The Rime of the Postmodern Mariner

More ramblings of Rhys Hughes.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

PM Question Time #7: with the Trader in Fat Cat Paperweights

Another instalment in the ongoing series of interviews that the Postmodern Mariner held with the eight Sea of Tea Pirates...

The seventh conversation is with the pirate of the eastern zone, Captain Dangleglum, and this is how it goes:

PM: Do piracy and trade go hand in hand?

CD: They go hook in claw instead, that's the truth, but I do regard myself as a hybrid of both: a private enterprise privateer. I can't call myself an aggrandizing entrepreneur because I don't know how to spell those words. I have been known to fleece my victims of everything they own and then sell it all back to them at competitive rates.

PM: Are you in receipt of any kind of grant for your work?

CD: I'm not. I believe in looking after myself and not relying on handouts. I have a nose for existing gaps in the market, and when those gaps simply aren't there I have a cutlass to make them, then I thrust my nose into the gap before it heals.

PM: You once traded in fat cat paperweights?

CD: Yes, in a story entitled 'The Man Who Threw His Voice', but in fact I was conveying ordinary cats and yoghurt on the same ship; it was only after those cats reprehensibly, though somewhat inevitably, consumed all the yoghurt that they became fat. Then I sold them as paperweights in the nearest port. It wasn't a deliberate product.

PM: You also dabbled with rain?

CD: I dribbled with it. I bought a downpour for a mermaid. I trade in anything under the sun, clouds included, and I will piratize anything under those clouds, even shadows. And yet I'm not cruel or vindictive. As buccaneers go, I'm one of the milder ones.

PM: How do you enjoy sailing on the Sea of Tea?

CD: It has its special moments, also its hours of tedium. Elevenses are nice. But I pass even the uneventful days pleasantly enough. I make sundials. I'm working on a moondial now: a much more complex creation. I know what you're going to say! The moon that hangs over the stewed ocean on which I float is actually a gigantic ginger biscuit. How can the reflected light of a ginger biscuit accurately tell the time?

PM: That question did cross my mind…

CD: Foolish man! Don't ever underestimate the power of biscuits! How might a biscuit unite the warring states of Italy? And yet Garibaldi did! So it's perfectly feasible that one might be able to indicate the hour at any time of night. Nonetheless, I am not obsessed with my time-keeping instruments. I have other hobbies too. I fill empty suits of armour with coal and set them on fire. They flex and glow and sometimes march across my deck leaving footprints of charred wood, then I push them over the side with a long pole and watch them hiss and sink in the tea!

PM: A worthwhile pursuit.

CD: I also indulge in intense naivety. Oh yes. I assume that sociopaths cure sociologists; that Nietzsche's 'superman' wore a red cape and red shorts; that pesto is a poison for insects; that Brunei is in the Middle East near Dubai; that chillies come from Chile; that oil slicks are dead rainbows fallen out of the sky; that steelworks with belching chimneys are cloud factories.

PM: Are you overfond of clouds?

CD: Overlooked by them.

PM: Can an overtone have undercurrents?

CD: The worst current I was ever caught in was just off the Isle of Garket. It was the dreaded Garket Flow! I didn't know where it would take me, but then I saw a sheet of paper floating past and I hooked it out and examined it. That sheet of paper informed me that the current would carry me to a pleasant place and so I lost all my anxiety.

PM: You mean to say that…

CD: That's right. I spotted a map in the Garket.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

PM Question Time #6: with the Long Distance Personality

Another instalment in the ongoing series of interviews that the Postmodern Mariner held with the eight Sea of Tea Pirates...

The sixth conversation is with the pirate of the northeastern zone, Captain Scipio Faraway, and this is how it goes:

PM: You have two brothers, I believe?

CF: Yes, I'm one of three, but we aren't triplets as is sometimes claimed. No, we're a pair and a half of offset twins.

PM: That sounds painful, even dangerous!

CF: But it isn't really. We went our separate ways soon enough. Even in the toy room our individual obsessions manifested themselves; for I, Scipio Faraway, played only with model ships, while Distanto could only abide balloons and dirigibles, and poor Neary cared merely for locomotives and the occasional traction engine.

PM: Do you ever hold reunions?

CF: They are difficult to arrange successfully and mostly we don't bother with such events. Indeed we consider them damaging to the spirit of independent adventure and maverick exploration that all three of us continue to cultivate inside our hearts and within our budgets. And yet there occur rare occasions when we accidentally meet: to give you one example, my schooner once fell into a whirlpool and was sucked to the seabed; through a subterranean passage it was drawn and to stay alive I had to empty and invert large glass jars to keep them full of air and ram them down on my head one at a time.

PM: Most fortunate you were carrying such jars!

CF: Yes, they were alembics destined for a perfume festival: I do some commercial sailing too, just to earn enough to continue my exploits. Anyway, along that passage was sucked my ship until suddenly it was pushed up a vertical flue by a geyser. Blue light shimmered above me. I emerged, breathless but alive, on the surface of the lake of a flooded crater. This crater belonged to a volcano that occupied the extreme end of a long narrow peninsula. On the western shore of the lake stood a special kind of steam train that laid its own track as it went along. It had come to the end of its own line, for there was nowhere left for it to go.

PM: And brother Neary was the driver?

CF: Indeed he was. He waved and I waved back and we exchanged pleasantries through megaphones. That takes skill, I assure you! Suddenly a cloud obscured the sun. But it wasn't a cloud: it was an airship, an airship belonging to my other brother, Distanto. He dropped his sky anchor onto a small island in the middle of the lake, then he leaned out of his gondola with a megaphone of his own.

PM: And called down more pleasantries to add to the ones you already had?

CF: No, to drop peas.

PM: Peas! Frozen or fresh?

CF: Dried. Thousands of them. The flared end of the megaphone acted like the barrel of a blunderbuss and scattered those vegetable bullets all over my head and my decks; they sounded like a healthier version of hailstones. He dropped them on Neary also and some fell down the chimney of his locomotive and were roasted in his smouldering firebox. The smell of barbecued peas drifted across the volcanic lake.

PM: Why did he do this to you?

CF: For fun.

PM: Did you retaliate?

CF: It wasn't feasible. My crossbow had been sent back to the shop for repairs. I could have draped sludge on his sky anchor, I suppose, to give him an unpleasant surprise when he hauled it up, but I didn't. The only sludgy substance I had available at that time was honey and that's too good to waste on anchors. When he ran out of peas he went away. I slipped a few times as I paced the deck in dismay, just as if I was treading on organic marbles. Neary chugged away in reverse not long after and he didn't wave goodbye; he didn't even glance at me as he passed.

PM: How did you get out of that lake?

CF: There was no way I could do it on my own. I had to hire the natives to dismantle my schooner plank by plank and carry it in pieces down to the shore, where they reassembled it. Then they demanded payment. I gave them the peas, told them they were beads. They were natives, after all.

PM: How did they react to that?

CF: With a private prosecution. My remaining glass jars, the ones that were still full, were impounded.

PM: They sued you?

CF: For every last scent.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

PM Question Time #5: with the Living Rum Bottle

Part of the ongoing series of eight interviews that the Postmodern Mariner held with the eight Sea of Tea Pirates...

The fifth conversation is with the pirate of the northern zone, Henry Morgan, and it goes something like this:

PM: You are Welsh, are you not?

HM: Indeed so. Born in the village of Llanrumney, which is now a suburb of Cardiff, a city that has grown enormously since I knew it. Melons are also things that grow enormously, some kinds. And coincidentally, there's a St Mellons in Cardiff; it's another suburb. But who was Mellons and why was she a saint?

PM: You assume that 'Mellons' was a she?

HM: Indolent instinct was responsible for that. You're right: the saint in question may well have been male.

PM: Have you ever read John Steinbeck's first novel?

HM: I have. Cup of Gold is the title and it's all about me. But I don't recognise myself in it. The Wales in that book is no less exotic to me than the real modern Wales. Poetic language aplenty, though, which I enjoy very much; and the scenes set in Jamaica and Hispaniola and Panama are evocative, even if rather fanciful. Steinbeck is usually defined as a writer who dealt exclusively with tough 'realistic' subjects, but in his early days he was an authentic romantic. In his last days too, apparently. I don't know that for sure: I've never read his late King Arthur novel. But one may presume. One assumes that one may presume…

PM: There you go, off assuming again!

HM: Mellons, King Arthur, Pieces o' eight: these are all good things to have assumptions about.

PM: What do you assume about pieces of eight?

HM: That there are no pieces of seven, or pieces of nine. That pieces zero to seven and nine to infinity simply don't exist.

PM: I have pieces of √-1, pocketfuls of them, almost enough to buy a new galleon and sail it to an equally new world where there are no awkward pauses, no robbers, no taxes.

HM: Yes but… Give them to me, all of them! Think of your loss as a sort of survival tax.

PM: Bah! I asked for that, didn't I?

HM: You are staring down the barrel of a flintlock pistol that has been loaded with grape. The grape has fermented and will wine, I mean whine, when it emerges, and that'll be the end of you. Smashed! So I actually consider you to be a wise man rather than a foolish one for emptying both your pockets like this. These truly are curious coins, by the way. They have only one side. When they spin they flicker in and out of existence. If a man tried to make a decision with one of these coins, he would never know if he was cheating himself or not.

PM: Are you indecisive?

HM: Not especially. No, I wouldn't say that. Perhaps.

PM: But do you ever toss coins?

HM: Only if they are crossing the equator for the first time. I dress up like Neptune, the god, not the planet, and put all my coins in a blanket, or a handkerchief if the takings are low, and the crew help me to throw them as high as possible. The crew also have to dress up like Neptune, but the planet, not the god. If a majority of the coins land on heads we continue in the same direction; if the result is mostly tails we turn the ship around and sail back; and if most of them land on their edge on the wooden boards of the deck, we sail up and down a segment of the equator itself, plucking the longitude lines like harp strings, with a rudder carved to resemble a thumb.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Ernest Bramah

I love Jack Vance. One of the many things I love about Vance's writing is the formal understatement used by his characters in extreme situations. An earlier writer who was also a master of this technique was James Branch Cabell, and Vance was partly inspired by such novels as The Cream of the Jest (1917) and Jurgen (1919)...

But it was an even earlier writer than Cabell who perfected this particular art. Ernest Bramah published The Wallet of Kai Lung in 1900. This rambling novel contains many tales within tales and relates the adventures of the wandering storyteller, Kai Lung, who is a genius of diplomacy, as are the various bandits, barbarians and magicians with whom he comes into contact. All verbal exchanges at crucial moments are always extremely courteous on the surface, but with a devastating subtext just beneath.

There seem to be six 'Kai Lung' books in existence. I consider myself fortunate to have obtained the first three, all in different editions! Bramah was another big influence on Vance, but he has been out of print for a long time. An omnibus edition of all six 'Kai Lung' novels would be a welcome addition to any great library of imaginative literature; I hope some publisher somewhere gets the same idea!

Sunday, March 07, 2010

PM Question Time #4: with the Opposite of Something

It has been a long time since any Postmodern Mariner conversations were posted here. Eight pirates on the Sea of Tea; eight conversations!

The first can be found here; the second here; and the third here...

The fourth of the conversations is with the pirate of the northwestern zone, Captain Marlow Nothing, and it goes something like this:

PM: Do you regard your surname as enigmatic or merely unimaginative?

CN: Neither; it's purely practical. I had an accident many years ago and suffered amnesia, a severe dose. I forgot my real name. Clearly I could have adopted a pseudonym that didn't draw attention to my condition, but in fact I decided to take pride in the emptiness of my lost identity. When I struggled back to awareness I knew nothing other than how I felt right then. As I knew only my present feelings and also knew nothing, it thus follows that I must be Nothing. And so I am.

PM: Did your amnesia ever wear off?

CN: It did. And I remembered my original name, the name my parents bestowed on me: Marlow Nullity. You are free to consider this coincidence a mere contrivance, but I regard it as a special sign. Alas, I'm not in a position to explain the mechanisms of the sign but I can reveal its content to you now: 0. Yes, zero! The perfect number! Any number divided by zero is infinity; so it's logical to say that any person divided by me also becomes infinity, because I am a form of zero. This is very reassuring for a pirate captain. I cut my enemies into two, three, four or even more pieces and they are instantly transformed by the magic of mathematics into a quantity without end. My cutlass imparts eternal life!

PM: Very good. Are you insane?

CN: No more than many of my author's characters. And I've already lasted longer than most of the others. In printed words I date back to the story 'Percussion Cape', written in 1995; but actually the author conceived of me long ago, in 1982 or 1983, in an abandoned juvenile novel entitled The Jin-Septev. Yes, that title is meaningless but it has been recycled and mutated and I have it on good authority that he intends one day to write a new novel called Djinn Septic in which I'll play a deserved part. But these are technical matters outside my control.

PM: Is it true your author is a pompous fellow?

CN: He is also your author, so you are in an equally good position to answer that question; but I can hazard a guess that no, he's not especially pompous. Certainly he is playful and he often plays with the pomposity of other writers, and sometimes this game may involve feigning pomposity, but the irony will still be there, always. And yet it is not my task to defend him in any capacity whatsoever. Ask a new question!

PM: How many knees are best?

CN: Three pairs. The ones you wear every day; the backup pair on the obverse side that bend the other way; a spare pair. Three pairs for each man and woman, if possible. But it never is.

PM: How true! Favourite colour?

CN: Dark green, the colour of cucumber skins. Before the sunlight inside them is released. An unopened cucumber is a powerful thing. Do you know the King of Shush? He grows the finest cucumbers and pickles them in the classiest jars. We munch them together, he and I, when I go visiting, which isn't very often. One time he was passing me a big jar of very big pickled cucumbers but it slipped out of my grasp and smashed on the flags. The tricolours were sopping! The flag of the Seychelles became unreadable. Anyway, the cucumbers exploded, burst into light. A rogue spark from the impact must have set them off. Sunbeams everywhere, and just for an instant I thought I heard them speak, all together in one voice. "Why doesn't the Buddha get deep-vein thrombosis?" is what they asked. A curious acoustic illusion, no?

PM: I agree: no. Are all your crewmen also mad?

CN: Salty is what they are. And caffeinated from the sea spume. They are also versed in the best seadog sayings, but it is only I who has the right to shout, 'Hard to Starbucks! Hard to Portfolio!' when I want the ship to turn right or left. And I exercise that right, and left, frequently.