The Second Time I Went to Porthcawl by Jason E. Rolfe


The second time I went to Porthcawl, I went with a purpose. [1] I meant to find reclusive Welsh writer, Rhys Hughes. I admit that since my encounter with Creepy Aplomb (a strange tale in its own right) I’d become fascinated with the witty Welshman. At times existentialist, at other times absurd, Hughes had a unique way of looking at the world around him. The Camus-like author defies comparison! The horror, science fiction, magic realist writer refuses categorization! From the onset of his career to his current creative endeavours, Hughes remains honest to himself and to his fans, writing for the sake of the story, rather than the size of the audience. At any rate, the story Aplomb told me piqued my curiosity; but it wasn’t until a subsequent trip to Madrid that I knew I had to learn more about Hughes. The Madrid tale is another strange one, involving Puente de Toledo, an interesting character and also a bridge spanning the Rio Manzanares. The Puente de Toledo assured me he was in love with The Bridge of Sighs in Venice. “If it seems absurd,” he said, “it is the Welshman’s fault.” The Welshman in question was, of course, Rhys Hughes. If Creepy Aplomb had awoken my curiosity with his peculiar tale, Puente heavily caffeinated my curiosity, ensuring it would not rest until I learned more about this mysterious writer.

I found a few stories from a lost Hughes anthology, (in Tartarus, of all places. For those of you unfamiliar with mythology, Tartarus is a deep abyss filled with torment and suffering situated beneath the underworld. It also publishes wonderful books) and decided I should like to return them to their rightful place. The journey would be difficult. To begin with, I had no idea what to begin with! Fortunately, I met a delightful little fellow while participating in the Tour du Trance. Although he assured me I wouldn’t get very far on my bicycle, I could perhaps catch a train to Swansea or Cardiff. “Where are they?” I asked. “In Wales, I imagine,” said the dwarf, adding; “Which, I should point out, is nowhere near Milkwood.”

With that in mind, I set off with my porpoise pal (for this was my first trip to Porthcawl) for Wales. Naturally we got lost, found ourselves in Milkwood without a penny to our names. An interesting side note: Porpoises are very clever pickpockets. Without further extrapolation on what, for all intents and porpoises was a dreadful journey, I learned two things during my first trip to Porthcawl. I learned that Wales and porpoises don’t always get along, and that my journey was one well beyond advice. I failed to meet Rhys Hughes on that first trip. The bus I was told to catch (a rusty bus named after Dylan Thomas, of all people) failed to arrive at the scheduled time, and when I suggested walking, well, my porpoise travelling companion complained that the new walking shoes he’d purchased in Plymouth were blistering his poor tail. Instead we went to a local public house in Porthcawl. It was there that my companion met his untimely demise, and there that I was mistaken for a highwayman named Darktree, who in turn had been mistaken for the pagan god of golden beer, thereby forcing me to abruptly end my first quest for Rhys Hughes.

Suffice to say my second trip has proven much more successful. For here I am, outside an altogether different (or potentially exactly the same) public house in Porthcawl, eager to begin again! As I step into the darkened tavern, I am surprised by its emptiness. After all, I had been led to believe that all Welshmen live exclusively on a diet of beer and chips while avoiding work, exercise and responsibility every waking minute of the day. This particular pub seams the ideal local for that utopic lifestyle. I approach the bartender who, I note, is a hand. “Can you tell me where I might find Rhys Hughes?” I ask.

“Richie,” the hand/bartender replies.

“No, Rhys Hughes.”

“Cool.”

“I think so. Do you know where he is?”

“Richie.”

“Richie knows where he is?”

“Cool.”

I am currently wondering the following things: (1) how a hand with no mouth can talk, and (2) who Richie might be. Regardless, the bartending hand seems nice enough, so I order a drink. “Cool,” he says when I ask for sangria. “I prefer it cold,” I say. The bartender gives me the thumbs up sign.

Midway through my drink I meet Castor Jenkins. [2] Castor assures me he knows Rhys Hughes very well, and promises he will take me to see him soon enough. Eager to learn more, I join Castor and his companions, Paddy Deluxe and Frothing Harris, at their small table.

“I suspect Rhys has always been a storyteller. How long has he been writing?” I ask.

Castor Jenkins: Ever since he was about six years old, after various adults informed him that he couldn’t be an explorer when he grew up, because “there were no new continents left to discover.” Being a writer was his second choice of career, so he took a firm grasp on his crayon and started producing comics, scripts for the British TV show Doctor Who, the opening chapters of never-to-be-finished novels and even a few complete short stories, one of which was about a man who thinks he’s a ghost but isn’t and was rewritten many years later as ‘Learning to Fall’. So he’s still mining ideas from those long lost formative years!

But all of that early stuff was undisciplined dabbling, and he kept just dabbling until he reached the age of fourteen, when he suddenly decided he wanted to try writing seriously. ‘Seriously’ meant doing lots and lots of rewriting and spending hours perfecting every sentence, which is a guaranteed way of eroding most of the vitality from one’s work. It took him many more years to unlearn the principles of stagnant perfectionism and loosen up again.

The first ‘real’ short story he ever wrote, back in 1981, was called ‘The Journey of Mountain Hawk’ and it was about a Native American who exercises an intricate revenge on some conquistadors who hire him to guide them on a plundering raid to Quivira, which is a mythical city of gold similar to El Dorado. The young Hughes had read about the expedition of Francisco Coronado in a history book and based his tale on events that actually happened in 1541. Incidentally, I also exercised an intricate revenge once but it had a heart attack and keeled over. The exercise was clearly too vigorous. So let that be a warning!

“What inspired him to write?”

Castor Jenkins: Other books by other writers, it’s as simple as that. When he was a child he read comics and children’s books, and also juvenile Doctor Who novelisations, but he kept trying and failing to get hold of adult fiction. A fusspot librarian physically prevented him from taking home Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; the book, I mean, not the men. So adult literature took on an allure of forbidden treasure. Rather oddly, the first adult novel he obtained and attempted to read was the relatively obscure Inter Ice Age 4 by Kōbō Abe, but he didn’t understand it. One day he plans to try that book again and finally learn what it’s about.

At last, after a prolonged campaign, he eventually secured the right to read as much Charles Dickens, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells as he pleased. Dickens was a little too longwinded for his taste, Verne a tiny bit too dry, but Wells was ideal. The Invisible Man was the first of his novels to be tackled, followed by The Time Machine, The Island of Dr Moreau, The First Men in the Moon, The Food of the Gods and The War of the Worlds. So I guess it’s accurate to state that Wells was the biggest inspiration on his desire to become a writer. Without Wells he might be something else now, maybe something better!

“The sheer scope of his 1,000 story ‘wheel’ is simply staggering. When did he first envision it?”

Castor Jenkins: Good question. I don’t think he can exactly remember, but I reckon that if you asked him directly he’d probably say 1995 or thereabouts, in other words after he had been publishing short stories for several years. So he didn’t have the proposed 1000 story wheel in mind from the start; it wasn’t originally designed to be what it became. It was a sort of midflow afterthought instead. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It can be argued, and I’m sure he would argue it this way, that it came together organically rather than mechanically.

Of course, after the project was conceived, the stories already written had to be retroactively fitted in to the grand scheme. That took a certain amount of contrived fiddling with intertextual links, but he’s good at that. And to base a precise system or process on chaos instead of order is a very Welsh way of doing things. In every aspect of Welsh life there’s this messy flux at the core of even the most apparently rigorous endeavours. If you take the back off our clocks you’ll probably find slices of cucumber instead of cogs. That’s our way.

“He wrote his six-hundredth last year. Given his prolific nature, when do you think he’ll be done?”

Castor Jenkins: He has estimated the year 2026 as a completion date, but his estimates about everything are nearly always wrong. Even when he sets off on a hike he gets the duration wrong. “Oh, it’ll take about five days,” he’ll announce, and it will either take one and half days or three weeks.

One thing’s for sure: if he guesses a time, it will almost certainly be incorrect. There’s a scene in Thomas Pynchon’s brilliant novel Gravity’s Rainbow where the engineers wait at the exact spot of calculated impact when testing a rocket, because they know the chances of it impacting there are smaller than it impacting anywhere else. So the safest place to observe the test flight is at the spot that theoretically is the most dangerous. The most carefully worked out estimates are the most accurate and therefore the least likely to happen.

This factual paradox is the friend of the disorganized human. The more accurate the estimate given by Hughes, the more likely that the real answer won’t match it. But please remember that he’s not consistently unreliable: he’s far too dis organised to be consistent in anything, even errors.

“You don’t think he’ll stop writing once he’s done, do you?” I personally suspect he’ll write a sequel – a second wheel, if you will, and will then refer to his work as a grand ‘bicycle’. But that’s likely just wishful thinking on my part. Still, I wait with bated breath (sangria breath, actually) for Castor’s answer.

Castor Jenkins: I think you might be right. The reason he set himself the goal of writing 1000 linked stories is because that number wasn’t so large that the project was totally unfeasible but it was large enough to ensure he wouldn’t really have to think about the consequences of reaching it. He assumed he never really would reach it, or that he’d be so old by the time he did that he’d be a different person. It was a way of passing responsibility to his future self.

There are certain advantages to announcing such a scheme. For instance, if a critic makes a statement such as, “His early (or later) work is superior to his later (or earlier) work,” Hughes can respond that there is no ‘early’ or ‘later’ work: there is only one work, a single integrated project, the 1000 story cycle itself; almost as if every tale is a chapter in a vast novel.

What critics pick apart a novel in that way? It’s unusual. “The chapters written first are superior (or inferior) to the chapters written later.” No, they tend to treat novels as a whole unit; and that’s how I think Hughes wants his grand cycle to be regarded. Not that he’s against having his individual stories praised! I suspect he wants to have his cake and eat it, and that’s understandable enough. There isn’t any point to having a cake that you can’t eat.

But to return to your point about him starting a second cycle when the first one is done, he has had in mind for many years a sequence of historical novels starting 5000 years ago among the Sumerians and continuing up to the modern age, one generation at a time, 270 generations in total, an unbroken link from the baked brick glories of Ur to our own glass and steel cities, covering as many remarkable historical episodes on the way as possible. This cycle of historical novels, which he intends to call The Irresponsibiliad, is surely too big for him to handle, but if the 1000 story cycle ever does get done I can see him starting it. An old man writing with a quill pen and green ink. And dribbling.

“Hughes really does defy description. His writing has been called eccentric, existential, surreal, absurd, metaphysical, ergodic and also flippant. There is definite humour in his work, but to call it humorous and leave it at that isn’t fair to Hughes or his writing. Hughes not only plays with language, but he toys with form and structure too. With that in mind, I have to assume a broader message in his wheel. Are the stories in his wheel written and ordered in a deliberate fashion?”

Castor Jenkins: Order and chaos combined, is the formula he employs, or maybe it employs him. Having said that, it doesn’t pay him wages, but whoever heard of a formula being financially generous to a Welshman?

He does enjoy toying with form and structure, that’s true. He’s never stopped playing with toys, that’s why; it’s simply that the toys changed from miniature dinosaurs and plastic swords to textual dynamics and narrative expectations. He uses humour both as a tool to achieve his broader aims but also for its own sake. And what are those broader aims? To help open eyes that are wilfully closed to the fact that we are living in an absurd universe. That sounds rather portentous and maybe even pretentious, but I don’t think he regards himself as some sort of sage come to deliver the tablets from the mountain. On the contrary, my belief is that he regards ‘wisdom’ itself with scepticism.

The absurdity of life. That’s his ultimate message; but I’m sure he feels that if he’s too rational about presenting it, the validity of the message (all is absurd) will be compromised by the fact he’s trying to make his point in a non-absurd manner. He seems to be a trifle wary (and a pudding wary too) of situations where the form of a message contradicts its own substance.

Maybe ‘wary’ isn’t the right word. The opposite case might be true. It could be that he enjoys the opportunity to promote and encourage paradox. I sometimes feel that he loves paradoxes so much that he’d like to kiss and marry them. But to kiss a paradox, one’s lips must first pass through half the distance separating them from the paradox; and to reach that halfway point, one’s lips must pass through half the distance to the halfway point, and so on. That’s Zeno, of course. And one thing I’ll say about Hughes is that he’s not Zenophobic!

There’s more to it than this, of course, but the above is a fair summary of what his main ‘message’ might be. Not that he’s keen to pass on messages. Recently he has been casting aspersions on the validity of knowledge about the real world that doesn’t rely on experience; and deep down he believes that ‘wisdom’ can never be passed on, only won for oneself. So no: there’s little deliberate order in the writing of each new tale. It’s more piecemeal than that.

I pause my interrogation and order another round of drinks for my new companions. Frothing Harris and Paddy Deluxe have been silent to this point. “Have you both met Rhys Hughes?” I ask them.

Frothing Harris: We saw him from afar once, through a telescope that smelled rather sweet, and we listened to him through a gigantic hearing trumpet; but we’ve never shaken hands or any other bodily part. Not yet anyway.

The bartender brings us our drinks, each one perched precariously upon hi s fingertips. An amazing feat for a hand! “Rhys is a difficult writer to pin down,” I say. “Not only do his own stories cross multiple genres, related only by literary style and their author’s unmistakable style, but his influences are widely varied as well. A New Universal History of Infamy is a brilliant tribute to another genius, Jorge Luis Borges. Stanislaw Lem is another writer Hughes admires. He pays tribute to both in the Dead Letter Press anthology, Bound for Evil. In Engelbrecht Again! Hughes furthers The Exploits of Engelbrecht and the Surrealist Sportsman’s Club begun by Maurice Richardson in 1950. I have read Borges and Lem, and Richardson’s original Engelbrecht adventures. One writer Hughes admires is Italo Calvino. I must confess I have never read anything by Calvino. Do you know which of Calvino’s stories Hughes likes best?”

Paddy Deluxe: A word of warning. If you ever meet him in the flesh, don’t get him started on talking about Italo Calvino. You’ll never shut him up if you do that! Calvino is his favourite writer: he often seems to want to write exactly like Calvino, but that’s utterly impossible. He regards Calvino as the ideal fiction writer, a genius who had amazingly original ideas and was able to harness them into profound and amusing stories with scientific precision, but also a writer with a big heart and deep reserves of empathy. So his work is warm, engaging and human despite the fact it’s mind-expanding and paradigm shifting. In Hughes’ estimation, Calvino is fundamentally generous: he gives to the reader everything he has to spare, all at once, delivering enormous value in exchange for reading time.

The first Calvino book that Hughes read was The Castle of Crossed Destinies, a collection of short tales, when he was about 17 years old, and he was rather baffled by it. The tales themselves didn’t seem so great, but the way they were interlinked with each other was astounding. So at first it was the conceit of the framework that appealed to Hughes rather than the content. Years later, when he re-read this book he appreciated the actual stories much more.

But that book is still probably not the best introduction to Calvino’s oeuvre, and neither are the famous Invisible Cities or the metafictional If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, which are brilliant but lack narrative drive. For the new reader I would suggest The Complete Cosmicomics, which is a superlative masterpiece; or maybe the ingenious and hilarious, Our Ancestors, a loose trilogy of symbolic adventure tales gathered in one volume including The Cloven Viscount, Baron in the Trees and The Non-Existent Knight. The last of these books contains everything crucial to the existence of humorous fantasy; and the entire modern genre of humorous fantasy could probably be reconstructed from it.

“With all due respect to our friend Castor Jenkins here,” I say, “One of Hughes’ greatest characters appears in The Coanda Effect. Admittedly it is a brief appearance, but the mad inventor on the jet-propelled bicycle…I don’t recall his name…is pure genius. This beautiful book, published by the master craftsmen at Ex Occidente Press, is a stunning tribute to Hugo Pratt and Corto Maltese. What other writers have inspired, influenced, fueled and fired his imagination?”

Frothing Harris: Calvino, first and foremost; then Borges; Lem; Boris Vian; John Sladek; Milorad Pavić; Flann O’Brien; Alasdair Gray; Karel Čapek; Mikhail Bulgakov; Yevgeny Zamyatin, Vladimir Nabokov, Alvaro Mutis; Samuel Beckett; Brian Aldiss; Michael Moorcock; Samuel Delany; Roger Zelazny; Felipe Alfau; Donald Barthelme; Jack Vance; Philip José Farmer…

Paddy Deluxe: The problem with lists like these is that someone always gets left out. Saki, for instance; or Marguerite Duras; or Ray Bradbury; or Gabriel Garcia Marquez; or J.G. Ballard; or Ursula le Guin, Georges Perec, Fritz Leiber, Raymond Queneau, Thomas Pynchon, James Branch Cabell, John Barth, William Gaddis, J.G. Ballard, Blaise Cendrars; or a thousand other names.

“Either directly or indirectly, Hughes has introduced me to a wide variety of writers, from Maurice Richardson and Jack Vance to Michael Cisco and D.F. Lewis. If I were to go on a long journey through the crystal cosmos, and Hughes was charged with supplying me with three books to bring and read. What three books would he give me?”

Frothing Harris: Oh heck! You’re talking about fiction books, yes? If that’s the case, we feel certain that he’d urge you to take along The Complete Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino and The Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem.

As for his third choice… That’s a bit trickier. There are several candidates. We know he often cites Boris Vian’s Froth on the Daydream as his favourite novel; but the Jack Vance omnibus volume, Tales of the Dying Earth, features four superb books in one, so that might be better value. And we seem to recall that all five of Flann O’Brien’s astounding novels were collected in a single massive tome not so long ago, so that might well take precedence.

Paddy Deluxe: And there’s always The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis, a collection of seven linked novellas featuring a lovable rogue; it’s sort of a modern version of the picaresque novels once so popular in Spain. And how can the collected stories of Donald Barthelme be omitted? Try 60 Stories or 40 Stories. And we haven’t mentioned Milorad Pavić yet!

Frothing Harris: We are assuming that you haven’t already read these books. If you have already read them, he’d recommend others… But if you did take any of the above and read them, you might note one fundamental thing they have in common, despite the fact they’re all very different from each other, namely a backbone of joyous irony that Hughes finds almost indispensable to a truly worthwhile reading experience. As he grows older, he finds it harder and harder to read books that don’t employ irony to a greater or lesser degree. But he prefers positive irony over negative. The general assumption is that all irony is negative. It’s not.

At this point I pause to sip my second sangria and glance around the bar. The room is slowly filling up. I see the same dwarf I met on England’s south coast sitting at a small table near the door. He is being sketched by an artist Castor informs me is James Boswell. “The sketch looks more like Bosch than Boswell,” I suggest. “It’s a pastiche,” Castor explains. He then points at the far corner and says, “And that man is an honest liar.”

“How can that be?”

“Alchemy,” Castor replied with a shrug, “and wit.”

“Hughes is a wit,” I muse. “Oh, to be half the writer he is.”

“Your literary ambition is to be a half-wit?” Castor asks. “Well, my friend, you are quite nearly there.”

“Rhys writes across multiple genres while avoiding the potential pitfalls of each. He cannot be labelled as a writer of any one genre. He is unquestionably literary, and as such I suspect uses genre as a tool, or a platform, upon which to build a particular story. Is this a fair assumption?”

Castor Jenkins: He certainly doesn’t regard himself as belonging to any single genre. This can be a problem when marketing his books. Very little of his work can be labelled accurately as ‘science fiction’, ‘fantasy’, ‘horror’, etc.

Usually every one of his stories is a blend of more than one genre. He likes to mix genre elements together to produce new fiction molecules and he once toyed with the notion of devising a precise chemistry of genres, so that writers would have at their disposal a wider range of new styles.

For instance, a writer might mix exactly four parts of fantasy, three of comedy, two of horror and one of irony to get a compound rarely encountered, a new genre with all its own properties, none of which are the properties of the constituent elements, in the same way that the properties of water aren’t those of hydrogen or oxygen. Such a new genre deserves a unique name and for argument’s sake we can call the compound given above ‘Facohorny’. A slight adjustment in this recipe and the final result would be very different. Four parts of comedy and three of fantasy would give us the genre known as ‘Cofahorny’, which would be as dissimilar to ‘Facohorny’ as hydrocarbons are to carbohydrates.

Hughes wanted to call this process ‘The Molecular Method of Creative Writing’ and he had a plan to attempt to make compounds with oddly juxtaposed elements to produce brand new genres that had never been seen in the writing world before, mixing together an array of unlikely styles such as ‘pompous’, ‘erotic’, ‘uplifting’ ‘tragic’, ‘profound’, ‘sweet’ and ‘glib’. And why not?

“Does he prefer writing one genre over another?”

Castor Jenkins: His stories are probably a bit heavy on the fantasy, a bit light on the horror and the science fiction is sometimes only peppered over the top. Having said that, pepper can permeate… His real models are the OuLiPo writers, Calvino, Perec, Queneau, who wrote what they wrote to express or encapsulate a clever conceit or an original idea and would use whatever mode of expression, style, approach or genre seemed right at the time. A good example is Queneau’s Zazie in the Metro, which begins as a semi-farcical satire but evolves into a Faustian tragicomedy that is no less entertaining or light-hearted. What genre is that? He doesn’t know and neither do we. Maybe Queneau didn’t either.

Paddy Deluxe: One word of warning to anyone who plans to experiment with the ‘chemistry of genres’ mentioned above. Always wear goggles. Stand well back. There have been explosions in bedrooms and other workspaces…

“What about reading? His interests are certainly varied. Is it the genre that interests him, or the story itself?”

Castor Jenkins: The story. And the ideas behind the story. And the ideas behind those ideas. But it’s not always necessary for those ideas to be significant. They can be whimsical and frothy too, provided they are original and entertaining. In some ways Hughes has an old-fashioned belief that fiction should have at least some small educational aspect, not necessarily in the sense of imparting ‘facts’, but in aiding the reader to think more deeply, especially in a lateral direction, if it’s possible for a lateral direction to be ‘deep’.

Frothing Harris: That depends on gravity, we suppose.

“There is no question he is a storyteller, but he is a true craftsman. He doesn’t simply tell stories, he builds them with purpose. He infuses subtle meaning in his work without ‘spelling it out’ for his readers. This can be (and is) extremely rewarding for those who take the time to really read (and re-read, and re-re-read) his writing. When reading Umberto Eco, for example, I always get the feeling he knows something the rest of us do not, but has told us all about it in great detail within the context of his books. I get this same impression with Hughes. There is a part of me that wants to know, and another that loves the speculation his writing breeds. But between you and me, and the fellow at the bar with the twisted horn upon his head, what exactly does Rhys know?”

“I can’t say for sure,” the honest liar interjects, “but I hear he knows how to change base metal into gold!”

“And make golems,” bellows the twist-horn fellow at the bar.”

“Cool,” adds the bartending hand.

Having wearied Castor Jenkins and his friends with my incessant questions, I decide to interview the bartender. [3] “Have you met Rhys Hughes?” I ask.

“Richie,” the hand replies.

“Is that what you call him? Is that like, a nickname or something?”

“Cool.”

“Yeah, that is pretty cool. What do you think about his body of work?”

“Richie,” the hand replies, before thoughtfully and earnestly adding, “cool.” I ask him one last question, although I’m fairly certain I know what his answer will be. “What do you think of Rhys as a writer?”

Unfortunately, at this precise moment the door swings open and in walks a post. “Where are you from?” the bartender asks.

“Washington,” replies the post.

“What do you think of Rhys Hughes?” I ask.

“Gloriously demented,” says The Washington Post, before sitting down beside the dwarf. They engage in a frivolous debate about flippancy, the dwarf defending its merry merits against the Post’s serious impertinence.

I turn my attention back to Castor Jenkins and his friends. They look both bored and thirsty, so I order another round of drinks and return to their table. “Rhys never stops writing, even when he says he will. What has he published thus far for 2012, and what does he have in store for the rest of the year?”

Castor Jenkins: If all goes to plan, and it rarely does, let’s be honest about that, then Hughes has several books due out in 2012. In fact, what he regards as the best books he has written are supposed to be published this year. There is The Impossible Inferno, his best novella; then The Abnormalities of Stringent Strange, his best novel; and then The Truth Spinner, his best short story collection.

They might appear in a different order to that, or be carried over to next year, or maybe they won’t appear at all, depending on the financial health of the publishers who intend to issue them. The writing world is at the mercy of the economy like all other businesses and the economy is presently sour.

“What is writing right now?”

Castor Jenkins: The Young Dictator, a short novel about a young girl who tries to take over the cosmos with the strategic aid of her militaristic Gran. It’s a novel for young adults and Hughes isn’t at all sure he’s doing it right, but he’s having great fun writing it and that’s the main thing, or one of the main things.

When he has finished writing that, he finally intends to return to his incomplete novel The Clown of the New Eternities and get it over and done with at long last! He started it back in 1994 and it still needs another 50,000 words or so. It tells the metafictional story of Robin Darktree, the highwayman, and his adventures across time, space and elsewhere, and there are really no more excuses for Hughes not to knuckle down and finish it. It was supposed to be his magnum opus ten years ago but is in danger of becoming a popgun corpus instead.

And no, I really don’t know what a ‘popgun corpus’ is. I made it up just now, hoping you’d be fooled into thinking it was a real thing.

The main reason why Hughes wants to get both those projects out of the way in 2012 is because he intends to start a very big project next year, the gigantic epic fantasy that he has always had in him but has managed to keep down until now. It can’t be kept down much longer! A million-word novel, it will come in three parts, so it’s a doorstop trilogy really, and it’ll be called The Utopian Chronicles, and it’s going to be about the collision and contrast of various imagined utopias. Yes, it’ll feature many of the features of epic fantasy, including talking animals, but it won’t run quite as the average epic fantasy fan expects…

Hughes owes his agent something more commercially viable than the offerings he usually sends that poor chap, and The Utopian Chronicles will hopefully be that easier-to-sell work. Hughes reckons it will take five years to write all three parts. Each separate volume will be exactly three hundred and thirty three thousand, three hundred and thirty three and a third words long; he doesn’t know how he’s going to manage that final one third of a word. Let’s see!

“I’ve heard he’s written a brilliant story called Captains Stupendous. What are the chances we’ll be seeing that soon?”

Castor Jenkins: It’s an unusual and bonkers adventure novel about three brothers, triplets, who go their separate ways and become captains of particular vessels. Sometimes they meet up in friendship, sometimes in rivalry. The three brothers are Scipio, Distanto and Neary, and their vessels are ship, dirigible and locomotive. Hughes is fond of this novel and is looking for a publisher as we speak.

If The Truth Spinner does well when it appears, then he’ll send it to the same publisher. He has another possible publisher lined up. The problem is that Captains Stupendous can’t be labelled very easily. It gets more weird and experimental as it progresses, so a conventional publisher who might enjoy the fairly straightforward first third is likely to feel dubious about the rest. I mean, one of the characters uses a halo as a lasso. But it’s not really a comedy either…

“When all is said and done, and Rhys looks back on his career, will he be pleased with what he’s done?”

Castor Jenkins: That’s very hard to say. Hughes has one characteristic that makes it difficult to know what he’s really feeling at any time, and that’s his immense capacity for self-parody. He’s an accomplished self-parodist. Whenever he makes a point or voices an opinion he truly believes in, some mischievous spirit inside him will compel him to push that point or opinion to the edge of absurdity and right over the edge. So he’s constantly in tongue-in-cheek opposition to himself. I think he might be pleased, though, if for no other reason than that he’s a Welsh writer who managed to break out of the artificial self-imposed confines of Welsh writing. It can’t have been easy trying to establish a reputation as an imaginative, inventive and original high concept writer in an environment where the only kind of acceptable fiction is social realism and where nepotism is endemic.

We finish our latest and last round of drinks. When Castor sets his glass on the table I say, “So, can we go see Rhys Hughes now?”

“Who?

Castor asks.

“Rhys Hughes, the Welsh writer, author of brilliant works like those contained in The Postmodern Mariner and A New Universal History of Infamy. You said you knew him.”

Castor shrugs. “I have no idea who he is. But I will say this. Thanks for the drinks!”

Notes

[1] The first time I went to Porthcawl, I went with a porpoise, and it was an altogether unfortunate experience. Porpoises might be highly intelligent sea-dwelling creatures, but they are terrible travelling companions. The porpoise in question complained the entire time about everything from weather unpredictability to the sorry state of the global economy. Whenever I suggested the Welsh could hardly be held accountable for the current financial climate, the porpoise invariably replied with, “Where I come from, you’re considered innocent until proven Welsh” – a joke that went over well in England, but led to a rather unfortunate series of events in Porthcawl.
[2] Seventy-three hours later I would be a penniless opening act for the renowned ghost comedians, Rawhide and Bloody Bones. Rest assured my jokes were terrible, but they served to make the stars of the show more appealing to their audience and so I slowly but surely made enough money to return home to Canada to post this blog entry.
[3]As you shall soon see, this was a regrettable decision on my part. The hand spoke in riddles, his words an enigma far beyond my ability to comprehend. Perhaps you can help divine the truth behind his words.

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