Detecting Inspiration

This episode, in a slightly different form, was originally published in the first incarnation of Unlikely Stories in September, 2002. It is included here to help new readers catch up to our returning column, A Sardine on Vacation.


The Sardine has done some stupid things, many happened while he has traveled in Europe.  Several years ago, a cluster befell him on a train from Calais to Pisa.

He had just disembarked from the Dover ferry and stood on a train platform. Two trains on either side of the platform were bound for Italy.  It didn’t seem to make a difference which train he boarded.

Seven hours later, when the train he was on had entered Switzerland and the conductor demanded a different ticket, did the Sardine realize the difference.

Weren’t the destinations the same?

The conductor nodded. However, the Sardine’s ticket read “via Paris- Marseilles”; this train was “via Strasbourg -Zurich.”  So what was the difference?

The train through Switzerland cost more!

But the poor Sard had no Swiss francs.

The conductor happily took the equivalent in another currency.  Ten dollars.  He punched the ticket in three places and moved on.

The Sardine was feeling less stupid for the ticket mix-up than for his having no money to buy food on the train.  He hadn’t eaten since the train had left London.  Vendors sliding up and down the platform wouldn’t accept other currencies.

Alone in the compartment most of the twenty-four trip, he had nothing to take his mind off food except some books.  A150-page novel read in three hours.  Nearly one hundred pages of Irish writer Flann O’Brien’s journalism called The Best of Myles. When the Sardine slept, his dreams involved sumptuous repasts.

All the way to Genoa, where he would change trains (and eat), he reproached himself for getting into this bind.  How stupid. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.

Yet, back in Calais, he might have seen something more stupid.

The Sardine was sitting in the compartment, mildly anxious over the choice of trains he had just made.  The other Genoa train was leaving first.  A door opened from one of the cars and a middle-aged man leaped to the platform, tumbled onto his side and picked himself up in one motion, and began to run down the platform.  You only might have seen such a stunt in movies.

Several baggage handlers and the red-capped station master approached this man when the train had left the station.  The man turned to the railroad employees and yelled at them.  The Sardine does not speak French but could roughly gauge the sentiments this way:

“You idiots, my baggage was put on the wrong train.”

Just as forcefully the station master rebuked the passenger for leaping from a moving train.  If the guy’s baggage was on the wrong train, it was his fault; the baggage handlers wouldn’t have put it there without his instructions.

The man grabbed his head and spun in despair.  Again, the Sardine did not hear the words clearly but the man seemed to be suggesting that his wife or some family member was on the train!

What did it matter to the railroad people?  The unsympathetic baggage men added a few last recriminations while the station master escorted him to the office.

So maybe the Sardine wasn’t as stupid as he seemed.

This particular train ride, as it happened, has nostalgic value.  The idea for the Sardine articles was conceived on the Genoa to Pisa leg of the trip.

He shared a compartment with a husky Italian teenager.  The music was so loud from the kid’s Walkman that the Sardine couldn’t help noticing, and being irritated by, the sounds emanating from the earphones.

The Sardine rested against the compartment window.  The long passage was nearly ended.  Where would he stay in Pisa?  After thirty minutes, like a sonic boom, the memory of a familiar beat came from the Walkman:

  Dum dum dum dum dum
       dum dum dum dum,
     Dum dum dum dum dum
       dum dum dum dum,
     Wahhhhhhh wahhh,
       wahhhhhhh wahh-wahh,
     Wahhh wahh wahh wahh
        wahhhh wahhhh       
            wah-wah-wah. . . .

The theme from “Peter Gunn.”  And this brought to mind an image of the private eye’s silhouette, which looked like an ancient Greek representation of a Homeric warrior.

Peter Gunn was television noir.  Craig Stevens in the lead role.  Lola Albright, his woman (a femme not so fatale).  Herschal Bernardi as Lt. Jacoby, but best known as the voice of Charlie the Tuna and the Jolly Green Giant.

The Sardine joyfully listened to the strain for several minutes.  Other majestic themes from his were recalled.  “Surfside Six,” “77 Sunset Strip,” “Hawaiian Eye,” and, a decade and a half later, “Magnum P.I.”

Indeed, the last seemed a jazzier, snappier version of “Peter Gunn.”  Then the Sardine began to think about the private eye hero.  Why did the detective and not the police lieutenant solve the crime?  How did these guys get away with killing so many people?

There seemed to be material here for a small article.  Or maybe a series of articles written not by himself but an invented persona.  Much like the persona, actually personae, created by Flann O’Brien.  The Sard would Americanize those Irish columns.  O’Brien had “The Plain People of Ireland” while the Sardine, a “Newspaper-Reading Public,” a bunch of gullible mugs who didn’t travel much and expected the truth from newspapers.

Newspaper-Reading Public:  We have to register a protest.

Didn’t like the description of yourselves, or was it the fact that you were merely derivatives of O’Brien’s columns?

N-R P:  Neither.  What’s been bugging us is that you said the Sardine was created during this train trip.

Yes, the idea for the column.

N-R P:  How can the Sardine create himself?

Well, that’s part of my plan here.  To make you wonder about something like that?

N-R P: Excuse us for interrupting.

To continue.  The theme faded and the Sardine was quickly devising potential subjects for a syndicated column.  He carried this idea with him for a month and composed several columns.

Returning to the U. S., seeing the maddening rush of people around JFK airport, he felt a letdown.  Really, who would publish, let alone read, this type of article in a newspaper?  The column’s concept had developed in isolation from the public it had wished to attract.  He was sorry for dreaming up the project.

Another stupid thing to add to the list.



Bob Castle, a.k.a A Sardine on Vacation has regularly published articles for Bright Lights Film Journal since 2000 and in 2020 his novel, The Hidden Life, was published.


Edited for Unlikely by Jonathan Penton, Editor-in-Chief
Last revised on Friday, November 17, 2023 - 20:57