The mother of a famous cellist was absolutely obsessed with a children’s toy, so much so that, when she gave birth to the future maestro, she decided to name him after it. This was later reported in the magazine Nomenclature Of Cellists Incorporating Tots’ Playthings Plus Palindromes under the headline Yo Yo Ma’s Ma’s Yo Yo.
Q – Dear Mr Key, I read with great interest your piece on swarfega pitfalls. I myself have often experienced swarfega pratfalls. I think it would be very helpful for your readers if you could provide a clear, comprehensive, and slightly hysterical explanatory string of paragraphs on the differences between pitfalls and pratfalls. Should you require my assistance in this matter, I am available for interview at the corner table in Old Ma Popsicle’s Tea Shoppe every day between the crack of dawn and the engulfing shroud of pitch black starless night.
A – My correspondent is deluded in thinking there is such a thing as a swarfega pratfall. He or she is obviously confusing the phrase with Swarfegaprat Falls, a mighty cataract of tumbling water which can be found on the outskirts of Pointy Town. (Turn left by the cement statue of Hattie Jacques and keep going until you hear the roar and slosh of a mighty cataract of tumbling water.)
From his banishment in a pompous land, Mike Jennings writes to suggest that I exhume the piece Dim Tyrant, posted here in 2010. “The dim tyrant, Crepuscus VIII, would seem very relevant all of a sudden,” says Mr Jennings, “Given his, quote, fateful combination of childish whimsy and an inability to string together a coherent sentence, unquote.” What POTUS could he possibly be thinking of? Anyway, here is the piece, which does seem, at least in its earlier passages, spookily prophetic.
Assessing the career of the tyrant king Crepuscus VIII, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that he was excessively dull-witted and dim. There is a plethora of anecdotage, from courtiers and palace leeches, revealing that the king was rarely able to answer simple questions such as “What part of the body sits atop the neck?”, “How many angels can dance upon the head of a pin?” or “Who won the 1953 FA Cup Final?”
And yet this atrociously stupid man ruled over a mighty kingdom for many years, his hands steady at the helm though his mind was doolally. So, dim as he was, he has much to teach us about the craft of kingship, and indeed of tyranny, if we consider tyranny a craft. For let there be no doubt that his reign was tyrannical.
“In the case of Crepuscus VIII,” wrote the historian Sagely, sagely, “we find a fateful combination of childish whimsy and an inability to string together a coherent sentence. Thus it was that his henchpersons invariably misunderstood his ukases, but hurried to fulfil them come what may.” Sagely gives as an example the occasion when the tyrant king’s whim was to burn down every barn in the land. But so muddled and mangled was the manner in which he gave the command that his Royal Barn Burner mistakenly put a pot-belled pig in charge of the palace treasury instead. As might have been expected, the pig spent every last golden coin on swill, and not a barn was burned to the ground. Fortunately, Crepuscus VIII was so dim that he did not realise what had happened, nor why, and he retired to his boudoir to gaze at the ceiling, thinking it was the vault of heaven.
One could multiply such flimflam until the cows come home, and indeed there are many amusing – and sometimes alarming – books which cobble together hundreds of instances of Crepuscus VIII’s imbecility. I want to take a slightly different tack, however. The thing that has always fascinated me about the tyrant king is not his breathtaking dimness but his dinner jackets.
Dinner was of supreme importance at the court of Crepuscus VIII. Whatever else was going on, at four o’ clock sharp every day, the king would sweep into his banqueting hall and sit down at his banqueting table, at which would be gathered all sorts of banqueting companions. In spite of his dimness, the king liked to be entertained during dinner by philosophers, scientists, novelists, artists, actors, clowns, jugglers, pamphleteers, scruffily-bearded film directors, engineers, podcast maestros, deep sea divers, chefs, snipers, ornithologists, sundry persons with metal plates in their skulls, magicians, mountaineers, ex-Beatles, priests, anthropologists, cartographers, architects, mesmerists, and, if he was available, Rolf Harris. It is doubtful if any of the high-flown table talk penetrated the king’s dull-witted brain, but he sat there, a fork in each hand (he never used a knife), beaming, and resplendent in his dinner jacket of the day.
There were seven of these jackets, one for each day of the week, and the king cut quite a dash in all of them. Monday’s was made of crimplene and cardboard, with golden stars and ribbons and a coathanger embedded in it. Tuesday’s was of plain burlap sacking, adorned with coal dust and grease. Wednesday’s was a gorgeous embroidered flapping wonder. Thursday’s was satin, boxy and black. Friday’s was knit from strands of a rare and stinking wool, shorn from rabid sheep, tie-dyed like some hippy shawl, surrounded by an aura invisible. Saturday’s was of classic cut but frayed at the cuffs, with dangling bells. Sunday’s was somehow a blur, as if the king was vibrating, or on another plane just beyond human apprehension. Whatever day of the week it was, whichever dinner jacket he was wearing, the tyrant king ate sparingly, birdseed and millet mostly, accompanied by sips of lukewarm water from the palace spigot.
Today the dinner jackets can be found hanging in display cases in a jolly little museum hidden away in one of the less salubrious faubourgs of Pointy Town. I exhort you to pay a visit, nay, repeated visits. Study the jackets, now caked with dust, hear the echoes of all that banqueting table babbling, take away with you a souvenir packet of Tyrant King’s Birdseed®, relive the days when Crepuscus VIII reigned over us, dim and tyrannical and cutting quite a dash.
The part of the body atop the king’s neck, by the way, was his head.
Many and various are the pitfalls one can face when using swarfega. You don’t need me to tell you that, but I’m going to anyway. I shall show you how to anticipate the common pitfalls, how to sidestep them with a certain elegance, and, where the pitfalls are gaping chasms that cannot be avoided, how to emerge from them more or less unscathed. As I say, you probably know all this already, but that won’t stop me from telling you, if I have time.
First, though, there is something else I needs must address. When I have given this talk on previous occasions, whether in village halls or in windswept marquees, there are always one or two people in the audience who think the subject of my talk is Swarfegapit Falls, a putative cataract of tumbling water akin to, say, Niagara or Victoria Falls.
Often I might be half-way through my talk, or even close to its end, when someone in the audience will pipe up with a complaint. These nitwits can become quite hot of head. One fellow insisted on brandishing at me a fat book called, I think, A Gazetteer Of The World’s Wettest Waterfalls, holding it open and jabbing his finger repeatedly at what he claimed was a colour plate of a mezzotint of Swarfegapit Falls. Another such ninny held aloft a marmalade jar, emptied of marmalade and now containing water, water which, he shouted, he had personally collected, perilously, from the seething roiling churning sloshing foot of Swarfegapit Falls.
I usually deal with these interruptions by calmly pointing out that there is no such waterfall, and politely suggesting that my hecklers pay closer attention to the typography in my publicity material. This rarely satisfies them. For example, the gazetteer-wielder leaped on to the stage and began thumping me with the gazetteer, and the marmalade jar man similarly leaped on to the stage, unscrewed the lid from the jar, and poured the contents over my head, quite ruining my majestic bouffant.
The point I am trying to make is that while there are pitfalls to be faced when using swarfega, equally, if not more so, there are pitfalls to be faced when simply talking about the pitfalls to be faced when using swarfega. These latter pitfalls can be more alarming. In all my years of using swarfega, for example, I cannot recall a single occasion when, having prised the lid off the tin and being ready to dip my hand into the squelchy cleansing agent, I have been set upon by a nincompoop either bashing me with a gazetteer or pouring a jar of water over my head. It is true that several times my majestic bouffant has been ruined in swarfega-related circumstances, but I must admit this has almost always been my own fault, by absent-mindedly preening my bouffant just moments after getting my hands covered in swarfega.
Given the number of times my talks are interrupted by people demanding their money back because I am not talking about a waterfall, whether or not they physically attack me, it has crossed my mind that perhaps there actually exists a tumbling cataract called Swarfegapit Falls somewhere in the wide world. I have thus employed a gaggle of unpaid interns to fan out across the globe in search of it. They regularly report back to me on their progress. To date, none has found convincing evidence of a waterfall so named. More worryingly, one by one, my keen and perky interns fall silent, so that I have had to engage a second set of interns to fan out across the globe to track down the original gaggle. The reports I receive from the second lot make for sobering reading. It appears that, in traipsing through far-flung places in search of Swarfegapit Falls, each of the pioneer group has fallen into a pit. So cavernous are these pits, near waterfalls, that none has ever emerged. They may even have fallen into bottomless pits, riddled with subterranean vipers, like the one at Shoeburyness. Such are the pitfalls of unpaid internship with a lecturer giving talks on the pitfalls faced when using swarfega.
They can’t say I didn’t warn them. “There may be pitfalls,” I announced, breezily, for I always like to make my announcements breezily. But even I had no idea how many perilous pits there were in the vicinity of waterfalls. It has come as something of a surprise. The next surprise I am waiting for is when, or if, one of my interns manages to avoid the pitfall of falling into a pit and reports back to me the startling news that, yes, the ninnies and nincompoops were right all along, and there is in fact a waterfall called Swarfegapit Falls.
Should that day come, I will have no option but to tear up the text of my lecture and start all over again. I will announce, breezily:
Many and various are the pitfalls one can face when using swarfega. You don’t need me to tell you that, so I won’t. Instead, I will tell you about the pitfalls one can face when searching the globe for that mighty tumbling cataract, Swarfegapit Falls.
The sea, the sea, vast wet expanse! I sailed upon it with Captain Hans. Hans was German. He could not swim. He was stricken with a withered limb. An arm or a leg, I remember not. Memories make my brain grow hot. I live in the present, by the shore. I live outwith the rule of law. My only rules are those of the sea. Vast wet expanse! Come splish-splosh me!
Shiver me timbers!
Shiver = quake with cold or fear.
Me = the being that is my self.
Timbers = planks of wood cut to shape from trees.
Thus the prolix pirate would shout “Quake with cold and fear the being that is myself planks of wood cut to shape from trees!”
But the prolix pirate was what is known, in the technical jargon, as an unlettered matelot, and so his prolixity was improvised, off the top of his head. His shipmate, the even more prolix pirate, was armed with a battered old copy of the Oxford English Dictionary. He would shout “Tremble, shake, quiver; esp. to tremble with cold or fear the objective case of the first person pronoun I reproducing the Old English accusative and dative wood used for the building of houses, ships, etc., or for the use of the carpenter, joiner, or other artisan; wood in general as a material; esp. after it has been suitably trimmed and squared into logs, or further adapted to constructive uses!”
You can follow the adventures of the prolix pirates every week in the children’s comic The Ipsy Dipsy Doo (Prolix Edition), available from all good dealers in newspapers and periodicals, esp. the owners of shops where these are sold; (now also) the shop itself, usually also selling tobacco, confectionery, etc.
I bashed my bonce upon a shelf, dislodging from it a tiny elf. It toppled down on to the floor and scampered out through my front door. I followed it as best I could, all the way into a wood. The wood was mostly larch and lime, and the elf was bent on an awful crime. I watched as it picked a woodcutter’s pocket. As it ran away I tried to block it. Then I saw its face, the hideous elf. It looked uncannily like Will Self. I fainted away in shock and fright, and when I awoke it was deepest night. The woodcutter led me to a glade and gave me tea and marmalade. I spooned it straight out from the jar, then we got into the woodcutter’s car and drove around in the pitch dark, thinking it would be a lark. But it was not – for we came a-cropper, and were arrested by a copper. He took us to the local nick, where I began to feel quite sick. Locked in a cell, I bewailed my fate. Then the elf came in, fair oozing hate. He bashed me on my bonce again, and then he turned into a hen. Not any hen – one with no head. And then I woke up in my bed. It had all been a terrible dream occasioned by too much ice cream. So, tinies, make sure you behave yourselves, or you’ll be beset by hens and elves, by a headless hen, and a terrible elf who looks exactly like Will Self.
Further to this comment, yesterday’s broadcast of Hooting Yard On The Air – available here – was Episode 38. Pin back yer lug’oles and listen carefully. I would like to point out that no puppies were strangled in the making of this programme.
Lost trinket in ditch. Sky the colour of blubber. Elves darting from elm to elm. Time for pancakes. First, obtain a pan. Not the Great God Pan. He has other fish to fry. There are no fish in the ditch. It is a dry ditch, not a drainage ditch. Ah, drainage! The Great God Pan is wearing drainpipe trousers. It is his new look. He is standing next to a real drainpipe. The blubbery sky threatens rain. It will send water pouring down the drainpipe. Across the road, a clairvoyant is driving pigs to market.
The trinket is a pig-shaped trinket. It belonged to one of the elves. The selves of elves are unreadable. They keep their distance. They laugh in the face of death. They keep their chins up. One elf has warts on his shins. They require ointment. That’s right, oint.
You can oint elvish shins with all manner of goo. Come get your goo, elf! It will cost a pretty penny. Or in exchange for a trinket. Maps and atlases chocker with elms. Elves unseen, because unreported by mappers. Soup and bridles. Bridles and soup. Odd sound of egg on wafer. The Great God Pan is riding pillion.
Egg? Wafer? Morse code for both. What hath the Great God Pan wrought? Better drainage under blubber. It is no mean feat. Cox in boat with hacking cough. Given a lozenge. Given shrikes. Blue boat on Blubber Island Lake. Towelled down on Thursdays. To the sound of Petula Clark. Elves’ eggs. Oh such yolks as unseen for centuries past!
Dim, dim, dim. Boisterous blips. Devil take the blue tail fly. These are the words of Piffleboy.
Modern cinema is in a sorry state. Increasingly, it seems Hollywood is only interested in witless superhero franchises, so the same film is recycled time and time again, with ever diminishing returns. These are films for adolescents, not adults, and such basic elements as plot, character, and genuine drama are sacrificed in the interests of mere spectacle. Why bother with, say, snappy dialogue when the audience will be happy with an endless series of big noisy explosions?
Which makes it all the more puzzling that Hollywood has thus far neglected the one superhero who I would love to see depicted on the big screen. I am talking, of course, of Piffleboy. Piffleboy was the creation of maverick comic-book genius Lars Talc, and his adventures were recounted, between March and July 1974, in the pages of the now extremely rare Piffleboy! comic.
Set in a generic American metropolis, the stories tell of a young mild-mannered milksop who is passionately devoted to his button collection. Yet he has a secret life as a crime-fighter, righting wrongs, taking out the hoodlums, and keeping the city streets safe. He does this by using his superpower, with which he was imbued following a bizarre chemical reaction caused by some of the buttons in his collection being dropped in a puddle.
Piffleboy’s superpower is an ability to spout absolute piffle, extempore and at length, which drives those listening crackers, leaving them confused and befuddled, like decapitated chickens. In a typical adventure, Piffleboy will be sitting at home with his buttons when he receives an alert on his Pifflephone, telling him that ne’er-do-wells are bent on villainy somewhere in the city. Immediately, Piffleboy minces to the scene, and starts babbling utter piffle. The evil miscreants are soon reduced to a state of discombobulation, whereupon the coppers arrive and drag them, unprotesting, off to prison.
Each episode ends with the captain of detectives saying “Gee, thanks Piffleboy! If it weren’t for you we’d never have rounded up these hoods and made the city safe again!” to which Piffleboy replies “Glad to be of service, captain. Now I must get back to my buttons”.
Devoted fans of Piffleboy memorise long passages of his most piffling piffle and meet at conventions where they recite it to each other in loud yet curiously weedy voices.
Lars Talc was taught by the noted hyperrealist artist Rex Hyper, and not the least of the charms of the Piffleboy! comics are his hyperrealist illustrations, one of which is reproduced below. This shows Piffleboy in the immediate aftermath of the famous episode in which he foils the criminal schemes of bootlegger Slugger McGrew and his gang by wittering piffle at them for several hours until the tardy cops eventually show up.
The other day I mentioned Biff Chomsky’s chart-topping album of sentimental ballads entitled Songs For Drowned Kittens.
By curious coincidence, yesterday I listened, for the first time in God knows how many years, to One Lonely Night. This is a “Cold War operetta” by The Massed Ranks Of The Proletariat, adapted from the novel by Mickey Spillane. The lyrics are by Ed Baxter. It was released as a severely-limited edition cassette tape in (I think) 1990.
Anyway, have a listen to Mike’s death-wish song and you will understand why I was struck by a spooky sense of connection to the past.
Horst Gack’s eerie familiar, a homunculus perched on his shoulder which hissed at passers-by and bit those who came too close, has long been a source of fascination for a handful of nitwits with nothing better to fill their time. It is now the subject of a magisterial new biography, Die Homunculus-vertraut von Gack, the result of several hours of slapdash research by Teutonic potboilerist Shaka Kieselkopf, a second or possibly third cousin of our own dear Pebblehead.
From the book, we learn some startling facts – if, of course, we can read German. If we cannot, and absent a translation, we would be better advised to use it as a door-stop, or to hold down the corner of a tarpaulin in a gale.
One of the less startling things we learn is that the familiar was created using the standard Paracelsian recipe. Paracelsus (1493-1541), real name Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, made the first known homunculus from a bag of bones, skin fragments, sperm, and animal hair. He placed these ingredients in the ground, surrounded by horse manure, for forty days, after which the embryo sprang into being. Horst Gack would appear to have followed this precisely, with the addition of some lupins and half a choc-ice.
Interestingly, we discover that the homunculus was absolutely identical to its maker in all respects save its size. It was a miniature Horst Gack, down to its stylish Louis Brilliantine suit, trendy winkle-pickers, and fantastic bouffant, based, as was Horst Gack’s, on The Great Wave at Kanagawa by Hokusai. Its temperament, mien, and behaviour were also of a piece with Gack’s, particularly the hissing and biting.
The only thing the homunculus seemed unable to do was to conduct huge ensembles in recitals of godawful semi-improvised avant-garde racket, though not for want of trying. Kieselkopf tells an enchanting anecdote of the homunculus trying to teach various flies, midges, gnats, and bluebottles to play the theremin, piccolo, xylophone, and tuba, without success. The sessions were recorded, however, and I think the publishers ought to have included a CD of the surviving tape. It would have made for a more rounded portrait of Horst Gack’s familiar.
One question which the biography does not address is why the homunculus was forever perched on Horst Gack’s shoulder. It was a fully functioning tiny creature, and could quite easily have scampered off and made its own way in the world. Yet it preferred always to remain as if glued to its maker, hissing at him and biting him when there was nobody else in the vicinity to torment.
The missing voice in all this, of course, is that of Horst Gack himself, who apparently tried to block the book’s publication. The grounds cited in his legal case included a claim that the biography “lacked Gack” and was thus “dippy, ploppy, and poopy”. The finest legal minds in Germany are still considering the matter, which experts say may not be resolved until some time in the next century. In the meantime, an illegal pirated edition of the book is in circulation, and has sold upwards of eight copies.
It should be noted that I do not read German, and there may be wild and unforgivable inaccuracies in the foregoing.
Occasionally I like to make note here of mentions of Hooting Yard from elsewhere in Interwebshire. I see this as a boon to scholars in years to come, who will not have to look quite so hard for references when compiling the fat magnificent doorstoppers devoted to Mr Key with which bookshelves of the future will surely teem.
Anyway, here is the view of Rachael K. Jones:
Frank Key is an odd, odd author.