He who was King in the land of Booshooba ordered his most trusted messenger to deliver a sealed envelope to another ruler, the King of far distant Zazkhaban. The messenger set off on the dangerous journey and was never tempted to open the envelope and read the message within. He knew he would face terrible dangers on the path, diversions, bandits, doom pits. One diversion might lead him into a dimension of woe. Another might not. As for bandits, there were a great many of those. For countless ages they had been terrorising the lonely passes of the mountain ranges that lie between Booshooba and Zazkhaban. The messenger had to be agile and astute to avoid their clubs, spears and nets. He crawled past their sentries and soon was up and hastening again. He never tired, this most trusted messenger. Little wonder that the King of Booshooba had favoured him!
But the doom pits are worse than the bandits. No one who has fallen into them has returned, nor have even their screams risen out of those grim holes in the gruesome ground. Will the messenger be fit enough and light enough to leap them all in mighty bounds? They fall still, those unfortunates who fell into them, and now they are loose bones tumbling like jugglers’ clubs down and down through phosphorescent infinity.
But the messenger is safe beyond them. After months of hard travelling, he finally reaches the palace of the King of Zazkhaban, who takes the envelope from him and opens it. The King reads the letter with a frown that grows deeper. Finally he reaches for a loaded musket and points it at the messenger‟s head.
“Clearly you have received some bad news,” the messenger says, “but I am not responsible for what has happened. Don’t shoot the messenger! For I have simply completed my assigned task.”
Silently, but with a stern expression, the King of Zazkhaban offers the letter to the messenger. It says simply, “My dear brother, I have one favour to ask of you. Please shoot the messenger who delivers this letter.” The king pulls the trigger of the musket. There is noise and smoke and the most trusted messenger slumps to the ground and his blood flows quickly.
Baldness in men is not natural but a result of civilization. It probably comes from wearing tight hats or eating processed foods. In our original condition evolution would never choose baldness because the moonlight reflecting off the shiny scalp would give away our position to predators in the jungle. Men with thick heads of hair are less likely to be pounced on by tigers. They are more likely to be used as a paintbrush by gorillas, yes, but pounced on by tigers, no! And yet, maybe we need more light at night. Could it be that bald men are necessary? The reflections of the male heads of an entire tribe might provide sufficient illumination for late sessions of applied mathematics to take place. Or for the continuance of guitar lessons.
WHEN I DISCOVERED LAZINESS
When I was young I was full of energy. I read in a book that if every man, woman and child in China jumped up and down at the same time, a tidal wave would be created by the vibrations that would engulf the United States of America. I remember thinking: so why don‟t they do that? If it’s possible, why not make the attempt? Later, I read in a different book that every man, woman and child could fit onto the Isle of Wight standing up straight like skittles, tightly packed together, and that the island would sink. Once again I asked myself: so why don’t we do it?
Even later I was told by a teacher at my school that if every man, woman and child in the world stood on the equator facing east in a long line and took one step forwards, pushing back with their foot, the globe would stop spinning. So why aren’t we lining up and stepping forward, I demanded to know? Then the answer occurred to me. Laziness! That was why there were no human-generated tidal waves, sinking islands or planetary brakes. It was because people were too lazy to make them happen. That was the precise moment when I discovered laziness and what it really meant and its importance to the daily workings and evolving history of the human race.
Our identities can never survive death because they barely even exist while we are alive. They are not constants but variables. Our identities are constantly changing but so gradually that we do not perceive the changes and thus assume we are a single entity all our lives. In fact we are so far removed from the way we were, and the way we will be, that if our past or future selves were suddenly killed, we (the present “we‟) would feel nothing at all. And we do die sometime in the future without feeling a thing now, which would hardly be the case if all our selves through time were connected and merged into one unit. This is what I think and I thought it.
About the Book:
Many rascals are too tense to be comfortable. Real life rascals have much to worry about. But rascals in fiction can afford to relax a little in the waves of prose that surround them, gently swirling on the wit and wisdom, bobbing on the contrivance, floating on the syntax. It is nice to be a comfy rascal. The language and its ambiguity are the territory where Rhys produces his best in fiction. In the flash fiction format, the stories by Rhys at Comfy gets a full language ambiguity game, in the words of the superb author Brian Evenson:
“Each of these stories is a shimmering whimsical fleck which not only satisfies in and of itself but, taken with its compatriots, builds an image of life and language that is pure play and discovery. Like Kafka’s parables, if Kafka’s sense of humour was less dark and had more puns.”
About the Author:
Rhys Hughes has been writing fiction from an early age. His first book was published in 1995 and since that time he has published fifty other books, nine hundred short stories and many articles and poems, and his work has been translated into ten languages. He graduated as an engineer but currently works as a tutor of mathematics. Having lived in Britain, Spain and Kenya, he is now planning to move to India. His poetry tends to be humorous light verse and offbeat lyrical fantasy, influenced mainly by Don Marquis, Ogden Nash, Edward Lear, Richard Brautigan, Ivor Cutler and Spike Milligan.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
I have always wanted to interview Ruskin Bond who lives in Landour, near the hill-station of Mussoorie in India. Bond, now 87, grew up in Dehradun, tried a stint in England and returned to the country that had nurtured him to write stories that make us laugh and yet bring out the flavours of love and kindness in the Himalayas. Sadly, no one seems to be able to get me an online interview with him. So, I did the next best thing…
I interviewed Rhys Hughes.
You have to see it from my perspective, here was a humourist migrating from UK to India, just like Bond. Both their names begin with R — Ruskin wrote of monkeys conducting a fashion parade in colourful pyjamas borrowed from him, perhaps permanently and Rhys wants to interview a monkey who took a bottle of coconut oil from his current home. Only, Hughes’ monkey happens to be in Sri Lanka and Bond’s monkeys were in India. In fact, I told Hughes he could be the next Bond and could perhaps get into an apprenticeship. He has the basic compassion and humour in his writing that endears Bond to so many hearts. However, Hughes has not made it across to India as yet. He waits on the lush shores of Sri Lanka to make a landfall on the Coromandel Coast or … maybe the Himalayas… as the pandemic continues to upheave in tsunami-like waves. Maybe, Rhys Hughes will become the Ruskin Bond of Sri Lanka! Let us tread into the world of Hughes to check out what he thinks.
Tell us since when have you been writing? What gets your muse going?
I began writing when I was six years old or so. My earliest stories were inspired by films and comics I enjoyed and mostly were about monsters, adventures, space travel, robots, dinosaurs and ghosts. I doubt if any of them made much sense.
The first short story I wrote with a plot I remember was about a man who jumps off a cliff so that he will turn into a ghost and can create mischief in his village, which he does, but the twist is that he survives the fall and only thinks he is a ghost. The enraged villagers chase him back over the same cliff, and he isn’t frightened because he believes he can float on air, but he can’t and this time he doesn’t survive. I was about ten years old when I wrote that. But I didn’t begin writing short stories in earnest until I was fourteen. That was the real beginning of my writing career. I have been writing regularly ever since. I don’t require prompting to write these days. It has become a habit, a reflex, something I just do. I still write about the same old things as always, monsters, adventures, space travel, etc, but I have added a few more themes since I was a young child and my style has improved considerably. At least I hope it has!
That story you wrote as a ten-year-old definitely has potential! And we enjoy your writing as we read it now. Now tell us why do you write?
Ideas come unbidden into my mind and they won’t leave me alone unless I put them into stories. The moment I embody these ideas in a work of fiction they stop bothering me. I get ideas all the time, especially when I am walking or travelling somewhere, but also in the middle of the night. I try to make notes so I can use them later but sometimes I neglect to note them down and I forget them. Then the ideas go away temporarily but return days, weeks, months or years later and bother me again. Only when I pin them down into a narrative of some kind will they go away forever. So writing is a compulsion for me as well as a voluntary activity. It wasn’t always like this.
In the beginning I found it difficult to come up with original ideas. I had to work hard at it. I would say that most of my ideas back then were fairly ordinary ones and only occasionally truly original. But I persisted and exercised my mind, and just like muscles do, the parts of my mind responsible for the invention of original ideas got bigger and stronger, and now the ideas come without effort. As it happens, not all these ideas turn out to be as original as I like to think they are. Sometimes I get excited that I have come up with a totally new concept only to later discover that some other author beat me to it years ago. But I do believe that originality is possible.
The oft-repeated maxim that there are no new ideas simply isn’t true. If originality is impossible, how were any ideas generated in the first place? I don’t mean to say that originality is the ultimate objective of writing, of course not, there are a great many other reasons to write, but I am talking about it from my own particular point of view. And all I am really saying here is that practice is the most important thing, the only essential thing. I write a lot and the very act of writing regularly seems to make writing in the future easier and smoother.
What is your favourite genre for writing and for reading?
The genre question is a difficult one to answer but I am going to say that if I had to choose only one genre to describe my own writing I would answer “comedy”. This doesn’t mean that everything I write is comedic, but a large percentage of it certainly is. And I don’t necessarily mean laugh-out-loud comedy but other types of comedy too, whether subtle irony, philosophical farce, absurdist and surrealist works. There are many grades of comedy, from wit to parody, and I enjoy most of them. When it comes to reading, I still have a focus on comedy, I suppose, but I will read very sober and serious works too. If I made a list of my favourite works of fiction, comedic works would be at the top of the list.
Broadly speaking there are two types of humorous literature, one in which incidents are funny and one in which it is the telling that is comic. Writers who combine both types tend to win my deepest admiration. Yet quite a few of my favourite books have no comedy in them at all, neither in subject nor in style, for example The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqrollby Alvaro Mutis ( 1993, translated by Edith Grossman, 2002) which is a sequence of tropical and troubling narratives, often sombre in tone, that nonetheless remains an enthralling and uplifting read.
Which writers have influenced your work? Are you influenced by other art forms?
I wanted to become a professional writer because of Robert Louis Stevenson. It was Treasure Island (1883) that opened the gates into the entire world of literature for me. I still admire him hugely but I have had much bigger influences since then. Delving deeper into the novels and short stories that were available to me, I was lucky enough to find authors who resonated with some deep part of my being and made me not only want to continue trying to be a writer, but to be a writer who wrote as they did. Of course, it’s better to develop one’s own style, but I suspect that ‘distinctive’ styles are really the result of amalgams of influences, a blend of prior styles. Italo Calvino (1923-1985) has been my favourite writer for more than thirty years, with Donald Barthelme (193i-1989), Boris Vian (1920-1959), Flann O’Brien (1911-1966) and Stanislaw Lem (1921-2006) not far behind. At the moment I am a keen reader of the work of Mia Couto (1955-2013). Alasdair Gray (1934-2019) is another favourite.
To answer the second part of your question, I have definitely been influenced by art forms other than writing, in particular music and visual art. I might even say that the paradoxical imagery in the artwork of M.C. Escher (1898-1972) has been at least as big an influence on me as the prose of any author. I was astounded and captivated when I first saw his graphic designs and have loved them ever since.
You have travelled to many places. How many countries have you visited? Has travel impacted your writing? How?
I have lost count of the number of countries I have visited. I used to keep a map and colour in the countries that I had been to, but I lost the map years ago. The truth is that probably the total isn’t as high as I think it is. Most of my travelling has been done in Africa and Europe, and I have only really dipped my toes into the vastness of Asia, and I haven’t even been to the Americas at all. No one is so well-travelled that they really know the world.
Travel has certainly impacted my writing, though. I can state that with confidence. I am often inspired to write stories set in the places I have visited and I guess I probably wouldn’t do so if I hadn’t been there. Having said that, I do occasionally set a story in a location I have never visited. Such stories can work well but there is nearly always a vital element missing, some immediacy that a certain level of familiarity gives to a work of prose. It’s far easier to create a convincing atmosphere when you are writing from experience rather than from research. Little details will give some solidity to the evocation of scenes, details that can’t be easily imagined without first-hand experience. This doesn’t mean that I think travelling is necessary for the creation of good fiction. Good fiction can be centred in nowhere, almost in no space or time if the author is talented enough. And there’s a paradox in the nature of travel, which is that even though the particulars of your surroundings might change, the essentials remain the same. We can put a lot of effort into the act of travelling only to discover that people are people everywhere. And would we have it any other way?
Tell us a bit about the world you grew up in — we have an interesting piece by you called ‘Dinosaurs in France’ — which claims you grew up in a world of different value systems. Would you see those as better or the present as better?
The past is another country. That’s one of the pithiest and truest maxims anyone has devised. In only half a century I have seen many changes, but in fact most of these changes came so gradually I didn’t notice that things were changing at the time. Only now, looking back, do I see the vast gulf between the present and my past. I was youthful in a world where information was much more difficult to obtain. There were rumours and suppositions and often no way of confirming or refuting them. People believed strange things and adjusted their attitudes to match these odd beliefs. People still do the same now, of course, but it somehow feels different. One can more easily check assertions now than before and learn much more quickly if they are true or false. The world I grew up in was one in which you had no choice but to take another person’s word at face value. So if a supposedly responsible adult, like the postman, told you with a straight face that he lived in a house made entirely from marshmallows, there was no easy way of disproving the claim. You had to take his word for it. I can’t say it was a better world and I don’t want to suggest it was a worse one. It was simply different, a world lacking ready access to information.
You have written a lot of humour. Not too many people do that nowadays. Could you tell us why your funny bone is tickled to create humour as it does? Do you think humour is a good way to address major issues?
Humorous writing has gone out of fashion to a certain extent in the anglophone world, yes, but it’s still there, in the background. There was a great tradition of British humorous writing that lasted about a century or so, and I was fortunate enough to grow up at the end of that phase. I am talking about a particular type of humour, dryly ironic but also theatrical, a sort of blend of surrealism and the old musical hall routines. J.B. Morton (1873-1979) was one of the masters of the form, and he was an influence on many of my favourite comedic writers, such as Spike Milligan (1918-2002), Maurice Richardson (1907-1978) and W.E. Bowman (1911-1985). These humorists also took the language and played with it a little, transforming it into something new, though I feel ultimately that such comedy derives more from the rhythms than the melodies of wordplay.
The entire range of comedic devices might be used but new ones invented as well. There can be over reaction to minor incidents and under reaction to major ones, constant misunderstandings, amplification of repetition, parody of existing forms. W.E. Bowman’s The Ascent of Rum Doodle is my favourite humorous novel, and its sequel, The Cruise of the Talking Fish, is also high on my list of best comedic literature. Bowman apparently wrote a third volume in the series that remains unpublished and is in the safe keeping of his son. If this is true, I hope it will appear one day.
Are you influenced by any specific humourist? If so, who?
Flann O’Brien is probably my biggest influence in terms of comedic prose. His work is quirky, inventive, curiously erudite, absurdist and often metafictional. I am staggered by the wealth of invention in his novels, the supremely silly but also highly ingenious conceits and concepts, and the bone-dry irony contrasted with farcical exuberance, the light touch and the dark tone. W.E. Bowman and Maurice Richardson are another two favourites. That is prose but when it comes to poetry I love Don Marquis (1878-1937), Ogden Nash (1902-1971) and Ivor Cutler (1923-2006) best, all of them with radically different approaches to comedy. Marquis in particular pushed humour in his free verse to a point where it often became profound, serious and socially critical. You asked if humour can be used to address major issues. Yes, sometimes it can, even with great force, but it doesn’t have to.
Tell us the extent of your work. How many books have you written?
I have published many books. The question is how do I count them. I tend not to count the self-published books. It seems to me that self-publishing is too easy. On the other hand, traditional publishing is maybe too difficult. I have forty or so traditionally published books and twenty self-published books out there, so I am going to give forty as my answer. Most of my books are collections of short stories. I have only written a few novels. My poetry collections so far have been self-published with the exception of one single volume called Bunny Queue.
It is one of my goals to have all the short stories I have ever written appear in my books. At the moment there are many of my short stories that exist in magazines and anthologies that have never been collected. And there are many unpublished short stories in my files too. My plan is to write exactly a thousand short stories and consider them as part of one big story-cycle. This project is almost done. In a few more months, with luck, I will finish writing my thousandth story. Thirty years in total it has taken. When that last story is finished I will devote myself entirely to novels, plays, poetry and articles. No more short stories! So, in reply to your question, I can say that I have written a great deal of work, maybe too much, but as I said earlier, writing has been something of a compulsion for me.
What are your future plans?
I plan to finish my big story-cycle of one thousand stories. Then I will write a few novels that I have been planning for a long time. One of these novels will be called The Hippy Quixote and will be about a young, deluded fellow who in his mind is living in the 1960s. He takes a guidebook written in that decade and follows the old hippy trail to India, blissfully unaware that so many things have changed in terms of societal attitudes and geopolitics. This idea seems to me to be a fruitful one for the creation of comic scenes.
I also have to finish a novel I began a long time ago, The Clown of the New Eternities, sections of which have already been published. It’s long overdue for completion. This novel is about a highwayman who has accidentally outlived his own age and is forced to adjust to the modern world. Another variant of Quixote, I suppose. I think that many or most of my longer narratives are a blend of the Quixote and Candide models with a bit of Gulliver thrown in. We can talk about our future plans all day, of course, but whether we are lucky enough to have a chance to make them real is another question altogether. I intend to do my best, as I have always done, but nothing is certain in this world of ours.
Thanks Rhys Hughes for your time and lovely answers.
As we stand on the threshold of a new normal that will eternally rewrite the history of social interactions, of movements across the globe, of new world orders that will have to be more inclusive and more transparent to world view, we will, perhaps, feel the need to redefine business laws so that even countries with lesser wealth are able to access vaccinations and peace. We are now looking up to leaderships which seem to be in crises themselves. Sitting securely on a tiny island that is well governed, an island where affluence and well-being set it adrift from the turmoils of countries around it, I wonder thirty years from now, what will mankind be like… Will we be forever marred by the current events of the world? Globalisation has ensured that none of us can be secure on any secret island. There can be no land of lotus eaters hidden from the rest of mankind and accessed by only a few anymore. Even if one region is affected by the virus in any corner of the world, can the rest of the world be pandemic free? Perhaps, a question that those who peddle in vaccines and human well-being can address.
These issues have not only been highlighted by the news media but have also found echoes in some of our content this time. Keith Lyons’s essay talks of his last stay in India, when a tourist carried the the pandemic unwittingly into Kerala in February 2020 and subsequent repercussions. More stories and poems that dwell on the spread of the virus this year cry out for compassion. One hopes young poet Ruchi Acharya’s verses are born true.
One day the roses of hope will grow
Meeting the horizon,
Roses that, even plucked, will not die
But will bloom and bloom
Every single day that passes by.
We have young writers on the virulence of the virus and mature pens like that of globe-trotting academic Wendy Jones Nakanishi, who maps the pandemic from UK. Perhaps, we will find a new direction eventually.
There have been calls for uniting above divides as a single unit called mankind earlier too, from greats like Tagore and Nazrul. This time we carry translations of both — Nazrul’s translated poem calls for uniting against artificial divides drawn by man-made constructs and Tagore’s translation talks of redefining through self-reflection. An essay on Tagore by academic Parineet Jaggi talks of the impact of the teachings of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, on Tagore.
We have essays on writers and icons from around the globe. A photo-essay on the bald eagle, heralding the American Independence Day on the 4th of July, gives a humorous anecdote on how the eagle was chosen above the turkey. We have more variety by Candice Louisa Daquin, an immigrant in US, who shows how important human movement across man-made borders is to the development of a country. Michael Burch has given us beautiful poetry reflecting the history of America and American dreams, one of them with the voice of the legendary Mohammed Ali. These verses add substance to the concerns raised by Daquin. Jared Carter brings to us the colours of life with his poetry.
Hughes has also given us a comprehensive and interesting essay on a twentieth century poet called Ivor Cutler, who said much as he sang his poetry and was encouraged by Paul McCartney of the Beatles. The brilliant poetry of Akbar Barakzai continues translated on our pages by Fazal Baloch and one must give many thanks to the translator for his indefatigable energy and for bringing us wonderful fare from Balochistan. An excerpt translated by eminent journalist Ratnottama Sengupta from Nabendu Ghosh’s autobiography ends with Satyajit Ray’s starting his famed career with Apu’s triology (based on Pather Panchali, a novel by Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyay). These three films have become iconic in cinema history.
We were fortunate to have Professor Fakrul Alam agree to an interview. An eminent translator, critic and academic who has lived through the inception of Bangladesh from East Bengal, Alam has translated not just the three greats of Bengal (Tagore, Nazrul, Jibanananda) but also multiple political leaders like Mujibur Rahman. In this exclusive, he has taken us through the annals of history, reflecting on less-known perspectives of the Partition. Also, in conversation with Borderless, is Arindam Roy, a journalist with forty years’ experience and the founder of Different Truths who started his writing career, much in the tradition of Cyrano de Bergerac on a humorous note.
This time our backpacking granny, Sybil Pretious, gives us a glimpse of her wisdom, wit and compassion while visiting Philippines and talks of an ancient death ritual, volcanoes and strange mud baths. Devraj Singh Kalsi explores young romance in his tongue-in-cheek fashion. We also have more semi-humorous musings from young writers across borders. While Sunil Sharma has explored facets of the impact of terrorism, the other stories are told in a lighter vein.
Our book excerpt from Feisal Alkazi’s Enter Stage Right has a picture of the young artiste in a discotheque dancing in abandon — check it out. It made me smile. Rakhi Dalal has reviewed Jnanpith Award winner Shrilal Shukla’s Fragments of Happiness translated by Niyati Bafna. The book review by Meenakshi Malhotra of Neelima Dalmia Adhar’sThe Secret Diary of Kasturba brings out an interesting facet on Gandhi and women in the Independence movement. It makes one notice the contrasts in the perspectives of Gandhi and Tagore, who created women like he saw around him in fiction. Kasturba’s life also contrasts with the independence found in the life of the avant-garde artist, Amrita Sher-Gil, who lived around the same time. In an essay, Bhaskar Parichha has shown how Sher-Gil lived out her dreams, blending the best of the East and West, while Malhotra writes, that though “Gandhi called women to join the national movement … he was not seeking to emancipate, but more to call forth their capacity for self-abnegation and self-sacrifice.”
Parichha has also introduced us to the need for changes in the banking sector in India while reviewing Transformational Leadership in Banking edited by Anil K. Khandelwal. Perhaps these will be part of the changes that will ultimately lead to a revision of old systems and the start of new ones. Changes, though not always welcomed or convenient, hopefully will lead to progress that can mould our future into a happier one. Restless stirrings transformed mankind from cave dwellers to an intelligent race that can assimilate nature and technology to survive and dream of a future, living among stars.
As Borderless reaches out to unite mankind transcending artificial constructs, its attempts can bear fruit only with support from each and every one of you. I would like to thank all our editorial team for their wonderful support, contributors for being the backbone of our content, and all our readers for continuing to patronise us.
Do take a look at our current issue for the writers who remain unmentioned here but create phenomenal bridges towards a borderless world.
Ivor Cutler (1923-2006) was the daftest of the daft poets, and this is meant as the most sincere of compliments, because to entertain listeners and readers with an unremitting stream of original and uplifting daftness is not as easy as one might suppose. Cutler composed songs that were poems and wrote poems that were songs and he recited or sung them while playing the harmonium or piano. His voice is a distinctive one and once heard is never forgotten. His records are little treasures.
Born in 1923 in Glasgow, Scotland, Cutler joined the Royal Airforce (RAF) during the Second World War and became a navigator but was demoted on a charge of “dreaminess” and reduced to working in a storeroom. The story is that he was caught too many times looking at the passing clouds while flying and wondering aloud what animals they most closely resembled instead of carrying out his technical duties.
After the War he worked in schools in deprived areas of London, teaching music, dance, drama and poetry, refusing on principle to punish his pupils for misdemeanours and encouraging them to write verses about killing their siblings. He remained an inner city teacher for three decades. Writing poetry was only a hobby for him, but he appeared on BBC Radio on occasion, and in 1959 released his first record on the Decca label, Ivor Cutler of Y’Hup, which includes two quintessential Cutler tracks, ‘Pickle Your Knees’ and ‘Gravity Begins at Home’.
An unapologetic eccentric, Cutler preferred to dress in old fashioned clothes and kept a set of ivory cutlery in his house because of the pun on his name. He travelled everywhere by bicycle while communicating with sticky labels that he made himself. These ‘stickies’ featured Cutlerisms, his life’s philosophy distilled into slogans and maxims, the most famous of which became “Never Knowingly Understood”, a direct allusion to his working method of allowing his subconscious mind to do all the creative exertion on his behalf. This is a technique associated with Surrealism, but Cutler had a lighter, quieter, sparser approach to the weird, macabre and illogical than the majority of surrealists. The darkness is transmuted into mischief and the savagery into play. There is melancholy in some of the poems, even despair, but it tends to be counterbalanced by the charm and daftness. The result is calmly invigorating.
Two more records on the Decca label gave him a small following but wider success remained elusive for many years. Not that he cared much about his popularity. His ambitions were refreshingly modest. Who Tore Your Trousers? and Get Away from the Wall, both released in 1961, are now fairly difficult to obtain. It was an appearance on a television show three years later that proved to be a turning point in his career. He was noticed that night by Paul McCartney who then invited him to appear in the Magical Mystery Tour film. This led to him working with renowned Beatles’ studio engineer George Martin, who in 1967 produced Cutler’s album Ludo, the most traditionally musical of all his releases and still his best selling record.
Despite the whimsicality and apparent simplicity of his poems, Cutler had a solid grounding in jazz and collaborated with many groundbreaking musicians, including Robert Wyatt and Fred Frith. His name appears with great frequency on billings of music festivals devoted to jazz, fusion and experimental music from the 1960s and 70s, much of it abrasive, raucous and difficult. He was taken seriously by a host of virtuosos and accepted by them (something that never happened to the equally eccentric Shooby Taylor at the same time). Yet he disliked loud music and was a member of the Noise Abatement Society. He rarely raised his voice and asked his audiences to applaud as gently as possible.
For live performances he obtained the services of Phyllis King, who would contribute readings of brief prose passages. Brevity was dear to the heart of Cutler, who preferred his short stories to be no longer than one page in length and his songs to last no more than two minutes. Many of his poems consist of just a few lines, yet they often have a resonance and depth that eludes more complex works. “Women of the world take over / Cos if you don’t, the world will come to an end and it won’t take long” is the whole of the poem entitled ‘Women of the World’ and does it really need to be any longer?
Personally I hold in special regard those poems and songs where there is brilliantly simple but effective wordplay at work. He relies on a trick that humorous writers have been using for centuries, namely that if there is a possibility that a word or phrase has more than one meaning, the less obvious meaning will be chosen as the pivot on which the work revolves. In this way Cutler is not dissimilar to Spike Milligan and other absurdist comedians who were prominent at the time. Cutler’s song ‘Shoplifters’ from the album Ludo is a good example of the technique, demonstrating not only his penchant for strange placid humour but also ultimately his compassion and optimism:
Is your shop right down on the ground?
Then let us lift it, lift it for you.
There’s plenty of room in the blue
for your shop, and for you.
A woman whom once I knew
had a shop, it sold bananas and calico.
She said, ‘Lift up my shop’
so we lifted it two thousand hundred yards into the sky.
She thought she was going to die.
But we gave her the big reassure.
There was plenty of room to spare.
‘Good Morning! How are you? Shut up!’ from the same album is an even more ingenious and wry demonstration of the duplicity of words and meanings. The protagonist expresses a morning distaste for “small talk” and insists on “big talk” instead (“elephants, elephants, oh I love that big talk”) but soon changes his mind and asks for small talk (“Flies, mice and spiders. Mice, flyders and spice. Spice, mice and flyders. Microscopes, microscopes, oh I love that small talk”) before reverting to a desire for big talk again (“Cows, yaks and mammals. Maks, yammals and cows. Yaks, yows and cammals. Cacks, mammals and cows. Have you finished with your big talk? Yes, hello!”)
Having said that, if I had to choose just one favourite piece from his output, I might settle for a song without any wordplay at all in which the hilarity is generated by pure ridiculousness paired with a smile-inducing calypso rhythm. ‘I Believe in Bugs’ from his 1974 album Dandruff is a tonic for all our troubled souls. It helps to restore an unspecified hope to the ravaged world. The daft is mighty! Cutler shows us that it is best to never grow up in the first place, but that it is not quite too late for those who have unfortunately already grown up.
Cutler generally made no real distinction between his records and his books, seeing them as variations on each other. Life in a Scotch Sitting Room, Vol. 2 (there is no Vol. 1)is autobiography with an absurd twist, designed to be read, listened to and looked at. The record was released in 1978 and the illustrated book in 1984. Tales of an impossible childhood in Scotland, where parents drag out their children into the rain to enjoy nature (“Look, said father, a patch of grass!”) but where chores intrude like monsters to quash curiosity, are presented with minimal inflection and fatalistic understatement. One wonders how such damp surroundings can result in such astoundingly dry humour.
The titles of his records and poetry collections and other books are frequently wonderful in themselves, one line absurdist poems in essence that tickle the eyes. Cockadoodledon’t!!! (1966), Jammy Smears (1976), Grape Zoo (1991), Is That Your Flap, Jack? (1992), and the quartet of books featuring the character Herbert, all released in 1984, Herbert the Chicken, Herbert the Elephant, Herbert the Questionmark, Herbert the Herbert, and the wonderful collection of some of the stickers that Cutler would hand out to random people, Befriend a Bacterium: Stickies by Ivor Cutler (1992), among dozens of others.
Cutler’s eccentricity was authentic and never contrived for the sake of a public persona. He was once found in an empty theatre chastising his malfunctioning harmonium. “Right, that’s it. I told you, I warned you. I’m leaving you.” True to his word, he abandoned the instrument and it eventually found its way into the hands of a theatre troupe who staged a play based on Cutler. The jazz musician Robert Wyatt remembers Cutler as friendly and funny, but denies that his poems and songs were comedy and nothing more. “Neither quite comedy or tragedy, his work took you to another place, like a sort of East European Samuel Beckett.” Despite his seemingly primal Scottishness, Cutler’s ancestors were Jewish and the Jewish musical traditions remained in his family, though Cutler himself cited Paul Robeson as his favourite singer.
Useful advice in an emergency situation is always welcome. It is best to conclude this brief appreciation of Ivor Cutler with a ‘Jungle Tip’ from Life in a Scotch Sitting Room, Vol.2. If confronted by a lion in the wilds of Scotland (or in any other place where lions are largely unlikely) the following poetic suggestion might save your life…
If a lion attacks
Pick up two medium sized rock stones
and insert them deftly up his nostrils.
He will forget your presence temporarily
in an attempt to remove the foreign bodies.
But do not wait around
for he will bound after you
and you will not play your trick a second time.
More videos from Ivor Cutler:
Rhys Hughes has lived in many countries. He graduated as an engineer but currently works as a tutor of mathematics. Since his first book was published in 1995 he has had fifty other books published and his work has been translated into ten languages.
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