Categories
Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

I Went to Kerala

Photo provided by Rhys Hughes

I went to Kerala for Christmas, travelling from Bangalore on the night bus. It wasn’t the first time I had taken a night bus in India. The first time was when I went to Madikeri, high in the hills of Coorg. That bus was one with berths that one can lie completely flat on. In fact, you have no choice but to lie flat because there are no seats. It should be more comfortable than sitting upright all night, and I am sure many passengers find it so, but the vibrations of the engine made my body vibrate in sympathy and every bend in the road made me slide around the berth uncontrollably and when the bus climbed a slope all the blood rushed to my head, which was oriented towards the rear of the vehicle. I decided never to use this restful method of travel again.

This is why I chose a more old-fashioned style of bus in order to journey to Kerala. I understand seats. Your head is always up and your feet always down, and if this happens not to be the case then it quickly becomes obvious that some disaster has happened. Head up, feet down, seems to me the natural order of the universe when travelling a great distance. It was a twelve-hour journey. In India that might not be so remarkable, but I come from a small country where twelve hours on a bus is sufficient time to drive right across the land and a fair way out to sea. “Captain, there seems to be a bus overtaking us!” “Have you been at the rum again, bosun?” The immensity of India is something I doubt I will ever get used to. It is big even in terms of bigness.

Not that the bus with seats was completely free of problems. The seats had a lever by the side of them, and if this lever was pulled, the seats reclined. I was expecting something of this nature, but I was completely taken by surprise at the extreme angle they adopted. They reclined to an excessive degree. All was fine for the first fifty kilometres or so, then the young lady in the seat in front of me decided it was bedtime. She reclined the seat so precipitously that it whacked on my knees, and I was given no choice but to stare directly at the top of her head which was almost touching my chin. The only solution was to recline my own seat. I did so and heard a yowl from behind. I had taken my turn to crush some other innocent knees. And so I lay in this absurd position, sandwiched between two sleepers as the hours slowly passed.

The bus was soon filled with snorers and all of them were out of time with each other. I am a jazz aficionado, I love music with complex rhythms, and I also love polyrhythms, but the point of such intricate music is that there is resolution at some point along the melody lines. The contrasting rhythms ought to come together at least sometimes, in order to provide structure, but the snoring was far too avant garde for that. It was atonal and without time signatures. A man in a forest of lumberjack gnomes probably feels the same way I did, as the sawing takes place and the trees topple with a crash. There was no crash for me during that night, thank goodness, but plenty of jolting as the bus ran over potholes in the highway or swerved around unseen obstacles or accelerated to overtake rival night buses also full of snoring passengers.

Well, all this is a nuisance but one that is necessary for travellers to endure. I reached my destination safely and that’s what really counts. It was morning in Kerala and the heat was already intense. Bangalore is at altitude and altitude is a restrainer of temperature. The landscape shimmered and the port city of Kochi pulsated under the sun. No matter! Time to find my hotel and rest for a while in order to catch up on all the sleep I had missed on the night bus, whose motto is ‘sleep like a baby’, which turned out to be accurate, for I slept not at all and felt like wailing for hours. I went to the correct address and found that the hotel had been closed for the past two years. Ah well!

We are always advised to expect the unexpected, and we do this well, but I don’t think we are ever prepared for the types of unexpectedness we encounter. I was ready for the bus to break down, or for me to lose my way in the narrow entangled city streets, or for crows to swoop and peck my head. I wasn’t ready for a hotel to not exist. I soon found another and it was a better establishment with two ceiling fans instead of one, a balcony, even a fridge that was on the verge of working. That fridge later held two bottles of beer and cooled them from hot to lukewarm, and I drank them one evening and regretted it because I have no stomach for beer. Because of that warm beery incident, I missed out on sampling the palm wine that Kerala is so famous for.

The old part of Kochi is picturesque and labyrinthine. I wandered where I would and ended up somewhere, but I’m still not sure where. Christmas lights were strung between the buildings, large glowing stars had been erected on the summits of walls, on roofs, or dangled from gables. One church I passed had a façade in the form of a gigantic angel. This was really quite surreal. We tend to think of angels as radiant beings with a human form, perfect men and women, but if you read the Bible you will soon see that most angels have an appearance that is not human at all. The highest rank of angels, the Ophanim, resemble sets of interlocking gold wheels with each wheel’s rim covered with eyes. They float through the air without needing wings. A church façade based on one of these angels would be an example of experimental architecture. But the church in the shape of a personable angel was endearing.

I walked past another church and saw a fleet of Santa Clauses mounted on bicycles about to set off. Is ‘Clauses’ the plural of ‘Claus’? I have no idea, for it has never occurred to me that there might be more than one of them. This fleet consisted of children in costume and I have no notion of where they were going or what they would do when they arrived. I strolled onwards and they rode past me, guided by two men on a scooter, one steering and the other holding in his arms a loudspeaker and facing backwards, like a Pied Piper who has entered the Electronic Age. One by the one, the Santa Clauses pedalled past, laughing, waving, generally enjoying themselves.

This was Christmas at its most gentle, innocent and benevolent, a far cry from the Christmas ritual I witnessed exactly thirty years ago in Prague, where the tradition involves a saint, an angel and a devil chained together who stalk pedestrians in order to give them lumps of coal that represent the sins of the year. Prague was freezing, Kochi was broiling, and I know which I prefer, but the beer in Prague is certainly better. I reached the waterfront and sat under a tree and wondered if the mass migration of Santa Clauses I had seen was truly a fleet. Maybe it was an armada instead, or a division? Is there a collective noun for Father Christmas? A Splurge of Santas?

Kochi is riddled with waterways, and it feels like an excellent location for a port, which it is. No wonder it was established at that spot. I felt a small connection to the ancient mariners who had sailed here from the West long ago, from Europe and around the tip of Africa and across the Indian Ocean. One day I will travel from this very place to the islands of Lakshadweep. This has been a dream of mine for a long time, since I was eight or nine years old. I had entered a competition run by the Twinings tea company and I won. A map of the Indian Ocean was given with the names of islands removed and the entrants had to fill in those missing names. I consulted an atlas to do this, as I imagine every other entrant did, but I had an unknown advantage.

My atlas was very old, a green battered thing, and the Lakshadweep islands were marked by that very name. In other atlases the island chain was apparently named as the Laccadives. The administrators were looking for Lakshadweep and that is how I won a year’s supply of tea. It came regularly via the postman in an endless series of little tubs, Earl Grey, Lapsang Souchong, Peach Oolong. But in the end, this endless series finally ended, and my tea luck turned out only to feel inexhaustible rather than to be so. I have never won a competition since or even come close. But I have had a fondness for tea and Lakshadweep ever since, so it is imperative that I sail to those islands one day.

During my time in Kochi, I travelled on a boat only once, from Fort Kochi to Vypin Island. A battered rusty ferry crammed with foot passengers, cars and motorcycles. Cost of ticket? The equivalent of three British pennies. This is far cheaper than the cost of any ferry I have ever been on, with the exception of the occasional free ferries that I have encountered around the world, such as the one that takes passengers across the Suez Canal from one side of Port Said to the other, or the ferry that travels back and forth between Mombasa, which is on an island, and the African mainland. Sea travel is something special and I have done too little of it in my life. If I could have sailed back to Bangalore, I would have. As it happens, I went back on another night bus, but this time the person in the seat in front of me only reclined their seat to a reasonable angle. My knees were not crushed, and in return I did not crush the knees of the person behind me. I like and admire reasonable angles. They make geometry sweet.

.

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.

.

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

Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles

Categories
Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

Some Differences Between Wales and India

I am from Wales but now I live in India. I am therefore in a very good position to note any differences between life in the two different countries. The first of these differences concerns food. Indian food is the main kind of food in public eating places in both locations. But the food itself isn’t quite the same. Indian food in India is Indian by default. In Wales no one knows whose fault it is. I fell into a curry in Wales once. I slipped on discarded laddoo peel (we peel laddoos over there because we think they grow on trees) and into the pot I went. It was a good curry and might be considered authentic. After I fell into it, ‘in authentic’ was the correct term for it. I wiped myself clean with a large naan bread. Later I wore the naan bread as a cloak. Waste not, want not.

So much for food. I am writing this short essay at the end of November. India is especially different from Wales at this time of year. Here I am playing badminton in shorts and a t-shirt. Back in Wales it is so cold that the sunbeams have frozen solid and I would be hanging my washing on one of the horizontal rays. In the afternoon, here in India, I will probably read a book of poetry under a banyan tree while drinking mosambi juice and listening to sitar music. But in Wales, I would be snapping off that frozen sunbeam and using it as a long lance while riding my yeti[1] over the misty mountains.

Traffic is another difference. In India the roads are choked with cars, autos, tuk-tuks (yes, I know that autos and tuk-tuks are the same thing but I need more wordage in this essay), trucks, buses, bicycles, wheelbarrows and cows. Wales doesn’t really have roads and the only traffic consists of crows. A crow perched on the back of a cow would make a perfect official emblem for a Welsh-Indian Friendship Association. If there are no roads in Wales, how do we get about? It is a pertinent question. We jump, is the answer. This not only enables us to reach our destinations but keeps us warm in winter.

In India there are monsoons but in Wales they are never soon, they are here already. The only time it stops raining in Wales is when the clouds go on strike for more pay. Lightning also goes on strike. There are puddles everywhere, even on the surfaces of lakes and ponds. Because we jump everywhere, there is a lot of splashing in Wales. This splashing puts most of the moisture back into the air where it forms clouds and perpetuates the cycle. I once perpetuated a cycle. It was a bicycle originally but I sent it away to get an education and it came back as a unicycle. I connected it to a motor powered by a rainfall gauge. Off it went on an endless journey around Wales. I would never attempt something like that in India. So there’s another big difference.

India is actually a very advanced country in terms of technology. Based in Bangalore, I am able to order anything I like with an app on my mobile phone. If I want food or drink or a bicycle, I just have to tap a few keys and a delivery guy will turn up with the ordered stuff. I once ordered a delivery guy using one of these apps and a different delivery guy turned up carrying the first delivery guy over his shoulder. But then I decided I didn’t really need a delivery guy so I sent him back and obtained a full refund.

It’s not like that in Wales. We only acquired mobile phones very recently in history and they are of a decidedly primitive sort. We started with parrots that one keeps in a pocket and speaks the messages to before releasing them to land on the shoulders of the recipients, where they recite the messages. This meant the pockets of our trousers had to be enlarged but we felt it was worth the cost. The parrots didn’t like flying through the endless rain and the messages usually went astray. So we progressed to a more advanced model, which consisted of riders on bicycles holding tin cans connected by string. You can’t order food on our mobile phones or even new trousers.

Wales is behind the times in other ways too, in fact in all ways. Wales is so belated in every respect that when the end of the world finally takes place, the country will continue for a few more years as if nothing has happened. I suspect that very slow processes, such as continental drift, evolved in Wales. I suppose that even evolution evolved in Wales, considering how slow it is and how long it takes a dinosaur to change into a chicken. I can change into a chicken with a great deal more efficiency, but I prefer pretending to be a gorilla or a chimp. It’s a very relaxing thing to do. Why not try?

Also in India you have holy men, but in Wales we only have holy socks. A holy man can open himself to the secrets of the universe. A holy sock is open to the weather, which is generally wet, and not much else. Holy men can levitate if they are sufficiently pure in spirit, or so I have been told. I once saw a flying sock, but it had been lobbed at me by a neighbour and wasn’t pure at all. That’s not the only thing I have seen rushing through the atmosphere in Wales. Parrots with sad expressions, of course, but also gloves. Why this should be so was a mystery for ages but recently the enigma was solved by an enigma machine and the answer is that “glove is in the air, everywhere I look around”. Or perhaps it is just the wind. Yes, I think it’s the wind.

The Enigma machine was used in the early- to mid-20th century, especially in WWII, for commercial, diplomatic, and military communications. Courtesy: Creative Commons

An enigma machine, incidentally, is a device invented in Wales that looks like an abacus, but it has small onions on wires instead of beads. Crows perch on the wires and peck the onions and move them into different positions, which gives the answer to any question. But the answer is cryptic and must be studied by a druid, who will interpret it. Druids are common in Wales. They aren’t holy men, strictly speaking, but are highly respected because they wear intact socks. They also wear cloaks made from naan breads but if you ask them, they insist they are made from wool and cobwebs.

You are probably beginning to ask yourself, is this a serious essay? And at this point you might be harbouring doubts that it is. There are many harbours in Wales, which has a convoluted coastline, but not many in the interior of India. That’s another difference. I have already mentioned laddoos and the fact that we peel them (and I mentioned it in brackets) but we also peel bells. I don’t think bells are ever peeled in India. They are rung instead. The peel of Welsh bells is used to make the tall hats that old women wear, conventionally on their heads, that you might have seen in vintage photographs. Bell peel is more enduring than satin or any other kind of fabric. It means that every old woman always knows what the time is when their hat bongs.

India is full of palaces. Not long ago, I visited Mysore Palace and found it truly impressive. In Wales we have nothing quite like that, but I often mention Mysore Feet after all the jumping I have to do to get anywhere. And now one final difference before I go. In India, the essays that writers write are generally detailed, comprehensive and lengthy. In Wales they often end abruptly in the middle with three dots, as if the writer was eaten by a yeti unexpectedly… but not this one. No yeti. Not yet anyway.


[1] The Welsh yeti, Abominablis Boyo, is only distantly related to the Himalayan species.

.

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.

.

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

Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles

Categories
Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

Infinite Tiffin

Because Indian food is the best in the world, as everyone knows, a scientist who worked for an educational institute on the outskirts of Bangalore once tried to devise a method of ensuring there was more of it. The more the better, was his motto. His attempts to construct a machine that would multiply chapatis, vadas, dosas, idlis and bowls of curry failed, for it turned out to be impossible to create new matter from nothing — thanks to the physical laws of the universe. But this scientist wasn’t a man to be so easily discouraged. Where there’s a will there’s a way, was his other motto. He had two mottos, just as he had two arms, two legs, two eyes and a pair of spectacles on his nose.

He thought of a way he could get around the particular law of physics that had sabotaged his first plan. Instead of multiplying the food in order to increase the amount available, why not shrink the eaters instead? A man or woman the size of a thumb would be confronted with chapatis that were like islands, vadas like boulders, bowls of curry like the craters of active volcanoes. Yes, that was the best solution. He got to work on it right away and he even stayed late in his makeshift laboratory at the institute and ignored all phone calls from his parents, who wanted to know when he was going to marry a nice girl, or failing that, any girl at all. He was wedded to his experiments.

At last, he chanced on a viable method of shrinking people to a specific size. He celebrated by going home and sleeping for three days. When he awoke, a wide smile on his face, he knew that finding volunteers would be fairly easy. He placed an advertisement in a local newspaper, and it wasn’t long before people began contacting him. He would pay them a small honorarium for taking part in the trial run and they would be allowed to eat as much food as they wanted. So many applicants contacted him that he was overwhelmed, and he had to declare that the offer was over. No more volunteers were required. He had two suitable candidates and wanted to use them immediately.

Pawan Kumar and Shruti Patil were both at loose ends, like pieces of string that knew knot what they had let themselves in for. That’s a pun, but neither one of them cared for wordplay. Pawan was an auto driver and Shruti worked as a maid in a gated community. Neither were gluttons but it must be admitted that they hadn’t had a notable feast for a long time. They jumped at the opportunity that the scientist offered. And in case you are wondering why this scientist has remained nameless so far, it’s because after what happened he preferred to stay anonymous for all time, and we must respect that.

Pawan had found a copy of the newspaper left by a passenger on the back seat of his auto, and Shruti had found one stuffed into the bin that she took out of the apartment she was cleaning. Both had paused for less than one minute in order to read the advertisement. This was a happy chance, if chance can ever be said to be truly happy and isn’t faking it, and then and there they had decided to plunge headlong into this new adventure. They were perfect volunteers, in other words, without a twinge of anxiety between them.

The scientist said, “Are you sure?”

They both nodded in agreement, bemused that he should seem more nervous than they were. All they were risking was their existence, but he was risking his entire career, and success in this unfortunate world is often held to be more important than life itself. He continued, “There might be complications, but I don’t think it is likely. I just want you to be aware.”

They were aware, fully so, and he ought to worry less.

“So be it,” he said dramatically.

It’s still a trade secret as to how he shrank them from ordinary sized people to miniature versions of themselves, so I am unable to describe the machine he used and the green rays it beamed on them from a series of crystal lenses all of which were carved into different shapes that were offset polyhedra, and even the copper coils and capacitors and diodes as big as cucumbers must be passed over in discreet silence, nor can I say how the whole contraption was powered by an array of solar cells on the institute’s roof.

Pawan and Shruti found themselves diminishing rapidly but that’s not how it seemed from their perspective. It appeared to them that the outside world was expanding, rushing to inflate itself, and the effect was so startling and alarming that they clung to each other for comfort, despite the fact they hardly knew each other, and their parents didn’t know each other either. This embrace also helped them to keep their balance as they rushed down the scale until they were almost exactly the size of the scientist’s thumbs.

The scientist spoke and his voice was so deafening that it boomed like the thunderclaps that sometimes echo from the crowded buildings of Bangalore and rumble down the streets before fading. They understood none of his words and it was a minute before they could gather their wits to act on their own initiative. He had simply said, “Please begin eating.”

He had picked them up and was lowering them on a long table that groaned with the amount of food it held. He was careful not to squeeze them too tightly. Then he released them, and they wandered in utter amazement among the plates, bowls, dishes and banana leaves, all heaped with delicious foodstuffs. The idea that they should devour this landscape seemed as absurd to them as any resident of Mysore supposing he can munch his way through the Amba Vilas Palace. It was too overwhelming, far too miraculous.

The scientist now clapped his hands impatiently. “Come, come, tuck in, I don’t have all day. Let’s see what happens!”

But his voice was still too low in pitch for their tiny ears to hear anything more than an incomprehensible booming. That was of no importance because the mission that had been assigned to them was plain. They had to eat as much as they liked in the time available to them.

It never occurred to Pawan or Shruti to ask whether the miniaturisation was permanent, and in fact even the scientist didn’t know if the effects would wear off naturally, or if he might find it necessary to try reversing the polarity of his machine in the hope it would restore them to their former size. But they had full faith in his competence and began nibbling at tasty objects that were in their vicinity. They were only a little cautious.

Soon they grew confident, then became joyous. They bounded between dishes and plates, climbed mounds of sweet and savoury foods, waded through curries, cavorted among the vegetables.

In the meantime, a reporter from the newspaper was on his way to the institute on the outskirts of Bangalore to find out why this scientist needed the volunteers he had asked for. The reporter smelled a story in the making. When he entered the building, after showing his press credentials, and approached the laboratory, he smelled something beyond a story. It was a banquet! He rapped on the door with his knuckles and cried: “Good afternoon, sir.”

To which the scientist replied, “Go away! You are disturbing the future of the human race. The door is locked.”

“I merely wish to interview your volunteers.”

“They are far too small to answer your questions. You must depart now. I will have you ejected from the premises if you refuse to leave of your own free will. The volunteers can’t understand your words, no matter what language you speak. They are cavorting on the table.”

“How so? You mean that they are monkeys?”

The scientist cursed at this.

The reporter struggled to see anything coherent through the frosted glass of the door. All he could make out was the shape of the banqueting table, which at this distance was like an operating table, and parallel rows of foodstuffs, which to him looked like an array of gadgets. The scientist stood with a spoon ready to serve rice onto plates and to the reporter it seemed he was clutching a surgical instrument that could probe brains.

“Is he brainwashing monkeys? Turning them into robots or assassins! I will write an article about this scandal.”

And he dashed out of the institute building as fast as he could run. During this rumpus, Pawan and Shruti had gained even more confidence. They started to eat with gusto and passed from dish to dish like explorers among the ruins of an ancient civilisation, taking morsels from every alluring display. Most of this food was from Karnataka but not all.

They chewed and swallowed bisi bele bhath, maddur vada, Dharwad peda, akki roti, saagu, upma, ladoos, three variants of idli, namely thatte idli, rava idli and Muday idli, churumuri and many other typical foods. They were soon full, but they continued eating, more on aesthetic grounds than from physical need. It was like a chain reaction. They would keep going until something exploded and that something would be their bellies.

But now something strange happened, and the simple adventure became a much more complex and tricky exploit. Pawan found a paper dosa, a very long and crispy example, and it had been rolled into a tunnel and he peered into the mouth of the tunnel and he was baffled.

“The landscape on the other side of the tunnel looks different,” he said to Shruti with a frown. “Come and see.”

She did so and she was no less astonished.

“There’s a garden there.”

“Yes, there is, and it makes no sense.”

A dosa with a tunnel. Courtesy: Creative Commons

They exchanged meaningful glances, but the exact meaning was unclear to both of them. Nonetheless they tingled with anticipation and Pawan gave into temptation and suggested they walk together through the dosa tunnel in order to see what the far side might actually be like.

Have you ever walked through a dosa yourself? It is surely an odd feeling. They stumbled on the batter, which yielded too readily to their feet, cracking a piece off here and there, but soon enough they emerged from the exit. And what they saw was remarkable. They were no longer on a table in a laboratory in an institute on the outskirts of Bangalore.

Pawan and Shruti were unworldly people and had never heard of the myth of the Garden of Eden, but that’s what they found on the other side of the magic dosa. There are some special points in our world that are portals to other worlds and if you step through them, you will end up in that new dimension. They saw that the garden was full of trees, but the trees had gulab jamuns hanging from the branches instead of fruits. Gulab jamun trees! Was that even possible? Clearly, yes it was, here in this incredible place.

Gulab Jamuns. Courtesy: Creative Commons

As they strolled deeper into the garden, enchanted by the sights, they took slightly diverging paths and ended up alone. Shruti stopped by a tree and despite the fact she was full, she reached up to pluck a gulab jamun that glistened most invitingly just above her head. And that’s when the snake appeared. It slithered down from the top of the tree and said:

“You are allowed to eat the sweets from any tree in the garden with the one exception of this tree, which is the tree of knowledge. But I think you should be a rebel and eat it anyway. Why not?”

The snake had the voice and face of the scientist.

Shruti pouted at him.

“Because that would be greedy,” she said.

“Don’t be so timid!”

“Knowledge is overrated. You have plenty of knowledge and what has it done for you? Turned you into a snake.”

“Don’t say that. I am an intellectual benefactor.”

“You eat it then.”

And she held out the gulab jamun for him.

He hissed and swayed in annoyance, his forked tongue flicking, but at that very moment Pawan came over to see what the fuss was about, and he shook his fist at the snake and warned him: “I am an auto driver. I often have passengers like you. I will throw you out of the garden if you don’t behave.”

The snake continued hissing angrily but it slid away and they still don’t know where it went because they have never seen it again. Meanwhile, the scientist mysteriously disappeared from the laboratory and the only theory that explained his vanishing was that he had turned the rays of his own machine on himself and shrunk down to a dot and then to an atom.

But why would he do that? Nothing made sense any longer. Pawan and his wife, Shruti, still live in the garden beyond the dosa, and because all the food in the laboratory has been taken away, there is no way for them to return to the real world. They don’t care about that. They are satisfied where they are. They keep the gulab jamun of knowledge safe and maybe one day they will take bites from it. But they are in no rush to do so.

The reporter wrote his story about monkey robots and assassins, but it was never published because his editor thought he had gone mad. He was told to take a week off work and go on holiday. He went but never returned. Searching for him proved futile but rumours persisted of a monkey on the coast who liked to read the newspaper as if he understood the words. Probably some sort of coincidence. The world is stuffed full of them.

.

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.

.

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

Categories
Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

Crossing the Date Line

Courtesy: Creative Commons

I have long been fascinated by the International Date Line, which I have never yet crossed but still intend to. I have unreasonable qualms that crossing it will change a person in some way, will project them into the past or future by a day and that some part of them will always remain displaced from the present. Even if they cross the line again in the opposite direction, they won’t entirely be back in alignment with themselves. It is difficult to explain without resorting to vague words such as ‘soul’ and the idea is without any basis in fact anyway. Yet it is a feeling that persists beyond logical thought.

I suppose that the origins of my excessive interest in the Date Line can be found in one of Jules Verne’s best novels, Around the World in Eighty Days, a book with one of the best twist endings ever devised. Phileas Fogg the explorer makes a bet that he can circumnavigate the Earth in only eighty days and thanks to an unfortunate set of circumstances he fails by one day. Or does he? He has crossed the Date Line from the east in order to enter the western hemisphere and thus has gone back in time one day. When he realises this fact, he uses the extra day to win the bet. Geometry saves him.

For a long time, I wondered why Verne wasn’t praised more highly for this brilliant plot device, but now I ask myself if it wasn’t a conceit he borrowed from Edgar Allan Poe, of whom he was a great admirer. Verne’s novel was first published in 1872 but thirty years earlier Poe’s short story ‘Three Sundays in a Week’ utilised the same ingenious idea for quite a different purpose. When the name of Poe is mentioned, we imagine tales of horror and bitter despair, morbid scenes, grotesque irony, but he also wrote strange comedies and ‘Three Sundays in a week’ is one of his lightest and happiest.

The narrator, Bobby, wishes to marry Kate, but her obstreperous father, Mr Rumgudgeon, is against the match while pretending to approve of it. He offers a generous dowry with his blessings but when Bobby asks that a date be fixed for the wedding, Mr Rumgudgeon replies that it will happen “when three Sundays come together in a week!”. This impossible condition is a cruelly humorous attempt to forestall the wedding. But Bobby is a clever young man. He knows a way in which the unfair condition can be met.

He arranges a dinner for himself, Kate and her father, and two guests, both of them sea captains who had lately returned from voyages around the world. The crucial point is that Captain Smitherton and Captain Pratt sailed in different directions while circumnavigating the globe. The dinner is held on a Sunday, but it is only Sunday for Bobby, Kate and Mr Rumgudgeon: for Captain Smitherton yesterday was Sunday and for Captain Pratt the next day would be Sunday. Thus, the impossible condition is met. It is a week with three Sundays in it and no further objection to the marriage can be made.

Poe was very clear in his mind about the technicalities of time difference in such voyages, as was Verne, but confusion about east/west crossings of the Line forms one of the recurrent absurdist jokes in W.E. Bowman’s The Cruise of the Talking Fish, in which the crew of a pioneering raft accidentally disrupt, at great cost, the launching of an experimental rocket from a remote Pacific island. This book was published in 1957 (one century after the midpoint date between Poe’s short story and Verne’s novel). It is a magnificent comedy that manages to make the reader doubt their own knowledge of how the Date Line works. And in truth the mechanics of the crossing still confuse me.

Yet another novel that utilises the Date Line and the oddities surrounding it is Umberto Eco’s The Island of the Day Before in which a becalmed sailor on a ship near an island that lies on the other side of the Line indulges in speculation as to the physical and metaphysical significance of our conventions of time. The island is unreachable but remains as an anchor that tethers his mind to the topic and he is unable to stop wondering (and extrapolating this wonder) until flights of fancy turn into mathematically-based obsessions. There is always the lurking suspicion that the Line is not just a human convention but something true that is now embedded in nature as a thriving paradox.

Deep down, I still believe that crossing the Line is an act of time travel, not only in terms of human timekeeping but also in relation to the natural world, so that a man who sails into tomorrow can find out the news of the day and learn such things from the newspapers or radio as to who has won a cricket match, then recross the Line in the opposite direction and lay bets on that team, raking in huge winnings. Or a man who has suffered an accident and is badly wounded can be carried back one day into the past, where he is well again and when the following day dawns, he can take evasive action.

I know that none of this is true, but I feel it is right nonetheless, and I have written my own stories in which the Date Line features, one of them being ‘The International Geophysical Ear’, which is about a gigantic ear positioned on the Line itself that can hear both backwards and forwards in time, and another being ‘The Chopsy Moggy’, concerning a talking cat who unfortunately turns up late for an inter-species conference that will determine the future of humanity. There are others and undoubtedly more will be written.

The Date Line has been host to rather strange happenings in reality as well as in fiction. On the map, it is no longer a straight line that follows the longitude of 180 degrees east and west. It veers abruptly to avoid landmasses, taking wide detours around islands. But once it deviated not one inch. It speared through the atolls and islands it encountered, dividing them in half, so that a person had the opportunity of standing with one leg in today and the other in yesterday or even tomorrow. Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean, the last dwelling place of woolly mammoths (still around when the pyramids were being constructed in Egypt), was one of these special places. Three Fijian islands too: Vanua Levu, Taveuni and Rambi, where unscrupulous plantation owners forced workers to cross the Line on Sundays to prevent them having a day off.

There is also the interesting fact that the equator crosses the Date Line and that a point therefore exists where it is summer and winter simultaneously while also being today and tomorrow (or yesterday). The SS Warrimoo was a ship that routinely travelled between Canada and Australia. On the last day of December 1899, the ship was very close to the point where the equator meets the Date Line and Captain Phillips realised that if he positioned the SS Warrimoo exactly on that point, something very curious could be achieved. He gave instructions for this to happen and on the stroke of midnight his vessel lay at 0 degrees latitude and 180 degrees longitude. Magical coordinates…

The forward part of the ship was now in the southern hemisphere and thus in summer while the rear remained in the northern hemisphere and in winter. Half of the SS Warrimoo was in the year 1899 (December) while the other half was now in the year 1900 (January). Captain Philipps was skipper of a vessel that was in two different days, two different months, two different seasons, two different hemispheres and two different centuries. Of course, the objection can be raised that December 30 is not the last day of a year. But the Captain waited until midnight before reaching the miracle point. December 31 did come but it flashed past in less than the blink of a mermaid’s eye. The ship leapfrogged an entire day, or at least the vast majority of it.

My hope is that there was a copy of Around the World in Eighty Days on board the ship when it made that spectacular crossing, or maybe a collection of the short stories of Poe. It is highly unlikely this was the case, of course. And I have just now had another thought. Suppose you are reading Verne’s novel on a ship that crosses the Line in an easterly direction. You have been reading it all day and have reached the last few chapters. Suddenly the ship crosses the Line and you are back in yesterday and find yourself only on the first page again. You might be frustrated not to know the ending to the book. Let me assist you. The hero and the heroine do get married.

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.

.

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

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.

.

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

Categories
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.

.

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.

.

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

Categories
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.

.

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.

.

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.

.

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

Categories
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.

.

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.

.

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