Excerpts from "The Portrait Gallery"


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When I gathered these monologues together, I wondered why exactly I had chosen to write about these people — why had they caught my attention? Although one or two were ‘successful’, at least inasmuch as becoming well-known is a mark of success, most of the personages turned out to be tormented or disastrous — there are two suicides  and several who don’t seem far off — so much so, that I had at one point thought of calling the collection Ruined Lives. But, fortunately, a friend of mine made the sensible observation that I should let the reader decide whether the lives in question were ‘ruined’ or not.

Certainly, the characters are generally not role models : Chong Chen describes himself as “a useless Emperor” and the rent-boy and petty criminal of Until Night Falls accepts that plenty of people see him as “a rather nasty piece of work”.  But they all have something which I do thoroughly approve of : they are what they are and make no attempt to find excuses for themselves. Although several of them receive, or believe they receive, some sort of ‘call from the beyond’, (or prompting from the unconscious if you prefer that way of putting it), they all wholeheartedly assume their own destiny, whatever it is. As the contemporary ‘Ulysses’ puts it :
A certain point exists when one can still withdraw,

That stage is long since past…  

The trouble with living one’s life according to one’s perception of ‘one’s destiny’ is that there seems to be no infallible way of distinguishing between what is a ‘genuine’ call and what is not, as the latter day Joan of Arc explains in the monologue serving as Epilogueb to the entire collection.

                     Joan of Arc? 

“Lead  an ordinary life, do

Ordinary things.”  “Like what?”Try eating,

Sleeping, doing some kind of work — especially

Manual.”  “Why manual?”  “Because

It leaves the mind intact.”  “Well, yes, but is

All that enough?”  “Why shouldn’t it be? Feel it

To be enough, it is.”   “But  if  one does not,

Will not, cannot, feel that it’s enough” “In that

Case go for something extraordinary.“Like what?”

“Like raising the siege of Orléans, deciding who

 Is to be crowned the king of France, ridding your country

Of invaders — anything you like.”  “Can such exploits

Be done alone?” Without some supernatural aid — impossible.”  “So

Who or what will aid me in these tasks?” “In principle

You hear a voice, it tells you what to do.”  “That’s

In the Age of Faith, not now.” “It’s possible

You’ll have to improvise a bit, if all else fails talk

To yourself — you’ll end up hearing something.”  “Sounds a

Dangerous course.” “You chose it.”  “Did I? “ “Yes.”  “But how

Do you know for sure the voice you finally hear, the voice

That speaks with absolute authority, the voice on which

Success and every single moment of your life

Depends is not a trick?” “Essentially, you can’t.”

 

 Here are a few of the personalities involved :

         

       The Initiates

 

Syria  was beautiful that year; the summer nights

Heavy with scents of cinnamon and flaming pine,

The torchlit streets all strewn with flowers for the Festival;

‘O Dionysus, come!’  the piercing chant arose,

‘Diana!’  ‘Tammuz!’  ‘Attis!’  Cybele!’, the hundred names

Of the Great Goddess and her consort were intoned, dancing began

As black-robed hierophants in satyr masks and hooves

Of goats chased laughing maidens through the olive groves…

                                                                                                                     

We were still young but did not heed such revellings,                                                                       

Our eyes had seen too far, already we had learned

To put no trust in the enticements of the flesh;

But we had gained no satisfaction from the Schools,

Here all was but opinion and each claim advanced

Met with by others, the result pure scepticism,

Philosophy itself seemed purposeless. Where, then,

Might one obtain knowledge of truths beyond dispute?

For years we searched without success. At length we heard

Of that extraordinary discipline that could explain

All things by lines and figures, even the soul itself,

And were admitted to the Secret Brotherhood.

 

We met always by night: a household slave brought in

A tray of sand, giving each visitor a cane,

With joy we gathered round; the latest theorem

Imported from North Africa was scrutinised,

The argument abridged, occasional points of style

Touched up…Then silence fell, a sense of ultimate peace

Came over us; these lines and circles that we traced

Were clearly images of a superior world,

Indifferent to man, exempt from frailties,

War, death, disease, could not affect them and their truth

Did not depend on trial or experiment,

Each step self-evident, demonstrable and sure.

‘Diana!’  ‘Tammuz!’  ‘Attis!’  Cybele!’ — these cries

Brought to us by the breeze seemed cries of agony;

For in those fleeting moments we had thrown off flesh

And merged our being with those cold majestic Forms,

Perfect embodiments of abstract principles,

Containing in themselves the laws of Harmony,

While all around us raged the sea of ignorance.  

 

 

Until  Night Falls

How did the whole thing start? Not money basically,

Although I’m  not indifferent to it… A desire to shock?

Hardly! there’s precious little to defy these days…

A natural inclination, then? No, no, that’s meaningless,

Who knows what’s natural? A profoundly masochistic urge

To self-destruction and abasement? There’s a lot in that,

I must admit, but then again the situation cuts both ways,

One gains a very definite sense of power

That’s most exhilarating and the danger gives an added spice,

From time to time at any rate…Mere curiosity

In part…I’d always been the curious type…

No prospects…hanging about the streets…nothing to do…

A little minnow lost amidst the restless, feckless shoal

Of drifters, living to the next bed, next meal,

Squandering what little money that they had, a useless crowd…

But I, however, was ambitious and my looks were good,

I thought so anyway, something about me caught the eye,

And then those siren voices, “What are you waiting for?

This is your greatest chance, just close your eyes, go on,

Now dive into the emerald waters…”  Everything went well

At first; I found I could manipulate the scene

Without much trouble as a certain snake-like quality

About me made my customers beware of me

While adding to my charm — I looked so young, you see!

A rather nasty piece of work some people thought —

But what was this to me? I was beyond all that,

The favourite of the gods, Adonis, Ganymede…

Then bit by bit my sphere of operations broadened out

To take in other areas — pretty small profits for the risks involved…

I sometimes felt it would be nice to team up with 

Someone as glamorous and dangerous as me,

A sort of  kindred spirit, alter ego, counterpart…

But such was not to be…The current ferried me along…

Then troubles came…One or two serious scares…The closeness

Of the dread disease…Should I keep on with this?

Maybe not worth it after all… However, so they say,

There’s no way back from here —  extremely

Difficult at any rate:  this worries

Me a bit because time passes all the time

Even in the Dream-machine…Strange, is it not,

How suddenly night comes upon us on these tropical shores?

 

   


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                   THE LAST EMPEROR

   

               

Darkness, the void of pre-existence, formlessness,

The absolute nothingness from which the world each day is made,                                                      

Heroes of light battle against the obscurity,

Lanterns, the flare of torches, further out camp-fires,

Innumerable soldiers lie amongst them — who can halt

This endless trail of ants? Go home! Back to your plots!

Your country needs you, never more than now — we in the capital

Weighed down like yaks with hateful superfluities

Envy the simple life led by our ancestors —  do we in fact?

Yes, on the whole we do, but nonetheless

We wouldn’t care to lead it… Still, Go home! even as I speak

Your beans demand the  hoe, weeds run amok, th’ abandoned wife                 

Scans the horizon with a tear-filled eye, your little dogs

Scamper towards the door  at every sound…

                                                                                                  Most probably

It’s not at all like that — insects and snakes, no rain,

A smoking chimney, mouths to feed and the perpetual dread

Of the tax-gatherer’s knock… Of late I hardly dared to read

The memoranda from the provinces —  depressing stuff,

Famines and floods, earthquakes, a killer epidemic starting up,

The Tartars massing underneath the Wall, corruption everywhere,

Last but by no means least, a useless Emperor… Does one

Conclude from this the Mandate from above has been withdrawn? 

Seems so. And that the Brilliant Dynasty is on the wane? Likewise. 

And finally that the rebellion will put all things right? That’s

Not so certain since one feels somehow the grand outcome

Of this almighty uproar will be just another gang of thieves —

I think I’ll tell them so:

 

‘Listen to me out there, revolt’s not worth the candle! Give it up!

Keep to the dynasty you know!’

                                   

                                        No answer. Second-hand experience,

The proverb says, is rice that’s masticated in another’s mouth,

Not only tasteless but repulsive…  An impressive sight

These armed migrations nonetheless, as spectacle

They outdo plays-with-music… This is history!

In just such fashion the battalions of the Ch’in

‘Ate up the others like a silkworm eating mulberry leaves’

To cite the well-worn phrase; simplistic lot, the Ch’in,

To fight, to farm, to feed… No culture, engineering works, a bit…

The Han? A definite improvement…Fails…Confusion, waste…

Dark figures from the north gallop across the plains…

Three kingdoms…Civil gore… It’s him, then him…The tigress Wu

Snatches the Dragon Throne… But now a pause, a lull,

Let us stand still a while in silent reverence,

Ethereal like the fragile moon amidst storm-clouds,

The T’ang arises, beauty never seen as yet…Destroyed…  

 

No end and no beginning, cycles of events

Repeat themselves mechanically, disorder,

Order, discord, harmony; a hidden principle

Controls these rhythmic oscillations — man is free   

To take advantage of the current, raise a weir,

Divert the water to fresh paths, but openly oppose

The Way of Heaven he may not…

                                                                       Hush, suspense,

The smaller lights go out, dawn is not far… Our glorious infantry

Harry the Mongol horde — that’s it! Stick them with pikes! Gut them!

Cripple the cussed curs! Back to the steppes with you! Clear off!

My rebels are at least all home-grown ethnic specimens!

Go gorge yourselves on raw flesh, milk your mangy mares,

And may your flatulent females with their elephantine feet

Never again give birth to gunge like Khan! At last!

The summum of two thousand years! Sunrise! The Ming,

The Brilliant Dynasty of which I am the final autumn butterfly,

Beams forth on man and plant…

 (To learn more of Chong Chen’s views on life and his end acquire, or borrow, a copy of “The Portrait Gallery”.)

 

                                         

              The Hansom Cab

 

Not changed a lot: the same old nothingness…flats, housing  estates…      

Why did I stop? I should have driven right through to Lancashire…

There was one part I used to like, a sort of relic from the past,

Almost Dickensian… A railway-crossing and a quiet pub

“The Hansom Cab”.  They had some curious etchings on the walls,

The well-known one of Oscar in a snow-storm getting in a cab

Handcuffed yet resolute, treating it as a joke  — pretending to at least…

Francesca always said I looked like him.. Do I in fact? Dunno…

Yes, here we are…Blast them! They’ve gone and mucked it up,

What are they trying to be? Do they think that’s Victorian!

There’s still the Upper Rooms intact one dares to hope,

Might even eat here…Whew! I breathe again —  is that real timber though?

Damned difficult to tell these days… A certain price, I see!

Ah-huh! I’m baulked, the tables are all occupied it seems,

Some sort of annual get-together, sales executives plus wives,

Extremely prosperous-looking, couple of decent women over there…

Shades of the Rotary Club…But is it possible?

That table by the open window… Curiouser and curiouser…

I think I’ll seize that vacant vantage-point…No, no,

I must be dreaming…from this angle and this dizzy altitude

I note a slight age difference —  forty years! Hello, hello,

What’s this? the famous lithograph! They must have placed it here

To indicate my seat: so there he is, the very man  — extremely crude technique

But somehow most expressive…‘Oh, a double scotch,

I’ll put the water in myself’…Do people still sell hock?

Poor bloke…but still it was the Cadogan Hotel…

The turncoats all abandoned him…his treacherous wife as well…

‘So here’s a health to you, old chap!’ Appalling stuff they serve,

It’s barely drinkable…

 

‘Well, well, who’s here? What whirlwind series of tempestuous events

Have given us all the honour of your presence in this dump?

You swore the sun would never cast your shadow on these streets,

‘It’s over my dead body!’ Bla-bla-bla…Run along, Richard dear,

Go off and sit with uncle…No, this man won’t bite;

He’s even afraid for me!’  ‘Is that your child?’

One of them, yes.’ ‘Married?’  ‘Of course! most people are, you know.

And thoroughly enjoying it…’  ‘I’m glad…Want anything?’

‘Oh, nothing for the moment, I’m at lunch…So what, pray, are YOU

Up to these days? Why aren’t you famous yet?

I sometimes wonder if I’ll see a drawing of my face 

Beaming down at me from a poster — or perhaps we don’t

Accept that kind of work these days? So what’s the latest?’  ‘Not a lot;

Nothing creative. To survive I’m forced to work.’  ‘How odd!

So are we all…Oh yes, I heard that you’d become a sign-writer,

And then a dress designer…So you’ve given that up as well?

What can we give up next? Remember Daddy always used to say

You’d ‘find your feet given time’…he sometimes talks of you…

That’s funny, isn’t it, since he’s so dreadfully reactionary,

But so are you in a strange way…Not very talkative, are we?

After so many summers…Have another scotch, go on! You’re dying to!’

‘The same again.’  ‘Do we still occupy that charming hut

Poised half-way up a precipice where we immure ourselves

To study snowstorms with an Alsatian dog for company?

So terribly exciting for a schoolgirl! Or is it today

Scouring the Yorkshire moors to find a derelict old farm?’  ‘You’d find

I’ve modified my stance a bit,  I’m the possessor of a van,

I even paid my income tax last year.’   ‘My, my,

We’re really on the slippery slope, I can see that!’ ‘All right!

But don’t forget the sparkling interludes in Italy,

Rough it for several months then blow the bloody lot

In a great burst of flame, that’s my philosophy,

‘Who steals my purse steals trash’ , you had an excellent run, my girl,

You saw a bit of everything, high life, low life…’  ‘But nothing

In between?’  ‘No, I don’t go for that.’  ‘So now you’re here,

Why don’t you look us up? We’re having something on tonight,

You’d see my other two…You could meet Charles!’  ‘No, thanks,

I think I’ll skip that one…hardly my scene.’  ‘Whyever not?

Bygones are bygones aren’t they?  But of course I realise

That from your standpoint I’m totally sold out,

A measly little housewife stuck in middle-class suburbia…’

‘I never said that…your decision…live your life

Now that you’ve ruined mine.’  ‘Ah-hah, so now

We’re feeling sorry for ourselves, are we?’

‘Give up! I didn’t come to hear this stuff,

I wish I’d never stopped.’  ‘Why did you?’  ‘I dunno.

I’m an incurable romantic, I suppose…Still, you were here,

That’s something of a meaningful coincidence.’  ‘It’s not;

I live two blocks away….So…in the last chapter of the book

The heroine takes his arm, walks out, abandons everything,

House, husband, children, hits the dusty trail once more

For Timbuctoo…’  ‘You haven’t been invited! there’s no danger here,

Consider it a compliment I even opened the door,

Led on by flickering memories…I don’t repeat myself.’

‘Neither do I…Get out!’  ‘Why should I? This is a public bar,

I’ll stay for any length I choose…Get out yourself;

A stay-at-home, I always knew you’d end up marrying some bloke

You never really cared for…’  ‘How do you know I don’t?’

‘Quite obvious…just to have a child! Selling yourself,

I call that prostitution…You repel me.’  ‘Do I?’  ‘Yes,

Filling the world with useless mouths to feed…’

‘Not that again! I seem to recollect that it was you…’

‘Oh no, it wasn’t! I remember telling you to buy a guinea-pig

If you were so maternally inclined.’  ‘I’m not actually.’

‘But what about…?’  ‘My nephew.’  ‘Is that so? But then

I can’t be sure…’  ‘You can’t, can you?’  ‘I can find out!

I can take steps! and energetic ones at that! I’ll see this through…

I’ve a good mind to ring that bell and call the Manager,

He’d turn you out for false pretences…Bloody hell…

What does it matter anyway?  You’ve got a right, I guess,

To your security…However, in no way am I responsible — that clear?

The way I am, couldn’t do otherwise…What are you up to, woman?

Have you gone mad? Don’t wave that hypodermic needle in my face!

Watch out! Is this a prank of yours? that hurt, you know…

It’s suddenly snowing! I can’t move my hands!’  ‘It won’t be long, my dear,

I’m tired of hearing your chatter, tired of seeing your face,

It’s warm inside the hansom-cab, step up…’  ‘Can’t hear you very well,

Your voice seems far away…We’re moving! Oh Francesca!’  ‘Algernon!’ owever, in no way am I responsibleHH  


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——————–

“The Portrait Gallery” by Sebastian Hayes, Cover Design by Harriet Brittaine, was printed by Syd the Printer, Longmead Estate, Shaftesbury, and published in May 2008 by Brimstone Press Ltd.

 


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