The Life and Times of our Mutual Friend (Volume One)

I have in front of me a remarkable and unique work of art created in 1994 and given to my sister and I as a Christmas present at the end of that year.

Nowadays, this would be called an “Art Book” but this was created before the days when such projects were fashionable.

I’m referring to “The Life and Times of Our Mutual Friend (Volume One)” by Friends of a Friend INK. Back in the day when this project was conceived, my sister and I spent holidays with our friends Hoagy and Jessie constructing advanced versions of the game of “Consequences”.

In its simplest form, the players take a sheet of paper and write a name of someone real or imagined on the top and pass it to the next person after folding the paper over to hide what they have written. The next person writes another name and folds the paper. The next person writes a place, the next writes what the first character said, the next person writes the reply and the last person writes the consequence.

When read out, the resulting story goes something like this:

Winston Churchill
met
Napoleon Bonaparte
on
Dartmoor
Churchill said:
 “Lovely weather for the time of year”
Napoleon said:
 “I’m tired of washing socks”
And the consequence was:
 They sailed away in a viking longboat

This lends itself to a surrealism that we took to its ultimate heights.

We drew pictures with various heads, bodies and legs, composed rambling stories, invented books (complete with excerpts and reviews), wrote letters and made up recipes using the consequences approach. The art form reached its peak in this monumental volume, composed, as the fly-leaf describes, between November the 6th and December the 30th 1994.

Well, to share the contents would only baffle the reader because every third line is a clever in-joke that makes reference to some of the other games we played, the code names we invented for some of “our mutual friends”, and the characters we assumed on long walks along the Cornish coast. However, the meticulously realised watercolour illustrations are instantly accessible.

Here is my sister:

And here is me:

Turning over these pages, I am reminded of the endless inventiveness and creativity of children (well, early teenagers) growing up WITHOUT TELEVISION.

All four of us have grown up to be writers of one sort or another. You can read Jessie’s literary blog “The Filthy Comma” and look forward to the novel that I believe is in progress. My sister blogs at “Through The Lattice” and is working on a series of books for children while home-schooling her own brood. Hoagy was a fairly prolific generator of online content and gave me some solid pointers when I started out freelancing. I’m podcasting my short stories at “Stories from the Borders of Sleep.”

In the meantime, here are some sample exam questions from The Life and Times of our Mutual Friend:

– What colour did the passing people turn at the very thought of it?
– What is the music in the hall of the mountain king and who does he point at with his left ear?
– What should you do when a smooth rich texture has been achieved?
– What was Don Quixoat doing in the moat?
– What does Princess Taiwan break over her knee?
– What is the need of the person Jim gives his pension book to greater than?

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6 Responses

  1. That is a fantastically fun game/exercise!

    Making me want to trash my TV. I dunno if I have the courage just yet.

    • It comes back to what you were saying about “embracing foolishness”, playing games like a kid is a great way to stimulate creativity.

      Here, for example, is how we played the “book” version of consequences (Known as “Booksequences”):

      1. Title
      2. Alternative Title
      3. Author
      4. Strapline – what the book is about
      5. A paragraph or excerpt from the book
      6. What the critics said

      So you get something like:

      The Maize Maze
      or: Nutcrackers I Have Known
      By: Bill Bilson
      “An impressionistic account of the siege of Stalingrad”

      Excerpt:
      “From his hiding place behind the rocks, Robert watched the smugglers landing their cargo. It appeared to consist of some twenty small barrels, which were very heavy for their size, each requiring two men for the carrying. While the bowed figures scrambled back and forth between the boat and the cliff, struggling with their awkward loads, a lone character watched them from the beach, holding a cane in one hand and a feebly glowing lantern in the other. In the moonlight, he caught sight of the stranger’s face as it followed the movements of the other smugglers. It was the face of admiral Denham who had entertained Robert at his mansion the previous day …”

      Crit:
      “This is one of the very few books in the genre that really pushes the boundaries and proves that there is still some resonance in the old cliches. A solid debut from an exciting new writer.”

      Try it! Great game for a cold winter evening.

  2. Thanks so much for posting this. I had totally forgotten Ho’s brilliant illustrations – he did some absolutely super ones for the follow-up volume ‘Froat’s Boat’, which sadly we never finished. The exam questions idea was shamelessly stolen from ‘1066 And All That’ and I think we went slightly crazy with it: I remember there being at least a hundred questions.

    You are completely right that very limited access to television was at the root of our creativity and, were I to have a family of my own, I would certainly follow my parents’ example here. The rule was very simple: if you wanted to watch a programme, you had to mark it with your initials in the TV guide in advance. We were allowed to watch absolutely anything, but *only* if you had marked it. The parents were theoretically allowed to veto certain programmes, although I don’t think they ever did. I remember Father coming in one evening when I was watching The Crying Game (I was about sixteen) and very fairly saying that, while he didn’t think it was really suitable for someone my age, I *had* marked it in advance and he had had ample opportunity to veto it, which he had failed to do, and therefore I was allowed to watch it right to the end provided I turned the sound down a little. This exercise meant that, firstly, we all read the Radio Times meticulously, thereby catching a whole load of interesting films and radio programmes that we might otherwise have missed; and, secondly and more importantly, it meant that channel-hopping was absolutely forbidden. So Ho and I grew up without Neighbours or Home and Away, or indeed many other TV staples of that era, and I have still never watched a single episode of any soap opera all the way through. The lack of reliance on TV also meant Ho and I spent countless hours together, many of them working on ‘The Life and Times of Our Mutual Friend’. Priceless.

    • Yes! Good times they were. I often ask myself where all the time and energy came from.

      I recently listened to an “album” that a friend and I recorded over a couple of days at about the same time in my life. The tracks are all original songs, they show some half decent attempts at arranging, even if they are not very well executed and the sound quality is lamentable. I also have a whole folder full of poetry, a tiny percentage of which is passable, but the thing that always amazes me is the sheer quantity of creative output. At the age of 15, I had a space in our garage that housed a well catalogued fossil collection, a silver smithing workshop and a collection of pendulums I used to conduct experiments (I recall that I was developing a theory of apparently random phenomena being influenced by various emanations or waves). I also kept up regular handwritten correspondence with about 6 or 7 people for several years. Now I can barely keep up with the laundry AND find time to write …

      It’s also rather interesting to look back and see the sorts of early influences that have quite distinctly shaped who we have become. I now see where your lifelong attachment to BBC Radio 4 comes from, for instance. For all of us, I’m sure the exercise of our imaginations, through the game of consequences, planted some seeds, too…

      Ah … sweet reminiscences …

  3. Great post thanks. I really enjoyed it very much. You have excellent content on your blog.

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  4. Absolutely delightful idea, both for a game and a collected version of it to pass around as a gift. I do think much has been lost with the advent of such passive forms of entertainment. Hmm.

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