Monthly Archive for April, 2014

AS

There was a story in the paper the other day about a new breakthrough in the development of AI, or Artificial Intelligence. My own view is that if boffins want to create a machine that convincingly apes a human being, they ought to concentrate on AS, or Artificial Stupidity.

I can imagine a big lumbering clanking robot which, when hidden behind a screen, would engage in a “conversation” which experts would be hard put to tell from the barbaric grunting of the average person in the street – at least the streets around where I live.

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The Home Life Of The Grahames

The marital life of the Grahames became uncosier by the year. “Elspeth seldom got up before eleven, often went to bed in her clothes … Much of the time she spent on her divan, sipping hot water. She ate practically nothing and mouse-nests proliferated in the larder ; she put Kenneth into special underwear which was only changed once a year. It is perhaps not surprising that he took a long solitary walk every day.”

John Sutherland, The Lives Of The Novelists (Profile Books, 2011), quoting from (I think) a 1959 biography of Kenneth Grahame by Peter Green.

Duke

Sentences that leave you wanting to know more:

Later this duke shot himself while searching for cormorants.

One of the Dukes of Bedford, mentioned in a review of Requisitioned : The British Country House in the Second World War by John Martin Robinson.

Dunkin’!

It is rare for me to feel imbued with the entrepreneurial spirit, but that is what happened this morning. I had a bright idea and envisioned myself as the onlie begetter of a vast multinational chain of snackbar franchises. All I need do now is draw up a business plan and make an appointment to see a friendly bank manager, who will be awed by my business nous and give me a start-up loan.

For some reason I was mulling over the success of Dunkin’ Donuts – a success to which I have not myself contributed, never having entered one of these establishments. It suddenly occurred to me that a more civilised, more seemly version would be Dunkin’ Rich Tea Biscuits. Customers would enter, sit down, and order a cup of tea and one, or perhaps two, of these plain and virtually flavourless biscuits. Who could resist?

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In Mufti On Houndsditch

In mufti on Houndsditch my foe lay in wait. Foes are often described as implacable, but I could not say that about my foe. In spite of our vendetta persisting through several generations, my foe for the most part let me be. He did not dog my every footstep, brandishing a stiletto and waiting the opportunity to eviscerate me. Years might go by without my catching even a whiff of his existence. Yet I knew he was somewhere out there, that our enmity was scorching to the soul, and that one day he would strike. So I was prepared.

I did not carry a stiletto myself. I took the precaution of wearing much padding under my outward apparel, so were my foe to stab at me with his stiletto, in broad daylight, on Houndsditch, with a cry of vengeance, the blade would meet not flesh but soft cushioning material, straw and hay and impacted wool all blended together. Though I am thin, even rakishly thin, the padding gave me the appearance of a proper fatso, and I waddled and galumphed along the streets.

One such street was Houndsditch, where I had an appointment to meet a man about a dog. I was under the impression it was a whippet, so I was none too pleased to learn it was another type of dog entirely. I berated the dog person, using intemperate language. As I flailed my arms, he revealed himself as my foe, in mufti, and took from his pocket his stiletto. With a cry of vengeance, he stabbed at me, twice, thrice, but of course I came to no harm, by dint of my padding. I gave him a clean decent sock on the jaw, and he crumpled upon the paving.

I unbuttoned my coat, and my shirt, and I deposited the padding, the straw and hay and impacted wool, upon my foe. I hoped it might suffocate him., in Houndsditch. And I sashayed off, thin and sprightly, to a snackbar for a snack. Before I reached the snackbar, however, the heavens opened, rain fell in sudden torrents, there were several booming thunderclaps, and I was struck by lightning.

As I lay sprawled, my bouffant frazzled and sticking out in all sorts of directions, the dog, which had followed me, a tiny white petulant Japanese dog, yapped in my face. There was no mistaking the meaning of that yap, I swore vengeance upon my foe.

The Sweat Of The Peasant

I have just read The Wilder Shores Of Marx by Anthony Daniels, a 1991 book subtitled Journeys In A Vanishing World. Daniels – better-known by the pseudonym he has latterly adopted, Theodore Dalrymple – sensing in 1989 that communism was on the verge of collapse, and “long fascinated by the passing of ways of life”, travelled to five countries “whose leaders refused to read the writing on the wall” – Albania, North Korea, Rumania, Vietnam, and Cuba. (The Ceausescu regime fell about a week after his visit.)

It’s a splendid book, as one would expect from a man who keeps alive that curious tradition of medical doctors who are also accomplished writers. I was particularly pleased to learn that the Albanian town of Fier had a twice-weekly newspaper entitled The Sweat Of The Peasant.

Of necessity, Daniels had to travel as part of an organised group, and he is very good on the type of wide-eyed western lefties who were the majority on such trips:

I cast my eye over my companions of the next twelve days. I had hoped for a rich crop of eccentrics among them, such as I had encountered at the annual general meeting of the Anglo-Albanian Society in London a month previously. The secretary of the society was a retired optician from Ilford who had discovered the Balkan paradise late in life and learned its language; the rank and file of the society seemed either elderly revolutionaries of the upper classes, who knew the key to world history yet somehow had never learnt how to do up their shirt buttons properly, or lonely, embittered proletarian autodidacts, who dreamed of vengeance upon the world and called it love of humanity.

While in Albania he visited the Enver Hoxha Museum in the Boulevard of Martyrs in Tirana. There is a display of the condolences received from all over the world following Hoxha’s death, and one of them is from our old pal Hardial Bains, First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist) of Canada and the man who wrote song-lyrics for Cornelius Cardew:

The path which has been proven to be invincible by the life and work of Comrade Enver Hoxha, who led his party and people in their most militant and uncompromising struggle against imperialism, social imperialism, the bourgeoisie and all reaction and revisionism and opportunism of all hues in their service and who has left an indelible mark on history.

Cardew devotees will note that Bains used some of the exact same wording in the song There Is Only One Lie, There Is Only One Truth. It says something for the genius of Cardew – who may or may not have been able to do up his shirt buttons properly – that his setting of such twaddle is both moving and beautiful.

Nothing

You will have noticed a distinct lack of gung ho Hooting Yard activity of late. This is due to the usual reasons, viz. a vacant space between Mr Key’s ears where normally are forged the great iron girders of prose. This vacancy itself has been occasioned, I think, by a hare-brained intention to rearrange all the books on the bookshelves. The prospect of doing so has stunned me. I ought to point out that I have no pressing need to reshelve, and I may still abandon the idea. But just the other day, gazing at the teeming rows of books, I thought how pleasant it would be to see them all in a different order. What stops me from immediately getting on with it is a sense of not being entirely sure how I wish to rearrange. There are, after all, so many different schemes one can apply, and I am ludicrously unsure about which to proceed with. So instead of reshelving, I gaze, and think, and make a cup of tea, and smoke a fag, and stare out of the window, and generally faff about to no good purpose.

At least Huw Halfbacon raked the gravel. That was a proper use of time on earth.

Mad As A Badger

Having ploughed his way through The Literary Churchill : Author, Reader, Actor by Jonathan Rose, Sam Leith in The Spectator comes to the conclusion:

You come away, finally … with the reconfirmed notion that Churchill was as mad as a badger. And that, bizarre but true, posterity should be grateful that he was.

Posnerising A Stoneite

I bought a new washing machine yesterday. The workman who plumbed it in engaged me in a vigorous discussion about the Kennedy assassination. His sole source of information seemed to be the preposterous Oliver Stone film. I brandished a copy of Case Closed by Gerald Posner at him and tried to convince him that all the conspiracy theories are twaddle. I do not think I succeeded. He did a splendid and efficient job, and I gave him a tip. I ought to have given him the Posner paperback.

The Cow

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Chapter Seven of Mr Key’s Bumper Book Of Birds, a work in progress.

The cow is a type of bird. It is also known as the misprint bird, because by rights there should be an r between the c and the o to make crow, an indubitable bird. What has happened is that certain slapdash ornithological writers, who skimp on proofreading, have given cow where they mean crow. The error is more common in written than in verbal ornithology. In the latter, the varying pronunciations of the letter o tend to alert even the most misty-brained bird expert to the difference.

In cow, the o is pronounced as in ow!, the exclamation you make when, for example, a crow alights on your head and pecks at your scalp with its sharp fearsome beak in order to gobble up the various little beetles and creepy-crawlies and breadcrumbs scattered in your bouffant because you have not bothered to wash your hair for several weeks.

In crow, on the other hand, the o is pronounced as in the surname of Sebastian Coe, the high speed Olympic champion better known for his wrestling bouts with William Hague MP in the gymnasium of the Houses of Parliament. Interestingly, if we substitute the wrestler’s initial C for a K, thus Koe, we arrive at the Flemish word for cow. In that case, however, it is well to bear in mind that the o in the Flemish koe is pronounced like the o in coo, which is the sound made by doves and pigeons and various other birds.

You can see how this all hangs together.

Only a nitwit would think a cow was actually a bird, as opposed to being a misprint bird. Cows have neither beaks nor feathers nor wings nor talons. Nor are they capable of flight. It is true that there is a nursery rhyme in which a cow jumps over the moon, and that high leaping can in some circumstances be mistaken for flying. It is possible that the rhyme was originally transcribed by a slapdash ornithologist who skimped on proofreading, and what was meant was “the crow flew over the moon”. Visually, you might see a crow flying “over” the moon depending on your angle of view, from your position in a muddy field on earth in relation to both the cow – oops!, the crow – and the moon. Though it is not often one sees a crow flying around the sky at night, a time when most crows are fast asleep in their nests. Cows, on the other hand, do not make nests. They sleep in byres.

American Vicarage

In his scholarly introduction to By Aerostat To Hooting Yard, Roland Clare writes: “The Bad Vicarage is a very funny piece that epitomises not only the moral instability of Hooting Yard but also Key’s desire to puncture the very illusion of reality that naturalistic authors are at pains to sustain. Even if the rest of the story were sensible – rest assured, it is not – there is no easy way we can come to terms with the unreliability of a narrator who first wonders what has become of the ‘Bad Vicar’, then reveals himself to be the incumbent in question.”

The estimable Walt O’Hara of Airy Persiflage says: “Not for the faint of heart, Mr. Key’s spine tingling tale of a monstrous vicar of old and the evil that he wrought!” You can enjoy the pleasurably disconcerting experience of listening to the tale read by Mr O’Hara here.

Syllable By Syllable

In 1653, the dying Backhouse had whispered to Ashmole, syllable by syllable, the true and innermost secret of the Philosopher’s Stone ; this would have been a more impressive event, if Backhouse had not come to life again for nine more years, and if Ashmole had not meanwhile forgotten the formula.

Edmund Gosse, English Men Of Letters : Sir Thomas Browne (Macmillan 1905)

Browne’s Badger

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One of the “vulgar errors” addressed by Sir Thomas Browne in his Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646) was the belief that the legs of the badger are longer on the right side than on the left. This was generally accepted, and stated in many early books of natural history with considerable authority. Browne argued that the theory was completely absurd, deprecating Albertus Magnus, calling Aldrovandi in his support, and noting that Aristotle had said an odd leg was repugnant to the course of nature. He considered the cases of spiders, frogs, and lobsters in making the case for badgers having legs of equal length.

Edmund Gosse was a great admirer of Browne and wrote a monograph on him for Macmillan’s English Men of Letters series in 1905. Browne on badgers provoked Gosse to a rare fit of exasperation:

Meanwhile, we cannot help asking ourselves why the learned sceptic did not immediately get hold of a real badger, and measure his legs. He says that “upon indifferent inquiry, I cannot discover this difference” in the length of them ; but why did he not make sure for himself? It is true that badgers are extremely shy and mysterious in their movements, and that, no doubt, it was not every sportsman in the neighbourhood of Norwich who could boast of having dug one out of its earth. It is perhaps to ask too much for us to wish that, in the zeal of his zoology, Thomas Browne himself, with a sack and a pair of badger-tongs, and accompanied by some trusty yokels and a cross-bred bull terrier used to the business, should have worried the bowels of earth in some copse on a starlight night, and have procured a badger for himself. But, surely, an observer so curious might have bargained with some farmer who lived out Catton way, or close to a snug rabbit-warren under Earlham, for a specimen of so common an animal, He comes to the correct conclusion, that the monstrosity is ill-contrived, “the shortness being affixed unto the legs of one side, which might have been more tolerably placed upon the thwart or diagonal movers”. Quite so ; but how briefly the question might have been settled once for all with a tape measure on the dead body of a badger.

The Roc

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Chapter Six of Mr Key’s Book Of Birds, a work in progress.

The roc is a type of bird. Actually, it is a fabulous bird, meaning it does not actually exist. So it is not entirely true to say it is a type of bird. We might say instead that the roc is a type of bird imagined in the heads of persons long ago. Or possibly just one person, whose phantasm was adopted by others, yea down the generations unto our own days.

“Fabulous” is the root of the slang word “fab”, popular in the 1960s, and surely overdue for a revival. The pop group The Beatles were commonly known as the Fab Four, but that is not to suggest that, like the roc, they did not actually exist. Or is it? Could the loveable moptops be nothing more than a hallucination shared by millions? Could The Beatles be a stupendously complex work concocted by the avant garde Japanese conceptual artist Yoko Ono (b. 1933)?

I am not going to argue the case, or provide evidence for my theory, in part because it is, to use Ambrose Bierce’s favourite word, bosh. But it is something well worth thinking about, next time you find yourself at a loose end, as for example when a few days go by without any new postages at Hooting Yard. I know only too well that in those lamentable circumstances my readers are reduced to quivering jellies, sobbing their hearts out and biting great chunks out of their hearth-rugs, if they have hearth-rugs to bite chunks out of, or indeed hearths, for a hearth is present only where there is a fireplace and with the advent of central heating many homes are designed and built now without fireplaces. As George Harrison (1943 – 2001) once asked, “isn’t it a pity?”.

Harrison was a member of the Beatles – either real or imagined by Ono – but he asked his question in a song composed and recorded after the group’s demise. Whether he ever existed or not, what we can say with certainty about Harrison is that he was fab. He was as fab as a roc.

Which brings us back to the subject of our enquiry, the fabulous bird. What can be said, usefully, about a non-existent bird? Not much, really. I mean, what on earth is the point of babbling on about something that does not exist, and never has existed, except as an idea inside people’s heads? One cannot even say of the roc, as one can say of so many other types of birds, oh! so many, that it has a beak and feathers. Its beak and its feathers are as imaginary as the roc itself. It is merely a spectral thing. Upon close examination, it disappears from view. Like the Snark, it softly and suddenly vanishes away.

There is possibly a scholarly essay to be written on whether the roc, like the Snark, was in fact a Boojum all along. We might ask the same question about George Harrison and the other three Beatles. Having allowed that they were indubitably fab, but possibly fabulous, we might consider whether any or all of them were Boojums. Some have identified their manager Brian Epstein (1934 – 1967) as the Boojum, indeed as the Boojum of Boojums.

Again, I am not going to give chapter and verse, for the simple reason that my reference source is as fabulous as the roc. I just made up that Epstein – Boojum comparison, because I could. But now I have made it, and posted it on Het Internet, it has become an idea, a concept, not unlike an Ono concept. Anybody typing “Epstein – Boojum Comparison” into a search engine will find it, and read it, and thus it may spread, like wildfire, through the heads of millions, just as Ono’s Beatles did, just as, over longer centuries, the roc did, or the idea of the roc, that fabulous bird which never really existed at all.

So What?

Roger Lewis, in his Spectator review of a new biography of Charlie Chaplin by Peter Ackroyd, notes:

Chaplin died on Christmas Day 1977. Ackroyd doesn’t mention this, but the comedian’s coffin was stolen by grave robbers, who phoned Paulette Goddard, one of his wives and the co-star of The Gold Rush, hoping they could make a ransom demand. “We’ve got Chaplin,” they announced. “So what?” she said, slamming down the phone.