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Experiment 11

(Part Of) The Life-History Of Shurple

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(Part Of) The Life-History Of Shurple

...The third photograph shows hatless Eugene dangling his feet over the gangplank or his yacht, the Sligo. When asked, "Why Sligo?" he replied cryptically, "Sligo the slug." This vessel, as most readers will know, is Shurple's Boat-by-mistake. Metzka Topoloria relates how in 1957 at Cannes, Shurple downed a bottle of champagne and told him the whole story, which certain New York people had long suspected to be true.

About thirty years ago Eugene devised a new way of building a house...beginning from the roof, and making the foundations last. Thus, he reasoned, you could keep dry while you finished the house. With his usual impetuosity, he immediately borrowed $5,000 from a bank in Seville and put this idea into practice. Once he had built the top, however, he found that he had made an unfortunate mistake: he had not realized that this method would involve building the house upside-down. Seeing that he had no way to invert a completed house, Eugene made the best of it, and continued to build - a boat. It is probably this quality of improvisation that, more than anything, has won Eugene his present position.

It was in the Sligo that he won the first round-the-world yacht race. Me was last in a field of a hundred and rorty when the leaders arrived in the Sargasso Sea, within spitting distance of the end, New York. Unluckily, at this particular time the Sargasso Sea was heavily infested with marine borer. All hundred and thirty nine leaders rapidly sank, and were thus disqualified.

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Six months later the Sligo arrived in the area. Shurple had by this time heard about the trouble the other contestants had had there. He felt to be reasonably safe from borer, seeing that his was the only yacht with a tiled hull, but as a precaution the crew (consisting at that stage of Eugene himself as skipper, Cumberland his dog as first mate, Boric as purser, Shirley Purple as the figurehead, the impeccable Simon Tobias, and the irrepressible Jeff Bim) collected seaweed and burned it in their fireplace; the chimney of course being under water. The resulting fumes killed all the borer. (For this, the American Shipowner's Federation awarded Eugene a $20,000 prize they had offered since 1878.) The Sligo made fine progress, and sailed into Long Island Sound just over a year later to collect the $500,000 prize. Eugene modestly puts this victory down to good luck.

They made an impressive sight coming down the Sound. All the musicians on board (and there were plenty) formed a jazz quintet. Cumberland played the trombone, Boric the tuba, Eugene the bass drum, Simon the skiffle board, Jeff the hurdy gurdy [unclear: he'd picked] up cheap in Hong Kong, and Fazzie (whom they'd picked up at Nantucket) the newly-installed pipe organ. All this was not purely inspired by the return to what for many of them was their native land, but largely because they had no foghorn, the rules of the contest required one, and the organizers were stirring up some artificial fog to test the Sligo.

On his way round the world, Eugene had been collecting bric-à-brac in his spare time: things like fish-bones, skulls, various flotsam, native dishes, spare tiles for his roof, coconuts, an unusually complete collection of stale bread, and such things, all of which he kept in the attic. As soon as he arrived in New York he had this collection valued, at a dozen different auction houses. Provisional estimates ranged from $6, 000,000 to page 550$14,000,000. Eugene refused all offers, and as a sentimental gesture, presented the lot to the Dublin Public Library (which at that time housed taxonomists as keen as Eugene,but poorer). Of course this was immediately denounced as an advertising gimmick. Eugene had no patience with such detractors. One of the most vocal was Georg Skrimeoni, a Hungarian working for a New York tabloid newspaper....

I met Boric in 1944, at which time he was known as Nils Bjornesen, and was running a passport racket. He has long been recognized as both Eugene's closest friend, and most outspoken critic. I asked Boric about Eugene's first system of classification. He invited me to share his hookah and told me: "At first, Eugene arranged things in chronological order. That was in the good old days on the Sligo. We all had to live on board because nobody'd sell or rent us a house. Eugene kept emphasizing the importance of cataloguing. 'There's no use having a collection if you dont know what's in it,' he would say. Shirley had an accessions book - she wrote down everything we got. But there were snags in that. Firstly, she'd only write the book up once a day. She kept forgetting. Secondly, nobody could ever read her writing. We thought we'd fix that one by borrowing one of the typewriters out of the collection, when Eugene wasnt looking. But all we could find was a box with some Braille typewriters in it. We tried that for a while, even though we werent blind. When Eugene saw the catalog he couldnt make it out, thought the borer had caught up with us at last."

Boric chuckled appreciatively, and took a few more puffs on the pipe. "The third snag was that the catalog was in the same order as everything down in the attic. No help at all, if you were looking for something. All that junk was getting page 560to be a real nuisance in the end. The worst thing about it was that it overflowed from the attic into the top storey, and we all had less and less space. By the time we got to Nantucket we were sailing below the waterline...and that organ didnt help any.

"As soon as we'd landed we all split up and tried to sell the stuff on the sly. All but Eugene, that is. He only wanted to know how much it was worth. All the agent thought it was great, but none of them would touch it. And Eugene refused - even theoretically - to split it up. Looking back, I think that was pretty wise of him. Nothing - much - was worth a brass bean on its own - it was the juxtaposition that mattered."

He stabbed his finger demonstratively in the air, a trick he learned in Ethiopia, during that little business he pulled off there in 1955, which I'll come back to later.

That collection was a real work of art. It would have been even better, [unclear: though], if we'd arranged it some other way than chronologically. It's not even geographically, because we kept forgetting our itinerary - Shirley's writing and Cumberland's astrology at fault there - and coming back to the same place again and again. We left Ocussi five times, I think. The first time we left Eugene behind, the second time Cumberland - he was in town and somebody pulled up the anchor by mistake, and the rest of the times by accident mainly. We were meant to be going to Sydney, but the wind was blowing the wrong way. We never did get to Sydney. Nobody was any the wiser for it, and it gained us a couple of months. By the time we got to Port Blair we were nearly caught up with the rest of the field."

I asked Boric what he thought of the oft-quoted criticism of Eugene, that he (to quote Skrimeoni) "is merely the world's most successful miser."

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Boric took the bait. "That's not true. Whatever Eugene's faults may be, he's no miser. The only reason he keeps his collections is that nobody else would keep them together. When the Queen of Thailand saw an exhibition he was holding at the Louvre, she seemed very pleased with it. She made an appointment with him and asked questions about it. He was really delighted to think that here at last was somebody with similar interests. He made her a present of the whole exhibition. It was a complete collection of balaclavas from the Crimean war. It took six trucks a month to move them from the Louvre to her nearby palace. Then...Eugene had a balaclava sent to him from Bangkok. It was a new brand of tea-cosy being marketed there. Eugene was thoroughly disgusted with the Queen, and broke off relations with her. But within a month he'd bought all the balaclavas back again. And that's why people call him a miser. He's no miser, he's a true taxonomist, an artist even. With their limited powers of comprehension, most artists cant make use of everything round them...they select things, here and there, and organize them into a simple pattern, which represents their world. But Eugene's world is the world. He is probably the first man who ever lived with this all-embracing understanding. Artists dont create, they select. Eugene selects everything."

We finished the pipe. I asked Boric to show me his picture of the Conflagration of the Library (as it has been called) at Dublin....