I confess to being a citizen of Port Naain. Not merely do I live here, I was born here, my parents were born here, and so were my ancestors for many years before that. Thus I imbibed the culture and mores of the city with my mother’s milk. I also imbibed the little foibles of our city, such as parochialism and the tendency to look down on our neighbours.
I do not think this is purely something that pertains to Port Naain. It is my experience that those who dwell in all large metropolitan areas tend to sneer at the inhabitants of their hinterland. After some thought I came to the conclusion that it was done as a form of self-justification. Thus teachers believe in the value of education, dancers believe in the power of dance, poets will tell you, quite rightly, that poetry is essential to life, and city dwellers will sneer at the peasantry. After all who wants to look back on a long life wasted in some futile pursuit? Similarly who wants to leave their peasant village for the squalor and stench of Port Naain and admit to themselves they might as well have stayed where they were? So even those of us who have always lived here come to feel superior to those lesser beings who struggle to live a civilised life beyond the city boundaries. We ask ourselves, has any great poet come from the provincial towns and villages of our hinterland? The answer comes back, ‘of course not.’ In reality I can think of several, but because they spent a little time in the city before fleeing back to the more salubrious surroundings of their home town or village, we claim them for the city, pointing out it was contact with the more sophisticated society of Port Naain that lifted them to greatness.
I’m sure that over the years you will all have seen the display cabinet in the Hall of Records in Port Naain. The one near the great door, on the left as you go in. The contents used to be in private hands but were accepted by the city in settlement of debt. It consists of a selection of the elegantly carved ebony earlobe ornaments, nipple tassels, sheaths and feathered butt plugs worn by the traditional male Hootchy-Kootchy dancers from the lands to the north of Port Naain.
As you can imagine, those busy citizens of the city who dash past to compete some errand or another can see the display and smile, comforted by the knowledge that some of their neighbours are so benighted as to build their courtship rituals on prancing virtually naked in the winter snows as they enact complex rituals.
In reality things are quite different. The tale starts with Gaffer, or rather Gaffer’s grandfather. Gaffer Alfren was an occasional patron of mine. A nice old chap, he became as much a friend as a source of employment. It was he who first told me about the Hootchy-Kootchy dancers. Apparently Gaffer’s grandfather used to do a lot of business along the north coast. Nothing exotic, just shipping commodities, timber, cut stone, fish, and some lichens. When he was at home he was a devoted family man, spending as much time as possible with his children. One tradition which he stuck to for many years was the bedtime story.
Now small children have a fixed view of the world. They know that sea captains travel to strange and exotic parts and see many wonderful things. So they demanded that their father tell them of the things he’d seen. To be absolutely honest, the north coast lacks glamour. The villages there are full of solid, sensible people, just getting on with their lives. Decent enough folk but lacking in local colour.
But no father can tell his children this. So he embroidered his stories, added those little touches that appeal to a young child’s sense of wonder. One of these small touches were the Hootchy-Kootchy dancers. Now for some reason, his oldest son, Gaffer’s father, became fixated with these dancers. As a small child, no more than eight, he didn’t grasp the humour of the courtship rituals which set his mother to giggling as she overheard the tales. So occasionally the old man would fetch back artefacts, cunningly carved ear ornaments, silver mounted nipple tassels and similar.
Matters would doubtless have stopped there, had not the boy mentioned his collection of artefacts to the teacher at the small academy he attended.
The teacher asked Gaffer’s grandfather to come into school and to tell the assembled pupils about these Hootchy-Kootchy dancers. Grandfather of course obliged, and his lectures became something of a fixture on the curriculum. It was at this point that Grandmother stepped in. A lady with a lively sense of humour she bet her husband that he couldn’t put together a troop of Hootchy-Kootchy dancers to perform in Port Naain. Her husband rose to the challenge and when he next sailed into Sweethaven he stood at the bar of the Fish Salter’s Arms and called for volunteers. Given that he was offering work during the winter when fishing is a chancy trade at the best of times, there was some interest. They talked it over and when he sailed back south, they had a plan. On his next trip he was met by a full Hootchy-Kootchy troop a dozen strong. Apparently, and remember that it is before my time, they performed to packed houses in Port Naain. Indeed they were greeted with rapturous applause, especially by ladies in the audience.
Since then, it has become something of a family tradition for the Alfrens to bring south a troop of Hootchy-Kootchy dancers. I do remember Gaffer doing it; perhaps fifteen years ago now.
Obviously you might ask why nobody has discovered the truth. According to Gaffer, if you travel north of the city and ask for Hootchy-Kootchy dancers, the locals will just tell you that, “We used to dance dances like that in my grandfather’s time. Apparently they still do further north.”
If our intrepid cultural explorer continues north and eventually reaches Sweethaven, they get a very similar answer. Somebody will take them to the edge of the town and point to a high pass in the mountains, just visible in the distance. “They live over there. It’s only really passible in winter when the ground is frozen hard and you can cross the crevasses and loose scree on a safe carpet of frozen snow.”
So far nobody has headed north over the pass to continue their quest. Or at least, if they have, they haven’t returned to tell us what they found.
Should you wish to read more of the exploits of Tallis Steelyard, his travails and his travels,
As a reviewer commented “Runaway Poet, Flat Boat Sailor, Master Gunner, Flower Arranging Judge, Adventurer and Escort of a beautiful young Lady, are only a few of the skills exhibited by Tallis Steelyard in this extraordinary story.
In my opinion, the world and characters from Jim Webster’s mind would make a wonderful TV series, starting with this one.”