The Tale of Antú and Cuyen

A Pehuenche creation tale

Image from

At the very beginning of all time Ngünechen created Antú, the sun, and Cuyen, the moon. He fashioned them in the form of two young lovers who would reign over the Pehuenche lands and care for the people. Cuyen was pale of face, with wide eyes that sparkled light blue; she was warm, tender and caring and looked after the women and children. Antú was made tall and strong, with the flaming red hair and the ruddy face of a warrior; it was his job to care for the men of the tribe.

At first all went well between them, but as the years went by Antú became more self-centred and began to lose some of the care and fondness he had previously shown for the Pehuenche people. He became bad tempered, and when he was angry he would give off so much heat that those near him would get burned. When Cuyen reproached him for this he became even more furious with her and struck her around the head and face so hard that she nearly fell to earth. So angry was he that all the Pehuenches around him were exposed to the heat of his temper, which is why they are dark-skinned today.

Cuyen was beaten so badly that her face was for ever marked with the fingers of Antú, as you can see today if you look up to the night sky. After that it was clear that the flame that had been their love was extinguished and they hardly ever saw each other again, with one of them only coming out during the day and the other in the night.

For the sensitive Cuyen this separation brought great sadness. She could be seen at night, wan and downhearted, wandering through the fields of amancays and mutisias, through the forests of pehuenes y coihues. She still loved Antú, and her loss hurt her badly.

Night after night she reflected on what had been, until each dawn announced the arrival of Antú and it was time for her to retire. Sometimes she dreamed of their getting back together, but could not now see how, when they never even talked to each other any more. Had she but known it, Antú, who was not such a bad person apart from his short temper, had been harbouring similar thoughts but he was too proud to approach his wife and beg her pardon.

And so things stayed, until in the fading light of a young spring day Antú saw a young Pehuenche girl gathering flowers by a meadow brook. He fell for her immediately and swept her up, flying high, high into the firmament where he set her to be his companion for ever. He called her Collipal, or ‘Golden Star’; we still see her today and know her as the Evening Star, or more properly the planet Venus.

Such was Antú’s new love that he forgot completely and for ever his old love Cuyen, but it didn’t take long for her to realise that something had changed. At dusk one evening Cuyen saw Antú and Collipal close together, and it was crystal clear to her that her dreams of their getting back together were dashed for ever, and that she could and would never be with Antú again.

Realising that it really was all over her eyes filled with tears and she cried and cried and cried. She cried for such a long time that her tears formed a large pool, and that pool we know today as the Alumine Lake. From there, the water spilled into all the other streams and rivers of the south that we see today.

And since that day, in the clear and calm Patagonian nights, those limpid waters reflect Cuyen’s eternal yet hopeless love for Antú.



The tale of Copahue

The village of Copahue can be found in the Andes, some 2000 metres above sea-level and set in a wild landscape moulded by storming winds, creeping glaciers and endless volcanic eruptions. Today it is known for its thermal springs. Here is a legend of how it got its name.

There was once a people who lived high in the Andes. Theirs was a peaceful land, and little ever happened to disturb the tranquillity of the region.

The chieftain of this tribe had a young son called Copahue. One day, bored with life, Copahue decided to explore what lay beyond the mountains where he lived. He gathered together a few friends and set out in search of adventure.

On the morning of the third day Copahue left the others and went for a walk in a leafy forest near where they had camped. Through the trees he saw a crystal blue lake, and swimming in it, all alone, was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. Tall and slender, she had shining black hair that reached to her waist. He stood, watching her, mesmerised. She saw him, smiled, came modestly out of the water and walked towards him.

Little did Copahue know, nor could,  that this lovely apparition was in fact a witch, who had guided Copahue to this place with a charm. In his love and ignorance Copahue fell head-over-heels in love with her and, surprisingly, she fell in love with him too. Love conquers all, and in this case it transformed the witch’s evil intentions into those of a normal human being.

Their love was real, and Copahue and the beautiful girl, who not only had long dark hair but also had flashing black eyes to match, decided to get married. But when they heard of this the other people of the tribe were against the union. For them the girl was an outsider, and they feared the unknown. A meeting of the elders was called, and they forbade the marriage on pain of death.

The two young people didn’t care. They were in love, and that was all that mattered to them. So they disobeyed the tribal elders and got married anyway. But punishment was at hand, and even though Copahue’s son was the chief of the tribe justice must be met. After a second, brief meeting of the elders Copahue was condemned to death for disobeying the orders of his father and the elders. He was dragged from his home to the edge of the village and hanged from the branch of an algarrobo tree.

On hearing his sentence his young wife had run away; there was no place for her there now. She ran and ran and ran, until she found herself back by the lake where they had met. Here she sat down and started to cry.  Her tears fell into the lake, and immediately the water started to turn yellow, and then to boil. A horrible, sulphur like smell filled the air. The girl, who was a witch we should perhaps remember, threw herself into the steaming pool and was seen no more.

Today this place is called Copahue, and can be found in Ñorquín, in the north of Neuquén Province. If you find yourself there some time enjoying the thermal springs, do remember the fate of Copahue and the girl he loved.


Two tales of Calafate

The Calafate is a bush that grows in Patagonia. There is a legend that anyone who eats the berries from this bush will always return to the region. Here are two tales relating to this; one from the Ona people that used to live in Tierra del Fuego and the other from the Tehuelches, a nomadic people that lived further north. Sadly both of these peoples are no longer with us.

Tale 1

There was once a tribal chieftain of a race that lived at the bottom of the world and is now completely lost to us. He had a beautiful daughter called Calafate who had jet black hair and huge yellow-golden eyes, and he was very proud and very protective of her.

One day a young man named Selk’nam from another tribe happened to pass by where the young girl lived. He spotted Calafate walking on the shore and approached her; their eyes met and they were both immediately smitten. They met once again, and that day they pledged undying love and a lifetime together.

But their tribes warred with each other and the young lovers knew their elders would never accept them marrying, so they decided to run away together. The chieftain heard of their plans and was very upset. After long thought he decided that his daughter must have become possessed by the evil spirit Gualicho; why else would she consort with his enemies?  In his anger he consulted his shaman and told him to do whatever was necessary to stop Calafate and Selk’nam escaping.

The shaman was not a bad person but he was obedient to his chief, and he used his magic to turn the young girl into a bush with yellow flowers, the bush that we know today as the Calafate bush. She would be going nowhere now.

Selk’nam soon found out that she had been transformed and was now covered with sharp thorns. He could look at her, but could never touch her. His frustration was overbearing. Each yellow flower reminded him of her deep, golden eyes. Heart-broken, he died in the night of grief.

When the shaman heard of Selk’nam’s death he felt bad and caused the flowers on the bush to change into delicious purple berries, formed from the heart of the brave young man. These are the berries that appear each year in the Autumn, and it is said today that anyone who eats these berries is bewitched by the shaman’s spells on Calafate and Selk’nam, and once they have tasted the fruit they will always be drawn magically back to Patagonia.

Tale 2

The Tehuelche people were indigenous, nomadic tribesmen who inhabitated the Patagonian pampas where today are the Provinces of Chubut and Santa Cruz. Tourists visiting the region today may have seen the caves filled with painted hands that their ancestors left hundreds of years ago.

One day, many moons ago, the chief of the tribe decided it was time to move north. Winter was approaching and they needed to be further away from the snow and ice that would soon arrive. An elderly woman in the tribe realized that she was too old and weak to travel with the others, so when the time to leave came she hid and was left behind to endure the hardships of winter alone.  Some women in the tribe left for her a tent made from guanaco skins and some wood and food to keep her alive, but her companions didn’t think she would survive the harsh winter weather.

But the old woman did not die. Not exactly. Through some kind of magic, and it is not clear whose, she was mysteriously transformed into a bush with yellow flowers; the bush we know today as the Calafate. The bush provided shelter for the birds, protecting them from the cold wind and ice. And each year, as winter approached, the bush bore berries which provided them with food. Year on year the birds would return to safety of the the magical calafate bush.

Indeed, some birds stopped migrating altogether and as the news spread many of those who had left returned to try the new fruit. So did the Tehuelches when they returned the following spring, and they quickly adopted this new plant as part of their diet. Slowly the plant propagated throughout the region and now it can be seen everywhere, And they say that for ever after, like the birds and the Tehueches of old, for they are long gone too, “whosoever eats of the Calafate berry will always return to Patagonia”.





The Tale of Amancay and Quintral

The Vuriloche peoples have it that to give another an amancay flower is to offer them your heart. This belief comes from a very old legend; read on.

Amancay (Alstroemeria aurea)

In time long gone by a Vuriloche clan lived near a place called Ten-Ten Mahuida. On maps today you will find it as Thunder Mountain.

The chief of this clan had a young son called Quintral. He was strong, brave and good-looking, and there was no girl in the valley, nor in the neighbouring valleys, who didn’t sigh when he pased, or tremble at the sound of his voice.

Quintral could have had any girl in the region to be his, but although no one else knew, he was desperately in love with a poor girl named Amancay, though he kept quiet about this as he feared that his father would never let him marry a girl from such a humble family.

What young Quintral never imagined in his wildest dreams was that Amancay was also hopelessly in love with him, but she had never said a word to anyone because she thought a future chief like Quintral could never love a humble girl like her.

This undeclared love was one day to be put to the test. A violent fever broke out in the valley, and soon half of the clan was dead or dying. Many of those who had escaped the deadly disease had deserted the village in fear of their lives.

Quintral was one of the first to fall to the fever. In his delirium he began to babble, and his father, who was sitting with him, heard him mumble again and again the name ‘Amancay, Amancay, Amancay …’.

The chief made some enquiries and didn’t take long to find out who the ‘Amancay’ was, and to discover the secret love his son felt for her. Thinking that the sight of Amancay might brighten his son’s spirits he ordered his men to bring her to him immediately at his son’s death bed.

But Amancay was nowhere to be found. On the advice of the village medicine woman, she had struggled painfully up into the heights of Mount Thunder. The medicine woman had told her that the only way to combat the fever –and save Quiltran– was to make a potion from a yellow flower that could only be found at the very top of the mountain.

With knees grazed and hands bleeding, Amancay finally reached the mountaintop.  In front of her she saw the yellow flower, its petals reflecting the yellow of the sun. She reached out to pick the flower, but barely was it in her hand when she heard a mighty roar of wind and her world went dark.

Raising her eyes she saw a huge condor standing before her. Each thrash of its wings raised a terrible wind as she cowered against the rock face.

Finally the bird spoke and in a voice of thunder announced that he was charged by the gods to protect the mountain and that she was taking away something that belonged to them.

Trembling with fear,  Amancay told the condor through her tears how the people in the valley were dying, especially Quintral whom she loved, and that the flower was her only hope.

The condor told her if she wanted Quintral to be cured from his fever she would have to agree to give up her own heart. Amancay could not imagine living in a world where Quintral did not exist, and if she had to give up her life in return for his; well, she did not care about her own life without him.

She tore open her bodice and shift and offered her breast to the Condor. in an instant the bird ripped out her heart with his strong beak. As her life ebbed, the last words Amancay were to pronounce were the repeated name ‘Quintral, Quintral, Quintral …’.

With Amancay’s heart gripped tightly in its claws and the yellow flower in its beak the condor rose, flying higher and higher on the hot air currents to where the gods live, to ask them to send a cure for the disease. And as the bird flew, drops of blood from Amancay’s heart fell like rain on the valleys and mountains.

In a moment, all the hills and valleys were covered with small yellow flowers, each one speckled with red stains. Every drop of Amancay’s blood had given birth to a small plant, the same plant that once grew only on the summit of Thunder Mountain, the plant we know today as the Amancay.


Another poem salvaged from my school days. This has long been tucked inside my Wordsworth book, along with the Lucy poems – it’s about as derivative as it is possible to get, possibly to the point of litigation. Typical sixth-form clichéd approach too. By the date I can see that I had recently taken A-levels, Wordsworth being on the syllabus. But its one of the few connections I have with myself at that time.



This was the glass she used; her eyes
Once lay where mine gaze back at me.
Her gentle fingers once caressed
This very same carved ebony.

She sat upon this very seat
Where even now in sad despair
I weep to think of those soft eyes
I knew so well; I’d learned to care.

What means it now to her? She lies
With all the world her winding sheet.
And leaves her glass to me, a friend
Until in death again we meet

Málaga, 10 November 1966

Requiem for a King

I wrote this poem when I was twelve years old and just rediscovered it today. I’m posting this unchanged, as a tribute to my twelve-year-old former self. Terribly clichéd (it seems I was reading Mallory at the time), but there is something about it that lets me connect to the time I wrote it and what I was thinking and reading at the time. So no apologies, what it is, it is.


Requiem for a King

In the year of eight o’ three
A noble king did cease to be
In England’s pastures green.
He had lived a noble life
Full of turmoil, full of strife
But now was mourned by just his wife
The noble King Arthur.

A score of years before, or more,
He had started England’s war
In England’s pastures green.
But now he lies upon the sward
With his hand clenched round his sword
The sweat and blood from off him poured
The noble King Arthur.

Several months before, that year,
He had married Guinevere
In England’s pastures green.
But now the girl beside him lay
At the ending of the day
As death did take his breath away
The noble King Arthur.

The very last words that he spake
Were ‘throw my sword into the lake’
In England’s pastures green.
Excalibur flashed through the air
It’s mighty blade dull, hard and bare
A hand shot up and caught it there
For noble King Arthur.

Then, as the night was drawing on
And moonlight on the water shone
In England’s pastures green.
A barge across the water flew
With Queen’s inside, the noble few,
And up to Arthur’s bed they drew
The noble King Arthur.

And as the shades of evening fell
‘Twas heard the tolling of the bell
In England’s pastures green.
The barge across the lake sped on
With its helm of black-necked swan
And then for ever he was gone
The noble King Arthur.

Written at Oakham, 1960

Me, I was blogging back in 1959 …

This article first appeared in the Oakhamian, a magazine for present and past pupils of Oakham School, in 2006. It has been slightly modified here to remove irrelevancies. 

Were you ‘blogging’ back in the 1950s and 60s? Because I was, but it may not be quite what you think .

Today’s blog (‘web log’ in full) is, as readers will appreciate, a recent arrival, only made possible by rapidly developing Internet technology. But in terms of Oakham School slang, the word had another meaning when I was there. To ‘blog’ was to misbehave, to fool around, and ‘blogging’ was inappropriate, mischievous, even bad behaviour. I don’t know how widely the word was used, or for how long, but it was certainly currency when I entered the Junior House in September 1958. And out of nostalgia I thought it would be interesting to ask what other school slang might still remain in OOs’ memories behind the cobwebs of dimly recalled youth.

In 1958 Oakham was a small direct grant school, recovering from the war years and right at the end of the spartan regime that characterised the public school system. I was sent to Junior House at the age of just nine and my earliest memories there are of ‘new bugs’, ‘bear leaders’, ‘senior’s orders’ and punishments ‘officially’ meted out by the big boys (the eleven and twelve year old ‘prefects’), who gave us ‘bicycle rides’, ‘crumps’ and ‘clouts’ as the whim took them. I remember that one of the prefects had an electric shock machine which was used to administer shock therapy. (Later on in school life my study mate, a budding chemist, stored nitroglycerine in the roof, an equally horrifying memory now that I reflect on it, but that’s another story). But as for the shock machine; I can only give thanks to my guardian angel that it never occurred to the young tormentor to connect it to the mains. ‘Sneaking’ was out of the question and we bore our grief stoically.

‘Senior’s orders’ was a particularly galling experience. At its simplest, it meant that a ‘new bug’ had to do whatever a senior (i.e. a boy with longer time at Oakham than he) told him. Anything. I can remember in my first term being forced to lie in the old dyke that once ran across what is now known as Farside. It was the middle of winter and I was obliged to lie down in the freezing mud and slush because another boy – who was all of nine and three-quarters – so wished. This was senior’s orders.

Oakham in the late 1950s was Corps, Cricket, Chapel and the cane; fagging, cold showers and cross-country runs; the town largely out of bounds save a permitted visit to Tom Froud’s store in Choir Close where we could buy pomegranates and sherbet, and a little later to Stricklands, by the castle entry. At the age of ten I broke bounds to go to the only ‘record shop’ Oakham then sported, to buy Eddie Cochran’s ‘My Way’ (not the Paul Anka version made famous by Sinatra, but an earlier and earthier number) and was spotted by a member of staff. I guess he must have liked Eddie Cochran, because he let me off with a lecture, the main point of which seemed to be that the crime of being caught was more serious than the crime of breaking bounds.

Some of my school memories have a quasi-military flavour. I was senior scout in the school troop (not that there were that many of us) and with huge pride carried the flag at the County Jamboree. Some years later, dressed in paramilitary uniform (tracksuit top and CCF beret with cap badge removed) and carrying a lighted torch in one hand and an oak swatch in the other I marched under the banner of ‘Rutland fights for minority rights’. But my crowning military glory was raising the flag at the Annual Inspection, my colour sergeant’s red sash mirroring my flush of embarrassment when the flag looked like it wasn’t going to unfurl (fortunately it eventually did).

Why it was me raising the flag was a curious blend of laziness and nepotism. One of the best sinecures in school life was to get the coveted position of CCF Quartermaster. This involved little work other than convincing smaller boys that the ill-fitting kit and boots I issued them with were fine and should be accepted with thanks and forbearance but it kept me out of the rain and afforded me a key to the QM stores – fortuitously across the road from Chapmans – and thus a bolt hole for whatever mayhem occurred to me at any time of day or night. In hindsight, this prerogative was not abused as much as it might have been and was mainly a chance to go for a peaceful cigarette without having to look over my shoulder all the time. The fag ends found their way into a convenient screw top bottle.

I’m not sure now quite how I got this post but I sense that Jack Cox, master i/c the CCF, had a hand in it. He had been in the army proper with my father and it was in part Jack’s coming to Oakham that persuaded my father to send me there. Certainly he ‘looked out’ for me from time to time – on one occasion he told me to kindly hide the bottle a little more carefully; this at a time when being caught smoking was ample grounds for expulsion.

This generosity of spirit was missing when I was ‘gated’ for two weeks for the ‘offence’ of being seen talking to a girl in the town (Cathy Rxxxr of Manton, if she remembers). Actually to be fair it wasn’t exactly in the street but in the ‘tin mines’ where we used to go at weekends, on the road to Brooke as I remember, so there may have been some due cause, but it still rankles. So too does the fact that Oakham didn’t have female students when I was there, but for different reasons.

There were traditions too – although one never knows how much they grow with the remembering. Does anyone I wonder now remember the ‘Burley bum-basher bed walk’, a ritual in which one had to walk or jump on every bed in every senior boarding house in the space of one hour? I last performed this somewhat pointless feat, the logistics of which posed a serious challenge as I remember, trampling my way a little drunkenly through the dormitories of Deanscroft, Wharflands, Chapmans and School House on my last night at Oakham in June 1966. My colleagues in College House (in 1966 in its first year under the brilliant Chris Dixon, to whom I owe so much) were spared.

Looking back at all this now, it was another world. Why I was not unhappy defeats me, but on the whole I wasn’t. But I must return to my topic: the Oakham vocabulary of the 50s. Latin was still very much on the curriculum in 1958 and active in the schoolboy’s vocabulary too. Earnest preteens would call out cave (beware) whenever a teacher approached, while those with goods to dispose of would call out quis? (Latin for ‘who’, and for some reason pronounced ‘quiz’) to which the standard reply was ego (I, or me). If the article was undesirable the acquisition could be negated by retorting d, and to avoid this the person calling quis could qualify with no d’s – the whole point here being to get rid of (and avoid receiving) unwanted chattels.

These Latinisms would have been common to many schools. I would very much like to know what words (like ‘blog’) were peculiar to Oakham or used more widely. Did boys and girls in other schools used to say ‘bags I’ to claim something? Or ‘fains’ to exclude themselves? Were these expressions common in other schools, or are they native Oakham slang? If anyone ever gets to read this entry it would be fun to share memories and see what we can reconstruct.

As for the ‘Burley bum-basher bed walk’, I can’t be the only one now prepared to own up after almost fifty years. Or did I dream it all up?


Justice Buenos Aires style, 1970s


Rivadavia Street is in the heart of the business centre of Buenos Aires, and it was in the early 1970s, in the fourth floor premises of a law firm in the low 600s of this Street, that some young atorrantes determined to crash in and grab what they could. Their minds were no doubt set on loose cash, jewellery and random luck – this was before even electronic calculators were common property and the latest technology was Telex (remember Telex?).

One has to assume that these three lads were not very good at their chosen métier. Their attempts to intimidate the receptionist with a length of piping and a replica pistol were rebuffed by two other staff members, members of the San Isidro Club’s first Rugby team, who had happened to follow the delinquents in and had little difficulty in overpowering them. The mismatch of four rugbier arms and six delinquent legs led to one escaped lad and two detained intruders.

The senior partners were quick on the scene and quick to arrange tea and biscuits (or the Argentine equivalent) for all concerned, and to call the local precinct to arrange for the young intruders, now cowed and compliant, to be taken away. Life, it seemed, was about to be restored to normal. Indeed, a sergeant and two patrolmen arrived with ten minutes or so, and, handcuffing the delinquents to a convenient radiator, took their tea and biscuits while appraising themselves of the situation. Then, without warning, events took on a different complexion.

All staff in the law firm were asked to leave the premises ‘for forensic reasons’, and duly and dutifully trooped down to the coffee shop across the road to await further instructions. The senior lawyers, more cognizant of police budgets and resourcing, had some inkling of what was coming; the younger staff had no idea at all, other than perhaps to reflect vaguely on just what ‘forensic reasons’ might mean.

The relocated law firm were all sitting nursing their coffees, somewhat subdued, when the shots rang out. Two shots, in quick succession. Almost simultaneously the bottom half of a two-blue police truck appeared in the narrow half window of the café that looked out onto the street. Eight legs and two stretchers emerged and made their way into the building; in no time at all they were back down in the street. This time the stretchers were substantially heavier and accompanied by six extra legs as the centipede steered its way into the truck. Two rear legs detached themselves and strolled across to the window of the coffee shop. A peaked cap bent down to give a thumbs up to one of the senior partners –it was now ok to go back up again– and the two-blue truck drove off quietly.

The report in La Nación was brief but to the point – two young criminals had broken into a city centre law firm and had been killed trying to shoot themselves out in a gun battle with the police. Fortunately none of the police was injured. One police regulation handcuff, still attached to a rusty fourth floor radiator stood for many years in mute contradiction. For all I know it stands there still.



Strange days revisited


A random and colorful group of street performers are posing on the sidewalk in Sniffen Court, a residential alley off New York’s East 36th Street. What appears to be a dwarf in a light gray suit (or conceivably, if less likely, a small boy) is dancing energetically, Dylan like, only with two hands ‘waving free’. A stout circus strongman dressed fetchingly in an over tight black singlet and loose zebra-striped sarong is raising above his head what we must imagine to be a dumbbell as the view we have is cut off at wrist height.

Above the dwarf-child a white-faced man in a dark suit is juggling a number of red balls, his features screwed into a mask of intense concentration. Behind these figures another dark suited man concentrates on supporting a leotarded figure whose body is arced in a swallow dive as he balances precariously in mid air. At the rear of the group a straw-hatted man is stood to attention, arms raised as he solemnly plays a trumpet, for all the world as if he were alone and all around him non-existent.

Not all these people are actual street performers: I am reliably informed through my research that the photographer’s assistant is standing in as a juggler while the musician is a passing cab driver who is earning five dollars for his artistic contribution.

The curious scene I am describing is that shown on an old album cover I have propped up in front of me as I write, one which I loved when it came out and still fills me with nostalgia: Strange Days, by The Doors, recorded and issued in 1967.

Task Force

Written during BRAZTESOL Conference, Goâiña, Brazil, 1996

Comment, order, modify,
Classify and justify,
Infer, predict, identify …
All day long the teacher’s cry . . .

Off we go then, up the stairs.
Move the chairs and get in pairs,
Stand up, sit down,
Hands on heads, now turn around,
Head and shoulders, arms and knees,
Delete, complete, continue please,
What to do with kids like these …?

Alter, argue, group discuss,
Left your homework on the bus?
Here’s the question, where’s the answer,
Silent reading, info transfer,
First, last, compare, contrast,
Future, perfect, present, past,
Correct, deduce, select, produce,
Read the bit on language use

Find, fill.. replace, remove,
Make an effort, must improve,
True, false, right, wrong, no and yes,
Guess, success, don’t make a mess
Describe, expand, insert, corrupt,
Explain again, don’t interrupt,
Read the fable, make a label,
Leave your homework on the table,
Write a story, if you’re able

Transform, translate,
Commentate and demonstrate,
Wait, narrate and don’t be late,
Recall, remove, rank, match, tell,
Wait for the bell, Oh, very well …