Hooting Yard Archive, October 2005

Learn everything you need to know about the shelling of peas, the Magic Mountain, Ayn Rand's funeral song, English composer William Hurlstone, and the giant terrifying mountains of Tantarabim.


Monday 17th October 2005
“In form and movement the woodchuck is…”
Did You Know?
Prolix in a Jiffy
Tuesday 11th October 2005
“If you wish to become weak-headed, nervous,…”
The Magic Mountain
Monday 10th October 2005
“The conditions of life in the sixteenth…”

Monday 17th October 2005

“In form and movement the woodchuck is not captivating. His body is heavy and flabby. Indeed, such a flaccid, fluid, pouchy carcass, I have never before seen. It has absolutely no muscular tension or rigidity, but is as baggy and shaky as a skin filled with water.” — John Burroughs, Birds And Bees, Sharp Eyes And Other Papers

Did You Know?

The Hooting Yard Treasury Of Recondite Yet Somehow Arresting Facts is currently in preparation. After much thought, and a bowl of Mrs Gubbins' delicious soup, we decided to use a simple question-and-answer format for this mighty undertaking. Here is a sneak preview, especially for website readers:

Q - Ayn Rand, the gravel-voiced amd dementedly right wing author of such pap as The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957) was, as we know, a keen collector of postage stamps*, but what I really want to know is the title of the song played at her funeral service in 1982. (I know that this is not phrased as a question, but bear with me.)

A - The song played at Ayn Rand's funeral was It's A Long Way To Tipperary.

* NOTE : See Preposterous Authors, 4 October 2004 for further details.

Ayn Rand

Prolix in a Jiffy

“I am going to be prolix in a jiffy,” said the prolix person, preparing the ground for his prolixity. When I say “preparing the ground”, I do not mean that he took a spade or a hoe, or some other gardening implement. I mean that the prolix person prepared his audience for his imminent prolixity. There were those who lived in a fool's paradise who thought that the prolix person had abandoned prolixity in favour of its opposite, which might be said to be snappiness. Some even harboured the idea that the prolix person had taken to trading in that most lamentable of usages, the “soundbite”. By preparing the ground for his prolixity, the prolix person was alerting those assembled to the fact that he was going to talk at them for at least three hours, effusively, in a long-winded and wordy way that would have them scratching their heads as they tried to wring some sense from what he said. Perhaps it was unfair of him to give them only a jiffy to so prepare themselves.

For myself - for I was one of those there that day - I have to say that a jiffy's worth of preparedness was better than no preparedness at all. So what preparations did I make in that jiffy, you may ask. Well, I removed my boots and socks and plunged my feet into a basin of cold water in which ice cubes tinkled. Think of it as a little scale model of the Arctic Ocean. Before the jiffy was up, I took out my feet and wrapped them in a big lavender towel, picked up the basin and upended it over my head.

Brrrrrr! Now I was cold, as cold as one of the animals native to the Arctic Ocean. I was also wide awake, where only moments before I had been dozing off, ready for a nap. Had the prolix person not given me that jiffy in which to prepare myself for his prolixity I may well have been far, far away in the Land of Nod by the time he began his deadly-dull prolix oration, the subject of which was either curls, curlicues, curling or curlews, or even all four. So wide awake was I following the opportunity I took in the jiffy to recreate in miniature a plunge into the Arctic Ocean that I took out my biddybook and a pencil and made notes of the prolix person's prating.

Alas! So soaking wet was I that water drizzled from my hair onto the pages of my biddybook and smudged all the notes I made. I have had to rely on my memory to recall curls, curlicues, curling and curlews, and my memory is a puny thing. It used to be superb. As a tot, I could recite a list of all the credits of every single film in the Bing Crosby canon. But now I have difficulty remembering what I ate for breakfast, on the days when I bother with breakfast at all.. You see, last week I was taking a stroll along the towpath of the old dismal canal, and I banged my head against a barge. I banged my head against a barge, I banged my head against a barge.

Tuesday 11th October 2005

“If you wish to become weak-headed, nervous, and good for nothing, read novels. I have seen an account of a young lady, who had become so nervous and excitable, in consequence of reading novels, that her head would be turned by the least appearance of danger, real or imaginary. As she was riding in a carriage over a bridge, in company with her mother and sister, she became frightened at some fancied danger, caught hold of the reins, and backed the carriage off the bridge, down a precipice, dashing them to pieces.” — An American Woman, The Ladies' Vase

The Magic Mountain

Some readers will be familiar with the career of the Sino-Dutch artist Ah-Fang Van Der Houygendorp, the man who invented potato-peel engravure. Few people know, however, that he was a keen mountaineer. Keen and inept, that is. Ah-Fang was, if nothing else, a visionary, and he had visions of a haunted mountain, its peak shrouded in inexplicable purple mists like something out of a novel by M P Shiel. Whenever he sat shivering in his tent at base camp, Ah-Fang wondered if this mountain, the one he was about to climb, was the haunted mountain of his mind's eye. He would poke his head out of the frayed flap of his tent, peer up at the majestic rock formation disappearing into the clouds above, and wonder if this, at last, would be the one he had dreamed of since childhood, where he would come face to face with the uncanny, the ineffable.

Physically, Ah-Fang was not really cut out for mountaineering. He was described by a contemporary as “a figure of untold puniness”, and he was indeed tiny and weak, short-sighted, lanky and prone to swooning fits. He was terrified of gnats, horseflies and fruitbats. He had an oversensitive digestive system and had to subsist mostly on thin soup or broth. It was difficult to find a mountaineering team willing to recruit so wretched a specimen, so Ah-Fang did most of his clambering up sheer rock faces solo, a man alone testing himself against the elements.

What he lacked in physical prowess, Ah-Fang made up for with a genius for publicity. Each time he descended from some pitiless escarpment, battered, bruised, hallucinating and in the last stages of exhaustion, the puny alpinist would hold a press conference. At one of these, in 1929, he was questioned closely by Dobson. No one is quite sure what in heaven's name Dobson was doing hanging about in the foothills of the Giant Terrifying Mountains of Tantarabim at the time. We know from the journals of Marigold Chew that Dobson was at work on a series of pamphlets about glue, breadcrumbs and the composer William Hurlstone (1876-1906), whose Bassoon Sonata made him weep, and that he collected the tears in what he called his “Hurlstone bucket”. It is beyond doubt, however, that Dobson bustled through the entrance flap of Ah-Fang Van Der Houygendorp's tent within minutes of the mountaineer's return from the jagged heights of Giant Terrifying Mountain Number Eight, the most challenging of the peaks in the Tantarabim range. The transcript of their conversation has been preserved.

William Hurlstone

Ah-Fang : Welcome to my press conference.

Dobson : With all due respect, you look very puny for a mountaineer.

Ah-Fang : I have seen things, up in yon mists and clouds, that no human being has ever seen. I want you to tell the world.

Dobson : The lenses of your spectacles are extremely thick, and what I know of the ocular sciences would suggest to me that you are myopic. Added to which, they are steamed up. Your claim to have seen anything at all, let alone something of great import, is, frankly, somewhat dubious.

Ah-Fang : Frankly dubious it may well be, O person with notebook and pencil, but I know whereof I speak, for I was upon that mighty peak engulfed in mists, and you were not.

Dobson : That's true enough. An hour ago I was sitting in one of the huts in these foothills eating porridge. I fled the hut when I saw three bears approaching. I did not know bears roamed these foothills. Were there more bears up on the mountain?

Ah-Fang : Yes, there were bears up there, and there were other things beginning with B.

Dobson : What were those things beginning with B?

Ah-Fang : I could prattle a list of nouns beginning with B, pamphlet person, and you would scuttle away happy, but of greater import is the sort of general mental impression I gained within the mist, an impression which impinged upon my brain in a manner that can only be described as uncanny and redoubtable. For I have witnessed that which I knew from infancy awaited me. Even as a tiny tot I was aware that in some broiling high altitude mist I would come upon the elixir of glory.

Dobson : Let me stop you there, puny mountaineer. I need to sharpen my pencil. Do you have a pencil sharpener?

Ah-Fang : Let me look in my voluminous kitbag.

Dobson : Thank you. While you rummage, I am going to hike up the mountain myself, to add credence to your witterings.

The transcript ends there. For the rest of his life, Dobson never spoke of what he found at the top of that mystic and magical mountain. If asked, he would stare balefully into the distance, as if entranced. But he did write an account of what he found when he returned to Ah-Fang's base camp. It appears as a lengthy footnote in his out-of-print pamphlet He Who Plucks The Strings Of A Banjo In Wintry, Wintry Weather.

“When I descended from Giant Terrifying Mountain Number Eight,” he wrote, “I expected to find puny alpinist Ah-Fang Van Der Houygendorp awaiting me with a pencil sharpener in his frostbitten hand. I even thought he may have sharpened my pencil for me in my absence, as an act of beneficence. I was in a reflective mood, whistling William Hurlstone's Snow White's Death-Sleep, from The Magic Mirror, as I trudged towards the tent. There were grim, huge-winged birds circling overhead, and I gripped harder the piece of putty in my pocket. Bustling through the flap, as I always bustle through tent-flaps, I found no trace of Ah-Fang, nor of my pencil. The man had vanished with his kitbag, his pencil sharpener, and, I adduced, he had acted like a common thief by taking my pencil with him. I had lost track of time up on the mountain, so I could not guess how long he had been gone. I wondered if, puny as he was, he had been waylaid by the bears who roam those ill-starred foothills, and I half expected to find a pile of chewed bones as I made my sad way to the railway station along the luminous painted footpaths. But I saw no bones, no bears, nothing at all beginning with B, in all the hours it took me to plod away from that weird, unwelcoming place. I never saw Ah-Fang Van Der Houygendorp again, but a year later I learned that he was a passenger aboard the airship the LZ 129 Hindenburg, which exploded in flames while approaching a mooring mast at Lakehurst Naval Air Station in the state of New Jersey in the United States of America. I often find myself wondering if the stub of my pencil was aboard that doomed airship.”

Monday 10th October 2005

“The conditions of life in the sixteenth century made it difficult to draw a veil over the less pleasant side of human existence. The houses were filthy; the streets so disgusting that on days when there was no wind to disperse the mephitic vapours, prudent people kept their windows shut. Dead bodies and lacerated limbs must have been frequent sights. Under these circumstances we need not be surprised that men spoke more plainly to one another and even to women than they do now. Sir John Paston's conversations with the Duchess of Norfolk would make less than duchesses blush now.” — P S Allen, The Age Of Erasmus


They're small, green, solid, edible spheres, and you eke them from pods. I am talking about peas, of course! Let us sing their praises:

At the dinner tables of Hooting Yard / There's a food we hold in high regard / Oh I wonder what can it be? / It's the little green edible sphere called the pea!

The shelling of peas has long been recognised as a therapeutic activity on a par with pig observation. Some doctors of the brain recommend that neurasthenic patients should spend an hour each day shelling peas and another hour leaning over the fence of a sty watching pigs. The experimental psychiatrist Tarpin Paltrow suggested doing both at the same time, with results that have been hotly debated ever since.

It was Paltrow's student P K Spaceman who coined the term PQ, for pea quotient. Your PQ is easily calculated. Take the number of peas you have eaten in your lifetime, and divide it by your age. This figure can be plotted on a grid against, for example, your body mass index, rotundity of head, shoe size, and various phrenological data. Dr Spaceman was fond of citing Lloyd George's view that Neville Chamberlain had “a wrong-shaped head” and put this down to a lack of peas in the latter's diet. Sometimes he attributed it to a lack of peas in the former's diet, too.

In desperate circumstances, for example when one's life is at risk, peas can become useful tools, or at least adjuncts to tools. There is the story of the Antarctic explorer, clinging by his frostbitten fingertips to the edge of a crevasse down which he was about to plunge, who managed to clamber up on to the ice by fashioning a harness using ribbons, elastic bands and frozen peas.

The out-of-print pamphleteer Dobson once planned to write an Encyclopaedia Of Pea Varieties And Pea Recipes, but he abandoned the project after cracking his shin bone on a metal drum. The drum had been left directly outside his front door by a peripatetic person who ought to have been shelling peas and observing pigs, for this person could say, as Stanley Baldwin did, “My inside is a mess of cold rumbling fluidity. My brain is costive. Faith is dying. Hope is dead”. So miserable was this travelling drum person that he could no longer bear to carry his drum from place to place, and so with a sigh like a dying wind he unhitched it from his back and placed it in Dobson's driveway. Then he rolled it as far as the front door, and scribbled a note on the wrapper of a toffee apple, weighted the note on the drum with a pebble, and trudged away to begin his life anew as the Man of Bandages. You might be wondering what the note said. It was simple enough.

“I can no longer carry my metal drum from place to place. Keep it or discard it, I care not a jot.”

As we have seen, upon discovering the drum, Dobson's first act was neither to keep nor to discard it, but to bang his leg against it with such force that he almost broke the bone of the shin of his right leg.

Why did Dobson's leg meet the cold hard edge of the metal drum with such force?

Because Dobson was charging out of his house at high speed - so fast that he would have appeared to any passer by as a mere blur, like the comic book character Billy Whizz.

Dobson was normally slow and even lumbering of gait. On what account was he in such a hurry?

Always a man with an eye for a bargain, Dobson had just received a message on his metal tapping machine telling him that in a marquee tent pitched in a field beyond Pang Hill, a mountebank was selling many peas at prices that were described as “insane”. Given that he was thinking hard about his planned pea book, this seemed an opportunity too good to miss. Hence the way in which he jumped up from his escritoire, sending his chair clattering behind him, kicked off his toofles with vim, enwrapped himself in his big black coat, stuck his feet into a pair of Canadian Forestry Service boots, and whizzed out of his front door. His momentum was at this point brought to a shocking halt by the unexpected metal drum blocking his path. Making contact with it, Dobson howled. Many people in the vicinity said later that they thought what they heard was a dog being clubbed by a brute, a la Bill Sykes in Oliver Twist, as played by the late Oliver Reed in the film version of Lionel Bart's musical Oliver! Persistent rumours that Bart intended to follow this with a setting of another Victorian literary gem, Gerard Manley Hopkins' poem The Wreck Of The Deutschland, entitled The Tall Nun!, are unfounded.

Did Dobson read the note left by the peripatetic person who had abandoned the metal drum?

No he did not. Nor, once his shin wound was anointed with unguents and wrapped in a bandage, did he go to the marquee tent in the field to buy peas from a mountebank at “insane” prices. Had he done so, he would have discovered that the insanity of the prices lay not in their cheapness but, conversely, in the fact that each individual pea was on sale for a sum so staggeringly expensive that it beggared belief. Many historians of the social scene have pondered the motives of the mountebank, who was not trying to pretend there was anything special about the peas he had for sale. Indeed, his patter, if we can call it that, consisted of the repeated phrase “Come hither and buy yourself a pea at an insanely expensive price, townspeople!”, shouted in an accent difficult to pin down, and shouted repeatedly throughout the long afternoon as clouds scudded across the sky and birds sang, and the planets span in space millions of miles away.

Peas have been compared with planets, sometimes, by poets. The author of the song we heard at the beginning of this piece wrote other pea-related verses, in one of which he takes each planet in turn - using the mnemonic “mud, vinegar, ectoplasm, moorhens, jasper, straubenzee, unspeakable, Nixon, popinjay” — and contemplates them as peas in a pod, not yet shelled by one of Dr Spaceman's wild-eyed brain-sick patients. There is no mention of pigs in the poem. Make of that what you will.