In Ponga

In Ponga, you can recognise the satraps because they wear plumed hats. Or so I am told. In Gooma, by contrast, the hats of the satraps are unplumed, and look like any other hats sported by a million other Goomans. The satraps can be distinguished by their tattoos. Pongan satraps eschew tattooing, which is reserved for their shamen, but there are no shamen in Gooma. If one flies over the mountains into Gaar, one finds that the satraps wear plumed hats and sport tattoos, and that the chief method of adverting to their satrapdom is their habit of always carrying a bundle of tally sticks. The shamen of Gaar have both plumed hats and tattoos, but they do not carry tally sticks. They tie their hair in complex stylised knots.

This much I have learned, and am grateful to have learned, from a fascinating periodical entitled Satraps And Shamen Of Ponga And Gooma And Gaar. It is published on the first Thursday of each month, and is packed with articles and photographs and quizzes and competitions. Since I picked up a copy at a newsagent’s in an esplanade on a mezzanine level at an airport a short while ago it has become my absolute favourite periodical ever, even though I had no previous interest in either satraps or shamen, whether they were from Ponga or Gooma or Gaar or any other country you care to mention. I have been won over by the magazine’s excellence in all particulars, but mostly by its vividness. It is the most vivid of periodicals, more vivid even than the Reader’s Digest.

In Ponga, the satraps hold councils at which are discussed important meteorological issues. The Pongan shamen consider the weather to fall within their purview, and this can lead to clashes between satraps and shamen. Such clashes are conducted at a strictly verbal level, and give rise to some fascinating linguistic quirks. Because there are no shamen in Gooma, the Gooman satraps have the weather all to themselves and face no clashes. In Gaar, the shamen tie their hair in complex stylised knots.

I have said that Gaar is on the other side of the mountains from Ponga and Gooma, but I have yet to learn what these mountains are called, or indeed where they are. Vivid as the periodical is, I have to say that it is unforthcoming on matters geographical, and that is an understatement. I have been toying with the idea of writing a letter to the editor suggesting that a future issue might include some maps. When I was a little chap I had a passion for maps, just like the narrator of Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness. I am no longer a little chap at all, but I would like to see maps, colourful ones, of Ponga and Gooma and Gaar. They would make the periodical even more vivid than it already is.

In Ponga, the satraps have dominion over the birds of the air, or at least they act as if they do. They devise many laws to which the birds of the air are subject. Flightless birds fall within the remit of the shamen of Ponga. They do not create laws, but they consider flightless birds to be sacred, and count them, often. The satraps count the birds of the air also, with different purposes in mind. In Gooma, all known birds are poultry. In Gaar, the satraps carry tally sticks and the shamen tie their hair in complex stylised knots.

I stumbled upon my first copy of the periodical in that newsagent’s in an esplanade on a mezzanine level at an airport quite by accident. I was due to board a flight to a remote prison island, where I had been asked to sluice out the convicts’ brains with an exciting and dangerous new fluid. I had a few minutes to spare before my flight and went to pick up the latest Reader’s Digest. Repair work was being done to the newsagent’s frontage, so I had to squeeze in through a side panel, thus entering a part of the shop I would normally not have explored. Most of the racks here were stacked with fruit pastilles and pastry snacks, and I have no need of these things, for when travelling I always bring my own food. A single copy of the September issue of Satraps And Shamen Of Ponga And Gooma And Gaar lay atop a tinderbox on the floor next to a display of packets of jammy teardrops. I picked it up out of curiosity and was struck by its vividness.

In Ponga, the satraps have a counting system of astonishing complexity. It is possible that their brains are wired in a way unique to them. The shamen count as you or I would count, although as you would expect they use different words for numbers. The satraps do not even use words when they count. Nor do the satraps in Gooma, but that is because they do not count at all. The Gooman satraps pipe and hum in place of counting. They manufacture spikes and nails and do a lot of purposeless hammering. In Gaar, the satraps carry tally sticks.

The publishers do not make a binder available in which to keep copies of their vivid periodical, and this is another matter I planned to raise in my letter to the editor recommending the inclusion of colourful maps. I am extremely keen on binders for periodicals, whether or not they are vivid. It is true that I have quite a number of loose unbound periodicals in my collection, and that pains me. I numb the pain with prayer, for that is what the Bishop of Southwark told me to do. When some of the more promising convicts had had their brains sluiced with my exciting and dangerous new fluid, I set them a project to make binders for my unbound periodicals, including Satraps And Shamen Of Ponga And Gooma And Gaar. They made an excellent fist of it, with limited resources, and I like to think that the sluicing had much to do with that.

In Ponga, the satraps make regular changes to the plumes in their hats according to the phases of the moon. The shamen take no notice of the moon, for they owe fealty to the sun. In Gooma the satraps believe that the health of their poultry is dependent upon the stars. In Gaar, the satraps carry tally sticks and the shamen tie their hair in complex stylised knots. I have counted all my binders, and I am carrying a tally stick, and later today, after I have watched the news bulletin and weather forecast on television, and had a little chat with the Bishop of Southwark, I am going to tie my hair in complex stylised knots.

This piece first appeared in June 2007.

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