Hooting Yard Archive, December 2006

Strange Norwegian soup, Little Alphonso, the Holy Sisters of Headaches & Dismay, and a souvenir cardigan from the Ayn Rand Exposition at Jakarta


Sunday 24th December 2006
Befuddled by Cormorants
Plovdiv Lenses
Tuesday 19th December 2006
“This wheelbarrow is metallic and green… I…”
Black Molly
In the Bleak Midwinter
Wednesday 13th December 2006
“One day the Lord gathered together all…”
Paupers' Drool
Monday 11th December 2006
“Found wandering in a confused state in…”
Quayside Harpy
The Children's Crusade
Thursday 7th December 2006
“All that is round is not a…”
Dobson and Longevity

Sunday 24th December 2006

Befuddled by Cormorants

At last! Say goodbye to lack-of-Hooting-Yard-paperback misery by clutching to your bosom a collection of fifty two stories lovingly collected together in book form! Now, you will be able to perch at the bedside of a pallid and sickly tot and never be at a loss for something to read by candlelight to the wan infant, in between mopping its brow and feeding it spoonfuls of milk of magnesia or some kind of fuming brain tonic. Simply click on the picture below to order your copy.

Plovdiv Lenses

“Mesmerised a duck with a chalk line drawn from her beak sometimes level and sometimes forwards on a black table.” So wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins in his journal on 27 April 1871. I have long treasured this glimpse of the repressed Jesuit taking time out from various mortifications of the flesh to dally with a duck. Buried within his prose writings as it is, and thus by no means as well known as those magnificent poems, ‘Father Hopkins and his duck’ took on the air of a private pleasure for me, similar to that (illusory) sense of ‘ownership’ we feel for a favourite book, or piece of music, that hardly anyone else seems aware of.

So a few years ago, when I was reading an essay by Nicholson Baker - and I can't quite recall the piece, but it was probably in his collection The Size Of Thoughts - I reacted curiously when I came upon a line where he says, in passing, “Hopkins mentions somewhere mesmerising a duck”, or words to that effect. Part of me was pleased, wanting to give Mr Baker a conspiratorial wink, two chums sharing a snippet of private enjoyment. But I was vaguely irritated, too. How dare he go into print with Hopkins' duck before I publish my (never actually to be written) monograph?

Something similar has now happened with me and Thomas Pynchon. Eagerly gobbling up the highly enjoyable Against The Day, what is this I find on page 936? “Cyprian had been closely scanning the map with a Coddington lens.” Had he indeed? That would be the same Coddington lens which turns up from time to time in Hooting Yard, would it? Type “Coddington” into the Dobson search engine at the top of the page and you will find no less than four mentions of Coddington lenses within the archive. Now it would not surprise me if many readers think I just made it up, and it is true that there is a fifth mention (of a Coddington brush) which is spurious. But there are times when I know what I'm talking about.

The Coddington lens was invented by Henry Coddington in 1829. It is a single lens with two curved sides and a groove cut around the middle of the lens - the groove acting as a lens stop. It was (still is) a simple microscope handy for naturalists working in the field. I don't think there is a huge number of references to Coddington lenses in contemporary fiction, and I am quite happy to welcome Mr Pynchon to what I think of as my club. Intriguingly, twelve pages further on in Against The Day, on page 948 we find “Someplace between Plovdiv and Petrich, they disappeared.” Ah, Plovdiv! Devotees of my stories of Ugo, his blind ma, and his pal Ulf - about whom we have not heard for too many moons - will smile at the mention of that fair and fabled town, or city, whichever it might be.

A Coddington lens

Tuesday 19th December 2006

“This wheelbarrow is metallic and green… I feel a degree of loyalty towards it. I note moreover that the feelings of humans for wheelbarrows have not been sufficiently investigated.” — Roger-Pol Droit, How Are Things? : A Philosophical Experiment

Black Molly

This is a black molly which lives - happily, as we can see - in Claire's Pond. I am honoured to tell you that it is called Frank, after your esteemed editor. Next time I go on holiday, Frank can take over the day to day running of Hooting Yard. We lack a certain piscine something at the moment, and I expect Frank will put that right.

In the Bleak Midwinter

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan, but that was outside, in the vast harrowing wilderness of wind and ice and storm and horror, whereas we were snug inside in the lecture tent, cupping in our hands piping hot mugs of a strange Norwegian soup, peering through the steam towards the platform upon which stood a lectern, awaiting a lecturer.

There was, as you can imagine, typical lecture-tent hubbub. But then, suddenly, he was there, at the lectern, smashing his fist on it, startling us all, so the hubbub was hushed in an instant, and he began to speak.

“Valves! Flaps! Funnels! Ducts! Dials! Plungers! And hundreds upon hundreds of nozzles! My name is Serge.”

He then gathered up a sheaf of papers from the lectern and left the platform, disappearing behind a curtain of mauve and cerise brocade, and we were forced to conclude that the evening's lecture was at an end. Now this was something of a quandary. It was early evening, out in the trackless icy wastes, and we were at a loose end. It may have been worth pursuing Serge, of course, if only to pump him for the precise meaning of what had seemed to be very well-chosen words. Which valves did he mean, what flaps, and so on and so forth. Elhugavamp, my companion, was pessimistic, however. She said she knew his type, and he would be forever unforthcoming. I pondered what “type” Serge was, and how Elhugavamp knew enough of them to make so sweeping a judgement. Before I could quiz her to this effect, there was an unutterably hideous inhuman eerie blood-curdling eldritch awful howling from outside. Elhugavamp stopped up her ears with cotton wool and continued to smoke her acrid Serbian cigarillo, looking quite plussed and nonchalant, unlike me, for I was nonplussed and chalant, and innocent of cotton wool ear-stoppers.

A waiting page person stepped to my side to take my drained soup mug, and I asked him what was the cause of the howling. He said nothing in reply, merely exchanging sidelong glances with Elhugavamp, who I am sure nodded in response to his imperceptibly raised eyebrow. The next thing I knew, he had taken me forcibly by the arm, steered me out of the tent, plopped me none to gently on to a sledge, boarded it himself, and mushed a team of huskies who sped us across the ice at bewildering speed. The howling had not been husky howling, of that I was convinced, for I have made a thorough study of the howlings of all known hounds, and of certain other howling creatures which are not hounds, such as monkeys. But the fact that my question remained unanswered was of little concern to me now, as I hung on to the wooden safety rails of the sledge, fearful that if I lost my grip I would topple off onto the ice, or snow, or whatever impossibly white substance it was we were streaking across, glistening under the moonlight. David Bowie would, once, have dubbed it “serious moonlight”, and not without reason. I do not think I have ever been in a more serious frame of mind than I was then. A thousand questions jumbled in my brain.The only one I can recall, all theseyears later, was “Did they put something in the soup?”

It was a good question, actually. Later, when I was sitting opposite Serge in a sort of giant bamboo-and-straw pod that might have been constructed from half a dozen balloon baskets, I asked him about the soup. His reply was fascinating. Lengthy, but absolutely fascinating. Among the points I managed to jot down with my jotting stub in my jotter were the following:

1. As I had surmised, the soup was strange and Norwegian.

2. The recipe had been discovered in a manuscript entitled SomeStrange Norwegian Soup Recipes Copied By Hand From Ancient Incunabula

3. Elhugavamp had sprinkled something in to the soup as it simmered on the stoves at the back of the tent.

4. He, Serge, was but a spectral being who had been sent to impart an important message to the world, and I was to be the recipient of that message.

5. Well, having said that, either me or somebody else whose identity he could not divulge.

Once he had ceased his babbling, I shifted uneasily on my chaise longue and fixed him with what I hoped was a steely glare. This was completely wasted, for I later learned that Serge was as blind as a Blunkett. He eschewed the use of a guide dog because, being spectral, he had no need for earthbound assistance. Having not knowingly met an ethereal being before, I felt rather shy, and flapped my hands around awkwardly. One of my shoelaces had come undone on the high-speed skim across the wasteland to Serge's pod. I became conscious that there were bits of steamed greens from the soup in my beard. Serge was saying nothing more for the time being.

We sat in silence for some time. I could not help pondering on Elhugavamp's perfidy, if perfidy it was. I had not known her for long, but would not have thought her capable of stooping so low as to poison a strange Norwegian soup. And not just my mug, but the cauldron full! I wondered about the others in the lecture-tent audience, some of whom I counted as friends. Little Tim the meteorology student, Sacha the ruffian, Constance Crewfudd the transcriber of witterings by Yoko Ono… were they, and others, now beyond help, their digestive systems shutting down as Elhugavamp's mysterious soup-sprinkling ravaged their innards? I was seized with a desperate need to return to the tent, however perilous the journey may be, and stood up suddenly, gesticulating like a maniac at Serge, who, blind though he was, regarded me with amusement.

It was at this point that a pair of ostriches came thudding and scampering into the pod. At least, I think they were ostriches. You can never be sure, particularly if, like me, you have not accorded bird life the same painstaking attention as you have hounds, and I grant that I have not done so, no, never, never, never, and I regret that now.Serge greeted the ostriches - if that is what they were - with a curiously unnerving whoop. Unnerving because it sounded exactly, and I mean exactly, like Elhugavamp's laughter, a sound I knew well and would never hear again without shuddering.

How convenient if I could say that I swooned and recalled nothing more. But I remember those next two minutes with a grim clarity. There is a line in one of Dennis Beerpint's poems that goes “Then the ostriches revealed themselves as emissaries from [something something] / And all was magnesium white and [something]”. That pretty much sums up how it was. I often wonder how Beerpint, that puny versifier, somehow managed to foretell what happened to me that night, in an otherwise irrelevant piece of concrete drivel.

One of the ostriches gave me the once over and told Serge he had picked the wrong person - see point 5 above. Their pod would have to be released from its restraining wires and be transported, I knew not how, to the perimeter of a holiday camp near Basingstoke, where the true - and, it was hinted, more worthy - recipient of Serge's otherworldly message was awaiting them. I had time to tie my shoelace before I was bundled out of the pod and abandoned.

I hailed a passing motorised snow plough which took me back to the lecture-tent. Everyone was still there, looking none the worse for wear, animatedly discussing valves and flaps and funnels and dials and ducts and plungers and hundreds upon hundreds of nozzles. The consensus was that Serge had been the most charismatic lecturer of the winter. Through a fug of pipe smoke I sought out Elhugavamp, and found her lounging in a nook, her eyes flashing brilliantly, and laughing her head off, and I shuddered.

Wednesday 13th December 2006

“One day the Lord gathered together all the insects in the world, all the beetles, bugs, bees, mosquitoes, ants, locusts, grasshoppers, and other creatures who fly or hop or crawl, and shut them up in a huge sack well tied at the end. What a queer, squirming, muffled-buzzing bundle it made, to be sure! Then the Lord called the woman to him and said, ‘Woman, I would have you take this sack and throw it into the sea’.” — Abbie Farwell Brown, The Curious Book Of Birds

Paupers' Drool

It was once believed that children frightened by thunderstorms could be emboldened by the application of a tincture of paupers' drool to their infant foreheads. When I say “it was once believed”, I mean to be very specific. This was once believed, by one person, for a very brief period of time.

The person was Prince Fulgencio, the so-called ‘prancing prince’, who one autumn day found his daughter, the Infanta Gertrude, cowering behind an arras in her playroom. One rarely finds an arras these days anywhere except upon the dramatic stage, but the prancing prince had thespian inclinations and his palace was littered with theatrical props.

“Whyfore art thou cowering so behind the arras as thunderclaps rend the sky?” asked the prince.

In reply, the Infanta Gertrude whimpered in terror as a fresh thunderclap rent the sky. Her playroom was on the topmost floor of the palace, and its ceiling had been removed, exposing the room to the mighty firmament overhead. The prince wanted to toughen up his daughter in preparation for a life of ruthless tyranny, and it dismayed him to see her milksop ways.

Thus it was that he strode off into the Weird Woods of Woobyhoobyhoo to consult with the Wise Woman. He found her, oblivious of the storm, tossing fallen and gathered crab apples to her team of pigs. The Wise Woman was a shape shifter, and on this particular day she could have been mistaken for Nova Pilbeam, that siren of the British screen who, in the 1930s, starred in Alfred Hitchcock's Young And Innocent and the first version of The Man Who Knew Too Much.

Nova Pilbeam

The prince explained his predicament. The Wise Woman, more intent upon her pigs than upon this strutting royal git, made up some blather about pauper's drool off the top of her head. Prince Fulgencio listened carefully, scribbled some notes down with a biro in his filofax, remarked upon the Wise Woman's resemblance to La Pilbeam, paid her with a pregnant pig he had found wandering disconsolate in the Weird Woods, and pranced princely and preening back to the palace.

There, he commanded his loathsome servants Odo and Udo to scour the countryside collecting drool from paupers. In the teeth of the still-raging storm, they did so, returning many hours later with two brimming iron pails. The prince took the pails and swept in to the kitchen down in the basement of the palace, and called for Old Ma Blunkett, his cook, to prepare a tincture from the paupers' drool, just as the Wise Woman had prescribed.

Lightning flashed and thunder roared. Up in the playroom, still cowering behind the arras, the Infanta Gertrude was startled to receive a message on her metal tapping machine. It was from Professor Sigismundo, the wild-haired, wild-eyed boffin who had been banished from the princedom a year before, and who was now based at an important research laboratory far, far away. The Professor suggested to Gertrude that she get her laptop and look up his website, where she would find an essay subtitled Paupers' Drool A Quack Potion And No Substitute For Rational Explanation When Emboldening Tiny Ones Terrified By Electrical Storms.

Twilight descended with no let up in the ferocious tempest. The prince pranced into the playroom bearing a tray on which was set a brightly gleaming goblet containing a tincture of paupers' drool, next to which lay some scraps of bandage pressed into service as pads with which to dab the tincture on to the forehead of the terrified quaking Infanta behind the arras. Yet she was gone!

At midnight, the prince found his daughter at last. She was skipping, laughing, gambolling and giggling in the open fields behind the palace as thunderbolts crashed and lightning raked the heavens.

And so never again did the Infanta Gertrude cower behind an arras during a thunderstorm, never again were Odo and Udo sent off with their iron pails to collect the drool of paupers, and never again did the prince believe a word he heard from the Wise Woman of the Weird Woods of Woobyhoobyhoo, who was, in any case, too busy with her team of pigs to twit the prancing prince from the crumbling palace in the faraway land of Gaar.

Monday 11th December 2006

“Found wandering in a confused state in Crucifix Lane, near his cathedral… the Rt Rev Tom Butler… was seen sitting in the back of a Mercedes chucking children's toys out of the window and announcing: ‘I'm the Bishop of Southwark. It's what I do.’” — The Guardian, today

Quayside Harpy

Ordinarily, when we think of harpies we think of Aello, Ocypete, and Celaeno, or as she is sometimes known, Podarge, the three sisters of Greek myth, bird-women who kept stealing, and befouling, food from Phineus and were generally vicious, violent and cruel. Tennyson called them “These prodigies of myriad nakednesses, / And twisted shapes of lust, unspeakable, / Abominable, strangers at my hearth / Not welcome, harpies miring every dish” but that may be more a reflection of the poet's fevered mental state than of the destructive wind-spirits themselves.

It would certainly be a calumny upon the character of Beatrix Cambodge, the so-called Quayside Harpy who haunted the harbour of O'Houlihan's Wharf, that benighted, sludgesome seaside town a day's horse ride away from Haemoglobin Towers, if of course you point your horse due south, and if of course your horse is vimmy and fit, and not lame nor tubercular nor otherwise incapacitated. You might think it a simple matter to keep your horse healthy, but no! Our equine pals are subject to a host of terrible, terrible diseases! Lockjaw, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, Equine Colic, Foal Pneumonia, Summer Seasonal Recurrent Dermatitis, and Equine Wobbler Syndrome are among the ones to look out for, next time you're hanging around at the stables, and there is a very helpful website with the admirably informative address www.horse-diseases.com to which you can refer. Don't forget to insert a hyphen between ‘horse’ and ‘diseases’, by the way, or you will go astray. As indeed, you will go astray if you point your healthy horse in any direction other than south when riding from Haemoglobin Towers to O'Houlihan's Wharf, in order to seek out Beatrix Cambodge, the Quayside Harpy, who of course I am meant to be talking about. Allow me just to prick the back of my hand with a long pin. That will help to concentrate my mind. I usually use a ladies' antique hatpin for what some think a melodramatic practice, but believe me, a tiny amount of bloodshed is well worth it to keep awake and alert when one might otherwise nod off into snoozeworld, particularly embarrassing when babbling into a microphone in the middle of a live radio show.

There. I can read and dab at the puncture in my hand with a disinfected rag at the same time, so let us move on. Beatrix Cambodge wanted to be a harpy from girlhood, after she read about the mythical bird-women in a little book entitled Harpies, And Other Things That Fluttered At The Rim Of Cooking Vessels In Ancient Greece, by Dax Blib, the notorious children's writer and historian who wrote from his cell in a big forbidding prison perched on a promontory, where he was incarcerated for life after causing a series of railway disasters. The book spurred the tiny girl's imagination, but it was not as if hers was a humdrum childhood. Both of her parents were vampires, albeit of a fairly nondescript variety. Not for them remote castles and sweeping black capes and glistening crystal decanters from which to pour the blood they drank. Mr and Mrs Cambodge were lowly sorts, reduced on occasion to squeezing the last drop of gore from a fly or bluebottle thwacked with a rolled-up periodical. Something of a wastrel, Beatrix's father tried to put it about that he was the eponymous fiend in Charles Ives' song “Slugging A Vampire” (1902), though this was clearly twaddle, his only - tenuous - connection with the composer being a brief tenure hawking pencils and pencil sharpeners on the ferry across the Housatonic at Stockbridge.

By the time Beatrix was born, the Cambodges had moved far, far from the Housatonic, fetching up in a village that was scarcely more than a clump of unsightly wooden sheds, a village so remote and dilapidated that it did not even have a name. There is a surprising number of employment opportunities in such a godforsaken spot for a wastrel and his wife who would shrivel to dust at the first ray of sunlight come the dawn, although I can't for the life of me think what they might be. I puzzled over this and akind friend suggested to me that perhaps the Cambodges made a living by creeping around at night laying traps for moles and badgers and weasels, so let us assume that that is what they did, and that farmers thereabouts paid them well for their exertions. That would at least explain how they came to be able to afford to send the young Beatrix to a finishing school somewhere in the Habsburg Empire where she first encountered the works of Dax Blib and set her heart on becoming a harpy.

She had wanted to be a bird. She learned that as the child of vampires, she could never, ever be transformed into a starling or a linnet or a nightjar or a nuthatch, not even into a bufflehead or a crow. It was a cruel lesson but she did not let it crush her spirit. Instead she spent hours with the finishing school seamstress, up in that weird cold crooked-beamed dusty stale attic, stitching and stitching, until she had fashioned for herself a pair of bright resplendent wings, with a span so wide when fully unfurled that the old seamstress gave a gasp and swooned, clattering to the floor more like a pile of dry sticks than a body of flesh and blood, and in her harpy heart Beatrix exulted at her power. She would have liked to fly away from the school by launching herself from the rooftops, but she was a sensible girl. She removed her wings and folded them up and stowed them in a tote bag and carried on with the day, through lessons in deportment and watercolour and piccolo and pastry finesse and recital of twee verses by Dax Blib, and only when the time came for the afternoon embroidery lesson did she flit away through a side door and off into the mountains, while the staff and pupils went scurrying in search of their seamstress, now stumbling stunned and blinded about the attic, bashing into mannequins and tearing her paper-taut skin on scattered needles and pins she could no longer see.

And Beatrix wandered in the mountains, stretching her taffeta and organdie wings, striking fear into cowherds and their cows. Stories of the flightless bird-woman circulated in the taverns. To assuage her wrath, offerings of food were left for her in huts and shelters and hermitages. Sometimes, reckless young pups armed themselves with their fathers' rifles and strode up into the foothills, trying not to choke on the tobacco pipes they clenched between their immature jaws, all bluster and braggadocio, hot for harpy hunting. Beatrix by now had perfected a shriek of such ferocity that the blood of those who heard it could have provided her vampire parents with plenty of ice popsicles. Experimenting on the cows and cowherds, she had learned that a few energetic flappings of her wings, accompanied by her shriek, could keep her safe from harm. Each and every gun-toting young fool who came in her pursuit returned to his village shrivelled and slobbering and deranged. Most of them had to be locked away in gloomy cellars, their families' shameful secret, quietly fed on slops for years and years, and never spoken of again.

Perhaps they were the lucky ones, for their village pals who eschewed the harpy hunt for one reason or another were soon to perish in the trenches, the Great War doing for them what it did for the Habsburg Empire in which they had grown. And it was at the end of that terrible conflict that Beatrix Cambodge at last came down from the mountains and made her way, vaguely and without any real purpose, across war torn lands until one bright day in 1921 she fetched up on the quayside at O'Houlihan's Wharf, and there she stayed.

Beatrix realised soon enough that she inspired not one whit of terror in the raddled and retired old sea dogs who haunted the quayside. These were ancient and crusty mariners who chewed fish-heads when they were not downing tankards of salt water and grog, and most of them had seen things far more terrifying than Beatrix in their years upon the high seas. Pegleg Pinsent, for example, over a hundred years old, with brine for blood, who now slumped collapsed and crapulent in a quayside kiosk, was thought to have seen so many ship-ghosts that he shook still, as he had been shaking for ninety years or more, ever since as a callow cabin boy he had clambered into the crows' nest of the HMS Corrugated Cardboard to be confronted with a sea-soaked ghoul which intoned a dreadful litany of incomprehensible maritime twaddle into his innocent ear. The ghoul was spindly, it pulsated like a jellyfish, it gave off an odour of barnacles and rot and death, and it loomed above the tiny boy, its boneless yet bony-seeming fingers clutching at his sleeve, leaving a trail of slime which no amount of soaking in pail after pail of borax and boiling water would ever expunge. At the end of that first voyage, the young Pinsent took the tunic home to his Ma, supposing her laundry skills equal to any and every stain, ghoul-smeared or otherwise, and that good woman let fall the shirt with a shriek, a shriek compared to which Beatrix's harpy howl was like the song of the nightingale she had, as an infant, wanted to be.

“Aye, young miss,” croaked Pegleg Pinsent as Beatrix sheltered in his kiosk during a rainstorm on her first day on the quayside, “I saw many a ship-ghost, and I saw ghost ships too. I saw shapes in the night sky that should not have been there, and heard wailings and screams emerging from the depths. And I smelled things no sailor ought ever smell, and touched what no sailor ought ever touch. And all o'that on my very first voyage, miss, nine years old and plying the foul oceans on the Corrugated Cardboard.”

“Now then, Mr Pinsent,” said Beatrix, balancing a dainty teacup on her lap, for harpy though she was she had not forgotten her Habsburg finishing school manners, “You have spoken of eldritch experiences involving four of the senses, but what of the fifth? Did you ever taste something no sailor ought ever taste, as you would put it?” As she posed this question, she unfurled one wing a little, just to see if it had any effect on the ancient mariner, whose beard seemed to be alive with tiny crawling forms of marine life not easy to identify. He did not pay her wing any attention as he replied.

“Hard tack biscuits riddled with worms, miss. That was my diet then as it is my diet now,” he said, “So the answer to your question has to be ‘no’, I suppose.”

“I see,” said Beatrix demurely, sweeping from her lap the crumbs of a cake she had bought at a neighbouring kiosk. As she did so, she flapped her one unfurled wing with a certain eerie menace, and prepared to display the second. Pegleg Pinsent took no notice, for he was lost and shaking in ghoul-reverie, occasionally slurping from a tin tumbler of rum, or brine, or rum and brine, he could not tell anymore.

The interview petered out. Polite Beatrix thanked the old sea dog for his time and shelter and mussed his filthy hair before striding out onto the quayside deep in thought. Clearly her harpydom had failed to discombobulate the grizzled marine person. It was true she had not essayed a shriek at him, but with his long experience of sea-shriekings she surmised that his composure would have remained unrattled.

Night fell on O'Houlihan's Wharf on that Wednesday. Under fat shimmering stars, Beatrix huddled down under a greasy green tarpaulin she found abandoned at a stretch of the quayside where auks and skuas gathered, far from the hectic tavern raucous with shanties. She took off her wings and folded them into her tote bag and placed it as a pillow, and lay down among birds, lulled to sleep by the waves lapping against the rotting and crooked timber of the jetty.

She dreamed harpy dreams. Ferocious and merciless and demented, she stole food from kings who had displeased their gods. Descending into the infernal regions, she sunk her savage talons into the bellies of suicides. She tormented unhappy sinners bound for Tartarus. She luxuriated in the filth and stench of her island nest. And when she woke on Thursday morning, the auks and skuas had flown away, and she was alone on the quayside, her wings packed in her pillow. She jumped into the sea and swam, elegantly, as she had been taught to do at finishing school, and then she climbed out and shook herself and preened, like a seabird on a rock, and she retrieved her tote bag and put on her wings, and shrieked and shrieked, and then she pottered off along the quayside towards a crumbling ruinous hut where a signboard promised breakfast, and she sat down at a rickety wooden table, its surface smeared with the slime of a ship's ghoul, surrounded by sea dogs in tatty unravelling sweaters stiff with wax, their rubber boots squelching and leaking, and she tucked in to a breakfast of cockles and mussels and herring and lobster and squid and boiled water from a tide pool, her cup alive with tiny wriggling marine beings, somehow happy at home here, far from her finishing school in the mountains of what once had been the Habsburg Empire, little Beatrix Cambodge, the quayside harpy of O'Houlihan's Wharf.

The Children's Crusade

Thursday 7th December 2006

“All that is round is not a cake.” — Libyan proverb

Dobson and Longevity

As I was preparing for yesterday's edition of Hooting Yard On The Air, I received an email from listener Jonathan Coleclough. Actually, Jonathan just forwarded an email to me, adding a note: “The subject line of the email below promised so much. But of course it was just spam. [Sigh]”

The subject line of the forwarded email was “Dobson and longevity” and, indeed, what followed was twaddle. I wrote back to Jonathan as follows… “I find it disconcerting that Dobson is haunting the less salubrious corners of the world wide interweb, e'en from beyond the grave. That … and longevity seems to betrying to tell us something… something spooky and almost Lovecraftian. I may have to investigate.”

Of course I have not yet had time to make a full investigation, to send agents from Haemoglobin Towers fanning out across the globe, with their ponderous briefcases, beaver fur headgear, badger badges, and piercing eyesight, but I have been able to give the matter some thought. Could it really be true that the out of print pamphleteer cheated death? That beneath the funeral shroud, that uncanny yellow festoonment cut from a bolt of cheap tarpaulin from a chandlery in the brine-soaked hellhole of O'Houlihan's Wharf, a tarp stitched with cack-handed embroidery of piddocks and toredos and winkles and periwinkles and strombuses and whelks and loligos, that wrapped in it was not the dead Dobson but an imposter or simulacrum? If so, if Dobson lived, where was he? He would be impossibly old by now, creaking and crumbling. Was he trudging along alien pathways, anonymous, in some distant land, his eyes - one beady, the other milky - fixed straight ahead, an undead dead man plodding ever forward towards he knew not what? We had all thought our dear pamphleteer a wisp, a fume borne upon the luminiferous aether, the spindly frame he once inhabited discarded, hurled enwrapped in its hideous tarpaulin from the worm-eaten jetty outside O'Houlihan's Wharf post office into the boiling sea.

Dobson and longevity, indeed. But perhaps, ill tempered and hateful, he skulked in a booth somewhere, in the outskirts, feeding on biscuits and berries and birds plucked in mid-flight from the air, sucking drops of rainwater from the toggles of his duffel coat. Wherever he was, the undead Dobson remained invisible to all who had known him, yet he somehow had the ability to seed the world wide interweb with texts that none would ever read. Was he making some skewed commentary upon all those unread out of print pamphlets that poured out of him during the years before that thunder-wracked gathering in the bracken- and bindweed-choked churchyard of St Bibblydibdib's when bells clanged lamentations, and salt tears ran down the cheeks of even the most grizzled countenance? Where was Dobson then? Did he scuttle from beneath the shroud when backs were turned? Were there conspirators who replaced him with an effigy of felt and excelsior and cardboard and rags? Who could such conspirators have been? Certainly Marigold Chew cannot have been among them, for who could ever question the bleak desolation with which she sported her widow's weeds?

If there is anyone to point a finger at, it would be Ned Blewitt. Dobson had not known this urchin for long. As far as we know the two met just an hour or so before Dobson's death, or his alleged death as we must now refer to it. Dobson had left the house to buy a new picnic hamper, for it is a little-known fact that he was fond of extravagant picnicking occasions, and much given to hauling a hamper stuffed to the brim with cake and pomegranates and Limburger cheese and pre-sliced slices of pemmican and brazil nuts and more brazil nuts and even more brazil nuts and parsley and treacle pies and mashed potato and suet puddings up punishing slopes and down inclines into declivities in the hills where bats are legion and no other human being has ever trod. There, Dobson would unpack his hamper and scoff his food unobserved, one of his own out of print pamphlets propped open with a stick, chewing and reading and impervious to the wind and the drizzle. Such excursions battered the ageing Dobson as much as they battered his hamper, but a picnic hamper can be replaced. And so it was, on that March morning, that Dobson pulled on his Belgian Cadet boots and his souvenir cardigan from the Ayn Rand Exposition at Jakarta and strode off towards the picnic supplies boutique at the perimeter of Old Farmer Frack's fields on that patch of scrubland beyond Blister Lane.

Next to the boutique was a kiosk operated by the Holy Sisters Of Headaches And Dismay, an order of nuns who dispensed bowls of soup to passing mendicants. As Dobson made his tottering progress towards picnickery, he was buttonholed by one of the sisters… no, hang on, I've got the wrong day. The kiosk was gone by then, obliterated by livid purple death rays from a spaceship caught in a pocket of error in the continuum. I mean the space-time continuum, I think. Anyway, where the soup kiosk once stood there was now a tent, pitched there by The Mighty Alphonso, a roguish refugee from many a penny circus who promised to astonish and astound the crowds with feats of legerdemain and prestidigitation, accompanied by his assistant, Little Alphonso The Memory Man. But there were no crowds that day, only Dobson, who hurried in through the tent flaps to avoid an encounter with one of his creditors, it doesn't matter which one, who was lurking outside the picnic boutique hoping to waylay the pamphleteer. Inside, in the gloom, he came upon Little Alphonso rehearsing his latest show-stopper, a recitation of a historical glossary of diseases. Peering over his shoulder to ensure that he had not been followed, Dobson slumped into a pew, one of many pews stolen from a cathedral by the ever-resourceful Mighty Alphonso, and hearkened to the words of the diminutive urchin as he learned his lines.

“Abscess, Addison's disease, Ague, Ague-cake, Anasarca (generalised massive dropsy),” recited Little Alphonso, “Apoplexy, Aphthae, Aphthous stomatitis, Ascites, Asthenia, Bad Blood, Bilious fever, Biliousness, Boil, Brain fever, Bronchial asthma, Camp fever, Cancrum otis, Catalepsy, Catarrh, Chlorosis, Cholera infantum, Chorea, Colic, Congestion, Congestive Fever, Consumption, Convulsions, Croup (the crouping noise was similar to the sound emitted by a chicken affected with the pip; also known rising of the lights), Debility, Diphtheria, Dropsy, Dysentery, Effluvia, Epilepsy, Erysipelas, Fatty Liver, Flux, Furuncle, Gangrene, Gleet, Gravel, Grippe, Hectic fever, Hives, Hospital fever, Hydrocephalus, Hydrothorax, Icterus, Inanition, Infection, Inflammation, Jaundice, King's evil, Lockjaw, Lung Fever, Lung Sickness, Malignant fever, Marasmus, Meningitis, Milk Sick (poisoning resulting from the drinking of milk produced by a cow who had eaten a plant known as white snake root), Mormal, Neuralgia, Paristhmitis, Petechial fever, Phthisis, Pleurisy, Pneumonia, Podagra, Potts Disease, Putrid fever, Putrid sore throat, Pyrexia, Quinsy, Scarlatina, Scrofula, Septic, Ship fever, Softening of the brain, Spotted fever, Summer complaint, Suppuration, Trismus nascentium or neonatorum, Typhoid…”

“Oh for God's sake,” shouted Dobson, “I have heard enough!”

“Sorry, I didn't see you there,” said Little Alphonso. “I am Little Alphonso The Memory Man,” he added, “Although of course that is a stage name, and as you can see I am preparing for a stage performance later on today when the rains tumble from the sky and the townsfolk hereabouts will seek shelter in this our tent as you have done for a purpose unbeknown to me. You are staring in perplexity at my pointy triangular cap, I see. Well, I always wear it for rehearsals, for concealed within it, attached to my cranial integuments, are wires which transmit brain-rays by invisible forces thus nourishing my mental capacity and magnifying it a thousandfold. Would you like a conference pear?” … and the urchin took two of the said fruits from a pocket and passed one to Dobson.

Bear in mind that Dobson had little more than an hour to live. There has never been any suggestion that he was poisoned by the pear proffered by Little Alphonso, whose real name, of course, was Ned Blewitt. If anyone had the means and wherewithal to spirit the still living Dobson from beneath his apparent funeral shroud, and to replace him with a counterfeit corpse, it was Ned, and that is why my suspicions rest on him.

My investigations will continue. The next step is to ascertain if The Mighty Alphonso may also have been involved. Unlike Little Alphonso, The Mighty Alphonso was no mere stage name. That fact alone should give us pause. And so I shall pause, not, like the doomed - or maybe not doomed - Dobson, to gobble down a conference pear, but to stretch my legs in the direction of a pie shop, to purchase a lemon meringue pie, and to carry it in its cardboard packaging to a shrine where I will place it as an offering to appease the mad and terrible gods before whom I bow down on Wednesday afternoons.