Sunday, 11 December 2016

Travels in Hypnagogia - Catherine Butler

In my alter ego as Princess Procrastia of Serendip, I frequently find myself staring out of train windows. Specifically, each morning I watch the sleeping industrial estates and car parks of north-west Bristol peter piecemeal into fields, then disappear as I plunge into the Severn Tunnel, to be replaced by the chilly, pre-dawn fields of Gwent. A few hours later, I make the same journey in reverse, with dusk acting as dawn’s dutiful understudy. On winter weekdays Bristol becomes a night haunt, and the only daylight that I see is Welsh.

That’s commuting for you; but it’s not dead time. I may read a book, for example, or (being naturally studious) go through kanji flash cards on my tablet. Often, though, half asleep from an early start or a late finish, I find myself drifting; and when I drift, the world drifts with me. Thoughts float in and out of mind, and I keep half an eye open lest one of them have the authentic glimmer of a good idea. It’s an ideal time for triage; my snores are the winnowing breeze that separates the quotidian chaff from the golden kernels of inspiration. (See? I can do metaphors!)

Let’s follow last Friday’s breadcrumb trail of random thoughts, for example. I’d been thinking about the phrase “chance your arm”, and remembered a visit to Dublin when I’d seen the very hole in the very door through which (at some point in the Old Days) Gerald Fitzgerald stuck his arm as a gesture of friendship to his enemy, the head of the Butlers of Ormonde – taking a chance on its not being cut off. This, I was told, was where the expression came from, and I’ve no reason to disbelieve such a charming story. Of course, as a Butler, my attitude towards Fitzgeralds has always been a little ambivalent.

After that, it was a short step to the two Fitzgeralds I know best – F. Scott and Edward. Hadn’t I done a mash-up some time ago? The Great Gatsby written in the style of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyám? Indeed I had (as later riffling through my files revealed):

A blown seed of the house of Carraway,
A Hunter of the East, to hope a prey—
Caught on a wind of restless dreams
He floats, he falls—but how long will he stay?

The Sultan’s Turret echoes to the gong
That throws his doors wide to a gorgeous throng:
Each week a glittering caravanserai
Renews their numbers and revives their song.

The Hyacinth, with wanton petals dressed,
The Rose whose perfume makes a Saint twice blessed,
These flowers by evening lose their bloom and die:
Pluck me one Daisy, and forget the rest.

There I stopped - such a dilettante! I suppose I could have done more – I think it’s pretty good – but what would have been the point? Those three stanzas are proof of concept. I couldn’t bring myself to stretch the joke out to full length, on the lines of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies – a book it pleases me to think exists, without in any way provoking a wish to read it. (Although it made an excellent film, I admit.)

Briefly I wondered about other mash-ups. Whether to write Dashiell Hamlet – Shakespeare’s play in the style of the author of The Maltese Falcon (but Thurber already did something on those lines); or Dash it All HammettThe Maltese Falcon in the style of P. G. Wodehouse.

Then I remembered that P. G. Wodehouse actually went to the same school as Hammett’s hardboiled colleague, Raymond Chandler – Dulwich College. Did they share a particularly inspirational teacher, perhaps? Because, as different as their books are in subject matter, in terms of linguistic invention, idiosyncratic expression and economic characterisation they’re not dissimilar. Bertie Wooster and Philip Marlowe might have been separated at birth.

Wodehouse and Chandler seem an unlikely pairing – one gaining fame in England (though living for long periods in the States) the other making it big in California. But the same is true, after all, of Paul Dirac, the discoverer of antimatter, and Archibald Leach (better known as Cary Grant), who attended the same Bristol primary school in the early years of the twentieth century – where my own daughter would later be a nursery pupil. Dirac and Leach weren’t quite in the same year, but they were close enough to have known each other. How did they get on? Suave, self-fashioning Archie and borderline-autistic, second-generation immigrant, Paul. Chalk and cheese, you’d think, but opposites attract… In any case, that may be the only time that a future Nobel-prize winner and a future Oscar winner have shared a primary-school playground.

Now that relationship might make a terrific children’s book.

My eyes light up. Has the world-drift yielded a shiny little fish worthy the reeling? Perhaps it has – though I’m not the person to write their story, sadly. Such talents as I have don’t run that way.

Still, I offer it to the world. Please feel free to write Paul and Archie – whether as non-fiction, a novel or (most appealing to me) a comic book. I don’t even want any royalties! A mention in an Author’s Note would be ample.

What’s that? Cardiff Central already? This journey gets shorter every day, just like my remaining lifespan.

But hey, at least that’s December’s ABBA post sorted...