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Monday, 30 November 2009

Seeing Things

Seeing Things cover Oliver Postgate was a small man in a big world. He made small films – his business was in fact called Smallfilms – and never aspired to make big ones. He lived a quiet life mostly in small towns in middle England pottering away at whatever happened to come his way; his life had no grand plan. Not that many people will instantly recognise his name, not in the same way that the name Gerry Anderson is known, but his work is known and loved and has been cherished by generations of British children many of whom are now in their sixties and, I dare say, seventies.

Charlie Brooker in The Guardian called Oliver Postgate "the greatest children's storyteller of the last 100 years." I'm not sure I would go that far – there are several contenders for that title – but I'd happily go with one of the greatest children's storytellers of the last 100 years. He is best known for four characters, or groups: Bagpuss, The Clangers, Ivor the Engine and Noggin the Nog. Everyone who knows them will have their favourites. An old boss of mine adored Bagpuss and I earned serious Brownie points when one year I bought her a cuddly toy for Xmas. For me it was Noggin the Nog whereas my wife was completely smitten by the Clangers when I introduced her to them about twelve years ago; being an American she had had a very different childhood.

If you're a Brit then, and of a certain age, encouraging you to read Oliver Postgate's memoir, Seeing Things, will be no hard task; the book sells itself. We all want to be reminded of those days and to discover the origins of our favourite characters and how they were brought to life. And all of that is in the book. But that only covers the middle years really of Postgate's life. The real question I wanted answered was how the hell he wound up doing that for a living. Let's put it this way it wasn't a childhood dream to animate; he wasn't even particularly interested in art or writing stories. No, nothing like it.

The very first Noggin the Nog

What he was was a problem solver. Not logistics as much but rather mechanics. He could have just as easily found himself with a career as an inventor. Or indeed an actor. Though probably not a farmer. And definitely not a soldier.

Throughout his life Oliver has shown a talent for coming up with new and interesting ways of doing things, some more successful than others; the prospect of "an hydraulic typewriter" filled his potential clients "with horror", for example, but he persisted. His electroplated medallions proved unmarketable and his forays into motorised toys were equally unsuccessful although his toy fork-lift trucks sounded like fun. His mechanical shop displays, which were in vogue in the fifties, were successful enough while the trend lasted, but nothing lasts forever.

One machine that did work well for a time – one couldn't call it an invention per se since the thing already existed – was the washing machine that he cobbled together for his mother:

It worked triumphantly well as a washing-engine. It washed the clothes really well, beautifully clean and quite undamaged. It would even rinse them if you ran water through it with a hose from the tap.

Daisy [Oliver's mother] was absolutely dismayed by it. Just looking at the thing, standing like a home-made cannon in the corner of the scullery, filled her with dread. Hearing it in action alarmed her terribly, though both Ray [his dad] and I thought its noise magnificent, like the sound of tramcars copulating. This simile, though apt and evocative, did nothing to improve Daisy's confidence.

However, Daisy was nothing if not loyal to the cause. She screwed up her courage and consented to use the washing-engine. She was, perhaps understandably, cautious in her approach to it. She would drop the clothes in at arm's length, fill it with hot water from a hose, reach out and pour in the soap-flakes, drop on the lid and then, with the door to the kitchen held open, flick on the switch and run out, locking the door behind her. I wondered why she locked it. It was almost as if she was afraid of the engine, which was going 'Yerk-graunch-slop, yerk-graunch-slop, yerk-graunch- slop' to itself in the scullery, was going to clamber out and chase after her.

Needless to say that is exactly what the machine was doing and one day it fell over and blew all its fuses. A "high-speed food mixer" was better received and worked fine till one day Daisy didn't tighten the lid properly and the thing "distempered the scullery from floor to ceiling with Yorkshire pudding batter." Throughout the fifties Oliver persisted at trying to find his niche but finding backers for his inventions was a problem and he never had the capital to try and go it alone, not until his television career but we’ll get to that.

The very first Ivor the Engine (remade in colour here)

Before all of this came his acting career which lasted most of the forties. Acting Oliver stumbled into through lack of direction. He'd thought that a career in stage design might be for him but that didn't work out. Still attracted by the idea of being somehow involved in theatre work he considered aiming for a job as a stage manager and then he thought: "[W]hy not go the whole hog and be an actor?" Besides it "had a simple decisive ring to it."

And so he dutifully enrolled at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art in Earl's Court and arrived on the first day of term "[c]arrying a pad and pencil and a bound volume of Shakespeare's plays." If this smacks of a certain naïveté then you're not too far off the mark. 'Innocence' would probably be a kinder term. What you have to remember was when all of this was happening: Oliver was born in 1925; this was a completely different age.

This is something you notice as the book progresses through the years. Oliver is not prone to much social commentary but there is some and we notice a real change in the world he has to live in and his attitude towards it. But as a boy in England in the thirties and forties his life was far closer to ideal than idealistic.

Before his stage career came his remarkably brief army career. When you listen to Oliver narrate and you hear that calm, measured voice, you probably think: What a nice chap – I bet he wouldn't hurt a fly. And your assessment would be spot on. If there's one thing that rings true throughout this book is the fact that Oliver Postgate was a decent bloke and not just the kindly old man he ended up as but right from childhood on he was, well, just plain nice. And all of that is fine. But what was this nice peaceable eighteen year-old going to do when he received his call-up papers advising him to join the Household Cavalry at Combermere Barracks in Windsor in November 1943?

I wrote the Commanding Officer of the Household Cavalry at Windsor, politely letting him know that I would not be joining his regiment on the day appointed but that in order to avoid inconvenience I would present myself for arrest at the gates of Combermere Barracks at 11:30 in the morning of 13 December 1943.

Which he does. And the chapter that follows is one of the funniest in the book and easily comparable to anything Spike Milligan wrote about his encounters with military bureaucracy. When Oliver arrives at the barracks his encounter at the guardhouse does not go with military precision:

'Hallo.' I said, 'I've arrived.'


'I've come to give myself up.'

He looked up. 'To give yourself what?' he asked.


'Up what?'

'No, not exactly.'

'You've come to join up?'

'No, not really.'

'Got any papers?'


'Look, you can't join the army if you haven't got the proper papers.'

'No, I'm not here to join the army.'

'What then?'

'I'm here not to join the army.'

The soldier thought about this for a moment. Then he said: 'You know, I'd have thought you would have been better off doing that somewhere else.'

Anyway, with far more difficulty than one might imagine, he manages to get himself locked up, court-martialled and sentenced to three months in a very civilised manner. After that he was supposed to be sent down the mines but the army manages not only to let him go, but to also hand him a ten-bob note (50p) and an open rail ticket.

The opening to Bagpuss

From there, rather than down the mines, Oliver finds himself moving though a number of jobs on farms, none very exciting. Sadly the chances of bedding any famers' daughters never comes his way, though looking back, he reckons that was probably a good thing.

Although he didn't choose to fight in the war, and there was a family precedent for being a conscientious objector, he did, however, make a number of attempts to join relief efforts and finally – on arriving home in Finchley in October 1946 after returning from yet another farming job along with a "genuine bull-nosed Morris" as a present for his mother, who immediately called it "Daisy" (all their cars had names) – he found a letter offering him the job of ambulance driver in one of the Relief Teams run by the Children's Fund. And so began another chapter in his life and another chapter in the book, 'The Honey Barrel.'

It's the nature of autobiographies that they tend to be anecdotal and you feel you're missing out on a lot, that years slip by and nothing happens and it's impossible not to say this about Postgate's memoir. The thing I get from it is that his life was, far more than most people's, episodic. He didn't leave school, get a job as a gofer at the BBC before catching the eye of some wily producer looking to train up an animator. No, nothing like that. Things just landed in his way. Occasionally, usually after a chat with his legs, he'd sidestep them but mostly he'd grip the bull by the horns and give it a jolly good go.

One of the last projects he tackled was "painting a Bayeux Tapestry-type 'illumination'" as he puts it and, in a brief conversation he has with himself, not merely with his legs, the two of him have this to say:

'Done it again, done it again.'

'Done what?'

'Taken on something you don’t know how to do. Committed yourself to delivering inside a year the sort of thing that other people have taken a lifetime to complete, and which you may not be able to do at all because you don’t know the first thing about it. That's what.'

'I can find out.'

'But you're not the right sort of person. You're not an artist. It isn’t your sort of thing. People are supposed to go to college and do courses, learn about Composition, study the history of Art, get diplomas, before they even think about doing things like that.'

'So what's new?'

'Oh nothing I suppose ,' the voice muttered, and shut up.

A very similar interchange takes place when he first conceives of Ivor the Engine. What you have to remember about Smallfilms is that Oliver was the writer and narrator, Peter Firmin, who tends (and ought not to) to get a bit forgotten, was the artist and model maker. I say "ought not to" and by that I mean by the general public, Oliver in no way attempts to push his nose out of the picture.

Clangers episode 'The Intruder' (entire episode)

You're probably wondering why I've not mentioned Oliver's animation work too much and there's a good reason for this. The people who will jump at the chance to read this book will already be well-versed in his little worlds although I doubt there will be many out there who can name much that he's done bar the four I've already mentioned. I suspect a few will know about Pogles' Wood but I'd never heard of The Pingwings or Alexander the Mouse. In reality he created twelve or so "worlds" as he describes them several times in the book.

Since my personal favourite is Noggin the Nog, I'll let you know that the original idea for the little Norse saga came from Firmin:

One day, while he was travelling through Neasden on his way to the studios at Wembley, it occurred to Peter that the [Lewis] chessman in the Edward VII Gallery could well have been called Nogs, that their prince was a Noggin and that the wicked baron with the twirly moustaches could be their wicked uncle, perhaps a Nogbad.


Peter thought of a tale from the land of Nog. It told of the death of a much-loved king and of his son, Prince Noggin, who had to choose a bride within six weeks, because if he did not the crown would go to his wicked uncle, Nogbad the Bad.

And so on and so forth. Some of the elements were even proposed by Peter's four year-old daughter, Hannah, who was much taken by the film Nanook of the North and decided that Noggin's bride, once he found her, was to be Nooka, daughter of Nan of the Nooks. It was Oliver that tidied up this original plot and very soon we got to hear for the first time these immortal words:

In the lands of the North, where the black rocks stand guard against the cold sea, in the dark night that is very long the men of the Northlands sit by their great log fires and they tell a tale…

What did come as a surprise was just how many Noggin the Nog sagas there had been. There were twelve series in total beginning with 'King of the Nogs' and ending with 'The Icebergs'.

The Pogles episode 'King of the Fairies' (entire episode)

Several times over the years Peter and Oliver thought that their time was up, as far as their brand of animation went, but opportunities kept opening up by way of audio recordings, books, musicals even; and then there was the foreign film market. Eventually the day came when the BBC didn't ask for anything new:

Apparently an edict had been issued by the powers-that-be to the effect that the viability of programmes (i.e. their worth and chance of continuing), was henceforth to be ratings-led (i.e. judged by the number of people watching). As the purpose of television was to entertain (as opposed to instruct or educate), the basic policy was to give the children exactly the sort of thing that they were already known to enjoy and deliver it in a form and manner that was especially exciting.

All you have to do is look at much that is presented in the name of children's entertainment today to see how well that's worked out.

It was not a young Oliver Postgate that wrote this book though, it was an elderly man looking back on a life where the world has changed so much. He could have contented himself with just getting his recollections on paper as accurately as possible but in addition to that he stops several times to pass comment and in some cases judgement on his own actions and the actions of those about him. While in Australia serving as Artist-in-Residence at the Western Australian Institute of Technology – a role that utterly bemuses him because nothing appears to be required of him other than to be "the Oliver Postgate", someone none of the students had ever heard of – he is shown some films by some of the students and asked if they're any good. His response is noteworthy:

[Y]ou can't really ask how 'good' a piece of work is by itself. You can only ask how well it does what it is setting out to do. A film is a communication and a communication has to communicate something. It doesn't matter how glossy, clever or avant-garde the pictures are, if they aren't about anything, they are about nothing, and consequently their success can't be judged.

[T]here are, in every production, two components, what the word is about and how it is made. They are both necessary but the how is essentially the servant on the what – if only because a marvellously made film about nothing is still a nothing.

His own films may have been small, produced under primitive circumstances (in an ex-cow-shed at one point), and nowhere near the quality of studios like Disney but what cannot be said about any of them is that they meant nothing. Meaning is a fluid term. It's not simply something intellectual. When someone like me says that Noggin the Nog or Bagpuss or any of the others means something to them, that means something. What it means is that it has added meaning to our lives. People say that about great works of art, surely not wee short films made for kids. I would beg to differ.

The very first Pingwings

I would heartily recommend this book to anyone who has been touched by this man's work. What you will learn, especially from the latter part of the book, is how much more this small man contributed to this big world we all live in. His work on solar power is likely unknown to most as are his contributions to the peace process, such as his pamphlet Thinking it Through: The Plain Man's Guide to the Bomb which was distributed to the various delegates and diplomats who were in Geneva preparing for the United Nations' Second Special Session on Disarmament, which was due to take place in New York the following June.

oliver_postgate_104803t If a small man shouts loudly enough then I guess the whole world will be able to hear him.

Seeing Things is published by Canongate Books and is available in hardback in a beautiful edition accompanied by photographs and illustrations in black and white and in colour. The price is £16.99 which may seem a little steep but this is very much a present not just another old bloke's autobiography. No dust jacket though, but it doesn't really need it.



Documentary: "Ivor the Engine" and the story of "Smallfilms" (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)

Oliver Postgate's site with some of his political articles

The websites of Smallfilms, Noggin the Nog and The Clangers

An interview with Oliver Postgate

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Guest Post: Haiku and its related forms: an introductory essay

japanese-clip-4-with-haiku I've written a couple of posts about short forms of Japanese poetry (most recently Why I hate haiku) but I've always been acutely aware that I've been out of my depth. To that end a while back I asked my very knowledgeable friend Art Durkee to see if he could rattle together something and, lo and behold, he has. So, without further ado, let me leave you in Art's capable hands.


Preface: This is an essay written and re-written periodically over about 6 years. It’s a topic, or rather a set of topics, that is continually expanding. The subject is endless and ever-growing. So, this particular version of this essay may become obsolete again, before I can ever add to it. What I’ve tried to do is assemble an overview, a possibly over-simplified summary view, overlooking a vast literary landscape that is still being explored and colonized. At minimum, I hope to have provided a few ideas which interested poets can take and run with, to begin their own journeys into this rich and rewarding poetic territory. As for myself, I continue to write in haiku and haibun more than in any other poetic form; even when I am not really writing any poems at all, a few haiku will turn up, based on moments of experience that one wishes to distill from memory into poems.

When working with haiku in English, there are several good reference books to start from; I’ll list a few of those later. Meanwhile, here are some basic ideas to get any interested haijin (writer of haiku) started. A tremendous amount of material about haiku is available online, from critical articles to full-fledged journals, so I’ll post some links later.

Before we dig in, though, here’s an important caveat: most beginning haijin get stuck on the “rules” of haiku. The most important thing that needs to be said is this: the rules are neither as rigid nor as deterministic as most people think they are. If you think of them as guidelines, or tendencies based on long tradition, rather than purely as rules, you will have a lot more fun—and probably make better haiku. Haiku is an art form, after all, a way of poetry; it’s not engineering, and it’s not a purely intellectual game.

Most beginning haijin think that the most important feature to haiku is the form and syllable structure of three lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables respectively. This is understandable, as we’re used to thinking of poetic forms in this way, as well as in other purely formal terms such as meter and rhyme. While this 17-syllable count is traditional, it is not as set in stone as you might think. It is the original form as developed in imperial Japan, but there are haiku by the classical masters that use a 16, 15, and 18 syllable count. In Japanese, in fact, haiku are most often written out in one long line, rather than broken into three lines; the line-breaks are pauses that are understood, and pauses are marked by placer-words and syllables that are understood in common practice.

While the syllable count matters in Japanese, there are several reasons why it doesn’t need to be strictly followed in English. Japanese is an uninflected language relative to English. In English, which is usually inflected in units of stressed-unstressed tones, it makes sense to use a syllable count of even numbers, for example, 4-6-4 rather than 5-7-5; and indeed, many English-language haijin do just that. There is much merit in the 4-6-4 argument, but again, don’t adhere to it too blindly. Many good haiku in English use both these and other syllable counts. Many good haiku in English pursue the spirit of haiku rather than the strict syllabic form, as well; this will be discussed in more detail below.

maitreya_haiku So, the 5-7-5 syllable count is relevant in Japanese but not always relevant, or replicable, in English. That's why many translators of Japanese haiku go for sense, or feel, rather than strict adherence to the 5-7-5 form in English. Similarly, meter and rhyme, while considered by many in English poetry to be essential to poetry, are not present in Japanese haiku at all. Some early translators tried to force their haiku translations into rhymed couplets, sometimes using four lines, and this led to some seriously bad renditions. Nowadays, again, many translators strive to bring the meaning across, and not force their translations into expectations about poetry in English.

A very good essay, about why this should be so, by a bilingual Japanese scholar, can be read here.

Note that this is a fairly technical article that may be most interesting to poets who want to go deeper into the issues of syllabics and line-breaks. Nonetheless, the essayist’s concluding statement is one I think all haijin would do well to keep in mind, when writing haiku in English:

By concerning ourselves too much with the outward form of haiku, we can lose sight of its essence.

Sentence fragments in Japanese can be considered poetic, in that they can be images that within context take on meaning. Japanese syntax is quite different from English syntax, and context rather than linear grammar can be very important. Verbs can be entirely absent, in some Japanese haiku. A really big mistake is to try to apply English ideas about grammar and syntax to Japanese haiku, either when translating or when writing new haiku in English. The mark of a good translation is to create a new poem in English that gets the sense across while making grammatical sense in English; not all translators are good at this. Similarly, when creating a new haiku in English, pay attention to tone and style as much as to form, but don’t feel locked into English rules of grammar and syntax. Haiku are meant to evoke, and as in painting, sometimes what it left out is what matters most.

Many of the "rules," or expected common practices, of haiku are aesthetic rather than technically formal. Traditional haiku typically include all of the following: the use of two contrasting images; the use of a kigo, or seasonal indicator word (cicadas in autumn, cherry blossoms in spring, etc.) that indicate what time of year the haiku is set in; the turn, or hinge, between the two images, which in English is usually represented in English by a dash or colon, can entirely change the meaning of the first image, after you've experienced the second; the preference in haiku is for capturing a pure “haiku moment.”

deer move in the woods,
stepping high, noses down—
snow falling hard, now

(one of my own haiku by way of example)

Haiku tend to be concrete, “of the moment,” rather than abstract or allusional; metaphor or simile is atypical. The aesthetic is to take a small moment of insight into the world, and write it out immediately, spontaneously: light and quick. Of course, the great haiku poets did revise and rework their poems; often just changing one word, in so compressed and concise a poetic form, can make all the difference.

Another important aspect of the haiku aesthetic is that the reader is expected to “complete” the poem, by bringing their own life-experience to it, which enhances its meaning and creates resonance. The reader is not a passive recipient, but a participant in the poem. Readers bring their own emotions and experiences to the poems they read. Haiku can be very deeply felt, very moving—but emotion is usually expressed in a restrained manner, sometimes quasi-symbolically. Many haiku are glimpses of nature, with no apparent human content: but humans are also part of nature, and the reader brings the human element to the poem, and is in relationship to the nature images and events of the poem. The poem is a reflection of the human encounter with the world.

Thus, many haiku are about “aha!” moments: moments of revelation; of sudden deep understanding; of contemplation. They connect the universal to the particular: the cosmos expressed in the chirp of a cricket.

Haiku can also be gently ironic, for example this famous haiku of Matsuo Bashō’s about sleeping in a barn while traveling:

nomi shirami | uma no bari suru | makuramoto

fleas and lice—
next to my pillow,
a horse pisses

Basho Bashō, Issa, and Buson are considered the three great classical Japanese haiku masters. They each have characteristic topics, and a familiar poetic “voice.” I strongly recommend that any beginning haijin read these poets extensively, especially Bashō, who was the originator of the form. Over 1000 can be found here.

An oft-quoted haiku definition (from includes some comments that get it mostly right about the aesthetic aspects of haiku:

Haiku was traditionally written in the present tense and focused on associations between images. There was a pause at the end of the first or second line, and a "season word," or kigo, specified the time of year.

As the form has evolved, many of these rules--including the 5-7-5 practice--have been routinely broken. However, the philosophy of haiku has been preserved: the focus on a brief moment in time; a use of provocative, colorful images; an ability to be read in one breath; and a sense of sudden enlightenment and illumination.

The pause (often represented in English haiku by punctuation) mentioned is really more of a hinge or turn. Haiku often consist of two apparently contrasting images, with a turn in between them. For example:

out the window
wild turkeys on the lawn—
lone rabbit watches

The images might seem unconnected, but they are connected on a deeper level because they are placed in association, in contrast or in relationship, and they comment upon one another, so that the poem synergizes into something bigger than just two images.

The aesthetic in haiku is often based in the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi, the impermanence of existence, and the roughness of natural things. The moment of illumination (the haiku moment) is very central to this aesthetic, no matter how the poem is structured technically. It's difficult to call a poem a haiku without that "aha!" Although many haiku are about small things, many also open up into the wider universe of existence, and expand the mind.

Issa's haiku are often very small and simple, and even humorous. But one of his most sublime haiku, written soon after his infant daughter had died:

this world of dew
is just a world of dew—
and yet . . . and yet . . .

“The world of dew” is a classic Japanese Buddhist image of impermanence: the world is a reflection in a dewdrop, soon to evaporate. In this haiku, Issa affirms how impermanent life is—but then he equivocates, he wonders, he questions. Life is fleeting—and yet, so compelling, so attractive; we cling to it, even knowing it must end.

I write a lot in haiku and its related forms; most notably, haibun, which can be thought of as densely poetic prose sections, or prose-poems, interspersed with haiku. Many of Bashō’s most famous writings are actually haibun, even though their associated haiku are sometimes excerpted as stand-along poems. His masterpiece of travel writing is composed in haibun form: Oku no hosomichi, or The Narrow Road to the Interior.

Issa When writing haiku, my personal preference is to keep to the “rules” that make the most sense to me, and be looser about the rest. This can be subjective, of course, and haijin and haiku critics will argue indeed about it. One of the things that attracts me to haiku is non-linearity, that sense of being in the moment yet the moment is eternal. I almost always follow the aesthetic aspects of haiku—tone and subject matter and “haiku moment”—because these are what attract me to haiku; but I am looser about following a strict syllable count. Some short-form poems I’ve written use the haiku moment as root-moment for making a poem, but I suppose are not strictly haiku, formally or structurally. At other times, I like to sometimes strictly follow a strict syllable count, because it can be a challenge to make a good haiku in English doing just that. At yet other times, I stretch the form pretty far, in terms of content, subject matter, and style. I recognize and honor the Japanese tradition, and I view myself as a serious student of Bashō and Issa in particular, and I also like to experiment.

Here is a brief list of words and concepts related to haiku forms (with gratitude to fellow haijin Beth Vieira for the initial list, which I have expanded upon). Most of these are terms that refer to aesthetic or technical aspects of haiku and its related forms:

aware – grief, pity. This term is complex, referring to what has been called the "touchingness of things," that is, being moved to feel pathos for this floating world. (This floating world, the dewdrop world—both refer to the impermanence of existence.)

fuga – the poetic spirit. A combination of wind and elegance, this term refers to the aesthetic vitality and sensitivity found in haiku poetry as well as associated arts such as landscape painting, architecture, and the tea ceremony.

haibun – haiku prose-poems. Normally structured as a brief prose text that exhibits haiku aesthetics, followed by a poem. Often described as dense poetic prose interspersed with haiku. Probably the most similar form from European poetics is the prose-poem as developed by Lautréamont, Baudelaire, and the Symbolists. An important aspect of haibun writing is that the haiku that follows the prose section does not merely repeat what has already been said, but reflects upon it from a different angle, or is a poetic response, or a poetic observation that moves the narrative forward by expressing the poet’s feelings about the actions or events in the prose section.

senryū – comic, unorthodox, a senryu is a poem in haiku form that evokes both comic playfulness, or lightness, and spiritual depth, plus it may comment on the "floating world" of human society. In essence, a senryu uses the traditional haiku form but its subject is human nature, and is often humorous or ironic in tone. Most English-language haijin who write humorous haiku, or wry commentaries on human foibles, are, strictly speaking, writing senryu rather than haiku; not all of them realize this distinction, however. Western poetry is very human-centric, and so when a beginning Western haijin starts to work within the haiku form, they transport their familiar subject matter to the new form; this produces senryu than haiku, typically.

haiga – traditionally, the visual art form of a painting that includes a poem written out in calligraphy as part of the painting. Traditionally, the poem and painting are about the same subject matter, but do not merely repeat each other; rather, they present different aspects, different responses. In approaching a subject from two directions, there is a parallel to haiku’s traditional of two images placed in juxtaposition to create a greater whole, a greater meaning. Haiga is not, therefore, merely a poem illustrated. It relies on the synergy between the two forms of art to make a greater work of art. Also, the calligraphy of the poem has its own aesthetic rules and traditions, and its placement as part of the artwork must be neither casual nor random. Calligraphy is its own way, its own aesthetic tradition, known as shodo.

hokku – opening stanza or first stanza of a renga (linked poem), with a 5-7-5 syllabic rhythm. This stanza was considered the most important and was usually offered by the master poet at a linked-verse gathering, or renga party. A season word was required. Renga consist of alternating stanzas of 5-7-5 and 7-7, composed collaboratively, each poet composing the next stanza as the poem goes around the circle. Each stanza completes the thought of the previous stanza, then presents something new; so the subject of the poem can veer off from where it began, and circle around, or keep going in new directions.

kigo – season word. A word that in the classical literary tradition suggests a particular season, or possibly a specific moment of a season, even if the object may be seen in other seasons (a type of bird for instance). Traditionally, every haiku should contain a kigo. There are numerous published season-word dictionaries, called saijiki or kigo jiten. In English haiku season-words are more problematic, as there is less of a tradition of associating specific words and images with specific seasons; some obvious examples, however, are pumpkin = autumn, snow = winter, etc. Traditionally, many kigo were names of birds or flowers associated with the time of year in which they were most prevalent. Thus, one went to view cherry blossoms in spring; one listened to cicadas in autumn; and so forth; and so these activities and images become the sources for kigo.

kiko bungaku – travel literature. Accounts of travel in prose often accompanied by haiku or tanka.  Similar to and overlapping with nikki bungaku, or diary literature. Also overlaps with zuihitsu (see below). Many of Bashō’s most famous haibun sequences, such as The Narrow Road to the Interior, are formally structured as travel literature.

mujo – impermanence. A prominent and complex concept in Japanese literature as well as in Buddhism and Taoism. One of the most fundamental aspects of life is its changeability, which can take the forms of cycles of the seasons, creative transformations in nature, the inescapable degeneration of aging, the inconstancy of lovers, and the inevitability of death.

renga – classical linked verse. A sequenced poem with multiple, alternating stanzas. The first stanza is 5-7-5 then followed by 7-7 making a poetic unit of 5-7-5-7-7. Then another 5-7-5 etc.  Usually this is a poem composed by a group, with poets alternating stanzas. Typically, renga are made from 36 to 100 individual stanzas.

sabi – loneliness. The word suggests both sorrowful and tranquil, a response to the realization and acceptance of the essential and shared loneliness of things. It can refer to an aspect of the fundamental nature of reality, a quality of a particular moment, or the state of mind that apprehends this loneliness.

tanka – the older form of classical Japanese poetry, closely related to both renga and haiku. Tanka are structurally composed of two stanzas, one 5-7-5 followed by a 7-7 stanza. The first section is very much like a haiku in form and aesthetic, while the second section adds to the first, and also can turn it in a new direction. Classically, tanka are very much associated with passionate love poetry, even explicitly erotic poetry.

wabi – aesthetic rusticity. A complex word that suggests simplicity and poverty, unadorned natural beauty, the elegant patina of age, especially in terms of weathered natural materials, asymmetry, and dynamic balance. Wabi is often combined with sabi to describe the haiku aesthetic. Wabi-sabi is also an important aesthetic in other arts such as architecture, and the tea ceremony.

zuihitsu – "Following the brush"—a traditional form of apparently random composition in Japanese literature, where the writer roams widely in subject matter and attention. Often very poetic, there's overlap here with diary-literature, travel-literature, and haibun. Some of the great classics of Japanese literature are combinations of following the brush, travel writing, and haibun poetry.

See also this Haikai Glossary at Terebess Asia Online.

One note about contemporary haiga: the idea of combining poetry, typography or calligraphy, and imagery, has gone digital. This is a fascinating modern trend that combines poetry and both traditionally-made art from hand-made materials, such as woodcut prints on paper, and digital art, Photoshop art, digital photography, fractal art, and combinations of all of these.


4Doris Kasson     


For example, here some online journals that feature contemporary haiga: Haiga, Daily Haiga, Haiga Gallery

Here is a link to Bashō's Narrow Road to the Deep North, one which is interactive and has multiple translations as well as the Japanese:

Here is a link to a rather exhaustive list of haiku reference materials, including journals and online sites:

Here is a link that has bibliographies and links for 5 Japanese essential haiku poets (Bashō, Buson, Issa, Ikkyū, Shiki)

Examples of haibun:

Bashō: Narrow Road to the Interior (trans. Sam Hamill)

Contemporary Haibun Online

Haibun by Contemporary Writers

Haibun: Poetic Journey

Haryana Online

Examples of zuihitsu:

The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon

As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams (another zuihitsu from the Heian era, contemporary with Sei Shōnagon)


Good Writing Models

Et Cetera

The Poetic Journal

Both the zuihitsu and travel-diary-writing forms continue to be used in modern Japan, and are gradually working their way in to English. The rules of no-rules, following the brush, brush-mind, random jottings.

Two modern published versions of zuihitsu in English that I’ve enjoyed reading:

Game-Texts: A Guatemalan Journey – Erskine Lane

Landscape With Traveler: The Pillow Book of Francis Reeves – Barry Gifford (this is a short novel written in pillow book form)

Book resources which I recommend to both beginning haijin and those who have which to pursue the Way of Poetry (kado as Bashō called it) more deeply:

The Essential Bashō(trans. Sam Hamill)

Kobayashi Issa: The Spring of My Life and Selected Haiku trans. Sam Hamill

The Classic Tradition of Haiku: An Anthology – Faubion Bowers, ed.

The Essential Haiku: Versions of Bashō, Issa, and Buson – Robert Hass, ed.

The Haiku Handbook: How to Write, Share and Teach HaikuWilliam J. Higginson (contains an anthology)

The Haiku Seasons: Poetry of the Natural World – William J. Higginson

The Ink Dark Moon: Love Poems by Ono No Komachi and Izumi Shikibu Women of the Ancient Court of Japan – trans. Jane Hirshfield with Mariko Aratani

A Zen Wave: Bashō's Haiku and ZenRobert Aitken Roshi

Autumn Wind Haiku: Selected Poems by Kobayashi Issa – trans. Lewis MacKenzie

Japanese Haiku: Its Essential Nature, History, and Possibilities in EnglishKenneth Yasuda

A History of HaikuR.H. Blyth

Bashō and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary – trans. Makoto Ueda

The literary biography of Bashō by Makoto Ueda, titled Matsuo Bashō, is excellent. Ueda authored another very excellent book that I highly recommend: Zeami, Bashō, Yeats, Pound: A Study in Japanese and English Poetics. Ueda is one of the most readable of serious haiku scholars.

These are some general anthologies, and a few specific anthologies of the three poets who are considered the great haiku masters: Bashō, Buson, Issa. I can recommend most of these as having read them personally, and having them in my haiku library:

Haiku Moment: An Anthology of Contemporary North American Haiku – Bruce Ross, ed.

An Introduction to Haiku: An anthology of poems and poets from Bashō to Shiki – Harold Gould Henderson

Japanese Death Poems: Written by Zen Monks and Haiku Poets on the Verge of Death – Yoel Hoffman, ed.

One Hundred Poems from the Japanese, and, One Hundred More Poems from the Japanese – trans. Kenneth Rexroth

The Haiku Anthology – Cor van den Heuvel, ed.

Haiku: The Poetry of Nature – David Cobb

On Love and Barley: Haiku of Bashō – trans. Lucien Stryk

Zen Poems of China and Japan: The Crane's Bill – Lucien Stryk and Takashi Ikemoto, eds.

Zen Poetry: Let the Spring Breeze Enter – Lucien Stryk and Takashi Ikemoto, eds.

Zen Poems Prayers: Sermons, Anecdotes, Interviews – Lucien Stryk and Takashi Ikemoto (mostly on Zen, with some poetry)

Afterimages: Zen poems of Shinkichi Takahashi – trans. Lucien Stryk

A Net of Fireflies: Japanese Haiku and Haiku Paintings – trans. Harold Stewart

Classic Haiku: An Anthology by Bashō and his Followers – trans. Asataro Miyamori

For Bashō's seminal haibun, Oku no hosomichi, usually translated as Narrow Road to the Deep North or Narrow Road to the Interior, I recommend:

Narrow Road to the Interior and Other Writings – trans. Sam Hamill This also contains the haibun Travelogue of Weather-Beaten Bones, and The Knapsack Notebook, and selected haiku. My edition is bilingual.

Donald Keene's translation in the illustrated edition with artwork by Miyata MasayukiThe Narrow Road to Oku. Also a bilingual edition.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches – trans. Nobuyuki Yuasa

Monday, 23 November 2009

Death of a Superhero

Book Cover

Not since Gunter Grass's The Tin Drum has the pains of growing up been rendered this powerfully – Blick, Zurich

I'm a kid at heart. Any book with the word 'superhero' in the title, the tag line, the blurb or in a review of the aforementioned book will have my spider-sense tingling. It is a definite in. So when I was thumbing through Alma Books' Spring 2010 catalogue and noticed at the back a photo of a book cover, well, the book cover you'll have noticed before you started to read this review, I was hooked. It didn't really matter what the book was about I was interested.

Here's how the blurb from the back of the book begins:

Donald Delpe is a troubled teenager. Not only is he a ‘terrible teen’ by default, as obsessed with sex, music, videogames and drugs as the rest of his gang…

I was a bit worried when I read that opening bit that Donald was going to be a really unlikeable character. I didn't need him to be loveable but I didn't want him to be nasty. Much to my delight I took to him right away but I'll come back to that. Let's continue with the blurb:

…but he is also suffering from a life-threatening form of leukaemia, which makes him an even more difficult boy, both for his parents and his teachers.

Tuesdays with Morrie Okay. Now that could go a few ways but I saw this building up to be a real tear-jerker, a sort of adolescent Tuesdays with Morrie. I wasn't sure I was up to that. Now, having finished it I can't pretend that it wasn't sad, it was dead sad, but it was also dead funny. Death may be a serious business but how many teenagers take anything that seriously, even be it their own impending death? On with the blurb:

Escaping into his own comic-book realm of immortal superheroes, ruthless villains and sex-crazed vamps, he repeatedly dashes his family’s hopes by refusing to fight the battles facing him in the real world.

The book is written in an unusual way, part narrative, part script, part comic-book outline. I'm a writer; if I was heading full throttle towards death I'd write about it, so what would I do if I was an aspiring comic book artist? It makes total sense to me. The blurb concludes:

As famous psychologist Dr King is brought in to help, a glimmer of hope is rekindled. But will the doctor break the rules, betray the parents’ trust and risk everything to help Donald achieve his greatest wish? Or will Donald be the one to save the doctor?

Hmmm. This has been done before surely, young, handsome doctor formulates radical treatment plan, one that his elders insist has no chance of success and will probably do more harm than good. Yeah, I can see where you might come up with that idea but that's not really how things play out. As for saving the doctor, now that does sound clichéd. Are we seriously expecting him walking into the sunset at the end of the book a changed man after his encounter with this extraordinary human being? Not quite. Okay, maybe a bit but when you put it like this is all sounds like the plot to My Sister's Keeper or Lorenzo's Oil or something.

The Mighty I compare the book to films because it's being made into a film, due for release in 2010, and I think it might do quite well if the film manages to steer that fine line between sentimentality and dark humour. It can be done and I would refer you to Peter Chelsom's 1999 film, The Mighty, about a wise-cracking terminally-ill kid who, along with the neighbourhood's dim-witted, over-sized outcast, together create their own superhero. See, I know about all things superheroic – well, a lot of things superheroic.

When I used to collect comics back in the sixties there was one thing that annoyed me about them, they'd present a starting cover showing something that never actually happens in the comic. That bugged me. The one that jumps to mind is Supergirl smashing the miniature city of Kandor and Superman crying our something along the lines of: "My God! You've just killed seven million people!" Superman_307_supergirl_smash_puny_kandorNever happens. I find blurbs a bit like that, never completely honest. They're hard to write I'll give them that but they should be viewed with caution if not exactly taken with a pinch of salt. So, I'm not saying the blurb is that bad but caveat lector (that's my best guess at reader beware) is all I have to say.

I don’t think the blurb does the book justice that's what I'm getting at but enough about that, let's have a look inside.

The book begins:

Fade in ... DONALD DELPE. Fourteen years old. A skinny kid, shoulders as meatless as coat-hangers. Odd-looking. No eyebrows, no hair. Face like a peeled potato. Walks paddle-footed down the streets of Watford…

Now, wait a minute! According to the New Zealand Herald Donald is "[q]ueer-looking" and is walking down the street of Wellington.


When I got sent this book for review – actually I begged a copy – I was delighted that it was by a New Zealander (I couldn't remember reading anything by a New Zealand writer before) and so I was royally cheesed off to find the book was set in Watford. Now I'm even more annoyed to find that the edition that was published in New Zealand was set in New Zealand. Why the change for the UK? Are the streets of Wellington too exotic for our tastes?

The book is written in three acts followed by out-takes and deleted scenes. Once you've got to the end of Act Three the story has effectively come to an end. Its not-overly-complicated plot is tied up and that seems to be that. I frankly felt a little disappointed by the ending. And then I read the so-called out-takes and suddenly this became quite a different book. It's hard to know when a story is finished. It's hard not to say too much. In the novel Donald goes missing for a few hours. This unfortunately gets his doctor into a lot of bother but we never learn what happens during those hours, they're quite expertly glossed over. And then, once we think the story is over, we discover what happened. The deleted scenes also allow the storyline to run on a little and serves as a dénouement. It's very cleverly done.

The Bucket List Okay, in the film The Bucket List two terminally-ill old codgers make a list of things they want to do before they kick the bucket – see the Pyramids, drive a Shelby Mustang, kiss the most beautiful girl in the world, that sort of thing – but what would top a fourteen-year-old boy's bucket list? Getting his neno ("Nookie Experience Number One"), joining the Six-Inch-Deep Club, landing the Martian Probe on Venus. The blurb says he's "obsessed with sex". He's not obsessed with sex, he's fourteen.

His big problem? Sex is on his mind, as usual. Been this way for a couple of years now. Acid-tripping on testosterone, lonesome as hell, his every second thought X-rated. Were these mind movies ever to go out on general release, the film censors would have to cut them to ribbons for family audiences, bleeping and blanking and pixelating all the reality out them, until they became the 12A-rated sleeper which is all the world ever sees of Donald F. Delpe.

(Note to self: shouldn't that be '18-rated'? We've not had an X certificate in the UK since 1982?)

It's high summer, 2006: the summer when nearly everyone feels they have tentative links with Hollywood, the land of fantasies so far away across the rolling sea; the summer when nearly everybody fancies themselves in show business and has begun to think in frames per second, dream in Panavision, see the world in montage, as scenes either brilliantly or poorly directed, as a series of smash-cuts and slow-fades to black, of lives as hits or flops, of relationships as comedies with cliché endings, of the Past as prequel and the Future as a franchise whose film rights are unencumbered – making all life, all of it, behave in the glorious nowness of the present tense common to film scripts, so that even the rubbish man is insomniac waiting for a call from his agent, and all the local barbers and bars display photos of staff with their arms wrapped around a star. It is the first summer in memory where an ordinary, hard-working, God-fearing life looks like an awfully dim choice compared with the brilliant projections of white light through celluloid.

This is how Donald sees life. When his parents drag him to church – not that they're especially religious, they're just desperate – he spies a good-looking brunette on the far side of the nave. Actually 'good-looking' is my expression. This is what Donald 'thought-bubbles' (his euphemism for thinking):

An Eve with centre-parted hair, a radiant babe, a babeatron, a looker to send his heart tom-tomming.

From simply adoring her from afar his internal movie disintegrates in his usual "grope-fest" of a film:

The film is obviously a turkey, shot for his own amusement and repetitive in its obsessions, but he will not touch a frame of it. … But then he gets an itch. An unscripted itch. Under his beanie. A monster scalp tickle that will be cured only by removing the woollen disguise, by real fingers digging into actual skin. Oh God, oh God he prays. Where art thou?

He pulls off his beanie.

And what a moment for her to look over at him, this girl who should've / could've / would've worn his ring. Their eyes meet, lock. Donald's fingers freeze mid-scratch.

Being fourteen is awful at the best of times but being fourteen and suffering from cancer must suck big time. Which it does. And we get to see a lot more moments like that where McCarten's plot conspires against poor Donald.

This is where I didn't like the word 'gang' in the blurb because Donald tends to keep to himself. Even when his father brings two of his friends, Mike and Raff, round to see him when he sees them he rushes back into the house and his dad has to take the two boys back.

The blurb mentioned a 'famous psychologist'. That would be Adrian King – "early, fifties, revered, published, brilliant" neither handsome nor it seems "a sexy man" carrying a bit too much weight although he has "a redeeming elegance that makes him uplifting company among people who wish to contemplate higher-order things" – and we get to learn quite a bit about him and what's going on in his life both with and apart from Donald. He's not dying of cancer but his life is in almost as much of a mess as his patient's. His wife and he live apart during the working week, she on a farm where she can fuss around her horses, him in a flat in the city with "Roof", Rufus, the cat his wife bought "before her interest in pets spread, became equine". Their relationship is one of "reciprocal tolerance". That's the doctor and the cat I'm talking about there. As far as his relationship with his wife goes he's the one who seems to be doing all of the tolerating. Their sex life is almost non-existent so he had that in common with Donald if nothing else. He suspects his wife is giving the local vet one but can't muster up the energy to do anything about it.

They are a mismatched couple let's put it that way. I'm talking about Adrian and Donald now. Here's a fairly typical interchange between doctor and patient:

Int. Oncology Ward / Hospital. Day

It's one of those days for Donald when you feel like a piece of taxidermy, when the last thought you had has been frozen on your face since the moment you got shot. A jammed idea and a trophy expression now yours for evermore.

ADRIAN: Do you want to talk about anything?

DONALD: I'm not going to make it.

ARDIAN: We don't know that.

DONALD: I'm not going to make it.

ADRIAN: (after staring at him, waiting for more, to no avail): What do you mean?

DONALD: I'm crapping out before I've even partied. (Shakes his head at the raw injustice of it.) And you know what the worst thing is? The worst thing? I'm gonna die a friggin' virgin. Pretty pathetic.

ADRIAN: You need to try and get sex in perspective.

DONALD: Hey, fuck you. I'm fourteen. Sex is my perspective.

ADRIAN: Okay. I know. I remember what it was like. Kids like you… you get a hard-on when you see a crack in the pavement.

Donald looks at Adrian with something like respect.

DONALD: I like that. Who said that? Oscar Wilde?

ADRIAN: Toilet wall.

Are you starting to see why I took to Donald right from the jump? Yes, he has an attitude but he also has a biting sense of humour.

That quote was from the opening page of Act Two. I could've picked an earlier interchange but most of the early ones are a bit one-sided. By Act Two Adrian has at least managed to break through the teenager's wall of silence.

A three-act structure is a type of dramatic arrangement. It includes three broad actions:

  1. Setup (of the location and characters)
  2. Confrontation (with an obstacle)
  3. Resolution (culminating in a climax and a dénouement).

And that's how the novel works only the dénouement is, as I've already said, a part of the 'Out-takes and Deleted Scenes' section of the book. It's also fair to say that the supporting players in the book, the mother, the father, the brother, the two best friends and the love interest could have been plucked from any plucky, well-meaning made-for-TV movie. They play their parts perfectly but this is Donald's book.

Oh, there was a bit of the blurb I missed out. The next paragraph begins:

Inspired by true events…

Why do I need to know this? I don't. So which bits were real? Does it really matter? Can you imagine how many books you could say that about? Actually I've found an interview with the author where he does say precisely where the inspiration comes from but I'm not going to tell you because it's the scene around which the whole book revolves but I can see where the attraction was. He was certainly inspired:

This was not a typical book to write for me. Either I took in too much coffee or it was something in the air in Corfu where I wrote the bulk of this short book, but it all came to me in a mad exhilarating dash. At one point I was writing 20 pages a day and in four weeks I had finished the first draft. – interview with Mark Thwaite for The Book Depository

One of my all-time favourite books is Billy Liar Billy Liarabout a boy in a dead-end job in a dead-end town who copes by fantasising. Donald Delpe's frustrated young life is heading towards its own dead end and this is way of facing up to what looks like being the inevitable. But is it? A short scene from the comic where Donald's hero comes up against his nemesis, a mad doctor, The Glove:

MEANWHILE… further down the street. THE GLOVE lowers his BINOCULARS and picks up a RIFLE. He and his NURSE have taken up a perfect position behind a LOW WALL.

THE GLOVE: Here he comes. Excellent.

NURSE: But darling, you said I could do it. You know how hard I've been practising. Pleaaseee let me kill him…

She's tough to resist, especially when she has her hand on his CROTCH. THE GLOVE gives up the RIFLE.

THE GLOVE: Okay. But don't fire until I say. (Raises binoculars and once more sees MIRACLEMAN and RACHEL roaring closer, closer, closer.) Wait till he comes within range… wait… we'll only get one chance… wait…

NURSE: (taking aim) Can I ask you one question?



THE GLOVE: What are you?!!!!... I didn't mean – YOU IDIOT!!! – I just meant…

THE NURSE: What? You said SHOOT. You said shoot.

THE GLOVE slaps his head as MIRACLEMAN roars safely by on his MOTORBIKE.

THE GLOVE: Women! Aaarghh!

So, he's only fourteen, what did you expect, great literature? Of course the blurb says that the superheroes are immortal. Well, there's actually only the one superhero, Donald's alter ego, MiracleMan and that's the big question here: Is he somehow going to die and if he did what would be the consequences? Of course in the world of comics superheroes die all the time, it's a cynical marketing ploy and we all know that now, but do you think that Donald would buy into that? You'll have to read through his comic to find out. And that really is the key to understanding Donald if you can overlook all the gratuitous sex; Donald's is a comic that would not get a Comics Code Authority stamp of approval.

Before I forget you might have noticed a certain Rachel clinging to MiracleMan on his bike. That would be a proxy for…

SHELLY DRISCOLL, fifteen years old, brunette, from an unhampered upper-income family, two credit cards already in her wallet, going places. She plays the piano, can pound out the Minute Waltz in fifty-five seconds flat, toys with the idea of being a concert pianist but is unlikely to marshal the discipline.

Yep, she was the brunette from church and so out of his league. So what are we setting up here, a kind of Love Story where it's the Ryan O'Neill character that gets sick and dies? Not quite because he pretty much makes a total muck of their first 'date' and that looks like that. He's going to die a virgin. Or is he? Going to die? Or going to lose his virginity? Or going to lose his virginity and then die because it would be awfully hard to do it the other way round?

I'm not saying. What I am saying is thank God for all those deleted scenes and out-takes.

This was a good book. I think it will make a better film. Comics are all about images before anything else and this novel doesn't have any. A few black and white ones might have helped. – I've seen that done before – but what it really needs is for the characters to come to life. And that's what the new film will hopefully bring; MiracleMan will be animated by Munich-based Teixter Fil while the rest of the film will be shot using live actors in New Zealand and not Watford – thank God. Variety reports that Freddie Highmore and Jessica Schwarz will star; McCarten will sit in the director's chair himself and not for the first time:

It was that with great foolishness and no small trepidation therefore that I recently put my name forward not only to adapt but also to direct for the cinema a new novel of mine, ten years after my first fledgling effort to complete the same tricky trifecta.

I was emboldened by a single presumption: that these three different disciplines are actually only variants of each other. By this I mean that the writer of novels directs the action in a scene just as meticulously, and just as visually, as a director, while the film director, by the injection of his or her ideas, is also rewriting the scene and is thereby partly a novelist. If it’s all the same game, then, the challenge is not one of mastering different art forms, but merely becoming competent with very different tools. – The film of the script of the book

McCarten's novel won the Austrian Youth Literature Prize and was a finalist for the 2008 German Youth Literature Prize. I find that interesting. I see nothing to suggest that this book was aimed at a youth market – indeed some parents would object to their kids reading it I'm sure – but those were the books we were swapping in the playground when I was young, the ones we weren't supposed to read. In 1960 another book about a disgruntled teenager found itself actually banned and it has been a subject of debate ever since. That book is, of course, Catcher in the Rye, and although I find it hard to imagine that book being passed around in a schoolyard I have no doubt that it was. I'd like to see teenagers getting their hands on this and recommending it to each other. I don't see it happening – X-rated . . . sorry, 18-rated . . . films have taken the place of books in that respect. It would be something if the film of this book got passed around the playground. That would be an achievement.

If life is a film, what do you think Donald thought of it? Let me leave you with his suggestion for his epitaph:


I want my money back. I didn’t understand a thing.



mccarten102_v-gallery Anthony McCarten is a playwright, filmmaker, poet, and fiction writer. McCarten, with Stephen Sinclair, wrote Ladies’ Night (1987), a play about male strippers that became an unprecedented commercial success. It has been translated into six languages and was the most successful touring production in Britain between 1990 and 1994. He has also directed films, published a short story collection, and a number of poems. Death of a Superhero is his third novel to make it to the big screen, The English Harem being the first and, his fourth novel, Show of Hands being the second. Not sure what happened to Spinners.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

English in its underwear


Scots is English in its underwear. It's difficult to be pretentious in a language like that. - William McIlvanney

McIlvanney has pointed out more than once that the lower down the social ladder you get, the more metaphorical, the more idiomatic, and quite simply, the more poetic the language gets. His books deal with people across the whole social strata but he will be best remembered for his Laidlaw crime novels and Docherty, a story about a working-class miner. What is particularly distinctive about his style is that when people speak McIlvanney writes what they actually say and doesn't try to Anglify the text. A short example:

'Ah'm gonny kill 'im.'

'You dae. An' Ah kill you. No question.'

My background is not that dissimilar to McIlvanney’s. We both come from working class families, we both received better educations than our fathers and we both had fathers who didn't quite get us. Neither could see the point in reading fiction, “summat someone’s jist made up oot o’ their heed,” but both did read non-fiction. We both started off as poets before we became novelists (him, successful, me, not so much) – in spite of, or because of, all the Burns we had to read growing up (it’s hard to be sure) – but neither of us could leave the poetry alone; like a toddler, it gets into everything.

My own writing is quite different to McIlvanney’s – I never felt the need try and emulate his style even in the couple of short stories I’ve written in dialect – but the simple fact is he was the first writer I ever met in the flesh and got to talk to and, do you know what? He was just a bloke: no airs and graces and certainly no pretensions, as if being a writer was no different from being a miner or a teacher or the guy whose job it was to lock up the swings at night, something maybe I could be.

A number of Scottish writers have chosen on occasion to write in dialect rather than plain old English. This can cause problems for some readers so why bother? I'll come back to that but first a question: what's the difference between an accent and a dialect?

When you listen to someone like Billy Connolly talking nowadays no one would doubt that he was Scottish. He has a Scottish accent. Wrong. The thing is there is no such a thing as a 'Scottish' accent just as there is no such a thing as a 'Southern' accent – I'm talking about south of the Mason-Dixon Line here. Someone in Aberdeen sounds quite different to someone from Glasgow just as someone from Belfast sounds quite different from someone from Dublin. It's even imprecise to say that Connolly has a Glaswegian accent because someone from Kelvinside sounds completely different to someone from Partick where Connolly grew up; Connolly describes the Kelvinside accent as talking "wi jawries in yer gob" (marbles in ones mouth). But if we gave representatives from all the above a copy of the Sermon on the Mount to read we'd know in seconds where each of them was from. That's an accent, speaking your country's dominant language with a regional twang.

Billy Connolly on visiting Scotland

A dialect is another thing completely. It's not a language in its own right – Scottish isn't a language – but it is local variant of a language although there are those who would strenuously argue to the contrary (see here). I had a friend once who hailed from Stranraer in south-west Scotland, She talked about '"the bairns' meaning children, whereas in Glasgow the term is 'weans' (pronounced 'wains'); also she often used the expression 'ye ken' – which non-Scots assume we all say all the time (along with 'och aye the noo') – but that's not something you'd hear in Glasgow.

Dialects have rules. Let's take the word 'not'. In Glasgow we use 'no' most of the time. For example: "I'm not doing that" would become "Ah'm no daein that" however it all depends on where the word comes in a sentence, because "It was not me" would be rendered as "It wisne me". Likewise the difference between 'was' and 'were' – "I was there" becomes "Ah were there" and "We were there" becomes "We wis there." And, yes, I know that's the wrong way round but it's consistently that way.

Wherever you go in the world you'll encounter dialects and those dialects have rules. For example:

Speakers of African American English add the word 'be' before a verb to indicate that the action is habitual or ongoing. The sentence 'He be sleeping on the couch' means 'he sleeps on the couch on a regular basis', while 'He sleeping on the couch' mean 'he's sleeping on the couch now.' - Writing Accents and Dialects, Grammar Girl

For many kids, the English they learn at school is for all intents and purposes a foreign language.

Contrary to any still prevalent notions among academicians and educators that nonstandard dialects are simply sloppy, slovenly or careless usage, "broken English" or "bad grammar", scholars from various academic disciplines have been studying these dialects and have revealed them to be highly systematic and socially viable, with their own valid, linguistically describable rules of phonology, morphology and syntax. Indeed the very systematicity of such nonstandard dialects as American Black English Vernacular and its Caribbean Creole cousins suggests one reason for their persistence among students we are confronting in our inner-city classrooms. – Writing: Variation in writing, functional and linguistic-cultural, p142

Although attitudes to non-standard accents have become more tolerant in recent years – just look at the BBC announcers these days – non-standard syntax is still widely stigmatised.

Talking about the BBC, the first writer I ran across who wrote in dialect wasn't actually McIlvanney, although they were writing at the same time, it was the poet Tom Leonard. I bought his collection Intimate Voices – it was more than likely the first poetry collection I bought. In it we find probably his most (in)famous poem:



this is thi
six a clock
news thi
man said n
thi reason
a talk wia
BBC accent
iz coz yi
widny wahnt
mi ti talk
aboot thi
trooth wia
voice lik
wanna yoo
scruff. if
a toktaboot
thi trooth
lik wanna yoo
scruff yi
widny thingk
it wuz troo.
jist wanna yoo
scruff tokn.
thirza right
way ti spell
ana right way
to tok it. this
is me tokn yir
right way a
spellin. this
is ma trooth.
yooz doant no
thi trooth
yirsellz cawz
yi canny talk
right. this is
the six a clock
nyooz. belt up.


A reading of ‘The 6 O’Clock News’

Now I know a few of you struggle with my 'Aggie and Shuggie' sketches when they appear so why do I do it to you? It's because I hate pretension. I use this family to poke fun at myself and even at the good people who do the reviews I'm hoping you'll read. It's far better than a post every few days pleading with people to buy my books. Am I poking fun at working class Scots. Yes. But then I've been a working class Scot all my life and we're more than happy to poke fun at ourselves. Aggie and Shuggie are my proxies. But I could be accused of writing in dialect simply because people who talk that way sound funny. Correction, that’s how people talk around here. It's all of yous that sound funny (no, 'yous' is not a typo).

Is Tom Leonard poking fun at Scottish people? No. He's poking the finger at the pretentious twats at the BBC who used to read the news in Received Pronunciation, that strangled version of English they insisted on broadcasting in for decades, as if the truth was only valid if spoken in BBC English. The fact is that no one has a monopoly on truth.

Leonard doesn't write all his poetry like that. In fact as far as I'm aware he's not written any poetry like that since 1979. It wasn't a fad though. He had a point to make and that was the best way to make it. Leonard's urban phonetic poetry is hard to read. When McIlvanney chose to use more realistic dialogue in his books he decided that a middle ground would be the best place for him. Consider this paragraph from the short story 'How Many Miles to Babylon?':

'Christ we're everywhere,' Benny said, raising his beercan in a toast to the empty room. 'We are the people. Open an alligator's gub in the Congo an' a Scotsman'll nod oot at ye. We're everywhere. Australia, Canada, America, South America, Asia.' He paused, running out of places. 'Russia. There was always Scotsmen in Russia. An' all over Europe. For centuries. India. A lotta Scottish graves in India.' He started to sing. 'There was a soldier, a Scottish soldier. We are the people. Scotsmen can go anywhere. An' why no' me? Why not Benny Mullen? Ye can go anywhere. Ye could even go –' His mind eddied with the drink and he waited to find what exotic flotsam it would throw up. 'To Babylon.' The word shimmered in his head. 'Babylon.' He laughed and drained his can. 'Correct. Ye could even go to Babylon. How many miles wid that be?'

Just on its own this is a wonderful character study and we learn to so much in this single paragraph. The use of dialect isn't intrusive and, once you realise it's a Scot talking, don't you find that a Scots accent appears too?

Hawd yer hosses! Whit's tha aboot a Scoats accent?

Sorry, Shuggie. He's perfectly right. There is no such a thing as a Scots accent. We've already established that but just like I have a 'Southern accent' in my head when I read Tennessee Williams so I appreciate that non-Scots will do their best to approximate the right accent so I imagine a few of you had Aggie and Shuggie talking like Groundskeeper Willie on The Simpsons or even (perish the thought) Shrek. My wife can tell the difference between a Louisiana accent and a Georgia accent but it all blurs into one in my head. But then unless you're familiar with all of McIlvanney's characters you won't know if the paragraph above is set in Graithnock (where he would have an Ayrshire twang like McIlvanney himself) or Glasgow. To be totally honest I can't remember but I tend to hear all his books in his voice when I read them irrespective of where they're set.

William McIlvanney in a TV advert

If we have a closer look at the dialogue here we have to admit that (and this is also true of the writer James Kelman) McIlvanney uses language that is neither "standard" nor "dialect," but trades on both in pursuit of specific literary ends. Let's just consider this wee bit from that last paragraph:

'There was a soldier, a Scottish soldier. We are the people."[1]

There's nothing inherently Scottish in those sentences but because we know a Scot is saying – well singing in first sentence and chanting the second – we 'hear' the accent. In reality what he’d say would be more like:

[sings] 'Thur wis a soja, a Scoattish soja. [shouts] We arra peep-puuul!'

The fact is that only the first sentence is part of the song, the opening line of 'The Green Hills of Tyrol'. The second is basically a war cry, part of a football chant.[2] There is no way someone who isn't very familiar with Scotland is going to get the cultural references here.

On the east coast of Scotland lies Edinburgh. It also has its own accents and dialects. Just as Glasgow's posh speak with a Kelvinside accent, Edinburgh's affluent speak with a Morningside accent – both are variations on Standard Scottish English. You would immediately recognise them as Scottish but the amount of Scotticisms would be limited to the occasional 'aye' or 'wee'. It could, of course, be argued that these are social dialects rather than geographical ones.

I've written about the relationship between Glasgow and Edinburgh before but Edinburgh is not without its deprived areas and common folk. We get to meet some of them in the work of Irvine Welsh. Here's a wee taster of his style. Renton, the hero of Trainspotting (his best known work) muses on the Scottish identity:

Ah hate cunts like that. Cunts like Begbie. Cunts that are intae baseball-batting every fucker that’s different; pakis, poofs, n what huv ye. Fuckin failures in a country ay failures. It’s nae good blamin it oan the English fir colonising us. Ah don’t hate the English. They’re just wankers. We are colonised by wankers. We can’t even pick a decent, vibrant, healthy culture to be colonised by. No. We’re ruled by effete arseholes. What does that make us? The lowest of the fuckin low, the scum of the earth. The most wretched, servile, miserable, pathetic trash that was ever shat intae creation. Ah don’t hate the English. They just git oan wi the shite thuv goat. Ah hate the Scots.

Irvine Welsh interviewed

The language is coarse. Of course the language is coarse. This is the same Scot's voice that Tom Leonard uses in the poem I quoted above. You could just imagine Groundskeeper Willie spouting off like that. The fact is Willie is quite unrealistic – he should swear like a trooper.

Okay, we've had monologues so far, but the best place to get the feel of what Scots are all about is to look at a bit of dialogue like this between two co-workers in a chicken processing plant from Mark McNay's Fresh:


        Aye pal?

        Ye'll no believe this.


        Ah've just counted sixty-seven seconds between two chickens.


        Aye sixty-fuckin-seven.

        Is that a record for ye the day?

        Fuckin right it is.

Albert picked a chicken off the belt and hung it on a hook.

        D'ye think it'll stay a record?

        Course it will. Sixty-seven seconds. Put that in yer pipe and smoke it.

        Ah would but smoking shite gies me a soar throat.

        Jealous eh?

        Of course Ah am. Sixty-seven seconds is a great achievement.

        Fuck off ya sarky old cunt.

Albert laughed.

        Ah'm messin with ye. Sixty-seven's no a bad score.

Sean held a chicken up like a trophy and shook it by the wings.

        No bad? It's pure fuckin champion.

        It's no quite champion son.

        How d'ye mean?

Albert pushed his cheek out with his tongue.

        It's no as good as seventy-three.

        When did ye get seventy-three?

Ah got that between two Sunday roasters before we went for breakfast.

        Aye right.

        Ah'm serious.

        What really?

Albert breathed on his hand and rubbed it on his shoulder.

        Aye. Seventy-three.

        Bet ye counted fast.

Albert pointed at Sean.

        No as fast as you ya wee cunt.

        Ah count slow ya old bastard.

        Yer too tight to count slow.

        Ah used my watch.

Albert turned his back.


        Aye. Ah know ye are.

Bear in mind that these two men are friends. This is friendly banter, two workmates passing the time of day. Derision is a part of Glaswegian humour. That whole conversation could have been the prelude to a fight, the exact same words, but you'd have to hear the tone to determine whether these two were squaring up for a fight. If the next line involved Sean grabbing a hold of Albert and knocking him to the ground then you'd know. And as soon as the other men saw what was happening someone would shout out "Square go!" and they'd probably all gather round until someone decided it had gone too far. Chickens aside the above is a playground conversation.

But why write like this? Is realism so damn important?

I think it is. And clearly a lot of my fellow Scots think it is too. So where are all the novels in a Newcastle dialect or a Birmingham dialect? Or what about other countries? I'm just reading a novel by a New Zealand writer at the moment and it's set in Watford, England. But even if it hadn't been I doubt he would have gone to the same extent as someone like Irvine Welsh to capture the flavour of the place. And why not? Surely Scotland is not the only country with such a strong national identity. This is what Irvine Welsh had to say about the subject:

"There's a big fuss about the language in some of my books … [b]ut it's like the book is the only cultural artefact now that has all these walls. ... Why is it only in the novel — the English novel — that everyone's got the same narrative voice? They're still stuck in these kind of standard poems. Every other medium has exorcised it. People just don't talk like that anymore. They don't talk in standard English anymore. So why present [novel dialogue] in it?"

He goes on to answer his own question:

"Because if you're a novelist in Britain, you're almost seen as a custodian or something, like a curator, and that's just stupid. Then you get all this angst about death of the novel, and why people aren't reading the novel. Well, no duh. You know, right? It's like the standard English, the Queen's English, is an imperialist language set for us to control our knowledge. Therefore, it's not very interesting. It's an administrative language. It's not got many beats, it's not got any rhythm. It's terrible to write with." – interview with Benjamin Arnold in Flakmag

Which bring us to Lallans. I'm not going to talk about Gaelic because that is another language but there are terms kicking around to try and describe the Scots' tongue: Lallans and Doric are the two best known. Lallans is a variant of the Scots word 'lawlands' meaning the lowlands of Scotland. There's no specific geographic area that you could call 'the lowlands'. In simplistic terms, however, the lowlands are everywhere in Scotland that aren't the highlands. So, broadly speaking, Lallans refers to the dialects of south and central Scotland and Doric refers to the dialects spoken in the north east of Scotland.

Robert Burns' poetry is written in Lallans. To illustrate:

They took nae pains their speech to balance,
Or rules to gie;
But spak their thoughts in plain, braid lallans,
Like you or me.

from 'Epistle To William Simson'

I think of it as the Scottish equivalent to Shakespearian English only less intelligible and you'd think we were done with it. But no.

The term Lallans was also used during the Scottish Renaissance of the early 20th century to refer to what Hugh MacDiarmid called synthetic Scots, i.e., a synthesis integrating, blending, and combining various forms of the Scots language, both vernacular and archaic. This was intended as a classical, standard Scots for a world-class literature, although it was more often than not Scots words grafted on to a standard English grammatical structure somewhat removed from traditional spoken Scots, its main practitioners not being habitual Lowland Scots speakers themselves. – Wikipedia

I'm not sure I personally approve of this trend. I can't see the point of a language that exists as a purely literary form. Writing poems and songs in Gaelic is another matter entirely because Gaelic is still alive although not very well and the same goes for Welsh; pockets of resistance against the English invaders. MacDiarmid's detractors often referred to it as plastic Scots – a play on synthetic as in synthetic plastics – to underline its artificiality.

A short documentary about the poet especially interesting because it includes an old BBC radio broadcast in Received Pronunciation

But is Aggie-and-Shuggie-speak not artificial since you don't talk that way?

Good point. I think that my sketches would be better if I didn't have to translate what I want to say into an approximation of Govan-speak but they're just a bit of fun. What I decided quite early on was to provide all my characters with an idiolect, basically a family dialect, and try and stick to it, e.g. when Shuggie means 'never' he says 'neffer' and instead on 'review' we get 'refyoo'. I'd take the whole process a lot more seriously if I was trying to get them published. I have written stories in dialect. You can find two of them in an early edition of Ranfurly Review. Here's an excerpt from 'Just Thinking':


Should Ah stay or should Ah go? That’s a song isn’t it? Who the hell did that now? Some punk outfit. The Skids Ah think. OK, ten reasons to stay. Ah can do that. Wan: she’s got huge tits, two: she laughed at your jokes, three: she’s OK in bed, four: she’ll fill the gap till you bump into Little Miss Right at the dancin, five: it’s been far too long since you had a real girlfriend, six: she hasne got nuthin pierced – Ah hate body piercin, seven: she likes you – that’s important – I think she likes you, eight: she disne punce me out the door as soon as we’d done the business – another plus, nine: her pal went off wi Mikey so Ah’d better no drap her till Ah see whit the score is wi the two of them an ten: sod it, Ah’ll give her tits two points – they fuckin deserve it.

Ah guess that means Ah’m stayin put.

Looking back over it I can see places where I'd change it. It really is an impossible task trying to get it right and it's hard to know where to draw the line. Take 'nothing' for example – I've written 'nuthin' above but when I read it I hear 'nuhin' in my head because that's how it would be said . . . probably, depending on who was talking, because we all put our own twists on language. One of the first things my wife commented on was how I pronounce the word 'poem' – apparently I say 'poyem'. So there you go.

I have no doubt where you live people have their own unique way of talking. As a writer do you embrace the local speech idiosyncrasies and incorporate them into your work or smooth out the rough edges? I'd be interested to hear what you have to say.

There are examples to be found all over the world, like the opening lines of this one from the Trinidadian poet, Miguel Browne:



Trinidadians are a special people of dat there is no doubt,
Doh care what odders say of how dey run dey mouth.
But of all de special talents dat we Trinis possess,
Is de way we talk dat ranks us among de best.
At de street corners, in de shop or at work on any given day,
Is to hear us speak and carry on in our own special way.
De colourful words, de antics and de accent all combine,
To create a whole language dat has stood de test of time.


But I suspect the problem has its roots in our education systems. There is prevalent opinion that people who can't express themselves in the official language of a country are somehow stupid. Here's what a teacher in the Caribbean wrote:

I interviewed each of my Caribbean students one by one. They shared with me that they had never written in their vernacular because they were not allowed to in their school systems. One student said she had been told by her teachers that the dialect she spoke was "broken English" and not worthy of being written. Another told me it was hard for her to write in patois because she had never been taught how to do it.

Elsasser and Irvine found in their work with Caribbean students:

. . . their reluctance to write (was) directly attributable to the denigration of their native language and to their conviction that they do not, in fact, possess a true language but speak a bastardized version of English. It is difficult if not impossible to write without a language, and it is emotionally draining to attempt to develop voice and fluency in an education system that has historically denigrated one's own language. (1985, 406)[3]

My students who spoke vernacular Englishes seemed to suffer from the stigmatization that Elsasser and Irvine described. Their dialect had been devalued and banned from the classroom. [4]

We then have an excerpt from a student:

I definate hate writing. Takes too much time when you can talk about what you want. Writing is a bore and a process we can live without. Writing is a very difficult process that involves a lot of thinking especially if you don't have a command of the English grammar . . . In my country, we spoke `Patois,' as a result, is sometimes confuses my tenses and my punctuation. Everytime I tried to write exceptionally well, thinking that my grammar is intact, the end result is always watch your grammar. I really feel down at times when I have to write.

I think this is an important issue. A lot can be lost by trying to get people to confirm to the 'Newspeak' of the day be it Hindi (the official language of India) or English (the official language of too many places to list). When a 13-year-old Scottish girl handed in an essay written in Textese, she explained to her flabbergasted teacher that it was easier than Standard English. Part of me is appalled at this but that's just because I'm old and struggle with texting. It's not my lingua franca but it is fast becoming many people's. Should we cling to English as it stands just now or let it evolve naturally just like Scots did and is continuing to do? Good question. There is room for all kinds of speech. As Thoreau put it:

It is a ridiculous demand which England and America make, that you shall speak so that they can understand you. Neither men nor toadstools grow so. – Walden; or, Life in the Woods


This wee article’s drifted away from Glasgow where we started off so I’d like to bring us back there with a song written and performed by Billy Connolly, a serious one and one that reduced me to tears listening to it again and not for the first time:




Scots Language Centre

Scots Language Society

Dictionary of the Scots Language

Phonetic Description Of Scottish Language And Dialects

Sounds Familiar: very useful, with sound files of ordinary people from different parts of not only Scotland but the whole of the UK

The Functions of Non-Standard Dialect in Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting

An interview with James Kelman



[1] Since the early twentieth century, Glasgow Rangers has been viewed as the most powerful and successful club within Scotland. Indeed, because of its Protestant history and identity and its frequent dominant periods in Scottish football, Rangers can be viewed as the team of the establishment. The club has also been perceived as a bastion of Scottish Protestantism due to, among other things, the notable unionist popular identity that formed part of its early character and its historical refusal to sign players of the Roman Catholic faith. Although this "policy" changed in 1989, Rangers and their supporters retain the label of being a club of and for Protestants. For many Rangers supporters, the chant that "we are the people," is both an indication of the dominance that the club has periodically enjoyed as well as other cultural aspects that surround it. – Joseph M. Bradley, Orangeism in Scotland: Unionism, Politics, Identity, and Football


We are the people!
(Clap, clap, clap, clap, clap!)
We are the people!
(Clap, clap, clap, clap, clap!)
We are the people!
(Clap, clap, clap, clap, clap!)
We are the people!
(Clap, clap, clap, clap, clap!)

Rangers Loyal Supporter Songs

[3] Elsasser, N. and Irvine, P. 1985. "English and Creole: The Dialects of Choice in a College Writing Program." Harvard Educational Review (55) 4, 399-415.

[4] Eileen Kennedy, The Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 2

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