A Note On Nomenclature

I recall reading somewhere or other that, when asked to describe his ideal reader, James Joyce said he envisaged somebody spending the best part of their life devoted to the diligent study of his work, to the exclusion of all other concerns. Without for a moment comparing myself to Joyce, I must admit that his is an attitude of which I wholly approve. After all, why do we write at all, if we do not take our own work with the utmost seriousness, and expect readers – or at least some readers – to do likewise?

Laughable and hopeless it may be, but I like to think that, long after my mortal remains have been devoured by worms, there will be a small body of beetle-browed scholars poring over every word I have ever written, trying to wring from it everything that can be wrung. It is for them, as yet unborn, that I offer this tiny contribution to their important research.

In the mid-1980s I worked as a drudge and minion in a local authority office in London. One day I was given the task, who knows for what purpose?, of sorting through the personnel files of past employees – those who had left, or retired, or died. There were hundreds of these files, beige cardboard folders containing the dim dull records of long-forgotten members of staff. As I worked my way through them, two names grabbed my attention and lodged in my brain, where they have remained ever since.

Shortly afterwards, in the latter half of the decade, I had my epiphany upon reading Dallas Wiebe’s line “When you have nothing to say, you write prose”, and began to write prose. And in writing prose fiction, I learned that one of the things you have to do is to give your characters names. How to choose those names? Over the years, I have used a number of different methods. But back then, I realised I had a couple of excellent names stuck in my head. Yes, they were the identifiable names of real people, but “no resemblance to anyone living or dead blah blah blah” should cover it.

The first ex-employee of the council whose name I appropriated was B. Bewg. He became the “hero” of Mr Bewg’s Reference, a tale the register of which is clearly also indebted to my rummaging through those personnel files.

The other name that sang to me, and still does, was Nuttawood Sirinuntananon. The more diligent scholars will, I hope, work out that that must be a real name – after all, who would, could, make it up? I can’t actually recall, today, where I first deployed Mr. S., but it will have been in one of the early out of print pamphlets. He reappeared very briefly at Hooting Yard in 2004 and, with a different forename, in 2012 – where, I am pleased to note, you will also encounter a certain Krumbein, who was also a council employee, though one I actually met, as he had not yet been consigned to the beige cardboard graveyard.

Gosh, this is the kind of stuff that will have future scholars in ecstasy. I try to be helpful.

Invoking Sumai (2)

Here is an example of the way in which invoking Sumai can liven up the most tedious of evenings.

A country road. A tree. Evening.

Estragon, sitting on a low mound, is trying to take off his boot. He pulls at it with both hands, panting. He gives up, exhausted, rests, tries again.

As before.

Enter Vladimir.

ESTRAGON: (giving up again) Nothing to be done.

VLADIMIR: (advancing with short, stiff strides, legs wide apart) I’m beginning to come round to that opinion. All my life I’ve tried to put it from me, saying Vladimir, be reasonable, you haven’t yet tried everything.

ESTRAGON : (interrupting) I invoke Sumai!

Enter a big band orchestra, crooners, chorus girls, dancers, acrobats, jugglers, clowns, etc, who proceed to put on some tiptop variety entertainment for the next two hours.


Invoking Sumai

There is a scene in the second series of Game Of Thrones where Daenarys Targaryen and her raggle-taggle band of Dothraki followers, having struggled across the vast and desolate Red Wastes, their food and water supplies exhausted, seek entrance to the walled city of Qarth. They are met, outside the gates, by the Thirteen, the ruling council, whose oleaginous spokesman refuses to let them enter. As the Mother of Dragons points out, not unreasonably, this dooms them to certain death. The spokesman is unmoved. How to resolve the impasse?

At this point, another member of the Thirteen, who has been lurking at the back of the group, steps forward. When his own arguments in favour of allowing the travellers in fail, he announces “I invoke Sumai!” He then unsheathes his dagger and slices a nasty cut in his own hand. Now the gates of Qarth are thrown open, and Daenarys and her “Dothraki savages” are ushered in, and saved.

I was going to praise writer George R. R. Martin for this touch of brilliance, until I learned – from one of the terrifyingly erudite websites devoted to the minutiae of the Game Of Thrones universe – that the scene is absent from the original books, and was devised for the television series. No explanation is ever offered for Sumai, or what precisely its invocation might mean in any other circumstances, and nobody ever refers to it again. Yet I am lost in admiration for it as a narrative technique to keep the story chugging along. I shall use it myself, and commend it to any other writer who reaches a sticking point in their story. The bit with the dagger and the blood can be modified, or left out entirely. But is there a single work of fiction that could not be improved by having a character, at some point, declaiming portentously “I invoke Sumai!”? I think not.

I have prepared a supply of slips of paper on which is typed “I invoke Sumai!”, said followed by a blank space. I intend, shortly, to work my way systematically through the volumes of fiction on the Key bookshelves, affixing with glue a slip at a point in each book where the narrative threatens to get stuck in a cul de sac, and then writing in an apt character name. The effect would be jarring if the phrase were to be spoken invariably by rogue member of the Thirteen Xaro Xhoan Doxos. Far better that it is put into the mouth of a character with whom we have grown familiar in each particular novel, say for example Humbert Humbert or Elizabeth Bennett or Josef K. or Bartleby the scrivener.

Invoking Sumai may also come in handy in real life. I am sure there are times, for example when you are leaning insouciantly against a mantelpiece at a sophisticated cocktail party, when the conversation palls and you are lost for words. Now, all you need do to avert social discomfort is to announce “I invoke Sumai!”. The ice will be broken, and stay broken, if I am correct.


Xaro Xhoan Doxos invokes Sumai

Arch Of Triumph

During my long life, one thing I have learned is that whenever one experiences a triumph, it is a capital idea to erect an arch in commemoration. Thus, to give but one example, when I had a playground spat with a ruffian child, as a mere child myself, and I came out on top by bashing the little git on the head with a shovel, I proceeded to build an arch, out of cement and straw and pipe-cleaners, which I put up in a corner of the playground, so that none would ever forget that on that spot, on a hot May morn, I triumphed over Perkins, or whatever his name was.

Well, I am being disingenuous. Of course his name was Perkins, I remember it well, for I built the arch of triumph specifically to commemorate my victory. It was to be the first of many arches of triumph in my life. As it happened, Perkins prompted a second arch, many years later, when the pair of us, long estranged, met up by chance one winter’s day. I had no idea who he was, but he recognised me, probably because I was wearing the insignia of Goosehaven. He began to berate me with words, and then with fists, until I grabbed hold of a nearby shovel and bashed him on the head with it, again, and he crumpled. The second Perkinsesque Arch of Triumph was constructed from concrete and brick and pebbles and the saliva of otters. It stands next to a river, in the vicinity of Goosehaven itself.

I am often asked whether I like to pass underneath my arches of triumph, either on foot or borne by a suitably resplendent carriage. My answer, invariably, is long-winded and pompous and orotund, and I leave my listeners in some doubt as to whether I was saying, in essence, “yes” or “no”. This is a quite deliberate ruse on my part. I do not wish to be tied down to certainties. They are such a bore.

The one certainty I will avow is that I am a man of Goosehaven, born and bred. A surprising number of people find this either exasperating or objectionable, or both, and do not stint in letting me know their feelings. My usual response is to bash such persons on the head with a shovel and then to erect upon the spot an arch of triumph. It keeps me busy, which is a boon, for we all know that the devil finds work for idle hands to do, or at least so I was told, at my mother’s knee, when I was a tot, in the Goosehaven of yore, long ago buried under car parks and supermarkets and so-called retail ‘n’ leisure complexes. There are ghosts there now, parading in their thousands, borne on resplendent phantom carriages, passing under my arches of triumph.

The Mirror & The Lamp

Last weekend I visited St Ives for the first time in twenty years. In the latter part of the last century I went there regularly, for holidays, when I used to take regular holidays. In spite of its popularity, I adore the town. Even when it is jam-packed with tourists at the height of summer, one does not need to wander far to avoid the throng, and out of season it is a delight. On the last weekend of September it was not too hideously crowded, and not greatly changed from how I remembered it.


One change, which, given the passing of time, I expected, was that my favourite shop would have vanished, and indeed it had. This was The Mirror And The Lamp, on St Andrew’s Street, just along from the harbour and Market Square. In truth, I had never quite understood how the shop survived as long as it did, given that it was a secondhand or antiquarian book dealer with a very limited stock, mostly of poetry, and that, I recall, of a fairly narrow range. My memory may be askew, but I seem to remember it specialised in French symbolists and surrealists – not, one would think, exactly what the casual tourist in St Ives was looking for.

The proprietrix of The Mirror And The Lamp was Gertrude Starink, who I remember as a fragile bespectacled bluestocking. In addition to books, she also sold her artworks, some paintings and collages, but more enticingly small limited-edition illustrated booklets. Of course, ninety percent of the population of St Ives consider themselves artists, and bash out seascapes and nautical daubs for the tourists. Gertrude Starink’s work, while often informed by the locality, was of a different order. Her bestseller (I presume) was the commercially-published St Ives Alphabet, twenty-six cards reminiscent of a more benign Edward Gorey. An additional pleasure of The Mirror And The Lamp was that every purchase was individually wrapped – with exquisite care – in paper printed with the shop’s emblem, reproduced above.


When I returned home, it occurred to me to discover if Gertrude Starink had left any trace on the interweb. I was saddened to learn that she had died in 2002, aged just 54. At the same time, I was intrigued to learn that she was originally from Holland, born Ruth Smulders. (Given that my own mother spoke Flemish, I was surprised I had not picked up on her accent.) She was also considered one of the finest Dutch poets of the late twentieth century, having published, over twenty years, a series of “bundles” under the collective title The Road To Egypt. Most interestingly – and somehow absolutely in keeping with the woman I remember sat behind her desk in the dark interior of that shop – she and her husband Jan (who died earlier this year) had spent fifteen years translating into Dutch The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.

I still adore St Ives, but it is diminished by her absence.

BamBam Goes Haywire

On Thursday morning, BamBam went haywire. That is all I am prepared to say on the subject. You may have questions, such as who or what is BamBam?, what is the etymology of the word haywire?, and so on, but quite frankly it is not up to me to spoonfeed you. I fail to see why you should not do your own research into these matters, thus freeing me for more important tasks, such as taking a well-earned nap, smoking a gasper while gazing out of the window, or stuffing my gob with a pile of Smokers’ Poptarts. Any of those choices would be a better use of my time than telling you about BamBam going haywire.

Oh please please Mr Key!, I hear you wail, Do tell us more! To which I reply, certainly not. At most, I might give you some pointers to help you conduct your own research. For the etymology of the word haywire, I can think of no better reference source than the Oxford English Dictionary. Oh, wait, I can think of a better source – Dobson’s pamphlet Everything You Ought To Know About Hay, And Words Beginning With Hay- (out of print). In fact I am surprised not to have recommended this pamphlet to you before. It is the most haycentric of all Dobson’s works, and its first edition, of ten Gestetnered copies, actually had a cover to which strands of real hay were affixed, with glue. This had the unfortunate effect of partly obscuring the title, with the result that the pamphlet sold even fewer copies than was usually the case.

If you do your research thoroughly, you will probably be exhausted by the time you are fully conversant with the word haywire. Your head will be so crammed with new and exciting information that there will be no room left to add anything at all. That being so, it seems rather pointless for me to tell you where you could discover further information about BamBam. Nevertheless, there will always be two or three scallywags who don’t know when to stop, who will plough on regardless. Such persons are very exasperating, like hyperactive tots, and should not be encouraged. I find the best way to deal with them is to administer a dose of Ox-Stun, a proprietary tranquiliser more commonly used to stun oxen, at such times as one needs to stun oxen, which, depending on circumstances, can be every Thursday morning or once in a blue moon.

Now, everybody sing along : Blue moon, You saw me standing alone Without a dream in my heart Without a love of my own…

Babinsky Snap

A rare snap of a surprisingly sprightly Babinsky, the psychopathic walrus-moustached serial killer, fleeing the scene of one of his enormities. (Click to enhuge.)


If You Go Away

If you go away, like I know you will, I will take the vase from the windowsill, and I’ll take the blooms that are shoved in it, and I’ll throw them out, ’cause you’re such a git, if you go away, if you go away, if you go away.

But if you stay, I’ll give you some hay, I’ll give you some straw, I’ll lean on the fence, like the peasant I am, on my filthy farm, where the pigs are all sick, and the horses all limp, through the mud and the muck, as the rain pours in sheets, relentless and wet, like rain usually is, when it falls from the clouds, like the clouds in my brain, inside my glum head, the colour of curd, under my woolly hat, that’s soaking and drenched, like my waterlogged boots, tied with frayed lengths of string, which are spattered with blood, from the butcher’s shop, where I stole them for you, to wrap up your gifts, the hay and the straw, but used instead, to tie up my boots, when you went away, when you went away, when you went away.

Savagery In Splat

So, what was meant to happen at the latter end of last week was that Roland Clare and I would present our double act on literary nonsense to the sixth-formers of Truro School. (A riveting account of an earlier appearance at Bristol Grammar School can be found here.) A scheduling mixup hoo-hah meant, however, that instead of descending upon the not-so-tinies in tandem, Roland and I did our bits separately, on successive days. Improvising brilliantly. Mr Clare inserted into his presentation an old Hooting Yard On The Air recording, so my disembodied voice provided a foretaste of what had of necessity become the next day’s entertainment. The piece he chose was, appropriately, devoted to the subject of an unsuccessful educational initiative in Cornwall. It first appeared in Hooting Yard on 30 March 2006. Here it is again:

Dear Mr Key, writes Octavia Funnel, I am sure I read somewhere that Dobson’s companion and amanuensis, Marigold Chew, was a feral child, like the Wild Boy of Aveyron or Kaspar Hauser*. Is this true?

I think I can help Ms Funnel out here. She is clearly unfamiliar with Dobson’s rare and out of print pamphlet Ten Things Guaranteed To Drive Marigold Chew Crackers, an amusing bagatelle which he wrote for Marigold’s birthday one year. It is worth quoting at length:

victor hauser

Left, the Wild Boy of Aveyron. Right, Kaspar Hauser

There can be no doubt about number one on the list of things that drive Marigold Chew crackers. Countless are the times I have witnessed her seething with fury when she is mistaken for Mary Goldchew, the so-called Savage Infant of Splat.

Splat is a tiny, stricken village in Cornwall, and it was here, on a muggy summer’s day in 19–, that a peasant pushing his barrow of countryside filth along a lane was astonished to encounter a small child roaring and spitting and growling and scrabbling in the muck. Its gender was indeterminate, but its savagery was unquestionable.

The peasant, sad to say, had the morals of the gutter and a heart as foul as a swamp, and he decided then and there to sell the child to a travelling circus or a zoo. Plucking the child from its ditch, he shoved her on to his barrow and trundled off towards a larger town where mountebanks were known to gather. But the child, bestial being that she was, sank her teeth into the peasant’s wrist and attacked him in a whirling frenzy of bloodlust. She was gnawing the hair off his head when a kindly doctor arrived on the scene. He patted her on the head and announced, “There, there, little one, be not afraid. I am a kindly doctor fascinated by Natural Philosophy, and I shall take you to my comfortable house and see if, over a period of months, or years, I can instil in you the civilised qualities that were your birthright but have been stolen from you by no doubt tragic circumstances. What is your name?”

The child howled.

“Ah,” said the kindly doctor, “You are inarticulate. That noise you made sounded to me like a combination of a wolf and a bear, with perhaps a touch of corncrake. I deduce that you have been raised since you were a baby by wolves and bears and corncrakes, and mayhap by bees and hornets too. Still, you must have a name, child, so I shall call you Mary.”

Doctor Goldchew took the child by the hand and led her to his house, which stood all alone in a field outside Splat. There, he dunked her in a disinfectant bath, dressed her in girly clothes, and embarked on a comprehensive pedagogical regime. Over the following weeks, he attempted to teach her metaphysics, arithmetic, rhetoric, logic, Latin, Greek, bread baking, botany, chemistry, religious instruction, conspiracy theory, merchant banking, astronomy, philology, and the rudiments of table tennis, or ping pong. During this time reporters from the Splat Courier & Bugle camped out on his doorstep, filing a series of woefully inaccurate stories about the girl they called the Savage Infant of Splat. Her fame spread throughout Europe, and Doctor Goldchew received visits from some of the most distinguished intellectuals of the day, including Kapisko, Blunkett, and Woobie. It was the latter who persuaded the kindly doctor to have the girl baptised by being fully submerged in the sea off the coast of Cornwall, during which baptism she nearly drowned.

She entered the booming ocean a savage infant, biting and squealing and howling, wrote the doctor, and she emerged as Mary Goldchew, a pious Christian child.

This is a selective account, of course. The doctor makes no mention of the drenched and spluttering tot who was fished out of the water by a passing trawler. Nor does he admit that the “pious Christian child” remained incorrigibly savage for the rest of her long, long life. In spite of the doctor’s lessons – to which he soon added physics, geology, alchemy, polevaulting, palaentology, entomology, knitting, forensic medicine, vexillology, Dianetics and pottery – the Savage Infant of Splat became a Savage Adolescent and in turn a Savage Adult. She celebrated her twenty-sixth birthday by creeping into Doctor Goldchew’s bedroom as he slept and smothering him with a pillow.

Thereafter she spent her days crashing around like a wild maniac as the once comfortable Splat house fell into ruin about her. When she died, craggy and ancient, decades later, she had learned nothing – nothing except to speak two words, the same two words that were the full extent of the Wild Boy of Aveyron’s vocabulary: God and milk.

*NOTA BENE : Specialists in the field would dub Kaspar Hauser a “confined” rather than “feral” child.

Tooting My Own Trumpet

This is the Age of Unbridled Narcissism, but Mr Key is of course a diffident and unassuming fellow. However, I would like to draw to your attention the programme for Devour! The Food Film Fest, to be held in Wolfville, Nova Scotia in November. Among the films to be shown is Sharon Smith’s splendid adaptation of A Recipe For Gruel, described thus:

Animated and described cleverly by the best British voice you have ever heard, A Recipe for Gruel will charm and inform, but mostly charm.

Er … to be precise, it was animated by Sharon (aka Miss HatHorn) and narrated by Mr Key, but I am flattered by such praise. In case you have no idea what the Nova Scotians are talking about, you can listen to untold hours of that voice babbling away at the Hooting Yard On The Air archives at Resonance104.4FM.

When it has done the rounds of the film festivals, food-related and otherwise, A Recipe For Gruel will be available to watch online. I shall keep you informed.

Disappointment Pot

I do not know the provenance of this map-snap, but I am grateful to OutaSpaceman for bringing it to my attention. (Click to embiggen.)


10 Celebrities With Crumpled Blotting Paper

It’s amazing to consider the number of celebrities who have, somewhere in their possession, a sheet or sheets of crumpled blotting paper! Check out our exclusive guide:

1. Clothgard Nitpick
2. Junket Sprawl
3. Inspip Pip
4. Loopy Tugendhat
5. Ned Birdtalon
6. Oppidan Chumpot
7. Fab Geese
8. Tinie Tempah
9. Arpad Unstrebnodtalb
10. O Bodger

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10 Celebrities With Heads The Size Of Plums
10 Celebrities Who Spit On The Poor
10 Celebrities Mistaken For Sausage Dogs By Myopic Vicars

The Assassination Of Hilary Mantel

The Guardian today published a short story by Hilary Mantel entitled The Assassination Of Margaret Thatcher. This piece apparently took Ms Mantel thirty years to write, for “technical reasons” – “I just couldn’t see how to get [the characters] to work together”. The inference is that she has at last solved the problem, but it seems to me that the characters – an assassin and the woman whose flat he uses to set up his sniper’s nest – neither work together nor individually.

I have always found Mantel a curiously lifeless writer. The popularity of her prize-winning Thomas Cromwell books is a profound mystery, and Beyond Black was spectacularly turgid. In the present story she makes full use of her gift for clunking, tin-eared dialogue.

Most amusing is the revelation that the original title of the forthcoming collection of stories for which The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher acts as a trailer was Ten Transgressive Tales. Ooh! Transgressive! What could be less transgressive than an infantile fantasy about murdering a Tory prime minister published in the pages of the Guardian?

For the next thirty years I intend to work on a story entitled The Assassination of Hilary Mantel. The technical challenge, to drain all life from my prose, will be huge, but hey!, think how transgressive and shocking it will be.

NOTA BENE : For something genuinely transgressive, see my forthcoming book Tony Benn Was A Complete Wanker.

Weather Report

The county of Kent, 18 September 1796. Jane Austen writes :

What dreadful Hot weather we have! It keeps one in a continual state of Inelegance.

Many thanks to Nige.

Tarleton On His Balcony

Exciting news! Tarleton is back on his balcony! He is eating a plum! It is a Carlsbad plum! He gazes across the city and the wasteland into the distance, where the pinky-russet peaks of the Pinky-Russet Mountains shimmer in the haze! From one of Tarleton’s ears dangles a piratical earring, but there is no piratical parrot on his shoulder! He has, though, acquired, since last we met him, a wooden leg!

Tarleton’s brief, we might recall, was to gouge and hew. Gouge and hew he did, heroically, losing a leg in the process. But he did not complain. He showed fortitude. I was encamped at Fort Hoity, he said to himself, and then at Fort Toity, so it is only meet that, in forts, I show fortitude. No wonder Tarleton was showered with petunia petals by adoring peasants. There remain a few petals in his hair, for it is a long time since he shampooed it.

It is a long time, too, since last he stood upon this balcony, eating a plum. It is so long ago that he only dimly remembers. More vivid are the memories of Fort Hoity, with its ostriches and bandages and zinc, and Fort Toity, with champions arrayed along the crenellations, and games of spit-in-the-gutter. It was between forts that Tarleton lost his leg to a crocodile.

In the middle ages, returning crusaders brought with them the embalmed bodies of crocodiles, which were wrapped in chains and hung from the ceilings of cathedrals. Tarleton did not think of his gouging and hewing as a crusade, but it was, oh it was.

He spits out the plumstone into the palm of his hand, makes a fist, and, taking careful aim, tosses it over the edge of the balcony down into the shallow pool around the fountain. How many Carlsbad plumstones lie there, barely submerged! He has never once missed a toss. Tarleton turns and withdraws into his chamber. His head is full of squeaking imaginary bats.