The Rime of the Postmodern Mariner

More ramblings of Rhys Hughes.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Coming Soon: Engelbrecht Again!

The Exploits of Engelbrecht by Maurice Richardson is the funniest book in the English language. This collection of 15 linked stories featuring a diminutive surrealist boxer was published in a limited edition by Phoenix House in 1950. Wonderfully illustrated by James Boswell, it's one of the very few books I own that I'll never give away.

Engelbrecht is the most famous member of the Surrealist Sportsman’s Club, a dubious society that fills the time between the collapse of the moon and the end of the universe by taking the concept of the 'game' to its logical limit, for instance arranging a rugby match between Mars and the entire human race, or playing chess with boy scouts and nuclear bombs as pieces.

Sixty or so years after his first appearance, Engelbrecht has returned for another set of exploits that will take him on a voyage around the world, into space, down to Hell, into a labyrinth of plots and counter-plots that could mean the destruction of the entire membership of the Surrealist Sportsman’s Club. Running the gauntlet with gorgons, competing in the mesmeric tour-de-trance bicycle race, climbing the north face of the largest ego in existence, playing tug-o’-war with entire continents and even indulging in a round of lipograms with the monstrous Père Ubu – all these are in a day’s work for the plucky Engelbrecht!

Engelbrecht Again!
Written by Rhys Hughes
Introduction by Jeff VanderMeer
272-page, smythe sewn hardcover limited to 300 copies
ISBN-13: 9780979633546
published September 2008 by Dead Letter Press

Monday, August 18, 2008

PM Question Time #2: with the Hunter of Moby K Dick

One of the idiosyncracies of The Postmodern Mariner is that some of the action takes place on this blog rather than in the book, specifically the interviews with the pirates in 'Rommel Cobra's Swimming Carnival'. Unfortunately I have been rather lazy in writing and posting those interviews! The first interview (with Charlotte Gallon) was posted way back in October 2006.

But the second of the conversations is with the pirate of the south-western zone, China Melville, and it goes something like this:

PM: You are bald and often seem to have socialist cheeks. Can you offer an explanation, convincing or otherwise, for these factors?

CM: I can, and what's more, I will. First the convincing explanation. A life on high seas, higher teas or highest sighs tends to be rough and ready, like the knuckles of honest workers; and coincidentally, the honest workers on my ship all have knuckles that resemble rough and ready lives, viewed from afar, or down the wrong end of a telescope. To express solidarity with my crewmen I wear my head in the style of a knuckle, that working joint of an honest fist!

PM: And the unconvincing explanation?

CM: My head and cheeks were rented out from Lenin, shaved clean with a working razor and inflated with protactinium gas. As you may know, thanks to your bourgeois education, protactinium is highly toxic, radioactive and scarce. But it’s the only element that sounds even vaguely like the word proletariat, so it’s the bright silvery actinide for me! Harbour no doubts about that…

PM: Yes, that really is quite unconvincing. But talking about harbours, what is your favourite port city?

CM: I don’t subscribe to favouritism. I don’t even subscribe to subscription. Both are capitalist tricks. If some reactionary force tried to compel me to choose, perhaps with threats of torture, including the gluing onto my bald pate of a ticklesome wig, I would resist while crying communist slogans! On the other hand, if an heroic figure of major socio-political importance, for instance Lenin, politely asked to make the choice, then I would respond with this answer: “only a port city whose workers are fully in control of the means of production will ever have its quaysides scraped by the barnacle-encrusted hull of China Melville’s ship as it prepares to dock!”

PM: You are relentlessly political, are you not?

CM: Only revolutions are relentless. No individual should compare himself to a revolution, partly because individuals don’t really exist. Man is a socialist animal and has only one context: the societal. Woman is also a socialist animal, just to redress the balance.

PM: Do you enjoy redressing women?

CM: That’s exactly the sort of humour I despise. In fact I hate all kinds of humour. Laughter was invented by the establishment to keep the proletariat in place. When an exploited dockworker or miner is giggling at something, his mind is off the struggle against oppression. Laughter tricks the lower classes into believing that life isn’t so bad after all. The only double act I ever laughed at was Lenin and Hardy and it was good socialist laughter, I assure you.

PM: As well as despising comedy you have also expressed a distaste for metafiction, by which I mean that you don’t like works of fiction that acknowledge their own status as an artificial construct. You seem to believe that if a character suddenly demonstrates an awareness of his or her own fictional status, perhaps by addressing the reader directly, then some sort of betrayal has taken place?

CM: That’s exactly right. And the fact that I’m also just a fictional character lends even more poignancy to my opinion, wouldn’t you say? What are readers, genuine readers? They are hardworking members of the proletariat who wish to relax their minds and simultaneously acquire new knowledge in the little free time they have at their disposal after the capitalist exploiters have stolen away most of their days. These hypothetical but real readers, with spanner blisters on their hands and sickle wounds on their knees, don’t want to be herded into a labyrinth of in-jokes, elitist allusions and ivory tower escapist japes…

PM: But surely fiction that refers to its own fictional status and thus constantly implies the existence of the real world is less escapist than fiction that exists inside the circumference of a closed loop?

CM: Please don’t interrupt without a consensus… Anyway, as I was saying, the true working reader prefers his truths to exist in a parallel dimension hermetically sealed, in other words in a non-metafictional story, than in a work that constantly reminds them it’s unreal – if you are reminded of that fact too much you start to instinctively attribute a quality of unreality to all phenomena, including real world objects and conditions. Ultimately you imagine that pain, suffering and the endless struggle against our oppressors is also unreal, which is exactly the situation that our oppressors desire.

PM: Who are your oppressors now? Haven’t they changed since you became successful? And why do some authorities often mispronounce your surname as ‘Miéville’?

CM: My oppressors are still the same. It’s just that I have the luxury of regarding them from a different height. Yes, I’m going up in the world, but I’m not climbing the same ladder as the capitalists. As for ‘authorities’ who mispronounce my name, I’m against all authorities except the future communal authority of the proletariat. That’s one authority that will never mispronounce anything. It’s barely literate as it is. If you can’t do something at all, how can you do it badly?

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Possibly Phoney Profundity of Puerility

A strong candidate for the most infuriating show ever broadcast on British television must surely be The Late Review which appeared regularly on BBC 2 in the mid 1990s. It featured a panel of pseudo-intellectuals who sat on easy chairs and discussed new books, films, artworks, etc, while the host, an extremist moderate by the name of Mark Lawson, pretended to see both sides of the argument simultaneously while somehow silently insisting that fence-sitting was the only true position. The occasional guest reviewer of intelligence, such as Ian Hislop, served only to further highlight the greasy charlatanry of the regulars, a crew of vermin that included the failed poet Tom Paulin, simpering weakling and thickie Eko Eshun, quasi-academic hag Germaine Greer, textbook racial minority victim Bonnie Greer and useless rubber gargoyle Tony Parsons.

Tony Parsons in particular had already contributed heavily to a significant decline in culture when in the late 1970s he worked for the NME (New Musical Express) as a critic and opinionated moron. Together with his bloated girlfriend, the helium-voiced designer-lesbian Julie Burchill, the Parsons freak crusaded against beautiful prog rock, slandering its complexities, mocking its honourable ambitions, advocating punk as a replacement. So successful was he in this fascistic campaign that ‘prog’ soon became a term of abuse and its fans worse than pariahs. The fact that Johnny Rotten himself cited Van der Graaf Generator as a major influence made not the blindest bit of difference to the bigoted Parsons. I still resent Parsons for the way I had to keep my King Crimson and Gentle Giant albums hidden while listening to them in secret on headphones at night.

The great obsession of Parsons, Lawson, Paulin, Greer, etc, was ‘maturity’. None of them ever seemed exactly sure what maturity consisted of but they knew one thing for certain: it was the diametric opposite of puerility. Anything that celebrated puerility was automatically bad. Bodily secretions, even though we all ooze them, are puerile; and so is laughing at the misfortunes of others, even though we all do it; treating genitals as objects of humour is puerile; so is obeying the overriding male urge to gawp at women. In fact white straight males are fundamentally puerile. Maturity on the other hand involves accepting a special set of hypocrisies. Promiscuity is permitted provided a tally isn’t kept (I know I’ve slept with 18 women so I must be puerile: if I hadn’t kept count I would be mature) and backing down from a fight is a mandatory mature reflex, though how this differs from plain ‘cowardice’ is something I still don’t understand.

The very lowest level of puerility is the dreaded ‘sixth form’. This number refers not to states of matter but a particular stage of British school education. A story about breasts or testicles, no matter how clever, wise or insightful, is instantly given this label. It’s the insult that annoys me the most. I remember once writing an anti-authority satire in which defecation played a role. I tried to make the piece witty, politically aware, righteously savage: I was pleased with the result, believing that it struck a (very minor) blow for the common citizen against the ruthless machinery of local government. I proudly showed it to my girlfriend of the time and she glanced at it before pronouncing two words only: sixth form. I was both deflated and enraged by her response. I was 25 years old with an IQ of 148 but not yet published. Sixth form! What kind of sixth form existed that could boast such superb and affecting talents as myself? Years later I watched a documentary in which Roger Waters of Pink Floyd denounced his own Dark Side of the Moon album as ‘sixth form’. I dearly wish I had attended a school whose sixth form pupils were capable of producing such mesmerising gems of modern culture! As it happened I wasn’t entirely discouraged by my girlfriend and my first acceptances for publication followed within a few months of her comment, but it was many years before tits and bums resurfaced in my stories.

Tits and bums are important. We aren’t just rational civilised creatures: far from it! We are essentially puerile, all of us. People like Parsons, Lawson, Greer, are merely smoke and mirror merchants, pretending to be mature, which in itself is a form of puerility. As it happened I never entered the sixth form of my own school. I dropped out and went instead to a college where the tutors set off small bombs in the classroom and gave tacit approval to our own improvised explosive devices. They knew that blowing things up and farting are honest pursuits. I listened to prog in my room, took LSD and made bombs. I never had the chance to be sixth form. Incidentally, actually knowing your IQ is a puerile act: mature people shop at IKEA and pretend not to care. And yet, puerility may well be our most profound asset. It is everywhere so it must be vital to the human condition. The girl who says “Don’t talk to my breasts” is disparaging billions of years of evolution, the structure of DNA, biochemistry, physics, cosmology, the Big Bang, everything!

On the other hand this might not be so. No matter! The point is that at least I have dealt with a sticky subject (male ejaculate) in this book and I’ve done so not in a thoughtful or sensitive manner. Somebody had to. I knew it would be difficult not to stray into niceness and reasonableness but I kept a tight reign on my conscience. Instead of doing what is good I did what was right. To keep my mind focussed on the task before me, on the ineffable joy of tittiness and buminess, I imagined that I was writing the book especially for The Late Review. I fantasised that it would be discussed by Parsons, Greer, Paulin, etc, and that it would make them extremely unhappy, indeed that it would even encourage Mark Lawson to have his very first violent opinion. That will never happen but a healthy dose of self-delusion can work wonders. Bum titty bum titty bum bum bum.