Search Results for 'ectoplasm'

Swiss Puppetry

O let us now sing the praises of noted Swiss puppeteer Rolf Swisspupp! Preferably to a free jazz accompaniment, with bongos! Or, on second thoughts, let us not, for when we sing it is a godawful caterwauling that sets the teeth on edge and makes birds plummet from the sky, stone dead. Instead, let us list some of the books which, over the past forty years, the noted Swiss puppeteer has interpreted, in dramatic form, in eighteen-hour puppet shows, to adoring audiences in every canton of Switzerland.

The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann

One Lonely Night by Mickey Spillane

Me And My Ectoplasm by Algernon Spooky

The Decline Of The West by Oswald Spengler

Chappaquiddick : The Real Story by James Lange and K DeWitt Jr

Verbose Twaddle by Will Self

The Loch Ness Mystery Solved by Ronald Binns

The Thing On The Doorstep by H P Lovecraft

The Prisoner Of Zenda by Anthony Hope

The Prisoner Of Brenda by Max Décharné

Rolf Swisspupp’s puppets are made from his own secret, patented substance known as Swiss Puppetene™, and this gives them an eerily lifelike appearance. In the words of the puppeteering critic Horst Puppcrit, “these puppets are eerily lifelike, if a few conjoined and twisted pipe-cleaners and a knob of putty can be imbued with life”.

The puppets are mute, chiefly because Rolf Swisspupp’s voicebox was surgically removed following a traumatic childhood ice-skating accident. The sheer dramatic intensity of his productions is made all the more sheer and dramatic and intense by the resounding silence in which they are performed. Dropped pins, etcetera.

In person, Rolf Swisspupp has a haunted and ravaged appearance, which has led to rumours that, when he is alone with his puppets, they come to life and torment him, as Michael Redgrave was tormented by his ventriloquist’s dummy in the film Dead Of Night (1945). Certainly it is true that the Swiss puppeteer has been found on occasion staggering through the streets of Zurich and Lucerne and Winterthur and Geneva, drink-sodden and incontinent.

But if he is a tragic figure, he is also enormously popular with Swiss tinies, who clap their little hands and screech with joy at the mere mention of his name. So if, today, we do not sing his praises, we can screech them, like a small overtired Swiss child, screech and screech and screech and screech and screech and screech and screech and screech and screech and screech and screech and screech and screech and screech until we are carted off and confined to a remote Swiss facility, high in the Alps, where brutish orderlies will torment us with pipe-cleaners and knobs of putty.

The Petula Clark Minefield


Just as Jason Bourne has an identity, a supremacy, and an ultimatum, so Petula Clark has files, a project – and a minefield. The Petula Clark minefield was the happy outcome of my determination, with the Petula Clark project, to put to good use the materials in the Petula Clark files, which I had collected in the 1960s and kept, for fifty years, in a remote secure storage facility guarded by wolves.

The idea came to me when, one windswept morning, I was sashaying along a majestic and important boulevard in my bailiwick. All of a sudden, my boon companion Walter Mad, the animal behaviourist, amateur electrician, and van owner, drove up alongside me in his van, slowed to sashaying pace, wound down his window, and shouted at me.

“I have inherited a field!” he cried.

Later, over tea and toffee, I learned more. An elderly Mad uncle had died and left to his nephew, in his last will and testament, a field, somewhere out in the blasted and awful countryside.

“If it were a magnetic field,” moaned Walter Mad, “I might be interested. But it is nothing more than a flat expanse of mud and muck out beyond the Blister Lane Bypass, past the viaduct and the ha-ha and the decoy duckpond and the foopball pitch and the giant cement statue of Nobby Stiles and the weird cloud of ectoplasm and the bridge over the river Horrible and the vinegar works and Pang Hill Orphanage and the clown hospital and the blasted heath and the Bolshevik ballet school and the forest of gargoyles and the sump of slurry and the remote secure storage facility and the -”

“Wait!” I cried, “This field of yours is near the storage facility?”

“Had you allowed me to finish I would have listed several more significant landmarks on the way but, yes, it is fairly close by, as the crow flies.”

“I have an idea!” I cried, and I jumped into the van and told Walter Mad to drive like the clappers.

My idea was the Petula Clark minefield. Through Walter Mad’s inheritance, we had the field. The next step was to remove the Petula Clark files from the remote secure storage facility, and then to remove each of the six or seven press clippings from its buff cardboard folder. The folders we tossed, unsentimentally, on to a nearby bonfire. It was then a simple matter to have each of the six or seven press clippings laminated, to protect them against the many and various calamities of awful countryside weather. Once laminated, each press clipping was attached to one end of a pointy stick – that is, to the non-pointy end.

At this stage I had not decided whether the Petula Clark minefield would accommodate one customer at a time, armed with all six or seven pointy sticks to which were attached the laminated Petula Clark press clippings, or six or seven customers simultaneously, each armed with a single pointy stick. Six or seven customers at a time was probably the better option, as it would allow us to advertise the Petula Clark minefield as a splendid opportunity for awayday team-building exercises for middle managers in small to medium size companies.

Imagine the fun, as the six or seven customers are handed a pointy stick each, to one end of which is affixed by twine a laminated press clipping about Petula Clark. They must now make their way across the flat expanse of mud and muck, prodding the ground at intervals in an attempt to locate the mines submerged just below the surface. If they successfully locate each of the six or seven mines with their pointy sticks, they win. But if they inadvertently tread upon a mine, they lose.

The mines themselves are not explosive. Instead, using a clever bit of electrical gubbins concocted by Walter Mad using his amateur electrician skills, when a mine is “detonated” it blasts forth, at deafening volume, a recording of Petula Clark singing her tiptop hit, written by Tony Hatch and first released in 1964, shortly before I began to compile the Petula Clark files, “Downtown”.

What an exciting day that was, when Walter Mad and I first opened the Petula Clark minefield to paying customers! I felt a warm glow of content that I had at long last put the Petula Clark files to good use by devising the Petula Clark project and, with the Petula Clark minefield, bringing it to fruition. The lesson, I think, is that even when one of your activities seems utterly pointless – and believe me, there were times over the past half century when I wondered why on earth I clung on to those six or seven Petula Clark press clippings and kept them in a remote secure storage facility guarded by wolves – there is always the chance that you can take the pointless and make it pointy. That is what I did, and you can too, especially if your boon companion inherits from a Mad uncle a flat expanse of mud and muck.

The Janitor And His Spirit Guide

Few subjects have received as little attention as the relationship between a janitor and his spirit guide. All janitors have one, though many janitors do not acknowledge its existence, while others, both janitors and observers of janitors, confuse the spirit guide with the janitor’s dog. Of course, not all janitors have dogs, which rather proves the point and should serve to clarify the matter. We shall examine the janitor-dog nexus in a future essay, if nexus is the word I am looking for.

The spirit guides of janitors are clad, invariably, in raincoats, though being as ethereal as the guides themselves the raincoats are not visible to the mundane eye. This makes them no less effective as raincoats. Janitors’ spirit guides do not get wet in rainstorms. Were they so to do, in all likelihood they would dissolve and form a puddle of ectoplasmic sludge, a puddle which the janitor would be duty bound to mop up with his decidedly unethereal mop, a duty made all the more onerous because he would no longer have his spirit guide to guide the mopping, a sure recipe for janitorial catastrophe. Let me repeat that. Were they [the spirit guides] so to do [become rain-soaked], in all likelihood they would dissolve and form a puddle of ectoplasmic sludge, a puddle which the janitor would be duty bound to mop up with his decidedly unethereal mop, a duty made all the more onerous because he would no longer have his spirit guide to guide the mopping, a sure recipe for janitorial catastrophe. There is more wisdom packed into that single sentence than in anything else I have ever written.

The averting of catastrophe is the most important contribution his spirit guide makes to any janitor’s day. But it is not the only one. In the course of my interviews with thousands of janitors, those who were prepared to admit the existence of their spirit guides mentioned a huge variety of ways in which these spectral raincoated beings from realms unseen give a helping hand to their allotted janitor. Many of the testimonies I heard were incomprehensible, if not exactly gibberish. My lack of comprehension was due to the fact that, not being a janitor myself, and thus not in possession of a spirit guide, my puny brain could not make any sense of what I was being told. An example will give you some idea of my difficulty. This is from Interview Transcript No. 849:

Me : Can you tell me something of earth-shattering excitement about your spirit guide and the way it aids you in the course of a typical janitorial day? Speak clearly into the microphone.

Janitor No. 849 : Hectic donkeys and the clicking of panic buttons or picnic buttons with unalloyed gusto pop ix pop vug then squelchy invasions usually hence hinged.

It is possible, if one studied that reply for several years, with the aid of glossaries and reference books and an atlas of the Other Side, that some sense could be wrung from it. But even in the absence of understanding it demonstrates, I think, that the ways of spirit guides are not our ways, and we can form only a partial, blurred, and vague conception of those ways. Is the same true of the janitors themselves? Do they have a clearer understanding of their spirit guides?

It is instructive, in this connection, to do as I have done, and to observe a janitor in the throes of his janitordom, all the while making notes in a notebook with a propelling pencil. When reviewed at leisure, at the end of the day, sitting in an armchair and sipping an egg nog, such notes can reveal startling insights. Of course one has to ensure that one notes what is noteworthy and not what is not noteworthy. I confess that on my first few exercises in this regard I made a complete ballocks of the whole business. I did not know what I ought to be looking for. I would, for example, scribble down my observations of a janitor’s mopping demeanour, while failing to make a single note about his pail (or bucket) frenzy. Such frenzies, I learned, are, or can be, the key to the janitor-spirit guide nexus. I am still not sure if that is the word I want.

Of course not all janitorial frenzies are related to their spirit guides. Let us not be silly. Let us, instead, sink deeper into our armchair, drain our cup of egg nog, and drift into a doze, in the hope that we may be granted a visit from a shimmering benevolent being from worlds beyond sense, clad in a raincoat, a raincoat, a rainc…..


The word “Medium” to me suggests a Victorian charlatan in a darkened room, summoning the spirits of the dead and spewing forth ectoplasm. “Medium” is also, I learn, the name of a new(ish?) bit of interwebbery, a repository for prose, a sort of amalgam of bloggery and twittering. Those more familiar with these matters could no doubt explain it better. But Hooting Yard is always bang up to the minute with the latest developments in technology, and not just L’Oreal’s light-reflecting booster technology. That is why Mr Key has taken a tentative step into Medium, by reposting that recent spot of wittering about surrealism.

I may add further pieces to the site, and you lot can all hie over there with your knapsacks and a packed lunch, and “recommend” me. Who knows if conquering Medium will be a profitable step on the path to our ultimate goal of Hooting Yard Global Dominion?

Tenth Anniversary (VIII)

We continue our tenth anniversary celebrations wth a potsage [sic] from the year of Our Lord 2010. In the autumn of that year, I embarked on a series of twenty-six alphabetical entries, and this one is C for Canker Worm, which appeared on Sunday 19 September 2010.

Sorely perplexed was I, that I was waking each morning, and had been for months on end, engulfed in a miasma of unutterable spiritual desolation. I sought advice from a quack I encountered on a charabanc outing. He was sitting in the seat next to mine, all wrapped up in a visible aura of wisdom, a sort of pinkish violet haze, and his one good eye seemed, to me, to emit a ray, a ray that could pierce my spiritual innards were he but to train it upon me. I tapped him on the shoulder, so he would turn to face me.

“You look like the kind of fellow who might be able to diagnose the miasma of spiritual desolation within which I tremble, engulfed,” I said, not beating about the bush.

“I am that man,” he replied, and about thirty seconds later he added “You have a canker worm nestling within the very core of your soul, and it is gnawing away at your spiritual vitals.”

“I knew I could rely on you,” I said, possibly a bit too loudly, for elsewhere in the charabanc heads turned and craned to look. I slipped some coinage into the quack’s outstretched palm, settled back in my seat, and shut my eyes. Soon enough we reached the destination of our outing, a ruined fortification of great antiquity and becrumblement, lashed by wind and rain. Tugging my windcheater close about my puny frame, I fairly skipped out of the charabanc into the mud, animated by a sense that, having discovered the cause of my unutterable spiritual desolation, I could now do something about it.

But what was I to do? The canker worm was nestled in my soul, and we still do not know whereabouts within us the soul resides. Indeed, there is a growing body of opinion that we do not have souls at all, that the whole idea is a phantasy, or a metaphor, or just blithering nonsense. Well, I laugh in the face of those who deny the soul’s existence! I may not know precisely where mine is, in brain or heart or spleen or kidney, but I know that it is about the size and shape and colour of a plum tomato. I was told as much by a Magus at a seaside resort, long, long ago.

Traipsing round the ruin, and then on the charabanc journey back – during which there was no sign of the quack, his seat next to mine having been taken by a television chat show host to whom I could not quite put a name, and dare not ask, for he was frowning mightily – I mentally chewed over what I might do about my canker worm. Was there some substance or formula I could ingest that would do me no harm but would blast the little canker worm to perdition? Some potion or preparation, of milk and aniseed and potable gold? Or could I somehow excise it with a pair of ethereal pliers? That might put me at risk of irreversible psychic injury, of course, but was it a price worth paying?

I juggled these and other thoughts until my brain overheated, at which point I went to bed, for it was by now late and dark. While I slept, I had a dream, like Dr King, and when I awoke, I wanted to go and stand on a podium, like Dr King, and declaim the contents of my dream to the gathered masses, declaim it in powerful preacherman language. It took me a few seconds to realise that I had not the magnetic charisma of Dr King to attract the teeming thousands to hear me. The next thought that popped in to my head was to wonder precisely when “Dr King” became the preferred way of referring to the Reverend Martin Luther King, and if this had happened at the same time as it became obligatory for all United States Presidential candidates so to mention “Dr King” in at least one campaign speech, to garner guaranteed applause. Seconds later, the next, and most important thought, occurred to me. For the first time in months, I had woken up without feeling engulfed in a miasma of unutterable spiritual desolation! Quite the contrary. I was filled with vim and gush and pep. I was ready for a large eggy breakfast, and nothing was going to stop me.

Tucking in to my eggs, prepared in accordance with the Blötzmann system (see the appendix to the third handbook in the Lavender Series), I tried to remember my dream, as clearly it provided the clue to my new-found mental and spiritual wellbeing. But I could remember nothing, so after a post-breakfast hike along paths and lanes and canal towpaths, and through a municipal park, I took from its cubby my hat-sized metal cone, plopped it atop my head, aligned my head at the correct angle (see the instructions in Blötzmann’s seventh handbook, Lilac Series) and stared into space, mouth hanging open, dribbling.

Gosh! It soon became apparent that, in the mists of sleep, I had visualised my little canker worm, gnawing its way through my plum tomato-shaped soul, and instead of seeing it as an invader to be repulsed or expunged, I had cosseted it as a pet. I named it Dagobert, and furnished it with a hutch, and pampered it, and took it for walks, insofar as a worm can walk, attached to a lead. The lead was made of ectoplasmic string from a spirit-viola.

The question now was whether I was able to apply these methods to my real, albeit invisible and intangible, spiritual canker worm. Perhaps, if I kept the metal cone on my head beyond the recommended time-limit, thus risking weird head judderings, paralysis, and death, I might be granted the powers to construct Dagobert’s little hutch. After all, I reasoned – ha, reason! – if he was snug in his hutch he would desist from his gnawing, wouldn’t he? I was certain, though on what grounds I knew not, that my plum tomato soul could regenerate sufficiently to repair all the damage caused by the gnawing. But where would I take my little canker worm on its necessary walks? Under the metal cone, my head grew hot and frazzled, and I fell into a swoon…

The following week, I once again boarded the charabanc for an outing, this time to a den of iniquity preserved in quicklime. I sat down next to a different quack, one whose visible aura was purple and golden, and whose spirit-piercing ray projected, not from his eye, but from a star in the centre of his forehead.

“Excuse me,” I said, “But you look like the kind of fellow who might be able to see into my soul and tell me if it is being gnawed at by a little canker worm named Dagobert.”

“I am that man!” he roared in reply, and aimed his ray at me. I waited for him to report his findings. As I waited, the driver lost control of the charabanc and we veered scree scraw off the road and plunged into a ditch. The ditch was riddled with puddles, and each puddle was rife with worms, and some of them were canker worms, and they were legion, and uncountable. But somehow, I could count them, and I did, and I learned that as we flailed, panting and stricken, in the ditch, their number had increased by one. Little Dagobert had gone to join his fellows in their cankerous ditch-puddle of doom, and I was free!


Dabbler-3logo (1)

Hie thee over to The Dabbler where, in my weekly cupboard, you will find a (very brief) history of ectoplasm. Features astonishing pictorial evidence of the truly uncanny nature of this gooey substance!

Bent Cronje

Hooba Nooba Hoo! Bent Cronje!
He forded the Ack and he slew our foes!
He lopped off their heads and stuck them on spikes!
With his bevelled sword he slew and slew!
Now we carry his bones to their resting-place
In the palace on the hill under a cloud of crows!
But the mighty Bent Cronje will never die!
He is reborn daily as a bird!

This is a translation – and not a very good one – of the so-called Bent Cronje Song, commemorating Bent Cronje, the ancient hero who saved the town of Scroonhoonpooge from attack by the forces of Git, the “King-across-the-Ack”. Its chief interest, for historians, is the mention of the palace on the hill. Where in the name of heaven was this palace? There are no hills anywhere near Scroonhoonpooge. The land thereabouts is flat for as far as the eye can see, and indeed much of it is boggy and marshy and empuddled.

If the site could be located, it would be possible to have a dig, with spades, to see if there are any bones buried there. The presence of bones would not necessarily prove the historical existence of Bent Cronje himself, of course, but it would give scholars something to mull over. As things stand, all we know of Bent Cronje is his song and a shield – much battered and dented and rusty – kept in a glass case in the vestibule of Scroonhoonpooge Almshouse. It is said, according to the hand-written card stuck next to it, to be Bent Cronje’s shield, which he carried with him as he forded the Ack and lopped the heads off Git’s army. The provenance of the adjacent piece of cardboard is dubious, with some claiming it only appeared in the glass case last Thursday. If that is true, Bent Cronje’s shield might be any old scrap of battered and dented and rusty metal dug out of a pit somewhere in the vicinity. It might not even be a shield.

Whereas the historians are stymied until such time as they can find the location of the palace, not so the ornithologists. Unsurprisingly, quite a number of bird experts get in a flap about the idea that Bent Cronje is “reborn daily” as a bird. There are competing theories. One strand of thought is that the soul or essence of Bent Cronje is present in a new hatchling every day, implying that over the centuries untold thousands of birds have actually been Bent Cronje simultaneously. Against this, some argue that there is but a single soul or essence which somehow flits from bird to bird by a process we puny humans cannot hope to comprehend.

There was a fad, a few years ago, for Bent Cronje bird seances. A bird would be trapped and encaged and brought to a darkened room and the cage placed in the centre of a round table, Various spiritually-minded ornithologists would be seated around the table, and they would attempt to elicit from the bird some indication that it was the living embodiment, for that day at least, of the legendary hero. The process usually involved rapping noises, sudden chills in the room temperature, and the spewing of ectoplasm. No definitive Bent Cronje bird was ever identified, which is hardly surprising when one considers the foolishness of such behaviour.

My own view is that someone ought to study very carefully that translation of the song. I suspect it is woefully inaccurate, and that the words Bent and Cronje and Ack and foes and lopped and heads and stuck and spikes and bevelled and sword and slew and bones and resting-place and palace and hill and crows and reborn and daily and bird are all wrong. It would be immeasurably helpful if we knew from what language it has been translated.

On The Krummhorn Man

Here comes the Krummhorn Man.
He’s had a palaver.
He has to solve acrostics for his mother.
She is blind, and so is her dog.
The dog’s name is Spinach.
Spinach is a good name for a dog.
That’s what mother thinks.
She is ninety now, and every domestic pet she has ever had since she was a tiny tot she has called Spinach.
The donkey, the hamster, a kitten, several goldfish, certain other types of fish, rabbits and budgerigars, all Spinaches.
This might be called monomania.
The Krummhorn Man looks kindly upon his mother.
He is a good son.

Take a look at him now, a shopping list scrunched in his fist, prancing up the street.
He is on his way to the butcher’s.
The butcher is a caution.
He’s Cyclopean and bears duelling scars.
Lit by the moon, he howls, a proper butcher’s howl.
He keeps a vase of peonies on his mantel.
Oh for campions and oxlips!
Today it is sausages for the Krummhorn Man.
The sausages have the name of an English county.
The butcher, the butcher, the butcher with his meat-cleaver.
How sharp it is, and fearsome.
He whets the blade on a whetstone behind his kiosk.
You can hear the scree scree scree before dawn.
He wakes the town.

Sausages bought, on goes the Krummhorn Man, past the haberdasher and the aquarium.
Past all things.
Out into the gorse and nettles, followed by geese.
Like the Pied Piper of Hamelin.
But he is not pied and he has no pipe and it is not Hamelin.
It is an English county with the same name as the sausages.
Or it might be, if things fit neatly together.
He pops a boiled sweet into his mouth.
It is a spangle.
Invisible threads bind him to the past.
He smacks his lips.
The sound alerts an otter.
The Krummhorn Man shook off the geese and now he has an otter.
He sits down by the river.
He has to solve acrostics for his mother.

The wind is fair, the wind is foul.
The Krummhorn Man throws in the towel.
It is carried downstream towards the sea.
The otter follows him back to mother.
Dog and otter in mother’s parlour.
The one blind, the other not.
What a palaver.

Umbilically linked as once he was he makes a pot of tea.
He ties a knot in a dishcloth and chucks it out of the window.
And here comes Mister Snippage, toiling along the lane.
He is lame and pale and valiant.
What ho, what ho.
And tally tally ho too.
Then the Krummhorn Man makes himself scarce.
He takes himself to a place of defeat.
He leaves the sausages on the kitchen counter.

Where would he be if he were not here?
Over the sea and in a capital city loud with life.
Churning up the churnable, sparks and pangs, wearing a hat at a jaunty angle, getting into tangles, bumping things.
He peers into the distance through the mist.
The glue factory has closed down.
He keeps one arm in a sling for old time’s sake.
He was once the invalids’ invalid, just as the butcher is the butchers’ butcher.
It says so on a sign on his wall.
There is a red wax seal embossed on it of heraldic significance.
Red wax too in the Krummhorn Man’s hair.
A barber put it there for a prank.
Little gobbets, tiny orbs.
He is a very peculiar barber, shunned by many, and that is no surprise.
The barber is down a way from the butcher and the haberdasher and the aquarium, and around a corner, ever in shadow.
It is where they hold table-rapping meetings, with ectoplasm.
The Krummhorn Man sought his father there.
He is a good son.

Hedges flank the abandoned glue factory.
They have not been snipped for many a spring.
It is a place to pine.
There are still nozzles to be seen among the ruins.
The Krummhorn Man has his favourites.
He has snapped thousands of photographs with a long lens.
He used to use a Polaroid.
Polaroids and polar bears and polar wastes, he kept them together in his head.
It was a nice head, mother said.
It was the colour of curd.
The otter was gone from the parlour when he went back, bent on his sausages.
The fat sizzled in the pan.

Just then Mister Snippage came toiling back along the lane and began to pound on the door with his great hairy fists.
Spinach dragged his ancient canine bones to the doormat and dribbled.
At the same time the telephone rang and an alarm sounded.
It was pandaemonium.
The hospital helicopter was circling overhead.
There was gunfire coming from the hills.
It turned out to be a mock emergency, staged by actors.
Even Mister Snippage was not really Mister Snippage at all.
His part was played by an elfin amateur caked in makeup.
The sausages were burned black.

See, see, the Krummhorn Man has set out again, in the rain, in the rain.
This time he has taken a pipe.
Its bowl is in the lee of the brim of his hat so the rain does not douse it.
But the shutters are down at the butcher’s shop.
The butcher is gone for the day.
Where is he gone to?
That is what everyone is asking, in a huddle at his door.
Then the band strikes up that old traditional air “Butcher, Butcher, Where Have You Been?”
But until he comes back they will be in the dark.

Butcher, butcher, where have you been?
Until I come back you will be in the dark.
Butcher, butcher, what have you seen?
I have seen a swan in a pond in the park.
Butcher, butcher, why is it dark?
Because the shutters are down on my shop on the street.
Butcher, butcher, will you ever come back?
I shall return with contaminated meat.

The Krummhorn Man goes home sausageless in the downpour.
He must solve acrostics for his mother.
Spinach is asleep in front of the fire.
He is dreaming a dog dream of triumph and vinegar.

On Counting Corks

See these corks aligned upon the baize. They were placed so for a purpose. Count them. Count the corks and when you are done totting them up write the tally in chalk upon the board. The board is affixed to the wall with tacks. So we have totting and tallying, tacks and corks. We have baize too, and chalk, and the board on the wall. Isn’t this exciting?

What we are witnessing here is the birth of a new pastime. After all, everything has to be invented, at one time or another, even traditional games and pastimes. There was a first time people played draughts or chess or billiards or shove ha’penny or nine men’s morris. And so we see cork counting played for the first time. If it does not catch on, this may be the only time. We are perhaps witnessing something unique. That is what makes it exciting.

It would be equally, but differently, exciting if cork counting does catch on. If it becomes a popular pastime, with its own subculture, just imagine how you will be able to tell tales of how you were there at its birth. Goggle-eyed cork counters will stand you drinks till kingdom come to hear you tell your tale.

You can, if you wish, embroider your tale, so that in addition to the totting and tallying, the tacks and corks, the baize and chalk and the board on the wall, you add other elements, ones not yet mentioned, like the sawdust on the floor and the shiny shiny glint of the tacks, or ones you have made up, like the cloud of ectoplasm hovering at head height in the room and the volcano erupting just outside the door. Astute listeners, as they come back from the counter bringing the drink they have stood you for the joy of hearing your tale, may raise an eyebrow at your invented embroideries if those embroideries are outlandish. Both the ectoplasm and the volcano could be considered to be so. But even the most outlandish of embroideries, if delivered persuasively, and made vivid by flamboyant waving of the arms as you speak, has the advantage of grabbing the attention of those of your audience who are unimpressed by the mundane detail of the totting and tallying, the tacks and corks, the baize and chalk and the board on the wall, the sawdust on the floor and the shiny shiny glint of the tacks. Remember that such things are the everyday currency of certain people’s lives, in which they have forgotten how to take an interest.

This is why you need to take care to explain that what you witnessed, on that long ago day, was the birth of a popular pastime. Drive this point home with absolute ferocity. If there is hubbub, you may need to shout your head off to be heard. The danger is that the more gormless members of your audience, whose daily lives are filled with totting and tallying and tacks and corks and baize and chalk and boards on walls, all in entirely different contexts, will fail to appreciate the sheer excitement of these mundane items when they are clumped together within the specific realm of a brand new leisure activity. They will stand you no drinks if they think you are boring them to tears.

It is also a good idea to make the actual counting of the corks upon the baize more thrilling than it tends to be in practice. One way to do this is to have a stammering tallyman, whose struggle to spit out the number “six”, for example, creates an atmosphere of Hitchcockian suspense. Or you might drop in to your tale, casually, the observation that the initial alignment of the corks upon the baize was skew-whiff, and they had to be taken away into an anteroom and buffed with a rag, and realigned before the totting and tallying could take place. There are several more strategies for injecting excitement mounting to unbridled hysteria in even the most workaday telling. You will be able to tell if you are succeeding by keeping an eye out for beads of sweat appearing upon the foreheads of your audience, or by listening for yelps and cheers, or by totting and tallying the number of drinks you have been stood by the assembled company.

When your tale is done, there will probably be a flush of enthusiasm on the part of the crowd to recreate the birth of the pastime. Someone will fetch a roll of baize. Another will gather corks. There is bound to be someone with a pocketful of tacks, quite possibly tacks with a shiny shiny glint. A board will be found and affixed to the wall, and somebody will volunteer to run off to the butcher’s to get a piece of chalk. You will almost certainly be picked to be the tallyman, in which case you should adopt a pretended stammer the better to inject the Hitchcockian suspense so decisive in the success of your tale-telling. The scene is set for an exciting end to the evening. What could possibly go wrong?

Oh, there is so much, so much that can go wrong. It is heartbreaking. You would weep if only you knew, weep and wail and gnash your teeth and rend your garments. The trials and tribulations of Job would be as nothing compared to what could befall you. Sackcloth and ashes would seem the veriest luxuries. It is best you do not know, not now, not yet. Go ahead. Stand in the sawdust. Align the corks upon the baize. Count them, tot them up, write the tally in chalk upon the board tacked to the wall, the tacks glinting so shiny shiny. There will be time enough, later, to do the necessary uncounting of the corks.

On First Encounters

I remember the first time I saw the Beatles on television. It was a studio performance of “We Can Work It Out”, which the Wikipedia tells me was filmed on 23 November 1965, so presumably I saw it a few weeks later. The Wikipedia piece also tells me that in the film John Lennon was seated at a harmonium, but I don’t need to be reminded. I recall that clearly, because part and parcel of the memory, for me, is my father announcing that the Beatles had “gone a bit weird”. No doubt he was thinking, not just of one of the fab four swapping his guitar for a harmonium, but of their increasing hair length and the stirrings of that transition from loveable moptops to drug-dabbling counterculture icons. Soon enough it would become apparent that, as Bernard Levin said, and as I can imagine my father echoing, and as I never tire of quoting, “there is nothing wrong with [John Lennon] that could not be cured by standing him upside down and shaking him gently until whatever is inside his head falls out”.

Though that is my earliest Beatle memory, the point I wish to explore here is that I was already aware of them at this time. My father’s observation made sense, I recall, in a way it would not had they been completely new to me. That is, I understood that they had “gone a bit weird”. With two older sisters who were teenagers in 1965, and who were in possession of a Dansette record player and a batch of Beatles 45s (among other happening grooves), I would have learned about John, Paul, George and Rudyard Ringo at some point before that remembered television show. But when?

Everything we learn, everything we encounter, happens on a particular day. The day before, its existence, whatever it is, is completely unknown to us. And then, one day, we hear about it, see it, read about it. Even those things which seem so much part of the fabric of our world – the Beatles. Shakespeare, cornflakes, cats, tractors, Lembit Opik, lobsters, Ranters, the Great Dismal Swamp, Googie Withers, the First World War, the Second World War, Evelyn Waugh, Auberon Waugh, Springheeled Jack, marzipan, Austria, Orson Welles, fugues, fogous, geometry, spinal fluid, Agamemnon, Potters Bar, Tony Blair, the Munich Air Disaster, haversacks, rucksacks, knapsacks, Dirk Bogarde, the eurozone, synchronised swimming, raspberry jam, “And is there honey still for tea?”, Blodwyn Pig, “per ardua ad astra”, Molesworth 2, Peason, Homburg hats, vinegar, junk bonds, crinkle-cut oven chips, the Titanic, Kierkegaard, Savonarola, Henry Cow, Werner Herzog, lavender shovels, egg nog, Ozymandias, jugged hare, Tinie Tempah, filbert nuts, ectoplasm, squeegee merchants, suicide bombers, mad cow disease, Desperate Dan, Little Plum, Jack Hulbert and Cicely Courtneidge, Brancusi, the Bible, blasphemy, Buggins’ turn, Botany Bay, Bellerophon, the Bosphorus, Papa Doc Duvalier, creosote, Dagmar Krause, invisible ink, Old Holborn, semolina, toffee, pictures of Jap girls in synthesis, and so on, and on, forever and ever… there was, for all of us, one day, we could pinpoint on the calendar if only we knew, or remembered, when we learned of these people and places and events and things and breakfast cereals for the very first time. There was a day when you had never, ever come across jugged hare before. Then, one day, you read about it, or heard about it, or otherwise learned of it. But how often do we ever remember those first encounters?

I do remember – though I cannot say what the exact date was – when I first heard the word “internet”, in conversation with a geeky computer person. I did not quite understand what it was, nor that it would ever have much relevance to me, certainly not that it was something that would change the world I lived in. I suppose that is the reason we rarely remember, that we rarely if ever recognise that the new information we have just learned will have any significance. It must have been within the past twelve months, I suspect, that I first learned of the existence of Rick Santorum. He will almost certainly fade into obscurity. But, if the voters of America “go a bit weird”, like the Beatles before them, he might end up as the Potus.

The miraculous thing, in a sense, is that today there is a distinct possibility I have encountered something, learned of something, that will in future seem to me commonplace, obvious, everyday, something I cannot imagine the world without. But I have no idea what it is, so I cannot record it.

On Voodoo Athletics

This being an Olympic year, it is perhaps time to scotch a rumour that has swirled persistently around the world of fictional athletics for decades. You will recall that fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol is alleged to have left a written record of the gifts he received one Christmastide from his all too real coach, Old Halob. If we are to credit this list, the wily and cantankerous chain smoker had, by the twelfth day of Christmas, presented his protégé with – and it would be well to take a deep breath here – no fewer than a dozen apiece of vipers, shrews, bees, and gormless orphans, twenty-two cardboard pigs and the same number of cornflake cartons, thirty each of poptarts and rusty nozzles, thirty-six dead chaffinches and thirty-six paper sickbags, forty tufts of bindweed, plus forty-two hideous bat gods, forty-two mordant herons, and an incalculable amount of ectoplasm. I think I have done my sums correctly, but please check them if you don’t trust me.

Now, what sane person would give somebody such an array of gifts? And let us be quite clear that no non-fictional athletics coach was ever as sane as Old Halob, in spite of the chain smoking, the strangulated catarrh-racked coughing, the trenchcoat, the Homburg hat, and the irascible demeanour. Sporty historian Prudence Cindertrack confirms as much when she writes “the thing about Old Halob was that no brain doctor ever succeeded in having him sectioned to a madhouse”. I wish I could lay my hands on the source of that reference, but right this minute I can’t for the life of me remember in which of Miss Cindertrack’s sporty bagatelles I read it, so, just like my sums, you will have to take it on trust.

Of course, the authenticity of fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol’s list was called into question. Leaving aside his fictional status, it was inconceivable to many that he could ever have found time to put pen to paper, when the rigorous training regime instituted by Old Halob had him sprinting round and round and round a running track in all the hours God sends, except for those hours when he was bidden to pole-vault repeatedly over a wooden bar set ever and ever higher. Even if he was occasionally granted a breather, he would have been shaking with exhaustion and terror and unable to grasp a pen or pencil or even a crayon in his fictional fist.

For the rumour-mongers, however, these germane points could be swept aside much as an ogre might sweep aside a gnat. (I have borrowed that simile from Prudence Cindertrack, who employs it more than once in her entertaining Reader’s Digest article on the sport of gnat-swatting. I am afraid I can’t remember which issue of the magazine her piece appeared in. You might be able to find it in your local library, if it keeps a full run of bound volumes of Reader’s Digest, perhaps in the cellar or boiler-room.)

The first inkling that somebody believed Old Halob really had given fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol twelve vipers, twelve shrews, twelve bees, twenty-two cardboard pigs, thirty poptarts, thirty-six dead chaffinches, forty-two hideous bat gods, forty-two mordant herons, forty tufts of bindweed, thirty-six paper sickbags, thirty rusty nozzles, twenty-two cornflake cartons, twelve gormless orphans, and an incalculable amount of ectoplasm in a twelve-day period came when sporty priest Father “Spikes” Vestnumber gave a sermon before a vast crowd gathered in a large and important stadium. Let us remind ourselves of what he said by quoting from Prudence Cindertrack’s contemporary newspaper report.

The vast crowd in this large and important stadium gasped as one when Father “Spikes” Vestnumber declared that the reason fictional athlete Bobnit Tivol kept winning so many sprint races and pole-vaulting events was because his coach, Old Halob, was practising a blasphemous form of fictional athletics coaching based on voodoo. He challenged Old Halob to deny the charge, in public, before a vast crowd in a large and important stadium, while tethered to a post and undergoing an exorcism, with lots of poking with pointy sticks, dousing with holy water, and the insertion of burning incense sticks into various orifices. By the time the priest finished shouting, the crowd had been provoked into a seething angry mob, baying for the death of the legendary non-fictional athletics coach.

I should point out here that Miss Cindertrack’s report was cut to ribbons by an overenthusiastic sub-editor, and I have reconstructed the gist of her piece from memory and by communicating with the spirit realm.

Old Halob, being Old Halob, took absolutely no notice of the man he would no doubt have dismissed as “a turbulent priest” had he been capable of coherent speech in between expectorating copious amounts of phlegm, sputum, and bile into his surprisingly dainty napkin. But as I indicated at the beginning, the rumours have never gone away, and you will still hear, at sporty gatherings, somebody or other casually referring to “Old Halob, the voodoo athletics coach”. What these rascals never bother to explain is to precisely what voodoo use the collected items – plus an incalculable amount of ectoplasm – were meant to be put. From my breathtakingly encyclopaedic knowledge of voodoo – garnered in the main from a series of feature articles by Prudence Cindertrack in the scholarly journal Chaps In Shorts Running And Jumping And Throwing Things – it seems to me that the feathers and innards of dead chaffinches might come in handy, as might tufts of bindweed, and, at a push, mordant herons and orphans, and perhaps paper sickbags, but as for the rest of the stuff, it serves no imaginable voodoo purpose whatsoever, although some might argue that cardboard pigs, and the cardboard from cornflake cartons, and indeed bat gods and nozzles and poptarts, not to mention vipers and shrews and bees and ectoplasm, have their part to play in some of the more arcane manifestations of voodoo practice, particularly, it must be said, in the field of fictional athletics, when performed by a non-fictional athletics coach.

I am glad we have cleared that up once and for all.

The Twelve Days : Day Seven

On the seventh day of Christmas, Old Halob gave to me

Seven mordant herons,

Six hideous bat-gods,


Four dead chaffinches,

Three poptarts,

Two cardboard pigs,

And a viper, a shrew, and a bee.

The Twelve Days : Day Six

On the sixth day of Christmas, Old Halob gave to me

Six hideous bat-gods,


Four dead chaffinches,

Three poptarts,

Two cardboard pigs,

And a viper, a shrew, and a bee.

The Twelve Days : Day Five

On the fifth day of Christmas, Old Halob gave to me


Four dead chaffinches,

Three poptarts,

Two cardboard pigs,

And a viper, a shrew, and a bee.

Overdue Boxing Day Project

Astute readers, with their wits about them, will have noticed that the Hooting Yard Boxing Day Project failed to appear yesterday. I do apologise. What wit one thing and anutter, as my Belgian mother used to say, I simply didn’t get round to it. Still, the Yuletide season would be a puny and curdled affair without a Hooting Yard project to keep you occupied, so – better late than never – here it is.

You will now have your complete Hooting Yard Advent Calendar, a large sheet of cardboard to which you have pasted, with glue, pictures of a drainage ditch and a wooden bobsleigh and cows struck by lightning and a blanket bog and a bat god and painted wooden decoy buffleheads and celery compound and the Hobbs End tube station demon from Quatermass And The Pit and a bowl of pap ‘n’ slops and pigs in a pig sty and Our Lady Of The Arctic Wastes and Aguirre, The Wrath Of God with a Capuchin monkey and a postage stamp depicting a trio of ne’er-do-wells with whisks and celery and Little Severin The Mystic Badger and undersea adventurers pursued by giant jellyfish and a Norbiton allotment shed and imaginary history in the London Library and crackpots brandishing placards and a graveyard of ships from The Lost Continent and Plovdiv and ectoplasm and a mandrake-root homunculus and statuettes of saints and martyrs and bishops and BVMs and cardboard signage and Jesus directing traffic.

Go and get a second sheet of cardboard of roughly the same size and, using a pair of sharp scissors, cut it into twenty-five rectangular bits. If you are doing things properly, you should find yourself with twenty-five bits of cardboard each of which is a little bigger than its corresponding picture pasted to the original sheet of cardboard.

The next step is to place the bits of cardboard over the pictures, thus blocking them from sight. You can now fix the bits of cardboard in place by sticking a length of sticky tape – cut from a roll using the sharp pair of scissors – along the top edge of each rectangle, so that you create a set of twenty-five cardboard flaps on the original sheet of cardboard. With a thick black marker pen, randomly number the flaps from one to twenty-five, using Roman numerals. Then shove the beflapped sheet of cardboard into a cubby or cupboard or indoor storage facility and forget about it.

And lo! When the first of December 2012 rolls around, eleven months hence, you can retrieve it from its hidey-hole and prop it up on your mantelpiece, if you have a mantelpiece, and then, day by day, from the first of December until Christmas Day, tear the appropriately numbered cardboard flap off the main sheet, carefully disposing of it in a wastepaper bin. Each day, therefore, you will reveal one of the pictures which, by this time next year, you will have completely forgotten about.

And thus, through craft and cleverness, you are already in possession of your Hooting Yard Advent Calendar for 2012!