Tuesday 22 December 2009

A Hawker’s Christmas

Hamlet sees his father’s goat on the battlements of Elsinore.

Christmas fast approaches. The ground is frozen hard, half-moons of ice lie in hoof-marks in the lane and the hedges are stark with frost beneath a sky like aged cutlery. And here at Hawker’s Pot it is a tradition that on Christmas Eve we pull up our chairs to the fire and tell each other spine-chilling goat stories. How well I remember the tale Algernon told a few years back, a true story of a night spent bivouacked in a haunted wood. All night, at the edge of the flickering circle of firelight, the unearthly form of a goat stood between the trees. They found out next morning (from a passing stranger) that a farmer had hanged himself in that very wood and this was his goat that now had nowhere to go. Equally I remember the Reverend Hawker’s tale of the time he was benighted in the furthest reaches of his desolate parish, and accepted the invitation to spend the night in a poor labourer’s ruinous cottage. All night he was kept awake by the clanking of a chain beneath his window and the most baleful of moans. In the morning, the hale, red-cheeked inhabitants had laughed: “Oh, we didn’t tell you about the goat, did we?” And then there was the Christmas that we had the pleasure of the company of that expert in the supernatural, Geoffrey Carstairs, and he recounted a terrifying incident when he had awoken in the night and found a goat standing by his bedside. “I’ve no idea how it got in, but I shall never forget the expression on its face as it observed me with those evil rectangular eyes, and how it moved its jaw from side to side, as if thinking a thought too terrible for humanity, a thought as cold and deep and horrible as space! I lay there, rigid, unmoving, with ice in my veins. Finally it spoke ... it spoke its dread message that had brought it here ... ‘me-eh,’ it began, and, ‘me-eh,’ again. Urgent, insistent, loud, that voice rang out, but never could it get beyond this first awful syllable. Finally, it turned tail and cantered out. But I tell you, the greatest horror was reserved till last: for ... oh! ... fiend of fiends! ...at the end of its legs were ... goats’ hooves!”

But this year I have been deep in books and have found a story to make their blood run cold: a story by one of our greatest English writers, the tale of an innocent old man menaced horribly by goats in his own home. Yes, this year, I shall chill their spines by reading them Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and they shall hear of The Goat of Christmas Past, The Goat of Christmas Present and The Goat of Christmas Yet to Come. Brrr! Terrifying. If anyone thinks they can tell a more scare-inducing story this Christmas, I tell them they don’t stand a goat of a chance!

A Merry Christmas to ye all.

Wednesday 9 December 2009

The Travels

All has been quiet of late in the halls of Hawker’s Pot. The clangour of pun-making has not rung out for many days. The reason for it is this: the Reverend Jones has returned from his travels and we at Hawker’s Pot have been busy in a back room, turning his memories into handy, pocket-sized books. Yea, Algernon has been cutting and folding, the Reverend Hawker has been stitching and gluing, while Henry the raven has hopped around the room with lengths of thread and elastic in his beak, emitting every now and then a sonorous cark!

Details: 80 countries, 72 pages, 104 sentences, 35 illustrations, (£12.50 inc p&p inside the UK)

Note handy elastic strap. Snappy.

A new kind of joke, I think.

Outside it is drear December, the cold rain always. In our little lighted backroom we might as well be the last people on earth, riding in the Ark on a muddy sea. If you’d like a copy of Travels, please contact us through our Profile and we will tell you where to send a cheque.

Wednesday 18 November 2009

The Wisdom of Hawker's Pot #3

We are all made of stars, but some of us are looking in the gutter.

Crashaw's Diary (part vii)

Thursday 17th November

A Mr Hardacre visiting. Mr Hardacre is very taken with the latest scientific ideas of Darwin and Wallace, and expatiated on them to us over tea. However, as time went on we found it hard to shift him from his single subject. Whatever we talked about, were it cabbages, horses, even members of our congregation, he returned always to his burden that everything exists solely to breed copies of itself. Even the beautiful canna lily that Margaret brought in became a text for him, and he informed us that its sole purpose was to produce more lilies, and that this was how evolution moved on. “Oh, fie,” cried Mr Jenkins, “you would not leave a single thing in the world beautiful for its own sake!” I rather agreed with him.

After tea, I accompanied the Miss Milligans home. It was already twilight, the road was shadowy and the first stars were out. Suddenly we heard the clear call of an owl from a dark clump of trees across the road. “That owl,” I said, “has only one thing on its mind. It called simply to attract a mate.” “For shame, Mr Crashaw,” said the older Miss Milligan, “you have quite gone over to Mr Hardacre’s side.” However, I insisted: “That is the sole reason it called out. To wit, to woo.”

I swung my stick in the gloom and felt the day had turned out rather well, after all. Without another word, the Miss Milligans trudged on through the twilight.

Thursday 5 November 2009

The Wisdom of Hawker's Pot #2

The Police Force are sometimes accused of over-reacting, but never the Fire Brigade.

Crashaw's Diary (part vi)

Tuesday, 1st November
On my way to C--- today I glanced in at the graveyard, and who should I see but Frank, apparently unconscious on a seat. All around him were hung the vivid hues of autumn, and the graveyard presented a most affecting scene, with the fallen leaves piled up thickly against the mouldering gravestones of the many generations who had found their final rest. The sun was bright and the air like glass, and as I approached Frank I was struck by how pale he looked. Hearing me draw near, he opened his eyes. “Three nights!” he exclaimed. “For three nights I have not slept. And all that time the final line eluded me.” I must have looked puzzled (indeed I was) for he continued: “The Sonnet from the Portuguese. Don’t you remember? You said I should write a new ending to it! And now I have it!” If I was impressed by his commitment to the ardours of his craft, then I was all the more impressed when he stood up and declaimed:

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of everyday's
Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints -- and after my last breath
If God choose, shall love thee more in Heaven.
How many ways? I make that about seven.

I told Frank it certainly was an improvement.

As we were leaving I was reminded what an unaccountable fellow Frank is. He stopped for a moment and swished his cane dismissively as he cast his eye over the scene in the graveyard, the graves under a thick carpet of autumn leaves. “That lot,” he said, “they’re never going to achieve much, are they?”

Friday 30 October 2009

The Wisdom of Hawker's Pot #1

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, so do be careful.

Crashaw's Diary (part v)

The story so far: Philip Crashaw is the Curate to the Rev. Arthur Jenkins in a Country Parish in Dorset. The year is 1870.

Saturday, 29th October
A great expedition to view the prospect from B--- Knoll, in the company of Mrs Jenkins, Frank, and the Misses Milligan. On the way back we passed the vicarage at S----, with its elm-shaded garden and ancient yew hedges. Our day of walking had relaxed our spirits somewhat and I said to Miss Milligan that I hoped that one day I would live in a vicarage just such as that. There is something about Miss Milligan’s brown eyes and her direct open manner that encourages one to share one’s thoughts. It must have seemed like presumption on my part, however, because she gave me a meaning look and replied, quite shortly, “Yes, no doubt it is a favourite reverie of yours.”

But – oh Lord! – how foolish I am! It is only now, in writing it down that I realise she was making a joke. How dull I must have appeared! The rest of the journey passed in silence, while Miss Milligan darted occasional reproving glances at me.

Wednesday 21 October 2009

Researchers at the School of Botanical Theology have proved that the serpent knew exactly what he was doing when he persuaded Eve to taste the apple, that he explicitly intended to bring death into the world (to Eve and all her descendants), and that it was a clear case of malus aforethought.*
*Malus domestica: apple
Malus malus: bad apple
Malleus Maleficarum: Vatican guide to apple-bobbing

Thursday 15 October 2009

L’Esprit d’Escalier



Stairtrek: The Older Generation

These are the voyages of the Stairship Enterprise: Its five year mission: To boldly go where no man has gone before, one step at a time.

Captain’s log, Stairdate 4523.3. The crew continue to complain about how many stairs there are on this ship. “None of us are getting any younger”, they say. “And it’s hell on the hips and knees”. In the afternoon we received a Mayday call from Mr Scott and Mr Spock. They were stuck on the seventh staircase, intermediate flight, fifteenth step, to Poop Hatch Deck 9, deferred. “For heaven’s sake,” said Mr Scott, when they were brought in, “it’s the 23rd century. You’d have thought they’d have come up with something better than stairs by now!” “It is my belief,” interjected Mr Spock, “that some of these staircases lead nowhere at all. Who designed this spaceship anyway? ...

Doris Day in a Piranesi prison. She does not care that she must spend her days among wretches dressed in rags, among awful engines, dreadful abutments, pulleys, beams, levers, chains – and oh! those endless staircases. No, with her unwearying fatalism, she climbs those never-ending stairs, and as she trudges she sings: Carceri, -ceri.

(Excuse my flights of fancy.)

The Human Condition

From starry-eyed youth to stary-eyed madman, 'tis but a short distance.

Going out or staying in? he wondered.
The shimmering carpet of stars vs. the stair carpet,
The mysterious starlight vs. the stairlight.


The Stannah Starlift

The moon landing.

Monday 12 October 2009

The Casebook of Carstairs, the Ghost Finder (part i)

Of course, I had come across such manifestations of evil before. How could I forget the case of the Whispering Voice? That little voice in the darkness, as cold and horrible as the grave, that whispered endless “What do you get?” jokes. “What do you get if you cross a sheep with a kangaroo?” “What do you get if you cross a cat with a parrot?” Any person who spent the night in the room was found the next morning to be incurably insane. I quickly discovered that the normal spiritual defences were to no avail. When I made the sign of the cross, it laughed horribly and said: “What do you get if you cross yourself?”. I gritted my teeth and replied: “The reasons I cross myself are different from the ones you suppose.” “Tell me,” demanded the tiny voice, as icy as the polar wastes. “No,” I said, “for then we should be talking at cross-purposes.” There was an awful sobbing in the dark. Then and there I took my opportunity and cursed the spirit back to hell.

But this was the worst manifestation I had seen, in all my born days. In the dusty passage from the charnel vault, a dreadful Pun was forming. I stopped by the partly open door through which I had meant to thrust myself and watched, gripped with terror, as the Pun -- horrible, homonymic, inimical to good sense -- began to manifest itself. I can hardly express it – as I stared, paralysed with fear, two separate meanings seemed to move minutely closer together. And, as is the wont of these awful eldritch entities, they threatened at any moment to mingle their senses into one uncanny form, and create a Contradiction, or a double-entendre, or, worst of all, a Nonsense.

And yet, as the two meanings drew ever closer together, Time and Space were weirdly altered – Space became Time, if you like! – and down the gloomy subterranean corridor, like the vista of a thousand silent years, I could make out the actual body of the Joke approaching. For as the two meanings had drawn closer together, their electrical current had animated the most ancient charnel dust into the actual form the Joke would take. And as I saw this ancient stumbling form of horror approaching the very door next to which I stood, it came to me where I had heard tell of that Joke before. It was surely in the arcane volume of Opie and Opie, amidst the descriptions of weird chants and many-centuried rituals*. And then, just as this ancient creature reached the partly open door, I knew what I had to do. I said:

“You might make a joke on that -- something about ‘ajar’ and ‘a jar’, you know.”
The Pun stopped. Its mouth gaped open. It said:
“I ... er ... er ...”

Now, fatally robbed of its strength, the Pun was irresistibly drawn backwards down the drear vaulted corridor, down the empty whispering millennia, back to its original resting place among dust and bones, as the two un-connected meanings of “ajar” drew apart and wilted on the ancient paving. I muttered the solemn words of the Sealing Ceremony and made the accompanying magic passes. And it was then that my nerves gave out, and my whole being shook, for I knew I had been in the presence of one of the Old Ones.

* Opie and Opie, The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (1959)

Sunday 4 October 2009

Death of Sardineapalus

(after the painting by Delacroix, based on a piece of Romantic writhing by George Gordon, Lord Byron.)

Thursday 1 October 2009


In his autobiographical work, The Prelude, William Wordsworth describes how, as a boy, he one night stole a shepherd’s boat and rowed it out into the middle of a lake. Above his point of departure there rose “a rocky steep” and it was upon the top of this cliff – beyond which “Was nothing but the stars and the grey sky” – that Wordsworth fixed his view as he pulled on the oars. Wordsworth rowed on, congratulating himself on his technique ...

... When from behind that craggy Steep, till then
The bound of the horizon, a huge Cliff,
As if with voluntary power instinct,
Upreared its head. I struck and struck again,
And growing still in stature, the huge Cliff
Rose up between me and the stars, and still,
With measured motion, like a living thing,
Strode after me.

Wordsworth writes that this spectacle affected his mind for many days, creating in it a sense of “solitude ... [and] blank desertion” and dark visions of “mighty forms that do not live Like living men”. I don’t know why I mention it, except that attention is often drawn to Wordsworth’s use of the double negative, but this is the poet’s only use of a double bluff.

Friday 25 September 2009

Could it be that the softer impact of his feet on the lawn gave rise to extremely fanciful notions in the man’s brain, while the harder impact of his feet on the gravel of the paths jolted it back to better sense? This is what Denniston found himself wondering as he walked beside Turing through the park. And yet, the brilliance of his practical suggestions far outweighed any of the weaknesses of his more fanciful ones; so that when Turing finally turned to Denniston and asked him what he thought, Denniston replied “I find your ideas are convincing in the aggregate.”

Tuesday 22 September 2009

Crashaw's Diary (part iv)

Wednesday 21st September
Mr Jenkins’ brother Frank came over to see me today, arriving in a mood of great excitement such as I had never seen in him before. He said he had written a new version of an old hymn and wanted my opinion of it. He unfolded a piece of paper from his pocket and laid it in front of me:

When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of Glory died
It’s ten feet high and six across
The beams are eighteen inches wide

The beams are in cross-section square,
Their surface flat, and without bevel;
It’s raised up perpendicular
Two thousand feet above sea-level ...

I told Frank it moved me in ways I could hardly describe. He spoke excitedly about Wordsworth, his exactness, his factual nature and said that this was what he wanted to bring to his new modern up-dated hymns. Suddenly his eye alighted on a copy of Sonnets from the Portuguese on my bookshelf. “This infuriates me!” he exclaimed, snatching it up, “the one that begins ‘How do I love thee? let me count the ways’

I asked him why.

“Because she doesn’t tell you. She doesn’t tell you how many ways! By the end of the sonnet she’s completely forgotten she’s meant to be counting and starts talking about Death and God and candlelight!” He slammed his hand down on the table. “She should have ended it with the exact number, so we knew.”

I suggested to Frank that he might want to write a new version of the sonnet and he went off happy with the suggestion. I tried to carry on writing my sermon but wasted some time trying to count exactly in how many ways EBB loved her husband. About nine, I decided.

Thursday 17 September 2009

Crashaw's Diary (part iii)

Thursday 8th September
Today I saw Lizzie Harvey tripping down the hillside in the cool autumn air. Her motion in the sunlight reminded me of things in the bright underwater, as if she moved rippling through a more buoyant element. Her feet struck the ground with the lightest of blows, like a string of gentle puns all on the same subject as she stepped down the hillside. Raising her arms as she went, each white forearm was like a humorous poem, starting at the firm foundation of her elbow, and moving up through her slender wrist to the most fanciful conclusions, the tips of her gay fingers. And then, as she drew closer, here were the fine line of her nose, those dark eyelashes that “keep a lid” on her warm humorous eyes, her dusting of freckles, her anecdotal chin. I waited for her at the road and she greeted me warmly.

I accompanied her some of the way to K--- and we talked of their farm’s drainage problems. At times I barely could speak for feeling. As we were parting she clasped my hand warmly and asked: Would I think of her sometimes? I assured her I would.

Oh Lizzie! Lizzie! I will think of you in the morning when the rising sun wakes the little puns on the branches, and the little jokes start in the wet, dewy grass. Oh, my dear Lizzie! I will think of you then.

Friday 11 September 2009

Crashaw’s Diary (part ii)

The story so far: Philip Crashaw is the Curate to the Rev. Arthur Jenkins in a Country Parish in Dorset. The year is 1870.

Saturday 27th August
A memorable evening as I accompanied Mr and Mrs Jenkins and the Misses Milligan to a concert in the Guildhall in B--. Mr Jenkins’ younger brother Frank is visiting from Chippenham and came too. All the way in the carriage Frank complained bitterly about the programme of music we were to listen to: he said that he only wanted to listen to music that stirred the "grandest emotions", the music of Brahms and such – not string quartets from a hundred years ago.

When we arrived the Guildhall looked splendid, the chandeliers sparkling with a thousand stars and casting a warm glow over the crowd. Soon the musicians took to the stage, looking very impressive in their tailcoats. A delicious hush fell. Then --- what a splendid programme we were treated to, including a string quartet by Haydn. How that immortal composer’s music speaks to me! That feeling of getting things done, of sheer good nature and handiness: to me, it was quite incomparable.

On the way back, Frank continued to complain about the music, until Mr Jenkins said (rather irritably) that, if Frank had known all along that he would not enjoy the programme of music, then he should not have come. To which Frank replied that he had merely wanted an evening out, and that was all.

“But, dear Frank,” I said, “to come to an evening of eighteenth century music while knowing that you would not enjoy it, surely you knew you were on a Haydn to nothing.”

Frank offered nothing in reply but, as a stray beam from a lantern entered the carriage, I noticed the younger Miss Milligan regarding me with a serious air.

Friday 4 September 2009

A Match Made in Heaven

That night in the crowded bar of Boyle’s Hotel was the first time they saw each other. Their faces lit up and they just knew. She was Phillumena Tinderwood, daughter of a prosperous, I mean, phosphorous merchant. He was Al Lumette, night club pianist and professional gambler. “Strike a light!” he muttered. There and then they struck up an acquaintance.

Tinderwood Senior, of course, was dead set against the match. He had brought up his daughter to sit in a box at the Opera, not to run with the common pack you find in nightclubs. He had even engaged the services of a matchmaker. He summoned his daughter to him. “I’m not letting you run off with shome hothead,” he slurred, after his third whiskey. “That damn fellow’sh leading you ashtray.”

But she wouldn’t listen. She was a fiery little thing.

There was a fellow called Blaze Carpenter who did odd jobs for Mr Tinderwood. He was a macho type who’d known Phillumena from a little girl and had always carried a torch for her. So when Tinderwood sent Blaze photographs of Phillumena kissing Al, he spluttered with rage. He raced down to the cheap hotel where they were staying and threatened Al. “Be careful!” gasped Phillumena, “he’s a strike-anywhere type!” But Al was a match for anyone, and quickly laid him out. “Who sent you?” Al demanded. “Spill!”

Out in the glorious moonlight, Al waxed lyrical to Phillumena. “Some burn brightly for a little while,” he murmured, “but others’ lives just taper off.”

“Oh, Al,” sighed Philly, “I’m so happy I could burst into flame.”

But Al’s old trouble was flaring up. Safety had to be their first concern: the fast life was no longer for them. They married a few days later and chose for their honeymoon a spa hotel in the mountains where they would not be disturbed – a cool, dry place away from children.

(next time: after this light romance, a lighter romance.)

Monday 10 August 2009

Apologies, but ...

Due to work commitments (weddings, christenings, defrockings) there will be no new Hawker's Pot for the coming few weeks. Apologies. Normal service will be resumed towards the end of August.

Wednesday 29 July 2009

Crows in Rows

This is one of our favourite times of year at Hawker’s Pot, when rangy young crows come out on the lawn with their parents. These young crows, though barely distinguishable from their elders, still seem to find flying a bit of a trial: when the parents lift up lazily for a short-hop flight to somewhere else on the lawn, the youngsters all peg it along the ground after them. It puts a smile on our faces, as we set down our thesauri and dictionaries for a moment and watch them. But then, by the next time we look up, the whole family has disappeared again into the green secrecy of the trees.

While we're on the subject ...

Friday 24 July 2009

Crashaw’s Diary (part i)

The story so far: Philip Crashaw is the Curate to the Rev. Arthur Jenkins in a Country Parish in Dorset. The year is 1870.

Friday, 22 July
All afternoon a joke seemed to hover just beyond my grasp, almost like a fairy thing. It was there in the room with me, yet I could not see it. It danced in the corners of my eyes. I even drew the curtains at one point and sat there with my eyes closed, as I imagined Milton might have done in the throes of composition. In the end, I had to resign myself to Sunday’s sermon not having a joke in it.

After tea I walked out into the garden. The hollyhocks tall and lovely, over-towering the dark hedge, and a little cloud over the woods. The sky all burnished and golden. And there it was! The joke I had been searching for so assiduously all afternoon. As if it was a thing of the garden, to be plucked by the hand! What a strange thing inspiration is!

Sunday, 24 July
After lunch Mr Jenkins, that dear kind man, asked me to come to his study. Very sweetly he broached the subject of my propensity to make jokes. Sermons not the natural home of jokes, he suggested. I suspect he felt as uncomfortable as I did, and we fell silent for a while. We discussed the importance of a man in my position having a hobby. The intimate study of Nature, for instance, or the keeping of a Journal. He was concerned that if I gave in to my tendency to make puns, there was a danger that it might become a compulsion. I agreed, and said I wondered how to cure it.

The yellow rim of the old moon trembling above the dark wood. Stars.

Friday 17 July 2009

Literary Adaptation no 3

No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. No one gave a thought to the older worlds of space as sources of human danger, or thought of them only to dismiss the idea of life upon them as impossible or improbable. Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely laid their puns against us.

(adapted from H.G.Wells The War of the Worlds)

Tuesday 14 July 2009

Every night as the young poet sat down to work on his verses a little voice spoke encouraging words to him from the cupboard. “You are a great poet. An epic poem on the subject of retail outlets is a great idea! You can rhyme manages with sandwiches!” His pen nib scratched, his eyes rolled frenziedly. (He began to believe his own press.)

While we're on the subject ...

... may we at Hawker's Pot present a poem by the above?

The Conjunction

It flies by night. It drinks no blood
From horrid gaping bloody cut.
It hunts its hapless victim down
Then lets her go. It is a vampire but.

Friday 10 July 2009

A brief history of Jokes (Part VI)

It was the Romantic Era. When it was sunny, it was sunny in a mellow, hazy kind of way. When it was stormy, it was really stormy. And as soon as it was night the moon blinked out from behind ragged clouds which raced across the sky, while shadows shuddered and trees hissed in the high wind. It was never quiet unless there was a hard frost.

The year 1797 brought together two young men who had independently been struggling to develop a new kind of humour that befitted the extreme weather of the epoch. Their names were Wordsworth and Coleridge. Coleridge had been working as a politically-minded stand-up, playing clubs in places as far afield as Bristol, Sheffield and Manchester. The quieter Wordsworth had been writing character-based comic pieces, featuring every variety of broken-down person and building. Now in an extraordinary year of collaboration, the two young men would develop a host of comical characters, and immortalise them in memorable stand-up routines.

One of their most successful creations was the extremely garrulous character, who it was impossible to get away from once he started talking (Coleridge, “The Ancient Mariner”, Wordsworth, “Tintern Abbey”). Then, there was the pedantic mathematician who, in the routine “We Are Seven”, encounters a child who claims that she is one of seven children, despite the fact that two of them are dead! This routine was a great favourite when performed by Wordsworth in the folk clubs of Bridgwater. There would be howls of laughter as the pedant tried to prove to the child that her maths was faulty:

‘How many are you then,’ said I,
If they two are in Heaven?’
The little Maiden did reply,
‘O Master! we are seven.’

Finally the pedant would lose his temper with the child. Contemporary accounts report that Wordsworth would mime comical exasperation at this point, clenching his fists and jumping up and down on the stage:

‘But they are dead; those two are dead!
Their spirits are in heaven!’
‘Twas throwing words away; for still
The little Maid would have her will,
And said, ‘Nay, we are seven!’

Then, before the gales of laughter subsided, Wordsworth would move swiftly into a routine featuring a pedantic land-surveyor. In this, the land-surveyor recounts a stirring tale of betrayal, madness and infanticide, while all the time giving very exact measurements of everything in the locality.

But already, Wordsworth and Coleridge had plans to move beyond the sketch format and nurtured hopes to become the Galt and Simpson of their age. Together they were working on a sitcom to be called “The Pedlar”, in which a pedlar (or mean hawker of wares) travels through a mountainous neighbourhood, dispensing philosophical gems and encountering many humorous characters and situations. But like so much of their planned collaboration, it was never to see fruition.

For, sitting on a hillside and watching the sun sinking over the Bristol Channel on those long summer evenings, the two men did not know that their year of wonders was soon to end. The years that followed were to bring misery, addiction and much tedious moralising. Coleridge would spend long years seeking out a glory that had passed, trying to reconstitute a perfect pun from the metaphysical works of Immanuel Kant. Meanwhile, a gloom would settle over the work of Wordsworth which would stifle every impulse to humour. (Even when he worked on a lengthy preamble to “The Pedlar” it would prove to be almost entirely joke-free.)

For the two men could not know the identity of the planet they marvelled at each summer evening as it followed the track of the blazing sun into the sea. They could not know that for much of human history it was a planet that was hidden behind the sun. Nor could they know of the mystery of its influence on the world of men or that, after the summer of 1798, it would once more return to its hiding place. The spark would be lost, and for the rest of the age Romanticism would devote itself to landscape painting, tragedy and high emotion.

Tuesday 7 July 2009

Pathetic Epithets #4

Here at Hawker’s Pot we are assembling a circulating library for those who like a little bit of gentle swearing with their literature. So far our catalogue includes:

A Child’s Blooming Garden of Verses

To the Blinking Lighthouse

The Dashed Charge of the Light Brigade and other poems

Foxe’s Book of Bleeding Martyrs

The Darned Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

Under the Flaming Volcano

The Family Encyclopaedia of Ruddy Health

The Book of Blasted Space Travel

The Moon and Flipping Sixpence

The Red Shoes and other Bally Stories

Suggestions for further titles for the catalogue would be gratefully received.

Thursday 2 July 2009

Literary Adaptation no 2

Whatever trouble there was and strife, however much uneasiness and pain, no matter what tears were shed, what sorrows borne, the peace of Hawker’s Pot could not be broken. The old quiet moss smell would linger in the air, and bees would come, and crickets, and herons build their nests in the deep dark woods. There would be quips and repartee still, and the hard white buds of the inevitable puns unfolding slow and tight beneath the dining-room window. It would lie always in a hollow like an enchanted thing, guarded by its jokes, safe, secure, while the laughter broke and ran and came again in the little shingle bays below.

(adapted from du Maurier: Rebecca)

Tuesday 30 June 2009

Pathetic Epithets #3

The signals post on the left flank had been abandoned and now a herd of cows had wandered into the field. Now the cows were tapping out messages in Morse code: -- --- --- -- --- ---. Then a troupe of Buddhists chased the cows out of the field, captured the transmitter and started sending messages of their own: --- -- --- --. “I’m getting a bit fed up with these dashed messages,” said General Shankley.

Thursday 25 June 2009

Tudor Times

Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn were having a face-off. Catherine said: “Don’t think you can just amble in here and steal my husband from me.” “Let me tell you, Catherine,” replied Anne, in a wheezy Spanish accent, “you are a-gone from here pretty soon!” Henry, hiding behind a box hedge, chuckled.

Tuesday 23 June 2009

A brief history of Jokes (Part V)

The Age of Chivalry was a particularly poor one for jokes. Much of this was down to the fact that people in medieval times responded to everything with the exclamations “Ha!”, “Aha!” and “Ah!” (See the works of Sir Thomas Malory, passim.)

In those days, however, “Ha!” was more likely to mean “I’m going to chop your head off!” than to register enjoyment of a joke.

It was not a good time for jokes.

There was one glimmer of hope. The mysterious vessel Hawker’s Pot was sometimes glimpsed gliding through dark woods, in hermitages, and once in the great hall at Camelot. It dispensed its gifts to those who were most worthy. After it appeared at Camelot, many were the knights of the Round Table who set off on the Quest of Hawker’s Pot. Most were unsuccessful; but a few achieved the Quest and returned to the Court of King Arthur. But to enquiries as to what had been revealed to them – of puns, paragrams and paronomasia -- there was nothing they could say to their King and brother knights except:

Friday 19 June 2009

Pathetic Epithets #2

Poor Rochester tossed and turned and could not sleep. He was a passionate man but once more he was on his own. For where was Jane? (With flipping St John Rivers and his blooming sisters.) And where was Bertha? (On the flaming stairs.)

Tuesday 16 June 2009

Pathetic Epithets #1

Where was everybody? The King was expected at any moment. Lady M wrung her hands in despair. Where were the soldiers? (In the flipping guardroom.) Where were the serving men? (In the blimming wine cellar.) Come to that, where was her husband? (On the blasted heath.)

While we're on the subject ...

... these crows have something to show you.

(Please click on image for larger version.)

(Not hooded crows, I know, but it's an English company acting.)

Thursday 11 June 2009

A brief history of Jokes (Part IV)

The Improbable World of the Unexplained, or The Incredible World of the Unbelievable, or The Unexplained World of the Inexplicable ...

If we meekly accept the knowledge that the Egyptologists serve up to us, ancient Egypt appears suddenly and without transition with a fantastic ready-made supply of jokes. Great gags and endless anecdotes, colossal “I say I say” jokes with tremendous expressive power, splendid streets flanked by magnificent snarky asides, perfect drainage systems, luxurious catchphrases carved out of the living rock, puns of magnificent stature – these and many other wonderful things shot out of the ground, so to speak.

But there are too many problems connected with the technology of the ancient Egyptian joke-builders and no genuine solutions. How did the people of a primitive civilisation gain the knowledge to crack such awesome jokes? Why did they transport the material for their jokes over such vast distances? When it comes to that, how was this material cut out of the quarries, without ever having the appearance of being laboured? And then how were these colossal jokes set up and seamlessly joined together to the eight millionth of a millimetre?

Of course, there is a wealth of explanations for anyone to choose from, including, naturally, the labour of many hundreds of thousands of Egyptian slaves. But none of these explanations stand up to a critical examination! The fact remains that no modern joke-maker, even with the resources of reference books from the local library, could knock out a joke quite like the best of the Egyptians.

Is it really too much to suppose that the ancient Egyptians and others of their ilk gained their knowledge from visitors from space? Again and again we find evidence of the cultures of primitive societies receiving inexplicable boosts in antiquity. Mysterious artefacts that can only be explained as apparatus for jokes abound. (The archaeologists, of course, have other explanations.) But let us look at the evidence with open eyes. What are we to make of formations of vitrified rock in Peru, witness surely to a cataclysmic joke in pre-history? Of accounts of ancient cities destroyed by flashes of blinding wit, and of others sinking beneath the waves, fraught with punning? Of the statues on Easter Island, with their famously long faces? Or, the most significant fact of all, that in the art of primitive people from places as far between as North America and Sweden, Patagonia and the Sahara, we find carved again and again those symbols – the bed-warming pan, the cufflinks, the coddled egg– associated with that mysterious planet, Hawker’s Pot?

(note: paragraphs 1-3 and parts of paragraph 4 are adapted from Chapter 3 "The Improbable World of the Unexplained" in Chariots of the Gods? by Erich von Daniken)

Wednesday 10 June 2009


Emperor Constantine XI, the last emperor of Byzantium, stood on a balcony looking westwards over the Bosporus. He sighed. “Sooner or later,” he said, “they will rediscover the lost arts and sciences of Greece and Rome. The invention of moveable metal type will mean that ideas will spread faster than anything we can imagine. Meanwhile, exploration overseas will increase prosperity and lead to a new sense of man’s place in the world.”
“Yes,” replied the Archimandrite, sadly, “it’s an Occident waiting to happen.”

Wednesday 27 May 2009

A brief history of Jokes (Part III)

Civilisation began, and the civilisations of the Sumerians, Akkadians, and Babylonians, swiftly succeeded each other. Nothing remains of their jokes. As Erich von Daniken sagely points out, “[Nature] allows dressed blocks of stone to survive for 5,000 years [but not] the thickest iron girders.” What hope then for jokes? However, judging from the remains of their monuments and inscriptions, it all looked like a great deal of fun.

Around 1500 BCE God decided it would be a good idea to get involved in religion, and institute monotheism. It would make everything a lot simpler, He thought. Accordingly, He revealed himself to Moses in the form of the Burning Bush, and at the same time created the World’s first Knock Knock joke. The Lord called out of the midst of the bush, saying Moses, Moses. And Moses replied:

Who’s there?
God: I am.
Moses: I am Who?
God: I am Who I am.

The Word could not believe it! He’d been hanging around with God for millions upon millions of years and he’d never even suspected He had a sense of humour. And then He goes and pulls one out of the hat like that! Absolutely unbelievable.

Unfortunately, after this shining start, monotheism didn’t live up to its promise. It ended up being lots of rules and regulations. A lot of telling people what to do, and no jokes.

But what did you say? ... Egypt? Have I forgotten to mention the incredible explosion of jokes that was ancient Egypt? Where lotus flowers bloomed in quiet pools while the construction of enormous jokes went on day and night out in the desert? Where thousands of slaves hauled vast blocks of stone to be fitted together into the seamless jokes that still fascinate us thousands of years later? Where every detail of their jokes (set-up, digression, punchline) was carved in mysterious hieroglyphics and sealed in dark passages as pledges for eternity? And where the statues of the Pharaohs have the quiet look and flickering smile of someone who knows a very good joke but isn’t going to tell you just yet?

No, I have not forgotten Egypt.

Friday 22 May 2009

The other guests at the dinner party were all specialists of one kind or another. There was an archaeologist, a meteorologist, and a sociologist. And poor old Steve. He tried to keep up with conversation, to get the gist.

A brief history of Jokes (Part II)

More millions of years passed. The tiny shrew-like creatures in the trees turned into ape-like creatures, with a keen sense of sight, prehensile hands and a rubbish sense of smell. These ape-like creatures then came down from the trees, stood up on two legs, and developed ever more complicated vocalisations with which to communicate. It was the Dawn of jokes.

Surprisingly, the very earliest jokes appear to have been puns. In 1976 palaeontologists discovered the first evidence of puns as imprints in volcanic ash at Laetoli in Tanzania. These two tracks of punning, running side by side, were dated as 3.6 million years old and estimated to have been made by individuals, one 140, the other 120 centimetres tall.

However, the archaeological record for much of the Palaeolithic is notoriously thin on jokes. When we reach the Neolithic it becomes evident that puns have gone out of fashion and been replaced by the simpler joke of pointing at one thing and calling it something else. The plentiful evidence of artefacts allows for many entertaining reconstructions of this kind of joke:

(pointing to an aurochs): “ha ha ha mammoth !”
“ha ha !”
(pointing to a tree): “ha ha ha reindeer !”
“ha ha !”
(pointing): “Cave Bear!”
“ha ha !”
“No! Cave Bear!”
“aaa ... aaaah !!”

Meanwhile, in a stunning example of parallel evolution, crows were developing their own sense of humour. Of course, these jokes cannot be translated. (Just as, according to Wittgenstein, if a lion was to tell us a joke, we wouldn't actually understand it.*) Pictured are some of the highlights in the development of jokes among crows:

One result of this was that, as he listened in the evening to the cawing of crows and rooks around his encampments, Early Man would always have the feeling that someone, somewhere, knew a better joke than he did.

(*Alternatively, we might roar with laughter.)