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Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

From a Kafkaesque Dream to the Penguin Cafe Orchestra

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

The Origin of Wuxing Lyrical

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

My Favourite Poem

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

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

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

Jabberwocky. Courtesy: Creative Commons

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

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

An Illustration from Kubla Khan. Courtesy: Creative commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tall or Short Tales

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

An Unusual Bat
Courtesy: Creative Commons

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

The Target
Courtesy: Creative Commons

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

The Milk Truck

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

Courtesy: Creative Commons

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

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Three Ghosts in a Boat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Making Something of Nothing…

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

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

(b) Don’t chase it too hard.

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

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

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

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

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

I tried the method recently and here are my combinations:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Trouser Hermits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Clock Tower of Sir Ticktock Bongg

Big Ben, London. Courtesy: Creative Commons
THE CLOCK TOWER OF SIR TICKTOCK BONGG


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

Pessoa and Cavafy: What’s in a Name?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shall I continue in this fashion? It is unnecessary.

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

Yet there is something satisfying about the idea.

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

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

Categories
Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

Memory Gongs

By Rhys Hughes

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

“All of them?”

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

“What did it feel like?”

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

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

“Yes, to the lowest.”

“Then I will drink from it now.”

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

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

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

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

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

The dull booming of an unseen gong filled his head.

Now he was sitting in the forest.

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

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

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

The gong sounded again, as if from another world.

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

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

He stopped drinking and snorted.

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

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

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

He would hear the gong many times that morning.

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

But that floor was still far away, impossibly distant.

Capybara, a South American mammal

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

And the gong sounded sweetly.

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

Down he went, faster along the chute of time.

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

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

He was the kind spider, the thoughtful worm.

And the gong boomed again.

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

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

A spark or perhaps an ember.

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

But then the anguished cry of the elk moved him.

I am disgusted with myself.

The taste of blood is sour to me now.

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

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

And what will be at the top?

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

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

The lowest being had been reached.

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

He scowled and put his foot down.

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

The lowest species of all in this immense universe.

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

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

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

Some strange sentiment rose up in his mind.

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

But that was nonsense. He was human.

Far more important than a tree!

Yet the sentiment persisted and in fact came to dominate.

He abandoned himself to the urge.

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

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

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

Not even a ghostly echo.

“Are you awake, my friend?”

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

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

“And higher than us? Only Nirvana remains.”

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

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

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

It was time to leave the pool.

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

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

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