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Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

Dinosaurs in France

Eiffel Tower Paris. Courtesy: Creative Commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What it that, boy?”

“A duck, sir.”

“No, boy, it’s a fish.”

“But it has a beak and wings, sir!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Categories
Slices from Life

Baudelaire and Paris

By Sunil Sharma

Gustave Caillebotte. Paris Street, Rainy Day, 1877. 

I

Modern Paris was discovered by Baudelaire in his avatar as the flaneur. And Walter Benjamin made this figure intellectually respectful as a field of study.

In a recent visit to Paris, I hovered between two allied states of being a flaneur and a gawking tourist. I had come as a sightseer from Mumbai, India, allured by the tales and well-crafted image of a mythic Paris, drinking in the street flavours on those May days, passively registering the wide monuments and boulevards and palaces and towers in one clean and clear sweep — almost like a wide-angle shot in a Stanley Kubrick film. Spring had set in and the Paris of May 2014 was full of eager tourists from nations as wide apart as China and the USA; Africa and Middle East and Latin America. A bouquet of the ethnicities strung together.

Then, I became a flaneur, making a neat switch, in a single instant.

I became Baudelaire.

Different terms can make you look differently at a similar set of things or a common setting.

Of course, I did not have the urge to write a new millennium version of The Flowers of Evil. At best, you can parody a sacred text but you cannot re-write it, howsoever Borges-like you might be.

I am neither of the two.

Like Mallarme and Verlaine, you can carry forward an idea by expanding it further but cannot imitate with complete fidelity to the original.

So, not in a mood for a cheap replication of a master praised by Proust so profusely, I took on the stance of a flaneur and became a connoisseur of the street-life.

Was it possible?

Assuming the role of a figure long dead or supposed to be dead? Replaced by a tourist? Solo or in a group?

Armed with a camera or a cell phone, in casuals, the modern tourist — guided by brochures and online information and a city map — looks at the urban skyline vicariously familiarized by prior research. Or, could it be at a professional polyglot guide spewing bits and pieces of history like a typical street performer or an amateur actor? A mass tourist consuming the city, architecture, culture, food, arts and clothes — public life — in a predictable way and sequence largely decided by the tourist industry. A few breaks are possible in that routine.

But to resurrect the role and agency of the classic flaneur, you have to take on a different position and way of seeing.

And what was that?

I could not become a dandy—detached, arrogant, inheritor of a small fortune, an idler walking a tortoise on a Paris street of the nineteenth century. Even if I had the means, I could get arrested for an act of animal cruelty!

Those were different times!

So what can be done?

The clues lie in The Flowers of Evil, perhaps.

Will this title be acceptable today? With changing definitions of evil? With life becoming more liberal and open?

Baudelaire was a dandy and a cultivated flaneur—the painter of modern life; a gentleman stroller of the city streets. Part of, yet apart from, the crowds.

But then, not every dandy is a flaneur and every flaneur, a dandy?

Again, dandy is a historical invention, a social-engineering, manufacturing of a social type for a particular age.

Perhaps, a metro-sexual male, now no longer fashionable.

Is he a voyeur?

Perhaps, we all are, given the nature of our society.

Or, a keen participant, an acute observer, a chronicler?

For me, the answer lies in the personality of Charles Baudelaire who in turn was influenced by Edgar Allan Poe. But that would be complicating things further.

Let us stick to our central figure Baudelaire. His genius lies in radicalizing the trope of the French flaneur. A theme that fascinated Walter Benjamin who, in the twentieth century, tried to essay the same role performed so well by Baudelaire in the industrialized Paris of the nineteenth century. The former could not capture the underlying passion of Baudelaire in this unfinished project.

In fact, by the late 1990s and start of the 21st century, author-flaneur proved an impossible figure.

Market forces, on global level, have incorporated author as a producer of kitsch or dystopia. Dissidents were slowly and subtly disenfranchised.

We are all sellers!

Baudelaire resisted this initial process in Paris. Beckett was next. Sartre and Camus too tried.

Then the flow stopped.

The Flowers of Evil mounts a challenge to the order and morality of the Second Republic.

The poems challenge the bourgeois morality and conception of order and beauty and aesthetics in a radical way. The book talks of evil and implies that the source of evil lies in its origins — capitalism.

In that simple gesture of observing, participating, recording of street life, Baudelaire liberates himself from his historical position and becomes a true artist. By talking of prostitutes and vampires, the poet shows the underbelly of capitalism. His creations provide the material basis for highlighting these themes and give credence to outcasts from the system that feed on the blood of the innocent and the gullible.

The Flowers of Evil is the greatest indictment of the French bourgeoisie by a person deeply embedded in it as a bourgeois but a radical one that unveils the brutal face of a system that once talked of revolutionary slogan of liberty, equality, fraternity!

An evil society can produce evil flowers!

Vampires are for real!

II

That Baudelaire had not died in 2014 was proven on a street near the Eiffel Tower on that memorable trip.

A Roma girl, bold and audacious, stole my son’s cell phone from his shirt pocket. She returned it after a cop intervened.

I could smell evil in the air. The disenfranchised and the ethnic Roma are still the threat — like the prostitute and the vampire, the perpetual outsiders.

The Paris of Baudelaire is not safe.

The shoot-out at the Charlie Hebdo proves that.

The vampires are out.

This time round, Baudelaire the flaneur has disappeared. There is no one to warn us of these sinister presences.

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Sunil Sharma, an academic administrator and author-critic-poet–freelance journalist, is from suburban Mumbai, India. He has published 22 books so far, some solo and some joint, on prose, poetry and criticism. He edits the monthly, bilingual Setu: http://www.setumag.com/p/setu-home.html
For more details of publications, please visit the link below:
http://www.drsunilsharma.blogspot.in/

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

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