Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Aggie and Shuggie 24

fox head.DSL679





Whir’s tha fire?


Maggie, you an aw.


Whit’s up, Ma?


Tha postie’s jist deliffered oor Jim’s noo book.


Unca Jim’s goat a noo book oot?


Christ lassie. Af ye didne spend haff yer life plugged intae yoan iPoad ye might huf haffa cloo whit’s goin oan in tha real world wance an a while.


Whit’s tha oan tha cover. Did Jim spill sumhin oan it befair e sent it tae us? Ah bet tha’s a naff wan e cudne floag an so e sent it tae us.


Shuggie, you can be a first class numtie. Nuhin’s bin spilt oan it. Tha’s tha pitcha.


Whit is it, Ma?


At’s wan o them Rorshack inkbloats.


Cum again?


At’s wan o them pitchas psycholagists use t’see af yer daft or no.


Whit d’ye dae wi it?


Ye look at it an say whit ye see.


Ah see an inkbloat.


Ah see an awkward pig.


Whur’s the pig?


Ah meant yer faither.


Raight wumman. Enuff o tha.


At looks like two wimmen talkin.


Aye, Ah cun see tha. So whit’s tha hing inbetween em? At looks like a fox’s heed.


See us it ower ere.




Dinnae rush me.


Yer suppaised tae say tha first hing tha comes intae yer brain.


At looks like a willie.




Wull it dis! A wee willie. Wull tha’s whit Ah see. Did ye look it up oan tha Intraweb?


Hang oan, Da, Ah’m jist daein it.




Ah cun oanly see wan refyoo af it so far? Dave King.


Dave who?


You know Dave King, Shuggie, tha nice auld bloke whit dis Pics an Poyems.


Ma! You don say ‘auld’ these days. Tha’s no politikly correct.


Wull whit then?


Yous’re suppaised tae say ‘chroanoloagiclly challenged.’


Don’t talk tripe, girl. Oanyway, whit’s e goat t’say?


E hinks it looks like a wumman’s doodah.


A whit? At’s a willie af effer Ah’ve seen wan – a willie oan a stick . . . mibbe.


Wull aw Ah cun say at’s a guid hing the wee white van wi the square wheels isne pearked ootside oor door oar they’d be haulin you aff, Shuggie.


At’s no ma fault oor Jim puts hings oan is books tha people can’t make heed nor tail af.


Mibbie we shud gie Unca Jim a phone un see whit e says.


Tha’s a guid idea. Shuggie, you dae it.


[Grudgingly] Fine. [Dials. Waits.] Jim? Ah, Shuggie ere. Ow’s it hangin? . . . Fine. Us too. Look we jist goat yer new poemtry book an at an we wis wunnerin whit’s the cover aw aboot. . . . Uh, huh. . . . Uh, huh. . . . Ah, see. . . . Okay, hanks mate. Catch ye later.




At’s whiteffer we want it t’be.


Wull, tha’s no much help.


Nah at’s no. Maggie, goan an make us a cuppa tea, hen.


Awraight, Da.


Ah jist ope is poyems’re betta than is pitchas.

Monday, 26 July 2010

The Sky is Changing

 The Sky is Changing

Now is the age of anxiety — W H Auden

How do you capture the zeitgeist before it turns into cliché? It’s hard when all the good metaphors have been used up. The Age of Anxiety would have been a good title for Zoë Jenny’s sixth novel, The Sky is Changing, but Auden already wrote a long poem with that title. There are, however, some similarities between Zoë’s novel and the poem: each takes place in a major city, each takes place during a time of war, both writers take a special interest in the roles of women in society, each concerns a quest for the nature of identity and each was written by a foreigner. By that I mean that Auden was a prize-winning British poet living in, and writing about, New York; Zoë Jenny is a bestselling Swiss writer, living in and writing about London. The war in Auden’s case was World War II; in Jenny’s it’s the War on Terror. There are other differences, too, apart from the obvious fact that one work is prose and the other fiction: interestingly it is the poem that is considered by many long-winded (Larkin famously couldn’t finish it); the novella (144 pages) is a quick read – I read it in two sittings.

Why do we measure our lives in terms of things we don’t have? Why are we determined to see ourselves as incomplete, unfinished? Claire, the protagonist in this book, has a lot to be grateful for. She has had a successful career as a ballet dancer, she is happily married and she is alive. I’m not being flippant when I include the last item on that list because she not only survived the July 7th 2005 tube station bombings but also being mowed down by a car. On the down side she has not escaped unscathed: the car accident robbed her of her ability to dance, the bombing took away her security.

And this is very much how the author felt when she was in London during the attacks and after:

There was fear in the air and I could feel that. And it really affected me quite deeply. And I think, whether consciously or unconsciously, it did affect a lot of people. It’s different to waking up in a place where there were no attacks. London had quite a claustrophobic feel to me after the bombings.[1]

This is not the world Claire grew up in either. Little by little life has stripped things from her. Like the rest of us she now lives in a post-9/11, post-7/7 society. She watches Two towers young hooligans watch her as she rides by on her scooter while CCTV cameras watch them watching her. Is this any kind of world to want to bring a child into? And yet she wants to. Desperately.

With all of this swimming around in her head – she was also looking to get pregnant at this time – Zoë Jenny sat down to write looking to find some kind of catharsis, which she did. She also found that writing in English for the first time was a help:

I think it is a process of emancipation. I always wanted to free myself from the shackles of my mother tongue. Swiss German is a language few understand – I learned High German in school and wrote my first four books in that language, but I never truly felt ‘at home’ in it. The English language suits my writing very well. German is very analytical – an excellent language for philosophy but not necessarily for narrative and telling stories. I feel I can write much more freely in English.[2]

Her character, Claire, is not so fortunate. Her natural mode of expression has been ripped from her. She can’t dance but she needs to work, to be useful. The job she ends up with is as a swimming instructor of all things. But she is a swimming instructor with a difference – she mainly teaches clients on a one-to-one basis. This means she attracts those with a particularly strong aversion to water and/or the well to do.

The book focuses on Claire’s relationship with one particular client with whom she has developed something of a special bond, seven-year-old Nora. While sitting with her husband, Anthony, one night as he enjoys his after-dinner cigarette, Claire tells him about Nora. He seems to understand:

“It’s normal to feel more affection for some children,” he said, puffing smoke through his nostrils. “Just don’t get too involved.”

Claire carried the dishes to the sink. Don’t get too involved. It had sounded like a warning, and she loaded the dishwasher with more noise than necessary.

Anthony is a City Analyst, hence not a stupid man. He is well aware that they’ve been trying to get pregnant for  fifteenivf months now and that this must be affecting his wife. It’s certainly affecting him especially when the subject of IVF is brought up, a real slap in the face to his masculinity. Needless to say he is not at all keen at first:

“I want to reproduce.” Claire smiled afflicted. How technical that sounded. ‘Reproducing’. Like something animals do to sustain the population. “I want to pass on my genes,” Anthony continued, “so something from me lives on, you know. Some people even say this is the meaning of life.”

Anthony followed a clear path: the house, the marriage, a child, then a bigger house... the usual aspirations. And why not? After her accident, Claire knew she could never dance again and have a fabulous career like [her sister] Anne, the award-winning architect with work in magazine. She saw herself ready to settle and have a family. But Anne now had a child... she had it all, and where was Claire?

And just what is the score with Nora’s mum? Is she as oblivious to the fact that her daughter is as much of “a neurotic mess” as she seems? Could she really be unaware that the little girl nearly drowned on holiday? Nora’s fear of the water is extreme and Claire has her work cut out for her:

Claire talked to her in a low voice, almost whispering, “I will carry you,” she said. “Trust me.”

She held Nora’s back with her hands so she could just relax and feel the weightlessness of her body. “See? You’re floating.”

It was a way of familiarising her and making her comfortable in the water. She had to take away her fear of going under and drowning, the fear of losing control. As Nora realised she was safe she sent the signal Claire was waiting for: a tiny smile. Her reward.

“Shall we try now?” They were only two metres apart, Claire standing there like a steadfast rock as Nora swam towards her, frog-like, in hasty awkward movements, her lips pressed together. “Head up,” Claire shouted, “head up,” and then Nora jumped. Claire almost lost balance as she leapt at her, legs and arms clinging around her.

“Don’t let go,” she stammered. “Please, don’t let go.” As her little face burrowed in her neck, Claire could feel the breath on her skin. The hot breath of fear. She stroked the back of her head, a reflex – was there such a thing as a reflex for affection?

Nora’s mother is not that blind. She can see that a bond is developing between her daughter and her instructor and so takes advantage of it asking Claire to extend her time with her, to effectively slip into the role of nanny; Claire does not need to be asked twice. The outcome is pretty much as you would expect. Without Nora, “at home the house felt emptier than usual, the rooms bigger.” At an evening with her friends she finds herself going on about the girl:

Claire didn’t know what came over her, but she suddenly leaned over and started telling them about Nora. That she went to that coffee place, bought her cake and how close she felt when she was holding her hand as if it were her own child. Relieved to be unburdening, she found herself adding, “I even imagined taking her back home with me.”

Claire sensed immediately she had made a mistake. The words sounded wrong, desperate, like a confession. Everyone looked at her taken aback; there was a silence.

After embarrassing herself in front of her (childless) friends you will not be surprised to find that Claire keeps it to herself the next time Mrs Ross asks her again to take care of Nora. This time on a trip in a taxi they pass Nora’s house and she begs Claire to let her show her her room:

“Please please,” Nora begged, rolling her eyes as she sensed Claire’s hesitation.

“Are you sure no one is at home? Your mummy doesn’t want us to go to your house, you know.”

“But she doesn’t know, please please. Only five minutes.”

Here, or perhaps before when she took Nora’s hand or when she admitted in front of her friends (and to herself no doubt for the first time) – somewhere along the way, a line is crossed but certainly for a while in Mrs Ross’s house Claire gets to wander around on the other side and sees that the grass is in some respects greener. Where is this all heading?

People cope the best way they can. Some turn to drink to solve problems other than thirst, some take drugs even though they’re not poorly, some pluck babies from prams to try to fill holes in their lives left by other things.

To find out where Claire is heading we really need to know where she has been and so, as the main thread of the story progresses, we also get flashbacks to key moments in her life and in particular her relationship with her older (fertile) sister, Anne:

Her family was scattered all over Europe. Her parents lived in Berlin, her sister Anne in Hamburg, she had an aunt in Barcelona and an uncle in Toulouse. She kept in touch with all of them, by phone and e-mail, but it was Anne that she missed. Anne before the baby that is.

How much control do we have over our lives? A crash has put an end to her plans for the future. A financial crash is about to do the same to her husband’s plans. Her parents are putting pressure on her to return to Germany. What’s harder, hanging on for dear life or letting go?

7july_london_train_bombing This book touches on many contemporary issues but they are most definitely the backdrop to the story and not the meat. Even the 7/7 bombing that Claire was involved in barely gets a couple of pages devoted to it and much the same with 9/11. There is no real attempt to discuss these at length but then I would imagine most ordinary couples simply absorbed these events into their lives, learned a couple of new euphemisms and got on with their daily routines. And despite the fact they’re not poor, Anthony and Claire are a fairly ordinary couple, a bit on the boring side really. A year after the bombing they go and lay a bouquet of roses at King’s Cross and in a couple of paragraphs this scene is described. They then drive home and don’t talk about it. But what really is there to say?

They’re not exactly cardboard cutouts but they’re not very deep either. Since infertility is the central issue there are a number of roles that need to be fulfilled: the sister with a kid, the husband who won’t consider other options, the sympathetic friend, the mother who wants to know when her other grandkid is coming and the kid who gets to play proxy. Reducing the book to a formula is perhaps a little uncharitable but I think the problem with this kind of situation is that people automatically line up to fill clichéd positions. That’s where the clichés came from in the first place.

Talking about The Pollen Room, The Observer calls Jenny’s prose “spare, assured and evocative, the tone matter-of-fact and utterly without self-pity” and the writing is much the same in this book. I didn’t feel that the simple, unpretentious style was anything less than deliberate and not a result of writing in an unfamiliar tongue although she does admit that she found writing in English hard at first. I’m not sure this style necessarily helps this book though. Claire, in my opinion, even when she starts to lose control is very aware that she is losing control. This is something I would expect from a person who has spent years in a strict training regime but I would rather have seen her fall to pieces more and her relationships suffer more. Everything in this book is just a bit too civilised. Don’t quote me but I don’t think Claire actually cries in the book.

I was curious about why Zoë had written Claire that way and so I dropped her an e-mail to which she responded:

I always find it fascinating to see how different people react to the same book – everyone reads their own version and of course sometimes a book and its reader just don't click. I believe the novel speaks for itself and doesn't need additional explanation.

Okay. Fair enough. Perhaps part of my problem is that I can’t relate to Claire. My wife fell pregnant within a few months of us getting married and I’ve never known anyone who’s struggled to conceive other than my own parents and as I was the solution to that particular problem I have an unusual and unique perspective on their struggles.

You’ll be pleased to note, by the way, that, after five years of treatment, Zoë Jenny finally gave birth to her first child, a daughter, Naomi. We never find out what ultimately happens with Claire. We can but hope. And that’s where the novel leaves us, hopeful for the future. Despite everything I think most people are.


Zoë Jenny was born in 1974 in Basel, Switzerland and spent parts of her childhood in Greece and Ticino. Her first novel, The Pollen Room (1997), won her global critical acclaim and is the all-time best-selling debut novel by a Swiss author. Translated into 27 languages, the novel propelled her across the globe for readings and talks in schools and universitieZoe feature_covers as far away as Japan, China and the USA. She lived in New York and Berlin and in 2004 settled in London. In 2008 she married Matthew Homfray, a British veterinary surgeon and pharmaceuticals consultant which whom she now has a daughter.

Zoë has since published several highly acclaimed novels: Der Ruf des Muschelhorns (2000), Ein schnelles Leben (2002), Das Portrait (2007), a children’s book: Mittelpünktchens Reise um die Welt (2001), and various collections of short stories. Surprisingly none of these has made it into an English translation yet although some are available in Italian.


[1] Andrew Littlejohn, 'Best-selling Swiss author launches English debut', Swiss Info, 2nd June 2010

[2] ‘Writing Across Borders’, New Books in German, Spring 2010, Issue 27

Thursday, 22 July 2010

This Is Not About What You Think


YOU: So what’s your poetry book about then?

ME: Life.

YOU: Life?

ME: Yeah, life.

YOU: Your life?

ME: Not exactly.

YOU: Whose life then?

ME: No one’s life. Just life.

YOU: That’s a big topic.

ME: Yes, it is.

YOU: You couldn’t narrow it down a bit for me?

ME: It’s a collection of poems starting with childhood and ending in old age. In seven parts.

YOU: Like a ‘Seven Ages of Man’ kind of thing:

[F]irst puking and mewling,
Then very pissed off with your schooling,
Then fucks and then fights,
Then judging chaps' rights,
Then sitting in slippers, then drooling.

ME: Kind of. I’ve never written anything about infancy and so I couldn’t include that. Nor are there any poems about employment but you’ve got the right idea.

YOU: But it’s not your life?

ME: No. Well, some of it is. Some of the things happened to me or to people I know. Some of it was stuff I read about or saw on TV. The rest I just fabricated.

YOU: So it’s semi-autobiographical.

ME: Nowhere near it.

YOU: What then? An eighth? A sixteenth? Maybe a thirty-second. Just stop me when I get close.

ME: Well on one level it’s all me because every thought has been through my head. I’ve just not experienced everything in the book the way it happens.

YOU: Give me an example.

ME: The guy in the book has sex in the afternoon by a paraffin heater.

YOU: And you’ve never had sex in the afternoon?

ME: Yes, I have but never like in the poem. What I’ve done is extract elements from my life — things I’ve done, seen or have heard about — and reassembled them into something else. He also has sex in the back of car which I’ve somehow missed out on but I’ve seen enough examples on TV to get the idea. By arranging the poems in a certain order they appear to tell a story but it’s not my story. At the back of the book there’s an appendix which shows the actual order the poems were written and when. Some of them go back thirty years, some are only a few weeks old.

YOU: So what you’re saying is that you’re lying to us?

ME: I’m a writer. It’s what we do. That said I’m being quite up front about it. That’s why I chose the title This Is Not About What You Think because context affects how we interpret things.

YOU: So is this a novel in verse then?

ME: No. I simply wanted a way to present a collection of poems in a way that made them feel like they belonged together. When I first decided that I was finally going to bring out a collection I always thought the title would be Reader, Please Supply Meaning with perhaps the subtitle New and Collected Poems 1979 — 2010 which would have worked here.

YOU: Why Reader Please Supply Meaning?

ME: Because that’s what every reader does whether they like it or not. A reader completes a circuit, they fill in what the author hasn’t been able to include. I’ve said this before and will no doubt say it again but a poem is like an iceberg, only the tip appears on the page, the rest is buried within the poet. That’s why every poem I’ve ever written has made perfect sense to me, and I expect every other poet feels the same, because I have all the missing bits inside me. The real test of a poem is what other people make out of it when you add it to their reader’s contribution. It will be different in every case.

YOU: Can you illustrate?

ME: There’s a poem in the collection called ‘Making Do’ — it’s a poem about my mother — ostensibly it’s about baking, not a thing my mother did a lot of although her short crust pastry was to die for. I let a guy at work read it – this was a man of about fifty – and he burst into tears afterwards. Why? Because he’d had a very rough childhood. His father was a bully and his mother arms became a place of refuge for him. Did he overreact to the poem? No one else that I know of has cried after reading it as far as I’m aware but when combined with his personal experiences of his own mother the poem became an extremely powerful piece of writing. I have no doubt that others will fail to connect with it in the slightest.

YOU: So what happens to the guy throughout the book?

ME: Like I said the book is in seven sections:

Part I: childhood

Part II: first love

Part III: marriage and the loss of a child

Part IV: an affair and the breakdown of the marriage

Part V: living alone

Part VI: the death of parents

Part VII: old age

YOU: So the key moment in the book is the loss of the child?

ME: Yes.

YOU: Why that?

ME: It wasn’t planned. I simply took my poems and started arranging them in some kind of order. Like I said the book is not an autobiography but it does contain poems that reflect what was going on in my life. I have been married more than once but it wasn’t the loss of a child that caused my first marriage to breakdown. Actually the marriage produced my daughter to whom I dedicate this collection. The stillbirth that I talk about in the book happened to a friend of mine. She sent me an e-mail to explain why I hadn’t heard from her in a while and that was the reason. That day, or maybe the next, I sat down and wrote the poem. Why I chose to make it the central poem in the collection is because that’s exactly the kind of thing that could bring a marriage to its knees. The poem found its place quite naturally in the collection.

YOU: Do you have a favourite poem in the book?

ME: I have many favourites for many different reasons but I think the one that gets to me the most is the poem I chose to end the collection on, ‘The Poetry of Regrets’, because the only thing that stays with the man is his ability to write poetry but, as it happens with many writers, the older they get the less they find they have left unsaid. I don’t write nearly as many poems these days because I’ve tackled the big issues in my life, the things that obsessed me, and made some kind of peace with them. But I can still see me, in twenty years time, sitting, Krapp-like, trying to scribble a few final words.

YOU: That’s sad.

ME: In a way. Many writers talk about their works as their children. Well, you never turn family away and that’s what the man in the book says:

Poems turn up out of the blue these days
like family
and usually when things are going badly.

Once they were with us, day in and day out
we lived with them
but never really appreciated them.

I guess that's what growing up's all about,
finding ourselves
with too many regrets and fewer answers.

Only wish I'd said more when I had the
words to say it.
but you don't turn family away. Not ever.

YOU: So where can people get a hold of this book?

ME: The best, the fastest and the cheapest way is direct from the FV Books site. It will also be on if you can’t use PayPal for some reason. I’ve kept the price down as low as possible. I think books these days are too dear. The price has increased far faster than inflation. Books I was paying 35p or 45p in the 1970s cost in the region of £7.99 of £8.99 now. That’s an annual increase of just over 9%. I’m interested in being read and covering my costs. This Is Not About What You Think will retail in the UK at £5.99 including postage. Plus those who buy early will receive a free copy of Bonfire. Rates for the rest of Bonfire the world will reflect the additional costs of postage but will still be excellent value for money.

YOU: Bonfire?

ME: Yes. FV Books originally published two literary journals, Gator Springs Gazette and Bonfire both of which had their origins online. When my wife fell ill she was forced to cut back her work and both magazines folded which was a great shame. We still have a small stock of Bonfires left and we’d like to see them go to good homes.

YOU: Do you have any excerpts online?

ME: Yes. I’ve just revamped my website — it was getting a bit tired-looking — and you can read the whole of Part I of the collection here. One last thing, I have a number of review copies set aside. If you would like one then drop me an e-mail with your address and I’ll pop one in the post.

YOU: Are you doing a virtual blog tour?

ME: Not as such. They’re all fine and well but in a matter of a month everything’s over. Besides I hate pressing people to do things by a certain date. In the past I’ve been asked to take part in blog tours before I’ve even seen the product, If people genuinely like what I’ve done then they’ll want to tell people about it. And that’s how it should be.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Beatrice and Virgil


Animals are good to think with. — Claude Lévi-Strauss

After a gap of nine years, and taking five years to write, Yann Martel’s follow-up to the hugely popular Life of Pi is the slim — barely 200-pages-long — novella, Beatrice and Virgil. Needless to say it was eagerly expected and much was expected and so it’s not unsurprising that many of his readers were disappointed with what was presented. Not only did they feel short-changed by the word count but also by the content. Canongate’s cover is very similar to the one used for Life of Pi. That cover had a boy and a tiger adrift on the sea. This new one shows a monkey on the back of a donkey wandering through what looks like a desert. So one can forgive readers for assuming that this book would be the same but different.

Life of Pi I’ve never read Life of Pi. My wife has. She recommended it to me but I never got round to it. And that's a good thing because it meant that I could read Beatrice and Virgil on its own merits, which I did. I actually remember very little about what my wife told me about Life of Pi anyway. The only expectation I had was that this was clearly a man who could write and engage with his readers so I expected a well-written and entertaining book and in that respect I have no real complaints; many of the passages were a joy to read, in fact. I felt it ended a little quickly and unpleasantly but then there is an addendum, Games for Gustav, which comprises thirteen cards printed one to each page which ends the book. The game is referred to within the body of the text but it was nice to have it included and it provided the perfect coda to the work. This took a bit of the bad taste out of the ending for me. Let me just qualify that remark: it was not the unpleasantness that left a bad taste in my mouth — I had worked out pages beforehand where this was all heading — but the fact that after taking such care to build up to the book’s climax it was handled so badly. My feeling was that he’s said all he has to say and needed to find a way to end the book. Benjamin Secher, writing in The Telegraph, described it thus:

A climactic scene that could have been lifted straight out of a second-rate television drama produces, too late, a burst of action.[1]

With a few exceptions, the book has not been well received by critics, one reviewer, Edward Champion, calling it “the worst book of the decade;”[2] I’ll come back to him. There were a few glowing reviews – USA Today said that it was “dark but divine” and “it just might be a masterpiece”[3] – but the majority were reserved at best. Most chewed it over for a bit and then spat it out.

I’m not sure what I felt when I’d finished it. The subject matter didn’t bother me; that he’d chosen to use animals rather than humans didn’t bother me; that he was as subtle as a sledgehammer in his literary references didn’t bother me; that it was clearly self-indulgent and self-referential didn’t bother me. Two things niggled at me: 1) the revelation of who the taxidermist really was and 2) that I only got to read snippets of his play. I felt the first was badly handled and, as regards the second, if Martel had scrapped the book and only published the play in its entirety I’d pay good money to go and see it but I’d still probably walk out five minutes before the end.

Let’s start at the beginning:

Henry’s second novel, written, like his first, under a pen name, had done well. It had won prizes and was translated into dozens of languages. Henry was invited to book launches and literary festivals around the world; countless schools and book clubs adopted the book; he regularly saw people reading it on planes and trains; Hollywood was set to turn it into a movie; and so on and so forth.

That could be Martel. Indeed Life of Pi is currently being made into a film to be directed by Ang Lee.

Eventually the business of personally promoting his novel died down, and Henry returned to an existence where he could sit quietly in a room for weeks and months on end. He wrote another book. It involved five years of thinking, researching, writing, and rewriting. The fate of that book is not immaterial to what happened next to Henry, so it bears being described.

And that’s how long it took Mantel to finish Beatrice and Virgil.

The book Henry wrote was in two parts, and he intended them to be published in what the publishing trade calls a flip book: that is, a book with two sets of distinct pages that are attached to a common spine upside down and back-to-back to each other. If you flick your thumb through a flip book, the pages, halfway along, will appear upside down. A head-to-tails flip of the conjoined book will bring you to its fraternal twin. So the name flip book.

Now I’m not sure if Mantel pitched his book to his publishers this way but in a television interview he did confirm that he had intended that Beatrice and Virgil be published along with an accompanying essay. His (or should that be ‘Their’?) publishers were not keen:

[F]iction and nonfiction are very rarely published in the same book. That was the hitch. Tradition holds that the two must be kept apart. That is how our knowledge and impressions of life are sorted in bookstores and libraries—separate aisles, separate floors—and that is how publishers prepare their books, imagination in one package, reason in another.

The actual subject matter is also a problem:

It should be mentioned, because it is central to the difficulties Henry encountered, to his tripping and stumbling and falling, that his flip book concerned the murder of millions of civilian Jews—men, women, children—by the Nazis and their many willing collaborators in Europe last century, that horrific and protracted outbreak of Jew-hatred that is widely known, by an odd convention that has appropriated a religious term, as the Holocaust.

Henry’s publishers reject the book. Martel’s talked him out of trying to include the essay but he still has it and hopes it will be published at a future date.

This is where fact and fiction start to diverge. Henry gives up writing, moves out of Canada to a new (unnamed) city and passes his days answering fan mail; he also joins a fraternity of dedicated amateur thespians, the Greenhouse Players, takes up the bassoon but then, because “the crazy arrangement of the finger holes defeated him”, promptly switches to the clarinet; he inveigles his way into working part-time at The Chocolate Road, a local café with “rotating art exhibits, good, usually Latin music and a southerly exposure so it was often lit up by sunlight” and lastly, to complete the picture, Henry and his wife, Sarah, acquire a small puppy, Erasmus, and a kitten, Mendelssohn, from a local animal shelter. And, for several years, this is the contented life he chooses to live. His days pass pleasantly and were it not for the regular dribble of correspondence from readers often reaching him by the most circuitous of routes he might have forgotten that he was ever a writer.

Henry’s second novel, the one that made him famous, featured wild animals, as does Martel’s second novel Life of Pi. Martel incidentally is now at work on a novel about gurus and disciples, starring three chimpanzees. But why? Henry answers but it is Martel that is speaking:

The use of animals in his novel, he explained, was for reasons of craft rather than sentiment. Speaking before his tribe, naked, he was only human and therefore—possibly—likely—surely—a liar. But dressed in furs and feathers, he became a shaman and spoke a greater truth.

Beatrice and Virgil You can imagine Henry’s interest being piqued then when a package arrives containing a short story by Flaubert called ‘The Legend of Saint Julian Hospitator’ that he had not heard of (a tale of animal butchery and religious redemption), an extract from a play where the protagonists are a donkey (Beatrice) and a howler monkey (Virgil) and the briefest of letters:

Dear Sir,

I read your book and much admired it.

I need your help.

Yours truly,

The signature is barely legible but it looks as if the sender has the same first name as him: Henry. Henry-the-writer always makes a point of replying to his correspondence even if it does take him a while to do so but on learning that the letter originated within the city in which he now resides he decides to deliver his response by hand. The address turns out to be a business, Okapi Taxidermy, and the Henry who has written to him is the taxidermist himself, a tall, dour, laconic octogenarian. The help he requires is in finishing his play, Beatrice and Virgil, a play he has apparently struggled with for decades. Intrigued Henry agrees but soon discovers that what is being attempted here is the very thing his publishers told him he could not do: to represent the Holocaust through means other than historical realism, to “represent the Holocaust differently so that its terrible spirit might not be forgotten." In the taxidermist's hands, the anthropo-morphised Beatrice and Virgil become stand-ins for the Jews exterminated during World War II or, if not all of them, then a least two of them, a representative sample.

This is where the cover of the book is misleading because Beatrice and Virgil aren’t wandering through a sandy desert. No, they’re wandering over a striped shirt; they talk about a country called “The Shirt.” The imagery in the play is transparent but then it’s not being written by a professional writer, just an old man who’s trying to work something out. So it’s easy to criticise Martel for producing a third-rate Beckett rip-off and many have. Beatrice and Virgil are Didi and Gogo. The taxidermist’s play is set on a country road, near a tree, and its two main characters talk about themselves, their sufferings and ways to pass the time:

Beatrice: What should we do?

Virgil: Is there anything we can do?

Beatrice (looking up the road): We could move on.

Virgil: We’ve done that before and it didn’t get us anywhere.

Beatrice: Maybe this time it will.

Virgil: Maybe.

(They do not move.)

Virgil: We could just talk.

Beatrice: Talk won’t save us.

Virgil: But it’s better than silence.


This approach kept me entertained for page after page. I just love that kind of banter even if it does feel like pastiche. The problem is that the taxidermist has co-opted, animalised and renamed Didi and Gogo for his own ends. Whereas we learn very little about the pasts of the two tramps we soon discover that the donkey and the monkey are fleeing for their lives from something they call ‘the Horrors” and godot3the only thing they’re waiting on, because they are starving, is death.

Would Waiting for Godot[4] work without Godot? What do you mean? Godot isn’t in the play. True but he is a character nevertheless in exactly the same way that Orwell’s Big Brother is a constant presence. Beatrice and Virgil do nothing but talk. There is a lack of expectation. This is a weakness that Henry points out to the taxidermist and so it’s perhaps unfair of critics of Martel to pick at the play-within-the-book for this:

If Henry hadn’t seen it earlier, he was starting to see now where the problem lay with the taxidermist’s play, why he needed help. There seemed to be essentially no action and no plot in it. Just two characters by a tree talking. It had worked for Beckett and Diderot. Mind you, those two were crafty and they packed a lot of action into the apparent inaction.

Apart from Waiting for Godot there are two other works that clearly have had an influence on Martel (ignoring the obvious Dante reference[5]) – George Orwell, whose Animal Farm[6] was an allegory of the Russian Revolution and Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor's Tale[7],Maus a graphic novel in which in which Jews are depicted as mice, while Germans are depicted as cats. These books would seem to set a precedent for using anthropomorphised animals to tackle difficult subjects and each is highly regarded.

Many of the objections to this book are things that the book itself predicts: "Winnie-the-Pooh meets the Holocaust", scoffs the author's wife when she learns of the taxidermist's play. So why do it? Because Mantel is trying to make a point about the, to use his word, “normalisation” of the Holocaust. In a television interview (the one that appears at the end of this article) he had this to say:

Martel:I think we have yet to normalise our relationship with the Holocaust. Now I use that word carefully. I’m not saying banalise, I’m not saying trivialise, I’m saying normalise. In a normalised relationship you approach something with ease, you talk to it, it replies to you, you are in dialogue with it. I don’t think we’re fully in dialogue with the Holocaust. We are beset by apprehensions and people will say, “Of course, six million innocent people died, one quarter of whom were children.”

Interviewer: How could we normalise our relationship with something like that?

Martel: Well we have a normalised relationship with war. The Second World War to give an example cost the lives of twenty million people and that’s a conservative estimate and that’s excluding the Axis deaths, all the German and Italian deaths and that’s excluding the Jewish deaths ... and yet we have a normalised relationship with war. If I said my novel is set during the Second World War I don’t think there would be these radars going up saying, “Oh, this is a touchy issue.” ... If we are afraid to speak of the event we’ll stop speaking about it.

Interviewer: Do we normalise it through fiction though? Some people would argue that history speaks for itself. Why do you think we would need more fiction about the Holocaust?

Mantell: Because I think that is one of the ways in which we normalise it. Because history is too vast. ... Historians, they’re not generalists, they’re specialists; there are Holocaust historians as there are medieval historians. It’s a highly specialised trade and they spend a whole life examining it. Most of us don't have that much time. ... Art is very good at getting at the essence of things.

The interviewer inevitably brought up the bad reviews that the book had received. Mantel, who in the past has been sensitive to criticism, appeared more philosophical this time. What he has done with this book is raise a question and leave it up to others to debate it. The simple fact is that what the Germans did in their concentration camps was felt to be unique, an event unparalleled in human history; it soon had its own name, the Holocaust, and for a while everyone knew what people meant when that expression was used. That’s no longer the case. Since then we’ve had the "Rwandan Holocaust" of 1994, the "Cambodian Holocaust" which refers to the mass killings by the Khmer Rouge regime and for a long time people have been anticipating a nuclear holocaust. Would we need nuclear_holocaust the latter to happen to finally put what happened in the concentration camps into perspective? Will — should — the “Final Solution” ever become ‘just another holocaust’?

These are questions that are not asked in the book and so I think it’s important to draw a line between what the book talks about and what people have begun to talk about because of the book. The taxidermist’s play is not about the Holocaust. It is about animals:

[The taxidermist] was seeing the tragic fate of animals through the tragic fate of Jews. The Holocaust as allegory. Hence Virgil’s and Beatrice’s incessant hunger and fear, their inability to decide where to go or what to do.

At one point the taxidermist reads from an essay he's written:

When I work on an animal, I work in the knowledge that nothing I do can alter its life, which is past. What I am actually doing is extracting and refining memory from death.

But it’s not that simple. There is a whole transference thing going on here too that I’m not going to go into.

I said I would come back to Edward Champion’s comments. He lists eight bullet points:

1. A Terrible Protagonist

2. Overwriting to Expand Word Count

3. Nonsensical Riffing

4. Dissonant Repetition

5. Redundant Description

6. Imprecise Description

7. Lazy Exposition

8. Recycling Text to Fill Up Space

None of these you’ll note are about subject matter which is what most reviewers gripe about. You could also add

9. Poor research

but I personally found most of his examples nitpicky. Okay, he’s entitled to his opinion and his arguments have some validity but most of what Champion regards as ‘wrong’ I took to be stylistic choices. A lot of it depends on how charitable you feel. Julie Martis writes that “the jumbled narrative reflecting Henry’s somewhat confused attempts to make sense of his book’s rejection, his life, and the taxidermist’s play.”[8] That’s another perfectly valid point of view. In her review Caroline Moore writing in The Spectator was also critical, accusing Mantel of “lazy writing”:

The grotesque torture of animals described in the play within the novel could have a point. It is certainly horrible; but the most repellent thing about it is that it falls short of proper imagining. Beatrice the donkey is seized by humans, who grab her mane and tail, and truss her back legs. Her animalness is emphasised; yet, when she is tortured by near-drowning, she ‘coughed and vomited water’.

Donkeys can’t vomit. That is lazy writing. This is neither a proper attempt to imagine the tortures suffered by humans in the Holocaust, nor a truly thought through re-imagining of animal pain. Beatrice is denied even the dignity of being a real donkey.[9]

I did not know that and I’m sure that 99% of readers didn’t know that. So donkeys can’t vomit. They also can’t talk. The real question is whether the taxidermist would have known that. Or cared. Probably not. He doesn’t come across as someone who is especially interested in live animals so it’s unlikely that he would know something like that nor does he seem the kind of person who would go to great pains to research his subject.

When did the Holocaust begin? Does it include what happened before the camps? Where do you draw the line? Jews have been subjected to persecution and pogroms for years. Beatrice is captured and tortured, yes, but then released. Peter Kemp in his review in The Times[10] picked ujan09-2 p on a phrase in which the monkey’s world is described as having been “shattered like a pane of glass”, which brings to mind the Nazis’ Kristallnacht pogrom (literally "Crystal Night" or The Night of Broken Glass) of 1938 which many historians regard as the beginning of the Final Solution leading up to the Holocaust. But trying to draw exact parallels between the events in the war and the events in the play is not the point.

It is [just as] possible to read Beatrice and Virgil as a book about environmentalism and animal rights, the interpretative slant that the taxidermist-playwright himself seems to prefer. Or as a story about human responsibility and human culpability. Or as a story about the uses and misuses of storytelling. Or as a story about writer’s block and the creative enterprise.[11]

Is Beatrice and Virgil flying the flag for animal rights or is it asking questions of how the story of a tragedy can or should be told? This, according to Martel, is up to the person holding the book. In an interview with Alden Mudge, Martel says:

Great art works because it tells an emotional truth. I suppose great histories could be both factually and emotionally true, but history is very cumbersome. What’s wonderful about art is that it gets at the emotional essence of things and it plays around with the facts. There’s a danger to that; you can manipulate things and you can peddle gross lies. It can be a dangerous tool, but also a very powerful one [which] if well used can deliver more than a history can. A work of art is the beginning of a discussion. It’s part of a dialogue. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to say, ‘Listen, this is what I’m saying; what do you think?’[12]

A lot of people have ‘listened’ and said what they thought. Not everyone liked what they ‘heard’ and said so. But, as I’ve said before, I like books that make me think. Does Mantel get it right? No, absolutely not. But he has a damn good shot at it and after watching the entire hour-long interview with him that you’ll find at the end of this article what I can’t say is that he wasn’t sincere. People learn from their mistakes. We also learn from the mistakes of others. A flawed argument is a good a basis for debate as a sound one.


Yann Martel was born in Salamanca, Spain, in 1963, of Canadian parents who were doing graduate studies. Later they both joined the Canadian Foreign Service and he grew up in Costa Rica, France, Spain and Mexico, in addition to Canada. He continued to travel widely as an adult, spending time in Iran, Turkey and India, but is now based mainly in Montreal. He obtained a degYann Martelree in Philosophy from Trent University in Ontario and then worked variously as a tree planter, dishwasher and security guard before taking up writing full-time from the age of 27.

In 1993 he published two books, Seven Stories and The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios which is a collection of short stories, dealing with such themes as illness, storytelling and the history of the twentieth century; music, war and the anguish of youth; how we die; and grief, loss and the reasons we are attached to material objects. This was followed by his first novel, Self (1996), a tale of sexual identity, orientation and Orlando-like transformation. In 2002 Yann Martel came to public attention when he won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction for his second novel, Life of Pi which has now been published in over forty countries and territories, representing well over thirty languages. In 2004, a collection of short stories was published entitled We Ate The Children Last.

Mantel lives with writer Alice Kuipers and their son, Theo, in Saskatoon. Theo deserves special mention because Henry in Beatrice and Virgil also has a son called Theo.

Interview on Q TV


Random House

Wall Street Journal


Gavriel D Rosenfeld, The Politics of Uniqueness: Reflections of the Recent Polemical Turn in Holocaust and Genocide Scholarship


[1] Benjamin Secher, Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel: a review’, The Telegraph, 8th June 2010

[2] Edward Champion, Why Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil is the Worst Book of the Decade, Ed Champion’s Reluctant Habits, 12th April 2010

[3] Deirdre Donahue, ‘Yann Martel's 'Beatrice and Virgil' is dark but divine’, USA Today, 16th April 2010

[4] Mantel has been working on a project entitled What is Stephen Harper Reading?, where he has been sending the Prime Minister of Canada one book every two weeks that portrays "stillness" with an accompanying explanatory note; Waiting for Godot was #24

[5] The single most impressive book I've ever read is The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. Some classics are dull and lifeless, but I think this work is absolutely astounding. It's chock-a-block full of fascinating stories, portraits of a medieval Italy, and such artistry of language. — Exclusive Interview - Life of Yann Martel, AbeBooks

[6] Animal Farm was #2 in his What is Stephen Harper Reading? project.

[7] Maus was #12 in his What is Stephen Harper Reading? project.

[8] Julie Martis, Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel’, Bookgeeks, 3rd June 2010

[9] Caroline Moore, ‘Stuff and nonsense’, The Spectator, 9th June 2010

[10] Peter Kemp, ‘No animal magic’, The Times, 23rd May 2010

[11] Alden Mudge, ‘Martel's moving follow-up to Life of Pi, Bookpage, May 2010

[12] Ibid

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Ideas which imprison us


prison The idea for this post came from a series of comments made following my review of Herta Müller's novella The Passport.

The obvious way in which ideas imprison us is where people try to impose their own ideas on us. The word ‘idea’ is a hard one to pin down. A convenient synonym for it would be ‘thought’ – ‘I’ve had an idea’ and ‘I’ve had a thought’ being acceptable alternatives to each other. I see an idea more as a series of thoughts that reach a conclusion, something like an equation. The difference is that the steps don’t necessarily need to be logical and the answer doesn’t have to make sense. An idea is like a theory, something that needs testing, whereas an ideal is more like an axiom, a general statement accepted without proof. Some ideals can be proved and so are more akin to theorems.

The earth is flat. That was a neat idea someone once had and it gained some popularity especially when some smart-alec pointed out that the Bible said that God dwelt about the “circle” of the Earth. Ah ha! A circle is flat ergo the Earth is flat. Er, no. The Hebrew word, chûgh, can also be rendered as "sphere" apparently. In The American Pageant Thomas Bailey asserts that "The superstitious sailors [of Columbus' crew] ... grew increasingly mutinous ... because they were fearful of sailing over the edge of the world"; however, no known historical account substantiates this. His proposition is highly unlikely because, sailors were probably among the first to notice the curvature of Earth from everyday observations, for example seeing how mountains vanish below the horizon on sailing far from shore. The crew of the Santa María’s main concern would more likely have been whether or not they would run out of Wheel food before they reached their destination.

There have been plenty of good ideas. The wheel was a pretty good idea and it’s been the fulcrum of thousands of other good ideas like roller skates, bikes and go-carts.

An idea is like a route. There are plenty of ways to get from A to B. Most people opt for the direct route these days but the scenic route has a lot going for it. And then there’s the route avoiding low bridges. You can drive, cycle, skate or walk, fly if it’s far enough away, or get someone to give you a piggyback. All these ideas have something going for them. And some may be ideal: they may suit the traveller’s needs to perfection.

People have ideas about writing: stories should have beginnings, middles and endings; poems need to rhyme and an actor really oughtn’t address the audience directly. Ideas are not rules. Yet many people think that the natural progression from idea is to rule. In some cases it is. Newton had an idea that apples fell to a ground because they were obeying an unknown rule so he worked it out. And now everyone accepts that apples, saucepans and little old ladies career earthward at a rate of 32.2 feet per second per second, the law of gravity says so. So where do laws fit into the scheme of things?


Tentative explanation


Verifiable explanation


Demonstrable explanation


Definite explanation

There is a popular school of thought that purports that laws are meant to be broken. That is why someone came up with the idea of escape velocity and worked out an equation to take it right through to a theorem. (Actually it’s a speed and not a velocity, so there.)

Once an object has achieved escape velocity it hasn’t actually broken the laws of gravity; it’s circumvented them. Laws only apply under certain conditions. They have limits. If Newton’s apples had decided to head up instead of down at 25,000 mph he might never have discovered gravity at all.

What’s the difference between a rule and a law? Like ‘thought’ and ‘idea’ we think we can interchange them at will. Here are some rules that aren’t laws:

1. To join two independent clauses, use a comma followed by a conjunction, a semicolon alone, or a semicolon followed by a sentence modifier.

2. Use commas to bracket non-restrictive phrases, which are not essential to the sentence's meaning.

3. Do not use commas to bracket phrases that are essential to a sentence's meaning.

4. When beginning a sentence with an introductory phrase or an introductory (dependent) clause, include a comma.

5. To indicate possession, end a singular noun with an apostrophe followed by an "s". Otherwise, the noun's form seems plural.

6. Use proper punctuation to integrate a quotation into a sentence. If the introductory material is an independent clause, add the quotation after a colon. If the introductory material ends in "thinks," "saying," or some other verb indicating expression, use a comma.

7. Make the subject and verb agree with each other, not with a word that comes between them.

8. Be sure that a pronoun, a participial phrase, or an appositive refers clearly to the proper subject.

9. Use parallel construction to make a strong point and create a smooth flow.

10. Use the active voice unless you specifically need to use the passive.

11. Omit unnecessary words.

On the whole they’re not very good rules, are they? Because they’re not clear, there’s wiggle-room. Who decides whether a word is unnecessary or not? When exactly might one need to use a passive voice?

The problem with English is that it’s not Maths. No sooner have you made up a rule like

1843172496 I before E expect after C

than you have to start listing exceptions:

beige, caffeine, casein, cleidoic, codeine, conscience, deify, deity, deil (Scots, devil), deign, disseize, dreidel, eider, eight, either, feign, feint, feisty, foreign, forfeit, freight, geisha, gleisation, gneiss, greige, greisen, heifer, heigh-ho, height, heinous, heir, heist, inveigle, keister (slang, buttocks), leisure, leitmotiv, monteith, neigh, neighbour, neither, obeisance, peignoir, prescient, rein, science, seiche, seidel, seine, seismic, seize, sheik, sheila (Australian slang for "girl", not capitalized), society, sovereign, specie, species, surfeit, teiid, veil, vein, weight, weir, weird

Because of this people have suggested a few qualifications to this particular rule:

  • The rule only applies to digraphs, so words like "deity" and "science" don't count.
  • The rule "i before e except after c" should be extended to include "except when said 'ay' as in 'neighbour' and 'weigh'".
  • The rule only applies to digraphs that have the /i:/ ('ee') pronunciation, as in 'piece'. (Note the conflict between this and the previous item.)
  • The rule doesn't apply to words that are recent imports from foreign languages, such as "gneiss", "dreidel", and "enceinte".
  • The rule doesn't apply to the large number of plurals of words ending in "cy" ("fallacies", "frequencies", "vacancies", ... ) because in the UK – in traditional RP – "cies" is pronounced with the "i" of "pin", even though it is pronounced with the "ee" of "feed" by most World-English speakers and by younger UK speakers.

which is all well and good but in all seriousness who is going to remember them?

So, we start to see the problem with English. If its rules for spelling and grammar are so shaky then once we move onto forms of written and spoken English it’s pretty obvious that we’re going to encounter similar obstacles. For example: what is a poem? Okay, okay, let’s make life easier: what is a sonnet? A sonnet is a type of poem with fourteen lines and a prescribed rhyme scheme. Here are a few examples:


abab cdcd efef gg


abab abab or abba abba + cde cde or cdc cdc


abab abab cd cd cd


abab bcbc cdcd ee


aBaB ccDD eFFe GG (uppercase masculine rhymes, lowercase feminine)

Then of course there was Francesco Berni's caudate sonnet which has fourteen lines plus a coda and Gerard Manley Hopkins' curtal sonnet which somehow managed to limp home with only 10½ lines; it consists of precisely ¾ of the structure of a Petrarchan sonnet shrunk proportionally.

Commandment There are plenty of people who want to come along an enforce laws when it comes to writing. Most laws come under the ‘thou shalt not’ umbrella. And the thing I find about telling people that they can’t do something is that suddenly they want to do it as if their life depended on it. The law says that a sentence should have at least one noun and one verb, for example, “Jesus wept.” I think that’s a good general rule of thumb. We don’t talk that way though. Why should we write that way? We talk about prison sentences. I think sentences can also be prisons. But people say we have to use them. And for the most part I have, faithfully. My sentences begin with capital letters and end with full stops. Every now and then, however, I have tried to break out of that prison. Here’s an example:

England Expects...

dead flowers

opium words
incensed like lambs
they to war go

acting out
pubic farm girls
innate tensions

clinging corpses
hold guns like dolls

Cross dirty bandages
bloody bits of men

bone white cross


2 May 1977

It has its flaws – hell, I was only seventeen when I wrote it – but the idea behind it is sound, to mix up images, girls playing with dolls that have missing limbs and men being blown apart in a war. There are times when things need to be stated explicitly but not always. The important thing about this poem is that I decided beforehand what the rules were going to be before I wrote it. The problem is that I never wrote them down so I couldn’t tell you what they were. Or why. (Oh, look, a sentence without a noun or a verb.) Here’s one where I do remember the rules:

True Love II

My father had a heart transplant.
Years ago, before I was born,
        doctors took
        out his broken heart

        and gave him a machine instead.
The strange thing about this machine
        was it was
        powered by sadness.

Of course he was always just "Dad",
        but, when I discovered the truth,
        at first I
        hated the sadness

        then I became thankful for it
        because as long as I could see
        him be sad
        he would be with me.

And so I made it my job to
        make him the saddest dad in the
        whole wide world.
What else could I do?

21 July 2003

The poem consists of five stanzas each containing four lines of 8-8-3-5 syllables. The first lines of sentences are flush left and the rest indented. This structure wasn’t one I decided on a whim. It doesn’t have a name. I will probably never use it again. If I do it will be because the poem falls naturally into that shape. Of course it started out with each line containing eight syllables. The reason for splitting the final line was to give ‘What else could I do?’ its own line to provide emphasis. Having done that with one stanza my “rule” says I have to do it with every other one.

I don’t think anyone reading modern poetry needs to have it pointed out that you don’t stop reading at the end of a line. The breaks in the lines for me primarily are there to emphasise the underlining shape of the piece. The punctuation is there to tell you when to pause and breathe. I don’t format every poem this way but I find this helpful where the sentences are a bit on the long side, as a visual aid.

There are no universal rules for formatting poetry. A part of me wishes there were because I look at some poems and wonder why on earth the poet has arranged the piece the way he has. No doubt, like me, he thought it was a good idea at the time and it made sense to him at the time but what about thirty-three years later as in the case of ‘England Expects...’? All we have is what’s left on the paper, no memories, no working notes, no nothing.

Here’s a poem by Michael Spring from his collection, Blue Crow:


I have held on
to your passport. No, it doesn’t
give me a sense you’re still
alive -- inside the passport
your face is more ghost
than flesh

                this is your stone
face, you had said. It’s like this
with all photos of you --
                picture after picture
                a stone wall

                but I’m not stopped --
                memories of you move me -- 
I know what was behind --
your face --
I hold the passport, travelling
through stone

I picked this poem pretty much at random out of a pile of poetry books I happen to have sitting beside me. He won the 2004 Robert Graves Award so I have no doubt that he can write a decent poem or two. The thing I don’t get about this piece is why he’s chosen to use the formatting he has. Is there an underlying logic at work here that I can’t see or has he just arranged the piece this way because it felt right?

I tend to come down a bit hard on ‘it felt right’ which I concede is a little narrow-minded of me but I can’t help it. This is because to a certain extent I’m imprisoned by my idea of what good poetry should be. I wouldn’t say I was close-minded, that’s going too far, but I’m not as open-minded as I’d like to me. Those who read this blog on a regular basis will realise that I regularly expose myself to all kinds of writing hoping that, as if by osmosis, I start to get where these other writers are coming from. Mostly I don’t.

I don’t know about you but once I have an idea in my head it can be hard to shake it. I do recognise that I’ve an unfortunately blinkered view of poetry. You could say that I’ve no one to blame but myself but I don’t think that’s strictly true. I’ve read a lot over the years but there’s a lot of stuff I don’t understand. What I do understand it that a poem is a form for containing poetry. Poetry is something else. Prose can contain poetry.

Guitar_1 I can’t play a guitar despite being very musical. This is because I learned to play a keyboard before I tried to teach myself the guitar and I kept translating guitar chords into keyboard chords. It was the only way I could understand them. And could someone tell who whose bright idea it was to have six strings on a guitar when we only have five fingers on our hands?

I know there are plenty of people who can move between instruments from all kinds of families with ease – and I hate them – but I’m very much a one-trick pony and have learned to live with it. Poetically I can manage two or three but I’m only really good at the one. Perhaps one day the voice of the poet inside me will break.

The Weakest Link

A long time ago
someone bound me
to the pillar of reason.

It might even have been me:
I can't remember now.

But don't think me tamed
after all these years.

When was the last time
you looked at my eyes ?

When was the last time
you really looked
at my eyes ?

Even the finest chains rust in time.

6 August 1989
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