UPDATE 2024 (2)


I have heard back from Suzi Robinson, queen of the PEN pals due to her role in collecting signatures on the day of the launch in 1987. She tells me:
'Thank you for including me. I am very much the matriarch of our family now and it is a demanding role that leaves little time and energy for writing.'

It seems she is in good health. That is the main thing.

I have heard back from Connie Bensley. She tells me:
'Good to hear from you and I will reply soon. At the moment I am staggering around rather below par, whatever that used to be.'

I would like to get a poem from Connie, whose age I am not going to mention again. If I don't get a new poem, then that single sentence, which, it seems to me contains the core of her poetic sensibility, may have to be enough. We'll see.
And I have heard back from Jeff New at greater length, much to my pleasure. For was he not the writer whose prose most interested me from back in 1987 and again in 2016?

'Well hello Duncan, this is a surprise. Normally my emails are restricted to 'Amazon has dispatched your parcel' and the Labour Party asking me for donations (I was a first-day donor last week -- £10 and that's all they're getting... If they need more than that to beat this shower they don't deserve to win).

It's good to hear from you again -- I guess I was a bit abrupt last time round, though it did get me a role as the villain-of-the-piece in your PENPALS chapters -- which I enjoyed. And I did get congratulated by a neighbour in Eynsham for having appeared in the TLS, much to my surprise. Much to his, too -- he didn't know I was a secret scribbler; my cover was blown. I didn't get round to seeing Taylor's piece, though.

Thanks for the added PEN PALS chapter, with its grim moments -- talk about wings of mortality beating round our heads! So I'm an 'infinitely generative computer algorithm', eh? I only wish I was (infinitely generative' that is). And thanks for the suggestion about the Satires in your email. but I'm afraid I don't have any Oxford links, and anyway I've now moved to a village outside Lincoln (I don't have any Lincs. links either) where I'm enjoying the blessings of retirement.

What have I been doing? Most of last year I spent being treated for cancer -- successfully I gather -- which has left me beautifully bald and unbearded -- I now look like a boiled egg with a lot on its mind. Once I shook all the chemo out of my carcase I finished off my series of satires, now gathered together as SILVA SATIRICA; THREE BOOKS OF SATIRES (the Latin title's meant to scare readers), some 200 little gems which I would like to see bound and on paper before I ascend to the library in the sky or descend to the one downstairs, which is probably more interesting. That's not too likely though -- maybe in 12000 AD, as you say. If I was more enterprising I'd publish them myself, or dress up as a clown and read them aloud (one a day) on Youtube and become a cult (careful of the spelling, Jeff...) -- but enterprising I'm not.

Apropos, do you still have the version of the Satires I sent you way back? If you've kept it I would be very grateful indeed if you would delete it (and if you made any hard copy to use it for cavity-wall insulation or otherwise mash it up or shred it). I hate the idea of early drafts floating around, full of my misdeeds, and scrupulously get rid of all mine. Seriously, it would be a weight off my mind to know they're gone -- not that it's of importance to anyone else, but I've put in a lot of work to get the things right at last (at age 71 -- what a prodigy!), and don't want the wrong'uns to survive in ANY form. Could you let me know?

So you can see what I've been up to I attach a PDF of a couple of pieces that you might like to include (I've no plans for sending them anywhere). One is a mini apocalypse (or 'apocalyptette'), and the other something that could well offend a broad swathe of true believers, from Good Catholics to Wee Frees, should any of them ever read it.

Anyway, nice to hear from you, as I say. You've left me pondering on the links between Enid Blyton and On Kawara. I was never a fan of the ART/LANGUAGE type of conceptual art, but looking back and comparing that sort of effort (along with FLUXUS, etc. etc.) to the kind of trivial nonsense you get in galleries today it seems something of a heroic age -- at least they were trying to do something new -- maybe Heroic Nonsense. No reflection on On Kawara, whose work I don't know. I shall look him up on Wiki.

All the best

I write back, telling Jeff that it's lovely to hear from him. I tell him that I also heard back from D J Taylor who met Charles Hills in a Piccadilly bookshop last autumn, so I’m now thinking he’s still alive. David mentioned that Charles was Buddha-like in stature and aura, but then he was all of that back in 2018 when a sensitive and rather glorious 16-minute film was made about him. I let Jeff know that he can see it, if he fancies, by Googling Youtube and ‘Charles - a life in five books’. I think he’ll be impressed by his choice of books. The Importance of Being Earnest, Crime and Punishment, The Bible, Great Expectations and The Odyssey. Long ago, Jeff told me that he too was a classics man. Not a consumer of culture produced in the 21st Century, or even the 20th.

I go on to say:
'Your published writing has pride of place in my PEN PALS bookcase, which I recently transferred from the shed to my living room. (A much easier move than yours from Oxfordshire to Lincolnshire.) Also lying in a pile on the third shelf is a 400-page print-out of Satires as you sent it to me in revised format which you deemed ‘publishable and perfect’ at the time. However, I will do as you ask and destroy this pile of paper if that really is what you want. I will also get access to my last computer - it’s in a studio on the Isle of Bute where I often spend time with Kate - and send the file into Trash. Then I will empty the trash. A process I did to near-disastrous effect recently when I’d accidentally pulled my last 14-years work into Trash and emptied it. After a week of panic, some progress and much disappointment, I was OK. That’s not as bad as cancer though, not by a long chalk, so I’m glad you’ve got through that. Well done Mr. Slightly-worried-looking-but-hugely-relieved-inside (soft boiled egg).'

I’ve had a very quick read through your two pieces. It strikes me that Covid, Trump and Putin have been good for your muse. That comment pertains to the first story more than the second. Will read your stories again once I have the quiet leisure for the task.

I might do the reading on a Date Painting day.

All best,

Soon I'm reading Jeff's reply:

Yes, thanks. I don't want to put you to any trouble but it would be good to know the old stuff is gone. Did I really say 'publishable and perfect'? Doesn't sound like me -- perhaps I had a sudden rush of unjustified self-confidence (I don't get them any more...) I feel a bit ridiculous bothering you about it, as if anyone is ever going to care -- but put it down to an old man's crankiness. On the upside, you'll free up space in your shed (it would make a braw wee bonfire, as Pa Broon might say -- forgive me, I'm a long-time fan), and will get rid of junk cluttering up your harddrive, something my computer's always telling me to do.

Re Trump, that great political thinker Anthony Scaramucci ('the Mooch') says he can't possibly win -- so now you can put your mind at rest. 

All the best

Of course, Jeff didn't say: 'publishable and perfect'. He said something deft, singular and witty which I will look up when I'm next in the vicinity of the old computer where his 2016/17 emails moulder. For now I read his new pieces more slowly and chase down their references as far as I'm able.

I write again, saying:
'Re Porkzilla. I recently watched a Storyville (BBC 4) documentary on North Korea. Utterly depressing. And I am steeling myself to watch another on surveillance in China. And we know what Russia is all about. So I’m for the democratic West - despite its faults - but have come to think that democracy is a weak and fragile thing in America, land of the gun-toting, black-fearing dumb (excepting California and New York). If it gets any worse there, and turns Trump (despite your assurances), then Europe will surely become more of a beacon of freedom and other cool things than ever. A bit like West Berlin in the days of the Wall surrounded by an ocean of communism. Except what I’m seeing this time is an ocean of outrageous autocracy and dumbed-down democracy.

And then the boats, the small boats, will keep coming. People from Africa and South America and China and North America making their way to the cultural peaks of Europe through a sea of turds. Millions and millions of tons of human excrement (a fair amount of it processed in the UK by Thames Water, sponsors of the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race) overpopulated Europe’s final answer to the people traffickers.

Forgive my less than subtle foray into what might be your own territory.

All best (if at all possible, for us all),


I don't hear back from Jeff. Our flurry of communication would seem to be finished, at least for now. Time to focus on the art he has sent me.

I think, dear reader, I will give you the 'apocalyptette' now and hold back Jeff's 'blasphemy' for a more opportune moment.

A Satire
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _


Was it something sent by God, regretting his error, divine stomach turned by acrid vapours ascending from this infested planet? Or the unexpected product of over-eager probings into what should have stayed the mysteries of DNA? Or some relic from a past of unimaginable awfulness rudely awakened from its billion-year slumber by thermonuclear blasting in underwater caverns?

Who knows?

But from the deepest gulf of the earth’s greatest ocean a giant pig emerged so much more than Brobdingnagian in scale its foam-borne snout and brine-encrusted ears were simultaneously visible in Tokyo and San Francisco for the minutes that elapsed before shock-waves from his rising had slapped across both cities, washing the observers all away.

On the planet’s other side all I’d noticed that morning was the grunt of distant thunder, but soon he had the whole Pacific Rim rooted up then set off to follow the sun across the wastes of Central Asia, so by late afternoon the slots of his trotters were jammed with a rubble of glass, dust, brick and steel, the tramplings of Beijing, Moscow, Prague, Rome, Vienna, Paris, London.

Our helicopter gunships, fighter-planes and missiles accompanying his progress like flies about a cow’s back-end seemed unable to do him any harm, while helpless populations overshadowed by his bulk, lacking time to appease the beast through sacrifice or prayer, were forced to try and save themselves by squeezing frightened bodies ever deeper in the well-dunged ground.

Perched on Skellig Michael as the sun went down, I watched him douse the pestering explosions in his bristles with a mid- Atlantic wallow, pot-belly mounding out of spume towards the sky, took another pull at the litre of aquavit I’d cached there against a rainy day, savoured twilight’s last gleaming as it played across the surface of his ballocks bobbing glossy and idle on the swell (might it not be for the best?), swilled a final mouthful then lay back on soft turf—

After all, there is nothing to be done.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

After a moment or two of contemplation, I look up Skellig Michael. It's a craggy island off the south west tip of Ireland. The perfect place to watch the sun set towards America.

Nothing to be done?

I think about that perspective while walking in the vicinity of Blairgowrie, a less geographically extreme Celtic location than the one carefully chosen by Jeff New for his fabulous fable.

Nothing to be done?

Ha! - Half a bottle of wine awaits me on my return home.


It's Jonathan Steffen I hear from next. E-mails rattle between us, reminding me that during the writing of Pen Pals he became a trusted friend, second only in editorial importance to C.A.R. Hills.

Hi Duncan,

Thanks again for asking me to update you on what’s been happening to me since you published PEN PALS online. I’ll reply as briefly as possible.

A watershed event occurred in my life in 2016, when I had a riding accident that I was lucky to survive. This didn’t involve polo; rather, an inexperienced horse that went into a blind bolt and smashed me into a wall. It was very fortunate for me that an ambulance chanced to be passing through the area just as the accident happened and could be diverted to the scene. In the ambulance, one of the paramedics, a former soldier, took my mind off things by recounting his experience of being blown out of a tank in Bosnia and landing in the crown of a tree fifty yards away.

I spent a week in hospital, emerging with a broken left upper arm, a broken rib, a lung that had been punctured in the collision and subsequently drained, and a crushed vertebra. Oh – and PSTD as well. Recovery was quite a long haul, made more challenging by the fact that I couldn’t have recourse to music: with my left arm in a sling for three and a half months, I wasn’t able to play any of my usual instruments. In my frustration, I decided to take up the trumpet, reasoning that I could learn to play it like a valveless bugle until such time as I could get my left arm back into operation. It really got me through, and I still play it – these days with a little more sophistication, I hope.

Anyway, the injury sustained to my back meant that it would be very dangerous for me to continue riding, in case of another fall, so I was obliged to hang up my riding boots once and for all. Once I had recovered full use of my left arm and hand, I joined the Moonlight Mandolin Orchestra of Cambridge (https://www.moonlightmandolins.org/), with whom I’ve been playing ever since. I’ve also been playing for the past three years with the British Fretted Orchestra and for the past twelve months with the Moonshot Mandolin Ensemble, which is drawn from members of the Moonlight Mandolin Orchestra. This all involves a lot of repertoire, a lot of learning, a lot of performances, and a terrific amount of fun and camaraderie.

Meanwhile the ‘band’ I described in your original account has developed into the Jonathan Steffen Trio, with Roland Gallery on classical guitar, Evelyn Nallen on Baroque recorder, and myself on classical and acoustic guitars as well as vocals. We perform my material exclusively. We’ve done quite a few concerts in the interim, including a couple of fund-raisers for Ukraine, and we brought out a new album, Histories of the Heart, in 2022. I’m starting to make plans for a third album now.

As for the writing itself, I have continued to write poetry, with poems appearing in various magazines and a couple of anthologies over the past years, as well as essays, which have mainly appeared in scientific journals of one kind and another. I haven’t lost my love of writing at all, nor do I have any plans to stop, so please earmark me for your 2034 update of PEN PALS!

In terms of my private life, I moved from Cambridge to Norwich in 2021 to be with my new partner, Sophie, who is a writer and calligrapher. We’re extremely happy together, each running our own small businesses and devoting as much time as we can to our artistic interests. We’re both very close to our children; I have a son and a daughter, as you may know, and Sophie has a daughter – all of them grown-up of course. We also have an adored whippet called Enzo who has the looks of an Ancient Egyptian god and the mentality, I should say, of a highly advanced two-year-old.

So – to go back to that watershed event of 2016 – things have worked out very well. Fortunately, when I landed in hospital, I had Don Quixote on Audible on my iPhone. It’s my favourite novel of all time, and I had already read it three times before listening to it on Audible. The recording lasts 90 hours. I listened to it twice in a row and it got me back on track.

Am sending you a couple of things in the post and hope you will enjoy them when they arrive.

All the best,


A package does arrive from Jonathan, containing a CD of his music, published in 2022, and a deluxe book,
The Cost of Life, that he was commissioned to write by a pharmaceutical company, also in 2022. It's the story of an artist, Paddy Hartley, but I've still to get my head around the layers of sponsorship and meaning. Indeed, it's the following text that Jonathan sent me as a PDF, perhaps as an afterthought, that it seems to make sense to include at this point.

It's a piece that was published in a science journal, complete with pull quotes, a table and notes, but I'm going to reproduce the text alone, perhaps with the table if I can find
a way of incorporating a screenshot of it:


Volume 30 (2) 2016

Malnutrition and Psychosis in Don Quixote
Jonathan Steffen

The depiction of hunger in classic literature is a neglected subject. Yet it is a major theme and a key plot driver in many great works of fiction. From the cannibalism of Count Ugolino della Gherardesca in Dante’s Inferno to Oliver Twist’s bewildered “Please, Sir, I want some more,” the critical need for adequate nutrition has been powerfully articulated by many great writers. In the first of a new series on this subject, Jonathan Steffen examines the relationship between nutritional intake and mental health in Cervantes’ Don Quixote.

From the appearance of the first edition of its first volume in 1605, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra’s Don Quixote has been considered one of the greatest and most enduringly popular works of literature ever penned. It is at one and the same time an analysis of the economic and social malaises of sixteenth-century Spain, a commentary on the relationship between outmoded forms of literature and contemporary trends in writing, and a study in psychosis: Don Quixote de La Mancha is the greatest fantasist in fiction. But Cervantes’ masterpiece is also a profound meditation of the relationship between food and health.

Comparison with Cervantes’ English contemporary Shakespeare throws this into stark relief. While Hamlet broods memorably on the “funeral baked meats” which “coldly furnished forth the marriage tables” at his mother Gertrude’s wedding to his uncle Claudius, we know relatively little of what most of Shakespeare’s characters ate. We do not automatically associate Romeo and Juliet, or Macbeth, or Lear, or Prospero with particular types of food, or particularly significant meals. We do make this association in respect of Don Quixote, however; and this is because the author himself makes it in the novel’s opening paragraph:

“Somewhere in La Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago, one of those who has a lance and ancient shield on a shelf and keeps a skinny nag and a greyhound for racing. An occasional stew, beef more often than lamb, hash most nights, eggs and abstinence on Saturdays, lentils on Fridays, sometimes squab as a treat on Sundays – these consumed three-fourths of his income.”

In an extensive study of Don Quixote’s diet, Prof. Barry Ife of King’s College, London, analyses the relationship between what Don Quixote consumes and his mental condition. “It seems clear that Don Quixote's diet is frugal, monotonous and unappetizing, and it is hardly surprising that with such meagre fare Don Quixote is as thin as he is always portrayed. But Quixote's bad habits are not limited to diet. He also neglects his sleep: ‘He spent his nights reading from dusk till dawn and his days reading from sunrise to sunset.’ Here we have the classic syndrome of the single male,” continues Ife: “the fatal combination of late nights and junk food. Most men go through this stage at some point in their lives, and most men grow out of it. But Don Quixote never does, and eventually he makes himself so ill that his brain dries up and he starts to lose his wits ... Cervantes did not need to be a qualified doctor to recognize the symptoms of sleep deprivation and malnutrition, or to know what the combined effect would be on his hero's behaviour in the novel.”

The combined effect is to push an essentially intelligent and educated man, a kindly, thoughtful and deep-thinking person, into an insane fantasy in which he views himself as a lone re- deemer whose task is to set the world to rights single-handed. Don Quixote believes that it is incumbent upon him to sally forth onto the roads of Spain as a knight errant whose selfless deeds will summon back the bygone age of chivalry. In a series of encounters – most famously, the one with the windmills that he mistakes for giants – Don Quixote attacks a vast range of completely innocent people and objects, believing them to be wicked knights, sorcerers and enchanters. He literally beats up the world and gets soundly beaten up in return. As his perplexed housekeeper fumes after one of his sallies: “The first time they brought him back lying across a donkey, beaten and battered. The second time he came home in an oxcart, locked in a cage and claiming he was enchanted, and the poor man was in such a state that his own mother wouldn’t have recognized him: skinny, pale, his eyes sunk right into the top of his head; to bring him back to himself a little, I used more than six hundred eggs; God knows that, and so does everybody else, and my hens too, and they wouldn’t let me lie.”

The detail of the eggs is telling. Cervantes, who struggled financially all his life, and who himself had required a full two years to recover from the wounds he sustained in the 1571 Battle of Lepanto, knew all about the relationship between wealth, nutrition, and wellbeing.

Don Quixote’s diet is indeed wretched. Prof. Ife analyses it as follows. “We might take the virtual contents of Don Quixote's virtual stomach and subject them to analysis. We know that his staple diet before the first sally consisted of five elements: ‘
olla’ by which we may assume is meant the classic slow-cooked stew made with beans and sausages known as ‘olla podrida', eaten as the main midday meal; ‘salpicón’ or cold meat sliced thinly with onions and vinegar for supper; ‘lantejas’ or lentils on Fridays; ‘duelos y quebrantos’, probably some form of omelet, on Saturdays; and the occasional pigeon on Sundays. We may assume also that, in real life, Alonso Quijano [Don Quixote’s real name] would have supplemented this diet with bread and wine, and he may possibly, but not necessarily, have also eaten some fruit and vegetables; the conventions of literary analysis, however, do not allow us to take into account what is not in the text.

“Table 1 gives a summary analysis of the likely nutritional value of this fictional diet, together with some of the principal nutrients expressed as a percentage of the recommended daily allowance (RDA).


“Several things about this analysis require comment. Firstly, such a diet would have left Don Quixote seriously deficient in energy; his calorie intake is only about a quarter of that required by a 50-year-old male with even a sedentary lifestyle. The consequences of long-term malnourishment of this order would be wasting of the flesh and loss of muscle tone. Secondly, he is below the recommended daily amount of all nutrients, but is especially deficient in calcium (8%), vitamin C (6%) and vitamin E (10%).”

The poverty of this fare is intensified by Don Quixote’s deliberate neglect of his own physical needs. Viewing knight errantry as a mystic calling, he practices a profound asceticism that subjugates the requirements of the flesh to the visions of the mind. On the road, he frequently fasts and watches all night long while his squire Sancho Panza contentedly snores besides him. Even in the midst of food, he often ignores his own need to eat. “Don Quixote gave this long discourse [on the subject of the fate of the contemporary sixteenth-century soldier] while the others were eating, and he forgot to bring a single mouthful of food to his lips, although Sancho Panza told him several times that he should eat and that later there would be time to say all he wanted to say. Those who listened to him were overwhelmed again with pity at seeing a man who apparently was intelligent and rational in all other matters could lose those faculties completely when it was a question of his accursed and bedeviled chivalry.”

Don Quixote’s ‘squire’, the peasant Sancho Panza, has a very different attitude to food. While Don Quixote is a country gentleman of slender means with pretensions to the aristocracy of arms, Sancho Panza represents a peasantry that was oppressed by poverty at a time when Spain was flooded with new money. As William Egginton observes: “Spain’s economy in the second half of the seventeenth century was squeezing all but the wealthiest nobles, as the ceaseless war financed by silver from the New World drove prices higher and higher and made taxes more punitive, while the nobility and the Church were spared from fully sharing the burden.” Sancho, who has left the hardships of a peasant’s existence behind him in search of gain and glory with Don Quixote, frequently laments the privations he is obliged to share with his master on the road: “I’m so poor and unlucky that all I have in my saddlebags is a little cheese, so hard you could break a giant’s skull with it, and to keep it company some four dozen carob beans and the same number of hazelnuts and other kinds of nuts, thanks to the poverty of my master and the idea he has and the rule he keeps that knights errant should not live and survive on anything but dried fruits and plants of the field.”

Being well acquainted with hunger, Sancho takes every opportunity to feast when the occasion arises: “I’m going over to that brook with this meat pie, where I plan to eat enough for three days, because I’ve heard my master, Don Quixote, say that the squire of a knight errant has to eat whenever he can, and as much as he can, because they might go into the woods so deep they can’t find their way out for six days, and if the man isn’t full, or his saddlebags aren’t well-provisioned, he might stay there, as often happens, until his flesh wrinkles and dries like a mummy’s.”

So eager is Sancho to stuff his belly at every opportunity that a trick is practiced on him in Part II of the novel to encourage him to mend his ways. Believing that he has come into the governorship of the ‘island’ (ínsula) that Don Quixote has repeatedly promised him as a reward for his service, Sancho is made the victim of an elaborate hoax whereby a number of mouth-watering dishes are placed before him, only to be whisked away on the orders of his physician: “‘I Señor, am a physician, and on this ínsula I am paid to tend to its governors, and I care for their health much more than I do my own, studying day and night, and observing the governor’s constitution and temperament in order to successfully cure him if he should fall ill; and the principal thing I do is to be present at his dinners and suppers, and allow him to eat what seems appropriate to me, and to take away what I imagine will do him harm and be injurious to his stomach; and so I ordered the dish of fruit removed because it was too damp, and the other dish as well because it too hot and had a good number of spices, which increase thirst, and if one drinks too much, one destroys and consumes the radical humor, which is to say, life.’

“‘So that means that the dish of roasted partridges over there, nicely seasoned, it seems to me, won’t do me any harm.”

“To which the physician responded:

“The governor will not eat them as long as I am alive.’”

So traumatized is Sancho by this experience that he eventually begs to return to his old peasant status: “‘Look, Señor Doctor, from now on don’t bother about giving me delicate or exquisite things to eat, because that will drive my stomach out of its mind: it’s used to goat, beef, bacon, dried meat, turnips, and onions, and if by some chance it’s given palace dishes, it gets finicky, and sometimes even sick. What the butler can do is bring me what are called
ollas podridas, and the more rotten they are, the better they smell, and he can pack them and fill them with anything he likes as long as it’s food, and I’ll thank him for it and repay him someday; but don’t let anybody try to trick me, because we either are or we aren’t: let’s all live and eat in peace and good friendship, because when God sends the dawn, it’s dawn for everybody.’”

In a supreme stroke of irony in a book minutely attentive to the dangers of hunger on the one hand and gluttony on the other, Cervantes locates an ideal relationship with food not among his Spanish contemporaries but among a group of
Moriscos – persons of Muslim descent living in Christian territory who had been forcibly converted to Christianity. “They stretched out on the ground, and with the grass as their tablecloth, they set out bread, salt, knives, nuts, pieces of cheese, and bare ham-bones that could not be gnawed but could still be sucked. They also set out a black food called caviar that is made of fish eggs and is a great awakener of thirst. There was no lack of olives, dried without any brine but good-tasting and flavorful. What stood out most on the field of that banquet, however, were six wineskins, for each of them took one out of his bag ...

“They began to eat with great pleasure, savoring each mouthful slowly, just a little of each thing, which they picked up with the tip of a knife, and then all at once, and all at the same time, they raised their arms and the wineskins went into the air, their mouths pressed against the mouths of the wineskins and their eyes fixed on heaven, as if they were taking aim; they stayed this way for a long time, emptying the innermost contents of the skins into their stomachs, and moving their heads from one side to the other, signs that attested to the pleasure they were receiving.

“Sancho watched everything, and not one thing caused him sorrow; rather, in order to comply with a proverb that he knew very well – When in Rome, do as the Romans do – he asked Ricote for his wineskin and took aim along with the rest with no less pleasure than they enjoyed.”

The Catholic Spanish soldier Cervantes, who had been kept in slavery by Muslims in Algiers for five years, presents peregrinating
Moriscos as a model of temperance and good social organization. Their food is simple but nevertheless appetizing, and is enjoyed slowly. When they drink – adapting, it will be noted, to Christian ways by drinking alcohol – they drink together. They are at peace with themselves and each other – a peace which comes not just from the food and drink they consume but from the communal experience of sharing a meal. This observation is remarkable not just in the light of Cervantes’ own experience – he had been beaten and kept in chains in Algiers, and had seen people tortured to death before his eyes – but because Don Quixote was published in an age when all books were censored by the Spanish Inquisition. He places sanity not in his fantastic hero Don Quixote, nor in Quixote’s wily peasant sidekick Sancho Panza, but in a group of ‘enemy aliens’ who travel in disguise through the land from which they have been forever exiled, and which they still love with an aching passion. And he shows that sanity not just by what they say or do, but by their relationship with nutrition. Even a bone with no meat on it can be sucked. Cervantes was the inventor of the novel. He was also – as he probably very well knew himself – a nutritionist avant la lettre.


So where does that leave us?

It leaves
me grateful to both Jeff New and Jonathan Steffen, conscious of how important their contributions were to what I wrote, with Charles's colourful and erudite help, in the pages of PEN PALS back in 2017.

I hope they can both see that the following words are an organic tribute to their hard-won survival, their highly distinctive, formal texts.

What is the opposite of ascetic starvation with hallucinations? Surely it is gluttony, hallucinogenic or otherwise. And it's much more prominent in the 21st Century than it ever would have been in Cervantes's time.

(Full disclosure… Initially, Jeff sent me three Satires from his collection, and these were called 'USUSUS', 'The Big Blowout' and 'Potus Moronicus'. He subsequently withdrew them in order to submit the triptych to the editor of an American journal, and offered me 'Porkzilla' and 'Lazarus' instead. I feel the following text of my own fits the new context well enough, but it was actually inspired by the first three stories… Full disclosure out.)

(Maximum transparency… The above mentioned story 'The Big Blowout', second in the initial triptych, is somewhat in the style of 'Porkzilla', its geographically exhilarating paragraphs separated by the four-times repeated line :
'The sound of America still eating.' …Maximum transparency over.)


Donald Trump is staggering around his accommodation rather below par, whatever that used to be. He has promised his doctor that he won't eat anything today. It's called the 6:1 diet and he's been told that if he doesn't begin to take the :1 seriously, he'll soon be dead. And no-one, not even in a Florida care home
circa 2024, is going to vote for a dead PRES. CAN.

So what is he going to do with these ripe, golf ball-sized tomatoes? While he's thinking how delicious they look, he unbuttons his trousers (waist 44 last week, 46 this week) and lets them fall to his brown, black-polished shoes If he places a tomato in his bottom mouth will it give him the same pleasure as from his usual mouth, topside? Well, he can give it
a golfing go. Ooof! The bright red sphere disappears in there, spookily enough, just like his ball into the cupped hole on the ninth green yesterday. Has he got tastebuds in his anal passage? That is what he is about to find out… It seems he does… The skin of the tomato bursts and the skin of his anus bursts too - into a round of applause. Wow! How about another curvy tomato, maybe, the one that reminds him of a Dunlop 65? How about two more? And to his great good fortune he realises there are half-a-dozen peeled boiled eggs and a bottle of ketchup to lube them with to hand. As his arse munches away, savouring the flavouring, the Donald realises that he needs to visit the loo. That feeling of fullness can only mean one thing. He needs to visit the loo pronto, as those drug-fuelled losers from the dumb south never tire of saying.

As he shuffles from Oval office to bathroom (though the Donald is only in Trump Towers, not yet the White House), his trousers are around his ankles threatening to trip him at every shuffling step. The trip hazard (bunker!) becomes real, and down goes Trump like a sack of potatoes (bunkered!). Well, actually more like a sack of orange tomatoes. Iliana hears the thump-pump-dump-pump-dumpathon and comes running to see what on earth is going on this time. "Christ, alive!" She says, though that's the last thing she means, the
absolute last thing. The sight that greets her eyes is a vivid one: brown and red everywhere. "Does it look like bowel cancer?" Trump wants to know. "What a shitty time to get bowel cancer! Just when I'm in the middle of re-designing the American flag. I never felt comfortable with those red, white and blue stars and stripes. Take a photo, Stormy, or whatever you call yourself. In case I brown out altogether… Too late, I'm browning out… Don't touch anything! That's evidence that will put both Hilary and Joe's kid in jail…Those un-American fuckers… Lock 'em up…Those fucked up un-American hipsters…Lock 'em up… Those freeloading Mexican swinederkind…"

"Taken that photo yet, Stormy? Not of me, you shaven-pussied imbecile. The Date Painting. The newly fuckin'-well finished


Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

How can I justify such a drastic shift of subject and tone? Well, the poet of these lines was A.E. Housman who went to Saint John's College, Oxford. That's where Jeff New was an undergraduate too, and I feel sure that at least one of D.J.Taylor's protagonists must have spent their university days there also, even if only to further a joke. Moreover, C.A.R. Hills of Hertford College, Oxford, loves Housman and has told me he could quote lines competitively with Francis King, friend and supporter of Val Warner. I don't doubt for one second that Jonathan Steffen could also quote Housman, and he too was a member of St. John's College,
Cambridge, having been awarded a literary scholarship by this other place in 1981. Lastly, for now, as far as PEN pals is concerned, Peter Parker, as previously mentioned, included all of Housman's A Shropshire Lad in his essential book, Housman Country.

Does The Donald have any place in said Housman Country? Nope, he'll just destroy it with golf courses, Republican rallies, porn fests,
faux-brick walls (studded with glory holes) and surveillance cameras.

But if the monster called Trump dares to put in an appearance in Europe, I think we can put our faith in that other Don — Quixote. That poor starving, sixteenth century, knight errant knows a bad 'un when he sees one. Well, no he doesn't, but even deep in hallucination, the gaunt ambassador for humanity would identify Trump for what he is, a destroyer of freedom, equality, learning, dignity and the simple life.

Let's try reading El Don's Spanish mind:

Into Trump's heart a spear that kills
From yon far country throws:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

So what am I saying?

If you only have the day, be in it. Whether lying on Skellig Michael or walking in the vicinity of Blairgowrie.

If all you have is the day, be
conscious of it to the full.

Yesterday, today, tomorrow.

June 23, 2024.

(If you're wondering about the discrepancy: as already alluded to, an editorial issue needed to be resolved.)

I rest my pen. Several of us do.


Has enough distance been put between Jeff New's first Satire of this chapter and what follows, being his second?

Is there sufficient link between 'The Book of John' in the
New Testament and those St John's Colleges that were named after John the Evangelist and John the Baptist in Oxford and Cambridge?

Who cares? In which case, let the blasphemy begin…

(For 'Lazarus' read C.A.R. Hills, if you must, dear reader of the soon-to-be-complete
PEN PALS. And when I say 'soon', I mean in a minute or two, which is the time that it will take you to read the short Satire that follows this full-stop.)


You think they’d let a sleeping dog lie, but no.—

Thin, white, hauled from the silence of my tomb, I stumbled through catacombs then stooped to crawl along a tunnel burrowed out by giant mole or badger. Until forced to stop, snagged among tough rootstrings spreading underneath a specimen of vigorous weed.

The uncertain light dodging at my back was growing brighter, a sign of my pursuer who came bustling round the bend, beckoning and smiling till he noticed my disquiet when, vexed brows angled above a well-shaped nose, rolling up his sleeves and stretching out an arm, he uttered that sweet summons once again—

Come forth!

Desperate, I fought hard against the fibrous tangle, yanking at its bole until the plant (a big hog thistle) and patch of earth it sprouted from fell in upon my skull.

Brushing crumbled marl from neck and linen wrappings I peeped out at the world above to find that night had come, then scrambled from the hole I’d made in hopes to gain my freedom under cover of that darkness (I do not intend to make an exhibition of myself for anybody’s sake).

Stamping soil down hard to keep my would-be saviour under

I set off on all fours along the border of a meadow whose dreaming sheep and bullocks didn’t pay me any mind. Until further progress blocked by what seemed an endless hedgerow I crawled into a ditch overgrown with thorn and bramble, praying their concealment and the night would grant me the one thing that I longed for, final rest.

Maybe even cried to the full moon, I felt so desperate, but before I’d time to catch my breath the ground in front exploded in an instant upthrusting of hands, arms, head and shoulders as that son of man stood upright, deep-ribbed chest and hollow belly showing dark against the stars, lank hair hanging grey now, yellow eyeballs fixed upon his quarry.

Panicking at talons, snarling nostrils, fangs that flashed against my cheek, I shrank back from the black-lipped gape that framed his bloody gullet ululating its everlasting howl.