not for Sinbad Hoonjaw.

He was only ever a clutch of syllables, jaw and bad and hoon and sin.
Now spit them out and into the bin.
The dustbin of words, where you forage for meaning,
Like George Formby, while window-cleaning.
You’re up so high where the air is thin
Now spit the words out into the bin.

The Devil : An Update

The devil came from Kansas. So we were informed by Procol Harum in one of their songs (Brooker, Reid 1969), but I do not think that can be right. I have had several lengthy discussions with the devil, late at night, at a Johnsonian crossroads on a blasted heath, and his accent is not that of a Kansas native. Now it may be, of course, that the devil is trying to pull a fast one on me, and that his wiles include disguising his voice. But my ears are uncannily acute. I studied at the Von Straubenzee Institute Of Fantastic Ears, high in the Alps, and spent many an hour perched on the balcony, listening, listening. So if the devil was mimicking an accent not his own, I think I would hear the imposture. No, I think it is safe to say he does not come from Kansas.

But where, then, is the devil from? My candidate would be somewhere in the vicinity of Prunedale. Prunedale, for those of you who don’t know, is a godforsaken little sprawl in California, more a transit intersection than anything else, though it does boast two shopping malls – the Prunedale, the Prunetree – a Senior Citizens’ Centre, and a post office. Historically, it is the site of a failed nineteenth century plum orchard. Who knows but that the plum trees failed due to the malign influence of the devil himself?, this being his home town, as I have ascertained after many, many minutes of painstaking research. It is not merely his accent that gives the game away. The devil, we know, has all the best prunes.


NOTA BENE : I may have to revise this piece. The Church of England has recently announced that climate change is “The Great Demon”. This is startling talk from the usually woolly-brained Anglican hierarchy, and I hope it heralds a return to proper Victorian hellfire-and-brimstone anathemas from the pulpit.

Exciting Book News

You lot are already aware, I think, that Mr Key is a jolly, fun-crazed fellow, ever prepared to sprinkle a little happiness into your godawful lives. Indeed, I am often mistaken for Santa Claus, or at least a rakishly thin version of him dressed in drab rather than red, without a bulging sack of gift-wrapped treats for well-behaved tinies, and unaccompanied by reindeer. But those caveats aside, it can be hard to tell the difference, so lavishly do I spread joy and hysteria where’er I trudge.

So it should come as no surprise that already, in mid-February, I have solved all your Christmas present purchasing worries for 2014. For on 6 November this year, the splendid publishing house of Constable will unleash upon a panting world Mr Key’s Shorter Potted Brief, Brief Lives. You can already go and pre-order your copy.


Now I had better finish writing the damned thing.

Comical Dabbling

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Today the Guardian yet again employs the preposterous Russell Brand as a commentator. This time his overwritten wittering is about the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, which gives the “alleged comedian” (© Peter Hitchens) another opportunity to tell us that he is a recovering addict. Well, who knew? He may indeed be recovering from drink and drugs, but I think it’s time he sought help for his pitiable addiction to babbling on and on about himself. Several decades in a Trappist monastery would be ideal.

Which brings us to the more important topic of Mr Key, or rather to his cupboard in The Dabbler, which today contains a piece about the role played by comedians in the governance of Britain. Warning: I am afraid Brand is mentioned there again – I really must get a grip! – though only in passing, and you lot will be able to sluice him out of your brains by contemplating, instead, such stars of yesteryear as Wilson, Keppel, and Betty.


Bible Bashing

I am a Bible-basher. I bash my Bible. Usually, I bash it with my fists, bare-knuckled. Sometimes I wear boxing gloves. Occasionally I will give it a few hefty thumps with a rubber sap weighted with lead, more commonly deployed down dark alleyways by miscreants wearing trenchcoats in films noir. Or, if I am having one of my fits of hysteria, I will bash my Bible with whatever comes to hand, such as a plank of wood, a hammer, or a police truncheon. I am retired from the force now, but I still have a few truncheons lying around the flat here and there.

It happens from time to time that the din I create when bashing my Bible disturbs my downstairs neighbours. I am not sure if the ground floor flat is some kind of suburban seminary, but it is riddled with priests. Every so often one of them will come upstairs and reproach me. They let themselves in, being in possession of a set of keys to both my flat and my soul. It pains me that they think there is something sacrilegious in my bashing.

Letting fall my truncheon, or taking off my boxing gloves, or one of the other alternatives, as it may be, I try to explain to the priest what I am about. This bashing, I say, is done in a spirit of piety and devotion to Our Lady of the Crumpled Vestments. Invariably, no matter which of the priests has come up, there follows a theological debate so abstruse and hermetic and pernickety that you would not have a clue what I was talking about if I tried to summarise it in words of one syllable.

What I find most mysterious is that these debates are repeated every few days, with one or another of the downstairs priests, whenever I get a bit carried away bashing my Bible and make my floor, their ceiling, shake. Do they not talk to each other, down in their ground floor flat full of crucifixes and prayer books and censers? Do they never compare notes regarding the pious retired police officer upstairs whose devotion to Our Lady of the Crumpled Vestments is, at times, as I freely admit, maniacal? Do they not run through the theological debates and try to work out, among themselves, a method of defeating my compelling if abstruse logic? It seems they do not.

Things go a little differently with my upstairs neighbour, a voodoo worshipper whose terrifying devotions make an even greater racket than my bashing. But I do not reproach her. In fact, I have even offered to do her ironing for her. I am keen for her to take up my offer, one day, for then I will iron her voodoo robes and gowns in such a way as to reproduce precisely the creases and crumplings of Our Lady of the Crumpled Vestments’ vestments. And one more soul may be saved for Christ.