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Madazine (2 Viewers)


Honoured/Sadly Missed
Madazine comprises a large number of articles, ranging from 300 to 1,600 words in length. Some items are stand-alone, while others form series, the latter being Professor Ovis Jopp’s scientific exploits, Sir Bertram Utterside’s social commentaries, the ill-fated mountaineering expedition led by Trevor Node, the correspondence between cosmonaut Dweedles and home planet, and the engineering feats of Kevin Spout, widely known as Yorkshire’s own Leonardo da Vinci. The first piece appears below, preceded by an introduction to the Madazine staff.

The Team

Editor: Will Rider-Hawes (70 but sprightly, British) – Gee-Gee to friends.
Sub-editor: Tom Bola (45, Slovakian) – has no friends.
Reporter: Trixie Larkspur (29, British) – friendly, intrusive.
Proof-reader: Meya Culper (34, British – she says) – dour, hostile.
Typesetter: Phyllis Tyne (56, British) – detached, distant.
PR officer: Bella Donner (42, Canadian) – acerbic, dominative.
General Admin: Rick O’Shea (17, Australian) – troubled, inaccessible.
Cleaner: Sherry Tipple (39, going on 60, British) – desensitised.

Note: In addition to the work of our permanent staff, articles on science and some social issues are contributed by freelancer Axel Griess (49, South African) – nihilistic, horizontal.


A startling new shopping concept was introduced yesterday when Priceless Stores opened the first of a projected nationwide chain of supermarkets. Costs of all items are set at opening time and shown on a large control board, linked to the tills and updated continuously. Special offers are indicated by a crawler strip crossing the bottom of the main display in TV news channel style. Variations in supply levels are noted by two patrolling inspectors, whose reports cause prices to rise or fall, reflecting the assessed values of remaining items. Ebullient manager Rod Perch explained:

“It’s a bit like Wall Street, or maybe a flea market – if there’s any difference. Our boss got the idea from a book on physics, where he came upon Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. Basically, customers try to outwit the store and vice versa. People select items, referring to the control board, but there may be changes before the goods are checked out. On reaching the tills, purchasers are roped off and committed to buy, irrespective of price movements. Complaints are not entertained: punters must accept the rules.”

Perch took a brief phone call, then went on: “Employing a couple of monitors is labour-intensive, but there’s no choice. We used our own staff to experiment with shelf sensors, designed to detect the weight borne, relative to the items concerned, but it was hopeless. You’ve no idea how devious people can be. The favourite trick was to put bricks on the shelves before removing any goods, thus deluding the electronics into thinking that stocks were high and that therefore, prices were low. Human nature is disgusting.”

Speed is vital, as shopper Dudley Herring learned. “The trick is,” he said, “to buy cheap goods close to the check-outs, then get them through quickly. Yesterday, I bought eighteen packets of washing powder for £3.10 each. My transaction raised the price of the remaining twelve packs to £6.60 a time, but I’m all right for some years.”

Added obscurity arises from re-stocking being completely random, with shelves refilled by staff members whose work does not necessarily relate to what has been bought. The gamble is completed by a daily ‘crash-out’, when the manager, at whim, switches off the control board, which is reactivated ten seconds later, the prices having rotated willy-nilly. An extreme case was the transposition of dried fruit and spirits. Thus, computer programmer Andy Trout paid 59p each for two bottles of cognac, while struggling widow Edna Salmon forked out £13 for a kilo of raisins.

Teacher Daphne Whitebait was slightly disappointed after picking up eight tins of baked beans at an indicated price of 18p apiece. Unfortunately for the young lady, nimble pensioner Alice Haddock followed her to the shelf, but beat her to the till, having bought twenty-three tins, the checking out of which cleared the stock, raising Ms Whitebait’s identical purchases to 77p each. “C’est la vie,” said Daphne philosophically, adding: “I don’t mind too much: we British love a flutter.”

If this catches on, the National Lottery could suffer.

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It was perhaps predictable that the ranks of cosmic evolutionists would be augmented by Professor Ovis Jopp (pronounced Yopp), the lean, seven-foot-two, green-bearded ‘Sage of Trondheim’, regarded by some as the greatest scientist of our time. Jopp says that although he has yet to apply a few touches, his contribution is the most significant one to date. He accepts that there was a big bang about 14 billion years ago, but opposes many cosmologists by maintaining that this will be reversed. The fearless Nordic scholar went further, predicting what will follow the crunch.

Never afraid to demonstrate his ideas, Professor Jopp tried out this one in a field near Narvik, where he took a gigantic green balloon and festooned its surface with blobs of clay to simulate the galaxies. Respecting his penchant for using the lowest technology for any given task, he employed student volunteers, who took turns on a car foot pump to produce a vast globe, into which Jopp had initially inserted his famous secret green box. Then the team, working on fast-retracting gantries at staggered heights, deflated the sphere with simultaneous pinpricks.

Recovery of the green box revealed the strange phenomena of post-crunch physics. The shrinkage will be so violent that not only will everything be squashed to a virtual zero point, but will then emerge inverted in an explosion following the collapse. There will be counter-galaxies, counter-solar systems and even a counter- Earth, where humans and buildings will be, as it were, upside down inside the crust, retained in place by reverse gravity. Waving a foot-long cigar of green seaweed, Jopp added that the new cosmos would have an emerald hue.

Earlier explanations of our universe will, the professor suggests, be overtaken by his findings. “We can forget Einstein’s E equals whatever it was,” he said. “My proposition is far more elegant. The mathematical notions are abstruse, but in layman’s terms, the resultant equation is IF=EP, meaning that implosive force equals emitted power. I don’t think there will ever be any advance on this.”

Not everyone agrees. Professor Jopp’s arch rival, the ‘Swedish Savant’, Dr Terps Dunderklap, was scathing. “Jopp is an idiot,” he snapped. “He does not realise that apart from those in our solar system, all celestial bodies are thin, carpet-like structures. There will indeed be an implosion as they rush together, heaping themselves one atop the other before collapsing under their own masses, forming a sheet of infinitesimal thickness and virtually infinite length and width, from which nothing will emerge. Jopp will be a part of that flatness and I shall walk over him then as I do now. That might cure him of his obsession with green things. Also, the vapid Viking does not tell us what is inside his balloon. Is he saying that our universe is empty in the middle, with matter only on the surface of an arbitrarily conceived sphere? If so, perhaps he used his head as a template. Incidentally, he could have used, as I did last year, a soccer ball, paper hankies and a dash of nitroglycerine.”

Speaking from a Stockholm girls’ school, Dunderklap, five-foot-four in height and similar in circumference, did not explain how he will survive the compression, while Jopp will succumb. However, Dr D’s prestige is such that no disinterested party is willing to reject his contention, though it does not yet have a title or a supporting equation. When told of it, Jopp was dismissive. Beaming across his green-topped desk, he suggested that ‘The Axminster Theory’ might be appropriate, as he would soon pull the carpet out from under Dunderklap’s feet.

Time, or space-time, will tell which, if either, of these intellectual giants is right.

More of Jopp’s exploits coming up.

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Honoured/Sadly Missed

Tashkent: 14 June. The planning is over. We have reached our start point and are in passably good heart. As leader of the expedition to climb the Snow King, I, Trevor Node, shall issue brief reports of our progress at weekly intervals. I was first here and during the past week have been joined by the other four members of the party; Amanda Flatpole, Ridley Gannett, Hugh Pugh and Desmond Thoroughbrace.

It all seemed so simple when we conceived it three months ago, over drinks in the London headquarters of the Peripatetics Club. However, I must say that I never expected our undertaking to be frictionless. Indeed, when I proposed conquering the great peak, my initiative was immediately contested by Pugh, who observed that the mountain had already been climbed by nine other groups. I silenced him with the reply that there was more than one way of being first, and that I saw no reason why we should not be the first party to take tenth place in subduing the giant. My logic was endorsed by the others and we soon had a plan on the back of an envelope.

We apportioned responsibilities today. Pugh was the natural choice as pathfinder, since during his university days he made the trip from Putney to Mortlake, accompanied by only eight others. Gannett, an ex-grocer, was an obvious selection for quartermaster. Thoroughbrace, a former woodwork teacher, was always destined to be our technician and transport officer, while Flatpole, a health fanatic and linguist, takes charge of hygiene and communications. I, having no speciality, am to be expedition leader. I think it was unkind of Pugh to remark that this was akin to appointing as cricket captain an all-rounder, equally incompetent at batting, bowling and fielding. Sooner or later, this fellow will be troublesome. We shall set out tomorrow.

More Node Bulletins coming up.

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The following letter was saved for posterity by our typesetter, Phyllis Tyne. She had applied it to a gas ring, in order to light the revolting stuff she puts into a clay pipe – we haven’t quite caught up with the smoking thing. At the last instant, she realised that the communication might be of interest to some readers. No-one here knows how we came by this item, nor (barring receipt of a confession) are we likely to find out, as the top of the single page was singed by the flames, which obliterated the writer’s name and address, and the signature was unreadable. Anyway, here it is:

Dear Mr X

I write concerning the letter sent to you some time ago by my GP. Regrettably, I do not recall the exact date, as the matter has been obscured by intervening festive seasons, anniversaries, family birthdays, annual holidays, etc., from all of which I infer that you are indeed as overburdened as my doctor feared. You may recall that the problem is a cyst on my right knee.

As it is clearly necessary to alleviate your workload, I have decided to perform the operation myself. I have little medical knowledge, but have been fortunate enough to procure a copy of a book entitled ‘Surgery on the Hoof’, written for the inhabitants of the American Frontier. Although the work was published in 1802, I imagine that basic procedures have not changed much in the meantime. I have assembled almost all the required equipment, much of which, being an average householder, I had to hand. My wife has provided an extra-large ironing board, not dissimilar in shape and size to an operating table. I shall use this as my base, since I do not wish to incur the wrath of the distaff side by possibly defacing our teak dining surface.

My other items comprise an excellent horn-handled knife – a family heirloom – and a small silver mustard spoon. Here, I would have preferred stainless steel, but we do not live in a perfect world. The knife already has a keen edge, but not wishing to leave anything to chance, I shall hone it thoroughly and afterwards dip it in hot water – essential because the oilstone I intend to use has been lying open in my toolbox for over twenty years.

As the offender is at the back of my knee, I am setting up an array of three angled mirrors, in order to, as it were, let the dog see the rabbit. I have conducted a dry run and have found the procedure less complicated than I had first thought. It is rather like reversing an articulated vehicle with more than one trailer. I propose to start by making an incision of about two inches, to expose the growth, which if necessary – you will appreciate that there is an exploratory element here – I shall puncture with a smaller cut, then remove most of the nasty stuff by (a) manual pressure (b) the mustard spoon and (c) a wall-mounted vacuum cleaner. That done, I shall snip away what I assume will be an empty sac. I may be wrong about this, but no matter, as I am very inventive and confident of my ability to handle what comes up. Still, I would not trust myself to complete the excision at an earlier stage.

Up to this point, I do not anticipate much difficulty. However, I am concerned about tying-off and wound closure. My understanding is that catgut is still widely used and as I have none, I wonder whether you could supply me with a short length – a foot or so should do the trick. If you do not have any, please do not put yourself out, as my daughter has offered to lend me an upper E-string from her guitar, which I think would suffice.

Finally, lest you should think that I am adopting a less than completely rigorous approach, let me say that I shall have by me throughout the operation, for internal and external use, a large supply of the strongest product from the house of Smirnoff.

Yours sincerely …

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The recent spate of financial scandals emanating from some of the world’s largest companies has led to much concern as to what is to be done to assure investors that their money is not being frittered away by the deviousness of business leaders. This pressing matter was referred to that doughtiest of investigators, Sir Bertram Utterside, former professor of social studies at one of Britain’s top universities and recently described as ‘The Fearsome Ferret’. Probably few would doubt that Sir Bertram’s advice on major topical issues has become almost indispensable. Happily, he was available to handle yet another hot potato. His comments are given below:

Though not of major importance, this question of how to deal with errant business leaders deserves some attention, concerning as it does the wellbeing of many people. Once more I am asked to address a supposed problem, the solution of which is, as they say, a walk in the park – literally so on this occasion.

In approaching the matter, I found myself indebted to the humorist George Ade, who referred to ‘a people so primitive that they did not know how to get money except by working for it’. One could hardly put it better. What are stock markets but casinos, with opportunists putting their snouts into the troughs, all wanting to make fortunes without doing a stroke of real work? Why? I suggest that they do this because certain city analysts, themselves strangers to genuine effort, demand ever-more sparkling results from what is usually mundane activity. Small wonder that those who actually work often look askance at share-price movements.

In one of my earlier commissions, I referred to the work of Karl Marx and I now draw upon him again, in that I believe he regarded capitalism as a step towards a truly socialist society. I endorse that view. ‘From each as he is able, to each as he requires’ is an attitude that will finally prevail. My apologies if this offends any feminist readers, but I am merely quoting. Anyway, the point is what are we to do about corporate misdeeds?

They say there is nothing new under the Sun and here again, past commentators on the social scenes of their times had much to say. I am mindful of a snippet I once saw in a book preface, to the effect that good is an enduring, unchanging force, while evil continually manifests itself in varying forms. I believe Zarathustra touched upon this two and a half millennia ago. The robber barons of yesterwhen are still with us, in different guises. An associated thought is that expressed by Juvenal, when he posed the question of who should police the police.

There was a time when one could read a company’s accounts, confident that the figures presented an accurate picture of the business concerned. I suggest that we get back to that position by rating auditors in the same way as we now assess those in other fields, such as sport. Many business houses yearn for a good credit rating from a top source. Why not extend this to the book-checkers? One could envisage a situation in which these firms were ranked according to their soundness. A sign-off from an auditor with a triple A rating would be the best available to a company, indicating that everything was tickety-boo. An endorsement from, say, a single A bean-counter might suggest something slightly iffy in the official record, while one from an unrated source would indicate that the accounts were not worth the paper they were printed on.

This raises the question of who would vet the rating agencies, who were supervising the auditors, who were monitoring the companies. These receding shades of overseeing resemble fractal geometry, bringing good old Mandelbrot to mind. I suggest that the final arbiter should be a disinterested member of the academic community. Far be it from me to offer any indication as to who might accept so onerous a duty. I have no more to say.

Further pronouncements from Sir Bertram coming soon.

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Honoured/Sadly Missed

For the second time within three months, the scientific world has been shaken by Professor Ovis Jopp, the lean, seven-foot-two, green-bearded ‘Sage of Trondheim’. Having dealt with the unimaginably large, the Dutch-born, Norwegian-naturalised polymath turned his incandescent intellect to the opposite end of the size spectrum. He says that we have been misled for decades by the alleged findings of numerous physicists. Jopp ascribes this to excessive communication, contending that having been criticised for remoteness, scientists have over-compensated by announcing a plethora of supposed discoveries, some exaggerated, others totally spurious. He claims that such confusion arises from people operating in teams, the members feeding upon each other’s hare-brained ideas until they don’t know reality from fantasy. Truly great scientists work alone, he maintains.

Jopp’s fertile mind has lately been occupied by the strange world of particle physics. His conclusions are dramatic, debunking seventy years of worldwide work on quantum mechanics. “From Max Planck onwards, they have all been wrong,” said the gaunt genius, speaking in the green room of his fjordside home. “They have been inferring, unjustifiably, ever smaller entities. Once, they were satisfied with protons, neutrons and electrons, then they sought – and supposedly found – an alphabet soup of sub-atomic particles, including quarks, of which they assert that there are six kinds. This is nonsense.”

As ever, Jopp tested his theory by experiment. The site this time was a soccer ground near Hammerfest, where the professor’s team built an immense hollow cube of green polythene, into which progressively smaller cubes were placed, the centre being taken up by Jopp’s celebrated secret green box. “It was a brilliant example of reductio ad nihilis,” smiled the triumphant boffin. “The last eight hundred containers and the green box were inserted by transmural filtration, for which I used an osmotic infuser, which I invented. You could call it a ‘ghost through a wall’ machine.”

What did retrieval of the mysterious box reveal? “Exactly what I expected,” said Jopp. “The atom consists of a single body, the groat, which varies in size according to the element concerned. It comes in shades of green and travels in a quadrilateral path around a massless focus, energy being discharged when the body is sufficiently agitated to lose matter on striking the corners of its circuit, or to coin a word, squarecuit. This is what gives us electricity and, I regret to say, mushroom clouds.”

Asked whether there was an equation involved, Jopp explained the bizarre world of groat mathematics; one in which he says we must abandon common sense and accept that two plus two gives the same answer as two times two. He expressed the formula as E=4GS, meaning that energy in ergs equals four groat strikes in mass loss.

Jopp’s chief critic, Dutch-born Doctor Terps Dunderklap, locally naturalised after many years in Stockholm, was derisive. “Jopp is an ass,” snorted the ‘Swedish Savant’, interviewed outside an Uppsala ladies’ academy. “Also, he is excessively thin. If he would keep abreast of the times, he would know that I demonstrated to my own satisfaction that apart from the electron which puts our lights on, there are no sub-atomic particles. The groat is as unreal as any other. All atomic cores are indeed of zero mass, in which respect they resemble Jopp’s brain. Any contrary ideas are products of human imagination and as illusory as the rest of our earthly existence. Let’s see what old Greenfingers makes of that.”

As he is occupied with another vast project, Jopp hasn’t yet responded.

More Jopp exploits coming soon.

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Honoured/Sadly Missed
Editor’s Note: This item was misfiled on receipt and has finally emerged. Better late than never.


The advent of a new millennium may well have caused much rejoicing, but the glee is not quite universal. Some people have been disadvantaged, among them being those whose livings depend on work connected with Roman numerals. The abrupt change from nine letters to only two, identical at that, has obvious implications for these tradesmen – this being a largely male preserve – who are usually employed on a piecework basis. In Britain, not all the affected workers are represented by a single body. To date there has been no comment from the largest group, the Monumental Masons, which ironically has a monogram similar to the Roman letters for the year 2000. Despite its attempts to achieve unity, the industry remains fragmented.

Dick Spratt, spokesman for the Worshipful Order of Gravers (the WOGs), which claims to be the oldest guild in the UK, voiced his co-workers’ distress. “This is a calamity,” he said. “My members’ aspirations have been steam-rollered. It was bad enough at the end of the previous year, when we fell from MCMXCVIII to MCMXCIX. That was a drop to seven letters. Now, with the reduction to just MM, the bottom has fallen out. We are devastated.” His comments were endorsed by a representative of the Venerable Institute of Licensed Engravers (VILE).

A wider view was expressed by Stanley Nibb, head of the Fraternal Amalgamation of Romanic Technicians, which discourages use of an acronym. “It’s history repeating itself,” he moaned. “The same thing happened at the end of the first millennium, which came shortly after the incursion of Arabic numbers. There was unrest all over Europe, as people were thrown out of work. It’s a matter of record that this came to a head in Naples, where protesting craftsmen drenched the town hall floor with ninety gallons of ferret stew. Things improved a few centuries later, as we approached the mid-point, when we were able to make extensive use of the D, which like the C is a hard one to carve. Then we had our halcyon days in the run-up to MM, but now, as honorary Chief Chiseller of England, I am pessimistic.”

The Europe-wide umbrella organisation, the Brotherhood of Engravers of Roman Numerals (BERN) has, coincidentally, its headquarters in the Swiss capital. Now largely German-staffed – though in deference to tradition communicating in English – this august alliance used to be French-dominated, though even then used its anglicised title with the abbreviation BERNE (Brotherhood of European Roman Numerals Engravers). In fact there was a two-hundred-year battle – the Initials War – over the name, the conflict being enshrined in Germanic guild lore, where it is pithily termed ‘Der zweihundertjährige Kampf um die Anfangsbuchstaben unserer Genossenschaft.’

In charge at Bern is part-timer Manfred Kutt. With the hotheadedness we have come to associate with the Swiss, leading local barber Herr Kutt gave his assessment. “It is inconvenient,” he said. “However, we have not yet exhausted all possibilities. There are untapped markets. I understand that this is the Jewish year 5,760-odd, and that the Chinese chronology offers similar openings. If one looks at it objectively, this could be an opportunity for the more enterprising spirits in our fellowship. We might be able to restore the use of the old Roman bars and brackets as multipliers. Obviously, those not willing or able to embrace new concepts will fall by the wayside. On the whole, I am concerned but not downhearted.”

This looks like a classic case of some winners, some losers. Time will tell.

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Honoured/Sadly Missed

“Lord Garthlemmon’s residence. May I help you? … No, sir, I am the butler, Threadbare. … Very droll, sir. However, I was referring to my name, not my apparel. … Perfectly all right, sir: I am accustomed to such quips. What can I do for you? ... Sorry sir, that is out of the question: His Lordship does not take telephone calls. ... Quite understandable, sir. The instrument was installed many years ago at the behest of Lady Garthlemmon, who is no longer with us. ... Thank you, sir, but your condolences are a little late. Her Ladyship left us fourteen years ago, as a result of a riding accident. ... No, sir, the mount was a motorcycle. Lady Garthlemmon was leader of the local chapter of Hell’s Angels. ... Quite, sir. Unlike His Lordship, she was widely considered a little eccentric. ... Very kind of you, sir, but she had a good life and was eighty-two at the time. Please forgive me for a moment. It is midday and I must open the kitchen curtains.

“Now, sir, I assume you had something in mind. ... Reducing the telephone costs. That would be impossible. His Lordship lives on the state retirement pension, which suffices to cover the line rental charge. He does not make calls, so his bills for actual usage are always zero, plus VAT, of course. He has maximum resistance to salespeople and never makes purchases, not even of the things he wants. ... Beg pardon, sir? ... Oh, food. That is of no consequence here. We have a large supply of tinned goods, mostly corned beef, sardines and peaches, acquired by His Lordship’s grandfather in 1902, after the second Boer War. We also have dried milk, obtained by my master during World War Two, and instant mashed potato, procured when there was a shortage of the fresh produce some decades ago. ... Do not distress yourself, sir. With the garden and a little imagination, we manage very well. ... No, sir, His Lordship has no interest in the nutritional quality of his food: he concentrates on its shape. ... Yes, you heard correctly. He likes his meat or fish to resemble chicken legs, regardless of origin or colour. ... Excuse me again; another minor duty.

“Where were we? Ah, yes, the fowl. That is no problem. In fact, the canned meat is perfect, as it can be formed much as one wishes. I have designed a mould that fits the bill. Sardines are rather more difficult but with a little forcing, they conform. ... What was that, sir? ... Oh, potatoes. The same principle applies. His Lordship prefers them crenellated, in the same way as his seat. ... No, sir, by ‘seat’ I do not mean his anatomy but his home; the turrets, you understand. ... Quite all right, sir. By a happy coincidence, I took responsibility for the grounds when the gardener died, so am familiar with topiary. One needs only to extend the idea to the dinner table. His Lordship delights in a mound of mash with the appearance of battlements, the whole edifice surrounded by a moat of onion gravy. ... No, sir, we do not buy them. We usually have a surplus of vegetables. At present, there is a splendid array of savoy cabbages here, far in excess of our requirements. His Lordship’s normal procedure is to distribute them to the poor of ... No, do go on. ... You would? That is most gratify… er … interesting. A moment, please – one more domestic matter.

“Are you still there? ... Certainly, sir. I checked the position this morning. We have a thousand prime specimens, scaling on average just over three pounds each, almost all heart. His Lordship amuses himself with the thought that they resemble him in that respect. ... The cost? Well, we are not worldly at Nevermore Hall, but I believe the commercial practice is to price goods fractionally below a round figure, to give the impression that they are cheap. I had in mind a pound per head, but shall we say ninety-nine pence? ... Excellent. And you are based locally, could collect at three p.m. and harvest them yourself? ... Splendid. Oh, pardon me yet again – the oven needs attention: I am also the cook.

“Sorry about that, sir. Now, as to payment. ... No, a cheque would not suffice. ... Plastic? I think you are ahead of me there. ... Sorry, I am not familiar with that. However, I am permitted to negotiate for His Lordship and must tell you that he deals only in coin of the realm. If you pause at the entrance to the Hall, you will see on the gatepost his coat of arms and the family motto, Mon Dieu Et Mon Argent’. ... Yes, rather quaint. It is a variation on the Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s theme and dates from his Lordship’s earliest traceable ancestor, Guillaume Garthe de Citron, who took part in the Norman Conquest. ... Quite, that is how it became Garthlemmon. The first transposition was to the English ‘lemon’, the second ‘m’ being added later, when His Lordship’s forebears tired of being addressed as Garthle-mon. Please indulge me again – a further triviality. One’s work is never done.

“My apologies, sir. Now, was there anything else? ... I see. Well, we have leeks, but I couldn’t contemplate selling them. The Garthlemmon products are legendary and much envied. They are remarkable for size and uniformity. Nearly every one of them trims out to exactly a pound in weight. ... Solid, you say. They certainly are: firm as fence posts. No, sir. Please do not tempt me. The Threadbares have been at Nevermore Hall since 1790. It would be more than my position is worth even to think of … Oh, fifty pence apiece, you say. Hmn, in the circumstances I might consider … Very well, let us say three hundred. ... No, sir. His Lordship leaves such things to me. In any event, he will not know, as he does not like leeks. Also, he never sees the vegetable patches: his bedroom is front-facing and he has not left it for many years. ... Most solicitous that you should ask, sir, but he is in good health for a man of ninety-six. However, his view is that one day is much like another, and after experiencing thirty thousand of them, he concluded that enough was as good as a feast. Excuse me once more – I must see to the kettle.

“Back again, sir. … Exercise, you say? … Very thoughtful of you. At the risk of indiscretion, I will confide that His Lordship has a system. He keeps his chamber-pot twenty feet away from the bed, so at his age he gets a good deal of movement and is seldom supine for more than a few minutes, especially after his morning magnum. Mumm’s the word, sir, if you understand me. ... No, sir, I was attempting to introduce a humorous note, combining an adjuration to secrecy with the name of His Lordship’s preferred brand of champa… Yes, it would be better in writing. Perhaps I should have refrained from levity, but there is little enough of that in this mausole… no, I am going too far. I must not be disloyal. Pardon me again while I poke the fire.

“With you once more, sir. We seem to be plagued by interruptions. ... Dear me, sir, this strikes a discordant note. You seem to be requesting a price reduction in exchange for your silence. Well, I will borrow from the American film world by suggesting that we ‘cut to the chase’. Your position is weak. I deal with all mail and visitors, and have already said that His Lordship does not take or make telephone calls, so your prospects of contacting him are negligible. However, on the off chance that you might do so, I will compromise. Let us say 75 pence each for the savoys, but I am resolute on leeks. ... Very well. So, three o’clock, then – and the total price is £900 – in advance and in banknotes of not more than twenty-pound denomination, preferably non-sequential. Kindly knock on the door of the tradesmen’s entrance at the rear. A pleasure to do business with you, sir. Goodbye.”

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Dear Colleagues

You must have received and digested the information I sent by tachyonic transfer. Sorry I had to work back to front by sending the appendices first. I judged it best to do this, as it eliminates the need for numerous explanatory asides. I shall henceforth use Earth terminology, now surely familiar to you.

It would be beneficial if I were able to present a complete report in one transmission, but you will understand that my resources preclude this. I am forced to decide whether to keep you waiting a long time for the whole story, or to send relatively short missives via the accelerated route, which makes heavy demands of my equipment and necessitates frequent recharging.

I have chosen the second course, so might need to interrupt my offerings at tantalising moments. This would be appreciated by certain humans here – more on them later – who are addicted to being left gasping in anticipation of what is to come in further episodes of whatever serialised entertainment engrosses them. Also, commenting this way obviates any need for possibly misleading epitomisation. I know I am thought of as garrulous, but you don’t have a competent journalist who can match my ability to cruise the Cosmos, right? What would you do without me?

Now, I have been swanning around here for about a century in local terms. How do I convey my experiences? The length of time I have spent here indicates that there must be something to say, or I would not have used a twentieth of my likely current lifespan hovering around a place so remote from home. I have done so because my arrival coincided with rapid developments here.

You will have gathered that this planet has a slightly shorter year than ours, but is strikingly similar with regard to gravity, atmosphere, temperature, water/land distribution, and in having a single unusually large satellite. The Earth is rather younger than our home base and is at present less stable. Still, it is the first body I have found that has conditions broadly approximating to our needs. It would be a tolerable location for our expected overspill, but I must say that anyone moved from home and deposited here would face some uncertainties.

This planet has for aeons experienced upheaval by way of meteorite bombardments, some of which have changed living conditions quite drastically. Being in a fairly quiet quarter of our own galaxy, we have not had to contend with mountain-sized chunks of space debris striking us at many thousands of kilometres an hour. From what I have gathered, this kind of thing disrupts life here for long periods. We could cope, but there would be difficulties.

As if extra-terrestrial intrusions were not enough, the Earth itself throws up some problems by way of volcanic eruptions, grinding tectonic plates, huge ocean waves and goodness knows what else. This place is not for the squeamish. Survival here is a precarious matter, made more so by the activities of humankind – hold your collective breath for the grisly details.

Please don’t excite yourselves about the geography here, as it changes constantly – excuse the apparent oxymoron. The current continental profile arose from a break-up – about 200 million years ago – of a vast land mass called Pangaea, which split into Laurasia in the North and Gondwanaland in the South. No need for us to worry about this, as there will be further movements, with which we could cope.

Now, my batteries register almost empty, so forgive the pause. By the way, I think you should try to get your heads around this communication thing. After all, we are supposed to be quite advanced, aren’t we? It shouldn’t be left to me to tell our boffins what is required. I will resume contact as means permit.

All the best to everyone.


Note to the reader: Don’t be deceived by this quiet start. There’s dynamite on the track ahead, as the exchanges between Dweedles and those pesky types at Mission Control become acrimonious. Does the lonely voyager need a shrink? What will happen when love comes in? Another griping (oops) instalment soon. Editor

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Tashkent, 21 June. Already we have problems. I trust they will not emulate the proverbial sorrows by coming in battalions. That we are still here is attributable to Pugh, whose conduct has confirmed my earlier suspicions. We were about to depart when he discovered that he was out of tobacco. He smokes a particularly noxious brand of black twist, and insisted on flying back to London for a further supply, returning here today, unapologetic about the inconvenience he has caused. Not wishing to sow seeds of dissent so early, I shall take him to task about this in private.

Pugh is not the only awkward one. Flatpole has introduced complications by what she calls ‘sleeping around’. This has nothing to do with morality, but concerns her ability to rest only in an ultra-foetal position, for which purpose she uses a circular sleeping bag. This is annoying, as it occupies an inordinate amount of tent space. I am nerving myself to remonstrate with her, but must be cautious, as she has fists like sledge-hammers and is not averse to using them. Also, she is extremely hirsute, which makes me wonder about our credentials as a mixed-gender party.

We are having difficulty with transport. I said at the outset that for five people and all equipment, we would need something more substantial than a twenty-year-old Volkswagen beetle. However, Thoroughbrace is something of a know-all and he told me to mind my own business. Well, he must now decide how to get a quart into a pint pot. On a happier note, I have not had any trouble with Gannett, who has been a tower of strength, merely by remaining almost silent. I shall reserve judgement on him, as his taciturnity may have arisen from an attack of laryngitis.

God willing, we shall finally depart tomorrow.

A further Node Bulletin coming soon.

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After passing every test since its appearance in 1905, the Special Theory of Relativity is finally tottering. Professor Ovis Jopp, the lean, seven-foot-two, green bearded ‘Sage of Trondheim’ announced yesterday that he has propelled a material object to beyond the speed of light.

In the green room of his fjordside home, the jubilant professor explained all. “It was a fairly simple experiment,” he said. “I merely went out into the grounds of my house, taking an ordinary torch with a green bulb, the latter borrowed from my daughter’s playroom. I attached to the glass a film of joppium, a sub-hydrogenic element which I made and which is, I believe, the only humanly-contrived artifact of zero mass in existence. Under the film was an infra-microscopic motor, also made of joppium. I switched on the torch and, by delayed action, the motor. I saw clearly that the film was projected beyond the torch beam, indicating a velocity greater than that of light. I timed the experiment with my own watch, which has never lost more than five minutes a day. I entered a neighbour’s garden and recovered the film, which was singed at the edges – a minor hitch that I can overcome by employing an ablation shield, made of a joppium isotope. This is my greatest feat so far.”

If Jopp’s findings are confirmed, this will be an astounding breakthrough, causing us to wonder once again why there has not yet been a special award for this superman of science. Rumour has it that he recently rejected, for the seventh time, nomination for the Nobel Prize in his field. Sources close to Jopp suggest that he considers such an accolade inadequate for a man of his accomplishments, and that he is disposed to wait until someone devises an honour commensurate with his status.

As so often in such matters, there are sceptics. Professor Jopp’s would-be nemesis, the five-foot-four tall, five-foot-four round, hairless ‘Swedish Savant’, Dr Terps Dunderklap, is foremost among them. Interviewed near the nurses’ quarters of a Kalmar hospital, he was convulsed with laughter. “Not for the first time, Jopp is hoist with his own petard,” he guffawed. “If he would rid himself of his mania for greenery, he might make a passable junior laboratory assistant. By the way, his timekeeping was hopelessly inadequate. I would have been happy to lend him my watch, which would have sufficed, as it is reliable to within ten minutes a week.”

The doctor was asked to elaborate. “Gladly,” he said. “Jopp’s main mistake was an elementary one. He used green light and as I have established, the photons concerned are heavier than those of white light and therefore travel slower. Consequently, even with the extra impetus of the joppium motor, the existence of which I doubt anyway, Jopp’s film could not have broken the light barrier. But for the fact that he does not have the necessary intelligence, I would consider the man a charlatan.”

Dunderklap continued: “It is possible for a material object to exceed light-speed. I proved this last year, but did not publish my findings, as I considered them unimportant. My experiment was similar to Jopp’s, except that I used, correctly, white light. I capped my torch with a sheet of dunderium, an element of nil mass, which I invented, incidentally beating Jopp in that respect, too. I used a zero-impulse motor with the same properties as the sheet and achieved superluminary speed. You may inform old Grassface that he need not nose around for details, as there is only one dunderium assembly, and wild horses would not induce me to tell him that it is in a safe-deposit box in the bank next door to my home.”

This wrangle will surely continue.

More of Professor Jopp’s dazzling exploits coming soon.

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Dear Mr Underthwaite

Thank you for your letter and welcome to our haven for new writers. We know how weary you must be after labouring so long and hard over your book ‘Reminiscences of my Early Years (1930s and 1940s) in a Yorkshire Mill Town.’ At 18,000 words, the work is only about a quarter of the average book-length, but we are sure you put heart and soul into so noble an opus and if, after what follows here, you choose to submit the manuscript, we shall strive to do it justice.

It is as well that when sending the synopsis, you mentioned having contacted us before any other fringe publishing company, as this gives us the opportunity to acquaint you with what you can expect if you approach our competitors. We have devoted some effort to this matter and have compiled a list of points typically raised by organisations operating in this field. These are given below in bold type, followed by our interpretations. Gird your loins and read on.

We are not in the vanity publishing business. We are in the vanity publishing business.

You will be involved in a cooperative effort: author and publisher. No, you won’t. You have already done the real work in writing the book. Now you will be asked to foot the bill, in advance, for the supposed partner’s contribution. After you have coughed up, the house concerned will have no financial exposure, nor will it incur any other risk.

We offer you the services of our expert editorial staff. That would be Jeremy (32), scion of a middle-ranking aristocratic family. Faced with disinheritance if he didn’t start work, J., who achieved the seemingly impossible by failing university examinations in (a) Art Appreciation and (b) Media Studies, realised that he would have to shape up. Therefore, he joined his old friend and bedmate Annabelle, of impeccable Sloanie credentials. She came up with the idea of founding a business that couldn’t cost much, even if it failed.

You will benefit from our array of sophisticated technical equipment. We borrowed a desktop publishing rig from Annabelle’s sister Evangeline, who was unable to use it, on account of the length of her fingernails.

We have an unrivalled range of media contacts. Not entirely accurate. Jeremy distinguished himself by frequently outdrinking his Irish crony Liam, who later penned two articles for a local rag in some dreary backwater, then drifted into leglessness after the twenty-eighth rejection of his seminal work ‘The Fall of Vercingetorix.’ Annabelle was in touch with an ex-lover who ran a small offshore radio station. Her offer to reinstate the provision of ‘certain favours’ for a consideration was declined.

Our facilities extend to producing your book on the Internet. Of course they do, but consider that many net-users are in search of pornographic entertainment. The rest will probably not have the stamina to get through the thicket to reach your work, regardless of its value. Remember also that book prices via this medium are high, so even slim paperbacks of limited appeal will most likely be offered for £12/15 – hardly tempting to prospective buyers rightly suspicious of pig in a poke deals.

You must accept that in this competitive world, results can be disappointing. Well, that’s dead right. Steel yourself for half a dozen sales, max.

So, Mr Underthwaite, you will see that we are ‘telling it like it is’. You might derive some comfort from learning that we are trying to spare you a good deal of time, effort and postage costs in pursuit of an elusive goal.

Should you wish to proceed, please note that you need have no inhibitions about presenting your work, irrespective of its standard. At the rear of our premises we have a lean-to – well, it’s more like a kennel – in which we confine our in-house hack, Minnie. She is fresh from rehab and, given continued sobriety, will be happy to convert any garbage we receive into acceptable English.

You will have gathered that we do our best to be objective, while trying to avoid discouraging new authors. Perhaps the appropriate expression is ‘tough love’. If you are still disposed to avail yourself of our services, please send your MS., together with a cheque for £4,950, on receipt of which we will do all within our power to advance your writing career. Alternatively, you could spend the same amount on a sea voyage, during which you might find a doting widow, willing to set you up, provided that you are prepared to do whatever may be necessary as a quid pro quo. In our view, your chances of literary success are about the same either way.

Don’t hesitate to let us know if we can be of further service to you.

Yours sincerely

Jamie Stoat
Literary Adviser
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Much has been made of the problem posed by our rising age profile. How are we to make adequate provisions for our senior citizens? This thorny issue was referred to that distinguished thinker, Sir Bertram Utterside, former professor of social studies at one of the UK’s leading universities. Long regarded as perhaps our most eminent observer in this field, Sir Bertram, senses honed by a short break spent in a public park opposite his home, accepted the commission and has delivered his views, couched in characteristically trenchant terms. They are given below:

I am happy to offer a solution to the supposed problem caused by our increasing longevity. This is a fairly simple matter and should have been dealt with below my level. Most of the furore surrounding the issue emanates from disproportionately vocal types, mostly business executives in early middle age, who wish to ensure post-retirement continuance of their extravagant lifestyles. These people should realise that they are already being rewarded far beyond their contributions to our common wellbeing. They have yet to learn the difference between need and greed. I believe Gandhi was credited with making the first reference to this distinction, though I had the same thought, possibly earlier than he did – our two lives overlapped by twenty-odd years.

I will not dwell upon the lower strata of society, as they comprise people whose working lives are mostly drab, and whose retirements will be similar. Still, those concerned are undoubtedly worthy and essential – they also serve who only stand and wait. That is just as well, since if everyone were to erupt simultaneously in a collective burst of creativity, the result would be intolerable.

What matters here is that the angst-ridden upper-echelon characters have no knowledge of how they will feel when they become OAPs. Let me remind them of the words of T. S. Eliot, viz: “In the last few years, everything I had done up to the age of sixty or so has seemed childish.” Not having his text to hand, I do not know whether he mentioned that by the time people reached what he clearly considered the age of wisdom, they no longer care much about anything. They are also aware that their thrusting juniors wish to see the last of them.

When the relative youngsters reach seniority in years, the wiser ones among them will grasp that their task is to contribute what they can, rather than seize what is available. They will understand that the coveted mansion or yacht they acquired will soon be owned by someone else, who will say: “Yes, this once belonged to an industrial or commercial bigwig. Can’t remember the name.” Is that to be your epitaph? The hot-shots I refer to should take a leaf from my book by slackening off, as they are too screwed up. Indeed, only last week a man I had hitherto considered an adversary was kind enough to compliment me on the looseness of my screws. I was mildly flattered and will send him a bottle of my dandelion wine.

Now, I am being paid to offer a solution, and am pleased to say that this is the easiest money I have ever earned. My proposal is that a Ministry of Demography be created, the person in charge to be of less than cabinet rank, reflecting the fact that the brief concerned will be of relatively minor importance.

It is interesting that when ageing people are asked what ambitions they have, many of them place travel before anything else. This is inexcusable, as it is bad enough that these respondents are no longer in the economic mainstream. If, in addition to this, they wish to ruin the environment with their globetrotting, there would seem to be little reason for their continued presence.

The job of the proposed ministry would be to arrange selective culling of the aged. Not being an uncaring man, I suggest that there should be a voluntary element. Those who wish to depart – a cohort the size of which will, I suspect, be much larger than most of our sociologists imagine – should get first go. Only after that clearance would compulsory arrangements be invoked. Naturally, those involved in creative work would be spared the axe, rather in the way that those in reserved occupations are exempted from the blood and guts part of warfare. I recall the unpleasantness of 1939-45, by the end of which event I filled a vital role in the corridors of Whitehall. Imagine the waste if I had been disembowelled while trying to gain a few feet of some Continental battlefield. Horses for courses is the phrase that comes to mind.

Should forced winnowing be necessary, it would be conducted in descending age groups, in which respect I urge older citizens to think of the benefits of calling it a day. No need to continue dealing with tiresomely bland meals, trying to don socks while standing on one foot, fiddling with plastic cards, or generally wondering how to make increasingly unwilling bodies do their minds’ bidding.

I advise those worried about a hereafter to consider that they will go to either (a) complete oblivion, which has its attractions, i.e., it offers neither good nor bad experiences, or (b) a plane higher than ours and detached from physical matters. There is no need to worry about going to Hell. We’re there now, as anyone with a modicum of sensitivity knows.

What I am proposing is a win-win situation, in which those oldsters who want to go will be accommodated, while those who are removed compulsorily need have no qualms. I submit this answer as the most reasonable one to what is, after all, a prosaic question.

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Excellent results have been announced by Hairshirt Holidays Ltd., British subsidiary of US giant, General Hazards Inc. These companies are dedicated to catering for those who wish to ginger up their breaks with a significant element of risk. UK Chief Executive Wayne Bumpkin was in effervescent mood after revealing the figures. “We’ve no time for wimps,” he chortled. “Aside from the fact that we don’t accept anyone under eighteen, neither age nor gender matters, as long as our customers come up to scratch. Just contact us and we’ll try to tailor the danger to your requirements.” Hairshirt usually obliges, as happy vacationers confirmed.

Bank cashier Sharon Gourd (29) of Wembley was interviewed after paying £650 to spend a week immersed in liquid coolant siphoned from a nuclear reactor. Asked how she felt, she said: “A little blue, but basically radiant.” Stroking her newly acquired tail, she added: “An extra nose must be a plus, and talk about afterglow … .” Bumpkin maintains that this is just the tip of the iceberg, in terms of spin-off from the atomic power programme, and that the leisure subsidiaries will eventually be bigger than the parent industry.

Doncaster architect Norman Thinstaff parted with £800 for ten days of virtually non-stop snorkeling in a San Diego shark tank. He was not available for comment, though his brother described him as a bit cut up, but more than satisfied.’ Mr Thinstaff was particularly pleased with the cuisine, having – before he was removed for medical treatment – remarked that he was fed like a fighting cock, albeit intravenously.

Muriel Tautbow, an 87 year-old widow from Slough, chose the High Fives holiday, costing £480. This involves leaping from a fifth-floor window onto – or not onto – an inflated, ten-foot-diameter safety cushion, which is computer controlled, changing position randomly at three-second intervals over a space of fifty by fifty feet. “It’s totally unpredictable,” beamed Bumpkin, “but we do allow the clients five minutes of guessing time before they jump, during which period spectators may wager on the outcome. After that, all bets are off. I can tell you that Mrs Tautbow was concussed, but said she didn’t mind, as that was better than migraine.”

Soon, holidaymakers will be able to undergo the Polar Bare experience, which will leave them naked at the North Pole, their clothing embedded in ice, thirty miles distant from them. The only directions they will be given for recovery of their apparel will be to proceed due south, but as they are not told which longitude to select, this is not helpful advice at the most northerly spot on the Earth. When asked to comment on an allegation that Hairshirt’s aim was a zero survival rate, Bumpkin was shocked. “That’s a wild exaggeration,” he said. “There may be casualties, but we expect that many people will come through. Frankly, the only real problem we have is constant nit-picking by insurance companies.”

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Dear Dweedles

Your initial report duly received, as were the appendices, which are of truly intolerable length, this being the first of the bones we have to pick with you. Was it really necessary to send us such a bundle of bumf? You are excessively verbose, so it is no wonder you encounter battery trouble, which we hardly need point out has cost implications. Please note that the expense account for your jaunt is not unlimited. You have been away for two hundred years (Earth time) and what do we have to show for this but one planet that just might do? Maybe the long time you have spent alone has affected your thought processes.

As for the observations concerning your supposed indispensability, be advised that we have a couple of trainees who could give you a run for your money in the matter of hopping around the galaxies via cosmic wormholes. Nobody has exclusive possession of such skills. You may be interested to learn that as a final test in astronavigation, these two cadets took a short journey to a star twenty-odd light years from here and returned safely to us, three days before their trip started. That’s what we call travelling.

You will see that your query concerning what we would do without you was injudicious, as it caused us to consider that question. Oh, dear, perhaps you have tripped over your tongue, which would not be a surprise, considering the length of that organ.

Kindly let us have more details, and in doing so, remember that we are not occupied solely by a growing population here. Our star is warming up and we are experiencing some discomfort. There is an element of urgency.

Keep up the mediocre work.

Best wishes from Mission Control.

Watch out for a sharp reaction from Dweedles.

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Professor Ovis Jopp, the lean, seven-foot-two, green-bearded ‘Sage of Trondheim’ yesterday rocked the world of physics to its foundations once again when he disclosed the result of his recent experiment with nuclear cold fusion. The professor, speaking in the green chamber of his Stavanger laboratory, was exultant. “This is perhaps the greatest boon to humankind of all time,” he said. “At a stroke, I have consigned to the dustbin forty-odd years of global research and milliards in expenditure. Soon, thanks to my efforts, people everywhere will have energy galore at negligible cost.”

According to the slender sorcerer, a grateful populace will be able to power up the world with complete impunity. Following his normal practice of working solo, Jopp first devised his equations, then put them to the test. He started from the premise that other scientists had been on the wrong track all along in trying to harness hot fusion, which he says is ridiculously wasteful. He also discounted the ‘cold’ efforts of others as unenlightened, since they were based on a faulty grasp of nuclear physics. “They sought to utilise what I have already demonstrated are non-existent sub-atomic particles,” claimed the professor, referring to his earlier work in that field.

He went on: “It is merely a question of manipulating the groat, which I described in a recent paper. The ingenuity lies in the low-tech approach. I took a tube of green plastic, into which I inserted two groats before sliding a number of jubilee clips along the outside and using a couple of them to crimp the ends. Next, using remote-controlled screwdrivers, I tightened the clips progressively, thus leaving the groats with, as it were, nowhere to go except into each other. I must confess that the first test was disappointing, as the slow progress towards fusion suggested that the operation would take 80 million years. I realised that more groats were needed, so introduced them, reducing the time factor by many millions. It was quite simple.”

The professor explained that any element, or any combination of different ones, can be made to fuse. “The larger the groat, the bigger the bang,” he quipped, doodling on a pad of green blotting paper. “I have already clarified that the mass of any atom is defined by the size of its groat. For example, that of the dominant uranium isotope produces two hundred and thirty-eight times as much usable power as does its hydrogen counterpart, hence the familiar term U238. However, one can choose one’s element, since all groats are identical in properties and vary only according to size.”

Jopp’s words leave some experts unconvinced, the main detractor being, as so often, the short, hairless, quasi-spherical ‘Swedish Savant’, Dr Terps Dunderklap. Located in a Stockholm pole-dancing club, he was scornful. “‘Sage of Trondheim’ indeed,” he hooted. “I prefer to think of Jopp as the Norwegian nincompoop. As usual, he is in error. The only thing he has got right is his description of the groat. I admit that I was wrong in contesting his earlier findings in that area, and regret my reference to his theory as ‘groatesque’. However, having exposed his stupidity so often, I can afford to be magnanimous on this occasion.”

Brushing a muscular blonde from his minimal lap, Dr Dunderklap continued: “I have proved that cold groat fusion is possible, but in only one way. The desired effect can be produced by cooking groats in an oven made of dunderium, of which I have a monopoly. It is difficult to avoid being disrespectful to a man with so much facial hair as Jopp exhibits, but I will try to be objective. Let me just say that if you are intent upon scaling the heights of his intellect, you will get by with a very short ladder.”

Further developments are expected.

More of Professor Jopp’s exploits coming up.

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The following communication, envelope unstamped, was found on the doormat of our head office. Well, let us not be pretentious, our only office. We do not know the writer’s address. Here is what he has to say:

Dear Sirs

It is with a heavy heart that I, a male feminist – I am tempted to say philogynist, but don’t want to seem too highbrow – put pen to paper. Why the woeful tone? It is simple enough. I have been noting for some years that our females are progressing in various ways, not least in the field of education, where I understand that they are outpacing males. While applauding this, I feel compelled to draw attention to a most distressing development in the physical area, to wit: the manner in which the ladies are handicapping themselves. Permit me to explain.

For the last two months, I have been watching people who use mobile telephones. In an effort to gather a representative sample, I have monitored a thousand of them on the streets of this town, with alarming results. Of those observed, 782 were females, leaving only 218 males. The indication is clearly that we are on our way to a partially one-armed society, the ladies being in the lead. In due course, they will be born with one upper limb permanently attached to an ear by means of a mobile phone. This will put them at a serious disadvantage in terms of dexterity. We shall no longer hear of women raising three children to tertiary education level, while simultaneously writing best-selling novels and cooking gourmet meals. They will not have enough free digits. Being predatory by nature, the males will seize upon this, first by noting what is happening to the females, then by exploiting it.

This is not the first time I have been a voice in the wilderness. However, I hope that on this occasion my words will be heeded. Ladies, the remedy is in your hands. Don’t say you were not warned.

Yours sincerely

T. Edgar Wongle (Aged 76)

Editor’s comment: Close but no cigar, Mr Wongle. As it happens, our staffer Trixie Larkspur has just carried out a similar but much more extensive survey. Her figures around town were almost identical to those mentioned above – she also counted 1,000 mobile phone users, finding that 749 were females. However, unlike our correspondent, she widened her exercise by including several rail and bus journeys, where the male/female split was near enough fifty-fifty. More significantly, Trixie took in people who did not use mobile phones at all – over 90% of the total. Our conclusion: keep chatting, girls: you have little to fear. As for you, Edgar, we suggest that as you proclaim yourself (we assume proudly) a senior citizen, your metier might be bowls, or painting – anything but social commentary.

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“Good morning. Cre –”

“Yes. Sorry to break in. Could you connect me with Mr Lumb, please?”

“No can do, madam. Rodney Spoonbill here. I’m taking all calls this afternoon. It’s the staff Christmas party and I started work here yesterday, so I’ve got the short straw. I don’t yet know Mr Lumb, but I’m sure I can help you, today of all days.”

“I see. Is this a special occasion – aside from the festivities, I mean?”

“Indeed it is. We have a two-for-one offer.”

“Really? That seems odd for your business. How does it work?”

“Basically, it’s quite simple. If you are thinking in terms of a disposal, you need only extend the scope to take in another prospective decedent. For example, if you have an ageing family member who is, so to speak, on the brink, you might wish to consider whether there is a second person dear to you and approaching the same state. In that case, there might be an opportunity for both parties to leave us simultaneously at no extra cost. Two for the price of one, you see.”

“Well, what you say leaves me floundering a little, but I’m usually considered quick on the uptake, so I’ll try to enter into the spirit of things, Mr –”

“Rodney is the name. And you are?”


“Okay, Marion, or shall I say Mazza?


“Right. Now, how do you feel about our idea?”

“I’m not quite sure, really. Of course, there is my father.”

“Yes, a common situation. Elderly gentlemen tend to be as cantankerous as they are frail. They’ve been through a lot, you know, and some of them don’t want to face another full winter. Forgive my saying so, but judging from your timbre, I take you to be a lady approaching maturity of years. May I inquire as to the age and condition of your pater?”

“Let’s say he’s over seventy and deteriorating. Too crotchety for my liking, though he’s always been a bit that way, so his present state is no guide. All things considered, I don’t think he’s long for this world. Also, he has annoying literary pretensions.”

“Excellent. It’s easier when they conform to type. These old lads usually think they have something to say, but don’t realise that no-one wants to hear it. By the way, you’re not recording this conversation, are you?”

“Of course not. Why should I?”

“No reason, I’m sure. However, we have a number of suggestions which might, if I may say so, accelerate matters; hasten the natural process, as it were. I can’t mention them on the phone, but if you could call in –”

“We’ll see about that, but what do you mean? Are you hinting at a supplement to his daily fare?”

“Far be it from me to indicate that, but does he have any . . ah . . peccadilloes that might be helpful.”

“Well, he makes his own beer. It’s skull-cracking stuff, so I don’t think he’d notice a fairish squirt of cyanide.”

“He wouldn’t notice it for long, but we could discuss that later. Now, how about the second . . er . . possibility?”

“Nothing doing there. The only other candidate would be my mother. She’s about the same vintage as the old man, but fit as a butcher’s dog. Anyway, we get on well.”

“Ah, that’s a shame, particularly in view of the garden gnomes.”

“How do they come into it?”

“We’re including them in the special offer, free of charge. They’re hollow and very popular as repositories for the – ah – remains. People get comfort from looking out at their lawns, knowing that their loved ones are nearby. Customers are allowed to choose between plastic and concrete.”

“What’s the difference?”

“The plastic ones last longer, but the concrete jobs are healthier.”

“Well, I’ll think about it but I can’t see how I could take advantage of your twofer. Also, I’m just wondering why anyone in your line of work should be making these proposals. I mean, we all know that you’re allowed to advertise nowadays, but this strikes me as wee bit ghoulish. Are you trying to drum up business in the wills and testaments area?”

“Wills and testaments? I don’t understand, Mazz – er Marion. We have no interest in that department, or anyway, not a direct one. We’re merely trying to be competitive in a field in which we have many rivals seeking to get a share of a market which is hardly elastic. There are about three-quarters of a million departures each year, and everyone in our line wants a piece of the action. After all, we are a crematorium.”

“You’re what!?”

“A crematorium!!”

“You’re coming through loud and clear. There’s no need for you to speak in exclamation marks, Mr Teaspoon.”


“Sorry, but we’ve been talking at cross purposes. I understand everything now.”

“Oh, goody. Would you like to share the insight?”

“Yes. I’m phoning from my car and didn’t have the number I wanted, so I called Directory Enquiries. Got a chap who seemed to be hard of hearing and I had to repeat the request several times.”

“I see. How is that relevant?”

“I was trying to contact my solicitors. No doubt the silly fellow confused Cremmerton & Lumb with crematorium. Goodbye, Mr Spoonful.”

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Honoured/Sadly Missed

Kyrgyzstan: 28 June. Having put Tashkent behind us, we have begun the true expedition. Largely at the idiosyncratic insistence of Thoroughbrace, we are to follow a route that makes a clean sweep of the ‘stans’. We have already encountered Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, and shall proceed from here to Tajikistan and Afghanistan, then over the Delhi Sang Pass into Pakistan. Bracers, as I have dubbed our transport executive, was petulant when I vetoed his suggestion that we backtrack to Kurdistan and later loop over into Chinese Turkestan. I mollified him by pointing out that both places are not at present countries as such, but regions, the latter partly in countries on our route anyway. A nice diplomatic touch, I thought.

Pugh continues to give cause for concern. Yesterday, he decided to hone his skills when leading us out of the last village we stayed in. This spot had only one street, running east-west. Not wishing to interfere, I allowed Pugh to guide us into the setting Sun for two hours before I remarked that the Pamir Mountains lay in the opposite direction. Retorting that he was merely testing us, Pugh agreed to an about turn. I took issue with him, but he was defended by Flatpole, whose basso profundo grunts reminded me of the call of a wild boar I once heard in the Carpathians.

We shall soon be obliged to abandon our vehicle and proceed on horseback. I shall not be sorry, as Thoroughbrace, initially quite amiable, has become querulous. I told him in London that we would need spare parts, but he appears to have infinite faith in his inventiveness, plus a large supply of yak gut. He is wrong, as we proved today, when we covered eight miles, the last six by pushing our car.

I shall have trouble maintaining the group’s morale, but am not downhearted.

A further Node Bulletin coming soon.

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Honoured/Sadly Missed


The problem of overcrowding in our prisons having become acute, it was decided that the matter should be examined by a respected independent party. The authorities felt that they could hardly do better than call upon that outspoken arbiter, Sir Bertram Utterside, former professor of social studies at one of our leading universities. Fortunately, he made himself available and got to work at once. His findings are as follows:

Notwithstanding the fact that this matter clashed with my intensive course of bassoon lessons, I am obliged to the parties concerned for referring it to me. It is a bagatelle, but one takes what one can get. Incidentally, this gives me an opportunity to comment publicly on the hate mail I have received following some of my earlier exertions. I have been accused of casuistry, sophistry and speciousness. Rather than reply to the rabble in question on an individual basis, I hereby inform the authors of this scurrilous nonsense that their pratings are being treated with the contempt they deserve.

My answer to this prison question is two-pronged, being based upon consideration of the numbers incarcerated and the financial implications. The cost of keeping a person in jail has been put at figures ranging from £25,000 to £42,000 a year. I will accept the lower figure, which seems more than enough. If I lived alone, I could get by on far less than this, though of course I do not need a warder – a point that one of my above-mentioned castigators might care to note.

I understand that our prisons are full, having about 80,000 inmates. The first part of my solution is simple, as it involves only the crime of burglary. My information is that about 15% of prisoners are in this category. These people are confined in what I can perhaps best call colleges of criminality, where they are able to sharpen their existing skills and educate themselves in other nefarious practices. I recommend that we let these offenders go free and that we distribute to their victims most of the money saved by not jailing. The Home Office would be the appropriate conduit.

Some readers may consider this drastic, but I hope they will bear with me. I am reminded of a former colleague who lives in a suburb much affected by this type of crime. He recently caught a burglar in the act, though was unable to detain the culprit. That was the fifth time that my old friend had experienced this trauma, and I feel sure that he and his wife, both pragmatic, will accept my logic. As I shall demonstrate, they would have found it beneficial.

In this field, there could be a flourishing business, energising the wider economy, possibly to the extent that the ‘breaking-in’ element might wither away. There would have to be a firm tariff. Let us say that an initial offence would qualify for one year in jail, with persistent transgressors attracting longer sentences. The periods would be notional, as nobody would be imprisoned.

As it happened, the man almost apprehended by my ex-colleague was later arrested and proved to be a first-offender. Under my system, he would have been assessed as a candidate for one year in jail. If, for the sake of argument, we put the cost of proceedings against the wrongdoer at a quarter of that of a year’s imprisonment – and why should it be more? – the residue would have accrued to my friend and his wife, who would have been delighted to receive £18,750 in compensation. They could have replaced all losses – some with upgraded items – had their house redecorated, treated themselves to a new car and had an extravagant holiday.

Extended to a currently imprisoned number of about 12,000 burglars – even assuming them to be one-year types – the figures are impressive. The cost of incarcerating 12,000 people for one year at £25,000 a head would be £300million. By the method I suggest, about three-quarters of this sum would be injected into the economy almost immediately, instead of by the unreliable trickle-down effect with which we are faced at present.

One could imagine this idea becoming very popular, with commensurate social connotations. Retailers and tradespeople would experience a boom. The beauty is that the system would be self-perpetuating, miscreants always remaining free to conduct their normal business. In due course there would be a surfeit of desirable items, giving rise to an increased black market. Even this could be positive, as an export trade might develop, improving – albeit unofficially – the balance of payments position, in which the UK account is in the red. And let us not forget that what goes round, comes round. Having pocketed their ill-gotten gains, the thieves and spivs must be minded to spend them. How better than by indulging in the ‘shop till you drop’ mania? A boon to the economy. Here, I appeal to the criminal elements. Never mind the tax havens. If you get your loot in this country, plough it back into our economy.

There would be a downside, affecting mainly insurance companies and security organisations, since it would not be sensible for people to protect their house contents. I envisage a situation in which those who had not been burgled for a while might advertise the fact, perhaps with something like an estate agent’s sign, indicating that they had not been ‘done’ for several months, thus soliciting the attention of the larcenists. The householders could go out for an evening, leaving doors and windows open, secure in the knowledge that they would return to a property stripped of valuables. I submit that if this proposal is accepted, it will result in significant economic gains.

The second part of my solution might be more controversial. I propose that all those not covered by my first recommendation be imprisoned according to the system currently prevailing, but that the sentences be nominal. Once jailed, the inmates would be released on an eeny, meeny, miny, moe basis, the prison governors periodically drawing lots to decide who would be freed. Laugh if you will, but consider that would-be petty felons might be discouraged by the thought that if they were to be caught, their original sentences, often light, could by pure chance be extended indefinitely. At the top end of the market, murderers and their like would perhaps take their chances, but they form a small minority of jail inmates. Anyone contemplating a little shoplifting or pocket-picking would, I suggest, think twice. I am inspired by the quasi-scriptural connotations of this idea. After all, it represents random punishment for what is to the victims random crime, thereby demonstrating that we are a single great entity and that what an evildoer does to one party affects all of us.

If my suggestions are adopted, our prison population will decrease rapidly. This could produce a situation in which we might see an advertising campaign, inviting people to spend a night or two as paying guests in one or other of our half-empty jails – full British breakfasts included – with a financial plus to the prison service and, by extension, to everyone.

Like the Chancellor with his budget, I commend these proposals to the House – in this case the forum of public opinion.

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