Evidence has come to light that Tiny Enid, the plucky club-footed tot of this parish, may have had more in common with H. P. Lovecraft than a fondness for fascism. I am grateful to OutaSpaceman for bringing to my attention this snap, originally found on something called the “Flickr account” of one Lawrence Jones:
Dear Mr Key, writes Olivia Funnel, who may or may not be fictitious – I wouldn’t presume to know – I confess I am a little puzzled by something. Yesterday you reproduced a letter received from Tord Grip, which, you say, plopped onto the mat, suggesting that it was an old-fashioned letter written on paper and inserted into an envelope with a postage stamp affixed. Surely, in our brave new e-world of digital fantasticness your correspondents communicate with you by email? Perplexedly yours, Olivia Funnel.
Well, Ms Funnel, it is true that almost all of my correspondence these days arrives in the form of electronic communications. However, as you will learn when next you check your in-box, all emails I receive generate an automated reply, which reads as follows:
Thank you for writing to Mr Key. Please note that your inscriptio cursus electronici will be ignored unless you rewrite it by hand, with a propelling pencil upon a sheet of creamy paper, which you should then insert into an envelope to which you should affix a postage stamp. The envelope should then be rolled into a cylinder and fastened around the leg of a crow. Whisper “To Mr Key! To Mr Key!” into the crow’s ear and watch it fly away. If you are not sure where the crow’s ear is, study ornithology.
The fact that I am replying to Olivia Funnel is evidence that she did indeed follow these instructions. I ought to point out that I do not eschew modern electronic communication methods due to some ill-tempered Luddite animus against the modern world – though I do – but rather because it pleases me to have crows flying in through my window on a regular basis. Once I have detached the rolled-up envelope from the crow’s leg, I inject it with a serum which renders it unconscious, and add it to my collection of unconscious crows. I have not yet worked out what to do with them all, and for the moment I am content enough to see their number growing by the day.
One of my correspondents has suggested attaching a brain scanner to each crow, and deducing from the resulting print-outs the nature of crows’ dreams (and nightmares). This would seem to me a very worthy enterprise, and I will consider giving it a go.
Dear Mr Key, writes Olivia Funnel, again, Thank you for your reply to my query. Unfortunately it raises further questions which leave me even more perplexed than heretofore. If you receive your letters through the agency of a crow flying in through your window with an envelope furled around its leg, how then did Tord Grip’s letter plop onto the mat? The only explanation that makes sense is that you dropped the envelope onto the mat yourself, once you had detached it from the crow, and before or after injecting the crow with a serum. But what possible rationale could you have for so dropping the envelope? That seems to me to be the utmost foolery. Yours more in sorrow than in anger, Olivia Funnel.
I said, after receiving Ms Funnel’s earlier missive, that I was unsure whether she was real or fictional. Evidence has now come to light that she is, decisively, the latter. This leads me to conclude that, contrary to her assertion, the utmost foolery would be to indulge a letter from a wholly fictitious person with a reply. I have, instead, torn both her letters to shreds with my bare hands. I intend to stuff the shreds into an envelope of cloth, thus forming a little cushion, which will serve as a splendid resting-place for one of my unconscious crows.
A letter plops onto the mat from Tord Grip. I wondered if this was the same Tord Grip who is something of a luminary in the world of foopball coaching, but apparently it is a different Tord Grip altogether. Anyway, here is what he has to say for himself:
Dear Mr Key, I have been a devoted reader of yours for many years. Something that has particularly struck me is your fondness for the motif of a character “at a swish sophisticated cocktail party, leaning insouciantly against a mantelpiece”. You return to this again and again. Sometimes the person so leaning is a fictional character and sometimes, in first person narratives, it is you. I am not so naïve as to think that the “I” figure in such tales is actually you, and that the pieces are wholly autobiographical. I realise that the first person narrator may be a fictional or semi-fictional version of yourself. This interpretation is not simply common sense, but is borne out by Roland Clare in his introduction to the anthology By Aerostat To Hooting Yard, where he makes the point that “When Key … conducts occasional epistolary dialogues with correspondents … – almost certainly not real people – his engagement with them shades his own status with a fictional quality. His uncertain standing is compounded by the … pieces written in the first person”, and he posits a distinction between “Frank Key, author of the blog vs Mr Key, the quasi-fictional entity”. So, when you report that you were “at a swish sophisticated cocktail party, leaning insouciantly against a mantelpiece”, are we to infer that this statement is factual or fictional? Or are we deliberately left on shaky ground, uncertain, bewitched, bothered, and bewildered?
Incidentally, the quotation above from Mr Clare also calls into question my own existence, as one of your correspondents. While I know in the very core of my being that I am a real person of flesh and blood – I need only bash my head against my writing-desk to confirm as much – ouch! – your readers may, like Mr Clare, think I am “almost certainly not real”. Whether or not their suspicions will be heightened or dampened by the coincidence that I share my name with one of the tiptop figures in the world of foopball coaching, I cannot say. In my part of the world, Tord Grip is not so outlandish a name that one can jump to any conclusion in the matter. I think it best to pass over my further ruminations on the question of reality, otherwise we would be here all day and in all likelihood end up with what my clinician has dubbed “crumbling of the brainpans”.
Instead, I should like to turn to the reason I am writing to you in the first place. It so happens that one of my hobbies – alongside knitting, sandpapering rough surfaces, and bird observation – is enacting short extracts from my favourite writers. To this end I have, in recent weeks, gone about wearing a little Ether Hood (Emily Dickinson), taken pictures of Jap girls in synthesis (David Bowie), sucked innumerable pebbles (Samuel Beckett), and run screaming from a Paris hotel room after casting a spell to summon the great god Pan (Aleister Crowley). Having ticked these off in my ledger, next on my list was to go to a swish sophisticated cocktail party and lean insouciantly against a mantelpiece (Frank Key).
First of all, of course, I had to obtain an invitation to such a soirée. The difficulty with this was that, like you, I have been described as a Diogenesian recluse, and I don’t get out much – oh, wait a minute. That reminds me. If you are as reclusive as Mr Cutler asserts, how is it that you are forever attending swish sophisticated cocktail parties? I have spent an inordinate amount of time pondering this conundrum. Even if we take into account that many of the insouciant leaners are explicitly fictional characters, and concede that, pace Roland Clare, you yourself are quasi-fictional, there remains the fact that there is something compelling in these scenes that convinces the reader they must, at the very least, be the result of particularly acute authorial observation. Consider the swish and sophisticated nature of the cocktail parties, the insouciance of the person leaning, the brute solidity of the mantelpiece itself. It seems unlikely that such details could be fomented entirely within your head, absent of direct and emotionally shattering experience.
I am pleased to say that the result of my agonised mulling over the matter was ultimately beneficial. If Mr Key, as a recluse, can yet summon the nerve to accept invitations to swish sophisticated cocktail parties, I said to myself, then I too can screw my courage to the sticking place and do likewise. I said this to myself repeatedly, gazing into a mirror at my strange unnatural beauty. Eventually I was ready. But still I had not received any invitations.
I dabbled with the idea of skipping to the next item on my list, to ring upon the rein of a wimpling wing in my ecstasy (Gerard Manley Hopkins), but I am a methodical sort of person and I knew I would lie awake at night remonstrating with myself until I had completed the Frank Key element of my project. I had been very careful, when drawing up my roster, to place my proposed enactments in a very specific order, based upon the Blötzmann system (Yellow Notebook, Fifth Series). Though I was keenly aware of the possibility that Blötzmann, and his system, and his notebooks, in their series, were all fictional, having been made up by you, Mr Key, I have found his guidance invaluable in several different areas of my life, not least the careful compiling of lists in very specific orders.
I thus found myself at an impasse. I could not move on until I had leaned insouciantly against a mantelpiece at a swish sophisticated cocktail party, and I could not attend a swish sophisticated cocktail party without an invitation. Or could I? Was it not possible for me simply to gatecrash such a do? Hell, yes!, as Ed Miliband would say. But first I had to find a party to gatecrash.
Much as it went against my reclusive nature, I took to stalking the streets of an evening, stopping when I came upon a building with a window alive with lights, and peering in to see if a swish sophisticated cocktail party was in progress. I had already planned how I would gain entry. Knocking at the door, I would pretend to be an emergency postman with an urgent delivery for – at which point I would counterfeit a violent coughing fit and bite on a capsule of blood tucked in my cheek. Spraying what was in reality a small amount of duck’s blood all over the hallway carpet, I would stagger into the house and collapse. While the host ran for help, I would stand up, dab at my mouth with a napkin to erase any traces of gore, comb my hair, take off my emergency postman’s jacket and stuff it behind the umbrella stand, then sashay into the main room where the party was in full swing, grab a cocktail from a tray, and make for the mantelpiece, against which I would lean insouciantly. Job done.
I don’t know if you have ever stalked the evening streets in search of a swish sophisticated cocktail party to inveigle your way into by dint of a foolproof scheme, but believe you me it is not as easy as it sounds. Perhaps I was stalking through the wrong part of town, down by the docks where the sailors all meet, eating fish heads and tails, splitting the night with the roar of their jokes, laughing and lusting till the rancid sound of the accordion bursts. The lit windows I peered into framed scenes of unimaginable depravity and debauch. Nor did I spot a mantelpiece clean enough to lean upon in my specially-hired Ferdinando Boffo dinner-suit, worn beneath the emergency postman’s jacket.
I turned down an alley towards what I hoped would be a more salubrious part of town when I became aware of footsteps following me. There was something inexplicably menacing about them (M. R. James, Sheridan Le Fanu, E. F. Benson – names absent, alas, from my list). I quickened my pace, and so did the footsteps. Determined to confront whoever – whatever – was following me, I turned around. To my horror I saw, silhouetted against the sickly moon, the lumbering walrus-moustached psychopathic serial killer Babinsky! My mind was a chaos. I had always believed him to be a purely fictional maniac dreamed up by you, Mr Key, to trouble my dreams. Yet here he was, all too real, lumbering relentlessly towards me. As he raised his blood-drenched axe above his head, preparing to strike, intermingled with my terror I felt a small measure of solace that, though it was not the enactment of a Hooting Yard scene I had planned, when I drew my last breath having been felled by Babinsky, I would, inadvertently, be recreating a common motif from the works of Mr Key. There can be no more piquant farewell to this life, be it a real life or, perhaps, perhaps, an entirely fictional one.
Dear Mr. Key,, writes Poppy Nisbet from her fastness in North America, There was an offer on Freecycle this morning for a “disabled rooster”. I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind. It read: “Offer: disabled rooster”.
Likewise, on the bird front, I found a wonderful 17th century engraving of two standing desert ostriches blowing on their eggs. After dogged persistence Google finally produced a translation of the accompanying Latin text and I learned that ostriches were believed to leave their eggs to hatch in the care of the sun and the sand. The parent birds blew “nourishing breathe” onto their offspring before, er, deserting them.
The translation given for ostrich was “Sparrow-camel”.
I was reading the other day about closed-down shipyards and came upon a reference to Swan Hunter. This served to remind me of a fellow I met recently whose business card – which he handed to me – announced his business as a swan hunter. We were guests at a swish sophisticated cocktail party and he was leaning insouciantly against a mantelpiece. He apologised that the card was smeared with blood, explaining that it was the blood of a swan and that such smearage was an occupational hazard.
“Surely,” I said, “There is not much hunting to do to find swans? Do you not just head for the nearest body of water, such as a pond or a canal, which swans are known to frequent?”
“There is a measure of truth in what you say,” he replied, bringing up an unseemly gobbet of catarrh and spitting it into a napkin, “But first one must find the pond or canal. Though swans are almost invariably found on ponds and canals, it does not follow that all ponds and canals have their resident swans, as a moment’s thought will confirm.”
“Fair enough,” I said, “But identifying those ponds and canals where you might find a swan hardly counts as hunting. You just need to obtain a map and mark with a pencilled X those ponds and canals shown on it which are known to be populated by swans. You can do that while sitting in an armchair.”
He spat into his napkin again.
“I could indeed,” he said, “But that would take all the thrill out of the hunt. I prefer to go a-roaming through the countryside, or through a large municipal park, sniffing the air and studying the terrain until I track down a pond or a canal. And even then,” he continued before I had a chance to interrupt, “There can be no guarantee that the pond or canal I come upon will be swanful. The uncertainty adds to the excitement.”
“It might be more accurate to say, then, that you are a pond and canal hunter, rather than a swan hunter,” I said.
“Bosh!” he shouted, slopping some of his cocktail onto the hearth-rug, “Where no swans are in evidence upon the pond or canal I have stalked, I press on, indefatigably, come rain or shine.”
“So let us assume,” I said, “That you have arrived at a pond or canal teeming with swans, whether in the countryside or in parkland. Do you then take potshots at them with a Mannlicher-Carcano sniper’s rifle?”
“Heaven forfend!” he cried, slopping more cocktail onto the rug, “Where would be the sport in that? No, I go unarmed. Swan hunting, when executed properly, is the pitting of man against swan in a primal struggle. Having selected an individual swan, I engage it in combat. That is why I have had my arms broken several times in several places.”
“Ah,” I said, “I was wondering why you held your cocktail glass at a rather curious angle.”
Actually, I ws not wondering this at all. I was just making conversation. It has never been my habit to examine in any detail the angles at which swish sophisticated cocktail party guests hold their cocktail glasses, nor, for that matter, am I much exercised when in their excitement they slop some of the contents of said glasses on to the hearth rug, unless of course it is my own hearth rug. But it never is, for I do not host my own cocktail parties. I am temperamentally incapable of organising sufficient sausages on sticks due to my cackhandedness, which invariably means I prick my fingers and thumbs repeatedly with the sharp wooden cocktail sticks, drawing blood. No one in their right minds wants to attend a party, however sumptuous the cocktails, if the plates are littered with sausages lying unpunctured beside piles of bloodied wooden sticks. A business card smeared with the blood of a swan seemed to me a far less gruesome sight. In fact, the more I thought about it, my own reservations about hosting a cocktail party seemed immeasurably more interesting than listening to a man wittering on about his experiences of unarmed combat with swans, fighting to the death. Only my impeccable manners prevented me from saying so, in a voice loud enough to be heard by everyone else in the room.
It was only then, looking around, that I noticed the swan hunter and I were the only guests still present. Everyone else had tiptoed out, through the open French windows. Peering out into the dusk, I saw approaching, marching relentlessly across the lawn, a gaggle of savage and vengeful swans.
Sooner or later I will start spouting forth prose again, but meanwhile here is the latest Hooting Yard podcast release from ResonanceFM.
Grabber had an afterlife, bewinged upon a cloud, plucking sweetly at a harp. That, at least, was his dream, from which he awoke, tense and troubled, in his cell. He was a lifer, convicted years before of murder most foul. Are there, he often wondered, less foul murders, for which his sentence would have been commensurately less than life? He read up on the law, but nothing lodged for long in his head, for he was easily distracted. It came as a surprise to him how many distractions could occur to a lifer in a cell. The sheen of the buttons on his stripy tunic. A stain upon the ceiling. An ant scuttling across the floor. Buzzers buzzing and bells clanging somewhere far off. From his window he watched clouds scud across the sky, clouds that prompted his dreams of an afterlife in heaven.
O! Grabber! Grabber! What hast thou done?
He can no longer remember the foul deed, committed in his cups after a night on the tiles. Cups and tiles. They could be suits in an old Tarot deck, along with whisks and arrows. There used to be arrows on his tunic, but one day they came and gave him a new tunic with stripes. They did not explain why. They never explained anything to Grabber. They gave him his food in a bowl.
It was while scoffing his food one day that Grabber fell to musing about Little Miss Muffet. She sat, famously, upon a tuffet, eating her curds and whey. Now Grabber found this distinctly curious. Curds, and more especially whey, would as like as not be served in a bowl, as his food was. Why, then, did Little Miss Muffet take her bowl from the serving hatch all the way outside towards the tuffet where she sat? Why did she not remain indoors, as Grabber did? Grabber had no choice in the matter, of course, but he felt sure that, in Little Miss Muffet’s circumstances, he would take his seat in the canteen rather than prance outside into the fields, in search of a tuffet. Her behaviour made no sense to him.
Grabber thought too about other characters, Little Jack Horner and Mary, Mary Quite Contrary and Rumpelstiltskin and Henry Kissinger, among others. These thoughts went nowhere, and Grabber never reached any conclusions. He lay flat on his back in his iron cot and the days passed.
O! Grabber! Grabber! Every hair on your head has been counted!
He once tried to count his own hair, which he allowed to grow long, but one day, without explanation, the prison barber came to his cell and hacked away his tresses. It was the same day they swapped his tunic. There was something else of significance that happened on that day, but he no longer remembered what. He kept no journal, having no pencil. He had requested a pencil, once, and been given a cushion. It was a tiny cushion filled with straw. The straw still smelled of the farmyard, and caused Grabber flights of reverie. They were confusing flights, for he had never set foot on a farm. The closest he had come was the village green, where he roamed in his cups after a night on the tiles and took a brick to the head of a mendicant sleeping anent the horse trough in the moonlit night. He took that brick to the mendicant’s head twenty, thirty times, in an inebriate phrenzy.
O! Grabber! Grabber! Undo what thou hast done!
But it could not be undone. It can never be undone. Only the buttons on his stripy tunic can be undone, but Grabber does not undo them, for if he did he would only button them up again.
Life. . . With Buttons.
When considering Borneo, it is extremely important to differentiate between the Wild Man of Borneo and the Wild Men of Borneo. The first thing to grasp is that the Wild Man of Borneo was not one of the Wild Men of Borneo. Obviously, he was a Wild Man, and thus if one lumps together, indiscriminately, all the Wild Men of Borneo, then one is forced to concede that the Wild Man of Borneo was, in the round, one among the Wild Men of Borneo. But in another respect, and one that is crucial, as we shall see, the Wild Man of Borneo was not, by any stretch of the imagination, one of the Wild Men of Borneo.
A second point. of utmost importance, is to bear in mind that neither the Wild Man of Borneo nor the Wild Men of Borneo had any connection whatsoever, apart from the nominative, with Borneo. All three – for there was but one Wild Man of Borneo, obviously, and, less obviously, two Wild Men of Borneo – were citizens of the United States of America. The Wild Man of Borneo was originally German and arrived in the United States as a teenager, while the Wild Men of Borneo were natives, the one born in New York and the other in Ohio.
To be absolutely clear, I ought to confess that in the foregoing I have ridden chronologically kim-kam, putting the Wild Man of Borneo before the Wild Men of Borneo. In truth the Wild Men of Borneo (born in 1825 and 1827) precede the Wild Man of Borneo (born in 1862).
We can perhaps better distinguish the Wild Men of Borneo from the Wild Man of Borneo by lodging their given names in our heads. The Wild Men of Borneo were Hiram W. Davis and his younger brother Barney Davis. The Wild Man of Borneo was Leonard Borchardt.
Without wishing to complicate things further, it is well worth noting that the latter, the Wild Man of Borneo, was commonly known as Oofty-Goofty. He acquired this sobriquet from his habit, when covered in tar and horsehair and locked in a cage and fed raw meat, of uttering a fierce cry of “Oofty-Goofty!”. Neither of the Wild Men of Borneo is ever recorded as having used these words, if words is what they are. The Wild Men of Borneo were noted rather for their prodigious feats of strength, wrestling skills, and what used to be called mental imbecility.
Having digested all of the above, we should be able with confidence to tell the Wild Man of Borneo from the Wild Men of Borneo. Equally helpful, if not more so, is the knowledge that, next time we disembark from a boat, its sails billowing in the southeast Asian wind, upon the shores of Borneo, should we then encounter any wild men, though they may be indubitably wild men of Borneo, given their wildness and location, they will be neither the Wild Man of Borneo nor the Wild Men of Borneo, with all three of whom we are now serviceably familiar.
It would be interesting to know if either the Wild Man of Borneo, or the Wild Men of Borneo, had a familiar, in the sense of a grimalkin or witch’s familiar. I do not think any of them did, but I would not wish to pronounce upon this definitively without learning more, much, much more, about both the Wild Man of Borneo and the Wild Men of Borneo.
Readers will know that from time to time I find inspiration from cryptic crosswords. For decades, it has been my daily habit to tackle the Guardian crossword, with occasional forays into those of other newspapers. Today I have been particularly impressed by 4 Across in the Guardian. The clue reads:
Incidents where git punches crusty things behind back of cafe (8)
I have not yet solved this, but while it is fresh in my mind I thought it useful to transcribe it here, mostly as an aide memoire to myself. You lot can look forward to an examination of such incidents in a forthcoming sweeping paragraph of majestic prose.
Before Twitter, there was Prolix – a communal steam-powered system where messages had to be a minimum of 50,000 words and include copious quotations in Latin and Ancient Greek. You can read about this forgotten Victorian marvel in my cupboard over at The Dabbler this week.
I have had a fabtastic idea for a TV show. It’s called Wankers On Hovercrafts. Each episode would follow a channel crossing, there and back, by a group of objectionable people aboard an outmoded form of sea transport. The idea ticks all the boxes – well, three of them – and would be relatively cheap to produce. I shall set up a meeting with a BBC commissioning editor at the first opportunity, and I have every confidence that it will get the go-ahead. I mean, it’s the perfect TV show, surely? When you see me collecting my gong at a future awards ceremony, remember where you first read those magic words – Wankers On Hovercrafts!
Let us consider the Man at C&A, where C and A are points on a plane equidistant from central point B. We might ask, reasonably, why C precedes A in this hypothetical space, when it is more usual, much more usual, for A to precede C, but quite frankly this is the least of our worries. Far more problematic is the idea that the Man is at C and A simultaneously. Greater minds than mine have, over the centuries, devised the natural laws by which everything in the known universe is bound, and I would not be exaggerating if I said that these laws simply will not tolerate a man being in two places at once.
We can immediately dispose of the somewhat desperate solution that the Man at point A is a doppelgänger, one who appears identical in every respect to the “original” man at point C, but is not him. To show how facetious this idea is, we need only remark that we are dealing with the Man at C&A, not the Men, and it is the plural Men we would be speaking of if we had the Man at C and another Man at A, no matter how uncannily the latter resembled the former, even down to the precise number of hairs on the head or the disposition of pockmarks on the grisly countenance.
So we must be clear that when we speak of the Man at C&A, we speak of the same Man, absolutely identical in all particulars, at both point C and point A which, if you are paying attention, you will remember are equidistant from point B. Point B, by the way. is unoccupied, by either Man or Woman or Beast of the Field. We posit its existence the better to comprehend the space between C and A, and also because, in its absence, there would be no reason I can think of why we should not call point C point B. But as I say, there are greater minds than mine, and perhaps one of them could devise a compelling reason why B should be ejected from the hypothesis entirely. Until such reasoning is applied, however, we will continue to insert an unoccupied point B between, and equidistant from, the two points at C and A which, as we have seen, are occupied by the Man.
Gosh, this is fun.
We might stumble towards a comprehensive explanation of the Man being at C and A if we introduce the element of Time. Let us imagine we are wearing a cheap wristwatch, and keeping one eye upon it as we consider the Man at C&A. The whole damn thing makes sense if we are able to say that the Man is at C at, say, 10.30 AM, and at A at 2.30 PM. We might want to ask how on earth it takes him four hours to make the simple journey from C to A, passing through B to pick up a sausage roll for sustenance, but we can perhaps account for that by giving him a pair of crutches upon which he must lug himself along, his legs being withered. Such infirmity would fit neatly with the grisly countenance above noted.
The obvious objection to this ostensibly happy solution is that we are thus dealing not with the Man at C&A but with the Man at C then A. We must, then, regrettably, remove the cheap wristwatch and chuck it into a ditch and scratch our head in bewilderment. Think! Think! Aha! A faint glimmer slowly resolves itself into the near certainty a solution can be found if we imagine point C and point A as so close together, almost abutting one another, with only tiny little point B between them, that the Man is straddling them, one foot planted firmly at C and the other at A. He is indubitably the Man at C&A!
But on second thoughts we must knock this proposition down, violently. It has already been shown that the man’s legs are withered and he must rely upon crutches. It is beyond the bounds of sense that such a cripple could stand, steady and upright and resolute, with either foot planted firmly anywhere at all. The best he could do would be to lock the base of one crutch in position at point C and the other at point A, and balance himself, swinging between them. But it can be proved, using geometry or one of the allied disciplines devised by better minds than my own, that he would of necessity be swinging in the air just above point B, the tiny point, you recall, we have jammed between point C and point A for cogent reasons not to be gainsaid. He is therefore the Man at B, or, at best, the Man at B whose crutches are planted at C&A. Even a halfwit, I think, would have to concede that such a fellow is a very different beast to a bona fide Man at C&A.
Increasingly befuddled, we may have to return, reluctantly, to the less than satisfactory doppelgänger theory or, even more reluctantly, suspend the laws of physics. But wait! Could it be that the answer is staring us in the face, or rather glancing at us slantwise, at an unexpected angle? Could it all be a bit of stage trickery mustered up by a conjurer, employing a mirror, perhaps, placed at point B? If we could identify an encrutched variety theatre magician of grisly countenance, we would surely be home and dry. And immediately one springs to mind. Who will ever forget the crippled crutch-bound maestro The Amazing Blinko And His Lovely Assistant Janet? Surely it is The Amazing Blinko who, with the aid of a mirror, or more likely mirrors plural, is the Man who appears to be at both C and A at one and the same time!
We can now go and take a nap, having solved the conundrum. Alas, our nap is troubled by uneasy dreams, and we wake in a cold sweat, an unanswerable question clanging in our head – by what feat of legerdemain did The Amazing Blinko make His Lovely Assistant Janet softly and suddenly vanish away from C&A?
In The Dabbler this week I have a good moan about a couple of current exasperations, the phrase “our NHS” and the word “mum”. The piece ought to have been far more vituperative and indeed unsuitable for family reading, but the editor chose to illustrate it with a photograph of that lovely cuddly character John Lydon, so I suppose it’s fortuitous that I toned down my invective.
Speaking of fishmongers, as we were (sort of) yesterday, this piece first appeared in 2008. It was prompted by Rayner Heppenstall’s observation that in one of his poems, “Mr [T. S.] Eliot so oddly bids us to pray for fishmongers”.
“Oh Lord, through Thy infinite grace, shower my counter with bream and plaice” is the opening couplet of the Fishmongers’ Prayer. This has the distinction of being the longest prayer in the English language, which is why you will rarely hear it recited in full. Its length is due to the fact that, within the rolling cadences of its many, many verses, all known types of fish, both edible and inedible, are mentioned at least once. It was the work of a piscatorial monomaniac named Egbert Bock. He was not himself a practising fishmonger, nor indeed did he live in or even near a fishing port. He was a squat, scruffy little man whose ears were perplexingly shaped, inasmuch as they looked as if they had been stuck to his head upside down. His obsession with fish is thought to have been caused by a traumatic childhood incident involving several flounders. Nine times out of ten such happenstance will lead to a phobia, but in Bock’s case it had precisely the opposite effect. Interestingly, when experiments were made upon his brain after his death, it was discovered that the areas devoted to fish and the mongering of fish were terrifically shrivelled. Some seaside vicars still include an abridged version of the Fishmongers’ Prayer in their services. But not many.
I had always yearned to walk in the shoes of the fisherman. First I had to persuade the fisherman to give me his shoes, or at least to lend them to me. But he was a surly and cantankerous fellow, as fishermen often are, especially when trafficking with landlubbers, and I certainly lubbed the land. In fact, it was precisely my lubbing of the land that made me long to walk in the shoes of the fisherman. I reasoned – acutely, I think – that wearing a fisherman’s shoes while walking about peering at birds, I could broaden my landbound lub by attuning myself to the denizens of the deep (fish) and those whose domain was the sky (birds). It might be argued that simply wearing a fisherman’s shoes was no match for plunging into the briny depths and swimming about with all those myriad befinned creatures below, but I am a cautious man, and I did not wish to run before I could walk, as it were, though that is possibly not the best analogy to make.
It has been my experience that most people are open to bribery by herring, but this ploy would obviously not work with a fisherman. By following him about for several weeks, and closely questioning his local kiosk-owner, I discovered that the fisherman had an unquenchable thirst for Squelcho! Using my underworld contacts, I was able to obtain half a dozen bumper multipacks of the canned fizzy drink, and one morning, shortly after he had returned from a night-fishing expedition, I loaded the cans on to a cart and trundled it down to the foul and reeking wharf where I knew the fisherman liked to lollop about.
He proved to be a very canny fisherman, and drove a hard bargain, but eventually agreed to let me borrow his shoes until midday, on the understanding that I would then bring him a further half dozen multipacks of Squelcho! I had no intention of submitting to such extortion, but nodded agreement. I would worry about the consequences of reneging on the deal later. For your edification, I wanted to reproduce a verbatim transcript of our exchange at this point. Unfortunately, the tape I made, on a cassette recorder concealed in my bomber jacket, was wiped later that morning when I was engulfed in a terrific electrical storm (see below).
And so I set out to walk in the shoes of the fisherman, and to look at birds in the sky. I had not counted on the happenstance that the fisherman’s feet were several sizes smaller than mine. Walking in his shoes was an agony, but I persevered, repeating my mantra “I am not a milksop! I am not a milksop!”. I walked in the shoes of the fisherman away from the wharf and over Sawdust Bridge and along Yoko Ono Boulevard and past the important roadworks at the Blister Lane Bypass and through the Acre of Mud and along the perimeter fence of Poxhaven Aerodrome and under the viaduct and up, up into the Blue Forgotten Hills. All the while I was keenly watching the skies, and I saw several birds.
The first was about 5.7 inches long, with a wingspan of roughly 9.6 to 11.2 inches and a weight somewhere between 0.63 and 1.02 ounces. It had a black forehead and a blue-grey crown, nape and upper mantle. The rump was a light olive-green, and the lower mantle and scapulars formed a brown saddle. The side of the head, throat and breast were a dull rust-red merging to a pale creamy-pink on the belly. The central pair of tail feathers were dark grey with a black shaft streak. The rest of the tail was black apart from the two outer feathers on each side which had white wedges. Each wing had a contrasting white panel on the coverts and a buff-white bar on the secondaries and inner primaries The flight feathers were black with white on the basal portions of the vanes. The secondaries and inner primaries had pale yellow fringes on the outer web whereas the outer primaries had a white outer edge. My ornithological education had been brought to a premature end because of the war, but I knew a linnet when I saw one. I jotted down “linnet” in my birdbook, together with a note of the date and the weather and the fact that I could barely think straight due to the stabbing pains in my feet, shod in the fisherman’s shoes. I tucked the birdbook back into my pocket and screamed “I am not a milksop!” several times at the top of my voice.
Shortly afterwards I had to take the birdbook out again because I spotted a second bird. This one was larger than a European robin, and it had a white rump and tail, with a black inverted T-pattern at the end of the tail. Its plumage – plumage! – had grey upperparts, buff throat and black wings and a face mask. It had a whistling, crackly song, and its call was a typical “chat chack” noise, just the the same as its flight call. Cursing the war that put paid to my avian studies, I wrote “bunting” in my birdbook, and added a brief pen-portrait of the fisherman whose shoes I was walking in, with increasing difficulty, and much anguish.
The third bird I saw that day, up in the sky above the Blue Forgotten Hills, was about 7 inches long, weighed roughly 1.1 to 1.4 ounces, and displayed a light green body colour (abdomen and rumps), while its mantles (back and wing coverts) displayed pitch-black mantle markings edged in clear yellow undulations. The forehead and face were yellow with blackish stripes down to the cere. It displayed small, purple cheek patches and a series of three black spots across each side of its throat (called throat spots). The two outermost throat spots were situated at the base of each cheek patch. The tail was cobalt (dark-blue); and outside tail feathers displayed central yellow flashes. Its wings had greenish-black flight feathers and black coverts with yellow fringes along with central yellow flashes. Its bill was olive grey and its legs blueish-grey, with zygodactyl toes. I scribbled down “nightjar” in my birdbook, and collapsed to the ground, memories of bombs and artillery fire in my head and excruciating spasms of agony surging through my feet. I took off the shoes of the fisherman and made my way back to the wharf in my socks.
The fisherman was sitting on an upturned barrel, surrounded by drained and crushed Squelcho! cans. As I approached him, swinging his shoes by their laces, I realised I had not yet thought up a stratagem to avoid having to pay him off with another half dozen bumper multipacks of his favourite fizzy drink. But as things turned out, I did not have to, for of a sudden we were engulfed in a terrific electrical storm (see above). I escaped unscathed, probably due to the stylishly conical gutta-percha hat atop my head. But my cassette tape was wiped, and the fisherman was struck by lightning, several times, and, quaking like a jelly, toppled off his barrel, and over the edge of the wharf, and into the sloshing sea, into which he sank, remorselessly, emitting squelchy sparks, remorselessly.
I tossed his shoes into the water. They were no good to me, being far too small. But I had walked in the shoes of the fisherman, observing birds in the sky, so I had succeeded in realising one of my greatest ambitions. A lubber of land, I had communed, simultaneously, with creatures of sea and sky.
Only later, back at home, glugging from a can of Squelcho! and browsing in an illustrated treatise upon birds, did I learn that I had seen neither a linnet nor a bunting nor a nightjar. The birds I had spotted were a chaffinch and a wheatear and a budgerigar. Clearly there was only one thing to do. I would have to fish the shoes of the fisherman out of the wharfside water, and cram my feet back into them, and go walking again, away from the wharf and over Sawdust Bridge and along Yoko Ono Boulevard and past the important roadworks at the Blister Lane Bypass and through the Acre of Mud and along the perimeter fence of Poxhaven Aerodrome and under the viaduct and up, up, up into the Blue Forgotten Hills, looking at birds in the sky, this time writing their proper names in my birdbook, all the while walking in the shoes of the fisherman.