Turbot the Witch

I had an interesting encounter with a couple of children as I was heading back into the village after walking around the muddy footpaths and byways around the area. (This is not only setting the scenic background detail, but also noting that I might’ve had a slightly dishevelled and windswept appearance as a result.) In general, I find it a bit awkward when unknown children want to strike up a conversation as on the one hand I don’t want to encourage them to talk to strangers, but on the other hand I don’t want to appear rude, so when they called out a friendly greeting, I gave a friendly acknowledgement without breaking my stride, but the girl called me back.

‘Hello, whoever you are. Who are you?’ she asked.

‘I live in the village,’ I replied, non-committally. Since she seemed to require more detail, I added: ‘My son used to go to the village school.’

‘Is he So-and-so?’ she asked.

(I don’t think I ought to disclose names in a public post, so let’s just stick with So-and-so.)

‘No,’ I said. ‘My son’s grown up and has left school now.’

‘Are you So-and-so’s granny?’


So-and-so’s granny is 68.’

‘I’m not that old,’ I said. ‘I’m not even 50.’

‘Are you 49?’ the boy asked.

I could see that this was going to lead to a guessing game, and he was only two off, so I decided to just cut straight in there with the answer.

‘No, I’m 47.’

‘I hope you don’t mind me saying this,’ the boy said, in a very polite tone of voice, ‘but you look much older.’

‘Are you a witch?’ the girl asked.

‘No,’ I said, ‘but if I was a witch, I might not admit it.’

I’m not sure if they grasped the sub-text there: people aren’t always what they claim to be (or not be).

‘Do you know So-and-so?’ the girl asked, reverting the subject back to whoever he is, but apparently he’s a boy in their school.

‘No, I don’t know So-and-so, and I think you should be careful about talking to strangers.’

‘Are you a stranger? What’s your name?’

‘I have two names,’ I replied. ‘My real name is Nicola Cawley, but my writing name is Talbot.’


‘No, Talbot.’

Clearly, they haven’t yet heard of a local village author of children’s stories that are charmingly illustrated by a talented artist from nearby Poringland.

‘If you’re a witch,’ the girl said, ‘you could turn me into a dog.’

‘Witches don’t exist,’ the boy said.

‘Well, either I’m not a witch or I don’t exist,’ I replied.

All those years studying mathematics haven’t been wasted. I can still apply logical reasoning in a conversation with kids. As I finally walked away, a voice called after me:

‘Goodbye, Whatever-your-name-is Turbot.’

So now I feel that Turbot the Witch has to appear in a story. Perhaps she should join Sir Quackalot, Dickie Duck, José Arara and friends. Sir Quackalot, for those of you who don’t know, started life in the TeX.SE chatroom in a little story containing TeX-related jokes to amuse my friend Paulo who likes ducks and is the creator of an application called arara, which means macaw in Portuguese. The story was called ‘Sir Quackalot and the Golden Arara.’ The image of Sir Quackalot on the left is created using the tikzducks package. The code is:



(1,0.5) -- (0.2,0.5) -- (0, 0.55) -- (0.2,0.6) -- (1, 0.6) -- cycle;
(0,1) .. controls (0.05, 0.57) and (0.23, 0.23) .. (0.5, 0)
.. controls (0.77, 0.23) and (0.95, 0.57) .. (1, 1)
.. controls (0.83, 0.9) and (0.67, 0.9) .. (0.5, 1)
.. controls (0.33, 0.9) and (0.07, 0.9) .. cycle;
\node[orange,at={(0.5,0.5)}] {\bfseries\large Q};

Sir Quackalot next made an appearance in LaTeX for Administrative Work as the author of titles such as ‘The Adventures of Duck and Goose’, ‘The Return of Duck and Goose’ and ‘More Fun with Duck and Goose’ in one of the sample datasets that accompanies the textbook. The more adventurous reader can, in Exercise 12 (Chapter 4), try to programmatically fetch the titles from the database to typeset an invoice for José Arara’s book order.

The sample data also includes a list of people, such as Dickie Duck, Polly Parrot, Mabel Canary and (to test UTF-8 support) José Arara of São Paulo. At various times in the textbook, they are customers (as in the above invoice exercise), letter recipients (Chapter 3, typesetting correspondence), job applicants (Chapter 5, typesetting a CV), and members of the Secret Lab of Experimental Stuff (and their co-researchers in the Department of Stripy Confectioners) who have to write memos, press releases, and minutes. They also have to redact classified information, use hierarchical numbering in their terms and conditions, prepare presentations, a z-fold leaflet advertising their highly classified projects, and collaborate on documents.

Dickie Duck also moonlights as the author of ‘Oh No! The Chickens have Escaped!’ illustrated by José Arara, whose paintings bear an uncanny resemblance to digitally manipulated photos of my mum’s chickens. In Chapter 10, they have to create a postcard and design an advance information sheet to advertise the book.

Sir Quackalot reappears in my testidx package, which is designed for testing indexing applications with LaTeX. My original plan was to use dummy text, but I’ve grown bored of lorem ipsum and I wanted the first few paragraphs to be informative. I also needed the index to cover the full Basic Latin letter groups A, …, Z as well as some extended Latin characters commonly used in European languages, such as Ð (eth), Þ (thorn) and Ø. After five pages of filler text, I discovered that some of the letter groups were still missing, so I added the story of ‘Sir Quackalot and the Golden Arara’, which provided an extra page of text and conveniently helped with the rather sparse Q letter group. The code to produce the document is quite simple:




For those who don’t have a TeX distribution, here’s a PDF I made earlier. That example only has the Basic Latin groups. There’s a fancier example with hyperlinks, extended letter groups, digraphs (IJ, Ll, etc) and a trigraph (Dzs): source code and the final PDF created from it (using XeLaTeX and bib2gls).

So if you read my textbooks or manuals, watch out for a cameo from Turbot the Witch. What does she look like? I think tikzducks can supply the answer again:



 •  0 comments  •  flag
Share on Twitter
Published on April 29, 2018 08:47 Tags: norfolk, tex
No comments have been added yet.