This is probably the funniest thing I have read since oh! I don’t know when.
It was one of those Octobers of relentless thudding and hammering, when the throwback was on the throne. The throneback, some called him, behind his back, but of course nobody had ever seen the back of the throne, not even the carpenter who made it, who was blind. As soon as it was finished, the throne was installed, its back rammed fast against the chamber wall, and there it had remained. When renovations and redecoration were undertaken, the work had to be arranged in such a way that the throne itself was never moved. And sat on it now, this October, with his oxygenator and his paper bag of salt water taffy, was the throwback king.
The drains were blocked. There were a couple of chickens roasting on a spit. A peasant was being tortured in an alcove. And still, the constant din of thudding and hammering, drowning out the squeaking of bats, countless bats, up in the rafters.
We know the bats were countless because the king had tried to have them counted. It was one of his first acts, after taking his place upon the throne. First he called for his oxygenator, then for his taffy, and then he summoned a calculator pursuivant and told him to count the bats. He was a bat-minded king, he liked to say. His uncle had advised him to speak very rarely. The fewer words he pronounced, said this uncle, the greater the force he would lend them. But the throwback king took no notice of this sage counsel, and he babbled, and had his uncle tortured in the alcove, like the peasant.
There was a staircase leading from the chamber, obviously, at the foot of which was a brick-kiln, Each brick baked here was stamped with an image of the king’s heraldic beast, a fish with the head of an owl, the thorax and abdomen of a snapping beetle, and the trailing appendages of a jellyfish. It was called Desmond. The king’s greatest amusement, chewing taffy apart, was to watch his weediest fool try to juggle hot bricks while standing in a puddle.
Milk played an important part in the life of the court that October. The throwback king, with his faux-Flemish affectations, pronounced it melk. He said coo instead of cow. Over and over again, he liked to watch the scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion (1941) where Cary Grant carries a glass of milk upstairs to Joan Fontaine. Hitchcock placed a small light in the glass to make the milk glow. The king made his cows glow, by training Klieg lights upon their byre,
It was only a short walk from the chamber to the cow byre, but one the king never made, for he was stuck to his throne. As with his forebears, so with the throwback. Once settled upon the throne, its seat coated with powerful adhesive gum, he would never rise from it again. Would he live beyond October? Towards the end of the month the thuddings and hammerings grew ever more clamorous. The king’s oxygenator gave out, the salt water taffy was as dust in his mouth. His minions circled, their faces expressionless, unreadable.
Come Hallowe’en, when they prodded the king with a stick, he did not cry out.
The robin is a type of bird. It may be found, in near stasis, perched on a bough. Arrival upon and departure from the bough is accomplished by flight, flight achieved by deployment of the wings (a pair). Not all birds are capable of flight, but the robin is. During perchment, the robin may be captured by placing over it a net attached to one end of a stick. While it is thus prevented from flying away, one can insert a syringe through the net, and stun the robin with a sedative, rendering it unconscious. The net can then be lifted up, and the bird placed in the pocket.
One should ensure that the bough from which the robin is abducted is within a short walking distance of the laboratory or other workspace. If the bird regains consciousness while in the pocket, it will panic, and flap about, and may well exercise its wings sufficiently to fly free, up and away into the boundless sky. Upon arrival at the lab, place the stunned bird on a work-surface and inject it with another dose of the serum, calibrated to keep it away with the fairies for a few hours.
Various activities can now be carried out with the unconscious robin. These may be in the spirit of scientific enquiry, or just larking about. (Technically, the lark is a different type of bird and has nothing to do with larking about, at least not in the present context.) If one intends, shortly before the robin wakes up, its tiny brain woozy, to replace it on its bough, or on a different but nearby bough, it is important that no great harm should come to the bird as a result of the activities, whatever they might be. Small modifications to the unconscious robin are permissible, for example plucking out a handful of its feathers for later examination under a microscope at one’s leisure, or painting it an entirely different colour with a non-toxic pigment. But on no account should one remove, say, its head, for in doing so one will kill the robin and it will not wake from its induced coma.
If carrying out scientific experiments, it is well to bear in mind that the robin is but one type of bird, and one cannot extrapolate from the results of one’s experiments deductions applicable to all types of birds, not even to all robins. It may not be a normal robin. If simply larking about, say by dipping the feet in a pool of ink and then printing a false bird-trail across the bedroom ceiling of a wife one is plotting to drive insane, as in the Patrick Hamilton play Gaslight, one need not bother whether the robin is normal or not. (The villainous husband in Gaslight did not print such a bird-trail, but it is the sort of tactic he might have used, had he had access to an unconscious robin.)
When replacing the bird on its bough, it will need to be propped upright until it is fully awake, otherwise it will topple to the ground due to gravitational force. Use a small structure of interlaced twigs, or some such temporary bolster. Upon waking, the robin will probably bestir itself and use its wings to depart the bough, in flight, up into the sky, until it is quite out of sight, its destination unknown, even to the robin itself.
This is an extract from Mr Key’s Book Of Birds, a work in progress.
Never, never admit to being a flute-player with a rock band.
The monopod flautist dispenses advice for travellers. (Thanks to Alasdair Dickson for drawing this to my attention. Now I must go and listen to Aqualung.)
The New World Order has come to pass. It has been decreed by the king that from this day forth, the order of “World” should not be w-o-r-l-d, as at present, but o-w-l-r-d. When a space is introduced between the l and the r, we get Owl Rd, where Rd is a common abbreviation for Road. Thus the New World Order is to be found along Owl Road, which is to be the new name for every single road, street, avenue, crescent, mews, lane, path, you get the idea, throughout the kingdom.
The usual moaning minnies have raised objections, chiefly the posties and dustbin men and others whose duties require them to navigate the various roads and streets. They – or at least their representatives – say that with every road called Owl Road they will get lost, lost, hopelessly lost, and be unable to perform their functions with due efficiency. To which the king says: “Pah!”
That is one of the great things about being the king. You can wave your begloved hand disdainfully and say “Pah!”, and none dare challenge you. The posties’ and dustbin men’s representatives made a little fuss, it is true, but once the king had glared at them and spat his contempt, they knew better than to persist. They returned to their depots like whipped curs, and held meetings where they told the posties and the dustbin men to get to work, starting on Owl Road.
“Don’t worry your little proletarian heads about becoming hopelessly lost,” they were told, “For how can you be lost when, wherever you are, you know you are on Owl Road?”
You see how the king looks after his subjects? In the New World Order, everybody knows exactly where they are, at every hour of the day and the night. And that is a very fine state of affairs indeed.
Written this day sitting on a municipal bench on Owl Road.
For reasons which I cannot fathom, I feel impelled to repost this potsage [sic] stamp design, depicting men with whisks and celery.
When Margaret Thatcher died last year, I devoted one of my potsages [sic] for The Dabbler to the unresolved question of which bird she most closely resembled. I noted that Matthew Parris claimed “she walked like a partridge”, while Jon Snow asserted “she scuttled about like a hen”. Now things have become more complicated. Reading Dominic Sandbrook’s Seasons In The Sun : The Battle For Britain 1974-1979, I learn that the Daily Express compared the then-future Prime Minister to “an angry woodpecker”.
The New Motive Power was constructed of copper, zinc and magnets, all carefully machined, as well as a dining room table. At the end of nine months, Spear and an unnamed woman, also referred to as “Mary of the New Dispensation” ritualistically birthed the contraption in an attempt to give it life. Unfortunately for Spear, this failed to have the desired effect, and the machine was later dismantled.
The sort of paragraph that compels me to do further research. From John Murray Spear & The Electric Messiah in today’s Dabbler.
This week in The Dabbler, my cupboard contains a reminiscence of my childhood devotion to nisbet spotting. I have been thinking of taking up the hobby again.
I remember as if it were yesterday my very first encounter with Tarleton. He was propping up the bar in a beige and dismal drinking den, beetle-browed and lantern-jawed and babbling to no one in particular. I sat on a stool beside him, ordered a sprangeloenkenkischt, and listened to what he had to say.
He was only recently back from a hush-hush mission in the East, and was worrying, like a dog with a sheep, at the impossibility of grasping the difference between the Near East, the Middle East, and the Far East. What seemed to bother him was that, whereas the location of the Middle East was as clear as dammit, between the Near and the Far, placing the Near and the Far was by no means as simple a matter. If you were slap bang in the middle of the Middle East, for example, the Near East and the Far East would be equidistant from where you stood, or sat, or lay sprawled in a hammock in the blistering noonday sun, going mad.
When he briefly paused to glug his kolokkengehemmelbe, I asked him which East, Near or Middle or Far, he had been in, on his hush-hush mission. Swallowing the dregs of the fiery liqueur, he spluttered and told me the point of a hush-hush mission was that it was hush-hush. I could not disagree with that. I bought him another drink. His tongue did not need loosening, but I was at a loose end, and he seemed to be a man of parts, well worth listening to.
I was wrong. For the next two hours, he gabbled on and on and on, without cease, trying but failing to settle the matter of the three Easts, Near and Middle and Far, now and then pulling from his pocket a crumpled map, hand-drawn with a leaky biro on a filthy napkin, on which he had tried, tried and failed, tried again and failed again, like the best or worst of Beckettians, to hammer home the geography of the East, to pin it down, definitively, so that he would no longer need to think about it. That, he said, in among his witterings, was what he could not stand – that no matter how hard he tried, the East would remain forever beyond his grasp.
Eventually he staggered off to the lavatory to vomit. He had left the napkin map on the counter. Idly, I picked it up. I turned it this way and that, and then, feeling the breath of God on the back of my neck, I crumpled it up and uncrumpled it and turned it upside down and back to front. I laid it back on the counter and smoothed it out, downed the last of my goospelkschnittzern, wrapped my muffler tight about my neck, and tottered out into the icy blizzard. As I followed the tractor-tracks back towards my chalet, I heard from inside the bar a scream, at once hysterical and tragic and unhinged and ecstatic. I lit my pipe, as snowflakes fell.
Note well the co-ordinates of the rubbish dump. Lit lantern, hand-held, visibility Stygian. Pebbles underfoot. Buck collar snug at the neck. Distant incomprehensible keening. The mighty pyramids of Ancient Egypt. Satyrs cavort in the forest. A galumphing peasant with a pail. The rubbish dump would appear to be not far from the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Crows fly there, on the hour, timetabled. Clack clack clack, rapid clacks. That kind of timetable. Rain on the pebbles. An orphan choir sings a song.
Bob Crow, Bob Crow
Made out of dough
Eat him up with salt and herring
A biff in the chops from an unknown assailant. Fleeing in the gutter. On All Hallows Eve, pictures of Jap girls in synthesis. The seven wonders of another world. Resurrectionists scurry in the night. Spades at the ready. Bob Crow, Bob Crow.
Sibelius was a terrible drunkard. A dog sniffing a ditch. Frisky terrier, lumbering hound. Two dogs then. The Colossus of Rhodes. Young marble giants. Wind in the rigging. A frump with a towel in a doorway, like Harry Lime in postwar Vienna. Wheels within wheels. The windmills of someone else’s mind. Mind how you go, sir. There’s room for one more inside.
There’s room for one more skip at the rubbish dump. Babylon or Chartres. Sing, sing, in a cathedral choir. Nunc dimittis. And he had received an answer from the Holy Ghost, that he should not see death, before he had seen the Christ of the Lord. Bob Sparrow, Bob Lark.
Rain in the gutters and filth on the stairs. I hear the sound of mandolins. Now the orphans sing.
Bob Crow, Bob Lark, Bob Bobolink
Call for another round of drinks
We are teetering on the brink
Let’s fall into the abyss.
Visibility nil, in the abyss. Can I get a witness? Is there honey? Is there tea? No. You have drained your cup. You could not make it up.
A new ghost.
Oh Prunella! Thou art fair! But is it true that thou has lost thy marbles? Just now I was engaged in breezy chitchat with old Greavish the retainer, by the filbert hedge, and he said you had taken to hiding behind the arras waving a new-darned sock from your dainty hand, to and fro, to and fro, while humming a bawdy song. That is why I came bounding across the lawn past the box hedge and the serried rows of owl traps, and dashed into the house and up the stairs to your boudoir, to find out if Greavish spoke the truth. And now I find you here, so fair, not behind the arras at all, but slumped on a divan, toying with pickles in a jar, and by your slipper-shod feet another jar, sealed, in which there appears to be a creature of the sea, enbrined, globular, and luminous. The sock you were wafting has been tossed aside against the wainscot, where it is being gnawed by a little mouse. Thou art not singing, now, but keening, a low, melancholy keening, redolent of untold centuries of historic wrongs unrighted. I shall bring you a flan from the pantry, oh my Prunella! And then I shall lift you to your feet and carry you all the way to the house of Dr Slop. It is an untidy house, dilapidated and falling down, but within the good doctor maintains a laboratory in which he conducts his brain sluicing experiments. I shall pay him a few sous and hand you over to his care until springtime. Come, Prunella dear. Let drop your pickle jar. Think no more about the sock. I will take your sea creature to the aquarium as soon as I have you safely installed with the doctor. Do not, oh! do not scamper behind the arras where I cannot reach you. Sing not that bawdy song! It assails my ears and I must stuff them with cotton wool. Greavish! Greavish! Come quick! The sea creature has broken the seal upon its jar and is slithering across the rug towards the arras! Oh God in heaven. Glubb … glubb … glubb …
Reading about yet another teenage shooting murder in east London in yesterday’s paper, I could not help but burst into inappropriate laughter at the name of the victim. Her name, apparently, was Shereka Fab-Ann Marsh. “Shereka” is bad enough, eliding easily into “Shrieker”, but “Fab-Ann”? What on earth were her parents thinking?
I am not sure if it is possible for me to re-register the births of my own (now adult) sons, but I am tempted to rechristen them Fab-Sam and Fab-Ed. And while we are about it, could I become Fab-Frank? Or perhaps With-It-Mr-Key?
Perhaps the tragic Miss Marsh’s parents were fans of Thunderbirds.
You don’t expect to find a cad in a grotto. But that is exactly what I discovered during a spot of seaside spelunking many years ago. I had abseiled down a cliff, having been told by my colleague Dennis Pivot that there was, at its foot, partly submerged under water, a grotto which, he thought, was the portal to a magnificent and extensive system of caves never before explored.
“What makes you think that, Dennis?” I had asked him, as we ate sausages in a seaside cafeteria.
“Clues strewn in various rare manuscripts of olden times,” he said. When I pressed him for further details, he pretended to be chewing on a piece of gristle, then gagged, spat into a napkin, and keeled over. It was a convincing performance, and at the time I had absolutely no idea he was dissembling.
I hired some kit and headed for the cliff. It was a squally day. Gulls were screaming their heads off. My ears are oversensitive to certain bird shrieks, so I stuffed them with cotton wool. Then I abseiled like the abseiling expert I am down the cliff face. What with the cotton wool and my cushioned helmet I couldn’t hear a thing. At the bottom of the cliff, I swung myself into the grotto. I unfastened myself from my abseiling rope and stood for a moment or two, knee deep in sloshing seawater, to catch my breath. That is when I saw the cad.
He came looming out of the Platonic shadows at the back of the grotto, a dapper fellow in spite of the cheapness of his suit. Like many a postwar cad, he bore a striking resemblance to the actor Terry-Thomas (1911-1990).
“Hello old chap!” he said, “I say, you couldn’t see your way to loaning me a few bob, could you? Had a run of bad luck on the old gee-gees, you know how it is.”
I couldn’t hear a word he said, and gestured to indicate as much. Then I took off my helmet and prised the cotton wool out of my ears and asked him to repeat himself. After he had done so, I explained that I never carried cash when abseiling, for fear it might fall from my pocket into the merciless sea.
“Drat!”, he said, and then offered to place some bets for me if I met up with him at Waterloo Station on the following Thursday and forwarded him several hundred pounds.
I promised to think about it, though in truth my puritanical ways made it very unlikely that I would ever get embroiled in any form of gambling.
“Tell me something,” I said, “You seem to be familiar with this grotto. I’ve been led to believe it leads to a magnificent and extensive system of caves never before explored. Is that indeed the case?”
“I haven’t got the foggiest,” he said, “Only been here a couple of weeks, haven’t quite got my bearings.”
This surprised me. I had always thought it a characteristic of cads that they were quick to grasp the possibilities of whatever circumstances they found themselves in. I put this to him, without actually calling him a cad. By way of reply, he changed the subject.
“I say, you couldn’t loan me those bits of cotton wool, could you? I’m being driven crackers by the shrieking of those damnable gulls.”
I was reluctant to relinquish my makeshift earmuffs, and told him so. I still cannot remember how he managed to wheedle them out of me, nor how he convinced me to let him try on my abseiling harness, which, having donned, he attached to the rope dangling at the grotto’s opening, whereupon he rapidly ascended, leaving me alone. The sloshing seawater was now up to my waist.
There was nothing for it but to make my way deeper into the grotto, in the hope of discovering a magnificent and extensive system of caves never before explored. But was my colleague Dennis Pivot right, or was he talking twaddle, as he so often did?
On this occasion, I am relieved to report, he was bang on the money. I spent several days clambering about underground, the first man to see, oh!, such wonders!
But when Thursday came I determined to find my way back to the grotto and then, somehow, up the cliff face. I remembered I had an appointment to meet the cad at Waterloo Station, and though I had no intention of giving him several hundred pounds to bet on the horses on my behalf, I dearly wanted to retrieve my abseiling harness and rope and cotton wool.
When I got to the grotto, the tide was in, and the sloshing seawater came up to my neck. Without my abseiling gear, I knew I could not hope to scale the cliff, so I decided to plunge ahead and make a swim for it. There was a terrible risk that I would be dashed to pieces on the rocks. Luckily, I managed, by dint of advanced swimming techniques, to steer my way through the tremendous currents, and by midday I was panting on a shingle beach. I was exhausted and sodden and had numerous tiny crustacean beings snagged in my hair, but I was alive.
Stopping only for a reviving cuppa in a seaside cafeteria, I caught a train to Waterloo Station. And there, on the concourse, waiting for me, I spotted the cad. I squelched towards him.
“There you are, old bean,” he said, “Have you got a wodge of the folding stuff?”
“No I have not!” I cried, “I am of puritanical bent and I never bet on the horses. I have come for my abseiling harness and rope and my cotton wool, with which I entrusted you in the grotto.”
“Of course, old boy, of course,” he said, a gleam of mischief in his eyes, “I put them in a locker for safe keeping. Here – “ and he handed me a key – “Number 666. Be seeing you!” And he scarpered.
I asked a railway person where the lockers were, and went straight to them. I inserted the key into the lock of locker number 666, and opened it. There was no sign of my harness, my rope, and my cotton wool. Instead, what I found in the locker was the thing that, had I but known, I would have dropped as surely as one drops a burning potato, for it led to my utter ruin in this world, and my damnation in the world to come.
Terry-Thomas, for younger readers who may not know what a postwar cad looked like
Jeremy Thorpe spent the early weeks of the [October 1974 general election] campaign on a preposterous hovercraft tour of English seaside resorts, providing broadcasters with plenty of pictures of himself “struggling ashore in bedraggled oilskins” while aides toiled miserably to restart his unreliable vehicle.
Dominic Sandbrook, Seasons In The Sun : The Battle For Britain 1974-1979 (Allen Lane 2012)