Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

Making Something of Nothing…

I dislike giving advice almost as much as I dislike receiving it, but as a friend recently asked me if I knew of any easy techniques to generate ‘inspiration’ when creating an outline for a story or script. I replied to her request. Somewhat pompously and just a little ponderously, I’d now like to share the answer I gave to her with everyone, even with you out there. This is what I said:

(a) Don’t sit around waiting for inspiration.

(b) Don’t chase it too hard.

Some people appear to assume that ideas are difficult to come by, and if we mean very good ideas, then that’s true. But if we concentrate on workable ideas, the fact is that they can be manufactured easily. Strange useful juxtaposition is one reliable and simple way to create new ideas. Think of the elements hydrogen and oxygen. Pretty neat on their own? Yes, but a bit overdone.

Put them together and what do you get? Water! The first time water was created I am sure that its originality was astounding, far more astounding than might have been anticipated. After all, water is a fusion of hydrogen and oxygen but not just that. It is also something entirely itself, with all its own qualities and properties, most of which hydrogen and oxygen don’t have. Indeed it would be virtually impossible to anticipate the properties of water by examining the behaviours of the elements that constitute it, no matter how minutely detailed the analysis.

Water is a new thing. You can’t pre-empt thingness. It can’t be modelled before it exists. Only with hindsight can we have understanding. We may work backwards as a consequence and then model it as the necessary outcome of a combination of the two elements that constitute it, but this doesn’t change the fact that water is not obviously contained in embryonic form in hydrogen and oxygen. The empirical truth came first, the chemical formula followed, and only later did we nod at each other with the false wisdom of experience disguised as physics.

I repeat, there is nothing in the attributes of the atoms of elements to give us specific clues about the attributes of the compounds they would generate when they are clashed together. The same may be true for ideas, if we regard archetypes or clichés as the atoms of story elements and decide to combine them unusually. This method is one I might use when I want to come up with an outline for a story from scratch. I’ll take two things that aren’t connected and put them together to see what will happen. The less naturally connected those things already are, the better the process and the nicer the outcome, because you can have more fun trying to connect them, and more surprising ideas will be generated as a result.

These original ideas will come with very little effort, because they have no other choice. The simple act of colliding and fusing a pair of unrelated items will mean that such ideas naturally come into being, the same way that water comes into being when we bash hydrogen and oxygen atoms into each other. And one way of finding pairs of things that aren’t naturally connected is to flip open a dictionary at random and jab a finger down onto the page. The finger chooses a word, the first word, then repeats the process for the second word, and the two consequent words are the magnetic poles of the story. They run right through it just as the magnetic poles of our planet spear our globe like a blue pumpkin on a skewer.

I tried the method recently and here are my combinations:

  • Caffeine addiction and macramé.
  • Frogs and tangerines.
  • The fashion world and tropical diseases.
  • Astronomy and crossbows.
  • Economic downturn and pickled gherkins.
  • Liver salts and scarves.
  • Tinted windows and army trousers.
  • Bananas and canoes.
  • Howler monkeys and world peace.
  • Bellybuttons and cacti.
  • Castigation and dirigible accidents.
  • Zoetropes and cheese.

Almost any two unconnected things will work. Maybe pairing together ‘modulus’ and ‘reciprocal’ would cause difficulties. ‘Oneness’ and ‘duplicity’ too. ‘Contradiction’ and ‘congruence’. I am sure there are many others, and that you can devise pairs that defy my technique. But generally speaking the method is sound. And perhaps a very clever person could work perfectly well with all combinations, even those that cancel themselves out, especially with those, one suspects. It ought to be remembered that if two words are picked that the picker doesn’t especially like, the random page flipping can be done again. The method is a tool, not an order. ‘Tool’ and ‘order’ are two words that can surely be combined productively.

Recently I learned that the old British comedy show, The Goodies (1970-1982), used the same technique at the script stage. Perhaps that was where I learned it, for I was a devoted follower of the show when I was very little, but it must have happened by a process of mental osmosis, for I never consciously understood that this was how the writers Graeme Garden, Bill Oddie and Tim Brooke-Taylor generated their initial scenarios. In one episode, a satire on apartheid, the piano in the South African embassy had the white notes grouped at one end of the keyboard and all the black notes at the other. I am wandering off the point, of course, but the joke still seems especially poignant in its absurdity. Back to the day’s business!

There is absolutely no need to stop with only two unusually juxtaposed elements. More may be used according to taste. For example, three parameters may be selected for the structure of the story: (a) location, (b) activity, (c) participant. I open an atlas at random for the location, which turns out to be Rangoon. Now I need an activity. I turn on the radio, which is broadcasting a cricket match. Very well. Now a participant must be found. I look out the window and see a rabbi walking past. So the story must be set in Burma and involve a religious scholar who is a wicket keeper. The basics of the work are already in existence. But what happens next? Another application of the method will bring forth something for this fellow to do. He won’t sit around waiting for inspiration. Nor will he chase it too hard.

A lot of hydrogen and oxygen has combined in his vicinity. Rangoon is flooded. A canoe is provided for him and a bunch of bananas for sustenance. He paddles down the watery streets seeking his only friend, a tailor who has succumbed to malaria. The search is fruitless, so he moors his canoe next to a stall in the market and buys some tangerines while frogs hop all about him. Yes, he has already eaten the bananas. The day is over, night comes and the stars twinkle above him. He is surprised to observe a constellation previously unknown to him.

The twang of a discharged crossbow alarms him. A soldier on a roof is aiming at the new pattern of stars in the shape of a howler monkey. How might world peace be achieved with people like this about? Suddenly the stars vanish. Has the soldier killed them? No, it is merely an unlit dirigible looming from out of the sky. Let’s shout at it for doing so! There is no need for me to continue. The point has been made. The man in the tale has a fictional fate mapped out. This doesn’t mean that his adventures will be any good. That isn’t up to me, but you.

Rhys Hughes has lived in many countries. He graduated as an engineer but currently works as a tutor of mathematics. Since his first book was published in 1995 he has had fifty other books published and his work has been translated into ten languages.



Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

Trouser Hermits

Looking at footage of the pedestrians in a European city at the beginning of the 20th Century, it struck me, as it generally strikes most modern people, how many of the men back then wore hats as a normal part of their everyday attire. Women too, of course, but women often still wear hats. The hat hasn’t really gone away as far as the female head is concerned. But among European men, it is no longer common. While studying this footage I was told by another observer that in those days, “Men would never go out without a hat,” and everything I saw on the screen seemed to confirm this judgment.

But then it occurred to me that such an ubiquitous expectation contained seeds of doom for certain unlucky souls. A man might have possessed only one hat. It is vital that he goes out. He looks for the hat but can’t find it. Maybe it has decayed overnight into dust. Perhaps the cat ran off with it. Possibly it is simply lost without explanation in the manner of so many other domestic objects. The hat has gone. There is no spare hat and so the man is stuck indoors. Men never go out without a hat, and he has none, therefore it is impossible for him to go out.

But he must go out, it is important, maybe his daughter needs rescuing from a cad, or he has to invent the electric brougham. What are the options? Well, to improvise a hat is the obvious solution. A tea cosy makes an excellent item of headgear. I know this from experience. So do many others. I believe that it was Stewart Lee who once said something along the lines of, “Put a man in a room with nothing but a tea cosy and if within the hour he isn’t wearing it on his head, then he is the very definition of a boring person.” I concur wholeheartedly and wholeheadedly with this sentiment. The tea cosy hat is superior to a topper.

The main reason I first tried wearing one was to spoof Aleister Crowley, that half fraudulent, half brilliant, half ludicrous magus, and if those fractions don’t add up it’s entirely apt, because the parts of his life didn’t add up either. He liked to wear strange, soft, comfy looking things on his head. They weren’t really hats as such, more like an unholy conjunction of turban, cushion and mitre. Almost exactly like tea cosies in fact! I wore the tea cosy and spoofed him and it was a satisfying experience. Had I been born one hundred years earlier than I was, I could have gone out wearing it and made my way to the nearest hat shop in order to purchase a proper hat. The tea cosy might look absurd but at least it can pass as a type of hat, and that would be enough to permit me to walk the streets without censure.

Or rather, there would be censure in the form of ridicule, for a man in a tea cosy is a natural target of fun, but no censure in the form of social outrage. And the moment I reached the hat shop I would be safe, safe to buy a proper hat and emerge like a true man, a man able to hold his head up high in public, not just in order to keep the new hat balanced on top, but because I would have nothing to fear. The tea cosy could be stuffed into one of the deep pockets of my baggy trousers. No one need know it was there. No shame and no worries. I would be a man of my time again.

Trouser pockets, however, are a subject that brings me to another consideration of greater relevance to our own society. If you own a hat in the modern age and your cat runs off with it, what difficulties do you face? Very few compared with your ancestor of a century ago. But imagine you only possess one pair of trousers, and these trousers suddenly disappear overnight! Now you are in trouble irrespective of the year of your birth. Even if the trousers don’t completely disappear, even if they only tear and flap open at the crotch, the result is the same. You will be unable to visit the trouser shop for another pair of trousers. To visit that shop requires you to walk there and to walk to a shop, even a trouser shop, necessitates that you are already wearing trousers. A man without cheese might plausibly go to a cheesemonger’s but no man goes to the vendor of trousers in the nude. The scenarios belong to separate categories. A man with only one pair of trousers who loses the use of those trousers is stuck indoors for the remainder of his days. He is a prisoner.

But maybe it is kinder to refer to him as a hermit? There are no political, criminal or moral millstones around the neck of a hermit, as there are around a criminal’s neck. A hermit retires from society. We walk down the street and we see curtains twitch in the windows of the houses we pass. Shadowy faces are behind them. There are tens of thousands of trouser hermits in the cities of our civilisation, men trapped into a life of enclosure by massive trouser trauma. They could be rescued easily enough. A pair of new trousers fed through the letter flap of each unhappy abode. But we are ignorant of them and their desperate need. We pass on, oblivious, striding in our own good trousers. Also, we are wise, we are prudent, we are prepared. At home we have many trousers, we aren’t as feckless as these lost trapped souls in the rooms of those houses who are destined to dine frugally on what little food remains in their cupboards before going on to devour cobwebs and furniture.

The circle can be completed, even though it’s not really a circle but just a lump of an unspecified kind. The trouser hermit has no wife or family to come to the rescue and his work colleagues simply don’t care enough about him to seek him out. Yes, he can attempt to improvise trousers by knotting together towels and dishcloths, but he is too clumsy to do so. He cannot call for help on the telephone because the telephone was one of the first things he ate when the tinned food ran out. He is too shy to bang on the window at passers-by for help. He is the perfect anchorite, stuck to the seabed of his own reticence even though the vessel of normal life has broken free and gone sailing off without him. What can he do?

He will lurk because lurking is one of his natural skills. And at the base of some little-used wardrobe in the spare room he kept for guests who never came, he will find items of old clothing he had forgotten about. Our final view of him, in our hungry mind’s eye, shows him squatting in this gloomy space munching on hats, the hats of a former time, the hats that are no longer crucial for a fulfilled life, the hats of sundry sizes and miscellaneous materials that betrayed the scalps of our elders with historic itchings.


Rhys Hughes has lived in many countries. He graduated as an engineer but currently works as a tutor of mathematics. Since his first book was published in 1995 he has had fifty other books published and his work has been translated into ten languages.



Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

The Clock Tower of Sir Ticktock Bongg

Big Ben, London. Courtesy: Creative Commons

When Ticktock Bongg was knighted by the Queen
it should have been like a scene from a dream
but his heart was set on something rather different
and so he went away feeling indifferent.
What he truly craved was to possess the power
of transforming himself into a tall clock tower.
Yes, that’s what he wanted more than anything else,
to chime the passing hours high above the town
with bells located between his nose and his frown.

Who knows what possessed him in those mad days?
We all have our own peculiar little ways
but Sir Ticktock Bongg was surely in the wrong
to wish that his face would sound like a gong.
Alas! it’s too late now to worry about that
because one summer evening not long after supper
Sir Ticktock Bongg’s heart began to flutter
and he felt all his muscles and sinews stretch
as he muttered and mumbled and softened to butter.

His form became fluid and he started to grow
and for the reason that up was the best way to go
he was presently higher than the season required.
Soon his expression was ecstatic, full of bliss,
the features of a man elongated into an edifice.
Now the tallest structure in town glanced down
and saw two feet with ten toes standing on the street
but of hands on the ends of arms there was no sign
for they had relocated to his face to indicate the time.

Well, that was fine, Sir Ticktock Bongg concluded,
if it meant that no one would ever again be late.
About this prospect in fact he was most effusive
though his smile of gladness still proved elusive
because he now lacked a mouth, but what of that?
It is also quite futile to be troubled by the stray cat
that got stuck in his belfry after the change occurred.
To climb up there is absurd, but that’s what it did,
and was scared to come down again, poor little thing.

Much time has passed since that momentous evening
and the citizens regard him at last with affection,
considering him an emissary of perfect punctuality,
whether professional or apprentice they are grateful,
but there’s one objection to the way he fulfils his task,
for his clock head is so distant it can’t be easily read
and the people are forced with hoarse shouts to ask:
“What is the time please, Sir Ticktock Bongg?”
and he always replies with the same resonant song:

“Bing bong ding dong chime whine boom bong dong
bong dong boom whine chime dong ding bong bing.”


Rhys Hughes has lived in many countries. He graduated as an engineer but currently works as a tutor of mathematics. Since his first book was published in 1995 he has had fifty other books published and his work has been translated into ten languages.



Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

Pessoa and Cavafy: What’s in a Name?

Sometimes we know that something is untrue but we decide to believe it anyway. There may be several points in its favour, clues that seem to add up to a revelation. Then one shortcoming is noted and the speculation is ruined, revealed to be utterly implausible. Yet we keep hold of the notion because it remains aesthetically pleasing.

Such is the situation with my contention that the poet Pessoa (1888-1935) was the same man as the poet Cavafy (1863-1933) I discovered the work of both these special individuals in recent years. Pessoa I knew first, I have travelled to Lisbon often, I saw his statue sitting outside his favourite café, heard his praises sung by lovers of fine literature. Then I began reading him and I found a remarkable voice, a highly original talent.

Cavafy intruded later into my consciousness. His name was bandied about in Lawrence Durrell’s wonderful Alexandria Quartet (1957-1960) and I saw a copy of his collected poems in a very curious bookshop outside a peculiar village in a remote part of an obscure region of rural England. I felt a pull to that volume but I neglected to buy it on that occasion. Only when I saw a reprint of one of his poems called ‘The City’ standing alone did I realise that he had a supreme talent for pithiness.

And so I became a reader of these two luminaries, poets who excel in embossing their subliminally potent but often wistful visions onto modern reality. They are both among the best poets I have read. But I began to see an odd congruence between the pair. I started to link them together in my mind. There were so many points in their lives and working methods that seemed to correspond closely, too closely, that I finally wondered: Might they be the same man? Was this possible?

Yes, it is possible, even if not especially practical. There are cases in the history of literature that are no less extraordinary. Sometimes one man turns out to be several men. The author Luther Blissett is a case in point. He is an amalgam, or rather a conglomeration, of several individuals and as a result he barely exists in his own right. More frequently two or more men turn out to be one man. Kurban Said and Essad Bey are examples of this situation, for both are facets or sides or masks of one person, a true enigma by the name of Lev Nussimbaum (1905-1942).

Both types of deception are intended to create mystery and to baffle investigators, to allow those who indulge in the trickery to experience the displaced objectivity that comes with the transmigration of identity. On occasion identities multiply so prolifically that it is difficult to keep track of them all, and while we may wonder who exactly is who, the individual who is the original source of the identities acquires a status akin to that of the trunk of a venerable tree. The flowers and leaves on the branches are noted while the trunk is neglected or even forgotten about. This is clearly what some trees and some authors want.

Even a hasty examination of the respective lives of Fernando Pessoa and Constantine Cavafy will throw up some intriguing parallels and a few distorted symmetries. Pessoa was born in 1888 and died in 1935 at the age of 47, still a relatively young man. Cavafy was born in 1863 and died in 1933 at the age of 70. These dates show that they are absolutely not the same man. Pessoa lived in Lisbon, at the far western end of that longish body of water called the Mediterranean. Cavafy lived in Alexandria, at the far eastern end, and on the other shore.

So they lived far apart, almost as if they wished to throw people off the scent who might otherwise have remarked on the similarity of their appearance and eccentricities. If we draw a straight line between Lisbon and Alexandria and plot the halfway point, we end up in Tunisia. Were there any poets of great skill living in Tunisia at the time of Pessoa and Cavafy? There was Mahmoud Aslan, for one, and Aboul-Qacem Echebi, for another. What does this have to do with the subject in question? Not a great deal. But if a person had two identities and had to be in Lisbon at certain times and in Alexandria at others, then to base oneself right at the midway point of those two cities is wise.

This is idle conjecture and nonsense and yet Pessoa and Cavafy both lived and breathed in the medium of enigma. Neither man submitted work for publication, preferring to share it only with a few friends, or with the darkness inside a large wooden trunk. Pessoa wrote under many different names, which he liked to call his ‘heteronyms’. A school friend described him later as “pale and thin and imperfectly developed. He had a narrow chest and was inclined to stoop. He had a peculiar walk and some defect in his eyesight gave to his eyes a peculiar appearance, the lids seemed to drop over the eyes.” He studied diplomacy but was a poor student. Then a sizeable inheritance from his grandmother allowed him to set up his own publishing house, which he named ‘Ibis’.

The Egyptian bird chosen for this business venture is perhaps a clue that I have seized on too eagerly. Alexandria is in Egypt, of course, and Cavafy worked his entire life in an office, as Pessoa had expected to do. Both men travelled when young because of family commitments, Pessoa to Africa and Cavafy to England, but after their return they preferred to remain exactly where they were and never travel again. Pessoa lived in a series of cheap rented flats, Cavafy lived in one cheap rented flat, each man pretending to be unaware of the other, partly because it would have been very difficult for Pessoa to have access to Cavafy’s poems, and vice versa, but also in order to preserve the illusion they were different men? I am clutching at straws, I know, but straws can thatch roofs, and roofs are what best protect us from the elements.

Pessoa enjoyed setting puzzles for his readers and swathing himself in clouds of obscurity while hiding in the passages of a labyrinth. Cavafy on the other hand appears less mischievous on the surface but certainly was also interested in transformations of identity, in particular the way that an individual in the present can absorb some of the sentience, attitudes, even wisdom of those who are long dead. Both poets are considered loners and yet their work yearns for connection. Was isolation necessary in order to continue with the elaborate deception?

No, of course not, and yet I wish that was the answer. If Cavafy was really one of the heteronyms of Pessoa, I would regard the trick as surely the greatest ever played in the history of literature. But Pessoa died first. So might Pessoa have been a reverse-heteronym of the older but longer-lived man? We tend to believe that a subset must exist inside the set it belongs to. Perhaps Cavafy was a heteronym that was so realistic it came alive and hopped off the page into the world. He might have been a tulpa, one of those mythical entities brought into life by an act of sheer thought. A wish made true.

None of this speculation has any place in serious poetic studies, but I am not here to be serious, I am here to scratch an intellectual itch. Habits can be shared by men, talent too, but if we look closely at photographs of Pessoa and Cavafy we see the same elusive quality in their eyes, sadness and strength mixed together, interiority without inferiority, a deep ironic wisdom. They are figures who exist outside the time that frames them, a pair of warped mirror images, somewhat neglected during their lives but always with the promise of greater recognition later. And that recognition came in a surge and lifted up their reputations to such a high point that we now acknowledge them both as obvious geniuses and find it very difficult to believe they were ever unappreciated.

Pessoa employed at least seventy-two heteronyms, identities not only with individual names but distinct signatures, temperaments, biographies, ambitions and destinies. And if Cavafy was the secret seventy-third of the heteronyms? Is there any evidence for this wild proposition? Consider the Cavafy poem entitled ‘Nero’s Deadline’ and the essential function in the text of that same number, seventy-three.

Nero wasn’t worried at all when he heard
the utterance of the Delphic Oracle:
“Beware the age of seventy-three.”
Plenty of time to enjoy himself still.
He’s thirty. The deadline
the god has given him is quite enough
to cope with future dangers.

Now, a little tired, he’ll return to Rome—
but wonderfully tired from that journey
devoted entirely to pleasure:
theatres, garden-parties, stadiums…
evenings in the cities of Achaia…
and, above all, the sensual delight of naked bodies.

So much for Nero. And in Spain Galba
secretly musters and drills his army—
Galba, the old man in his seventy-third year.

Spain is not Portugal but it is an adjacent country. Cavafy was not an ancient Roman, but he was an adjacent sort of fellow, a modern Greek. It is very unlikely that he was a heteronym but would he have been willing to admit it if he was? None of Pessoa’s other heteronyms were especially keen to reveal themselves as fictional. Nero thought that the oracle was a reference to himself and his own age whereas in fact it alluded to the age of the man who soon succeeded him.

And why is seventy-three a magical number? It is a prime number and Pessoa died in the prime of his life. In binary it is written as 1001001, the neat symmetry of a line with one end in Lisbon, one in Alexandria and a middle in Tunisia. In octal it is written 111, three men or the same man in different positions? It is a star number, a centred figurate number that can form a regular hexagram, and both Pessoa and Cavafy were stars. It is an emirp number, meaning that written in reverse it is also a prime. It is used by radio operators as a substitute for “best regards” because when written in Morse Code it is also a palindrome and sounds the same forwards as it does backwards, another mirror image.

Shall I continue in this fashion? It is unnecessary.

I will finish by pointing out that 73 is the atomic number of tantalum and that both poets remain tantalising. At no point do I really believe that Pessoa and Cavafy were the same man.

Yet there is something satisfying about the idea.


Rhys Hughes has lived in many countries. He graduated as an engineer but currently works as a tutor of mathematics. Since his first book was published in 1995 he has had fifty other books published and his work has been translated into ten languages.



Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

Memory Gongs

By Rhys Hughes

“Very rarely do we remember our previous incarnations. But if you drink from this pool, you will live them again.”

“All of them?”

“Yes, in reverse order, right back to the original form of life. The pool is magic and a secret known only to the select few. I drank from it when I was your age. I am passing the secret to you.”

“What did it feel like?”

“I felt everything. Then there was a sound like a gong and I was taken back further. Each time the gong sounds you will remember a lifetime, an earlier incarnation, in sequence.”

“Right back to the beginning? To the first?”

“Yes, to the lowest.”

“Then I will drink from it now.”

He was free in the oceans and the whole of the blue expanse was open to him. How he sported in the waves! The feel of the spray on his back was a delight as he broke the surface again and again. He felt like leaping into the air and twirling a somersault or two.

The sun was low in the west and it seemed that the waves rose above it and made it into a new type of jellyfish. Orange and tranquil, it warmed itself on its journey towards the horizon.

He watched it through the lens of the ocean and it delighted his eye, a variation of beauty in this fluidly wonderful world. But then something to his left caught his attention, a disturbance on the surface that churned the water into ruddy foam. A life in danger!

One of his brothers was drowning, being pulled under by a force that was irresistible, a predator from the deeps. Without hesitation, he turned his nose in that direction and propelled himself at maximum speed. When the collision came, his inertia caused the grasping green tentacles to relax their cruel grip in the shock of the impact.

His brother was saved. Together they swam away from the nightmare and the knowledge that he was a very good dolphin filled him with serene delight. But he never suspected that rebirth upwards would be his reward. He regarded his action as a simple duty.

The dull booming of an unseen gong filled his head.

Now he was sitting in the forest.

All morning he had been eating bamboo and he was daydreaming of more bamboo and wondering how it might be possible to grow a bamboo thicket in his stomach in order to save on chewing, which was a tiresome chore, but one he never once neglected.

As he reached for another length of bamboo he noticed that an injured bird was flapping on the ground nearby. It would not survive the coming night in this condition. Some hungry creature was certain to chance upon it. Yet the injury did not have to be fatal.

He scooped up the bird and placed it on his stomach, where it nestled in his fur and closed its weary eyes. As far as he was concerned it could remain there, comfortable and protected, until it was healed. The chewing of bamboo would continue until then.

The gong sounded again, as if from another world.

He was a beautiful cow drinking from a river. There were crocodiles in the water, vultures overhead, but all was reasonably safe at the moment and his hooves and horns were healthy.

But what was this? Two lions had seized a calf.

He stopped drinking and snorted.

And yes, he was a ‘she’ in this incarnation but there was still a he who was remembering. He was simultaneously aware of both lives, the one in his present, which was also the future to this creature, and the one from a previous existence, which was a memory but also a reality that he felt he was experiencing for the very first time.

The other cows had fled, but without any faltering he dashed into the thick of the action. The lions were reluctant to give up their prey but such a fuss did he make in the struggle that finally they turned tail and ran, and that is how the calf won a reprieve.

The gong came once more, and already he had grown used to the note, the low shimmering reverberation of it.

He would hear the gong many times that morning.

And each time it sounded, it took him back to an even earlier stage of his fantastic existence, down the long ladder of life, through every species in creation, vegetable as well as animal, insectoid as well as mammalian, into species unfamiliar to science and back out of them again, lower and lower, towards the floor where the most base entity of all lurked, trapped in its sludge of ancient time, a monster.

But that floor was still far away, impossibly distant.

Capybara, a South American mammal

He was a gentle capybara, wading philosophically into a swamp and taking care not to step on the frogs. He was a giraffe, long eyelashes wet with the dew from low clouds, declining to strip more leaves from a tree that was wilting in a long drought.

And the gong sounded sweetly.

He was a mischievous monkey now. He stole bananas but offered one to a sick cousin prone on a tree branch.

Down he went, faster along the chute of time.

He was the lion that seized calves, the snake that swallowed birds, the squid that attempted to drown dolphins.

He was a vulture who refused to peck at a dying jackal until death had obliterated its suffering. He was the dying jackal who hastened his demise with a sheer act of will, in order that the good hungry vultures would not be kept waiting. He was his best self.

He was the kind spider, the thoughtful worm.

And the gong boomed again.

He was a mosquito and he buzzed like a miniature saw in the ear of a despondent elk and something told him that he was almost the lowest of the low, the second lowest creature in the world, that there was only one species worse than his own. But he felt no guilt or remorse. Why should he? Blood was his essential happiness.

Yet there was a spark of compassion deep in his soul.

A spark or perhaps an ember.

On the tundra, he thrived among this herd of elk and the large beasts were to him no more than casks of red wine to the connoisseur, vintages and years included as part of the bargain with oblivion. I came out of the void for just this purpose, he said.

But then the anguished cry of the elk moved him.

I am disgusted with myself.

The taste of blood is sour to me now.

I have had enough. I will perish if I decline to drink. So be it. I am a good mosquito and perhaps I will be reborn as something higher like an ant. And if I am a good ant, what then?

I might eventually climb the ladder of rebirth to the top rung.

And what will be at the top?

There is only one sure way to find out. I will begin that journey today by refusing to drink from this elk or any other. My bloodsucking days are over and so is my existence in this form.

And now the gong sounded again, for the very last time.

The lowest being had been reached.

The very bottom of the pit of existence, the nadir of life.

He scowled and put his foot down.

The accelerating car weaved erratically across the road as he shouted into his phone, buying stocks and shares, knocking a cyclist over in the wind of his passing, laughing as he did so, calling other numbers, telling his wife that she was an idiot, ordering one of his subservient managers to find any excuse to sack half the employees, threatening his secretary with a pay cut if she was unwilling to sleep with him, ordering his accountant to falsify the figures on his tax return.

The lowest species of all in this immense universe.

He was travelling too fast for the bend ahead. He cast aside the phone and gripped the steering wheel with both hands. Sweat poured down his face, dripped onto his expensive suit.

He came off the road and bumped down an uneven grass surface. He saw that he was heading for disaster. The gradient of the slope increased and his brakes did nothing to slow him.

A tree stood directly in his path at the base of the slope and next to it a boulder. The tree was slender and if he struck it, the blow would probably not kill him, only destroy the tree. He knew what he had to do and gritted his teeth. What a superb adventure to tell everyone at the next meeting of the board of directors! It would enhance his reputation still further, for he was truly a man of action, a winner.

Some strange sentiment rose up in his mind.

A tree was a life too. Why should it be sacrificed for his sake?

But that was nonsense. He was human.

Far more important than a tree!

Yet the sentiment persisted and in fact came to dominate.

He abandoned himself to the urge.

At the very last instant he swerved into the boulder, sparing the tree, and his last thought was that perhaps rocks are alive too, that his act of kindness was only a lesser of evils.

But he had done his best. That was his comfort.Then his universe vanished.

The gong did not sound. There were no notes left.

Not even a ghostly echo.

“Are you awake, my friend?”

“Yes, I am back in the present age. I feel scoured but also refreshed by my voyage into previous lives. That final life, the oldest memory, is one I shall probably never forget.”

“You are a billion species removed from such horror. Do not let the images and the evil depress you. We all must start from somewhere in order to climb to the highest point.”

“And higher than us? Only Nirvana remains.”

“Who knows? Maybe entities on other planets or in other dimensions will come before the ultimate state.”

“We must strive to find out, but not strive too hard.”

“Yes, to want Nirvana is a desire too, and aggressive desires cause all the troubles that exist. Let us remain calm and continue our lives as if we desire nothing that we do not have.”

It was time to leave the pool.

Slowly, as they turned to walk away, the two elephants trumpeted and flapped their enormous grey ears.

Rhys Hughes has lived in many countries. He graduated as an engineer but currently works as a tutor of mathematics. Since his first book was published in 1995 he has had fifty other books published and his work has been translated into ten languages.



Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

Dinosaurs in France

Eiffel Tower Paris. Courtesy: Creative Commons

I am still confused as to how many continents there are. Is Oceania the same as Australasia? Do North and South America count as two or just one? Is Antarctica a proper continent and not just a frozen phoney? What about the subcontinent of India? Does that count as half, quarter, or some other fraction? What continent does Greenland belong to? And the islands of the mid Atlantic, what about them?

When I was younger the issue was simpler. There were six continents, Africa, America, Asia, Australasia, Europe and Great Britain. There was absolutely no doubt that Britain was separate from Europe geographically and spiritually. In fact, the mainland of Europe was the continent and things that came from it were ‘continental’ and mostly malodorous, quilts and kisses on the hand being exceptions.

In Europe people did peculiar things; they spread chocolate on bread for breakfast and melted cheese in communal pots in the evenings. Or so it was said. Europe was a place of mystery, a patchwork of suspense, and crossing its multifarious internal borders wasn’t likely to be easy. If you had to travel there, a large vulcanite suitcase that could be plastered with triangular destination labels was the minimum requirement. Better not to go at all! The greasy food, cooked in nasty olive oil, was certain to upset your stomach. And there were yodellers.

My great childish dream back then was to build a raft and paddle it to France. There were enough fallen trees in the forest near my home to provide wood for the construction. France seemed an incredibly exotic destination and my enthusiasm was increased rather than diminished when I was told that dinosaurs existed there. They had become extinct everywhere else but still flourished in France. Thus, I couldn’t wait to drag my raft ashore and encounter my first stegosaurus. Other lies that adults told me about France included the assertion that the Eiffel Tower was something that horses jumped over in the Grand National. Having no idea what a ‘Grand National’ was I felt only a vague sense of awe. It was many years before I learned that it is a horse race famous for being dangerous to horses and for the ludicrous hats worn by upper class drunken women who watch it and chortle.

Adults in those days told outrageous untruths as a matter of course. It was an accepted part of life. I grew up in an environment where no one said anything sensible but instead would make the most absurd statements with a straight face. It was an uncle who claimed that France was jammed with dinosaurs. He also informed me that we were living in Australia, not Britain, but that everyone else would try to trick me into thinking it was Britain and that they were all in the joke together and I shouldn’t believe them. The truth of the matter, he added, was that Britain was a fiction, it didn’t exist, or it had sunk beneath the sea, it was a joke or a memory and nothing more. This was Australia and when he was my age, he had made a raft, from twigs, and sailed it around the world and started a successful property business with a gorilla in a jungle.

And he told me that he once pulled the plug out of the bath while he was still in it and got sucked down the hole and ended up at the bottom of the sea where he lived in a gigantic air bubble with a dolphin who taught him dolphin language and how to make crêpes. None of this was said in a joking manner but in a tone of utter seriousness. Everyone was like this. The postman once told me that he lived in a marshmallow house and was terrified of lightning strikes because the heat would alter the flavour of his roof and that people were taxed on the flavours of their roofs, so for him it was a major concern that his tiles weren’t toasted.

One of my favourite absurdities concerned the International Date Line. Because Australia was so many hours in the future, people who lived there (like ourselves) could phone relatives in Europe with the results of football matches, horse races and boxing competitions that hadn’t yet happened, enabling those relatives to make a big profit at the betting shop. These European relatives could then phone America to pass on the same information, enabling friends over there to also make money through betting. However, because of the Date Line it wasn’t possible for America to do any such favours for any countries west of them. In other words, America took but didn’t give, and as a consequence, was building up a large debt to the rest of the world.

One day all the other nations of the world, all those living in a future time relative to America, would form an alliance and invade America and loot all its treasures in retaliation. I am fairly sure it was one of my schoolteachers who told me all this. Even supposedly ‘responsible’ adults liked to be ridiculous in a blasé manner and play jokes on children. I remember one outing to a pond in a park as part of a nature class. We were required to sketch any animals that we might encounter, and, in my mind, I can still see the teacher crouching over a child’s sketch pad and pointing to a duck that was paddling slowly on the water.

“What it that, boy?”

“A duck, sir.”

“No, boy, it’s a fish.”

“But it has a beak and wings, sir!”

“Yes, but it has a tail too. Can’t you see the tail? Fish have tails, don’t they? That means it’s a fish. Draw it exactly as you see it and write the word ‘fish’ under the drawing and tomorrow I will hand your work to the headmaster so he can form a judgment of your educational progress and I am sure the result will interest him.”

That’s how life was in Britain when I was younger. Practical jokes and getting other people into trouble for the purposes of comedy was standard behaviour. If you didn’t tell amusing fabrications then you were regarded as rather odd, dubious even, a spoilsport and also, perhaps, a saboteur or foreigner. I would look at adults in the street and wonder if any of them were French and on familiar terms with dinosaurs.

Then everything changed and the countries and cultures of Europe became much more accessible. Going to Paris, Madrid or Lisbon for a weekend took no more effort than visiting Weymouth, Blackpool or Margate. In fact, it usually took less effort. I began to genuinely feel like a European citizen, something generally considered not feasible for a British fellow, but I am Welsh, not English, and the Welsh, who are the original Britons, are hardly British. To feel European required only my desire and acquiescence, and I had that desire and yes, I was willing to acquiesce. Feeling European wasn’t an option denied to me at that time and I never thought it would be, at least not until plate tectonics reformed the continents and Europe ceased to physically exist.

It sounds ludicrously obvious, but it still apparently needs to be said. Britain isn’t a continent by itself. That was just a childhood myth, similar to the story that if you swallow an apple pip a tree will grow inside you, and in fact I once deliberately swallowed many pips in order to have an orchard in my stomach and never grow hungry. I would only have to jump up and down at mealtimes for the fruit to fall from the branches. Because the fruit was already in my stomach, actually eating it would be unnecessary. It seemed such a wonderful solution that I couldn’t work out why everyone didn’t do it. I supposed that maybe adults didn’t really like convenience. But no, we can’t have trees growing inside us. And sadly, dolphins don’t know how to make crêpes.

Politely we call such things myths. They are deceits, of course. But the world seems to have gone back in time. Travelling abroad is truly difficult again, impossible in many instances. I spend my days bewailing the reversal. I have started wondering if my old plan of building a raft might be my best option of leaving these shores and visiting other lands. There might be dangerous dinosaurs off the coast of France, those long-necked plesiosaurs, but I will take a big detour around them. I will steer by the light of the stars and satisfy my hunger by eating the walls of my marshmallow cabin. Everything will work out fine.

Rhys Hughes has lived in many countries. He graduated as an engineer but currently works as a tutor of mathematics. Since his first book was published in 1995 he has had fifty other books published and his work has been translated into ten languages.



Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

The Scottish Homer: William McGonagall

William Topaz McGonagall (1825-1902), the son of an Irish handloom weaver, was such a bad poet that he has been hailed as a genius. His knack of bungling every subject he ever attempted, of making even the most tragic events seem funny, is almost unique in literature.

Born in Edinburgh in 1825, McGonagall was drawn to the theatre and first tried his hand as an actor. His performance of Macbeth was a classic of improvisation. Having been run through by Macduff, he refused to die and continued declaiming impromptu verses until a well-aimed kick from the assassin finally brought him to the ground.

His true vocation, however, lay with the written word. He received a fatal bite from the muse of poetry one day in 1877, at the age of 52. “A flame,” he said, “seemed to kindle up my entire frame and I felt so happy, so happy I was inclined to dance.”

This inclination to dance did not impede his literary output. Once he began writing, he found it difficult to stop. His themes were as grand as his rhymes were banal. He bathed daily in pathos and bathos, almost drowning in the tub that he enjoyed thumping. He quickly produced over two hundred poems, nearly all of them about battles, shipwrecks or other disasters, the heroes of which were often squashed.

So on comes the iron-horse snorting and rumbling
And the mountain-torrent at the bridge kept roaring and tumbling;
While brave Carl keeps shouting, The bridge is down! The bridge is down!
He cried with a pitiful wail and sound.
But, thank heaven, the engine-driver sees the red light
That Carl keeps swinging round his head with all his might;
But bang! bang! goes the engine with a terrible crash,
And the car is dashed all to smash.

Whenever human folly was responsible for a catastrophe, McGonagall was quick to point it out. In ‘The Tay Bridge Disaster’, one of the most famous of his creations, he rounded on the architects and engineers with astonishing hindsight, his tone a curious mixture of pragmatic pomposity and melodramatic modesty. The ending of that epic, with its engineering advice, is especially poignant.

Oh! ill-fated Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay,
I must now conclude my lay
By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay,
That your central girders would not have given way,
At least many sensible men do say,
Had they been supported on each side with buttresses…

In the handful of his poems not concerned with violent loss of life, but only with relatively peaceful loss of life and its aftermath, McGonagall plumbed shallows of solemn profundity rarely waded into before or since. His elegiac but often sadly overlooked ‘Funeral of the German Emperor’ contains one of his most remarkable stanzas.

The authorities of Berlin in honour of the Emperor considered it no sin,
To decorate with crape the beautiful city of Berlin;
Therefore Berlin I declare was a city of crape,
Because few buildings crape decoration did escape.

Unable to find a publisher, McGonagall became his own literary agent and publicist. On one occasion, he even tramped all the way to Balmoral Castle to offer copies of his poems to Queen Victoria in person. But the Queen refused to see him and he had to settle for selling them to the policeman at the gates, one of his few occasions in his career when he earned money from his work.

He spent the rest of his life seeking recognition of his talents. At poetry readings in Dundee, he tormented listeners with his lyrics until they had to resort to throwing peas and other vegetables at him. When these items were abandoned in favour of slushier and harder missiles, he decided it was time to leave Dundee.

I intend to leave Dundee,
Owing to the treatment I receive,
Which does my heart sadly grieve.
Every morning when I go out
The ignorant rabble they do shout
‘There goes Mad McGonagall’
In derisive shouts, as loud as they can bawl
And lifts stones and snowballs, throws them at me.

In the spring of 1890, McGonagall began to suffer headaches. He went to see a doctor who, in the words of a local journalist, “put a tube up his nose and blew into it as if he were performing solo on the trombone”. The trouble was diagnosed as an air cavity blocked by writing poetry. But McGonagall did not take the hint.

McGonagall seems to have remained undaunted by all the adverse criticism he received in his lifetime. He invariably denounced all his critics as “vendors of strong drink”. He was convinced that the world would one day recognise him as the equal of Shakespeare. In some ways, his faith was justified. He has earned the sobriquet ‘The Scottish Homer’ and all his books are now in print.

Indeed, his poem ‘The Famous Tay Whale’ has actually found its way into a respectable anthology. George MacBeth, editor of the Penguin Book of Victorian Verse, defends the poem by insisting that McGonagall “was the first and perhaps so far the only widely known naive poet, and as such he deserves attention”.

McGonagall died in 1902. Many claim that it simply never occurred to him that poetry is an art that demands at least some skill. Others insist that he truly believed he had that skill in abundance. I am inclined to the latter view, but I also sometimes wonder if in fact he knew exactly what he was doing and has fooled us all.

Another consideration: If the purpose of poetry is to entertain, then McGonagall must rank as one of its great masters. There can be no better tribute than the ‘Ode’ composed by the students of Glasgow University in 1891, a deliberate parody of his style.

Among the poets of the present day
There is no one on earth who can possibly be able for to gainsay
But that William M’Gonagall, poet and tragedian,
Is truly the greatest poet that was ever found
above or below the meridian.

Rhys Hughes has lived in many countries. He graduated as an engineer but currently works as a tutor of mathematics. Since his first book was published in 1995 he has had fifty other books published and his work has been translated into ten languages.



Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

Never Knowingly Understood : The Sublime Daftness of Ivor Cutler

Ivor Cutler (1923-2006) was the daftest of the daft poets, and this is meant as the most sincere of compliments, because to entertain listeners and readers with an unremitting stream of original and uplifting daftness is not as easy as one might suppose. Cutler composed songs that were poems and wrote poems that were songs and he recited or sung them while playing the harmonium or piano. His voice is a distinctive one and once heard is never forgotten. His records are little treasures.

Born in 1923 in Glasgow, Scotland, Cutler joined the Royal Airforce (RAF) during the Second World War and became a navigator but was demoted on a charge of “dreaminess” and reduced to working in a storeroom. The story is that he was caught too many times looking at the passing clouds while flying and wondering aloud what animals they most closely resembled instead of carrying out his technical duties.

After the War he worked in schools in deprived areas of London, teaching music, dance, drama and poetry, refusing on principle to punish his pupils for misdemeanours and encouraging them to write verses about killing their siblings. He remained an inner city teacher for three decades. Writing poetry was only a hobby for him, but he appeared on BBC Radio on occasion, and in 1959 released his first record on the Decca label, Ivor Cutler of Y’Hup, which includes two quintessential Cutler tracks, ‘Pickle Your Knees’ and ‘Gravity Begins at Home’.

An unapologetic eccentric, Cutler preferred to dress in old fashioned clothes and kept a set of ivory cutlery in his house because of the pun on his name. He travelled everywhere by bicycle while communicating with sticky labels that he made himself. These ‘stickies’ featured Cutlerisms, his life’s philosophy distilled into slogans and maxims, the most famous of which became “Never Knowingly Understood”, a direct allusion to his working method of allowing his subconscious mind to do all the creative exertion on his behalf. This is a technique associated with Surrealism, but Cutler had a lighter, quieter, sparser approach to the weird, macabre and illogical than the majority of surrealists. The darkness is transmuted into mischief and the savagery into play. There is melancholy in some of the poems, even despair, but it tends to be counterbalanced by the charm and daftness. The result is calmly invigorating.

Two more records on the Decca label gave him a small following but wider success remained elusive for many years. Not that he cared much about his popularity. His ambitions were refreshingly modest. Who Tore Your Trousers? and Get Away from the Wall, both released in 1961, are now fairly difficult to obtain. It was an appearance on a television show three years later that proved to be a turning point in his career. He was noticed that night by Paul McCartney who then invited him to appear in the Magical Mystery Tour film. This led to him working with renowned Beatles’ studio engineer George Martin, who in 1967 produced Cutler’s album Ludo, the most traditionally musical of all his releases and still his best selling record.

Despite the whimsicality and apparent simplicity of his poems, Cutler had a solid grounding in jazz and collaborated with many groundbreaking musicians, including Robert Wyatt and Fred Frith. His name appears with great frequency on billings of music festivals devoted to jazz, fusion and experimental music from the 1960s and 70s, much of it abrasive, raucous and difficult. He was taken seriously by a host of virtuosos and accepted by them (something that never happened to the equally eccentric Shooby Taylor at the same time). Yet he disliked loud music and was a member of the Noise Abatement Society. He rarely raised his voice and asked his audiences to applaud as gently as possible.

For live performances he obtained the services of Phyllis King, who would contribute readings of brief prose passages. Brevity was dear to the heart of Cutler, who preferred his short stories to be no longer than one page in length and his songs to last no more than two minutes. Many of his poems consist of just a few lines, yet they often have a resonance and depth that eludes more complex works. “Women of the world take over / Cos if you don’t, the world will come to an end and it won’t take long” is the whole of the poem entitled ‘Women of the World’ and does it really need to be any longer?

Personally I hold in special regard those poems and songs where there is brilliantly simple but effective wordplay at work. He relies on a trick that humorous writers have been using for centuries, namely that if there is a possibility that a word or phrase has more than one meaning, the less obvious meaning will be chosen as the pivot on which the work revolves. In this way Cutler is not dissimilar to Spike Milligan and other absurdist comedians who were prominent at the time. Cutler’s song ‘Shoplifters’ from the album Ludo is a good example of the technique, demonstrating not only his penchant for strange placid humour but also ultimately his compassion and optimism:

Is your shop right down on the ground?
Then let us lift it, lift it for you.
There’s plenty of room in the blue
for your shop, and for you.

A woman whom once I knew
had a shop, it sold bananas and calico.
She said, ‘Lift up my shop’
so we lifted it two thousand hundred yards into the sky.
She thought she was going to die.
But we gave her the big reassure.
There was plenty of room to spare.

‘Good Morning! How are you? Shut up!’ from the same album is an even more ingenious and wry demonstration of the duplicity of words and meanings. The protagonist expresses a morning distaste for “small talk” and insists on “big talk” instead (“elephants, elephants, oh I love that big talk”) but soon changes his mind and asks for small talk (“Flies, mice and spiders. Mice, flyders and spice. Spice, mice and flyders. Microscopes, microscopes, oh I love that small talk”) before reverting to a desire for big talk again (“Cows, yaks and mammals. Maks, yammals and cows. Yaks, yows and cammals. Cacks, mammals and cows. Have you finished with your big talk? Yes, hello!”)

Having said that, if I had to choose just one favourite piece from his output, I might settle for a song without any wordplay at all in which the hilarity is generated by pure ridiculousness paired with a smile-inducing calypso rhythm. ‘I Believe in Bugs’ from his 1974 album Dandruff is a tonic for all our troubled souls. It helps to restore an unspecified hope to the ravaged world. The daft is mighty! Cutler shows us that it is best to never grow up in the first place, but that it is not quite too late for those who have unfortunately already grown up.

Cutler generally made no real distinction between his records and his books, seeing them as variations on each other. Life in a Scotch Sitting Room, Vol. 2 (there is no Vol. 1)is autobiography with an absurd twist, designed to be read, listened to and looked at. The record was released in 1978 and the illustrated book in 1984. Tales of an impossible childhood in Scotland, where parents drag out their children into the rain to enjoy nature (“Look, said father, a patch of grass!”) but where chores intrude like monsters to quash curiosity, are presented with minimal inflection and fatalistic understatement. One wonders how such damp surroundings can result in such astoundingly dry humour.

The titles of his records and poetry collections and other books are frequently wonderful in themselves, one line absurdist poems in essence that tickle the eyes. Cockadoodledon’t!!! (1966), Jammy Smears (1976), Grape Zoo (1991), Is That Your Flap, Jack? (1992), and the quartet of books featuring the character Herbert, all released in 1984, Herbert the Chicken, Herbert the Elephant, Herbert the Questionmark, Herbert the Herbert, and the wonderful collection of some of the stickers that Cutler would hand out to random people, Befriend a Bacterium: Stickies by Ivor Cutler (1992), among dozens of others.

Cutler’s eccentricity was authentic and never contrived for the sake of a public persona. He was once found in an empty theatre chastising his malfunctioning harmonium. “Right, that’s it. I told you, I warned you. I’m leaving you.” True to his word, he abandoned the instrument and it eventually found its way into the hands of a theatre troupe who staged a play based on Cutler. The jazz musician Robert Wyatt remembers Cutler as friendly and funny, but denies that his poems and songs were comedy and nothing more. “Neither quite comedy or tragedy, his work took you to another place, like a sort of East European Samuel Beckett.” Despite his seemingly primal Scottishness, Cutler’s ancestors were Jewish and the Jewish musical traditions remained in his family, though Cutler himself cited Paul Robeson as his favourite singer.

Useful advice in an emergency situation is always welcome. It is best to conclude this brief appreciation of Ivor Cutler with a ‘Jungle Tip’ from Life in a Scotch Sitting Room, Vol.2. If confronted by a lion in the wilds of Scotland (or in any other place where lions are largely unlikely) the following poetic suggestion might save your life…

If a lion attacks
stoop swiftly.
Pick up two medium sized rock stones
and insert them deftly up his nostrils.
He will forget your presence temporarily
in an attempt to remove the foreign bodies.
But do not wait around
for he will bound after you
and you will not play your trick a second time.

More videos from Ivor Cutler:

Rhys Hughes has lived in many countries. He graduated as an engineer but currently works as a tutor of mathematics. Since his first book was published in 1995 he has had fifty other books published and his work has been translated into ten languages.



Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

Lear and Far

The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea
In a beautiful pea-green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
Wrapped up in a five-pound note.
The Owl looked up to the stars above,
And sang to a small guitar,
“O lovely Pussy! O Pussy, my love,
What a beautiful Pussy you are,
         You are,
         You are!
What a beautiful Pussy you are!”

Pussy said to the Owl, “You elegant fowl!
How charmingly sweet you sing!
O let us be married! too long we have tarried:
But what shall we do for a ring?”
They sailed away, for a year and a day,
To the land where the Bong-Tree grows
And there in a wood a Piggy-wig stood
With a ring at the end of his nose,
          His nose,
          His nose,
With a ring at the end of his nose.

“Dear Pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling
Your ring?” Said the Piggy, “I will.”
So they took it away, and were married next day
By the Turkey who lives on the hill.
They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
          The moon,  
          The moon, 
They danced by the light of the moon.

Beyond the Owl and the Pussycat

Courtesy: Creative Commons

The most famous poem written by the grand nonsense versifier, Edward Lear, is the one about the owl and the pussycat eloping together, and with the possible exception of ‘The Jumblies’ it is his best too. One of the curious things about this marvellous flight of silly fantasy is how it seems to demand a sequel. And sequels have been provided, one by Lear himself. Why this should be the case remains a minor mystery. No one to my knowledge has ever tried to write a sequel to his other poems, not even he.

It is not enough to state that the original story of the owl and pussycat lacks a convincing resolution. So do most of his other poems. No, there is a special quality about this work, about the adventure of two animals, one feathery, the other furry, that encourages further speculation on what might happen to them next. We extrapolate the action in our minds and frequently we are tempted to write down what we think could be a suitable or surprising continuation. But none of the sequels have become well-known.

The owl and the pussycat went to sea, they were married and danced in the light of the moon. So far, so good. Lear originally wrote the poem for a three year old girl, Janet Symonds, who was the daughter of a close friend. Might a young child have understood words such as ‘runcible’? No, but that word is an invented one anyway, coined by Lear for this poem, and though it has entered the dictionary nobody is quite clear as to what it means. My own dictionary, a battered old dusty thing, claims that a ‘runcible spoon’ is a curved fork. I have the option to believe that definition and I decline.

Lear liked the word he had coined so much that he spent it freely in other poems, obscuring the meaning still further. The enthusiastic reader can find a ‘runcible hat’, ‘runcible wall’, ‘runcible cat’, ‘runcible goose’ and ‘runcible raven’ in his extensive works. It is a satisfying word and that is sufficient to justify its frequent use by him or anyone else. Lear was a primarily a visual artist and often illustrated his own poems and there exists his own drawing of the famous ‘runcible spoon’ in the beak of a bird known as the ‘dolomphious duck’ who employs it to scoop up frogs.

That should have settled the matter. The ‘runcible spoon’ is a type of ladle. But in fact nothing was settled. British national newspapers published letters from readers demanding to know what the thing was. Other readers answered with all the knowledge, or fancy, at their disposal. It became a spoon named after a butler who obsessively polished cutlery until it changed shape. Or it was a spoon with a sharp cutting edge that ought to remind the person who used it of the Roncevaux and the battle fought there with swords that feasted on the tasty morsels inside the tin can armour of the troops engaged in the fighting. And yet speculations like these are doomed to defeat. ‘Roncevaux’ sounds nothing like ‘runcible’ and the quince enjoyed by the owl and pussycat certainly has a taste different from that of fallen hacked knights.

To focus on one word in a marvellous verse narrative that includes perilous ocean crossings, forbidden romance, mercantile pigs and serenades seems petty in the extreme. Let us agree that ‘runcible’ is a fine word and leave the deeper question to future generations to solve. It will surely be more fruitful to consider the epic journey freed from the mooring ropes of semantics. The owl and the pussycat set out to sea in a ‘pea-green boat’. It is not revealed whether this boat belongs to them or whether they have requisitioned it. They carry supplies with them in the form of honey and plenty of money and it is stated plainly that this money is ‘wrapped in a five-pound note’. Now that is a peculiar assertion for Lear to make. Why wrap money inside more money? Five-pound notes back in his day were large, more like small towels than the kinds of banknotes we are familiar with. Have these two intrepid beasts turned the five-pound note into a parcel that contains gold coins? It is hardly a safe place to conceal valuables. A thief who steals the five-pound note will take the rest unintentionally. And they are at sea. Are there no pirates in these waters?

I will say nothing about the fact that owls and cats are not generally known for forming amorous relationships with each other. That would be crass. But it is true that the larger species of owl is a menace to the domestic cat and would rarely hesitate to swoop and grab one for lunch. Yet love flourishes in the most unlikely of settings and circumstances. Better to mind our own business and not pry into private matters. The owl and pussycat wish to elope and our duty is to stand aside and let them do so. The owl turns out to be a competent musician despite lacking fingers and plays the guitar for the pussycat while singing songs of charm and sweetness. Compliments are exchanged between the pair and the pussycat soon urges marriage as a most desirable development. Yes, the owl is willing but the couple have no ring. Impediment!

They sail away for a year and a day to a land ‘where the Bong-tree grows’. To spend so long at sea without making landfall in such a tiny vessel is really an achievement. How much honey did they take with them to last so long? It seems feasible that they supplemented their diet with fish caught fresh from the ocean or perhaps with migrating birds that the owl would be able to intercept. We who live on land have no right to criticise. On the island they discover a pig with a ring in his nose. Yet he is a free pig, owned by no one, and presumably the ring is decoration rather than a symbol of servitude. We see in our modern age how many people wear jewellery in their flesh that has no deeper meaning than style and fashion. Buccaneers originally wore gold earrings to pay for their funerals if they were killed in a skirmish. Contemporary men wear earrings perhaps to look like buccaneers. In the first case, the purpose is more important. In the second case, it is the appearance that matters. Who can say what reason the pig has for his ring? Lear tells us that this pig is actually a ‘Piggy-wig’ and there might be a clue to some esoteric status in that suffix.

The pig agrees to sell the ring for ‘one shilling’. It is doubtful whether the pig has any spare change in such a remote location. Therefore the shilling must be a coin, part of the money wrapped in the five-pound note. Why protect the token of lesser value with the token of greater? It makes no sense. The paper banknote is likely to have been splashed by water during the crossing. It would be very improbable for a sea voyage of 366 days to be entirely storm free. Paper turns soggy, metal does not. To cover the five-pound note with the shillings is the sensible thing to do, and store them in the driest part of the boat. But who am I to give advice to these characters? They have been successful in all they have so far attempted. The transaction is made and the ring is handed over. A turkey who lives on a hill agrees to marry them the next day. The ceremony is completed and the nuptial night is celebrated by a modest feast and a corybantic dance on the sand in the bright moonlight.

How marvellous! How wonderful! Why do we feel that more needs to be told? The narrative is incomplete, of course. Too many questions remain to be answered. But why do we insist on learning more about the owl, the pussycat, the world that is theirs? Once again, I maintain that this curiosity extends to no other of Lear’s poems. We read about the ‘Dong with the Luminous Nose’ and we are satisfied with what we are given. None of the limericks demand further action. Could it be simply that the poem is so nice we wish it to continue? That we are dissatisfied with its brevity? Lear must have felt the same way because he began writing a long sequel but it was never finished. What remains is truly a peculiar work. Although it is never stated explicitly that the owl is male and the pussycat female, it is certain that this is a heterosexual pairing because in Lear’s fragmentary sequel the couple have children. ‘The Children of the Owl and the Pussy-cat’ was published posthumously in 1938, long after Lear’s death. Let us now consider what happens in that narrative.

The children of the two voyagers are part fowl and part feline. They love to catch and eat mice. They take up the story and reveal that they live on the shore of Calabria. Does this mean that the land where the Bong-tree grows is part of Italy? Or did the couple move from the place where the pig married them? The cat climbs a tree one day and falls to her death. The owl is now a single parent but he rallies and does his best to look after the children. “Our owly father long was ill from sorrow and surprise / But with the feathers of his tail he wiped his weeping eyes. / And in the hollow of a tree in Sila’s inmost maze / We made a happy home and there we pass our obvious days.”

Other owls visit them and bring them news of the outside world, but this is regarded as nothing to be grateful for because the children “take no interest in poltix of the day”. The money has almost run out but the owl still plays on the guitar and sings songs to nobody in particular. The sequel breaks off abruptly. It is a rather sad set of rhymes but the tale it tells is no more implausible than the original elopement. The pig and the turkey play no part in the events. Nor is it revealed exactly how many children there are.

Beatrix Potter, however, did write more about the pig. ‘The Tale of Little Pig Robinson’ is a prequel that relates the background of the pig. No one has seen fit to write in greater depth about the turkey and that is a shame. But over the decades that followed, a few more details emerged about the owl and the cat. In the 1977 animated film, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, the character Owl mentions that it was a relative of his who went to sea in the pea-green boat. Eric Idle, former member of the Monty Python team, has penned an apocryphal work about what occurred between the owl and pussycat’s marriage and the fatal accident. ‘The Quite Remarkable Adventures of the Owl and the Pussycat’ features a tense episode in which the couple are attacked by a band of ravenous rats. A heretical text published in the Roald Dahl Treasury is set in an alternate world in which the owl offers gin to the pussycat and so she rejects him. The comedian Stewart Lee has also created an extended version of the story. None of these sequels dispel the feeling that there is a lot more to be told about the remarkable owl and pussycat.

I have made three or four attempts to write a sequel myself. I will leave you with arguably the most appropriate one.

“Mayday! Mayday!” hooted the Owl
as the pea-green boat began to sink.
“We’re low on honey and plenty of money
won’t serve for a life-raft, I think!
The Pussy-cat can’t swim and even I won’t
be able to flap as far as the shore.
We’re in the drink of an appalling bay
and drowning seems the only way
        that this unfunny day
         is going to finish at all.”

“Don’t panic,” said the confident voice
over the crackling radio static.
“The Royal National Lifeboat Institutional Society for the  
      Protection of Talking Fictional Animals is coming to you 
       without delay.”

            And so it was.

Rhys Hughes has lived in many countries. He graduated as an engineer but currently works as a tutor of mathematics. Since his first book was published in 1995 he has had fifty other books published and his work has been translated into ten languages.



Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

Blood and Water by Rebecca Lowe

This is an excellent debut. Within only a few pages I knew I was in the presence of a real poet. What I mean by this is that the author clearly has a true lyrical sensibility and is able to project it concisely, precisely and powerfully into the reader’s mind. There are many superb poems that exist that were written by authors without this sensibility. Those poets have relied on craft, luck or inspiration, or even the sheer momentum of originality, and everything has worked out for the best. But when we feel we are in the presence of a real poet we know that nothing is left to chance.

This doesn’t mean that the poems weren’t sweated over, rewritten, grappled with. I make no suggestion that poetry flows without any trouble from the pen of a real poet, but one thing is sure, which is that the reader of a real poet soon develops a deep faith in the author and is willing to go quite far on the poet’s future journey, no matter how tortuous the way turns out to be, without becoming discouraged. I found that reading the poems in this book filled me with confidence in the voice of the poet. I turned the pages trustingly rather than hopefully. The poet almost adopts the role of a guide, leading the reader, who is now a sort of pilgrim, into the mysterious territory of the work, guiding them safely to destinations that are also resolutions. And it is all very satisfying.

The range of the poems in this volume is impressive. There is a mystical tone to many, but others are pragmatic, grounded in this world, full of raw emotions transmuted into beautiful words by the alchemy of perfectly honed and tuned words, phrases, lines. The balance of these poems is a delight. They all inhabit their own length exactly, without wasted words or abrupt dislocations. There are poems about motherhood, wistfulness, daydreaming, human connections. So far, so good, but there is nothing in these themes, despite the wonderful treatment they are given here, that one can’t find in innumerable debut poetry collections. The book bursts out of the typical debut poet’s emotional restrictions when it deals with elements that are more fantastical. This is not to say that these wilder and more outward poems lack emotion. On the contrary, the emotion returns and surrounds them, but the effect is heightened. There is now adventure as well as introspection, action as well as feeling. I appreciate the blend, the variety, the vigour, the echoes of legends, tall tales, myths.

The poet has given permission for two poems from the collection to be quoted in full by me. The truth is that I could have opened the book at random and selected any two to justify my praise of this volume. There are no weak poems in the book at all, no fillers. But I have chosen two that align most closely with my own taste. The poet states that ‘Humans Become Fish’ was inspired by the artwork of an artist named Natalie Low but it reminds me of the first novel of one of my favourite writers, Inter Ice Age 4 by Kobo Abe. My second choice is the wonderfully evocative and melodic ‘Night Fantasy’, a sombre yet not unhappy nocturne.

– Rhys Hughes


We have learned to breathe underwater,
traded our salt-choked lungs for gills,
At first it was difficult, many died.
But slowly we trained ourselves
to become elemental,
Our filament fingers,
scraping the seaweed
from foamed faces,
became fine-feathered fins.
Last of all to go, was the legs,
We were loath to lose them,
but one day, after years of running
along the bottom of the ocean,
we found we could fly.
We flicked out new-grown tails,
somersaulted bubbles and swam,
Our pellucid eyes bulging,
Mouths an open question,
And made our homes
among the reeds and coral.

Lately we have lost all power of speech,
but find ourselves able instinctively
to feel the shoal’s clamour,
Our sleek armoury of scales
Streamlined to the flow.


Last night, we were all at sea,
tossing and turning on the churning waves,
billowed up on the briny foam-flecked
spatter of a white-horse gallop,
we slipped into wet pillow worlds
where fronded whirlpools
sucked and stranded
the matchstick masts
of our promises and dreaming
and dashed them
cruelly on the
broken rocks of the night,

See how I lengthen my footsteps
along acres of untamed sands,
how the tides suck away at my prints,
until all that remains is a
splinter of moon dust;
on the shallows
of your sleeping.

Rebecca Lowe

Rebecca Lowe is a journalist, poet and co-organiser of Talisman Spoken Word open mic and Swansea Poets for Peace. Her poem ‘Tick, Tick’ won the Bread and Roses 2020 Award. Her poetry has been featured on BBC Radio and published in many anthologies. Blood and Water is her debut poetry collection.


Rhys Hughes has lived in many countries. He graduated as an engineer but currently works as a tutor of mathematics. Since his first book was published in 1995 he has had fifty other books published and his work has been translated into ten languages.