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On Cocking A Snook

Q – What is your claim to fame?

A – My claim to fame, though modest, is one of which I am tremendously proud, and which I never tire of shouting from the rooftops, with the aid of a Tannoy. I cocked a snook at Pook Tuncks.

Q – That is flabbergasting. Tell us more.

A – Gladly. One springtime day I was bustling along the boulevard, bustle bustle, when across the way I spotted Pook Tuncks. He was standing, stock still, in the lee of a linden tree, lost, I thought, in thought. I hailed him. “Ahoy there! Pook Tuncks!” I boomed, “Thou Jesuitical duck-mesmerising versifier!” And I cocked a snook at him, and bustled on along the boulevard without waiting for a reply. When cocking a snook, one does not entertain a response, or the point is lost.

Q – What happened next?

A – My bustling continued until I arrived at a snackbar. It was called Big Pingu Snackbar and was situated at the intersection of the boulevard and Erebus And Terror Street. It is no longer there. The property is now I think a palazzo di tat. This then extant snackbar I entered, and strutted to the counter, where I ordered a snack before sitting down at a table by the window where I had a good view of the boulevard. I had bustled too far along from Pook Tuncks and the linden tree for either to be visible, though other linden trees I could see.

Q – What form of snack did you order?

A – A pickle-packed sandwich and a beaker of milk. Service at the snackbar was woeful, which is perhaps one reason why it closed down. I had to wait a long time, sitting looking out of the window, before a grim-faced bepimpled sallow stooped skivvy brought my snack to the table. No napkin was provided, so there was an altercation. I insist on several napkins in snackbars, one for my lap, one on which to wipe my hands, one with which to dab my lips, one to mop up any spillages I might cause during my snacking, and one for later use, which I pop into my pocket. But I was given no napkin at all, until I made loud complaint. The loudness was unassisted, in that I did not have recourse to the Tannoy I use nowadays to bruit my claim to fame abroad. My voice can be loud enough in the confined space of a snackbar, and the Big Pingu Snackbar, despite its name, was not a big snackbar. The skivvy was at first unwilling to bring me a napkin, which I thought odd. Surely, I thundered, the napkin is an essential component of any snackbar’s toolkit? My use of the word “toolkit” as it is deployed by management consultants and pointyheads bewildered the skivvy, or at least she pretended bewilderment. It was hard to tell. In my experience snackbar skivvies can be past masters at dissembling. My insistence and loudness and eye-popping frenzy did persuade this one to fetch my napkin, but she brought just one. I lowered my voice, just a tad, and explained that I required several napkins, though I did not itemise the uses to which I would put them, as I have done for you. It was not, in my view, any business of the skivvy’s. I was patronising the snackbar and I wanted my napkins, it was really as simple as that.

Q – This is all very interesting, but what of Pook Tuncks? Did he detach himself from the lee of the linden tree and pursue you into the snackbar?

A – I have yet to conclude the anecdote of the napkins.

Q – Well, let us pass on that. I think the listeners are agog re Pook Tuncks.

A – It is, I promise you, an anecdote both instructive and amusing and well worth the hearing.

Q – Be that as it may, this programme is called “My Claim To Fame”, not “Napkin World” or “Annals Of The Snackbars”, and your claim to fame is that you cocked a snook at Pook Tuncks, so perhaps we could concentrate on that.

A – I would not want it to be thought I am some kind of napkin monomaniac, so, reluctantly, I will desist. But I must ask, do those napkin and snackbar shows exist, or did you just make them up for the purposes of your argument?

Q – I am merely the host and presenter and, if you like, anchor of “My Claim To Fame”, so I am not familiar with the full schedule of programmes. I cannot say for certain whether those I adverted to exist or not.

A – Could you find out, while I sit here twiddling my thumbs?

Q – Now is not the best time. Perhaps at the end of the show you and I could go together to see the programme director, within whose head is gathered such a body of knowledge of the schedules that it would dazzle you.

A – That sounds like a capital idea.

Q – So, Pook Tuncks…

A – And if there is not currently a snackbar and napkin strand, then I would be happy to present such a programme, daily, at breakfast time, or even before breakfast, at dawn, or before dawn, in the middle of the night.

Q – I am sure the programme director would be only too willing to discuss that with you.

A – Good, that is settled then.

Q – Then let us proceed. Did Pook Tuncks come crashing into the snackbar, hot on your heels, to berate you for cocking a snook at him?

A – No, he did not. I never saw hide nor hair of him again, ever after. I like to think my cocking a snook at him must have given him pause, and caused him to retreat, away from the boulevard and the lee of the linden tree, into reclusion and solitude and the bleak existence of a hermit, shuttered in a hut on a remote promontory far from humankind. Such is the power of my snook, when cocked.

Q – Gosh.

[Tinkly, hesitant, music, followed by the weather forecast.]

On Marshy Punting

In the poetry of Tennyson, boating has “a very marshy and punt-like character”. This is the view of John Ruskin, in The Harbours Of England (1856), in a passage where he claims all poets “somehow or other, express an honest wish for a Spiritual Boat”.

Now I have not read enough of Tennyson’s work to assess whether Ruskin is correct. I have certainly not been through it with a fine-toothed comb, noting down all Tennyson’s boating references and judging the marshiness and punt-like character of each, although it occurs to me that such an enquiry would actually be quite easily achieved, armed with a twenty-first century digitised e-edition of the complete works of Tennyson. Perhaps I will save that study for a rain-soaked winter’s day, or an insomniac night.

For the time being, I am minded to trust Ruskin on the matter. I do not think it likely that the greatest of all Victorian writers would have said Tennyson’s boating was marshy and punt-like if it was not. And, in fairness, it should be noted that Ruskin qualifies his remark by saying that the poet’s boating “in the ordinary way, has a very marshy and punt-like character”. We might also bear in mind that when Ruskin was writing, in 1856, Tennyson was only forty-seven years old, and he lived, and continued to pour out poetry, for a further thirty-six years, dying in 1892 at the age of eighty-three. Again, I am insufficiently familiar with his work to know whether, in those post-The Harbours Of England years, Tennyson’s boating may have emerged from the punty marshes on to the wide and billowing seas. That is something else I can find out on a rain-soaked winter’s day or during an insomniac night. It is always a good idea to have a number of projects in hand, to keep the brain perky.

Perkiness is not, however, the usual sensation one experiences when punting through marshes, or even when rowing through marshes. There is a sense in which one is forced to use one’s oar more like a punt in a marsh in any case. Clean, brisk rowing becomes, at first difficult, then well nigh impossible, as one creeps further into the marsh and one’s oars become entangled with weeds. The thicker the weed, the greater the entanglement, the more desperate the rower. Sooner or later, one has to plunge the oar as near as dammit vertically, like a punt, into the marsh water, in hope of gaining sufficient purchase to push oneself free of weed-entanglement. It is difficult to think of a waterborne experience less like the Spiritual Boat wished for by all poets.

Consider, for example, the boating pickle of Dr Alec Harvey, played by Trevor Howard in Brief Encounter (David Lean, 1945). Dr Harvey and his soon-to-be-acknowledged-as-such inamorata Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) are not even on a marsh, but on a boating lake in a park. They are indeed perky. But by dint of what we might term “issues” with the steering of the boat, Dr Harvey is forced – as if he were stuck in a Tennysonian marsh – to stand up and plunge the oar into the water as near as dammit vertically in hope of gaining purchase to push. He falls into the lake. This is an important episode in the film, in that it immediately precedes the scene where Dr Harvey and Mrs Jesson first broach, in repressed and almost strangulated conversation, the fact that they are besotted with each other. In that sense – and perhaps only in that sense – the boat out of which Dr Harvey falls into the lake can be seen as a Spiritual Boat, one worthy of attention by a poet. I do not know if any versifier has ever composed a poem upon this scene in the film, but I for one would like to have read what, say, Sylvia Plath might have made out of it. Unlike Dr Harvey and Mrs Jesson, Sylvia Plath and her inamorata Ted Hughes do not seem to have suffered from that tendency to be “withdrawn and shy and… difficult”, as Mrs Jesson puts it. Indeed, when they first met, and kissed, Sylvia Plath drew blood from Ted Hughes’s cheek, or it might have been the other way about, I can never quite remember. Whichever it was, there is no such savage bloody kiss in Brief Encounter. In a rewritten, updated version, perhaps there could be, while the couple are in the boat on the lake in the park, before Dr Harvey falls in to the water.

There is another filmic boat, or rather raft, which becomes hopelessly stuck in a marsh, or rather on a river, in Aguirre, The Wrath Of God (Werner Herzog, 1972). Here we can well imagine blood being spilled, though not by kisses. And though we have a raft on a river rather than a boat on a marsh, few I think would argue that the ambience, especially towards the end of the film, is close to what Ruskin called Tennyson’s “marshy and punt-like” boating. Also, there are monkeys. Lope de Aguirre’s raft is, spectacularly, a Spiritual Boat, and would have made an ideal subject for either Sylvia or for Ted, had they once decided to turn their poetic brains towards it.

Tennyson, too, might profitably have addressed the story. Though he was of course long cold in his grave before Werner Herzog made his film, Aguirre is based on real events that took place in 1561, events known about by, for example, Sir Walter Ralegh, who read about them before swanning off to discover El Dorado in 1595. Intriguingly, at the time he was preparing for his expedition, Ralegh was living at Sherborne Lodge in Devon. As Charles Nicholl describes it in The Creature In The Map (1995), “the Lodge stood on rough land above a boggy stretch of the Yeo known as Black Marsh”. Did Ralegh go boating on Black Marsh? Did his oar or punt become entangled in weed and did he plunge the oar in as near as dammit vertically in hope of gaining sufficient purchase to push himself free and, like Dr Harvey, topple out of his boat into the water? And were there, as with Aguirre, monkeys?

There is a poem to be written about such a scene.

The Little Stint

Dear Mr Key, writes Tzipi Blankette, I recently stumbled upon your Hooting Yard website and so enthralling did I find it that, using clever speed-reading techniques, I have read the entire contents, dating back to 2003, in a matter of hours. What has particularly impressed me is your tremendous erudition on the subject of birds. I have always been interested in ornithology, passionately so, but my knowledge of the subject is scant and flimsy. I can honestly say I have learned more through speed-reading your work than from any other birdy source at which I have supped, to put it poetically. Yes, Mr Key, I confess I am something of a poet. The reason I am being so bold as to write to you is that I am currently working on a sonnet sequence about little stints. I know almost nothing of the little stint, but I read carefully your postage yesterday, where you gave, in a footnote, an explanation of the term “unstinting”. I would be enormously grateful if you could expand upon this, and perhaps share with a poor Plathian versifier your boundless knowledge of this tiny wading bird. Yours sincerely, Tzipi Blankette.

I often receive letters from bird-ignorant readers in awe of my avian learning. Usually, I cast them straight into the pneumatic waste chute, because, quite frankly, if I replied to them all I would never get any other work done, and our feathered friends are just one teensy weensy fragment among my many and varied interests, which also include the Kennedy Assassination, the Hindenburg Disaster, eggs and bees, to name but four.

It so happened, however, that Ms Blankette’s letter plopped through the letterbox just as I was putting the finishing touches to my new book, Crush Your Business Rivals By Unleashing Your Inner Little Stint. This is the first in a series of management guides for top CEOs which I hope will be bestsellers in the burgeoning market for management guides for top CEOs. Unfortunately for Ms Blankette, however, I have already signed a contract with a global publishing concern specialising in management guides for top CEOs, under the terms of which I am unable to reproduce any of the text on this website. The book itself will contain ninety-nine percent of my knowledge of the little stint, so all I am able to do here to help out the fledgling poetess is to cobble together a few dribs and drabs that didn’t quite make it into my manuscript.

Under no circumstances must you confuse the little stint with Temminck’s stint. Try to remember the wise old rustic saying “When it comes to stints, there are two words / The little and Temminck are different birds”. Having said that, matters are confused further by the fact that not only are there two words for the two different stints, but there are dozens of other words for the little stint itself, depending on where you are in the world. For example, you will be making a basic error if, in some other, alien, distant land, out on a bird-spotting expedition with your pals Lars and Prudence, you point your finger and shout “Look, Lars and Prudence, a little stint!” What you ought to shout, assuming you know where you are, is “Look, Lars and Prudence, a – “ followed by one of the following terms: jespák malý, Zwergstrandläufer, Dværgryle, Correlimos Menudo, pikkusirri, Bécasseau minute, Veimiltíta, Gambecchio comune, nishitounen, Kleine Strandloper, Dvergsnipe, biegus malutki, Pilrito-pequeno, Combatente, pobrežník malý, Småsnäppa, Mazaricu Nanu, Sərçəvari qumluq cüllütü, Ar sourouc’han bihan, Corriol menut, Redonell, Territ menut, Pibydd bach, Pibydd lleiaf, Premavera, malgranda kalidro, Playerito menudo, Väikerisla, väikerüdi, Txirri txikia, Dvørggrælingur, Gobadáinín Beag, Looyran beg, Žalar ciganin, Apró partfutó, Chnchghuk Kttsar, Youroppa-tounen, Stynt munys, Calidris minuta, Ereunetes minutus, Erolia minuta, Mažasis bėgikas, Trulītis, Rivarel nanin, Kulik-vorobey, Uhcacovzoš, mali prodnik, Gjelaci i vogël, blataric patuljak, Tsititsiti-nyenyane, Chokowe Mdogo, Küçük kumkuşu, Dẽ nhỏ, or Rẽ nhỏ.

I would think that list provides Tzipi Blankette with plenty of words for her sonnet sequence, which I hope I get a chance to read before it is shoved away into a desk drawer and left to gather unto itself the dust of neglect.

Lars Tax, The Circus Strongman

News just in that weedy versifier Dennis Beerpint has been appointed Poet In Residence at Beppo Lamont’s Travelling Big Top Circus. Chief among his duties is to write a life in verse of the circus strongman, Lars Tax, also known as The Mighty Lars. So strong is Mr Tax that he has been known to hoist o’er his head a container lorry cram-packed with smithys’ anvils while pulling a concert hall across a field with his teeth. For the duration of his residency, our fey poet has been billeted in Lars Tax’s caravan, a flimsy construction of balsa wood and straw regularly subject to ruinous damage when the strongman engages in such mundane activities as yawning or combing his hair. By more or less imprisoning him with his subject, it is hoped that Beerpint will dash off a vivid “Life” fairly quickly, after which he can concentrate on other Big Top topics, including clowns and bears and trapeze artists and lions.

Three weeks in, Beerpint has completed just a single couplet:

Lars Tax was born sixty years ago / But whereabouts I do not know.

The problem, apparently, is that the circus strongman is a deaf mute, and fails to respond to any of the biographical questions fired at him by the spindly, neurasthenic poet. “Tell me when you first realised you were gifted with superhuman strength,” Beerpint will say, and Lars Tax will peer at him through his curiously milky eyes then turn about and start pitching cannonballs, four at a time, beyond the visible horizon. Luckily, like many a circus strongman, Mr Tax is a gentle, kindly soul, and has shown no intention of lifting up Beerpint with his little finger and pitching him beyond the horizon.

As time passes, however, the poet is growing increasingly fretful about his Life In Verse, and is sorely tempted to make the whole thing up. It would not be the first time Beerpint has cobbled together a fictional rhyming biography of a circus strongman. Which of us can forget that majestic sequence A Life Of Circus Strongman Gravat Pang In Four Hundred Sonnets? Mr Pang, of Icarus Drumgoole’s Fantastic Big Top And Flea Circus, was quite the opposite of a deaf mute, a strongman so garrulous that he hardly ever stopped talking. Beerpint simply followed him around, scribbling into his notepad like a Boswell, and then churned the words into verse.

We shall watch with interest how this current Big Top residency works out. Rumour has it that Lars Tax has grown fond of his puny caravan-mate, and wishes to train him up as an apprentice strongman. To this end, the Mighty Lars has been shovelling fistfuls of vitamin pills down the poet’s throat and encouraging him to push the caravan, weighted with several elephants and lions and anvils and cannonballs, from village to village, as they travel the land, ‘til kingdom come.

Dennis Beerpint’s latest slim volume of twee verse, Limericks Born Of Physical Exhaustion and Vitamin Overdose, is available from selected purveyors of slim volumes of twee verse.

Writer-In-Residence

The people of Pointy Town were once asked, in a referendum, if they wanted William S Burroughs as their writer-in-residence. Sensibly, they rejected him, arguing en masse that he was a gun-toting drug-addled nincompoop who took himself far too seriously and was, in turn, taken far too seriously by the kind of people who don’t actually read many books. That cut-up business may have won him some fashionable fans, but it’s just pictures of Jap girls in synthesis, innit? No, the Pointy Towners prefer their prose sequential and sparky, which is why they picked Pebblehead. But the bestselling paperbackist turned them down, for he was loth to live in Pointy Town, and residence therein was obviously a sine qua non for the position. There was a half-hearted plot to abduct Pebblehead from his “chalet o’ prose” high in the Swiss Alps and forcibly remove him to Pointy Town, but it fell apart by dint of timidity and awe.

The people then called for the appointment of Christopher Smart, author of Jubilate Agno. That great poem had recently become popular in Pointy Town as a method of organising civic behaviour. A line or two would be chosen at random each day, much in the manner of bibliomancy, but rather than foretelling the future the chosen text was, as far as possible, “acted out” by all literate Pointy Towners, and used as a sort of guide to their public conduct in the streets and boulevards. It had to be gently pointed out to them that Smart was long dead, and that while, at a pinch, it may have been possible to exhume whatever remained of him and have it reinterred in L’Etoile Du Pointy Town Cemetery, there could be no expectation of any new writing being done.

Pointy Town being a town without art, the panel next made the curious suggestion that the writer-in-residence post be offered to art critic Cosmo Hoxtonwanker. The thinking was that he might be able to identify this or that which could be considered as art, or could become art if viewed through artistic lenses. This idea was dismissed as foolhardy even faster than the rejection of Burroughs.

The next name out of the hat, as it were, though there was not actually a physical hat as such, was that of Jeanette Winterson. Although it was thought by many that she was far too important a writer to be persuaded to bother herself with a dismal provincial backwater like Pointy Town, initial inquiries proved positive. The people were divided, but a slim majority found in her favour, and the panel had gone so far as to evict all the guests from the Grand Hotel on the seafront so the even grander novelist could be installed there and have the building and its lovely gardens all to herself. Alas, negotiations fell through when the great author said she would refuse to write with the Pointy Pencil Of Pointy Town, considering it to be a phallocentric symbol.

At this point, quite unexpectedly, William S Burroughs, having heard the rumours, turned up in the town. He lurked on pathways like a ghoul of dreadful countenance, injecting himself with heroin and clearly lapping up being the cynosure of a certain cast of impressionable teenperson devoted to the “edgy”. His presence grew so tiresome that eventually he was pelted with pebbles and laughed at until he left town.

Still, though, Pointy Town was without a writer-in-residence. Even twee versifier Dennis Beerpint could not be persuaded to take on the job. And so the plan was quietly dropped… on the very day that, hoving into view on the horizon, huge and terrible and drooling, the Grunty Man approached! Could he wield the Pointy Pencil in his great clumsy fist? Inside that lumpen head, were there actually any thoughts that could be put down on paper, or even any thoughts at all? Was there in all Pointy Town a barn big enough to contain him in comfort?

Read on next week in Episode Two, in which the Grunty Man wrests editorship of the Pointy Town Clarion & Big Thumping Iron Hammer from milquetoast fop Gervase Weed!

Groovy

Dear Frank, writes Tim Thurn, It has long been apparent to me that Hooting Yard is by far the grooviest website on the planet. But how do I actually get down with its groove? Any tips would be most welcome.

Tim is not the only person to ask this, or a similar, question. Boffins in a groovelab high in the Swiss mountains have spent years – or is it mere days? – trying to isolate the Hooting Yard Groove, for the betterment of humanity, while Mrs Gubbins has been indefatigable in her attempts to express the essence of the groove in the form of knitted tea-cosies. Every single time she picks up her needles she fails, fails better, but she goes on, she must go on, she can’t go on, she goes on. We will soon have to build a new depot for all those groovy tea-cosies, unless we can find a charitable foundation prepared to accept them.

But are Tim Thurn and Mrs Gubbins and those Swiss boffins asking the wrong questions? Is there, in fact, a groove to be found? For the true horror may be that the grooviness is entirely superficial, and there is nothing behind it.

Some would have it that such absence of groove is unthinkable. The boffins, for example, having invested a huge amount of Swiss currency in retorts and alembics and bunsen burners and rubber tubing and bakelite knick-knacks and Coddington lenses, not to speak of elbow grease and sweat and pipe tobacco, would be unmoored, cast adrift upon a sea of cognitive anguish, were they to entertain the idea of there not being a groove. I am less fretful on behalf of Tim and Mrs Gubbins, for I know that both of them have other resources, the one a button fetish and the other a predilection for criminal mayhem. If they could but accept they will never get with the putative groove, Tim would be happy as a pig in muck with his buttons, and Mrs Gubbins could round up the old gang and embark upon a series of armed robberies.

Conversely, of course, there is a Hooting Yard Groove, a groove so groovy it outgrooves every other groove ever dreamed up by the grooviest of groovers. Surely I would know about it?, you ask. Well, not necessarily. Take as an example Dennis Beerpint. Ever since the incorrigibly twee versifier transformed himself into a beatnik, he has been, unarguably, the grooviest poet who ever lived. I say “unarguably” because there is not a soul who doubts this, not even Michael Horovitz. And yet Beerpint prances about the streets and coffee bars and milk bars and jazz clubs and happenings of his adopted world blithely unaware of his own irrefrangible grooviness. It is true that he makes much of his goatee beard, polo neck sweater, and hornrims, and that his trousers of choice are of the drainpipe variety, yet he remains free of affectation, almost childishly innocent, and reassuringly inept. But if anybody is down with the groove, daddy-o, it is Dennis Beerpint.

If it is the case that a Hooting Yard Groove truly exists, it is of a different order of grooviness to the Beerpint Groove. The two do not quite cancel each other out, but they cannot happily coexist in the same grooveosphere. Mrs Gubbins demonstrated this when she tried to knit a dual-groove tea-cosy and became so thoroughly entangled in stray skeins of wool that she had to be carted off to a clinic.

And on that cautionary note, I think I will leave it. Tim Thurn may remain in the dark about the groove he seeks, but that is the way with a groove. Once you stop looking, you might just find it. Or, if not, you can go and sprawl in a ditch and stare at the sky. It is immense, and blue, and spattered with clouds.

Imperfectly-Remembered Mitteleuropean Folk Songs In Translation

Last week, the Guardian newspaper was giving away a seies of poetry pamphlets. There were selections from T S Eliot, Sylvia Plath, and Philip Larkin, among others, but I was dismayed to note that they did not include Dennis Beerpint.

The twee versifier has been rather quiet of late, so I was pleased to learn that a new book is in the works. For the last year, apparently, Beerpint has been busy with a project entitled Imperfectly-Remembered Mitteleuropean Folk Songs In Translation. He has collected at least four or five examples, enough for a characteristically slim volume of verse.

Under cover of darkness, Pansy Cradledew smashed her way into Beerpint’s so-called “poetry hut” and managed to steal Gestetnered copies of a couple of the pieces, so we can give readers a sneak preview. The first is called “The Shepherd’s Lament”:

There is a shepherd in the hills / There is a [something] green / But black is the crow in the [something] tree / And lightning blasts the sky / The shepherd’s lass has golden hair / She [something something] milk / But the crow has flown away, my love / And the ducks have left the lake.

Marvellous. And here is the second one, which seems to be untitled:

As I roamed the bosky verdance / Upon a summer morning / [Something something] gravel pits / And O my love was [something]. / Entwined in posies [something something] / I heard the sound of gunfire / Then [something] over by the cowshed / Upon a summer morning. / Tra la la and fol de rol / The geese are all a-[something] / My pig has got his hat on / And I’ll see you in the gloaming.

Fantastic. I expect the editor of the Guardian will be kicking himself that he neglected to include Dennis Beerpint in the series.

Dennis Beerpint On Television

“Tanquod Shuddery’s bloated frame hove into view from behind the barn.”

This is the opening line of Dennis Beerpint’s latest piece of poetical whimsy. Indeed, it is the only line, for the twee versifier has had a fit of the vapours and put down his pencil. He is pallid, and shaking, and staring wild-eyed into the grate where a few sticks are burning weakly. He wonders if his talent has been dissipated by his newfound devotion to buzzing around in a light aircraft, swooping low over clumps of cows in fields and calling to them in a language they do not understand. Will Dennis get a grip? Can he salvage his poetic gift? Or will he dash out his brains on a paving slab? Don’t miss the exciting new 26-part television drama series Twee Poet In A Light Aircraft Swooping Upon Cows.

Thousands Of Unusual And Arresting Facts About Birds

Thousands Of Unusual And Arresting Facts About Birds was one of the fattest pamphlets Dobson ever published. The title is something of a misnomer, for the remarkable thing about this work is that it contains not a single fact about birds whatsoever. Indeed, apart from the occasional passing mention of starlings (page 49), shrikelets (page 92) and a swan (page 119), birds are signally absent from the text. In spite of this, the pamphlet has been hailed by the upstart young Dobsonist Ted Cack as “the most informative text on ornithology that I have ever read”. Cack is not always the most intellectually agile of critics, though, so perhaps we should not take him too seriously, the way we might furrow our brows in deep concentration at even the merest squib from a theoretical colossus like, say, Terry Eagleton.

Dobson wrote the pamphlet at a time when he was preoccupied with moles. He was fascinated by their burrowing habits, near-blindness, and twitching snouts. Although the snouts of moles twitch less than those of shrews, particularly elephant shrews, Dobson was enamoured of what he considered the more “moley” twitching of the snouts of moles. Why, then, did he not essay a pamphlet of unusual and arresting facts about moles, rather than birds, when it was moles that intrigued him during this period? It should be noted that his tract makes no mention of [insert Latin tag for moles here] either.

A clue may be found in the fact that at the time of the pamphlet’s writing, Dobson was engaged in a feud with a bellicose undertaker from down Pointy Town way. No one can be quite sure any more what caused the vendetta, not even Ted Cack, who admits to utter beflummoxment about the whole matter. But there was an exchange of letters, among much else, and in one of these the out of print pamphleteer wrote as follows:

“Not only are you a singularly bellicose undertaker, sir, but you keep the seats in your death carriage in a very greasy condition. My dry cleaners had the devil of a job returning my trousers to their usual impeccability after last I sat upon those seats when attending the funeral rites of Thruxtonshaw Beppo, the noted mole- and bird-expert whose friendship I had come to treasure. It is true that I have not sought from you financial recompense for the cost of degreasing my trousers, but that is only because I have a more terrible revenge in mind.”

The authenticity of this letter has been questioned, chiefly because the last thing one tends to associate with Dobson is a pair of impeccable trousers. I am not suggesting that he was forever covered in grease, far from it, but a certain shabbiness, even grubbiness, was part of his general aura, even the aura detected by our psychic brethren and sistren, as attested by the redoubtable Madame Boubou, who sometimes did “readings” of the pamphleteer’s ethereal being. Dobson himself was unaware of these, as the turbanned Madame was given to following him about, skulking down alleyways or creeping after him as he reconnoitred picnicking spots in fields and parkland. She would target him, from behind, with her fearsome gaze, and make visible his aura for long enough to allow her to scribble a few notes into her psychic notepad. Often such notes contained the words “grubby”, “grimy”, “dishevelled”, and “splattered with muck”… and remember, that was his spiritual aura, not his solid, earthbound person.

Anyway, whether it is genuine or not, it is the reference in the letter to Thruxtonshaw Beppo that concerns us here. Dobson – or the counterfeiter pretending to be Dobson – correctly identifies the deceased Beppo as a mole- and bird-expert, as indeed he was, and one who the pamphleteer met often in the final days of his, the mole- and bird-expert’s, life. They first encountered each other at a football match (Red Star Hoon versus Pang Hill Academicals), where Dobson had gone to make a tape recording of turnstile-clacking noises and Beppo was present as a turnstile-clacking counter. It may seem to be unusual employment for a mole- and bird-expert, but Beppo was the kind of impoverished amateur who was perpetually short of cash, and on this particular day he was actually very close to starvation. It is thought that Dobson took pity on the skeletal clack-counter and tossed him a pastry from his bag, much as one might feed a zoo animal. The two men rapidly hit it off, and indeed there was something juvenile in their camaraderie. They addressed each other by foolish code-names, “Broadsword” and “Danny Boy”, using these soubriquets as an excuse to practice their impersonations of Richard Burton and Michael Hordern in the film Where Eagles Dare. Incidentally, the film’s screenplay, and the novel on which it is based, were written by the alcoholic Scottish writer Alistair MacLean, who is buried just yards away from Richard Burton in a Swiss graveyard. Several of MacLean’s novels include the phrase “the huddled shapelessness of the dead”, suggesting that this was an idée fixe lodged in the writer’s gin-soaked cranium, perhaps an unvanquishable memory from his war service in the Royal Navy, where he was involved in action in the Atlantic theatre, on two Arctic convoys and escorting carrier groups in operations against Tirpitz and other targets off the Norwegian coast; in 1944 in the Mediterranean theatre, as part of the invasion of southern France and in helping to sink blockade runners off Crete and bombard Milos in the Aegean Sea; and in 1945, in the Far East theatre, escorting carrier groups in operations against Japanese targets in Burma, Malaya, and Sumatra. MacLean’s late-in-life claims that he was captured by the Japanese and tortured have been dismissed by both his son and his biographer as drunken ravings. The Huddled Shapelessness Of The Dead is also the title of an exceedingly rare and out of print Dobson pamphlet, a piece of fluff about dead bees.

Dobson and Beppo began to meet daily, commandeering a corner table in The Cow And Pins tavern, where they talked for hours about both birds and moles. The expert knew his days were numbered, as he had already been diagnosed with the invariably fatal Withered Innards Syndrome, and it may be that he wanted to pass on his knowledge before he died. Intriguingly, in his eight decades, Beppo had not once put pen to paper, and his matchless store of information about birds and moles he carried entirely in his head. And what a head it was! The versifier Dennis Beerpint once described it, in conversation rather than in a poem, as “Beppo’s head, that great block of human head, dense and solid and mottled like a potato”. He made this remark during one of his rare television appearances, on the Shadrach & Abednego chatshow, on which he was a guest in the week after Beppo’s death. There were others lined up to extol the bird- and mole-expert, including songstress Kathy Kirby and bowler-hatted Avengers star Patrick McNee, but Beerpint would not stop babbling, and in those days of live broadcasts and a more spontaneous approach, he was allowed to continue until the next programme – a three-hour silent black-and-white documentary about swans – was due to begin. It was, of course, on a different edition of the same chatshow that Beerpint became the first person to utter the word “Ubuntu” on television.

If either moles or birds were mentioned in Dobson’s pamphlet Thousands Of Unusual And Arresting Facts About Birds, we could draw the sensible conclusion that the pamphleteer had simply mixed up the fantastic amount of information pouring out of Beppo over that tavern table. But as we have seen, moles are not mentioned in the text at all, and birds only in passing. Wherein, then, lies the enigma of the seemingly gratuitous title? One possibility is that Dobson was using a code, akin to the childish “Broadsword” and “Danny Boy” with which the pair of ageing rascals addressed each other. If so, I do not think it is a code anyone is going to crack. Dobson left a teeming pile of notebooks and scribblings, catalogued by Aloysius Nestingbird and others with heroic diligence, and it seems to me that somewhere in that paper Kilimanjaro they would have found a scrap upon which the pamphleteer worked out his cipher, if cipher it was. The bumptious noodlehead and pretend Dobson scholar Emeric Vinvanvoo made a fool of himself with his claim that the pamphlet’s title was an anagram of Ubuntu And Dust Can Be No Fruits Of A Horrid SAS Salt Gas, chiefly because it isn’t. That did not stop him weaving a ludicrous fantasy that Dobson and Beppo were engaged in some kind of top secret paramilitary gas experimentation programme. Wittily, one commentator dismissed Vinvanvoo’s ravings as “like something out of an Alistair MacLean novel”, demonstrating a contextual grasp of the whole Dobson/Beppo affair which I quite envy.

I am doing my best, you see, but though I have studied the pamphlet for years now I can still make head nor tail of what Dobson was driving at. Usually, you know where you stand with his titles. How I Poked A Pointed Stick Into A Hedge is a pamphlet in which Dobson writes about poking a pointed stick into a hedge. Christ Stopped At Eboli is about Christ stopping at Eboli. Granted, in both these works, as with almost all his pamphlets, Dobson veers off into often surprising digressions, but generally speaking he takes his subject, his fad or whim of the moment, and wrings out of it all that can be wrung, and more. Even the youthful, callow Ted Cack has had the insight that “whatever the topic of his pamphlet, Dobson’s ambition was to have the last word, to make any further approach to the subject futile, for at least a century, and preferably longer. Whether writing about carpet beetles or electrical wiring systems or a dub version of the soundtrack to Carl Sagan’s television series Cosmos, Dobson worried away at his theme like a small predatory beast gnawing upon the limp body of a smaller, non-predatory beast from which the life was rapidly draining, as it were a tawny owl with a hamster, or a shrew with a newborn goat, for example.”

So if we take Ted Cack’s metaphor and think of Dobson as a tawny owl or a shrew, what kind of hamster or newborn goat is he tearing to pieces in Thousands Of Unusual And Arresting Facts About Birds? Is that a question to which we can ever give a sensible answer? Well, I think we can. Not today, maybe, and perhaps not tomorrow, nor even this week. Nor next week, nor next month, nay even unto Saint Loopy’s Day. But I will promise this much. By the time you are all celebrating the next Saint Loopy’s Day, I will publish the mighty tome on which I have laboured like an idiot for the last God knows how many years. I long ago lost count of the number of tallow candles I have burned to light my futuristic flame-resistant reinforced plastic writer’s cabin where I crouch, scrivening away, through days and nights, year after year, sustained only by a peculiar soup-based nutrient slop and by a blinding conviction that my privations are worthwhile because I shall, finally, pierce the shroud of ignorance enveloping Dobson’s fattest pamphlet. And when, on that merry day, The Annotated Pop-Up Edition Of ‘Thousands Of Unusual And Arresting Facts About Birds’ By Dobson, With A Preface, Introduction, Notes, Commentary, Afterword, Exegesis, Maps, Colour Plates, Exquisite Binding, Greaseproof Wrapper And Presentation Crate, Guaranteed Free Of Infestation By Microscopic Paper-Devouring Beings hits the shelves of your local supermarket, I shall smash my way out of my cabin and scamper through the meadows, flailing my arms and beaming with glee.

Bolted Lobbies

I chanced upon a fascinating pamphlet the other day, and I think I ought to tell you all about it. How To Gain Ingress To Lobbies That Have Been Bolted Shut is a tatty forty-four page screed, unclogged by illustrative matter, and – maddeningly – gives no indication of its author or date of publication. I read it at one sitting while picnicking on a pier.

The first thing that struck me was that it is unusual to find a bolted lobby. Given the nature of lobbies, as antechambers to all sorts of premises, it is surely common to find them open and welcoming, drawing the visitor in. If you are shy of, or hostile to callers, you will not want a lobby, and if the building you take over has one in place, you are likely, as the new owner, to destroy the lobby or transform it into something else. I remember once going to a building that had been a hotel but was now the domain of a recluse, and what had in the past been the lobby was now a gated, unlit, forbidding hellhole stuffed with poisonous vegetation in pots. When I rapped upon the gate, an occult mechanism released a jet of gas that hit me full in the face, whereupon I fled, a napkin clutched to my nose and mouth, eyes streaming with tears. Perhaps it was the memory of that dismal morning that made me so intrigued by a pamphlet promising instructive tips on gaining access to lobbies bolted shut.

As I said, I read the pamphlet upon a pier, and I was surrounded by bolted booths. Many of these were shabby booths, so to find them bolted shut did not come as a surprise. I dare say there is not a seaside resort in the land that does not have its share of shabby bolted booths, either upon the pier or along the promenade. One ought not confuse booths with chalets, although it is true that many chalets too are shabby, and some may be bolted shut, but on average I would aver that bolted booths outnumber bolted chalets. For purposes of clarity, let us assume that there is no appreciable difference between a booth and a kiosk.

While I was reading the pamphlet perched on a bench on the pier lined with bolted booths and kiosks, the sea beneath me was roiling and churning. This was a wild coastline.

So you want to gain ingress to a lobby bolted shut? were the opening words of the pamphlet. I paused at this point, took a sausage on a stick and a pot of savoury paste out of my haversack, removed the lid from the pot and dipped the sausage in the paste, and chewed the sausage as I tried to think if there was any particular bolted lobby to which I wished to gain ingress. The lobby I just mentioned, the gated and unlit and forbidding hellhole, could no longer count as a lobby, all things considered. Munching another mouthful of paste-caked sausage, I looked around at the bolted booths as if in doing so I might summon to mind a bolted lobby I was keen to enter, for if I harboured no desire to gain ingress to a real lobby that was bolted shut it hardly seemed worth my while to read the pamphlet. I may as well toss it over the railings into the roiling sea.

Such a tossage was about to happen, for I had racked my puny brain as hard as ever a man did, when all of a sudden I was stopped in mid-toss. From an unbolted booth nearby I heard a voice. It was a wheezy and spittle-pipped voice, and I recognised it at once. “What in the name of heaven,” I remember thinking to myself, “is the poet Dennis Beerpint doing skulking in an unbolted booth on a pier in a semi-abandoned seaside resort?” I stuffed the pamphlet into my rucksack, took a glug from my flask, and peeked into the booth. I did not see Beerpint in the booth, but a man at a lathe, lathing and listening to the wireless, the source of the poet’s wheezing. To be fair, I think the faulty reception made him wheezier than he really was. I have been an enthusiast for the outpourings of the twee yet titanic versifier for more years than the lifespan of the average hamster, but until now it had escaped my notice that he hosted a regular weekly wireless programme entitled Dennis Beerpint On The Air. I leaned insouciantly against the door of the booth and listened. So enrapt was the seaside lathesmeister, lathing, that of me, he was oblivious.

I apologise. This is what happens to me with Beerpint, as soon as I think about him I start to write like him. I ought to have written “the person at the lathe was oblivious of me” or, better, “did not even notice me”.

So, I listened, and it became apparent soon enough that the great but neglected poet was reading from his Eclogues, or perhaps from his Pipistrelles. This latter, apart from being a type of bat, was a verse form devised by Beerpint, not dissimilar to an Eclogue, hence my uncertainty. I could make neither head nor tail of what he was wittering on about, of course, but I allowed the words to wash over me as I dug into my knapsack for another sausage on a stick. Alas, this second sausage was contaminated, and after swallowing a chunk I was forced to totter over to the side of the pier and vomit into the churning ocean. I glugged some more water-from-a-spigot from my flask to rinse out my mouth, and by the time I returned to the booth, it had been bolted shut. I lolloped over to a bench and sat.

Now it occurred to me that helpful tips on gaining ingress to a bolted lobby may well be equally useful for a reader keen to gain ingress to a bolted booth, so I took the pamphlet out of my haversack and continued to read past the first sentence.

First of all, it said, you need to weigh your desire to gain ingress to the lobby bolted shut against the reasons why the lobby has been bolted shut. You may be motivated by impure and fiendish urges which you barely, if at all, comprehend, and it may be that the bolting of the lobby was done as a means of protecting virtue. Conversely, you may well be close to sainthood and the bolting shut of the lobby an act of utmost wickedness. The crux of the matter is that you are diligent in your examination, and this will involve both rectitude and rigour.

I yawned and skipped the next few pages, until I hit upon a paragraph teeming with the names of exciting and dangerous explosives. Not for the anonymous author such workaday solutions as jemmying the lock of the bolt with a jemmy, or hacking the chains of the bolt with a razor-sharp titanium saw. No, the only decent way to gain ingress to a bolted lobby, it appeared, was to blast that bolt with an enormous explosive charge and enter the lobby in triumph, covered in dust and debris and shrouded in a pall of smoke.

Now I was in a quandary, and I do not like quandaries. I much prefer things to be simple. For example, if I eat a contaminated sausage, I would much rather be immediately sick over the side of a pier than to feel slightly off colour and be plagued for hours or days or weeks by waves of queasiness. I like big flat planes of colour rather than stippled dappled tincts. That is why I hold Dennis Beerpint in such esteem. You may not know what he is blathering on about, but more often than not his poems rhyme: cat, mat, hoist, joist, bank holiday, Special K, giddy, biddy. This is why he is so often dismissed as a versifier of twee pap. Well, as far as I am concerned, as Patrick Henry (1736-1799) so nearly said, “Give me pap or give me death!” My quandary was that if I followed the helpful tips in the pamphlet, the violence of the explosion would destroy not just the bolt with which the booth was bolted but the booth itself. As a general rule, lobbies are much bigger than booths or kiosks, and they are also mere parts of larger, more resilient structures. It dawned on me why the anonymous pamphleteer was so precise in titling his work. I sighed, and tossed the pamphlet over the side of the pier into the sea, and without even glancing back at the bolted booth wherein a man at a lathe listened to Dennis Beerpint On The Air on a bakelite wireless, I went on my merry way, back to the sausage shop to remonstrate with the sausage seller, on a wet and windy Wednesday afternoon.

Found At A Jumble Sale

At a jumble sale last week, I was delighted to pick up a bundle of Dennis Beerpint poetry books for less than the price of a toffee apple. Well, I say books, but these are leaflets really, of between four and twelve pages each, printed with a Gestetner machine in the early 1970s. Here at Hooting Yard we think Beerpint is a criminally overlooked versifier, often subjected to critical maulings when he ought justly be garlanded with laurels.

Much of the material in these forgotten publications sees Beerpint finding his voice, and admittedly that voice was still a little shaky at this early stage in his career. I was struck, however, by the odd gem such as Illness, which begins:

Oh how dark the night is / When you’ve got meningitis

and by Being A Bee, with its wonderfully evocative couplet

I do as I do and I does as I does / And what I do and does is buzz

I think it is lines like these that fool people into thinking Beerpint “twee”, or a peddler of doggerel. This seems a particularly fatuous accusation when one considers titanic works of poesy such as Lines Upon The Death Of Dag Hammarskjöld In A Plane Crash (September 1961), with its vibrant “pluckety-pluck” rhythms, massive resonance, reach, vigour, gargantuan ambition, deliberately blurred vision, knock-kneed tremblement, sourness, decisively windswept atmosphere, implacability, tartness, muscular bounding strides, and bravery in confronting, head-on, conundrums of global significance. It ends with this Beerpintian flourish:

O Dag! Alenda lux ubi orta libertas / I’ve reserved a pew at your Requiem Mass

Who else could have written that?