Hooting Yard Archive, February 2006

A thoroughly exciting month, packed with delights including Bucephalus and the cephalopods in the Bosphorus, a decoy duck, plastic baubles and plastic sheeting, the anniversary of the 1958 Munich Air Disaster, custard, buttercups, specks in the sky, and tips on saving your swan in the event of a bird flu pandemic.


Monday 27th February 2006
“Experiment : Procure a wide-mouthed bottle, an…”
Z Is for Zincograph
Sunday 26th February 2006
“Home, that spot to which his heart…”
Bucephalus and the Cephalopods in the Bosphorus
Y Is for Yaws
Saturday 25th February 2006
“This work is absolutely incomprehensible, even to…”
Hooting Yard on the Air : The Podcasts
This Week's Decoy Duck
X Is for X
Thursday 23rd February 2006
“So far as my knowledge goes the…”
Certain Aspects of Plastic Baubles and Plastic Sheeting
W Is for Water
Tuesday 21st February 2006
“The trade is not what it was…”
Rainer Werner Ringbinder
V Is for Violence
Dispense, Dispense!
Monday 20th February 2006
“He was of medium height, thin and…”
U Is for Unstrebnodtalb
Saving Your Swan
Saturday 18th February 2006
“If his experiences of the previous evening…”
A Plethora of Links
T Is for Trellis
Gluten-free Jabbering Man
Friday 17th February 2006
“The lighting of the exposition can barely…”
The Ogsby Steering Panel
Picture Post
S Is for Spats
Tuesday 14th February 2006
“I am a buttercup golden and free…”
Identification With Buttercups
Cursed Crowfoot
R Is for Rigor Mortis
Specks in the Sky
Monday 13th February 2006
“An Estonian friend who came here as…”
Breakfast of Hideousness!
Q Is for Quintain
Saturday 11th February 2006
“Among the earliest natural marvels that modernity…”
Bonkers Alibis
Saints and Flatworms
P Is for Planaria
Friday 10th February 2006
“Having first tested the air and proved…”
O Is for Ogre
Unidentified Insect on Postage Stamp
Blazing Excelsior Saturated With Turpentine
Wednesday 8th February 2006
“When did Hats come into general use?…”
The Hat of Hudibras
N Is for Night
Pansy's Picture Library
Tuesday 7th February 2006
“About an hour before the ship was…”
A Message to Readers From Fatima Gilliblat
Elegant Smudges
M Is for Moop
Monday 6th February 2006
“Rome! the fortieth day of rain, and…”
L Is for Larders
Sunday 5th February 2006
“We have all of us different Souls,…”
Win With Dick
K Is for Kleptomania
Come Trudge With Me
Friday 3rd February 2006
“Doctor Diabolus grinned wickedly as he mentally…”
J Is for Jubble
A Lesson in Humility
Ten Days in a Ditch
Thursday 2nd February 2006
“For convenience the following list is inserted…”
Regarding That Vox Pop Orphan
I Is for Index
Wednesday 1st February 2006
“Had Cowper been permitted to live more…”
H Is for Haruspices
Bees in Bonnets

Monday 27th February 2006

“Experiment : Procure a wide-mouthed bottle, an egg, a glass tube about three inches long and a quarter-inch in diameter, a candle, and a piece of wire a little longer than the tube. Remove a part of the shell from the large end of the egg without breaking the skin beneath. This is easily done by gently tapping the shell with the handle of a pocket-knife until it is full of small cracks, and then, with the blade of the knife, picking off the small pieces. In this way remove the shell from the space about the size of a nickel. Remove the shell from the small end of the egg over a space about as large as the end of the glass tube. Next, from the lower end of the candle cut a piece about one-half inch long. Bore a hole in this just the size of the glass tube. Now soften one end of the piece of candle with the hole in it and stick it on to the small end of the egg so that the hole in the candle comes over the hole in the egg. Heat the wire, and with it solder the piece of candle more firmly to the egg, making a water-tight joint. Place the glass tube in the hole in the piece of candle, pushing it down till it touches the egg. Then, with the heated wire, solder the tube firmly in place. Now run the wire down the tube and break the skin of the egg just under the end of the tube. Fill the bottle with water till it overflows, and set the egg on the bottle, the large end in contact with the water. In an hour or so the contents of the egg will be seen rising in the glass tube.” — Charles L Goodrich, The First Book Of Farming

Z Is for Zincograph

The final chapter of our exciting serial story The Immense Duckpond Pamphlet

The sleuth Aminadab felt it was time to retire. This had been his ten thousandth case, quite enough for any detective. He and Unstrobnedtalb, or Unstrebnodtalb, whatever his name was, had parted as dawn broke on the Thursday morning. They had stood triumphantly, arm in arm, each with a foot - or in Unstrebnodtalb's case, more properly a hoof - planted on the dead body of Blodgett, or Jubble.

The end had been horrifying, and very messy. They had had to call on Euwige to help, and by the time they realised the scimitar had not been sharpened it was too late. Afterwards, Euwige and Moop got rid of the corpse. The distant splash led Aminadab to conclude that Blodgett/Jubble's body ended up in one of the twenty six ponds, but he didn't really care which one.

Three weeks later, when he returned home, he wrote up the case as usual. Fuelled by dandelion and burdock and bilgegrew buns, he sat late into the night engraving his zincographs. Half of what he wrote was lies, of course. Unstrebnodtalb hardly featured in the Aminadab version. Moop and Trellis virtually disappeared, although he awarded them a footnote in a sentimental moment.

He was, as usual, merciless with himself. If anyone ever bothered to read the narrative, they would surely conclude that the sleuth Aminadab didn't have a clue what was going on, and still didn't twig what had actually happened even at the end, as he bid farewell to Detective Captain Unstrebnodtalb, his absurd agglomeration of luggage long abandoned save for the punnet and reticule, enormous birds beating their enormous wings around him as he stood ankle-deep in mud, weird and hapless, at the very edge of the immense duckpond.


It has been said that Dobson, the out of print pamphleteer, bestrode the 20th century like a colossus. This claim was first made by Dobson himself, when still a young man. At the age of twenty, he published a pamphlet resoundingly titled Why I Shall Bestride This Century Like A Colossus. It is a curious work, out of print of course, a thin tract with a picture of a whooper swan on the cover. It begins thus:

I shall bestride this century like a colossus. My name will ring out like a clarion. In years to come, whenever two or three are gathered together to discuss pamphleteers, there will be but one name on their lips: Dobson!

Such self-belief, in so callow a youth, is touching. Looking back, in his dotage, Dobson found it touching too, and he took to sitting with his one remaining copy of the pamphlet clutched to his chest, sobbing uncontrollably for hours on end. When Marigold Chew found him thus, she flung open the windows, whatever the weather, and stamped around the room singing loud, tuneless sea shanties, ones that involved pirates, cutlasses, bilgewater, tattered sailcloth and shipwreck. Invariably, Dobson's self-pitying lassitude would be broken, and he would fling the curiously pristine pamphlet towards the fireplace, wipe away his tears, don his Bolivian military boots and his Stalinist cardigan, and crash out of the house to go on one of his jaunts.

Dobson's jaunts, in the latter part of his life, usually took him to the nearest pig sty, but there was one occasion when he headed off in a different direction. He walked so far that day that he came upon a shining city on a hill, a city where all the streets had two names, one both illegible and unpronounceable, and the other devised by Yoko Ono. Postal delivery persons in that city were required by law to learn all the double street names by heart, or to face summary dismissal if they failed. Often, those who did fail - and there were many - would flounce around on the outskirts of the city warning travellers away. It was a paltry sort of revenge, and seldom succeeded, for the delights of that shining city attracted wayfarers from near and far, daily, in their thousands. It is a wonder that Dobson had never been there before this particular Tuesday.

A dismissed postal delivery person stopped the out of print pamphleteer as he was about to cross a bridge that would take him in to the most boisterous quarter of the city.

“Go no further, old man,” said this vengeful figure, whose yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath. His hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion, and his straight black lips. His voice was booming and monotonous, empty of human expression and lacking any variation in tone or cadence. “This city you approach is no place for out of print pamphleteers.”

Ever sensitive to warnings from spooks and wraiths, Dobson turned around and went home. He found Marigold Chew in the back garden, drilling holes in an enormous sheet of corrugated cardboard.

“I was warned away from a shining city on a hill,” he said, “Is it a city you have visited?”

Marigold Chew stopped drilling, reset the safety catch, and removed her protective goggles.

“You are a foolish old man in your dotage, Dobson,” she said, though there was kindness in her voice, “And it is well you were warned away, for that city you think you saw is illusory. Some say the hill it sits atop is hollow, and contains heaven, and some say hell. Either way, I am pleased to see you home. Let us clear the nettles from the vegetable patch.”

That was what happened on that Tuesday towards the end of the 20th century. Did Dobson indeed bestride it as a colossus? He was not the only person to think so, but the names of the others escape me for the time being. When I remember them, I will tell you.

Sunday 26th February 2006

“Home, that spot to which his heart is tied with unseen cords and tendrils tighter than the muscles which hold it in his swelling chest. Perhaps he left his Home caring little for it at the time. Perhaps harsh necessity drove him from its tender roof to lie beneath THE THATCH OF AVARICE. It does not matter. As the great river broadens in the Spring, so do his feelings swell and overflow his nature now. Why does he tremble, that rough, weather-beaten man?” — John McGovern, The Golden Censer

Bucephalus and the Cephalopods in the Bosphorus

The weather was foul on that day in the Ancient World, that Thursday when an unaccompanied horse cantered to a halt at the bank of a mighty waterway. The horse was Alexander the Great's steed Bucephalus, sent by the Macedonian hero for a recuperative holiday. The river was the Bosphorus, the strait between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara.

Alexander was a firm believer in horse holidays. When young, Bucephalus had been skittish and temperamental, frightened of his own shadow, and Alexander's ministrations had becalmed him, but even as the mature horse he was now, there were times when he needed a break from campaigning and battle. Thus it was that Alexander had waved him off to - as he put it - “enjoy the mysteriously sultry atmosphere of a few nights by the Bosphorus”*.


But it was not night-time, sultry or otherwise, when Bucephalus arrived at his destination. It was day, bleak, grey, and wretched, and the majestic horse stood still at the river's edge, snorting. Alexander the Great did not expect him back in Macedonia for a week. Remember this is the Ancient World, so such landmarks as line the Bosphorus as the Galata tower, the palaces of Dolmabahce, Ciragan, Yildiz, and Beylerbeyi, the Rumeli and Anatolian Fortresses, and the Kuleli Military High School had not yet been built. Bucephalus began to trot, following the river's course, hoping to find a field where he could have a restful time munching nutritious foliage.

It was late afternoon on that Thursday when the horse decided to rest, and planted his hooves in the mud at the edge of the Bosphorus where today one finds the Bogazici suspension toll bridge. He noticed a churning in the waters of the mighty river, and turned his horse-head to look more intently. He was astonished to see a tangle of cephalopods thrashing around in the river, cephalopods large and small, octopuses, squids, cuttlefish and chambered nautiluses, emitting clouds of ink, tentacles flailing. What were they doing upriver, rather than in the dark, cold abysses of the sea? Were they lost, and did this explain their frantic activity? Cephalopods are probably the most intelligent of invertebrates, with huge pulsating brains, and it is easy to imagine that the realisation of being lost in the Bosphorus could induce panic among them.


Bucephalus had devoted his life to the service of Alexander the Great, but now he wondered how he might help these strange sea-creatures, so much more ancient than he, or Alexander, or even the Ancient World in which he lived. Could he somehow take them all back to the sea, and release them into the vast pitiless oceans that were their natural home, from the warm waters of the tropics to the icy chill of the poles? Being a horse, Bucephalus could not think how he might lay a trail of plankton and krill for the cephalopods to pursue. He could not think of any way at all to lead them to the sea. So on the spur of the moment, he decided to gallop back to Macedonia, to fetch Alexander the Great, confident that his master would know exactly what to do.

Alas! When he got to Macedonia, Bucephalus was told that Alexander was in the ancient Phrygian capital of Gordium, puzzling out how to undo the Gordian knot so he could become the future King of Asia. So the brave horse charged tirelessly onward, collected Alexander - who had either worked out how to undo the knot or just hacked it apart with his sword, depending on whose story you believe - and sped with him all the way back to the Bosphorus.

When they got there, they found no sign of the cephalopods. If a horse can feel sheepish, Bucephalus certainly did. He watched as Alexander dismounted and strode off, his armour clanking, into the field where the horse had munched his lunch. The Macedonian warlord plucked a plant from the earth and brought it to over to the horse.


“This, Bucephalus, is henbane. It is not only the bane of hens, but of horses too. One day, when the Ancient World has passed away and the new times are known as mediaeval, it will be used in the brews concocted by witches to cause visual hallucinations and the sensation of flight. This I know.” Alexander smiled and patted Bucephalus affectionately on the mane. “Poor deluded horse,” he continued, “You saw no cephalopods. You were seeing visions of things that cannot be. Come, let us return to Macedonia at a canter, and I will give you healthy hay to eat.”

And as night fell on the sultry, mysterious Bosphorus, Alexander and Bucephalus began their long journey home. And in the depths of the river, the waters stirred, and a squid slithered through a tiny crack in a riverbed rock, its black, fathomless, malevolent eyes piercing the underwater world, long long ago, and far into the future, for eternity.

*NOTE : Alexander the Great is here paraphrasing a line from Anthea Bell's translation of Twilight by Stefan Zweig, published by the Pushkin Press, and highly recommended. There is a photograph of Herr Zweig and his wife tucked away in the Hooting Yard archive for August 2004.

FURTHER NOTE: If you want to keep up with the very latest in the world of squids, nautiluses, octopuses and cuttlefish, I recommend Cephalopod News.

An audio version of this story, declaimed by the author, will shortly be available as a cephalopodcast.

Y Is for Yaws

The penultimate chapter of our serial story The Immense Duckpond Pamphlet

Blodgett suffered dreadfully from yaws, but the condition cannot excuse his behaviour. Yaws is also known as framboesia. Blodgett was also known as Jubble. The deception had been difficult. Sometimes he had had to be in two places at once. Moop had been willing to impersonate him from time to time, no questions asked. She had been a useful ally, but he had begun to distrust her. She would be the next to go, after Ruhugu. Preening his mustachios, he cackled, as if he were a character in a nineteenth century melodrama.

Saturday 25th February 2006

“This work is absolutely incomprehensible, even to me. Perhaps I wanted to be humorous. That would not surprise me and be pretty much in my manner.” — Erik Satie, manuscript of Embryons desséchés

Hooting Yard on the Air : The Podcasts

If you have been reading this website with due care, you will know that I broadcast a weekly half hour show on ResonanceFM, London's finest radio station. The show goes out live, which means that my reading is sometimes accompanied by banging, crashing, and buzzing noises, or interrupted by me having a choking fit, or by other disturbances. That seems to me far more exciting than a rehearsed, cleaned-up recording. You will also know, particularly if you are a pod person, that the archive of past shows is being made available in the form of podcasts, which you can have sent to your computer before transferring to your pod.

Here is a link to the Resonance home page, and here is one to the podcast page.

Anyway, I thought it might interest you to know how the podcasts are created. Many people think that it is simply a case of taking the archived recording of a show and making it available as an mp3 file. Would that it were so simple! The truth is that in order for the original live broadcast to be made podcastable, a number of extremely delicate and complicated operations need to be carried out. And that is why, about once a month, I am summoned at dead of night to the gleaming high-tech skyscraper wherein lurks ResonanceFM's podcasting maestro.

The first time I went there, it took me about an hour to find him, for the skyscraper is enormous and wholly lacking in informative signage. What signs there are are either baffling or redundant. I do not know why this is so, and I have never had the courage to ask. I have learned to accept that the front desk in the lobby is labelled, simply, The Front Desk In The Lobby, and that the person sitting at the desk wears a badge reading The Person Sitting At The Front Desk In The Lobby. This person has not been authorised to answer any questions whatsoever, so when, on this first night-time visit, I asked “Where will I find the podcasting maestro?”, I may as well have been shouting into the wind, as indeed I was, for the lobby acts as both lobby and experimental wind tunnel. Apparently, sound recordings are made of the wind in preparation for one of the podcasting maestro's planned podcasts, tentatively titled “Wind In A Wind Tunnel”.

Now I was used to the more homespun atmosphere of the station's main studio and was somewhat unnerved by the grandiosity of my surroundings. I took a chance, however, walked past the person sitting at the front desk in the lobby (who was immersed in reading a battered copy of Stockhausen Serves Imperialism by Cornelius Cardew), took the lift up - hitting a floor number at random - and skittered off down the corridor I found myself in. There were numerous doors along this corridor, all marked Door. There was also, I noticed, an overpowering smell of guinea pig, though I saw no guinea pigs, and have seen none on my subsequent visits. I pushed open doors at random, and peeked into each room, hoping to discover the Resonance podcast maestro, but all I found were bales of fusewire, discarded yoghurt cartons, and toy crustaceans made of plasticine. There was a lobster that took my fancy, but it was high up on a shelf and I have an aversion to teetering on step-ladders.

I think I checked every room on that floor before getting back into the lift and choosing another level, again at random. This one was different. It had no corridor, just a vast open plan area - with a sign, of course, reading A Vast Open Plan Area - empty except for a small patch of ectoplasm.

I said that it took me about an hour wandering the skyscraper to find the podcast maestro, but in truth he found me. I was stumbling fretfully around what seemed like the umpteenth floor when I heard a loud electronic crackling noise, and then a disembodied voice.

“Podcast maestro to Frank Key! Podcast maestro to Frank Key! Floor 96, Rectangle Zone!” it called, so that is where I went.

The podcast maestro was sitting at a console from which occasional puffs of vapour jetted up to the ceiling and slowly dispersed. He was wearing a metal hat and taking ravenous bites from a toffee apple.

“Glad you could make it,” he said, “You'd better put on these mittens,” and he tossed a pair of mittens to me. They were woven from a material I was unable to identify, and I worried for a moment that I might suffer an allergic reaction, for in the past I have had allergic reactions to mittens woven from unfamiliar materials. On this occasion, however, all was well.

The podcast maestro, with a great deal of effort, pulled a big lever on his console, to no apparent purpose.

“Now,” he said, “It is nearly three o' clock in the morning. At precisely two minutes past, we will begin effecting the transfer of one of your past shows into podcastable format. It should take about an hour. You will need to attune the flimflam and steady the rattling. Just watch me, you'll soon get the idea.”

And do you know what? He was right. I did, and by four o' clock we had a complete recording of Hooting Yard On the Air all ready for podcasting. Since then, I have been back to the skyscraper regularly, whenever I get the summons on my metal tapping machine. I would not say that I have become friends with the podcast maestro exactly, for there is something formidable about him, emphasised by his metal hat, but we do engage in affable banter as the clock ticks towards 3.02 a.m. After that, of course, we are silent, concentrated, utterly involved in our task. And I hope that the pod people among you, when you listen to each new podcast, are also silent, concentrated, and utterly involved, borne away from the dull cares of your day into the realms of instructive and sensible prose.

This Week's Decoy Duck

X Is for X

Chapter twenty-four of The Immense Duckpond Pamphlet

With his mighty paw, Detective Captain Unstrebnodtalb was about to scratch a bloody X on the forehead of Doctor Cack's murderer when his esteemed colleague the sleuth Aminadab came crashing on to the scene. He was carrying a punnet full to the brim with odd and inconsequential objects, which he proceeded to describe to Unstrebnodtalb at length. Readers avid for the details should send an email headed Please tell me what was in the sleuth Aminadab's brimming punnet, to which the author will reply individually, to the point of tedium.

But Aminadab's rambling drivel cannot be allowed to keep us from the denouement of this exciting story.

“Hush! Hush! Aminadab, you are a sleuth about whom legends will accrete, but for the love of G-d hold your tongue!” screeched Unstrebnodtalb, setting fire to a small herb garden with a blast of his breath.

Aminadab unzipped himself from his terrifying aquatic monster costume and placed his punnet on a flagstone next to one of Blodgett's fly-traps.

“You would do well to pay attention to my rambling drivel, Detective Captain Unstrobnedtalb,” he said, “For it is only because I carry with me at all times a vial of cassiber serum that I am able to assist you in bringing this case to a satisfactory conclusion. The deranged potato scientist Moop stunned me with an incredibly powerful poisonous dart from her blowpipe. By rights I should be in a coma. As it is, I had a split second in which to bite on a serum pill and thus outwit her!”

Detective Captain Unstrebnodtalb clawed at the sky, wailing horribly. “Very clever, Aminadab. But stop calling me Unstrobnedtalb, G-d damn you!”

While the two detectives were occupied with this banter, the culprit fled into the crumbling ruins of the House, forehead yet unmarked with an X.

Thursday 23rd February 2006

“So far as my knowledge goes the United States stands out as preeminently the ‘Land of Contrasts’… a land which may be bounded by the aurora borealis, but which has also undeniable acquaintance with the flames of the bottomless pit.” — James Fullarton Muirhead, Land Of Contrasts

Certain Aspects of Plastic Baubles and Plastic Sheeting

Certain Aspects Of Plastic Baubles And Plastic Sheeting is one of those out-of-print pamphlets by Dobson that has acquired the aura of legend. Not even the most indefatigable of Dobsonistas claims ever to have seen a copy, let alone read it, and some authorities doubt that it ever existed at all.

There is, of course, the famous alleged cover of the pamphlet which was included in an exhibition held at the Museum At Or Near Ack-On-The-Vug in 1992 to celebrate the inauguration of the Cones Hotline, but this is almost certainly a fake.

John Major's government had introduced the Cones Hotline a few weeks before the show opened, and cones were much in people's thoughts. Dobson had an abiding interest in cones of all kinds, not just those used for traffic control, and we know that he drafted some notes on cones made of plastic, though those too are mysteriously missing from the archives.

Is it likely that the pamphleteer would have addressed the topic of plastic baubles and plastic sheeting without finding room for plastic cones as well? The enfant terrible of Dobson studies, Gaston Pewt, has this to say: “There can be no doubt in my mind that Certain Aspects Of Plastic Baubles And Plastic Sheeting only exists in the febrile minds of older, wizened Dobson scholars whose brains have been laid waste. Long ago they would have downed tonics and invigorators to combat dyspepsia, low spirits, nervousness, heartburn, colic pains, wind in the stomach or pains in the bowels, headache, drowsiness, kidney and liver complaints, melancholy, delirium tremens, and intemperance. Now they cannot get their hands on such potions, they pursue hopeless chimeras. I neither know nor care which ancient, slobbering poop-head inserted a counterfeit pamphlet cover into the Cones Hotline exhibition. What I know is that whoever did so was trying to feed their misplaced vanity, and score points over young, up and coming Dobsonistas like myself, even though at that time I had yet to publish my ground-breaking reappraisal of the out-of-print pamphleteer's plastic-related works.”

Stirring words indeed, but we should remember that every single copy of Monsieur Pewt's magisterial study, Plastic Dobson, was pulped before it reached the bookshops, for reasons which, like the legendary pamphlet itself, like those tonics and invigorators, like the wits of the Dobsonist old guard, and like the Cones Hotline, are now forever lost, they are swept away, they are swept away and gone.

W Is for Water

Our serial story The Immense Duckpond Pamphlet hurtles ever more thrillingly towards its conclusion

There were twenty-six ponds in the grounds of the House, of varying sizes. Sixteen of them were ponds, and ten were duckponds. One of the duckponds was immense, it had claims to be a lake, there was so much water in it.

Moop trudged around this immense duckpond, her gaze fixed on the mud through which she trod. An hour earlier, she had stolen Blodgett's windcheater while his back was turned. It was far too big for her - it was far too big for Blodgett - and the hood hid her head completely. She was plunged in reverie. Every now and then, she stopped trudging and picked up a pebble to hurl into the immense duckpond, disturbing the eerily calm surface of the water. She wondered if the frenzied creature Unstrebnodtalb would arrest Trellis.

As she began her fifteenth circuit of the duckpond, the water was disturbed by something larger than her pebbles. With a chthonic churning and squelching, something hideous and scarcely describable rose to the surface. It was finned and scaled, but moved with robotic precision. It appeared to have a teeming mass of eyes, thousands of jellied globules quivering on their stalks. It made no noise. At the sight of it, nearby ducks suffered heart-attacks and perished.

Moop had more presence of mind than a duck. Unleashing a large net, she threw it over the hell-spawned aquatic beast-thing, then stunned it with a dart from her blowpipe. Binding it firmly with a length of stolen rope she found curled in a pocket of Blodgett's windcheater, she began to drag the nightmare-being back to the Leaking Building. It might possibly prove useful in her anti-potato research, she reflected.

She had gone barely ten paces when the duckpond-monster unaccountably slipped its bonds and whacked her on the skull with one of its mighty flippers, knocking her unconscious.

Tuesday 21st February 2006

“The trade is not what it was some years ago when Rat-pits were allowed. I think it was one of the worst things they ever did for this country when the authorities stopped the Rat pits, for when Rat killing was allowed in pits, it was a common thing for a Rat-catcher to receive an order for 100 Rats, all to be killed at one time; then the Rat-catcher would get the Rats and wherever he got them from he was ridding that district of a nuisance.” — Ike Matthews, Full Revelations Of A Professional Rat-Catcher

Rainer Werner Ringbinder

Rainer Werner Ringbinder did not invent the ring-binder, but he claimed to have done so. He also tried to take credit for being the first person on earth to devise staplers, hole-punches, treasury tags, pencil sharpeners, and all sorts of other stationery items which, alas, are falling into desuetude as administrators and office workers spend more and more time staring at screens and less and less time fiddling about with tangible things.

Oskar Homolka

Rainer Werner Ringbinder was a heavy-set man with cow-like eyes, who looked a little like Oskar Homolka, the Viennese actor who played Verloc in Alfred Hitchcock's Sabotage (1936), an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent (1907). Confusingly, Hitchcock made a film called Secret Agent (also 1936), which was nothing to do with Conrad's novel, and also Saboteur (1942), which was nothing to do with Sabotage. Secret Agent (film, not book) starred John Gielgud, Peter Lorre, and Percy Marchmont, none of whom looked like Rainer Werner Ringbinder at all.

Peter Lorre's daughter Catherine nearly fell victim to the so-called “Hillside Stranglers”, Angelo Buono and Kenneth Bianchi, but was left unharmed when the fiends realised that her father's status as a film star would mean unwelcome publicity for their homicidal frenzy. It goes to show that having the right name can get you out of all sorts of trouble, even when it isn't the right name at all. In St Petersburg in 1918, the writer William Gerhardie was about to be set upon by a tangle of angry Bolsheviks when one of them recognised him and pointed out to his pals that it was “Geerhardi, Geerhardi”. Mistaking the foppish young Englishman for Kier Hardie, founder of the Labour Party and socialist saint, the revolutionaries shook Gerhardie by the hand instead of tearing him limb from limb.

Gerhardie's first novel was Futility (1922), and this would have made an apposite title for a biography of Rainer Werner Ringbinder, were anyone foolish enough to write one. A man like Ringbinder does not have “friends”, exactly, but the closest he came to one was his acquaintance Pryce Montmarch (not to be confused with Percy Marchmont), who said: “Everything about Rainer Werner was futile, from his cradle to his grave. He was the most hopelessly unnecessary person I ever met. Why he pretended to have invented many standard items of stationery is anybody's guess. The infuriating thing is that he had a first class intellect, and he squandered it on futility.”

And so the seasons turn and the globe spins on its axis, and so dust settles on the past, and on tangible things, and still stars blaze with light in the boundless firmament.

V Is for Violence

For today's episode of our exciting serial The Immense Duckpond Pamphlet, here is a picture of “V Is For Violence” from the original, long out-of-print Malice Aforethought Press publication.

Thanks to Salim Fadhley for scanning this gem from the archives

Dispense, Dispense!

I have never really understood, or cared about, computer hacking. As far as I can gather it is a world of socially inept and probably sociopathic young men who ought to spend more time in the shower. But I learned something recently which means I am going to have to take a crash course in computer science and become a hacker, for I intend to wheedle my way into the systems of all the major high street banks.

I hope Hooting Yard readers know me better than to think there is some vulgar financial motive behind my plan. Of course there isn't! I do, however, need to be able to access the throbbing electronic brain which controls untold thousands of cashpoints, or cash dispensers, or ATMs, or whatever you wish to call them.

Why? Because I want to make every single cashpoint up and down the land operate just like the ones in the Vatican City. The splendid thing about these papal cash dispensers is that the default or principal display language is Latin. Wouldn't you love to go and withdraw your money, if you have any, and be faced with the rigorous beauty of that ancient language? Life would somehow become immeasurably less wretched were it so.

Monday 20th February 2006

“He was of medium height, thin and sallow, with gray whiskers, thick gray hair, bushy eyebrows, and small, pointed and inquiring features which gave him rather the aspect of a prying bird. His eyes were little and sparkling. His mouth, strangely enough, was ecclesiastical. He nearly always wore very light-coloured clothes. Even in winter he was often to be seen clad in yellow-gray tweeds, a yellow silk necktie, and a fawn-colored Homburg hat. And no human being had ever encountered him in a pair of boots unprotected by spats.” — Robert Smythe Hichens, The Dweller On The Threshold

U Is for Unstrebnodtalb

The Immense Duckpond Pamphlet, episode twenty one

“I shall soon be in a position to make an arrest,” growled Detective Captain Unstrebnodtalb at breakfast the next morning. Hummingbirds revolved around his head. The scullery had been all but obliterated during the master detective's frenzied arrival, and for their breakfast soup the relevant characters had gathered in the stinking yard.

Late the previous night, as the moon shimmered in the black sky, Unstrebnodtalb had come upon Doctor Cack's corpse. Using detection magnets, and guided by his bat-like inner radar, it had taken him just minutes to pin-point the whereabouts of the dead potato scientist. His immediate diagnosis was that Doctor Cack had been slain with a whelk, a battery, and a puddle of bleach. Further than that he would not go, for the time being. The mysterious presence of ironmongery escaped his notice.

His confidence at breakfast astonished even Euwige. “You know who did the deed?” she screeched.

“Let me say this,” howled Unstrebnodtalb, shovelling small insects down his gullet and uprooting titanic cedars* from the mud, “I delay only so that I can compare notes with my esteemed colleague, the sleuth Aminadab. He may be in possession of facts material to this foul deed, of information to which I am not privy despite my genius. His methods are obscure, but unfailing in their accuracy. The sleuth Aminadab always carries with him, in either his satchel or his reticule, a small rectangular tin filled with pastilles of a bauxite-like substance which is not actually bauxite itself. He carries, too, a portable kiln. Ignited with a simple household match, the kiln is coated on the inside with a fuel which produces a temperature of thousands of degrees Fahrenheit within two seconds of being lit. It is most uncanny, but I have witnessed this happen with my own eyes. Or rather, eye. Into this tiny furnace, Aminadab places one of his non-bauxite pastilles, using a long, thin pair of tongs which he carries about with him in a special compartment sewn into one leg of his pantaloons. He is a resourceful fellow, the sleuth Aminadab. Ten hours later, when the kiln has cooled, he prises open its tiny hatch, extracts the charred remains of the pastille, and smears it in his hair and upon his brow. Then he packs up the portable kiln, after applying a fresh coating of his inexplicable fuel, replaces it in his reticule or satchel, and goes about his business.”Detective Captain Unstrebnodtalb stopped howling, and beat his fists on the table, smashing it to pieces.

“And how does this help him solve the case?” asked the languid Jubble. Unstrebnodtalb sank his fangs into a passing horse before responding.

“It has nothing to do with the deductive abilities of the sleuth Aminadab,” he roared, “I merely wished to entertain you at breakfast with an anecdote about his untoward personal habits.”

It began to rain.

*NOTE : Here is a curious thing. The phrase “titanic cedars” appears here as it did in the original version of The Immense Duckpond Pamphlet (1990). A few years earlier, another out of print pamphlet of mine, A Zest For Crumpled Things (1987), featured a character named Violet Ebbing. I was disconcerted to stumble upon both “titanic cedars” and “Violet Ebbing” when, some time in the mid-nineties, I read Ronald Firbank. They both turn up in, I think, Valmouth (1919), which I had never read before. Spooky.

Saving Your Swan

As the deadly bird flu virus sweeps inexorably westward - France is the latest country to report a case - it is vitally important that you take preventative measures to ensure your pet swan, or swans, do not fall victim to the virus. If you act in time, your swan will not have to be culled by a wellington-booted government official armed with a gun or some poison pellets.

The simplest way to save the life of your swan is to lure it indoors and keep it there. If you do so, the virus can lay waste all outdoor bird life for as far as you can see, but your indoor swan will be snug and secure, so long as you batten down the hatches and allow no other birds into your house. There will be no point keeping your swan indoors if you then invite in any passing eagle, chaffinch, vulture, starling or peewit.

I am assuming for the purposes of this advisory note that you have only one swan. If you have two or more pet swans, you will find the technique outlined here equally effective.

Left, Jim Zingo's swans. Right, Peter Maxwell Davies

Swans are independent-minded birds, and no matter how devoted a swan-keeper you are, they will always prefer to glide up and down the river or lake looking graceful and showing off their beautiful profiles than to be housebound and cloistered. You might think it is a simple matter of plucking your swan from the water, tucking it under your arm, carrying it indoors, and putting it on the sofa. Do try to remember, however, that swans can be very aggressive. Next time you are with your swan, look at its face, very close to, and tell me if you do not see a cold, hard, alien savagery.

You are probably thinking that luring your swan indoors is a simple matter of laying a trail of breadcrumbs and millet, or other seeds, from the edge of the lake across the muddy field and in through your front door to the living room. Not so. Most swans, however famished, will baulk at entering a building. They will peck eagerly away until they get to the door, but are then almost certain to turn around and return to the lake, chancing that more food will appear before long - and it will, you can be sure of that.

Can a swan be lured indoors by placing a decoy swan in your living room? This is possible, but your decoy must be thoroughly convincing. It not only needs to look like a swan, and sound like a swan, but ideally it should smell like a swan too. You are not going to succeed by bundling up some old net curtains, blackening a portion with charcoal to resemble the head, and covering it in weeds dragged from the lake. Your swan will take one cold, pitiless look at it, turn around, and waddle back to the lake, possibly lunging to bite your hand as it leaves.

What you need to do, if you are to have an indoor swan safe from bird flu, is to make your living room a more attractive environment for it than its usual lake, pond, or river habitat. This is where a bank of loudspeakers and a tape loop of music by ‘Sir’ Peter Maxwell Davies comes in. The Master of the Queen's Music is well-known for his swan-eating habits*, and no sane swan wants to be boiled and gobbled down for dinner, whether by an important contemporary composer or by a tone-deaf ingrate like you. Swans have a collective unconscious that baffles ornithologists, and ever since Maxwell Davies found an electrocuted whooper swan and took it back to his kitchen, his music strikes terror into their palpitating swan-hearts. The non-stop racket of, for example, The Yellow Cake Revue (1980), played at top volume in the vicinity of the pond, will soon have your swan seeking shelter. By angling the loudspeakers correctly, you can make your living room the haven the poor panic-stricken swan yearns for.

You will of course need to keep the music piping across the pond until such time as the government announces an all-clear, but that is the least of your worries. The important thing is that your swan will be safe.

*NOTE : See Swan News, May 2005, or this newspaper report.

Saturday 18th February 2006

“If his experiences of the previous evening had been distressing, the breakfast which was set before him was positively heart-rending. A muddy-looking liquid which they called coffee, soggy biscuits, a beefsteak that would rival in toughness a piece of baked gutta percha, and evidently swimming in lard, and potatoes which gave decided tokens of having been served on more than one previous occasion. With a smothered groan he attacked the unsavoury viands, and by dint of great effort managed to appease his hunger, to the serious derangement of his digestive organs.” — Allan Pinkerton, The Burglar's Fate And The Detectives

A Plethora of Links

Readers who have been wallowing in Hooting Yard for a long time will know that we occasionally give Mrs Gubbins, the octogenarian crone (and criminal fugitive), the task of recommending other websites of interest. Contacting her the other day by metal tapping machine*, we received this reply:

“I am too busy knitting a decorative tea-cosy featuring scenes from The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius to go trawling the web on your behalf. However, if you go to Incoming Signals, you will find a plethora of links. If I wasn't knitting, I would certainly be looking up such enticing items as Charles Darwin's crab collection, early photographs of train, steamship and dirigible wrecks, the zodiacal methodology of scheduling horse castration by moon signs, and a video of an octopus battling a shark - and those are only four of the wonders you can find, and they are only from the first page. What are you waiting for? Now don't bother me again until my tea cosy is done.”

Mrs Gubbins does not lie. Incoming Signals is a very fine a place from where to begin a lengthy browse on the web. It is from here that you can be led, for example, to this terrific photograph of nails driven through wood by the mighty power of the wind!

*NOTE : Unkind people have been putting it about that Mrs Gubbins' metal tapping machine number is 666. This is not true.

T Is for Trellis

The Immense Duckpond Pamphlet continues. Twenty down, six to go!

Trellis was mere figment, vapour. He appeared to different people at different times as a sort of phantom. He was a tabula rasa, on to which those who met him inscribed their dreams, their yearnings, their hallucinations.

All, that is, except Blodgett, in whose presence Trellis took on a terrifying reality. He would snivel, and Blodgett would have to mop up the snivellings with his filthy shirt-cuff. He would mewl, and Blodgett would thump him on the head, bruising his fist in the process.

After Detective Captain Unstrebnodtalb chewed up part of his head, Blodgett's relationship with Trellis became even more intimate. Trellis would tell Blodgett all about the weather in Finland, and the nature of ice, and give him planks, and show him albumen. He would invoke disastrous plutonian gods, and have them frolic, miniaturised, before Blodgett's eyes, occasionally tweaking the hairs from his nostrils. In return, Blodgett gave Trellis extra helpings of soup, winced at his frailness, concocted diverting bedtime stories and nautical yarns, and plied him with raspberries.

Together, they plotted dark and criminal deeds.

Gluten-free Jabbering Man

I am Gluten-Free Jabbering Man, and I jabber in the corridors of power. Like a L'Oreal product, I am armed with light-reflecting booster technology. I use it wisely, and do not abuse the advantages it gives me. How easy it would be for me to take a Member of Parliament, like Lembit Opik, say, or Dawn Primarolo, and not only boost the light reflecting off them but jabber at them until they, too, are gluten-free. I could if I wished do the same with captains of industry, media moguls, big players in the world of sport, with anyone you care to mention who has even the tiniest smidgeon of power and influence in the world. I have often been tempted to wreak my weird magic on Lionel Richie, for example, and yet I restrain myself. Now, I just do the jabbering, a quiet sort of jabbering, and I jabber only at the little bugs and creepy-crawlies that scurry unnoticed in the corridors of power, unnoticed, that is, by all but me, and by the pest controllers, to whom I refrain from jabbering, for even with my light-reflecting booster technology I suspect they would outwit me with their fearsome engines of destruction, their sprays and rays and fumes and beams. I covet such weaponry, but it would be too dangerous in my hands, and in any case, I am the personification of mercy, and I am replete.

Friday 17th February 2006

“The lighting of the exposition can barely be touched upon in a few paragraphs and it would be difficult to describe in words even if space were unlimited. It represented the power of light to beautify and to awe… It was a crowning achievement of a century of public lighting which began with Murdock's initial display of a hundred flickering gas-jets… It was a silent but pulsating display of grandeur dwarfing into insignificance the aurora borealis in its most resplendent moments.” — M Luckiesh, Artificial Light

The Ogsby Steering Panel

Last week I had an extraordinary stroke of good fortune. Ever since the afternoon of Friday last, I have been engulfed in a flood of memories, and I am discombobulated and a-dither, quite unlike my usual self.

I was wandering the streets of Pointy Town, somewhat aimlessly, and as I turned a particular corner I felt compelled - there is no other word for it - to head off down a dark, narrow alleyway where lurked a strange little shop. Do you remember the scene towards the end of Random Harvest (1942), where Charles Rainier, played by Ronald Colman, turns down a side-street to go to a tobacconist, and then wonders how he knew it was there, this being a town he has never knowingly visited before, and how his consternation is the spur to his gradual recollection of the life that a traffic accident has wiped from his memory, leading, within a few minutes of film-time, to the tear-stained scene where he and Paula (Greer Garson) are reunited at the gates of their idyllic country cottage? Well, as I entered the shop in that Pointy Town alleyway, I had a very similar jolt to my memory, although I am not a veteran of the First World War whose shell shock had led to total amnesia and a reluctance to speak, like Charles Rainier. Readers who have no idea what I am gabbling on about should take steps to see this magnificent film at the earliest opportunity. I guarantee that even those with the flintiest of hearts will be sobbing copiously by the end, not that Hooting Yard readers tend to be flinty-hearted, as a general rule, according to the latest readership profiles gathered by Fatima Gilliblat and her team of wastrels.

The shop into which I tottered, having tripped on a thing discarded in the alleyway, was not a tobacconist. It was called, I noted, This Vale Of Tears, and its unexpectedly neon-bright interior contained a heteroclite jumble of items for sale. I can only call them odds and ends. Battered biscuit tins, dishcloths, iron utensils of no apparent utility, bags full of swan feathers, rubber inhaling tubes, dog-eared snapshots of goats, pigs, and barnyard animals in general, buckets and pails, packets of cupcake mixture, fawn overslings from a stage production of Tap Or Spigot?, fruit made out of wax, fold-out wiring diagrams, wiring, cheesecloth, pastry cases, bound copies of The Propeller, abandoned and in some cases broken sandwich boards, a stuffed crow, litmus paper, human hair braided into rope for ships, surgery-ready canisters, pin cushions, Toc H lamps, fahrenheit converters, big forks, rotating wooden cubes on a spindle, frozen blobs, an information poster showing the correct pronunciation of “yoghurt” (that is, “yo-hoort”), tassels, baubles and bells, some of them enormous bells from a famous foundry, annals of jurisprudence, kitchen whisks, repair kits for the irreparable, teaspoons, marzipan, clock springs, grease in balls, a thanatophore, a marble bust of the head of Ringo Starr, lanterns, rattles, fripperies, saws, starched white butchers' curtains, and there, in among it all, still in its dust-caked packaging, but otherwise pristine, an original series Ogsby's Steering Panel.

Were you lucky enough, when you were a tiny tot, to receive an Ogsby's Steering Panel as a birthday gift? I was. I still remember with absolute clarity waking on the icy cold morning of my tenth birthday, and finding at the foot of my bed a rectangular object wrapped in old newspaper, on which either my father or my mother had scribbled in crayon “Happy Birthday To Our Ten-Year-Old”. I was a dutiful and pious child, so before tearing the package open I repaired to the bathroom to brush my teeth and plunge my head into a sink full of icy water, and then I went downstairs to find my parents.

My mother was in the garden slaughtering insects. I thanked her for my gift and asked where my father was so I could thank him too. She gave me a woebegone look and patted me on the head, mussing my hair in which icicles were beginning to form.

“I am afraid your father had to take the dawn train to a secret military establishment at an undisclosed coastal location - towering cliffs, monstrous waves, shingle - where he will be cooped up for the next six months helping to devise counter-intelligence techniques for use against an enemy so powerful, so ruthless, so fiendish, that it beggars belief,” said my mother, and she tapped the side of her nose, indicating that this startling news was to be kept under my hat, had I but a hat to keep it under.

“Gosh!” I replied, “So papa is not, as he appears to all and sundry, a simple village potato shop person. That is but a cover for his real work, which is of national - no, international - importance. Well I never.”

“It is indeed so,” said my mother, “And as it is your birthday I am going to make a present to you of a hat, and you must promise like the dutiful and pious child you are to keep this world-shattering revelation underneath it until you reach your majority.”

“I will do so, mama,” I promised. Her mention of a present recalled my mind to the rectangular package at the foot of the bed. It seemed unlikely that it contained a hat. It was as if my mother read my thoughts.

“The hat is an extra gift,” she said, “For your proper present is the one in the rectangular newspaper-wrapped package at the foot of your bed. Go and open it now and leave me to my slaughter of aphids.”

I ran upstairs and tore open the rectangular newspaper-wrapped package at the foot of my bed. Is it possible to convey to you the sheer joy with which my entire being was convulsed when I saw that I had been given an original series Ogsby's Steering Panel? There it was, new and gleaming, with its little knobs and levers, and the red bakelite prong on one side and the rubber speaking funnel on the other, the braille-like raised round nodes next to the hooter, the metal snags, the clip-on flaps, and so many, many dials!

I think I played with it constantly for the next three hours, until the terrible moment when my father suddenly crashed through the door of my room, ashen-faced and trembling, and tore the original series Ogsby's Steering Panel from my puny little hands.

“I have had to jet back here suddenly, son,” he said, in a voice broken by strain, “Our powerful, ruthless, and fiendish enemy is within minutes of unleashing a plot so intricate, so tangled, just so damned bonkers that the very future of the globe is in direst peril. Only by dismantling your new original series Ogsby's Steering Panel and using the parts for our top secret counter-attack machine will the world be saved, to guarantee that children like you have a future free from fear of all that is fiendish. I'm sure you understand.”

And he was gone, and I was left alone on the floor of my room, dutiful and pious, and I never saw my birthday gift again. Oh yes, the world was saved, the powerful and ruthless and fiendish enemy was foiled, my heroic father resumed his humble potato shop person persona, and my mother eradicated all insect life from our domain, but I always felt a sense of unbearable loss, until last week, when I stumbled upon an original series Ogsby's Steering Panel hidden behind an array of papier maché dustbin lids in This Vale Of Tears, in that gloomy alley in Pointy Town, and the long, insufferable, melancholy years were swept away, and I was ten again, with icicles in my hair.

Picture Post

A letter, with enclosures, arrives from that scalliwag Max Décharné.

Given the heated freedom-of-speech debates in the papers during the last few weeks, he writes, I thought you ought to see this shocking photo of a futile lone outpost of wrongheaded anti-Hooting Yard protesters, who appear to have barricaded themselves into an unattractive lock-up garage and are demanding Dobson's head on a platter (or near offer…). Have they no shame?

Meanwhile, here's a photo of Robert Fripp's sister, Patricia, being sawn in three by a magician. All in a day's work…

S Is for Spats

And so we reach the nineteenth episode in the serial story the world has clutched to its bosom, The Immense Duckpond Pamphlet

In the Room of Distressed Wooden Bitterns, Euwige cracked open another bottle of dandelion and burdock. Celebrations were in order. She and Detective Captain Unstrebnodtalb had not met for fifteen years, since that time in the aeroplane hangar.

Then, Euwige had just returned from Slot, where she had torn some paper, arched her back like a cat, and stood next to a dam. Unstrebnodtalb was at the hangar to meet her, brandishing a trumpet. At this stage in his career, he looked not unlike a Hungarian fairground proprietor. He wore spats. He had gabbled at Euwige importunately, but his command of human languages was not good, and she had difficulty understanding him. Eventually, she had snatched the trumpet from him and beat him over the head with it repeatedly, stopping him in mid-gabble. Then she pushed him into a cart and rattled off to the House.

Now, after all those years, they had a lot to catch up on. The walls of the Room shook as Unstrebnodtalb told his anecdotes in booming, cataclysmic roars. Jubble shoved putty into his ears to dull the racket. But Euwige seemed unperturbed, regularly refilling their tin mugs and badgering the Detective Captain with questions. What had happened to his spats? Was it true that he had arrested the notorious strangler Babinsky, and shaved off his bristly side-whiskers? Was his brain hot? Did moths fly about his head? Did he make crunching noises? Why had he not come sooner?

Unstrebnodtalb, flicking gnats and hornets away from his head, smashed up the empty dandelion and burdock bottles with a single thwack from his huge and hairy fists. He had his own question for Euwige. What had become of his trusty assistant Aminadab?

Tuesday 14th February 2006

“I am a buttercup golden and free standing in a field of flame… strange and hideous beasts wander through the fire and I want to be a rose” — Erin Millar, A Buttercup In A Field Of Flame

Identification With Buttercups

Today's quotation is taken from one of the many splendid poems on the Teen Angst website. This is a collection of magnificently intense verse “contributed by people eighteen and over who have overcome their angst and are able to laugh at their past (and the products of their angst)”. I chose Erin Millar's piece because I, too, have often identified myself with the buttercup. Here is an extract from an interview I gave some years ago:

Interviewer - So then, Frank, if you were a flower of the field, what flower of the field would you be?

Frank - I would be a buttercup.

Interviewer - Are you saying that you would like to poison cows, or at least cause cows indigestion or other mild gastric ailments?

Frank - Sometimes, yes, if the weight of the world hangs heavy on my shoulders and I lose all sense of moral purpose, that would be true, regrettably.

Interviewer - I commend you for the brutal honesty of your reply, Frank, but you do realise that I could turn you over to the police as a potential danger to cows?

Frank - Crikey! I hadn't thought of that!

Interviewer - Is there any particular type of buttercup you particularly identify with?

Frank - Yes, there is. I would be happiest, I think, as a celeryleaf buttercup, because it is also known as cursed crowfoot.

Interviewer - Well, that's all we have time for. Thanks, Frank. [Turns to camera] If there are any cows watching, don't have nightmares. Frank isn't really a buttercup, and he's not going to come and poison you.

Cursed Crowfoot

Left : cursed crowfoot. Right : cursed crow (feet visible at bottom of picture)

R Is for Rigor Mortis

The Immense Duckpond Pamphlet, episode eighteen. The serial began on 23 January

It will come as no surprise to reveal that the corpse bundled up in burlap in the pointless hut was that of Doctor Cack. He had not been seen for some days. It is worth noting that because of the presence of potatoes in and about his body, rigor mortis had been delayed. Doctor Cack's corpse was floppy and malleable, like a floppy and malleable thing, by dint of a variety of chemical compounds present within the experimental potatoes and their interaction both with the cadaver and with the stifling fug of the pointless hut. The names of the chemical compounds are so lengthy, and so hard to pronounce, that they shall not detain us here.

Specks in the Sky

A letter arrives from our Antipodean researcher Glyn Webster. Dear Uncle Dan, he writes, Recently my dreams have been full of boredom and drudgery. The work is hard, the company is dull and I'm thoroughly relieved to open my eyes in the morning. Sometimes I wake up to find myself hauling my body out of the bed the way a shipwrecked sailor might haul himself ashore. What is happening to me? Yours in all simplicity, Glyn.

Devoted Hooting Yard readers may remember Uncle Dan, who used to pen a column here entitled Ask Uncle Dan. He was always generous with his advice on matters such as leeks, vim, and an old bag full of crocuses, and you can revisit his wise words by checking under 'A' in the Unhelpful Index.

Alas, this doyen of agony uncles is no longer with us. I always wondered what had happened to him, and coincidentally, on the very day Mr Webster's letter arrived, the post person's sack also contained this missive:

“Dear Mr Key : You don't know me, and I prefer to remain anonymous. I can tell you that I have a waxed moustache, but I hope you will not take the same view as Robert Baden-Powell, who wrote ‘I was once accused of mistrusting men with waxed moustaches. Well, so, to a certain extent, I do. It often means vanity and sometimes drink.’*

“I am not vain. I drink only lukewarm tap water, dandelion and burdock, and occasionally Tizer. I try not to preen my moustache overmuch, but I confess that waxing it has always been a small pleasure of mine, and Lord knows I deserve a small measure of pleasure, as who does not?

“But to business! I am writing to you to pass on greetings from a fellow I met up in the hills last Thursday. Like me, he was unwilling to divulge his name, but he said that you would know who he was. He was dressed in billowing cloth which looked as if once it had been a parachute or part of a parachute, and his face had the pallor of bean curd. He too, sported a waxed moustache, but I did not smell drink on his breath, nor did he seem to be puffed up with vanity. It makes one wonder if Baden-Powell had any kind of grip on reality, quite frankly.

“Anyway, as I say, we were up in the hills, this fellow and I. He was standing upright on a boulder, peering intently at a speck in the sky in the far distance. ‘What do you see?’ I asked, when I was close enough for him to hear me above the wild and wailing wind. For answer, he merely pointed, and I turned to look at the unmoving speck. Neither of us had binoculars, more's the pity.

“‘That speck,’ he said suddenly, in a voice which, curiously, reminded me of television presenter Dale Winton, ‘That speck is what I see. I have been watching it for three hours and it has not moved. It is a very mysterious speck.’

“I offered him a plum from my fruit-bag, but he refused it because, he said, it was bruised, and he would not eat bruised plums. Instead, he took a Surgeon's Biscuit from some pocket or pouch concealed within his billowing cloth, and began chewing on it. The wind was howling with even more violence now, and I bid the man come shelter with me in an ornithologist's lair I knew of not a hundred paces away. He jumped down from his perch on the boulder with surprising sprightliness, and then took me by the arm. It was an overfamiliar yet somehow reassuring gesture.

“And so we sat in the lair, me with my plums and he with his biscuits, and we waited for the wind in the hills to die down. To pass the time, we played a game of Tea Strainers, improvising with broken twigs.

“When we parted, an hour or so later, he returned to his boulder and pointed out that the unmoving speck was still there. I looked, but now I could not see it. I preened my moustache and said farewell, but not before promising to write to you. Yours faithfully, Mister X”

There is no doubt in my mind that the man my anonymous correspondent met in the hills was Uncle Dan. He was always seeing still specks in the sky that were invisible to everyone else, and was forever lamenting that, in all his years as an agony uncle, no one wrote to him reporting a similar experience. I once asked him how he would reply, if someone did, and he muttered something in his Dale Winton voice about paralysed chaffinches caught and cushioned in air pockets.

As for Glyn Webster's heartfelt plea, I have placed it in a cardboard box along with many other unanswered letters to Uncle Dan. One day he may return to us, in his billowing cloth, with his waxed moustache and his pallor of bean curd, and his mighty, towering wisdom.

*NOTE : Thanks to Michael Bywater, who quotes this in his splendid (and highly recommended) Lost Worlds : What Have We Lost & Where Did It Go?

Monday 13th February 2006

“An Estonian friend who came here as a displaced person in the 1940s told me that she did not know what kind of country she had arrived in as she landed in Hull, which means ‘mad’ in Estonian, with the head of state being the king, Estonian for ‘shoe’. Not only Brits find other people's languages funny.” — J Terry Palmer, Letter to the Guardian, today

Breakfast of Hideousness!

Almost exactly two years ago, on 13 March 2004 to be precise, our quote of the day was by William Hope Hodgson, from From The Tideless Sea. To jog your memories, he wrote “I am writing this in the saloon of the sailing ship, Homebird, and writing with but little hope of human eye ever seeing that which I write; for we are in the heart of the dread Sargasso Sea - the Tideless Sea of the North Atlantic. From the stump of our mizzen mast, one may see, spread out to the far horizon, an interminable waste of weed - a treacherous, silent vastitude of slime and hideousness!”

When I chose the quotation I was unfamiliar with the work of Hodgson, a state of affairs which continued, shamefully, until just a few days ago. I am indebted to Tim Gadd for drawing my attention to this superb writer and encouraging me to immerse myself in the slimy, weed-choked pages of his books.

William Hope Hodgson (1877-1918) was an author, photographer, sailor, and body-builder, who wrote four novels before concentrating on short fiction. He was killed in the First World War. H. P. Lovecraft was an admirer, praising his “serious treatment of unreality,” and the critic Sam Gafford notes “his apparently inexplicable choice of writing styles” in an essay entitled Writing Backwards.

Reading his first published novel, The Boats Of The ‘Glen Carrig’, I was struck by something else ‘apparently inexplicable’. The story purports to be “an account of [the boats'] Adventures in the Strange places of the Earth, after the foundering of the good ship ‘Glen Carrig’ through striking upon a hidden rock in the unknown seas to the Southward, As told by John Winterstraw, Gent., to his son James Winterstraw, in the year 1757, and by him committed very properly and legibly to manuscript”, so what we get is a thrilling yarn wherein the narrator recounts coming ashore in the Land of Lonesomeness (we found it to be of an abominable flatness, desolate beyond all that I could have imagined… in the end, we found… a slimy-banked creek… the banks being composed of a vile mud) before heading off to an island on a weed-choked sea where the bulk of the tale takes place. As in From The Tideless Sea, the setting is thus an interminable waste of weed - a treacherous, silent vastitude of slime and hideousness!

Lurking in the weeds are various disgusting creatures which our heroes fight off and outwit, in between doing various boat repairs. But is there any other writer who would take pains to mention every single occasion his characters break off for a meal? Until the end, where several weeks' action is summarised, the narrative takes us day by day, and Hodgson regularly reassures us that the castaways are getting proper meals.

I did some basic word-count analysis on the novel, and Hodgson's focus of attention became clear. It is indeed a weed-choked book - weed, and enticing variants such as the weed-continent, appear 223 times (in a 60,000-word text). Considering that our narrator and his curiously anonymous pals spend much time in terror of the various disgusting creatures I mentioned, it is no surprise to find hideous, monsters, and tentacles accounting for a total of 51 words. Yet breakfast, dinner, and food win the day with 53. And as it seems de rigeur to have a puff after every meal, smoke is mentioned 15 times.

I have just begun reading Hodgson's second novel, The House On The Borderland, and sure enough, by page three, “Tonnison had got the stove lit now and was busy cutting slices of bacon into the frying pan”.

I hope an enterprising publisher reissues Hodgson's works, if one has not already done so, but I would dearly like to see The William Hope Hodgson Recipe Book, a boon for any picnic-person in a silent vastitude of slime and hideousness!

Q Is for Quintain

Being today's episode in the alphabetical serial story they're calling The Immense Duckpond Pamphlet

Ruhugu's tank rumbled to a halt outside the Leaking Building. He clambered to the ground, the burnt quintain steady in his grasp. He no longer cared that Jubble had almost destroyed it on one of his bonfires. Ruhugu had managed to rescue it in the nick of time, singeing his elegantly-manicured hands as he did so. He knew that he would need the quintain again, otherwise he would have nothing to tilt at on the day of the tourney. So now he seldom let it out of his sight, taking it with him even on his regular tank manoeuvres.

Of course, Ruhugu had reported Jubble's pyromaniacal tendencies to Doctor Cack, but his mentor had been preoccupied. So often in recent weeks Doctor Cack seemed a world away. Ruhugu thought it best to leave him be, as the Doctor moped and frowned, his brow furrowed, a potato in each hand, a potato in each of his innumerable pockets, a potato balanced precariously atop his hat, even a small potato lodged in his mouth. Like the Wild Boy of Aveyron, he would utter shrill cries if his potatoes were taken away from him*.

*NOTE : This last sentence is entirely factual.

Saturday 11th February 2006

“Among the earliest natural marvels that modernity inherited from the Middle Ages were embalmed crocodiles, brought to a wide-eyed Europe as part of the Crusaders' loot and promptly ‘baptized’ as miracles by the Church in an attempt to diffuse the growing popularity of bizarre phenomena. Torn away from their original context and endowed with a symbolism that rendered them a product of divine intervention, the crocodiles were tied with chains and hung from church ceilings… where they acted both as signs of the mysteries of divine power and as guardians that could thwart all other evils.” — Celeste Olalquiaga, The Artificial Kingdom : A Treasury Of The Kitsch Experience, With Remarkable Objects Of Art And Nature, Extraordinary Events, Eccentric Biography And Original Theory, Plus Many Wonderful Illustrations Selected By The Author

Bonkers Alibis

If you are suspected of having committed a crime, and are placed under arrest by law enforcement officers, never provide an alibi which is bonkers. This advice holds true whether you are innocent or guilty, or even in that grey area between the two, like a Kafka character.

Let us assume, for the purposes of our argument, that you were indeed the shady, limping figure eye-witnesses recalled seeing emerging from the pastry shop clutching a handful of banknotes fresh from the opened till over which is now slumped the grievously but not fatally wounded pastry shop proprietor. The pastry shop is a couple of miles north of Bodger's Spinney, in that little arcade known as the One-Time Haunt Of Flappers. You motored away in the sidecar of your accomplice's getaway motorbike, and just twenty minutes later you were sat in the snug of the Cow & Pins squandering your dishonestly-obtained banknotes on bottled stout.

When the police come to arrest you, whether it be that very day or weeks, months, or years hence, do not say: “At the time of the pastry shop robbery I was clambering up a mountainside in the Himalayas carrying a crate of exotic perfumes in preparation for a long-overdue performance of Scriabin's unfinished Mysterium*, officer”. This is what we call a bonkers alibi, in that it is needlessly embroidered, easily disproved, and demonstrably untrue. Also many tavern-goers will have seen you swilling stout in the Cow & Pins within half an hour of the pastry shop robbery, and you could not have been in the Himalayan mountain range at that time unless you had access to an exciting space-age mode of transport which does not yet exist. I know that we were all promised our own personal booster-jet backpacks by about 1967, but it didn't happen.

Equally, you should beware of using a bonkers alibi if you are accused of a crime of which you are wholly innocent. In these cases, telling the truth is by far the best option. Imagine you are sitting at home one day, feet up, reading Celebrity Pap! to find out the latest doings of Stig and Fulgencio and Agamemnon and Nobo, or perhaps other, lesser-known celebrities, ones with besmirched careers or no careers at all. Suddenly, smashing their way through your window comes a heavily-armed SWAT team descending on rope ladders from a sinister black helicopter. A hood is pulled over your head, and by the time it is removed you are sitting on a chair in a basement you know not where, being interrogated about your participation in the slaying of President John F Kennedy in Dallas on 22 November 1963. Now remember, you were not there. At the time of the shooting, forty-three years ago, you were paddling in the brackish water of Fiendish Inky-Black Pond with other tots from the orphanage. So it would be completely bonkers for your alibi to be: “I was standing in Dealey Plaza next to Umbrella Man, or perhaps Marymoon Man, and then I strolled over to the white picket fence where I shook the gunpowder-stained hand of Badge Man, and then I walked off towards the triple underpass and Stemmons Freeway, officer.” Quick as a flash, your interrogators will arrange for a screening of the Zapruder footage, find out that you have been lying through your teeth, and charge you with being part of a huge conspiracy and cover-up. And all this because you gave a bonkers alibi.

Next week : Madcap Eleventh-Hour Plea Bargains

* NOTE : See Tiny Little Hands, Decisive Mustachios, 29 January 2006

Saints and Flatworms

Above are Saint Cyril and his brother Saint Methodius, in an image taken from the splendid Orthodox Bulgarian Icons website, while below is the nasty killer flatworm known as planaria. Both pictures serve as illustrative accompaniment to episode sixteen of The Immense Duckpond Pamphlet, which follows.

P Is for Planaria

The fact-packed sixteenth episode of The Immense Duckpond Pamphlet

Glagolitic script was invented in the latter half of the ninth century by the monk Cyril, who is better known for having devised the alphabet which bears his name, Cyrillic. Glagolitic was designed to provide a written rendering of Old Slavonic, the language spoken by the Moravians among whom Cyril and his brother Methodius were carrying out their holy work. The word glagol, or hlahol, cannot easily be translated into English. Its meaning involves the sound of bells and the call to the glory of God in worship.

Moop seems not to have considered such associations when one considers the subject-matter of her secretive Glagolitic scribblings. She was embroiled in the study of a fiendish species of flatworms known as planaria, which kill and feed on earthworms. The vile flatworms excrete an enzyme like a narcotic drug that paralyses an earthworm completely. Then they excrete another that dissolves the worm into a sort of soup. Then they suck it up. In the space of half an hour, all that remains is a trace of soil from the earthworm's stomach.

Planaria are successful because they have no known predators. Having no muscles, these hideous flatworms simply fall apart if any attempt is made to eat them. Like a vagabond horde, planaria are highly mobile, wiping out all the earthworms in one area before moving on relentlessly to another. It is not difficult to imagine what havoc Moop could wreak in Doctor Cack's potato-patches by introducing a gang of killer flatworms. Let us remember that the good Doctor had entitled a special issue of his Bulletin Let Us Now Sing The Praises Of The Humble Earthworm, so essential was its contribution to potato cultivation.

Friday 10th February 2006

“Having first tested the air and proved it good by dropping in blazing excelsior saturated with turpentine, a stout oak stick was attached to the end of the rope… The sensation was strange and exhilarating. Looking up I could only see the small opening I came through, and a straggling stream of light poured down that, but on all sides profound darkness reigned supreme.” — Luella Agnes Owen, Cave Regions Of the Ozarks And Black Hills

O Is for Ogre

The fifteenth, and particularly exciting, episode of our serial The Immense Duckpond Pamphlet

The next day all hell broke loose. Early in the morning, as Blodgett polished the outside spigots, an ogre or wild man hove into view atop the southern hills. Its progress towards the House was implacable. It stamped through the bracken, vaulted the ha-ha with a single bound, negotiated the massive basalt wall with surprising elegance, and sprang towards the terrified Blodgett, whirling its hirsute arms alarmingly and making disgusting guttural noises. It was matted with filth. Flies, gnats, and tiny things emitting poisonous goo crawled all over its flesh. It seemed to be decomposing. It drooled. It picked up Blodgett, sank its fangs into his skull, and hurled him aside.

Pausing momentarily to spit out particles of Blodgett's head, it smashed its way through the wall of the House, oblivious to the fact that there was an ajar door three feet to its right. Once inside the House, its rage seemed to increase. It rushed wildly from room to room, obliterating the furniture, tearing up floorboards, destroying chandeliers, bashing holes into walls and ceilings, sucking the wallpaper off the walls. It chewed up banister rails and regurgitated them, disgorging them with such force that each rail acted as a lethal projectile. At least one urchin was impaled as a result.Five minutes after the ogre's arrival much of the lower part of the House lay in ruins. Small fires were starting, but they were doused by water spurting from uprooted taps.

Euwige and Jubble were still sprawled in the Room of Distressed Wooden Bitterns when the ogre eventually came upon them. It let out an inhuman cry. It picked at its sores. It became becalmed. Fixing it with a bemused stare, Jubble rose to his feet.

“You know, there might still be some dandelion and burdock left,” he said, “Would you care for a drop?”

The ogre pounded its fists against its own head. Then it blinked, shuddered, twitched. Jubble pushed a tin mug into its paw. It gulped the sweet muck down greedily, then threw the mug back at Jubble, missing his ear by a whisker, as they say. Something in its manner seemed to change. By now, blind Euwige too was on her feet. She sniffed at the violent pongs emanating from the ogre, then stepped towards it.

“Thank heaven! You have come!” she said, “Jubble, meet my dear friend Detective Captain Unstrebnodtalb! He comes from a far country, and his brain is hot.”

Unidentified Insect on Postage Stamp

Blazing Excelsior Saturated With Turpentine

The best way to illuminate the pitch black Pit of Doom is to toss into it some blazing excelsior saturated with turpentine. But that is not as easy as it sounds, mark my words.

I have long argued that the Pit of Doom becomes less doom-laden when illumined, despite the craven voices of my opponents, and they are many. They have used the correspondence columns of many distinguished journals to attack my views, and I have until now refrained from answering their charges. They are a hectic bunch of cowards, ignoramuses, and pond-life, and I have had better things to do with my time. Why then, you might ask, do I now deign to respond to them? I have no intention of answering that question, but perhaps all will become clear to you as you read on. Or not.

What I would like to do is to demonstrate how you can illumine the Pit of Doom yourself, using blazing excelsior saturated with turpentine. By following my instructions carefully, you will be able to reach your own decision regarding the doominess of the Pit once it is illumined. My hope is that you will agree with me that it is stripped of much, if not all, of its Doom once lit.

First of all, of course, you need to locate the Pit of Doom. There are many pits which seemingly fit the bill, and many of them are shrouded in doominess, being bleak, unforgiving, dank, dark and hideous to behold. One of Dobson's out of print pamphlets attempted to catalogue the pits in a huge geographical area which might qualify as doom-laden, and it was an impressive piece of work, but the pamphleteer overlooked the fact that when one stands on the brink of the Pit of Doom itself, all doubts vanish. There is a curdling of the guts that tells you exactly where you are. No other pit comes close. This, you say to yourself, peering into the pitch black maw of the Pit of Doom, this indeed is the Pit of Doom. You teeter on the edge, terrified of losing your balance, every nerve in your body ready to snap. But you step back, if you are me, anyway, and resolve to banish doom by the simple agency of blazing excelsior saturated with turpentine.

And that is your next challenge. Having located the Pit of Doom, you must now get your hands on excelsior, turpentine, and a box of matches, or some equivalent means of ignition. And so you turn your back on the Pit of Doom, almost insolently, and you stride across the moors to the little hovel you noted earlier, and you rap your knuckles on the door.

You are expecting a snag-toothed peasant person to answer your rapping, and so you are momentarily disconcerted when the hovel-door creaks open and you are confronted by a winsome young woman who bears a striking resemblance to Tuesday Weld.

“Greetings,” you manage to say, “I come in search of excelsior, turpentine, and a means of ignition.”

“Then you have come to the right place,” says the Tuesday Weld-like woman, “For here in my hovel I have all those things.”

She ushers you inside, and you are stunned by the interior, which is done out with much velvet and satin and silk, with vases of cut flowers, with space-age plastic furniture in a dazzle of colours, all bathed in an unearthly shimmering light. You are mesmerised by this light. Entire days pass by, of which you are unconscious, for you have been captivated by a woohoo woman who is rearranging your brain cells one by one, for purposes either malignant or beneficial, depending on what kind of woohoo woman she is. When you wake from your entrancement, you find that she has placed in your hands a bag of excelsior, a bottle of turpentine, and a box of lucifers. You have been fortunate. She is a woohoo woman devoted to good.

“Go now,” she says, “And do what you must do.”

You are not aware that your brain has been tampered with, nor indeed that you have been entranced. You step out of the light, out of the hovel, and make your way across the moors to the Pit of Doom.

Crouching near its edge, you open the bag of excelsior. It is imperative that you check that it is uninhabited, for hamsters sleep all curled and comfortable in excelsior, as do hibernating tortoises, and other creatures, excepting those whose domain is the sea. You rummage through the excelsior until you are completely satisfied that it is innocent of life, hamster or otherwise. Then you open the bottle of turpentine and pour in such an amount that the excelsior is saturated. Then you seal the bag to ensure that the turpentine does not evaporate. Then you set fire to it with one of the lucifers, and then you toss it into the Pit of Doom.

Now you step even closer to the edge, and you peer down into what was until a moment ago an evil, pitch black vent into the underworld, but now is lit. What do you see?

I could tell you what I saw, on the day last September that I illumined the Pit of Doom with blazing excelsior saturated with turpentine. I could speak of the unimaginable horrors I saw, writhing in terror of the light, of the howling that beset my ears. I could, had I too not had my brain jimmied by the very same Tuesday Weldish woohoo woman, whose mercy means that everything I saw or heard in the Pit of Doom, lit by blazing excelsior, is forgotten, forevermore, for now I bask in that shimmering light, dressed in my peasant's smock, chewing on a piece of straw, at long last the idiot I always hankered to be.

Wednesday 8th February 2006

“When did Hats come into general use? The first mention made of hats is about the time of the Saxons, but they were not worn except by the rich. Hats for men were invented at Paris, by a Swiss, in 1404. About the year 1510, they were first manufactured in London, by Spaniards. Before that time both men and women in England commonly wore close, knitted, woollen caps. It is related, that when Charles the Second made his public entry into Rouen, in 1449, he wore a hat lined with red velvet, surmounted with a plume or tuft of feathers; from which entry, or at least during his reign, the use of hats and caps is to be dated. Where is Rouen? In the province of Lower Seine, in France.” — Benziger Brothers, A Catechism Of Familiar Things, Their History, And The Events Which Led To Their Discovery

The Hat of Hudibras

Thanks to the catechists, you now have a glimmer of insight into the history of hats. At least you have if you have bothered to read the quote of the day above. I can therefore draw your attention to a particular hat, confident that you will be better placed to appreciate it than you were when you woke up this morning, unless of course you are a hatter or hat historian or are otherwise hat-learnéd, in which case I ask that you forgive my presumption, and bear in mind that not all Hooting Yard readers are armed with the same level of hat-learning as you.

The hat to which I refer you is the hat of Hudibras, as depicted in one of William Hogarth's illustrations to Hudibras, written by Samuel Butler and published in three volumes between 1663 and 1678. Here is the hat

and here is the complete illustration, which repays close study.

Hudibras is a satire on the Puritans, written in mock-heroic tetrameter couplets (which became known as hudibrasticks). The title character and his squire Ralpho are the closest equivalents in English to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. You may wish to hurl your copy of Celebrity Pap! on to flaming coals and read Hudibras instead, by going to the admirably straightforward Ex-Classics website.

Samuel Butler (1612-1680) is described on his tombstone as “a needy wretch”. (That will suit me splendidly when the dread day comes - undertakers please note.) The Hudibras by Ned Ward mentioned on Monday (see Custard, below) refers to his Hudibras Redivivus, of which he wrote “Tho' I have made bold to borrow a Title from one of the best poems that ever was published in the English Tongue - yet I would not have the world expect me such a wizard as to conjure up the spirit of the inimitable Butler.” Poor Ned, the world did not.

Hudibrasticks is (are?) long overdue for a revival. It seems appropriate to give you a brief quotation so that you can devise your own hudibrastick verse, and happily Butler writes of the yellow goo we were concerned with earlier in the week:

Rather than fail, they will defy / That which they love most tenderly; / Quarrel with minc'd-pies, and disparage / Their best and dearest friend, plum-porridge; / Fat pig and goose itself oppose, / And blaspheme custard through the nose.

Being of a puritanical bent, I am now going to go and blaspheme custard. You can take a closer look at the hat.

N Is for Night

Yea, verily I say unto you, this is episode fourteen of The Immense Duckpond Pamphlet

High above the House, fat stars sparkled in the firmament. Unimaginable life-forms howled and howled in the darkness. Colonies of nocturnal insects hovered in the air at human-head height, buzzing and twanging. Blodgett patrolled the ground floor, rattling a monstrous collection of keys, slamming doors shut, sounding the tocsins, testing the shutters, checking his fly-traps.

As he passed the Room of Distressed Wooden Bitterns, he heard the unmistakeable sound of Euwige and Jubble, slurping and belching. They had locked themselves in, of course, and barred the door with one of the dandelion and burdock barrels, from which they would drink until they were as gassy as gassy could be. Blodgett loathed them.

On the floor above, in one of the larders, Aminadab was embroiled in a fervent debate with Trellis, who had come upon him quite by accident. After some initial hesitation, they had discovered a mutual interest in - oh, something or other. Beetles, poisonous golden toads, David Blunkett, the darning of frayed flags, it could have been anything, it hardly matters, it's all so tiresome. You may as well be reading a penitential tract by a, by a horse for all the good it will do you. Night has fallen about the House under the twinkling stars. That will do.

Pansy's Picture Library

Pansy Cradledew has been spending her time profitably, as ever, and sends in this latest addition to her picture library. Experts say she has now amassed over eight million items, hence yet another delay in the issue of her catalogue.

Tuesday 7th February 2006

“About an hour before the ship was to leave her moorings, I went on board and made my way at once to the stateroom which I was to share with a fellow passenger, whose acquaintance I then made for the first time. He was a tall cadaverous young man of about my own age, and my first view of him was not encouraging, for when I came in, I found him rolling restlessly on the cabin floor, and uttering hollow groans. ‘This will never do,’ I said… He explained, somewhat brusquely, that he was suffering from mental agony, not seasickness.” — F Anstey, The Curse Of The Catafalques

A Message to Readers From Fatima Gilliblat

Hello! I want to encourage readers to wallow in the warm bath of asses' milk that is the new Hooting Yard Annexe. So while I was eating cake this morning, I had a bright idea. I wish to illustrate my bright idea with a picture of a lightbulb, but before I do that, I had better tell you what the bright idea is. Then I can eat some more cake. Actually, I've changed my mind. If you want to find out what my bright idea was, you will have to visit the Annexe entry for today's date. Here is the lightbulb:

Yours in Christ, Fatima Gilliblat

Elegant Smudges

It was, he thought, a very elegant smudge, as smudges go.

“Look at this smudge,” he said to his companion, pointing at the smudge with his forefinger, “Do you not think it elegant?”

His companion looked at the smudge, tossed her head, and then fixed him with an inscrutable gaze.

“You do not think it elegant?” he said, as a beetle crawled out of his tousled hair and launched itself into the shimmering air. It was a flying beetle.

So begins one of Dobson's few attempts at writing fiction. And so, too, does it end, for he never wrote another word of what, only that morning, he had confided to his diary was to be “a brilliant money-spinning scheme… I will write a potboiler, a guaranteed bestseller, a novel of triumph over adversity, with a dashing hero and a sultry heroine, a helter skelter adventure of international intrigue, high finance, technological wizardry and scrupulously-researched background detail. It cannot fail!”

He scribbled those last three words with such vim that he rent the paper in his journal, and it was thick, creamy paper to boot, not easily rent. Forensic Dobsonist Jim Pond sees the rending as evidence of just how excited the out-of-print pamphleteer was on that March morning of glistening torrential showers and fractious gales.

“Dobson often lost all sense of reason when hatching a new scheme,” writes Mr Pond in a new article*, “but seldom can he have been so deluded as this. For at least four hours on that rain-mad March morning he seems to have been utterly convinced that the novel he called Elegant Smudges would not only be bought in the millions by an adoring public, but that he would actually write the damned thing in the first place.”

As is evident from the opening - and only - lines Dobson managed to jot down, the brilliant pamphleteer was a hopeless fictioneer. Mr Pond has unearthed a few working notes that Dobson made in the hours between his paper-rending journal entry and the abandoned beginning of the novel. “I think we are lucky,” he writes, “that Dobson stopped when he did, flung his pencil across the room, and strode out of the house in his big Canadian Forestry Service boots to enjoy the downpour.”

According to Mr Pond, Dobson was under the impression that a series of fifty-nine chapters, in each of which two unnamed protagonists examine a smudge, and disagree as to whether or not the smudge is elegant, constituted the makings of an unputdownable novel. Granted, each chapter was to be set in a different milieu, the smudges, elegant or otherwise, to be found in a bewildering variety of locations, but as Mr Pond points out, Dobson's notes list only “international airport” and “municipal bus depot”. Where the other fifty-seven smudges were to be is, as Alexander Scriabin might have put it, a Mysterium**. And did Dobson really think that readers would be turning the pages, breathless with excitement, awaiting the appearance in each chapter of a flying beetle?

Meteorological records for that day in March indicate that the teeming rainfall lasted until well into the afternoon. Having cast aside his pencil, and his aborted novel, Dobson, as we have seen, headed out into the soaking wet world. He returned, drenched of course, some hours later, having somehow managed to obtain certain obscure pastries from an unknown pie shop. These diverted his attention for the rest of the day, and by the time he collapsed in an exhausted heap onto his mattress of straw, the elegant smudges were forgotten.

In an infuriating addendum to his article, Mr Pond notes that the word smudge only occurs once more in the corpus of the pamphleteer's work, but he does not tell us where. This sort of thing makes my blood boil, so I am going to go out and throw things at squirrels until I have calmed down.

* NOTE : “Dobson And His Fleeting Fads” in The Bulletin Of Dobson's Fleeting Fads Studies, Vol IX, No 7, Tantarabim University Gymnasium Press.

** NOTE : See Tiny Little Hands, Decisive Mustachios, 29 January 2006

M Is for Moop

And so we reach the half-way mark in our serial story, The Immense Duckpond Pamphlet, which began with A Is For Aminadab on 23 January

Moop's shoes had been shoved into a red plastic basin on the floor underneath her sink. Each tuberologist had their own sink. Doctor Cack had insisted upon it.

Moop did not use her sink very often. She was more of a field worker, scurrying about the grounds armed with a plethora of ludicrous scientific equipment, trailing wires and mulverts behind her as she darted from potato patch to potato patch, scribbling drivel into her notebook with an exciting new propelling pencil.

She was a sly one, was Moop. She wrote in Glagolitic script to safeguard her memoranda from prying eyes. Several of her projects had only a tangential relationship to Doctor Cack's researches. Had he but known!

Monday 6th February 2006

“Rome! the fortieth day of rain, and damp, and abominable reeking odours, such as blessed cities swept by the sea-breeze - bitter sometimes, yet indeed a friend - never know. It has been dark all day, though the lamp has only been lit half an hour. The music of the day has been, first the atrocious arias, which last in the Corso till near noon, though certainly less in virulence on rainy days. Then came the wicked organ-grinder, who, apart from the horror of the noise, grinds exactly the same obsolete abominations as at home or in England.” — Margaret Fuller Ossoli, At Home And Abroad, Or, Things And Thoughts In America and Europe


Today, my thoughts turn to custard. I do not mean by this that my brain is curdling into mush, though that may well happen as the day goes on. This is, after all, early 21st century Britain, and I am assailed by twaddle and pap wherever I look. It would not be surprising if I succumbed to it and began to gibber and drool.

That is why I have concentrated my mind on custard. Let us recall the words of Ned Ward (1667-1731), who wrote “Custard, that noble cooling Food, / So toothsome, wholesome and so good, / That Dainty so approv'd of old, / Whose yellow surface shines like Gold”. Ward was a poet and a publican, described as follows in Volume IX of the first edition of The Cambridge History of English and American Literature: “He was no wizard, but a pedestrian jogtrot writer of doggerel, whom criticism could not affright nor opposition baulk. Yet his Hudibras is a wonderful achievement. Its facile fluent ease marks the versifier who could write two hundred lines standing on one foot. His language is common enough. Neither Brown nor Motteux surpasses him in knowledge of the slang which was heard in the tavern or at the street corner. Had he lived today, he might have been an ornament of the sporting press. Living when he did, he supported the cause of church and state in such couplets as jingled in the brain, and tripped readily to the tongue.”

Ned Ward

The custard-soaked quotation is from Ward's British Wonders : Or, A Poetical Description of the Several Prodigies and Most Remarkable Accidents That have happen'd in Britain since the Death of Queen Anne (1717). (Incidentally, do you lament, as I do, the passing of long, even unwieldy book-titles? Nowadays everything has to be snappy and memorable, presumably so it can be marketed by zonk-eyed bean-counters. If someone published a history of ink today, it would no doubt be called Ink!, with the obligatory subtitle The Liquid That Changed The World. When David N Carvalho addressed the topic in 1904, his book had the majestic title Forty Centuries Of Ink, Or A Chronological Narrative Concerning Ink And Its Backgrounds, Introducing Incidental Observations And Deductions, Parallels Of Time And Colour Phenomena, Bibliography, Chemistry, Poetical Effusions, Citations, Anecdotes And Curiosa Together With Some Evidence Respecting The Evanescent Character Of Most Inks Of Today And An Epitome Of Chemico-Legal Ink. Ah, those were the days.)

Ink, custard. Could custard ever be called The Yellow Goo That Changed the World? Possibly not. It is difficult to think of any earth-shattering events in which custard has played a pivotal role, or indeed any role at all. I know that I could make some up, if I so desired, but I am not going to, not today anyway, for today it seems important to cleave to the truth.

What is custard, anyway? According to the wikipedia, it is a family of preparations based on milk and eggs, thickened with heat. Most commonly, it refers to a dessert or dessert sauce, but custard bases are also used for quiches and other savoury foods. Depending on how much egg or thickener is used, custard may vary in consistency from a thin pouring sauce to a thick blancmange. Most custard is cooked in a double boiler (bain-marie) or heated very gently on the stove in a saucepan, but custard can also be steamed or baked in the oven with or without a hot water bath. Instant and ready-made ‘custards’ are also marketed, though they are not true custards if they are not thickened with egg. I think we can agree that only true custard is worthy of our attention, particularly on this day devoted to truth.

Readers may wonder why, today of all days, I am so insistent on truth-telling. My reasons, I should say, are entirely non-custard-related. Exactly forty eight years ago, on the sixth of February 1958, the Busby Babes - the flower of post-war British football - were wiped out in the Munich Air Disaster. Hang your head in their memory for a moment before continuing to read.

The Busby Babes boarding the fatal aeroplane

Oh, come on, hang your head a bit longer than that!

I have never cared a jot about football myself, but my Uncle Ned was a fierce adherent of the sport. (Ned was not named after Ned Ward, by the way, in case you were wondering.) Deeply affected by the tragedy that unfolded at that blizzard-wracked German airfield, Ned cajoled our whole extended family into joining him in his annual remembrance of the crash. Throughout my childhood - throughout my life - the sixth of February has been the most significant day of the year. It means more to me than Christmas, or Easter, or even my birthday. I can blithely let feast days and holy days pass unremarked. You will find me unmoved on National Potato Day (29th January), Penguin Awareness Day (20th January) and National Punctuation Day (24th September). Yet the shade of dead Uncle Ned hovers over me on this day, and perhaps it is in homage to him, rather than to those lost young footballers, that I promise to speak only the truth, from midnight to midnight.

Thomas More

And that is why I write only of true custard, not of the wretched synthetic slop that seeks to deceive the custard-innocent palate. We would do well to remember here that Thomas More's wife (or was it his daughter?) took custards to him when he was imprisoned by King Henry VIII. Those would have been true custards, without a doubt. Admittedly, my source is semi-fictional, being an ill-remembered reading of Robert Bolt's play A Man For All Seasons. What is clear in my memory is that this was my first encounter with the construction “a custard”, as opposed to “some custard” or “a bowl of custard” or, of course, simply “custard”. I was about fourteen years old at the time, given the play to read as part of my schoolwork, and all I recall of it is the curious fascination I felt for that indefinite article. “A custard”! It was so unexpected, it made me think of custard in a new way. I tried to visualise what this centuries-old custard would have looked like. If it was not in a bowl or a dish, it must have some solid form. Was it wrapped up in a bag, a bag of wool or burlap? Years passed before I learned that the very word “custard” is derived from “crustade” which is a tart with a crust. So doomed Thomas More's custards would have been encased in pastry, I surmise.

Pierre Bonnard

One final note, not exactly about custard, but about yellow, the colour of custard. However pale it may be, true custard has at least a yellow tinge. The French painter Pierre Bonnard once remarked “Ah, yellow! I can't get enough of it!” Readers, can you say the same for custard?

L Is for Larders

Pamphlet, Duckpond The Immense, Serialisation of, Episode twelve of twenty-six

The tins of soup were stored in a plethora of larders dotted throughout the House. Although the location of each larder seemed random - two adjacent here, another just down the corridor and around the corner, one tiny, solitary larder in the west wing - in fact they were distributed according to a system so stupendous and abstruse that only Mrs Purgative understood it. Blodgett claimed to, and no one was confident enough of their own knowledge to challenge him.

Aminadab, having arrived at the House only hours before, was unaware that there was even a system in the first place. All he knew for certain was that he was slumped, queasy with exhaustion, on the floor of a larder stacked floor to ceiling with soup tins marked “Number Three”. He had given up the quest for Euwige. Half his luggage had been abandoned somewhere back in an ill-lit corridor which stank of porridge, though there was no porridge to be found in it. He still had the other half of his belongings with him, and was rummaging frantically in one of his satchels for the bag of gob-stoppers he had packed at the start of his journey, three weeks ago.

As his trembling fingers lit at last upon the crumpled bag, he heard footsteps approaching. Lurching to his feet, he threw open the door of the larder in desperation. Had Euwige come to rescue him?

Sunday 5th February 2006

“We have all of us different Souls, and our Souls have Affections as different from one another, as our outward Faces are in their Lineaments. Each Man contains a little World within himself… By the help of this Knowledge an intelligent Writer can form to his Reader the most agreeable, most instructive Entertainment that can possibly be desir'd; transport him, with the greatest Ease imaginable, from the Solitude of his Chamber to Places of the greatest Concourse; there to see and learn the Virtues of Men; there to see and shun their Vices, without any danger of being corrupted by the Contagion of a real Commerce.” — Henry Gally, A Critical Essay On Characteristic-Writings

Win With Dick

For many, many years I have been puzzled by the item shown in this photograph. As you can see, it's a box of cigars made out of bubblegum. Here is a list - by no means exhaustive - of some of the questions I have asked myself.

What do you win? If you are winning “with Dick”, has Dick already won? And if he has won, what did he win? Or do both of you have to win at the same time? Do you win a cigar made out of bubblegum, or the whole box? If that's what you win, why do you have to pay five cents? Does your five cents payment entitle you to some sort of raffle ticket, or to entry in a tombola, for example? Has Dick already got a raffle ticket, or do you have to pay for his ticket in addition to yours, assuming that you get a ticket at all? Perhaps you have to pay five cents for Dick's ticket, and then wait to find out if he wins just a single cigar made out of bubblegum or the entire box. If he wins the box, is he duty bound to share his prize with you? What if Dick doesn't win? Have you just wasted your five cents on him, without the possibility of recompense?

That toothsome grin of Dick's - does he know something you don't? Has he got the raffle or tombola all sewn up in advance? Is it seemly for him to take five cents from your palsied little hand if he already knows he's going to get his hairy mitts on the whole box?

Are the cigars made out of bubblegum imbued with a flavour, and if so, what is it? Tangerine? Strawberry? If the cigars made out of bubblegum are cigar-flavoured, you are likely to be sick, in which case you can hardly be described as a winner. This hardens the suspicion that Dick has a crafty plan up his sleeve, for if you hand over your five cents and win a cigar-flavoured cigar made of bubblegum and chew it to the point where you start vomiting, you will have won nothing but misery and nausea, whereas Dick will have won your money and perhaps a sense of Schadenfreude. No wonder he has a toothsome grin.

Next week : Win With Spiro Agnew

K Is for Kleptomania

Look, stranger, at this : episode eleven of the thrilling serial story The Immense Duckpond Pamphlet

Morose and insignificant, dyspeptic and cruel, Blodgett was also a kleptomaniac. He would have stolen his own head, given the opportunity. Oh, the things the man brought back from his robberies! Pins, litmus paper, zinc, gorse, pie-crusts… not even Euwige knew where Blodgett stashed everything, or how he disposed of it all.

Euwige was relentless. She listened out for Blodgett, concealed behind parapets, shrubberies, false ceilings. She pried and spied without success. Then she questioned him directly. She tied him to a chair and shone a Toc H lamp into his eyes, puffing the smoke from her cheroot into his face. He coughed, but was otherwise uncommunicative. Later she tried wheedling and deedling, but that didn't work either. Blodgett remained wholly and uncannily silent.

And still he accumulated tuning forks, dishcloths, cortisone and ironmongery, tin baths, cupcake mixture, the heads of oxen, and whisks, and still these things vanished, somehow, as if they had never existed in the first place. Like Trellis.

Come Trudge With Me

In the words of Henry Gally in today's quotation, I take pains to provide Hooting Yard readers with “the most agreeable, most instructive Entertainment that can possibly be desir'd”. One way of doing this is to urge all of you to make yourselves a nice, piping hot cup of tea before sitting down to read the latest bulletins from Haemoglobin Towers. We know that “a nice cup of tea” is the perfect accompaniment to all human (and inhuman) activity, from perusing your favourite website, tracking down that out-of-print Dobson pamphlet, attending the Picnic For Detectives, observing pigs in a sty, or winning with Dick, to encountering Death on his pale horse, alongside War, Famine and Pestilence. Suggesting that you make your nice cup of tea piping hot is just a little touch I tend to add, to make things even more agreeable.

But readers need more than tea to make the Hooting Yard experience truly gorgeous, as I learned the other day. I went out for a walk in the cow-riddled fields near the Blister Lane Bypass. There was a crowd of people massed by a churn. The sun was black, the moon was red, the stars were falling, the earth was trembling. And then the crowd, impossible to number, carrying flowers, shouted amid the hotless sun, the lightless moon, the windless earth, the colourless sky: “Frank, Frank, what we need is some sort of website, a blog even, that would act as a companion to Hooting Yard. It could be used for notes and queries, references, additional material, all sorts of excitements. If we had a resource like that, we would be better placed to devote our lives to the study of your work, instead of being distracted by fripperies!”

I listened carefully, at least until that last bit, at which point I thought they were shouting about a bespectacled plectrum botherer, and I fled. The nearest place to hide from the roaring throng was a byre. I slumped on straw and gulped piping hot tea from my thermos flask. Overhead, the sky was suddenly filled with thousands upon thousands of migratory ducks. I do not know where they were migrating to, or from. They made such a din that I put blobs of putty in my ears. When I peered out from my shelter, I saw that the crowd had dispersed. I thought briefly about wheat. And then I trudged home, and scribbled down some ideas for the Hooting Yard Annexe. Come trudge with me now, and we shall pay a visit…

Friday 3rd February 2006

“Doctor Diabolus grinned wickedly as he mentally pictured the terror that now was stalking the countryside. Every farmer within hearing of that siren knew its import, realized that a dangerous inmate had escaped from the institution for the criminal insane. Men were abandoning plows in the fields, hurrying to their homes to get their rifles and shotguns. Children were fleeing to their mothers, to hide in attics. Doors were being barricaded and savage hounds unleashed to stand guard. There would be little sleeping in the country this coming night. Not with the notoriously horrible Doctor Diabolus at large!” — A E Apple, The Crime Devil

J Is for Jubble

Hey hey we're some monkeys, and we're going to monkey around, but before we do, here is episode ten in our not-quite-daily serialisation of The Immense Duckpond Pamphlet

You are already aware that Jubble was unhinged. This had come to light very early in his days at the House, so long ago that no one - not even Blodgett - could recall precisely what had happened. There were occasional mutterings about a cravat and a thunderstorm, but nothing of substance.

When Doctor Cack had arrived with his hideously food-splattered entourage, Jubble had ingratiated himself immediately. He helped the tuberologists to move into the Leaking Building, tirelessly destroying with his bazooka the piles of accumulated waste materials that had been stored there. He hung their hats up to dry after rainfall. He sharpened their pencils. There were other kindnesses.

Within weeks, Doctor Cack had formally pronounced him as a bona fide assistant potato person. Jubble busied himself researching powdery scab, wireworm and spraing. He worked hard, and Doctor Cack began to trust him with the more outré aspects of potato science. But as the years passed, Jubble became ever more unhinged.

He was often to be found in uproarious carousal with Euwige, the two of them pouring vast quantities of dandelion and burdock down their throats and singing inhuman songs. His moustache grew outlandish, and was forever smeared with lemon curd and other, sinister curds. He wore hawthorns in his hair, and carried tiny abominable homunculi in the pockets of his mackintosh. Doctor Cack had to have words with him on this score, for the potato scientist was not a man to tolerate orthodox raincoats.

A Lesson in Humility

Every now and then, when I think I may be getting too big for my boots, I like to take a lesson in humility. I find that by contemplating the absurd Mr and Mrs Fripp, those paragons of self-effacement, I am able to regain a more judicious perspective on the world.

Mr Fripp is well known as the bespectacled guitar noodler who had the gall to take a technique common in experimental music of the 1950s and 60s (a tape delay and looped signal, basically) and call it ‘Frippertronics’. That's like me writing a sonnet and saying it's a new type of poem called a ‘Keyet’.

Meanwhile, I am indebted to the current edition of Private Eye for this splendid quotation from Mrs Fripp, in answer to a question posed by Now magazine:

Q - What have you done with all your punky stage outfits?

A - I have a house to keep my press cuttings, costumes, head-dresses, stage make-up and books that refer to me. There's a room of recordings of every TV show I've done and another full of fan mail.

John & Yoko only needed an apartment for the fur coats. Toyah requires a whole house.

And thanks to Max Décharné for alerting me to the existence of the town of Toyah in Texas. The photograph below is captioned thus: Three wooden grave markers stand as testament to the desolation of West Texas. Toyah was a crew change point on the Texas & Pacific in the early 20th century. Like the hot wind, the trains still blow through Toyah, but most of the citizenry moved elsewhere. Who can blame them?

Ten Days in a Ditch

Sometimes you just have to go and lie down in a ditch. That's what I did a week or so ago, and I have only just returned home. It is definitely time for a bath, but I have to say that my ditchdom was thoroughly splendid in every way.

For one thing, the ditch was a muddy one, muddy and puddle-strewn. And such gorgeous puddles! I studied puddles in an academic context some years ago, so I know, for example, that the Latin for puddle is lacusculus, which may more accurately be translated as little pool, but will do for our present purposes. Some of the lacusculi (or -ae) in my ditch were foul and deep. Others were shallow little things, almost vestiges of puddle. Each one had its own character, and I would have enjoyed counting them if I could remember how to count.

Did you notice how easily I said “my ditch”? I had not been lying in it for very long before it lost its anonymity and became my treasured, if temporary, possession, the way a medieval baron would boast of huge tracts of forest as being his “possessions”. It was in medieval times that a map was made of this area which shows some of the many ditches, and even gives them names. Some of the ditches have vanished, of course, while new ones have come into being, but there are a few that have existed for hundreds of years. I cannot be sure whether the ditch I chose was called Bentley or Abercrombie, so I may make a trip to the library to consult a facsimile of the old map after I have had my bath.

While I was lying in the ditch, I didn't give much thought to its name. I admired the puddles, as I have said, and I looked at the sky, at fugitive clouds, at birds in flight, particularly hummingbirds and wrens, for I have always favoured smaller birds. Large birds terrify me. I fear being pecked, and I begin to tremble. When I saw large birds overhead, I rolled over on to my front and looked at the mud, or closed my eyes.

With eyes shut I sometimes fell into a ditchy fitful sleep, but more often I allowed my mind to wander. I have been preoccupied lately with the fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol, having found a whole stash of illustrated booklets about him underneath the sink in the kitchen of my new set of rooms. Reading them avidly at a single sitting, I had been perplexed to discover that as well as being a champion sprinter, fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol had also won a number of medals and cups for the pole-vault. Thus, I had to alter my mental image of him, and I admit I found this difficult. For so long he had inhabited my brain breasting the tape after a particularly gruelling sprint, a bit like the famous photograph of Roger Bannister breaking the four minute mile at Iffley Road running track on the sixth of May 1954 (see below). I say “a bit like” because of course fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol sported a huge beard, a piratical eyepatch, and often - and mysteriously - had breadcrumbs in his hair. Nor should we forget that wherever he ran, he always took his little gaggle of pet poultry with him, which would wait, clucking, near the finishing line, much to the consternation of various athletics officials in their spotless blazers, some of them with whistles on lanyards around their necks, and some without.

So this was the eidolon of fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol that I had cherished for years and years, and now it had to be revised. I had to try to imagine him pole-vaulting. You may now be able to appreciate why I spent ten days lying in that ditch, Bentley or Abercrombie, without once getting bored. I will confess that I did not maintain my concentration uninterrupted, for there were many distractions. Leaving aside for a moment the birds, large and small, which I could see as they flew overhead, there were earthworms, beetles, the occasional mole, just one ant, all by itself, which had obviously strayed from its fellows, and a number of other life-forms which I did not recognise or cannot remember. There were gusts of wind which rippled the surfaces of the puddles. There was one spectacular rainstorm from which I sheltered by intoning a spell. And then there was Codrington.

I do not wish to dwell upon Codrington, for to do so is very painful. Suffice it to say that I cannot shake him off. He has been following me now for at least seventeen years. I thought I was safe in my ditch, and for the first four days I was. Then, at dawn on the fifth day, icy tentacles clawed at my heart as I heard the unmistakeable sound of his humming, his footsteps, his creaking bones. And there he was, clambering down into my ditch, squatting a few feet away from me, his gleaming black boots submerged in one of my favourite puddles. He pretended to ignore me, of course, as he always does. He hummed and creaked and creaked and hummed. It took a titanic effort of will for me to remain lying in my ditch, Bentley or Abercrombie, now supine, staring at the sky, and the birds in the sky, now prone, my face in the mud, summoning the image of fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol both sprinting and pole-vaulting, his poultry loyally at his side. And I succeeded. Yesterday, on my last day in the ditch, that new image swam before my eyes at the very moment that Codrington, with a final creak and hum, stood up, hoisted himself out of the ditch, and stalked away across the fields, frightening some cows as he passed, but allowing me some respite from his gruesome presence.

And now I am at home, and about to have a bath, and there is a mud-splattered envelope addressed to me resting on the mantelpiece. I know that the handwriting is Codrington's. He has left one of his communiqués. Do I read it or set fire to it? Or do I do neither, and go back to my ditch? What would fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol have done? He shall be my guide.

Thursday 2nd February 2006

“For convenience the following list is inserted here. It is condensed from a number of notes made for trips of all sorts, except boating and horseback-riding. It is by no means exhaustive… Be careful not to be led astray by it into overloading yourself, or filling your camp with useless luggage. Be sure to remember this. Axe (in cover). Axle-grease. Bacon. Barometer (pocket). Bean-pot. Beans (in bag). Beef (dried). Beeswax. Bible. Blacking and brush. Blankets. Boxes. Bread for lunch. Brogans (oiled). Broom. Butter-dish and cover. Canned goods. Chalk. Cheese. Clothes-brush. Cod-line. Coffee and pot. Comb. Compass. Condensed milk. Cups. Currycomb. Dates. Dippers. Dishes. Dish-towels. Drawers. Dried fruits. Dutch oven. Envelopes. Figs. Firkin. Fishing-tackle. Flour (prepared). Frying-pan. Guide-book. Half-barrel. Halter. Hammer. Hard-bread. Harness (examine!). Hatchet. Haversack. Ink (portable bottle). Knives (sheath, table, pocket and butcher). Lemons. Liniment. Lunch for day or two. Maps. Matches and safe. Marline. Meal (in bag). Meal-bag. Medicines. Milk-can. Molasses. Money (”change“). Monkey-wrench. Mosquito-bar. Mustard and pot. Nails. Neat's-foot oil. Night-shirt. Oatmeal. Oil-can. Opera-glass. Overcoat. Padlock and key. Pails. Paper. Paper collars. Pens. Pepper. Pickles. Pins. Portfolio. Postage stamps. Postal cards. Rope. Rubber blanket. Rubber coat. Rubber boots. Sail-needle. Salt. Salt fish. Salt pork. Salve. Saw. Shingles (for plates). Shirts. Shoes and strings. Slippers. Soap. Song-book. Spade. Spoons. Stove (utensils in bags). Sugar. Tea. Tents. Tent poles. Tent pins. Tooth-brush. Towels. Twine. Vinegar. Watch and key.” — John M Gould, How To Camp Out

Regarding That Vox Pop Orphan

Ruth Pastry writes : Now look here, Key, I think you made up the Pang Hill orphan child in that so-called Vox Pop (30 January). Whoever named someone Sago? Sago is a sort of pudding, not a boy's or girl's name. Well, it's the pith found inside the stems of some cycad plants, the pith that forms the basis of the pudding, rather than the pudding itself. The pith is first ground to a coarse flour, washed carefully to leach out natural toxins, then dried and cooked to become a starchy granular fecula. It is very similar to tapioca and is used for many of the same purposes. What it is most certainly not is a child's name, orphaned or otherwise. Don't try to give me any lessons about precision and exactitude.

And another thing. It is not clear from your farrago of invented twaddle how old this tot is meant to be, but no one under the age of about a hundred and seven says things like “that is my story in its broad outlines”. And there is not an “um” or “er” in sight. In short, the whole thing is frankly unbelievable and you should be ashamed of yourself for trying to deceive your loyal readers. Luckily, I am on hand to wrench the blinkers from their eyes and show you for the codswallop merchant you are.

By the way, if you want a regular feature called “Dr Ruth Pastry Presents Five Hundred Sago Pudding Recipes For The Busy Hausfrau” I will be only too happy to oblige. Make out your cheque to “Dr Ruth Pastry Global Sago Pudding Enterprises plc”. Passionately yours, Ruth Pastry.

Dr Pastry's letter was accompanied by this photograph, to which she supplied the following caption: “A spoon poised temptingly in a bowl of sago pudding pepared from one of Dr Ruth Pastry's mouthwatering sago pudding recipes.”

I Is for Index

Episode nine in our not-quite-daily serialisation of The Immense Duckpond Pamphlet, this time without any potato pictures

Like the novelist Samuel Richardson, Doctor Cack was an enthusiastic indexer of his own work. Even before he arrived at the House, he had been issuing his Bulletin Of Potato Science & Related Matters every quarter. The bulk of the contents he wrote himself, allowing the occasional interjection from Ruhugu, Moop, Trellis and the others. Only Jubble had been barred from its pages, because he was unhinged.

Every five years, Doctor Cack published, as a separate volume, a cumulative index to the Bulletin. His skills lay in thematic rather than purely alphabetic indexing. Indeed, Scridge has remarked that, like Prynne's Histrio-Mastix (1633), Doctor Cack's indices are often more readable than the texts from which they are eked.

Of the most recent edition of the Quinquennial Collection Of Instructive Sentiments, Maxims, Descriptions, Footnotes, Evasions, Queries & Accusations Contained In The Bulletin Of Potato Science & Related Matters, Digested Under Proper Heads, Scridge reported that he was “driven to hilarity” by the entry for Potato Cyst Eelworm, an infection which stunts and withers the crop, with haulm dying down prematurely and tubers the size of marbles resulting.

Of course, Scridge cannot always be trusted, for he is a deceitful toad. There are those who assert that he has never read a single word of Doctor Cack's majestic works, indeed that he has never read a single potato-related text in his entire sorry life.

Wednesday 1st February 2006

“Had Cowper been permitted to live more with kittens, and less with evangelical clergymen, his hours of gaiety might have outnumbered his hours of gloom.” — Agnes Repplier, Americans And Others

H Is for Haruspices

Episode eight in our not-quite-daily serialisation of The Immense Duckpond Pamphlet, today with added potato pictures for your instruction and delight

In ancient Rome, the haruspices were an order of priests who made prophecies by examining the steaming entrails of sacrificially-slaughtered animals. Doctor Cack had made a thorough study of their methods, and for the last ten years had been engaged in experiments to carry out successful haruspication using mashed potatoes instead of entrails.

Ably assisted by Ruhugu and others, Doctor Cack would lay out the “field”, a triangular cloth weighted down at each corner by a small piece of bakelite. On to this, a precisely-measured amount of mashed potato would be splattered with the agency of an iron spatula. A second triangular cloth would be placed atop the resulting mess, and pressed down evenly. The upper cloth would then be turned over, and the pattern created by the mashed potato which had adhered to it would be examined with great care. Ruhugu used his box camera to make a photographic record.

Divination completed, and notes and annotations pencilled into the foolscap ledger, the cloth triangles would be scrubbed clean with a special detergent in readiness for the next experiment.

There were arguments, of course. Moop insisted that only certain potato varieties were sufficiently “numinous”, as she put it. Maris Pipers, Majestics, and Arran Banners met with her approval. Trellis maintained that the waxy texture of the Red Craig's Royal made it the only suitable variety. Strob said the cloths ought to be hexagonal. The unhinged Jubble went so far as to suggest using boiled and mashed celery instead.

Ruhugu mediated between the factions, protecting Doctor Cack from turmoil and strife, leaving him free to pore over the foolscap ledger, frowning, rapt, determined to eke from it whatever revelations it harboured.

Bees in Bonnets

Regular readers will sigh and complain, “Oh for crying out loud, is Frank going on about bees again?” Well, no, I am not. I want to talk today about people who get figurative bees in their figurative bonnets, monomaniacs who devote their time, money, and energy to “issues” that make them fume and growl and seethe and have attacks of the vapours. People can get themselves all worked up about things most of us never even think about.

Who can fail to be delighted, for example, by Hedgeline, the snappy name for the Campaign For Effective Legislative Control Of Problem High Hedges Of All Species, In Residential Areas Of The UK? I suppose CFELCOPHHOASIRAOTUK is a somewhat unwieldy acronym, even for a fuming monomaniac.

The Hedgeline website is a masterpiece of unintentional comedy, from the excited announcement that “the Daily Mail is interested in problem with the High Hedges Law” (now there's a surprise!) to the repeated references to “hedge-victims”. I cannot help picturing a sobbing hedge-victim unburdening their grief to one of Hedgeline's “fellowship in adversity listening ears”, recounting how their life has been destroyed by having a high hedge near them.

Note to middle class people - talk in a civil manner to your neighbours and you may avoid the soul-lacerating horror of hedge-victimhood.

I have deliberately reproduced Hedgeline's logo to see if flouting the stern warning on their website will have any repercussions. Material on this entire website is not for reproduction on any other website or in any other way without permission of Hedgeline, it says. I wonder what will happen. Will they plant a terrifyingly high hedge outside my front door? I will keep you informed.