Categories
Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

The Chopsy Moggy*

Courtesy: Creative Commons

I sat down to write a new story and as I did so, I thought aloud: “I want it to be about a talking cat,” and much to my surprise my own cat, who happened to be crouching on my desk, shook her head.

Then she said, “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

“Why not?” I wanted to know.

“It’s corny and a cliché. It has been done too many times before. It’s twee and awfully sentimental. Childish too.”

“I feel rather discouraged now,” I admitted.

“Oh, don’t take it so badly. You can write my story, if you like. Just don’t say I’m a talking cat when you do.”

“And what is your story? I knew you when you were a kitten. You haven’t done much since then, to be honest.”

“You are wrong. My life has been dramatic.”

“I don’t call sleeping most of the day and sitting in boxes very exciting. In fact, your ability to talk is by far the most interesting thing about you. If I can’t mention that, why should I bother?”

“You don’t know what I get up to at night. But I will tell you. Pick up your pen and get ready to make notes.”

I did as I was bid and my cat began…

You are generally fast asleep (she said) when I go off on my adventures. There’s a rug in the lounge that is a magic carpet. You don’t know this because you have never tried to activate it. Scratching it in a certain way, pulling out threads here and there, makes it fly. I discovered all this by accident, of course. It was a night last spring and you had left the window open for a cool breeze. The rug rose in the air and carried me out into the garden.

Then it climbed higher and higher and soon the town was tiny beneath me. I didn’t know how to control the thing and I padded it with my paws in various places. Eventually I learned how to steer it by moving my weight from one side to the other. I used my tail as a rudder to make steering even more precise. And when I wanted to go faster, I just opened my mouth wide and mewled. I flew off and enjoyed exploring distant countries.

Where did you get the rug from? Magic carpets are far more common than people think. You assumed it was just an ordinary floor covering when you went into a shop to buy it. The threads woven into it might originally have come from India or Persia. I wondered how fast it could fly and so I decided to find out. I mewled and mewled as loud as I could and the rug accelerated until the ground beneath me became a blur. That was fun!

The wind stroked my fur and it was a pleasant sensation but it occurred to me that I might crash into a mountain if I couldn’t see where I was going. I shut my mouth and immediately started to slow down. It was night and the stars were big and bright above me and then I saw stars below me too, and I was baffled by this, because the lower stars seemed cleaner, as if they had been washed. Maybe some giant cosmic cat had licked them?

It took me a long time to understand that the lower stars were reflections in the sea and not real stars at all. I was over an ocean. I can’t say I was pleased by this, because water has always seemed a suspicious substance to me, something not to be trusted, avoided even, though I concede that it’s often necessary to life, which is why I sometimes stoop to drinking it. But all this is irrelevant. No land was in sight in any direction. I had flown halfway round the world and was now cruising above the Pacific. How risky!

My calculations were instinctive rather than mathematical, but cats have an aptitude for sensing where they are and as a navigator I’m reliable, but my exact latitude and longitude was impossible to specify. I was still travelling forward at a reduced velocity and I noticed other objects flying to my left and right, smaller than aeroplanes and soundless, and after a while it became clear they were much nearer to me than before, converging at an unseen point ahead, some destination beyond the horizon, and I was intrigued.

Soon enough, I was able to discern the details of these mysterious craft and I saw they were rugs of many different colours, magic carpets just like mine, an armada of levitating floor coverings, a flotilla if you prefer, all piloted by sundry animals: dogs, rabbits, snakes, squirrels, wombats. And the rug on my starboard side was so close that its occupant, a monkey of some kind, was able to shout at me and be understood. He yelled:

“You are the cat representative, I take it?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

“You must be. You are a cat sitting on a magic carpet and you are flying to the assigned rendezvous. Therefore–”

“But what is waiting at that rendezvous?”

“An urgent meeting.”

“But a meeting with whom?”

“With us!” he cried, astonished at my ignorance. “One talking animal from every species on the planet.”

“The point of this meeting is what?”

“The conferring of special powers on attendees, as promised in the oracles of ancient days. Surely you haven’t forgotten the words of the oracles? They are unambiguous about this event.”

He continued to talk, despite the shaking of my head. He said, “We talk but that’s the only way we exceed our limitations. After the meeting we will be able to do everything that humans can.”

“Already we may do more than men.”

“True, but we can also do less. It depends on the task, and they are superior when it comes to power. After the meeting, this imbalance will change. We will be better than them in every way.”

“I never received an invitation,” I protested.

“Yes, you did, or you wouldn’t be here now, on a magic carpet, heading in the right direction. Do you expect me to believe that you are here by accident, a rogue feline who flies to the island thanks to coincidence alone? Do you wish to imply that the genuine cat representative is elsewhere, perhaps having overslept in a basket, as your kind often do?”

“I can’t say,” I said.

“The oracles have given us the sacred date. The day that humans call May Day and shortly those tyrants will be calling ‘mayday’ when we dislodge them from their undeserved thrones.”

“May Day,” I repeated, still puzzled.

“Yes,” he said, pleased.

“I never know the names of days.”

“The island is not far now. Soon it will be visible. I know your ignorance is a pretence. Now let us focus on flying. We are converging from every direction and the sky will be thick with magic carpets. Accidents will happen if we aren’t very careful with our steering.”

I nodded, for I knew not what else to do.

And then I saw it.

A mountain rising out of the sea.

It was an enormous peak, shaped like a pyramid, with smooth sides and a truncated summit, so that instead of a sharp apex it had a flat space at the top, an area the size of a square dinner table. But that flat space was utterly black and I realised it wasn’t solid. It was an entrance into the hollow mountain. This was a place where animals could meet secretly in considerable safety. The only danger was the chance of midair collisions as all the magic carpets tried to dive down into that small opening. I grew nervous.

I decided to drop behind a little, to give the others a chance to enter before me and clear the airways for my own approach and descent. I still wasn’t sure I was supposed to be going to the meeting or not. Maybe I had been invited ages ago and had forgotten. It was possible. I thought that if I went I would find out for sure, and I doubted I would be deeply in trouble if it turned out I wasn’t the official delegate. I applied the air brake.

In other words, I raised my tail and increased the drag coefficient. Soon my speed was only half of the other flying carpets and they flew ahead. One by one they reached the mountain and zoomed through the narrow entrance and to my astonishment there were no accidents. The sky cleared and at last it was my turn and I felt more confident about a safe landing. The mountain was just ahead of me now and so I began a smooth descent.

But I am a cat and my essential feline nature took over. How could I settle down to rest on an island without circling it first? I was filled with an irresistible urge to fly around that island a few times before dipping into the opening on the top of the mountain. And that’s what I did. Clockwise around the island flew my rug as I gracefully steered it. I circled the mountain four and a half times and the number seemed right to me. Then I dropped into the hole and landed on a basalt platform far below in a very dim light.

I thought that the interior of the mountain would be crowded with the other animals that had preceded me, but it was empty. No creatures and no carpets. At first I supposed they had gone off into an adjacent chamber for their meeting but it soon became obvious that the chamber I was in was the only room down here. Just this immense space inside a hollow mountain and nothing else. It was the greatest mystery I had encountered in my life. The animals had vanished! What could be the reason for this? And how?

I pondered the matter for a long time, an hour or more, and then the answer occurred to me. The island was located in the Pacific and so is the International Date Line. I surmised that the line itself passed right through the middle of this peculiar mountain. I circled the island four and a half times, which means that I entered the hollow mass of rock from the opposite side to the one from which I had approached it. In other words, I had crossed the Date Lane and was one day early for the meeting. Instead of it being May Day it was the day before. What a curious situation to be in! So I waited.

I sat patiently on my rug for an entire day and when midnight passed and it was tomorrow again, I was ready to receive the other animals, who were due to arrive on May Day. But none of them showed up. Then I examined what I knew about geography and I realised my terrible mistake. I had crossed the Date Line in a westerly direction, ending up in the eastern hemisphere, which meant that I had arrived a day late rather than a day early. May Day had been and gone. The meeting was over and I had missed it.

This made me feel despondent and I scratched my rug to cause it to ascend through the hole and hover above the mountain. I now saw I wasn’t the only one to have made a mistake. The dog delegate was still circling the island, having an even stronger desire to go round and round before settling down than I did. We called out to each other and I told him the meeting was over. At first he doubted my words and thought I was just a cat trying to trick him, as cats often do, but I eventually convinced him of the facts.

With his tail between his legs, he zoomed away, howling forlornly, his ears flapping in the breeze as he accelerated. I also turned my carpet in the direction of home. I wondered if the real cat delegate had turned up or not. I asked myself if all other species of animal would now have special powers with the exception of cats and dogs. It was sobering. Dogs would definitely miss out, but cats still had a chance. It depended, as I have said, on the official cat guest. Even to this day I don’t know if he or she successfully attended the meeting. I don’t feel an increase in my powers, but who knows?

I returned home and glided in through the open window while you were in the garage tinkering with something or other. You came into the house and were delighted to see me. I had been missing for a full day and more and you thought I might have become lost or stuck up a tree. You hadn’t noticed that the rug was gone too. You aren’t very observant really. But that works to my advantage, so I don’t mind. You made a fuss of me and that was the right thing for you to do. It is my longest journey on the magic carpet to date, but I might go even further in the future. It all depends on how I feel.

“And that’s your story?” I cried.

“Yes,” said my cat.

“And you want me to write it down?”

“You can, if you like.”

“But without mentioning the fact you can talk?”

She nodded. “Indeed.”

I was exasperated and shouted, “How can I leave out that detail? The entire point of your story hinges on the fact you can talk. It is about speaking animals. If I’m not allowed to mention your vocal abilities, I might as well not bother to write the story at all. You have set me an impossible task. To omit the one thing that makes the tale worth telling!”

She shrugged. “You are the human, not I.”

“What do you mean?”

“Humans are the ones who think they are so clever and capable. They give the impression that they can achieve anything, that we are just dumb beasts and they are the supreme intellectuals.”

I was unable to find an appropriate reply.

She continued, “So if you can’t think of a way to square the circle and tell my story without telling it, that’s not my concern. But I strongly advise you not to tell any other story about a talking cat, because it’s a theme that is worn out. It should be my story or nothing.”

She curled up and purred and closed her eyes.

My desk was no longer a desk.

I laid down my pen.

Courtesy: Creative Commons

*British slang for “The Talkative Cat”

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.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

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Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

Mini-Sagas: A Dozen Examples

I first became aware of the flash fiction form called the ‘mini-saga’ in the mid 1980s. They were invented by the author Brian Aldiss (1925-2017). The British newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, held annual competitions for the public and the winners were published in the newspaper and also in a series of anthologies.

I submitted a few mini-sagas on a number of occasions but never won. I never even made it as a runner-up. All I can remember of those early pieces of mine was that one of them involved a submarine that somehow was turned upside down while it was diving and went the wrong way through the atmosphere and ended up in outer space.

A mini-saga consists of a story told in precisely fifty words. They aren’t easy to do well, but they get easier with practice (like everything else). The title should have an upper limit of fifteen characters, but this rule is not such a strict one. Because there are so few words to work with, the title is often an essential part of the story.

About twenty years ago I wrote a mini-saga that I was pleased with. It was translated into Portuguese and printed on a T-shirt. For many years I regarded this as my only successful mini-saga. Later I wrote another, not as good, and then forgot all about the form.

But when I was staying in Sri Lanka earlier this year, I read Brian Aldiss’ book, 50×50, fifty mini-sagas in total, a very short collection, and I wondered if I might do something similar. But I decided to write 500 instead of 50. This turned out to be perhaps too much to chew on, but I had already bitten it off, and so I persisted and intend to keep persisting.

My book of 500 mini-sagas will be published when it is finished. So far I have written 216. Some are obviously better than others. I am pleased to now present a short selection from this project in progress.

Plate Armour

The army is on the move, crossing borders and conquering new lands, and the key to their success is mobility. They never stop for meals but eat as they go along. They wear armour specially adapted to hold the curries, pickles, bread, cheese, rice and puddings they enjoy. Plate armour.

Ulysses offering wine to Polyphemus. Courtesy: Creative Commons

A Gift for the Cyclops

Odysseus: Here’s a birthday present for you.

Polyphemus: A strange object?

Odysseus: Binoculars is the name. They permit you to see further. Hold them to your face in this precise position.

Polyphemus: Like this? But I can’t see a thing!

Odysseus: Quick men, let’s escape while he is temporarily blinded.

Bytes, Not Scratches

You are typing on your computer when your cat reaches out a paw and deletes your work. That’s the end of the story. If your dog does the same thing, you can say “Fetch” and it will leap into oblivion, find the document and retrieve it for you, tail wagging.

Pinocchio’s Brother

Pinocchio has a brother whose nose grows shorter whenever he tells a lie. He is the opposite of his more famous sibling in this regard. If he tells enough lies his nose retreats into his face, leaving a deep crater. He is unfortunately too popular with the fraternity of golfers.

In Sheep’s Clothing

An eccentric shepherd in these parts has dressed his sheep in pink frocks. The wolf is reluctant to clothe himself the same way but remembers he is cunning and to fulfil the conditions of his reputation he has no choice. He takes care not to be seen by other wolves.

My Nose

My nose was in the Guinness Book of Records. It’s a volume that lists the most extreme instances of various things. There’s a chapter about the tallest person ever, the longest hair and so forth. My nose was in that book. Then the librarian told me to take it out.

Going for a Walk

She said she was going for a walk with a book. I imagined she wanted to sit and read somewhere, but when I went to the park later, I saw her with a Tolstoy novel on a lead. It was opening its back pages against a tree while she waited.

The Haiku Hiker

The haiku poet went hiking and somewhere along the route he lost count of his syllables, so he just kept going. After walking far, he found an isolated tavern in the enormous forest. He fell on the beer like a shooting star. The syllables could find their own way home.

Runny Honey

Runny honey: see the jar sprinting down the street. It grew legs secretly at night in the cupboard when no one was looking. When I opened the door, it jumped out and escaped! I chase it with a spoon. I will never buy runny honey again, only the solid kind.

He was Mighty

An early start was required. He rose from his bed in the castle and called for his squire, who carefully dressed him. A frown for his forehead, an increased pulse for his chest, perspiration for his skin. Now the mighty worrier was ready! Off he went to do anxious battle.

The Toothbrush Duel

There were no other weapons available, all the swords and pistols were missing or broken, so they decided to duel with toothbrushes. They met at dawn, saluted each other, then battled for an hour on the field of honour. Toothpaste squirted into the air. It was a good, clean fight.

Something More Comfortable

The woman took the man home. They had met only an hour before but had felt an instant attraction. “Allow me to change into something more comfortable,” she said. He nodded eagerly. In a flash she transformed into a big fluffy white dog that jumped up to lick his face.

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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.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

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Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

The Anthology in my Mind

Courtesy: Creative Commons

A few years after I first fell in love with literature, in my distant youth, I began putting together an imaginary anthology full of the best short stories I happened to read, and I never stopped compiling it. This anthology ought to be enormous now, unwieldy and unpublishable, but in fact it’s a perfectly manageable length and that is because it only contains stories that truly riveted me and there aren’t so many of those. It’s not good enough for them just to be good. They must be stories that make me jump up and ruffle my hair and shout: “I wish I had written that, but I didn’t, and probably I couldn’t.”

I am sure I am not the only reader who carries such an anthology around in their heads. And though my tastes might have changed over the years, the fact remains that the stories in my imaginary anthology are those that had a forceful emotional effect as well as providing a cerebral satisfaction. Having said that, I must concede that cerebral satisfaction is emotional too. We feel elated when a clever insight suddenly illuminates an opaque mystery or when an impossible puzzle proves to have an ingenious solution.

The first story in my anthology is ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ by Edgar Allan Poe, which I read when I was 15 years old. It was the first time I encountered the device of an ‘unreliable narrator’ (or at least a narrator with a twisted view of life) and it amazed me. I became an instant Poe devotee. Other stories by Poe that can be found in my anthology are ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ and ‘The Cask of Amontillado’, both of them perfect fables, and also a few of his weird comedies (it often comes as a surprise to readers that Poe wrote comedies) such as ‘A Predicament’, which is a fine example of surrealism before the word was coined (maybe we ought to call it ‘proto-surreal’).

Poe gave me a taste for the nightmarish, which isn’t quite the same as horror, and led me to Kafka, after I was informed (I can’t remember who by) that Kafka’s work was even more nightmarish than Poe’s. Maybe it is, but in a different way. And yet neither ‘Metamorphosis’ nor ‘In the Penal Colony’ are included in the anthology, magnificent though they are. I found myself more strongly drawn to some of his less obviously allegorical stories, ‘A Country Doctor’, for example, ‘The Great Wall of China’, ‘A Hunger Artist’, and to the the very brief and brilliant ‘On Parables’.

There has to be an upper word limit to each of the stories in my anthology, of course, and this is why Voltaire’s Candide, which is a novella or short novel, finds no place in the imaginary pages. The next author to be included must thus be Ray Bradbury, my literary hero when I was seventeen or so. I have included ‘The Scythe’ and ‘Homecoming’ (the first Bradbury story I ever read) as being the most important of his stories for me. Bradbury is the true heir of Poe, for his work wanders among the genres in the same manner, and his dark humour sits side by side with his more gothic effects.

I think that Saki must be in the anthology too, and I would choose ‘Laura’ from all his tales, for its sheer ingenuity. It remains one of the best twist ending fictions I have encountered and is hilariously ironic, and twist endings are not common in Saki, who generally prefers to fulfil the uneasy expectations of the reader rather than pulling the rug from under their feet. This is why he shouldn’t be compared with O Henry, who is included for ‘The Gift of the Magi’, though it has already been anthologised hundreds of times.

Chekhov’s early stories were a big influence on me, and although his later work is considered vastly superior to the fiction of his youth, I personally regard stories such as ‘Romance with Double-Bass’, ‘The Objet d’Art’ and ‘Revenge’ with their unexpected endings as more purely enjoyable. I also received a happy shock from two quite obscure tales, ‘The Monster of Lake LaMetrie’ by Wardon Allan Curtis and ‘The Anticipator’ by Morley Roberts. Another of my favourite twist endings is found in ‘Metonymy’ by Rachel de Queiroz. But twist endings aren’t everything. My favourite H.G. Wells’ story, ‘The Country of the Blind’, has no twist at the end. It proceeds with an unstoppable momentum like a slow avalanche, the reader a helpless observer.

The finest stories of Jorge Luis Borges are among the most remarkable pieces of fiction I have read. We might all be familiar with the conceptual rigour and originality of his most famous stories, ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’, ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ and ‘The Library of Babel’, for these texts have redefined the purpose of the short story as a cultural product, but I have always found ‘The Congress’ to be the ultimate Borges story. The matrix on which it is based is a loop that turns out to be a complex manifold akin to the mathematical shape known as a Reimann surface. It is somewhat like a reverse prose version of Escher’s lithograph ‘Print Gallery’ in which a man is viewing a picture which contains the gallery in which he stands. In ‘The Congress’ a scheme is evolved to represent and control all the variables of the real world, but as the number of variables increases due to the demands of greater precision, the scheme is seen to already exist in the form of the real world itself.

A few of Italo Calvino’s hugely inventive stories are in my anthology too, ‘The Distance of the Moon’ among them, the first of his stories to feature the character, Qfwfq, who is as old as the universe. But Calvino’s shorter fiction tends to be at its best when it comes in sequences, and it’s the entire sequence that ends up being so superb, the Marcovaldo stories, for instance. They work better as linked suites, almost novels. One of his earliest surviving stories, ‘The Man Who Shouted Teresa’, will be in my anthology, however, for its charming absurdity, its precision and ironic logic.

I still haven’t decided which stories to include by Stanislaw Lem, Roger Zelazny, John Sladek, and so many other writers, but I feel confident they will have at least one piece in the anthology. Those were all science fiction writers and I read a lot of science fiction when I was young. Fredric Brown’s ‘Answer’ must be included in my anthology as a perfect example of a one-page story that manages to deal with the biggest themes in the universe in a way that is snappy and funny but also deeply thought provoking.

Now I will mention ‘The Dead Lady of Clown Town’ by Cordwainer Smith. All literature of the imagination is ‘strange’ but most of it is created by men and women who are not particularly strange. Most tales of the far future maintain the impression that they are imagined by writers who are living in the present. But Smith’s stories give the impression they are realistic fictions written in the future. I have heard it said elsewhere that the strangeness of Smith’s style derives from Chinese methods of storytelling (Smith spent his formative years in China) but that doesn’t account for the strangeness of his visions. They are authentically strange, not forced or contrived.

‘The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and Her Heartless Grandmother’ by Gabriel García Márquez is another candidate. It is an extension of a brief scene in his renowned novel One Hundred Years of Solitude. Eréndira is a young girl who accidentally sets fire to the home of her grandmother, who forces her to work in order to repay the debt, a term of servitude that lasts years. The hallucinatory tone of the story and its incipient strangeness intensify rather than detract from the fact that this is essentially a love and revenge tragedy as bloody and passionate as any ever conceived but conveyed in language that is simultaneously moon-washed with magic, heady with tropical oppression and sharp as a machete.

‘A Manual for Sons’ by Donald Barthelme is there too. For many people ‘postmodernism’ is a suspicious word, but it never has been for me, because I discovered the work of Barthelme long before being exposed to the somewhat pretentious academic side of the ‘movement’. Barthelme’s stories are playful, wise, profound, dry, unique and funny. There is no finer stylist in the cosmos of the short story. He was an experimentalist but also had an utterly solid grasp of the fundamental rules of the craft, and ‘A Manual for Sons’ demonstrates all his strengths. It is both tragic and comedic to an extreme degree.

‘The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D’ by J.G. Ballard. When Ballard was at his best his prose had a strange sort of clarity that was intellectual and emotional and quite heady. He was able to make geometries lyrical. The forlorn abandoned landscapes of modern civilisation were projected by him into a curious world of glacial fabulation. It often seems as if he is writing the same story again and again, refining it in an attempt to achieve some ultimate truth. In my opinion, he never bettered ‘The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D’ in which the usual Ballardian obsessions, the overlit deserts, the elegant women, the misfits, the surreal juxtaposition of old and new, the vast silences, fuse as perfectly as grains of sand that have turned into glass. Ballard was a writer who relied almost entirely on imagery, deeply affecting sequences of mind patterns, to impress and even mesmerise the reader. After first reading this story almost twenty years ago I have never been able to forget the gliders carving clouds into giant shapes above the bizarre resort of Vermilion Sands.

‘The Four-Colour Problem’ by Barrington Bayley, a story which at first glance resembles a dissertation on geometry. There are mathematical lectures embedded in the text, but these are never too technical for digestion. To further soften their impact, Bayley adopts a darkly comic tone which owes much to William Burroughs. The plot involves the discovery that geography is wrong and that between political borders lie new countries. The explanation for this concerns a real mathematical problem. Cartographers have long known that just four colours are required to fill in a map so that no colour borders itself, but mathematics yields only a proof for five colours. Bayley’s response is that maps exist that really do require five colours and that on the surface of our globe there are missing countries existing in dimensions tangential to our own. During the course of the tale, efforts are made to probe these intersections, with unexpected and humorous consequences.

‘Five Letters From an Eastern Empire’ by Alasdair Gray. This was the first story by Gray I ever read and it burned itself into my mind so forcefully almost three decades ago that I still regard it as the zenith of what is possible in the art of the short story, or rather what I regard as ultimately desirable. It’s a political satire, a fantasy, a tragedy and a story about definitions. The changing of one word in the title of a lament written by the main character, Bohu the Court Poet, turns an act of rebellion into a perfect propaganda tool for a repressive regime ruled by an immortal puppet. This remarkable conceit has much to say about how dictatorships manipulate the masses, and the evolution of the intolerable irony of the situation in which Bohu finds himself is perfect in pacing, mood and depth of meaning.

Recently I added another story to my imaginary anthology, a piece called ‘Cul-de-Sac (Uncompleted)’ by Australian writer Murray Bail, a deeply strange, quirky, logically lateral, hugely inventive, funny and disturbing piece. I know of nobody else who has read it. It’s a story that has clearly slipped through the cracks of time and awareness. I suppose there must be hundreds of stupendous works out there similarly neglected…

The anthology in my mind is a work continually in progress. It will never be finished until I stop reading short stories and it will never be published.

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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.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

From a Kafkaesque Dream to the Penguin Cafe Orchestra

The Penguin Cafe Orchestras, and the plural is necessary because there were several of them, were responsible for a unique sonic experience, creating a blend of folk, jazz, classical and faux ethnic music that managed to pull off the difficult trick of sounding instantly familiar to the subconscious mind, as if it had already existed in the past but had been forgotten for ages and now was being retrieved from some pool of inspiration common to humanity.

They formed one of the background soundscapes to my student years. I recall the first time I heard a Penguin Cafe track. It was ‘Music for a Found Harmonium’ and it accompanied a short film featured on television called simply ‘Interlude’ that I have never been able to trace since. The melody and the visuals matched well, but it was years before I learned who was responsible for the music and I did so by pure chance. I went into a record store and bought the album Broadcasting from Home at random. That was a habit of mine back then.

Perhaps the cover image had intrigued me. Listening to the album at home I was delighted to recognise ‘Music for a Found Harmonium’ as the opening track. But I might be misremembering. There’s a suspicion in my mind that I actually bought the album Signs of Life on cassette first. It hardly matters. The title of that soul enhancing song, ‘Music for a Found Harmonium’, struck me as curiously enigmatic, so much so that I later entitled one of my books Stories from a Lost Anthology as a sort of tribute, an allusion noticed by no reviewers.

The real story behind the track is that Simon Jeffes (1949-1997), founder of the Orchestra, was on tour in Japan and wandering through the backstreets of Kyoto when he found an abandoned harmonium balanced on the apex of a pile of rubbish. He located the person who had discarded it and obtained permission to take the instrument away. The song was composed to celebrate this lucky find. I have never found a harmonium in a backstreet, or any other musical instrument for that matter, not even a harmonica. But Jeffes was special and attracted beauteous oddity by some form of magnetism he carried around within himself.

That magnetism is present in all the music he made. Born in 1949, Jeffes studied the classics in London before trying his hand at experimental music. He grew to be dissatisfied with the barren tonalities of contemporary avant-garde work. Similarly, his brief flirtation with rock came to nothing. African music alone seemed to contain elements he was seeking, powerful rhythms, freer harmonic approach, the mysterious qualities of its silences, an unmelodramatic emphasis on cadence, imaginative tuning systems and improvisational flair. Most of all, he was seeking pure musicality, pieces constructed of the vital essence of the art.

A Penguin Cafe composition rarely seems made up of separate parts, but is much more like an organic growth. Melody and harmony, rhythm and tone colour are fused together right from the very beginning, in an ambient seed. Then the piece grows into fruition with little fuss and perfect symmetry. In 1972, food poisoning confined Jeffes to bed where he dreamed of a Kafkaesque residential block full of people with empty lives. The following day a voice in his head said distinctly, “I am the proprietor of the Penguin Cafe. I will tell you things at random.” Jeffes tried to imagine what the house band of that cafe might sound like. When he recovered, he transformed his dream into truth and invented the PCO.

For the Orchestra, he recruited like-minded players Helen Leibmann, Steve Nye and Gavyn Wright. Calling themselves the “four musicians in green clothes”, they began recording and in 1976 released their first album, Music from the Penguin Cafe. Leibmann on cello, Nye on keyboards and Wright on violin remained with Jeffes for most of the subsequent recordings of this first phase of the Penguin Cafe adventure, but apart from Jeffes, Leibmann was the only member who has appeared on every one of the early albums. For this first release, they also recruited Neil Rennie on the ukulele and Emily Young to design the eye-catching album cover. Emily Young, who is now a high-regarded sculptor, was supposedly the same Emily that Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd sang about in ‘See Emily Play’.

Music from the Penguin Cafe is the most uncharacteristic and dissonant of the Orchestra’s productions. The multi-instrumentalism and big arrangements that were to become a trademark are largely absent. Though Jeffes plays bass, quatro, spinet, cheng, ring modulator and mouth percussion on some tracks, his primary duty is as an electric guitarist. The two earliest songs, ‘Penguin Cafe Single’ and ‘The Sound of Someone You Love Who’s Going Away and it Doesn’t Matter’, rely on just four basic instruments, with Nye’s electric piano and Leibmann’s cello largely displacing Jeffes, and they wrench the heart, sounding like reservoirs of poignancy, dammed to prevent sadness slipping over into the other tracks.

Despite lengthy improvisational passages, highly unusual for the early Orchestra, they are among the most successful songs on the album. Other oddities are dubious and not wholly forgivable, including a drenching vocal lament and a squeaky piece called ‘Pigtail’. Only on one track does the Orchestra provide a foretaste of what was to follow in the coming magical years, ‘Giles Farnaby’s Dream’, spinet and ukulele in foot-tapping mode, the strength of the piece deriving from its frenetic repetition. The album is the least Penguiny of the Orchestra’s productions and it was released on the Obscure label of ambient maestro Brian Eno.

Avant-gardists believe it to be their best album and easy listeners regard it as their worst. But it is neither. It is simply a prelude to the next four albums, which are the quintessential recordings. Yet there was a five year wait for the first of these. Jeffes never seemed in a hurry. The eponymous Penguin Cafe Orchestra (1981) defined the Penguin Cafe sound once and for all with the opening track, ‘Air à Danser’, which can almost be regarded as the PCO’s anthem. The jumpy guitar and wistful strings sound instantly recognisable even to someone who has never heard the piece before. It is the most perfect example of Jeffe’s ability to tap into the Universal Subconscious, an effect that is both pleasing and slightly eerie.

Several other tracks became mainstays of live performance, ‘Cutting Branches for a Temporary Shelter’, ‘Numbers 1-4’, the two ‘Yodel’ songs and ‘Paul’s Dance’. Best of all, however, is the funky and hypnotic ‘Ecstasy of Dancing Fleas’, a hugely gleeful song with warm bass and joyous refrain. The method of working employed by the Orchestra almost guaranteed good albums. Over a number of years, recordings would be made and only the finest tracks released. Again, Jeffes was never in a rush to push his music out there. He preferred a measured approach. This doesn’t mean that all his music sounds polished. Sometimes rough-edged work is exactly what is required to provide ideal incarnations for musical ideas.

After Penguin Cafe Orchestra, it was difficult to believe that a more archetypal sound could be achieved, but in Broadcasting from Home (1984), Jeffes refined the spirit of the music even further. The PCO had grown to encompass thirteen members of varying abilities and Jeffes had taken to playing more and more instruments. With another whimsical but haunting Emily Young cover, this is a vital release and tracks such as ‘Music For A Found Harmonium’, ‘Prelude & Yodel’, ‘In the Back of a Taxi’ and ‘Heartwind’ are impossible to dislike. Strangely enough, the album contains a couple of sequels to tracks on the first release. ‘More Milk’ and ‘Another One from the Colonies’ are wry comments on their predecessors. Musicians include Geoffrey Richardson on viola, shaker and bass; Dave Defries on trumpet and flugel; Annie Whitehead on trombone; Nye, Leibmann and Rennie on piano, cello and ukulele; and Jeffes on drums, harmonium, omnichord, soloban, dulcitone, penny whistle, violin, milk bottles, triangle, bass, and much more. It is easy to forget how peculiarly exotic some of those instruments seemed to the British public in those days. Musically we were far more insular then than we are now.

The fourth album was released in 1987. Signs of Life has a ‘frontier-ceilidh’ feel to it, taking elements of American country music, bluegrass and mountain folk. There is also a classical touch, particularly in the moody ‘Oscar Tango’. Sadness was a rare emotion in the Orchestra’s output, apart from in some of the very early material. It is on Signs of Life that the description of the PCO as ‘a string quartet letting its hair down at some mysteriously-located barn dance of the future’ most holds true. The opening track, ‘Bean Fields’, is quirky and imprecise and one of my three favourite Penguin Cafe tracks ever. ‘Dirt’ is rhythmic and compelling, as is ‘Sketch’ and ‘Swing The Cat’. ‘Southern Jukebox Music’, on the other hand, belies its title and is a deeply melodic lament. ‘Perpetuum Mobile’ is a punning title that references the metronymic pulse of the piece but also the town of Mobile, Alabama, and further connects the album to its basic Americana source, although the music seems to belong to another galaxy and to the distant past of our preliterate ancestors just as much as it does to any existing tradition. The ten minute long meditation ‘Wildlife’ is an acquired taste, seeming at first to be a directionless filler, but is perfect background music for simple relaxation or mind wandering. Personally it is my daydreaming and falling asleep music of choice. It evokes a strange forest soundscape where very little happens but everything eventually is found to have changed. Of the two pieces played wholly by Jeffes, one deserves special mention: ‘The Snake and the Lotus (The Pond)’, a piece just for bass, primeval and rather mystical.

The next two albums were live recordings. When in Rome… (1988) is a wonderful retrospective of the previous work and thus the best introduction to the PCO’s career. Pieces from all four albums are included and many have been improved, especially ‘Giles Farnaby’s Dream’ and ‘Air à Danser’, which have both been spiced up. Others sound almost identical to the studio recordings. The deliciously smooth atmosphere of the performance is captured well and the musicians are in complete empathy with each other. Missing on this album is Gavyn Wright and the PCO is down to nine members, but Bob Loveday on fiddle more than makes up for the loss. This is the only album where a member, Geoffrey Richardson in fact, actually plays more instruments than Jeffes. Less convincing is Still Life (1990), a ballet arrangement of material for a conventional orchestra. Although a nice album in itself, some of the pieces, such as ‘Numbers 1-4’, have been overdone, and this sixth release is probably the least essential album of them all. Nonetheless, listeners who prefer the grander feel of a larger orchestra and the traditional accents associated with classical music could do much worse than to seek it out.

Unusually for a project associated with Jeffes, the cover isn’t by Emily Young, and this detracts from the finished result. Luckily she was back on hand for the seventh, most sprawling, ambitious and varied of the PCO’s albums to date. Union Cafe (1993) was one of my most cherished albums of the decade in which it appeared. I appreciated its abundance and it felt more like a voyage than their other albums. This is not to say that all here is smooth and accomplished. Some tracks are doldrums in the sound ocean. As for the bolts of its realisation, more musicians than the PCO had ever employed before were used, though sadly Steve Nye isn’t one of them. The other originals, Leibmann, Wright and Rennie, seem content to share duties with a host of other puffers, pluckers, scrapers or bangers. Even Jeffes has decided to wisp himself out a little, be less dogmatic and often takes a lesser role in the performance of his own compositions. On two tracks, ‘Thorn Tree Wind’ and ‘Discover America’ he plays nothing at all. The former is given over entirely to the warblings of an electric Aeolian harp and credited to the winds of the cardinal points. This is fair enough as the winds compose the piece while in the act of playing it. The latter track employs a large number of strings, including twelve violins (led by Gavyn Wright), four violas, four cellos and two double basses. The result is an ear wash that doesn’t necessarily leave the ears feeling cleaner. But the variety is impressive. There is a track played by a computer called ‘Pythagoras on the Line’ that seems similar to a song on an earlier album called ‘Telephone and Rubber Band’.

There is also the excellent ‘Vega’, one of the Orchestra’s longest tracks to date; the salty ‘Organum’ and ‘Another one from Porlock’ and ‘Lifeboat (Lover’s Rock)’. Jeffes had recently announced his awakened re-interest in the Western Classical tradition and this new enthusiasm, together with the experience gathered from exploring other cultures, resulted in this album, which might be a melange, a mess or a masterpiece. The opening track is the superlative ‘Scherzo And Trio’ and because it is superlative I guess this means I ought to say nothing more about it, as superlative things are quite beyond praise, so my dictionary informs me.

Yet the one track that really stands out, conceptually if not sonically, is the tribute to composer John Cage, who had died not long before the album was made. Entitled ‘Cage Dead’, these words are all the notes of the melody, played strictly in that order, C-A-G-E-D-E-A-D. This is an example of a musical version of OuLiPo[1] (itself useably explained and defined as a playful workshop to create literature-that-is-both-constrained-and-made-ingenious by mathematics) officially known as OuMuPo, or Ouvroir de musique potentielle. Essentially it is trickery of the highest whimsical order and John Cage himself perhaps would be very pleased by it. Having said that, he could be inexplicably stringent and uncompromising about his music. He was a composer who wrote a piece requiring a musician to wear a tuba like a hat and not play it. When it was first performed he berated the musician for not wearing it in the correct manner and therefore spoiling the sound.

Now I have drifted off the point. Partly and paradoxically defined as avant-garde easy listening, the Penguin Cafe Orchestra are whimsical and catchy, yet there’s an improbable seriousness too, and a deep sadness embedded in some of the melodies. Good, I have returned to the point, deftly, quite deftly. After Union Cafe there were dramatic changes. Jeffes died. In effect he was the PCO and it became a ghost after his leaving. Yet as ghosts sometimes do, it floated on, splitting like ectoplasm that turns out to be flimsy fabric in an eerie half glow.

Some of the musicians who had worked with Jeffes wanted to continue with the PCO, as is only to be expected. We might also say they had the right to do so. The moral right, perhaps, but not the copyright. The words ‘Penguin Cafe Orchestra’ are not in the public domain, unlike the sound waves they threw out into the atmosphere during their performances and recordings. Jeffes’ son, also called Jeffes inevitably, wanted the name for himself, or a variation of the name. There was plenty of toing and froing and confusion and struggling. Eventually the situation thankfully seemed to settle down somewhat and we were left with…

(a) A set of original musicians in a combo initially called The Anteaters and then renamed the Orchestra that Fell to Earth, who mainly play PCO songs at festivals, and (b) Jeffes Junior in an outfit called Penguin Cafe, no relation to the Penguin Cafe Orchestra yet at the same time every relation to it. Penguin Cafe are a group of many musicians, none of whom were in the PCO, and they have released three albums so far (I write this in the year 2018). These albums are good albums, nobody can accuse the younger Jeffes of trampling or otherwise violating the memory and legacy of his father. Very good albums in fact. But they have a different tone to the albums of the old PCO. They are lusher, they sound sometimes as if Philip Glass was involved in some way, there is a rotational melancholy and not a bean field, temporary shelter or harmonium on a trash heap in view. I know I sound disparaging and I don’t mean to. I will shut my mouth soon, so don’t worry.

A Matter of Life (2011) is a rich surge of sound and one especially succinct critic described it as a ‘love letter’ to the original PCO music. Certainly there is nothing to suggest a travesty of what has gone before. The proprietor of the Penguin Cafe, if he is listening, will have no inclination to expel his house band and secure the services of another. I could drink cappuccino to this music all morning. Yet the lush element is suggestive of an autumn after the heady spring and sultry summer. I long for off-key twangs, for an occasional wrong note. But if this was the first album I ever sampled that had the words ‘Penguin Cafe’ on them and I was unable to make judgments based on the emotional resonances of prior knowledge sharpened by nostalgia, I would be happy enough. The music has the quality of being perfectly ignorable if you wish to ignore it and yet it also rewards careful listening. When you choose to focus in close to the unfolding soundscapes, it is gratifying.

‘Landau’ is perhaps my favourite track, bouncy and melancholic at the same time. ‘Sundog’ is also very nice indeed. ‘The Fox and the Leopard’ contradicts everything I have said in the prior paragraph, being as softly jolly and funky as the earlier ‘Ecstasy of Dancing Fleas’. Perhaps I don’t know what I mean anymore. The Red Book (2014) and The Imperfect Sea (2017) present more of the same thing, hypnotic and wistful songs with a strong driving core that seems to want to become pure trance music. I haven’t yet seen them perform live but I absolutely will when I get the chance. This statement also applies to The Anteaters (who fell to earth). I had the privilege of being present when suggestions for a name change were open to their listeners. I had nothing to offer, but later the words ‘The Great Aukestra’ popped into my mind, an example of l’esprit de l’escalier (or ‘staircase wit’) in which one thinks of a rejoinder or a proposal when it is too late to be of any use. The great auk was the northern version of the more familiar southern penguin. It became extinct in the middle of the 19th Century and Anatole France wrote a satirical fantasy about a society of them called Penguin Island, in which he explains that the word ‘penguin’ first referred to auks. The great auks were the original penguins.

I am about to go now, but I have just recalled that I forgot to mention a six track EP that the PCO released in 1983. The Penguin Cafe Orchestra Mini Album features four songs that can be found on other albums and two originals, one of which, ‘Piano Music’ (recorded live in Japan) is a gentle and dreamy piece that is also a little odd harmonically, reminiscent perhaps of Sorabji but not quite. It is nothing special really but it has a haunting quality despite its brevity. Yet the reason why this EP is worth hunting down is a track called ‘The Toy’, pure magic and too little-known compared with so many of their other songs. Right, I’m off.


[1] Ouvroir de littérature potentielle; roughly translates to “workshop of potential literature”. It is a loose gathering of (mainly) French-speaking writers and mathematicians who seek to create works using constrained techniques. 

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.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

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Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

The Origin of Wuxing Lyrical

Back in 2012, I started my own small press, a very modest affair indeed, with the main aim of publishing my own short stories. Various publishers had issued slim chapbooks of my tales and these chapbooks had gone out of print. I gathered as many of them as possible together and published them in one big volume as The Tellmenow Isitsöornot, a curious title that probably needs an explanation. Edgar Allan Poe, in one of his strange comedies (he wrote comedies as well as tales of terror and they are almost as disturbing as his more famous macabre and wholly serious masterpieces) invented a fictional tome to match The Thousand and One Nights and he called it The Tellmenow Isitsöornot because those words seem to evoke ancient mystery and cryptic secrets, but in fact if you say them in an Irish accent you end up with ‘Tell me now, is it so or not?’ and as this struck me as a delightful joke, I appropriated the title.

At first, I only published e-books but then I decided that it would be nicer to publish paperbacks too. Also, I wanted to publish writers other than myself. The idea occurred to me of publishing an anthology with a specific theme. I chose to put together a book of cat stories and poems entitled More Than a Feline and so I imagined that this was the start of publishing many such anthologies. But our plans often go wonky. No more anthologies appeared. I published collections of my own work and a couple of volumes of poetry by individual authors, but still I felt the urge to issue an anthology. I conceived a project called Coconut Moon that originally was too ambitious to work well, four interconnected volumes that would be released over the span of one year. The cover of the first was designed and I received lots of good work, but the project soon became disorganised and even chaotic. I lost my enthusiasm for the books, while recognising that I ought to pull my socks up and issue them anyway.

I needed something to perk me up and I hit on the idea of putting together a much simpler anthology. If I could publish this book, then my enthusiasm for the neglected Coconut Moon project would return. The momentum generated would keep me going. But I am getting ahead of myself. The idea of creating an easy anthology in order to get a difficult one moving again came to me because of a happy set of circumstances.

Many years ago, I wrote down a joke and this is something I often do. When I was young, I used to wonder who were the people who invented jokes, little suspecting that one day I would be one of them. I had forgotten the joke but then I was reminded of it. I decided to turn it into a poem. This is a method I use to freshen my old jokes and turn them into a new kind of object. People often seem to prefer my jokes when they take the form of poems. The joke was about my sign in Chinese astrology and how it might humorously be misunderstood. I am a fire horse. What if this was misheard as ‘fire hose’? It could prove disastrous and exquisitely absurd.

I wrote the poem and shared it and, shortly afterwards, a writer by the name of James Bennett responded with a poem of his own about a water rat, which I assume is his own sign in Chinese astrology. It was then obvious to me that a poetry sequence had been set in motion. As I know little about astrology of any kind, I had to do some research to discover that in the Chinese system there are twelve animals that combine with five special elements, giving a total of sixty personality types. Why not a poem for every animal-element combination? This seemed a good objective, but I had no great desire to write all the poems myself. It was clear that I needed to recruit other poets!

I imagined I would be able to assign the animal-element combinations in a rigorous way, but of course this was not to be. My organisational skills are too poor for such a course of action. Poets were asked to contribute and those who agreed were allowed to choose whatever combinations they found appealing. It was a better system for me, but it meant that some combinations were doubled or even tripled. Metal and fire turned out to be the most popular elements while wood and earth were the least popular. Water floated somewhere in the middle. Dragons and snakes seemed to provide more inspiration than rabbits and goats. Instead of insisting on exactly sixty poems for the anthology, I decided that the project would be complete only when every combination had been covered at least once, which happened after I received seventy-eight poems. These appear in the book in the order that I received them.

As for the title, that was easy. I like punning titles. I learned that ‘wuxing’ is an ancient spiritual system connected with Chinese astrology and from there it was a small step to play a word game with the phrase ‘waxing lyrical’. I still needed to design a cover for the book, but I had designed several covers in the previous few months and felt I could accomplish the task reasonably well. It is true that creating an anthology requires a lot of work but only after it has been published comes the truly hard part: marketing it effectively and efficiently. It is an unfortunate fact that books are unable to sell themselves. How nice it would be if they did! Then we could move on to the next project smoothly and without worrying about exposure, reviews, popularity.

Wuxing Lyrical took less than a month from the initial concept to the actual book. It now seems to me that I will be able to return to the abandoned Coconut Moon and get it launched after all. I also think that more anthologies are feasible, and I have been toying with themes for these. Some themes might be broad and open to interpretation while others could be extremely precise and particular. An anthology of mini-sagas seems very likely to happen (a ‘mini-saga’ is a story or a poem exactly fifty words in length). Anthologies with the themes of ‘animals’ and ‘planets’ appeal to me. I am also half inclined to put together anthologies of poems about puddings, chess, robots, weather and islands. Maybe I should seek an illustrator for these future projects. Illustrated books of poetry are nicer than plain ones, especially if the poetry is humorous.

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.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

My Favourite Poem

I am not sure it is wise to choose a favourite poem out of the millions that exist. It would seem to exclude all the others from the imaginary summit of a fictional pillar. The circumference of that pillar means that there is only room for one poem up there and it might be better not to erect the pillar in the first place and leave the literary landscape unobstructed.

But it is too late for me. I have already chosen a favourite poem. In fact, I have chosen a favourite several times. The first poet I read in any depth, Edgar Allan Poe, provided me with my first favourite, not ‘The Raven’ but a slightly less famous work called ‘The Bells’. How I loved the tinkle, jangle and crash of the cadences in the stanzas of that piece!

I read it again recently and found that it retains great musical power and it is still a poem I regard with intense fondness, but it is no longer my favourite of all. That is hardly surprising considering I was reading Poe when I was 15 years old. Our youthful tastes change not only according to our experiences but also as a result of all the other literature we consume. There is surely a tendency to prefer narrative poems when we are small and a diminishing reliance on actual stories as we grow older. Yet it was the music of ‘The Bells’ that fascinated me rather than the febrile images it contains.

Jabberwocky. Courtesy: Creative Commons

I think my love of euphony has always meant that I relish the way a poem sounds more than I appreciate any meanings it might convey. This is why it was easy for a nonsense poem to become my new favourite and to gently push aside the Poe piece. Lewis Carroll’s ‘Jabberwocky’ became for me the supreme poem and I learned it by heart. It is a poem that makes contextual sense despite all the meaningless neologisms with which it is sprinkled. Somehow, we understand the new words coined by Carroll and there is no need to have them explained. It is a poem that we absorb through osmosis rather than through the normal process of everyday communication. A masterpiece!

When I was 18 years old, I began reading Byron, Shelley, Coleridge and a few other English Romantics, and I discovered ‘Ozymandias’. Now this seemed to me to be a perfect poem. It had music, imagery and a moral, and furthermore it was ironic, an archaic episode with timeless relevance. Again, I learned it by heart, and I found myself in the not uncommon position of reciting it to myself whenever I happened to be confronted with an ancient ruin, whether the blocks of a tumbled castle or shattered torso of a fallen statue. It is a poem that turns a reader into an actor, an introvert into a declaimer. It became my new favourite but only for a short while. The poem that caused it to fall in my estimation was another in the same anthology I was reading.

An Illustration from Kubla Khan. Courtesy: Creative commons

Kubla Khan’ struck me as especially appealing because it has a wildness about it that balances out its sense of control. I am not sure why Coleridge affected me to a greater extent than Shelley (and Byron affected me hardly at all) but I was enthralled by the imprecise exoticism and the intimations of doom among paradise in this poem, which is as menacing as it is delightful, as frantic as it is magical. Coleridge himself regarded it as a work in progress, a frustrated potential, unfinished, a burst dream bubble. I wonder if a continuation might have diminished it? The fragmentary nature of the piece adds to its allure by increasing its strangeness. There is atonality here as well as smoothness, like troubling chords inserted in a serene nocturne.

A few years passed and I discovered a new favourite and had to topple poor old ‘Kubla Khan’ from the apex of that idealised pillar and replace it with The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám in the first Edward Fitzgerald translation, but whether this series of seventy-five quatrains can be regarded as just one poem is open to debate. Personally, I regard the quatrains as linked inextricably by mood, metaphors as well as theme, and there is a mini-sequence within the whole that gains significant momentum by being treated as a single creation. My ambition once again was to learn the work by heart and recite it at moments that were appropriate but despite my efforts I failed in the endeavour. There was simply too much wordage for me to succeed.

I tried reading more modern poetry, serious and mature work that I failed to understand at first and had to consider very carefully before I could tease out any meaning. I read Akhmatova, Rilke, Pound, Eliot. I tried (but was generally defeated by) Ginsberg, Olsen, William Carlos Williams. This was all well and good but my candidate for new favourite turned out to be something light, an insignificant ditty dashed off by a poet who wrote it as a gift for a friend, and once again it was the music that won me over, the jangling, tinkling, tingling, clipping, clopping, jingly rhythms. ‘Tarantella’ by Hilaire Belloc imitates the sound of a guitar and clapping hands, it clatters along merrily, nostalgically, a tribute to an ephemeral occasion in a mountain tavern that can never be lived again, and the words and their phrasing evoke much of the atmosphere of that night with an appreciable impetus. A candidate for new favourite, yes, but it ultimately failed to displace the Rubáiyát.

That was in my early twenties and soon after I lost interest in poetry, I have no idea why, and rarely read any. Occasionally I would browse an anthology and discover something interesting, but only a few poems made any impression at all on me, and none became my favourite. The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám remained at the summit of my appreciation by default. My return to poetry was slow and uneven. The work of Federico García Lorca caught my attention and I chose ‘Canción de Jinete’ to learn by heart, which I did, probably poorly (my Spanish was never fluent). A little later I discovered the precocious genius of Arthur Rimbaud and taught myself ‘Le Coeur Supplicié’ because its torrent of fantastical words appealed to my inner ear.

Unfortunately, what I believed poetry had to offer was something I had no great use for. I misunderstood what it had to offer. That is no great crime, but I did miss out on its delights for a long time. Not until my mid-thirties did I start to return to the pleasures of poetry, and it was the humourist Don Marquis who ushered me back into the heaven I had forsaken, yet it is too much to claim that any of his poems became my favourite. I adore his cycle of poems about the cockroach Archy and the cat Mehitabel, but they must be taken as a whole in an evolving mythos. No individual poem of the cycle is worthy of special attention at the expense of the others. All are good, but together they are brilliant and thus they disqualify themselves from the game.

Now that I was reconciled with poetry, my tastes widened, and I read from a broader set of cultures and times than before. Sappho, Ovid, Catullus, Tagore, Basho, Tu Fu, Housman, Holub, Mandelstam, Eliot, Yeats, Edward Thomas, Dorothy Parker, Ai Ogawa, Ogden Nash, Derek Walcott. I was very enthusiastic about the novels and short stories of Richard Brautigan, so I read his poetry too and found a poem called ‘All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace’ that neatly summed up my own hopes for the future of the world. Did it become my new favourite? Not quite. I continued reading. Pessoa enthralled me, Cendrars and Queneau dazzled me. Complicated poetry dealing with the human condition and experimental verse based on mathematics made me nod my head sagely in a close approximation of a deep appreciation.

The City’ by C.P. Cavafy became my new favourite. I had heard his name often mentioned but felt no great desire to explore further. Then by chance I saw this particular poem. What a terrific piece! Hard, bleak even, wrenchingly bitter, but it does not depress the spirits of the reader despite its melancholy message. On the contrary it seems to inspire the reader to action. The poem is quietly and relentlessly insistent that you will never change your life for the better, that you can never escape the circumstances that have trapped you. It issues a challenge to the reader. Prove me wrong, the poem seems to say! I immersed myself in as much of Cavafy’s poetry as I could find. I went out of my way to visit his house in the city of Alexandria in Egypt, so wonderful did I now regard his work. Was this the final destination on my poetic voyage?

Not quite. There was another poem by another poet sunk deep beneath the surface of my awareness and it had been there for a long time. I can say that it had probably been my secret favourite from the beginning. I must have read it in an idle moment and forgotten about it, or thought I had forgotten about it, but it remained on the seabed of my subconscious, and ultimately it wrecked all the poetical vessels that followed, for I was never fully satisfied with any of those I called my favourites. I rediscovered it one unexpected day and it returned with unstoppable force into my affections. It was written by a poet who went to sea and saw the world, who travelled rather aimlessly for a number of years before the urge to write poetry took hold of him.

‘Cargoes’ by John Masefield is evocative and beautiful. It is heady and a little regretful at the same time. It contrasts the supposed splendours of the past with the drab present, and yet ironically in our own age we perceive romance even in the grime and smoke of Masefield’s ‘present’. Three ages are given to us for contemplation, a pre-classical time, the golden age of the Spanish Main, and the very start of the 20th Century, and three ships loaded with merchandise to represent those ages. The ships of Assyria and Spain are loaded with exotic and tropical treasures. They are floating envoys of a pair of widely spaced but equally fabulous cultures. The British ship is grimy and ugly and it wallows through a drab sea on a blustery day, carrying cargo that is practically an insult to the taste of the aesthete. The language employed is perfect for Masefield’s purpose. I know of no poem I like better.

Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine…

Cargoes (1903), John Masefield (1878-1967) 

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.

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Tall or Short Tales

Are these stories or prose poems or the unique ravings of Rhys Hughes?

An Unusual Bat
Courtesy: Creative Commons

He left the pavilion and strode onto the pitch holding a gigantic banana. We were surprised and frowned as he took his place before the wickets. Most of the spectators fell silent but one of us who had travelled the world muttered that this banana was a totem of the monkey god, Zumboo, and that he hadn’t seen such a thing since exploring Borneo. I wondered what was left to explore on an island that had been inhabited for tens of thousands of years. The very densest jungle, was the unspoken answer. The bowler remained calm, took a slow run up, let loose a ball with a wildly erratic spin, but the banana connected with an audible squelch and the ball flew over the pavilion for a score of six runs. We settled back in our seats confident of a very entertaining innings but before the bowler could launch a second ball, the banana suddenly grew wings and flew out of the batsman’s grasp. We gasped. The umpire insisted that the match be abandoned immediately. We all went home. I am no cricket historian, nor an explorer. I am not even a zoologist. But I knew I had just seen a very unusual thing that fateful afternoon. The rarest species of fruit bat.

The Target
Courtesy: Creative Commons

There was a king who feared invasion of his lands and defeat but he feared assassination even more. To guard himself from these dangers he moved his throne to the centre of an island in the middle of a large lake. But this lake lay at the centre of a larger island that reared from the waters of a bigger lake. Needless to say, this bigger lake was located at the centre of an island that was the size of a small country and this island could be found in the middle of a lake that was like a small sea. The king believed he had chosen the most secure place in the world and he relaxed just a little but he never slumped on his throne. He remained rigid, peering with his keen eyes in every direction, knowing that any invader or assassin would have to cross many bodies of water alternating with rough terrain in order to reach him, giving him plenty of time to prepare his defences. He had a rifle with an extremely long barrel and a tripod to rest it on and he was able to cover any approach with deadly fire. This is how he passed his days. But at night the moon rose slowly over the horizon and standing on the surface of that celestial object was the true enemy, a giant archer who lurked in the shelter of a crater and drew back his bowstring. The heavy arrow was nocked and he was carefully aiming at his obvious but oblivious target, the king who never looked up but who, sitting there, was a perfect bullseye at the dead centre of a series of concentric circles.

The Milk Truck

Travelling in a taxi from our small apartment in Bangalore to the airport, we hurtled along the highway, our driver weaving through the traffic with skill. We passed a stationary vehicle and at first I thought it had broken down on the side of the road. It was a large lorry, a cylindrical container on wheels. The words Milk Truck were written on the side in blue letters and then I saw an old woman on a stool near the rear of it. She was leaning forward, her gnarled hands reaching for the underside of the huge machine. It was just a glimpse, the merest flash, but I had the impression she was milking the truck’s udders into a bucket. How ludicrous! Sitting in the back of that taxi, I exchanged glances with my partner and I saw in her eyes that she shared my thoughts. We had both seen it. Metallic udders! I turned my head to look back but the truck already was out of sight, obscured by other vehicles. Our driver continued and it was impossible for us to know if he had noticed it too, or whether he would care even if he had. This is all the story, nothing else happened. We reached the airport early and had coffee while we waited but it was black coffee, which is both safer and saner.

Courtesy: Creative Commons

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.

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Three Ghosts in a Boat

I once had a friend who told me a strange story about what happened to her father in their garden in Tehran. He saw a face peeping at him from among the flowers, a strange yellow face much larger than that of a person. He wasn’t sure if the face was itself a type of gigantic flower. Then it laughed at him silently and rolled its eyes and the father felt chills spread all over him. He retreated to the inside of the house, and it was a long time before he ventured into that garden again. We had been talking about ghosts, so I asked my friend if the peculiar face among the flowers might also be a ghost.

“There are no such things as ghosts!” she said with great emphasis. Then in response to my puzzled frown she added, “There are only genies who pretend to be ghosts,” and she went on to explain that genies are a class of beings unrelated to angels or humans, faster and stronger than people and that few of them are left now. What the one in the Tehran garden wanted can’t be ascertained. Maybe it just wanted to create some mischief. For my friend, it was very important to differentiate it from a ghost.

A ghost is the disembodied soul of a once living man or woman. But in the mind of my friend there was simply no room on the Earth for such spirits. Therefore, if someone sees a ghost, or if you see one yourself, it can’t be a ghost but something else. It must be an entity that only seems to be a ghost. If it looks, walks and talks like a duck then it’s a duck, but this rule doesn’t apply to ghosts. It is a problem for sceptics who don’t believe that the souls of human beings are able to survive death, or who don’t believe that souls exist at all, that they are illogical. Ghosts continue to be seen. So alternative explanations must be found as to what they are. Hallucinations, mirages, electromagnetism, autosuggestion or misinterpretation of something real. Or genies in disguise.

I don’t believe in ghosts and yet I once had a ghostly encounter. I was in a hotel bar with some friends. We had attended the wedding of a student we had been to university with. There were four of us. Apart from the barman, we were the only customers in the place. Suddenly a table in the middle of the room, at least three metres from where we were standing, flipped itself over so that its legs were pointing at the ceiling like those of a frozen dead horse. The barman remarked very casually, “The ghost is early tonight,” and we all just nodded as if this was perfectly fine, as if his explanation made utter sense. It didn’t feel odd, neither the event itself nor the barman’s observation. It just felt normal.

Later when we left the hotel, the four of us stopped and looked at each other. “Did that really happen?” The incident was already acquiring a dreamy aspect, as if it was something remembered from childhood rather than a very recent event. And now the barman’s words hit us with delayed force and became in hindsight as fantastical as one would have expected them to have been inside the hotel bar. This remains my most profound ghostly encounter despite its simplicity. Often, I have discussed it with those who are interested in such things. I developed a theory that I always knew was contrived and whimsical but which I offered as a serious idea anyway, just to gauge the reactions of others who had endured similar cases.

Perhaps there are other universes, an almost infinite number of them, all in parallel, with the most adjacent ones being most similar to ours, differing perhaps in only one detail or so. This is not an original concept by any means, but I wondered if somehow the bar of that hotel was a place where two almost identical universes overlapped. While we believed we were in a bar in our familiar universe, we were actually in a bar in the universe next door, a universe absolutely the same as ours with one difference, namely that ghosts existed there, were normal and nothing to elicit surprise, which is why we had accepted everything so calmly, almost disinterestedly. The moment we left the hotel we were back in our own universe, where ghosts don’t exist, and that’s why we were now surprised.

This idea resonated with people and the unsettling feeling that maybe it was true began to grip me. I was intrigued to discover that many people who’d also had ghostly experiences felt the same way at the time, blasé, aloof, very accepting of the manifestation. They were calm too until after the incident was over. Only then did they question the veracity of the phenomenon and their reaction to it, as we had done that day.

Of course, others offered jocular solutions to the occurrence. We had come from a wedding and were standing at a bar. Clearly, we were drunk! Or were we exaggerating for effect? Not in this instance, no we weren’t. Might I have dreamed the whole thing but thought it was real? Yes, that’s plausible, but that doesn’t change the fact that so many people I spoke to also had a feeling of ‘normality’ when they experienced the supernatural even if the events weren’t really paranormal.

But questions remain. If ghosts are not the spirits of dead people, then they are phenomena of psychology or physics that remain untested. They are a problem that hasn’t been solved, yet the probability is that one day they will be understood. Then sceptics will be able to rest more easily. They already force themselves to rest more easily by dismissing ghosts as an irrelevance in the modern world, but the solving of this problem scientifically will be a blessing. It will remove their need for coercing themselves to disbelieve. All of us are human beings, emotional beasts, including sceptics, and when a ghost appears we jump in fright and our hair stands on end. Even if we don’t believe in ghosts, our goose pimples do. Our rational minds don’t really have sufficient strength to enable us to act in tandem with our sceptical claims.

The incident in the hotel bar was my most remarkable ghostly experience but not the only one. The others were all sensations rather than sights, a feeling that something wasn’t right about the places I was in. Those places were always remote and always locations I encountered on hiking trips. Perhaps tiredness had something to do with my extra sensitivity or maybe it merely muddled my mind a little. Sometimes the unsettling experience happened in the daytime and sometimes at night. I might be looking for a spot to camp and after finding one would settle down. Then minutes later, or an hour later, or many hours later, I would be compelled to pack up again and move on, in a state of near panic.

Near the rather isolated Pwlldu Beach in Gower, South Wales, I heard what sounded like a bell tolling under the sea. I later learned that I was camping in a place called Grave’s End where on November 26th in the year 1760 a ship named The Caesar was wrecked on the rocks with the loss of ninety press-ganged men locked in the hold. The corpses of those unfortunates were buried in a gully that was filled with soil and a ring of limestone rocks was placed on top to mark the site. Unwittingly this is where I had chosen to bivouac. I had to leave and blunder my way through a wood that was pitch dark. Anything was preferable to remaining in that unwelcoming spot. That wood also has a reputation for ghosts and my panic compelled me to keep going until I reached the next beach along, where I slept soundly and happily.

It really does appear that some geographical locations come with a good feeling, some with a bad one. This is indisputable. But surely there are a host of rational explanations for this? I have felt a malevolent presence in a number of areas during these hiking trips and now I avoid those places at night. I regard myself as a sceptical man, yet my actions appear to indicate otherwise.

If we consider the matter closely, it will become plain that the malevolent quality of the atmosphere of those haunted places is an argument against the idea that ghosts are the spirits of dead people. In the unforgettable words of the most famous of all ghost story writers, M.R. James (1862-1936), ghosts are “the angry dead” and yet how can anger be associated with any entity that lacks a body? Anger is an emotion and absolutely requires a physicality in which to exist. It is not that the body is a vessel for anger but that anger itself is a function of a body.

Without a heart to beat faster, without lungs to breathe deeper, without blood to increase its pressure, without the glands to secrete adrenaline, how is anger practical? It simply isn’t. The most that a disembodied soul can feel in this regard is a cold and indistinct intellectual disdain. There are no opportunities for anger in the souls of dead people. And is true malevolence possible without the input of at least some anger?

I suppose that ghosts exist in ways that are tangential to our usual ideas of what they are and where they might be found. I believe they reside not in old castles but on the shelves of our own homes. A friend was talking about ghost stories and why the Victorians were so good at them. It occurred to me that whether or not they were good at them back then is irrelevant, because they are certainly good at them now. What I mean by this is that every story of any kind told by any Victorian has become a ghost story because all Victorians are dead.

Even a light comedy such as Three Men in a Boat (1889) is a ghost story in the present age because when we read it, we are reading the words of a dead man. It may well have been a story told by a living man once, but now it’s a dead man’s tale. A ghost story. In other words, the content of the story might not be a ghost story, but the form of it is. And yet we laugh when we read it. It appears that a story featuring ghosts written by a living person can be spookier than a story featuring men written by a ghost. How strange!

If a dead man whispered words in your ear while you were lying in bed, you would be scared. But when you read a book in bed by an author who is no longer alive, you are reading the words of a dead man, and if the book is a comedy you aren’t scared. Yet in both instances a dead man is communicating with you. In both instances the words of a dead man are going into your mind. It’s the same thing! So don’t laugh when reading Three Men in a Boat. Be scared instead! That book is a direct communication from a dead man to you! When we consider the matter objectively, Three Men in a Boat must be scary. Logic demands this.

So, let’s take logic seriously and always be scared by such books from now on. Because a dead man is communicating with us through it. That’s the very definition of a supernatural experience! When funny incidents happen in the book, tremble with fright. That’s the correct reaction. Shiver with dread. Because a GHOST is TELLING JOKES!

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL