A further nugget from the archives. One In A Series Of Hiking Pickles first appeared on this day eight years ago.
Dobson lived in the era before mobile phones, of course, so when he found himself imperilled in an isolated spot he had to harness every last scrap of ingenuity to summon help. You or I would simply make a call on our mobile – well, you would, but I wouldn’t, because I do not own a mobile phone and never shall, for they are an abomination unto me – but this was not an option for Dobson, so what did he do?
Let us take a closer look at the circumstances. It was a Tuesday in February. Football fans were grieving the loss of the Busby Babes in the Munich Air Disaster, Pope Pius XII had declared that Saint Clare was to be the patron saint of television, and little blind David Blunkett was just eleven years old. Meanwhile, Dobson got lost on an ill-advised hiking expedition and found himself exhausted, in a spinney, menaced by feral goats. The out of print pamphleteer had also managed to get himself hopelessly entangled in a thicket of thorny brambly creeping greenery rife with puffy spiders and venomous beetles. That’s the kind of spinney it was, at least twenty miles from the nearest village, and with no paths nor country lanes leading anywhere close to it. There was, it is true, a big pylon a couple of dozen yards away, but it was a lone pylon, unconnected to any kind of electrical grid or other wiring system, a pylon the purpose of which was unknown, and it was a pylon of rust, suggestive of abandonment and disuse.
This was not the first time Dobson had been in a hiking pickle, and it would not be the last. Indeed, late in life he had enough material to furnish a pamphlet entitled An Anthology Of Disastrous Hiking Mishaps Cobbled Together From A Lifetime Of Ill-Starred Rustic Pursuits (out of print). What was significant about this particular pickle was the manner in which Dobson succeeded in extricating himself from it.
This was the period during which he had joined an experimental knitting circle, and as luck would have it he had in his noddy bag that day his latest project. It was an interpretation, in wool, of The Wreck Of The Deutschland by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Dobson realised that, when fully unravelled, the yarn would stretch for miles. He sat down in the brambles, lit his pipe, took the scrunched-up woollen masterpiece out of his noddy bag, and unravelled, unravelled, unravelled. Two hours later he was still unravelling. The sun was setting by the time he was done, but Dobson had no fear of the night, for he was sanguine.
Frequently Asked Question : Why didn’t the pamphleteer use his portable metal tapping machine to call for help?
Answer : He was unable to use his portable metal tapping machine because there was no ground-level pneumatic hub within reach.
The wool fully unravelled, Dobson tapped out his pipe on a stone and beckoned to one of the feral Toggenbergs. The goats were still gathered in a gang on the edge of the spinney, and it is a mystery why they had not attacked the bramble-trapped pamphleteer. In the Anthology, Dobson suggested that a combination of acrid pipe smoke, unravelled wool, and his sanguine nature had deterred the goats, but it seems that for once he was being modest. Almost certainly, the decisive factor was Dobson’s eerie ability to mesmerise goats, especially Toggenbergs. It is a skill which has not been much remarked upon, possibly because Dobson himself made light of it, and – curiously – never devoted a pamphlet to it. But he had been practising goat mesmerisation since he was a babe in arms, and now his expertise paid off. Beckoning a Toggenberg, as I said, Dobson tied one end of the length of wool around one of its Satanic horns, then whispered goat-language into its ear. We do not know what he said, but presumably it was something like “Scamper away, goat, in a straight line, and do not stop until you reach a village”.
It was not a village that the goat scampered to, however. Three hours after being entranced, it came to a wire fence, chewed its way through, and, in so doing, set off a hideous caterwauling alarm system. The night was filled with noise, and the Toggenberg was caught in the white glare of a Kleig light. Within seconds, it was surrounded by a clomping troop of visored commandos armed with Simon & Garfunkel rifles. Inadvertently, the mesmerised capricorn had stumbled into a top secret military intelligence compound. A commando with a captain’s badge bundled the goat onto a bauxite cradle chained to a winch, while a second commando, this one with a cadet’s badge, untied the wool from its horn.
Miles away, Dobson was smoking his pipe and lackadaisically paying out the wool, hand over hand. Suddenly, he felt it jerk, and held on tight. And then he was yanked free of the thorny brambly creeping greenery rife with puffy spiders and venomous beetles and dragged across a wasteland of fields and gravel pits and sumps and countryside filth until he fetched up at the feet of the commandos who reeled him in, just as midnight struck.
That is how Dobson got out of a hiking pickle, only to find himself in a very alarming dilemma indeed, slap bang in the middle of a military intelligence compound that was top secret for very good reasons – reasons which, even at a distance of fifty years, I am far too terrified to divulge. He was placed in a holding cell with the feral goat and interrogated at length. The wool was returned to him and he asked for, and was given, a pair of knitting needles. Between interrogations he was able to re-knit The Wreck Of The Deutschland, although much of his woollen reimagining of the lines about the Tall Nun was gnawed into scritty by the Toggenberg. By the time the commandos released the pamphleteer, having scrambled his brainpans so thoroughly that he remembered nothing after the spinney, Richard Milhous Nixon had published his book Six Crises, Pluto and Neptune were in alignment for the first time in 403 years, and little blind David Blunkett was no longer so little.
Dobson returned home even more sanguine than before the hiking pickle. As for the feral goat, it stayed with the commandos. They adopted it as a pet, and called it Flopsy.
The world’s leading exponent of avant garde oriental shadow puppetry celebrates her birthday today. Let’s all send her some money!
As most of you lot know, I do not engage with Twitter. (The Hooting Yard Twitfeed is an automated bit of gubbins that updates whenever I post something here.). It has been brought to my attention, however, that last week I was all over Twitter like a rash – if being retwitted over fifty times is, as I am assured, a rash. The cause of the hoo-hah was the attention given to a letter I had published in The Spectator which is, I hope, self-explanatory.
With two days remaining before bidding closes, I must remind you of this year’s Hooting Yard auction item for the Resonance104.4FM fundraiser. The highest bidder will be immortalised forever by having their name (or that of a loved one) incorporated into the title of an out of print pamphlet by Dobson. And not only that! They will also be invited to attend the Resonance studio for the live broadcast of the show when Mr Key reads the as yet unwritten story on air, and to go and have a cup of tea with him afterwards.
As I write, the top bid is £50, a paltry sum when you consider the prize on offer. And do remember that every penny raised goes straight into the pockets of ResonanceFM, from where it will be disbursed in manifold ways to ensure the continued existence, and improvement, of the world’s finest radio station.
There are many other items still to bid for, so do please check on all of them here.
Today, unbelievably, we celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Hooting Yard Soup Committee. That is to say, it is precisely ten years ago today that this piece, entitled Soup Committee, first appeared at Hooting Yard:
Dobson rarely sought collaborators in his pamphleteering work, preferring to plough his furrow alone. Occasionally, however, his schemes were so ambitious that it was necessary to call in help. One such plan led to the formation of what became known as the Soup Committee.
Dobson woke up one wintry morning with an idea in his head. This was not uncommon, but usually his ideas could be – and were – dashed off in a brief pamphlet. Not so the gigantic multi-volume work he pictured in his mind, a compendium of every known soup recipe ever conceived, throughout human history, from the dawn of time to today’s date, across all cultures and civilisations. Even Dobson realised that he could not accomplish so mighty a project single-handed, so he asked Marigold Chew to draw up a list of likely contributors. The Soup Committee was her idea. Reasoning that if she invited people to take part in a Dobson plan they would probably decline, and thus shatter the pamphleteer’s already shattered nerves, she used her usual hardline tactics. The letter she sent out to over eight hundred unsuspecting souls is preserved in the Dobson Archive.
Dear Soup Person, it read, This is to inform you that you have been empanelled on to the Soup Committee. Your empanelment is effective from today’s date and remains in force until such time as you die. The full implications of your membership of the Committee will follow by separate post, but you had better start gathering soup recipes right now. Yours decisively, Marigold Chew, pp Dobson.
The pamphleteer himself decided to begin by garnering soup recipes from the Old and New Testaments, and set about rereading his Bible with pencil and notepad in hand. He was distraught, at the end of this exercise, to discover that the word “soup” appears nowhere in the Authorised Version, or King James Bible, which was the edition he swore by. He went back to the beginning and realised that “pottage” was possibly a synonym for “soup”, although it might also mean what we know as “stew”. Undeterred, Dobson was able to fill a couple of pages of his notepad.
In Genesis 25, for example, we have, 29 And Jacob sod pottage: and Esau came from the field, and he was faint, 30 And Esau said to Jacob, Feed me, I pray thee, with that same red pottage; for I am faint: therefore was his name called Edom, and 34 Then Jacob gave Esau bread and pottage of lentiles; and he did eat and drink, and rose up, and went his way: thus Esau despised his birthright. This is elsewhere translated as And Esau sold his birthright for a mess of pottage, of course, a resounding phrase we would all do well to remember.
Moving on to the second book of Kings, chapter four, after having soup for lunch, Dobson read 38 And Elisha came again to Gilgal: and there was a dearth in the land; and the sons of the prophets were sitting before him: and he said unto his servant, Set on the great pot, and seethe pottage for the sons of the prophets, 39 And one went out into the field to gather herbs, and found a wild vine, and gathered thereof wild gourds his lap full, and came and shred them into the pot of pottage: for they knew them not, and finally 40 So they poured out for the men to eat. And it came to pass, as they were eating of the pottage, that they cried out, and said, O thou man of God, there is death in the pot. And they could not eat thereof.
Towards the end of the Old Testament, Dobson found one last mention of soup, or stew, in Haggai 2: 12 If one bear holy flesh in the skirt of his garment, and with his skirt do touch bread, or pottage, or wine, or oil, or any meat, shall it be holy? And the priests answered and said, No.
Seven verses, but presumably only three different soups, the most interesting to Dobson being the one in Kings which has “death in the pot”. What was this poisonous potion? We know that Dobson was a vain, even arrogant pamphleteer, but he did have some small shred of humility. He recognised that if his great work on soup was to be definitive, every single recipe would have to be authorised by an expert. Marigold Chew sent a second letter to the members of the Committee.
Dear Empanelled Soup Committee Person, she wrote, As a matter of urgency, further detail is required on the wild gourds which were shredded into the pottage mentioned in 2 Kings 4:39, as well as the ingredients already in the pot, which, as you know, contained death. Send your reply by courier. Yours tenaciously, Marigold Chew, pp Dobson.
Not a single one of the recipients ever replied. Dobson himself soon lost interest in soup recipes, filed his notes away, and embarked that very same winter on a series of pamphlets about sodium, postage stamps, the manufacture of church bells, loosely-fitting cardigans, gutta percha price fluctuations and Plovdiv. One by one, over the years, the Soup Committee members died out. It is thought that only three of them are still alive, one in Bastwick, one in Cleves, and one, now 104 years old, fit as a fiddle, plying a ferry across an inlet at an unidentified seaside resort battered by gales, battered by storms, battered by gales, battered.
When I posted Bonkers Maisie here a couple of weeks ago, Pansy Cradledew said “I’d like to hear that set to music by Outa_Spaceman”. And lo! it has now been set to music and performed by Mr Spaceman. You can listen to his fine rendition here.
Next up, I would like to hear a large-scale Orchestral Variations On A Theme Of Bonkers Maisie By Outa_Spaceman, and perhaps an ear-splitting choral version, but I suppose that is too much to ask.
I ought to have posted a Pietà yesterday, but events of the past few days have led me to leave Hooting Yard untended. First there was an eye test involving blurring-effect droppages, then a three-hour marathon radio broadcast as part of the ResonanceFM fundraiser week, and certain other matters which I may go into at a later date. Onwards and upwards!
[Continuing, seamlessly, from where Tokenism left off …]
After several minutes, bidding farewell to the goats, Poumfrex descended from his mountain fastness. His unexpected return home to Tea Strainer House, family pile of the centuries-old Poumfrex tea strainer manufacturing dynasty, was not unlike the unexpected return home of Charles Rainier in Random Harvest (Mervyn LeRoy, 1942). Just as we weep, uncontrollably, at any viewing of that film, so there was weeping within the walls of Tea Strainer House, and outside, in its gardens too.
There was one significant difference. Charles Rainier, played by Ronald Colman (1891-1958), sports a dapper moustache. Poumfrex did not. He had grown one once, in his youth, when first able to, but it had sprouted in an entirely different colour to the rest of his hair, which, at that time, was browny tawny chestnutty, with flecks of ginger and black. The colour of the incipient moustache was indescribable. It appeared to be a shade outwith the known spectrum, and thus it provoked remark, usually unkind remark, and this was unwelcome to Poumfrex, who in his youth was shy and self-conscious. He was no longer so, but he chose never to revisit moustacheland.
He felt himself touched by the copious weeping which greeted his return, and pranced like a ninny through all the halls and corridors of his beloved home, blowing kisses and waving his arms. He gave little thought to the sad fellow with the coupons he had been paid to escort and who had thrown himself down a well. Poumfrex’s communion with goats in the mountains had restored the boisterous and bright-eyed optimism which came naturally to him.
Whence it came was a deep mystery, for all the other members of his clan were sombre and sour and moody and pernickety and rancorous and morose and always, always, weeping, gushing great buckets of tears at the faintest of plucks on their heartstrings.
But he was happy to be home, and he avoided the sounds of constant wailing and keening, once he had done his tour of the house, by taking a turn around the gardens. Here were the filbert hedges and ha-has, the lupins and hollyhocks and topiary tea strainers of his childhood. Memories came flooding back as he pranced like a ninny in the torrential rain. He remembered the day he saw gnomes hiding behind the hedges. He remembered the Great Watering Can Party. He remembered the visit of Neville Chamberlain with his odd-shaped head. He remembered lying on his back on the lawn in the middle of the night, gazing up at obsolete constellations of stars. He remembered digging Ruskinian holes, and filling them with conkers. He remembered Mr Snippage, the old head gardener, who looked like the aged Ruskin, and, like Ruskin, had hallucinatory visions of snakes.
While Poumfrex was happily remembering all these things in the garden, an unaccustomed silence had fallen inside the house. There was no longer any weeping, no wailing nor keening. Just like in Three Days Of The Condor (Sydney Pollack, 1975), where CIA analyst Joe Turner, played by Robert Redford (b.1936) pops out of the office for five minutes and returns to find all his colleagues have been slaughtered, so when Poumfrex stepped back in through the French windows he discovered that every single occupant of Tea Strainer House had been done to death while he was prancing like a ninny around the garden.
Poumfrex had a nose for crime. As he wandered through the halls and corridors of his beloved home counting the bodies, one idea impressed itself with more and more intensity upon his brain. This must be the work of the lumbering walrus-moustached serial killer Babinsky!
[To be continued … ]
Tokenism, they called it, when they gave Bligliglabb his weekly coupons. Bligliglabb was glad of them, very glad, but he did not understand why they called it tokenism. Was it not couponism? Once or twice they took him aside and tried to din into his head the difference between a token and a coupon, and their isms, but Bligliglabb was dense, very dense, and could not twig. So they parked him on a couch in a corridor and had him brought a cup of tea from time to time, while they arranged for somebody to come and take him away.
That somebody was Poumfrex, of the tea strainer Poumfrexes. With his big potato head and garrulous manner, Poumfrex held no hostages to fortune nor saw the mote in his own eye. Other motes, other eyes, oh certainly, it was one of the things he was known for, far and wide. That is why they called on him. He was sentimentally appreciative of Bligliglabb’s denseness. He held him by the hand and led him out along the corridor and through the exit into the bounteous fields.
Bligliglabb was naturally concerned about his coupons. Keep them stuffed in your pocket, was Poumfrex’s advice, and it was well-meant, very well-meant. But when they passed by a well, Bligliglabb took the coupons from his pocket and tossed them down the well. Poumfrex turned him about and took him back to the couch in the corridor and told him to sit tight. Never had he encountered such denseness. It left him in a lather. Once he was out of sight of Bligliglabb he biffed his fists against a wall.
That day there were no further coupons for Bligliglabb, but they did have one token left in the pot. It was a lovely little token, round and shiny and stamped with the head in profile of Tippi Hedren. We’ll give him that, they decided, and sew it into a cloth pochette and sew the pochette into his pocket and that way the token won’t follow the coupons down the well. Poumfrex nodded, he could see the beauty in the scheme.
But dense as he was, Bligliglabb twitted them all. When Poumfrex led him out into the bounteous fields again, with the token in the pochette sewn fast inside his pocket, he let go Poumfrex’s hand at a critical moment and ran towards the well and jumped into it.
When they eventually received the permissions, they sent a salvage team to recover the coupons and the token and whatever was left of Bligliglabb. His soul had fled. The soul of Poumfrex was still intact, but it was dented and battered beyond repair, and thereafter he was to be found in mountainous terrain, among goats, a shadow of his former tea strainer dynasty self.
This was commended to my attention (by R.). Now it is commended to your attention (by me).
Oh, and elsewhere Douglas Murray notes the new thought-crime of “nun-dismissal”.
I am seriously concerned at the stupidity of so-called “scientists”, joined by a writer on philosophy, going to the Harz Miountains to make a goat stand in a ring at midnight to see if, when a Latin incantation was recited, the animal would turn into a young man. – Hannen Swaffer, 1932
Back in January, I promised to tell you more about “the ridiculous Brocken affair” involving ghost-hunter Harry Price, a goat, a maiden “pure in heart”, and The Bloksberg Tryst. If you hie over to The Dabbler, you will find a full account.
Quite often, a farmer will choose to give one of his cows the name Buttercup. This is lost on the cow itself, which is too stupid to understand the concept of names for things. When a cow gazes upon the world it is as if through a dense mental fog. We can go some way to replicating this, even with our much mightier brain power. For instance, I once spent a morning – a misty morning – standing in a field, chewing on a mouthful of uprooted grass, staring straight ahead, and emptying my mind of all and any stimulus, using a technique I learned from a witch doctor. It was a salutary experience, and afterwards I felt I had a much greater understanding of the interior world of a cow. I continued the experiment by asking people to call me Buttercup, to see if I would respond when my name was spoken aloud. I did not so respond, on that day or on any day thereafter. If somebody called out, in my hearing, “Oi! Mr Key!”, my ears would prick up and I would look around for whomsoever had called my name, and, when I spotted them, raise an eyebrow and answer “Yes, what is it you want, my good fellow?” or, as it may be, “my good woman?”, or even “young urchin?” But I found that when somebody yelled “Buttercup! Buttercup!” my immediate reaction was to assume I had fallen among florists.
It can be quite unnerving to fall among florists, particularly when there is a gang of them. They tend to hold, in their clenched fists, bunches of buttercups or daffodils or god alone knows how many different types of flowers, and they will thrust them under your nose while holding out the open palm of their free hand in expectation of coinage. The idea is that you give them money and in return they present you with the bunch of buttercups, or whatever. But when there is a whole sussuration of florists surrounding you, each importuning you, it is no easy matter to pick one out of the crowd and to buy his sprig in preference to any other sprig, and it is unlikely you are carrying enough cash to be able to afford all the blooms thrust at you. Whenever I fall among florists in this manner, I remember the lessons I learned from the witch doctor, and I assume the mien of a cow. Usually, but not always, the florists will disperse.
If the florists do not disperse, the best idea is to snap out of your cow-trance and to shake a stick at them, the more wildly the better, accompanying the wild shaking of the stick with blood-curdling screams. Production of such screams can also be taught to you by any witch doctor worth their salt.
If you intend to eat a dish of buttercups, either raw or cooked, do not garnish them with salt. If, on the other hand, you have it in mind to eat a cow called Buttercup, a sprinkle of salt does not go amiss, and will make the meat more palatable. For vegetarians, a cow made out of marzipan is an acceptable substitute, but here again, as with the buttercups, it should be innocent of a salt seasoning.
Never eat buttercups in the presence of a florist.
Long, long ago, my friend Phil and I decided to make our fortunes in the music business. Lacking the ability to sing or to play an instrument, we determined to be managers. We envisaged ourselves as a pair of Svengalis, with a stable of artists who would conquer the charts, allowing us to retire to Bransonian tropical islands before our thirtieth birthdays.
How could things possibly go wrong?, we thought, considering the first bands on our roster. There was Snakewizard, a generic heavy metal band of no great originality – but then, originality is the last thing the punters want in a heavy metal group. We would help them along with song lyrics, but otherwise leave them to practise their deafening din and grow their hair.
The important thing was to have a broad range of artists, covering different markets. Snakewizard took care of the heavy metal fans, and our second group – The Toofles – appealed to a wholly different audience. The Toofles were essentially a novelty band for pre-teens, not unlike The Wombles. Their songs had no artistic merit whatsoever but, we thought, would be wildly popular with the tinies.
The fatal flaw in our scheme, and the reason that the Bransonian islands remained forever out of reach, was that neither Snakewizard nor The Toofles ever existed outside our pulsating greedy brains. They were only ever figments of our imagination … where they remain lodged, now grown old and grey, and without a back catalogue – or indeed any catalogue at all – to fall back on.
They are still two of my favourite groups.