Over at The Dabbler, my cupboard contains a selection of newspaper headlines which appeared in The Times in 1789 and 1790. Was it really true that the Irish were not refined enough for opera? Did the paper have a regular “Elopements” column? Is it seemly for a clergyman to eat filberts while conducting a burial service? You will not get answers to these important questions, but they are well worth thinking about, are they not?
What with all this book research, Hooting Yard is taking on a rather neglected air, I’m afraid. But a man can only write so much, even Mr Key!
What is happening at the moment is that instead of sitting down with my goose-quill and my parchment and painstakingly inscribing sweeping paragraphs of majestic prose for the elves in the cellar to tap out on a keyboard and post on Het Internet, instead of that more or less daily routine I have devised a quite different routine, which involves browsing through various dusty tomes on the creaking bookshelves of Haemoglobin Towers, winnowing from them choice snippets about the lives and absurdities of persons part and present. Persons such as, to pluck an example at random . . .
Peary, Robert (American explorer, 1856 – 1920). Peary had idiosyncratic views on how best to survive the harsh polar climate. On his expeditions, he never slept in a tent, preferring to remain out in the open with his dogs. He chewed frozen chunks of pemmican (concentrated fat and protein) rather than cooking it.
Today I have also added to my manuscript Britney Spears, Cecil B. DeMille, the ornithologist and aviator Angelo d’Arrigo, and the tearaway son of Edward G. Robinson, among others. No wonder by this time of day (just after 8.00 PM) my wits are addled. (Actually, they were addled simply from considering the activities of Angelo d’Arrigo, but you will have to wait for the book to come out to find out about him.)
So I am going to do my best to inject a bit of vitamin-enhanced vim ‘n’ verve into Hooting Yard, but I hope you will bear with me. Of course one way to hasten my completion of the book so we can all get back to blessed normality is for you lot to send me your own choice snippets of odd and unlikely biographical flapdoodlery (with a note on sources).
So witless are the worlds of television and pop music that when, from time to time, a figure emerges in their midst who is capable of stringing a few coherent sentences together, they are held up as intellectual titans of our age. One thinks of Stephen Fry, regularly – if inexplicably – acclaimed as the possessor of the largest and most pulsating brain on this or any other planet. It is a case of Triton among the minnows, the majority of television persons being so vacuous and stupid that someone like Fry can dazzle simply by using words of three or more syllables.
The delusion is even more pronounced in pop music, and nowhere more preposterously than in the adulation of the lead singer of The Smiths, a band that split up a quarter of a century ago. His autobiography has now been published as a Penguin Classic. Reread and digest that sentence, please, for it tells us much about the pitiable state of our culture, if indeed we could still be said to have one.
What we have here is a combination of overweening vanity (on the part of the pop singer) and the sacrifice of any literary credibility to hard-headed marketing (on the part of the publisher). It would be bad enough had Penguin issued it as a Modern Classic, the usual imprint for suitably recognised works written after 1918. But no, this solipsistic screed is deemed worthy for inclusion in what the Penguin website still maintains is an imprint devoted to “the best literature of several thousand years and countless cultures”.
When the pop singer said “I’d like my book to be published as a Penguin Classic”, the correct response would have been “You are ridiculous. Go away.”
My thoughts are with E. V. Rieu, a proper scholar, the original editor of the Penguin Classics list, who died in 1972. The poor man will be turning in his grave.
So … this book I am working on, due out next year. It will be a whole volume of Brief Lives, as posted recently in The Dabbler. As I explained there, the entries are not really “lives”, in the sense of potted biographies, but a single snippet about each subject, which could be an amusing or bemusing fact, an anecdote, a quotation by or about the person, or in some cases simply the preposterously lengthy title of a book they have written, as in this case:
Mowbray, Jay Henry (American writer, 20th century). Mowbray was the author of the 1912 book Sinking Of The “Titanic”, Most Appalling Ocean Horror With Graphic Descriptions Of Hundreds Swept To Eternity Beneath The Waves; Panic Stricken Multitude Facing Sure Death, And Thrilling Stories Of This Most Overwhelming Catastrophe To Which Is Added Vivid Accounts Of Heart-Rending Scenes, When Hundreds Were Doomed To Watery Graves, Compiled From Soul Stirring Stories Told By Eye Witnesses Of This Terrible Horror Of The Briny Deep.
Much of the material I have gathered thus far (including Mowbray) lies buried deep within the Hooting Yard archives, but of course my research is taking me further afield, to dusty tomes on library shelves. And you lot can be of assistance, by bringing to my attention bits and bobs of information that deserve a place in the book.
The criteria for entries are that they are : amusing or bemusing (or both) ; true, or at least attested as true by a reliable source ; not widely known (though I realise that is a subjective judgement) ; and, oh, there was a fourth, but I cannot recall what it was.
I know all of you will be panting with eagerness to assist Mr Key in his endeavours, and all assistants will be thanked by name in the book. Please send your suggestions to hooting [dot] yard [at] gmail [dot] com. As this will be a scholarly work of reference, please give details of your sources.
Meanwhile, here, for your amusement, is another brief life lugged out of the archives:
Nazário de Lima, Ronaldo Luís (Brazilian footballer, b. 1976). During a football match in 2009, referring to a footballer named Rolando, a television commentator wondered “how long is it since Ronaldo was marked by an anagram of himself?”
I noted the other day that potsages [sic] would be sparse for a while, but I do not want you lot to think I am staring vacantly out of the window with nothing going on in my noggin. If anything, the Key Cranium – soon to be declared a national monument, or possibly even an international monument – is fizzing and bubbling like unto a potion in a test tube on a bench in a laboratory wherein Dr Fang and his grotesque assistant Mungo do whatever it is they do in old crackly black and white films.
So there is much tippy-tapping taking place at Haemoglobin Towers, but none of it is being posted here, or indeed anywhere. The reason for this is that I have somehow found myself having hit upon a scheme deemed to be “commercially viable”, and I am preparing a book to be brought mewling into the light by a reputable publisher next year. For that reason, too, there will not be a Hooting Yard paperback from Lulu this year, although there will be something for you to get your grubby mitts on in time for Christmas – more news of that soon.
Further archival witterings, again from long ago in 2004. This was said to come from a collection called The Vitamin B Pirate Gang & Other Maritime Doggerel by Gervase Beerpint, presumably some relation to your favourite poet and mine, Dennis Beerpint.
Chaps oozing charm wedged in a chest.
There’s no knowing who’ll come out best.
One is called Billy, head made of cork,
Shoulders cast iron, arms and legs chalk.
Mythology enwraps him like a shroud.
His voice is grating and horribly loud.
And then there is Cedric, aquatic, with fins.
He likes to muck about with a box of pins.
He has no ears but his feet are huge.
His entire head is covered in rouge.
Hummingbirds pain him, as do owls.
He’s always had trouble pronouncing vowels.
The third of our trio is Swivel-Eyed Dan.
His head is the shape of a frying pan.
He once went south, looking for bees,
But all his dreams blew away on a breeze.
You have to give credit where it’s due -
But not to Dan when he’s dribbling goo.
Three of them, then, wedged in a chest,
Each one wearing a red satin vest,
Oozing insouciance, polish, and charm.
Let us hope they come to no harm.
But the chest has been stowed in the hold of a ship
Whose captain is moody and curls his lip.
As they sail out from port, the captain growls:
“Damn the beakers! Damm the owls!
Damn the crackers! Damn the flaps!
Damn the chest of charming chaps!”
Two hours later, the ship just sank,
And all that remained was a single plank.
It floated for weeks and was then washed ashore.
I found it on the beach and used it for a door.
So when you come to my stinking hut,
Bringing some food for my stinking mutt,
Go careful by the door and remember your prayers:
“Get wedged in a chest, he who dares”.
Continuing my trawl through the Hooting Yard archives, I found this, from 2004:
Ack spun dig hod bulk frag mint. Shog nit pan get hole tap pote. Rag snout cot bag hag ack ack tix. Nod goo pin pan sap tot foo. Ack ret bit pig nip pap lop fret sip. Pipi ut snap tog tog hoo flap toggle bin pan get hat sop tin ack pan fop. Chap.
I have no idea what it might mean. Perhaps I was trying to devise my own version of Real Orghast.
Here is another potsage [sic] exhumed from the archive. It is from July 2005 and marks the very first appearance on these pages of fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol who, I am somewhat alarmed to note, I claimed was my father. What this might mean is for a quack brain doctor to unravel.
When I turn my mind to the great sprint champions of the past, I often think of Bobnit Tivol. He came from the Tyrol, and he was such a fast runner that it was said he could outrun an express train, which was a strange thing to say, for at that time there were no trains, express or otherwise, in the Tyrol. But of course Bobnit Tivol was famous throughout the world, and he often raced in foreign countries, so it is conceivable that he was tempted on one of his travels to compete against a railway train. His trainer was cranky old Halob, who himself had been a very great sprinter. Making his champion run in front of, rather than alongside, a speeding train is exactly the kind of technique Halob would have used. Once, it is said, he made Bobnit Tivol run an uphill double marathon wearing an iron vest, twice in one day.
One has only to consider the records broken by Bobnit Tivol to recognise him for the superb sprinter he was. Leafing through old athletics almanacks, his name appears again and again and again, invariably in capital letters, annotated by one, two, or even three stars, at the top of every list. They say he had to rent a warehouse to store all his cups and shields and trophies. To think that he had won all the major Tyrolean sprinting events before he was twenty years old is to gasp in wonder.
Could he have succeeded without old Halob? They made a striking pair, the whippet-like runner with his mop of golden hair and the wheezing, elderly man, who smoked four packets of Black Ague rolling tobacco every day, dressed always in his Stalinist cardigan, a stopwatch in each pocket, leaning on a stick he claimed to have broken off the Tree of Heaven.
If I shut my eyes I see them still, my father and his mentor, Bobnit Tivol and old Halob, heroic figures from a past I have had to invent anew, for none of it is true.
Delving in the archives, for reasons related to Project Thrilling, I came upon this postage from 2008 which, my memory being the puny thing it is, I had completely forgotten. Well worth rereading.
1. A raven called Dot-son-paa created the world.
2. Startled blackbirds emit piercing cries because they think they are about to be attacked by demons.
3. Each legion of the Roman Army had a Pullarius, whose job it was to look after the cage of sacred chickens they carried with them.
4. If a dove flies over a coal mine, disaster is likely to follow.
5. The souls of unbaptised children take the form of nightjars.
6. Cuckoos in Herefordshire buy horses at a country fair, and sell them at another.
7. Beowulf was reincarnated as a woodpecker.
8. Every single corncrake in Siberia got there by riding on the back of a crane.
9. If you want to provoke someone to commit suicide, send them a picture of an owl.
10. A splinter of wood from a coffin will keep sparrows at bay.
11. If you drink boiled magpie broth you will go mad.
12. If a woman befriends a stork, it will bring her jewellery.
13. In an apotheosis, an eagle is hidden behind a blazing waxen image of a dead emperor, and released when it has melted away.
14. Epileptics can transfer their illness to a chicken by carrying it three times around a well and then spending the night with it asleep under a church altar.
15. It is a good idea to place a wooden diver atop a tall post at the corner of a grave.
16. Robins can speak Latin.
17. Jesus turned a woman into a lapwing after she baked him a cake.
18. On every beach there is a magic stone that cures blindness, but only swallows know how to find it.
19. One way to find gold is to carry with you a stone vomited up by a crane.
20. If you hear a cuckoo before eating your breakfast, ill fortune will follow, possibly to include a loss of feeling in your arms and legs.
21. Nightingales used to be one-eyed, but borrowed the eye from a blindworm and never returned it.
22. Ireland has been called “the swan abounding land”.
23. Pelicans are the most pious of birds.
24. To avoid being bitten by a rabid dog, tuck the heart and right foot of an owl under your left armpit.
25. Cranes migrate south for the sole purpose of launching savage attacks on miniature people, about seven inches high, who they gobble up.
26. You can protect your house from lightning strikes by keeping a blackbird in your living room
27. Crossbills watch over children who fall asleep in direct moonlight and may therefore otherwise come to harm.
28. If bird eggs are incubated by frogs, the birds that hatch from them, irrespective of the parent birds, will be stonechats.
29. Migrating quails are terrified of the sea, and shut their eyes when crossing it, thus often colliding with ships.
30. Nail a dead owl to your barn to protect against storms.
31. The earth was created from mud collected by white-billed divers.
32. If you eat roasted swallow, you are likely to be attacked by dragons.
33. A crossbill tried, but failed, to wrench the nails from Christ’s cross during the crucifixion.
34. You can kill gnats and flies with a handful of soil taken from where you are standing when you hear a cuckoo call.
35. If you are lucky enough to find a stone known as an alectorius in the gizzard of a chicken, you will become invisible.
36. The Virgin Mary decided to marry Joseph after she saw a dove land on his head.
37. Three Roman emperors died after owls perched on the roofs of their villas.
38. If you dissolve the eyes of a quail in water, then mix with oil and rub it onto a burning rag, you will take on the appearance of a devil on fire.
39. Eagles can look at the sun without blinking.
40. The god Asmodi appears in the form of a goose and envelops Frisian peasants in darkness while they engage in sex orgies.
41. Cuckoos turn into birds of prey around June or July.
42. Widowed doves only drink from muddy puddles after dark.
43. Barnacle geese are hatched from shells attached to waterlogged timbers tossed along the sea, and are at first like gum.
44. You will be admired by everyone you meet if you keep in your pocket the eyes of a hoopoe.
45. It is advisable to be sitting down when you see a swallow.
46. If you hear a lapwing call, you should throw a bowl of water into the air.
47. Kingfishers live on riverbanks because they are searching for Noah’s Ark.
48. Magpies have a drop of human blood on their tongues.
49. When putting on a play, avoid having any peacock feathers on stage, or disaster will strike.
50. Nightjars attack cattle with their beaks and give them a disease known as puckeridge.
51. You will not get a proper night’s sleep if you have the heart and eyes of a nightingale in your bed.
52. Pelicans are known to set fire to themselves by flapping their wings excessively near bonfires.
53. You can forecast wind direction by hanging a dead kingfisher upside down from a length of thread, and watching which way its breast faces.
54. The liver of a hoopoe, pounded to a pulp and mixed with crocus, is a surefire cure for lung disease.
55. The god Odin had two pet ravens called Hugin and Munin, who spent all day flying around the world, returning at night to perch on his shoulder and tell him what they had seen and heard.
56. If you are holding a robin when it dies, your hand will never stop shaking.
57. On Sundays, rooks sit quietly on branches and do not carry sticks in their beaks.
58. To encourage rainfall, it is a good idea to get some swallows and throw them into a pond.
59. Sometimes you should pretend that a wren is a beast of enormous size, and drag a dead one into town on a wagon drawn by four oxen.
60. There are some trees which fall into the sea and become birds.
My source for much of this information is Flights Of Fancy : Birds In Myth, Legend & Superstition by Peter Tate. Highly recommended.
Once upon a time there was a thing that clanked. Clank clank clank, it went, clank clank clank clank clank. It kept on clanking, monotonous and tireless. The clanking had some connection with steam. Then it so happened that one day it went clank clank clunk. It clunked a second time and, after a long pause, a third time, and then it wheezed, and then it was silent and still.
A man came. He had a wrench and a hammer and other such things. He carried them in a pippy bag. The man deployed his wrench and hammer and other such things, clambering up on the thing that used to clank and burrowing beneath it too. Every now and then he would step back to gaze at it from a distance and at these times he would furrow his brow and rub his chin with his hand.
Then it began to rain, oh a proper old downpour, almost Biblical. The man hauled a tarpaulin over the thing that once had clanked but now clanked no more. He trudged off to a hut to smoke his pipe.
It was while he was smoking his pipe that he heard news on the transistor radio in the hut. The announcer in a plummy voice said there was an uprising of peasants. The peasants were in a flap about several matters, one such matter being the clanking thing. Its clanking disturbed the birds and the birds shunned the area around the thing, yea even unto a radius of two miles. The uprising peasants did not explain why they were in such a flap about the absence of birds.
The man smoking his pipe in the hut realised that the clanking thing must have been sabotaged by the peasants. It struck him that if he fixed it, with his wrench and hammer and other such things, as he had been trying to do when the rain began to fall, that the peasants would be in an even greater flap and they would likely hunt him down and beat him to death with their shovels. So when the rain stopped, at last, he popped his wrench and hammer and other such things into his pippy bag and he trudged away, back to his chalet on a mountainside somewhere far away.
But before he left he turned to take a last look at the clanking thing, now silent and still and covered by a tarpaulin. And he saw that five or six birds had already come to perch upon it. And as he walked away, more and more birds arrived, swooping down to perch on the tarpaulin, until there were thousands of them, in serried ranks, terrible as an army with banners.
Once upon a time there was a clucking thing. It was made of wire and wax and string and it made a clucking noise when you pressed a knob. The knob was located on what might have been its head. I say “might have been” because the thing didn’t really have a head, not a proper head, like my head or your head. It was a sort of boxy shape, this thing. The knob was set over to one side on the very upper part of it, which tapered slightly. That is why I said “head”, because the knob was on the upper part, to give you some idea. Were the knob set lower, as low as could be, I could have said it was located on the thing’s foot, even though it did not have a foot, or feet, not as such.
It was not a mobile thing. If you wanted to move it, you had to pick it up and put it where you wanted it to be and it would stay there until you picked it up again and moved it somewhere else. It did not make a clucking sound unless you pressed the knob.
It was yellow.
It was yellow except for the knob, which was red, or perhaps orange. Also, its underside was beige. But its underside was almost always resting on the floor, and so was not visible. If you picked it up and rested it on its side, or – in a moment of hysteria – upside down, it did not cluck when you pressed the knob, no matter how hard and insistently and repeatedly you pressed the knob. It had to be placed upright, with the beige part on the floor.
It was roughly the same size as a big duck.
If you placed a microphone next to it, to amplify the clucking sound when you pressed the knob, the proximity of the microphone created some sort of feedback. Then the thing howled, a terrifying ear-splitting howl, whether or not you were pressing the knob. It would continue howling until you moved the microphone somewhere else, further away, preferably into a different room, or even into a different building. After howling, the thing would take some time to settle itself before pressing its knob would make it cluck. Immediately after howling, when you pressed the knob the thing would wheeze. You would probably have to wait about five minutes before it would cluck again properly,
The thing did not do anything else except cluck, howl, or wheeze. It fulfilled no higher purpose. Unless you were particularly fond of boxy yellow immobile things, it did not really prettify a room, like a vase of brilliant flowers, or a framed picture of a parson skating on a frozen pond.
It was not the only thing of its kind in the world. At the last count there were something like twenty million of them. Most of them, the things that cluck when you press the knob, were buried in landfill sites. Human ingenuity can be immensely befuddling.
You lot need to replace your copies of Dracula by Bram Stoker, and you need to do so right now. Well, actually, make that on Thursday, when the new paperback edition pictured above is published. The reason you need to do so is because this edition is illustrated by my second-born son, Edwood Burn. It is his first publication, released as he begins the final year of his illustration degree, so it seems to me you ought to go and buy it out of your devoted loyalty to Hooting Yard.
Flouncing along the insalubrious streets of my bailiwick the other day, I passed a shop, the windows of which were plastered with a riot of signage announcing, I supposed, the goods and services available within. Among these, the one I took particular note of was BUTCHERS’ TRAVEL CARDS.
It had never occurred to me that butchers required special permits to roam beyond their immediate premises, but the more I thought about it the more it seemed a sensible measure. After all, there are few experiences more unnerving than boarding a bus and finding that the only spare seat is next to a butcher in his bloody apron, waving his bloody cleaver. In such circumstances, it would be reassuring to know that the butcher had special permission to be aboard the bus, and had not just taken it into his head to go riding around on a whim. Freely roving butchers, on the look out for a cow or a pig to hew, are a menace.
Here I am making the assumption, of course, that butchers are vetted for soundness of mind and moral probity before their travel passes are issued. Otherwise the system falls apart at the seams, much in the way the carcass of an ox does when, spotting the living ox in a field from the window of the bus, the free roaming butcher forces the driver to halt, uses the emergency knob to open the doors, charges across the field towards the ox, fells it with a blow from his axe, and then chops it to pieces.
It follows, then, that the shopkeeper has a duty to check the credentials of a butcher before handing over his travel card. Butchers cleared for travel must be in possession of a certificate or warrant, signed by a person authorised to allow butchers to travel, and stamped with an official mark. The bureaucracy of all this is bewildering but admirable.
Just as there are rogue butchers who will sneak out of their premises and go a-wandering without a pass, it seems likely that there are also rogue shopkeepers who are prepared to hand out butchers’ travel cards like confetti, without first making the proper checks. I sincerely hope my local shopkeeper is not such a moral pygmy, but given the general insalubriousness of my bailiwick, it would not come as a surprise.
It occurred to me that I could test the shopkeeper by prancing into his shop and asking to buy a butchers’ travel card. But by the time I was struck by this thought I had passed far beyond the stretch of street where stood the shop, and I was reluctant to turn back. I had come to a different string of shops, one of which was a butchers’. As I approached it, the door was flung open and out came the butcher, in his bloody apron, waving his bloody cleaver, roaring and shouting. He had spied a small pig at the trough in the square.
I was about to intervene, with mad yet civic-minded bravery, when I spotted, slotted into the band of his butchers’ hat, in full view, a blue and yellow laminated plastic rectangle. It was his butchers’ travel card! I waved him on his way – though in truth he was taking no notice of me – and he fell upon the small pig with horrible inhuman cries, dismembering it where it stood.
It was only later, back at home, that I realised the butcher may have obtained his butchers’ travel card under false pretences. Legally, he may have been properly confined within the walls of his butchers’ shop. I resolved, next time I went flouncing about my bailiwick, to call in at the Central Butchers’ Registration Office, to report my suspicions. You may think me an interfering busybody, but better safe than sorry.