Let us imagine you install a tap on the side of a vat. You will then be able to transfer the contents of the vat, bit by bit, into a pail, a pail which you can then lug, panting and perspiring, for many many miles o’er the fields. What better way to spend a Tuesday afternoon as winter approaches?
Given the seeming ubiquity of vampires in contemporary popular culture, I am surprised that nobody has thought to produce an ornithologically-themed vampire TV series – especially when I learn, from this morning’s Tweet of the Day on BBC Radio Four, that there is, in the Galapagos Islands, a vampire finch which sucks the blood of blue-footed boobies. I am always looking for an excuse to show a picture of the latter bird, so here are a couple of them.
An unseemly number of enquiries arrive at Hooting Yard HQ asking why yesterday’s postage In Ponga makes reference to the Bishop of Southwark. The answer is simple, and is given in the form of an exclusive extract from Mr Key’s Shorter Potted Brief, Brief Lives, available now from all good bookshops, both actual and virtual.
Butler, Tom (English bishop, b. 1940). In December 2006, Paul and Nicola Sumpter were sitting in a bar near Southwark Cathedral when they heard their car alarm go off. Rushing outside, they found a grey-haired man in the back seat of the car, throwing the toys of their infant son out of the window. When challenged, the man said “I’m the bishop of Southwark. It’s what I do”. He then got out of the car and disappeared into the night, leaving behind a bag containing, among other things, his crucifix.
In Ponga, you can recognise the satraps because they wear plumed hats. Or so I am told. In Gooma, by contrast, the hats of the satraps are unplumed, and look like any other hats sported by a million other Goomans. The satraps can be distinguished by their tattoos. Pongan satraps eschew tattooing, which is reserved for their shamen, but there are no shamen in Gooma. If one flies over the mountains into Gaar, one finds that the satraps wear plumed hats and sport tattoos, and that the chief method of adverting to their satrapdom is their habit of always carrying a bundle of tally sticks. The shamen of Gaar have both plumed hats and tattoos, but they do not carry tally sticks. They tie their hair in complex stylised knots.
This much I have learned, and am grateful to have learned, from a fascinating periodical entitled Satraps And Shamen Of Ponga And Gooma And Gaar. It is published on the first Thursday of each month, and is packed with articles and photographs and quizzes and competitions. Since I picked up a copy at a newsagent’s in an esplanade on a mezzanine level at an airport a short while ago it has become my absolute favourite periodical ever, even though I had no previous interest in either satraps or shamen, whether they were from Ponga or Gooma or Gaar or any other country you care to mention. I have been won over by the magazine’s excellence in all particulars, but mostly by its vividness. It is the most vivid of periodicals, more vivid even than the Reader’s Digest.
In Ponga, the satraps hold councils at which are discussed important meteorological issues. The Pongan shamen consider the weather to fall within their purview, and this can lead to clashes between satraps and shamen. Such clashes are conducted at a strictly verbal level, and give rise to some fascinating linguistic quirks. Because there are no shamen in Gooma, the Gooman satraps have the weather all to themselves and face no clashes. In Gaar, the shamen tie their hair in complex stylised knots.
I have said that Gaar is on the other side of the mountains from Ponga and Gooma, but I have yet to learn what these mountains are called, or indeed where they are. Vivid as the periodical is, I have to say that it is unforthcoming on matters geographical, and that is an understatement. I have been toying with the idea of writing a letter to the editor suggesting that a future issue might include some maps. When I was a little chap I had a passion for maps, just like the narrator of Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness. I am no longer a little chap at all, but I would like to see maps, colourful ones, of Ponga and Gooma and Gaar. They would make the periodical even more vivid than it already is.
In Ponga, the satraps have dominion over the birds of the air, or at least they act as if they do. They devise many laws to which the birds of the air are subject. Flightless birds fall within the remit of the shamen of Ponga. They do not create laws, but they consider flightless birds to be sacred, and count them, often. The satraps count the birds of the air also, with different purposes in mind. In Gooma, all known birds are poultry. In Gaar, the satraps carry tally sticks and the shamen tie their hair in complex stylised knots.
I stumbled upon my first copy of the periodical in that newsagent’s in an esplanade on a mezzanine level at an airport quite by accident. I was due to board a flight to a remote prison island, where I had been asked to sluice out the convicts’ brains with an exciting and dangerous new fluid. I had a few minutes to spare before my flight and went to pick up the latest Reader’s Digest. Repair work was being done to the newsagent’s frontage, so I had to squeeze in through a side panel, thus entering a part of the shop I would normally not have explored. Most of the racks here were stacked with fruit pastilles and pastry snacks, and I have no need of these things, for when travelling I always bring my own food. A single copy of the September issue of Satraps And Shamen Of Ponga And Gooma And Gaar lay atop a tinderbox on the floor next to a display of packets of jammy teardrops. I picked it up out of curiosity and was struck by its vividness.
In Ponga, the satraps have a counting system of astonishing complexity. It is possible that their brains are wired in a way unique to them. The shamen count as you or I would count, although as you would expect they use different words for numbers. The satraps do not even use words when they count. Nor do the satraps in Gooma, but that is because they do not count at all. The Gooman satraps pipe and hum in place of counting. They manufacture spikes and nails and do a lot of purposeless hammering. In Gaar, the satraps carry tally sticks.
The publishers do not make a binder available in which to keep copies of their vivid periodical, and this is another matter I planned to raise in my letter to the editor recommending the inclusion of colourful maps. I am extremely keen on binders for periodicals, whether or not they are vivid. It is true that I have quite a number of loose unbound periodicals in my collection, and that pains me. I numb the pain with prayer, for that is what the Bishop of Southwark told me to do. When some of the more promising convicts had had their brains sluiced with my exciting and dangerous new fluid, I set them a project to make binders for my unbound periodicals, including Satraps And Shamen Of Ponga And Gooma And Gaar. They made an excellent fist of it, with limited resources, and I like to think that the sluicing had much to do with that.
In Ponga, the satraps make regular changes to the plumes in their hats according to the phases of the moon. The shamen take no notice of the moon, for they owe fealty to the sun. In Gooma the satraps believe that the health of their poultry is dependent upon the stars. In Gaar, the satraps carry tally sticks and the shamen tie their hair in complex stylised knots. I have counted all my binders, and I am carrying a tally stick, and later today, after I have watched the news bulletin and weather forecast on television, and had a little chat with the Bishop of Southwark, I am going to tie my hair in complex stylised knots.
This piece first appeared in June 2007.
Following the success of his box-office hit American Snipe, about a killer bird, Clint Eastwood has announced his next project. Rather excitingly for all of us here at Hooting Yard, the octogenarian titan of cinema has bought the rights to the Petula Clark Trilogy. My understanding is that, rather than making a series of three films, Bourne-style, Mr Eastwood intends to compact the narrative into a single movie, entitled American Snipper. As this title indicates, the film will be a character study of the collector who originally snipped out of newspapers the Petula Clark cuttings. Thanks to Max Décharné, I am able to reproduce one such cutting here. (Click to enlarge.)
Just as Jason Bourne has an identity, a supremacy, and an ultimatum, so Petula Clark has files, a project – and a minefield. The Petula Clark minefield was the happy outcome of my determination, with the Petula Clark project, to put to good use the materials in the Petula Clark files, which I had collected in the 1960s and kept, for fifty years, in a remote secure storage facility guarded by wolves.
The idea came to me when, one windswept morning, I was sashaying along a majestic and important boulevard in my bailiwick. All of a sudden, my boon companion Walter Mad, the animal behaviourist, amateur electrician, and van owner, drove up alongside me in his van, slowed to sashaying pace, wound down his window, and shouted at me.
“I have inherited a field!” he cried.
Later, over tea and toffee, I learned more. An elderly Mad uncle had died and left to his nephew, in his last will and testament, a field, somewhere out in the blasted and awful countryside.
“If it were a magnetic field,” moaned Walter Mad, “I might be interested. But it is nothing more than a flat expanse of mud and muck out beyond the Blister Lane Bypass, past the viaduct and the ha-ha and the decoy duckpond and the foopball pitch and the giant cement statue of Nobby Stiles and the weird cloud of ectoplasm and the bridge over the river Horrible and the vinegar works and Pang Hill Orphanage and the clown hospital and the blasted heath and the Bolshevik ballet school and the forest of gargoyles and the sump of slurry and the remote secure storage facility and the -”
“Wait!” I cried, “This field of yours is near the storage facility?”
“Had you allowed me to finish I would have listed several more significant landmarks on the way but, yes, it is fairly close by, as the crow flies.”
“I have an idea!” I cried, and I jumped into the van and told Walter Mad to drive like the clappers.
My idea was the Petula Clark minefield. Through Walter Mad’s inheritance, we had the field. The next step was to remove the Petula Clark files from the remote secure storage facility, and then to remove each of the six or seven press clippings from its buff cardboard folder. The folders we tossed, unsentimentally, on to a nearby bonfire. It was then a simple matter to have each of the six or seven press clippings laminated, to protect them against the many and various calamities of awful countryside weather. Once laminated, each press clipping was attached to one end of a pointy stick – that is, to the non-pointy end.
At this stage I had not decided whether the Petula Clark minefield would accommodate one customer at a time, armed with all six or seven pointy sticks to which were attached the laminated Petula Clark press clippings, or six or seven customers simultaneously, each armed with a single pointy stick. Six or seven customers at a time was probably the better option, as it would allow us to advertise the Petula Clark minefield as a splendid opportunity for awayday team-building exercises for middle managers in small to medium size companies.
Imagine the fun, as the six or seven customers are handed a pointy stick each, to one end of which is affixed by twine a laminated press clipping about Petula Clark. They must now make their way across the flat expanse of mud and muck, prodding the ground at intervals in an attempt to locate the mines submerged just below the surface. If they successfully locate each of the six or seven mines with their pointy sticks, they win. But if they inadvertently tread upon a mine, they lose.
The mines themselves are not explosive. Instead, using a clever bit of electrical gubbins concocted by Walter Mad using his amateur electrician skills, when a mine is “detonated” it blasts forth, at deafening volume, a recording of Petula Clark singing her tiptop hit, written by Tony Hatch and first released in 1964, shortly before I began to compile the Petula Clark files, “Downtown”.
What an exciting day that was, when Walter Mad and I first opened the Petula Clark minefield to paying customers! I felt a warm glow of content that I had at long last put the Petula Clark files to good use by devising the Petula Clark project and, with the Petula Clark minefield, bringing it to fruition. The lesson, I think, is that even when one of your activities seems utterly pointless – and believe me, there were times over the past half century when I wondered why on earth I clung on to those six or seven Petula Clark press clippings and kept them in a remote secure storage facility guarded by wolves – there is always the chance that you can take the pointless and make it pointy. That is what I did, and you can too, especially if your boon companion inherits from a Mad uncle a flat expanse of mud and muck.
For more years than I could count, my Petula Clark files had lain undisturbed in a remote secure storage facility guarded by wolves. It would be a platitude to say that the files were “gathering dust”. It would also be untrue, for the storage facility was a dust-free one. The precise details of how this dustless state was achieved elude me, though no doubt it had something to do with the janitor’s proud boast that he kept a trained swarm of dust-gobbling bluebottles.
It was this very same janitor who came hammering at my door one morning, waking me from uneasy dreams. I cannot recall precisely what figments in my sleeping brain so unnerved me, though bluebottles and Tony Blair and a bag of frozen crinkle-cut oven chips were all involved. I doused these phantoms by plunging my head into a pail of ice-cold water, then pranced like a ninny downstairs to answer the hammering.
The janitor was gaunt and had the appearance of a wistful stickleback. If you find that a difficult image to visualise, fetch a pencil and a piece of paper and execute a sketch. Now do you see?
The ostensible purpose of the janitor’s visit was to canvass for the Communist Party. I was not aware that there was an election in the offing, and told him so. He gave me that wistful stickleback gaze (see sketch) and muttered inanities. Nevertheless, I invited him in for a cup of boiling hot tap water and a biscuit. I do not receive many visitors, so when I do I like to lavish them with such hospitality as I can muster. I also considered that an early morning conversation with a Communist might help to dispel the last few vestiges of my uneasy dreams still swirling in my head.
It was during the course of our discussion, when the janitor had exhausted the topics of imperialist lackeys and tractor production and ballet in the evenings, that he made mention of my Petula Clark files. What, he wanted to know, was my purpose in keeping them for so long, neglected and unattended? I have to admit that I had no ready answer to this question. I had no idea why I clung on to these six or seven Petula Clark files, each one a buff cardboard folder containing a single press clipping about Petula Clark, the original five or six files augmented at a slightly later date by the sixth or seventh which held a colour photograph of the chanteuse snipped from a colour supplement.
I have been asked, from time to time, or, as per another singer, Cyndi Lauper, time after time, why I cannot be specific about the precise number of Petula Clark files, given they are so few. The truth of the matter is that I have so little interest in Petula Clark that I have never bothered to make a tally of the items in my collection. It is for the same reason that, having placed the Petula Clark files in storage, I very seldom trekked out to that remote facility to consult them. Indeed, I could not remember the last time I had visited, and nor could the janitor. It may be pertinent that I have yellow jaundice, as has the janitor. He is also green about the gills, but I am not.
The janitor lost patience awaiting from me a reply which did not come, and he got up to leave. He excused himself by saying he had to attend the public humiliation of a bourgeois lickspittle. I think he was telling the truth, for I had noticed he was carrying a hooter in his knapsack, of the sort used to amplify imprecations and insults at deafening volume at close range to the ears of bourgeois lickspittles. I had once been accused of being such a lickspittle myself, and it was only by dint of pomposity and bribery by pastry delicacies that I escaped censure.
Alone again, I fell to thinking. Usually, of course, in these circumstances I would think about wolves and their ways, but the janitor’s query had turned my mind to Petula Clark, or rather to the files I kept on her, and had kept, through thick and thin, over many decades. Would I not be better off removing the files from the remote secure storage facility and consigning them to a rubbish tip? Or, if I did not want them to go to waste, could I not burn them in my grate, and at least profit from a short period of welcome heat on one of the long winter nights when I shivered in my armchair, wrapped in several cardigans and two different woolly hats?
Yet to discard or to destroy the Petula Clark files seemed to me both, somehow, to be unconscionable acts. I did not care very much for Petula Clark, and it was exceedingly unlikely she would ever learn of the files I kept on her, but what if she did?, what if she did? I think it is fair to say she would be distraught, albeit only mildly – though who can say? – and I had no wish to cause Petula Clark distress. I wish no pain upon anybody, unless it be a thief bent on breaking into the remote secure storage facility to pilfer my Petula Clark files, who will be savagely attacked at the perimeter fence by my trained, if not yet electrified wolves, and richly deserve to be torn to bits by their sharp and merciless fangs.
No, it seemed to me that what I ought to do, what I ought to have done years ago, was to make good use of the Petula Clark files. But what use? In a flash of inspiration, I realised what I needed to do. I would devise a Petula Clark project, an activity which would not only keep me occupied in the twilight of my years but would also make full, novel, and innovative use of the materials in the Petula Clark files. I sprang up from my chair and cut three or four brisk capers around the room, as if I was James Boswell getting up in the morning. And then, panting with exertion, I resolved to embark upon the Petula Clark project without delay.
But the years have taken their toll, and my resolve was no longer the manly Jack Hawkins stern-jawed resolve of my more youthful days, when I had resolved, successfully, to find an efficient storage method for the Petula Clark files. I was winded from my capers, and I slumped back in my armchair, panting like a wolf. Shortly thereafter, I fell asleep.
I am happy to say I did not dream of bluebottles and Tony Blair and a bag of frozen crinkle-cut oven chips. I dreamed, instead, of Petula Clark, and the files, and the project I would devise once I awoke. At the time of writing, I am still asleep, effectively, if we consider that anything other than full bright brilliant bedazzling enlightened clarity of all five senses in a blaze of utter receptivity to the gorgeous world is a form of sleep. But when I do wake up, fully, ah, then …
I keep my Petula Clark files in a remote secure storage facility. The perimeter fence is electrified, and patrolled by wolves. The wolves are not electrified, but I am working on it, in partnership with the animal behaviourist and amateur electrician Walter Mad. The wolves have been trained to become docile at my approach, but to attack savagely anybody else, including Walter Mad. The combination of fence and wolves and some fairly stout padlocks ensures that my Petula Clark files remain safe and secure.
It is fifty years since I began my collection. There was a brief report in the local newspaper of the seaside town in which I then lived, announcing a forthcoming concert by Petula Clark. I snipped it out of the paper with a pair of scissors and put it on my desk, under a seaside pebble. Over the following few months I snipped out of various papers several reports in which Petula Clark was mentioned. Some of these were illustrated with photographs of the chanteuse, though the photographs themselves were of low quality, as were most newspaper photographs in those days.
By the time I had accumulated five or six such snippages I lost all interest in Petula Clark. Looking back, it is fair to say that I was never particularly interested in her in the first place. I spent far more of my time, for example, thinking about and studying and even attempting to imitate the behaviour of wolves. Eventually, one blazing summer morn, I looked at the seaside pebble on my desk, and the five or six press clippings related to Petula Clark underneath it, and I resolved – with a sort of manly Jack Hawkins stern-jawed resolve – to find a more efficient storage method for them. After all, it had occurred to me more than once that, were I to move the seaside pebble for any reason, and my window was open, and a gust of wind blew in, billowing the curtains, the cuttings, all five or six of them, could be scattered, untidily, and – perhaps, perhaps – be lost forever.
Hence the files, by which I refer to buff cardboard folders. I bought a packet of these at a stationer’s. I distinctly recall that on my walk to and from the shop, which took about fifteen minutes each way, I did not see a single wolf. This saddened me, but I was consoled, on the way back, that I had acquired a suitable means of storage for my collection of five or six Petula Clark press clippings. I was so eager to return home and set to work that I did not, as I usually did, stop off at the ice cream kiosk to buy a choc ice, which I would then eat while sitting on a seaside bench and staring out to sea. Walter Mad has hatched a scheme to use half-eaten choc ices as bait in the process of electrifying wolves. I must admit I did not quite follow his reasoning, but I feel sure it is sound.
Once home, and having unwrapped from their cellophane the buff cardboard folders, I took five or six of them and placed a Petula Clark snippage into each one, having first, of course, moved the seaside pebble to one side on my desk. I considered marking the folders, for example by writing “Petula Clark Press Clipping No. 1” (and so on, up to No. 5 or No. 6) on the front of each one, but I decided against this. My decision was made the easier because, at the time, I recall I had mislaid my pencil, and I only discovered it some days later, tucked against the wainscot on the opposite side of the room. How it came to rest there I shall never know.
I placed the folders in one of the desk drawers, made a cup of tea, and settled back to gaze at a picture book of wolves I had borrowed from the seaside library. It was long overdue, but I was young and feckless and reckless, and I did not give a hoot.
Despite the fact that I no longer had any interest in Petula Clark, my collection was not yet complete. About three years later, riffling through a colour supplement, I came upon a quarter-page colour photograph of the star, and in a sudden frenzy, as if gripped by demons, I reached for my scissors and snipped it out. Fortunately, in spite of the passing of the years, I had the remainder of the buff cardboard folders close to hand. I took one, placed the colour photograph of Petula Clark inside it, and added it to the collection in the desk drawer. Outside, the sky had darkened, and I swore I could hear the distant howling of a wolf. At that time, I had not yet gained the acquaintance of Walter Mad, so I was not in a position to telephone him to confirm whether that was indeed what I heard.
Many more years passed before I decided to transfer the Petula Clark files from my desk drawer to a remote secure storage facility. The process was surprisingly straightforward, and was accomplished in a single afternoon, with the assistance of Walter Mad, who by this time had become my boon companion. In addition to being an animal behaviourist and an amateur electrician, he also owned a van, which he drove at terrifying speed while wearing a pair of goggles and some sort of home-made cobbled-together gutta percha breathing apparatus. Having secured the Petula Clark files deep in the bowels of the facility, we drove back via an ice cream kiosk and stopped to eat celebratory choc ices while staring out to sea.
I broke our contented silence by asking Walter Mad if wolves are able to swim.
“That very much depends on the wolf and the conditions in the sea,” he said.
“And Petula Clark,” I continued, “Can she swim?”
“I am no expert in Petula Clark matters,” he said, “But I expect she can, yes.”
That was precisely the answer I wanted to hear, though I could not think for the life of me why, as I had no great interest in Petula Clark, then or now.
We digested our choc ices – Walter Mad saving half of his, uneaten, for baiting experiments with wolves – and drove away from the kiosk, as the sun sank in the west, and waves crashed relentlessly against the pointy rocks.
Here is a snap taken at Yada’s restaurant in Peckham last night, where I did a reading as part of the LitCrawl festival. The photo was taken by one of my fellow-readers, Tony White, and also on the bill was Audrey Reynolds. I read a couple of stories and also took the opportunity to extol the many and various virtues of Mr Key’s Shorter Potted Brief, Brief Lives, waving a copy of the book at the audience and reading a couple of extracts. This, for example, provoked pleasingly immoderate laughter:
Scott, George R. (British poultry expert, 20th century). Scott was the author of the 1934 book The Art Of Faking Exhibition Poultry. In the introduction, Socrates, Galileo, Voltaire, Nietzsche and D. H. Lawrence are each called to support his attack on the despicable practice, nowhere more vile than in “the pseudo-scientific Hogan cult, with all its blowsy jargon; its crapulous fundament of snide anatomy; its noisy and prolific drool of whim-wham”.
Perhaps the least-known of the Swabian hotheads, so obscure that we do not know his name, and have never known it, can be seen in the bottom left corner of a mezzotint by the noted mezzotintist Rex Tint, where he is to be seen in full Swabian hothead mode, suitably attired and, we surmise, purple-faced in the throes of tempest, though the mezzotint is monochrome, yet purple we see, by dint of Rex Tint’s artistic chops, honed, if his sister Dot Tint’s memoir is to believed, and why should it not?, upon Tyrolean peaks, in inclement weather, with pencil and paper, and a pipe stuck in his mouth, as gales howled around him, scribbling furiously with the same scribbly fury he would bring, famously, later, oh! years later, to his depiction, so gauche yet valiant, of the Swabian hothead in the corner of a mezzotint otherwise empty of human figures, a picture populated largely by cows, and herons, or moorhens, or some other birds, for as was often said of Rex Tint, not least by his sister Dot Tint, in her memoir, if there was one thing the maestro could not do, for love nor money, it was to draw accurately any of the birds which God created to bless the skies, if, that is, that was the reason for their divine invention, during the seven days of creation, or rather six, six, I am forgetting that on the seventh day He rested, just as Rex Tint liked to take a day off from his indefatigable mezzotinting at least once a week, usually on a Thursday, when he would prop up the bar at his local kloppisguelph and knock back an entire litre of absinthe, in homage to the habits of his hero Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938), but so unlike the Swabian hothead, who never rested at all, never, never, so hot was his head that it never allowed him to rest, at least not when he was in Swabia, and he was always in Swabia, as far as we know, he never went further afield, they wouldn’t let him, they’d’ve stopped him at the border, forbidden him to cross, wisely, it has to be said, wisely, for who can guess at the enormities that would ensue if once the Swabian hothead were given entirely fresh territories in which to be a hothead?, it fair boggles the brain, mine at least, and possibly yours too, though I cannot guarantee it, even if you have been concentrating hard, and furrowing your brow, and chewing the end of the pencil with which, I hope, you have been taking notes, scribbling furiously, like Rex Tint atop a Tyrolean peak, all those years ago, smoking his pipe, swept by gales, that will do for the time being.
Here is an (anonymous) review on Amazon of Mr Key’s Shorter Potted Brief, Brief Lives:
This is a near-perfect example of a gift book that keeps on giving. Small and appealing, with a well-organised, encyclopaedia-style layout and charming portrait illustrations. The text is a delight – easy to dip in and out of, and full of facts that are perplexing, bizarre, amusing and sometimes poignant. What really sets it apart, however, is Frank Key’s unerring eye for the deliciously obscure and his unique sense of humour, which runs like a seam of precious metal through the book. An unexpected treasure.
I need hardly remind you lot that you are under instructions to buy copies of the book for everybody you know. While you’re about it, you should add your ha’ppenyworth to the online reviews at Amazon. You know it makes sense.