It would be incorrect to refer to Mr Key's Shorter Potted Brief, Brief Lives as the eponymous author's magnum opus on at least two counts, namely:
- Mr Key's true magnum opus must surely be the monumental collection of implausible tales to be found on his Hooting Yard website;
- the entire point of Mr Key's Shorter Potted Brief, Brief Lives, as its title clearly indicates, is to be short, potted, brief and brief. There is, to put it simply, no magnum about it.
But to refer to this work as a minumum opus would be to do Mr Key a considerable disservice. The author has expended near superhuman effort researching, digesting, trimming down, condensing, synopsising, encapsulating, and generally précising the lives of several hundred individuals, whittling down their biographies to the one or two golden nuggets that we really need to know about them. So let's split the difference: Mr Key's Shorter Potted Brief, Brief Lives is, without putting too fine a point on it, a medium opus.
Think of this book as the Dictionary of National Biography with all of the superfluous chaff removed. We don't need to know, for example, that the helicopter magnate Alan Bristow was born in Balham and raised in Bermuda, that his middle name was Edgar, that he was present at the evacuation of Rangoon, and that he was part of the unsuccessful bidding consortium that precipitated the Westland Affair; all that we need to know about Bristow, as Mr Key encapsulates in the succinctest of nutshells, is as follows:
Bristow, Alan (English helicopter entrepreneur, 1923–2009). As a test pilot, Bristow survived innumerable helicopter crashes, including six engine failures in one day. He regularly got into fights, and once threw Douglas Bader into a swimming pool, calling him a ‘tin-legged git’. At the age of seventy-five, he started a new business producing his patented water bed for cows. See Chesterton, G.K.
Cows, you will be pleased to hear, feature rather prominently in this book, as do pigs, swans and owls. What more could you possibly want?
Mr Key's Shorter Potted Brief, Brief Lives is highly recommended.
I would have ended my review at this point, but there are a number of other considerations that Hooting Yard aficionados might reasonably expect to see covered in a book review, namely:
Plot: Being, in effect, an encyclopaedia, Mr Key's Shorter Potted Brief, Brief Lives contains no plot.
Characters: The book runs the full gamut of characters from Lascelles Abercrombie to Eleonore Zugun. (No, me neither.)
Imagery: Mr Key's Shorter Potted Brief, Brief Lives contains numerous images, including uncanny likenesses of David Blunkett, Art Garfunkel, Leon Trotsky, and Bruce Willis.
Does the book have heft?: Yes it does.
Structure: The entries are in alphebetical order by surname, except when the subjects do not have surnames (e.g. Theseus, whom Mr Key sensibly files under ‘T’, rather than the more strictly correct ‘Θ’).
Plagiarism or quotations: There can be no accusations of plagiarism: Mr Key is punctilious in listing all of his sources, and provides an extensive bibliography.
Narrative sloppiness: By adopting an encyclopaedic format, Mr Key cleverly avoids narrative entirely, thereby precluding any accusation of sloppiness on that front.
Brow: Middle, bordering on furrowed.
Bookcase location: Were it to be placed on a shelf, Mr Key's Shorter Potted Brief, Brief Lives should by rights stand shoulder to shoulder with its acknowledged inspiration, John Aubrey's 17th-century masterpiece, Brief Lives. But why stand such a useful book on a shelf, when you can carry it with you wherever you go? To this end, the book has been sized to fit neatly inside a standard-issue pippy bag.
Marketing ploy: Mr Key cleverly published his medium opus just in time for Christmas, making it an ideal stocking-filler.
As I said, highly recommended.
Disclosure: I have had occasional online contact with Mr Key, and am mentioned in the acknowledgements of this book, having provided him with vital information about a certain eminent nineteenth-century naturalist.
“…wonderfully droll, witty and entertaining… At their best Carter’s moorland walks and his meandering intellectual talk are part of a single, deeply coherent enterprise: a restless inquiry into the meaning of place and the nature of self.”
—Mark Cocker, author and naturalist
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