Pale Horseman

He was exceedingly pale, and he sat astride a horse. He was the Pale Horseman. The horse was an elegant nut-brown something-or-other, with splendid fetlocks and a terrific mane. I use the word “terrific” because it was terrifying, that mane, on that horse. It certainly terrified the horseman. Why do you think he was so pale?

Clip-clop along the lane went the horse, through dense forest, and the horseman sat tall in the saddle, like the best of heroes in a cowboy film. Here it is worth noting that, though there are cowboys, there are no boy cows. All cows, wherever in the world you roam, are girls. As for the horse, be it a girl horse or boy horse, that does not matter to us, and nor did it matter to the horseman, who shuddered as he contemplated its terrific mane. But he pulled himself together, and clip-clopped onwards, or rather the horse clip-clopped, while the horseman sat.

The lane stretched from Pointy Town at one end to Tantarabim at the other. If you are familiar with the geography of this land – and if you are only half-educated, you damned well ought to be – you will know it was a very long lane indeed. The point where we met the Pale Horseman, deep in the dense forest, was roughly halfway along the lane. He was on his way from Pointy Town to Tantarabim.

There were many inns on or just off the lane, at which travellers such as the Pale Horseman and his horse could spend the night. Each inn was named after an album by Jethro Tull, except one, known as Exotic Birds And Fruit, which shared its name with an album by Procol Harum. This anomaly was occasioned by muddled thinking on the part of the Nomenclature of Inns Pursuivant. It was a costly misattribution. He was taken out and shot.

As it happened, the clearing in the forest where the execution took place was just yards away from where the Pale Horseman stopped his horse, that morning. He was intent on paying homage to the Pursuivant at the spot where he had fallen. While his horse scratched its innocent behind on a tree, the Pale Horseman stood with head bowed in the clearing, muttering a few words under his breath. Then, as a mark of devotion to the departed, he placed on the ground a piece of fruit taken from his pocket. It was a toffee apple.

Returning to his horse, the Pale Horseman saw that it was disconcerted and fractious, its mane even more terrific. Although he was already deathly pale, such was his terror that the Pale Horseman visibly blanched. In the dense forest, he was surrounded by wood, so had a French person been present, they could have described him as “blanche doo bwa”. He remounted his horse and set it off at a clip-clop towards the seaside belvederes of Tantarabim.

That night they stayed at the Catfish Rising inn. It was home to a cat, but not to any fish, unless one counted a few blennies, dead on a slab in the kitchen, ready to be served for supper. The Pale Horseman was not fond of fish, and opted instead for jugged hare with a side helping of smokers’ poptarts. These vittles did nothing to alter his pallor. Anent the inn, in its stables, the horse was fed and watered from a cement trough. Somewhere in the night, owls hooted and swooped upon small terrified scurrying mammals.

Usually, whenever I recite this story, I pause at this point and invite questions from the audience, if there is one. Sometimes there is not. I have told this story while standing on a dais in an empty barn. But if one or two are gathered to hear it, the questions most often asked are Why is the Pale Horseman going from Pointy Town to Tantatrabim? and Please level with us, is the Pale Horseman a personification of Death? Very occasionally someone will ask me to explain what was so terrifying about the horse’s mane. But nobody, nobody, has ever asked What was the horse’s name? or Did the horse become fractious because it thought it was going to be given the toffee apple as a snack?

Whatever questions I am asked, I like to give full and detailed answers, at great length. Thus, for example, I might find myself listing every single album release by Jethro Tull. Not only do I give the album titles, in chronological order, but I will add the track listing and full credits as shown on the sleeve of the original release. If in puckish mood, I will also recite, from memory, any liner notes, which, in the case of Thick As A Brick (1972), can take up most of the afternoon. If in even more puckish mood, I will do the same for the complete Procol Harum discography. My knowledge of horsemen and horses is equally encyclopaedic, so by the time I am done answering questions, any audience members still awake will almost certainly have forgotten the story so far. They may even have had the Pale Horseman and his horse and the lane from Pointy Town to Tantarabim wiped from their puny brains, while they fixate upon, say, the precise pattern upon the headband habitually worn by “stout, nimble” Glenn Cornick, bass guitarist of Jethro Tull from 1968 to 1970.

When I resume my tale, therefore, they barely notice that the Pale Horseman and his horse are clip-clopping slowly, slowly along the lane in the opposite direction, from Tantarabim to Pointy Town. When I have them stop around half-way, at the clearing where the Nomenclature of Inns Pursuivant was shot, and the Pale Horseman retrieves the votive toffee apple, removes its cellophane wrapping, and feeds it as a snack to his horse, some in the audience put up their hands to ask how in the name of heaven the Pale Horseman knew the toffee apple was there, lying on the ground in the clearing a few yards off the lane, but I shush them and tell them the time for questions is over.

And so it is that they never get to hear how Death was visited upon Tantarabim, how every last Tantarabimite, from aged crones to tots and tinies, toppled over and died at sight of the Pale Horseman, as due punishment for some ancient sin, and how for a hundred years or more it was home only to swarms of flies and maggots, and nobody dared utter its name.

Conquistador

This sprightly homage to Procol Harum first appeared in 2009.

Conquistador, your stallion stands in need of company. For an adventurer and conqueror, especially one who led the Spanish conquest of Mexico and Peru in the 16th century, this is a lapse on your part. You should never leave your horse alone and abandoned, for it is likely to become fractious, and the last thing you want to have to deal with, either in the jungles or the mountains, is a fractious horse. You might argue that a native Peruvian firing poisonous darts at you through a blowpipe would cause you more concern than a horse in a bad mood, but there you would be wrong.

Let’s say that the native Peruvian’s aim is impeccable, and his poisoned dart plunges into your neck. It is true that you would be surprised, and have only minutes to live as the toxins ravaged your innards, but it is a simple enough matter to pluck the dart out of your flesh and have one of your fellow conquistadors immediately suck on the puncture, drawing every last drop of poison into his mouth before spitting it out. Apply a medicinal poultice to the tiny hole in your neck and job done. You will be as right as rain and ready to carry on adventuring and conquering.

By contrast, if, after abandoning your stallion while you clanked off on foot on an errand of death, you return to it to find it lonely, fractious and temperamental, you may have some difficulty getting back into your saddle. Your horse may rear up on its hind legs and make terrifying bellowing noises. If you are not careful you could end up being crushed under its mighty hooves. A fleck of horse-spittle might land in your eye, blurring your vision. The rest of your conquistador troop may have ridden on ahead, leaving you behind, without food or water, or a compass. You will know, from your training back in Toledo, that it can take hours to becalm a fractious horse, by which time your chances of catching up with your fellow adventuring conquerors before nightfall are remote.

Unless the conquistador who sucked the poison out of your neck has stayed with you, you will now be all alone in a strange exotic landscape, famished. You do not know which fruits and berries are safe to eat, and in any case there will only be fruits and berries available to you if you are in the jungle. As I pointed out earlier, you might be up in the mountains, and there will be little to eat but impacted snow, which you will have to melt and soften before trying to shovel it down your throat. Bear in mind that the air is very thin up in the higher reaches of the Andes, and you will become exhausted quite rapidly, especially if you are expending energy hacking at a patch of snow to make it more easily meltable. Added to these imperilments, your horse will be hungry too, and its fractiousness may return, with a vengeance. You will have to find a way to placate it a second time, and by now it will be wise to your tricks, if it is a clever horse, which it probably is, having been chosen out of so many other horses to go on a conquistadorial campaign. It is also much more difficult to becalm a frightened horse in the dark, and the Peruvian night is far more eerie than the night in Toledo, with which both you and your stallion are familiar.

A further problem will present itself if a nocturnal Peruvian native fires a second poisonous dart into your neck through a blowpipe. Yes, it is simple enough for you to remove the dart, but without a fellow conquistador to suck out the venom, you will have to instruct your horse to do the deed. Not many horses are skilled in such an art. Apart from anything else, their mouths are much bigger than the average conquistador’s mouth, and their teeth are huge, so it is exceedingly difficult for them to get sufficient purchase on your neck to suck with any conviction. Of course, if you have a vampire horse, it will suck away quite happily, but after draining the poison it will continue to suck your blood, until you topple over, pale and dead.

All things considered, conquistador, you are advised never to leave your stallion in need of company. No horse is an island entire of itself. Further tips on looking after your horse when adventuring and conquering in Mexico and Peru are available in the government pamphlet 50 Tips For Conquistadors On Looking After Your Horse When Adventuring And Conquering In Mexico And Peru (Crown Copyright) (out of print).

Editorial Advice

Poor scribblers whose efforts are repeatedly rejected find solace from cases such as William Golding, who sent the manuscript of his first novel to more than twenty publishers before it was eventually accepted. Although stubborn persistence can sometimes pay off, the example of Golding demonstrates that, when a sympathetic editor offers advice, it can be wise to take it. Thus it is useful to learn that the beardy author made several changes to his book, which started out as the tale of a group of schoolboys trying desperately to remove a blockage of pig fat from a heating duct. He also changed the original title, Lard Of The Flues.

Whither The Bint Of Shelmerdox?

Whither the bint of Shelmerdox? The story goes that she went out a-hiking one morning and never came home. Some said she had a tryst with a tinker and ran away with him to his glen. Others spoke of a mysterious hot air balloon, spotted in the sky above the goaty place around noon. The parish priest insisted he saw her waving from its basket, but he was an old and foolish man and had had sundry hallucinations. There were those who muttered in the shadows of dark and desperate deeds.

Before she left, the bint of Shelmerdox ate an egg on toast and drank half a bottle of gin. She took the time to wash her dishes and place them on the drainer. But she left her purse and keys and passport and engagement ring upon the kitchen table, next to a saucer she used as an ashtray. Had she planned her disappearance, or had she not?.

The bint’s fiancé, the village wrestler, was much distraught. In the market square, by the horse trough, he blubbered like a baby as night fell and there was no sign of her. The Woohoohoodiwoo Woman collected his tears in a cup, and boiled them, that she might see in the clouds of steam a vision of the bint and her present whereabouts. But the steam vouchsafed nought but unreadable swirlings, so the Woohoohoodiwoo Woman next eviscerated a few hens and read their hot bloody entrails, again to no avail. The bint of Shelmerdox had vanished off the face of the earth.

On the first anniversary, the village folk gathered in a barn and sang songs for her. They would have lit candles too, had the parish priest not eaten them all in his madness. The songs they sang were the current popular hits of the village and its hinterland, with newly-minted lyrics, some penned by the wrestler, who still wept every day.

Oh where is she now, my Shelmerdox bint? / I dab at my tears with a poor scrap of lint / If only the gods would let drop a hint / Of where she has gone to, my Shelmerdox bint!

The parish priest, whose chain was lengthened so he could just about reach the doorway of the barn, tried to offer up a prayer for the immortal soul of the bint, but he forgot why he was there, and blessed a couple of cows instead. The names of the cows were Puskas and Di Stefano. They were terrific cows, the pride of the village, and the bint had oftentimes patted their heads and whispered in their ears in that sozzled way of hers.

The commemoration was repeated in subsequent years, always with new songs from the village wrestler, still weeping copiously, and with haphazard blessings from the parish priest. One time he managed a spark of lucidity and actually prayed for the bint, though usually his benediction fell upon the cows or a patch of lupins or even the chain that ensured he did not stray beyond the village.

The Woohoohoodiwoo Woman refused to attend any of these ceremonies. But she had not forgotten about the bint of Shelmerdox. Within her hovel, among her dried-up poisonous plants and toads and beetles and pins and pokey-sticks, she carried on her eldritch flummery in secret. She had somehow got hold of the bint’s passport, abandoned on the kitchen table, and made dozens upon dozens of copies of the photograph therein, on the photocopying machine in the village post office, and plastered the walls of her hovel with them. The bint stared out at her, sour, gin-soaked, and half-asleep. The Woohoohoodiwoo Woman became fixated upon the bint’s smudged lipstick, convinced that the eerily shifting contours of the smudge in the passport photograph held the key to her vanishing. In some copies, the smudge resembled a subtropical peninsula. In others, it looked like a heron.

On the ninth anniversary, the villagers eschewed the barn and gathered instead at the goaty place. The parish priest’s chain had been shortened after he frightened some swans in the summer just gone, and he stayed in his presbytery, sucking on lettuce leaves for their moisture. The village wrestler dabbed at his tear-stained eyes with his filthy scrap of lint, and sang a threnody.

My broken heart has the weight of lead / I can barely totter out of bed / How many more sobbings must I shed? / My bint is gone, she must be dead.

According to the village’s ad hoc legal system, these words counted as a binding declaration of the death of the Shelmerdox bint. Her home and her remaining personal effects could now be burned entire, all trace of her expunged, and fireworks launched from the village green. The wrestler could stop crying and seek a new inamorata. Even were the bint to reappear, miraculously alive, she would be invisible to the villagers, fated to roam among them as a ghost.

Which, oddly, is precisely what happened, at the very moment the final firework fizzled out and was squelched underfoot by the village postie. Drunk and bedraggled and moth-eaten, the Shelmerdox bint emerged from a shrub clump and staggered across the fields into the village. She smashed the window of the off licence and hoicked a bottle of vagabond’s ruin from the display, but now she was dead to the villagers and nobody saw her.

Nobody save for the Woohoohoodiwoo Woman, who inhabited a different, lopsided plane. She beckoned to the bint, and took her into her hovel, where the pair of them drank their fill and babbled about the bint’s lipstick smudge long into the night. When morning came, they trudged arm in arm to the barn, and whispered into the ears of Puskas and Di Stefano, and then the bint of Shelmerdox and the Woohoohoodiwoo Woman, and the two terrific cows, headed out of the village, across the fields, and into the hills, and up into the mountains, up where the oxygen grew thin, and they passed, oh! so happy, beyond human ken, forevermore.

Originally posted in 2009.

I Heard The Owl Call My Name

I Heard The Owl Call My Name was a bestseller in the 1970s, alongside such now neglected titles as Jonathan Livingston Seagull and Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance. What all three had in common was a concern with the ultimate meaning of existence, or at least the meaning of existence in the specific context of blissed-out self-obsessed post-hippy North America. I actually read the latter two titles, in my misguided teendom, though thankfully I seem to have recovered from the experience with no ill effects. But I never got round to I Heard The Owl Call My Name, and thus it continues to intrigue me. Well, not to a debilitating extent. I do not wake up every morning fretting about it, nor have I sought to obtain a copy. What intrigues me is the title.

The book was written by Margaret Craven. Now, over the years I have listened to numberless owls, and not one of them has ever uttered the cry “Margaret Craven”, nor any sound remotely akin to it, no matter how strangulated the voice in which we pronounce it in an attempt to mimic an owl. Aha!, I hear you say, but I Heard The Owl Call My Name is a novel, is it not?, so perhaps the name the owl calls is that of a fictional narrator, rather than of a non-fictional author. This is a persuasive argument until one does a spot of research and discovers that the book concerns a dying Anglican vicar named Mark Brian. Again, “Mark Brian” is not by any stretch of the imagination the sort of sound made by any owl it has ever been my pleasure to hear, as I crunch through the duff on the forest floor in the dead of night, my lantern occasionally picking out the fugitive sight of a small scurrying mammal, its heart pounding in terror. It is in such a place, at such a time, that one is likely to hear owls hooting.

We use the onomatopoeic word “hoot” to represent the call of an owl, or, if we are writing a children’s book, we might deploy “too-wit, too-woo”. We will not, ever, use “Margaret Craven” or “Mark Brian”, and if we ever had a dramatic brain-embranglement and did so, we would befuddle our readers utterly, to the point where they would probably toss our book aside in exasperation, and who would blame them for so doing?

Now as I say, I have not read the book, so there is every possibility that perhaps the dying vicar has a parishioner named Biff Hoot or Ted Toowit or Sacheverell Toowoo, and it is this person who hears their name called by the owl, while crunching through the duff on the forest floor in the dead of night, their lantern occasionally picking out the fugitive sight of a small scurrying mammal, its heart pounding in terror. Biff, or Ted, or Sacheverell then scampers to the church to tell the vicar of this exciting turn of events, and to seek his judicious religious advice on what it might portend, in terms of the meaning of existence, only to find the vicar sprawled on the floorboards in front of the altar, dying.

Why is he dying? Has he been attacked by owls, pecking at him with their beaks and slashing at him with their talons? Owls are more likely to set upon the small scurrying mammals in the nocturnal forest, rather than a human vicar in a candlelit church. So what might account for such a palaver? It could be that, rather than being a stereotypical beardy Anglican vicar, Mark Brian is an effeminate cross-dressing vicar who bears a startling resemblance to Tippi Hedren. In this scenario, the owls would simply be attempting to reenact a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s documentary The Birds (1963). Or we might posit that, on the other side of the forest there is a sinister military-industrial hazchem facility, leakage from which the owls have been exposed to, transforming them from common or garden owls to science fiction monster owls of unbridled savagery.

His life ebbing away, the vicar moans weakly for help, at which point Biff or Ted or Sacheverell comes scampering up the nave. He cradles Mark Brian’s torn and bloody head in his arms, and whispers, “I heard the owl call my name”. The vicar’s eyelids flutter and his breath rattles. Does he still have strength enough to speak, and to reveal to his needy parishioner the ultimate meaning of existence? We would hope so, this being a 1970s bestseller.

I Heard The Owl Call My Name (1967) predates both Jonathan Livingston Seagull (1970) and Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974). Could it be that both Richard Bach and Robert M. Pirsig were shameless plagiarists? Is the wisdom in their books lifted wholesale from Margaret Craven, who has the dying vicar vouchsafe to Biff or Ted or Sacheverell what it all means?

You say the owl called your name?”, he gasps, “It is a sign. I understand the language of owls, and I think I know what it would have said next had you stayed to listen, instead of sprinting pell mell out of the forest and through the village and into the church and along the nave to come and cradle me in your arms in my dying moments.”

Biff or Ted or Sacheverell dabs at the vicar’s brow with a dampened rag, trying his best to comfort him, desperate to keep him alive long enough that he might impart the wisdom of the owl.

You must repair your motorcycle,” groans Mark Brian, “And you must zoom upon it down to the seaside. There you will find a different form of bird life, seagulls rather than owls. The seagull will not call your name. It will swoop and scavenge and soar. Watch it carefully, in the dappled sunlight. Then…”

But before he can complete the sentence – and thus divulge the ultimate meaning of 1970s existence – the vicar collapses and dies.

I hope this is an adequate summary of a book I have never read. If it isn’t, it damned well ought to be.

Originally posted in 2012.

Death Of A Cartographer

Can it be that a quarter of a century has passed since the publication of the Hooting Yard Calendar 1992? Tempus bloody well fugit, and no mistake. The calendar that year was entitled “Accidental Deaths Of Twelve Cartographers”, and here is one such accidental death, that of Underbath, who, we are told, was impaled by a javelin in Bodger’s Spinney on February the fifth 1907.

Poptastic!

Daniel Barenboim has won many plaudits for his creation of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, bringing together young musicians from different countries in the Middle East to promote the cause of peace. Laudable as his efforts are, several observers have noted that the world of classical music is too small and narrow to have real societal heft. Pop music, they say, is the lingua franca that can genuinely bring people of different faiths together. To this end, and as a faltering first step in resolving the simmering civil war between the two major branches of Islam, a new single has been released. It is a new version of “I Got You Babe” by Sunni and Shia.

An Experiment With Curd

Here is a scientific experiment which will intrigue and entertain everybody from tiny tots to tottering crones. You will need to obtain a goodly amount of curd, say about the size of a dinner plate. Divide the curd into two halves by cutting it with a kitchen knife or, if you are feeling violent, which I know is often the case, simply tear the curd in two with your bare hands. Et voila!, you will now have two lumps of curd where once there was but one.

Don’t worry, that was merely the preliminary, not the experiment itself. Now, you must treat the lumps of curd in very different ways. The first lump, let us call it Curd A, must be kept fresh at all costs. You could, for example, wrap it in clingfilm, which is film that clings, and put it on a shelf in your refrigerator. Meanwhile, take the other lump of curd and treat it as you would a piece of furniture you wanted to give a fashionable “distressed” look. You can chuck the curd at the wall, beat it with lengths of chain, leave it exposed to the elements for a week, and so on.

At the end of this process, you will have two spectacularly different lumps of curd. The one wrapped in clingfilm in the refrigerator will be as good as new, whereas the other one, which I forgot to call Curd B earlier, will look old and wretched and like something the cat dragged in. (If the cat does indeed drag it in, while it is outside exposed to the elements, take it back outside and scold the cat.)

I now want you to take both lumps of curd to the nearest duckpond. With all the vim you can muster, chuck them into the pond or, as it might say in the Bible, cast the curds upon the waters. Now watch in amazement as Curd A, the fresh, good as new curd, floats, while Curd B, the old, wretched curd, sinks to the bottom.

Why does this happen? Well, I’m not going to tell you. But one person who knows the answer has written an entire book about it. Her name is Maya Angelou and the book, as I recall, is entitled I Know Why The Aged Curd Sinks.

Pol Pot In France

The communist regimes of the last century threw up their fair share of monsters, among whom Pol Pot was one of the more demented. His Khmer Rouge came to power in Cambodia in 1976. By the time they were overthrown, three years later, around a quarter of the population had perished.

Pol Pot had a vision of a sort of peasant utopia. Accordingly, towns and cities were emptied and the people marched out into the countryside to work on collective farms. He had a particular animus towards “bourgeois intellectuals”, a group which apparently included anybody who wore glasses. Of course, surprise surprise, Pol Pot was such an “intellectual” himself. As a young man, he studied in Paris, from 1949 to 1953.

There is an instructive story from his time in France. Already the first glimmerings of his agrarian revolution were swirling around in Pol Pot’s brain, and an associate suggested he ought to get out of Paris and investigate French farming methods. Pol Pot thus headed off, deep into rural France, and went to stay – uninvited – with a dairy farmer.

For a couple of days, the future tyrant followed the farmer about, observing him at work. This, it seemed, taught Pol Pot all he needed to know. On the third day, over breakfast, he launched into a Marxist critique of the farmer’s age-old rustic ways. He could, he explained, order the cows to do exactly as they were told, just as he would go on to bend the people of Cambodia to his will. The wise old French farmer scoffed.

You do not understand,” said Pol Pot, never short on self-belief, “Your cows will obey my every word. For I speak the language of cows!”

The farmer chuckled at the young Cambodian upstart, took a last sip of his breakfast brandy, and went out to his barn. He opened the doors, and the cows mooched off across his fields to munch grass.

At this point, Pol Pot appeared at his side. He announced that he would make all the cows return to the barn tout suite, simply by issuing a verbal diktat. He then uttered, at deafening volume, a strange guttural Cambodian cow incantation. To the farmer’s astonishment, the cows ceased munching, looked up, and, at almost uncanny speed, charged across the fields and returned to the barn.

It was a classic case of Pot calling the cattle back.

Mudguard

I am the Mudguard. I guard the mud. And, boy!, there is an awful lot of mud. It’s a full-time job.

The mud covers a large rectangular area on the outskirts of town, just beyond the duckpond and the viaduct. It is known locally as “the muddy field”, though its official name is Plunkett’s Meadow. Nobody living calls it that, but the name is shown on old maps of the area.

I patrol the perimeter of the field from dawn till dusk, day in day out, and sometimes at night too, for example when the regime has declared a state of emergency. At such times I am provided with extra supplies of strong black coffee and/or cans of fizzy pop infused with chemicals designed to stimulate the nerves.

Because of the long hours, and because I am the only mudguard, I live on site, or as near as dammit, in a hut, or chalet, slap bang next to the muddy field. It is, alas, far, far from the sea, but I keep on my bookshelf several paperbacks by Herman Melville and Joseph Conrad. They have a briny smell, having been dipped in seawater and dried by sea-squalls.

My uniform is best described as a blouse and pantaloons. It is a foolish outfit, and often the object of ridicule by wayfaring strangers. To cut a long story short, the Mud Bureau Chef d’Affaires was a fanatical devotee of Spandau Ballet early in their career. That much is true. I have grown used to the hysterical laughter of passers-by and no longer bother to throw pebbles at them.

On a typical day, I rise from my pallet before dawn, ablute, eat a slap-up breakfast in which sausages play an important part, put on my preposterous uniform, and am ready to begin my first patrol as the sun comes up. Brave Helios!, etcetera etcetera. I prance along each side of the muddy field, first clockwise then anti-clockwise, keeping an eye out for anybody or anything that might imperil the mud. I then take a break, perched on a stool outside my chalet for five minutes, but remaining vigilant. I then conduct the second patrol of the day, armed with a pointy stick. And so it goes on, until nightfall. It is very satisfying work.

Once a week, I receive a visit from a senior official of the Mud Bureau. It is rarely the same official. They go about their business in plain clothes, the only sign of their status being a small lapel badge. This depicts a patch of mud, above which hovers a disembodied head. I think this is intended to be a generic human head, but for my money it bears an arresting resemblance to Tony Hadley (b. 1960), the lead singer of Spandau Ballet. The official interrogates me, under a Klieg light, about each patrol of the previous week. I furnish the details using an agreed code, in which sausages play an important part. There is then a little break, during which we might chat about Melville and Conrad, if the official is sea-brained, or other matters, if not. For example we might talk about stamp collecting or foopball or the transubstantiation of the host in the Catholic Mass in Tudor times. During these discussions, the Klieg light is switched off.

As mud goes, the mud I guard in the muddy field, aka Plunkett’s Meadow, is pretty ordinary mud. I cannot claim to have studied it in any great detail, but as far as I am able to ascertain it has no particular features which would distinguish it from other mud, in other muddy fields, if there are any, elsewhere in the land, say on the other side of town, by the fireworks factory and the hen coops, or even further afield, blimey!, in remote areas such as the Security Zone, out towards the sea, which sloshes against the shore, where gulls screech.

Without wishing to boast, I must say that I am damned good at my job. To date, I have guarded the mud with resounding success, in that it has not been imperilled in any way by malefactors and ne’er-do-wells, whose numbers are legion, in spite of regular round-ups by the secret police. I can say with pride that the mud is safe under my watch, a watch shortly to reach its fortieth year of service. I am looking forward to receiving, on the anniversary, my commemorative award, a gorgeous cummerbund.

I am the Mudguard. I guard the mud.

The Forty Thieves

I was at a loose end, staring out of the window looking at crows, and my mind turned to Ali Baba and his Forty Thieves. With a start, I realised how little I knew about them. As luck would have it, the very next day at a rummage sale I picked up a copy of a privately-printed pamphlet by Knud Padde, described on the title page as a Lecturer in Arabian Thievery Studies at the University of Ack-on-the-Vug, or possibly the University of Vug-on-the-Ack. Here is his list of the Forty Thieves, together with “preliminary notes” on each thief.

Corky – a hireling thief, a chump, a talc-powdered wastrel.

Mutcho – greasy, vindictive, base.

Ibster – looms terrible in dreams, licks ice cream cones.

Guff – the boffin of the gang, and sniper, and Tippi Hedren’s penpal,

Spoors – great galumphing fool, Oppidan, thimble-fumbler.

Waxy – waxy.

Geraldo – of monstrous girth, of lively demeanour, of hand-stitched tunics.

Carsten – polishes off raisins, swigs tap water, goes shod in clogs.

Fang – inhabits palatial apartments with his wolf and his minuets.

Sudbury – exists on a higher plane, thumps things, distressed.

Oswin – suffers fools gladly, hung out to dry.

Bantock – dustpan and brush man, Hotspur, clackety rhythm.

Mort – hedger, was a water-bailiff, albino.

Chippy – wanting eggs.

Hardcastle – fevered brow, distorted spine, curly ringlets.

Aptod – when first he flew he blundered into branches of dark trees.

Shopworn – lacks the common touch, hoist by petards, a darling.

Urbane – urbane yet ditzy, polka-dotted, ruminant.

Dobbin – pumped gas back in Montana, unbridled savagery, lacks depth.

Inky – several contradictory reports, buff-coloured envelope, chalk dust.

Hig – shallow, potted, wet.

Anglepoise – Jesuit upbringing, weather station, tarred with broad brush.

Snapper – bolt upright, sprained ankles, Maoist.

Boomer – booming voice, bloody nose, best before dusk.

Chepstow – owls nest in his hair, he plays the piccolo, he eats mashed potato.

Zigzoo – champs at bits, stinks of Jarlsberger, often with conifers.

Delmore – lurid, spiteful, mechanical.

Esher – flabby, subject to fits, member of Tuesday Weld Fan Club.

Jetboy – likely to be found upon rotating things in park playgrounds.

Casement – proudly lumpen, secretly engaged to a flapper, podcaster.

Uck – abnormal alignment of head upon neck, neck grubby, hair unwashed.

Fig – a stone’s throw from the sea, green about the gills, hot to trot.

Straubenzee – sings the songs his mother taught him in that Darmstadt nursery.

Fogbound – clatters to and fro, goes haywire, made of cement.

Wailywaily – hidden behind shutters, brilliantine in his hair, indiscreet.

Burgess – over by the ice rink, underneath the arches, powered by batteries.

Mudguard – guards mud.

Pepinstow – thunderous hooves, brilliant plumage, exquisite table manners.

Dixon – marimba, clutching at straws, gin slings and blood oranges.

Quangocrat – double helpings of sausage-shaped dough snacks.

This is a slightly revised version of a piece which originally appeared in 2011.