I have had a fabtastic idea for a TV show. It’s called Wankers On Hovercrafts. Each episode would follow a channel crossing, there and back, by a group of objectionable people aboard an outmoded form of sea transport. The idea ticks all the boxes – well, three of them – and would be relatively cheap to produce. I shall set up a meeting with a BBC commissioning editor at the first opportunity, and I have every confidence that it will get the go-ahead. I mean, it’s the perfect TV show, surely? When you see me collecting my gong at a future awards ceremony, remember where you first read those magic words – Wankers On Hovercrafts!
Let us consider the Man at C&A, where C and A are points on a plane equidistant from central point B. We might ask, reasonably, why C precedes A in this hypothetical space, when it is more usual, much more usual, for A to precede C, but quite frankly this is the least of our worries. Far more problematic is the idea that the Man is at C and A simultaneously. Greater minds than mine have, over the centuries, devised the natural laws by which everything in the known universe is bound, and I would not be exaggerating if I said that these laws simply will not tolerate a man being in two places at once.
We can immediately dispose of the somewhat desperate solution that the Man at point A is a doppelgänger, one who appears identical in every respect to the “original” man at point C, but is not him. To show how facetious this idea is, we need only remark that we are dealing with the Man at C&A, not the Men, and it is the plural Men we would be speaking of if we had the Man at C and another Man at A, no matter how uncannily the latter resembled the former, even down to the precise number of hairs on the head or the disposition of pockmarks on the grisly countenance.
So we must be clear that when we speak of the Man at C&A, we speak of the same Man, absolutely identical in all particulars, at both point C and point A which, if you are paying attention, you will remember are equidistant from point B. Point B, by the way. is unoccupied, by either Man or Woman or Beast of the Field. We posit its existence the better to comprehend the space between C and A, and also because, in its absence, there would be no reason I can think of why we should not call point C point B. But as I say, there are greater minds than mine, and perhaps one of them could devise a compelling reason why B should be ejected from the hypothesis entirely. Until such reasoning is applied, however, we will continue to insert an unoccupied point B between, and equidistant from, the two points at C and A which, as we have seen, are occupied by the Man.
Gosh, this is fun.
We might stumble towards a comprehensive explanation of the Man being at C and A if we introduce the element of Time. Let us imagine we are wearing a cheap wristwatch, and keeping one eye upon it as we consider the Man at C&A. The whole damn thing makes sense if we are able to say that the Man is at C at, say, 10.30 AM, and at A at 2.30 PM. We might want to ask how on earth it takes him four hours to make the simple journey from C to A, passing through B to pick up a sausage roll for sustenance, but we can perhaps account for that by giving him a pair of crutches upon which he must lug himself along, his legs being withered. Such infirmity would fit neatly with the grisly countenance above noted.
The obvious objection to this ostensibly happy solution is that we are thus dealing not with the Man at C&A but with the Man at C then A. We must, then, regrettably, remove the cheap wristwatch and chuck it into a ditch and scratch our head in bewilderment. Think! Think! Aha! A faint glimmer slowly resolves itself into the near certainty a solution can be found if we imagine point C and point A as so close together, almost abutting one another, with only tiny little point B between them, that the Man is straddling them, one foot planted firmly at C and the other at A. He is indubitably the Man at C&A!
But on second thoughts we must knock this proposition down, violently. It has already been shown that the man’s legs are withered and he must rely upon crutches. It is beyond the bounds of sense that such a cripple could stand, steady and upright and resolute, with either foot planted firmly anywhere at all. The best he could do would be to lock the base of one crutch in position at point C and the other at point A, and balance himself, swinging between them. But it can be proved, using geometry or one of the allied disciplines devised by better minds than my own, that he would of necessity be swinging in the air just above point B, the tiny point, you recall, we have jammed between point C and point A for cogent reasons not to be gainsaid. He is therefore the Man at B, or, at best, the Man at B whose crutches are planted at C&A. Even a halfwit, I think, would have to concede that such a fellow is a very different beast to a bona fide Man at C&A.
Increasingly befuddled, we may have to return, reluctantly, to the less than satisfactory doppelgänger theory or, even more reluctantly, suspend the laws of physics. But wait! Could it be that the answer is staring us in the face, or rather glancing at us slantwise, at an unexpected angle? Could it all be a bit of stage trickery mustered up by a conjurer, employing a mirror, perhaps, placed at point B? If we could identify an encrutched variety theatre magician of grisly countenance, we would surely be home and dry. And immediately one springs to mind. Who will ever forget the crippled crutch-bound maestro The Amazing Blinko And His Lovely Assistant Janet? Surely it is The Amazing Blinko who, with the aid of a mirror, or more likely mirrors plural, is the Man who appears to be at both C and A at one and the same time!
We can now go and take a nap, having solved the conundrum. Alas, our nap is troubled by uneasy dreams, and we wake in a cold sweat, an unanswerable question clanging in our head – by what feat of legerdemain did The Amazing Blinko make His Lovely Assistant Janet softly and suddenly vanish away from C&A?
In The Dabbler this week I have a good moan about a couple of current exasperations, the phrase “our NHS” and the word “mum”. The piece ought to have been far more vituperative and indeed unsuitable for family reading, but the editor chose to illustrate it with a photograph of that lovely cuddly character John Lydon, so I suppose it’s fortuitous that I toned down my invective.
Speaking of fishmongers, as we were (sort of) yesterday, this piece first appeared in 2008. It was prompted by Rayner Heppenstall’s observation that in one of his poems, “Mr [T. S.] Eliot so oddly bids us to pray for fishmongers”.
“Oh Lord, through Thy infinite grace, shower my counter with bream and plaice” is the opening couplet of the Fishmongers’ Prayer. This has the distinction of being the longest prayer in the English language, which is why you will rarely hear it recited in full. Its length is due to the fact that, within the rolling cadences of its many, many verses, all known types of fish, both edible and inedible, are mentioned at least once. It was the work of a piscatorial monomaniac named Egbert Bock. He was not himself a practising fishmonger, nor indeed did he live in or even near a fishing port. He was a squat, scruffy little man whose ears were perplexingly shaped, inasmuch as they looked as if they had been stuck to his head upside down. His obsession with fish is thought to have been caused by a traumatic childhood incident involving several flounders. Nine times out of ten such happenstance will lead to a phobia, but in Bock’s case it had precisely the opposite effect. Interestingly, when experiments were made upon his brain after his death, it was discovered that the areas devoted to fish and the mongering of fish were terrifically shrivelled. Some seaside vicars still include an abridged version of the Fishmongers’ Prayer in their services. But not many.
I had always yearned to walk in the shoes of the fisherman. First I had to persuade the fisherman to give me his shoes, or at least to lend them to me. But he was a surly and cantankerous fellow, as fishermen often are, especially when trafficking with landlubbers, and I certainly lubbed the land. In fact, it was precisely my lubbing of the land that made me long to walk in the shoes of the fisherman. I reasoned – acutely, I think – that wearing a fisherman’s shoes while walking about peering at birds, I could broaden my landbound lub by attuning myself to the denizens of the deep (fish) and those whose domain was the sky (birds). It might be argued that simply wearing a fisherman’s shoes was no match for plunging into the briny depths and swimming about with all those myriad befinned creatures below, but I am a cautious man, and I did not wish to run before I could walk, as it were, though that is possibly not the best analogy to make.
It has been my experience that most people are open to bribery by herring, but this ploy would obviously not work with a fisherman. By following him about for several weeks, and closely questioning his local kiosk-owner, I discovered that the fisherman had an unquenchable thirst for Squelcho! Using my underworld contacts, I was able to obtain half a dozen bumper multipacks of the canned fizzy drink, and one morning, shortly after he had returned from a night-fishing expedition, I loaded the cans on to a cart and trundled it down to the foul and reeking wharf where I knew the fisherman liked to lollop about.
He proved to be a very canny fisherman, and drove a hard bargain, but eventually agreed to let me borrow his shoes until midday, on the understanding that I would then bring him a further half dozen multipacks of Squelcho! I had no intention of submitting to such extortion, but nodded agreement. I would worry about the consequences of reneging on the deal later. For your edification, I wanted to reproduce a verbatim transcript of our exchange at this point. Unfortunately, the tape I made, on a cassette recorder concealed in my bomber jacket, was wiped later that morning when I was engulfed in a terrific electrical storm (see below).
And so I set out to walk in the shoes of the fisherman, and to look at birds in the sky. I had not counted on the happenstance that the fisherman’s feet were several sizes smaller than mine. Walking in his shoes was an agony, but I persevered, repeating my mantra “I am not a milksop! I am not a milksop!”. I walked in the shoes of the fisherman away from the wharf and over Sawdust Bridge and along Yoko Ono Boulevard and past the important roadworks at the Blister Lane Bypass and through the Acre of Mud and along the perimeter fence of Poxhaven Aerodrome and under the viaduct and up, up into the Blue Forgotten Hills. All the while I was keenly watching the skies, and I saw several birds.
The first was about 5.7 inches long, with a wingspan of roughly 9.6 to 11.2 inches and a weight somewhere between 0.63 and 1.02 ounces. It had a black forehead and a blue-grey crown, nape and upper mantle. The rump was a light olive-green, and the lower mantle and scapulars formed a brown saddle. The side of the head, throat and breast were a dull rust-red merging to a pale creamy-pink on the belly. The central pair of tail feathers were dark grey with a black shaft streak. The rest of the tail was black apart from the two outer feathers on each side which had white wedges. Each wing had a contrasting white panel on the coverts and a buff-white bar on the secondaries and inner primaries The flight feathers were black with white on the basal portions of the vanes. The secondaries and inner primaries had pale yellow fringes on the outer web whereas the outer primaries had a white outer edge. My ornithological education had been brought to a premature end because of the war, but I knew a linnet when I saw one. I jotted down “linnet” in my birdbook, together with a note of the date and the weather and the fact that I could barely think straight due to the stabbing pains in my feet, shod in the fisherman’s shoes. I tucked the birdbook back into my pocket and screamed “I am not a milksop!” several times at the top of my voice.
Shortly afterwards I had to take the birdbook out again because I spotted a second bird. This one was larger than a European robin, and it had a white rump and tail, with a black inverted T-pattern at the end of the tail. Its plumage – plumage! – had grey upperparts, buff throat and black wings and a face mask. It had a whistling, crackly song, and its call was a typical “chat chack” noise, just the the same as its flight call. Cursing the war that put paid to my avian studies, I wrote “bunting” in my birdbook, and added a brief pen-portrait of the fisherman whose shoes I was walking in, with increasing difficulty, and much anguish.
The third bird I saw that day, up in the sky above the Blue Forgotten Hills, was about 7 inches long, weighed roughly 1.1 to 1.4 ounces, and displayed a light green body colour (abdomen and rumps), while its mantles (back and wing coverts) displayed pitch-black mantle markings edged in clear yellow undulations. The forehead and face were yellow with blackish stripes down to the cere. It displayed small, purple cheek patches and a series of three black spots across each side of its throat (called throat spots). The two outermost throat spots were situated at the base of each cheek patch. The tail was cobalt (dark-blue); and outside tail feathers displayed central yellow flashes. Its wings had greenish-black flight feathers and black coverts with yellow fringes along with central yellow flashes. Its bill was olive grey and its legs blueish-grey, with zygodactyl toes. I scribbled down “nightjar” in my birdbook, and collapsed to the ground, memories of bombs and artillery fire in my head and excruciating spasms of agony surging through my feet. I took off the shoes of the fisherman and made my way back to the wharf in my socks.
The fisherman was sitting on an upturned barrel, surrounded by drained and crushed Squelcho! cans. As I approached him, swinging his shoes by their laces, I realised I had not yet thought up a stratagem to avoid having to pay him off with another half dozen bumper multipacks of his favourite fizzy drink. But as things turned out, I did not have to, for of a sudden we were engulfed in a terrific electrical storm (see above). I escaped unscathed, probably due to the stylishly conical gutta-percha hat atop my head. But my cassette tape was wiped, and the fisherman was struck by lightning, several times, and, quaking like a jelly, toppled off his barrel, and over the edge of the wharf, and into the sloshing sea, into which he sank, remorselessly, emitting squelchy sparks, remorselessly.
I tossed his shoes into the water. They were no good to me, being far too small. But I had walked in the shoes of the fisherman, observing birds in the sky, so I had succeeded in realising one of my greatest ambitions. A lubber of land, I had communed, simultaneously, with creatures of sea and sky.
Only later, back at home, glugging from a can of Squelcho! and browsing in an illustrated treatise upon birds, did I learn that I had seen neither a linnet nor a bunting nor a nightjar. The birds I had spotted were a chaffinch and a wheatear and a budgerigar. Clearly there was only one thing to do. I would have to fish the shoes of the fisherman out of the wharfside water, and cram my feet back into them, and go walking again, away from the wharf and over Sawdust Bridge and along Yoko Ono Boulevard and past the important roadworks at the Blister Lane Bypass and through the Acre of Mud and along the perimeter fence of Poxhaven Aerodrome and under the viaduct and up, up, up into the Blue Forgotten Hills, looking at birds in the sky, this time writing their proper names in my birdbook, all the while walking in the shoes of the fisherman.
The other day I met a man who claimed he could eat his own head. I considered this preposterous, and said so. We were at a sophisticated cocktail party and he was leaning insouciantly against a mantelpiece.
“I can prove it to you,” he said, “As a demonstration, I will eat your head, and that will show that I could eat my own.”
I thought about this for perhaps three seconds before responding.
“Your so-called proof has several distinct flaws,” I said, “First, that if you eat my head, I will be in no position to form a judgement on the success or otherwise of your antics, as I presume I will lose consciousness and die as you gnaw through my neck, thus severing those all-important nerves and arteries and whatnot that enable my brain to function. Second, your ability to eat my head has no bearing whatsoever on your claim to be able to eat your own head. It is an entirely different head.”
He took a sip of his cocktail before conceding.
“Those are both valid points. But there were but two, and you said you had several.”
“Let those two suffice for the time being,” I said.
“Very well,” he replied, “I can see that I am up against a sceptic of formidable mental acuity. You are not by any chance a Jesuit, are you?”
I assured him I was not, despite it having been a childhood ambition to be ordained into the order.
“I, too, once dreamed of becoming a Jesuit,” he said, “But alas, I lost my faith. Still, that was a long time ago, since when I suppose I learned to replace it with the more fervent belief that I can eat my own head. You will not be satisfied until you actually witness me in the act of doing so, will you?”
I nodded my agreement. He looked at me in silence, and after a pause, said “There”.
“There what?” I asked.
“I just ate my own head and regurgitated it, as a bird does with food for its young.” he said, “You must excuse my manners, for I am a terribly fast eater and tend to gobble my food. I can be quite a cause of social discomfiture in the better restaurants.”
“I witnessed neither eating nor regurgitation,” I said, “You just stood there looking at me.”
He sighed with a measure of impatience.
“I have just explained to you that I eat with regrettable speed,” he said, “And this habit has a deleterious effect on my digestive system, one consequence of which is that I cannot tolerate certain foodstuffs, including human flesh and bone and brain matter, etcetera, so I spew them up immediately.”
“You are a very foolish man. Good evening to you, sir,” I said, and I turned on my heel and wandered off across the room, away from the mantelpiece, in search of somebody else to talk to.
Later that evening, passing near the mantelpiece again, I saw the man biting the head off another party guest, a person who, I reasoned, had not had the benefits of a Jesuitical education, and thus could not counter the arguments of this foolish but persuasive fellow. There was blood on the carpet, as there so often is, even at the most sophisticated cocktail parties.
While I continue my titanic struggle against an attack of Not-Updating-Hooting-Yard Syndrome, here, as a sop to you lot, is a brand new podcast from those lovely people at ResonanceFM.
The other day I mentioned Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons. I feel it only right that you should be told Tender Buttons is also the name of a magnificent button shop in New York City. Last year it celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. Should you find yourself in that fair city I wholeheartedly recommend you pay it a visit and buy some buttons. I did.
Pick a barn, suggested Gertrude Stein in Tender Buttons (1914), so that is exactly what I did, I picked a barn. The barn I picked was the eerie barn at Scroonhoonpooge Farmyard. It was an appropriate choice. Just as Tender Buttons has been hailed as a masterpiece of cubist prose, so there is something decidedly cubist about the eerie barn, which reveals, if not its secrets, then to some extent its eeriness, when viewed simultaneously from different angles. How one might go about viewing an indubiitably solid three-dimensional barn from different angles simultaneously is The Point That Is Moot. It is well to bear this mootage in mind.
The eerie barn at Scroonhoonpooge Farmyard has been the scene of many many enormities, some involving the lumbering walrus-moustached psychopath Babinsky, some involving buttons, and some both Babinsky and buttons. The barn has also witnessed, day in day out, the slaughter of an unconscionable number of farmyard animals, not least chickens. One of the buttons on Babinsky’s overcoat, incidentally, had a decorative bit of folderol depicting a Vanburgh chicken, but only one of the buttons. Why the overcoat bore an odd button is, again, The Point That Is Moot. That makes two points of mootage.
Having picked my barn, I was not sure what to do next, so I further consulted Gertrude Stein, who clearly knew about such matters. “Pick a barn, a whole barn,” she wrote, “and bend more slender accents than have ever been necessary, shine in the darkness necessarily.” So I did that, bend and shine, bend and shine, turn and turn about, in the whole eerie barn. It was cavernous. When I felt I had bent and shone sufficient unto the day, or rather the evening, for it was evening, I had an overwhelming sense of mootage. Did I sense, too, the phantom presence of Babinsky, his great hairy hands drenched with blood, his one odd chicken button gleaming in the necessary darkness? I did not, and that was a small mercy.
Having picked and bent and shone, and reassured myself that Babinsky was nowhere in the vicinity, I was at something of a loose end. Then I remembered that Gertrude Stein liked to write while out in the countryside, sitting on a camping-stool, looking at cows. I reasoned, rightly I think, that where there is a barn there will be cows, or at least one cow. All I need do was to arm myself with a notepad and pencil and camping-stool, then find a cow. My various mootages began to dissolve, like liver salts in cold water.
Gertrude Stein was driven to her countryside cow-observation-and-writing spots by Alice B. Toklas, but without car or driver I had to trudge through farmyard and fields, and puddle after puddle after puddle, in search of my wantings. Do you have any idea how difficult it can be to find a notepad and a pencil and a camping-stool in a rustic backwater? These things are not just lying about waiting to be gathered gratefully to the bosom of the scavenger. As night fell, black and inhuman, I was still wandering about like a nincompoop, without pencil or notepad or camping-stool. Nor did I encounter a single cow in my roamings. Perhaps they had all been done to death in the eerie barn at Scroonhoonpooge Farmyard.
Before I tumbled into a ditch to spend a night of unrest and terror, I found, floating in a puddle, a button. I clutched it tenderly. But then I noticed that it bore a decorative bit of folderol depicting a Vanburgh chicken. Was it the button of Babinsky? That the fiend might be close at hand, hunting desperately for his odd button, made me sick with fear. I flung the button away from me, as far as it could be flung, and toppled into my ditch. Tomorrow I would pick a different barn, less eerie, less cubist, and far, far from this accursed spot.