Odds and Sods – Tesco’s and the Devil

Photo by Dan Sealey on Unsplash

This is another poem that was written for reading out aloud.  I’m not exactly certain why, but it always makes me think of Jake Thackray.  It’s silly and pointless and just the way it should be…

I was in the checkout queue at Tesco’s – Friday last
When the Devil approached me and said,
“Before the die, for your future is cast,
Let me give you an option instead.”

“I will give you three wishes, with a full guarantee
Not to limit your statutary rights.
I’ll throw in a bottle of egg-nog for free,
If you order by Saturday night.”

“I just wanted a small tin of tuna,” said I.
“And a few custard creams for my tea,
But I can’t help myself and my trolley’s piled high
So I don’t think I’ll manage your fee.”

“I don’t want your money,” Beelzebub said.
“Your soul is the normal receipt.
Most people I speak to don’t need to be led,
So come on now, don’t drag your feet.”

Well, I have to admit, the temptation was great
‘Cos I never had much time for soul.
To tell you the truth I always preferred
Some reggae or plain rock & roll.

“Buffoon!” cried the horned one.  “You great stupid prat!
We’re not talking Diana Ross.
It’s your spirit I’m after, so make up your mind –
Tell the truth, I just don’t give a toss.”

Well, the checkout girl had started to sigh
She was filing her nails with a will.
When the Devil ate up my pre-packed Birds-Eye extruded fish crumb and dehydrated potato meal in a pot for one with individual sachet of tomato ketchup,
She stretched for the bell on her till.

The security man made a big, big mistake
Well, you don’t push the Devil around.
He just tapped his trident on the mock parquet floor
And opened a hole in the ground.

The guard and his cap just plummeted down
And were braised in the fires of Hell.
Then the Devil turned round and he grinned when he said
“Those Hob-Nobs would go down quite well.”

He said, “It won’t take long to finish this pack
So please make your mind up by then.”
Three wishes were quite a temptation to me,
But really I needed about ten.

I wish that I knew all the lottery numbers
An hour or so in advance.
I wish I could dance without looking just like
A hedgehog has died in my pants.

I wish I could cook a soufflé
Or whip up a sex on the beach
I wish I could fly, I wish I could draw,
I wish that success was within reach

I wish I was taller, with much longer arms
So my hands reached the end of my sleeve.
I wish that I didn’t have the sneaking suspicion
That people cheer up when I leave.

I wish that I wasn’t the sad kind of person
Who finds falling over funny
But most of the time, I wish most of all
That I had an abundance of money.

So I turned to the Anti-Christ, prepared to say `Yes’,
But he’d gone with my Dairylea spread.
He’d decided he didn’t have use for my soul,
But the girl at the checkout instead.

By now there was no way to reach her conveyor
So I wandered on out through the aisle
And walked past another security guard
With what I hoped was a confident smile.

If the point of this story is hard to decipher
I’m sorry, you see I’m not sure,
But a sixteen stone, 6 foot 2 inch store detective
Arrested me outside the door.

So, if you meet the Devil in Tesco’s
And this offer to you should be made,
The only advice I can give you
Is to make sure the shopping’s been paid.

Zoo #6 – Spider

Though we tried so hard to hide her,
Tried our very best to guide her,
To a space that’s open wider,
Still she looked around and spied a
Teeny weeny little spider –
Sad to say it terrified her.

A true story.  We were on holiday in Northern Cyprus.  The apartments were new and recently opened.  On the second night I was cleaning my teeth when my wife screamed.  I ran through into the bedroom as she was running out.  When I finally calmed her down with the application of gin and pretzels, she told me that there was a mouse in our bed, under the pillow.  I went through and, sure enough, there was a little tail peeping out.  I went into the kitchen to grab a pan and returned to catch it.  I lifted the pillow and discovered that the ‘tail’ was, in fact, the leg of a tarantula!  Panic set in as I did not want to try and catch it, only to let it escape under the bed, so I went for help.  The man at the reception followed me back to the room, his eyes full of ‘Oh you English’ amusement when I tried to explain how big this spider was.  I showed him into the bedroom, lifted the pillow and he flipped.  When I eventually calmed him down – I had to buy more gin the next day – we carried the pillow outside together and shook the giant spider off.  It wandered away un-phased and the man from the reception tried to climb the wall.  The following day men in full protective suits arrived and sprayed the undergrowth all around our apartment.  A week later, as we packed to go home, we found the spider’s spouse behind the curtain…

Like ourselves, I’m sure you will not believe that there are tarantula’s in Cyprus.  Look it up, you’ll find that there are.

Now, you’d think, wouldn’t you, that such an experience would ensure that my wife was in no way scared of the tiny little fellas that we get scuttling around our house in the UK?  Well, you’d be wrong…

The Immediate Problem

The immediate problem that presented itself to me upon waking was how to remove the spider from my nostril.  That, in the cold light of consciousness, there was no such arachnid resident lodged in my proboscis was of little consequence, as my attempts to remove the phantom araneae – the trumpet-call of my nose blowing – did all that it could to attract the attention of every elephant in the neighbourhood.  (How many?  I live on the East coast of England: guess.)  Until I found something else to worry about, my conviction remained completely undimmed by obvious fact.  I could feel it moving.  Possibly building a tiny nasal web for its many octopedal offspring.  Anyway, having woken with the conviction that I had become some kind of creepy-crawly condominium overnight, nothing short of a tiny eight-legged corpse was going to convince me otherwise.  Nor was I pacified by the almost certain knowledge that, in this particular scenario, I could more or less be assured that I would never be troubled by intra-nare bluebottles.  It is a very dark cloud indeed, that has such a silver lining.

I seldom awake with a coherent overview of my dreams, but I do often carry little bits of them with me into the day: a sudden and irrational fear of aubergine; the conviction that Piers Morgan is a Cyborg*, the certain knowledge that I have woken up with somebody else’s legs.  It is disconcerting: like the moment you try to analyze the way that you walk, and you realise that you can no longer do it.  How can thinking about something make it unattainable?  I’ve tried to recall what circumstance contrived to deposit the imaginary tiny tarantula up my somnambulant snitch, but to no avail.

I won’t lie to you.  My nose is definitely big enough to house a spider.  There’s quite a bit of room up there.  A little bit damp for my taste, but it could, for all I know, equate to spider heaven.  Anyway, although I seldom recall them in detail, I know what dreams are like.  It could just as well have been an octopus I was trying to dislodge.  Where nasal residences are concerned, size is not of the essence.  Threading a camel through the eye of a needle is perfectly feasible, dependent on the size of the camel, the size of the needle and the nature of what you had to eat before you went to sleep.

Are dreams really just life with the brakes off: reality without reason, or are they simply the synapses enjoying playtime?  Maybe reality is just a dream with a cold – all sensation wrapped in cotton wool, all possibilities snot-bound.  Life in the waking hours is certainly more dull, more predictable than that which we experience during sleep.  Definitely less precarious.  How often is it possible to be chased by a masked pursuer, to fall off a cliff, to find oneself stark naked in a public place, without suffering serious harm or humiliation?  The logic of progression is scattered in dreams, but never questioned.  Nobody ever queries the fact that they are falling from a tall building again, when only a millisec earlier they were eluding capture by a long-extinct raptor in the humid, but definitely low-rise, setting of a Jurassic forest.

Yet, all of this could be endured so much more comfortably if the borders between these two conflicting states of consciousness were not quite so porous: if it was not so easy to carry pieces out from the twilight dreamworld and into this new normal nightmare world of non-contact and distanced communication that we now inhabit, where the fear of death is greater than the threat of loneliness, where the logic of action and reaction bears no level of scrutiny, where a paper mask worn to protect others becomes a threat to personal liberty, where wealth is counted in toilet rolls and gin is turned into sanitizer (although I still get told off for drinking it).

One day we will return to a world where wakefulness is not more confusing than dreams and a spider up the nose really is the worst of my problems – well, that and the elephant in the room, which is answering, presumably, my trumpet call…

*Actually, that is probably true.

 ‘…no longer afraid of the dark
or midday shadows
nothing so ridiculously teenage and desperate
nothing so childish
at a better pace
slower and more calculated
no chance of escape
now self-employed
concerned (but powerless)…’  ‘Fitter, happier, more productive.’  Radiohead.

Don’t always listen to the loudest voice.  It probably just comes from the biggest mouth.  Me.

A Little Fiction – Clown

Photo by Robert Zunikoff on Unsplash

There was a genuine smile on his lips as Kelly painted the ragged scar of lipstick across his mouth.  No tears lurked behind the mask of white pan-stick that made his face a canvas.  Beneath the unruly mop of ginger nylon ‘hair’ and ragged Tam O’Shanter, behind the illuminated bow tie, he was happy.  All he had ever wanted to do was to make people smile; to hear them laugh at his antics – what more could he possibly want..?

*

He remembered the mocking tones of his teacher when he accidentally spilled his schoolbooks at the master’s feet, “Oh, you think you’re very funny, don’t you Mr Emmett?  But don’t worry, because I will have the last laugh.  I have a job, you may think it clever to make fun of me, but I… I have a job.  You?  What do you think you are going to do with your life, eh?  Do you think you are going to put food on the table by being a clown?  A funny man, eh Kelly?  Well, when you’ve picked up your books, you can write out one hundred times, ‘I may think that I am funny, but I am not.  I am an idiot.’  We’ll see how amusing you find life then…”

Kelly had tried to explain then, and again many more times, that he wasn’t trying to be clever.  Of only one thing in this world was he certain – he would never be ‘clever’, and he most certainly did not want to make a fool of his teacher.  Such a shame: he really liked Mr Newby.  He was just accident prone.  He couldn’t help it.  He couldn’t stop the other kids from laughing at him.  He liked them to laugh, but not like that.  Their laughter was not of the joyous kind.  It was sneering, taunting, cruel.  He did not seek that laughter.  But it wasn’t long before Kelly learned that the laughter of his peers was less cruel if he looked for it; that he felt included in it if he deliberately caused it. 

Of course, it didn’t help that his family were poor, that his clothes came from a long line of hand-me-downs, and all from his three elder sisters – re-tailored by his mother in a way that did not always adequately disguise feminine origins.  His footwear was even worse.  He had to wear his father’s cast-offs.  They were many sizes too big, the toes stuffed with paper, the loose soles having been glued and re-glued back in place a hundred times or more. 

Mr Newby was a good man; he saw so much promise in young Emmett.  He recognised his difficulties and he did all he could to help.  He felt physical pain when he witnessed how this quiet and sensitive soul was beaten and jibed into the role of class clown.  How the soft intelligence he saw behind his vulnerable eyes was slowly corrupted into something disruptive, almost malevolent.  Even as he watched him succumb to the mob, Newby tried to intercede – to encourage and to punish: the carrot and the stick – a public humiliation, a hundred lines for a misdemeanour perhaps and then, much more quietly delivered, some apples to take home for a successfully completed task.  He had desperately wanted to guide Kelly to a better future, but he had failed him, and he carried that failure in his heart until his dying breath…

*

The sun prickled the surface of the pond on the green as Kelly made his way to school.  He alone, it would seem, was content with his life.  He smiled happily, kicking stones even as his sole flapped loosely on his over-sized shoe.  His bag was heavy, but it made a satisfying ‘thump’ against his back with every step.  Mr Newby greeted him at the gate, and he smiled.
‘You’re early Kelly.  Good to see you looking so happy.’
‘Thank you, Mr Newby.  I just have to go to the washroom and I’ll be straight back to class…’

And he was as good as his word.  Fifteen minutes later, as the chattering hub-bub of his classmates settled for the day’s lessons, Kelly Emmett, the smile now firmly painted onto his face, strode into the classroom, confident, for once, in his actions and in his ability to perform them.  The sunlight that filtered in slatted beams through the dusty window blinds glinted starkly on the long knives he held aloft in his hands.  ‘Right,’ he said.  ‘Let’s see who’s laughing now…’

***

Oh, I really fretted about posting this.  I found the first paragraph in my workaday notes, I liked it and I decided to give it its head.  It took me on a little journey I did not expect.  I have sat on it for a few weeks now, because I really didn’t know whether it could fit in here.  I toyed with lengthening it, explaining a little more, but I think the sparseness actually works.  I could be wrong.  I thought of filling it with jokes, but I decided that it had to be posted as it was, or not at all.  So I scheduled it as the only way I know of committing myself.  It is very different, very dark for me, but it is only a story…

Odds and Sods – A Reflection

Well, it has been interesting (for me at least) this trawl through my archives.  I have been made aware of many things.  I feel certain that I will return to some of the themes I have discovered here, but most of what I wrote way back then, will remain where it is.  It’s not that it is necessarily bad, nor even particularly dated – some of the very worst things have good moments whilst, unfortunately, most of the best are still not good enough – but the archive file is just where they belong.  Reading through it now, a lot of what I wrote years ago appears new to me, like it was written by somebody else, and I find myself laughing at my own, long-forgotten jokes.  This I find very disturbing.  It puts me in mind of those who cannot stop admiring themselves in the mirror – of someone who considers them self to be so entertaining that there is little point in listening to anybody else.  I do not want to be a politician.  I do not want to be a social-media ‘influencer’ – what is a social-media ‘influencer’?  My only excuse is that this was all written long, long ago and at least, in most part, is something of which I am not actually ashamed.   As I read through the reams of pages I have written, I have discovered that whilst the ideas remain fresh and many of the jokes still work (as much as they ever did) the style – particularly obvious in some TV and radio scripts – is often wildly out-of-date: welded to the moment in which it was written.  Humour, it seems, is not transient, but the rules under which it is delivered are.

Throughout my formative years, as the desire to write coalesced within me, ‘silly’ ruled the world.  Inspiration was easy to find – Spike Milligan’s Q series’, The Goodies, Monty Python’s flying Circus… (For the most inspired piece of Monty Python silliness ever, just click here.)  I love silly.  Silly has no agenda, no axe to grind, no victim.  I love all comedy, but I am particularly fond of it when it is not used as a weapon.  Silly is funny simply because it is funny.  If it makes you laugh then that is its complete justification.  In the UK we had comedians who touched genius with silly – who were funny simply because they were: Tommy Cooper, Eric Morecambe and, latterly, Billy Connolly…  I can think of no ‘modern’ equivalent.  I’m sure that all countries have these ‘natural clowns’ – although the American comedians I recall from my youth were always much more polished, more slick, altogether more cerebral.  In today’s world, in order to be funny, it is now a requirement that you have something clever to say.  It puts those of us who are not brainy enough to be sharp at a distinct disadvantage.  Nobody shouts ‘smart-arse’ quite as loudly as me trying to be clever.  (Well, except, perhaps, for Russell Howard.)

Writing ‘with an agenda’ is all well and good.  Causing people to think is always a good thing.  Making them laugh and think at the same time is a difficult trick to perfect.  The main problem with the ‘agenda’ is that it is fixed in time.  It doesn’t matter how witty it felt when you wrote it, as soon as it stops being relevant, it stops being funny.  In comedy terms, I guess you really did have to be there. 

I vaguely remember the man who wrote these far-away pieces.  He was brighter than me, better company without doubt.  He embraced the silly, held hands with the nonsensical and kissed ridiculous flat on the lips.  He worried some times, but not all the time.  He wore better clothes, although he still looked like a bag of shit tied up with string*.  He drank less and ate less and ached less.  He did not fear for the future because he knew he was going to ‘make it’; it was just a matter of time.  He was optimistic – pessimists should never have children.  (Children are ‘hope’ in human form – even if it is loud and annoying and full of snot at times.)  This was a man for whom introspection meant worrying about whether the second donut was wise.  All in all, a bit of a prat – although he had many more friends than me.

I wonder whatever became of him?

*An observation of my dad, who sought to advise me against wasting too much money on clothes.

As this piece is somewhat inward looking, (and especially since I still have a couple of bits from the Odds & Sods file left to use) I will agonise over whether it is worth publishing.  I will spend some time trying to find jokes to lighten it and, finally, in a panic for some reason or another, I will publish it anyway and then worry about it for hours – until I realise that it’s either this or the piece about my cousin’s stamp collection… 

Anyway, just so that you know, I have scheduled it and, as I do not have the faintest of ideas of how to cancel a scheduled post, it will appear on Thursday at 7 pm. A decision I am already regretting. Come on, everyone loves a stamp…

Today’s embarrassing background tune: Silly Love – 10CC

Zoo #5 – Chameleon

Somewhere in the reptile house,
Behind its swivel eyes,
The shimmering chameleon,
A master of disguise,
Just smiled a scaly sort of smile
Contented by and large:
Invisible to predators
Behind his camouflage.

Assured of his ability
To disappear from sight,
The colour-changing iguania
Looked settled for the night.
So smug until he realised
His final big mistake,
To blend in oh so subtly
With a lizard-eating snake.

I am always fascinated by the fact that animals in zoos very rarely eat one another.  All those fish in an aquarium full of sharks and you can’t tell me that at least one or two of them don’t go missing.  Reptiles (are snakes reptiles?) always seem to me to be impervious to zoo etiquette.  I remember, as a boy, wandering around a reptile house at the zoo when a keeper came along with a box of beautiful fluffy yellow chicks which he let us pet for a while before he fed them to the snakes.  I can recall the trauma today, and my feeling of uselessness at not guessing what was coming and saving at least some of them.  I don’t like snakes, but I’m not scared of them (although I’ve never actually encountered anything big and poisonous – this is England, we leave that kind of thing to Estate Agents).  I wouldn’t choose to share my life with one…

Zoom

Photo by Mauru00edcio Mascaro on Pexels.com

The whole world has become one, single Zoom generation.  Old talk to young – well, as long as the young set it up – and we have all learned to chat with an inbuilt response delay.  We have all grown used to the ‘You’re breaking up.  No, I said breaking up.  You’re… Oh, she’s gone.  I can still see her.  Has she muted?  Have you muted?  I said… Oh, she’s gone altogether now…’ conversations.  We have all grown used to having the quality of our internet connection questioned.  We have all grown used to having an in-depth conversation with a family member’s crotch; to being invited to view the contents of their nose whilst they try to sort it out.

This is the New Normal of only one strand of a conversation at a time; of waiting your turn; of finding that the relevance of what you had to say disappeared whilst Aunty Norma described the shattered condition of her bowels; of finding that your killer punch-line has just lost its feed.  It is also the time of seeing yourself as everybody else sees you: of hearing your own voice and realising quite how like an exceedingly camp country bumpkin you sound (although, maybe that’s just me).  Nobody wants to see themselves talking – it’s just not natural is it?  If God had wanted us to enjoy seeing ourselves talking, he wouldn’t have invented Michael McIntyre.  (I’m not entirely certain what I mean by that.)

Zoom has also become the go-to family quiz medium and, as a nation, perhaps as a planet, we have never needed to know what the Patagonian flag looks like as much as we have over the last few months.  Zoom has become the medium by which the Family Smart-Arse has been uncovered and reviled.  If you are that person – and you will know if you are – don’t think you can mend the damage you wreaked by accusing grandma of cheating and having the Reader’s Digest Compendium at her side, by deliberately getting the Rick Astley question wrong.  You cannot.  Being the last to close down the connection will not stop everyone talking about you.

Zoom also means that you cannot disguise the fact that you haven’t crawled out of your pyjamas all day and that you really are eating cornflakes out of Aunty Doreen’s Royal Dalton wedding present.  ‘What are you eating?’ is the general starting point of every conversation, followed by the more detailed inquisition of whether they deliver, do they charge for prawn crackers and is the batter gluten-free?   Such Zoom conversations often take wings, drifting off into questions as diverse as, ‘What did you eat yesterday?’ and ‘What are you eating tomorrow?’  It is never long before all involved are comparing gin and tonics.

The nuclear family has been dissipated and our current travails have, in some ways, dragged us back together.  Our own family Zoom evenings have resulted in gatherings of such number that the lights dim all over the village.  We get together weekly in numbers that we would have formerly gathered together only on Christmas Day – and nobody is stressed over the bread sauce, the dishwasher has not coughed thirty litres of sludge over the kitchen floor, and little Billy has not swallowed the plastic toy out of Uncle Norman’s un-pulled cracker. 

It is very odd how a pandemic, bent on driving us further apart, has actually pulled us closer together.  How we have all discovered that we can easily manage a couple of hours with the in-laws when we don’t have to actually share the same room.  How we have discovered that the grandkids understand the limitations of the internet even less than we do.  How we have all discovered that we can detect the ‘beep’ of somebody else’s dishwasher through the hubbub of twenty consecutive conversations, three different channels on the TV and the stutter of somebody’s connection as they simultaneously try to stream Game of Thrones and Love Island Revisited*.  A zoom lens makes things appear to be much closer than they actually are.  For a short time, a Zoom conversation, brings us spiritually closer.  It is the only silver lining I can find in our current cloud, but it is one we wouldn’t have had twenty years ago…

*I think I just made that up.  Unless anyone can prove otherwise, please consider it copyright.

Oh, and just to prove to James that I actually have no musical taste whatsoever, the music playing in the background as I finish this piece is Zoom by the Electric light Orchestra, and I’m not even going to apologise for it… 

Yesterday, for the first time in a long time, I had not a single view. I did not publish anything, but they are quite often my best days. Makes you think, doesn’t it? Oh well, I suppose I’ll have to keep on prattling after all…

A Little (Non) Fiction – A Salutary Lesson

Photo by Mwesigwa Joel on Unsplash

This is a true tale from my school days.  For all manner of reasons I have changed names, but the facts remain… largely factual, as it were, to the very best of my recollection – which, you may well know, is not entirely reliable.  The spirit of the recollection is entirely correct, even if the specifics are not.  It does not put any of us in a good light, but it was a salutary lesson.  It started, as most things did at school, with an argument…

One boy, a fisherman, we’ll call him Jeremy, had brought in a tin of maggots with the intention of using them during an illicit fishing trip, scheduled to occur whilst the rest of us were finding all manner of other methods with which to avoid the cross country run.  He flicked the lid open and we all looked in on the squirming technicolour mass within.  There was a general feeling of slight nausea at the nature of Jeremy’s bait, that he was prepared to carry it in his pocket all day, and most of all, that he kept it ‘fresh’ in the fridge at home.  None-the-less, interest was beginning to wane and the lid was, quite literally, being closed on the subject when Marvin piped up.
‘Why are they all different colours?’
‘They’re dyed.  To make them more appetising to the fish.’ 
Marvin eyed them doubtfully.  ‘Appetising?’ he said at last.  ‘They’re bloody disgusting.  How does dyeing them make them any more appetising?’
I could eat them…’ 

The moment. 

The voice from the back of the throng.  Norman was the class ‘quiet kid’: not bright, not academic, definitely not in any way disruptive.  Just quiet.  We all liked Norman.  The stunned silence that followed his atypical interjection was eventually broken by Marvin.
‘You wouldn’t eat one of those!’
‘I would!’  There was an unexpected defiance in Norman’s voice.
‘Bet you a quid.’
‘Make it ten,’ said the now assertive Norman.
‘Alright, but you’ve got to eat twenty – and proper chew ‘em mind.  No swallowing whole.’
‘Deal.’  They shook hands.  No turning back for either of them.  Norman looked almost sanguine, confident in his gustatory ambitions; Marvin less so.
‘Have you got a tenner?’ I asked him.
‘I’ll get it.’
‘How?’
‘We’ll sell tickets,’ he said.  ‘Fifty pence a go.  We’ll easily sell twenty.’  I looked at him doubtfully.
‘I’ll have one,’ said Paul.
‘Me too,’ said Phil.
The process had begun…

The gladiatorial arena – boy versus larvae – was set: a small, seldom used classroom, as far away from staff intervention as possible; a single desk at its centre with all other furniture pushed back against the walls.  Standing room only.

The rules were agreed:

  • The maggots must be eaten, and swallowed, individually.
  • Each maggot was to be chewed and evidence of this presented.
  • Water was available for drinking, but not for swilling.

The crowd began to assemble.  A total sell-out.  Thirty quid!  After a period of intense negotiation, it was agreed that, in view of the unforeseen demand, Norman’s share would be raised to fifteen pounds, the rest to be shared amongst the committee – set aside, if my memory serves me, for transmutation into Strongbow Cider and Park Drive filter-tipped.

Norman entered the room to muted applause – nobody wanted to attract adult attention – like a boxer, draped in his school blazer and a tea towel, just in case.  He took his seat and, with minimal fanfare, set about his quest at once.  The maggots were consumed one at a time, each demonstrably masticated, as per.  The tension that accompanied his first tiny mouthful quickly dissipated and by the time he was about half way through, the audience had started to wander off, but Norman soldiered on.  Eventually he popped the last wriggling morsel into his mouth and chomped his last chomp as Mrs Sextant, one of the less liberal of our teachers entered the room with all nostrils flaring.  She looked around in disgust.  She did not need to be appraised of the situation, we had been grassed up – presumably by some disaffected punter who had expected greater jeopardy for his cash.  We were marched off to the headmaster’s office – with just a short pause for Norman to be sick – and chastised soundly with the threat of letters to parents.

And the salutary lesson?  Well, the full thirty pounds was confiscated, to be donated, we were told, to some unspecified charity (Save the Embryonic Fly, perhaps) but its exact destination was never revealed to us – although the teachers did appear to be eating particularly luxurious biscuits on the day of our Saturday morning detention later that week…

Since writing down this little incident I have been wracking my brain to try and recall actual details: the real name of the maggot eater, I cannot with any clarity recall. The actual monetary amounts involved, ditto. The teacher who spoiled the day, ditto. The exact punishment for our misdemeanours, also ditto. Even my own specific role in proceedings remains unremembered. As for the bit with the teacher’s biscuits, I’m pretty sure I made that up – poetic licence if any of them are reading… Total fabrication, if they are just about to call a lawyer.

If you have been in any way affected by any of the events depicted in this short article, I’m terribly sorry, I don’t know what to do about it. I do not have a Helpline. The ‘boy’ suffered no long-term health effects. The maggots were less fortunate…

Zoo #4 – Wombat

Antipodean creature
That burrows underground.
Taxonomy: marsupial –
I don’t see them around.
The countryside in which I live
Is definitely not
As dry as where the wombat is
And surely not so hot.

The native aborigines
Called it a worthless beast.
Its sedentary nature
Made it a dingoes feast.
Yet the presence of its predators
Is so very strangely sparse
As all it has in its defence
Is an armour-plated arse.

It was my plan to publish just one of these a week, but seeing as you haven’t had one yet, ‘Wombat’ you said, Herb.  I cannot lie: I had to look them up.  I had heard of them, of course, but I knew nothing about them.  Like almost everything in Australia, they are very strange to anyone who doesn’t live there, but I presume even there, their method of protecting themselves in their burrows is considered somewhat… individual.

Odds and Sods – Alduous Senna, A Life and Times

Photo by Pierre Bamin on Unsplash

For those critics who love the sound of their own tortured vowels…

Even as he lay dying, an unsavoury old man in clothes roughly hewn from sanatorium blankets, felled by a halibut-wielding caretaker, high on a mixture of camphorated oil and Werther’s Originals, Senna refused to hide his contempt for the ‘Art’ that had failed to provide for any of his basic needs for almost fifty years and, turning to his long-time confidante, Layette, uttered his immortal last words, ‘Boil me and egg, Harold, and fetch my teeth from the dog – they will not bite me again.’

To trace the roots of this disdain we have to go back to his eighteenth birthday and the first real indications of a burgeoning talent.  Haunted by the butcher’s bill and a landlord who threatened to, ‘Hang him by the ears from a really tall building until he pays his rent,’ Senna put his quill to paper for the first time since leaving school:

‘Dear Mother,
This quill is very difficult to write with and leaves large blobs all over the paper.  I think it may need a point, but I cannot afford to buy one.  If I am to progress as a writer I will need something from a nobler bird.  Send money.
Love Aldy.’

One can only imagine the consternation caused by this outburst, as not a single one of his contemporaries in the so-called ‘Cellar-set’ felt it worthy of even the briefest of mentions in their own, extensive, missives.  It did, however, appear to have a totally debilitating effect upon Senna who did not feel well enough to raise a quill again for over two years. 

His first attempt at poetry was an agonising challenge to him.  Poverty forced him to drink the first gallon of ink he bought, and the only paper he was able to find came from his neighbour’s walls, none-the-less he forged on, producing his first real masterpiece – only a tiny fragment of which survives today:

‘“I must go down to the sea,” he said.  “My boat has sprung a leak.
My socks are on the mizzen mast and have been there for a week.”’

Was this an indication of his earliest yearnings for a life at sea, or merely his dissatisfaction at owning only a single pair of socks, both of which, it would appear, he had misplaced?  Whatever his reasons, it was a theme to which he was to return throughout his career.  It was a mere decade later that he produced his next work, a lyrical evocation of the lure of the sea.  Sadly, only two pages of this four thousand stanza meisterwerk survive, all but two lines of which consist of crossings-out and an oblique reference to an unpaid laundry bill:

‘And as they drifted onward ‘twixt lofty sky and shore,
He lost his favourite pair of socks and they were seen no more.’

Clearly he now owned more than one pair of socks – that is implicit in his reference to a pair that he held in higher esteem than all others.  Various experts have subsequently estimated his sock-holdings at this time as being anywhere between two and thirty seven pairs.  As always in the art world, there are dissenting voices.  Dyer, for instance, states, ‘It’s two bleedin’ lines from an unfinished ditty about an incompetent sailor.  How the hell can you calculate the contents of his sock drawer from that?  Besides,’ he goes on to add darkly, ‘We only have Senna’s word for it that the poem was ever longer than two lines in the first place.’

Without doubt, it is one of literature’s great mysteries that such a prolific writer managed to leave behind only two lines from an entire decade’s labours.  Some have postulated that his legacy may have been plundered at the time, by a bevy of less-talented contemporaries.  Perhaps we can glean some indication from a fragment of a letter that he wrote to Layette on the occasion of his thirtieth birthday:

‘I fear I must leave my rooms.  Each night I write a complete novel, sometimes a play, toiling away into the darkling hours, but each morning, the fruits of my labour disappear into the ether as I visit the bucket.  I have only my poetry for solace, but I do not know where I put it.  Send more money.’

We have nothing left of his mighty legacy from the ensuing decade.  He did, at one time claim to have written an entire novel in Sanskrit but, claims Dyer, ‘It turned out to be nothing more than The Arabian Nights written backwards, sent to a publisher who he had forgotten was Saudi Arabian.’  Senna was forced to flee, under the threat of being made overly familiar with the publisher’s Kukri, and he began his opus work You’d Better Look Behind You When You Next Walk Down a Darkened Alley Matey, the very next day:

‘I wandered lonely as an insurance salesman with halitosis
Who plies his trade from door-to-door,
And if I could find my walking socks
I’d really give you what for…’

It was as far as he got, as he reported that his quill had been stolen and it took him almost five years to locate a new duck, by which time he had quite lost his drift.  We can, however, surmise much from this literary fragment.  He was clearly a poet at the very zenith of his powers: it does not scan, it ignores all basic word structure, it barely makes sense: a man ahead of his time.  Artistic licence?  Dyer suggests he would have failed the oral.  In fact, the intrigue is deepened when we realise that this is the very last piece of work ever officially attributed to him (although Merry claimed to hold a fragment of an old shopping list).  Senna, himself, never claimed to have written a single verse from that time until his untimely death, ten years later, at the hands of an apprentice masseur with a grudge.

In reviewing Senna’s contribution to the literary riches of history, we may be forced to review Sewer’s opinion that Senna was ‘Perhaps the greatest poet never to have been Laureate,’ although few are likely to agree with Dyer’s view that he was not even the greatest poet ‘Never to have so much as a single word published.’  History, and a hefty TV advance will tell…

I barely remember writing this at all, but clearly somebody had got deeply under my skin.  As I go through it now I have a weird amalgamation of Melvyn Bragg, Brian Sewell and Will Gompertz inside my head.  It is deeply unsettling.