Christopher’s Christmas Cracker

Packed to the drawstring with handy-sized oddments

Coates
17 min readDec 16, 2021

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In 1970, the historian John Julius Norwich began producing Christmas ‘crackers’ – anthologies of trivia and writings as presents for his friends. They were later published, and thanks to him I know that on 18 August 1978, the Edinburgh Evening News reported the following:

While they were waiting at a bus stop in Clermiston, Mr and Mrs Daniel Thirsty were threatened by Mr Robert Clear. “He demanded that I give him my wife’s purse,” said Mr Thirsty. “Telling him that the purse was in her basket, I bent down, put my hands up her skirt, detached her artificial leg and hit him over the head with it. It was not my intention to do anything more than frighten him off, but, unhappily for us all, he died.

The second Viscount Norwich is also sadly no longer with us, so I’ve nicked his idea. It’s mine now. We begin with

Some things that look like other things

I am indebted to Jonathan Nunn for visiting the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and noticing a Henry Moore sculpture that looks like stupid, sexy Flanders’ arse.

He said in his tweet that this was “all he could think about”, as if this was an ignoble thought, and sculpture parks should instil in us only a high-minded appreciation of beauty. Bugger that, Jonathan. Firstly, your tweet brought pleasure to many, and secondly, having a brain that sees things like this does not make you an outcast. You are

Still from ‘Freaks’, 1932. Overlaid text reads: One of us!

I must also thank Edward Wilson-Lee, and apologise to him. He wrote the perfectly sensible, and rather good, The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books about Hernando Colon, son of Christopher Columbus and pioneer of libraries, and what did I do? Looked at one of the illustrations and thought of something stupid.

Hernando, you see, was a fascinating man who didn’t just collect learned works by Erasmus, but also ephemera like illustrations and ballads, which weren’t designed to last – including this 16th century satire on gluttony.

Hans Wieditz, c 1521: Winebag and wheelbarrow; satire on gluttony with a fat peasant facing right spitting and resting his large belly on a whelbarrow

Being a noted intellectual, I was pleased to discover a forerunner of Viz Comic.

Buster Gonad and his unfeasibly large testicles
Always been a fan of Buster’s showbizzy “Hi folks!”

And if we go back a little further, to 3rd to 6th century Japan, we reach the Kofun period, during which terracotta figures called Haniwa (埴輪) were made for ritual use and buried with the dead. These two in the Tokyo National Museum wouldn’t look out of place on the set of one of the pinnacles of 20th century comedy.

Lowering the tone rather, esteemed academic Janina Ramirez posted a picture from Hildegard of Bingen’s 1151 work, Scivias,in November, and I immediately asked if… er, that was a Gruffalo *ahem* emerging from the Bride of Christ.

Yes, perhaps we should move on to…

Things that are supposed to look like other things but do not

Thanks to the Folk Horror Consortium, 2021 was the year I found out about Tokyo’s Museum of the Many Faced Rocks, which is wonderful, obviously, because it has these things in it.

A selection of rocks with faces

I’m especially taken with that cheery little feller in the bottom right.

The museum does, however, also contain an Elvis, and I’m sorry, but

A rock that looks like John Hurt in The Elephant Man

that’s not Elvis. Not even late period Vegas Elvis. That’s John Hurt under heavy prosthetics circa 1980 saying “Everybody’s been very kind”.

And the thought of that wonderful script means it’s time to consider…

Excellent sentences

I like making a note of beautiful turns of phrase as I read. This proved problematic when, this year, I finally got to Jan Morris. I could happily have copied out the whole of Venice, but managed to confine myself to:

And sometimes, in the Venetian spring, you awaken to a Canaletto day, when the whole city is alive with sparkle and sunshine, and the sky is an ineffable baby-blue. An air of flags and freedom pervades Venice on such a morning, and all feels light, spacious, carefree, crystalline, as though the decorators of the city had mixed their paints in champagne, and the masons laced their mortar with lavender.

There’s a #lifegoals bit, too:

…the man who cleans our side-canal also carries a bottle of wine among his tackle – in case, he once cheerfully told me, his zest should momentarily fail him.

Speaking of which, in Eley WilliamsThe Liar’s Dictionary, one of the leads finds himself at a ‘do’, and:

Frasham beckoned a waiter to his side and Winceworth was suddenly holding a warmish exclamation mark of champagne.

Being one of those books by someone with an infectious love of words, it’s got this as well:

Winceworth blushed, coughed, but the words were tumbling out faster than the rhythm of normal speech, almost a splutter, the uncorrected proofs of sentences.

I read War & Peace this year, too. This isn’t a boast – the unwieldy bastard took me ages – but it does afford me the opportunity to offer a reader’s tip. You know in Lord of the Rings, when there’s a bit in italics, and you think, “That’s a blessed sodding relief – a page and a half of singing in elvish that I can skip”? Well, with W&P, every so often you get a whole chapter which opens with something like “The character of Napoleon was…”, and you can treat these two impostors just the same: Flip. Some. Pages. I didn’t come here for your cod philosophy, Leo. Tell me the bloody story. It does contain this, though:

…deluded by pride, we … pursue … the correction of the human race, while we ourselves are an example of vileness and depravity.

There are people all over the political spectrum who might benefit from reading that – if only they possessed the facility for self-awareness.

On happier themes, I needed a palate cleanser after W&P, and by great good fortune, I had read a tweet from pulp connoisseur Steven Sheil in February recommending The Death of the Fuhrer by Roland Puccetti.

Or at least describing it as “one of the maddest pulp paperbacks I’ve read”, which is much the same thing as far as I’m concerned. This is a book with everything. Breaking into the destroyed (OR WAS IT?) Nazi bunker in Berlin, discovering that Hitler’s brain was transplanted into another body, doing a Steve McQueen-style motorbike jump over a wall into a castle full of fascists, meeting and fancying a gorgeous blonde countess, and then… well, let’s let Roland tell this bit, shall we?

Her fingers dug into my arms with sharp nails, her back arched spasmodically, she started to pull me deep down into a bottomless pit. Somewhere within my body a train of cold liquid left its station, gathered speed with relentless fury and plunged on to its destination.

Nadiya Hussain looking slightly appalled

Gerda’s eyes opened widely now. The pupils looked dark in the fire glow, much darker than before, and somehow beyond them and behind them there was a deep rustling of Teutonic forests, of shadowy predators roaming in the night. Only then, at the instant of our climax, did I suddenly see etched in my brain the dust-laden map in the Fuhrerbunker with arrows slashing Berlin and the names ‘Wenck’ and ‘Weidling’ scrawled above them in a shaky hand, with the same jagged lines forming the ‘W’ as in the signature of the Baroness Gerda Back-Wislicency. Only then did I raise my trembling, terribly tired fingers to her head, slide them under the golden hair and feel the bony ridge across her skull. Only then did her lips part to give the fateful cry. ‘ICH BIN DER FUHRER.’

My friend Richard in a publicity shot for Hangmen by Martin McDonagh, holding a fake pint of beer and looking mildly appalled
Photo credit: Rene Cervantes

What with that and the bit where our hero performs brain surgery on himself, it is among the most gloriously stupid things I’ve ever read.

I have since heard that there’s a book called Abraham Lincoln: Fuck Lord of the Moon, but, look: our time here on Earth is limited, you know? Still, this does all remind me that it’s time we got to

The dirty bit

For it was this year that I discovered that this book (published in 2003) exists in the world.

Sex Pots — eroticism in ceramics, by Paul Mathieu

The author wrote it on the basis that other books on erotic art “largely ignore ceramics and other crafts”. And thank heavens he did, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to share with you these ceramic alien sex fiends.

Above: two grey ceramic aliens touch the penis of a ceramic human lying in front of them. Below: a ceramic greay alien looks at the arse of a man in doggy position in front of him

Or, indeed, whatever in the name of all that is holy is going on here.

Ceramic men engage in sex play

Not that This Sort Of Thing is new, of course. In 1536, maiolica painter Francesco ‘Urbini’ created this.

A plate made in 1536 decorated with a head made of phalluses

Apparently, young men of the time would commission plates with portraits of young women on, to present to the women by way of courtship. This – with its scroll reading Ogni homo me guarda come fosse una testa de cazi (every man looks at me as I were a head of dicks) – parodies both that tradition and the Prime Minister.

Perhaps it’s time to raise the tone. Without even leaving the world of pottery, let us turn to

Spiritual matters

and to the fact that I discovered this year that the Incan people had a potato goddess, Axomamma. Here she is.

A goddess who looks like a hash pipe with a face, and is also a bit potato-y

This particular version of her is housed in Das Kartoffelmuseum (The Potato Museum) in Munich, “one of three potato museums in Germany and … concentrated on the art historical aspects of the potato.”

Wikipedia informs me that “In 2006, the potato museum expanded with a new department, the Pfanni Museum, which depicts the history of the Pfanni trademark from 1949 to 1999”, which rather suggests I haven’t succeeded in getting any more high-minded than I was a minute ago, so let’s turn our attention to

The musical arts

and in particular, the harpsichord.

If I were to tell you that I discovered this year a concerto for that most genteel and sophisticated of instruments, you might imagine something from the 17th century, perhaps, and ladies being led about a dancefloor by gentlemen in breeches. Well, sorry. This one was composed in 1980 by Henryk Górecki, and was described by musicologist Teresa Malecka as a “striking trinket”. By which I assume she meant: it sounds like Jan Švankmajer remade a Hitchcock film and needed a score. It is madder than Mad Jack McMad, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Still, it’s not the most outlandish use of melody to illuminate the mysteries of human life that I’ve heard of this year. Thanks to Neil Gaiman, I read a book called The Dictionary of Disgusting Facts, which alleges that a musical was once written about the murders at 10 Rillington Place. It apparently went by the magnificently tasteless name Corpus Christie and included such numbers as Underneath the Floorboards, Thank Evans for Little Girls and There are Femurs at the Bottom of my Garden, but at the time the dictionary was published, it remained unperformed. In a world in which Cliff Richard was permitted to give the world his Heathcliff, this seems unfair.

Front cover of The Dictionary of Disgusting Facts, by Alan Williams and Maggie Noach. The illustration is of a pair of dirty, fly-blown y-fronts

The Dictionary also tells me (among other spectacularly horrid things; I can especially recommend heading to the book’s Wikipedia page and discovering the meaning of the word ‘sootikin’) that:

In London, a popular hostess serves budgerigar casserole to her guests, which include the titled, rich and famous. The recipe is a well-kept secret but the ingredients are said to include two budgerigars per person, gently simmered with herbs and vegetables. The bones, like those of sardines, are eaten with the flesh.

Unfortunately, the book is neither footnoted nor indexed, so I can shed no more light on this. If you google ‘budgerigar casserole’, you will only discover recipes for foods to feed to your avian pets, rather than advice on how to consume them. Feel free to explore this idea and report back, though.

In other bird-related matters, here’s something which should really be filed above under ‘things which are supposed to look like other things but do not’, but I was growing weary of resemblances at the time, and this should more accurately be

Things which are supposed to look like other things but HOLY SHIT WHAT IS THAT?

You know those ‘parades’ of painted fibreglass animals you sometimes see ‘decorating’ towns and cities? Well, in 2010, Liverpool did penguins, and this is Ken Dodd. He said of it:

I’m delighted and thrilled and think it’s wonderful

I assume they paid him in cash.

Let’s move on.

A bittersweet poem

We can file this under ‘you don’t have to have a 14-year-old cat that got into a fight this year and cost you £230 to put right to appreciate this, but’:

A 14-year old convalescent cat

Gavin Ewart

I want him to have another living summer
to lie in the sun and enjoy the douceur de vivre* –
because the sun, like golden rum in a rummer,
is what makes an idle cat un tout petit peu ivre** –

I want him to lie stretched out, contented,
revelling in the heat, his fur all dry and warm,
an Old Age Pensioner, retired, resented
by no one, and happinesses in a beelike swarm

to settle on him, postponed for another season
that last fated hateful journey to the vet
from which there is no return (and age the reason),
which must soon come – as I cannot forget.

(*sweetness of life; **drunk)

In the New Statesman in July, Nicholas Lezard wrote of this:

I had been feeling melancholy all day, and then someone on a social media platform posted Gavin Ewart’s poem about a cat being granted one last summer … and that pretty much finished me off.

One can see what he means. (He added, “It needed a bottle and a half of wine and an England victory to put the lead back in my pencil”, which joins him in spirit with Jan Morris’ canal cleaner.)

I also encountered A R Ammons for the first time this year, who wrote:

Winter Scene

There is not now a single
leaf on the cherry tree:

except when the jay
plummets in, lights, and

in pure clarity, squalls:
then every branch

quivers and
breaks out in blue leaves.

Another fine thing I beheld this year was a tweet from Gemma Arrowsmith about Margaret Rutherford in which she said:

Everyone talks about Tom Cruise doing all his own stunts & Daniel Day Lewis researching roles. But no-one talks about Margaret Rutherford taking fencing lessons so she could do every shot of the sword fight at the end of Murder Ahoy herself. No stunt doubles. She was 72.

I have not seen Muder ahoy, and doubt I ever shall, but… life goals, again.

So…

Wonderful things

Let’s begin here with Moon landing fever hits Croydon, 1969, surely one of the finest photographs ever taken?

A boy in a clearly home-made space suit with his mother or possibly grandmother in a 1960s suburb

Or perhaps you’d like to update your reading list?

Key: 1. Thank you, Michael Moran. 2. An exhibit in the Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities. 3 and 4. The Prince of Darkness really needs to make his mind up. (But also: more about Satan was a Lesbian.)

Or maybe you’d like to see Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton looking… somewhat refreshed. Thanks to a man called Rob Baker, I can help you there.

This is them outside the King’s Head in Shepperton in the early 1960s, in a photo by Milton H. Greene, probably taken around the time they were making Becket. There are ‘before’ shots, too (or perhaps more accurately ‘during’). By the look of O’Toole, in particular, though, above is very defintely ‘after’.

You might, instead, want to gaze upon this cuddly, Japanese penguin.

I think it very likely that you might, at least until such time as I inform you that this is, in fact, Kan-chan, mascot of Ichijiku Enemas, and is… well, shaped like an enema. Which would make the top of his head designed to be…? Er, yes. And those primary-coloured dollops around him…? Again, yes.

Remarkably, this isn’t the only product of its kind to be rendered in this way. Being American, though, C.B. Fleet Company, Inc created a superhero.

He’s called EneMan. Obviously.

This is all getting rather distasteful again, isn’t it? Let’s turn back to penguins for a moment to examine one of the most wholesome highlights of my year.

Because in 2021, six full years after I first tagged Aardman Animations in a tweet asking how they’d made the noise of Feathers McGraw landing in the milk bottle at the end of The Wrong Trousers, I FOUND OUT THE ANSWER! This was in February, and I am still excited. It is, after all, a beautiful, unimprovable sound – and, it turns out, a very easy one to make.

This year, you see, it finally occurred to me that Aardman might (a) have better things to do, and (b) not even remember, so I knuckled down to some Proper Research. I looked up the full credits of The Wrong Trousers and found the name I needed: foley artist Jack Stew. (It’s not quite as spectacular a name as Yolanda Squatpump, Modus EFX Crew in the end titles of The Usual Suspects, but it’s still not common, is it? That gave me hope.) I googled Jack, found he’d visited Brighton Film School in March 2020, and emailed them. It is a credit to a bunch of people who could have ignored me, or emailed back to say “we’re too busy to deal with this, you silly little man”, that they chose to forward the message on. And barely a week later, I had an email from the man himself. “Quite simple really,” he said, “and always a funny effect”.

I had an empty beer bottle that I sucked all the air out [of] with my mouth, then on the cue of Feathers landing in the bottle I pulled the bottle off my mouth, creating a bottle sounding pop. Simple but effective, try it yourself at some point, and you may well recognize the sound.

So: follow your dreams, kids. One day you, too, might discover the answer to an entirely unimportant random question which will make you happy. (He signed off “Thanks for getting in touch, always happy to help” by the way, which I thought was very generous. Out of kindness, I have not taken this invitation literally.)

Which brings me, naturally enough, to:

Other entirely needless but heartening knowledge

In 1968, in the course of a long and distinguished career, actor Trevor Peacock got a rather wonderful credit on the TV play The Year of the Sex Olympics:

Title card reads: Custard pie fight arranged by Trevor Peacock

And did you also know that, in 1987, the philosopher A J Ayer – “small, frail, slight as a sparrow and then 77 years old” – squared up to 21-year-old Mike Tyson at a party? The story is recounted in Ben Rogers’ A. J. Ayer: A Life:

Ayer was … chatting to a group of young models and designers, when a woman rushed in saying that a friend was being assaulted in a bedroom. Ayer went to investigate and found Mike Tyson forcing himself on a young south London model called Naomi Campbell, then just beginning her career. Ayer warned Tyson to desist. Tyson: “Do you know who the fuck I am? I’m the heavyweight champion of the world”. Ayer stood his ground. “And I am the former Wykeham Professor of Logic. We are both pre-eminent in our field; I suggest that we talk about this like rational men.” Ayer and Tyson began to talk. Naomi Campbell slipped out.

This could also be hashtagged ‘life goals’, could it not? There are those on one side of politics who think that simply deploying the word ‘solidarity’ is a panacea – just as there are those on the other who believe thoughts and prayers are an appropriate response to something that ought to be legislated. Ayer, though, puts us all to shame.

Many of us would look at Tyson the way Withnail looks at that vast Irishman in The Black Cap

Daragh O’Malley in Withnail & I threatening Richard E Grant and Paul McGann
PONCE!

but a tiny septuagenarian looked in the eye a man who made a living from (more or less) controlled violence, and reasoned with him.

Imagine the size of his balls.

A sort of conclusion

Anyway, I like to round these things off with something cheery, because, well, I did the first one in 2016, and… you get the idea. Well, this year I came across for the first time a tweet from September 2019, and it’s a good ’un.

Tweet from Cat Headley reads: An amazing friend of mine told me how she & her mum have a special way of sending support inspired by geese. Geese at the back of the V honk to encourage the ones at front to keep going. So when they to send support in testing times they say “honk honk”. So, “honk honk” everyone.

However, me being me, I couldn’t just include this without fact-checking it, so I emailed Professor Tom Langen at Clarkson University in New York State. Not because the poor bastard knows me from Adam, but because he’s written for children about how geese know they should fly south for winter, and his contact details are on his workplace’s website. He says:

I am not aware of any scientific study that has tested this.

Not a promising start, but…

We do know that honking is used to coordinate flock activities. For example, pre-flight honking and neck movements prepare all birds to take flight together. In flight, the positioning is quite organized, in a manner that reduces the energetic cost of flight. Ornithologists have hypothesized that the calling helps … keep the flock together and coordinated; that seems plausible.

which is a bit more encouraging, and reminds me of this:

Cartoon of geese in V formation debating whether any of them knows where the hell they’re going

But back to Tom:

Goose flocks include family groups, [and] the birds may well recognize each other as individuals by call (they ‘know the voice’), and try to keep in vocal contact. I am unaware of any studies that have shown this, though [and] that’s not quite the same thing as the motivation claim.

Ah. But…

That’s not to say that there might not be a motivational aspect – flocking birds, and other social animals (e.g. coyotes) have vocal choruses that serve in group cohesion, coordination, and motivation.

Or, to put it another way: we don’t know if it’s true, but we also don’t know that it isn’t.

So, until we do: honk, honk everyone.

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Coates

Purveyor of niche drivel; marker of odd anniversaries