A movie set in the Middle East

Somewhere, someone’s filming a movie set in the Middle East. It’s not the Middle East but we’re led to believe we’re there, in a crowded marketplace, waiting for something to happen. Does that scare you? It’s supposed to. Does it frighten you too? The way documentaries used to?

A criminal mastermind sits in a barbershop, being shaved. This scares me, too. An underling brings bad news. The criminal mastermind waves the barber away, pulls off the white smock, the shaving cream still smeared all over his face. His face half-shaved. I’m scared of that, too.

I no longer frequent markets. I stay home at night, the curtains drawn. It’s like I’m dreaming, or underwater but I’m scared, that’s all. I’m scared of men. This world. Their bright lies dressed as ideas. The rain that makes night. The train that doesn’t stop. That scares me, still.

The questions we refuse to ask. The dreams we refuse to remember. The planes I refused to see streaking across the desert sky. The taxes I ignored as shopping lists slammed into hillsides. Does it scare you? The way documentaries do? I’m scared of the things we pretend we don’t do.

Are you scared yet? I am. I’m stuck in a movie set in the Middle East. Something’s about to happen, but I don’t yet know who to. I look around, and all I see is fear. When the blast comes I’m scared I’ll miss it. I always miss it. People call me timid, but perhaps they’re scared of me too.

The Invention of Marzipan

Readers familiar with William Shakespeare’s dramatic works will recall Act I, Scene V of Romeo and Juliet, wherein the first Servant, whilst clearing away plates, says:

Away with the joint stools, remove the court cubbert, look to the plate. Good thou, save me a piece of marchpane; and as thou loves me let the porter let in Susan Grindstone and Nell. Antony, and Potpan!

William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

That this ‘piece of marchpane’, a confection known today as Marzipan—but also marci panis, march payne, martiapanes, panis marcius, marzepaines, mauthaban, marzapane, mazapán, massepain, martaban, martevaan, mawtaban, matapan, mazapan and marzapanetti—should hold such high value for a Servant clearings scraps speaks volumes about the peculiar mystery of this particular Stuffe but also the vicissitudes of human hunger.

In 1926 the German novelist and future Nobel Prize winner Thomas Mann made a speech on the 700th anniversary of his home town of Lubeck, Germany, in which he too discussed Marzipan:

Now if anyone wishes to vent a little spite against me, or take a casual swipe at me, I can count on his bringing up my Luebeck origin and Luebeck marzipan. If some ill-wisher can think of nothing else, he invariably thinks of connecting me with comic marzipan and representing me as a marzipan baker. Such stuff goes by the name of literary satire. But it does not bother me … And I certainly do not feel in the least insulted about the marzipan. In the first place it is a very tasty confection, and in the second place it is anything but trivial; rather it is remarkable and, as I have said, mysterious … And if we examine this sweet more closely, this mixture of almonds, rosewater and sugar, the suspicion arises that it is originally oriental, a [Haremskonfekt] confection for the harem, and that in all probability the recipe for this barely digestible delicacy came to Luebeck from the Orient by way of Venice … And it turns out that those wits are not so wrong as they themselves think, that Death in Venice is really ‘marzipan’ although in a deeper sense than they ever meant it.

Thomas Mann, ‘Lubeck as a Way of Life and Thought’ (1926)

I discovered the text of this incredible speech serendipitously, while searching for a copy of Death In Venice in the Baillieu Library at the University of Melbourne. The speech, given on the occasion of the seven hundredth anniversary of Luebeck’s founding, can be found in the 1980 Knopf edition of another of Mann’s novels, Buddenbrooks, which describes the daily lives of a prominent Merchant family in Luebeck. Mann’s reputation in Luebeck, it is said, suffered a downturn upon the publication of the novel, when various real-life Luebeckers recognised themselves in the book’s cast of characters.

Mann’s descriptions of the drowning city in Death In Venice were echoed by a late-20th-century historian, Peter Lauritzen, who provides the following description of the Church of the Gesuiti in Venice:

The Gesuiti’s pulpit is an elaborate confection swathed in the heavy folds of a voluminous brocade curtain . . . This white curtain decorated in a handsome green damask pattern is in fact made of marble; all of the walls of the church are covered with this same white and green imitation damask made of verde antico inlaid in slabs of white marble. The illusion is extraordinary.

Peter Lauritzen, Venice: A Thousand Years of Culture and Civilization

Mann’s creation of a triumvirate of Confections—Marzipan, Venice and Lubeck—may well have been palatable to the guests listening to his speech. This is all very well. However, Mann’s addition of a fourth characterisation of Marzipan as a Haremskonfekt, surely, would not have gone down well in Lubeck.

For it is in Lubeck—a UNESCO World Heritage city, an island in the middle of a River, quite close to the Baltic Sea—that a strange myth, concerning the invention of Marzipan, has been propagated. According to the bare bones of the story, Marzipan was invented in Lubeck in 1407 during a Famine, or Hungersnot so severe that all there was left to eat were some almonds, eggs and sugar. When these three ingredients were combined, so the story goes, Marzipan was invented, and the villagers (presumably) escaped death at the hands of the Hungersnot.

Indeed, by implication, the Marzipan could be said to have saved the people of Luebeck from hunger forevermore, thus constituting a miraculous substance, not unlike the breadtree explorers dreamt of transporting across entire oceans, or manna flung down from Heaven.

Luebeck’s manufacturers of Marzipan have at various stages helped propagate the myth, despite the overwhelming evidence pointing to Marzipan’s origins lying much further east: towards Persia (or even further east, in India, maybe even New Guinea) many hundreds (if not thousands) of years earlier.

Therefore for Mann to describe Marzipan, or to be exact the Marzipan made in Lubeck, as a confection originating from a Harem must have sounded completely depraved to some ears that night back in June, 1926.

Today, Lubeck’s makers of Marzipan (including the Carstens and Niederegger companies) freely admit to the improbability of the Luebeck Marzipan myth. Their company websites, which in the mid to late 1990s spoke about the Famine in Luebeck and the invention of Marzipan as though it actually happened had, by the turn of this century, been toned down somewhat:

Today, everyone agrees that Luebeck is not the origin of Marzipan. Simply the fact that within our northern climate there is, understandably, a lack of almond trees, demonstrates that this is not the place to look for its origins. Even so, due to the high level of awareness of “Luebecker Marzipan”, one is tempted to associate its origin with Luebeck … some ancient accounts state that the recipe for Marzipan came via Italy directly to a Luebeck merchant. However there are no documents or other form of proof for this or for the many anecdotes and sagas.

Carstens GmbH, ‘History of Marzipan’ (2003)

and:

The origin of marzipan is now known to be the Orient where the delicate almond-sugar mixture was served at the Sultan’s table as the crowning of a meal. Through Arabian rule marzipan reached Spain and Portugal, and during the Crusades spread through the rest of Europe via the trading port of Venice.

Niederegger GmbH, ‘Lubeck Marzipan conquers the world’ (1999)

Some people just can’t help themselves, however. The following text from the German-language website Marzipanland has been translated using the Babelfish translation engine:

Everywhere on earth one knows Luebecker marzipan. The mad taste is simply unmistakable! There one does not think at all of the emergency situation, from the marzipan developed. There are several stories, but the probably most well-known one means that during a hunger emergency at the disposal were to the bakers of Luebeck nothing different one than almonds, sugars and rose oil, in order to protect the citizens death. From this the bakers developed “the Marcus bread”, our current Marzipan, is subject to which strict regulations and high quality requirements. Only marzipan, which consists to 60% of almonds and at the most 40% sugar, may call itself Luebecker noble edel-Marzipan.

Marzipanland, ‘Marzipan’ (2002)

In 2002 I visited Luebeck, an act which would effectively bring me full circle in my investigations into the Stuffe, a journey of some ten years now, and counting. Inside a store in the centre of Luebeck I discovered a museum dedicated to the Stuffe, featuring a table at which sat eleven statues, each composed entirely of Marzipan.

I found a Santa Claus (or Weihnachtsmann), a Nun, J.G. Niederegger (the founder of the Niederegger company), Thomas Mann himself, a Merchant (Burgermeister Jurgen Wullenwever), a Baroque novelist by the name of Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen, the Emperor Karl IV, his Mother Luise Charlotte, a child, an Apotheker and a Persian.

The photocopied notes accompanying the exhibit suggested that each of these figures (or figurines) had played a key role in the history and development of Marzipan, in Luebeck at least.

The Niederegger Marzipan table (detail), featuring Thomas Mann et al.

The Niederegger Marzipan table (detail), featuring Thomas Mann et al.

When I saw this astonishing scene, I experienced the kind of feeling one suspects historians seeking confirmation of inexplicable connections or correspondences must enjoy. Almost a decade before I had set out to write a novel about Marzipan, beginning with a small child sleeping inside a box.

I first read about the Luebeck Marzipan myth in 1997, using Internet search engines, drawing inferences and connections from translated materials, as well as various Cook Books, confectionery histories, books for children (including Virginia Arpadi’s delightful story of a Marzipan-coloured cat), vague hunches and a pinch of the imaginary. Here, before me, was a sixteenth Century novelist holding a strange object out in front of him, made entirely of Marzipan! What more confirmation did I need?

Under normal circumstances, this tableau alone might have proved sufficient stimulus for a writer wishing to reconstruct the events surrounding the fabled invention of Marzipan in Luebeck, substituting this table of statues for the presumed star or stars of such an historical drama — that is, the real inventors of Marzipan, who may well have been Dutch invaders, Venetian monks, a wily Apotheker, a snow storm, a well-fed Merchant or some desperate Bakers.

The accumulated knowledge with which I arrived in Luebeck however constituted an accumulation of fragments, sinews and bones. Here, finally, positioned behind a long flat table, was a set of bodies within which to insert the few historical fragments I had found, like relics of saints embedded in plaster.

Furthermore, inside the Marienkirche in the centre of Luebeck I experienced the full majesty of the Gothic culture in both architecture and painting which has produced such extraordinary monuments as the reconstructed Totentanz (‘dance of death’), an elaborate stained glass tapestry of skeletons and townsfolk engaged in not so much a dance as a grim tug of war, alternating panels in which either the villagers or the skeletons have the upper hand. At its base, the glass panels burn red, with the famous Luebeck spires engulfed in flames. Meanwhile, two of the skeletons kneel in prayer over the baby Jesus.

All of these scenes, tableaux, snippets of information and direct experiences informed, to some degree, my master’s thesis. It acknowledges the many stories about Marzipan propagated in other parts of the world. It nods its head at the island of Sicily, where Almonds have a rich and deep connection with that sandy piece of earth. It extends a hand of faith to the Orders of Nuns throughout Europe whose clandestine manufacture of Marzipan continued almost without pause throughout the Middle Ages, due in part to St Thomas Aquinas’ famous dictum that the ingestion of this exquisite Confection did not break the fast.

Nevertheless, even St Thomas would have resigned himself to the inevitability of secrecy surrounding the exact details of the Nuns’ exact Recipes for Marzipan, and would surely have noted also the practice within such orders of hiding such Recipes inside the mind of the Mother Superior, to be passed on only at the instant before death, via the ears of her successor.

In my Confection, Marzipan is assumed to be composed of three basic ingredients: Eggs, Almonds and Sugar. Some recipes substitute honey or rosewater for sugar, egg whites for eggs – but it is the Almond that gives Marzipan both its bittersweet taste and its creamy colour.

Marzipan is remembered differently elsewhere. Charles Butler’s The History of Bees contains the following recipe for Marchpane:

Marchpane may be made after this manner. Boil and clarify by it self, so much Honey as you think meet; when it is cold; take to every pound of Honey the white of an Egg, and beat them together in a basin, till they be incorporate together, and wax white: and when you have boiled it again two or three walms upon a fire of coals, continually stirring it: then put to it such quantity of blanched Almonds or Nut-kernels stamped, as shall make it of a just consistency: and after a walm or two more, when it is well mixed, pour it out upon a Table, and make up your marchpane. Afterward you may ice it with Rose-water and sugar. This is good for the Consumption.

Charles Butler, The History of Bees (1634)

Fourteen years later, in 1648, poet Robert Herrick immortalised the Stuffe in verse:

This day my Julia thou must make
For mistress Bride, the wedding Cake:
Knead but the Dow and it will be
To paste of Almonds turned by thee:
Or kisser it thou, but once or twice,
And for the Bride-Cake there’ll be Spice.

Robert Herrick, ‘The Bride Cake‘ (1648)

Although the authenticity of Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Romanoff is highly questionable, one also notes with interest according to that unverified collection of his sketches and recipes that Marchpane was sculpted by (let’s call him) Leonardo into bricks and used as foundation stones for his elaborate models.

Interestingly, though the Marzipan he used was made by the Sisters of Santa Corona, Leonardo believed that only a man could be a confectioner, ‘on account a woman’s frame is unsuited to lifting great weights of Marzipan’. He supposedly went on to list the pre-requisites for attaining the station of Confectioner:

Secondly, he should be clean and clear-skinned—for little is so off-putting to those about to eat his creations as a spotted Confectioner, or one with long hairs which may have transferred themselves from his body into his confection. Thirdly, he should have studied in architecture. For without a true knowledge of weights and stresses he cannot create confections which will stand on their own and not be liable to subsidence or even total collapse.

?, Codex Romanoff

The confectioner finally speaks of his confections thusly:

I have noted, sadly, that my Lord Lodovico and his court digest the carvings I give to them to the last crumb and now I am set to find some other substance their palates shall less appreciate that my works may survive.

?, Codex Romanoff

This leads so-called Leonardo to speculate on a form of the Marzipan which his audience would not be tempted to eat. A mixture so bitter-tasting that after even the smallest nibble, the offender would be forced to put any further thought of ingestion out of his mind. One could speculate upon many ingredients for such a Confection, which would not constitute Marzipan per se but some derivative or substitute substance (e.g. persipan, a Confection containing not almonds but peach kernels).

The adaptability of Marzipan to the confectionary and decorative arts is well-documented, in both modern day and historical Cook Books. According to a source identified only as ‘Dr Cabanes’ in the Nouveau Larousse Gastronomique, the author Balzac was also reputed to have written endorsements for the Stuffe on the streets of Paris:

In 1884 a rumour began to circulate that the author of la Comedie humaine (BALZAC) had set himself up as a confectioner. No one talked of anything else on the stock exchange, in the foyer of the opera, at the [theatre] and in all the cafes on the Paris boulevardes. Several thousand copies of a curious circular [exhorting its readers to frequent a particular shop selling Issoudon Marzipan, and also containing what purported to be an extract from one of Balzac’s novels] had just made their appearance in Paris . . . This circular bore no signature, and it was inferred that it came from the pen of Balzac or that of a friend, editor or colleague. No one else had ever thought of the idea of launching a confectioner’s shop with a paragraph from a novel. After making inquiries it was discovered that Balzac, though he did not go to the length of taking a hand in the work, patronised the confectioner’s shop in the rue Vivienne.

Montagne, P., Nouveau Larousse Gastronomique (1960)

In Persia the use of Marzipan or Marzipan-like substances (in some places called Mawtaban, or King on a Throne) has been constant in wedding ceremonies and other occasions relating to fertility and prosperity. Venice, at the cross-roads between Europe and the Middle East, was naturally one of the places in which Marzipan initially became available. The situation was similar further west in Verona, if Romeo and Juliet is anything to go by.

Meanwhile in Luebeck, also known as the Venice of the North, a trading town through which all manner of goods, including boxes of what the Venetians called St Mark’s Bread (Marci Panis), must have passed — in Luebeck it seems, there was a Famine … or the Marzipan ran out … or an invasion …

One final item in the exhibition I saw that day in Luebeck was a Marzipan globe of the world, placed on the table in front of the statues. The dull sheen of its surface bore no marks indicating landmasses or national borders — just a smooth, unwrinkled sand-coloured expanse, upon which the viewers themselves could draw imaginary empires. Such a premise might have infuriated an historical character such as Clemens von Metternich, philosopher-King of the Hapsburg Empire in the time of Napoleon, who wrote in his memoirs:

I was born to make history not to write novels and if I guess correctly this is because I know. Invention is the enemy of history which knows only discoveries, and only that which exists can be discovered.

Clemens von Metternich, Memoirs (Volume VII)

While not exactly a metaphor for my own work, the Marzipan globe reminded me that some myths still have the ability to outlive their inventors, discoverers, manufacturers and archivists.

Marzipan is far more complex than the myth invented in Luebeck would have one think. It squats in a ditch, like an animal awaiting extinction. Further vestiges of this miraculous Stuffe, including Relics, lie ever beneath us, and shall one day be discovered again.

The fact that it still exists makes my task as a modern day confectioner (in Leonardo’s terms anyway) that much easier. I look forward to sharing the results of my recipes with you.


This piece was originally presented at the University of Melbourne, as part of the Department of English and Cultural Studies’ Secrecy Colloquium (2003), and later published in the refereed journal Antithesis (2004).

A Brief History of Marzipan

Introduction

In 18- the French poet and philosopher Francois de P- described Marzipan (long may its resins perfume these pages!) as a ‘barbarous relic’ of imperial colonisation that had ‘utterly undermined’ diplomatic and trade relationships across the globe. Commonly denounced today as a ‘sordid’ hallucinogenic drug with few (if any) medical applications, pure Marzipan is becoming increasingly difficult to find and even harder to duplicate. Few modern scholars are familiar with its History, though they pride themselves on their ability to reel off an incredible number of dates, creeds and manifestoes from other Histories, both religious and political.

Amongst this civic paraphernalia, Marzipan squats in a ditch, like an animal awaiting extinction; like its familiars – those historical characters who manipulated, counterfeited and deregulated it. Relics of this miraculous substance are rumoured to lie, buried and silent, beneath us, a series of bombs that shall one day go off. Until such a time, this Recipe for Marzipan shall have to suffice. As ye will hopefully come to appreciate, while de P- may have been right about Marzipan’s shady reputation in the colonial eras, there yet remain some practical uses to which Marzipan can be put, at little or no expense to any, for the enjoyment and edification of all.

Ahem

Though much of History is anecdotal, one thing we know for sure is that the great scientist and explorer Captain Cook discovered the island continent of Ahem in the year 1769. The exact sequence of events is blurred, however it seems certain that this discovery acted as an imperial order, or command, whose spirit would one day be reflected in the national anthem of said continent, “Advance, Ahem, It’s Bare” (see sep. entry). For Cook also made a second discovery — namely, that Ahem was a wild and inhospitable country, conveniently devoid of inhabitants, save one — his doppelganger, the elusive Captain Terrence Nullius.

Despite its great aura and obvious floral and faunal diversity, Cook refused to believe that Ahem might indeed be the Great Southern Land (that fabled Terra Australis explorers from all over Europe had long been searching for), choosing instead to name it in honour of the Great Excuse Me. Historians writing in eras less enlightened than our own have claimed that Cook was actually thinking of ‘a hem’, as in a border or rim, when he named the disappearing continent; this and other fallacious rumours have contributed to a revisionist version of history, in which Cook supposedly had no real idea what he was doing in the Newer World.

To which aye respond: not so. Cook was born at a time convenient enough for him to have learnt a great deal about the geography of the world — both from those brave few who reappeared over the horizon and the letters, journals and relics of those who had not, perhaps, been so fortunate as to return — and ancient enough for him to have learnt his trade, or at least the basics of it, aboard the ships that took coal to Whitby. May it give us strength in these times of political strain that Marzipan was discovered by him!

The Discovery of Marzipan

I mean, probably discovered by Captain Cook, in Ahem, during his first voyage there in 1769. For although Cook later swore, under great duress, that he had found the Marzipan in the ground, he was unable (or unwilling) to reveal the exact location of the X-spot where he had ‘found’ it.

Cook was so stubborn, in fact, that when asked whether he had conducted scientific analysis upon the Marzipan, he replied (somewhat facetiously) that he was an explorer, not a scientist. We now know that he knew full well Marzipan was (and still is) composed of almonds, eggs and sugar, plus a fourth element of unknown (possibly alien) origin. All the Jesuits could torture out of Cook on that sad occasion in Venice in 1797 was that although he had discovered both the Marzipan and an island continent, both these wondrous objects had since been dispersed, by a variety of means he again refused to elaborate upon.

Instead of deflating his Inquisitors’ interest, as Cook had hoped, this delectable rumour inflated and inflated, until it resembled (in size, at least) that giant Balloon which had disrupted those astronomical and meteorological forecasts of his back in Tahiti. It seems, in hindsight, that Cook might have been better off not saying anything at all about Ahem and the Marzipan when he arrived in Venice – for then, ironically, Ahem might not have been rediscovered and we might know more about the initial colonisation and destruction of said country.

Indeed, many more of Ahem’s singular charms might have endured had Cook not bothered to discover the Marzipan there in the first place. Regardless of the what-ifs, however, we can say with confidence that had it not been for the timely intervention of the Society of Cook, all that we take for granted today in the way of historical information might well have been lost.

The Cuckoos

In 1778, a Society dedicated to preserving the great store of knowledge Captain Cook (following in the footsteps of Marco Polo) brought back from China was established, inducting its first members, in a series of clandestine ceremonies in Venice, under the banner of the Society of Cook, or colloquially, the ‘Cuckoos’.

This absurd nom-de-plume has, unfortunately, stuck to the saintly Brotherhood, who of course endure it to this day with the utmost humility. It should be remembered at all times that Cook too was labelled insane and a pretender up until 1828, when his discoveries were verified by a second uncovering of Marzipan in Dulton, in the Land of Eggs.

Therefore to dismiss the Cuckoos as mere quacks would be to do them a great disservice, by failing to mention their years of selfless worship; their determination to disseminate Marzipan throughout the world for the sake of all mankind; and their magnificent documentation of confectionery history in The Cook Book, the first edition of which was printed in 1798, just one year after Cook’s return from China and the East.

The Cook Book

It is in The Cook Book that we find the first mention of that great island continent Ahem; of Cook’s scientific analysis of the Marzipan there in 1770; of the various other strains of Marzipan discovered in China; of Cook’s sojourns with the Emperor there in 1768 and 1771; and of his visionary adventures in India and Persia over the next twenty seven years. Aye cannot emphasise enough the importance of this source material to any examination of Cook’s Expeditionary Journals (and aye remind the astute reader of the extreme level of inconsistency between the various copies of these Journals held by interested parties).

The editors of The Cook Book decided early on to pursue a policy of constant revision and correction, thus making the publication a fascinating (if archaic) indicator of the growth of Marzipan’s influence upon world events. Students of Marzipan are especially advised to study the 1898 anniversary edition, in which can be found Fr. Joseph Reisenfall’s highly instructive retrospective, “A Century of Mistakes”.

In this article may be found the first frank discussion of Cook’s (even by then) legendary inability to make good decisions. Fr. Reisenfall correctly identifies Cook’s greatest mistake as his decision to establish the price of Marzipan as the bulwark of the international slave trade in 1805. In that year it was also Cook who suggested to the Jesuits that a day be set aside annually to conduct a re-enactment of his discovery of Marzipan, in order to kindle popular interest and, if possible, convert as many as possible to the cult of the strange stuff.

This suggestion was eagerly taken up by the Jesuits (or should aye say, Cuckoo elements within the Jesuit Order), who used their well-known powers of persuasion to make the day of observance a reality both in Venice and in the towns and cities within a one hundred and seventeen mile radius of it. Further, when Napoleon’s occupation of Venice continued unopposed (to the Republicans’ great shame), it was the Cuckoos who encouraged the people, as a gesture of defiance, to coat the walls of their churches and villas with Marzipan. Thus Venice hid its gold and silver from the prying eyes of Bonaparte’s henchman. The fame of Marzipan grew rapidly then, infused as it was with the reckless spirit of a magnificent Empire’s impending disintegration.

Persipan

It was through the influence of the Cuckoos that the Republicans discovered the recipe for Persipan (long may its wonders be glazed and displayed!), another useful substance which could indeed be put to many other uses. The stuff became highly sought-after, both in the Beautiful City itself and in other ports including Calais, Naples and Lübeck. Trade lines drawn hesitantly across the continent continued confidently on, into and across the seas; foreign rulers demanded large quantities and watched with interest as their subjects scrambled for the scraps; and songs were sung in its honour from Cape Town to Montreal. At no other time in the history of the world had so many Venetians been so happy.

With the benefit of hindsight, however, it must be said that these spontaneous expressions of joy were the first indicators of a malaise known today as Marzipan Psychosis, of which the great Captain was, arguably, the first (un)diagnosed case. This of course explains the rather disturbing change of pace in Cook’s Expeditionary Journals upon his reaching the River Jordan in 1788; it also explains the meticulous documentation of Cook’s withdrawal symptoms by the Jesuits in 1797 – his insomnia, the vividness with which he was able to recall his dreams and his absurd claims that he was the son of the Emperor of China. The Jesuits ended up learning a great deal about this ‘supposed’ substance from Cook, simply by administering various other drugs, the effects of which could be compared and contrasted by Cook himself at a later date, if he so wished. It was no wonder therefore that, five weeks after arriving in Venice, Cook decided on a career change and became a consultant to the Jesuit Order in Rome.

From the tragic day of Cook’s death onwards, all decisions with regards Marzipan were made by the Cuckoos themselves. So we find, in the 1835 edition of The Cook Book, the disastrous decision to raise the standard price of Marzipan from one slave to two slaves per ounce. To be fair, this resolution was based on an economic as well as a practical imperative — for, while the ingredients constituting Marzipan were by that time well-known and easy enough to reproduce, processing them to the desired consistency remained prohibitively expensive and required massive amounts of manpower. Therefore, the Cuckoos reasoned, by making Marzipan more expensive (and, by corollary, slaves less so), production would increase, thus increasing supply.

However, operators who had been manufacturing Marzipan at the old rate found that they now faced competition from new market players who, haven waited until the price rose, began to speculate heavily in Persipan, thus splitting demand. Prices sky-rocketed and violent social upheaval was of course both the logical and actual result. The effect this schism of taste was to have on the slave-trading system can be illustrated by a simple comparison between the sweet, seersucker folk tales spun by Arabian beggar men and the blander but still intriguing mythology that has grown around the so-called ‘Angel of Marzipan’, especially in the little town of Lubeck, in Germany.

In the name of Marzipan and of Persipan and of our Terror, Nullius, Ahem.

This piece was first published in New England Review (University of New England: Armidale, Australia, 1999).

the night i met beck

at home nightclub they searched my cigarettes for drugs lucky they didn’t check my brain coz i was high on life man on the inside we climbed these stairs to the chill-out lounge & i was sitting with my sister at this coke-stained table when what do you know but along comes beck looking sheepish in a wolf-whistling kind of way do yah mind if ah join ye he says in this british accent you’re beck i said no ah’m not ah’m from leeds says beck ah that explains it i say humouring him you’re undercover tonight yeah i get it no worries man no need to explain your secret’s safe with us no really ah am from leeds beck says okay then i say have you heard of the wedding present? they’re a great band from leeds nowt sure he says maybe a little before your time eh beck? now listen beck says you guys are really great & excellent to talk to but nought’s enough ah’m going back to join mah mates also from leeds eh beck i taunted him that’s obvious see you later then i had to laugh he must have been on the disco biscuits coz he was back in a flash hi beck i said fancy a red bull thanks eh you guys are really great beck says hey no problems i say i really love your early work that version of rock me amadeus couldn’t have come from leeds you know mtv made me want to smoke crack too beck until i saw you tonight & realised that due to this establishment’s strict drugs policy you’ve probably taken yours already okay beck says finally you’re right i am beck & this has all been an elaborate joke for the benefit of my friends no don’t look they still think it’s a joke you know i said you almost convinced me with that leeds accent but now you’ve admitted who you really are i thank you for your honesty to tell you the truth he says i’m so smashed i thought you were sting so i belted him one no ah’m not ah’m from leeds i said & mah name’s david oh right sure sting says beck & ah’m the fooking police!

(first published in Going Down Swinging 2001)

Unrequited Love Letter

Dear You,

I’ve been meaning to write for ages. So many times I started off, barely reaching the end of my ‘salutation’ before giving up: “Dear Yo-” and so on. I wore the delete key thin with my maniacal backspacing, back-treading; I resorted to a global ‘find-and-replace’ to get rid of the last traces of you but still no luck.

I forwarded all of my emails to a really obscure (though free) Russian account I had set up, I think it was:

ibelongtoyou@yourenotevenawareofthefact.ru

I even set myself a really difficult password prompt – what is your favourite number? I looked away while I banged the numbers in, just to be sure I’d never, ever remember it. Then I logged out, cleared my cache, underwent hypnotism and hung upside down for a few days, just to be sure no trace of a clue remained as to how to access the account, or you.

Not that you cared. If you ever even thought of me, I’m sure the only thing you would have thought was: why go to such ridiculous extremes when the contents of the emails themselves are burned on the back of your earlobes anyway, causing them to redden every time you think of me, which isn’t often – but often enough to fuck me up for good?

But all of this is probably yawn-inducing for you. Fair enough. It’s the story of my life, after all – not yours. From the moment we met I knew you would never feel about me the way I wanted you to. You would never reply to my emails, my texts and poems filled with cryptic messages for you to decipher.

I started attending spoken word events miles from my home just to have an opportunity to read those awful poems to an uncomprehending audience, and also I guess in the vain hope that you too had developed a taste for poetry performed in semi-rural venues.

That bit was wrong, at least, though I did get a good response from one of the venue’s owners, who immediately offered me a job on the late shift. I need someone like you to help me close up, he said. All you have to do is read out some of your poems at about 1am. Once the place is empty, you can help me clean up. Let’s face it, at $10 an hour, I was never going to get a better offer. Not from you, anyway.

You said you didn’t understand poetry. I’ve heard that cop-out so many times before. What’s not to understand? I love you, like I said in each and every one of those poems, and devastating as it was to see their effect on the late-night clientele of the sad-sack mountain tavern, that was nothing when compared with your brutal lack of recognition.

It was like I wasn’t even there screaming the words at you, like the poem itself was just hanging in the air, or else piped from a set of invisible speakers just above street level, that day you ran for the tram rather than stand and talk with me.

Do I have AIDS? What would you care! You and your homophobic friends, who needs you anyway! Because you know what? In my mind I do things to you that you might think were illegal, and you’d probably be right, if we were living in Saudi Arabia.

The things I do to you in my mind make those poems I screamed at you like I was throwing daggers at the back of your head sound like a fumbling teen romance. And the funny thing is that in my mind you’re begging for it. You can’t get enough of me. You’re the innocent one, shocked by my advances, devastated by my eventual rejection.

In desperation, you enrol in a CAE creative writing workshop, just to find the right words to throw back at me. But of course, in this scenario, I’ve stacked the class with bitter bush poets, and they tear your pathetic verses to pieces.

You respond by storming out of the class, hoping to catch the last train to a semi-rural tavern where you know of a small performance poetry reading, the open section of which you might just be lucky enough to catch.

I remain, of course, two thousand steps ahead of you, having contrived to cause the metropolitan transit authority’s service level to deteriorate so badly that no trains are running at all, anywhere. It’s all right, though. Just as you despair of ever getting home, I come along in my dream car and offer you a lift. You’re so happy to see me that you accept my proposition immediately.

Now that I have you where I want you, it almost seems unnecessary to write this letter after all. I mean, where once you dismissed me as a clinging and pathological no-hoper, now you’re all ears. You’re offering constructive and thoughtful feedback, and shyly showing me your delicate (though childish) haiku. It’s cute, it’s endearing.

You’re devouring the canon, immersed in erotic poetry. I’m spoon-feeding you Sappho, you’re swallowing the Aeniad whole. We come up for air once every week or so to attend a poetry reading, randomly selected from the thousands of events that seem to have been organised just so we could ignore them.

Just so we could say that we were attending and then cancel at the last minute, without telling anybody.

Does this sound familiar? In a sense it is. It’s the sound of what you could have had. It’s the sound of your right hand snapping off as a result of excessive self-stimulation. It’s the sound of a keyboard tapping away in an empty internet cafe. It’s the sound of all the poems you never wrote, the words you never emoted.

It’s the sound of an unrequited love letter being delivered to a house you left long ago, without so much as a forwarding address. Now I’m slipping through the mail slot to land on the floor of a hallway littered with newspapers and pizza delivery menus. It’s kind of peaceful. I think I might just stay here for a while.

Or maybe just forever.

Yours, etc.