The Amis Cat

This is probably the most accurate observation of a cat in world literature:

Victor was a blue-point Siamese, a neutered tom-cat now in the third year of his age. He entered, as usual, in vague semi-flight, as from something that was probably not a menace, but which it was as well to be on the safe side about. Becoming aware of me, he approached, again as usual, with an air of uncertainty not so much about who I was as about what I was, and of keeping a very open mind on the range of possible answers. Was I potassium nitrate, or next October twelvemonth, or Christianity, or a chess problem – perhaps involving a variation on the Falkbeer counter-gambit? When he reached me, he gave up the problem and toppled on to my feet like an elephant pierced by a bullet in some vital spot. Victor was, among other things, the reason why no dogs were allowed at the Green Man. The effort of categorizing them might have proved too much for him.

from The Green Man by Kingsley Amis (1969)

On The Podcasts Of Polar Bears

And about bloody time, too!, I hear you cry. Multifarious technical gubbins in the bowels of ResonanceFM have been bashed into shape by the trusty – if frustrated – podcast maestro, so here we are, with a new long overdue episode…

On The Livers Of Polar Bears

podcast pic

Mislaid Mojo

I have often said, in recent years, that I do not believe in the concept of “writer’s block”. I think it is used as a fiddlefaddle excuse by the idle and the indigent, or perhaps by those who prefer swanning about and gallivanting to the Johnsonian drudgery of sitting at a keyboard and bashing the stuff out.

And while it is true, I think, that one does just have to sit there and tippy-tap until the cows come home, I am now prepared to admit that it is entirely possible to do so while filling the pages with twaddle. This is what has happened to me of late. The results of my writing routine have been such godawful piffle that you lot should think yourselves fortunate that I have declined to post any of them here.

I would like to think that I have mislaid my mojo, rather than lost it entirely. The dilemma I face is whether to go searching for it, or simply to wait for it to come crawling back, like a surly dog. Speaking of dogs, here is a dog:

dog

From The Archives

This piece first appeared on Thursday 19 March 2009.

Dixon went to Dock Green. It was a small patch of grass, hardly a lawn, at the edge of the dock. The dock itself was one where huge steamers came into port from faraway lands, carrying all sorts of exotic cargo. The cargo was mostly packed into wooden crates, which were winched from ship to dock by dockhands. When it was lunchtime, the dockhands sprawled on the green, the small patch of grass, and prised the lids off their Tupperwares and unscrewed the lids from their flasks. They ate their bloater paste sandwiches and drank their tea and while they chewed and swilled they talked to each other about the cargo they had winched ashore that morning. The wooden crates usually had lettering stencilled on their sides and tops describing what the crates contained. One might read FRUIT GUMS, another GIRAFFE BRAINS.
Leaning on a fence, smoking his pipe, Dixon listened carefully to the chitchat of the dockhands. He used to be a policeman. Now he was a spy. His mission was to find out what cargo had been winched ashore that morning and report back to his spymasters. His spymasters were shadowy figures who sat behind a big desk in an unlit room in a skyscraper in town. The room was unlit so that Dixon was unable to see them with any clarity and thus recognise them and thus be able to identify them at a later date if ever questioned.
Dixon could have just blundered around the dock and read the stencilled lettering on all the crates but he preferred to listen to the chitchat of the dockhands because he could not read. He used to be able to, when he was a policeman, but he had lost the ability. One day, one September day to be precise, he had been chasing a miscreant and lost his footing in a gutter and banged his head, and after banging his head he forgot everything he had ever known, even his own name, and where he lived, and how old he was, and what he did for a living, and how to read. In short, he was an amnesiac.
One of the spymasters came to the clinic where Dixon had been put. To disguise his identity, the spymaster wore a mask and modified his voice with an electronic device. He offered Dixon a job at Dock Green. This day I am telling you about was Dixon’s first day. While he was leaning against the fence smoking his pipe and listening to the dockhands, he forgot all about the unlit room in the skyscraper and the shadowy spymasters who had sent him on his mission. He became very interested in the fruit gums and giraffe brains and the winching mechanism and he walked on to the ship to take a closer look.
Dixon was still on the ship when it steamed out of port on its way to a far distant land to collect more cargo. One day, out in the middle of one of those big oceans that make up so much of the planet’s surface, he received a bash on the head from a violent sailor. Then Dixon remembered everything. He remembered he was a policeman, so he tried to arrest the violent sailor for bashing him on the head. But the law of the land holds no sway at sea, and the ship’s captain locked him up in a cabin until they made landfall.
The first land they came to was a tiny rock. The captain and the violent sailor took Dixon by the arms and legs and shoved him off the ship on to the rock. It was almost barren, encrusted with barnacles and other shelly denizens of the sea and rocks, but there was a small patch of grass. Dixon dubbed it Dock Green and fashioned a flag from his cravat and found a stick for a flagpole and planted his flag in the grass. And he devised a fishing rod and a bow and arrows and a desalination unit, for he was a resourceful policeman, and he ruled over his little kingdom, where there was never a whiff of crime, for many, many years.Â
NOTE : Younger readers, and those unfamiliar with British television of decades past, may like to know that an inaccurate adaptation of this story was the basis for a long running series.

dixonofdockgreen

Dixon went to Dock Green. It was a small patch of grass, hardly a lawn, at the edge of the dock. The dock itself was one where huge steamers came into port from faraway lands, carrying all sorts of exotic cargo. The cargo was mostly packed into wooden crates, which were winched from ship to dock by dockhands. When it was lunchtime, the dockhands sprawled on the green, the small patch of grass, and prised the lids off their Tupperwares and unscrewed the lids from their flasks. They ate their bloater paste sandwiches and drank their tea and while they chewed and swilled they talked to each other about the cargo they had winched ashore that morning. The wooden crates usually had lettering stencilled on their sides and tops describing what the crates contained. One might read FRUIT GUMS, another GIRAFFE BRAINS.

Leaning on a fence, smoking his pipe, Dixon listened carefully to the chitchat of the dockhands. He used to be a policeman. Now he was a spy. His mission was to find out what cargo had been winched ashore that morning and report back to his spymasters. His spymasters were shadowy figures who sat behind a big desk in an unlit room in a skyscraper in town. The room was unlit so that Dixon was unable to see them with any clarity and thus recognise them and thus be able to identify them at a later date if ever questioned.

Dixon could have just blundered around the dock and read the stencilled lettering on all the crates but he preferred to listen to the chitchat of the dockhands because he could not read. He used to be able to, when he was a policeman, but he had lost the ability. One day, one September day to be precise, he had been chasing a miscreant and lost his footing in a gutter and banged his head, and after banging his head he forgot everything he had ever known, even his own name, and where he lived, and how old he was, and what he did for a living, and how to read. In short, he was an amnesiac.

One of the spymasters came to the clinic where Dixon had been put. To disguise his identity, the spymaster wore a mask and modified his voice with an electronic device. He offered Dixon a job at Dock Green. This day I am telling you about was Dixon’s first day. While he was leaning against the fence smoking his pipe and listening to the dockhands, he forgot all about the unlit room in the skyscraper and the shadowy spymasters who had sent him on his mission. He became very interested in the fruit gums and giraffe brains and the winching mechanism and he walked on to the ship to take a closer look.

Dixon was still on the ship when it steamed out of port on its way to a far distant land to collect more cargo. One day, out in the middle of one of those big oceans that make up so much of the planet’s surface, he received a bash on the head from a violent sailor. Then Dixon remembered everything. He remembered he was a policeman, so he tried to arrest the violent sailor for bashing him on the head. But the law of the land holds no sway at sea, and the ship’s captain locked him up in a cabin until they made landfall.

The first land they came to was a tiny rock. The captain and the violent sailor took Dixon by the arms and legs and shoved him off the ship on to the rock. It was almost barren, encrusted with barnacles and other shelly denizens of the sea and rocks, but there was a small patch of grass. Dixon dubbed it Dock Green and fashioned a flag from his cravat and found a stick for a flagpole and planted his flag in the grass. And he devised a fishing rod and a bow and arrows and a desalination unit, for he was a resourceful policeman, and he ruled over his little kingdom, where there was never a whiff of crime, for many, many years.

NOTE : Younger readers, and those unfamiliar with British television of decades past, may like to know that an inaccurate adaptation of this story was the basis for a long running television series.

Black Cat

Shortly after the death of Constant Lambert in 1951, during a concert performance of his Eight Poems By Li Po, a black cat appeared on the stage, sat patiently during the music, then walked off, and was never seen again.

The Pier

To a great many people, and I am here to say that I am one of them, a seaside resort cannot stake a great claim on interest or affection unless it has a pier. More perhaps than speeches or proclamations, the one fact that convinced many Englishmen in 1940 that the nation was really up against it was when detachments of Royal Engineers at every resort and with precision blew great gaps in our beloved piers so that they could not be used as landing stages by the Germans then threatening seaborne invasion.

This affection for the pier can be doubtless proved to have psycholgical implications, particularly to any Freudians left in the audience. That rigid object penetrating the loved or hostile ocean from the anchorage of the land – well, as long as you know how to spell phallus you can barely go wrong.

Anthony Hern, The Seaside Holiday : The History of the English Seaside Resort (Cresset 1967)

My Golfing Career

In correspondence with one of my correspondents the other day, the subject of golf was raised. (There was a Herman Melville connection, with which I will not tax you.) This led me to recall a childhood memory, and I fired off an email as follows:

The only time in my life I ever played a round of golf was when I was eight years old. I was with a friend and his Scottish grandfather. My abiding memory of the adventure is that the grandfather whacked me on the elbow – hard – with his golf club. He insisted it was an accident. Hmm.

To which my correspondent replied:

Thanks for that piece of information – I am wondering whether the disclosure of the grandfather’s nationality is a mere embellishment, or actually a key detail of the tale.

Without giving the matter much, or indeed any, thought, I replied immediately to say that I thought the detail highly significant. I have never played golf again.

Deranged Intense Conviction

James Delingpole in The Spectator suggests why Game Of Thrones is so unutterably fabulous:

I think the bottom line is if your film or TV series is to become one of the truly greats then the key is to throw conventional wisdom out of the window and pursue your deranged idea with the intensity and conviction of Fitzcarraldo up the Amazon or General Giap at Dien Bien Phu. It can’t be done, they’ll say. And maybe they’re right. But oh, the satisfaction in proving them wrong.

In my more light-headed moments I would like to think that Hooting Yard is precisely that kind of deranged idea pursued with intensity and conviction. Though, I must admit, not in recent days, when the Key Cranium seems like a vast and sleepy hollow. I shall try to channel the Lannisters. They know how to get things done.

Was Edith Sitwell A Rastafarian?

In 1927 Sylvia Townsend Warner attended a party at Edith Sitwell’s house. She did not enjoy it. “The room [was] full of young male poets and old female rastas”, she noted. I suppose rasta must have had a different meaning for Sylvia, and she was not surrounded by elderly female rastafarians, though I prefer to think this is what she did mean. The vision of Sylvia Townsend Warner, Edith Sitwell, and several aged dreadlocked rastafarian women calling on Jah to deliver them from their sufferation in Babylon is too splendid to be scuppered by foolish matters such as historical truth.

sitwell2

Ten Years Ago Too

Another item that appeared on Hooting Yard ten years ago today was this:

Colossal, crude, terrible and sublime, Brann opened the ears of the people by the mighty power of his untamed language, by the smashing fury of his wrath of words… Waste, futile and planless, mere howling, empty, chaotic waste, for no purpose under heaven but to serve as food for idle fancies as to what might have been – such to me is the death of Brann, and my throat chokes with sorrow and my soul is sick with vain despair.

That is a quotation from Milo Hastings’ preface to Brann The Iconoclast, a collection of pieces by William Cowper Brann (1855 – 1898). You can read the whole thing here, or you might prefer, as I do, to repair to a deserted windswept promontory and shout those colossal, crude, terrible and sublime words at the sky, and watch birds drop down dead.

WCBrann

Ten Years Ago

On this day, exactly ten years ago, on 14 May 2004, I posted this on Hooting Yard:

BASHFUL COCTLOSH TRAUMA SURGEON

Being the title of a novel by Maisie Pew, due to be published in September. It is a book of ten chapters, their titles being:

I. The Gelignite Zombie Person From Didcot

II. Pudding Time

III. Paste, Then Gruel

IV. Our Hero, Dr Slab, Goes Haywire

V. Being A Chapter In Which Lovecraftian Shudders Are Experienced By A Barnyard Person And A Ferocious Bat-Being

VI. Tord Grip

VII. The Other Gelignite Zombie Person From Didcot

VIII. That Sinuous L’Oreal Toss Of The Hair Performed By A Pirate Gang

IX. Shoes? Boots? String?

XII. Mild Peril Fop Dilemma

Long-term readers, and those with their wits about them, will know that, contrary to my claim, no such book was ever published. This is because (a) I made it up, and (b) “Maisie Pew” did not then, and does not now, exist. I made her up too. Of course, I could have written Bashful Coctlosh Trauma Surgeon myself, and I may even have planned to, but I never did. I still could. I rather fancy it would be a pulpy potboiler. If I followed the practice of certain eminent pulp writers, I might be able to bash it out in a week or so. The thing to do would be to start typing and not fret too much about felicities of style and wotnot.

Incidentally, for those who care about such matters, “Coctlosh” was a sort of proto-Hooting Yard, or proto-Pointy Town. It was a fictional location which was the setting for a few stories I wrote as long ago as the late 1970s, each of which featured Josef Bong. Mr Bong was stolen from The Good Soldier Švejk by Jaroslav Hašek, where he is mentioned, just once, in passing, in – I recall – a newspaper cutting, where he is described as a “Brave Driver” (of a train). My Josef Bong rode a horse, mounted upon which he arrived in Coctlosh in the first of the stories, on a blistering hot day. I do not remember much else about these ancient texts, which are – alas – lost. Burned, I think, in a frenzy, long ago.

Baines

You are a very sinister servant, Baines, said Lord Boggis, addressing, as he thought, his manservant, Baines, By which I mean that, having brought me my muffin and tap water at eleven o’ clock on the dot, as instructed, you have been dismissed, with a lordly gesture of my lordly arm, to return to the pantry or to wherever it is you hold sway, in the bowels of this my mansion, there to go about your duties, whatever they might be when you are outwith my presence, running a tight ship, awaiting the sound of the bell which calls you back upstairs next time I require your services. Yet, having been dismissed, you have not gone, but are to be found lurking in the corner of the room, in shadow, barely visible, betraying your presence by the faint outline of your frame and by the almost imperceptible sound of your breathing which, if I deploy my ear-trumpet, I can hear, indubitably. This behaviour is most untoward, and is quite likely to send me into a flap. When you are dismissed, you should go. When you are summoned, you should come. I cannot countenance this intermediate state, where you loiter, neither going nor coming, hovering as it were, in an uncertain realm between tidy absolutes. Look, I have not touched my muffin nor glugged my tap water, and it is ten past the hour. That is evidence of my discombobulation. I cannot rest while you are standing there, sinister in shadow. You have been in service in this my mansion for several decades, Baines, and never before have I known you to fracture my peace in so unprecedented a fashion. Even when you had that mishap with an icing sugar siphon pump attachment and had to have a metal plate inserted in your skull, even then, and afterwards, you carried out your duties with aplomb, and I had no complaints to make. Thus I am baffled, baffled!, by your frankly bewildering conduct, or rather misconduct. It may be that you have taken a loopy turn and will need to be carted off and replaced by a brand new manservant, though how in heaven I am ever to find one as reliable as you have been, until now, is quite beyond my wits to discover.

Lord Boggis prattled on, not realising that the sinister figure lurking in the shadows was not his trusted servant Baines. It was the Grunty Man! and he was merely biding his time before laying waste to the mansion and every person in it..

Norwegian Wood

Sylvia-Townsend-Warner-007

In 1946, Sylvia Townsend Warner – superb novelist and archetypal posh communist – received, as a Christmas present from Alyse Gregory, an empty matchbox. This is her letter of thanks:

23:xii:1946

Dearest Alyse,

Usually one begins a thank-letter by some graceless comparison, by saying, I have never been given such a very scarlet muffler, or, This is the largest horse I have ever been sent for Christmas. But your matchbox is a nonpareil, for never in my life have I been given a matchbox. Stamps, yes, drawing-pins, yes, balls of string, yes, yes, menacingly too often; but never a matchbox. Now that it has happened I ask myself why it has never happened before. They are such charming things, neat as wrens, and what a deal of ingenuity and human artfulness has gone into their construction; for if they were like the ordinary box with a lid they would not be one half so convenient. This one though is especially neat, charming, and ingenious, and the tray slides in and out as though Chippendale had made it.

But what I like best of all about my matchbox is that it is an empty one. I have often thought how much I should enjoy being given an empty house in Norway, what pleasure it would be to walk into those bare wood-smelling chambers, walls, floor, ceiling, all wood, which is after all the natural shelter of man, or at any rate the most congenial. And when I opened your matchbox which is now my matchbox and saw that beautiful clean sweet-smelling empty rectangular expanse it was exactly as though my house in Norway had come true; with the added advantage of being just the right size to carry in my hand. I shut my imagination up in it instantly, and it is still sitting there, listening to the wind in the firwood outside. Sitting there in a couple of days time I shall hear the Lutheran bell calling me to go and sing Lutheran hymns while the pastor’s wife gazes abstractedly at her husband in a bower of evergreen while she wonders if she remembered to put pepper in the goose-stuffing; but I shan’t go, I shall be far too happy sitting in my house that Alyse gave me for Christmas.

Oh, I must tell you I have finished my book—begun in 1941 and a hundred times imperilled but finished at last. So I can give an undivided mind to enjoying my matchbox.

(Signed)

P.S. There is still so much to say…carried away by my delight in form and texture I forgot to praise the picture on the back. I have never seen such an agreeable likeness of a hedgehog, and the volcano in the background is magnificent.

The Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner, ed. William Maxwell (Chatto & Windus 1982)

Stagecraft

You lot do not visit Hooting Yard for news of the latest doings in the world of pop culture, but this, I think, is worth noting:

The ballads are seldom the high point of a huge pop show, but in [Miley] Cyrus’s case, a degree of interest is added by the fact that she sings one of them while being pursued around the stage, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, by a giant fluorescent orange fluffy bird.

Alexis Petridis in The Guardian.

Trash

The recent death of Gabriel Garcia Marquez reminded me of the circumstances that led me to read One Hundred Years Of Solitude, thirty-odd years ago – so long ago that, with my puny memory, I have forgotten the book entirely.

I was at university at the time. I had a friend, a fellow student, Stephen, who lived in a house bought for him by his wealthy parents, and I rented a room in it one summer. Stephen, being a good leftie, was somewhat ashamed of his economic privilege and always referred to the “landlord”, without divulging that this was his father.

One day he found me reading a J. P. Donleavy novel, I can’t recall which one, and hectored me for wasting my time on trash. I should read, he said, only great works of literature, such as, to pluck a title at random, One Hundred Years Of Solitude. I was touched that he had my intellectual improvement at heart and, shortly afterwards, I did indeed read Marquez’s novel. I have to admit that, all these years later, I have fonder memories of Donleavy.

Stephen and I lost touch after university, but it has always amused me that this keen upholder of cultural standards went on to become the television producer who created such intellectually stimulating fare as Wife Swap. Stephen Lambert – for it is he – may have cared deeply that I did not waste my time on trash, but it seems not to have bothered him that he besmirched the cultural life of the entire nation.