Hooting Yard Archive, March 2006

A cow called Ultravox (really), weird cooing, Basil and Guido from Dr Blodgett's Terpsichorean Academy For Keen Young Chaps, fear eats the soul, and a cranky pagan pudding recipe. And much more besides. Take a packed lunch.


Friday 31th March 2006
“The door opened, and a figure representing…”
Basil and Guido's Kropotkin Fanfaronade
Thursday 30th March 2006
“I went with my curiosity well aroused…”
Feral Childhood
A Hymn
Tuesday 28th March 2006
“Does any boy's conscience smite him at…”
Dances With Blodgett
All Ears
Fear Eats the Soul
Monday 27th March 2006
“Sir Hubert von Herkomer was a Bavarian-born…”
The Lure of Junk
Pindar Widgery, the Pint-sized Provocateur
Sunday 26th March 2006
“Coleridge is one of our great men…”
Friday 24th March 2006
“The following are a few of the…”
Nomenclature of Cows
What Ails Thee, Weeping Orphan?
Heraldic Ostrich, Owl, Swan, Popinjay
Thursday 23rd March 2006
“The device stood about shoulder-high, with a…”
Elbow Room
The Formosan Alphabet
Cranky Pagan Pudding Recipe
Tuesday 21st March 2006
“The pursuit of the Inner Child has…”
The Crooked Timber of Humanity
Saturday 18th March 2006
“Hark! what plunged from the bank -…”
Squirrels : Emissaries From the Beyond?
Potted Autobiography
Tuesday 14th March 2006
“Anger, despair, ferocity, hunger, terror - all…”
He Preened, Eating Bloaters
Monday 13th March 2006
“There's a big difference between dancing on…”
Blotzmann's Bird Psychology Diagram : Correction
Saturday 11th March 2006
“Each nation has its own method of…”
Blotzmann's Bird Psychology Diagram
Thursday 9th March 2006
“I am going to outline for you…”
Epoch of Snares
An Anvil Cloud
Monday 6th March 2006
“What has happened to Dwight? Something that…”
O Cure Me
Living With Alf
Was Dobson a Visionary?
Saturday 4th March 2006
“These are just sample bothers - shaving,…”
The Immense Duckpond Pamphlet
Famous Inn Signs of Hooting Yard : Number One
Revelations Regarding Old Halob

Friday 31th March 2006

“The door opened, and a figure representing the Roman Catholic idea of his Satanic Majesty entered the room. He was very black, and covered with long hair, probably the skin of some wild animal. He had two long white tusks, two horns on his head, a large cloven foot, and a long tail that he drew after him on the floor. He looked so frightful, and recalled to my mind so vividly the figure that I saw at the White Nunnery, that I was very much frightened; still I did not believe it was really a supernatural being. I suspected that it was one of the priests dressed up in that way to frighten us.” — Sarah J Richardson, Life In The Grey Nunnery At Montreal


Regular readers will be aware that Hooting Yard is, among other things, a repository of ornithological knowledge breathtaking in its sweep and depth. Imagine, then, how my heart went out to the space adventurer in the picture below, clearly unable to identify the cooing audible through the ear-grilles on his space helmet. One of the many birdsong boffins on our staff could have helped him, had he asked. The picture, by the way, is taken from the splendid Institute of Official Cheer.

Basil and Guido's Kropotkin Fanfaronade

For a brief period in the middle of the last century, the phrase “two men in a boat” tripped off the tongue as easily as the more familiar Three Men In A Boat of Jerome K* Jerome's comic novel. It was a very brief period, no more than a fortnight, but during that time the whole world was a-buzz with Basil and Guido's Kropotkin Fanfaronade. Unusually for a dance routine in praise of a totemic anarchist, performed on a rowing boat to the accompaniment of a shorebound orchestra, dance band, light show, perfumes and fireworks, it captured the popular mood. Thousands of people - some say millions - trekked to the lake near Bodger's Spinney to witness the spectacle during its two-week run, and Basil and Guido became overnight celebrities, fawned over in what, with retrospect, was an outbreak of mass hysteria. Within days of the final performance, during which an orphan child in the audience became overexcited and was clonked on the head with an oar, the whole thing was forgotten.

Trudging around the lake today, it is hard to picture the ecstatic scenes that took place here fifty years ago. There are no longer any boats to be seen, and the lake itself is surrounded by a tall electrified security fence. It is said that monstrous aquatic beings with flippers and tendrils swim and writhe below the surface, or that the water is poisoned, or even that the lake is haunted by the shade of that orphan child, though she only suffered mild concussion and lived long after the oar incident. These are just stories, believed only by the credulous, but what is beyond doubt, and readily apparent to anyone who wanders there, as I do, is that the lake is dead, choked by weeds, choked beyond hope.

It was so different on the bright summer afternoon in 1951 when Basil and Guido disembarked from their hired charabanc and stood hand in hand, rapt in wonder, before laying out their picnic rug by the jetty. Freshly graduated from Doctor Blodgett's Terpsichorean Academy For Keen Young Chaps (see below, 28th March), the ill-matched duo were touring the land seeking a lake, pond, or other body of water on which to stage their Kropotkin Fanfaronade.

The spark of the idea came from Guido. Guido's brain was thick with Bible-learning, but he held the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921) in high esteem, having fallen under his spell after reading a translated copy of “Research On The Ice Age”, an article Kropotkin published in Notices of the Imperial Russian Geographical Society in 1876. Thereafter, impressionable young Guido devoured everything by the Russian he could lay his hands on. When Blodgett demanded that his students choose a subject to interpret via the medium of dance, Guido was already decided.

Peter Kropotkin

Basil, roped in as collaborator, was initially reluctant until shown a photograph of Kropotkin, whose beard thrilled him, as no doubt it would thrill anyone who has the slightest interest in majestic nineteenth century facial hair. It was Basil who brought to their partnership the rowing boat element, possibly because he misunderstood Blodgett's instructions. Basil was by no means stupid, but he was notoriously inattentive. We should be glad it was so, for who can imagine the Kropotkin Fanfaronade taking place on dry land? By confining the dance to the limited space afforded by a rowing boat, Basil forced himself and Guido to find radical solutions to seemingly intractable problems. Ideal as it was as a stage upon which to show Kropotkin's periods of imprisonment, in the Peter and Paul Fortress in St Petersburg, and later in France, the rowing boat had to be wholly re-imagined when the dance addressed the anarchist's field trips to Finnish and Swedish glaciers. Basil and Guido succeeded triumphantly.

A fanfaronade can be defined as an ostentatious display. It certainly was. There was the rowing boat on the lake, with the two dancers aboard, pirouetting, jumping about, striking poses, and of course rowing, while on the shore a full orchestra supplemented by a dance band with a slick crooner played what can only be described as very frightening music. Guido's parents, meanwhile, were scampering around operating the light show and the complex piping system that sent jets of exotic perfumes wafting over the crowds.

And yet, and yet… what ought to have been the beginning of a whole new strand of rowing boat-based dance extravaganzas, with Basil and Guido the pioneers and masters of the form, was in the end just a flash in the pan. Though they had sold enough tickets to keep the Kropotkin Fanfaronade running well beyond its two-week run, Bodger's Spinney bye-laws meant it had to end. In any event, Guido now fell victim to the jangles and was carted off to a mysterious clinic hewn into an inaccessible mountainside, and Basil became a bus conductor. They never worked together again.

FURTHER READING : The literature on Basil and Guido is hopeless and inadequate, written as it is chiefly by management consultants. There is a fad for applying the lessons of the Kropotkin Fanfaronade to what these craven wretches call “the exciting world of the modern business environment”. Basil, Guido, and Peter Kropotkin himself must be turning in their graves, and I would too, if I was entombed.

*NOTE : K for Klapka.

DETOURS : De Humani Corporis FabricaThe Owl PagesDreams Of Space

Thursday 30th March 2006

“I went with my curiosity well aroused to a queer old person half demon and half man who has an idol-shop in a byway of the City and who keeps me informed of affairs of the Edge of the World. And briefly over a pinch of heather incense that he takes by way of snuff he gave me this tremendous information: that Mr. Neepy Thang the son of Thangobrind had returned from the Edge of the World and was even now in London.” — Lord Dunsany, The Last Book Of Wonder

Feral Childhood

Dear Mr Key, writes Octavia Funnel, I am sure I read somewhere that Dobson's companion and amanuensis, Marigold Chew, was a feral child, like the Wild Boy of Aveyron or Kaspar Hauser*. Is this true?

I think I can help Ms Funnel out here. She is clearly unfamiliar with Dobson's rare and out of print pamphlet Ten Things Guaranteed To Drive Marigold Chew Crackers, an amusing bagatelle which he wrote for Marigold's birthday one year. It is worth quoting at length:

Left, the Wild Boy of Aveyron. Right, Kaspar Hauser

There can be no doubt about number one on the list of things that drive Marigold Chew crackers. Countless are the times I have witnessed her seething with fury when she is mistaken for Mary Goldchew, the so-called Savage Infant of Splat.

Splat is a tiny, stricken village in Cornwall, and it was here, on a muggy summer's day in 19--, that a peasant pushing his barrow of countryside filth along a lane was astonished to encounter a small child roaring and spitting and growling and scrabbling in the muck. Its gender was indeterminate, but its savagery was unquestionable.

The peasant, sad to say, had the morals of the gutter and a heart as foul as a swamp, and he decided then and there to sell the child to a travelling circus or a zoo. Plucking the child from its ditch, he shoved her on to his barrow and trundled off towards a larger town where mountebanks were known to gather. But the child, bestial being that she was, sank her teeth into the peasant's wrist and attacked him in a whirling frenzy of bloodlust. She was gnawing the hair off his head when a kindly doctor arrived on the scene. He patted her on the head and announced, “There, there, little one, be not afraid. I am a kindly doctor fascinated by Natural Philosophy, and I shall take you to my comfortable house and see if, over a period of months, or years, I can instil in you the civilised qualities that were your birthright but have been stolen from you by no doubt tragic circumstances. What is your name?”

The child howled.

“Ah,” said the kindly doctor, “You are inarticulate. That noise you made sounded to me like a combination of a wolf and a bear, with perhaps a touch of corncrake. I deduce that you have been raised since you were a baby by wolves and bears and corncrakes, and mayhap by bees and hornets too. Still, you must have a name, child, so I shall call you Mary.”

Doctor Goldchew took the child by the hand and led her to his house, which stood all alone in a field outside Splat. There, he dunked her in a disinfectant bath, dressed her in girly clothes, and embarked on a comprehensive pedagogical regime. Over the following weeks, he attempted to teach her metaphysics, arithmetic, rhetoric, logic, Latin, Greek, bread baking, botany, chemistry, religious instruction, conspiracy theory, merchant banking, astronomy, philology, and the rudiments of table tennis. During this time reporters from the Splat Courier & Bugle camped out on his doorstep, filing a series of woefully inaccurate stories about the girl they called the Savage Infant of Splat. Her fame spread throughout Europe, and Doctor Goldchew received visits from some of the most distinguished intellectuals of the day, including Kapisko, Blunkett, and Woobie. It was the latter who persuaded the kindly doctor to have the girl baptised by being fully submerged in the sea off the coast of Cornwall, during which baptism she nearly drowned.

She entered the booming ocean a savage infant, biting and squealing and howling, wrote the doctor, and she emerged as Mary Goldchew, a good Christian child.

This is a selective account, of course. The doctor makes no mention of the drenched and spluttering tot who was fished out of the water by a passing trawler. Nor does he admit that the “good Christian child” remained incorrigibly savage for the rest of her long, long life. In spite of the doctor's lessons - to which he soon added physics, geology, alchemy, polevaulting, palaentology, entomology, knitting, forensic medicine, vexillology, Dianetics and pottery - the Savage Infant of Splat became a Savage Adolescent and in turn a Savage Adult. She celebrated her twenty-sixth birthday by creeping into Doctor Goldchew's bedroom as he slept and smothering him with a pillow.

Thereafter she spent her days crashing around like a wild maniac as the once comfortable house fell into ruin about her. When she died, craggy and ancient, decades later, she had learned nothing except to speak two words, the same two words that remained the extent of the Wild Boy of Aveyron's vocabulary: God and milk.

*NOTE : Specialists in the field would dub Kaspar Hauser a “confined” rather than “feral” child.

A Hymn

(To the tune of Bring Me Your Winding-Sheet, Oh Mother Of Mine)

Cold and dark is this awful night, as I shiver in my shed. The Lord He has forsaken me and deprived me of my bed. I have no pies nor pastries to shovel down my gob. Oh the Lord He has forsaken me. All I can do is sob.

I weep in my allotment shed, I weep until the dawn. I curse the very buttercups upon the village lawn. The Lord He has forsaken me and I am so forlorn. I wail and gnash my rotting teeth that I was ever born.

My name is Leo Sayer, I am short, with frizzy hair. I sit here in my wooden shed upon a wooden chair. I curse the fact that I share my name with a singer of pop pap, and then I spill my flask of boiling tea into my lap.

The Lord He has forsaken me, all I can do is whine. O Lord God Almighty, please send me a sign. Please stop people thinking that I'm the singer Leo S, the small-of-stature minstrel who got me in this mess.

He fled to the Antipodes, or so I have been told. He moved across the globe because his records undersold. It seems the Lord forsook him too, but that is only right. I sob and wail in my shed on this dark and awful night.

DETOURS : Muggletonian Celestial PrintsRapture ReadyNice Cup Of Tea And A Sit Down

Tuesday 28th March 2006

“Does any boy's conscience smite him at my naming the insects? I hope not. I hope you have not been tempted by Satan to do any harm to the little harmless, and often useful, creatures that cross your path. A butterfly, a cockchaffer, a house-fly, a snail, a caterpillar, a worm - these, and all others, are God's handy-work; and if you could see them through a glass that magnifies very much indeed, you would be more astonished than I can tell you.” — Charlotte Elizabeth, Kindness To Animals, Or, The Sin Of Cruelty Exposed And Rebuked

Dances With Blodgett

One of the more outlandish episodes in Blodgett's frankly debauched life was the time he opened a dancing school, or, to give it its correct title, Doctor Blodgett's Terpsichorean Academy For Keen Young Chaps. It goes without saying that the rascal was not a doctor of any kind. Nor, it must be said, did he have any skills as a dancer, short of flinging himself around a room, knees and elbows akimbo, like some ungainly puppet whose handler is having convulsions.

Any keen young chap who enrolled in the Academy hoping to learn how to disport himself with aplomb in a quadrille, foxtrot or even the mashed potato, was quickly disillusioned. “Doctor” Blodgett's musical tastes were narrow and intense. He was a devotee of a particularly rigorous form of Teutonic improvisation, open-ended pieces that often lasted for hours on end, performed by earnest young men with incipient beards whose brows furrowed as they tinkered with deliberately out of tune violas, trombones, bells, and thunderous pounding drums. Blodgett devised his own dances to this screeching racket, the most notorious of which was called, for no apparent reason, the Mustard Plaster.

As luck would have it, a record of Blodgett's instructions for this dance survived the inferno which laid waste the Academy just a month after it opened. Blodgett, of course, vanished as soon as he got his hands on the insurance money, and as far as we know never taught dance again. Thus what is presented here is a piece of history that could so easily have been lost forever. But now you too can learn how to “Do The Mustard Plaster!”, by following the notes written by Blodgett himself.

Figure One. Let us call the dancers Basil (left) and Guido (right). They take up positions facing each other as shown, pointing with their sticks. Basil's stick is cut from a sycamore tree, and has traces of birdlime upon it. Guido's is made of plastic. The symbolism is clear. They maintain this stance, staring fixedly at each other, until I snap my fingers.

Figure Two. Basil raises his stick, upwards and forwards. Guido essays a series of twirls, jumps, and hops, and crashes his body as hard and as fast as possible into all four walls of the studio. If his hat falls off, he must replace it in a single, fluid motion, full of elegance and grace. He then takes a flying leap to return to his starting point, and raises his plastic stick to meet Basil's.

Figure Three. It is now Basil's turn to jump about and hurl himself at the walls, while Guido stands absolutely still with his stick above his head. Basil should flounce, however, rather than trying to emulate Guido's more frenetic movements. He should nudge the walls rather than buffet them, and sashay back to his starting position with an air of insouciance. When he is once again opposite Guido, he punches him in the throat.

Figure Four. To the insistent clanging of bells, Guido leans backwards, balancing his stick on his forehead. Basil takes hold of his necktie, but not tightly. They rotate a full 360 degrees, pretending to be figurines in a decorative snow-shaker. This takes consummate skill, and the difficulty of teaching this movement explains the supplementary fee tacked on to the standard cost of this lesson, to be paid in cash.

Figure Five. Having completed a full rotation, Basil adopts a heroic pose while Guido splays himself on the floor. At a snap of my fingers, Basil crumples and Guido gets up, shimmies, vaults over Basil, and in rapid succession essays a quadrille, foxtrot, and mashed potato solo. Basil gets to his feet. They throw their sticks out of an open window, and clutch each other like lovers on a hilltop during a thunderstorm. A parp from the trombone brings the dance to an end.

All Ears

It's an extraordinarily long time since we last had a Hooting Yard playlist, way back on 7th October 2004 in fact. How time flies. Here, then, are ten pieces of music that you might well hear if you happen to be wandering past the serried belvederes of Haemoglobin Towers. In alphabetical order by title:

Elegie for cello & piano - Gabriel Fauré

El Pueblo Unido Jamas Cera Vencido - Quilapayun

Four Last Songs - Richard Strauss

Fruits Of My Labour - Lucinda Williams

Get Up - Sleater-Kinney

Lakes Of Pontchartrain - The Be Good Tanyas

Noye's Fludd - Benjamin Britten

The Light Pours Out Of Me - Magazine

The Unborn Byron - Slapp Happy

Tow-Truck - Picastro

And a special mention must go to an eleventh piece, if only for the title:

Grim And Frostbitten Gay Bar - Impaled Northern Moonforest

Fear Eats the Soul

There is a story told that one night Tiny Enid awoke from troubled dreams, went downstairs to get a glass of milk, and was amazed, when looking out of the kitchen window, to see the Burning Wheel Of Doom in the fields beyond the bottom of her garden. It was turning slowly, with hideous creaks, its huge flames licking the sky. Tiny Enid drained her glass, draped a shawl over her dressing-gown, slipped into her Uruguayan Mountain Ranger boots, and unlocked the back door. She walked down to the wicket gate, marvelling that the fierceness of the fire was such that night was banished, and the sky as bright as day.

As Tiny Enid unlatched the gate, her pet crow hopped along the path to follow her. He could not fly, for he was a crippled crow. Hearing the tap tap tap of his talons on the paving, Tiny Enid turned, and whispered, “You must stay indoors, Ilya Kuryakin, it is not safe for you”. No sooner were the words out of her mouth than a snaggle-toothed ruffian stole out of the bushes and hoisted Tiny Enid over his shoulder, cackling as he carried her off towards the Burning Wheel Of Doom.

Let us not judge the snaggle-toothed ruffian too harshly. He was a poor half-witted hobbledehoy whose moral compass had been skewed, growing up as he did during the sorry years of the John Major government, in which his father had served. Have compassion for him, children, for he had no Hoons nor Blunketts to swaddle him against a cruel world. Indeed, have more compassion for him than Tiny Enid showed on that wild and strange night. Reasoning that she may as well take advantage of being carried across the mud-splattered fields, she waited until they were three quarters of the way to the Burning Wheel Of Doom before reaching up, pushing aside a greasy strand of hair from the snaggle-toothed ruffian's ear, and saying loudly “Unhand me now, sir, or I shall wring your neck”.

The snaggle-toothed ruffian cackled again, and plodded onward, so Tiny Enid swung herself off his shoulder and wrung his neck. Dusting off her hands, she looked back towards the house to make sure her pet crow had stayed indoors, and then turned to face the Burning Wheel Of Doom. The creaks were that much louder now, the flames higher and more terrible. Imagine you were at her side, clutching her hand in your fright, and you asked her “What do you see, Tiny Enid?” This is what she might say:

“This is a strange night, and grows stranger still, for I do not see what I thought I would see at the base of the Burning Wheel Of Doom. I have heard many tales of it, and always there are peasants dancing in a circle around it, their brains bedizened by ergot poisoning, and as they reel, they pass from hand to hand a flagon filled with the blood of ducks, and they each drink of it, and they babble and screech and wail. And over to their left should be a band of other peasants, tooting pipes and horns and plucking harps and beating drums. Yet there is no peasantry here, just the creaking Burning Wheel Of Doom, ablaze in the night, in the field by the lake.”

Tiny Enid would pause for a moment, taking a few steps forward, and then add, “Yet someone must have sent the snaggle-toothed ruffian to abduct me. Who could that be?”

She reached under her shawl to the pocket of her dressing-gown and took out a box of matches and a cheroot. Disconcerted to find all the matches in the box spent, she squelched back through the mud to where the lifeless body of the snaggle-toothed ruffian lay, and rifled through his pockets. She found not only a surprisingly expensive cigarette lighter - with which she hastily lit her cheroot - but a calfskin wallet containing cash, a bus pass, creased and crumpled receipts from sordid shops, an asbo, and a photograph of the snaggle-toothed ruffian's father. Discarding the rest, she gave the snaggle-toothed ruffian a kick with her Uruguayan Mountain Ranger boot, and studied the snapshot carefully.

As the wind blew across the muddy field, Tiny Enid stood in her shawl, looking now at the photograph, now at the Burning Wheel Of Doom, from one to the other, at first perplexed, then gradually putting two and two together, until her eyes lit up with the gleam of certainty. The snaggle-toothed ruffian's father's face was unclear in the picture. He was turned sideways on, shaking hands with John Major, who was instantly recognisable of course, with his tidy grey hair, his spectacles, and that curiously distended upper lip area. They had been photographed in front of a hoarding emblazoned with words which, though only partly visible, suggested something triumphant about milk. Other clues indicated that the picture had been taken in the snaggle-toothed ruffian's papa's parliamentary constituency, on a Thursday, in winter. The penny dropped.

Tiny Enid ran pell-mell back to the house, the Burning Wheel Of Doom blazing furiously behind her now. Stopping only to check that Ilya Kuryakin the crow was nestled safe and sound in his basket, she grabbed her address book and flicked through the pages until she found the name she was looking for. Glancing at the clock in the hallway, she picked up her metal tapping machine and dialled the number, hoping that she would not be too late. He may have had to resign twice, in disgraceful circumstances, but she still owed undying loyalty to blind David Blunkett, and she would save him if she could…

When, hours later, dawn broke, the Burning Wheel Of Doom over by the lake in the fields was sputtering and dying, extinguished by a fresh fall of morning drizzle. Ilya Kuryakin slept peacefully in his crow-basket. Tiny Enid sat at her kitchen table, having kicked off her Uruguayan Mountain Ranger boots and hung her shawl on the radiator. She was smoking another cheroot and drinking another glass of milk, waiting patiently for the squeak of the newspaper delivery boy's bicycle wheels, for the thud of the Daily Manacle on her doormat, anticipating the glow of pleasure she would feel when she saw her name once again, as bold as she, in banner headlines, the heroine of the hour.

DETOURS : Odd EndsDeserted Icelandic FarmhousesNatural Magick

Monday 27th March 2006

“Sir Hubert von Herkomer was a Bavarian-born painter who founded an art school in Bushey [Hertfordshire] in the 1880s, and can also claim the distinction of having concocted, in a series of narrative paintings, all the Welsh druidic paraphernalia we now associate with that country's Celtic prehistory. Herkomer made it all up in his studio, and his clients, rich Welsh industrialists, propagated his work at ersatz jamborees like the National Eisteddfod.” — Matthew Sweet, Inventing The Victorians

The Lure of Junk

Finding one's inbox crammed with junk emails is trying, although it is by no means top of the list of things that rouse my indignation. Pleasurable as it may be to embark upon a rant, I fear that in doing so Hooting Yard would fall victim to the tetchiness and spleen that sours so many websites. Readers do not alight here for that kind of thing, after all. We aim to instruct, edify, and entertain, and for those times when you are keen to read a litany of complaints, there are untold thousands of blogs and suchlike with names like Moaning Minnie and Getting In A Flap About Nothing In Particular. I may even start one myself.

Where was I? Ah yes, junk emails. So often tiresome, but occasionally they can be amusing, as was one I received this morning, for the simple reason that it began “Dear Horse Enthusiast”. After that, admittedly, it swiftly grew tedious. As the “owner of a horse-related website” I was being offered free inclusion in an equestrian directory, aiming to “improve the connection between people who provide horse-related information, services, and products and those who seek them”. This seems to me an admirable service.

I have never before thought of myself as a Horse Enthusiast, but perhaps Christine Wendin, who signed the letter, knows me better than I know myself. Ms Wendin is apparently the COO of the Equestrian Directory, which I take to indicate that she is its Chief Operating Officer, or similar, though she could conceivably be a Clairvoyant Old Ostrogoth, peering into an orb which reveals to her horse enthusiasts like myself who, for one reason or another, have so repressed our enthusiasm that we live empty lives in blithe ignorance of our true calling.

I have given this much thought, and intend to print up a set of visiting cards reading Frank Key, Editor of Hooting Yard & Clairvoyantly Revealed Horse Enthusiast, perhaps emblazoned with a monogram of a horse's head, or mane, or shanks.

My lovely horse is the one on the right

Pindar Widgery, the Pint-sized Provocateur

First instance. You are walking along a country lane as dusk descends. The path is muddy, but you are wearing a pair of stout Canadian Forestry Service boots. Crows caw from the trees, and from the direction of the lake you hear the demented cry of loons. Jauntily, you swing your stick through the air and whistle a half-remembered tune from the golden age of the hoochie-coochie dance band era. All of a sudden, your path is blocked by a diminutive figure. He is wearing a thrum nightcap and an ill-fitting suit of clothes. He has a goatee beard, a pasty complexion, and while one of his eyes is mischievously a-twinkle, the other seems dead, as if it were made of glass. He is carrying a little drum, and as he stands in front of you, he begins to pound it with his strangely muscular fist, arhythmically, even peskily. You step to one side, to stride past him, but he dodges in front of you. You step to the other side, but he springs sideways to forestall you, all the while banging his drum. Your temper rises. Brandishing your stick, you are about to belabour him about the head, but he anticipates your move, emits a sinister gurgling noise, and flits off into the trees as suddenly as he appeared. You walk on, no longer jaunty, but fractious and grim.

Second instance. The arena is packed, and you stand at your lectern, looking out at the thousands of devotees who have gathered to hear your lecture. You enjoy nothing more than demolishing David Icke's theory of intergalactic lizard people, and the talk you have prepared for tonight is perhaps your most cogent one to date. You clear your throat, and the huge crowd rustles into silence. All of a sudden, a diminutive figure crashes on to the stage at your side. He is wearing a thrum nightcap and an ill-fitting suit of clothes. He has a goatee beard, a pasty complexion, and while one of his eyes is mischievously a-twinkle, the other seems dead, as if it were made of glass. He snatches your lecture notes from the lectern, rips them into a thousand pieces, and casts them on the floor at your feet. Momentarily discombobulated, you become apoplectic with rage, and lurch towards the tiny man, intending to wring his neck. But before you can reach him, he flits away, and is instantly lost in the crowd. You had felt in such high spirits, and now you are fractious and grim.

These two instances are fictional, of course, for you, the reader, have never been provoked in such a brazen manner by so diminutive a fellow in a thrum nightcap. My purpose in inventing these scenes was to give you an idea of what it was like to be accosted by Pindar Widgery, the pint-sized provocateur. Countless are those who have been so accosted. Each tells a similar story, that their mood was good, they were jaunty, in high spirits, when this tiny, goateed man in an ill-fitting suit, with that incongruous thrum nightcap atop his tiny head, appeared out of nowhere and provoked them to violence, violence he escaped by vanishing into a forest, or into a crowd, or even, according to some accounts, just going pfffft! in a puff of inexplicable vapour.

Inexplicable indeed is the vapour into which he has now disappeared, for the last time. I am here to write his obituary. I know that, by convention, I ought to have begun by writing “Pindar Widgery, who has died aged ninety-two in a bobsleigh accident, was known as the pint-sized provocateur”. That would have been the correct way to begin, but I wanted to break the news gently. And, in truth, I wanted to fill my allotted space with something, and, good grief, we know so little about Pindar Widgery's life. Ancestry - unknown. Year of birth - unknown. Childhood - a mystery, save for an unreliable anecdote buried in a footnote in a biography of silver screen siren Edna Purviance. Formative influences - unknown. And so it goes on. We do not know when he decided to devote his life to pointless provocations, nor why. We can only guess that a smile crossed his lips when he was described in print as “the most exasperating man on the planet”. We do not even know if that dead eye was made of glass. Perhaps all we can be sure of was that his presence, at such an advanced age, on a fully-crewed bobsleigh careering at terrifying speed in the snow-capped mountains of a cold and distant winter sports resort, must have been yet another provocative act.

Oh, one other thing we know. Many witnesses have placed him indisputably on the sixth floor of the Texas Schoolbook Depository on Dealey Plaza in Dallas at noon on the 22nd of November 1962. I know this was exactly a year before the assassination of John F Kennedy, but still…

DETOURS : This Godless CommunismEarly 18th Century Newspaper ReportsBeekeeping Glossary

Sunday 26th March 2006

“Coleridge is one of our great men who require many footnotes, for there are characteristics of his which need all the extenuation they can get. How comes it, for instance, that he could write, and not only write but publish, in the same decade, and sometimes in the same year, poetry which is of our very best, and some which for frozen inanity it would be hard to equal anywhere? How could a thinker of his power of brain cover leagues of letter-paper with windy nonsense and mawkish insincerity? And finally, of what quality was the talk of one whose social life was entirely monologue?” — Maurice Hewlett, In A Green Shade


British Summer Time begins today. The clocks go forward by one hour, unless you believe The Guardian, which helpfully advised readers to turn their clocks back. As a result, thousands of people will be late for the traditional ceremony marking the start of summer, due to take place in thousands, if not millions, of homes across the land.


There were a number of occasions when Dobson had scuffles with the police because of his refusal ever to allow his fingerprints to be taken. It is not that he fell foul of the law often, but there were incidents, there were incidents.

Dobson's intransigence was based on superstition, but he tried to pretend it had something to do with a deeply-held spiritual belief. On one occasion, he even went so far as to claim that he was a Revered Ineffable Master Of The Fourth Order Of Crumplement in the Church of Sibodnedwab, a preposterous fiction inspired by his passing knowledge of Freemasonry*. This drivel held no water with the arresting officer, hence the resulting scuffle.

Dobson arrived at an elegant solution to the problem. Presuming that every now and then he would find himself hauled into a police station for one reason or another (shoplifting, agitation, illegal picnics), and realising that no one was going to be so foolish as to credit his religiosity, he took to carrying in his pockets ten potato slices on which he had painstakingly scored fingerprint-like designs. One whorl he liked so much he repeated it three or four times. He kept the potato slices in an airtight plastic food container which tucked neatly into the inside pocket of his windcheater.

What did not seem to have occurred to the out of print pamphleteer was that standard police practice meant that an officer would be present, and not only present but physically pressing the Dobson digits on to an inkpad and then pressing them again on to a blank fingerprint template. It was not likely that the averagely astute police officer would overlook the fact that they were handling potato slices rather than human fingers. Marigold Chew tried to warn Dobson about this. It was her potatoes, after all, from which he had fashioned his counterfeits. Marigold's latest fad, at this time, was potato peel art, and she had been buying up every last potato within a ten mile radius.

It was not long before Dobson got a chance to pull the wool over the eyes of the police. One Thursday afternoon he was trudging along the towpath of the old canal, during heavy rainfall, when he was placed under arrest. The Cod War was at its height, and a policeman took one look at Dobson and decided that he could be an Icelandic fisherman on a spying mission. It was a time of great tension, and over-zealous police behaviour of this kidney was commonplace. Down at the station, having been roughed up in the back of a van, Dobson was loth to cooperate with the forces of law and order. He was bundled into the fingerprinting room and told to take off his gloves, sharpish. At this point, the pamphleteer pulled his masterstroke. Taking the airtight food container from the inside pocket of his windcheater, he announced that, as an Icelandic fisherman spy, he had had surgery on his hands to falsify his prints, but had preserved his genuine ones on a series of potato slices. The police officer was so pleased by this sudden and unexpected confession that he accepted the blithering inanity of Dobson's tale, accepted a set of potato prints, and locked him up in a cell.

In the event, Dobson served a lengthy prison sentence for piscine espionage of which he was wholly innocent, but he considered this a small price to pay for having not lost his immortal soul through the inky transmission of his fingerprints.

*NOTE : Despite the sinister reputation of Freemasonry, propounded by paperback authors seeking to exploit the paranoid fantasies of the credulous, it is of course an amusing, if rather sad, pastime of men who are stuck in their adolescence. Consider, for example, the thirty three degrees** of Freemasonry, from which Dobson took his inspiration: 1 Entered Apprentice, 2 Fellow Craft, 3 Master Mason, 4 Secret Master, 5 Perfect Master, 6 Intimate Secretary, 7 Provost and Judge, 8 Intendant of the Building, 9 Master Elect of Nine, 10 Elect of Fifteen, 11 Sublime Master Elected, 12 Grand Master Architect, 13 Master of the Ninth Arch, 14 Grand Elect Mason, 15 Knight of the East, or Sword, 16 Prince of Jerusalem, 17 Knight of the East and West, 18 Knight of the Rose Croix of H.R.D.M., 19 Grand Pontiff, 20 Master ad Vitam, 21 Patriarch Noachite, 22 Prince of Libanus, 23 Chief of the Tabernacle, 24 Prince of The Tabernacle, 25 Knight of the Brazen Serpent, 26 Prince of Mercy, 27 Commander of the Temple, 28 Knight of the Sun, 29 Knight of St. Andrew, 30 Grand Elect Knight Kadosh, 31 Grand Inspector Inquisitor Commander, 32 Sublime Prince of The Royal Secret, 33 Sovereign Grand Inspector General.

**NOTE : The thirty three degrees ought not be confused with the Three Degrees, who had a hit in the 1970s with “When Will I See You Again?”

The Three Degrees

DETOURS : City Of ShadowsPoulpe PulpsSecret And Complex Literatures

Friday 24th March 2006

“The following are a few of the mythological characters which play a part in many of the stories of the Passamaquoddies. They are all given on one of the cylinders of the phonograph. Kewok, a formless being with icy heart, and when mentioned regarded as a terrible one. Pedogiic, thunder. Pesok que tuk, lightning. Pook-jin-squess, the Jug, called also the toad woman. Glooscap, the beneficent being whose deeds are generally superhuman, and who figures in many heroic tales of the Passamaquoddies. The term as applied to a man is one of contempt. To call a man glooscap, or a woman glooscapess, is to call them liars. And there is Chematiquess, the big rabbit.” — J Walter Fewkes, Contribution To Passamaquoddy Folk-Lore

Nomenclature of Cows

Sometimes it becomes apparent that the world is even stranger than we thought. Here is a telling example. Look at this cow.

I want you to imagine that you have been given the pleasurable task of naming the cow. The choice is yours. Spend a few minutes thinking about it, study the picture, run a few ideas through your head, and plump for the one that seems most suitable.

Someone at the Dickinson Ranch in Gorham, Kansas, did what you have just done. Perhaps it was purveyor of “performance cattle that calve on the range and graze through the winter” Kirk Dickinson himself. Astonishingly, what went on in his head was something like this:

“Hmm, this is a fine cow. I think I'll name it after an eighties pop group given to portentous witterings, remembered today for that matchless paean to vapidity Vienna, it means nothing to me. No doubt the minstrel Midge Ure will be pleased to know he has a cow named after his old band. The cow's name shall be Ultravox!”

Thanks to Alasdair Dickson for drawing my attention to this. That's Dickson, by the way, not Dickinson. Alasdair is no relation to the surely demented rancher.

What Ails Thee, Weeping Orphan?

Due to hit the shelves of your local newsagent next month, What Ails Thee, Weeping Orphan? is a brand new weekly magazine, the brainchild of quondam poet Dennis Beerpint. It's a surprising move for the notoriously reclusive versifier, who until now has published only slim volumes of bafflingly obscure work We sent Hooting Yard reporter Fatima Gilliblat to find out what he was up to.

Gilliblat - There you are at last, you notorious recluse! I have been hammering on the door for about half an hour.

Beerpint - Your persistence has paid off, tearing aside the protective veil of my notorious reclusiveness. Come in and sit yourself down on this wooden stool.

Gilliblat - Do you not have a more comfortable seat?

Beerpint - Would you prefer a beanbag chair?

Gilliblat - I would, for a beanbag chair is like a modern update of the “Protean easy-chair” described in The Confidence-Man, His Masquerade by Herman Melville (1857).

Beerpint - Ah yes, where he writes of “a chair so all over bejointed, behinged and bepaddled, every which way so elastic, springy, and docile to the airiest touch, that in some one of its endlessly changeable accommodations of back, seat, foot-board and arms, the most restless body, the body most racked, nay, I had almost added the most tormented conscience must, somehow and somewhere, find rest”. Here you are.

Gilliblat - Thank you. Now that I am suitably relaxed, I want to ask why a pipe-smoking, frazzle-haired poet of unrelenting seriousness is braving the cut-throat world of weekly magazines.

Beerpint - The answer is quite simple. I began to wonder why it was that I could not look upon the shelves of magazines in my local newsagent without emitting a loud and long-drawn-out groan of despair. My brain fumed at being presented with endless variations of Celebrity Pap! and World o' Hateful Chavs. No one was producing the magazine I wanted to read, so I have had to do it myself.

Gilliblat - Hence What Ails Thee, Weeping Orphan?

Beerpint - Precisely. A weekly magazine in which the only illustrations are mezzotints depicting pallid wretches engulfed by misery, perhaps standing frail and woebegone upon a blasted hillside in the teeth of a devastating storm, hungry and hollow-eyed, abandoned by Fate to a cruel ruination. A magazine in which the text is set in very small type, so it has to be peered at, straining the eyes, and in which the stories are long and wordy and unremitting in their gloom and dejection.

Gilliblat - Well I shall be buying a copy! The slogan of Chat! magazine, as we know, is “Wit n' Grit n' Puzzles”. Is there a catchy tagline for What Ails Thee, Weeping Orphan? “Doom n' Gloom n' Recipes”, perhaps?

Beerpint - I was thinking it might be “Shrieks n' Sobs n' Mezzotints”, but that might be a bit melodramatic.

Gilliblat - It might. Have you signed up an astrologer? “Your Stars” columns are always popular with readers.

Beerpint - We're not necessarily courting popularity, but I take your point. We're not doing “Your Stars” as such, but “Your Biscuits” instead. Digestives, Rich Tea, Garibaldi, Cream Crackers…

Gilliblat - And will you be running exciting competitions for readers?

Beerpint - Indeed we will. In our launch issue there's an opportunity to Win A Winding-Sheet. For the chance to win your very own funeral shroud, and to have your portrait painted in it while you're still alive, just like John Donne, complete the following sentence: “The huge iron gates of the orphanage clanged shut, and tiny Prudence was left abandoned and…” When you have completed the sentence, add thousands more, until you have written a novel-length story of incalculable melancholy. The winning entry will be published as a supplement to the magazine.

Gilliblat - It all sounds very exciting, I must say. You're abandoning poetry, I take it?

Beerpint - Certainly not! Huge swathes of the magazine will be taken up with my largely unread verse, in a special section entitled “Page Upon Page Of Impenetrable Screeds”.

Gilliblat - Have you attracted many advertisers?

Beerpint - We have, though all the advertising space in the first issue has been taken up by David Blunkett with a plea of self-justification in an attempt to save his career yet again. It brought tears to his eyes, so let's hope it works its magic on our readers!

The launch issue of What Ails Thee, Weeping Orphan? will be available in two weeks' time from selected newsagents. Free gristle-rich bone for your dog with every copy.

Heraldic Ostrich, Owl, Swan, Popinjay

DETOURS : The PhrontisteryMarvels of Things Created and Miraculous Aspects of Things ExistingGiornale Nuovo

Thursday 23rd March 2006

“The device stood about shoulder-high, with a star-shaped head, one point of which could be opened. The head would contain the actual brain energy. Its upper body, cylindrical in shape and of gleaming chrome, housed the output units through which the brain would react, and also the controls. Antennas projecting out on either side gave the look of arms. Its ‘waist’ was girdled with a ring of repelatron radiators for exerting a repulsion force when it wanted to move, by repelling itself away from nearby objects. Below the repelatrons was an hourglass-shaped power unit, housing a solar-charged battery. The power unit, in turn, was mounted on a pancake-shaped transportation unit. This unit was equipped with both casters and a sort of caterpillar-crawler arrangement for the contrivance to get about over obstacles. Inside was a gyro-stabilizer to keep the whole device upright. Tom felt a glow of pride - and eager impatience - as he inspected the device. If it worked as he hoped, this odd creature might one day provide earth scientists with a priceless store of information about intelligent life on Planet X!” — Victor Appleton, Tom Swift And The Visitor From Planet X

Elbow Room

Elbow Room can be defined as free space on either side of a human body into which the elbows can be extended outwards. You can test whether you have Elbow Room by standing up, with your arms at your sides, and then raising your hands, keeping them to the side of your body. Your arms will form an angle with the elbows at the apex.

I am not familiar with many standard geometrical terms, so apex may be the incorrect word, but I am sure you know what I mean. In my view, a lack of precise knowledge ought not prevent me from applying my puny yet pulsating brain to matters of interest. You may retort, with some justification, that it would be easy enough for me to look up the information about which I am unclear, either in a reference book or on the internet. I cannot really argue with that, but if I started checking up on everything of which I am ignorant, I would be kept busy for ever and a day, and would not have any time to actually write anything. Do not, please, tell me to confine myself to writing about things I already know, or that I am confident enough to babble on about without corroborating the facts. There are indeed statements I can make which I do not need to verify, assertions which I would challenge anyone to disprove. I know, for example, that the character played by David McCallum in The Man From UNCLE was named Ilya Kuryakin. I know that Robert Burton wrote The Anatomy Of Melancholy under the pseudonym Democritus Junior. I know that I can find eternity in a grain of sand. Were I to limit myself to that which I already know, not only would I get bored, but so would you, the reader, still standing, I trust, with your elbows akimbo, relishing the free space on either side of your body, and knowing that this is what we call Elbow Room. Now you can draw your elbows in and sit down again.

I have of course made the assumption that you were able to extend your elbows outwards as suggested. But it may be that you do not have Elbow Room. Perhaps you are a dangerous and brainsick criminal and you have been confined, for the safety of both yourself and others, to a tiny, tiny cell. Maybe you are a fanatical adherent of some cause, and have gathered together with your fellows en masse, scrunched up against one another and shouting your heads off in protest, pinned to a designated section of the market square by riot police kitted out with helmets, batons and shields. Or you may be out in open country, taking the air, with plenty of Elbow Room and a vast amount of space besides, and you may have taken a wrong turn and found yourself engulfed by a herd of cows being driven slowly along the lane by a peasant. These thing happen, believe you me.

In the unlikely event that you are reading this in any of these circumstances, or in any other situation which does not afford you Elbow Room, you can always test the validity of my argument next time you are less squashed up.Bear in mind that you should never take Elbow Room for granted. It is a precious thing, and you would do well to treasure it.

Next week, I will be writing about something else of which I am not one hundred percent certain. Doing so will benefit both me and you. I have not yet decided upon the topic, but there is so, so much to choose from, for the universe is boundless and my knowledge of it is as tiny as the tiniest thing you could ever imagine in your wildest and most hectic dreams. If you would like to suggest a subject for my blathering, please write to Hooting Yard by email, using the header Hey! Why don't you write about… ?, where the ellipsis is replaced by the topic of your choice.

The Formosan Alphabet

Cranky Pagan Pudding Recipe

This all happened a long, long time ago, before you were born. It was a pagan time, a bit like The Wicker Man, but with no sign of extravagant bouffants, yellow polo-neck jumpers, and repressed police officers. Think more along the lines of flint arrowheads, woad, and grunting. When we turn our minds to ancient peoples, be they pagan sun-worshippers, cave dwellers, or marauding warriors, we tend to think of them as a homogenous mass rather than as a collection of individuals. We ascribe to them the sameness which is one of the more arresting characteristics of beings from other planets in science fiction - a common language, wardrobe, hairstyle, and so on. If we ever do meet alien life-forms, they will almost certainly be as multifarious as are living things on earth. This is, of course, no less true of our pagan ancestors.

So I want you to consider that the pagan to whom we will now turn our attention was not just an inarticulate woad-daubed bog dweller wrapped in filthy animal hides - though he certainly fit that description - but that he had a personality, too, one that made him unique, as is every single one of God's creatures. The name of this pagan has not come down to us, but what we do know is something of his character. He was cranky.

Cranky, cantankerous, petulant, call it what you will. Had you been a primitive pagan, with matted hair, running sores, rotten teeth, and the distinct possibility of being laid upon a stone slab and sacrificed to the Sun God, you too might have thrown the occasional tantrum. Yet the capacity of the human spirit to cope with the most appalling circumstances is quite astonishing, and it has to be said that all of the cranky pagan's compadres bore life's ills with fortitude. The cranky pagan did not. He moaned and moped and grizzled and grumbled and flew into boiling tempers. He was moody and impossible.

You might wonder why his companions did not shun him, or beat him about the head with clubs until he stopped being fractious, or indeed why they did not put him first on the list to have his heart torn from his breast and offered in trembling supplication to appease their enraged Sun God. We can not be sure that they had such a list, but archaeologists have found mysteriously neat scraping marks on certain stones, and it does not take a great stretch of the imagination to conclude that the marks were made by some pagan hierophant designating appointed victims. These ancient people may have been primitive by our standards, but they had a sense of order, and a system. Bureaucrats flourish in every time and every place, alas.

Cranky he may have been, but the cranky pagan was a superb cook, and that is why he was not just tolerated but treasured. To gain some idea of just how much he was valued, imagine that all you have eaten for the last six months is the meat of birds and small mammals, usually raw, tearing at it ravenously with your aching teeth, blood dripping down your jaw. And then along comes the cranky pagan, growling and grunting as usual, but excitedly, and with a gleam in his eyes, shining brilliantly through the splattering of woad that covers his face. He points yonder, and jabbers, and beckons you to follow him. Wiping the blood of a weasel from your chin, you creak to your feet, and plod after the cranky pagan. He leads you to the edge of the bog. There, on a flat piece of ground, he has deposited a heap of goo. He bends, dips his grubby hand in it, scoops out some of the goo and shoves it into his mouth. He swallows, and then speaks. Obviously, he does not express himself in modern English, so in reporting what he says I have taken certain liberties.

“Do not look so surprised to see me shovelling this goo into my mouth and swallowing it. You need not whirl your arms about in such alarm. I have invented pudding. I gathered a collection of nuts and berries and mashed them all together, and then I worked out a way of making the mash hot, with fire and flame, and this is the result. It is delicious. Try some.”

And there you have it. I only wish we knew precisely which nuts, which berries, went into this pudding, but we don't, and perhaps we never will.

DETOURS : Pseudodoxia EpidemicaThe Fantod DeckRetro Future

Tuesday 21st March 2006

“The pursuit of the Inner Child has taken over just at the moment when Americans ought to be figuring out where their Inner Adult is, and how that disregarded oldster got buried under the rubble of pop psychology and specious short-term gratification.” — Robert Hughes, Culture Of Complaint

The Crooked Timber of Humanity

His frostbitten limbs. Sappho in the doldrums. Bad gas and forts. If these phrases do not stir you, you are clearly not a devotee of Urbane Geistige Geist, who was born one hundred years ago today. If, on the other hand, your brain lit up like a beacon on reading those words, you will be one of that little band who rightly acknowledge Geist as a key figure in twentieth century popular music.

‘Popular’ is perhaps not the most appropriate word. Although he worked within such fields as jazz, folk, rock, hootcha, pop, and swing, Geist's music never won mass acceptance. He was only ever a cult figure, but it is to be hoped that, with the celebration of his centenary, the ears of the world can be opened to his extraordinary accomplishment. Who would have thought that an obscure cadet in the Bolivian army would become - in the words of one perceptive commentator - a cross between Yoko Ono, Xavier Cugat, and Mark E Smith?

We need not dwell here on Geist's military career, except to note that he learned to play his first instrument - the glockenspiel - when he came under the wing of the legendary Bolivian army glockenspiel instructor, Captain Enrique Finisterre Belbacqau, a man of whom it has been said that if he did not exist, the staff of the Bolivian Army Glockenspiel Training School would have had to invent him. (One body of opinion attests that that is precisely what they did, creating a fictional character not unlike the supposed agent George Kaplan in Hitchcock's North By Northwest, for whom the Cary Grant character Roger Thornhill is mistaken. This theory has never satisfactorily answered the obvious question: if Belbacqua did not exist, who exactly did teach Geist his formidable glockenspiel technique?)

After being thrown out of the Bolivian army because of his flawed cadetship and shape-shifting, Geist hitch-hiked to Paraguay, where he soon fell in with a criminal gang who, when they weren't cutting throats and pushing widows into the paths of oncoming trains, toted their piccolos and banjos around the market squares of provincial towns, playing an infectious combination of bluegrass and light opera. This raggle-taggle peasant band became, improbably enough, the first incarnation of The Crooked Timber Of Humanity.

There has been much speculation regarding Geist's lifelong insistence that the groups he led, no matter how often he changed personnel, must always go by the same appellation, sometimes as just The Crooked Timber Of Humanity, and sometimes as Bolivian Army Cadet Urbane Geistige Geist And The Crooked Timber Of Humanity. He took the name from Immanuel Kant's observation that “out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made”, and it is tempting to see this as a less than subtle comment on that very first line-up of evil-hearted robbers and violent thugs. (Incidentally, Dobson wrote an out of print pamphlet entitled Nomenclature of Paraguayan Bandit Musicians & Soviet Collective Farm Administrators Compared, in which he proposed that Geist arrived at the name during a tarot reading. This is piffle.)

Sadly, no recording exists of that very first group. By the time the LP Pelf And Cant was released, with its magnificent trumpet-driven melodies, all but one of the original band were either dead, imprisoned, or hiding in the hills. Geist was supremely unconcerned at the almost total loss of his group, demonstrating for the first time the ruthlessness which was to make him so feared. As Dave Pod puts it in his Oral History Of The Crooked Timber Of Humanity, “You could always tell when someone had done their time with Geist's band. Their hair was prematurely white, most of their teeth had fallen out, and they walked, if they were able to walk at all, on spavined legs. They trembled uncontrollably, burst into tears every five minutes, and were unable to achieve closure on their issues despite extensive, and expensive, therapy”. Pod's own band became a sort of rest home for ejected Crooked Timber, though artistically he is not fit to lick Geist's boots. Nonetheless, one should not overlook the fact that by throwing in their lot with Pod, the wrecked survivors of The Crooked Timber Of Humanity were given a chance to play at the Eurovision Song Contest, something that was unlikely to happen under Geist's iron rule. (He did, notoriously, attempt to enter the competition when he kidnapped Kathy Kirby, but an international police operation foiled his reprehensible, if entertaining, scheme. Many of us would have given our eye teeth to witness that superb twenty-six strong line-up of the band, all accordions, trombones and pounding drums, backing the British songstress in the specially-written song Black Rubber Beelzebub.)

His Frostbitten Limbs. Sappho In The Doldrums. Bad Gas And Forts. This was the trio of LPs that, for many of us, cemented Geist's reputation. Released within the space of a single month, containing between them no fewer than one hundred songs, shanties and pop-madrigals, they still stand as one of the commanding achievements of twentieth century music in any genre, vibrant, vivacious, vivid and even, at times, deceptively cloth-eared. The story of those fractious recording sessions has been told many times, notably in the memoir by lutenist Julian Beam, one of the few band members who managed to remain in favour with Geist and appear on all three LPs, although his contribution to Bad Gas And Forts consists of a single string-pluck in the middle eight of The Gregory Peck Protein Imbalance Song. By the time The Crooked Timber Of Humanity appeared on the television show Pop Fabulousness! to promote its release as a single, Beam had been “consigned to the outer darkness” as Geist always put it, and was hawking his lute-playing skills at a variety of seaside resorts in exchange for the price of a cake or bun for his dinner. By the time he came to write his book, his arm was withered, his prematurely white hair was infested with beetles, and he had all the telltale signs of an ex-Geistist.

When we recorded the songs on side one of His Frostbitten Limbs, wrote Beam, Geist had devised some new ideas. He made us sleep in tents on the sloping roof of the studio, wear bells on lanyards around our necks, and force fed us a grey, tasteless paste of his own recipe. Every member of the band ballooned in weight and the constant clanging of those bells sorely tried the engineer, who had to erase their clamour from the tapes. The tents could not be properly secured to the concrete roof, and there were violent gales throughout the month, so we got little sleep. Only the hammer and tongs players, all six of them, were exempt from this regime. They were put up in a luxury hotel and taken to exciting sporting events during breaks. Geist himself spent most of the sessions smoking his pipe and making lascivious phone calls to a floozie.

Elsewhere, Beam declared that no recording session had given him such great joy, and he continued to idolise Geist for the remainder of his life, until the day his pitiful wasted body collapsed in a heap in a post office near the Blister Lane Bypass, and he was pronounced dead. Reportedly, his dying words were “Urbane Geistige Geist is a profound and matchless genius and everyone should devote their lives to his work, as I have been honoured to do, despite the feeble and broken carcass you see expiring before your eyes on this post office floor near the Blister Lane Bypa…..”

Geist himself was to die within a week. He had recorded over one hundred and twenty LPs, played concerts in almost every country on earth, won the esteem of a dedicated troop of followers, and been appointed as a Chevalier de Leo Sayer in perpetuity. Countless times it had been foretold* that he would meet his end at the hands of a vengeful, dismissed member of The Crooked Timber Of Humanity. Fingers were pointed, even while the bandleader was still alive, at bassoonist Ned Nightshade, the man who had played such a wonderful solo on a reworking of The Snapping Turtles Of Old Cadiz, yet whose heart had shrivelled and rotted when Geist sent him packing. Suspicions were raised, too, about Hetty and Ingmar, the Norwegian teenagers who sang on over a dozen LPs but were sacked from the band when Geist got himself into a flap about something or other.

In the event, the maestro was not murdered. One damp Sunday he was wheeling a barrow of nettles over bracken, whistling the showstopper from his stage musical version of Foxe's Book of Martyrs, when a bee landed on his hat. Geist had always worn bee-proof hats until this fateful day, when a mix-up at the dry-cleaners' found him for once in his life unprotected from bees. In a panic, he stopped whistling and flew into convulsions. His head flushed purple, he gasped for breath, and his tongue became puffy. He did not remove his hat, the fool. He became snagged in the bracken, miles from civilisation, and by the time the bee flew back to its hive, Geist had become hopelessly entangled. Unable to free himself, he lay on his back, staring at the sky, and sang Roll Along Covered Wagon, over and over again, until his last breath.

Roll along covered wagon, roll along, to the turn of your wheels I sing a song, city ladies may be fine, but give me that girl of mine, roll along covered wagon, roll along. Going home covered wagon going home, for this cowboy was never born to roam, 'long the road that doesn't change, to that old bar twenty range, roll along covered wagon, roll along. Yipee-teeyi, old timers, heading for your ranch house door, yipee-teeyi, old timers, coral me so I'll never stray no more. Roll along covered wagon, roll along. Come along old pal, let's get going. Roll along.

*NOTE : But not by Ruth The Truth (see below).

DETOURS : The Invisible LibraryJudaeo-Christian TattoosEarly Patent Illustrations

Saturday 18th March 2006

“Hark! what plunged from the bank - what black thing moves towards him across the water? The crocodile! coming with tears in his eyes, and a long grin of serried teeth. Coming! - the ugly scaly head is always nearer and nearer. The boy screams; but who should hear him? He feels whether the talisman be yet round his neck. He screams again, calling, in half-delirium, upon his dead mother. Meanwhile the scaly snout is close upon him.” — Julian Hawthorne, Idolatry

Squirrels : Emissaries From the Beyond?

In the latest issue of the superb Chat! magazine, Ruth The Truth (the “psychic agony aunt”) has this advice for Janice from Pembroke: “the squirrel in your garden has a message”*. Skeptics, nay-sayers and other blighters will retort that the squirrel's message is likely to be “Give me some nuts” or “Give me some more nuts”, but Ruth The Truth - and the squirrel-fanciers among us at Hooting Yard - know better.

I can speak only from my own experience, but it has long been apparent to me that squirrels are in fact emissaries from The Beyond. All that hectic twitching and scampering is evidence not merely of a high metabolic rate but of the fact that their tiny squirrel brains are jam-packed with pulsating psychic energy. I do not deny that they want nuts, either to nibble right away or to put in storage for a long hard winter, but that is not the whole story. Consider those bushy tails. Have you ever wondered why they stick upwards, rather than thumping along the ground, like the tails of so many other animals? It is because each hair of a squirrel's tail ends in a minuscule receptor, designed by nature to pick up and capture some of the billions of psychic messages swirling around the ether. These spooky thought-phenomena are invisible, fugitive and volatile, unnoticed by us humans with our puny minds, but they are the very atmosphere of the squirrels' world. Those quivering psychic nodes in their tails strain to pick up signals from those who have passed over to the Other Side, be they other squirrels, stoats, weasels, birds, insects, or indeed humans.

Ruth The Truth, in Chat!, does not divulge what message the squirrel in her garden has for Janice from Pembroke, and it would be no doubt foolish to try to guess. But I am foolish sometimes. Perhaps Janice is a widow, and her departed husband has sent reassuring news from Heaven, or, more worryingly, a stricken plea from the Pit of Doom and Desolation. Maybe Janice had a pet swan which succumbed to bird flu** and it has sent, via the squirrel in the garden, news from that place to which perished swans are consigned when they leave the mortal world. It could even be that Janice from Pembroke trod accidentally upon a dozing bee on her garden path last summer, and the bee is telling her she is forgiven.

It is unlikely that Janice from Pembroke is a keen reader of both Chat! and Hooting Yard, but if she is, I would like to invite her to share with us the message she has received from the squirrel in her garden. It may be, indeed, that she is unable to translate the message from the argot of squirrels in which it is couched, and here we can help, for Mrs Gubbins is a skilled interpreter of these things.

*NOTE : I am indebted to Charlie Brooker of The Guardian for alerting me to this important matter, in a piece entitled Supposing … The mainstream's as mad as it seems to be.

**NOTE : Janice from Pembroke could have avoided her swan's bird flu death had she paid careful attention to Saving Your Swan (see 20th February 2006).

Potted Autobiography

Occasionally the Hooting Yard postbox is choked with letters from readers all of which say, in so many words, “Frank, tell us what you're really like”. My natural diffidence makes me reluctant to respond to such pleas, but today I have changed my mind. Here, then, is a brief but devastatingly accurate pen-portrait of “Mister Hooting Yard”.

Unlike Maya Angelou, I have no idea why the caged bird sings. Nor am I particularly given to singin' and swingin' and gettin' merry like Christmas. On the contrary, I have an almost fathomless ignorance of ornithological matters and the Yuletide season will find me moping and lugubrious. Thus, if I am ever to write a series of memoirs, it will not do for me to plagiarise Maya Angelou's catchy titles. I will have to come up with my own ideas, and the strain of doing so makes it unlikely that I will be in a fit state to continue writing once I have hit upon the perfect title for the story of my own life. Of course, if I was able to get my hands on the Cordial Balm of Siriacum (see O Cure Me, below, 6th March) that might provide the fillip I need, and I would be able to type away energetically, regaling you with anecdotes from my past, attempting an amusing yet cogent dissection of my current state, and even looking forward to the future with the aid of psychic messages from a squirrel. I beg you to wait patiently, therefore, while I seek a reliable supply of the Cordial Balm. When I have done so, I shall continue with my potted autobiography.


The picture above is of a ship, and thus gives a perfect illustration of the quality of being shipshape. If an object's form is roughly akin to the ship shown, we can say with some confidence that it is shipshape. Shipshape ought not be confused with shapeshift. To shapeshift, the verb, means to engage in shapeshifting, a practice of which various phantoms and ghouls are fond, the better to terrify us with intimations of the uncanny. Ah, I hear you say, but is that not precisely what might happen on a ghost ship, where one may encounter shipshape and shapeshift in the same context? I can only answer in the affirmative.

Ghost ships are a particularly chilling subcategory of ghoulish terror, but what are they exactly? Some contend that a ghost ship need have no phantoms nor shapeshifters aboard, but earns the description merely by being abandoned, emptied in a mysterious fashion of all life, save perhaps for a few rats scurrying in the cargo holds. The classic example is the Marie Celeste, which owes its fame to Arthur Conan Doyle's story J. Habakuk Jephson's Statement (1884), based on the case of the Mary Celeste, which had been found, intact but deserted, twelve years earlier.

Then there are true ghost ships, ones crewed by phantoms and ghouls, often piratical in nature, and usually seen at night, or in gales. The archetype here is The Flying Dutchman, not to be confused with Die Fledermaus, or flying mouse, which is a literal translation of the German for bat, and the name of Strauss's comic operetta of 1874, which has nothing to do with aerial Netherlanders, as far as I recall.Bats, poor innocent creatures that they are, have often been considered spooky and terrifying by people who ought to know better. Hanging upside down in a dark cave is not in itself evidence of ghoulishness, particularly if you are a bat.

I appear to have become diverted from the subject of shapeshifters aboard shipshape ships, and I apologise. Introducing bats into the equation - as they say in management gobbledegook seminars, using the phrase irksomely when there is not a single equation in sight - is only going to make matters more complex than they already are. In any case, if we begin to talk of bats, it will not be long before we need to differentiate bat, the flying mammal fond of hanging upside down in a dark cave, from bat, the tool with which a ball is propelled and controlled in any number of sports and games, and we will soon get on to racquets and rackets. As Lord Denning said in another context, “this is such an appalling vista that every sensible person in the land would say that it cannot be right that these actions should go any further”. For “actions” read “blatherings”.

If a ghost ship can be either one with a ghost crew, or one uncannily deserted, there is only one type of ship that can be described as a ship of fools, and that is a ship on which both passengers and crew are, to be blunt, fools. Hieronymus Bosch painted a ship of fools, and Sebastian Brant wrote a satire of that title in 1494. It is a medieval allegory that has had surprising resonance.

Typically audacious, the poet Dennis Beerpint has crammed all these legends together in his new verse drama The Abandoned Ship Of Fools And Ghouls. In a key scene, the derelict ship, no longer entirely shipshape, is discovered in a bat-riddled cave. Phantoms haunt the decks of the barquentine, while deeper inside the cave, the unnamed narrator discovers fools capering about and making a racket, playing a ball game with racquets. In a twist that will delight readers given to plot-twists, the narrator himself then shifts shape. Here are the closing lines:

So we leave this ship, so highly vaunted / By ghouls and phantoms now so haunted / We press on through the bat-dark cave / And pray to God our souls to save / We come to where the fools do caper / And I shift shape - I dissolve in vapour.

Most critics have dismissed Beerpint's latest work as pap, and one can hardly blame them.

Tuesday 14th March 2006

“Anger, despair, ferocity, hunger, terror - all were depicted upon those awful faces. Through the cracked glass, deadly fumes began to steal, my room seemed cloudy, I was as if transfixed, unable to move, to call, to reach the lights, to do aught but stand staring, tremblingly. The faces pressed closer and yet closer; they reached the glass, it cracked again, and more fumes poured in; long arms (there seemed hundreds of them) reached wildly up, skinny hands, like those of skeletons, were held out as if to grasp.” — Bessie Kyffin-Taylor, From Out Of The Silence

He Preened, Eating Bloaters

Task: describe a typical Dobson breakfast scene.

On the face of it, this sounds like a simple enough assignment. It is, of course, anything but. Those who have even a passing acquaintance with the titanic out-of-print pamphleteer Dobson know that the words typical and breakfast can never be crammed together. It is an understatement to say that he had mixed feelings about breakfast. There were times when he was up and about before dawn, gobbling down a huge bowl of porridge. Thereagain, he sometimes stumbled downstairs at noon, bleary and fractious, waving his arms in dismissal of a proffered slice of toast. From one day to the next, there was no knowing how Dobson would greet the day, and howsoever he did greet it, no knowing with what foodstuffs, if any, the day would commence.

I cannot in all honesty, then, describe a typical Dobson breakfast scene, as is required of me. Instead, I propose to examine two Dobsonian breakfasts, from different stages in his life, to which I will add some observations on a pamphlet he planned, but never wrote, on this important topic. Will that do?

The first breakfast scene I wish to evoke is one that took place when Dobson was living around the corner from the notorious flapper Popsie Shadrach. Popsie's well-kept secret at the height of her flapperdom was that she was the devoted mother of an infant. Her daughter grew up to become the daredevil adventuress Tiny Enid. At the time of this breakfast, however, Tiny Enid was not even a twinkle in her mother's eye. Popsie was returning from a gin joint at dawn, and crashed her jalopy into Dobson's hedge, waking the pamphleteer, who leapt out of bed, thundered out into his front garden, carried the stunned demimondaine into his parlour, and sought to revive her by winding up his gramophone and playing the Adagio from Bohuslav Martinu's Concerto for string quartet and orchestra at ear-splitting volume. With Popsie sprawled on the couch and the music moving inexorably towards its sonorous B minor climax, Dobson busied himself in the kitchen. Outside it began to pour with rain, and steam hissed from the jalopy's smashed-up engine, so much steam that the hedge was obscured. This was the inspiration for Dobson's tremendous pamphlet Hedges Hidden From Sight By Steam (out of print), the only one of his works to be illustrated with watercolours. When the music stopped, Dobson bid the groggy but only slightly injured flapper to join him at the breakfast table. He preened, and ate bloaters. Popsie contented herself with a tumbler of gin, sucked from a straw, for her wrist was sprained and she could not hold the glass.

We move forward four decades to consider a second Dobson breakfast scene. Bloaters have their place here, too, but there is no gin, no Popsie Shadrach, no Tiny Enid (by now an adult famed wherever people speak of daredevil adventuresses) and no hedge hidden by steam. In fact there is no hedge at all, for Dobson has moved on, as we all must, sooner or later.

The second breakfast I invite you to ponder was prepared and consumed in an anteroom on the sixth floor of a palace belonging to the Plenipotentiary Oberstraung General of a disputed territory south of the Great Frightening River. What in heaven's name was the impecunious pamphleteer doing in such sumptuous surroundings? I should point out that he was only there for three days, having been invited under the mistaken assumption that he was a tuner of pianos, an easy error to make, given that his most recent pamphlet was entitled I, Piano Tuner! Dobson's host had clearly not read beyond the cover page, for even a cursory reading of the text would show that the pamphleteer was wholly ignorant of his subject. It is one of his most mystifying tracts, being largely concerned with the unrelated topics of soup and buttons. But let that pass.

There is Dobson, muffled from the workaday world in a suite of rooms hung with rich brocade tapestries while embarrassed arrangements are made for a special sealed train to whisk him away, leaving the Plenipotentiary Oberstraung General's piano untuned. Morning sweeps across the sky on the pamphleteer's final morning. The train is due at ten. A factotum enters Dobson's temporary boudoir, bearing a tray, and upon the tray is the territory's traditional breakfast, a dish of boiled marrow steeped in honey from rare bees, a block of dry cocoa bread, and a piping hot beaker of a local decoction into which a raw egg has been broken. The factotum places the tray on a side dresser and flings open the heavy curtains, flooding the room with milky light. Turning, the lackey is about to awaken the snoozing pamphleteer, but Dobson is nowhere to be seen. The bedclothes are rumpled, discarded pyjamas are strewn on the floor, but the breakfastee has vanished. Eventually, the factotum tracks Dobson down to an anteroom adjoining the palace's sixth floor kitchens, where he is sitting alone, having helped himself to his breakfast from astonishingly well-stocked larders. Dobson is preening, and eating bloaters.

I said I would end this piece by mentioning an unwritten Dobson pamphlet. He planned at one stage to compile a list of every breakfast he had ever eaten, from infancy onwards, and made some preparatory notes. To the bald listing, he intended to add observations on place-settings, tablecloths, cutlery and crockery, and general ambience. We should be thankful that he never actually wrote this work, for it would have been as dull as ditchwater, but not the fearsome ditchwater that was the main ingredient of the palace breakfast decoction. That ditchwater was by no means dull, for when the factotum poured Dobson's untouched beakerful down the sink, it sizzled and hissed and corroded the piping, it corroded the piping of the palace, and the palace collapsed.

Monday 13th March 2006

“There's a big difference between dancing on your own and dancing with a dog.” — Mary Ray, interviewed at Crufts Dog Show 2006

Blotzmann's Bird Psychology Diagram : Correction

The trustees of the Blotzmann Institute of Bird Psychology have asked me to point out that a number of errors appeared in the reproduction of the famous Blotzmann Bird Psychology Diagram on Saturday (see below). Keen followers of Blotzmann will be aware that he was forever refining his work, and I inadvertently showed an early - and discredited - version of the diagram. Here, then, is the definitive Blotzmann Diagram, as approved by the Institute.

Saturday 11th March 2006

“Each nation has its own method of salutation. In Southern Africa it is the custom to rub toes. In Lapland your friend rubs his nose against yours. The Turk folds his arms upon his breast and bends his head very low. The Moors of Morocco have a somewhat startling mode of salutation. They ride at a gallop toward a stranger, as though they would unhorse him, and when close at hand suddenly check their horse and fire a pistol over the person's head. The Egyptian solicitously asks you, ‘How do you perspire?’ and lets his hand fall to the knee. The Chinese bows low and inquires, ‘Have you eaten?’ The Spaniard says, ‘God be with you, sir,’ or, ‘How do you stand?’ And the Neapolitan piously remarks, ‘Grow in holiness’.” — John H Young, Our Deportment

Blotzmann's Bird Psychology Diagram

Thursday 9th March 2006

“I am going to outline for you a picture of an object which is everywhere recognized by good people as a symbol of defiance of the law, a suggestion of immorality, of poverty, depravity and death. [Draw beer keg, completing Fig. 15.] In plain words, it is a beer keg, and its close companions are the whiskey barrel, the wine cask and the demijohn! It well represents the liquor traffic as a whole - that terrible curse which holds in its grip so many men and boys, whose lives might be bright, happy and successful but for its blighting, fatal grasp. No right-thinking man has a good word for the business which makes good men into brutes, transforms honorable citizens into murderers, and brings many a prosperous family to rags and misery.” — J Griswold, Crayon And Character : Truth Made Clear Through Eye And Ear

Epoch of Snares

We all know that there was an age known as the Epoch of Snares, but it is surprising how little is generally known about it. This was a time when giant badger-like beings roamed the hills of the earth, when the oceans were deeper, darker, and more terrifying than they are now, and when only the very bravest of souls volunteered to crew the enormous primitive container ships that plied across those seas.

It was an age of seething murderousness, of great cosmic shifts, of roaring winds that uprooted the few pitiful scrags of vegetation that struggled for life in soil that was not soil as we know it today. In the Epoch of Snares, soil was much more friable, and crumbly, and sometimes even very crumbly. It seldom had the compactness or density to hold a plant secure from the biting winds, the same winds whose intense coldness seemed somehow to inspire the giant badger-like beings up in the hills. There were more hills then, higher, more rounded, covering vast expanses.

In those times shoes had not been invented. Hard to imagine that the fierce and burly sailors on those container ships did everything they had to do in bare feet, or sometimes wearing sock-like wrappings. We no longer know how such things were made, from what materials, with what technology, for all the wrappings that were ever worn have perished, and our only evidence is some briskly-scribbled drawings done with the aid of a clairvoyant whose brews, when taken in sufficient quantities, enabled her to picture the past. Or so she claimed.

Men and women were outnumbered by pelicans in those days. Some estimates say there were two hundred pelicans to every person, but these were not our modern pelicans. They came in all sizes, some as tiny as hamsters, others bigger than the biggest of the giant badger-like beings that roamed the windswept hills. Some would have it that a huge asteroid from a faraway galaxy, lumbered with millions upon millions of eggs, smashed into the earth, and the impact scattered these alien eggs and from them the pelicans hatched, but this is a frankly ludicrous theory, and one not given credence when one considers that it was propounded by a gibbering maniac chained to the wall of a cellar in a bleak and derelict village. That maniac is my brother, so I know whereof I speak.

Indeed, so assiduous have my studies been these last fifty years that I believe I know more about the Epoch of Snares than anyone else alive. I know what freight was carried in those primitive container ships that crossed ceaselessly from shore to shore. Bales. A staggering number of bales of every size and description, handled and watched over with infinite care by those fearsome, fearless sailors, a special breed, so different from the weedy landlubbers who vied for scarce resources with innumerable pelicans, and so nearly lost the struggle. But of course the pelicans were all but wiped out in just one winter, and even I do not know how that happened.

The Epoch of Snares is notable, too, because it was an era when only one type of cloud appeared in the sky, namely the anvil cloud. The anvil cloud is the description for the upper portion of a towering cumulonimbus, mostly ice, which forms high in thunderstorms, and there were constant thunderstorms at that time. People did not then fear thunder and lightning, as many do today, nor did the pelicans fear the wrack and roar of storms, but what do you think it was that had all those giant badger-like beings charging back and forth over the hills? Terror, is the answer, terror of thunder in particular. These strange beasts' ears were hypersensitive, could hear things that people and pelicans could not, and whatever it was they heard in the thunder filled them with fear, and so they would be forever seeking a place of safety, but never finding one, for they never came down from the high hills.

The badger-beings, too, died out, but not at the same time as the pelicans. Geological upheavals have flattened many of the hills where they crashed around in panic, and no one has yet found any trace of their bones. Perhaps it is true what my brother says, that the badger-beings never existed, were but a vapour in the brain of some historical fantasist, but I doubt he can be right about that and so hopelessly, ridiculously wrong about the pelicans. I hope you will concur.

As we have seen, the people of that time had no shoes. Nor did they have saints. As far as I have been able to ascertain they did not have what we would today think of as a religion. To be sure, they subscribed to a cosmogony, they had some dim, dull-witted inkling of how the earth and the heavens, the sun and moon and stars, and anvil clouds, all fitted together, but it was not one I have wasted time trying to understand, for it was clearly idiotic. I have in my pouch a diagram made by that clairvoyant I mentioned earlier, which purports to show the universe as understood in the Epoch of Snares, but it is a slapdash diagram and, I feel, only muddies waters already murky enough.

And why, everyone asks, sooner or later, is this long-ago age known as the Epoch of Snares? Why not the Epoch of Bales, of Badger-beings, of Interplanetary Pelicans? Why not the Epoch of Enormous Primitive Container Ships That Plied Across The Seas? Why not, indeed, the Epoch of No Shoes? Go to the bleak and derelict village, enter that dark dank cellar, approach the gibbering maniac chained to the wall. Ask my brother. He will tell you.

An Anvil Cloud

Monday 6th March 2006

“What has happened to Dwight? Something that is not easily settled; for as the chickens sputter in the oven below, and the water boils off the potatoes, and the pudding is manufactured, and the cloud deepens and glooms, he does not recover his free-and-easy air and manner. He ceases his walk after a little, from sheer weariness, but he thrusts out his arm and seizes a chair with the air of one who has not time to be leisurely, and flings himself into it, and clasps his arms on the table, and bends his head on his hands and thinks on. The holy hours of the Sabbath afternoon waned.” — Pansy & Mrs C M Livingston, Divers Women

O Cure Me

The Guardianruns a daily selection from its archives. Today's article (advertisement?), originally published on 6 March 1844, is so good that I am including it here:

Worms Destroyed : Medicine never witnessed a more important discovery than in Pritchett's Vegetable Vermifuge, a remedy that neither purges, vomits, nor otherwise affects the constitution; requires no confinement, has neither taste nor smell, and is so harmless that it may be taken by an infant of an hour old; yet never, in one instance, failed destroying every worm in the body. It contains not a particle of calomel, scammony, gamboge, or other drastic article. Large packets 2s.9d.

Apoplexy Prevented : Determination of blood to the head effectually prevented by the occasional use of Frampton's Pill of Health, which, by strengthening the action of the stomach, prevents alarming giddiness, oppression of the brain, singing noise in the ears, headache. They are an excellent aperient, without griping or prostration of strength. Price 1 1/2d. and 2s.9d. a box.

For Stopping Decayed Teeth : Patronised by her Majesty the Queen, his Royal Highness Prince Albert, her Royal Highness the Duchess of Kent, his Majesty the King of the Belgians, his Majesty the King of Prussia, his Grace the Archbishop of Canterbury, and nearly all the nobility, the bishops, and the clergy. Mr Thomas's Succedaneum, for filling decayed teeth, however large the cavity. It is superior to anything ever before used, as it is placed in the tooth in a soft state, without any pressure or pain, and in a short time becomes as hard as the enamel, and will remain firm in the tooth for many years, rendering extraction unnecessary. It arrests all further progress of decay, and renders them again useful in mastication. All persons can use Mr Thomas's Succedaneum themselves with else, without the aid of a dentist. Prepared only by Mr. Thomas, surgeon-dentist, 8, Berners-street, Oxford-street, London ; price 4s. 6d. Mr Thomas will send it free by post.

General Debility : To these who are suffering from nervous complaints, rheumatism, scurvy, sorbutic eruptions and all diseases arising from impurity of the blood. The Cordial Balm of Syriacum is a gentle stimulant and enovator of the impaired functions of life, and is, therefore, calculated to afford decided relief to those who have fallen into a state of most chronic debility. It possesses wonderful efficacy in fits, headache, weakness, heaviness, dimness of sight, confused thoughts, wandering of the mind, and all kinds of hysteric complaints. Price 11s.

Living With Alf

A new property development has recently appeared near where I live. It's a block of flats called Marnie Court, so I suspect all the residents will be deranged blonde kleptomaniacs who try to suppress memories of having murdered a sailor when they were tiny tots.

I do like the idea of naming blocks of flats after Hitchcock films. Wouldn't you love to live in Psycho House, Rich And Strange Villas, Spellbound Court, Notorious Buildings, Torn Curtain Court, or Frenzy Flats?

Hedren, Tippi

Was Dobson a Visionary?

Was Dobson a visionary? William Blake saw an angel in a tree in Peckham. Dobson, so far as we know, never went to Peckham. But did he see other angels, in other trees, elsewhere? If he did, he never wrote about them. He wrote about all sorts of things - propellers, dust, ringworm, Rod McKuen, spillages, gloom and magnetism, for example.

Dobson's pamphlet on Rod McKuen is one of his most extraordinary works. He took a single line from a poem by the gravel-voiced bard of sentimental pap and spun from it a dizzying exegesis. The critic Lavender Thule has praised Dobson's essay as the verbal equivalent of a bebop jazz improvisation, although as she is profoundly deaf, and has been since birth, one wonders how she arrived at this conclusion. One wonders, too, why she treasures a crumpled photograph of the jazz-obsessed armaments manufacturer Chevenix Peaglue on the back of which she has scribbled an illegible couplet.

Hedgehog lover Rod McKuen

The line Dobson chose as the starting point for his majestic pamphlet is from Rod McKuen's poem “Mornings Enough”, where the cloying versifier writes: The hedgehog grumbling back to darkness is known by me and loved by me. In sweeping prose. Dobson notes that sleeping hedgehogs are often torn to pieces by badgers, and ponders on savagery in the world of small mammals. Would McKuen, he asks, declare his love for a badger with bloody fangs, fresh from gorging itself on the entrails of a recently-slaughtered hedgehog? From there, the out of print pamphleteer poses a series of questions about love, badgers, blood, gravel pathways, wax, being unstinting about something, pantomime, poisonous toads, The Duchess of Malfi, gloves, fruit with pips, fruit without pips, and the methods we use to measure horses. It is a bravura performance, even though Dobson refuses to answer any of the questions he raises.

Indeed, on page sixty-six he writes “I refuse to answer any of these questions. You can put me in a sack and seal the sack with knotted rope, and fling the sack containing me into a dark and horrible pond, or even into the vast abominable sea, but I shall remain steadfast in my silence!!!”

Why did Dobson choose to end that sentence with three exclamation marks? Do I know the answer to that question? If I do, will I tell you? Or will I, like Dobson, invite you to put me in a sack and seal the sack with knotted rope, and fling the sack containing me into a dark and horrible pond, or even into the vast abominable sea?

Saturday 4th March 2006

“These are just sample bothers - shaving, washing, answering letters, talking to people. I could specify hundreds more. Indeed, in my sadder moments, it seems to me life is all compact of bothers… Then, doing up parcels and finding pieces of string or envelopes or stamps.” — H G Wells, Certain Personal Matters

The Immense Duckpond Pamphlet

A revised version of that hoary old favourite, The Immense Duckpond Pamphlet, appeared on these pages as a serial story between 23rd January and 27th February. Here, for your reading pleasure, is the whole thing on one page. Coming soon, a new daily Hooting Yard serial entitled Testimony Of A Tundist

Famous Inn Signs of Hooting Yard : Number One

Revelations Regarding Old Halob

Intensive and scrupulous new biographical research on Old Halob, the crusty and cantankerous sporting legend who was for many years the coach and mentor of fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol, has revealed an amazing fact. (I think that sentence really ought to have an exclamation mark at the end, to emphasise just how exciting it is.)

According to a recently published monograph by Pierre Sugum*, Old Halob worked with fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol for forty years without ever suspecting that his protégé was not actually real. The wizened and untidy trainer, with his moth-eaten clothing and offensive hair oil, seems to have overlooked the weekly comic magazine Fictional Athlete Bobnit Tivol's Weekly Comic Magazine For Girls And Boys, wherein the sprinter and sometime polevaulter's breathtaking athletic feats were chronicled by a series of pseudonymous writers and illustrators.

Professor Sugum has also unearthed compelling evidence that one of these pseudonymous writers may have been Dobson. If this is so, it would have been one of the few paying jobs the out of print pamphleteer ever held, along with his hectic janitorial escapades in that tinned milk of magnesia factory in Winnipeg. Sugum is reluctant to say for certain that Dobson wrote the early stories Fictional Athlete Bobnit Tivol And The Polevaulting Pole That Snapped In Two and Fictional Athlete Bobnit Tivol Buffs His Latest Medal With A Frayed Rag, leaving it to readers to judge the merits of the case.

It is Old Halob's ignorance of the athlete's fictional status which is the most astounding revelation of the article. One has always been tempted to conclude that the wily coach knew more than he let on, and yet this view is comprehensively demolished by Sugum in a couple of sentences.

I wish I could include extracts from this ground-breaking essay here, but I have been informed that Professor Sugum is highly litigious, a monster of depravity, and wallows in a foul pit of moral turpitude, so it would be foolhardy to antagonise him. Instead, here is a snapshot of Old Halob when young, or at least a snapshot that purports to be of Old Halob when young, or a member of his immediate family, or so I'm told, at any rate, credulous poltroon that I am.

*NOTE : “I Know All There Is To Know About Old Halob Even Though I Am A Monster Of Depravity” in The Bulletin Of Fictional Sprinting And Related Athletic Pursuits, Vol XVII, No. 12