An introduction to The Rights of Man and Fish
by Paul Halas
History is bunk, to quote Henry Ford – which, of course, ignores the wider context of what he said, but then he wanted to sell us motor cars and probably wasn’t all that interested in the truth of all our whys and wherefores. History is written by the victors. Well, that’s so flaming obvious that old aphorism has been attributed to Uncle Tom Cobley and all. In truth history is based on people’s recollections, official records and, above all, their interests and agendas – and who doesn’t have an agenda?
Well, the narrator of this forthcoming book, this account that spans the past one thousand years of European history, is just such a person. In her judgements she is fairer than Solomon, and her observations are fresher than Candide’s, because she is Gisella, a one thousand year-old, thirty pound, common carp. Born in deepest Normandy at the dawn of the Eleventh Century, she’s seen and experienced things that no human being has been privy to. Gisella may be a fish but she has the gift of speech – she’s a polyglot as a matter of fact – and possesses a lively intellect. How did she acquire such qualities? Nobody can answer that, and if you ask her, she’ll spin you some absurd yarn, so it’s best not to. What she doesn’t have is centuries of tribal, national or religious baggage, so she sees all human follies and foibles with an unbiased eye. Does she have any vices? Not to speak of, however, she does have a weakness for good Armagnac (not the shop-bought, non-appellation stuff) and brioche. Which isn’t that bad in the grand scheme of things. No, she regards all with an impassive eye. Or rather, she tries to. But bloody hell, some of the stuff that’s gone on over the past millennium, you’d have to be a saint not to come out on the side of the angels from time to time. And Gisella’s no saint; she’s a carp.
Not only has Gisella been there to witness many of the great events and turning points in European history, she has taken an active part in rather a lot of them. In every episode of history, there is what was recorded, what went into the accounts and the history books, and there are the unwritten stories, the real chains of events that led to tumultuous changes. And Gisella was a vital catalyst in many of them. Disasters that were averted and calamities that took place. We rarely, if ever, are given a true picture of what happened, and people would be deeply shocked if they ever had an inkling that Gisella had been such a pivotal player. Why does mainstream history not pay any respect to this extraordinary character. Well, there are many reasons. Most historians are men, and at heart they want to see their names up in lights and not some French bint.
Of course, it wasn’t just the earth-shattering moments of history that Gisella habitually became involved in. Over the past thousand years, she befriended people from all walks of life, in all of the European countries she sojourned in, from weavers to outlaws, to millers, to painters, to wig-makers, to philosophers and even to fishermen. (Having evaded hooks, lines and baits for ten centuries, Gisella is an expert on most branches of angling. She actually finds some anglers quite interesting… nice people. Some of them, anyway.) She, better than anyone, is aware that everybody has a story to tell, and that for every scumbag on this planet, there’s also someone who isn’t altogether rotten. In fact, there are quite a few good ones, often in unexpected places.
While Gisella takes a keen interest in the multi-faceted human world around her, there is one broad area that is more of a magnet to her than all the others. The Arts. The humans’ story of culture. Painting and music and literature and cinema… Of course, that could have something to do with the fact that fish don’t have much of a culture of their own, even carp, but what a wonderful time to have lived through, seeing the advent of illuminated manuscripts, the magnificence of Gothic architecture, the first novels, the painters of the Renaissance, the evolution of poetry, the great theatrical plays, the goose-bump concertos and oratorios of the Baroque composers, Palladian grandeur, the Romantics, the Impressionists, the shock of photography, the Belle époque… Gisella luxuriated in it all. Especially when her bohemian chums slipped her the odd hit of absinthe and applauded her earthy cabaret singing. (Gisella has an untutored but utterly engaging voice that complements Gitanes and cheap red wine perfectly.)
There you have Gisella. Not just a chronicler of history, but a protagonist. Also, a connoisseur of fine food, a tippler of choice spirits (or not so choice ones in times of stress), an aficionado of the arts, but above all, the finest of all fish. She has retired now, and, in truth, she’s become a little testy and set in her ways in her old age. But at a thousand years old, that’s forgivable. If you want to know more, I suggest you read the book!
Paul Halas, November 2023
Employing cheap Saxon labour was never going to pay off for the creation of the famous Bayeux Tapestry. No one’s denying it’s a valuable artefact, but there are several factual glitches in it. Everyone’s seen the image of a Harold with an arrow in his eye but, as we now know, Gisella’s testimony proves that to have been a fallacy. In the image above, there’s also a terrible misrepresentation of both fact and scale. There was actually room below decks to house one very seasick and terrified Count Roland, along with a sizeable wooden box containing a lot of sopping pondweed and a certain distressed carp that at point weighed around two pounds, or deux livres, to put it in contemporary language. This voyage is also famous for being the first recorded instance of a fish getting seasick. We also note that the lead chaps on the first and third ship in line are drinking tumblers of Calvados. This is plainly ridiculous. About to face the fearsome Saxons, who’d recently routed the Danish army at Stamford Bridge, they would certainly all have been getting off their faces.
Some painting aficionados might recognise this image as a detail from Titian’s highly enigmatic Sacred and Profane Love. They’d be mistaken. While scholars argue whether the original work, which depicts both clothed and unclothed versions of clearly the same lady, is an allegory about the state of marriage, or they’re actually twin Venuses, a heavenly one and an earthly one. The truth is that the painting shown above is actually a separate entity entirely, painted by Titian for his own satisfaction. The most probable inspiration for this work is his earlier portrait of the French Ambassador to Venice’s lovely daughter, Brigitte, who he had the most gigantic crush on. Sadly, the whereabouts of this painting is unknown. Art historians have traced it through several hands right up to the closing stages of World War Two, when it was crated up with several other art treasures by one Feldt general von Arschluss, and loaded onto a train fleeing Italy in the direction of the Vaterland. For all we know, it’s now in Paraguay.
Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales Is a mainstay of our cultural heritage. How he came to write them is less well-known, but the story is now out there, thanks to Gisella. Recently scholars have found in the manuscripts a number of very obscure references to an extra tale, that appears to have been lost in the mists of time. Whoever eventually unearths Ye Fishe’s Tayle will earn literary immortality.
THE RIGHTS OF MAN AND FISH is scheduled to be published by Arsnotoria Editions in June 2024.
Paul’s escape from 1970s hippydom was the shocking discovery that he could invent stories. Thus he was able to make the transition from just loving comics, in most of their forms at least, into actually writing the stories and scripts for them. Snapped up by the famous European comics dynasty, that household name, Anders And & Co (it’s the Danish Donald Duck magazine actually, whose stories are syndicated all over the place), he is reliably informed that he carries the responsibility for writing something over 1,260 published Disney stories. Plus a scattering of other stuff he doesn’t remember now. A heavy burden. Retired now, he still won’t put down his pen. He’s politically on the left, a faithful Corbynista, and therefore has distanced himself a few light years away from the current Labour Party. He’s a hopeless Francophile, a gourmet and frequently a gourmand, a lover of painting and illustration, a keen angler and someone who still gets an immense kick from producing funny stories. Maybe that’s a route to his retaining a degree of sanity, but he hopes he’ll be able to make you laugh too.