‘Why do I feel as if the Earth is disappearing from under my feet?’ was the reaction of one friend when I introduced him to Hooting Yard, the ‘nonsense’ literary universe created by that most cultish of cult writers, Frank Key. Yes, you must have a care when approaching Hooting Yard. Make sure you’re sitting down or at least have something solid to grab on to, because vertigo is guaranteed as you are struck by a series of dizzying revelations.
It starts with the sheer scale of the thing. In 2007 the Guardian said of Frank Key that ‘he can probably lay claim to having written more nonsense than any man living’, and in the subsequent years until his untimely death in 2019 he wrote a lot more still. Key’s oeuvre consists of millions of words, mostly arranged in short, sharp stories set in Hooting Yard, a warped interpretation of England. The stories are collected in fat paperback anthologies with titles like Impugned by a Peasant and Unspeakable Desolation Pouring Down from the Stars. Hundreds of the tales can also be read in the online library hootingyard.org, or heard declaimed in the author’s gluey East London growl as podcasts – the legacy of Key’s long-running weekly radio show for Resonance FM.
So, where to set sail on this ocean of words? It actually doesn’t much matter. Pick a story at random and dive in . . . And now the next revelation will hit you, which is how funny Frank Key is. This is the opening to a story called ‘I Had a Hammer’:
I had a hammer. I hammered in the morning. I hammered in the evening all over this land. I hammered out danger. I hammered out a warning. I hammered out love between my brothers and my sisters all over this land. They should have seen that coming. As I said, before I hammered the love out of them, I hammered out a warning. It was hardly my fault if they thought I was just larking about.
It goes on from there, the narrato
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‘Why do I feel as if the Earth is disappearing from under my feet?’ was the reaction of one friend when I introduced him to Hooting Yard, the ‘nonsense’ literary universe created by that most cultish of cult writers, Frank Key. Yes, you must have a care when approaching Hooting Yard. Make sure you’re sitting down or at least have something solid to grab on to, because vertigo is guaranteed as you are struck by a series of dizzying revelations.It starts with the sheer scale of the thing. In 2007 the Guardian said of Frank Key that ‘he can probably lay claim to having written more nonsense than any man living’, and in the subsequent years until his untimely death in 2019 he wrote a lot more still. Key’s oeuvre consists of millions of words, mostly arranged in short, sharp stories set in Hooting Yard, a warped interpretation of England. The stories are collected in fat paperback anthologies with titles like Impugned by a Peasant and Unspeakable Desolation Pouring Down from the Stars. Hundreds of the tales can also be read in the online library hootingyard.org, or heard declaimed in the author’s gluey East London growl as podcasts – the legacy of Key’s long-running weekly radio show for Resonance FM. So, where to set sail on this ocean of words? It actually doesn’t much matter. Pick a story at random and dive in . . . And now the next revelation will hit you, which is how funny Frank Key is. This is the opening to a story called ‘I Had a Hammer’:
I had a hammer. I hammered in the morning. I hammered in the evening all over this land. I hammered out danger. I hammered out a warning. I hammered out love between my brothers and my sisters all over this land. They should have seen that coming. As I said, before I hammered the love out of them, I hammered out a warning. It was hardly my fault if they thought I was just larking about.It goes on from there, the narrator finally hammering away across many lands ‘like an angel of death’. Humour, of course, is subjective, but Key is a master of every conceivable type of comedy so whatever the angle of your funny bone he will find a way to tickle it. He does gags, punchlines, observational wit, comic-book violence, surprise twists, startling call-backs, Pythonesque surrealism, vicious satire and the bleakest of black comedy, and he’s certainly not above deploying a silly name. Hooting Yard is populated by a glorious cast of recurring characters, including intrepid explorer Tiny Enid, useless master criminal Blodgett, pathetic poet Dennis Beerpint and – most beloved by fans – Dobson, a prolific author of pamphlets on wildly eclectic topics (potato clocks, the bee as a moral exemplar, the actress Tuesday Weld . . .), all of which are always out of print. (The one that got my friend was a throwaway mention of Dobson’s 114th pamphlet, ‘The Mythical Island Where Werewolves Think They Come From (out of print)’. The notion that werewolves might have their own, erroneous origin myth brought on the aforementioned vertigo.) Key can give you a sudden guffaw with a one-liner or, over the course of a story, gradually turn you into a giggling wreck by piling on ever greater absurdities – particularly when performing his own work. I have witnessed him onstage (spindly, scruffy white beard, eyes twinkling behind thick specs) reduce an audience of sixth-formers to tears of mirth with a deadpan reading of the story ‘Little Dagobert’ – an increasingly hilarious tale of mock-Dickensian woe and a real crowd-pleaser that begins ‘I banged my head on the baptismal font, but that was only the beginning of my troubles.’ But now we come to the next thing about Key, and the principal reason for his continued status as a ‘cult’ rather than a bestselling comic fantasy author in the mode of Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett. Twenty minutes after having them roaring with laughter, he had beaten that sixth-form audience into baffled silence with a lecture so arcane and incomprehensible that he might as well have been speaking Aramaic. For pleasing crowds, it soon becomes clear, is very far from the top of his agenda: indeed, there is really only one reader Frank Key is concerned with pleasing, and that is Frank Key himself. And what he likes is hammering away at words, words, words . . .
*Paul Byrne was born in Barking in 1959. His father was a communist Labour councillor and his mother a Flemish-speaking Belgian. His early influences were socialism, Roman Catholicism and The Beano. As a teenager he drew cartoons and attempted without much success to sell photocopied comic strips via adverts in Terry Jones’s Vole magazine. At the University of East Anglia he found like-minded creative types keen to publish – and in the true spirit of the punk years they did it all themselves: writing, illustrating, printing and distributing their own collections of student prose and poetry. At this point Byrne was more cartoonist and artist than author – he sold his own strange, collaged postcards on a market stall in Norwich – but gradually the words took over. He borrowed the nom de plume ‘Frank Key’ from an advert for a Nottingham builders’ merchant and stuck with it for the next four decades, as he ploughed his idiosyncratic literary furrow through the small-press publishing world of the 1980s and ’90s (often making illicit use of the photocopier at the Islington Council office, where he worked as a welfare officer) and steadily gained a following. Then came the Noughties and the online worlds of blogging and digital radio. It is impossible to overstate the transformational impact of the Internet on peculiar, non-commercial writers like Frank Key. The Hooting Yard style changed hardly at all between 1989 and 2019 but the Internet’s cost-free global reach meant that his audience, while remaining distinctly cultish, could grow exponentially: he could even scratch a living of sorts from subscriptions and sales of self-published paperbacks. Every now and then Key would be ‘discovered’ by a mainstream journalist, who would send back a missive in much the same fevered tone as a Victorian explorer announcing the unearthing of a Lost City of Gold. The Guardian hailed Key as the ‘finest living practitioner’ of nonsense fiction. The BBC’s Will Gompertz effused about the ‘magical world’ he’d stumbled upon. One reviewer, taken aback by the depth of erudition and observational wit in Key’s stories, said: ‘He seems to have the whole world in his head, plus another one of his own making.’ All of Key’s fans – including several commercial publishers – agreed that by rights he should have been much richer and more famous than he was. For here was a ferociously intelligent author with a total command of the English language, who seemingly could have made a lucrative living by writing anything he chose in the mainstream: criticism, journalism, novels . . . It’s just that he chose not to.
*The ‘story’ Key used to bludgeon that sixth-form audience into a stupor was entitled ‘How to Think of Things Other than Juggling’. Deliberately employing tedium as a literary technique, it consists of a set of instructions for building an unfeasibly complex machine (‘Attaching clamps to slats with quarter-inch gulliver bolts, smear some lattice-work with a decoction of binding-agents and thread the netting through tin clips . . .’) and it goes on for a very long time, the gag being that at the end of the process you will have achieved your goal of forgetting all about juggling. Why did Key put his audience through this ordeal-by-verbiage? Because he delighted in the crackle and crunch and weirdness of words like ‘gulliver’ or ‘decoction’ and was not much concerned about whether the sum of those words made much sense to his readers. This is the essence of Key’s brand of ‘nonsense’: not coining words à la Lewis Carroll or Edward Lear (no slithy toves or runcible spoons), but rather carefully selecting real words and seeing how far he can push their meanings before they snap. In some Hooting Yard stories the word-gaming is obvious. A number are written in a sort of plonking prose-poetry, with each sentence rhyming but not scanning. ‘The Cruel Sea’ is simply a list of hundreds of three-word sentences comprising the definite article and an improbable combination of adjective and noun (‘The cruel sea. The dismal pond. The glued vicar. The obsolete pudding . . .’). But even in the more conventional-seeming tales, such as one of Tiny Enid’s intrepid adventures, Key’s narratives are continually hijacked by his own vocabulary. A striking word or pun or idiom will suddenly take him off on a completely different tack and often he won’t even attempt to get back. Stories become shaggy-dog stories within even shaggier, doggier stories; gardens of endlessly forking paths; labyrinths without centres; seas of red herrings. The same applies to the wider world of Hooting Yard. Unlike other fictional universes such as Middle Earth or Gormenghast, neither the chronology nor the geography of Hooting Yard make even internal sense. In some stories Dobson is a Victorian, in others he has use of the Internet. Hooting Yard has its places – Pang Hill, Bodger’s Spinney, the Blister Lane Bypass – but it cannot be mapped for the same reason that the not-thinking-about-juggling machine cannot be built: it’s all just funny words. Everything is subservient to the language. Key quite often explicitly signals his word-obsessions (‘There are twenty-four points of interest between the aerodrome and the zoo, and I wish I could say they were arranged alphabetically. In a better-ordered kingdom, they would be.’) and thereby gives away the impossibility of creating either an atlas or a history of Hooting Yard, though that hasn’t stopped some fans from trying. Hooting Yard is more akin to the cartoon worlds of The Simpsons or Peanuts or Key’s beloved childhood Beano than to, say, Narnia. Characters never develop or remember anything from previous stories, but simply ‘reset’ with each new appearance. Real people, historical events and current affairs randomly intrude (for some reason JFK’s assassination pops up all the time), because Hooting Yard is the prism through which Key can view, control and hilariously satirize reality, just like in a long-running comic strip. Frank Key was a cartoonist who came to prefer words to drawings – and that, essentially, is his unique gift to the world: a vast, wonderfully complex comic-book universe, but made of language rather than pictures.
*In the years before the digital world changed everything for him, Paul Byrne had a difficult time. The 1990s – he called them his wilderness years – were marked by severe alcoholism, divorce and ill-health. The Internet saved him. He found readers, advocates and, most importantly, a lifelong inamorata, muse and kindred spirit who goes by the splendid moniker of Pansy Cradledew. Paul followed a strict daily routine: rising early, working all morning, reading all afternoon. He typed out his stories using the hunt-and-peck method, one sentence at a time, testing each line by reading it aloud to Pansy before moving on to the next. He did his daily blogs and his weekly radio show and sold his books to the fans who relished his every carefully chosen word. And late in his life one of those fans – a publishing agent – even managed to find a way to get him into commercial print without compromising his principles. Mr Key’s Shorter Potted Brief, Brief Lives (2015) is an ‘updated version of John Aubrey’s Brief Lives consisting of a single, unadorned fact about each of my subjects’ – the fruit of Paul’s favourite hobby of squirrelling himself away in the British Library and wallowing in arcane trivia. So for his last two decades, Paul earned just enough money from his writing to live precisely as he wanted to live. Paul died at the age of 60 in 2019, from complications of diabetes. But the vast, vertiginous literary universe of Frank Key, the ‘man who can claim to have written more nonsense than anyone’, will live forever on the Internet. Hooting Yard is a fathomless ocean of wonderful words, ready to welcome anyone who wants to dive in.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 73 © Andrew Nixon 2022
About the contributor
Andrew Nixon is a writer from Bristol and the founder of The Dabbler online magazine, to which Frank Key contributed a weekly column between 2010 and 2016, never missing an instalment.