Search Results for “go back to sleep road”

Go-back-to-sleep Road

Some nights I lie awake, thinking how nice it would be to assemble a city which incorporates all my favourite streets and squares. Some of them because they offer an unexpected glimpse of a river at a sharp bend, others because of their beautiful buildings, some because of their fascinating shops or magnificent trees and still others because of the people who live on them, which is a way to populate this city with my favourite people together with number of individuals I’ve only glimpsed but who have made an impression on me, such as:

  • the cross-eyed Sikh taxi-driver in Delhi
  • the boy in Cairo who called every heap of rubbish an “Egyptian garden”
  • the man sitting on the pavement in Dakar who, when asked what time the shop behind him opened, said “We’re in Africa, relax.”
  • the lady in Kampala who, when asked if she sold razor blades, answered, “No, but we have nail clippers”.
  • the bus driver in Mexico who told me, “My brother is an engineer, my sister is a lawyer, but whenever I see a bus go by I want to drive it.”
  • the man in Ireland who went by pushing a car and shouted, “I’ll give you a lift when I get to the petrol station.”
  • the man I saw at 7 in the morning a couple of weeks ago walking down the street outside my house with two parrots on his shoulders.

After a while of sticking thoroughfares more or less haphazardly together to make my city, the whole thing starts on taking on the shape of one of those Escher pictures where you keep on going down steps but never reach the next floor or you find that you reach the sea by walking uphill. As you move around your burgeoning city you also realise how difficult it is to visualise going down a street and then turning round and coming back the other way. Try it.

escher print gallery

Other people around the world, or at least in adjacent time zones, are also lying awake thinking things. In some countries, I believe, some mayors toss and turn trying to devise ways to make life more uncomfortable for people who look slightly different than they do. Sometimes they sit up with a start and exclaim, “Yes, let’s name a street after So-and-so.” So-and-so St. wouldn’t be bad, but sometimes the names they come up with seem to have been chosen to commemorate particularly corrupt or vicious people.

When I get wind of these suggestions I lie awake thinking that I would prefer to have a landfill established at the end of the street rather than get saddled with one of these names. Even worse are names of battles. I think that if you really have to name a street after a battle you should make sure it is one of those things that run like scar tissue through our industrial wastelands. Streets which are full of broken glass and dead rodents.

But even if they are names of people you admire or like, they still don’t work. Some things have to grow like plants. Cities, streets and street names too should develop as naturally as possible. The great thing about cities is that they are full of a million minds. What could be more lifeless than those singly-minded artificially planned cities entrusted to one brain with streets called Progress Road, Democracy Avenue, Nationbuilding Boulevard ? (By the way, if you insist on Progress Road, do make sure it is a one-way street).

You can put up as many nameplates as you want to call a street Beethoven Street but you are never going to get a street to feel like him, not deliberately anyway. And dedicating a noisy, highly trafficked street to Beethoven is just as insulting to him as purloining his Hymn to Joy and making a bad anthem out of it.

Across the river from where I live in Rome is a square called Campo dei Fiori, which means Field of Flowers, because there used to be meadows there. Now there is no grass but instead exorbitantly priced vegetables on stalls. And a statue of the philosopher Giordano Bruno, who was burnt at the stake there in 1600 for thinking too much. Surely nobody could be more deserving of having a square, this square, named after him, especially since he has the added indignity of standing through the night with his plinth full of the empty bottles of beer and wine which people dump at his feet as well as covered by the stranded luminescent flying disks which land on him just a few seconds after they have been purchased from the hawkers in the square. But, despite all this, Piazza Giordano Bruno would also be a lifeless name.

In his lovely poem Evocation of Recife, Manoel Bandeira wrote:

the streets of my
childhood had such lovely names!
Sun Street
(I hate to think
they may have renamed it after some So-and-So)
Behind the house
Nostalgia Street…
…where we used to sneak a smoke
On the
other side the Dawn Street wharf…
…where we used to fish in

I would love to have Nostalgia Street in my city, but I can’t because I have never seen it. On the other hand, there are many which are there on account of their names. Near one of my six harbours is Rua da Cozinha Economica (Cheap Cooking
Road – from Lisbon). Also from Lisbon is Praza da Alegria (Joy Square) where I chose a hotel once simply because it sounded like a positive place to stay. Up a steep hill, goes via Scosciacavalli (Horses-do-the-splits Rd.) from Ancona. And lost in a maze of other lanes is via Senza Nome (No Name Street) from Bologna. When you know the history  of the latter road, it gets more interesting. Apparently Senza Nome comes from a deformation of Sozzo Nome (Dirty Name), which is what it was called in the 19th Century. And it was called Dirty Name, because earlier in history, when the tight alley had been full of prostitutes soliciting it was called via Sfregatette (Scrapetits Rd.).

Scrapetits would, I find, be a good address for a London football club – like White Hart Lane or Stamford Bridge. Perhaps we could get another Russian robber-baron to start up a new club and bribe someone to change the name of a street or even a square to Scrapetits. Maybe one of the many London places commemorating a battle. Perhaps Trafalgar? Nelson might even prefer it.

Anyway, I have a suggestion for you mayors next time you’re fantasizing about renaming a street. Try Go-back-to-sleep Road.

The Poetry of Google Translate

And the long road ahead, I go to bed
And the long road ahead, I go to bed

Google Translate is amazing when it works. Unfortunately, it only works about half of the time. Even more unfortunately, unless you already know the languages you are trying to translate, there is no way of knowing when it is accurate and when it is serving you up something non-sensical, inaccurate or downright offensive.

On the other hand, it is a wonderful machine for playing Chinese Whispers. I have already translated a Turkish menu into English, with what I think are fascinating results. Now, the time has come to see how well Google Translate can generate its own poetry.

Read more…

Handelitis and The-sun-is-shining Road

210px-Giovanni_Carestini Every now and then I have an attack of musical fever and have to listen to a piece of music a hundred and thirty-seven times in a row. Examples of past episodes are Dylan singing Blind Willie McTell, Carlos Gardel singing Milonga Sentimental, Tupelo Honey sung by Cassandra Wilson as well as Uri Caine and Paolo Fresu performing Si dolce è il tormento.

Sometimes I get a more serious case and I want to listen to everything a peformer ever played or sung or a composer ever wrote. The most recent occurrence was an attack of Handelitis. Hepatitis has various forms: A, B and C. So does Handelitis and I came down with Handelitis O, because I specifically felt a compulsion to attempt to listen to every Opera he had ever written. Read more…

General Index

Aesthetics is  –  Barnett Newman on how much birds need ornithology
Africa, slowly from the sky – An American photographer’s pictures taken from a motorised paraglider.
Aguaxima – The best encyclopaedia definition ever.
Airport security in 2041 – Poem about the way airport security will be in the future
Aloud – John Skelton – To Mistress Margaret Hussey – A poem with beautiful rhythms read aloud
An alternative Napoleon – What if Genoa had never transferred Corsica to France?
Angelic Landings – I don’t think anyone else has organised a gymnastics competition for angels. See some of the top contenders in action. Don’t forget to enlarge the pictures so as to be able to give your own scores.
Approximating Breakfast – The need for audio-guides to hotel breakfast layouts and to people as well.
Arise! An Imaginary Film Scene – A good scene to put into a film
Around and up and almost down – How to get to know places you weren’t looking for
The Art of Conversation – Poem about the fact that conversation is not a competitor sport.
The Art of Toys and PIanos  – Masterworks performed on a toy piano.
An artesian reform of the French numbering system – including trois-trente trente-trois (123) and other new exciting numbers.
Austin Kleon’s Blackout Poetry – Making poetry by crossing out words in newspaper articles.
Baristi d’Italia – My hymn to the skills of all the people who make espresso in Italian coffee bars.
Being led up the juice can path – Elation and disappointment in a Saharan oasis
Billy Collins reading three poems brought to completion – What it says it is. A clip of Billy Collins reading three poems of his.
Blue Lemons – In search of a new short poetry form
Boris Kovac, a Piper from out of the Ruins – About a musician who deserves to be more famous.
The Businessman’s Kit – An Indian hotel’s idea of what a businessman needs.
But I have no. 5 – A small mistake in English can make a wonderful sentence.
But soundly sailing – A poem about sounds heard and remembered mixing in a state of almost sleep
The Cats will know – My translation of Cesare Pavese’s poem
Chiflador – A poem about a Mexican bus driver and the way he whistled.
Children Brand Children – Picture of Macao advertisement for “Children Brand” Fireworks.
Coming to your neighbourhood soon. Complaineries! – I am not complaining about anyone, I just think they would be a good idea.
The Compleat Shoe Shiner – A poem about shining everything.
The Da Vinci Scope – Looking at paintings closer than you have ever been before.
A definition of Naples – A picture which is a portrait of Neapolitan life
Disparitions mystérieuses des civilisations méso-americaines – Where have all the Bixtecs gone? (poem in French)
Duck and Crystal – Two very different ways of producing an outstanding performance. Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli and John Cage.
The duck with the golden leg – No bathing sign for ducks ? Dog on duck patrol ? Why ducks sleep on one leg.
Earliest documented pizza delivery – A surprising find in a Berlin museum
Eastern wisdom vs Tennis – Getting servants to play your tennis and the horse-action saddle
Engineered Food – About Manifold Destiny, a guide to cooking on your car engine, with a few sample recipes.
Etceteras for the next 25 kilometers – Good Road Signs – Some road signs you might not have seen yet.
Evening (Der Abend) – My translation of this beautiful poem by Rainer Maria Rilke
Events – A poem about the many different ways events announce themselves.
The Exterminating Angel – The most sedative insecticide ever.
Eyes in the City – Kurt Tucholsky – A beautiful poem by Tucholsky, also set to music.
The favourite sloth – The Favorite Poem Project and an outstanding reading of Theodore Roethke’s “The Sloth”.
Flann O’Brien’s Book-Handling Enterprise – How to make near-illiterate people appear to be excellent readers
The flight of sails, the flow of wood and time unswung – Paintings by Vladimir Kuch
The Frog – A poem which begins “What a wonderful bird the frog is” and assorted frog calls.
The future as it was  – The way the world was going to look like in the 21st century according to people a hundred years ago.
Giant Steps, Step by Step – An animated transcription of a John Coltrane which makes you feel that you yourself are playing
Go-back-to-sleep road– About imaginary cities and better street names.
Haikus for explaneedfuls – How to expand definitions to the verge of satori.
Handkerstuff – A concept which we really need and which could spawn a hundred new words.
Handelitis and the The-sun-is-shining-road – Wonderful Handel arias and why we don’t care to recall who sung them.
Hanging from a Melting Ice-Cap – Inventive early 20th Century advertisement for a shipping line.
Head Swivelling and the Art of Sleeping – Two short films by Chris Marker (one cat, several owls).
The Heart of Chinese Poetry – About the way Chinese poems work. About the best introduction to Chinese poetry.
Hey, History! – Poem about History’s bad reading habits.
How to open and close a door quietly – The way that butlers do it.
How our bodies were in the 1950’s – An interesting old diagram of a human body as a factory.
How to say “extinction” in Chumyl – About “The Linguists” a film on people documenting endangered languages.
Ho Xuan Huong – about an amazing 19th century Vietnamese poet and her erotic poems
A Hundred Steps – Poem about the fact that an unusual angle of vision can make your brain start working again.
If Beethoven had been Mozart – What would we be missing?
If vegetables be the food of music – Clips of people playing music on vegetables.
The Igs (Ig Nobel Prizes) – All the best awards at the Ig Nobels
Ilhan Berk – Jet Black – Poem by Ilhan Berk –
Improvisation on improvisation in desperation – Jazz pianist Henry Hey tries to reproduce the wheel-skidding and tail-spinning rhythms of Sarah Palin’s speech.
The Indian Boy outside the Temple – poem about moonlight and hair
Instructions on How to Climb a Staircase– Julio Cortazar’s guide to how to climb stairs which I painstakingly copied out to fit around the photograph of a spiral staircase.
Interjected intervals – Songs to help you to remember musical intervals.
Is it a duck? Is it a monkey? Is it a dog? No, it’s @ – All the names which @ goes by
Istanbul – Above the Ring – A poem about travelling on Istanbul’s ferries.
“I’ve shot hares.” Patrick Leigh Fermor – A short extract from A Time of Gifts
Juliet’s Wall – Just a picture of the wall outside Juliet’s house in Verona.
Kafka’s Somebug – Mostly about Vladimir Nabokov’s analysis of what kind of insect Gregor Samsa was.
Kora, Griot, Diabate, Sissoko, Kairaba Jabi – the beautiful Kora and a beautiful song
La Luna – A poem by Jaime Sabines about all the ways you can use the moon.
Leopardi’s Infinity – A translation of one of the greatest poems ever written.
Looking at the water – Photographing reflections takes you into an unexpected liquid world
Lu Xun – Hope – A wonderful quote from the great writer Lu Xun on hope.
maggie and milly and molly and may – Lovely poem by e.e. cummings. “For whatever we lose (like a you or a me)/it’s always ourselves we find in the sea.”
The many ways a minaret might be – How to built a typically local minaret.
Masters in Conversation: The Hitchcock-Truffaut tapes: Where to listen to conversations between two of the greatest film-makers.
The Meaning of Tolstoy’s War and Peace in one Sentence – Not at all about Tolstoy, but about the searches which have brought people to my blog, the best one being Is something wrong with my dog’s head if its sideways.
Memories of Pyongyang – A week in Pyongyang in the 1990’s.
Mexican Bus Ride – Things to see in Cuautla, Mexico and an encounter with an interesting person.
A Minor Key – A poem about the wonderful things you can see if you remember to look.
Missions to the Moon – Ariosto and Calvino – The wheel of fortune and the cheese expeditions
The Monster in Ness – Poem about the fact that even when you try to be nessless you end up pursuing nesslessnes.
Montaigne berates his member – One of the most stylish and funny sentences ever written
Montezuma’s Revenge – A very short poem about something, though I can’t say what.
More bitter still – The same song made unrecognisable with a substitution
More often not – Poem about being (and not being) there
More Ko Un – More poems from the Korean poet who decided to write one poem about every person he had ever met.
The Most Beautiful Thing – I once spent a period asking everyone I knew what the most beautiful thing they had ever seen was.
Mozart’s Starling Sang G Sharp – An Invasive Story – Discovering that starlings do much more than just shit on you
Music for eating peaches to – About Huong Thanh, an outstanding Vietnamese singer.
My Accidental Greek Wedding – The mysteries and dangers of phrase books.
My life is the gardener of my body – Yehuda Amichai – Never has a body been so intensely described
New Rome bus routes – Do buses run down North African borders?
Ninety Train Rides – About train sequences in films.
No Natural – A poem about disagreeing and unconsciously agreeing. And about two musicians I saw playing in Puebla, Mexico.
Now anyone can write rap – Microsoft Werd, a program you won’t find in shops
The Observation Car – My best poem, in my opinion, about a train ride from Colombo to Kandy.
Old Shanghai and Three Places in New England – About He Youzhi’s interesting illustrations of the old crafts of Shanghai, jinghus and erhus, overlapping sounds at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing and in Charles Ives music.
On airports – A poem about how airports should really be named
One short, one long – A poem about the expression “as appropriate”.
Orhan Veli – Istanbul’u dinliyorum – I am listening to Istanbul – Lovely poem about the sounds of Istanbul by a great poet.
Ounce Dice Trice – About a lovely children’s book by Alastair Reid and Ben Shahn.
Paloma, Astronomically – A poem. Some girls are so cool they make every boy look like an idiot.
Pablo Neruda – Ode to the Artichoke – My translation of this poem.
A Party of One – A poem with postcards written on the air, moustachioed waiters, high-wattage cats’ eyes and silverishly swimming fish.
Patrick O’Brian – I do love a blow – A passage on sailing in the South Atlantic which is so effective in making you feel you were there that you will have to wring your clothes out afterwards.
People who believe in the death penalty – Not evil but …
The Pharmacy on Reforma. Puebla, Mexico – A poem about a sale gone flat.
Pi in the Sky with Diamonds – When Pi day should really be
The Poemarium – About my other website, the Poemarium.
The Poemarium (2) – About Issa, Basho, Jia Dao, Emily DIckinson, Pessoa
The Poetry of Google Translate – Google Translate can’t always translate but it can make new poetry
Pop-tarts and Gutisk – The Linguistic Productivity Index and the rarest languages on Wikipedia
Put a Sheep in your Pocket – Proverbs in Istanbul – Includes a number of mystifying  proverbs and an interesting picture showing how to put a sheep in your pocket.
Le Quatorze Laurel – Better names for months
Random Walk – How to get to somewhere you weren’t expecting to get to and other random activities. Includes interesting picture of monkey typing the complete works of Shakespeare.
Recipe no. 1 – Sweet and Sour Rememboree – Cooking memories of various kinds.
Recipe no. 2 – Sumida River Empty Cake– A poem about Zen cookery.
Reciprocating Soup – The Tantalising Cusine of Google Translate – To accompany your Pumpkin Avalanche would you rather have Baked New Button, Nervous Leaf Rolls or Pan Arab?
Retrodictions 2008 –Indian astrology is not for the faint-hearted. Or for the chapattiless.
Rhyme’s Reason – The repetions build the villanelle – About the villanelle form in poetry. About a book which teaches you about poetic form through poems. And two famous villanelles by Auden and Elizabeth Bishop.
riverrun – A poem about word diseases.
Rome’s New Traffic Plan? -The cats, the dogs, the pigeons and the seagulls would stop to watch as well.
Rossini’s Little Train – How Rossini’s crescendos chug by according to Alberto Savinio
ROW, the ratio we all need – Halfpenny thought on a vital performance indicator.
Salamshaloms – The unexpected effects of merging religions in my novel Vinylia
Sans Serrife Day – About a famous April Fool’s Day invention and other hoaxes.
Santa Cochinilla, I think – A poem about thinking too much.
Say it in Terpreting – A plea for the invention of a sign language for simultaneous interpreters.
Sei Shonagon’s Things – Lists from the Pillow Book (1) – Elegant things, Things that should be large, Things that should be short.
Settetto Buffo di Sette Gatti – Cats being played by a pianist and Rossini’s famous cat duet.
Shipshape in Shangri-la – Poem about pigeons on statues
Shoppers – Window-shopping with a butterfly
The Shortnesses of Longevity – Can you live too long? What about other people, can they live too long?
Sideways Anti-Aging Formula. Free! – This works – for a while – (I actually received a message from a company saying they thought it was a very useful concept).
Sideways to Le Havre – Ride a 1930’s steam engine into Le Havre with Jean Gabin.
Signs for Pause – Signs which made me stop in my tracks
Sillygism – Silly syllogism
Smiles in my pockets – Kobayashi Issa will make you burst out laughing
Softly her Tower Crumbled – A wonderful passage from Nabokov’s Ada.
Somewhere in Sichuan – A poem about how to spread panic.
The S’s of Mexico – Poem about people selling small things in Mexico
Stalin’s socks and Goethe’s thistles – Artichokes, Onions, Thistles. How close Neruda came to writing a poem about Stalin’s socks. Amazing statistics about potatoes.
Stock Markets – Half-penny thought on why money vanishes but doesn’t magically appear.
Stop beating around the mulberry bush and do the needful – Selected Indian consumer complaints.
Stovepipe with a quick legover – Bill Bryson re-words cricket
A Surprise Intruder at my Door -A science-fiction story almost comes true.
The Sting in Heine’s Tail – The sudden turnarounds in Heinrich Heine’s poems
The tall, the short and the more than many – How to begin to understand how big big numbers really are.
Ten Thousand Lives – About Ko Un, a Korean poet who decided to write one poem about every person he had ever met.
Thirty-seven ways of looking at a Dervish– All the things you can do with a Turkish verb.
Three Dogs in Cholula – Poem about the micro-events of Cholula, Mexico.
Too lazy to paint eyebrows – Pipa virtuoso Wu Man.
Tossing Salt Peanuts into the Air for Free– About Steve Coleman,  a great jazz musician, who also gives his music away.
Tough Questions – A short passage from Bill Bryson’s book “Notes from a Big Country” which makes me laugh every time I think about it.
Two glimpses of Icarus – William Carlos Williams and Auden’s takes on a painting by Brueghel.
Two moods of darkness – A poem about darkness and sleep
Two Richards – A Hard Day’s Discontent– Olivier doing Richard III and Peter Sellers doing Olivier doing Richard.
2012, stay in bed and save the planet – International Year of the Frog, Potato statistics, a proposal to make 2012 International Sleep Year
Ulysses and the long road home – Thought about the strange name of Alitalia’s in-flight magazine
The Umbrellas of Colombo – A poem about the mysterious movements of umbrellas in Sri Lanka’s capital city.
Undiscovered Amazon Tribes – If you pick a strange book on Amazon, it’s very likely that you will find that “People who bought this book also bought…” will come up with some surprising suggestions.
Uruku Tumi Gushiku – A song for getting up and doing things. Blues meets Okinawan.
Vinylia – The Artificial Language of Dervish – About the creation of a language with fascinating verb forms
Vinylia First Three Chapters – Where you can read the beginning of my novel, Vinylia
Volcanic Money – Indonesia’s bold 100 Rupiah note.
Walking near the Roman Forum – The past below the future falling on our heads (poem)
Wee Klinks 2 – arabmusique, lyrikline, Hugh Laurie’s Dylan impression, Bibliodyssey
Wee Klinks 3 – Decorative umbrellas, Django Bates, Oriental Architecture, Post-Modernist Generator
What does the Queen sing in the shower? – Halfpenny thought about an anthem for everyman.
The Whole Country Dances – About the North Korean music scene. Unforgettable songs like Nightingales Sing in Our Factory Compound, Song of Automation Full of Happiness, Coming to Remove Weeds from the Sky and many other of your favourites.
The Winter Starlings – Beauty and raining shit (poem)
Woollen Attitudes – Picture of an old advertisement for socks
Wordle Quiz – Can you re-assemble famous texts which have been jumbled?
Words Enacted – A lovely video about words
Wislawa Szymborska – A word on statistics – If you have never read Wislawa Szymborska read this. This is the kind of poem you could stand up and read on the underground and everyone would listen.
The World is Big – Our minds should be so too (poem)
Yaute-no-pec – A poem about buses and place names both falling to pieces.
Zagreb, the Balkan Bangkok – Discover Ivan Gundulic, the man behind Croatia’s main contribution to world civilisation: the necktie. All the ways to tie it. How to put one round an amphitheatre. And a surprising connection with a South-East Asian country.
Zeitoun, an iron fist descending – About “Zeitoun”, an outstanding book by Dave Eggers.
Zen and the Art of Taxation – How meditating on the US Tax Code can lead to enlightenment

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 What’s inside


A-E  M-O  P-S  T-Z 

The favourite sloth The Favorite Poem Project and an outstanding reading of Theodore Roethke’s “The Sloth”.
Flann O’Brien’s Book-Handling Enterprise – How to make near-illiterate people appear to be excellent readers
The flight of sails, the flow of wood and time unswung – Paintings by Vladimir Kuch
The Frog – A poem which begins “What a wonderful bird the frog is” and assorted frog calls.
The future as it was  – The way the world was going to look like in the 21st century according to people a hundred years ago.
Giant Steps, Step by Step – An animated transcription of a John Coltrane which makes you feel that you yourself are playing
Go-back-to-sleep road– About imaginary cities and better street names.
Haikus for explaneedfuls – How to expand definitions to the verge of satori.
Halfpenny thoughts no. 3 – ROW: the new ratio we all need – Have you checked your ROW lately?
Handkerstuff – A concept which we really need and which could spawn a hundred new words.
Handelitis and the The-sun-is-shining-road – Wonderful Handel arias and why we don’t care to recall who sang them.
Hanging from a Melting Ice-Cap – Inventive early 20th Century advertisement for a shipping line.
Head Swivelling and the Art of Sleeping – Two short films by Chris Marker (one cat, several owls).
The Heart of Chinese Poetry – About the way Chinese poems work. About the best introduction to Chinese poetry.
Hey, History! – Poem about History’s bad reading habits.
How to open and close a door quietly – The way that butlers do it.
How our bodies were in the 1950’s – An interesting old diagram of a human body as a factory.
How to say “extinction” in Chumyl – About “The Linguists” a film on people documenting endangered languages.
Ho Xuan Huong – about an amazing 19th century Vietnamese poet and her erotic poems
A Hundred Steps – Poem about the fact that an unusual angle of vision can make your brain start working again.
If Beethoven had been Mozart – What would we be missing?
If vegetables be the food of music – Clips of people playing music on vegetables.
The Igs (Ig Nobel Prizes) – All the best awards at the Ig Nobels
Ilhan Berk – Jet Black – Poem by Ilhan Berk –
Improvisation on improvisation in desperation – Jazz pianist Henry Hey tries to reproduce the wheel-skidding and tail-spinning rhythms of Sarah Palin’s speech.
The Indian Boy outside the Temple – poem about moonlight and hair.
Instructions on How to Climb a Staircase– Julio Cortazar’s guide to how to climb stairs which I painstakingly copied out to fit around the photograph of a spiral staircase.
Interjected intervals – Songs to help you to remember musical intervals.
Is it a duck? Is it a monkey? Is it a dog? No, it’s @ – All the names which @ goes by
Istanbul – Above the Ring – A poem about travelling on Istanbul’s ferries.
“I’ve shot hares.” Patrick Leigh Fermor – A short extract from A Time of Gifts
Juliet’s Wall – Just a picture of the wall outside Juliet’s house in Verona.
Kafka’s Somebug – Mostly about Vladimir Nabokov’s analysis of what kind of insect Gregor Samsa was.
Kora, Griot, Diabate, Sissoko, Kairaba Jabi – the beautiful Kora and a beautiful song
La Luna – A poem by Jaime Sabines about all the ways you can use the moon.
Leopardi’s Infinity – A translation of one of the greatest poems ever written.
Looking at the water – Photographing reflections takes you into an unexpected liquid world
Lu Xun Hope – A wonderful quote from the great writer Lu Xun on hope.

Vinylia – Chapter 2

Phillip Hill


VINYLIA by Phillip Hill

Chapter Two – The Taste of the Sea and the Taste of the Wind


A few weeks later, a Thompo Air SuperSardiner bound for Lisbon lined up on runway 30 at Windhoek’s Oryx Airport. It was carrying an almost complete load of 1004 passengers and a crew of sixteen. There was heavy rain that morning and the sky was black everywhere you looked. The plane was twenty minutes late on its estimated take-off time of 9.40 am. The cabin manager had just reminded everyone to turn off any ALFs, BJRs, STWs, XPMs or, just to be safe, any other equipment which had a three letter abbreviation.

Half the seats between rows 45 and 60 were taken up by a group of teenagers from Porto who were returning from a school trip and were busy singing the rudest songs they could think of. As the Supersardiner suddenly launched itself along the ground towards take-off, a four-year-old girl in row 83 called Maria Motawele was sick, quite impressively for a girl of her size, establishing a connection in her mind she would never dispel between acceleration and gastric irritation which in later life would cause her extreme discomfort even just watching fast cars, lifts, swings, roundabouts, exploding champagne corks and springboard divers.

The SuperSardiner turbo sewage compressor engines started making their usual tortured groaning and whining noises. The schoolchildren were still singing bravely, although they had lost most of their tune and their rhythm. Then the plane left the ground and, within seconds of it becoming airborne, the engines appeared to cut off. All of the singing drained away abruptly and the plane continued to climb in complete silence, like a blithely soaring cloud. Maria Motawele burst out into a smile of amazement at this magical sensation, but all around her passengers searching for re-assurance in other people’s faces saw their same pallor, sweat and alarm staring back at them from every other seat and nothing but black cloud crowding every window. Some of them began to scream. No one heard them. A few minutes later the captain came on the air.

“Hello, this is your captain speaking….”

The announcement got no further. The plane continued its bewildering flight, without an audible pilot. The passengers clung ashen-faced to whatever or whoever they could get a grip on.

It took about a quarter of an hour for the crew to explain to the Audiovores who had been distributed throughout the cabin that they didn’t have to eat all the sounds on the airplane, just the engine noise and that the captain’s messages, in particular, were not to be swallowed. As Frieda Belchwell recalled in her autobiography, A Windy Life, some years later: “We had always lived on the outskirts of town eating animal sounds in the yard. The only order we had been given was to eat the noise on the plane, but how could we be expected to distinguish between noise and useful sounds?”

Presently the captain came on the air again. He explained that they had mounted a new sound-insulating system and that there was no reason to be alarmed. He repeated the concept three times and also made it clear that the fact that he had said it so often wasn’t a reason for alarm either. He wished them a pleasant, quiet flight.

The flight announcements suffered no further interruptions once the Audiovores had been clearly instructed not to touch them. But some other situations were still not totally clear to them. For example, was the sound from the screens people were watching engine noise or not? It was certainly produced by some kind of engine. And what about the clumsy trolleys going up and down the aisles? The noise of the soda cans opening? And then the pouring and the bubbles fizzing in the cups? And the toilets? What exactly constituted an engine anyway? Since they were not able to consult, their decisions on which noises to suppress differed widely. Walking round the cabin was like passing from one climate zone to another, ranging from the tropical, with lots of loud voices and percussion, through several intermediate stages, right down to arctic winter, where all you could hear was a sense of muffled gloom.  

Thompson Shikeda would probably have been interested to compare the impact of all these different approaches. When he had managed to gain access to Schrodinger’s house he had proposed to take all the singing animals off his hands if he was also given the ownership of the Audiovores. For this he was willing to pay ten times the amount of money he had tossed into Schrodinger’s yard. Schrodinger was extremely happy to get rid of his animal problem and also see the end of the massed spectators on the perimeter of his house so it didn’t take long for him to accept.

Shikeda’s idea was to be the first (and, if possible, only) airline to offer silent flight. Turbo sewage compressor engines were wonderful from an environmental standpoint but acoustically they were probably the most distressing there had ever been in the history of aviation. Down the line he was also thinking of another development, namely getting the Audiovores to eat people’s conversations as well unless passengers paid for a license to speak during the flight. In a talk which he had had with his closest advisors the day before the Audiovore in-flight experiment, he had expressed the opinion that his tactic was actually a gift to his customers, because it was only by paying for something that you really appreciated it and thanks to him they would be able to attach the proper value to conversation with their fellows.

When the plane landed in Lisbon eight hours later, several passengers, while filing off, remarked to the crew how restful the flight had been. Later that day, while drinking a glass of Lisbon’s new fashionable drink, a Contrafa Sour, the captain got in touch with Shikeda and reported that technically the flight had been a resounding success but that there had been some initial misunderstandings. After a brief discussion, it was decided that for the return flight the Audiovores would only board the plane after all the passengers had embarked and the captain had been able to inform everyone that a new noise reduction system was being tested.

This was not to be, however. The next morning, when the crew assembled in the lobby of their hotel, none of the Audiovores were there. Their rooms were searched but there was no trace of them. They had all slipped away the night before without being heard (not a difficult thing for them to do, of course).

Frieda Belchwell again: “We had never been through anything like it. Eating eight hours worth of white noise from the engines had had a devastating effect. When I got to my room, I curled up on my bed in terrible pain. But after a minute I had to get up, because I had an irresistible compulsion to walk, to jump, to run, to spin.” 

The other Audiovores were all feeling just as bad and after a while they all gathered in one room to decide what to do. It wasn’t easy to conduct a discussion, since none of them could stand still, but their meeting came to a very rapid conclusion: they all agreed that, whatever happened, they were never going to board an airplane again. Secondly, and this was less a decision than a spontaneous and silent migration, they needed to get outside immediately and walk off their excess drive to move.

At first they didn’t even think about where they were going. It was such a relief to be able to travel in a straight line without coming up against a wall and having to turn around that they ranged the streets almost at random. After half an hour they came across a square with a church which vaguely resembled one they had been able to see from Schrodinger’s house in Windhoek. They stood there and peered up at the steeple, hoping for some inspiration. Some of them held their fingers in their ears, for the engine noise had ravaged their stomachs so badly that almost any sound made them feel queasy. As the twenty of them stood there staring up into the sky, their formal clothes, their clumsy stances and the pained expressions on their faces made them resemble a party of missionaries for a particularly depressing sect who were all going through a moment of profound self-doubt.

A few boys gathered to gape at them as the Audiovores lingered, wondering how they would ever get home. Some of them were of the persuasion that this was their neighbourhood church or at least similar enough to mean they must be within striking distance of Schrodinger’s. Most, however, realised that they still had some way to go.

“South,” suggested Charlie, the logical one, pointing to a road sign which indicated that direction. And so they set out vaguely heading for Africa. It wasn’t easy to keep going South because the roads swerved and turned and wound and climbed diagonally up hills and sidled down again. And then there was Everett, constantly stopping to reflect on things he never disclosed. They often had to wait while one of them went back fifty yards to retrieve him and set him in motion again with a sharp tug.

They found themselves going round in circles. After they came back to the church for the third time, a pretty blonde Audiovore called Patty noticed that a newspaper stand was selling maps and went over and bought one. It didn’t go as far as Windhoek but it was a start.

It took them a few hours to descend from G6 through F5, G4 and H3. They had been wondering what the thick blue line at the bottom of the map was and when they reached G2 they found out: a vast expanse of flowing water.

Here they had their first stroke of luck. They discovered a ferry station nearby and managed to get a boat across.

The river Tagus was so wide that they thought they were crossing the sea. When they reached the other side, they stood on the shore for ten minutes, looking back, in awe of what they had achieved. They set off again, brimming with confidence. Their bodies were returning to normal: the pain in their stomachs had subsided. Their urge to walk was no more than a tingling in their legs and, when they walked out of G1 and off the edge of their map, it vanished all together, leaving them all with a sudden, unexpected sense of exhaustion. They began to realise they would not get home that night and would need a place to sleep.

About a mile later, as they rounded a bend, they saw a truck parked on the roadside. From it, there came a familiar sound, like a thousand people frantically trying to communicate in Morse Code in some ancient operations room. It was full of chicks, peeping. The Audiovores stood looking and listening and then Charlie climbed in. One by one they all followed, re-arranging the boxes so that they could all fit, and they sat ensconced and happy there. They couldn’t have found anything which felt more like home; they could have stayed there forever. They all fell asleep contentedly.

When they woke up, a few hours later, the truck was running along a wide road. None of them knew how long they had been travelling and they couldn’t tell where they were going, but they all shared a sense of elation. They had crossed the sea and now they had found this ride: fate seemed to be placing stepping stones on their path. As the hours went by they really began to believe they were going home. After all where would anyone be taking chicks, if not to Schrodinger’s?

Their expectations increased even further when the truck came to a stop and they heard a gate being opened. It sounded just like Schrodinger’s gate and the gravel beneath the truck’s wheels sounded just like Schrodinger’s gravel. And so when the truck drove through the gate and the doors opened they were expecting to see Schrodinger’s gruff features. Instead, they were astonished to find themselves face to face with a small, red-haired man with glasses, though they were not half as astonished as he was. He scurried away shouting and the Audiovores all jumped out and hurried off in the opposite direction straight towards a high fence. When they reached it, they started climbing and then someone somewhere unleashed the dogs. They heard them coming, barking fiercely. They began to climb faster, except for Everett, who was lagging behind as usual and hadn’t even reached the bottom of the fence yet. He was still five yards away as the dogs came pounding up to him. And then he did something amazing. He turned round to face them and ate their barking. They stopped and sniffed the ground trying to find their voices. They whimpered and then they tried to bark again but Everett snapped the sound clean out of the air and they all turned tail and ran away faster than they had come. This simple event later gave rise to the common idiom “to eat someone’s bark”, meaning to see someone’s bluff or to take the wind out of their sails. 

Everett climbed the fence with slow dignity. As he stepped down on the far side, the other Audiovores made way for him and for the first time he walked in front. That single action changed his status from eccentric to leader. They crossed the grass behind the compound going South. They went on through the meadows, over the hills, past the trees. They were happy, they were together, they were strong, they were going home and nothing could stop them.

Frieda described what happened next as follows:

“As we walked we felt hungry for the first time. We ate the joyful sounds of the gulls and then the sounds of the kites, the thrushes, the herons and all the other many many birds there were, which seemed to be multiplying to fill our hunger. And then we heard a sound like a hundred people and, as we advanced, it became a thousand people and then ten thousand people sleeping in tune together, all breathing deeply in and out as one. The sun came up and we fell to the ground upon the cliffs and we ate the sound of the ocean, which was endlessly bitter, because it was everywhere in front of us telling us there was no way we could go home.”

By going South they had reached the end of Europe at Cape Saint Vincent. They sat near the huge lighthouse buffeted by the relentless sound of the gaping, heaving ocean. The bitterness of the sea must have seeped into their hearts because they had their first falling out. And, when they had finished maligning one another, they cried. Every May the Audiovores still commemorate that sad date, which they have named Vincent’s Day, by gathering in houses to eat melancholic songs which they call “faros”, from the local word for a lighthouse.

It was hours before any of them said anything again and it was almost midday before they began to discuss what to do next. Each one of them seemed to have a different plan. But there were only two people any of the others would have followed on that day and so they split into two groups. One decided to return to the city with Charlie, hoping that somehow they would find someone to help them get back to Windhoek. The other group preferred to continue to walk and keep as far away from the madness of plain human beings as possible.

We have lost the traces of almost all of the Audiovores who, that day on the cliffs, decided to follow Everett. Sightings of their descendants have been reported from Gibraltar to Vladivostok. You come across them sometimes sitting in the long grass at the bend of a river. When they hear anyone approach they rush away and cover their tracks. But it is clear that they survived, multiplied and succeeded in their plan to avoid all contact with plain humans.

Ironically, the only one who ever returned to society was Everett, the person who led them out. He kept a journal of his travels from which it would seem that he spent the first six years together with the other Audiovores and then for some reason wandered alone for eight years more before he walked slowly into a small town not far from Paris one day and became almost instantly famous. The Audiovores had no direction planned; all they were trying to do was to keep away from inhabited places. They could have just holed up in some remote mountain hideaway, but Everett describes them as continually travelling. He never provides any names of places and so it is only possible to infer where they went. It seems undeniable that they crossed the Pyrenees during their first year of walking, but that is the last point of transit everyone agrees on. By the time Everett refers to them camping by a great river, the experts are divided between the Rhine and the Danube and there are some who suggest it was the Elbe or even the Loire or the Po.

Everett’s feat with dogs that first night made a lasting impression on all the Audiovores who had seen it. Soon the ones accompanying him began holding their own “bark hunts”. Whenever they came upon a pack of wild dogs they deliberately stirred them up and then when the dogs tried to come after them they would pretend to run away and it was only when the dogs were upon them and in full cry (the barkpeak as they called it) that they would turn and take the bark from their pursuers’ mouths. The Audiovores found this extremely exciting and claimed that the taste of this frenzied barking was incomparable. Even so, the chases were extremely dangerous. Everett reports one case where an Audiovore was badly mauled. And of course nowadays the famous dog runs which are held every year in Plovdiv, Graz and Riga on the anniversary of Vincent’s Day also see frequent accidents.

Everett himself never took part in these chases, he watched from a distance, always “plodding along behind” as he puts it, although it is also clear that Everett was slower because the path he was travelling on was much longer than the one his companions were following. They were just walking to avoid contact with ordinary humans, while Everett was also constantly travelling with his mind, scanning the hedges, the fields beyond, the woods, the mountains and the sky and most of all he was exploring and examining all the sounds he heard.

Thanks to Everett’s journal we can now answer the question Schrodinger first asked himself when he saw Everett closing his eyes or looking into the distance. Everett was thinking almost all the time about what sounds tasted like. These reflections make up about a third of his journal. He tells us dog’s bark is crisp and smoky, that the main feature of the croaks of frogs is resilience, eating them is somewhat similar to walking on a springy wooden plank. Rivers, but especially, mountain streams, ripple all over your palate. Some tastes get covered over and over again. There are twelve different types of wind, he decides, after much consideration. In the early years, he could never resist the sound of cows. Whenever he saw a field of them, he would risk contact with plain humans to be able to capture their sound. There is in particular a famous, almost ecstatic description of a place where he is captivated by the “elemental succulence of mooing”. In view of the uncertainty of Everett’s itinerary it is not surprising that many cities, most notably Augsburg, Chartres and Aarhus, have claimed that it was their cows he was talking about.

It was soon after this encounter that Everett struck out on his own. It is quite likely that this corresponded to some change of mind in him. It is noticeable that there is a shift in emphasis as soon as he begins to travel alone. In the early parts of his journal he seems to be impressed by big things and big sounds: waterfalls, landslides, thunderstorms, a hundred geese suddenly taking to the air around him, yet the more he travels alone the smaller the scale of what impresses him becomes. He begins to reflect on twigs snapping, a single bee in flight or water falling one drop at a time slowly on a stone.

The last section of his book, which covers the year he spent before he returned to society, goes even farther. He relinquishes description entirely and all he notes down is page after page of triplets of sounds, or trisonics as they are usually called:

Horse trotting

Rain galloping

My chattering teeth


Rusty door swinging

Goat chewing

Train far away


Tree crashing,

Wind boxing,

Owl calling


Poplar leaves

Pebbles against a milestone

Giggling in the valley


Entering a thicket

Swear word



Gentle snoring

Rubbing a waxy cabbage leaf

Someone washing their face


Chain dragging in the sea

Seals barking

Stones plopping here and …


Dance music from the village

Mud underfoot

Fox drinking


Scratching my head

Scratching my head

Scratching my head


But many years would elapse before anyone would be able to read any of this journal. At two o’clock in the afternoon of the first Vincent’s Day, on 16 May in the second year of the Age of Vinylia (2 AV), Charlie shook Everett’s hand. They wished each other good luck. Neither thought they would ever meet again.

Copyright Phillip Hill 2013

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Vinylia – Chapter 3

Phillip Hill


VINYLIA by Phillip Hill

Chapter Three – The Clocks of Seville


That year something went wrong with the clock on the Giralda, the 12th century Moorish bell tower which stood next to Seville’s Cathedral and which was the very symbol of the city. They called in the experts from Clockquirks, who spent a whole day examining the system. They started by making it sound one o’clock, one fifteen, one thirty and one forty five and continued through all the quarters of an hour up to twelve and twenty-four and even went beyond through twenty-five and twenty-six o’clock all the way up to seven quarters past thirty-two at which point they shrugged their shoulders and said they couldn’t find any fault with it. It seemed that they had at least bludgeoned the clock back to normality because everything worked properly again for the next hour as the crew stood in the square to check how it performed left to its own devices. As soon as the Clockquirks technicians departed, however, it became unpredictable again. Sometimes there was one chime missing, sometimes two and one night, while the usual crowd of people who had taken to gathering at the foot of the tower looked on in amazement, the hands went past eleven without producing any sound at all.

Engineers checked whether any subsidence had made the tower tilt. They spent days applying sets of weights to the mechanism. Nothing worked. The city government started letting anyone who had any kind of an idea at all try to fix things. Offers of help arrived from all over. The grounds around the cathedral filled up with self-appointed experts making presentations with the aid of flip charts on how to solve the problem mechanically, architecturally, electronically, geologically and tribologically. Several magicians turned up. Amateur shamans danced around the tower in time with the universe for a few hours. The whole construction was strewn with healing flowers. The city authorities let everyone have a go, except for the man who offered to use micro-explosives.

In the end, the Archbishop of Seville decided there was no alternative but to exorcise the thing. It was Moorish, after all. A grand ceremony was performed one evening with twelve master exorcists surrounding the tower and six more up inside the belfry. Thousands came to watch. The ritual took three hours and afterwards the crowd stayed for the midnight bells. Hundreds fell to their knees when the last chime of midnight rang out as it was supposed to. But like all the other remedies, it only provided a temporary solution. At eight the next evening the clock was having problems again.

Some Sevillians started to plan their journeys through the area around the cathedral so that they passed by at seven and half minutes and twenty-two and half minutes past or to the hour, the times which were furthest away from any ringing. Others reckoned that the best way to spare themselves any anxiety was to avoid the neighbourhood entirely. Unfortunately, the problem began to spread beyond the Giralda.

First it affected the clock in the nearby Plaza del Sorteo where the municipal lottery was drawn and the city government sat. Then the other clocks began to malfunction as well. There was constant discussion and argument in the city. Some thought that the spreading disorder was a sign of the end of the world. Others believed that there was some kind of divine message being broadcast and that, instead of interfering, people should just listen and try to understand what was being said to them. To this theory, it was objected that, if there was a message, all the clocks would be doing the same thing whereas on any given night, at eight o’clock say, one would strike five, another would strike three, and yet another would strike the hours normally.

Isidro Villanueva, a famous local physicist, who had discovered a particle he had named the “puton”, spoke about the situation on the city’s vidwalls at length one evening. He filled up a blackboard with equations as he theorised the possibility that there was a kind of tear in the fabric of the universe. Just as the hole in the ozone layer had been an indicator of the subsequent disastrous global warming which occurred, the faltering of the clocks of Seville might be a sign that there was some kind of breakdown in the time-space continuum. There was probably a lot more to his position but one particularly exciting and lengthy formula carried him beyond the right hand side of the screen and reportedly out of the room and he disappeared from view for the rest of the evening. He was followed, the next day, by José Santamaria y Paloma, a local philosopher, who stated that the problem might be subjective and not objective. It was obvious there was nothing wrong with the clocks, since the world’s leading experts had examined them. Perhaps, instead, what was happening, or was perceived to be happening, was the outcome of a viral infection with psychiatric effects, which he proposed to call Giralda syndrome. A weak point in his reasoning was that if there were an infection you would have expected that after festering for three months in Seville it would have spread to some other city as well. But no one seemed to be having problems in hearing clock chimes properly in nearby Cadiz, Cordoba or Malaga.

Of course, there was a very simple reason why the problem wasn’t spreading to Cadiz, Cordoba or Malaga. All of the Audiovores who had followed Charlie had ended up in Seville and none had ever set foot in any of the neighbouring cities.

When they had arrived the city was having a feria. Handsome horses cantered down the main avenues mounted by immaculately attired riders who displayed a studied elegance in every move they made. There seemed to be a group of dancers in every square and every group was dressed in a different set of hues – some were blue and black, others yellow and magenta, still others lime, grey and gold, and as the dancers moved the colours danced a slightly different dance, as if they were splashing out into the air from a magical pulsating fountain. More noticeable yet were the butterfly symbols wherever one looked: the fluttering kites, the pins everyone was sporting, the amazingly complicated ornamental combs the women wore in their hair, the marzipan cakes, the multi-coloured banners, the masks: all were designed to look like magnificent butterflies.

And the glorious hubbub! The Audiovores were quite capable of appreciating the beauty of sound without having to eat it all the time, just like conventional humans can look admiringly at the beauty of animals or plants without having to devour all the ones they happen upon. But the feria was such an unlimited and exciting, free and open aural banquet that they spent the first few days feasting unrestrainedly. It was an ecstatic experience, they did whatever they liked in the crowded streets and nobody seemed to notice – apart from a few horses – if there were some sounds missing here and there.

Even after the feria finished, Seville was still a pleasant and abundantly auditory place to be and none of them showed any inclination to leave. Of course, it was a lot quieter and they made a deliberate effort to avoid doing anything which would draw attention. The only problem was that they were never quite sure which things would go unnoticed and which things wouldn’t.

They never realised, for example, the consternation they caused when they attended flamenco dancing and singing. One journalist wrote a piece entitled ¿Qué le pasa al pataleo?(What’s wrong with the foot stamping?) because lots of performers seemed to be unable to keep time properly when stamping their feet or clapping their hands. But the Audiovores never read the papers and the looks of intense disgust which afflicted the artists after their disappointing exhibitions looked just the same to Audiovore eyes as the dramatic expressions they poured onto their features when they started dancing and singing.

Sometimes children came home from the playground in a state of great agitation saying they had been attacked by hobgoblins stealing their voices. It was very hard to get them to explain anything, but the hobgoblins were never seen and they never did anything to harm them physically. Most parents attributed this agitation to the Ramarama productions which were so popular and which many feared were flooding their young ones’ minds with over-spiced Subcontinental fantasies. Again, the Audiovores never noticed anything because suddenly running off in tears seemed to be the way children behaved normally.

One day, two of the Audiovores, Alfie and Oscar, went to see the local football derby between Betis and Sevilla. They had a wonderful time. Even the actual match was exciting, although they were never quite sure what was going on. Around the 70th minute they began to take a liking to the sound of the referee’s whistle, so that he lost all control of what was going on. The players soon discovered that the only limit to the fouls they could commit was their inventiveness and they argued over throw-ins, corners and free kicks like kids playing on the street. A couple of times while most of the players were arguing whether a goal had been scored, one of them raced away with the ball and knocked it in at the other end unnoticed. The match ended only when the players were all lying on the ground unable to continue, with the result somewhere between 9-11 and 13-12 and the crowd ecstatic and also exhausted.

But if there was one thing the Audiovores could never resist it was the sound of bells: doorbells, horse bells, school bells, church bells and, most of all, the wonderful sound of the Giralda. When there were big ceremonies, like the exorcism, the Audiovores made a point of not interfering, but it was impossible for them to give up eating the chimes entirely. And once you had had one it was difficult not to have another. Especially at midnight. Having twelve chimes ring out in the night air, was like being offered a slice of one’s favourite cake twelve times over by an insistent host. How could one resist?

After the bells had rung midnight though, the Audiovores had a problem they found it difficult to resolve in their first few days in the city: accommodation. They spent a number of uncomfortable nights sleeping in doorways or by the river. Finally they realised that it was simple for them to break unheard into empty offices and camp there till dawn. The next night they would move somewhere else.

Two of their number, Juliet and Mike, took advantage of this technique to burgle houses. They weren’t really interested in any of the loot; it was just a compulsion they had to steal (it was the kind of problem which was not infrequent with bargain basket Quikclones). Most of the things they stole they discarded into post-boxes or waste paper bins. A few valuable bracelets and necklaces were tossed away in the park. They were like anglers throwing their captures back into the water alive. All they really got from it, apart from the thrill, was the gastric discomfort which came from swallowing burglar alarms whole.

No one in Seville could connect any of the strange things which were happening to the Audiovores, because no one could suspect that they even existed. Anyone attributing the events to people who ate sound would have had to be completely mad. Life just seemed to have become unpredictable and unexplainable. Was the universe unravelling from inside the Giralda? What was alarming the children? Who was squatting in the offices at night? Were they angels, having something to do with the divine message the bells were trying to convey? Or were they devils? Ghosts? An advertising stunt? And, perhaps the most intensely debated point: who had won the Betis-Sevilla match? The questions went on and on.

But human beings get used to even the strangest of situations – wars, terrorism, impending disaster, cruel regimes. They just adapt their behaviour and try to focus on other things, so it was not entirely surprising that after some time most of the conversations in Seville were not about the bizarre happenings in town but other things, such as the level of the Guadalquivir river, the latest Ramarama offerings, the changeability of the weather and also the growing popularity of a small restaurant called Don Casmurro.

Don Casmurro had been around for many years. It had never received above average reviews and none of its cooks would have honestly claimed it had ever served one portion of above average food either. But word of mouth started to mark it out as a place like no other although it was hard to say exactly why. If asked whether the food at Don Casmurro was special, nobody really seemed to remember. What they did remember was the quality of the experience as a whole, so it stood to reason that the food must have been good as well.

There were only a few large tables at Don Casmurro; unless there were eight people in your party, you almost always had to share one with someone else. But this, some of the regulars said, was one of the reasons which made it special. You always met such interesting characters.

As soon as a group of customers entered the restaurant and found somewhere to sit, the head waiter would glide into view. If he recognised a customer he would invariably say, “A pleasure to see you again,” to which a regular customer might reply, “Thank you, Charlie.” And the regular customer would almost always scan the room with his eyes until they settled on an attractive waitress, who was usually in a corner, looking as if she was afraid to bother anybody, and he would say, “Good evening, Frieda.”

One might have thought that a restaurant would have been the last place to find Audiovores working but the two of them had developed skills which were crucial to the popularity of the place.

Charlie had immediately taken a liking to the language they spoke in Seville even though it could be a bit oily at times and some people had lots of raspy s’s which you had to spit out like pips. One advantage in being able to eat a language was that learning it was almost an automatic process. It was naturally absorbed and Charlie had quickly acquired an amazing command of post-Spanish. It was thanks to his ability with words that he had become head waiter at Don Casmurro. He had the knack of creating a truly special atmosphere. He would hover behind the diners at a table in the manner of the best and most demure waiters, but what he did was something which had never been done in the history of waiting. He improved the conversations. By eating a word here and there, a syllable or sometimes a single vowel or consonant, Charlie could transform even the most boring sentence into a statement of enormous originality, wit, wisdom or intelligence. You could say he was a sculptor of conversations, chiselling away the dross to leave only the potential and beautiful inner statue they contained.

It has to be said that he fell short in some of the more traditional waiting skills. He had no idea what to recommend, for example; for him oysters and cheese or turnips and trifle would have been perfectly acceptable combinations. He also found it difficult to remember who had ordered what and sometimes he was completely unable to tell the dishes apart when he brought them to a table. Pork, beef and lamb all looked equally and identically dead to him and green leafy vegetables were one vast area of uncertainty. But none of this mattered because after just a few minutes his clients were floating on a cloud of euphoria. He was so good at altering conversations that nobody really noticed that anything strange was happening. They just felt that the food must have special properties or that the wine had brought out the real, fascinating identities which all of us have hidden somewhere inside us. At Don Casmurro everyone could believe that they were brilliant and irresistible. It was definitely the place to go if you wanted to impress someone. There were even some couples who had gone out on the flimsiest of dates and who, simply because of the impression they had made on each other over a meal at Don Casmurro, had ended up marrying. Years later their main activity would be wondering why.

Frieda also reshaped conversations, although her approach was somewhat different. She had fallen in love with Spanish poetry, which she devoured. And while Charlie steered and snipped at conversations to bring out their best possible meaning, Frieda focused almost exclusively on sound. If you sat down at Frieda’s table it was like becoming instantly drunk. No one had any idea what they were saying but it all sounded marvellous. Sometimes while doing this Frieda was so impressed by her own concoctions that she could hardly contain herself and she would turn to the mirror and get her image to congratulate her by silently clapping her excitedly clutched hands before her lips. There were times when she was almost too good. The beauty of the music she was making gave her a rapt expression and the enjoyment of it brough out a special luminousness on her skin so that, quite often, some of the male diners would stare transfixed at her, as if turned to stone, their forks arrested in their trajectory half way to their mouths.

If he noticed, Charlie would usually find a way to produce an accidental crash or a bang in their vicinity to release them from their trance, but nobody ever came completely back to earth when dining under Frieda’s supervision. Every single one of her customers left the restaurant wearing a slightly stunned expression.

When there were not too many customers or when there was a special group, Charlie and Frieda arranged it so that Charlie handled the first part of the meal, which became a pensive, balanced, intelligent and insightful experience and then he left fruit, cheese, desserts and liqueurs in Frieda’s hands, when everything became wild and unpredictable, after which people who had been complete strangers hugged each other with intense emotion before saying goodbye and going their separate ways.

Life, they both felt, could hardly have been better. They were in love with each other. Their work was enjoyable and creative and they were netting such extravagant tips that they were beginning to consider the possibility of having a baby. And then one day when they became really good perhaps they would create the perfect dinner conversation. But one meal was to change the direction of their lives completely.

The owner of the restaurant, who realised how important they were to the establishment but still hadn’t worked out why, greeted them one morning and excitedly blurted out that “El Gordo” was going to come and dine that evening. The man would have the whole restaurant to himself and his party. He urged them both to be at their best. El Gordo could really make or break a place.

When El Gordo turned up that evening, together with a group of seven hangers-on, Charlie was taken aback by his appearance. He didn’t look gordo -or fat- at all. Why did they call him “The Fat One” when he looked like his name should have been El Flaco, “The Thin One”. One of the cooks explained that he was not yet fat because he had only been El Gordo for a few months. “Just wait till next year,” said the cook, “and you’ll see how plump he gets.” Everyone in the kitchen thought this was hilarious and they banged on their pots and pans in appreciation. As far as Charlie was concerned this made things more mystifying still, but he put it all out of his mind and concentrated on doing a good job.

Even before the diners had finished their hors-d’oeuvres, Charlie knew that it was going to be a successful evening. El Gordo talked so much that Charlie could have extracted six or seven completely different but equally wonderful speeches out of everything he said. He ended up using every rhetorical device he knew. El Gordo’s guests were in real, as opposed to feigned, awe – something El Gordo had never really experienced.

Charlie was therefore in a relaxed state of mind when he left the table after the second course to let Frieda finish off the meal. He went into the staff’s changing room and walked through it onto a small balcony. There were three other balconies to his right which were connected to the dining room. From where he was he could see some of the diners through the windows and he could hear that they were laughing uproariously.

He watched the stars and the moon for a few minutes and he waited for the next windtram to come along. Seville had developed one of the largest windtram networks in the world and Charlie loved the swishing sound they produced, like a silky curtain being drawn erotically down the tracks. Whenever he had a minute he would come out onto the balcony to catch a snip of it. The number 58 came down the hill and he gulped it down. Then the number 24, his favourite, came rattling up the hill and he swallowed that too. He felt a pleasant electric feeling surge through his whole body. And then he seemed to be inside a dense cloud of marijuana smoke. He turned and saw that on the balcony next to him El Gordo had just lit up a 9 1/2 inch Mario y Juana spliff. The man’s face lit up every time he puffed, making it look almost hollow. He was staring straight ahead of him. Charlie tried to blend in with the wall behind him. Another tram went by but Charlie checked his urge to eat the sound. And then another one.

“Don’t stop on my account,” El Gordo said. He dragged on the cigar. His face lit up brightly and Charlie could see that he was staring straight at him with an intense expression. He had never seen anyone look so gaunt.

“Now tell me,” El Gordo said, “just how do you do that? And who exactly are you?”

Vinylia – Chapter 1

Phillip Hill


VINYLIA by Phillip Hill

Chapter One – The Windhoek Sound

  On the main avenue leading to Windhoek’s Oryx Airport there stands an impressive statue of Felix Schrodinger. You may notice that there are chicks peeking out of the top pocket of the lab coat he is wearing (and, you realise after a while, all his other pockets too) but the focal point of the work is the large disc he is holding in his hands and peering at with questioning eyes. As the intense airport traffic whizzes by, one after the other the tour groups shuffle into position at the base of the sculpture and raise their heads in unison when their guides announce emphatically that it portrays “the event”: the man in the very act of fathering Vinylia.

His claim to fatherhood is hotly disputed by some, who would accord him at most the title of grandfather (or even great-uncle). What is sure, however, is that if he had kept up the 45 degree angle at which he is holding the disc for more than a few seconds he would never have fathered, grandfathered or even great-uncled anything.

Schrodinger is usually described as a genetic engineer, although this suggests that he was part of the leading edge of that science, which had recently produced the commercial, patented Quikclone technology that had made it possible to churn out fully functioning human clones in a matter of weeks. The Quikclone Corporation offered money to buy up people’s title to their genome and anyone who had any special talents to sell stood to make quite a good profit out of such a transaction. Since the technology generated fully grown clones that were exactly the same age as the donors when the DNA was collected, it also meant that once you had sold your genome, there was a possibility that you might come across individuals exactly like yourself on the street. There was a rule that established that clones could not be turned out within a thousand miles of the home of the person they replicated, but it could be quite disconcerting to go on holiday to some remote resort and run into a copy of yourself working as a life guard, a traffic policeman, or – God forbid – a sexual transactionist.

Schrodinger, however, was involved in much more mundane pursuits. He was an external genetics draughtsperson for the Egg Office at the Windhoek Board for Poultry and Avian Derivatives (WinBoPAD) where he slogged away at improving the packability of chicken and duck eggs and took part in the nudging quest for the “full yellow”, an egg which would contain all yolk and no white, or the “half and half”, with a shell which would snap neatly into two equal parts. This he did in a laboratory he had equipped himself in his house on the outskirts of town. Chicks and ducklings were constantly hatching and, having no other available mother figure, they would totter across his laboratory floor following him wherever he went. There were always some which managed to slip out with him when he went to some other room. But, since Schrodinger was constantly opening and closing doors, the members of his squadron were never quite the same at any given time. Thirteen of them might follow him into the kitchen, but he might emerge with, on his heels, eleven completely different ones which had been stranded there the last time he had passed through, a few hours earlier.

The overall number of chicks and ducklings inside the various rooms of the house and out in the yard and their cumulative sound output increased progressively throughout the week until Friday came round which was when WinBoPad sent someone over to collect them. Schrodinger never seemed to notice the noise they made or their presence in between his feet. It was possibly the only thing about which he was never irate. As for the rest of the universe, his temper was always cocked and ready to detonate.

He would shout at his equipment whenever it failed to produce the results he was expecting, he would harangue a banging window all day rather than close it, he would insult clouds for being in the sky, he would berate his burnt toast every morning, he would assault his plumbing and he was always on time just before the shows started at 3 and 6 and 9 pm to upbraid the people walking down the road outside his house to the nearby Ramarama theatre.

“Where do you think you imbeciles are going?” he would cry out. “It’s stinking rubbish! It is total 360 degree subcontinental rubbish!”

“Subcontinental”, because the Ramarama had been invented in Jaipur in India; “total 360 degree” because it had a screen which surrounded the spectators completely; “stinking” because the Ramarama wasn’t just advanced cinema; in addition to the images and sounds which completely surrounded them, the spectators also had smells coming at them from all sides. In fact, the Ramarama engaged all the senses; you could even touch and taste everything around you.

It was hard to find anyone who didn’t admire it, but the Ramarama had only been around for twenty years or so and Schrodinger, who was sixty-five, had given up being adventurous on his fifteenth birthday and generally detested anything that was less than fifty years old.

One thing which was old enough for him to like was chess. After one of his rants, which usually left him unable to remember what he had been doing before it had been brought on, one of the few things which could calm him down was sitting at his chessboard and playing. He played against himself, always making the same moves and he always drew. He had the reassuring feeling that he was engaged in the constantly perfect match.

Another old thing he felt affinity with was hip-hop culture. It had long lost any rebelliousness it might have had in the late 20th Century and it had become a stilted and rigid set of activities and attitudes, which only people of his age had any interest in. Rap was performed in concert halls in unchanging ways to audiences of elderly devotees who unleashed volleys of coughing every time a gap in the performance gave them the chance to. Schrodinger also sported the old-fashioned tattoos and jewellery of hip hop. He was a perfect example of what was called a “Colonel Bling”.

He owned a DJ’s dual turntable from the golden age of rap, which could play records forwards and backwards. But rap was not the only music he played on it. As long as it was old it was likely to be in his huge vinyl collection, which he listened to constantly while he was engaged in exploring the exciting potential of poultry and avian derivatives in his laboratory.

For example, he often played Italian opera, in particular Verdi’s Il Trovatore . It seemed contradictory that he should listen to Il Trovatore so often since it always made him angry. But the fact was that the fury it unleashed inside his brain gave him waves of unconfessed seismic pleasure.

It was the absurdity of the plot which did it. He never failed to explode at the beginning of Act 2, when the gypsy woman Azucena tells the story of her attempt to take revenge on the local Count for burning her mother at the stake. She kidnaps his infant son and plans to throw him onto the same fire on which her mother died. By mistake, however, she throws her own baby into the flames instead. And then she brings up the Count’s son as if he were hers.

“You can’t be effing serious, woman!” Schrodinger would shout out in his thick raspy voice over his surrounding chorus of peeping chicks and ducklings. And he would curse the librettist too – “How can you write such effing rubbish!” – thrashing his arms around as if trying to land a blow on the man, despite the fact that he had died in 1852.

It was Il Trovatore he was listening to on that Sunday April day on whichthe Event happened and the world was changed forever. The opera had reached Act III and Schrodinger was in the middle of a tricky transfer when he realised that the music had started to sound mushy and gluey as if the record grooves were full of mud. He turned round to check and saw that a jar of Genie Mix, the genetic substrate which he used for most of his work, had been knocked over on the shelf above the turntable. It must have happened during his arm-flailing tirade against the gypsy woman Azucena twenty minutes earlier.

Schrodinger stood dumbfounded, listening to the sticky singing for a while, uncertain whether to wash away his expensive genetic substrate and save the record, which was one of the ones he valued most  in his collection, or else sub-deplug the whole record, which would have saved the Genie Mix but completely ruined the disk. What Schrodinger ended up doing was to spend an hour meticulously collecting the substrate with a trylon swab and replacing it in the jar in an attempt to save both record and substrate. That evening, in order to check whether the Genie Mix was still working, he used it as a transfer base for some quadratic chickens he was working on. If it hadn’t been damaged he could expect them to hatch by next morning.

In the middle of the night, he was awoken from his sleep by an unaccustomed noise. For a moment he thought it must be a thief or that someone was playing a prank on him and had turned on his sound system. He went downstairs to confront the intruder and discovered that all the newly-hatched chickens were swarming excitedly over the floor of the laboratory. He had never seen such a highly-strung and ostentatious crew of poultry. And he had never heard any chicken make sounds like these. They were all strutting around producing high C’s and trills. All of them had hatched as sopranos.

This chaotic moment is generally considered to be the beginning of the “Age of Vinylia”, a period which lasted almost a hundred years.

Schrodinger never really did get to the bottom of the mechanism he had discovered but he did realise that what he had seen had in some way been caused by the contact between the genetic substrate and the vinyl grooves.

Over the next few days, Schrodinger managed to breed chickens, turkeys and ostriches exhibiting similar operatic behaviour using the same jar of Genie Mix which he had rescued on the Sunday. But when he tried to replicate the results by pouring a fresh batch of substrate onto the same record nothing happened. The chicks which hatched were completely normal.

He tried soaking the vinyl for a longer period – one, two and four hours – but there was not the slightest trace of an effect. He was so mystified that he couldn’t even find anything to vent his anger on. The next day he went to chapel and prayed. (Schrodinger was a devout member of the 7th Day Pediluvialist Church, which took foot-washing very seriously and forbade eating any animal with feet.) 

After spending two hours with his feet in the holy basin, Schrodinger had an insight: the interaction between substrate and music must have been activated by the revolutions of the turntable. It wasn’t enough to soak the record; it had to be played in order for the Genie Mix to absorb the information in the grooves.

Schrodinger managed to confirm his theory over the next few days. He smeared a few dozen records from his collection with Genie Mix and played them for a few minutes before recovering the substrate. In every case, the chicks which he hatched with the treated substrate displayed modified behaviour. What was most interesting was that different types of music induced different effects. When he tried out his hip-hop collection, for example, the individuals which hatched all displayed an urge to collect shiny pieces of metal which they tried to lodge among their feathers, peeped with an unrelenting rhythm and spent a lot of their time facing off aggressively. In short, despite their size, they were chickens with attitude.

A few days later his vinyl dealer, Herby Mofokeng, turned up as he did every month trying to peddle him his new acquisitions. Schrodinger took the opportunity to show him his performing animals. Mofokeng, who had many contacts on the Windhoek music scene, was intrigued and told Schrodinger that if he could come up with any animals who could do something more up to date than Rap or Opera he might be able to find a few gigs for them. Mofokeng suggested that Slavonic Country and Eastern would be a good genre to start with and that he might obtain even more interesting results if he experimented with other animals and not just poultry. The result was the legendary animal band, Glagolitic Zoo.

Glagolitic Zoo was an amazing phenomenon; it turned out a prodigious blend of Country and Eastern styles, including Cross-gargling, Straight Behind and Dump combined with lyrics which tempered the genre’s underlying sentimentality with a refreshing cold-bloodedness only reptiles could have produced. Strangely enough, despite the enormous and immediate success, (in the space of only three months they were already dominating the music scene in major Southern African cities), this was the only mixed animal band Schrodinger ever generated, probably because the strained interspecies relations when the band was on the road made it very difficult to manage.

Schrodinger followed up on this success by engineering The Vole Works, a group of 4 voles (soprano, tenor, baritone and bass), which was only slightly less successful.

Mofokeng and Schrodinger ended up marketing the music on their own label, which they called, simply, Windhoek. The arrangement was that Schrodinger would focus on the genetic production and Mofokeng would then take the performers off his hands and train and fine tune their musical skills.

It was an almost perfect arrangement except for one thing: Schrodinger detested the appallingly contemporary music his animals produced. He began to dream of an animal band which could perform the good old-fashioned Rap he so loved. It would have to be a trio, he decided, since that was the most prestigious formation among those which performed at the Rap Auditorium, and it occurred to him that he could come up with something especially exciting if he made use of the capability of his turntable to play both forwards and backwards. He was thinking of a band which would have two animals which sang forwards and one which sang exclusively backwards.

Frog, Frog and Gorf he was going to call it (he had discovered that amphibians were particularly talented at hip hop). It only took him a day to turn out two excellent individuals to fill the standard Frog slots. He then used the same record, played in reverse, to prepare the genetic substrate for his Gorf.

He produced five frogs with this method, but none of them was any good. He had been expecting difficulties, this being the first time he had used the new technique, but what was really baffling was that not only could none of the new batch sing in reverse, they seemed incapable of producing any sound at all.

Thinking that socialisation might trigger a response, he placed one of his new, apparently dumb, frogs together with the two other frogs he had selected for his trio. As soon as he opened the box which he was keeping his two standard frogs in, they launched into a spectacular routine but when he put the third frog in the sound stopped. It took him some time to realise what was happening. He took the dumb frog out of the box and held its mouth closed. The music resumed. He let go of the frog’s mouth. The music stopped again.

The frog was eating the hip hop produced by the other two frogs. The reverse effect of preparing the Genie Mix on the record played backwards had been not on the direction of the music performed but had flipped the frog from being a producer of music to a material consumer of music.

This effect is now known as “Schrodinger’s Quirk” and is yet another of the strange coincidences which made it possible for Vinylia to come into being. It took a long time for Schrodinger to think about the implications of the effect because his mind was wholly focused on the idea of producing music. Since his Rap Trio didn’t seem to be workable he simply shelved it and turned to another potentially lucrative project Mofokeng had been pressing him to tackle, which was to come up with a MicroMusic band. This, of course, was A Million Ants. Nobody actually figured out how many ants were involved but there were enough of them producing minimally different melodies to change the face of MicroMusic forever and also to cause permanent changes in the brain structure of a number of people who listened to them.

It would take too long to provide a full list of all the bands and performers Schrodinger produced, but it is worth just mentioning The Original Sopranified Chickens as well as Beagle im Spiegel. (It never was quite clear whether this was a canine duo or a particularly talented soloist). There is no telling what else Schrodinger and Mofokeng might have come up with if not for the fact that one day, with no warning signs, the bottom fell out of the market. Overnight, the demand for animal bands collapsed. Mofokeng tried to ride the crisis out and had the animals perform in small backwaters desperate for any distraction but in the end even he gave up. One day he drove up to Schrodinger’s house in a huge truck and honked all of its sixteen horns. Schrodinger, who was still in his pyjamas, peered out of the window.

“I’m terminating our arrangement, Felix!” Mofokeng shouted to the bewildered Schrodinger. But Schrodinger couldn’t hear him. The noise around him had suddenly become overwhelming. Mofokeng had dumped all the singing animals unsorted into Felix’s yard and they had already started to express themselves.

For Schrodinger the next few weeks were dramatic. He was used to having chicks cheeping around and beneath him but now there were a hundred and fifty animals of multiple species producing overlapping sound round the clock in twenty different musical genres which he detested. Schrodinger moodily counted a total of 430 legs his Pediluvialism prohibited him from harming. Just before 3, 6 and 9 pm the people passing by on their way to the Ramarama would stop and gape. Schrodinger always shouted himself hoarse ordering them to go away but there was no way he could make himself heard.

After a few days he remembered his sound-eating frogs and brought them out. They made a small dent in the din but it would have taken a few hundred of them, Schrodinger figured, to create total silence. Perhaps a few lions, crocodiles or elephants might have done the trick, but the risk of mishaps seemed too great, so in the end he decided to buy some Quikclones and use them to produce twenty or so reverse-engineered humans who, he hoped, would have a big enough appetite to gobble up enough of the noise to restore the peace he was used to.

Windhoek’s Quikclone store did not have a large selection. To get top-grade material you had to reserve in advance and what there was on the shelves was mostly powdered genome from drunks, hoboes, criminals and entertainment personalities who had sold their genetic copyright for a quick buck. But Schrodinger wasn’t looking for any special abilities and speed was what mattered most to him. He drove down to the store, walked through the shop, blindly grabbed a dozen cans from the discount baskets near the exit and in a matter of five minutes was on his way home again.

He spent the next few days bathing and reverse-spinning records. Just to be safe, he used the same record which had produced his sound-eating frogs, which happened to be the coarsest, harshest, brashest, bluntest, crassest hip-hop he had, except for one occasion where he got distracted by his emotional reaction to Il Trovatore, and spun out a Quikclone on that instead.

One week later he had completed the whole process and one night he found himself facing twenty-two apparently normal human beings – ready, dressed and bewildered. He took them out into the yard that same evening and they performed exactly as he had hoped. They ate the Country and Eastern, they ate the Micromusic, they ate the Splurge, the Williwash and the Tincant; there was no music they didn’t eat. He let out a cry of jubilation. They ate that too.

The silence stretched on into the night. He gave them the first names that came into his head: Alfie, Betty, Charlie, Delia, Everett, Frieda and so on up to Ulrich and Victoria. Schrodinger sat on his rocking chair and watched with pleasure trying to differentiate between the twenty-two new beings he had put into the world.

There was one who stood out from the others clearly; the one he had named Charlie. He had a sardonic smile which hardly ever left his handsome face. You could tell that he was aware of his good looks even though he hadn’t had the chance to see his reflection in a mirror yet, but what was most noticeable was the sense of intelligence which darted out from his eyes. Charlie scanned everything around him busily as if trying to find something his intellectual abilities could wrestle with. When he noticed Schrodinger’s chess set, inside the house, just a few steps from the yard, he sat down there and started moving the pieces around. Schrodinger, who was in a much better mood than he had been in for a long time, sat down too and lined up the pieces properly for a game. He was curious to see how much Charlie could learn. He gave him a brief explanation. Charlie beat him in sixteen moves in the first match and in twelve in the second one.

“I’ll call you Charlie Sharpe,” said Schrodinger, who had just realised that they ought to have surnames as well, “because you seem to be particularly clever.” And then he heard an amazing noise. He turned round and saw one of the girls at the door. She had obviously been observing them play. She was covering her mouth in embarrassment although the sound she had produced had in actual fact been a soft and enchanting thirty-two note chord. “And you,” Schrodinger announced, “shall be Frieda Belchwell.”

After that he took no more than twenty minutes to find satisfactory surnames for all the others, starting with Alfie who he called Frownsmile because of the way he never seemed able to wear one of those expressions without the other as well. The only one of the band he had any real trouble with was Everett. Schrodinger found it very hard to understand what was going on inside him. Everett was so slow he never seemed fully awake. At first Schrodinger thought that the only thing Everett did was eat. He thought of calling him Everett Munching or Everett Eeting because of this, but closer inspection showed that while it was true that Everett ate round the clock, he did it very slowly. He would chew on a sound and then he would stop and look up at the sky or else he would close his eyes for a minute. It wasn’t clear to Schrodinger whether Everett was thinking something profound when he had his spells of silence or whether his digestion caused his mind to come to a halt. In the end he decided to name him after his doubts as to what he was doing all the time and called him Everett Watt.

His new guests didn’t just eat the music he had reverse-engineered them for, they ate anything audible around them. They ate the sound of the normal chicks in the yard, they ate the sound of the crickets, they ate the sound of thunder (which seem to do something exciting to their stomachs) and, despite his attempts to train them, they ate most of the things he tried to say to them.

In his notebook, Schrodinger referred to them as Audiovores, a name which no one uses any more. “Sedately eager” were the words Schrodinger used to summarise their attitude. They did everything he asked them to do, quietly, almost shyly. None of them wanted to be the centre of attention. Their politeness verged on the ridiculous. It took them ages to go through a door, because each one of them wanted to be the last to do so. Charlie was the only exception in this. He would smile his sardonic smile and walk right past everyone else.

A few days later, they came to him with their first and only complaint: they didn’t like their clothes. This was not at all surprising, since standard QuikClone kits were tasteless, shapeless and mismatched. But when he sat down with them to look through a catalogue, instead of ordering more colourful clothes, they all plumped for formal business suits. Even the ties the men ordered were very cautious. And when Schrodinger tried to interest them in the kind of accessories he liked so much – rings, sunglasses, necklaces – they were horrified.

The house was now so silent that it became even more noticeable than when it had been noisy. People started coming from all over town to gape at this aural black hole where sound just disappeared. Some brought along binoculars. They peered through them intensely, although there was nothing to be seen: the animals wandered or hopped round the courtyard looking like normal animals and the Audiovores sat in the shade, sedately eager, or strolled. Whatever was happening was invisible.

One day, while Schrodinger was sitting outside glowering at the crowd (there was no point making any attempt to shout, of course), a twin-incinerator Royce Roller trashgrinder drew up at the gates. It was a shockingly expensive new model, running on unsorted raw garbage which you simply tipped into a funnel in the back. Only one man in Windhoek owned one: Thompson Shikeda, founder of Thompo Air.

Thompo Air was a no-frills airline which flew out of Oryx Airport. Shikeda had been so successful in turning it into an international hub linking to the new cities which had sprung up in Western Antarctica with global warming that it was now one of the busiest airports in the world. The old Windhoek International Airport was practically a junkyard, where Shikeda went deliberately and ostentatiously to fill up his trashgrinder.

The car sat in front of the gates. Schrodinger looked up but otherwise did not react. Shikeda, an imposing figure, stepped out of his car. Two guards followed him. He waved them away. Shikeda took off his sunglasses and stared hard in the direction of Schrodinger. This was usually enough for him to get his way, he had had his eyes goldspangled and they were extremely convincing. Schrodinger did not budge.

Shikeda was handed two large bags and from the bags he began to extract money. He picked out handfuls of it and tossed them into the yard. The Afros piled up. Schrodinger still made no move. The crowd outside, however, began to get a bit restless. Shikeda kept on throwing money. When he got to 150,000 Afros, Schrodinger let him in.

Copyright Phillip Hill 2013 –

Most Beautiful Thing

Some time ago, I began to ask people what the most beautiful thing they had ever seen was.  It was a  question  which seemed to open doors in people’s minds, you could see them having thoughts they hadn’t had for a long time. The answers came out slowly in a tangle of other ideas. People would ask themselves what “beautiful” meant. One friend commented that it is easy to complain about things with a perfect stranger but that saying what you most like is very intimate. It was in any case a question which set off a reaction which was never entirely predictable.

After a few months, I ended up with a list, with all kinds of answers, from people of all ages and from various parts of the world. People have interpreted the word “seen” in lots of different ways. What is exotic for some people will be commonplace for others. I used to re-read it from time to time and I felt that these memories had also become mine. It enriched me, made me travel in my mind to places I hadn’t seen and highlighted the beauty in some things I had overlooked.

I haven’t asked the question of anybody for quite some time now, but I will put up the list here and you can suggest your own through the comments box.  I am not going to indicate any names. (If you feel more comfortable expressing your idea in another language, I shall try to translate it – for the time being we can manage French, Italian, Spanish and probably German. It’s not a competition, there are no rules, but it is simply a kind of lazy susan for sharing out positive ideas).

There was one answer which came up repeatedly – and quite rightly. But as a result I am going to consider it automatic that for all mothers and other parents the most beautiful thing is seeing one’s children born and I am going to put it at number one. The  other answers are  in the order in which I received them.


  1. The birth of my child/ children.
  2. Rain falling on the dunes in the Sahara desert.
  3. The library of Ephesus.
  4. Vermeer’s milkmaid.
  5. Dawn in Jericoacoara, Brazil. Dawn in the tropics is always spectacular, but there it was special. An array of towering dunes- 50-100m. With white sand, which seemed like snow. And we were on those dunes. In front was the ocean and behind wer palm groves. I can still feel the cold and so soft sand and the leaps we took to go down, metres at each bound, and then the sun came up.
  6. The mountains in Spiti in Pakistan. South of Ladakh. The light there.
  7. A sunset in Asmara.
  8. I was studying in Gibraltar and I could see the harbour from where I sat. Unexpectedly I saw the Amerigo Vespucci sail into port and fire a salute.
  9. The colour of the water in the Maldive islands.
  10. The mosses in Kew Gardens.
  11. The volcano on the island of Flores with its three lakes.
  12. The night sky full of stars in Western Australia.
  13. The city walls of Jerusalem at sunset.
  14. The Andes seen from a plane.
  15. The plants they sold at the Botanical Gardens in Paris (lotus ?).
  16. There was a time when I had a recurring dream of flying in which I could zoom down onto plants. The perfection of the colour green in those dreams.
  17. A volcano in Chile.
  18. The photograph of a house on the Bosporus.
  19. The way houses move in an earthquake (if beauty can also be what is terrible).
  20. The first time I saw a forget-me-not and also pasta with tomato sauce.
  21. The Taj Mahal.
  22. My two children when they laugh together.
  23. Ukraine (I don’t remember where) 1981. It was getting dark and we had just finished putting up the tent for the night. Around us there was an endless expanse of yellow and green fields, with no houses or people, just a little wood. Suddenly the earth began to shudder, ever faster, with a sound which seemed to shake the trees one by one and get closer and closer and increasingly mysterious. There was no wind but the whole wood stirred and boomed as if there were something inside it moving it. At last a man with long black hair emerged from the wood on a galloping brown horse and all the stars in the sky were mirrored on them, lighting them until we lost sight of them.
  24. My parents holding hands at my marriage.
  25. Lake Tanganyika.
  26. A former military bay on the island of Lastovo, Southern Dalmatia, Croatia.
  27. A garden of stalagmites.
  28. Seeing a flic cause a mammoth pile-up on the Champs Elysées.
  29. Seeing a plane I had chartered land in Kenya and hearing someone say, “Madam, your plane”.
  30. During World War II, when I was a child, we lived on the sea about six kilometers from Ancona. One day the town was bombed while my mother and aunt were at the market. I was sent to look for them on my bike, but I couldn’t get through all the rubble and turned back. Then in the evening they walked through the gate. That is the most beautiful thing I ever saw.
  31. The house in Lebanon where I grew up and its garden.
  32. My children when they smile together.
  33. Human skin.
  34. My cat’s profile.
  35. The landscapes of Sri Lanka.
  36. It may seem trite but I am deeply moved by the change of colours that appear in the sky and on the surface of the sea after sunset. The hues and length of the time the colorus light up the sky and the sea before they begin to fade vary at different latitudes, but the magic never fails to captivate me. I know the Greeks talked about rosy-fingered dawn (another beautiful moment, especially in the desert) and Sciascia wrote a book called “un mare colore del vino” ( a wine-coloured sea). So that’s it for me with the second best the high plateau in the Pamir moutnains on the Silk Road going from China to Pakistan with Marco Polo’s track meandering beside the road and herds of yak tended by nomad families, and to boot the peak of K2 in the distance. I really did not want to come down and would love to go back.
  37. Mommy, Daddy, my cat, the first time I saw snow.
  38. The coastline of New Zealand from the airplane, beginning of South Island.
  39. Alone, in front of Lake Nakuru, covered with pink flamingoes (being alone was an important part of the experience).
  40. Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower.
  41. Seeing dawn from the Assekrem, a mountain in the middle of the Sahara. You could see for hundreds of miles and it was like watching the creation of the world.
  42. It is difficult to answer the easiest questions, if you give any thought to them. I am lucky enough to have seen many beautiful things, so the most important thing was how to interpret the word “most”. My first idea was to go through my memories: how intense was the feeling and the emotion caused by the beauty of the things I had encountered ? But soon I realized that at most I could compare the intensity of my memories and measure their impact as re-lived now: with the effect of time’s passage, which adds, erases, changes and distorts. Therefore I decided to interpret “the most beautiful thing” in a different way and consider things which I find beautiful even after having seen them many times. Of course, this means discarding out of hand the beautiful things I have only seen once and which I will probably never see again: the black kites flying above the ricefields of Java, the carpet of night lights in Manhattan, the stormy crater of Aetna. But I think this is right. Beauty is an everyday goddess. Applying this criterion I have no doubts: the most beautiful thing is snow. I always like it, from when it is most luxurious to when it is at its humblest, from the ice of Mont Blanc to the mud-spattered gravel-like stuff alongside the roads in towns and I believe I shall always like it.
  43. A basket full of cherries (with leaves). The smell of the leaves.
  44. Our school play when we children were all like swallows.
  45. Hearing my daughter sneeze just after she had been born.
  46. The scent of the marchands de jasmin in Tunisia.
  47. The smell of humidity you feel when you get out of a plane in South-East Asia.
  48. The smell of Arab bread produced in those run-down bakeries, especially when harissa is spread on it.
  49. In Santo Domingo two poor kids were looking at the window of a toy shop discussing what they would buy if they had the money. I bought them the toys they had mentioned. Their look of astonishment.
  50. The most beautiful thing I have ever seen was my niece when she was a few months old opening her arms in excitement at the sight of her mother’s tits.
  51. If I had to give one experience that I found so beautiful that it took my breath away, it would be the Glacier of Perito Moreno in Patagonia, Argentina. To see the wall of ice with its turquoise reflections, and to see and hear large chunks break off and fall into the Lago Argentino was something that left an indelible mark.
  52. A black-faced lamb on the machair.
  53. Seeing a hippopotamus in Africa.
  54. Seeing a flock of birds in Africa and the noise they made.
  55. The valley of Jauja in Peru. I arrived by train from the coast. The valley opens into the central Andes, with wheat fields in the flat part of the valley next to the river. The broom with its intense yellow blossoms grew on the slopes in alternation with the various tones of green which formed woods up to the snow-capped peaks which stood out against the brilliant blue of sky lit by the midday sun. The houses had red roofs and the campesinos walking on the roads or in the fields wore many-coloured ponchos on which red and orange prevailed.
  56. Deep in the Hungarian puszta, a milk-white fog bank, visibility nil, total silence, fearful, not knowing whether it was safer to continue driving slowly or to stop in the swirling choking thickness and then suddenly emerging into pitch-black with myriads of huge bright stars so close I could reach out and touch.
  57. Anselm Kiefer’s exhibition at the Bilbao last summer: vast spaces, roomful after roomful of his poignant travels through history and nature, his huge earthy, powerful, tragic, poetic, whimsical series and finally his Doors for the Salpetrière… a wild, totally crazy idea ! Doors of the Emanation! Doors we can never cross. Maybe just stand a little close to, catching our breath, bowing our heads with a tear and a complicit smile…
  58. A Mark Rothko painting. The Mekong river above Luang Prabang. (sleep dreaming): yellow
  59. Sitting on a houseboat, just my partner and I, at Sebongewe, Kariba in Zimbabwe, with not a house, road or light to be seen and above me and reflected in the water below, millions and millions of stars. I felt I was floating in space.


My Accidental Greek Wedding

manuel conv 2I have an irrational passion for phrase- books. Whenever  I go to a country where I don’t know the  language I take along a phrasebook. I often take one with me even when I go to a country where I do speak the language. Sometimes in a foreign country I suddenly stop in the middle of the road. People walk into me, but I don’t notice because my mind is wholly taken up by the question: why? What are phrasebooks for?

The first surprising fact about phrasebooks is that you hardly ever find what you want to say in them. Of course if you read them from cover to cover you will be able to note down some expressions which will be very useful in many situations. Two I have just noticed in the last few seconds while writing this are I am not used to this and Is this a local or a national custom? These are both the kind of thing you can want to say about a dozen times a day when travelling. But phrasebooks suggest the idea that when you find yourself in a situation you will be able to turn to them and find a way to deal with it. This, I think I can say safely, never happens. Read more…

Mozart’s starling sang G sharp. An invasive story.


I can’t say I ever appreciated starlings much before I discovered that Mozart kept one as a pet for three years. My impression of starlings was formed by the experience of having multitudes of them descend on Rome in autumn behaving like a million drunken football fans.

Their formation flying is pretty impressive, you can’t deny that. They soar up high in the sky and fill it like an aerobatics team with a thousand jets . They expand, contract, make sharp turns, ascend, descend, branch out, regroup. You can’t predict what they will do. It resembles a frenzied motor-driven kaleidoscope with just one colour: black.

The problem is when they come down and settle on a couple of trees. Settle is the wrong word. The collective noun for starlings is a “murmuration” but whoever invented that was deaf or was in bed, half-drunk, with a cushion on his head and the starlings were five miles away when he heard them. I would suggest “obstreperation”, “altercation”, “stridulation” or “riotation”. They don’t settle on trees, there are always countless numbers swarming around them in a state of great excitement shrieking and shitting on everything. I have always wondered whether they are shitting because they are excited or whether they are excited because they are shitting. Read more…

The Compleat Shoe-shiner

(Listen to the poem here)

My craft is not just shining shoes.
Look all around you. See the queues
of people lining up to see
the sky this morning. It was me
gave it a blueshine after dawn—
my signature’s there on the lawn.
I shined the tower, I shined the clock.
I shined the church, I shined the flock.
Now they’ve got haloes round their hair
which pick up broadcasts in the air
and wait behind them when they bow.
The grocer’s wares are finer now
I’ve luminised his fruit and veg.
And see that blackbird on the hedge?
—I gave its beak that brassy tone
and now it sings the saxophone.
Read more…