Literally Big Money


(Rai Stones: the giant coins of Yap)

A friend of a friend recently passed my email to another friend who is just starting out as a writer. The friend wrote to me, including some pages from their latest work, and asking if I could spare the time to read it and give them some feedback. While I’m far from a successful or established writer (yet) I was happy to oblige. I have too many good memories of the writers group I belonged to at university in Wales, meeting up at our organiser’s house (which literally had a mountain in the back garden) to eat sandwiches and mini-muffins in the evening at the end of the week and give each other feedback on our work. I learnt so many useful lessons from those evenings that I always try to make the time to do it for anyone else. I read through the friend’s work, made suggestions and gave advice, which I hope they found useful. But one of the subjects that came up as we exchanged emails was originality, which leads pretty easily to the question “Where do you get your ideas from?”
There are hundreds of answers to this question, but the single most popular piece of practical advice for writers (particularly in the sci-fi and fantasy fields) is to ask the questions “What if?” and “What happens next?” This is obviously sound advice, but it is a little bit general (“What if what?” for instance). It’s helpful if you already have an idea, a starting point or topic, but not so much if you want to write, but have no idea what to write about. However, I have recently had a new idea for a story come to me and I will use this post to explain one way in which it can happen. The first and most important thing to remember is the words of Jack London: “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” This is very good advice. I have literally spent years stuck on problems with my books, waiting for inspiration to strike. But if you’re going to wait for inspiration, you could be waiting forever. The better option (as I learnt the hard, but inevitable way) is to stir up the inspiration yourself by working at the problem; thinking about it, trying out ideas and solutions and eventually, finding it. The second thing comes from Ray Bradbury: “Feed your muse.” Bradbury was a real believer in the artistic muse, but like London, he knew it was something you had to work for to receive its benefits. Bradbury’s basic advice (which I try to follow in some way nearly every day) amounts to this: give your subconscious raw material to make ideas out of. The subconscious is the most creative part of our minds. It’s where our dreams, nightmares and fantasies come from, but if it isn’t given stuff to work with (or if it receives the same stuff over and over again) it won’t produce very much. The main way I try to do this is by reading. I usually have as much non-fiction as fiction by bed and my favourite chairs and I do know writers who read more non-fiction than fiction for precisely this reason. I read history, biography, philosophy, popular science and really anything else that catches my interest (NB: if it does catch your interest, that’s a good sign). TV documentaries, music, films can serve the same purpose and so can jobs, people and anything you happen to see in the street. Bradbury also talks about experiences as feeding the muse and I would add that landscapes can do it as well. Think of all the great poets who spent time in the English lake district to draw inspiration from the scenery. I have written before about how my ideas often form when two or more smaller, unrelated ideas, that have been in my mind for ages, suddenly connect and crystalise. This is how I collect the smaller ideas in the first place and I’d advise anyone else to do the same thing. The new story idea I’ve recently had came from this process, but more spontaneously, without needing to connect with anything.
The source was once again Felix Martin’s excellent book Money: The Unauthorised Biography, which opens with a description of the money used on the Pacific island called Yap.

(Yap; actually three islands in a close group)

The money of Yap is noteworthy for being – literally – the biggest in history. Yapese coins, known as Rai stones, are stone discs with holes drilled through the centres that can range from 7-8 cm to 12 feet in diameter. They were quarried and carved not on Yap, but on another island Palau, three hundred miles away, and their value came from their size, their quality (the limestone’s degree of whiteness and the fineness of its grain) and the sheer difficulty in getting them to Yap across 300 miles of ocean. The first Westerner to study Yap, William Henry Furness III in 1903, was amazed by the Rai stones, not just because of their size, but because of how complex the economic system for using them was, even though the only things worth buying and selling on Yap at the time were fish, coconuts and sea cucumbers. Rai stones were used to buy and sell in much the same way we use modern coins and banknotes today, but with the big difference that it was very rare for them to actually be exchanged. “The noteworthy feature of this stone currency is that it is not necessary for its owner to reduce it to possession. After concluding a bargain which involves the price of a fei (another name for the stones) too large to be conveniently moved, its new owner is quite content to accept the bare acknowledgement of ownership and without so much as a mark to indicate the exchange, the coin remains undisturbed on the former owner’s premises.”

(A high-value Rai)

Rather than exchanging the coins, the Yapese simply remembered who each one belonged to at any particular time. On Yap today, US dollars are the currency of preference and are used for most day-to-day transactions, but Rai are still used in the traditional way for important cultural transactions, such as marriages and inheritances. They’ve also become the island’s national symbol and are used on Yap’s flag, its seal and its license plates. The thing that most amazed Furness about them and their use though, was a story he was told by his guide. “There was in a village near by a family whose wealth was unquestioned – acknowledged by everyone – and yet no one, not even the family itself, had ever laid eye or hand on this wealth: it consisted of an enormous fei, whereof the size is known only by tradition; for the past two or three generations it had been and was at that time lying at the bottom of the sea!” This high quality Rai stone had been caught in a storm and sunk while it was being shipped to Yap years early. When I read this in Money: The Unauthorised Biography, I had a BBC radio comedy show playing in the background, and I instantly knew how I would dramatise this moment for the radio.

Ext. Pacific Ocean. Night. SFX: A storm at sea. Wind howling. Waves crashing. Rain splattering on deck boards. Ropes creaking. Captain and crewmember shouting to each other.

            CAPTAIN: Is the Rai tied down properly?

            SAILOR: Yes! It’s fine!

SFX: Rope snapping. Loud creaking and sliding noise, followed by a big splash.

            SAILOR: Uh-oh.

            CAPTAIN: What was that?

            SAILOR: Nothing!

But Furness’s guide explained that – even though the Rai was now somewhere on the seabed between Yap and Palau – it was still being used as money. “It was universally conceded… that the mere accident of its loss overboard was too trifling to mention, and that a few hundred feet of water off shore ought not to affect its marketable value… The purchasing power of that stone remains, therefore, as valid as if it were leaning visibly against the side of the owner’s house.” On reading this, I could also instantly imagine how business transactions using it must have gone.

            YAPESE BUSINESSMAN: OK. For two hundred fish and one hundred coconuts, you can have that Rai, that one and that one, and I’ll throw in the sunken one for three hundred sea cucumbers.

            CUSTOMER: Deal.

            YAPESE BUSINESSMAN (shaking on it): Great. I’ll tell everyone you now own those four.

As crazy as all this sounds from the outside, Furness realised the system was really not so different from “our silver dollars stacked in the treasury in Washington, which we never see or touch, but trade with on the strength of a printed certificate that they are there.” When the famous economist John Maynard Keynes read Furness’s book on Yap, he was deeply impressed by “a people whose ideas on currency are probably more truly philosophical than those of any other country. Modern practise in regard to gold reserves has a good deal to learn from the more logical practises of the island of Yap.”
My idea for a story came from the story of the sunken Rai. Reading it gave me two questions, both a “What if” and a “What happens next?” What if an islander on Yap today –whose family had just received ownership of the sunken one as part of his sister’s dowry – decided to go and find it? He is a local historian, very proud of his people’s traditions and culture, who has visited every other Rai on the island, and is determined not to miss this legendary one. He promptly sets about the task with a vengeance, learns how to scuba dive and to use an underwater camera, gathers some like-minded friends to assist in his quest, buys a boat and begins searching the old sea route between Yap and Palau. But – as the Yapese were shipping Rai between the two islands for hundreds of years – what if the famous one is not the only one that was ever lost at sea? What if the islander and his friends find the seabed littered with dozens of Rai of different sizes, with no way to tell which is the one his family now owns? How do they sort out who the other ones belong to and how does this sudden cash influx affect the local economy? Quite simply, what happens next?

Sources: Money: The Unauthorised Biography. Felix Martin. Brodley Head 2013. ISBN-13: 978-1847922335 Images:

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