Books: North Face of Soho — 13. The Name's Prykke: Peregrine Prykke |
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North Face of Soho — 13. The Name's Prykke: Peregrine Prykke


By the time I was well again, the story was all over London. Humiliation was complete, but it had one big advantage. It was very hard to go back on such a public promise, although even I would have been surprised to have been told that I would never touch alcohol again for another thirteen years. Not long afterwards, I quit smoking as well, and for just as long. Terry, who had a front-row seat for my transformation, said an interesting thing. Minus its ums and ahs, it went like this: ‘You’ve always managed to get quite a lot done, but what are you going to be like now?’ I was naive enough to take this as an unmixed compliment, but there might have been an element of apprehension in it. Although his regard for Proust suggested otherwise, Terry didn’t much approve of anyone who missed out on life through being too assiduous in pursuit of its honours. He had seen too many promising young men deprived of its pleasures. There is something to that view, and I try to respect it, although from holding it I am debarred by nature.

No longer required as a receptacle for sixty cigarette butts a day, my Bedford hubcap was thrown into the skip parked in front of our house in Cambridge. The skip otherwise held the debris emerging from our new knock-through. We were expanding. I was slow to admit that cutting out the booze and fags had improved the financial position, because the admission would have suggested that I had been robbing my own household since the day of its foundation. I preferred to think that several ships were coming in at once. There was something to that interpretation. Donald Trelford, who had now taken over from David Astor in the editor’s chair at the Observer, looked with favour on my work. Too much favour, initially. When the paper came up for a redesign, I was only just in time to stop the design team doubling the size of my photo at the top of my column and adding a bold subheading that promised yet another weekly dose of hilarity fit to cure all ills among the living and bring the dead up dancing out of their tombs. Never one to be hobbled by modesty, I nevertheless have a horror of being overbilled. Above all I can’t stand being introduced as some sort of cheery fellow in a floppy cap and long, pointed shoes. The error wasn’t Trelford’s but he had let the designers get too far along the road to setting it irrevocably in lead.

On the other hand, it was Trelford who had the excellent idea of sending me off all over the world to write feature articles about foreign cities. Although I always prepared as thoroughly as possible for these assignments I couldn’t hope to equal the knowledge of the Observer’s man on the spot: whether staff appointee or local stringer, he was likely to be jealous of his turf for a good reason — that he knew every inch of it. What was I to gain by dropping out of the sky for a few days of room service? Trelford was clever enough to spot the plus. I wouldn’t be writing the informed letter of the man in residence, I would be recording the uninhibited first impressions of the flying visitor, which would be of value to the reader precisely because the man who lived there no longer thought them worth noting. It would suit my style. It was also Trelford who thought of the generic name for the pieces: Postcards. Thus one of my standby formats was born. Eventually I was to write enough Postcard pieces to furnish, in 1981, a book called Flying Visits, and in the next decade I transferred the idea to television, in which medium my Postcard programmes were always my main claim, if not to fame, then at least to work painstakingly done. The whole project, whose legs turned out to be a full twenty-five years long, arose out of a single conversation. I got a lot of glory out of it in the long run, so I owe it to Trelford to acknowledge his imaginative encouragement. He had to think like that on everybody’s behalf every day of the week, with nobody noticing except when things went wrong. But that’s what editors do. Thank God I was never one of them.

One of my first Postcard assignments was a two-part piece about my home town. It was my first trip back to Sydney in fifteen years. (I hadn’t stayed away on principle: I just never had enough money for the flight.) Though the street where I was born and raised had barely altered, Kogarah’s dinky little railway station had been buried under a massive reinforced-concrete bunker of the kind once built by the Organization Todt to guard the coast of Normandy. Todt, however, had never equipped his hulking masterpieces with restaurants and a shopping mall. There was even more culture shock available in the city’s downtown area, which had gone scraping skyward like a miniature Manhattan. It even had a new name: CBD, for Central Business District. (Despite all the evidence to the contrary, Australian journalists have always been convinced that plenty of initials and acronyms make their prose more readable instead of less: ‘NRMA officials against the GST quoted CSIRO statistics at their AGM in the CBD this morning ...’) But there was a much bigger change going on than that. Post-war immigration had civilized the place. I wasn’t yet quite civilized enough myself to take in all the implications: I didn’t quite realize that the new standards of eating and drinking weren’t just good, but the best on Earth. But I got some of the story into my notebooks, and wrote it up on the plane back to England. I couldn’t help, however, thinking of it as the plane home. That was the real subject, but I wasn’t ready for it, and probably I’m still not. Though nowadays I am back and forth to Australia half a dozen times a year, I still don’t know where I live. But I tried to address the serious issues along with the other stuff, so I was miffed to discover, from the proof pages, that the Observer’s illustrator had decked me out as a comedian. I made a quick and correct decision to lay down the law. My stuff, I told everyone concerned and several bystanders who weren’t, depended on being presented as a serious argument. If it picked up any laughs along the way, that would be a plus. But if it was presented as vaudeville, anything serious it contained would count as a minus. So nix the funny hats. One of the artists got a bit shirty but the message went home. Trelford backed me up, although it couldn’t have been easy. The artist really had put in a lot of work. But that’s an argument you always have to be wary of: we’ve put all this effort into doing the wrong thing for you, so you have to use it. Sympathize with that viewpoint often enough and you’ll find yourself being crowded into oblivion, helped in that direction by people whose undoubted pride in their own craft is unaccompanied by any insight into yours.

Another early Postcard trip was to Moscow. I had already been teaching myself Russian for a couple of years and it paid off in a big way, because I could actually read the resolutions of the XXVI Party Congress mounted hugely on every building. LET US IMPROVE THE QUALITY OF CONSUMER GOODS. It was all too apparent, however, that resolutions wouldn’t work the trick. Anybody who might have been able to improve the quality of consumer goods had been murdered long ago. My wife, who was along for the ride, was amazed by the range of soaps and oils that were not available for our bathroom in the Metropole Hotel. Still equipped with its original chandeliers and a sub-Benny Goodman quintet noodling assiduously in the dining room, the Metropole had once been the NKVD’s favoured point of concentration for those refugee officials of foreign Communist Parties who would need to be dealt with. All too aware that there had been a time when some of the previous occupants of our room had been called to the door at two o’clock in the morning, I was less amazed but even more depressed. I had thought things might have come on a bit, but they hadn’t. Our key moment of revelation, which I put in my article, was a window display mounted by the GUM department store in Red Square. There was nothing in the window except a chipped and rusting chromium stand draped with a pair of tights proudly billed as coming from East Berlin. That was the pitiable condition that the resolutions were resolving to transform: a cultural hegemony in which East Berlin was regarded as a fashion centre. My wife looked at the pair of tights for a long time. Inside the store, in the women’s department, she sat down at the standard-issue, one-size-fits-all makeup table — a super-luxury item — and duly noted that it was impossible to get the knees in underneath it. She didn’t need to be told by me that her hard-working and dedicated life in the West would have been heartbreakingly worse here, where even the things you had to save up for weren’t worth having. At our first dinner in the Metropole she enjoyed the blinis but spotted before I did that our plain but sweet Intourist guide was putting any blinis we didn’t eat into her purse. At an evening of folk-dancing held at the Palace of Congresses in the Kremlin we were three-quarters of the way through the interminable bill — the flirtatious peasant girl with the knee-length knickers was once again pretending to run away from the boy with the big shoulders and small head, although this time he was dressed as a factory worker rather than a tank commander — when my wife conceded that I might be allowed to regard these assignments as work rather than a family outing. Paris and Rome might be another thing, but no more folk-dancing. Please.

On future voyages I overcame my guilt for going it alone by setting myself a crowded schedule, throwing in a lot of stuff that nobody I was trying to keep happy would conceivably have wanted to see. Already, when I came back from Moscow, I was faced with the proof that to write a solid piece, with a factual basis for every paragraph, you needed a notebook with enough detailed entries to write a book from. From then on, I kept that rule: come back with enough notes for a book and you could get a decent piece. Get enough decent pieces and you might eventually make a book. But don’t try to take a short cut just by stating what you fancied to be your common-sense view and tarting it up with local colour. A few loose observations linked by opinions wouldn’t do, whether the opinions were standard, so as to flatter the reader’s store of ordinary wisdom, or perverse, so as to stir protest. The concrete detail not only told the story, it gave the interpretation. When I saw our Intourist guide quietly snaffling the blinis, I was seeing the ineradicable truth about how the requirements of life were distributed in the Soviet Union. The reason why she had hopes of being allowed to join the Communist Party was that she would be allowed access to the special stores and so wouldn’t have to steal. At the very dinner in the Metropole when she made the blinis disappear, one of our party, a sociology lecturer from the LSE, was explaining to the assembled company that the discrepancies in standard of living between the well-off and the poor in the Soviet Union were not so marked as in the West. Even as our guide was saying, ‘Of course,’ in her excellent English, the blinis were on their way into her purse.

I couldn’t write that part of the story because it might have got her into trouble. When she took us to what was meant to be a performance of classical ballet, she broke down in tears when it turned out that the performance had been cancelled and replaced by a new allegorical ballet about the triumph of Communism over Fascism. Trying not to be delighted by the extra opportunity for sarcasm, I reported faithfully what happened on stage — the dancer representing Fascism had a particularly threatening bottom — but I left out her tears, which she dabbed at in the darkness under the pretence that she had a cold. She had so wanted us to see her beloved country’s heritage at its beautiful best. Had I mentioned that, however, she might have ended up somewhere in the Gulag system, whose psychiatric correctional facilities, under Brezhnev, were still fully functional. And lest you think that I overrate my importance, let me tell you that the Soviet authorities read my piece with great care when it was published. A page and a half in the Observer earned two and a half columns in the Literaturnaya Gazeta, whose resident satirist cleverly identified me as an agent of Western propaganda. But I wasn’t. I was an agent of all the Intourist guides who were dreaming of a pair of tights that could simply be bought without being worshipped, of a makeup table that you could fit your legs under instead of sitting sideways like the Queen at the Trooping the Colour, of not having to pretend that bad art was more bearable because it carried the correct message, and above all of not having to steal food from tourists. Her tears, her tears. I can mention her name now. It was Valentina. I wonder how she is. There has been a new, unofficial, and therefore even less predictable kind of gangsterism in Russia since the Soviet Union collapsed, and no doubt her life has not been easy. She certainly didn’t seem to have the makings of a crook, and her fundamental honesty has probably not helped her. But I can remember when the country she loved was breaking her heart a little bit every day.

When our sociology lecturer asked Valentina whether she had a place of her own, she said, ‘Of course: everybody has.’ It didn’t seem very likely. It had never seemed very likely to me that I might one day have my name on two places of my own, but suddenly I did. Rivalling the splendour of the new knock-through in Cambridge, there was now a London apartment, situated below podium level in the Barbican, down beside the famous artificial lake around which, on the brick patio, ducks gathered from all over the world for their annual shitting competition, for which the qualifying rounds took most of the year. I was no longer sharing my London base with the rest of the boys. I was sharing my London base with my family. Since no member of my family except my wife was there very often, this in effect gave me an opportunity to produce the ideal conditions for the essential requirement of a writer’s life: the freedom to do nothing. At last I was free of any distractions that might dissuade me from my course of sweating with frustrated effort and feeling guilty because nothing had been achieved. From then on, with each move, upgrading of property, and extra acquisition, I merely elaborated the surroundings in which this essential condition could be achieved. Today my redoubt is somewhere south of the Thames and only I have the keys. A planned retreat from extremophile media notoriety has not yet entirely rid me of the sort of snoops who would dearly like to know what goes on behind my closed doors, but on the whole, apart from the occasional visit by the chorus line of the Crazy Horse Saloon, the answer would bore them to death if they could see in. They would have to watch a man shambling from desk to couch; pointlessly alternating coffee with tea throughout the morning until the time comes for the choice between the sardines and the over-boiled eggs for lunch; having an early afternoon sleep; writing half a sentence in longhand and crossing it out; having a supplementary, later afternoon sleep; and then finally, as dusk fills the study window, deciding that it has been a day of getting ready to write.

Just so was my average day alone after I moved into the Barbican. There I would sit in the felt-covered sponge-rubber-filled couch-cum-chair beside the giant window looking out onto the lake. The bottom of the window was an inverted semicircle designed so that it could not be equipped with a sill. Like every object in the Barbican, big or small, it had been designed so that something normal could not happen. The walls were designed so that you couldn’t hang a picture without borrowing a heavy-duty drill with a diamond-tipped bit so as to sink the shallow hole in which to place the blasting powder. The wiring was placed deep within the bomb-proof walls along with the plumbing, so that an electrical failure would interact with a broken pipe to produce an effect that could not be corrected until after the flood put out the fire. There was a garbage-disposal system that connected your sink with every other sink in the building, so that a blockage a mile away sent its gas to you along the complete network of pipes before it came up reeking into your face while you tried vainly to deal with the empty milk carton caught in the jaws of the gunge-plunger. The garbage-disposal system was thus designed so that garbage could not readily be disposed of. But nothing epitomized the whole Le Corbusier-style grandiloquence of the Barbican — its truly monumental combination of misguided social engineering and vaulting incompetence — like the lake. The lake, lined with bricks and floored with concrete, had been precisely calculated so that it was too shallow to keep fish alive and just deep enough to drown a child. The mere presence of the lake meant that the original dream of village family life in the heart of the city could never be fulfilled. Any family that let its children out to play alone would have had to be crazy. One of the side effects was a heavy traffic of prams pushed by au-pair girls, emanating from the flats big enough to have a spare room. The traffic ceased at nightfall and I could look through the window without any guilt except about another working day that had come to nothing. To underline this conclusion, a duck ambling languidly on the bricks would turn its behind towards me and fart a plug of lime-tinged panna cotta.

But after an evening spent drinking orange juice while watching television, and a night spent dreaming my standard dreams of being unable to get something done — in most of my dreams of failure, there is a document that needs to be prepared but I can’t write it, or else I need to learn it but I can’t remember it — I would wake next morning feeling enough remorse to bring results. Wherein lies the whole rationale of making sure you are undisturbed while you do nothing: so as to build up the anguish that will make you do something. Not that there was all that much spare time to be thus squandered on the luxury of waiting for sentences to form. Quite often something had to be written no matter what. There were still deadlines to hit. The Postcard pieces went down with the readers well enough for the Observer to want more of them than the four features a year stipulated in the contract. So I was often away, and, when at home, had to work at writing up the results. And a published book, I now found, could have a demanding life of its own, like a baby. Visions Before Midnight came out and did surprisingly well. The glamorous young women in charge of Cape’s marketing department wanted me to spend time discussing how I might promote it. This seemed time well spent, but the actual fag of trotting around the radio studios was less thrilling. As the years went by I learned not to begrudge that necessary effort, but early on I would easily get into a panic if my do-nothing time was eaten away. It was the wrong attitude. The trick, with the chores, is to turn them into events. Do your best every time you go out, and never go on radio or television without bringing something to the party. The best way to deal with a bad question is with a good answer.

One of the chores relating to Visions Before Midnight was all my idea, so I couldn’t complain. It occurred to me that if any Observer readers were going to defy expectation and buy the book they might like to buy it direct from the paper, signed by the author. There was a recently formed Observer promotions department that liked the idea. A little notice was put at the foot of my column saying that a signed copy could be sent postage-free. Enough people responded to help propel the book briefly onto the bestseller list; and even after it fell off, it stayed gratifyingly high among the also-rans. I had to do quite a lot of signing, a process made more demanding — as it still is today — by my ineradicable, grandstanding urge to make my signature look like an actual name. Apart from being a clear invitation to cheque-forgers, this habit is a gluttonous consumer of energy. The signature to have is one like Pavarotti’s, that starts with a tiny squiggle and then turns into a straight line about three inches long. The full story of Pavarotti’s glorious ego will have to wait for the next volume, when we move firmly into television heaven and fame hell. At the time we are talking about, I hadn’t met him, and it didn’t occur to me that I ever would. Sufficient to say now that if he hadn’t developed his instantaneous signature he would have lost an arm. Even as things were, when his ghosted autobiography came out he risked carpal-tunnel syndrome just from the number of times he had to draw his little line sideways. People forgave him, as they forgave him everything. In the signing queue, after he made his mark, they would examine the results and always express their gratitude, instead of hitting him over the head with the book. If he had been less fat, of course, they would have loved him less, because he would have been too close to looking the way he sounded. People don’t love the darlings of the gods.

There were also my first American reviewing commissions, from Commentary and the New York Review of Books. It’s a useful rule of thumb that anything the Americans ask you to do takes twice as long, because they want everything explained. (Quite often they are right, but it can be very wearing.) Also, when I arrived in New York to make personal contact with my two new editors, I had no clue as to the implications of their having been political enemies for years. In London they could have still been friends. In New York each looked at me with deep suspicion for having breathed the same air as the other. Pussyfooting around their respective sensitivities took tact, tact took time, and there was no email in those days to speed up the process of transmitting copy across the Atlantic. But there was still enough waiting time left over for some good, long, solid sessions of doing nothing. This time the thing I was waiting for while I did nothing was the next bit of Peregrine Prykke’s Pilgrimage. The big advantage of a project cast in rhyming couplets is that if you get one decent couplet a day, it counts as a day’s work, and it will give you a good idea of how to add to it tomorrow. Hemingway, who typed standing up, always kept the rule of quitting for the day when he knew where the narrative was going next. Having written the sentence about the charging rhino, and being fairly sure that next day he would write the sentence in which the hero shot it, he would finally sit down and give his current wife the signal to bring in a daiquiri the size of a bird-bath. The rule is good in the sense that to do the opposite almost always results in barrenness next morning. But I had a fair idea of where the clueless Peregrine was going anyway. A good, simple lad, he would seek literary success. He would find it. It would destroy him. Along the path to destruction he would meet everybody. I had a list drawn up, and I could always work on an individual character if I got jammed on the narrative. Thus Seamus Feamus was born, and F. R. Looseleaf, Ian Hammerhead, Stephen Spindle, and Doc Stein. Partly assembled out of components already machined and polished, the thing pieced itself together at almost alarming speed, but I won’t say that it did so with ease. It’s never wise to say that something which sounds effortless actually was, and anyway, this one really was hard work. I would wake up at night when I had an idea, and dawn would find me sitting beside the picture window, still drafting, crossing out, drawing arrows, and looking up only occasionally to be faced with a duck’s arse poised to dump. Although the first, unimproved version of the poem looks embarrassingly clumsy to me now, I fancied at the time that I was performing technical miracles, much of the evidence for this dizzy level of competence being provided by clenched teeth, cold sweat, chronic sleeplessness, and voodoo mutterings as I tested rhymes while walking along. Baudelaire once claimed he could tell that Victor Hugo was composing couplets in his head by the way he walked. I probably looked as if I was failing to compose them. Often I failed to walk. I would have to get out my notebook, sit down suddenly, and write. Eventually the poem was in a condition where I could hand it to Dai, who agreed to play all the parts except two. I would be the narrator. The role of Peregrine Prykke himself I offered to Martin Amis.

How I persuaded Martin to say yes to this proposition remains a mystery to me and, I dare say, to him. In the normal course of events, Martin, rather than step into the spotlight, would prefer to die in an unarmed attack on the power station supplying its electric current. His genuine modesty is the main reason for the fateful discrepancy between him and the journalistic literary sexton beetles who make copy out of him: they would like to receive the degree of attention that he would like to avoid, and the clearer it becomes that he would like to avoid it, the more they resent him for failing to appreciate their generosity. But he said yes to being cast as my doomed young hero. I can only conclude that he saw truth in the role, although Perry’s odyssey, like the personal history of any character in anything I have ever written, is drawn almost exclusively from my own experience. (Whence my thanks to fate that I went travelling so much in the next twenty years: otherwise I would have written endlessly about a man staring through a window at a lake dotted with the white floating bellies of dead carp.) Warning me that he must not be expected to do any acting, Martin settled down to study the part. I assured him, truthfully, that most of the acting would be done by Dai.

And so it happened. The literati packed into the hall at the ICA heard their own voices coming back at them out of Dai’s mouth. There was no scenery, just the three of us with a lectern and a microphone each, but one of the microphones was a cornucopia. Characters in the poem who weren’t present to hear themselves speak heard about it soon enough. (It was on the evidence of the reception for Bob Lull’s featured role in Peregrine Prykke’s Pilgrimage, and not the attention given to Edward Pygge’s Three Sonnets by Robert Lowell, that Elizabeth Hardwick was able to inform her ex-husband, ‘They’re laughing at you in London, Cal.’) Martin had no trouble indicating the diffidence of the young Perry taking his first steps on the path to glory. As the hubristic, slightly less young Perry on the road to perdition he was less convincing, but he got away with it. More amazingly, in the face of Dai’s virtuosity, I got away with it. The audience was riveted even when not howling. Nobody went to sleep except Charles Monteith of Faber, and a few days later he sent me a note pleading jet lag. What might have seemed like a colonial’s act of retributive arrogance was saved by the laughs and by a central truth: the destruction of Perry’s innocence was bound to happen, because destroying innocence is what literature does. Since any group feels flattered when told that it lives by jungle law, the audience afterwards queued to pat my head. Most of the compliments felt genuine, although there was one from Michael Frayn that bothered me momentarily. ‘It was the scale of the thing that amazed me.’ Since he could equally have meant the scale of the disaster, this noncommittal encomium can be recommended for use among all the other anodyne stand-by effusions for when you ‘go around’ after the performance. ‘What can I say?’ ‘Well, you did it again!’ ‘Only you could have given us an evening like that.’ And: ‘It was the scale of the thing that amazed me.’

But paranoia soon proved to be inappropriate. Apart from the gratifying hubbub on the night, there were a couple of immediate reactions next day that would have yielded a double thrill if they had not so neatly cancelled each other out. Ian Hamilton, who obviously hadn’t at all minded being renamed Ian Hammerhead, asked me for the whole 1,400-line text so that he could print it as a limited-edition booklet in soft covers, and then, in full, in the New Review. I was so chuffed at his reacting with unequivocal approval to one of my poems that I said yes before realizing other editors might have similar ideas. Anthony Thwaite, then the literary editor of the globe-girdling Encounter, asked if he could print the whole thing. If Encounter had carried the poem, I would have been unarguably established as a poet from that day forth, no ifs, no buts. There were excellent reasons for double-crossing Ian. But they didn’t seem quite as excellent as the reasons for keeping my word. And as Dai put it, over a pint at the Pillars, Encounter would have paid me folding money, and we couldn’t have that.

Cape paid folding money up front to both of us when it commissioned a booklet of the Improved Version of the poem illustrated throughout by the omnicompetent Dai, whose graphic constructions were as inventive as his verbal ones. To jump forward a bit, I undertook an Improved Version when I realized that the versification of the original was intolerably clumsy. James Fenton helped me realize it. Never hesitant with criticism, he told me that I had glaringly failed to count my syllables. I didn’t like him for saying so, but when I started counting I could see that he was right. So I rewrote the whole thing. There is always a danger, when you start watching your technique too closely, that you will develop the kind of mani`ere aigre that crippled Renoir after Degas scared him back to school. But a form like rhyming couplets — like, indeed, all the set verse forms — gets a lot of its propulsion from its precision. So I think I sped the poem up, and I’m sure I sped up the companion piece that followed it. The following year’s epic was The Fate of Felicity Fark in the Land of the Media, with illustrations by Mark Boxer, who hated the title. More than twenty years later I decided he had been right, and I scrapped the poem along with two more mock epics that followed in the same track. For the second poem, the modest performance in the ICA had once more gone well, and this time a long extract from the text was run by the Sunday Times, much to the Observer’s disapproval. Another year on, the next epic venture, Britannia Bright’s Bewilderment in the Wilderness of Westminster, once again with drawings by ‘Marc’, was front-paged by the Observer in retaliation. Or I might have got those two serializations in reverse: it doesn’t matter now. But it all mattered like mad to me then. Though personally I still feel that my four mock epics got technically and dramatically more adroit as they succeeded one another, there might have been something to the prevalent critical idea that Peregrine Prykke’s Pilgrimage was the best of them because the literary world was the ambience I knew most about. It was an idea I resisted might and main, because I was having too much fun to quit. If I couldn’t have a reputation as a serious poet, this alternative means of expressing myself in verse made a much bigger splash. The poems were written to real contracts, were performed like plays, were showcased on the front of the review sections: more buzz than the average British movie. Even better, they spoke directly to the audience, without intermediaries. ‘At least I can tell, with your stuff,’ John Cleese once told me, ‘why it’s written that way. With most poetry I can’t do that.’ Such off-trail encouragement wasn’t the same as official endorsement, but maybe different was better. And anyway, how much attention could I ask for? My life in the literary world looked more stable than poor Perry’s. I had the column, the commissions for features, some solid reviewing connections, I was the author of a couple of books of bits and pieces, and now, running alongside, there was this mini-industry of the mock epic. I didn’t see how anything could stop me.