Myers & Butler

To a man of [Frederic] Myers’ eager temperament restrained indifference was not possible; his pent-up enthusiasm was sooner or later sure to find some line of discharge. And it so happened that a ready line of discharge was at that point presented to him by the crusading Christianity of Mrs. Josephine Butler, the still young and beautiful wife of George Butler, Vice-Principal of Cheltenham College, and later Principal of Liverpool College. Mrs. Butler later, of course, became famous for her work among prostitutes and her campaign against the Contagious Diseases Acts. At this time however she was chiefly engaged in what might be described as the spiritual seduction of promising young men. Her religion was emotional rather than dogmatic, and her methods of conversion were simple. Having aroused her quarry by her exciting concern for his welfare, she would flatter him with an earnest account of her own inner trials and victories – an account delivered perhaps at twilight while she lay with her slim form stretched out upon a sofa – and at last capture him by a well-staged dénouement. She might, for instance, call him into her room to find her kneeling in pale beauty before her mirror, devoutly praying for his salvation. Only men with the coolest heads could resist such an appeal; and Myers was not one of them. During the next few years he met or visited Mrs. Butler repeatedly, and his way of life changed so much that his friends hardly knew him. One of them, Richard Jebb, noted in his Journal for 26 February 1866: “Myers devotes himself to self-discipline. He never goes anywhere. He gets up at 6.30 and goes to bed at 10.00. His days are spent in reading Ecce Homo and in thinking.”

Alan Gauld, The Founders of Psychical Research (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968)

Birdseed Folderol

Several years after Sirinuntananon & Bewg published Dobson’s birdseed folderol, a second edition was issued by Ladybird Books.

birdseedbook

Sirinuntananon & Bewg

The vast majority of Dobson’s pamphlets were self-published, printed on a Gestetner machine in the garden shed by Marigold Chew, the bindings stitched by hand. On one occasion, however, the pamphleteer felt impelled to seek commercial publication.

“I feel impelled,” he announced to Marigold Chew over a breakfast of kippered sprats and marzipan brulé one desolate winter’s morning, “To seek commercial publication for one of my pamphlets.”

Marigold Chew raised an eyebrow.

“I shall be most distraught, or is the word distrait?,” she replied, “To leave the Gestetner idle while you go swanning off to large important buildings. But I nevertheless think it a good idea, albeit foolish, and I wish you well.”

Twenty minutes later Dobson went crashing out of the door into the winter horrors, vowing not to return until he had persuaded a publishing concern based in a large important building to issue one of his pamphlets in an edition of millions.

His first port of call was Semi-Collapsed House, a large important and semi-collapsed edifice on Slobber Lane, just along from the railway sidings and the hamster pound. Its lower floors housed the offices of Sirinuntananon & Bewg, an ancient and distinguished publishing company. Best not to dwell on the doings on the building’s upper floors, which had been rented out, for many years, to Babinsky, the lumbering walrus-moustached serial killer.

Icicles dangling from the brim of his Homburg, Dobson crashed into the reception area. It was deserted, save for a stray cobweb and a scurrying beetle. Dobson stamped on the beetle, and the thud of his Cambodian Actuary’s boot upon the linoleum (and the beetle) brought a hobbledehoy skittering into the room from a dark interior somewhere-or-other. The hobbledehoy tugged his forelock, which was greasy, greasy and vile, greasy and vile and repellent.

“How may I be of assistance, good sir?” he whimpered.

“I am Dobson!”, shouted Dobson, as if that were all the world need know.

Several hours later, having managed to persuade the hobbledehoy to allow him beyond the reception area, the pamphleteer was ushered into the office of Mr Sirinuntananon, or possibly Mr Bewg.

“I understand,” said the publisher, “That you have been impelled to seek commercial publication for one of your pamphlets.”

“To whom am I shouting?” shouted Dobson.

The hobbledehoy loomed behind him and spoke barely audible words into his ear.

“That is Mr Bewg, sir. He is boisterous and brilliant and barbaric. You can tell them apart, when they both occupy the same space, because Mr Sirinuntananon is saturnine and scruffy and savage.”

No sooner had he stopped speaking than a saturnine and scruffy and savage fellow slid into view from behind an arras.

“See?” said the hobbledehoy.

We might usefully pause here to consider a potted history of Sirinuntananon & Bewg. It is a history not only potted but illustrious, redolent with terrific books and equally terrific authors, with terrific mezzotints tinted especially for the covers of those terrific books, and with terrific hairstyles sported by those terrific authors. Unfortunately, from somewhere upstairs there comes the ungodly din of Babinsky, wreaking his usual blood-splattered chaos. It is a din which deafens as it distracts, so we shall have to postpone the potted history for a more opportune time. I have pencilled in next Tuesday lunchtime, incorrigible optimist that I am.

Instead, let us watch as winter sunlight glitters on the semi-collapsed roof of Semi-Collapsed House. Let us ponder its broken chimney-pots in which adventurous birds have built their nests in which tatterdemalion fledglings screech, their beaks opened wide awaiting mama or papa to come swooping in from foraging to drop juicy wounded worms into their gullets. Let us watch as clouds scud across the winter sun and the first flurries of snow begin to fall. And now, below, we see the pamphleteer, ejected into the street. Dobson has left the building.

“Hello Dobson,” said Marigold Chew, later, as her snow-covered inamorato came crashing through the door, “How did you get on?”

“It was like this, Marigold my poppet,” said Dobson, “I visited the offices of Sirinuntananon & Bewg the ancient and distinguished publishers where I met saturnine and scruffy and savage Nuttawood Sirinuntananon and boisterous and brilliant and barbaric B. Bewg also their hobbledehoy who acts as a kind of factotum and after some shilly-shallying into the details of which I shall not go now or evermore for it pained me exceedingly and I do not wish to relive it the hobbledehoy made a pot of tea for three and we sat in armchairs the publishers and me and Bewg began to speak but I could not hear a word he said for from above on the upper floors of the building came such a din as can only have been the sound of a psychopathic serial killer committing an enormity perhaps with an axe and when eventually it subsided after a final blood-curdling scream I asked Bewg to repeat himself but instead his colleague spoke and there was savagery in his voice as he explained that the previously independent publishing firm founded by Sirinuntananon’s grandfather and Bewg’s grandmother so long ago had now through what he called market forces whatever they might be been sold to a new owner of untold wealth and influence and this fellow generously allowed Sirinuntananon and Bewg to cling on to their positions in the offices in Semi-Collapsed House but that all decisions about what was published or not published were his the new owner’s and his alone and if I told them something about my proposed pamphlet then they would ferry he used the word ferry that to the owner and he would consider my proposal there and then for he liked to make snap decisions so I said that I had an idea for a pamphlet about a revolutionary new type of birdseed or millet but if that was not deemed commercial enough I also had up my sleeve an exciting science fiction yarn entitled Attack Of The Jellyfish Monsters From Planet Googie Withers and would they run both of those past the new owner and Bewg and Sirinuntananon looked at one another and gulped down their cups of tea in somewhat barbaric and savage fashion as if they had never drunk out of dainty china cups before and then they told me to wait and they both left the room and I sat and peered out of the window and saw that snow was falling and I fell into a daze and dreamed of dust and I woke when the door opened and it was neither Sirinuntananon nor Bewg but the hobbledehoy and he gave me a wolfish grin and took my empty teacup and smashed it against the wall like Dusty Springfield liked to do with crockery and then there was a puff of smoke and the hobbledehoy vanished in a cloud of fuming vapour as black as the blackest thing in the universe and beyond and a minute or so later he stepped out of it towards me only it was no longer him the hobbledehoy but a transfigured version with horns and a forked tail and eyes that burned and it was Beelzebub himself I swear it as sure as eggs is eggs and he roared at me that he had given due consideration to my suggestions and made a snap decision that the world was absolutely ready for a million-selling pamphlet about a revolutionary new type of birdseed or millet and he had already had his minions Sirinuntananon and Bewg draw up a contract and he brandished it at me a single sheet of paper on which the words seemed to have been scratched in gore by a wild beast and he continued to roar saying I must understand that by signing the contract in return for commercial publication of my pamphlet I would be selling him my immortal soul and did I understand him quite plainly my soul would be his for eternity and did I realise that eternity never came to an end and if I wanted to comprehend the unimaginable duration of eternity I ought to read the sermon by the priest in A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man by James Joyce and I said I had already read it and I understood and he said here is your chance to back out you can leave Semi-Collapsed House and forget everything that has happened here and continue with your puny and curdled life churning out unread and out of print pamphlets until you drop dead but if you sign the contract I will publish your birdseed folderol and I will have your soul and I said alright alright you don’t need to repeat yourself I get the idea and he shoved the contract into my hands and gave me a biro and said so will you sign Dobson will you sign and my heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”

Talking Twaddle

In 1871, T. H. Huxley was invited to join a committee for the investigation of Spiritualist phenomena. He declined, writing:

supposing the phenomena to be genuine – they do not interest me. If anybody would endow me with the faculty of listening to the chatter of old women and curates in the nearest cathedral town, I should decline the privilege, having better things to do.

And if the folk in the spiritual world do not talk more wisely and sensibly than their friends report them to do, I put them in the same category.

The only good that I can see in a demonstration of the truth of ‘Spiritualism’ is to furnish an additional argument against suicide. Better live a crossing-sweeper than die and be made to talk twaddle by a ‘medium’ hired at a guinea a séance.

Quoted in The Founders Of Psychical Research by Alan Gauld (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968)

220px-Huxley7T. H. Huxley : Victorian with beard

Schubert : The Stories Behind The Lieder, No. 1

In “Der Liedler” (1815), a minstrel saves a maiden from a werewolf by smashing his harp against him and then hurling him over a cliff.

As noted in The Spectator by Damian Thompson, who adds “Even Schubert couldn’t polish this particular turd. Long, corny, cod-mediaeval ballads never showed him at his best.”

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.

Curtain

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.

sumai

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.

mirrorandlamp

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.

cforclare

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.)

WAX14

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.