Madazine - Part Five

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Humor  |  House: Booksie Classic
A further batch of crazy articles on various subjects.

Submitted: January 14, 2017

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Submitted: January 14, 2017




Test Match Extra-Special

We’re now able to return to Lord’s, where a resumption of play in the test match between England and Australia is imminent. Your commentators are Andrew Kipp, Tim Winter, David Smith and John Knackton. So, over to Kippers, Winters, Smithers and . . . John Knackton.

Welcome to our BBC long wave audience. We expect a re-start in ten minutes, and perhaps it is appropriate that we have that period available to us, as we were just discussing a letter we have received from a listener in Sri Lanka. I think the best thing I can do is pass on this short, fascinating communication in full. It reads:

Dear Gentletators

I am a British expatriate, long resident here in Colombo and an avid follower of Test Match Special. Your recent comments concerning unusual events in cricket reminded me that I have in my files a note handed to me by my local garage owner and mechanic, Mr Roshan Bhattericharga, who received it many years ago from a mariner in Trincomalee. This document describes a number of oddities, beginning with strange dismissals. I am aware that there are various ways in which a batsman may be returned to the pavilion. However, the above-mentioned paper relates a few weird ones, not included in the standard list. First, there is the case of one Percy Whelkin of Hove, who in 1891 threw a large net over the slips and was adjudged out ‘enmeshing the field’. Second, a certain Norman Gung of Market Drayton – the non-striker at the time – was sent packing in circumstances I would prefer not to relate, the verdict being ‘handled the umpire’.

Another case involved Yorkshireman Tom Longpiece, who scored eight runs by wedging a ball under his chin, from where it finally spilled out ahead of him to hit the stumps, producing a self-run-out. There are other odd cases, but I will note only that of Thomas Spoon of Middlesex, who in 1902 used his bat to smite the wicket-keeper in the groin, then on the head, and was deemed to have ‘hit fielder twice’.

The fragment in my possession also refers to remarkable bowlers. One of these was Somerset paceman Alfred Twinge, whose method was to approach the bowling crease at a right-angle to the batsman, releasing the ball sideways across his chest at the last instant. Apparently, this action failed to deceive the opposition, as ‘Sidearm’ Twinge took no wickets during a one-match career in which he bowled twelve overs, conceding two-hundred and eight runs. It seems that another practitioner of the bizarre was William ‘Donkey’ Broat of Derbyshire, whose technique was to lob the ball skywards (he bowled only when the Sun was high behind him) hoping to land it on the bails. According to the note, his ‘success’ was limited to incapacitating four batsmen, all of them receiving head injuries from balls while rearing backwards in attempts to execute hooks over long leg.

 I would like to know whether any of these cases can be authenticated.

Yours sincerely

Malcolm Softwick

Many thanks to our correspondent for giving us much to discuss. We shall look into this contribution as time permits, but now to more imminent matters. Play is about to continue.

* * *

Third Reply From Planet X To Emissary

Dear Dweedles

Your third rambling report received. No wonder your resources need frequent boosting. You use far too much power on pointless invective. We would have arranged extra facilities long ago, but you’d have frittered them away by sounding off. We know you are partial to equations, so please note that capacity for loquacity equals mendacity. Yes, we have been boning up – is that the right expression? – on English. In case you are as far adrift linguistically as psychologically, the observation implies that fibbers are inclined to smother their falsehoods under an avalanche of words. You will recall that your friend Dwinkles once went on a jaunt like yours and, in order to extend it, reported to us what we later learned was a tissue of lies. Though we are not suggesting that you are culpable of the same conduct at present, we advise frequent self-appraisal. Would it help if we were to dispatch a top shrink to give you a good going-over?

We were well aware of the dangers of sending you out alone, but couldn’t afford to support two voyagers at the time. We can now (even separately), so note that one way or another you must accept assistance. If you are not prepared to confront a psychiatrist, be aware that we have brought Dwolf out of retirement. You might well quail at the prospect of being hounded by the king of trackers, who – thanks to our new diversification plan – is also a partially qualified head doctor. Big D. will hardly need to put an ear to the ground in order to locate you. Did you really think that we would not have contingency plans for coping with a maverick? You are indeed irreplaceable (just as well), but you are not indispensable.

As for your allusion to treading on corns, the question of where you put your feet has caused disquiet here for some time. Permit us to suggest that one or other of them is usually in your mouth. We’re getting quite good at the funny stuff, don’t you think? Anyway, consider our point.

We have digested your comments concerning human beings. It seems that something must be done about these creatures, and you may rest assured that we are giving this matter the thought it deserves. Please don’t annihilate homo sapiens at this stage – the species might be useful to us.

Your appendices told us most of what we needed to know. However, we believe that the essential information could have been produced with far less toil on your part. Try to remember the old eighty-twenty business rule – 80% of the desired result is usually achieved with 20% of the available effort, while the residual 20% of a perfect outcome requires the remaining 80% of work. That game isn’t worth the candle.

 Kindly send your next report soon, as our star has become very hot. It’s marginally comforting that we have no call for meat or fish, since every fridge on this planet is now on the blink. Do not lose sight of the fact that while we are largely in your hands, you are (thanks to Dwolf) more or less in ours. A stand-off.

Regards from your worried but still hopeful support group at Mission Control.

* * *

Goodbye, Sci-Fi

Changing fantasy to fact is not a new experience for Professor Ovis Jopp, the lean, seven-foot-two, green-bearded ‘Sage of Trondheim’, but even the most hardened physicists were shaken yesterday, when the formidable fjordsman announced that he had become the first Earthling to negotiate spacewarps. Feeding his listeners with green pralines, made for the occasion by his wife, he divulged that his discovery was virtually accidental.

“Like other great thinkers, I believe in validating my ideas in more than one way,” he said. “As you know, I have already demonstrated that my scientific contemporaries have gone astray in their thinking on propulsion systems for interstellar travel. I was not satisfied with a single contrivance, such as the space centrifuge I built recently. This time, the principle was still ground-based powering. I realised that if I had done that by one method, I could do it by another. Therefore, I produced a second revolutionary machine, which I call the ultracoil.

After an eruption of applause, Jopp went on: “Thank you, but it is not the innovation, brilliant though it is, that takes centre-stage here. I just mention it in passing. So far, I have made only one small model, four feet long in repose mode, and vanishingly small in its opposite, or taut condition. The full-sized version will be vastly more powerful. However, even the prototype has produced an epoch-making, if to some extent inadvertent, result.”

With his audience enthralled, the professor described his apparatus. “I will not bore you with the finer details of the appliance,” he said. “Basically, it comprises a wire spring of immense length – or height – which must be compressed. This can be done horizontally, by sophisticated hydraulic ramming, so subtle that I shall have to invent it myself, or vertically, by upending the relaxed spring and hauling it groundwards by means of huge winches of such complexity that here again, the design will require supervision on my part.”

“I was pleased to note that the device performed even better than I had imagined it would. However, that was as nothing compared to my feelings when the nose probe returned four days later, covered in a strange whitish substance, which I subjected to spectroscopic analysis. Imagine my excitement when I discovered that the Fraunhofer lines indicated that this matter was identical solely with an element found in a galaxy eighty million light-years from us. This could have come about only because my machine found its way through one or more of the spacewarps so beloved of those in the realms of fantasy, and – amazingly – returned. This is a sublime moment for the human race and a glorious one for me.”

Not everyone is overwhelmed. Perhaps least impressed is top anti-Joppist, the squat, convex, depilated ‘Swedish Savant’, Dr. Terps Dunderklap. Located at a go-go bar in Karlskrona, he was exceptionally trenchant. “Oh, the dolt,” he cried. “I noted his recent fatuous claim to have gone below the absolute zero level of temperature. Now he seems set to do the same with respect to intelligence. As it happened, one of my students was concealed at the site of Jopp’s preposterous experiment, and observed a total failure. The returning probe landed on the roof of Jopp’s own house and was doubtless later blown down by the wind. As for the spectroscopy, there is but one explanation other than that which Jopp mentions. The object shows the same Fraunhofer pattern as do pigeon droppings. Need I say more?”

Perhaps not, but he probably will.

* * *

Top Management

“Now we present the first in a new series ‘Our Country Today’, in which we shall be discussing a range of issues affecting all of us. This week’s subject is modern senior management. Our interviewer is Mark Benche and our guest this evening is Sir Percival Stropes, Managing Director of United Vehicle Builders. So without further ado, over to the studio.”

Benche: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to our guest, Sir Percival Stropes.

Stropes: Hello, Mark.

Benche: You’ve been in charge at UVB for three years and were recently appointed chairman of the Association of Chief Executives.

Stropes: Yes.

Benche: So I suppose there could be nobody better qualified to tell us about the thinking of high-level management.

Stropes: Right.

Benche: I’d like to begin with your overview of the current position.

Stropes: Yes.

Benche: Well, perhaps you’d care to give us a start.

Stropes: Yes.

Benche: Er . . . now, if you will, Sir Percival.

Stropes: Oh, yes. Very well. What do you want me to say?

Benche: I was hoping you’d give us your take on the performance of the economy following the recent boardroom revolution.

Stropes: I’ll put it simply. We now have more hair on our chests than ever before. The gloves are off and we are punching our full weight. That’s in the heavy division. Nowadays, when we hit ‘em, they stay hit.

Benche: Quite. Now, if we could leave the boxing analogy, perhaps you would tell us just how things have changed. I’m thinking of the widely expressed feeling that we can’t sustain our position in the world without massive investment in education.

Stropes: Nonsense. There was a report to that effect as long ago as 1884.

Benche: Indeed there was, and some would say that it was accurate, as we have been sliding downhill ever since then. How can we hold our ground?

Stropes: Easily. We merely continue with our current process of downsimpling.

Benche: Well, I’ve heard of downsizing and downscaling, but you mention something new to me, and possibly to many of our listeners. Could you explain?

Stropes: Nothing to it. One merely needs to match the skills available to the work that can be found for them.

Benche: I see. But is that not the problem? As we fail to produce people with abilities appropriate to the new age, so we decline proportionately. Some would call this social regression.

Stropes: Killjoys, the lot of them. If the Weary Willies can’t stand the heat, they should leave the kitchen. Personally, I have no qualms about facing the future. Anyway, you have to consider the alternative to downsimpling.

Benche: And what is that?

Stropes: Upteching.

Benche: That’s raising skill-levels to match the work required, is it?

Stropes: You could say so. I’ve no time for such airy-fairy ideas. I’m a plain man and I like plain dealings. Let’s leave these things to the Japanese, Germans, French, Americans and any others who think, in my view mistakenly, that they can make a go of it.

Benche: Forthright comment. Now, if I may widen the scope, perhaps you’d tell us how you tackled the problems you found on taking over at UVB?

Stropes: Head-on, that’s how. It was a question of administration and cognisance. First, we adopted the ‘flat mountain’ system of management.

Benche: That’s intriguing. Would you elaborate?

Stropes: It’s common sense. When I took charge, we had an absurdly hierarchical set-up. There were shop-floor workers, section leaders, assistant departmental managers, departmental managers, function heads, general managers, executive directors and the Board. That was eight levels. Ridiculous.

Benche: Some people might think that was not unreasonable in a company with 68,000 employees.

Stropes: They would be wrong. I immediately engaged Barton, Burton, Barton. In my view they’re finest management consultants in the world.

Benche: It could be argued that your judgement was less than impartial, in view of the fact that you are a non-executive director of BBB.

Stropes: Rubbish. Three B’s is the best firm of its kind and well worth every penny it cost.

Benche: Which was £3 million – 50% more than any other tender.

Stropes: If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys. These people put us on course with their two-part rescue scheme – ‘flat mountain’ and ‘laser focus’.

Benche: Tell us what difference the first part made to you.

Stropes: It changed the system to one like ripples on pondwater, in reverse. Employees no longer had to climb a pyramid to reach me. Open door policy, you see.

Benche: But surely you couldn’t allow access to you by everyone?

Stropes: Obviously we needed a filtering process. Input from the periphery is now sieved through progressively senior, status-graded employees.

Benche: And how many grades are involved?

Stropes: Starting at the rim, there are nine. The highest number applies to me.

Benche: That gives you more strata than before, doesn’t it?

Stropes: I didn’t think you’d understand. Top management is a science.

Benche: Er, well, perhaps we could pass on to the second part – laser focus.

Stropes: Straightforward. The consultants clarified that along with so many companies, we were not truly centred upon what we were doing. We’d gone wrong in labouring under the delusion that we were in the business of providing passenger vehicles.

Benche: But you were in that business, weren’t you?

Stropes: Not really. Our task was to move people from place to place. Making the nuts and bolts was secondary. It’s a question of strategy versus tactics. You might say that conveying the public was the strategy, whereas producing the wherewithal was merely tactics. Simple military thinking.

Benche: Very incisive. And how does that translate into practice?

Stropes: Easily. We shifted our attention from manufacture to transport.

Benche: How did you do that?

Stropes: Child’s play. We located large numbers of people who wanted to be on the move, then changed emphasis. So, apart from a head office with a few irreplaceable top administrators, we’re closing down our operations, selling premises and plant and investing the proceeds in Chinese railways.

Benche: Don’t you feel that you owe your workforce, and maybe the rest of us, a more detailed explanation?

Stropes: Look, I didn’t come here to be pilloried. Anyway, I have an important meeting in half an hour, so good night to you.

* * *

We don’t know when or how the tale below was submitted to us. The original bears no date, address or signature, and was found in a plain envelope. Editor

How Are You?

I imagine many of your readers share my view that queries about one’s wellbeing are usually rhetorical. People ask how one is faring, but most of them don’t really want to know. My old RAF mate Colin and I settled this point long ago by agreeing to contact one another at the same times of the same days each week, so we never bother with introductory banalities. Our conversations start with the recipient picking up the receiver and saying something like ‘Do you want to buy an ostrich?’ or ‘Look, nobody gives away fitted kitchens.’

This doesn’t work with other callers, who are usually discomfited by such overtures. There are exceptions, these including salespeople, who seem to have a prepared spiel from which they can be deflected only by drastic measures, and sometimes not even then. Almost invariably, they ring me between midday and one-thirty p.m., or at any time from five to seven-thirty in the evening. Nowadays, I ignore the phone in those periods, but there was a time when I enjoyed myself with the near-daily chats, usually explaining that the timing was inconvenient, as I was (a) hurrying to a funeral, (b) expecting news from the hospice where my father was confined – he died thirty-odd years ago – or (c) waiting for a fire engine to dowse the conflagration in my flat. Perhaps the high spot was when I announced myself as the sales manager for Maserati Fork-lift Trucks. My offer of our new Megalifta – with one twitch of its mighty prongs, it could handle four thousand house bricks – failed to derail the stout fellow at the other end.

Anyway, I’m getting off the point, or not getting onto it. The theme is acquaintances, in this case David, a former office colleague who has the mistaken impression that I am a fount of general knowledge. He is extraordinarily self-obsessed and calls only when he needs advice. For this reason I had decided to turn the table on him at some juncture. The opportunity arose when he rang two months ago. “How are you, Jack?” he bawled.

“Not so good,” I groaned. “I’ve just fallen onto a circular saw. Damned thing sliced through my right bicep. I’m bleeding like a stuck pig.”

“Hard luck,” he said. “Listen, I was wondering if you have any idea how to get engine oil out of asphalt. I’ve a great patch of gunge on my drive.”

Damn, he’d hit the Achilles heel. He was speaking to one of the very few people able to solve his problem. I was torn between brushing him off and telling him what to do. Decency prevailed, albeit briefly. “There’s a way,” I said. “Get some sand and tread it into the area for ten minutes, leave it for half an hour, sweep the residue away, then do the same again six or seven times and you’ll be okay.”

“What a man,” he replied. “I was sure you’d know. I’ll get right on – “

“Wait a minute,” I broke in, cunning having displaced the wish to help. “There might be another possibility. I need to check something. Ring again in half an hour.”

I was motivated solely by the idea of giving him a dose of his own medicine, but wasn’t sure how to do that. I’m not proud of this confession, which tends to confirm my daughter’s view that I am a miserable git. I’ll consider her sentiments if I still have anything worth leaving next time I review the disposal of my estate. We old-stagers are crafty that way.

When David phoned again, I was still intent on paying him in his own coin, but no clearer about the method. Temporisation seemed appropriate. To ensure that I wasn’t about to deal with a telepest, I allowed eight rings before covering my mouth with a tissue and picking up. “General Sir Celery Fillock’s office,” I boomed.

“What’s that?” David answered, an octave or so above his usual tone. “Who’s speaking?”

“I am aide-de-camp to the general,” I said. “Can I do something for you?”

“Never mind. I’ve got the wrong number. Sorry.”

“It’s all right, Dave,” I said, then hung up.

Half a minute later, the phone rang again. I answered in normal mode.

“What the hell’s going on,” yelped David.

“Nice start,” I said. “Is there a problem?”

“It’s you, isn’t it?” he snapped.

“Of course it is. Who else would it be?”

He was breathing heavily. “I rang a minute ago. Got a firm called General Capillary Hillocks or some such. Chap who called himself Ada. Queer business. I assumed I’d got a crossed line, but then this bloke called me Dave. How did he know my name?”

“Probably just a lucky guess,” I chuckled, not bothering to feign amazement. “If he’d said John, you’d hardly have noticed, but there must be nearly as many Daves as Johns around. Maybe you’re overwrought, old boy. Anyway, I had a brainwave but it came to nothing. Just stick with the sand. Believe me, it will work. Now, what’s the score at your end? I really would like to know.”

“I’m fine,” he said. “Can’t say the same for the wife. She’s in a pretty bad state. The doctors give her three months at most.”

That was my real chance. “Hard luck,” I said, echoing his earlier words to me. “Speaking of bad states, I’d be grateful if you’d return that tin of saddle soap I lent you a while ago. My shoes look terrible. Look, I must go now and get a bandage on my arm. See you.” Without giving him a chance to say anything, I hung up, satisfied that I’d finally paid him in his own coin.

* * *

Schooling : One Way Ahead

The state of our education has long occupied many minds, and was recently addressed by a leading think tank, the Institute for Profound Thought. On reaching the end of its tether, the IPT passed the matter to Sir Bertram Utterside, former professor of social studies at one of Britain’s leading universities. Arguably the country’s most prestigious academician, the great gownsman is well known for taking little account of sensitivities and has frequently infringed the tenets of political correctness. Those of delicate disposition are reminded that some of Sir Bertram’s ideas are not for the squeamish – what better way of ensuring that you read on? His observations are given verbatim below:

This is one of the less difficult questions with which I have been presented, so I am able to be brief, which is a good thing for me, as I charge a flat fee for my reports, so the rate per word for shorties is gratifying. A little while ago, I heard one of my old sparring partners, Sir Percival Stropes – he now runs some ramshackle automotive outfit – indicate that he was complacent about our position. I do not agree. We shall continue to decline, so long as our main competitors produce scientists, engineers and tradespeople, while we turn out historians, media students and estate agents. We cannot sustain ourselves on the basis of studying the past and present, and selling each other houses at increasingly absurd prices.

Whenever I think of learning, I am reminded of two observations. The first, made by W.B. Yeats, was that education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire. The second, by Mark Twain, was that he never let his schooling interfere with his education. I would like to add my small contribution, which is that society should not waste teaching resources on those who don’t want to learn. Anyone who wishes to join a sub-culture of ignoramuses should be allowed to do so. I have no more to say about that.

My solution to the overall problem will probably prove controversial. First, I propose that we abandon the idea of universal compulsory free education. I believe that the only legal requirement should be for parents or guardians to be interviewed by the head of their local school, who would point out the advantages on offer, while stressing that good behaviour must be a prerequisite, any significant offences being punishable by expulsion, a step which should be left to the discretion of the principal of the school concerned. Pastoral care should not be any part of the teachers’ duties, nor should they seek to arrogate to themselves any such role. Any child failing to toe the line would have to be submitted to the care of a body outside the mainstream system. This takes care of the primary and secondary stages.

Now to my proposal for the tertiary level. I suggest that we dismantle our university system. Cry ‘horror’ if you will, but note that the institutions concerned are not doing a good job. The premises they occupy could be converted into thousands of dwellings, in an operation that would do much to alleviate our housing problem – lateral thinking, you see. There is a double benefit here, in that a vast number of houses and flats currently occupied by students would be made available to the general population because those in third-level education would get tuition close to their homes, so would not need other accommodation.

How is this to be achieved? Quite easily. It is merely a question of extending the hot-desking now practised in commerce and industry, whereby people work at different times in the same places. It is well known that many university students lie abed until early afternoon and are not ripe for learning until they have taken some bodily nourishment. There is no sound reason why they should not occupy the spaces vacated by the primary and secondary pupils, who could start earlier than at present and move on to other activities after, say, 2.00 p.m. This is simple shift work. As for the tutors, they live largely in a dream world, so it should not matter to them whether they are on duty in the mornings, afternoons or evenings, so long as their ‘ker-ching’ factor is not impaired – and with the arrangements I envisage, they would not lose in this respect. Also, this second shift would finish in time for night school to start at about 7.00 p.m.

It has been suggested that 50% of secondary scholars should proceed to university. Does anyone know how many of them are capable of absorbing a genuine tertiary curriculum? If the bar is to be ever-lower, the figure could be 100%. When I was a university student, it was less than 5%. Of course we can get to 50% – or any other level – if we adjust the standards commensurately. What good will that do?

I recommend that third-stage tuition be provided free in the subjects requiring a reasonable degree of rigour. By this I mean the sciences, broadly considered but excluding economics – a virtually useless pseudo-discipline – plus perhaps languages. I have no objection to arty types pursuing other courses, so long as they do so without making demands on the public purse.

There can be little doubt that the implementation of my proposals would lead to a great improvement in our education. Being a broad-brush man, I have not covered every detail. Should a supplementary report be required, I would be happy to produce one – for a further charge.

* * *


News from a village in County Donegal, Ireland, seems likely to cause uproar in the astrological world. Mr Algon Quin claims to have revolutionised the ancient practice after his seventy years in the field. He dropped the usual second ‘n’ from his surname, in deference to his claimed Amerindian ancestry, saying that his soul hails from the Algonquin tribes and migrated during what he calls the ‘Diaspora of the Spirits’, which he asserts took place during the European Dark Ages. He maintains that his system will replace all earlier work of its kind.

Quin’s ideas have something in common with those of conventional astrologers, in that he accepts a zodiac comprising twelve signs and houses. However, he maintains that the signs correspond exactly with our calendar months, saying that this accords with ancient beliefs, which he has adapted to modern concepts. Quin is nothing if not eclectic, as his signs are named from a mixture of legend and recorded history. His six female signs are, with one (Arthurian) exception, culled from Greek mythology, while the six male ones draw upon real people.

Being aware that over two-thirds of the Earth’s surface consists of water, Quin attributes eight of his signs to aquatic creatures and four to those of terra firma, though two of the former are amphibious, as the great innovator contends that the oceans will shrink by ‘divine drainage’. The table of months, signs and creatures is as follows:

JanuaryCopernicusThe newt
February HecubaThe duck
March GalileoThe mule
April CassandraThe prawn
May PtolemyThe squid
JuneAriadneThe asp
JulyPlatoThe sole
August DianaThe whelk
SeptemberEuclidThe ape
OctoberGuinevereThe eel
NovemberSocratesThe pike
DecemberHeraThe stoat

Quin’s notions are perhaps controversial. He claims that longitude is meaningless and that birth-date is a matter to be interpreted by him, while latitude must be known precisely. Further, he says that his system works only in the northern hemisphere, but reckons this does not matter much, as most of us live above the equator, and those below it must devise their own formula.

Findings are given only to those who appear at Quin’s base, where the centre of operations is the zodiac wheel, similar to those used in roulette. The rim is divided into twelve equal-sized segments and is fixed, while the inner disc, likewise sectioned, is free to rotate. Armed with the client’s birth latitude and sign, Quin makes subtle adjustments to the balance of his equipment, then sets the wheel so that each sign in the inner part is aligned with the same one on the rim. Finally, he spins the rotatable disc by hand. He has a ratchet system which ensures that when the wheel is stationary, the segments in the two sections are always sign-to-sign and never out of alignment. The inner disc comes to rest, he says, opposite the point in the rim that relates to the client’s real sign, so a person apparently born under Copernicus may have a true soul-birth under, say, Ariadne.

The master is clearly an alumnus of the ‘take no prisoners’ school of astrology, his appraisals being short and extremely pungent. Anyone seeking veiled comments may well be shocked. “Good or bad, I shoot from the hip,” says the 91-year-old guru. “Too many people don’t appreciate that they come into this world of their own volition and must engage positively with whatever happens to them.”

There is no set charge for Quin’s services, though each client is encouraged to make a minimum £1,000 contribution to further research. In fact, according to an unsubstantiated Sunday newspaper report, anyone not doing so is compelled to exit the premises by negotiating a terrifying series of potentially lethal booby-traps in the back garden. Quin refused to comment on this and denied your narrator access to the spot. He did, however, supply two examples of his readings, handed last week to clients whose identities he did not reveal. His findings are given below:

1. Oh, dear, you are a Copernican on both counts – earthly and soul. Frankly, it would be better for all concerned if you had not appeared at the time you did, as you are a real drag. Your winter emergence in the two respects means that you did not see much daylight, either physically or spiritually, in your earliest weeks. This gloomy start is virtually insuperable. You may try to throw it off, but you will always be returned to a state like your dismal beginning. It is as though you stretch your personal rubber band, which invariably hauls you back to base.

Do not blame anyone else for this. You asked for your life and you got it. And don’t appeal for a change because you might get that too, and a fat lot of good it would do you. Perhaps your only consolation is in one of the Good Books – The Talmud, I think – which says that the burden is equal to the horse’s strength. You can take it, and you must. It’s all for your own good.

2. You are a ray of sunshine. Regardless of when you came into this world, you’re symbolically a Platonian. Others may try to pull you down, but you will never succumb for long, as your buoyancy always quickly reasserts itself. Rejoice, for you are reaping what you have sown in past lifetimes. Do not feel guilty because you are having a fine time while some others are not. Let them stew in the juices they prepared in earlier incarnations. You have a right to all the good things that come your way.

Some people may regard you as frivolous. Never mind. This is merely your natural effervescence, aggregated through the ages. Many cannot match it, but they must solve their own problems. Humankind is burdened with these dreary types. They are like wasps, in that they may have a role, but not many people know what it is, other than to cause general irritation. You might be tempted to do high-minded things, like comforting the afflicted. Forget it. Just note that they won’t thank you for long – bear in mind that no good deed goes unpunished. Enjoy what you have earned.

It is no part of your deponent’s duties to offer a critique of Mr Quin’s methods. Anyone wishing to know more should contact him direct.

* * *

Packing Them In

Professor Ovis Jopp, the lean, seven-foot-two, green-bearded ‘Sage of Trondheim’ left fellow scientists stupefied yesterday, when he revealed the result of his latest endeavour, a scheme for compacting the numerous bodies of the asteroid belt to make a planet. Never the retiring type, the bonhomous boffin described his work as a towering accomplishment and an intellectual and engineering feat of the highest order. It seems he got the idea from a belief that there are twelve planets in our solar system. Having rejected Pluto and discovered Ovisius and Joppius as ninth and tenth, he decided to take a hand in giving us number eleven.

“Even I cannot describe the process as simple,” the professor told his engrossed listeners. “I sensed that the key was to produce a magnetic casing, much as those involved in nuclear fusion try to contain plasma. As always, I employed the lowest workable technology, my scale model being a ring-shaped tube of green plastic, part-filled with fragments of rock and metal, to simulate the asteroids. I suspended this tube from an electric ceiling fan, substituting thin strands of wire for the blades, then rotated the apparatus to simulate the celestial objects.”

Following a long ovation, Jopp continued: “Next, I constructed a miniature solid-fuel rocket, which is effectively a sophisticated version of those made by the space pioneer Robert Goddard. My device was in the form of a bobbin, bent so as to achieve the necessarily circular path. Around this contrivance, I wound a length of magnetised wire. On ignition, the rocket behaved exactly as I had predicted, describing a spiral route, round and round the tube’s exterior, unwinding the wire as it went. Thus, I achieved confinement of the rock and metal oddments to a narrow pathway within the torus, clear of its internal surface.”

Silencing further applause with a raised hand, the professor went on: “I then cut the tube, sealing one end, after which I activated a pneumatic hinge, which straightened the bend in the rocket, then I directed the craft to the open end of the tube. Using a ram attachment which I had built into the rocket’s nose, I employed the engine thrust to force the fragments in upon each other, much as one would pen cattle or sheep. The result was a compact ball, jammed against the sealed end of the tube. The test was complete and demonstrated clearly that the principle, applied on a larger scale, would enable us to, as it were, wrap up the asteroids into a single tidy bundle, giving a planet which I shall name in due course. I can well understand how you must feel, for I am still overwhelmed by the enormity of my exploit.”

There was a sharp response from Jopp-knocker, Dr Terps Dunderklap, the short, round, alopecic ‘Swedish Savant’. Found outside a gynaecology clinic near Trelleborg, he was caustic. “Jopp is demented,” he stormed. “It is fitting that his newest idea involves going round in circles, for that exemplifies his approach to science. Had he consulted me, I would have dissuaded him from this inanity, as I proved long ago that his plan is impracticable. Perhaps he will now tell us how he intends to upscale his addle-pated experiment to the real thing, which would involve a rocket seventy-eight miles long, plus nine hundred million miles of wire. It is a pity that he will not succeed. Were he to do so, he would doubtless visit his dream planet, to find it inhabited by little green men, and presumably women of similar hue. As he is a big green man, he would become their leader, much as a one-eyed person assumes that position in the realm of the blind. Mercifully, we would then never see him again.

Will these two great Norsemen ever agree about anything?

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Fourth Message To Planet X

Yours received – is that short enough? Regarding your fatuous efforts to engage someone to pursue me, I can only chuckle at the thought that you have wheeled in the big artillery by activating good old – and I really mean old – Dwolf. I’ve heard of tomb-robbing, but this must be the first case in which the occupant of a sarcophagus has been revitalised. A little ghoulish on your part, I suggest. Even when firing on all cylinders – which last happened ages ago – Dwolfie was never very bright. Are you sure the poor soul is sentient? You might just try checking with a cattle prod. Oh, you don’t have such things, do you? I must be getting confused. No wonder, when all my words and deeds are monitored by a horde of control freaks.

It might be mildly interesting to you to learn that my provisions are running out. Did anybody there ever consider how I would sustain myself in space with but one atom of matter per cubic metre? This isn’t exactly a walk in the park, you know. Only my ingenuity has kept me going. I had thought that human being were socially  backward, but your latest communication makes me wonder. What a bunch of cheapskates you are. Notwithstanding the above, I appreciate that you’re footing the inadequate bill for this escapade, so I feel an obligation to give you further details, though you may not like some of them.

While humans are a queer crowd, I find them increasingly attractive. Why? Certainly not because of their technological standards. So far, they have lumbered off their own globe to reach the Earth’s satellite, a feat that, cumbersome though it was, extended their ability to its maximum, and made a fearsome racket to boot. Yet, barbarous and destructive as they are, they have something that most of our kind lack. I speak of heart. Yes, that’s a new one for you, isn’t it? I mean, look at yourselves. Your aim is aimlessness. All you’re concerned about is survival. To what end? Most of you aren’t doing much, apart from seeking to prolong your lives for hedonistic purposes. It’s Sodom and Gomorrah all over again if you ask me – but, you won’t, will you?

 Human beings have among their number a sprinkling of philosophers, but I must say that the output from these people leaves much to be desired. Usually they choose to speak in terms inaccessible to their contemporaries, a practice which they appear to believe indicates their intellectual superiority. Pretentious rubbish! If they were really clever, they would realise that all great ideas are simple and can be expressed accordingly.

 As I mentioned earlier, there are also warriors here. On the whole, they achieve nothing but to wrest from others things which in many cases are lost again through further strife. Idiotic. I mean, if somebody else has something you want, the obvious thing is to buy it or barter for it. Using force is surely not right.

I would say that the best hope here lies in the advancement of the common people, most of whom are, though woefully ill-informed, decent types and don’t care much who owns what, so long as they can live in peace and passable comfort and can enjoy their chosen diversions. In this respect sport, particularly association football (soccer), has a high profile. You wouldn’t believe how much feeling this engenders, especially among the fans, who get even more worked up than do the players, and who seem to think nothing of indulging in unseemly brawls, sometimes even before a match, when they have nothing to complain about. After the event, things often get worse – I attended one football game which was followed by a street-fight involving people stropping each other with broken bottles, bicycle chains and suchlike items.

Now, my egg-timer (a dinky little gizmo I purloined from a shop in Switzerland) tells me that I shall soon be obliged to ‘throw another log on the fire’ to beef up my batteries. Watch this space, and each time you think of sending a chaperone this way, remember that I have my hands on some costly machinery. To what extent are you prepared to antagonise me?

Your increasingly unwilling flunkey


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Independence Day

Greetings, my fellow Zubukians! I intended to address you today from the balcony of Government House. Unfortunately, current circumstances preclude that, so I must ask you to accept this television broadcast as a substitute. When I finish speaking here, I shall try to make my way to Revolution Square and review the annual parade of our magnificent Republican Guard, after the insurg . . . er . . . merrymakers now occupying that holiest of grounds have, entirely of their own free will, dispersed. I am informed that this will be within an hour.

For all of us, this is a solemn day, yet also a joyous one. Solemn because it gives us the opportunity to commune on a national basis, feeling ourselves at one with our ancestors, and joyous because it was exactly twenty years ago that we threw off the yoke of colonialism. Further, it is nineteen years to the day since the events took place which resulted in my becoming Prime Minister and, three weeks later, President of our beloved country.

I am deeply conscious of the heavy burdens placed upon me by the simultaneous holding of the two highest offices of our state, the more so as there is nobody who will, or can, lift them from me. I fear that I shall not be able to relinquish these duties this side of the grave. We live in troubled times. Everywhere in the world there is disorder, and we cannot insulate ourselves. There is no denying that we have our problems. Even in my own party, the National Alliance for Zubukian Integration, there has been unrest and, it must be admitted, corruption. Many of you will recall that only seventeen short years ago, I was obliged to dismiss the ministers of finance, home affairs, foreign relations and transport. Having no suitable replacements, I was forced to assume their portfolios myself- – yet more responsibilities that I shall, however reluctantly, be required to discharge for the rest of my days.

Why shall I not be able to cast off these millstones? I think you know. During the post-colonial disturbances, every party but my own in our hallowed land simply disintegrated, vanishing virtually overnight. It was left to us alone to carry the inextinguishable torch of democracy. True, there was an attempt made recently to form a viable opposition. To my deepest chagrin, that effort failed. I was greatly distressed by the collapse of the Alternative Progressive Enlightenment- – the APE -party.

Feelings ran high at the time, and the prevailing mood affected me as much as anyone. I cannot look back without a sense of deep sorrow at my last words to the leader of the aspirant rival organisation. I merely intended to convey my admiration of the man as, so to speak, the dominant male in his movement. It was regrettable that I referred to him as the chief ape. Also, my remark was ill-timed, coming as it did two hours before the untimely and, I emphasise, totally accidental demise of that fine young statesman. May his soul forgive me.

The unfortunate disappearance of the APE party was not the last of our troubles. Even now there are elements in our revered homeland intent upon fomenting strife. Indeed, it is for this reason that I speak now from the National Security Compound, surrounded by three- – yes, three- – concentric perimeter fences of four-metre-high electrified wire. I ask you to remember that fact, though the last thing I want is to be separated from you by the defences of a totally impregnable fortress. My dearest wish is to be among you, wringing your . . . hands. Yes, my friends, your hands.

Our former colonial masters claimed to have left us with a working governmental system. I spit upon their assertion. If they had made adequate provision before their departure, why were we compelled to discard their arrangements? We even had to change the name of our country. The colonists left us with what? I will remind you. The stark and unimaginative Zubukia. With our modernisation plan, we changed that in less than two years to the People”s Democratic Republic of Zubukia, or PDRZ. Can anyone doubt that this is more appropriate to our status in the world?

My compatriots, we have recently been the target of unwarranted attention from various external bodies. The international team that visited us last year concluded that literacy standards here had declined since colonial days. I spit upon their report. They said that the level was formerly fifty-two per cent and that it had fallen to twenty-three per cent. Do these meddlers not realise that we have our own traditions, our storytellers, to meet our needs? Notwithstanding that, I strive ceaselessly for improvement. I aim to ensure that in under ten years, there will a book in every school and, where there is evening tuition, a candle in each classroom.

We have been told by another agency, whose name I cannot bear to utter, that we lag behind other democracies in terms of our degree of enfranchisement. I spit upon this supposed finding. Is it not true that every first-born male over the age of forty in our country now has the vote? How does that accord with the monstrous charge against us? Obviously it does not. Our advance has been exemplary and will continue at an appropriate pace.

I must now deal with the most unworthy of all the accusations hurled at us. I refer to a bulletin issued by the World Bank, saying that our ninety-billion-dollar finds of oil, gas, uranium, platinum, gold and copper should have been better used in the last nine years. We are told that a land of four million people should be reaping greater benefits from such bounty. At the risk of being censured for excessive expectoration, I spit upon that document. Such malice can have been engendered only by the fact that no interest has yet been paid on the loan of twelve billion dollars, made to us by the Bank eight years ago.

Who is at fault? These legalised loan sharks should have known better than to bury our poor country under such a mountain of money. Our financial structure could not cope. Inevitably, there was confusion, multipartite transactions and complex pecuniary allocations which I struggle unflaggingly to trace. I was, sorrowfully, obliged to seek the assistance of a certain European country, well-versed in these matters. The World Bank asks where the funds in question are now. I answer that that is m . . . our business. Further, if the masters of usury continue to badger us, I shall, on your behalf, repudiate the debt. Do you hear this, you Shylocks in Washington? Not one shavaster shall I pay.

Now, my friends, the cares of state demand that I leave you for the moment. I hear the clanking and rumbling of those tribulations closing in upon me. They are constantly at my gate. If you can still see or hear this transmission, I ask you to join me in singing our national anthem, Zubukia Forever. Let the rafters ring!

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