Hooting Yard Archive, June 2005

So much to read that you may get an attack of the vapours. Lusty jocund swains, the bottomless viper-pit of Gaar, dispatches from O'Houlihan's Wharf, wafers, woods and killer bees, among much else.


Thursday 30th June 2005
“Athwart that dream came a sudden, frightful,…”
The Groist
For Your Attention
Bolster Your Shabbiness
Wednesday 29th June 2005
“The inclusion of the husk or shell…”
Shem, Ham, Japheth and Minnie Crunlop
Apropos of Noah's Ark
Saturday 25th June 2005
“Slowly the moon came out and splashed…”
Picnic for Detectives
Thursday 23rd June 2005
“There lay exposed a strange little brown…”
Me and My Homunculus
Mrs Gubbins and Mr Smith
Tuesday 21st June 2005
“Another Stratagem is, to give strange and…”
Let Us Now Praise Greenland
Mustard? Custard!
Monday 20th June 2005
“We ask you to be so good…”
Fictional Substance of the Week
Spot the Ichor
Sieves and Basins
Sunday 19th June 2005
“Nothing is interesting unless it is catalogued.”
Ornamental Pond Guilt
A Sinful Secret
Saturday 18th June 2005
“Methodically he got ready. He rigged up…”
Bored With Bees
Hoon Hing Boom Bang a Bang
Thursday 16th June 2005
“Not all of those who have been…”
Sag Mir Wo Die Blumen Sind?
An Eye for a Bargain
How to Look After a Horse
Tuesday 14th June 2005
“Another blessed ‘passing-over’ I viewed was that…”
Name That Seismologist
Here Be Butterscotch
Monday 13th June 2005
“It was pretty generally believed a few…”
Hold on to Your Hat
Two Hats and a Hog
Those Gubernatorial Bells
Saturday 11th June 2005
“The First Reader was mostly in words…”
The Story of the Lame Dog, the Caged Bird, the Drowned Cat, the Gold Watch, the Whisky Boy and the Insane Boy
The Majesty of Parliament
A Bag on Your Foot
Friday 10th June 2005
“Tasmania shows us her animal freak, the…”
Indignant Pansy
Train Your Brain
Wednesday 8th June 2005
“She had no way of knowing how…”
A Reminder About the Allocation of Weeks
The Taxonomy of Ducks, Swans and Geese Is in a State of Flux
The Voice of Dobson?
Tuesday 7th June 2005
“A fondness for trifles is certainly no…”
The Lure of Lists
Killer Bees : The Mystery Solved
The Orchard
Monday 6th June 2005
“Again there was that uncanny effect of…”
Birds That Go on Water
A Pedant's Righteous Nostrums
Some Other Woods
Saturday 4th June 2005
“Who does not know, that the low-burlesque…”
Wafers, Vile and Otherwise
Friday 3rd June 2005
“In 1766, we find Louis XV, with…”
More About Swans
Two Gunthers
Thursday 2nd June 2005
“Good God! what punishment can be too…”
Titans of the Silver Screen
How I Plunged Into the Bottomless Viper-pit of Gaar
Thurn's Swoon
Wednesday 1st June 2005
“Death is but the wink of an…”
Goddess Clarification
Lusty Jocund Swains

Thursday 30th June 2005

“Athwart that dream came a sudden, frightful, heart-stilling roar of destruction; a hideous crash followed, a terrible rending, breaking, smashing, concatenation of noises, succeeded by frightful detonations… the ship was reduced in a few moments to a disjointed, disorganized, sinking mass of shapeless, formless, splintered steel.” — Cyrus Townsend Brady, And Thus He Came

The Groist

What is the Groist? Throughout the centuries, or to be more specific, in the summer of 1127, during most of March 1784, and last week, human beings have asked this question. And I should be specific about those human beings too, root and branch. I am not entirely sure that “root and branch” means anything in that last sentence, but it slipped out, soup to nuts, as did “soup to nuts”, just then. This is what thinking about the Groist does, it seems, love in a mist and toffee apples. I am going to stop referring back, chimes at midnight, to the otherwise irrelevant phrases creeping in to this serious attempt to explain to readers what the, force majeure, Groist is, or was, or will be, or all three, throughout the years, on this delightful planet of ours, Henry.

So picture yourself for a moment as a twelfth century peasant scrubbling around in your accustomed muck. Feel that smock. Your hair will as likely as not be matted, unwashed, and you will have several teeth missing, God be praised, Brief Encounter. There you are, on a rain-soaked morning, trudging up or down the hillside to go to tend your pigs, or hens, and all of a sudden the Groist invades your brain. You are understandably startled, and some think this startlement is what inspired some of history's mystics, lean and fat, that is, a visitation from the Groist.

It burrows into your brain, nestles there awhile, then flees as suddenly as it came.

Saint Teresa of Avila may well have had an experience, mutatis mutandis, of the Groist.

Ah, but when I said I would be specific I was very specific. I pointed to only three occasions, ghost writer, phantom pregnancy, when the Groist has made itself known. Was I right? No. That is another thing about the Groist, and its ability to startle, it encourages us to say with certainty what is certainly not certain, is still conjecture, Henry, Henry.

One thing we know that the Groist does, on its visitations, apart from making us think we have had mystic visions, is to deter us from glubb glubb glubb. What is it, exactly? A worm in the brain. Beloved of distraction, and beloved to distraction, too.

For Your Attention

Bolster Your Shabbiness

If you are a shabby person, you may from time to time experience the beckoning hand of unshabbiness. You may be tempted to comb your hair, or to darn those holes in your jumper, even to eradicate the egg and jam stains on your necktie. It may be that not only is your appearance shabby, but so too your conduct. Perhaps you have betrayed your friend, or stolen a bus pass from a tottering widow, or pushed a dog in front of an oncoming railway engine. Siren voices may whisper in your ear, as you lie sprawled in a sun-dappled meadow, urging you to repent. What those voices want is for you to embrace unshabbiness.

Now you can spurn the beckoning hand and the siren voices with ease, in exchange for a small monthly fee. Bolster Your Shabbiness is a new part-work from Hooting Yard's Inhuman Resources Service. Every month, our team of craven wretches provides the shabby with information, top tips, and inspiration. We have also commissioned a series of illustrations, made with a blunt and greasy pencil on sheets of disgusting wrapping paper salvaged from a hole in the ground.

For further details, watch this space - or rather, peer at it through your eerily pale and watery eyes.

Wednesday 29th June 2005

“The inclusion of the husk or shell in some of the cheaper forms of chocolate is another reprehensible practice (strongly condemned), as they do not possess the qualities for which the kernel or nib is so highly prized. To prevent this practice it was enacted in 1770 that the shells or husks should be seized or destroyed, and the officer seizing them rewarded up to 20s. per hundredweight. From these a light, but not unpalatable, table decoction is still prepared in Ireland and elsewhere, under the designation of ‘miserables’.” — Brandon Head, The Food Of The Gods : A Popular Account Of Cocoa

Shem, Ham, Japheth and Minnie Crunlop

Those two great modernists, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, were exact contemporaries, both born in 1882 and dying in 1941. Their reputations have survived, indeed prospered, in the twenty-first century. The same cannot be said of a third writer who shares those dates of birth and death, the now forgotten Minnie Crunlop. But was Minnie more modern than Jim and Ginny? Some critics think so. Here is Tadeusz Glob: “Crunlop was a monomaniac who stuck to a preposterously limited subject matter, but I am convinced that her name will ring down the ages, outlasting Homer, Beowulf and the Bible.” Praise indeed, from the man who dismissed as “clots and nincompoops” nearly every writer of note from the seventeenth century onwards.

Glob is certainly correct to refer to Crunlop's “preposterously limited” range. In fact, all she ever wrote were stories featuring the sons of Noah. It is true that she placed Shem, Ham and Japheth in an astonishing variety of settings, but no other characters feature in her work, except for occasional appearances by a fictionalised version of Suez Canal visionary Ferdinand De Lesseps (1805-1894).

If her work is unconventional, so too her career. Minnie Crunlop only began to write in the last decade of her life, on the fourteenth of January 1931, to be precise. It was on the cold morning of this day that she wrote, from beginning to end, the famous story “Shem, Ham And Japheth Join A Knitting Circle” which appeared in the inaugural issue of Messbang's Popular Magazine Of Catastrophic Flood Fiction.

Crunlop had met the self-styled delugeist Orthek Messbang a few months previously. They had a passionate yet enigmatically unconsummated affair. Among the sweet nothings he whispered into her ear was his plan to publish two periodicals devoted to his pet topic, one containing fiction and the other fact. After a stroll among the bougainvilleas and fountains, Crunlop promised to pen a story based vaguely on Noah's Ark. On her way home, she bought a Bible. She had never read it before. Locating the text she needed in Genesis, she tore it out and threw the handsome volume into a waste chute. Over the next week, she memorised the story of the Flood, and thus began her singular literary career.

Messbang's magazines folded after just one issue each. He swept into Minnie Crunlop's parlour to announce their failure, only to find her scribbling away at her second tale, “Shem And De Lesseps Go Pig Hunting”.

Messbang : Darling! I am ruined! My periodicals are no more! Cease writing!

Crunlop : O dearest one! I could not stop even if I wanted to, for I feel the Muse inspiring me! I am going to spend the rest of my life writing strange little stories about Noah's three sons! It is my destiny!

Messbang : Love of my life, have you taken leave of your senses? Only I would publish your deranged jottings, and now I am undone!

These were Orthek Messbang's last words. He flung himself from Minnie Crunlop's window on the fifth floor of her shabby apartment building and was impaled on an iron spike in the street below. So consumed was Crunlop with the vivacity of her tale-telling that she did not hear the ungodly siren of the ambulance which carted her lover to the morgue. She remained at her escritoire, pencilling in a frenzy, until her second story was finished, when night was drawing in.

Messbang had abandoned a wife, now his widow, in Dusseldorf or a similar city, who took some solace in the fact that his final words were prophetic, for it seemed that no one was interested in publishing Minnie Crunlop's second story. Nor the third, nor the fourth. She had hit her stride now, and spent every Thursday writing, from dawn till dusk, conjuring new adventures for her heroes. She had plucked the three sons of Noah from that overcrowded ark, and was pitching them into new and dazzling adventures. “Shem And Ham Visit The Glue Factory”, “Japheth Is Buried Alive” and “De Lesseps And Ham And The Mysterious Bag Of Soil” were all written before the end of the year. Crunlop occasionally tried hawking them to publishers, without success, but every door slammed in her face seemed to inspire her to new heights of invention. She continued to eke a living by boiling and darning flags, as she had done since her release from prison just before the Great War.

Critics today are understandably coy about Minnie Crunlop's life before she became a writer. The received wisdom is that her criminal past has nothing to tell us about her work, that we can separate the murderous psychopath from the story-teller, as if they were two distinct Crunlops. Indeed, it is difficult to square the gore-drenched cut-throat skulking in the alleyways of Dubrovnik, or somewhere like Dubrovnik, with the pencil-wielding genius of the shabby apartment building. We must, I think, be grateful that King Vincenzo announced an amnesty just before the war. Cynics say the King expected all those he released to perish on the battlefields, and most of them did, but Minnie Crunlop survived, for she spent the war years hiding in a hayloft near an orchard, creeping out at night to eat her fill of pears and gooseberries and drinking from a spigot by the side of a barn.

Was this hayloft Crunlop's ark? She shared it with a pair of geese and a pair of stoats, or at least that is what she said later. But then she claimed to have named the geese Shem and Japheth and the stoats De Lesseps and Ham, and this is unlikely, given that she was, as we have seen, Bible-ignorant at this point. In her last illness, when her brain was a fuming hallucinatory miasma, she told all sorts of stories about her time in the hayloft, indeed she spoke of little else. Incoherent babble it may have been, but clearly this period - after the killings and before the stories - was of great significance for her. Over the years there have been attempts to convert the wartime sanctuary into a Minnie Crunlop Museum or Memorial Library, but no one has ever been able to identify the actual site, given that there are literally dozens of haylofts in barns near orchards in the country.

Curiously, her writings give no clues. Throughout the canon, there is no mention of any kind of agricultural building. The reader will find plenty of gaudy palaces, space stations, skyscrapers, futuristic pods, Transylvanian castles, urban dystopias and Victorian drawing-rooms in Crunlop's fiction, but no barns in farmyards. Nor will one find an ark, of course. The only story that nods in a seafaring direction is the elegiac “A Rowing Boat And Its Oars” (1936), the first of Crunlop's works to win a prize. She had, at long last, found a publisher, in the form of Doctor Gillespie's Pedantic Register & Gazette.

“Doctor Gillespie” was a fictional character who purported to edit - and write most of - this weekly periodical, which was heavily illustrated with mezzotints by the mezzotintist Rex Tint. It was Tint who recommended Crunlop to the genuine, non-fictional editor, a secretive plutocrat with a piratical eye-patch who was to become her sole publisher.

In the remaining four years of her active career, the tales poured out, some of them only fifty words long, some close to novellas. It was an age of anxiety, as Europe edged once again towards war. Minnie Crunlop took to sporting an eye-patch in homage to her mentor. She went to visit De Lesseps' Suez Canal, where she wrote the ground-breaking “Ham's Rakish Sneer”. She penned anonymous fan letters to Hollywood actor Claude Rains. Her shabby apartment building was given a new lick of paint, or paints, all mauve and yellow and a startling cerulean blue. She pondered writing a new type of story, one that would feature Neville Chamberlain, but abandoned it after a long and earnest discussion with Rex Tint in the dining room of a majestic hotel, where the pair of them ate soup, crackers and potted paste, before running away without paying the bill. She exchanged her collection of pencils for a pen with an unbreakable nib, and promptly broke the nib. She was praised in an essay by Kapisko, and Larch painted her portrait, and King Vincenzo's son, the new King, also called Vincenzo, presented her with a medal. She wrote a marvellous, tragic, tear-stained tale called “Japheth Is Buried Alive, Again”. Her hair turned white.

And then, on the fourteenth of January 1941, ten years to the day since her writing career began, she was engulfed by a daze, a daze that could have been mistaken for a coma were it not that within her daze she babbled incessantly, about the hayloft and her geese and her stoats, and little else, and she never again picked up her broken pen, nor any of the pencils she had retrieved from a rubbish tip, and she babbled away in her daze for forty days and forty nights, ark time, and then she passed away, and now she is all but forgotten, so you must mark her name, and mark it well. Minnie Crunlop!

Apropos of Noah's Ark

While we are on the subject of the ark, here is an illustration from one of Jack Chick's deeply sensible cartoon tracts, which I recommend to the fundamentalists, of whatever stripe, among the Hooting Yard readership.

Saturday 25th June 2005

“Slowly the moon came out and splashed its evil coldness over the desert, and slowly Halloran twisted his body around and stared with burning, widened eyes at them… They were walking towards him with maddening deliberation, the most evil, the most unholy-looking, hideously repulsive group he had ever seen. The two might have been cowboys, except for their faces. They were dressed in regular range gear; ropes, belted guns, loudly checked shirts and handkerchiefs, stitched boots, faded blue jeans - their heavy, batwing chaps flapping in the night like wings of grisly birds of evil. But the faces under the tall sombreros! … they were the faces of ghoulish beasts with snapping black eyes, huge canine nostrils, coarsely matted hair. Halloran stared and his tongue was hot and thick when he tried to move it. The word werewolves seemed to tumble over and over in his numbed mind.” — Eric Lennox, Lair Of The Damned

Picnic for Detectives

On Thursday, I mentioned in passing Picnic For Detectives. This annual event has become one of the key dates in the Hooting Yard calendar, which is somewhat surprising, given its inglorious beginnings.

The very first Picnic For Detectives was hardly a picnic at all, and the official historian of the event estimates that only a handful of those taking part were bona fide detectives. All we know for certain is that a small group of people, no more than four or five, pitched up in a field with a couple of hampers, and spent an afternoon there. Meteorological records show the day was one of arctic squalls, but the field was in a temperate zone inland. In fact, it was just across the road from Pang Hill Orphanage. This anomaly has fascinated weather-fixated Picnic For Detectives buffs, who are legion.

So, not only do we have just a few people with a couple of hampers, we do not even know what was in those hampers. If you are familiar with ordinary picnics, you would expect to open up a hamper to find sandwiches, savoury flans, some fruit, crackers, cheese-related foodstuffs, cake, and bottles of refreshing barley water. Hardboiled eggs would be likely, too, unless the film director Alfred Hitchcock was one of the picknickers, for as we know from the many biographies, he was terrified of eggs.

Alfred Hitchcock

Hitchcock was not present at the picnic across the road from the orphanage that is counted now as the first Picnic For Detectives, but unfortunately we do not know the names of those who were. In fact, the whole thing is shrouded in mystery. All we can say for certain is that the following year, in the very same field, there was a second picnic, and this one was attended only by detectives, either by chance or design. This second picnic was blessed with what the records call “humid balminess” and “scattered dappling sunlight”. Examination of surviving crumbs from the site indicates that all sorts of pies were eaten, with or without cutlery.

“I for one hope they did use cutlery, or at least forks,” wrote Sidney Cack, “For there is something disconcerting and undignified in the mental image of a team of tiptop detectives sprawled in a field shovelling pie into their mouths with their fingers.”

It seems that those resounding words “Picnic For Detectives” were first used a year later. The third picnic is the one that became legendary. Over forty detectives gathered in the field, and their hampers were each emblazoned with a badge, a heraldic device, a coat of arms, an emblem, each one caked in mud as a safeguard. The picnic menu was written down for the first time, and to this day is recited at the crack of every dawn by the urchins in the orphanage. It was at this third Picnic For Detectives that a pack of beagles was employed to frighten off swooping crows, magpies, gulls, and other scavenging creatures with beaks and wings. Nowadays, the beagles in the pack are bred specially in the Detectives' Beagle Breeding Compound, their psychological state carefully monitored while they are still puppies.

One innovation at the third Picnic For Detectives which did not survive was musical accompaniment. The experimental percussionist Zoltan Taplow was invited along, despite having no background in police work. He was stationed in a corner of the field and asked to play suitable picnic music. His energetic thumping upon reconditioned metal drums and shamanic gongs was drowned out that day by howling winds and the steady convoy of cement-mixer trucks growling along the road. There is one body of opinion which suggests that Taplow was merely a figment of the overheated imagination of one of the detectives, a tall, stooping forensics specialist who had spent too much of his career aboard ships. The absence of Taplow from nearly all A-Z directories of experimental percussionists tends to support this view.

Shaman with gong

The music, real or imagined, was inaudible. But the picnic itself was a triumph. It is the subject of two novels, a stage play, a long-running television serial, an opera, and no less than three films, the finest of which is probably Picnic For Detectives : Three, the title of which was changed to Hot Picnic For Detectives Impact by the distributors, concerned that cinemagoers would be confused into assuming they had missed two earlier features. Detective Captain Shuddery, who was given a sabbatical from the force to produce and direct the film, disowned it, but he need not have done, for it is a towering work. It may be that his critical faculties deserted him when, immediately after completing the film, he was badly injured when attacked by a swan. It is certainly true that his nerves never recovered, and he spent what ought to have been the prime of his career chewing toffee in the hothouse of a nursing home, surrounded by gigantic and abominable plants.

By the time Shuddery's film came out, that third Picnic For Detectives was lost in the past, a sepia-tinged memory of tweed suits, massive walrus moustaches, essence of violets, organdie ruffles, reticules and Gladstone bags. From the fourth year onwards, with the introduction of lobsters on the menu, Picnic For Detectives took on its startling calendrical significance. Who, today, can imagine a year in Hooting Yard without it?

Remarkably little has changed over the years. Still, there is the ceremonial march-past of retired detectives on Picnic For Detectives Eve, where the wheelchairs of the infirm ancients are pushed along by teams of tots from Pang Hill Orphanage. Still, the lobster pots are made of beaten bronze in a factory far away. Still, the field is laced with buttercups and dandelions, and spurge allowed to spread. Still, anxious eyes are cast up to the skies in the morning, the weather discussed in almost insane detail by all who linger on the Pang Hill pathways. Still the hampers bear badges which glisten under their caking of mud. And still there are detectives. And still there is a picnic for them, in Hooting Yard, but once a year, come hell or high water, come rain or shine.


Thursday 23rd June 2005

“There lay exposed a strange little brown image, a root of the potato species distorted into human shape, with grotesquely human features, nose, lips, the indication of eyes, and hairy filaments falling from the sides of the head and forming a kind of beard upon the shrivelled jaw and chin. The creature appeared a distinct miniature effigy of a man. The shape of the limbs was clearly traceable, and two little brown tentacles of arms with rudimentary hands lay, one by the side and the other half over the breast. Bits of the earth from which it had been torn still clung in the indentations of the shape, and on the top of the head, mingling with the tufts of hair, were the shrivelled remains of a stalk which had been removed or had mouldered away. Marillier examined the thing with intense curiosity, at the same time revolted by its quasi-human appearance.” — Mrs Campbell Praed, The Insane Root

Me and My Homunculus

The “insane root” which Mrs Campbell Praed refers to in the above quotation is likely to be a mandrake. The bifurcated root of the plant resembles a human figure, or so people have thought throughout the ages. There is a legend that when the mandrake-person is pulled from the ground, it shrieks in pain, and this cry is able to madden, deafen or even kill an unprotected human being. One way of pulling a mandrake out of the ground safely is given as follows: “A furrow must be dug around the root until its lower part is exposed, then a dog is tied to it, after which the person tying the dog must get away. The dog then endeavours to follow him, and so easily pulls up the root, but dies suddenly instead of his master. After this the root can be handled without fear.”

Being a miniature person, the mandrake root is thus a type of homunculus. The first homunculus was made by that old rascal Paracelsus out of a bag of bones, sperm, skin fragments and animal hair, these ingredients laid in the ground surrounded by horse manure for forty days, at which point the embryo formed. It seems likely that Paracelsus was making this up, as I tried it. I was looking forward to having a little homunculus running about the place, and was even thinking up a suitable name for it, but when I dug up the patch of manure there was no sign of any such being.

The mandrake itself features in another homunculus “recipe”. The root has to be picked before dawn on a Friday morning by a black dog, then washed and fed with milk, honey and blood. I was going to try this approach too, but I was unable to find a suitable dog.

A particularly thrilling method of creating a homunculus was given by Dr David Christianus of Giessen in the eighteenth century. He suggested taking an egg laid by a black hen, poking a tiny hole through the shell, replacing a bean-sized portion of the white with human sperm, sealing the opening with virgin parchment, and burying the egg in dung on the first day of the March lunar cycle. Do this, he confidently announced, and after thirty days a miniature humanoid would emerge, which would help and protect its creator in return for a steady diet of lavender seeds and earthworms. I am going to have a bash at this method next March and will let readers know how I get on.

Mrs Gubbins and Mr Smith

Almost three decades on since the self-styled “Northern white crap that talks back” started making an unholy racket, Mrs Gubbins has belatedly discovered The Fall.

“I'm sure that underneath that scowling, grumpy exterior, Mark E Smith is a sweet little poppet,” she says, adding, “He's like a frolicsome puppy. I'd be proud to have him as my son.”

So taken is Mrs Gubbins with the ludicrously prolific Mancunian misanthrope that she has somehow managed to get hold of every record The Fall has ever made, and is holed up in the martello tower over by Loopy Copse. Passers-by report that she is playing the discs in chronological order, over and over again, all day and all night without pause. All attempts to get her to desist, or at least to turn the volume down on her supersonic booster sound system, are ignored. Stories are circulating that birds have been dropping out of the sky, deafened and dead, in the vicinity of the copse. The police seem helpless, possibly because they are very frightened of Mrs Gubbins after what happened at last year's Picnic For Detectives.

The octogenarian crone telephoned us yesterday. Although it was difficult to hear her, given that Hex Enduction Hour was blasting away in the background, she told us: “I have decided to issue a series of compact discs featuring the complete works of The Fall arranged for harp and flute. Doing them as instrumentals will of course mean jettisoning Mr Smith's lovely words, but I want to bring out the innate tweeness of the music.”

Smith : loveable poppet

Tuesday 21st June 2005

“Another Stratagem is, to give strange and hard names to their Medicines, such as are Pilulae radiis Solis extractae, and in English is no more than Pills dryed to that consistence by the Sun-Beams, which ignorant people have thought were made of the Sun Beams… I have heard a Pseudochymist blasphemously brag, he saw in the making of a grand Elixir, the Quintessence of the Trinity in Unity, and infinite other pitiful captivations of silly people, to be seen on every Gate and Post of this City; such as are the Spirit of the Salt of the World, Panchymagogon, and other ten-footed Greek names, and some other Mongrel nonsensical ones compounded of several Languages; promising certain, speedy, and concealed Cure of incurable Diseases.” — Christopher Merrett, A Short View Of The Frauds And Abuses Committed By Apothecaries


Dear Mr Key, writes the increasingly irritating Chris De Burhg [sic]. I fear the man is a monomaniac. Yesterday on your website I was intrigued to read about ichor, alongside the piece on sieves and basins in which you kindly reprinted my letter. This got me to wondering - if I poured ichor into a basin through a sieve, would there be any residue in the sieve, and if so, what would it be?

Tempting though it is to ignore Mr De Burhg's [sic] witterings, and throw some more pebbles at starlings and crows, I have been told he is a fearsome litigant and will probably take me to court if I do not address his latest question.

In order to pour a quantity of ichor through a sieve into a basin, you would first have to wound, lacerate, or perhaps apply leeches to an immortal Ancient Greek deity. This is no easy task. I would go so far as to say it is impossible. But for the sake of argument, let us say you manage to waylay a passing God on a footpath. You poke at it with a spike and draw ichor, and collect the ichor in a small bowl held under the wound. We shall assume that the God is so surprised by your attack that it does not immediately smite you with divine retribution.

Leaving the Deity crumpled by the wayside, you scuttle off to the patch of ground hidden behind a pile of rocks where you have earlier stored your sieve and basin. You pour the ichor from the bowl through the sieve into the basin, and you note that there is not a trace of residue left in the sieve. Being an ethereal divine fluid, ichor by definition contains no impurities which would get snagged within the lattice of the sieve.

I trust that answers your foolish query, Mr De Burhg [sic]. Please do not write to me again unless you have something pertinent to say.

Let Us Now Praise Greenland

Readers fond of desolate icy nothingness will join me today in celebrating Greenland, for it is the National Day of that bleak paradise, four-fifths of which is covered in ice. Yes, it is Kalaallit Nunaat of which I speak, the land whose flag is shown above, the land which used to be shown as Gruntland on early maps. I would like to think it was so called because it was the home of the Grunty Man who plods so menacingly through the nightmares of tiny children, but here “Grunt” simply means “Ground”.

Just as there is no Grunty Man in Greenland, nor are there any railways, rivers or canals. There are a few roads, true, but only the glorious and lovely towns of Ivittuut and Kangilinnguit are connected by one, every other human settlement being isolated. Look, here is a handy map:

If you are keen on hip hop music, you may wish to go to Greenland to check out the Nuuk Posse, top purveyors of the genre in that part of the world. Be careful, however, that you do not prolong your stay to the point where you succumb to piblokto.

Source : Happy Days In The Icy Wilderness by Mrs Gubbins

Mustard? Custard!

Mustard? Custard! is an exciting parlour game for all the family, best played in pitch darkness. While the lights are still on, each player is dealt a hand of six cards. These are then traded frantically until someone has a hand of a single suit. This player is designated the timekeeper, and is also in charge of the light switch. Each person then places their cards face down on the table.

The timekeeper draws the curtains, closes any shutters, and turns off the light. Using hoops, counters and coat-hangers, the players dash wildly around the room bumping into furniture, walls and each other, all the while screaming at the tops of their voices. Points are gained for bloodcurdling shrieks, bestial howling, and unbridled panic.

After precisely three hours have passed, the timekeeper switches the lights back on. The players have ten seconds to claw their way to the table and collect their cards. A non-participating family member or friend then creeps into the room with a trolley on which there are two large bowls, one filled to the brim with mustard and the other with custard. Big iron spoons are distributed to each player. Starting with the person holding the best hand, and then in descending order, each player plunges their spoon into one of the bowls, gulps down the yellow goo, and shouts “Mustard!” or “Custard!” accordingly.

When everyone has had their turn, the whole game is repeated from scratch, with the important difference that at the end, those who devoured a spoonful of custard must choose the mustard, and vice versa.

There is no outright winner. As in all sports and pastimes, the important thing is taking part.

Monday 20th June 2005

“We ask you to be so good as to pass a law requiring the closing of all windows, dormers, skylights, inside and outside shutters, curtains, casements, bull's-eyes, deadlights, and blinds - in short, all openings, holes, chinks, and fissures through which the light of the sun is wont to enter houses.” — Frederic Bastiat, A Petition From The Manufacturers Of Candles, Tapers, Lanterns, Sticks, Street Lamps, Snuffers, And Extinguishers, And From Producers Of Tallow, Oil, Resin, Alcohol, And Generally Of Everything Connected With Lighting

Fictional Substance of the Week

This week, the Hooting Yard Fictional Substance Of The Week is ichor.

Imagine you are in Ancient Greece, taking a stroll on Mount Parnassus. One of the Gods of Greek mythology suddenly appears in front of you. Imagine too that you are not of a placid and thoughtful nature (as I am sure you are) but a temperamental hothead prone to violence. Surprised by the sudden appearance of a Deity - it does not matter which one - your first instinct is to lash out in terror and alarm. You sock the God on its jaw, cutting its lip. Now, it is not blood which flows from the wound, but ichor, a colourless ethereal fluid which ran through the veins of all the Greek Gods. If you are of a vampiric bent, be sure not to suck the ichor oozing from the God's cut lip, for though it confers immortality on the Deities, it will be ruinous to you as a mere human, for it will poison you.

Lord Byron wrote : “He pattered with his keys at a great rate, / And sweated through his apostolic skin: / Of course his perspiration was but ichor, / Or some such other spiritual liquor.” That gives you the correct pronunciation.

Whether ichor is the root of the word icky, as in “That sponge pudding was so icky that I felt a great wave of nausea o'erwhelm me to the point of Lovecraftian horror” is a moot point.

Sometimes ichor is not fictional. In geology, ichor is a technical term denoting a fluid or emanation from a magma which is held to cause granitization of rock. And in medical parlance, it means the watery ooze from an abrasion, scar, or wound. Do not be mistaken, next time such an ooze seeps from one of your wounds, that you have somehow been transformed into an immortal superbeing. Rather than saying, as the Emperor Vespasian did on his deathbed, “I must be turning into a God”, you should instead go and see your doctor. All the better if your doctor's surgery is at the lip of a magma-riddled volcano.

Next week's Hooting Yard Fictional Substance Of The Week will be phlogiston.

Spot the Ichor

Here is Andrea Mantegna's painting of the Immortals disporting themselves on Mount Parnassus. He painted it in 1497, so it is not a life study. Nevertheless, if you peer at it very, very closely, you may be able to spot a drop of ichor. If you are too impatient to peer studiously, you will just have to imagine the colourless ethereal fluid coursing through their veins.

Sieves and Basins

I have long been promising a definitive series of articles on basins, and am well aware that readers are champing at the bit. Is there anything else, other than a bit, at which one champs? I wish Dobson had written a pamphlet listing other items suitable for champing at, but alas!, he never did, to my knowledge. Even had he done so, it would be out of print, and I would have the devil of a job tracking it down.

By the way, word reaches me that a complete listing of every single Dobson pamphlet has been posted on the internet, but I have yet to track it down. Google gives about two and a half million pages for “Dobson” and nearly twenty thousand for “Dobson+pamphlet”, and finding time to look at that amount of information dizzies my tiny curdled brain, I'm afraid. It would help if we knew Dobson's first name, of course, but I am not sure he had one.

Aloysius Nestingbird once spent a whole winter trying to find out if Dobson's parents ever called him anything except Dobson. He was working from the questionable premise that “everyone has a first name”, and as a result his health was ruined. They took him to hospital in a wheelbarrow, because he was unable to walk, and the ambulance persons were unable to get a stretcher into the hayloft where the scholar was holed up. He had taken refuge there, covered in straw, as the neurasthenic fits brought on by overwork became more pronounced. Nestingbird's mental state was always fragile, as were his shinbones. As a youth he had been an enthusiastic, if incompetent, player of hockey, ice hockey, water polo, and other games involving hefty wooden sticks capable, when wielded with sufficient force, of smashing his bones to bits, as they did, regularly. “It is a bitter irony,” he wrote, “that I acquired a second first name, being known as Aloysius Splinterbones, whereas I was unable to ever find just the one name for Dobson.”

Of course, Splinterbones was not the only nickname that Nestingbird picked up in a career that spanned more decades than I can recall with certainty. Whereas the provenance of Splinterbones is easily explained, some of the others are mysterious, while yet others are highly mysterious. Why, for example, did a little gang of infant banditti who roamed the canal towpaths always refer to Nestingbird as Tab Hunter, when he bore no resemblance to that celebrated actor? We do not know.

I have not forgotten that you are champing at the bit for an essay about basins. It would have been written by now had I not received a letter from a reader asking a deceptively simple question.

Dear Mr Key, wrote someone signing himself Chris De Burhg [sic], When you write your long-awaited and no doubt superb piece about basins, will you be addressing the related issue of sieves? After all, surely a sieve is just a basin with holes in it?

As soon as I read this, I rent my garments and let out a shrill cry, like the Wild Boy of Aveyron. My dejection was immense. I picked up a handful of pebbles and hurled them through the open window at the crows perched on the fence. Then I picked up another handful of pebbles, bigger ones, and threw them at the starlings on the lawn. I knew that both the crows and the starlings would take their revenge later, by pecking at my upholstery and my towels, but the business with the pebbles relieved the pressure on my brain and lifted my spirits, albeit temporarily. I went and washed my hair with an exciting new shower product, then sat down and fired off a reply to my correspondent.

Dear Mr De Burhg [sic], I wrote, You may think you have asked a simple question by raising the issue of sieves as nothing but basins with holes in them, but the simplicity is deceptive. I will now have to rewrite the piece from scratch. So distraught was I on reading your letter that I rent my garments, let out a shrill cry, threw pebbles at crows and starlings, and washed my hair, which is still dripping wet. My brain is now calm enough for me to put pencil to paper. I am going to tear up everything I have written about basins and begin again.

I signed the letter with wild stabbing thrusts of the pencil, burst into tears, and became all floppy, like a rag doll, neglected and abandoned by the side of a hateful pond.

Sunday 19th June 2005

“Nothing is interesting unless it is catalogued.” — Germander Speedwell, Sayings

Ornamental Pond Guilt

When Blodgett worked as a brain analyst, in the period immediately after a war, he became intrigued by cases of what was dubbed Ornamental Pond Guilt. One Saturday afternoon, pursuing his own projects in an otherwise deserted lab, he discovered that by exposing samples of dead brain tissue to an all-enveloping gas filtered through a Kleigland Sieve, he could never achieve the same results twice. He made his way to the canteen, notebook in hand, and scribbled down both the data and his conclusions while drinking cup after cup of nettle tea.

By chance, the canteen employed as mop-person a patient who suffered from Ornamental Pond Guilt. Pabstus V. was one of the first recorded cases of the syndrome, and though by no means cured, his condition was such that he could perform simple tasks such as mopping the floor of a canteen. Blodgett spilled some of his tea on the floor, and Pabstus V. mopped it up. It is one of the most poignant moments in medical history.

Blodgett was, of course, familiar with the case of Pabstus V. He knew that, when following the instructions to assemble an ornamental pond in the garden of his invalid mother, the patient had been stricken with a monumental sense of guilt which left him a gibbering wreckage of a man. Over the next eight months, a series of quacks prescribed various potions, tablets, infusions, and even injections. (The story that leeches were applied to his shoulder blades is apocryphal.) Pabstus V. was eventually carted off to the clinic, but there was little hope that he would ever recover.

Well did Blodgett know that it was the incredibly complex battery of techniques devised by Doctor Fang that had brought the patient so far that he could mop a canteen floor. What Blodgett did not know was that the impossibly handsome and stylishly-dressed figure wielding the mop to mop up his spilled nettle tea was Pabstus V.

Doctor Fang, of course, was ridiculously secretive about his methods. When he died after toppling into a crevasse during an ill-advised hiking holiday, he left no records, not a shred of documentation to allow others to continue his work. There was a fear throughout the clinic that Pabstus V. and the thirty-four other Ornamental Pond Guilt patients would relapse, and no longer be capable of mopping up canteen floors. Hence Blodgett's Saturday sessions in the lab. He knew that if he could discover some way to reproduce Doctor Fang's results, his name would resound throughout the world of brain analysis. A small world to be sure, but it was the universe to Blodgett.

When he came face to face with Pabstus V., but knew him not, that was the first nail in the coffin of Blodgett's career. The second was when Pabstus V., impossibly handsome and impossibly clumsy, accidentally whacked the brain analyst on the head with the wooden handle of his mop. Blodgett was knocked unconscious. When he came to, hours later, he remembered nothing of the last twenty years of his life. He was like Ronald Colman in Random Harvest. He thought he was still what he once had been, a would-be poet, starving in a garret, and thence he returned, to scribble twaddle instead of scientific data. And Pabstus V. remained mopping the canteen floor, a little recovered, yes, but still engulfed by Ornamental Pond Guilt until his dying day.

A Sinful Secret

Here is the cover of A Sinful Secret by Bertha M Clay, included here to draw your attention to the splendid Covers Gallery of the online American Women's Dime Novel Project.

Saturday 18th June 2005

“Methodically he got ready. He rigged up electrical apparatus which would add mixtures of conglomerate matter to the rocket blasts of the Comet. He did the same with his blast guns. Then, tight-lipped, hard-eyed, dressed once more in the space suit, blast guns ready, he returned to the controls. The Comet shook and shivered with the recurrent rocket blasts as he flashed through space toward the vast, glowing globe of the aliens… Blackness plucked at his senses. He could tell by the sudden clinking as loose pieces of metal flew to the walls and clung there, that an alien energy ray had brought him to a halt. He had crashed through into the vessel of the energy things - and now they were holding him there, a prisoner!” — Myer Krulfeld, The Thing From Antares

Bored With Bees

In a startling move which has shaken Hooting Yard to the core, Pansy Cradledew has announced that she will no longer be keeping us up to date with the doings of the bee world.

“I'm bored with bees,” said Pansy, in a statement released yesterday to coincide with the thirty-third anniversary of the burglary at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate building.

“Bees, even killer bees, have begun to bore me,” she continued, “As much as I have enjoyed my tireless researches, I think it's time to move on. Whenever I think about the Watergate break-in that led, eventually, to the downfall of Richard Milhous Nixon, I reflect on the way small things affect big things, how the tiny modifies the titanic. Bees are small, yes, but so are many other things which I could study for fun and profit.”

Asked if she had decided on a new enthusiasm, Pansy said “Carpet beetles”, then swept out of the press conference, trailing befuddlement in her wake. Within seconds, the antiquated Haemoglobin Towers tannoy system was cracking under the strain as the news was relayed from Pang Hill to Hollyhock Lane, where frantic bee persons wept openly, and the constant buzzing in the air faded into an eerie silence.

Carpet beetles, as their name implies, are capable of damaging carpets. These pests will also feed upon many other materials besides carpets and will attack any item composed of animal fibres,such as wool, furs, silk, feathers, felt and leather. Although there are many different species of carpet beetles, the adults of all species are small, oval-shaped beetles about an eighth of an inch long. The black carpet beetle (the most common species) is shiny black. They prefer to feed in dark, undisturbed areas such as closets, attics, within boxes where wool and fur are stored, along and under the edges of carpeting, underneath upholstered furniture, and in air ducts where they feed on lint, pet hair and other bits of debris.

Pansy will be sending in regular bulletins about exciting carpet beetle antics. She is particularly keen on air duct and lint anecdotes.

Coleoptera: Dermestidae

Hoon Hing Boom Bang a Bang

Tap tap tap. Clunk. Tippety tippety tap tap tap. Clunk. Oh. Hoon Hing Boom Bang A Bang. A pudding-basin haircut on the Choctaw man. A goat in distress in a faraway place. Pins and needles and rigorous thought. Hoon Hing Boom Bang A Bang.

When you fall from a tree you've been climbing, and your headache is thumping thump thump, and a pig has a snout and a tail, and there's leakage and victims and loss, how are you going to decide the right time to set fire to everything that has to be set fire to? Food and shelter and clothing, thousands of seaside resorts, Celine Dion's autograph, Lake Winnipeg, and that pudding-basin haircut on the Choctaw Man, his father's gaze and his mother's tongue, his brother's axe and his sister's stick, his daughter's bell and his other daughter's bell as well, both the bells, chiming away. Oh. Hoon Hing. Tap tap tap. Hoon Hing. Clunk. Tap tap tap. Clunk. Clunk. Hoon Hing Boom Bang A Bang.

I went to Oswestry and I went to Dawlish. I took my library books back. Gigantic screeching vultures scraped across the sky, and the sky was blue, and the library sat on a hill near a lake, that legendary drained lake, where they found the big white bones of something that they did not know had ever lived. They drew around the bones with chalk and then they took the bones away. They were big and white and boxed in crates and tap tap tap, tippety tap, clunk. Clunk.

Hey there, lantern-jawed rag-wrapped florist. Have you seen these strands of floss? The Choctaw Man had some for supper, and now he's writhing in that ditch. He used to be a narcoleptic, then he joined the river police. Now he's writhing in a ditch because he ate those strands of floss. Hoon Hing. Hoon Hing.

Dark and cumbersome. Love in a mist. An orphan's shattered view of a hedge. The necessity for each of the crew to bale when asked. Here's your bucket, here's your pail. With U Thant In Kamchatka, an anthology by Several Hands. All those widows lurking in doorways slicing up cabbage and shelling peas. I was in the snow with a horse and a pillow, and I lavished attention on things unseen. Tap. Clunk.

Disco jam bag hellpit frock coat. Breakfast jar pot bandage king. That was me in all my glory. Tap. Clunk. Hoon Hing Boom Bang A Bang.

Thursday 16th June 2005

“Not all of those who have been stimulated by the new freedom of speech to thrust themselves forward as teachers of sex hygiene, and as social reformers, are safe leaders. Some are ignorant and unaware that enthusiasm is not a satisfactory substitute for knowledge. Some are hysterical. At a recent purity convention, a woman said, ‘I know little about the facts, but it is wonderful how much ignorance can accomplish when accompanied by devotion and persistence’. That declaration was applauded.” — William Trufant Foster, The Social Emergency : Studies In Sex Hygiene And Morals

Sag Mir Wo Die Blumen Sind?

After breakfast, I did a quick set of Blötzmann Exercises (Second Handbook), and then I hoisted my rucksack on to my back and strode manfully off to the countryside to look at all the Blumen. The lake next to the decoy airfield was full of decoy ducks. For the first time I noticed a shabby clapboard hut which, according to a sign on its roof, was selling items of stationery at bargain prices. I strode manfully across the verdant meadows, stepping on innumerable Blumen as I went, and pushed my way into the tenebrous interior of the hut, wherein sat a crone sharpening a pencil.

“Hail, crone!” I cried.

“Hail, wayfaring rucksack-person!” yelled the crone, deafeningly. I was disconcerted. From her withered old body, festooned in noisome rags, piped the voice of a youngster. I wondered, with a start, if my manful strides had led me inadvertently into the spooky Land of Gaar, reputed to be teeming with imps and sprites, spider gods and changelings, and with things that should not be. But I had faced peril before, and I had eaten a large breakfast. Quick thinking has always been my trademark, so I nipped out of the hut and uprooted a fistful of calla lilies to give to the crone. If she was a malevolent being from a parallel universe the Blumen would appease her, and if she was but a crone, there would be no harm done.

“Hail once more, crone!” I declaimed, skipping back into the hut, “Here, have these calla lilies to brighten up your hovel!”

The crone accepted my gift graciously. As she reached, creakily, to take the Blumen, a slight disarrangement of her rags revealed the source of her arrestingly youthful voice. Wires trailed from her sleeve, and following their path across the floor I saw that she was attached to a Standard Curpin Voicebox. Mischievously, I turned the dial to the “US Vice Presidents” setting, so when next the crone spoke she would sound exactly like Spiro Agnew*.

I was about to ask the price of pencil sharpeners when a shelduck waddled into the hut. At least, I thought it was a shelduck. It may have been a teal. Its arrival sent the crone into a frenzy of terror. I had to turn down the volume on the Voicebox, so loudly did she scream. The teal or shelduck glared at her with uncanny purple eyes, and she carried on screaming.

There was little I could do. My training never prepared me to deal with terrifying ducks. Not that I was scared of the teal or shelduck myself, you understand. I fear nothing any more, not even those recurring nightmares I have about buttons, for I have been following Blötzmann's Second Handbook for five years. That is why I am able to stride manfully about the countryside trampling on Blumen without a care in the world.

I picked up a pencil sharpener and placed a handful of coins in its place. The crone still screamed, the duck still stared. I left the hut, and was blinded by the sun, bathing the fields in an unearthly light. As I approached Gruesome Ditch, and my eyes adjusted, I saw that all the Blumen had vanished without trace. And no birds did sing.

*NOTE : It has not escaped my attention that Spiro Agnew is an anagram of both Grow A Penis and Grow A Spine.

An Eye for a Bargain

The story above mentions bargain price stationery. I came across a rather more enticing offer today, while reading the always-interesting Religion News Blog.

In my more puritanical moments, I have been known to declare that all advertising is hateful, and that this would be a far, far better world without it. Such pronouncements reckon without eBay, which appears to have infiltrated every cranny of the internet.

There I was, browsing the Religion News Blog for further detail on the magnificent headline Little Pebble Planned To Start ‘A New Race’, when I noticed this, at the bottom of the page, tucked among the adverts:

Priests : Quality new and used items. Search for priests now! : www.ebay.com

That exclamation mark is priceless.

How to Look After a Horse

B - Have you a horse?

E - I have a horse.

B - This horse you have, has it been known to suffer from some common ailments of the horse?

E - A horse I have. A knowledge of horse health I have not.

B - Better put “horse ill-health” than “horse health”. Lack of horse ailment knowledge would suggest you know not of spavins, sweeney, ringbone, windgalls, poll evil, callous, cracked heels, galls of all kinds, fresh wounds, sprains, bruises, fistula, sitfast, sand cracks, strains, lameness, foundered feet, scratches or grease, mange, rheumatism, bites of animals, external poisons, painful nervous affections, frost bites, boils, corns, whitlows, burns and scalds, chilblains, chapped hands, cramps, contraction of the muscles, swellings, weakness of the joints, caked breast, &c.

E - I know them not but find it hard to credit they are all ailments of horse.

B - They are indeed not entirely those of the horse, but of that no matter. My point is that by making purchase of Geo. W. Merchant's Celebrated Gargling Oil, unparalleled in the history of medicine as the most remarkable external application ever discovered for horses and human flesh, you will cure your horse of all the specified ailments.

E - I shall make such purchase without further ado.

Hooting Yard is indebted to Odd Ends. Go there and be delighted.

Tuesday 14th June 2005

“Another blessed ‘passing-over’ I viewed was that of a little girl on earth crippled by an accident in which she was run over by a heavy dray, and which necessitated the amputation of her leg. Her mother had ‘died’ shortly before this accident, and she was left in the charge of people who had no kindliness, were hard and callous, her one sympathetic companion a little spaniel pup. Without this dear dumb brute, existence would have been well-nigh unbearable. A neglected chill resulting in pneumonia happily finished off this poor little human fragment and relegated her to a sphere where love and happiness awaited her. The mother, attended by a band, of which I was a member, watched at the ‘death’-bed of this sweet little creature, and when the last breath of life had been drawn in that frail body, helped the luminous soul to ascend to a fairer setting.” — Lilian Walbrook, The Case Of Lester Coltman

Name That Seismologist

Here is an eminent seismologist pointing at seismological data with a small stick, or possibly a pencil. Not only is this seismologist a key member of the splendidly-named Colorado Earthquake Hazard Mitigation Council, he is also Director of the U.S. Geological Survey's National Earthquake Information Centre, based in Denver. I draw him to your attention for a particular reason. It was this seismologist who, after the Boxing Day tsunami, criticised the lack of an early warning system of tide gauges that could have saved thousands of lives. And his name is Waverly Person.

Thanks to Ed Baxter

Here Be Butterscotch

Here be butterscotch, here, here and here, on this fragment of a map, painted on linoleum many years ago. It seems butterscotch was used by the cartographer as a symbol for sweetshops, and there were dozens of them in this town and its hinterland, if the map is accurate. We do not know the name of the town, for an infuriating thing about this map, or the tattered scrap of it that has survived, is that there are no words on it, no writing, just pictures and emblems and heraldic devices. Among all the butterscotch symbols there is a much larger drawing of a sort of flattened cylinder, vaguely tapered at one end, which may be meant to represent a toothpaste tube. With all those sweetshops, it would not come as a surprise if there was a toothpaste factory in the town.

I have said that the town being unidentified is cause for fury. What makes my rage pathological is the fact that what is left of the map is nailed to an enormous piece of masonry in the innermost chamber of a labyrinthine building, and the building itself is almost inaccessible, located as it is on some remote and godforsaken islet thousands of miles from where I live.

For eight years now, with my memory of the map in my mind's eye, I have been studying gazetteers and directories, slowly compiling a list of all the toothpaste factories in the world, including those long abandoned or demolished. I am driving crackers the staff of my local library, and have long grown used to the winces and groans that greet me as I sail majestically through the doors of the reference section. I have not managed - yet - to find the town I seek, but I have learned a great deal about toothpaste manufacture and, by the by, about confectionery. Quiz me as fiercely as you like on the topic of boiled sweets, or barley sugar, and I think you will find I pass muster.

It has been suggested to me that I should extend my researches to linoleum, to ascertain the source of the fragment on which the map is painted. I may be fixated beyond the bounds of reason, but I am no fool.

I always wear gloves when working.

I pore over the books brought to me, sucking on butterscotch, each wrapper neatly folded and tucked in my pocket. When I get home, I put each day's butterscotch wrappers into a shoebox. There are dozens of shoeboxes, labelled and shelved and dusted every Thursday morning, just before my weekly check on the rain gauge.

I will tell you all about the rain gauge, and its deadly significance, when I have put a name to the town on the map.

Monday 13th June 2005

“It was pretty generally believed a few years ago that in large fires kept continually burning there was generated an animal called a salamander. It required seven years to grow and attain maturity, and if the fires were kept burning longer than that there was great danger that the animal might make its escape from its fiery matrix, and, if this should happen, it would range round the world, destroying all it came in contact with, itself almost indestructible. Hence large fires, such as those of blast furnaces in ironworks, were extinguished before the expiry of the seven years, and the embryo monster taken out.” — James Napier, Folk Lore

Hold on to Your Hat

He's back! He's making grunty noises! It's the Grunty Man! Just when you thought it was safe to let go of your hat, June sees the return of the very very frightening Grunty Man, who stalks your nightmares, makes his grunty noises, and then stalks some more. Well may you shudder, milksop! Shudder as much as you like, but make sure you hold on to your hat. It has been known for centuries that holding on to your hat is an effective way of stopping it flying off your head as you quake in fear, something we have seen happen so often in times of terror. And no time is more terrible than the time when the Grunty Man comes a-stalking, making his grunty noises. But wait! If you are in the habit of dyeing your hat, make sure the dye is dry before you hold it, or you will get dye on your hand, and being so marked, the Grunty Man will sniff you out as he comes stalking and grunting and you will be fodder for his maw.

The Passion Of The Grunty Man opens at the Excelsior Cinema, O'Houlihan's Wharf, very very soon.

Two Hats and a Hog

Left to right : hat, hat, hog. A splendid example of the Blötzmann Hats & Hog Test.

Those Gubernatorial Bells

O how they clanged, those gubernatorial bells! It is eighty years now since their peals sounded, but still I hear them in my head. They clanged ceaselessly, all day and all night, deafeningly loud, for years on end. Cows stood dazed in the fields around the bell-tower, many, many cows, too many cows to count, all dazed and stunned, and in those days no cowherds came to give them succour.

In your tongue, “gubernatorial” refers to governorship, but in my land at that time the gubernatorial bells were the ever-clanging bells of the ferocious tyrant known variously as the Gub or Guber or Gubernat. Some said the Gub was a fiend in human form, but none had ever seen it, so how could they be so sure, muttering darkly in the corner of the tavern, professing a knowledge they did not have, rewarded with a refilled tankard by some credulous foreign person on an ill-advised visit to our bell-blasted village?

Dobson came here once. He crashed through the tavern doors, a clumsy adventurer - for he was young then - and jabbered at anyone who would listen that he wanted to go up the hill to the castle, to meet the Gubernat face to face.

“And what do you think you'll find?” sneered an old frogman in the last stages of drunken despair. Within seconds he keeled off his stool and lay insensible in the sawdust. Dobson answered him regardless.

“I know not what I shall find, old man,” he announced, “I know only that if those benighted bells are ever to stop clanging, the Gubernat must be dragged from its perch in the castle atop the hill. Then you will know peace, as will the countless cows in your pretty fields, who now are dazed and stunned.”

“Our fields are indeed pretty,” muttered someone lurking in the gloom, “As is your speech, young Dobson. But the Gub will never allow you into its presence. The last swashbuckling foreign person who came here on a mission such as yours ran away gibbering along Hollyhock Lane. They recovered his corpse from the duckpond a week later. When our Necropod Woman made her examination, do you know what she found? His brain had been sucked out into space!”

There is an art to saying “Pshaw!” with conviction. Later in life, as you know, Dobson was one of the great pshawers, but back then he was callow and shallow, and the “pshaw” he pshawed was a pitiful pip on his lips. In truth, he was unnerved by this news. He resolved to obtain a letter of introduction from the Gubernat's solicitors, Buttercups and Tod, whose office he had passed on his way from the railway station. He pranced out of the tavern and retraced his steps.

Neither Buttercups nor Tod was available, he learned. Cow business kept them fully occupied, for there were numberless cows and only the pair of them, the one greasy, the other mute. Dobson sat on a lump of stone in the market square, biting his fingernails and praying for the insane clanging of the gubernatorial bells to stop. That is how I found him, so many years ago, on that gorgeous day when first we met, when still the cowherds shunned the cows, when the bells still clanged, in that village far away, where I plied my trade as the Necropod Woman, fruitlessly searching for brains sucked into space, and for a pamphleteer whose pamphlets were not yet written, not yet read.

Saturday 11th June 2005

“The First Reader was mostly in words of one syllable. In this book we find the story of the lame dog that, when cured, brought another lame dog to be doctored; of the kind boy who freed his caged bird; of the cruel boy who drowned the cat and pulled wings and legs from flies;… of the chimney sweep who was tempted to steal a gold watch but put it back and was thereafter educated by its owner; of the whisky boy; and of the mischievous boy who played ghost and made another boy insane. Nearly every lesson has a moral clearly stated in formal didactic words at its close.” — Henry H Vail, A History Of The McGuffey Readers

The Story of the Lame Dog, the Caged Bird, the Drowned Cat, the Gold Watch, the Whisky Boy and the Insane Boy

Once upon a time, there was an insane boy who could only be becalmed by listening to prog rock.

On Monday, a Barclay James Harvest album was played to him.

On Tuesday, there was a power cut, and in his mania the insane boy went out and attacked a lame dog. The dog's name was Hoo-Boo-Goo. It was a winter ghost dog.

On Wednesday, electricity was restored and the insane boy listened over and over again to Pantagruel's Nativity by Gentle Giant.

On Thursday the insane boy absconded from his deep dark dank cellar and headed for the hills. With one swift inhuman movement he plucked a starling from the sky and put it in a birdcage.

On Friday his keepers forced the insane boy to listen to Atomic Rooster at an almost imperceptible volume.

On Saturday the insane boy took advantage of a moment's inattention on the part of his guards to drown a cat in a puddle. The cat was called Fad-Fod-Flap and it was fourteen years old.

On Sunday Carl Palmer of Emerson Lake And Palmer visited the insane boy and played a drum solo that lasted all day.

On Monday the insane boy smashed a gold watch into a thousand bits with his terrifyingly pale fists.

On Tuesday the insane boy had an iPod with only one track clamped to his head. The song was A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers by Van Der Graaf Generator.

On Wednesday the insane boy managed to smuggle a bottle of spirits into his filthy cell. The warders wrote a report for Captain Jarvis in which they called the insane boy “the whisky boy”, inaccurately, as the bottle contained turps.

On Thursday the insane boy begged to hear Tales Of Topographic Oceans by Yes.

On Friday he was pronounced incurable.

That story was in words of more than one syllable. It has no moral.

The Majesty of Parliament

I have mentioned before the incidental treasures to be found in Hansard, the official record of parliamentary debates. I was saved the bother of ploughing through it yesterday because Simon Hoggart of the Guardian - the “Third Man” of Blunkettgate notoriety, lest we forget - picked out some splendid examples of the timeless wisdom spouted by our rulers. Read these words, digest them, and know that you have become an immeasurably better-informed person:

“Horses have greater need of passports than we do.”

“This whole debate is being dominated by badgers!”

“If in doubt, kill something.”

A Bag on Your Foot

Wearing a bag on your foot is an effective way of stopping water leaking into your boot. Such a disaster can occur when the sole of your boot is pitted with holes and you step inadvertently into a puddle of rainwater which has fallen out of the sky. The sole of your boot may be so pitted because it is old and worn, or it may be that the holes appeared all together, of a sudden, for example if your boot came into contact with an industrial hole-punch. Whatever the cause of the holes in the sole of your boot, which will allow water to seep into your sock, you will be very careful to watch out for puddles of rainwater, and other watery dangers, such as duckponds and the sea. But I would argue that it is a near certainty your vigilance will not be so acute as to withstand the unexpected. You may be hailed by an acquaintance aboard a passing bus with a top deck open to the elements. A klaxon may sound. You may be temporarily blinded by a mysterious hovering ball of incandescent light. In these hypothetical cases, and numerous others, your holed boot may splash into a body of water and your sock will become drenched, as will your foot, as likely as not, for it is rare for a sock to be watertight in this country.

That is why a bag worn on your foot, over your boot of course, can be such a boon. A judiciously chosen bag will stop water entering the holes in the sole of your boot and soaking into your sock, making your foot wet. We all know what happened to those poor terrified soldiers cowering in trenches during the Great War. Let us take precautions not available to them. Remember, they did not have plastic bags.

You will have noticed the words “judiciously chosen” in the second sentence of the previous paragraph. I inserted them when preparing the final draft of this text, when it struck me with tremendous force that to say merely “a bag will stop water entering the holes in the sole of your boot and soaking into your sock, making your foot wet” was a laughably inadequate prescription. I did not actually laugh, but I thumped my forehead with the flat of my hand and groaned at my inexactitude.

Selecting the bag to wear on your foot is not onerous. You just have to ensure that it is a bag which will be impervious to water, hence the reference to plastic bags. Think polythene, or even rubber. It is tempting to advise you against using a paper bag, but you already know that a paper bag would be useless for our present purposes. If you do not know that using a paper bag will leave you with a leaking boot and a soaked sock and foot, you are either too young to be reading this or you have an almost inconceivable lack of common sense, like Tim, who put a paper bag on his boot when he dangled his foot into a paddling pool.

It is for Tim, and those like Tim, that this article has been written. When you meet Tim, and see at a glance that he has only one leg, you will understand why throughout I have referred to the boot and the sock and the foot in the singular. If you are a biped, you can still reap the benefits of my thoughtful advice by making the necessary adjustments to the text in your head. I am in no mood to repeat the whole thing again, ever, even if flooding becomes widespread in these dismal fens where we live out our dismal lives under a dismal sky that threatens rain again today.

Friday 10th June 2005

“Tasmania shows us her animal freak, the platypus paradoxus, the beast with a bill, first cousin to our tailors and butchers, all of whom are beasts with bills. Our own country has added to the philatelic ‘zoo’ by placing a herd of cattle on one of the Trans-Mississippi issue. That it is a pretty picture cannot be denied but the connection between cows and postage stamps is not obvious.” — John N Luff, What Philately Teaches

Indignant Pansy

Fresh from reading what she describes as “a web page full of corrupted incomprehensible gibberish (though this may be no bad thing)”, Pansy Cradledew writes in response to Wednesday's item entitled The Voice Of Dobson?:

“I really feel I must take you to task about your treatment of Little Severin the Mystic Badger. How could you allow a small badger to act as a stooge in a plot involving shady dealings? He may no longer be quite so small as he once was, but surely poor, impressionable youngsters - badgers especially - should be protected from ne'er-do-wells bent on extortion? I'm shocked. Surely even languishing in a forgotten corner of the Yard would have been preferable to being a pawn in La Gubbins' questionable scheme. Yours indignantly, Pansy Cradledew”

I made the mistake of showing this letter to our resident crone, who was mightily pleased at being dubbed “La Gubbins” and is now having visiting cards printed up bearing the legend La Gubbins, Doyenne of Hooting Yard. This seems pointless to me, as she never actually visits anybody, preferring to spend her time knitting, brewing pots of tea, hatching fiendish criminal schemes and puckering her thin dry lips. Once or twice I have caught her reading the Fu-Manchu novels of Sax Rohmer, and I fear she is taking that villain as the role model for her dotage.

Train Your Brain

In a culture dominated by pap, it is ever more important to exercise our brains and keep them supple. There are countless techniques for giving our craniums (crania?) a boost, activities which seem to have little or no practical utility but send our synapses a-buzzing. Chess, crosswords, and numerical puzzles are popular, and an alarming number of people pay homage at the altar of brain guru Tony Buzan, he of the sepulchral voice and sinister black cape.


At Hooting Yard we have devised a new method. It's cheap, simple, and - most importantly - fun*, and we're very pleased to launch it today with a special gala in the field next to the Blister Lane Bypass, which you will probably have missed by the time you read this.

Set to become a popular craze, Memorise All The Place-Names In Finland (Suomi)™ can be played by young and old alike. Over the next few years, we will be listing all the place-names in Finland (Suomi), in no particular order, a dozen at a time. All you need to do is commit them to memory, perhaps while eating your breakfast. You may wish to be a solo player, or you can gather with other Memorise All The Place-Names In Finland (Suomi)™ players and hold tournaments. Overexcitement can be a risk at such events, so please take advice from your doctor if you suffer from any perilous ailments.

To start you off, here are the first twelve Finnish place-names: Petäjäjärvi, Enonlahti, Tuukkala, Hööpakka, Torp, Aho, Sund, Maarianhamina, Eugmo, Törmäsenvaara, Korkeakangas, Lumparland.

*NOTE : A caveat. One must always bear in mind the immortal words of Dr Robert Matthews - “You have to define fun or you will have none”.


Ferenc Puskas, who shared his name with the legendary Hungarian footballer, was a beefy clot of a man. Unlike his namesake, he never played for Honved. He never played football at all. Gas was what fascinated him, to the point of ruin. Gas and eels.

The other Ferenc Puskas

In his lecture What Philately Teaches, John N Luff reminds us that “the connection between cows and postage stamps is not obvious” and the same may be said of eels and gas, of gas and eels. Within Ferenc's teeming skull, however, the two could not be disentangled. Beefy clot he may have been, but he had an extraordinary ability to see linkages between things of which most of us are oblivious.

There is a story about him, that he once gassed an eel, but it has been proved to be untrue. And how could it be true? We are dealing with a man who spoke to eels, communed with them, in a way little understood even now, half a century after his death. Because he salivated at four times the normal rate, Puskas' speaking voice was difficult to decipher, and he did not help matters by forever sucking on gobstoppers, even in his sleep. That is why the transcript of his one radio interview, conducted in his harbour hut in 1931, is so patchy. Acute and erudite questions pour forth, but of his replies only a few words are intelligible, punctuated by infuriating ellipses, hundreds of them, more ellipses than one is ever likely to find in any other single text since the invention of the alphabet. (That may sound like hyperbole, and maybe it is, but I know what I am talking about. See my Compendium Of Elliptical Phrases In World Literature From The Dawn Of Time To The Present Day if you doubt me.)

So, for example, we get this:

Interviewer : Mr Puskas, it has been said that you communicate with eels, and that the subject of most of your discussions with them is gas. You claim that most of your knowledge of gas comes from what eels tell you. As a beefy clot, you have an air of saintly innocence which makes it unlikely that you are lying. Could it be that you are deluded?

Puskas : … stoop … bag … hat … fop … glue … pot … gunk …

Inarticulate lump he may have been, but we cannot simply dismiss Ferenc Puskas. As long as there are men and women on this planet who care about gas and eels, his name will live on, a beacon in the darkness, shining brightly, then sputtering, fading, until it is finally extinguished, and all is ruin.

Wednesday 8th June 2005

“She had no way of knowing how long she sat there before the tapping on her window brought her to her feet with a start. Stark fear squeezed the breath from her body and made her incapable of motion. Suddenly a face appeared at the window! A strange face, yet hauntingly familiar. In a flash she recognized it to be that of Phyllis, the trapeze artist, but in some way it was different! Haltingly, she made her way to the window and threw back the catch. Into the room bounded the half nude figure of a man!” — Hugh J Gallagher, Death Mates For The Lust-Lost

A Reminder About the Allocation of Weeks

Last week, Our Lady of Pituitary Glands. This week, the Goon Fang Pinocchio-Being. Next week, the Complacent Herons of Totteridge & Whetstone.

Please ensure your beads and counters are correctly aligned. Sa-ga-po!

The Taxonomy of Ducks, Swans and Geese Is in a State of Flux

Captain Baxter made one last, desperate attempt to adjust the hooters, knobs and boosters on the console.

“For god's sake, man, the taxonomy of ducks, swans and geese is in a state of flux!” he screamed. But it was too late…

Ten days earlier, it had all seemed so simple. Baxter had been summoned to the Admiralty on a hot Tuesday morning. The place was swarming with admirals, but by asking a series of increasingly astute questions, he tracked down the admiral he had come to see. Righteous Rank Admiral O'Houlihan was a forlorn and tawdry man, and Baxter found him lurking in a corner of his office where light never penetrated. He hissed at the captain to join him there.

“I'm glad you could come, Baxter. For months now I've been getting intelligence reports about a certain matter that, I don't mind telling you, has frozen the blood in my veins. That is why I skulk in corners.” He shuddered. “I skulk, and as you can see, I shudder. You would, too, Baxter, if you knew what I know about a certain matter. And know you shall, soon enough. I'm sending you on a mission.”

Baxter's nose began to bleed, but he staunched it with a large rectangular pad of cotton wool.

“It's lucky for you that I am not a vampire,” said the Admiral, mysteriously. His suit was cheap, his ears great prominent flaps the colour of death, his shoes had been gnawed at by weasels, and he lacked backbone. That was why he needed Baxter. Baxter's backbone was the talk of the Admiralty, not just canteen gossip but the subject of secret memoranda, bulging dossiers, and meetings attended by every single admiral in the building, all crammed into O'Houlihan's sunless refuge, jostling for space. Baxter knew nothing of this. He knew a lot about ships, rigging, cables, hawsers, decks both poop and orlop, dinghies, oars, the thews into which oars are slotted, and many other topics of maritime significance. His diet consisted chiefly of seaweed and ship's biscuits. Until today.

Admiral O'Houlihan reached into the darkness which engulfed this corner of the room, and Baxter heard cranking noises.

“Before you attend to a certain matter, Baxter, we must have lunch,” he said, trying unsuccessfully to disguise his forlornness. His stick-thin arms set to work winching up a crate of food from a pantry far, far below. Baxter offered to help, but the Admiral was a proud man in spite of his tawdriness. At long last he was able to haul the crate into the room.

“We shall eat here, in the shadows,” he announced, and began unloading the food. The pair of them tucked into a feast of baps, buns, eggs, fat, jam, pie, beans, cake, chops, curd, flan, kale, pork, rice, rolls, rusks, sago, soup, suet, tarts, bacon, bread, broth, cloves, cream, dough, flour, fudge, gravy, gruel, honey, icing, jelly, liver, mince, prunes, pulses, salad, scones, syrup, toast, wafers, yeast, batter, bonbons, butter, cheese, comfits, eclairs, faggots, garlic, greens, junket, kidneys, mousse, noodles, nougat, oxtails, pastry, peppers, potatoes, ragout, raisins, simnel, sorbet, sponge, toffee, walnuts and peppermint, at the end of which Baxter was given full details of his mission. It would be no easy task, but he kissed the Admiral's forehead as a sign that he accepted it.

O'Houlihan wedged himself even further into the corner as Baxter took his leave, striding across the filthy office and placing his blood-soaked rectangular pad of cotton wool into a basket before closing the door gently behind him. Little did either of them know that in ten days time the taxonomy of ducks, swans and geese would be in a state of flux, and Baxter would face a peril greater than death itself!

The Voice of Dobson?

A cruel hoax has been played on your gullible editor, dear readers. The Duty Git took a metal tapping machine message the other day, the import of which was that Hooting Yard was being offered a tape recording of Dobson's voice. It was, the mysterious messenger said, a brief fragment from a lecture delivered in a blizzard-wracked seaside resort some time in the early 1950s. I was dumbfounded. If true, this would be the only audio recording of the out-of-print pamphleteer's voice to have survived the conflagration which laid waste the Potato Building.

I had my suspicions that the caller was merely a deceitful poltroon, of course, but after a hastily-arranged staff meeting in the boiler room of Haemoglobin Towers, we sent Mrs Gubbins off to the bank to collect the necessary cash in unmarked fivers. I deplore the crone's instinctive criminality, but needs must when the devil drives, if I am using that saying correctly, which I suspect I am not.

Arrangements were made for a crack-of-dawn tryst under Sawdust Bridge. In exchange for the sum of fifteen pounds, our representative (Little Severin the Mystic Badger) would take possession of a tape recording that, if genuine, would prompt a revolution in the ever-exciting field of Dobson studies. Mrs Gubbins tied a little cloth bag on the badger, patted him on the head, and sent him on his way. All we could do was wait, pacing up and down and drinking endless cups of tea. I tried to distract myself by thinking about chrysanthemums and duck densities, but the tension was unbearable. Tension often is, in prose.

Little Severin returned at four o' clock in the afternoon. Trembling, I took the magnetic tape from the pouch and inserted it into some kind of machine that would play it. And then I listened to twenty-six seconds of speech that I knew in my heart was not Dobson. Mrs Gubbins insisted that it was, but what does she know?

And yet… and yet…

What do you think, dear reader? Listen. Perhaps that accent is faked? Perhaps there is some sort of distortion? Perhaps it should be listened to backwards? Letters on this important matter are welcome.

Tuesday 7th June 2005

“A fondness for trifles is certainly no less conspicuous in age than youth; and we daily see it among persons of the best understanding, who wholly neglect every essential to real happiness in the pursuit of those very toys which children cry to be indulged in; even such as a bit of ribband, or the sound of a monosyllable tacked to the name; without considering that those badges of distinction, like bells about an idiot's neck, frequently serve only to render their folly more remarkable, and expose them to the contempt of the lookers on, who perhaps too, as nature is the same in all, want but the same opportunity to catch no less eagerly at the tawdry gewgaw.” — Eliza Fowler Haywood, Life's Progress Through The Passions, or The Adventures Of Natura

The Lure of Lists

I have always been struck by the fact that one way to describe a condition of apathy, ennui, tiredness or general debility is to say that we are listless. The word itself tells us how to rouse ourselves from such a stupor - get a list! A good list is a marvellous thing, and sure to blow away the cobwebs of Weltschmerz*.

That is the first point. The second point is contained in a letter I received some time ago from an anonymous correspondent, for whom I suspect English is a second or even third language. This person wrote:

“You are mentioning birds very often in the Hooting Yard. But I think you know little of bird life in truth. You say of cormorants, linnets, crows, ducks and some others but it is of a limited field, Mr Frank Key. Do you know others?”

I am afraid to say there is a grain of truth in that, as readers of an ornithological bent have probably realised. Anyway, what brings these two points together? Yesterday I referred to the statue entitled Taxonomy of Swans which is cluttering up my bathroom. Doing research for the sculpture, I discovered that apparently “the taxonomy of ducks, swans and geese is in a state of flux”. (I am afraid I cannot recall the source of that splendid quotation.) I fretted over this, and extended my reading from library books to the internet. And it was while I was scampering through various bird-related sites that I chanced upon the World Checklist of Passerine Birds and the World Checklist of Non-Passerine Birds.

Could I have been more excited? I doubt it. Will you be as excited as I was? Possibly. One thing is for sure - my anonymous correspondent will be pleased to note that in future he or she is less likely to read here about cormorants, linnets, crows and ducks, for they will be supplanted by tiny tyrant manakins, buff-throated foliage gleaners, nukupuus, drab hemispinguses and tinkling cisticolas, among many, many others.

Two different types of hemispingus, neither of them remotely drab

*NOTE :The Cobwebs Of Weltschmerz is, of course, the title of an incomplete and unpublished novel by Ah-Fang Van Der Houygendorp, the Sino-Dutch funnelweb spider expert and one-time husband of Mrs Gubbins. See October 2004 for more information about him.

Killer Bees : The Mystery Solved

See how we move so easily from birds to bees? Some people think that Hooting Yard is compiled in some vague and random fashion, the ordering of items being based on whatever springs into Frank's pea-sized but pulsating brain from moment to moment. Ha! If only it were that simple. So abstruse is the underlying system, rumours are flying about that Dan Brown's next billion-selling blockbuster could well be The Hooting Yard Code, in which connections, patterns, and inexplicably deep twaddle are to be found between this website, the legend of Prester John, Atlantis, the moon landings, Blunkettgate, and Rosicrucianism. It is all there, if only you know where to look.

Where was I? Bees. Killer bees, to be precise. Pansy Cradledew, who is tirelessly enthusiastic about researching such matters, has stumbled upon the solution to the mystery of killer bee attacks. She was reading that tremendous book, the original Chambers' Book Of Days, which has been lauded here before, and came upon this:

“It has been shewn in a contemporary publication, that it is customary in many parts of England, when a death takes place, to go and formally impart the fact to the bees, to ask them to the funeral, and to fix a piece of crape upon their hives; thus treating these insects as beings possessed of something like human intelligence, and therefore entitled to all the respect which one member of a family pays to the rest. Not long before penning these notes, I met with an instance of this feeling about bees. A neighbour of mine had bought a hive of bees at an auction of the goods of a farmer who had recently died. The bees seemed very sickly, and not likely to thrive, when my neighbour's servant bethought him that they had never been put in mourning for their late master; on this he got a piece of crape and tied it to a stick, which he fastened to the hive. After this the bees recovered, and when I saw them they were in a very flourishing state - a result which was unhesitatingly attributed to their having been put into mourning.”

Pansy sees here the key to the antisocial behaviour of killer bees. Unlike what happened with the lucky hives in the quoted passage, most bereaved families in this day and age forget to include bees in the mourning process. If you doubt that, try to recall the last time you saw a grief-stricken relict tying a piece of crape to a stick and attaching it to a beehive. As this sensible practice has died out, so millions of bees, deprived of the opportunity to mourn their human pals, are thrown into dangerous neurotic confusion. Bereft, ignored, and not even given a piece of crape on a stick, let alone counselling, they are unable to achieve closure and thus band together into swarms of homicidal buzzing frenzy, with predictable - and catastrophic - results.

Pansy will be presenting evidence to a joint panel of experts on funeral arrangements, bereavement, and bees in the near future.

The Orchard

Go to the orchard, and then come back, and don't forget to bring the burlap sack. My poultice is in there, and so is my lint, and I just trod upon an upturned tack.

This ancient and well-known folk rhyme is the starting point for a soon-to-be-published set of verses by Dennis Beerpint. Mrs Gubbins contacted the poet via her metal tapping machine to talk to him about it, but the transcript of their conversation was pecked at by flocks of cinnamon-rumped trogons and vernal hanging-parrots and rendered illegible, alas, alack.

Monday 6th June 2005

“Again there was that uncanny effect of diabolical intelligence. The hissing, whirling ball of purple fire followed its predecessor… They heard a muffled explosion this time. Lurid tongues of light speared from the window, dancing like an aurora borealis. The room inside looked for a moment to those staring from the darkness like the mouth of some fantastic inferno such as the hand of a Doré might have depicted. Above the noise of the concussion they heard a single, horrible cry. Then blackness descended and the night seemed to close in, bringing silence with it. The voices of the detectives grew hushed with amazement and the awe of the unknown.” — Paul Chadwick, Doctor Zero

Birds That Go on Water

I was alerted by an article in today's Guardian to the existence of the highly commendable Duck Density organisation. Devoted to the task of measuring duck densities, as their name suggests, this splendid body counters the belief of many that all university students are feckless, beer-swilling rascals. Clearly some of them have their heads screwed on and their priorities right.

“Birds that go on water” is Duck Density's satisfyingly simple definition of what a duck is, and although the website could benefit from a little more gravitas, I can only applaud. I am sure you will join me.

A Pedant's Righteous Nostrums

It has to be said that most of the inhabitants of O'Houlihan's Wharf are not worth writing about. They are, with few exceptions, a grey and insipid bunch. One of those exceptions, however, is the pedant from whose pen streams a series of righteous nostrums, or possibly nostra, regularly sent out into the world, or at least into this bilgewater-befouled corner of it, posted as they are on a noticeboard outside the pet shop, from which they are rapidly torn down and stuffed into the pockets of those citizens who collect them with something approaching mania.

Three questions present themselves to the inquiring mind. Who is this pedant? What are his nostrums? And are they righteous?

I do not have an inquiring mind, at least not today, for I am too busy putting the finishing touches to my Taxonomy Of Swans in tin, wood, grease and sand, an imposing sculpture which has not yet found a buyer and may therefore remain wedged into my bathroom for years to come. But I know that readers will be curious about the pedant and his nostrums and their righteousness, so I asked Dr Ruth Pastry to investigate.

Now Dr Pastry and I have a somewhat fraught relationship. Many moons ago, we got into an argument about that anonymous 18th century suicide note which reads, in its entirety, “All this buttoning and unbuttoning”. I cannot recall the substance of our dispute, only that harsh and unforgivable words were exchanged, saucepans hurled - one still brimful of an appetising soup - and threats levelled against pets, to wit, a tortoise and a goose. The tortoise was mine, the goose Dr Pastry's. In the end, neither of them came to any harm, at least not immediately, although of course the ravages of the passing years took their toll, and both of them are now dead and gone, Diego the tortoise in a maelstrom and Rex the goose in a railway accident.

Very much alive, though, is the feud between me and Dr Pastry, and it was with a view to ending it that I invited her help with the pedant and his righteous nostrums. It was the sort of assignment I thought she would enjoy, given her fondness for both pedants and nostrums. I was wrong. Here is what she wrote in reply to my invitation.

“For the love of heaven, Key! What makes you think for one moment that I would ever again set foot in that confounded sea-girt wasteland? The last time I went to O'Houlihan's Wharf I was young, cheery, and full of beans, a bluestocking with the glint of glory in my bright blue eyes. Two hours after cycling into town with a pannier full of Proust, I was sprawled on a heap of pebbles, stinking of the sea, a prematurely-aged drudge with gnats in my hair, pustules on my brow, and a belly full of 90% proof egg nog. Don't get me wrong, I don't blame the shrivelled and witless O'Houlihan's Wharfites. It is simply the spirit of the place. It does that to a person, even to me. Well, never again. Your pedant with his nostrums can go hang. I am going out to the cemetery now to place a bunch of peonies and flax on poor Rex's tomb, and as I do so I will curse you again and again, as I have cursed you every single day since the buttoning and unbuttoning business first flared. Adieu.”

Clearly, if I was going to satisfy my readers' curiosity about the pedant and his nostrums and their righteousness, I would have to think again. Dr Pastry seemed in no mood to make peace, and I was not sure I would be able to change her mind.

All of which, I suppose, goes to explain why I found myself hopelessly lost in the dark, dark woods as midnight struck. With Dr Pastry down the pan, as it were, I worked desultorily at the Taxonomy of Swans, my mind buzzing away trying to think of someone else who might be able to help. As I tamped a fistful of grease into a knothole, I suddenly remembered the old blind woodcutter. It was true that he knew nothing of O'Houlihan's Wharf, but, I reasoned, that might work to my advantage. Dipping my hands into a tub of swarfega, I tried to recall his telephone number. He had made we swear never to write it down, and I had honoured my promise, partly out of rectitude and partly because he said that if I broke my word he would send a sloth of slow, lumbering bears to smother me in my bed. His sightless eyes gleamed dangerously in the candlelight as he said this, and I realised that the story about how Old Ma Bagshaw met her end suddenly made sense. “My word is my bond,” I mumbled, and the old blind woodcutter cackled.

Now, though, twenty years later, with the Soviet Union long collapsed, I simply could not remember that damned number. I realised I would have to set off into the dark, dark woods and find the old blind woodcutter's crumbling cottage, and ask him face to face. I tacked the end of a length of string to my gate, and paid it out behind me as I walked, each step taking me further and further from the comforts of home, and the unfinished Taxonomy of Swans, and closer to the perils of the dark, dark woods.

Had I known that my neighbour's eagle, Simon, had swooped out of the sky within minutes of my departure, and bitten the end off the string, because it smelled of hamster, I would have stopped then and there. In my ignorance, of course, I tramped on, little knowing that, like the answers, my friend, my string, the string that should see me safely home, was blowin' in the wind.

And the answers to my three questions, about the pedant of O'Houlihan's Wharf, and his nostrums, and the righteousness of his nostrums, they too are blowin' in the wind, for what hope do I have of discovering them now, in this Stygian darkness? It is midnight. I am encircled by enormous trees. The duff underfoot is musty and damp and alive with tiny biting creatures. There is no trace of the old blind woodcutter's cottage. Perhaps I only ever imagined him. My hands still stink of swarfega. It is midnight, and pitch black, and I have been wandering these dark, dark woods for a hundred years.

Some Other Woods

Don't worry, the dark, dark woods are not real, that was only a story. But now I want to tell you about some other woods, specifically, The Woods, the new CD by Sleater-Kinney. Perhaps it is unseemly for a man of my advancing years to be so keen on a trio of young women who came to prominence as part of the Riot Grrl movement (whatever that was), but I have to say that if I am in the mood to listen to that kind of thing, Sleater-Kinney are probably - in the phrase beloved by music journalists of a certain vintage - “the greatest rock & roll band in the world”.

Saturday 4th June 2005

“Who does not know, that the low-burlesque word of Hocus-pocus, is an humorous corruption of their Hoc est corpus meum, by virtue of which, they make a God out of a vile wafer, and think it finely solved, by calling it a mystery, which, by the way is but another name for nonsense. Is there any thing amongst the savages half so absurd or so impious?” — Antoine Simon Maillard, An Account Of The Customs And Manners Of The Micmakis And Maricheets Savage Nations, Now Dependent On The Government Of Cape-Breton

Wafers, Vile and Otherwise

Speaking of vile wafers, as Antoine Simon Maillard does in the quotation above, reminds us that “vile” is one of the varieties of wafer available from the kiosk behind the post office in O'Houlihan's Wharf. Unlike most wafers, which tend by definition to be thin, the vile wafer is as thick as the old Penguin English Library edition of Moby-Dick; or, The Whale by Herman Melville, which, with its introduction and commentary by Harold Beaver, comes to over a thousand pages.

(If I may digress for a moment, I have always been enamoured of Mr Beaver's note on the line “all bats; and I'm a crow” on page 545 of this edition - the note itself appears on page 885. Beaver writes, inter alia, As crow to the house of Cawdor (‘in the whirled woods, the last day of the year!’) Pip prophesies doom; all turned to bats at dusk; all screwy-whirled; all mad.)

According to the O'Houlihan's Wharf Market Research Bureau (whose office, by the way, is a shabby lean-to tacked on to the post office) sales of vile wafers are down this year, a worrying trend given that wafers in general are enjoying peak performance in the economy of this godforsaken hellhole by the boiling sea.

(Forgive a second digression… I know I said yesterday that I would be complimentary about O'Houlihan's Wharf, but sometimes the truth will out.)

Anyone examining the pie charts, graphs, Blötzmann diagrams and other impenetrable flummery in the latest edition of the O'Houlihan's Wharf Market Research Bureau Bulletin Of Underlying Trends In Trading Patterns Of Wafers From The Kiosk Behind The Post Office, as I have done, repeatedly, will find it hard to disagree with the view of one focus group member, who is reported as saying “No one wants to buy the vile wafers because they are as thick as a hefty paperback, and we prefer our wafers thin. Is that so wrong?”

The latest tracker poll suggests that the most popular wafers are hot wafers, clinging wafers, gas-enhanced wafers, pituitary-gland wafers, pip-strewn wafers, and, tellingly, Arpad's special wafer-thin wafers. The latter, for example, outsold vile wafers by more than ten thousand percent, if that means anything, arithmetically, or mathematically, or both. I am particularly charmed by the Bulletin's graphic illustrating this point, because if you turn it sideways it looks like a cartoon face of Jeb Magruder of Watergate fame. I dropped my copy of the Bulletin into a puddle of bubbling, viscous green fluid outside the Convent Of Our Lady Of Resignation And Dismay, so unfortunately I cannot reproduce it here. A photograph of wily Jeb, taken before he went to prison and became a born-again Christian, will have to suffice.

Interestingly, there are distinct parallels between the wafers on sale in O'Houlihan's Wharf and the Watergate scandal, not least among them being that the kiosk's owner's name is Chuck Colson, just like President Nixon's Special Counsel. Our Colson, the wafer merchant, is a lifelong resident of O'Houlihan's Wharf, and indeed has only left that wretched brine-soaked eyesore once in his life, when he was mistakenly called to testify before Judge John J Sirica at the hearings in Washington DC. Thankfully, the error was realised while kiosk-man was waiting at the railway station in Strontium 90 Township, just a few miles away. He returned home the same day, celebrating his near-brush with fame by tucking into a slap-up dinner of baked swan à la Maxwell Davies.

Personally, I find it just a little unsettling that Colson never eats his own wafers, even the wafer-thin ones. I decided to put this to him and wrote a carefully-worded letter requesting an interview, but answer came there none. Now I am not given to harrying wafer-kiosk-persons as a matter of course, but nor will I allow them to vend wafery produce they themselves eschew without giving me a damned good explanation. That's the kind of narrator I am.

Unable to pursue Colson myself, having come down with a case of seeds-in-the-vitals which necessitated complete bed rest, I employed a private detective by the name of Istvan Plunkett to act on my behalf. This Plunkett was a curious combination of elegance, rattiness and allergies. I never did quite get the measure of him. As far as I could gather, he existed on a starvation diet, berries mostly, and rainwater. Certainly he was not a man to feed on swans, irrespective of whether they had been accidentally electrocuted or not.

Tragically, the assignment on which I sent him proved to be Plunkett's last case. I did not hear from him for months on end, and was in any case losing interest in the doings of a self-hating wafer-salesman from O'Houlihan's Wharf, having better things to do with my time, such as trying out that berries-and-rainwater diet myself. Then one morning I read in The Daily Dripfeed a short item noting that an elegant, ratty and allergy-prone private detective had been found dead in a thicket of gorse bushes and bracken. Apparently the wires of his portable metal tapping machine had become entangled in the foliage and he had been too bloody cack-handed to extricate himself. I crumpled up the newspaper and tossed it into a disposal chute, and I said a prayer for Plunkett. It was not a long prayer, nor was it a well-written one. I think it had been translated from Glosa, the artificial international language which rivals Esperanto. Then I went home and opened my copy of Moby-Dick; or the Whale, by Herman Melville and read Pip prophesies doom; all turned to bats at dusk; all screwy-whirled; all mad, and I sank my teeth into a vile wafer, and out in the spinney I knew that dozens upon dozens of swans were gathering, whooper swans, whooping, whooping, magnificent, and so very alive..

Friday 3rd June 2005

“In 1766, we find Louis XV, with the steam of the Parc aux Cerfs about him, rewarded by the loyal acclamations of a Parisian crowd, for descending from his carriage as a priest passed bearing the sacrament, and prostrating himself in the mud before the holy symbol.” — John Morley, Diderot And The Encyclopaedists

More About Swans

The item about swans on Tuesday 31st May, in which I referred to the swan-eating proclivities of Peter Maxwell Davies, led me to ponder whether I could interest a mainstream publisher in a book entitled The Bird-Based Diets Of Twentieth Century Composers. (I know that sounds like one of Dobson's pamphlets, but I checked, and it is - surprisingly, perhaps - a topic he never addressed.)

I jotted down a few notes (Berio - partridge, Havergal Brian - reed warbler, Berg - grebe) but my pea-sized yet pulsating brain was drawn back to swans by that indefatigable correspondent Glyn Webster, who sent this:

“When I was a toddler my parents used to amuse themselves by taking me to the Rotorua lake front to feed the Satanic Black Swans. These swans are not the white, regal, placid creatures I'd been shown in my storybooks. They are black, greasy, violent creatures that smell of sulphurous lake mud. The expression in their glowing red eyes switches from vacant, narcissistic insanity to envious hatred the instant they are offered food.

“In a shoebox somewhere is a Super 8 film reel of me weeping in terror, running and stumbling in my nylon parka and Crackerjack® gumboots while a dozen of these evil beasts waddle after me lunging after the lump of bread I'd forgotten to drop in my panic. I seem to remember all my early visits to the lake ending that way.”

A black swan : greasy, violent & sulphurous.


Yesterday's piece by Professor Bindweed, How I Plunged Into The Bottomless Viper-Pit Of Gaar, contained a number of errors. These were due to production problems, escaping gas, an unexpected teabag mishap, and the distractions of a choir belting out Shenandoah at top volume. At Hooting Yard, however, we pride ourselves in setting the record straight at the very earliest opportunity.

There were three misprints, and they were of a kind. As several readers have pointed out with commendable promptness, there are no bottomless viper-pits at O'Houlihan's Wharf or at Shoeburyness, and there is no such place as San Christoboole. Let us take each one in turn, in reverse order.

San Christoboole does not exist, at least not in any atlas I know of, and it is difficult to know which bottomless viper-pit Professor Bindweed had in mind. It may be an anagram of Basoonclotshire, but my well-thumbed gazetteer of that bosky paradise-on-earth states specifically (page 1,249) that “there are no viper-pits in the county, bottomless or otherwise”. Incidentally, the name of the shire has nothing to do with bassoons, hence the spelling. The derivation is from basin. I am reminded that readers have long been promised a series of articles on the important topic of basins, and these are currently in preparation, so please stop sending those pleading emails.

For Shoeburyness, read Lytham St Annes.

To think for one minute that there could be a bottomless viper-pit at O'Houlihan's Wharf is so preposterous I am surprised the globe kept spinning on its axis after this howler appeared here yesterday. As soon as the error was brought to my attention, I fired off an apology to the Five Fiendish Burghers of O'Houlihan's Wharf, terrified as I was of swift and brutal reprisals. I received a very gracious acknowledgement, which I am happy to reprint below:

“O Key! We, we, we, we, we, the Five Fiendish Burghers of O'Houlihan's Wharf, that is, first Godsoke, second Pardew, third Cansegmabulbadette, fourth Pip, and fifth Billy Strayhorn, do hereby say to you in arch lewd monstrous grating swinish implacable hoarse declamation, and then in the ululatory incantation of a muezzin, that we, we, we, we, we have taken unto our bodices and tunics the sentiments of your piteous grovelment and we, we, we, we, we have pronounced it good. The battalions of the O'Houlihan's Wharf Avengement Platoon have been called off, before they even had time to mount their hideous macroencephalic horses, yes!, the hideous macroencephalic horses, with their fierce biting spittle-flecked fangs, that gallop at double the speed of light! Don't let it happen again.”

I have promised my new pals, the Burghers, who are coming round for tea later on today, to write something accurate and complimentary about O'Houlihan's Wharf in the near future.

Two Gunthers

Gunther the Pipsqueak, who appears in the story entitled Grebe (Sunday 29th May) is not to be confused with another Gunther who is mentioned in one of my favourite lines from a television drama. It works best on screen, of course, rather than reproduced coldly on the page, but here it is:

Nate: Hey, have a hydroponic raspberry. They're grown by a guy named Gunther who once slept with Stevie Nicks.

From episode two of the first series of Six Feet Under.

Thursday 2nd June 2005

“Good God! what punishment can be too great, what mark of infamy sufficiently signal, for those pernicious villains of talent, who have employed that talent in the composition of Bacchanalian songs; that is to say, pieces of fine and captivating writing in praise of one of the most odious and destructive vices in the black catalogue of human depravity!” — William Cobbett, Advice To Young Men And (Incidentally) To Young Women In The Middle And Higher Ranks Of Life

Titans of the Silver Screen

The assassination of an important world figure is so shocking that other events of the day, including other deaths, get overlooked. A notable example is the death of Aldous Huxley on 22nd November 1963. That day, of course, is recalled because of what happened near the grassy knoll in Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas. The demise of the astonishingly tall, severely myopic writer went virtually unremarked (as, incidentally, did the fact that only a few weeks before, the vacuum cleaner salesman who knocked on the door of Huxley's Los Angeles home was the young Don Van Vliet, soon to become known to the world as Captain Beefheart. Never let it be said that Hooting Yard is stinting with the facts.)

There was another death that day that received even less attention, despite the fact that the cinema was robbed of one of its most titanic talents. Few today remember Walt Dinsey, overshadowed in death by Kennedy and Huxley, and in posterity by his near-namesake, a weird sociopath given to the production of sentimental pap.

In his centenary year, it is only fitting that we should recall some of Dinsey's greatest triumphs. Over the next few months, our team of film buffs, led by Fatima Gilliblat, will be looking at each of Dinsey's masterpieces in turn. Fatima is currently out of the country… sorry, out in the country, eschewing her usual urban haunts for a summer spent mooching about in some godforsaken abandoned farmyard. She found time, however, to send this brief note:

Hello readers! Fatima Gilliblat here, sprawled on a musty hay bale and thinking about Thomas Hardy, Fate, Destiny, and the grunting of pigs at dawn. But I haven't forgotten my promise to write about the films of Walt Dinsey, and I'm putting the finishing touches to a sprightly little essay on that timeless classic Beauty And the Bees. In my opinion it is the finest killer bee attack film ever made, and I hope to communicate my overenthusiasm to you very, very soon. Heigh ho, green grow the rushes-oh.

Left : Aldous Huxley. Right : Don Van Vliet. In between them, Umbrella Man in Dealey Plaza

How I Plunged Into the Bottomless Viper-pit of Gaar

For too many years to count I travelled the world visiting bottomless viper-pits. I studied them, sketched them, photographed them, and wrote up lengthy and detailed descriptions of each and every one. My patience is almost inhuman, and it needed to be, because sooner or later some well-meaning numbskull would ask, in relation to this or that bottomless viper-pit, “Tell me, Professor Bindweed, if the viper-pit is bottomless, where in heaven's name are the vipers?” And each time I would sigh, and give my interlocutor a look of saintly forebearance, and reply, “On ledges, of course, from very near the top and then at intervals of a few feet all the way down!” For in my experience this was invariably the case, from the bottomless viper-pit of O'Houlihan's Wharf to the bottomless viper-pit of San Christoboole.

Then, one day, armed only with the shreds of a map and a flask of brackish water, I came upon the bottomless viper-pit of Gaar. One thing you must understand is that I had been at this work for so long that very little surprised me anymore. So please do not think I am exaggerating when I say that I was thunderstruck, bedazzled, giddy and incredulous, for I was all those things and more. The amazing thing about the bottomless viper-pit of Gaar was that it had been turned into a sort of tourist attraction. A fence had been placed around it, gigantic gaudy signs flashed on and off, and fairground music blared out of stacks of loudspeakers. To exploit one of the remotest bottomless viper-pits in the world for commercial gain seemed wrong to me, and, suddenly drained of my inhuman patience, I marched up to the person standing behind the counter of the ticket booth.

I ranted and raved at him for at least five minutes, shouting my head off and flailing my arms, and do you know what? He took absolutely no notice of me. This enraged me even further, and I was about to give him a clean, decent sock on the jaw when I heard running footsteps behind me and a withered voice croaking “Wait! Wait!” I turned to see an unkempt beanpole of a fellow hastening towards me. He slowed up, wheezing, and staggered the last few steps.

“Don't harm the lad, please, sir. He's a good worker, takes the cash and hands out the tickets. His name is Tommy. He's a deaf, dumb and blind kid, sure plays a mean pinball.” I looked back at the urchin and, sure enough, he bore a striking resemblance to Roger Daltrey circa 1969. I harrumphed.

“Would you be wanting to buy a ticket then, sir?” asked the beanpole.

I think my reply, a speech based on a lecture I had given at the Bottomless Viper-Pit Club Of Helsinki a decade ago, took about an hour to deliver. I am not sure how much of what I said got through to the lanky ingrate. I do know that he sat down on a nearby tuffet as exhaustion set in, that Tommy packed up and went home, that I inserted some new rhetorical tricks into my tirade, that clouds scudded across the sun and that the sun itself set before I had finished. My listener had now fallen into a deep sleep asprawl his tuffet. Ignoring him, I clambered over the wicket gate that the pinball wizard had locked before he left, and approached the bottomless viper-pit of Gaar with mounting excitement. It was dark and I had no torch, but I picked my way carefully towards the edge of the bottomless viper-pit. I laughed aloud with glee as I heard the familiar hiss of countless pit-vipers. The years seemed to fall away, and I felt again that tingle of unalloyed happiness that I experienced when, as a spindly twelve-year-old, I had accompanied my father to the bottomless viper-pit of Shoeburyness, my very first bottomless viper-pit. A knot of nostalgia tightened in my stomach. I put my hand up to my hat, and doffed it. It was my father's hat, the one he had given to me on that very day, the same hat which he had brandished to ward off a particularly malevolent pit-viper that was about to sink its fangs into my heart.

I doffed my father's hat, and I plunged into the bottomless viper-pit of Gaar.

Thurn's Swoon

That grumbling complainant Tim Thurn, who seems to read these pages for no other reason than to find things to whinge about, has sent in another missive:

Dear Mr Key, he writes, It is little more than a week since you resuscitated Hooting Yard, and in that short time you have written about swans and swains. Do you not think it would be better to leave a gap between such near-homophones, say a month or two? I cannot be your only reader who has failing eyesight and who can thus become confused, when peering at my computer screen, wondering if an item about swains is a continuation of some drivel about swans, or vice versa. Yours tetchily, Tim Thurn

All I can say in response is that I hope Tim's bedizenment was not so great that in failing to distinguish between swains and swans he fell into a swoon.

Wednesday 1st June 2005

“Death is but the wink of an eye from you, and he who dies from a stroke of the Golden Sword of Heaven must abide countless thousands of years with the old men devils blowing across the sky and muttering curses to their ancestors in their flowing beards.” — Tom Roan, Shadows Of The Crimson Tong

Goddess Clarification

Most, if not all, Hooting Yard readers will today be paying special attention to door handles and hinges, in honour of the Roman goddess Cardea. Well stop right there! You can safely treat your doorway accoutrements with the same admixture of disdain and neglect with which you regard them during the rest of the year.

I cannot stress too energetically the importance of not getting your Roman goddesses all mixed up. Cardea was a nymph who also went by the name Carna. Janus was besotted with her, and as some kind of love-token, I suppose, gifted her with power over the aforesaid door handles and hinges. The Carna whose feast day it is today was another goddess entirely, who presided over the heart and other organs (hence carnal), and there is no record of her paying the slightest attention to doors, handles, hinges, or any other fixtures and fittings.

To make things absolutely clear, here is a picture of Cardea/Carna, together with a modern, 21st century Cardea, who is a robot designed to open doors by turning the handle and pushing. If any befuddlement remains in readers' minds about the two Carnas and the two Cardeas, drop me a line and I will try to dig out a photostat of Dobson's out-of-print pamphlet which goes into this topic in such excruciating detail that you will wish you had never asked.

Left : Cardea. Right : Cardea

Lusty Jocund Swains

Yesterday's mention, in Dobson On Sport, of “lusty jocund swains” prompted Poppy Nisbet to telephone me with a pertinent question. “I'm sure there is some connection between lusty jocund swains and Joost van Dongelbraacke, the suburban shaman,” said Poppy, “Am I right?” I am not, as a rule, fond of the telephone, so I grunted and slammed down the receiver. Such gracelessness is unforgivable, but in recompense to Ms Nisbet I did some research, and find that she is indeed correct.

The origins of the connection lie far back in time, long before Van Dongelbraacke became the suburban shaman of legend. In fact he was still at school, in his final year, about to matriculate from Saint Kapisko's Seminary. As was the custom, he was offered an intensive session with a careers adviser, who at this time was a perfumed fop with a criminal record - but that is irrelevant.

“So,” said the fop-adviser, “Have you any idea what you would like to do when you leave here, Joost?”

The youthful Van Dongelbraacke explained that he had it in mind to become a lusty jocose swain.

Fop : Lusty, yes. Swain, agreed. But are you sure about the jocose element?

Van Dongelbraacke : Why yes, sirrah!

Fop : [Applying pomade to his almost Pre-Raphaelite tresses] Might I suggest that you opt to become a lusty jocund swain rather than a lusty jocose one, Joost?

Van Dongelbraacke : Gosh. If I am to carve out for myself a fulfilling life I shall need to plump for one or the other this very day. It is an irrevocable choice, sure enough.

Fop : You speak the truth, young Joost. Consider, is your lusty swainhood to be marked by a fondness for joking, playfulness, waggishness and jocularity? [Seeing Van Dongelbraacke frown in concentration, he pauses to let this sink in.] Or perhaps what the world will come to expect from you is a lusty swainhood of cheerfulness, mirth and merriness, of light-heartedness, pleasantry, cheer and delight?

Van Dongelbraacke : Did you say peasantry?

Fop : [Twirling his outlandish moustachioes] No. Pleasantry.

Van Dongelbraacke : Ah. In that case, my mind is made up.

Fop : Be not so impetuous, young tearaway!

Van Dongelbraacke : It is in my nature to be so. I shall henceforth devote the rest of my life to being a lusty jocund swain!

We know, of course, that Joost Van Dongelbraacke deluded himself on this point. Within a week of leaving the seminary, he had abandoned his swainhood and was engrossed in the study of pismire ants which consumed him for a decade and a half.

I am very grateful to Poppy Nisbet, for raising this subject, and to the staff and custodians of the REO Speedwagon Academy of Stadium Rock Twaddle & Applied Historical Research for supplying cups of tea and seed cake which made completion of this item particularly soul-sickening.