When I Was Borp

I am often asked what it was like to be borp. For example, I may be leaning insouciantly against a mantelpiece at a swish sophisticated cocktail party when a fellow-guest will approach me, sometimes in a wheelchair, and say: “I’m told you were borp. I don’t suppose you’d care to tell me about that, would you?” Or I may be queueing in the post office to buy a postage stamp or two, when the person behind me, sometimes on crutches, will tap me on the shoulder and say: “I could tell by looking at the back of your head that you were borp. What was it like?” Every so often, I am asked in writing, usually in a crabbed and barely legible hand.

I wish I could say that I try to give a full and frank answer. I wish I could say I responded, at least, politely. But I do not.

My usual tactic is to gibber like unto a monkey, toss my not so golden locks, what’s left of them, and execute a little pirouette. I then remove from my blazer pocket a crucifix, kiss it, and set it on fire with my Ignitofab lighter.

As Perkins run through with a rapier, so Himmelfarb bewildered in the gloaming. There are things fit only for the ears of those who dwell in Cretin Town. Was it Browning who wrote about “the bough of cherries some officious fool / Broke in the orchard”? There are no fools in my orchard any longer. I sent them packing, one by one, from Thursday through to the following Monday, yes, even on the Lord’s Day I chased a fool from my orchard, by dint of borp.

Wish me Godspeed, and count the circle of toads, for borp is borp and shall ever be as never be in witlessness and pox.

Why Do Fools Fall In Love?

Why do fools fall in love? It is a question that has taxed the minds of great thinkers throughout history. A notable investigation of our own era, by Lymon in 1956, was perhaps hampered by his extreme youth and that of his research assistants. It is true that some breakthroughs in the advance of human knowledge have been made by youngsters, but in matters of the heart we may prefer to rely on the doddery and decrepit, who are likely to have amassed valuable experience in the field.

Few are as doddery and decrepit as Nisbet Owlhead who, it is thrilling to learn, is at long last on the brink of publishing his findings. Owlhead has been working on this stuff for years, holed up in his top secret laboratory somewhere high in the Swiss Alps. Some decades ago, he provided a glimpse into his working methods in an article for The Rigorous And High-Minded Scientific Bulletin Of Lurve, reprinted here without permission:

In order to find out why fools fall in love, we must first obtain two fools. The easiest way to do this would be to go to Cretin Town and drag off the street and bundle into the back of a van the first couple of fools we encounter. So that is what I did. It is a very long way from Cretin Town to my top secret laboratory somewhere high in the Swiss Alps, so I placed both fools into an induced coma for the duration of the journey by van, train, forklift truck, ship, another forklift truck, another van, another train, and finally funicular railway.

I installed the fools in a sealed but spacious chamber designed especially for my purposes. Before bringing them out of their comas, I did a thorough investigation of their brains, prodding at them with various instruments, to ascertain the precise degree of foolishness. They were fools all right. I could not have been more pleased, so before waking them I treated myself to a slap-up dinner at The Reeking Goat, a Michelin-unstarred eaterie halfway down the mountain. The trough that night was filled with delicious pap and slops, and I mixed easily with the regular clientele of goatherds, peasants, and tubercular alpine invalids.

Back in the lab, after a post-prandial snooze and a few games of pingpong with my hunchbacked assistant, Mungo, I set to work. I injected both fools with a wake-me-up potion, and then retreated to my observation post outside the sealed chamber. After some minutes the fools, as scientifically predicted, fooled about. I was so pleased I had another slap-up dinner, another snooze, and further games of pingpong with Mungo.

On St. Valentine’s Day, I introduced into the chamber a box of chocolates. The following year, I introduced a bunch of flowers. The third and most decisive intervention came on the next St. Valentine’s Day, when I placed in the chamber a cherubic, winged, chubby, naked, curly-haired infant armed with a bow and arrow, which hovered in the air above the fools.

I have every confidence that true love will blossom within that sealed chamber, and when it does I will be ready with my scanners and bleepers and probes and buzzers and pointy things and all sorts of tiptop scientific paraphernalia you could never begin to understand. Mungo keeps it all polished to a gleam with his special rag.

Owlhead celebrated his ninetieth birthday last week with an announcement that he would publish his findings on St. Valentine’s Day 2018, or 2019, or, at a push, 2020.

Next week in this series : What becomes of the broken-hearted?

An Insolent Little Town

One of the places I visited on my recent holiday was described to me as “an insolent little town, turning its back on the tortured sea”. Tortured the sea may have been, but it was neither dolphin-torn nor gong-tormented, though given my guide’s turns of phrase perhaps it ought to have been. Among the sights of the town – snapped by Pansy Cradledew – was this absurd flaneur prancing like a ninny along the boulevards before posing for the camera.

Buster And Radbod

Here is another golden oldie, buried in the (temporarily hard-to-access) archives. It first appeared on the French-Canadian warbler Celine Dion’s fortieth birthday. The same day, incidentally, was the forty-sixth birthday of MC Hammer, who is frightened of hammers.

There are some questions we can answer without hesitation. Asked “what is your favourite website?”, one hundred percent of sensible people immediately shout “Hooting Yard of course!” with unhinged and hysterical enthusiasm. Similarly, when asked in which schoolbook depository they would prefer to site a sniper’s nest, an overwhelming number of would-be assassins reply “the Texas Schoolbook Depository at 411 Elm Street, Dallas, TX 75202-3317, without a doubt!” For my part, and in spite of the intervening decades, a question I can answer without even thinking is “what was your favourite weekly comic when you were tiny?” It was The Hammer Of Christ, and, within it, the strip I most adored was Buster And Radbod.

Each week, I followed the adventures of the chirpy pair with my jaw dropped and drool flowing freely down my chin, my heart and pulse rates pounding desperately. It was through Buster and Radbod that I learned to read, and I am forever in their debt.

They were, in many ways, an ill-matched fictional pair. Buster was squat, hissy, and preening, given to throwing fits and always attired in a bright yellow duffel coat and a little pointed wooden cap. He existed on a diet of chocolate swiss rolls, sprats, lettuce, and untreated milk straight from the goat. We were never given a glimpse of the goat, but it was understood that it lived in a field a short walk across the verdant hills from Buster’s house and that its name was Buttercup. Buster had more than one iron pail in which he would collect the milk, one painted red and one unpainted, and a third, extra special pail that leaked and that he was always promising to mend, but never did. Buster had too many teeth crammed inside his mouth, certainly more than a non-fictional person would have, and some of them were sharpened into fangs. He liked to sit atop a rotating plinth and spin round and round until he was sick. I was always curious as to the engine which rotated the plinth. It bore a distinct resemblance to undersea drilling equipment I had seen, either in real life or in catalogues, although of course nearly all of Buster and Radbod’s adventures took place on dry land, far from the sea. Buster was once or twice shown to be in possession of a pair of swimming trunks, they were visible in pictures of his open wardrobe, alongside a snorkel and an oxygen canister, but I cannot recall him ever wearing them. Buster had an owl as well as a goat. The owl was also called Buttercup, and Buster treated it cruelly, often pelting it with the shells of pistachio and Brazil nuts throughout the impossibly long afternoons of his idyllic fictional summertime. The owl took its revenge by regurgitating gobbets of semi-digested stoat or weasel on to Buster’s pointed wooden cap, which he would then have to rinse clean under the village spigot. Doing so was always a risky business, for lumbering in the vicinity of the village spigot was the village wrestler, a hairy brute capable of tearing an anvil in half with his great hairy hands. Luckily for Buster, the village wrestler was chained to a post next to the village spigot, and he was blind, so usually it was possible to skip nimbly out of his reach, even though, being squat, Buster was not the most nimble of cartoon characters. Indeed, he was not nimble at all. He slouched and he trudged and he often trailed one of his legs behind him, as if he were a lame child, but this was just rascality. Buster pretended to be lame to diddle small coinage from shopkeepers and the ground staff at the aerodrome, but most of them were wise to his tricks. In quite a few stories Buster and Radbod mooched around the aerodrome, trying to enter the hangars, but they were invariably stymied by one circumstance or another, be it the weather or early closing or an attack of killer bees or a rusty padlock. Once they were about to step into an unguarded and unlocked hangar when they were surprised by the ghost of Sylvia Townsend Warner and fled screaming into the hills. Other literary phantoms haunted the comic strip from time to time, for differing narrative purposes, and not always at the aerodrome. The ghost of Emily Dickinson, for example, hovers in mid-air outside the village shampooist in several frames of a particularly exciting adventure in which a toggle on Buster’s duffel coat is discovered to be a smooth round fragment from the tomb of an ancient Egyptian pharaoh. Buster hires a broom to fight off the ancient Egyptian ghouls who come to reclaim the pharaoh’s toggle. The hiring of brooms, sweeping brushes, dusters, squeegees, rags and other cleaning materials is one of Buster’s hobbies, along with bell-ringing, stamp collecting, making fluted paper cupcake cases, pelting his owl with the shells of pistachio and Brazil nuts, First World War battle re-enactments, tongue twisters, snakes and ladders, playing songs from the Fort Mudge Memorial Dump LP on the glockenspiel, churning up froth in a pail, bandage sculpture, tick tack, tacky tock, driving nails into mud idols, Subbuteo table football, poop tack clatter tack whizz, ping pong, hopping about flapping his arms, conjuring tricks, removing splinters from gashes, cardboard appreciation, amateur dramatics, pencil sharpening, scattering pins all over the place, bowling, bowls and dishes, and running a flea circus. I thought of Buster rather than Radbod as a role model. Buster had nonchalance, élan, a filthy temper, a ready wit, and peevishness. He was insouciant when one of his lungs collapsed. He smoked Gitanes. He sometimes wore his pointed wooden cap at a jaunty angle. He could hold his breath under water for several very very tense minutes. He rattled about in a fantastic old jalopy. He had ambitions to be a bargee on an extensive system of canals. He was a dab hand with a banjo, and not in a musical sense. Once, he felled the blind brute village wrestler with a simple flick of his duffel coat cuff, and afterwards had the grace to polish the blind brute village wrestler’s chain with a hired rag and his own home-made swarfega. He dazzled at cocktail parties. He spat upon hissing coals. He tiptoed from rooms with a swish of elegance. He was off on a frolic of his own.

Radbod, by contrast, was a somewhat colourless character.

Recently I learned that a complete set of The Hammer Of Christ, bound in the hide of a cloven-hooved beast of the barnyard, and containing all the adventures of Buster and Radbod, will be for sale at an auction to be held at the dilapidated Custom House by the harbour steps in the stinking seaside resort where I usually spend my holidays. I am by no stretch of the imagination an experienced auction-goer, and I have no idea how to make a bid. Do I nod, or raise an eyebrow, or hold up a pencil, or flail my arms around? I do not want to cut an idiotic figure, but nor do I want to miss the chance to get my hands on such a treasure. It is a quandary, to be sure.

Having given it much thought, I have decided to take my lead from Buster himself. In one episode of this most marvellous of comic strips, he goes to an auction at a Custom House, not unlike the auction at the Custom House I plan to attend, and, when the lot he covets comes up, he sneaks outside and, through an aperture, pumps into the auction room a fast-acting nerve gas. Or maybe it is just any old gas, I can’t quite remember. I suppose that’s something I ought to check before carrying out my nefarious plan. If I pump the wrong sort of gas through an aperture, who knows what might happen? The problem is that, just as I am ignorant of bidding protocol at auctions, I haven’t got a clue about gases. I know there are lots of different kinds of gas and that they act differently upon the people gathered in a room into which one or other of them is pumped through an aperture, but how I am to go about picking my gas is an absolute mystery. And so, for now, it shall remain, for there is much that trumps gas research in my daily round, and right now I feel, as I so often do, the call of the monkey, and I must pick nits out of my hair and shovel bananas down my throat and swing from larch to sycamore in my larch and sycamore enclosure, beyond the back garden, by the railway lines, where hooting freight trains thunder along the track carrying vast loads of pig iron to Pig Iron Town, where I have never been, and will never go, for it is far, far away, and built entirely from pig iron.


This piece first appeared in 2010. I am reposting it today for reasons which I am sure will be obvious to the woolly-brained among you.

If you are a certain type of folk singer, or vicar, or countryside rambler, you will as likely as not be wearing a jumper or sweater or pullover made of wool. It may conceivably be a polo neck. You more than anyone will know that there is good wool and there is bad wool. I would go so far as to say that, in the matter of wool, there is no middle ground, no grey area. Either the wool is good, or it is bad, and there’s an end on’t.

If your jumper or sweater or pullover has been knitted from good wool, you should count your blessings. Depending on where you live, good wool can be hard to come by. You may have had to send away to some far distant woolly apparel concern to have one of their catalogue items delivered to you through the mails, in a packet. The costs of transportation and packaging will have added to the basic price of your chosen jumper or sweater or pullover, but the outlay is justified when it is guaranteed that the knitwork was done with good wool.

But woe betide you if for some reason you are forced to wear something made from bad wool. Bad wool comes from bad sheep. They may be diseased, or repugnant, or unseemly, or all three. That does not stop unscrupulous shearers from shearing the wool from them and selling it on to equally unscrupulous wool merchants, who in turn have it processed and knitted into garments. It is both sad and astounding what reserves of human skill can be deployed into making something out of bad wool. Spotting a garment on a market stall, or for sale from the barrow of a barrow boy, it may not be immediately apparent whether the wool is good wool or bad wool. It may not even become evident when you put it on, pulling it over your head and inserting your arms and tucking it about yourself. But if it is made from bad wool it will contaminate you, as surely as night follows day. That is the thing about garb knitted from bad wool. The knitting was bad and the garb is bad, because of the bad wool. And, disporting it upon your frame, sashaying along the boulevards of your faubourg, it will make you bad too.

It is a wonder that bad wool has not been made illegal. Perhaps there are happy lands where that is the case. Is that not a pleasing thought, a happy land where all the wool is good, and none of it bad? Alas, it is an impossible dream. For there will always be bad sheep, and bad shearers, and unscrupulous merchants, and ne’er-do-well traders and barrow boys.

Hence, if you are wearing good wool, I repeat, count your blessings, count them until kingdom come, and then count them over again. And if you are wearing bad wool, reflect upon the circumstance, ask what you have done to deserve bad wool. It is likely that you have brought the bad wool upon yourself, through your own contamination, for bad attracts bad, in persons and wool as in other phenomena of the boundless universe.

But Was There A Shoggoth?

Gosh, look! Another letter arrives – a real one this time – from anagrammatic reader Carlo Randle, who says:

Dear Frank

A few weeks ago, I spent a grim evening playing some kind of Lovecraft-based collaborative boardgame with friends.

Tiny plastic figures moving about on a dark board overprinted in near-black ink; the prolix and apparently arbitrary rules, printed not in a handy booklet but on large, flappy sheets tacked to the inside of the presentation box lid; the various stacks of darkly-printed hazard cards, menace cards, threat cards, jeopardy cards and so on; the strange anomaly of the ‘taxis’ by which one’s avatar might whisk about the region’s gloomy mapscape; the massiveness of the dice and their propensity to scatter the scrawny, lightweight playing pieces from their assigned places; the confusing indistinguishability of those playing pieces, which meant one frequently expended all one’s half-understood strategic nous on moving the wrong character, frustrating some ultimately crucial aspect of our glacially-paced campaign to resist or repel the Old Ones; the swiftly-escalating despair that (a) the game could not be won by the human players, because the resources of The Game (our opponent) were so lavishly stacked against us and (b) that it would nevertheless take a Troublingly Long Time before our inevitable, crushing defeat was confirmed. In that respect, I suppose, it was a truly Lovecraftian experience.

I remember my avatar’s being obliged to sidle down a kind of sewer pipe from Arkham to Dunwich, or similar, to forestall some inexpressible catastrophe which was about to be visited on the region by a tiny plastic ‘monster’ which, had it tumbled from one’s Cornflakes packet in childhood, would have been flicked desultorily into the pedal-bin without a second glance.

We lost … the game itself was declared the winner. But I don’t want to give the impression that nobody enjoyed it. Our host was cooing with delight all evening.

Yours shudderingly,

Carlo Randle (anag.)

The Potger Letter

Oh look! A letter has arrived in the post:

Dear Mr Key : I have long been an avid reader of your witterings, but this is the first time I have felt compelled to write to you. My name is Keith Potger. Last week, two days short of my eighty-first birthday, I learned that I share my name with one of The Seekers, the Antipodean folk/pop sensations of the 1960s, with whom you seem to be (over)familiar. I found it surprising that nobody had ever pointed this out to me before, but there you go, dimpus dempus, as they used to say, in Latin, or Dog Latin, or Pig Latin, or one of the Latins, if memory serves, and it may not, given my advancing years.

The reason I am writing to you is born of concern. As I said, I have been reading your stuff for a long time, and I have until now considered you perhaps the most sensible writer on the planet, if not in the known universe. Many is the time I have whacked my ancient mother on the head, to wake her from her stupor, just so I could recite to her, yelling as loudly as possible into her ear-trumpet, one of your matchless sentences, so full of wisdom and moral rigour.

But now, I am sad to say, I fear you may be teetering on the delusional. You seem to think that every civilised person knows the names of The Seekers. I pride myself on being an incomparably civilised man, in spite of recent unfortunate piddle-stains on my trousers, and until last week I did not know the names of any of them. It is only because of the far-fetched coincidence that I share Keith Potger’s name that I now know one. And yet I am quite well-informed about 1960s pop sensations in general, having committed to memory the Bernard Levin List. Indeed, when I am not shouting your sentences at my ancient mother, I am shouting that list at her, in short bursts, into her ear-trumpet, in an attempt to stimulate her catastrophically fading brain-integuments.

I am minded to observe, however, that should you persist with the absurd fancy that everybody knows The Seekers, my mother appears a mental colossus in comparison. This could be merely the top of a slippery slope for you, Mr Key. I note that you also seem to believe that everybody can reel off the names John, Paul, George, and Ringo (plus Yoko), barely without thinking. What in the name of heaven are you blathering on about? John Paul – without the comma in between – is the name of a pair of late twentieth-century pontiffs of the Holy Apostolic Roman Catholic Church. As for the other three names, in that context they are frankly incomprehensible, and you have obviously made two of them up. I screamed all five names repeatedly into my mother’s ear trumpet, and the dear woman showed not a flicker of recognition. This, for me, is the acid test.

Speaking of the ancient Mrs Potger, I must end this letter now to go and attend to her. The cup affixed under her chin to collect her drool is almost full, so I must empty it into the drool-vat in the pantry.

Please try to get a grip, Mr Key. It will be a tragedy if you lose your marbles.

Ever yours,

Keith Potger (not a Seeker)

The New Look

For a number of reasons, it has proved necessary to faff about with the technical gubbins lurking behind the Hooting Yard website, hence this new look. My – and your – thanks are due to the boffin who worked tirelessly to ensure the whole thing is still here on the internet. He has now gone away to a foreign land for a well-deserved break.

Inevitably, there will be a few teething problems. I noted, for example, that the index to the Archives, making them accessible by date and topic under the tab above, has vanished. I know that most of you lot spend virtually all your waking hours reading, rereading, and rerereading the ten years’ worth of potsages [sic] gathered here, so until we fix that, upon the boffin’s return, I suggest you make use of the Search box to rummage around.

Please let me know of any other blips, bloops, or catastrophic horrors you may spot, and we shall endeavour to put things straight.

Antipodean Chicken-Dyeing

You will be pleased to learn that Mr Key has returned from his sojourn on foreign shores, refreshed, revivified, and ready to shower you once again with sweeping paragraphs of majestic prose. I am not going to tell you much, if anything, about my jaunt, but I think it is worth noting that I met, on my travels, a man called Dave, from Australia who, when young, used to dye chickens different colours. It was not entirely clear to me whether he did this as a form of gainful employment, or for his own entertainment. It might even have been art. I mention this because it occurred to me that an Antipodean chicken-dyer could prove a useful recurring character in the various doings recounted here at Hooting Yard. We shall see.

Oh, one more thing. I was startled to discover that Dave was unable to name the four members of The Seekers. I have long believed – with good reason – that it is the mark of any civilised person, and certainly of any civilised Antipodean, that they can rattle off those names without even having to think, much as one might list John, Paul, George, and Ringo (not forgetting Yoko, of course), or Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, or Wynken, Blynken, and Nod. I have no doubt that every single one of my readers will be as baffled as I was by Dave’s inability in this regard. Perhaps a lethal chemical constituent of the dyes used on those chickens long ago bedizened his brainpans.

Fort Himmelfarb

A reader writes:

Dear Mr Key, I am pleased to hear you are heading abroad for a well-earned break. I would be most interested to know what you are taking with you as holiday reading.

Though I am leaving very early tomorrow morning, I have not finished packing. However, a couple of items have already found their way into my suitcase: the current issue of Fortean Times, and a new collection of essays by Gertrude Himmelfarb.