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

Monday 30 March 2009

This post has no title


A good title is a work of genius. – Emmanuel Haldeman-Julius

In the modern world of business, it is useless to be a creative, original thinker unless you can also sell what you create. – David Ogilvy

t2Titles have a number of purposes, to label, to attract, to inform. They're the first thing a reader hits and many never get past that. A lot of great literature often comes with poor titles. Nineteen Eighty-Four is really not a very good title if you think about it. It has become meaningful but in 1948 when the book came out I wonder what the general readership thought? They might have thought it was an almanac or something with one hell of a typo on the cover.

Now, what about I Am Legend? It could easily have been called The Last Man on Earth or The Omega Man even. I actually prefer The Omega Man.

We live in the information age and what a title conveys is information or it might be misinformation.

I wrote a poem once entitled 'Untitled'. It wasn't without a title, 'Untitled' was the title. It was supposed to be making a comment on the fact that so many works of art are untitled without even a number to distinguish one from another. It wasn't until later I started to run across poems with no titles and I don't just mean haiku; there were poems by western authors where they just couldn’t be bothered including one … at least that's how I looked at it then. Lazy buggers, I thought.

The titles of scientific articles that are primarily reports of experiments usually contain information about the cause-effect relation investigated. "The Effect of Alcohol on Driving Impairment" and that's fine but novels and short stories and poems are not scientific articles.

So, how does one go about choosing a title?

Mona Gustafson Affinito offers up one approach. In her blog post of September 12th, 2008 she had this to say:

Help choose a title

I'm looking for a more gripping title for my "Book of Mrs. Job." Please help. Would any of these attract you with the thought of buying? (There will be a cover with the caves of Petra in the background and a beautiful woman with flowing sleeves in the foreground.)

· Steadfast conviction

· Wisdom's trials

· For better and for worse

· Or the suggestion of your choice.


I expect she consulted with her friends and family too. She got a couple of responses neither of which was especially enthusiastic. I personally would have gone with simply Mrs Job because it's short and punchy. Any of the others would put me off. I actually had no idea what the book was Mrs. Job when I first stumbled across this entry about but I read on and discovered her book is now in print. And what do you know; the title she opted for was Mrs Job after all.

Also, once I finished digging through her archives I discovered that that was exactly what the book was about, the wife of Job, the Job in the Bible, the Job whom God allowed to be tested simply to prove a point. For a 21st century book on the subject I think it's an excellent choice. How good the book is is neither here nor there. The purpose of the title is to get someone to pick the damn thing up and think about actually buying it.

Of course a title can become a trademark if you have a series of books. Or perhaps I mean a brand. Take 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C Clarke. Of course it began life as a short story, 'The Sentinel', though when it was first published in the magazine 10 Story Fantasy in 1951 the title had been modified, presumably by the editor, to 'Sentinel of Eternity'. Although the second title is clearer one has to wonder why the need to change the title at all since it was already appearing in a science fiction periodical and the readers would know up front, and be expecting to read, a selection of science fiction stories; one would think a title was not so important here.

In time it was combined with the 1953 short story 'Encounter in the Dawn' and considerably expanded to form the basis of the 1968 film by Stanley Kubrick and the novel bore the name of the film. In 1982 a sequel appeared: 2010: Odyssey Two and in 1987, 2061: Odyssey Three followed eventually in 1997 with 3001: The Final Odyssey.

David Peace's Red Riding Quartet also has years as the titles: Nineteen Seventy Four, Nineteen Seventy Seven, Nineteen Eighty and Nineteen Eighty Two. And that's fine after you've bought that first book but what would possess anyone to name a book with just a year? At least Clarke's book has a colon and "the real title" after it. The same goes for 1979: A Big Year in a Small Town by Rhona Cameron.

In Japan, where Peave lives and where he wrote his novels, the books actually go out with the titles: 1974: Joker, 1977: Ripper, 1980: Hunter and 1982: Ghost. The logic was that the Japanese wouldn't be au fait with the Yorkshire Ripper killings and needed a little something else. Seemingly it worked because, according to a recent documentary I saw, he sold ten times the number of books in Japan compared to the UK.

snow What gets me though is the way editors will muck around with a title depending on the country in which the book is published. Artwork is one thing, but the title? An example: in America the Danish novel Frøken Smillas fornemmelse for sne is translated as Smilla's Sense of Snow whereas it's Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow in other English-language translations. Why? Do alliterative titles sell better in America?

On the Tate Publishing blog, Curtis Winkle cites a number of examples where famous books had major surgery to their titles:

Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage was originally titled Private Fleming, His Various Battles. Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was originally titled Hurrah for the Red White and Blue. Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms was originally titled As Others Are. – Publishing a Book: The Importance of a Good Title

He also talks about the brainstorming session, "Title Storms", where his editors get together and rethink the title of the books they have on their books. Here are a few examples:

Original title: I'm Only Wanda, but Jesus is God
New title: From Germany to Guam: A Missionary's Life

Original title: Dear Diary
New title: Blurred Vision: One Woman’s Memoir of Looking Beyond Abuse and Alcoholism

Original title: Blessed
New title: The Interim: Finding God’s Blessing in Pain’s Midst

These all look like non-fiction books. I really can't think of any great book with colons in the titles but I'm sure one or two of you will be able to help me out there.

Let's go back to Nineteen Eighty-Four for a moment. According to Wikipedia:

One of the original titles for the novel was The Last Man in Europe, but in a letter to publisher Frederic Warburg dated 22 October 1948 (eight months before the book was published), Orwell stated that he was "hesitating" between that and Nineteen Eighty-Four, although Crick mentions that it was Warburg who suggested changing it to a marketable title.

Was the choice of year arbitrary? Not really, because he also considered Nineteen Eighty and then Nineteen Eighty-Two but as publication kept being delayed he kept adding a couple of years on.

When Anthony Burgess wrote 1985 there really was no need for any colon. Anyone picking up the book would fully expect it to be related to Orwell's in some way. Burgess' book builds on what we know already. Other titles are much more straightforward. Waiting for Godot for example does exactly what it says on the tin. That is all the play is about. It is its focal point, the fulcrum, its lead characters' reason for being. Breakfast at Tiffany’s is not however a book describing an expensive breakfast.

Back in the 1920s and '30s, a man with the memorable-if-somewhat-unfortunate name of Emmanuel Haldeman-Julius sold 200 million copies of his "Little Blue Books" by title alone! This man analysed in detail which titles sold and which didn't, and uncovered some of what he referred to as "magic words" that prompt people to buy.

Here are a few:

  • "How to ..."
  • "The Truth about ..."
  • "The Story of  ..."
  • "Love"
  • "Life"
  • "What You Should Know about ..."
  • "The Art of ..."
  • "The Secret to ..."

So one has to wonder why people aren't falling over themselves to visit my site but let's not get off topic.

E. Haldeman-Julius had a system. If a title didn't sell over 10,000 copies in a year, it was sent to a place in his office called "The Hospital" and here it would be given a new title. And if the new title bombed, then it went into "The Morgue."

As an example, he had a book titled: "Art of Controversy" which didn't exceed his 10,000 copy yardstick. The title was changed to: "How to Argue Logically" and sales soared to 30,000 copies. Why? He changed nothing about the book - just the title.

By doing this, Haldeman-Julius discovered that certain words, when used in the title, could increase sales of almost any book.

For example, a book by Dr. Arthur Cramp in 1925 called: "Patent Medicine" sold a measly 3,000 copies. Haldeman-Julius changed the title to: "The Truth About Patent Medicine" and sales rose to a respectable 10,000 copies. Haldeman-Julius found that the words: "The Truth About" had some sort of magic.

Haldeman-Julius found that old chestnut: "How To" in a title was far and away the best. For example, the title: "How to Psycho-analyze Yourself" out-sold "Psycho-analysis Explained" and "How I Psycho-analyzed Myself" by almost four times. – Peter Woodhead, The Most Important Part of Your Copy Will Increase Your Conversions

So what are we saying here? Basically that a title is an advert for a book, plain and simple. That's partly what Ogilvy is going on about in that quote at the top of the page. At least it forms a major part of an advertising campaign. There are other things, like the jacket illustration, tag line and even an author's name although I could never see what Orwell had against the name 'Eric Blair' myself but there you go. Another quote that Ogilvy is famous for is: "Ninety-nine percent of advertising doesn't sell much of anything."

[In] the late 1960s and early 1970s. Dr. Hakim Chishti was a U.S. government research scholar and was living in the Near East, studying the roots of several languages, Persian, Aramaic, Hebrew, Arabic, Urdu and several others.

His research found that there are these basic underlying harmonics, a tonality that flows through languages, which are in many ways more profound and powerful than the dictionary meaning itself. Whereas sometimes meaning can be mistaken, the sound tones are always interpreted the same way by the emotions. These are better said as "emotional" reactions, although the effect is subtle. - Advanced Marketing Instutute

The institute provides an Emotional Marketing Value Headline Analyser on it so I plugged in The Truth About Lies to see how well it did. It game me a 25% Emotional Marketing Value (EMV) score. It also had this to add:

While the overall EMV score for your headline is 25.00%, your headline also has the following predominant emotion classification:


Your headline carries words that have a predominantly Spiritual appeal. Words that resonate with Spiritual impact are the smallest number of words in the language. AMI research has found that Spiritual impact words carry the strongest potential for influence and often appeal to people at a very deep emotional level.

Words with Spiritual impact are best used with people and businesses desiring to make an appeal to some aspect of spirituality. This does not mean religion specifically, but any product or service that resonates with “spirituality” oriented markets are appropriate. The clergy, new age, health food and related markets all respond favourably to sales copy heavy with Spiritual impact content. Women and children also respond strongly to words in the Spiritual sphere. Marketing documents with strong Spiritual impact content can make for the most powerful presentations in the marketplace but must be used with considerable skill. also has a Titlescorer which I thought I'd give a go. It said:

The title The Truth About Lies has a 10.2% chance of being a bestselling title!

which was the same figure that The Holy Bible gets. So I tried putting in just The Bible and it had a 35.9% chance of becoming a best seller. What was God thinking?

Okay then. Moving on.

I've never been one for working titles. I came up with the title for each of my novels very quickly. And they were all very obvious to me. I never started out with a title although I have done that with the odd poem but even there the title usually comes afterwards. With the exception of Milligan and Murphy I have always favoured titles that carry layers of meaning like Living with the Truth or Stranger than Fiction. I can't say that the marketing possibilities never crossed my mind but really the titles I chose were ones I considered appropriate to the works. Titles can't be copyrighted of course which is just as well because Stranger than Fiction is also a film, an album by Southern Californian hardcore punk band Bad Religion, a used bookstore located on Vashon Island, a compilation album featuring writers singing (e.g Stephen King on 'You Can't Judge a Book by its Cover'), the name of an American improv theatre company, an animation company, a Tuesday night documentary series held at the IFC Centre in New York, somebody's Facebook page and the heading for several newspaper articles in The Times, The Guardian, The Boston Globe, The Colorado Springs Independent among others.

I could go on but you get the idea. I mean how does one pick a title that is original, unique and will appeal to a book-buying public unless you opt for the longest title you can think of? How about:

Selected Works of Nigel Tomm (2006/2007) (Shakespeare's Sonnets Remixed 2006 / Shakespeare's Hamlet Remixed 2007 / Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet Remixed 2007 / Including Previously Unpublished Elvis Presley's Love Me Tender Remix 2007) Nigel Tomm is The Winner of The Anonymous Writers Club Award 2006 for The Best Anonymous Writer / Deconstructed Poetry Award 2006 for Innovations and Teamwork in Poetry / Decadence Prize 2007 for The Lifestyle / Flashy Rococo Coco Award 2006 for Flashy Thoughts / Baby Boomers Award 2006 for The Best Marketing / Anonymous Artists Prize 2007 for The Best Anonymous Artist / Life Academy Award 2006 for Ignorance of Some Aspects of Life / Graphomania Award 2007 for Writing / Formal English Institute Award 2006 for English Grammar Improvements / House of Original Remixes Award 2006 for Creativity / WordKillers Award 2006 for Killing Some Words Sometimes in Some Books / iStyle Award 2006 for Being Unnamed Style Icon / Librarians Under Sixty Award 2007 for Staying Young / Comedy Association Award 2007 for The Best Drama / Happy Dramatists Award 2006 for The Realest Reality Show / New Forms Award 2006 for Rediscovering Something Old / Best of The Best Award 2007 for Being The Best of The Bests / Alaska Lifetime Achievement Prize 2006 for Bringing The Sun to Canada / Flaming Unisex Award 2007 for Coming to Flaming Unisex Awards / Random Books Award 2006 for Random Words Which Sometimes Sell / Happy Housekeepers Award 2007 for Being an Example to Follow / Wild Foresters Award 2006 for Saving Trees from Book Lovers / Writing Bodybuilders Award 2007 for Keeping Nice Forms / Life Coaching Without Words Award 2006 for Bringing New Life to Some Words / Writing for Writing Foundation Award 2007 for Rewriting Some Writings / Speaking Parrots Award 2007 for Some Fresh Phrases / CopyPasters Award 2007 for Recopying Shakespeare / Silent People Award 2006 for Talking about Silence / Strange Books Award 2006 for The Best Back Cover Text / I Don't Care Award 2006 for Something We All Don't Care / Happy Clowns Award 2006 for The Biggest Sad Smile / Nonexistence Award 2007 for Trying to Believe in Existence / MTV eBooks Award 2007 for The Best Male Reader / Bicycle Fans Award 2006 for not Writing About Bicycles / Cool Firemen Award 2006 for New Flames in Literature / Penguin Lovers Prize 2007 for Being Vegetarian / Green Grass Award 2006 for Frustrated Ecology in Hamlet Remixed / Vintage Love Award 2006 for Writing About Old School Love / New Letters Award 2006 for Some Useless Innovations / Retired Encyclopedists Award 2007 for Universality in Rewriting / Nice Web Developers Award 2007 for Fresh Look / Space Lovers Award 2006 for Exploration of Literary Cosmos / Monotony Award 2006 for The Best Performance / Homemade Video Award 2007 for The Best Home Interior / Illusory Zoo Committee Prize 2007 for The Best Animal Character / Degenerated Politicians Award 2006 for Belief in Moral Norms / F***ing Teenagers Award 2007 for The Best Kiss / Tomorrow Morning's Fragrances Association Award 2006 for Smelling Words / London Punks Foundation Award 2007 for Ultra Cool Book with Hip Ending / Pessimistic Bankers Prize 2007 for Fresh Ideas on Pessimism / Soft-Hardcore Erotica Award 2006 for Remixed Feelings / Slow Talking Runners Award 2007 for Some Sweet Chats about Nothing / Honest Jet-Setters Prize 2006 for Being Honest to Honest People / Good Looking Pop Stars Award 2006 for The Best Interview Act / Disorientated Literary Agents Award 2006 for Trusting Nobody / Archaic Victorian Baroque Award 2007 for Crossing Borders Between Borders / Multicultural Context Prize 2006 for Multiculturalism in Books / Two Happy People Award 2007 for Mixed Palette of Happiness / Fragile Machines Prize 2007 for The Best Text on Robotic Psychology / Passionate Red Cherries Award 2006 for Dynamic Use of The Word 'Cool' / Late 1950s Award 2007 for Neutrality on Some Remixed Questions / Classical Counterculture Award 2006 for Development of Remix Cult

Not very catchy. It doesn't really trip off the tongue does it?

Up till now I've been talking mostly about books. What about the humble poem? Surely the purpose here is not so much to sell the piece as to … as to what? All my poems have titles (except for one haiku) and a number. That poem I was on about earlier entitled 'Untitled' is also #510 and is contained in a single text file called 510.txt.

I have to admit to often being a bit thoughtless about giving poems titles and it's something I feel a bit guilty about. If a poem is a glass of milk then its title is the mint imperial we pop into our mouth before drinking it; it changes the experience entirely. At least it can.

Let’s have a look at an example:


Shared dreams in the Morris -
snowbound and silent.

I saw you in silhouette
and I loved what I saw.

Illuminated briefly
I saw still further
and loved still more.

(For F.)

22 January 1984

Now, what title would you give this piece? 'The Morris'? 'Snowbound'? or did I pick something clever and ambiguous? It's a biographical piece but I don't think F. would fare much better guessing – she was never really into poetry. You can find the title at the end of this post. But hang on a minute before you check because here's another one to have a think about.

# 616

I told her that I loved her
to fill the gaps between us.
But the gaps were too big
and my words were too small.

So with nothing more to cling to
she held herself and shivered,
then with neither word not gesture
she turned and walked away.

17 December 1987

For the record this is not a biographical poem. So, what do you think? 'Gaps'? 'Small Words'? Again the title can be found at the end.

Both of these poems works just fine without a title. To my mind the title in these instances is really an integral part of the poem, i.e. a poem includes its title. I think one of the most basic purposes of a title is to stir the reader's imagination and curiosity. Quite often I'll read a piece and then go back, look at the title and go, "Eh?" And then I look at the piece again because I think I've missed something. And I usually have. A poem isn't a puzzle to solve any more than its title is a clue at least not in such a crude sense.

I had a look though my library and picked what I think are the best titles.

Naïve. Super

The Demolished Man

Transparent Things

Born with the Dead

A Clockwork Orange

Scenes from the Life of a Best-selling Author

The Trick is to Keep Breathing

By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept

The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966

The Nimrod Flip-Out

Man Plus

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

What do you know, one of them did have a colon in it! I made this choice quickly in much the same way as one might select books whilst browsing in a bookshop. These were the ones that jumped out at me. Some are short, some are long. All are cryptic in their own way. No doubt you'll be able to furnish your own lists because we're all different people. And that really is the point.

Oh, by the way, here are the titles of the two poems I included earlier. I'm not saying these are the best titles possible but I do think that both of them add a layer or two to two fairly ordinary poems.



In case anyone wonders neither of us fell asleep in the car nor did I know anyone called Julia when I wrote this poem although I did know a Julie.

Thursday 26 March 2009

A plug and a puzzle


sink plug I know I said I was cutting back on my posts, and I am but I wanted to let those of you who might be considering attending the Oxford Literary Festival that the writer Guy Fraser-Sampson is giving a talk on April 1st about his novel Major Benjy which as you may recall I reviewed back in September. If you don't remember then you can read the review here.

The novel is set in the world of Mapp and Lucia created by author E. F. Benson. If you're not familiar with them, think of a female Jeeves and Wooster and you won't be too far off the mark. Anyway, I was thoroughly entertained by the book and if he's as good a speaker as he is a writer then I expect you will be too.

Here’s where you can get tickets.

That was the plug. Now for the puzzle.

I have had a long time fascination with word searches, not so much doing them but creating them – much more fun – and so I thought I'd treat you to one with a literary bent. There's no prize as such. It's just a bit of fun.

There are 28 twentieth century authors in the grid (well, 28 writers who were alive in the twentieth century) and, if you're really smart you can tell me the connection between them all. Actually if you work out the connection early on it'll help you finish off the puzzle because there are a couple of hard ones in there.

Oh, and in the interest of full disclosure I used a software package to create this. I have one half-done but I ran out of time so it'll have to wait for another day. If no one can find all twenty eight and the connection I’ll post the answer at the weekend.



Monday 23 March 2009

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich


History must be written of, by and for the survivors. – Anonymous

Book Cover Do you remember the first book you ever bought? I don't mean the first book you ever read but the first one for which you parted with cash you had earned? I do. I still have it. It's survived a dozen or so house moves and I fully expect to have it till the day I die. I've read it four times, seen the British film adaptation and recently listened to a radio play based on the book. That book is One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. It is a mere 144 pages long. I bought it in a little newsagent across from the statue of Robert Burns in Ayr; I paid 35p for it and read it on the train over the next few days.

The book was first published in 1963 and describes a single day, "almost a happy day" from all accounts, in the life of an ordinary prisoner called Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, in a Soviet labour camp during the 1950s. It is old history now; that regime has fallen and is being steadily forgotten; people have enough to worry about these days without wringing their hands over the mistakes and injustices carried out in the past. And, in part, that's true.

I didn't read an awful lot of fiction growing up. There was none in the house for starters but there were encyclopaedias, books of quotations and dictionaries. In one of the books of quotations, a book I still own that is probably older than I am, I read the following quote: "The one thing history teaches is that man learns nothing from history." It's by Hegel of course. Of course I had no idea who Hegel was when I read it but it was one of those quotations that stayed with me; that rang a bit of sense out of a world that was starting to make less and less sense to me at the time. Perhaps my holding that quote dear explains in part something about my general lack of interest in history as a subject.

I did watch programmes about the past, All Our Yesterdays and The World at War in particular. It was actually a bit of a family event; as I recall they were both shown on Sunday afternoons. I could never understand my parents expressing nostalgia for what looked like a very unpleasant time in which to live and yet I now finding myself looking back to the bleak mid-seventies in much the same way.

Solzhenitsyn's book has become a benchmark for me. I go back to it about every ten years or so and each time it makes a bit more sense which I find odd because I'm moving farther and farther away from the times Solzhenitsyn is writing about. The reason I find myself getting closer to the book is the fact that it's about people, about the human condition; the setting is not nearly as important as one might expect. Of course as a sixteen year-old reading about life in the camps for the first time that is what I took away with me and I went on to read a couple of his other books, The First Circle and Cancer Ward although The Gulag Archipelago was more than a bit on the long side and I've still never read it. I'm not sure I need to any more.

There are plenty of places online where you can read summaries of the book so I'm not going to spend a great deal of time telling you what happens because nothing that much happens, indeed monotony is a major theme of the book and it is to Solzhenitsyn's credit that he makes the little that does happen as interesting as he does.

Most novels revolve around extraordinary events, the day when everything went pear-shaped and I have no doubt there were times during Solzhenitsyn's own imprisonment that he could have drawn on but this is not The Bridge on the River Kwai. He himself was imprisoned from 1945 to 1953 for writing a derogatory comment in a letter to a fellow officer about the conduct of the war by Joseph Stalin, whom he called "the whiskered one". The sentence seems harsh but there are examples of the same happening today. I wrote about one a while ago, highlighting the case of Saw Wai:

On January 22, 2008, Saw Wai was arrested by Burmese authorities for publishing a poem that secretly criticized Than Shwe, the head of Burma's ruling military junta. The poem, titled "February the Fourteenth" was published in the Rangoon-based Achit Journal (Love Journal). If the first letters of each line of the poem were put together, they read "Power Crazy Than Shwe" in Burmese. – Wikipedia

He was sentenced to two years. I'm sure the Soviet government in Solzhenitsyn's day would not have been as merciful.

The simple and rather sad fact is that with a few name changes this book is absolutely relevant today. That it shouldn't be is neither here not there. It is.

Although I was young there was one scene in the book that struck me on my first reading. It concerns a scene in the mess:

Shukhov took off his cap and put it on his knees.  He checked one bowl, then the other, with his spoon.  Not too bad, there was even a bit of fish.  The skilly was always a lot thinner in the evening than in the morning: a zek had to be fed in the morning so that he could work, but in the evening he'd sleep, hungry or not, and wouldn't croak overnight.

He began eating.  First he just drank the juice, spoon after spoon.  The warmth spread through his body, his insides greeted that skilly with a joyful fluttering.  This was it!  This was good!  This was the brief moment for which a zek lives.

For a little while Shukhov forgot all his grievances, forgot that his sentence was long, that the day was long, that once again there would be no Sunday.  For the moment he had only one thought: We shall survive.  We shall survive it all.  God willing, we'll see the end of it!


Shukhov finished off his skilly, not taking much notice of those around him — it didn't much matter, he was content with his lawful portion and had no hankering after anything more.  All the same, he did notice the tall old man, Yu-81, sit down opposite him when the place became free.  Shukhov knew that he belonged to Gang 64, and standing in line in the parcel room he'd heard that 64 had been sent to Sotsgorodok in place of 104, and spent the whole day stringing up barbed wire — making themselves a compound — with nowhere to get warm.

He'd heard that this old man had been in prison time out of mind — in fact, as long as the Soviet state had existed; that all the amnesties had passed him by, and that as soon as he finished one tenner they'd pinned another on him.

This was Shukhov's chance to take a close look at him.  With hunched-over lags all round, he was as straight-backed as could be.  He sat tall, as though he'd put something on the bench under him.  That head hadn't needed a barber for ages: the life of luxury had caused all his hair to fall out.  The old man's eyes didn't dart around to take in whatever was going on in the mess, but stared blindly at something over Shukhov's head.  He was steadily eating his thin skilly, but instead of almost dipping his head in the bowl like the rest of them, he carried his battered wooden spoon up high.  He had no teeth left, upper or lower, but his bony gums chewed his bread just as well without them.  His face was worn thin, but it wasn't the weak face of a burnt-out invalid, it was like dark chiselled stone.  You could tell from his big chapped and blackened hands that in all his years inside he'd never had a soft job as a trusty.  But he refused to knuckle under: he didn't put his three hundred grams on the dirty table, splashed all over, like the others, he put it on a rag he washed regularly. – trans Willets

'Dignity' is one of those dictionary words, if you know what I mean by that, at least it was for me in 1973. I knew what it meant, I could define it, but I don’t think I really understood it. It was just a word. It was the same with 'labour camps'. I knew what they were – I'd seen pictures on the tele – but knowledge is a far cry from understanding. I didn't understand and you would think that seeing stuff on TV would have helped but it didn't. It was this semi-fictionalised account that made it real for me. I had never been hungry (although there were times in my childhood I would have sworn I was starving) and I'd never been cold (although as far as I was concerned, Scotland was the coldest place on Earth) and I'd always been free to do what I wanted (even though I would have sworn on a stack of bibles that my parents never let me do anything). Well you don't know, do you?

I read that section in the mess a number of times especially the bit about the old zek.

The story is Ivan's without a doubt but through his eyes and his recollections we get to see a more rounded picture of life in the camps. Ivan is the optimist of the bunch but one thing that comes across very clearly is the need to accentuate the positive. There is also a strong group mindset. They all support each other and even share their scraps.

It's not a bad day. Under the circumstances it's quite a good day. He gets to work in a sheltered place. He even ends up with two bowls of food at the end of the day. Solzhenitsyn could have been a lot crueller to him. He could have made it a week, a month or even a year in this man's life. He could have had him punished more severely than he does – all Ivan has to do is wash a floor to pay for his tardiness. At the end of the book, Ivan is lying in bed thanking God for the good day he had. Yes, the day he had at the prison camp. The day where he got up in 17° below weather, marched for miles, worked all day, and received almost no food. This day is like most of his others, but he is still thankful.

[T]hey hadn't put him in the cells; they hadn't sent the team to the settlement; he'd pinched a bowl of kasha at dinner; the team-leader had fixed the rates well; he'd built a wall and enjoyed doing it; he'd smuggled that bit of hacksaw-blade through; he'd earned something from Tsezar in the evening; he's bought that tobacco. And he hadn't fallen ill. He'd got over it.

A day without a dark cloud. Almost a happy day. – trans Parker

There was a lot I didn't notice on that first read, the religious commentary for example. When people quoted from the Bible or prayed or crossed themselves this all felt like background stuff – my family said grace so what of it? The scripture says: “Men do not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth maslows_hierarchy2 of God.” In Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs, spirituality is nowhere near the top, however. Or the bottom actually since it's often represented as a triangle with physiological needs as the base. After taking care of ones physiological and safety requirements (I hardly need illustrate how these come into play) the chart moves onto love and belonging and it is clear that friendship and this artificial 'family' they now find themselves a part of is important. A good example of this is Senka Klevshin: one of Ivan’s squad members, a "quiet, luckless fellow" who happens to be deaf. The other members of the squad protect him somewhat, like they might do with a little brother, by accommodating for his weaknesses.

The next level on Maslow's chart deals with self esteem and we can see in the book how respect is a major thing here. There is an example where Tsezar, another member of Ivan's squad, is smoking a cigarette: Shukhov walks over to Tsezar and stands next to him, staring past him. Fetiukov, a man with little pride, stares right at Tsezar's mouth and finally actually demands a puff. Because of that Tsezar gives the butt to Shukhov.

The top of Maslow's chart is self-actualisation and spirituality isn’t actually included by name but Maslow regarded it as a basic component of our biological life. He even wrote an entire book on the subject called The Further Reaches of Human Nature. I have seen triangles where others have felt the need to add on a sixth level but I think that's just picky. It is sufficient to say that once a human's needs are stripped down to the bare essentials on every level perhaps then people become more sensitive to spiritual matters. Or it could simply be that what we are seeing are people at a certain time and place in history where religion was of far greater importance that it is nowadays.

The simple fact is that this is not as simple a book as you might imagine. Yes, Solzhenitsyn provides us with all the character types that would have populated the camps, but they are not cardboard characters and it is amazing how much depth of character he manages to imbue each and every man with; there are no women in the book other than those the inmates choose to remember.

"Can a man who's warm understand one who's freezing?" Solzhenitsyn asks. It's a good question. I've known what it's like to be cold but knowledge is only the first step towards understanding. Which is why I find myself returning to this book over and over again. I don’t think Solzhenitsyn has failed because I need to keep coming back. Far from it. Far from it.

A word on translations, as there are a number available. The one I own, the Penguin edition, was the earliest, translated in 1963, by Ralph Parker. It uses a lot of Russian and Yiddish expressions like valenki (knee-length felt boots for winter wear) or oprichniki (a member of an imperial Russian police force) but my copy has helpful footnotes. That said I didn't struggle understanding it because the context goes a long way to defining the words. There is a translation by Max Haywood and Ronald Hingley where they use American slang expressions such as 'can' and 'cooler' for solitary confinement and unpolished diction in expressions like "Let em through" and "Get outa the way." Russian swearwords, never before printed in the Soviet Union, have been for the most part translated into their English equivalents. I haven’t read it so I shouldn't criticise but that would bother me I think. The translation by H.T. Willetts, and the only one actually authorised by Solzhenitsyn, was published in 1991.

Let's compare two translations. I'm going to use part of the section we read above.

He sat tall, as though he'd put something on the bench under him.  That head hadn't needed a barber for ages: the life of luxury had caused all his hair to fall out.  The old man's eyes didn't dart around to take in whatever was going on in the mess, but stared blindly at something over Shukhov's head.  He was steadily eating his thin skilly, but instead of almost dipping his head in the bowl like the rest of them, he carried his battered wooden spoon up high.  He had no teeth left, upper or lower, but his bony gums chewed his bread just as well without them.  His face was worn thin, but it wasn't the weak face of a burnt-out invalid, it was like dark chiselled stone.  You could tell from his big chapped and blackened hands that in all his years inside he'd never had a soft job as a trusty.  But he refused to knuckle under: he didn't put his three hundred grams on the dirty table, splashed all over, like the others, he put it on a rag he washed regularly.

Translated by H.T. Willets

He held himself straight – the other zeks sat all hunched up – and looked as if he'd put something extra on the bench to sit on. There was nothing left to crop on his head: his hair had dropped out long since – the result of high living no doubt. His eyes didn't dart after everything going on in the mess-hall. He kept them fixed in an unseeing gaze at some spot over Shukov's head. His worn wooden spoon dipped rhythmically into the thin skilly, but instead of lowering his head to the bowl like everybody else, he raised the spoon high to his lips. He'd lost all his teeth and chewed the bread with iron gums. All life had drained out of his face, but it had been left, not sickly or feeble, but hard and dark like carved stone. And by his hands, big and cracked and blackened, you could see that he'd had little opportunity of doing cushy jobs. But he wasn't going to give in, oh no! He wasn't going to put his three hundred grammes on the dirty, bespattered table – he put it on a well-washed bit of rag.

Translated by Ralph Parker

My preference is the Parker myself despite the fact that Solzhenitsyn approved the Willets version. Now, if I only read Russian.

After going through what he did you might imagine that Solzhenitsyn would do anything for a quiet life and for a while he did. But is a writer truly a writer without an audience? I'll let him explain:

During all the years until 1961, not only was I convinced that I should never see a single line of mine in print in my lifetime, but, also, I scarcely dared allow any of my close acquaintances to read anything I had written because I feared that this would become known. Finally, at the age of 42, this secret authorship began to wear me down. The most difficult thing of all to bear was that I could not get my works judged by people with literary training. In 1961, after the 22nd Congress of the U.S.S.R. Communist Party and Tvardovsky's speech at this, I decided to emerge and to offer One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. –

It was published in edited form in 1962, with the explicit approval of Nikita Khrushchev, who defended it and declared at the presidium of the Politburo hearing on whether to allow its publishing, "There’s a Stalinist in each of you; there’s even a Stalinist in me. We must root out this evil".

If you haven't seen the film version staring Tom Courtenay I would recommend it. I could only find a trailer online with an awful voice over and it's worth watching just to ask yourself who in their right mind thought this was the way to sell this film? Courtney as one would expect is excellent but hats really need to be tipped to Sven Nykvist's cinematography. A fresh translation of the novel by Gillon Aitken appeared at this time as a movie tie-in edition.




solzhenitsyn Solzhenitsyn was one of the leading dissidents in the Soviet Union, and was active against the Soviet Communist regime. His main work Gulag Archipelago (1973), being inspired by the academic work of Anton Chekhov titled Sakhalin Island (1895). After the publication of Gulag Archipelago abroad in 1973, he was arrested again, and charged with "anti-Soviet" treason, then exiled from the Soviet Union in 1974. He lived mostly in Cavendish, Vermont, USA, until after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Then he was invited by the new Russian president Boris Yeltsin and his Russian citizenship was restored. Solzhenitsyn returned to Russia in 1994 and was granted a suburban house in Moscow. His wife and three sons remained American citizens.

Back in Moscow, Solzhenitsyn enjoyed full recognition and wide publication of all his works. He was an active and important figure in Russian society, because of his independent position and sharp criticism of the declining state of affairs in Russia. He refused to receive an award from the Russian president Boris Yeltsin. His novel First Circle was made into a TV-movie and shown on the Russian national TV in 2006.

Solzhenitsyn died at age 89, on August 3, 2008, at his home near Moscow. His death caused a considerable mourning in Russia, especially among the Russian conservatives and Orthodox Christians. Solzhenitsyn received a state funeral and was laid to rest in Donskoy Convent cemetery in Moscow, Russia.

This is an expanded version of the original post that appeared on the Canongate website on March 18th.

Monday 16 March 2009

I hate nature poetry


Deep_Solitude Now, there's a sweeping statement if ever there was one. Of course it's not completely accurate. I have read very little nature poetry and when I do run across one I rarely get more than a few lines through it before I've decided that it's not for me; time is precious. Regular users of the Internet like me understand that mentality. We don't read, we scan and make snap judgements based on a cursory examination. And we're fussy buggers too; a poor layout or the wrong font or colour scheme and we're off.

I've pretty much always been like that. When I was young I had no patience. One of my favourite expressions was: "I know three definitions of patience: a girl's name, a game of cards and an opera by Gilbert and Sullivan – I know no other." As I've aged I've learned patience but only in some things. Old habits die hard.

Let's go back a bit further, long before the poems, to my childhood, before the Internet and home computers, before colour television even. We lived, as I do now, on the very edge of the town although a different edge to a different town. Walk out our back door as a kid, leap over the wall – this is before the Council built the billboards – and I was in the country. There was a farm, not a very big concern (all I remember were chickens actually), and if I circumvented that there was the river with its salmon leap. If I went out the front door, down the street was a golf course and, once I was through that, a frog pond; the sea was only mile away. This was where I spent my days. I was hardly in the house – it was a filling station – and those were the days when no one worried where there kids were as long as they arrived home for meals and bed.

The thing I have to say is, although I had all this nature at my disposal I never really relished it. There is an old expression, familiarity breeds contempt, and although I've never become contemptuous of nature I've rarely felt in awe of it. Granted I've never seen the Grand Canyon and I am sure that would have some effect on me. It really does seem like one of those things that pictures don't do justice too. The same could be said of the Arctic, the Australian outback and the Aurora Borealis I have no doubt. Not that the Scottish highlands are unimpressive because I assure you they are. That said, when my wife's son was over a few years ago and we took I trip to Loch Lomond I pointed out some of the landscape and he said, "What, those hills?" Okay, so maybe it wasn't the Himalayas but it was nice, more than nice.

As I've grown older I do interact with nature less and less. I have a country walk literally next to my house, all you have to do is clamber up a wee hill (which I'm sure my son-in-law would call a hillock or probably just a mound) and you're there but in the last five years you'll be lucky if I've been up there half-a-dozen times. I've become Billy Connolly. He's also not much of a nature person, at least when he recorded this he wasn't. Now he's bought a Scottish castle and started wearing sandals maybe he's changed. Anyway, this is what he had to say at the Rainbow Theatre in London in 1977:

There was a guy, a Glasgow guy, and he was out for a walk and he was doing "out-for-walk things". I'm not a great "go-for-walk" person, but he was doing whatever people going for walks do ... Go for a walk, walking. Oh, a tree, I'm glad I came. Oh, there's a bird, what a walk this is turning out to be! And he was walking along some cliffs ... He went along those cliffs and the sea was pounding on the rocks beneath "POUND"! Oh, sea pounding on rock, it's great. What a walk! Right! So, look at that, pounding. My legs are walking and everything.

Now I get that. We didn't have any cliffs where I lived. Not even any cliffettes. But I will have spent months of my life wandering all over it usually late in the day when there was no one around. Now here's the thing. I wasn't out there being one with nature. I was out there because there wasn't in my house where I'd have to endure being with my family. Things changed dramatically when I got to thirteen and got to use the front room as my office. You could never get me out of it. I even took my meals in there. If I'd had a TV then I would probably have only left the room to answer the call of nature and sleep.

By about thirteen I was starting to search out stuff to read myself and that included poetry. And of course I inevitably came across poetry that dealt with nature. And it was boring. I didn't get most of it but then I never gave most of it a chance. All I had to see were a few lines like:

So will I build my altar in the fields,
And the blue sky my fretted dome shall be,
And the sweet fragrance that the wild flower yields
Shall be the incense I will yield to Thee,

and I'd be off over the page. That was from 'To Nature' by Samuel Taylor Coleridge by the way. I couldn't see its relevance to me. Yes, it's technically accomplished but so were Bach's suites for unaccompanied cello and I didn't get them either. I had to work my way through the exciting stuff like Rachmaninov and Bartók first of all before I learned to appreciate Bach.

Can I compare a nature poem to a still life painting? Well, I'm just going to.


Luis Meléndez: Still Life with Salmon, Lemon and three Vessels

It's a painting that does what it says on the tin. There a hunk of salmon, a whole lemon and what looks like a tin pan and a couple of jugs. But what does it mean?

Ah! Meaning, Jim. It doesn't have to mean anything. Can it not simply be? Well, yes, it can and it's boring. If it was beautiful at least then I could agree that it was something that gave me pleasure, which made me feel. But I don't know what to think or feel about this other than Luis was a competent enough artist.

At least Coleridge has done a bit more than just present me with a blue sky and some fields peppered with smelly flowers. At least there's a bit of metaphor going on there. The thing is I couldn't tell you the last time I stopped to smell the roses.

I just sat and went through my big red folder of poems – over thirty years of poems – and I found one poem that you could call a nature poem and it's pretty bad.


Yesterday, from a bus,
near Glassford,
I saw two young rams
methodically duelling over a ewe
like two elephant seals.

28 December 1978

I remember the incident quite clearly. I had taken a bus from East Kilbride to the village of Glassford to see a solicitor; I had some papers to sign. I had been reading William Carlos Williams at the time and was trying to work in a more minimal style. This was my first go at a 'Red Wheelbarrow' poem. I've written over 500 poems since then and never broached the subject again. It's not that I never mention nature in any of my poems because I do like this poem:


It's strange
how such a cold and formidable thing
reminds me of you,
its icy breakers failing
on a beach we've never walked on
nor likely ever will.

And yet perhaps that is it.
That after all these miles of travelling
defeat should come
at the final moment.

Aberdeen, 29 February 1995

It's called 'The North Sea' and was the only thing I wrote during such a miserable stay in Aberdeen that I swore I'd never return but it's not about the sea; it's a metaphor and not a bad one but it's no nature poem.

All my poetry focuses on the individual. He may be sitting in a park but I don't see the park. I see the person. Nature is a setting, the cloth upon which my still lives sit.

I don't completely avoid nature poetry. One of the sites I visit regularly is Art Durkee's and virtually all his poetry is focused on Nature with a capital N. Here's one I liked:


   ice rind on creek
   cutting its way through dunes:
   this floating world

Yes, I said I like it. I like the photo and the accompanying poem. The point I'm making is that I look at a photo like that and it doesn't move me to write about it. Art has an eye and there are not many of his photos that aren't accomplished and a few of them have graced my desktop from time to time. The fact is that I prefer his photography to his poetry even when he does a decent job of combining the two. I would have no problem putting a print of this on my wall. I'd even print out the poem in a nice font but it would be the picture I'd look at; the poem would just be there.

I think this is why I've struggled with writing a haiku, a proper haiku obeying all the rules.

When it comes to poetry I like to read about people. Take this famous poem by Ezra Pound:


The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

It combines nature and humanity perfectly but it is about people not trees. To my mind the best kind of nature poetry for me is like this. Nature on its own seems to lack something for me – people.

Here's the first poem by Dick Jones I ever read and I immediately bookmarked his site and have enjoyed his work immensely ever since.


Up on Bell's Hill, hours
after sundown; watchless
thus timeless; starlight printed
on the earth below:

all the lights of Exeter
in a black bowl. We breathe
through our mouths. No wind
in the hillside beeches

or the hawthorn hedge
we crouch behind. Bob looms
at my side, log-still,
indistinct, yet electric

with attention, his cradled shotgun
staring at the ground,
round-eyed. An owl quavers
in the ice-heart of the wood.

Movement at the field's edge: shadow
on shadow; an elision of shape
and formlessness. The fox slides
along a dark rail, single-

purposed, the fanatic's way -
hand over hand through
the long grass
at the field's edge.

Bob's gun coughs twice,
dry-voiced. Night cracks
like slate; shards fly
and the world tips up.

We stare, bloodshot, jangling,
into the bright darkness.
Shadows realign at the field's edge.
Night self-heals, like water.

To my mind Dick has that same balance. He elevates the setting but the poem is still about people, people IN nature. This poem is not so far away from John Clare's 'March' from his collection The Shepherd's Calendar:

The stooping ditcher in the water stands
Letting the furrowd lakes from off the lands
Or splashing cleans the pasture brooks of mud
Where many a wild weed freshens into bud

The sneaking foxes from his thefts to fright
That often seizes the young lambs at night
These when they in their nightly watchings hear
The badgers shrieks can hardly stifle fear

They list the noise from woodlands dark recess
Like helpless shrieking woman in distress
And oft as such fears fancying mystery
Believes the dismal yelling sounds to be

For superstition hath its thousand tales
To people all his midnight woods and vales
And the dread spot from whence the dismal noise
Mars the night musings of their dark employs

Owns its sad tale to realize their fear
At which their hearts in boyhood achd to hear

In an article on Romantic Poetry I found this quote about Clare:

The essential element of Clare's distinctive style is his ability to identify with nature without imposing on it: "he can enter the bird's song, into its very existence . . . . He, the poet, has heard a truer poet, and he is happy to withdraw" – Review of The Problem of Poetry in the Romantic Period

The thing about the Romantics as I understand them is they really were focussed on people but the lens they were using was Nature. Nowadays most of us live unnatural lives. We spend hours in front of rectangular screens and never set foot on a piece of grass from one week to the next. Glasgow is actually a very green city. There are parks and bits of greenery all over the place, shaped to fit in with the architecture. It pleases me that it's there but if it vanished overnight I seriously wonder how long it would take before I would notice. And, if it did happen, how much would I care?

We're not talking about ecology here. I'm on about aesthetics. Of course we need to take care of the environment; if it dies then we die. I'm not daft. But just as I like someone to slaughter my animals for me I'm also happy for someone to plant my trees and trim my lawn for me. I don't garden. The one condition I placed on Carrie when she was looking for the flat we now live in was: "No garden." Apart from my parents' house I've never lived in a flat, tenement or maisonette with a garden attached.

What about when you were a kid then, didn't you help out with the gardening? Yes, I did. The mowing I didn't mind because there was a machine involved but anything that involved me getting my hands dirty I hated. Give me the dishes to do any day rather than the gardening.

Have I made my case yet? I'm sure that there will be those out there who will be aghast. Well, aghast away. And feel free to send me your lists of poems and poets who, if I only could come in contact with them, would change my mind. I'm open to epiphanies but don't hold your breath, okay?

P.S. For the record this is not a response to Dave King's recent post on nature poetry. I was already thinking about this. Reading his simply encouraged me to move writing mine to the top of my to-do list.

P.P.S. Since I wrote this Dick Jones has posted a poem called 'This Year's Daffodils' – I don't know what to say. It's about daffodils.

Monday 9 March 2009

The next John Cleese


No bike I have never written anything biographical apart from an autobiography at the age of about fourteen which, although I've hung onto the thing for some thirty-five years, I've found myself unable to read past the first page. The spelling alone! I do enjoy a good biography, auto- or not doesn't much worry me since I doubt whether most people accurately remember their own lives in any case; I know I don't and I'm not sure I'd want to. Forgetting is a necessary mechanism I find for enabling a smooth transition from the past into the future; it certainly oils my wheels. Why remember, for God's sake?

But if one absolutely has to remember then one does need to be selective in what one presents before a paying public lest you not bore the pants off them. Because I suspect most lives are – what shall we say? – nine-tenths ordinariness, more most likely. So, to keep ones reader or viewer's attention it's best to stick to the highlights and either beef those up or romanticise them as much as you can get away with without completely fictionalising the whole damn thing.

Perhaps it's looking back that is the problem because I don't remember living a life of stultifying tedium and there have been plenty of things in my life that have caught my interest, I just don't seem capable of talking about them in an interesting way. I certainly have no plans to write my memoirs in the near or distant future.

562129 Some people simply don't lead extraordinary lives despite the fact they might happen to be a party to extraordinary happenings. Let's take John Cleese for example. I own, and have read, Cleese Encounters by Jonathan Margolis who admits in the book's preface that he is "an unreconstructed admirer" of the man, a man who "[a]lways with the utmost politeness … declined to co-operate" with his biographer. At one point during an interview with Barbara Trentham, Cleese's second wife, she asked Margolis why he had taken on the task of producing the biography of a man who did not want one written:

I blurted out something unimpressive about Cleese being a national treasure whose life story belonged in the public domain as much as that of any prime minister or royal personage.

The real reason he admits in the next paragraph (after having stopped to think about it properly) was had he not undertaken it then someone even less qualified than he would have tackled it. I suppose that's as honest an answer as any.

What he does admit is this:

Listening to a string of Cleese's boyhood friends, I was stuck by their similarity. All were gently spoken, courteous men in their fifties, the best of the breed of polite, discreet, wry Englishmen. Middle-class Weston-super-Mare in the 1950s is the most incongruous of backgrounds for a comedian, the antithesis of flashiness and theatricality. I began to see John Cleese as a kind of displaced provincial solicitor, wandering lost and bemused through the glittery theatrical world, a confused what-am-I-doing-here? guest at royal dinner tables. I do not think he has quite belonged anywhere other than those sedate, grey Somerset streets.

It's not an inaccurate picture. So many people get the public and private personas of people in the public eye confused. Woody Allen is a prime example. Many people assume that the onscreen 'Woody' is the real Woody. Of course it's not not Woody – he has drawn on elements of his character and exaggerated them for comic effect – but it would be a mistake to confuse the man and his screen appearances.

But back to Margolis for a moment. My edition, amusingly released by Chapmans Publishers in 1992, runs to 257 pages, which works out to about ten weeks to a page bearing in mind Cleese was about 50 when this was written. But of course the maths … ('Dead Parrot' sketch voice) … don't enter into it. For starters, some pages are devoted to Cleese's parents. The argument any biographer will use is that they have to be selective and only record what's important. What Cleese watched on the tele on the 29th September 1967 probably isn't particularly relevant. But who is to say? (I watched Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons – thanks for asking.) Cleese went to St. Peter's Preparatory School in 1948 and Margolis devotes a few pages to his time there. In contrast Roald Dahl, who attended the selfsame school between 1925 and 1929 devotes a third of his childhood autobiography, Boy: Tales of Childhood, to his years there.

The thing about 'Rosebud' moments is that they're not always easy to identify. And it's not always the obvious ones. One has to wonder how many pages Cleese would devote to the place should he ever sit down to do a proper biography. In The Pythons Autobiography by The Pythons although Cleese mentions St. Peters he has more to say about the college he went to, Clifton and, granted, Margolis does devote an entire chapter to that time in Cleese's life.

There is certainly an element of looking for clues in the biography of any successful person. There is also a danger of reading into things, especially as biographers often are fans. It must be very hard to be objective.

And then there is getting your facts right. Beckett is another one who has not assisted his biographers, not until he was lying on his deathbed, in any case when he was a bit more open, although by that time his own memory couldn't be trusted one hundred percent. His first biographer, Deirdre Bair, records this:

'You are free to do as you choose in this matter of a biography,' he told me, adding that he would 'neither help nor hinder' it. 'I will introduce you to me friends,' he continued, 'my enemies you will find soon enough.'

He forbade the use of a tape recorder and wouldn't even allow her to take notes as they talked. He did not give interviews, he told her; they were simply having "a friendly conversation, just two people talking." Over the next six years they had many of these friendly conversations and sometimes his answers were clear and to the point whereas other times he was obtuse as his moods dictated.

What she ended up with was a fine piece of work although not always 100% accurate for which she gets some shtick and I feel rather sorry for her for that. As I read more about Beckett one thing I learned about him was that he did like to muddy pier the waters. In his play Krapp's Last Tape, which is considered to be a highly biographical work, Krapp describes his "vision at last", on the east pier at Dún Laoghaire which we know is the case by looking at earlier drafts of the work before he began his "vaguening" work on it. Beckett did indeed have an epiphany but in a letter he wrote to Richard Ellmann he had this to say:

All the jetty and howling wind are imaginary. It happened to me, summer 1945, in my mother’s little house, named New Place, across the road from Cooldrinagh.

And you would think that would be the end of it. However, in an interview in the Irish Times, Eoin O'Brien, the author of The Beckett Country, which incorrectly identifies the east pier as the place where Beckett had his epiphany, has this to say:

On another occasion, I laid out David Davison's wonderful photographs of the storm-lashed Dún Laoghaire pier with the anemometer "flying in the wind", and Sam confided to me, not quite apologetically but rather in the tone of one who had pulled a fast one and is proud of having done so, that the revelatory moment - that moment when he "saw the whole thing at last" - had taken place on the much more humble Greystones pier on a black stormy night when he had been staying in the house his mother had rented in the then seaside resort.

So, where does the truth lie? Well, the only person who knows for sure is dead now. Does it matter if the epiphany happened on the pier or in his mum's house? Perhaps it began on the pier and ended in the house. Is it that important?

I actually feel sorry for people who live a part of their lives in the public gaze and the fact that that public takes it for granted that they are entitled to poke around in it. It's not a matter of fearing that people will find skeletons in the closet because neither Cleese nor Beckett has anything they especially need to hide. Does it really matter that Cleese couldn't ride a bike when at Cambridge – because of its flatness, one of England's most bicycle-friendly cities (see Cleese Encounters, p71) – and that Beckett was practically fanatical about them (see Beckett's Bicycles)?

Rosebud_350x326 Perhaps that was Cleese's 'Rosebud' moment, the fact that his overprotective parents never bought him a bike. I never had a pogo-stick myself and I blame that for everything. The thing is in my childhood autobiography I probably never mention that. I'm more likely to mention what I did have, who I knew and where I went. And so I pity any biographer trying to say, "Here, here's where the writer was born." And what good would it do anyone? Can you really see a family moving to Weston-super-Mare and depriving their kid of a bike in the hopes that he'll become the next John Cleese?

Let me leave you with a couple of poems.

Deconstructing Jimmy

I missed out on a lot growing up:
stilts, a pogo-stick,
skates – ice and roller – underage sex.

There were things I had: a family,
an education
but it was the wrong family and

they skipped all the useful stuff at school.

Whenever I have needed something
it was never there:
the capital of Peru or the

TV remote, the exact bus fare
or just reasons why.
"You can't miss what you've never had, son."

Is that so? I think you've missed the point.

12 July 2003

Oh, and the capital of Peru is Lima. Thank you Google. But in this next poem it's the capital of Venezuela (which is Caracas) that I didn't know. Is either accurate? Does it matter? Perhaps I simply needed a few extra syllables in the second poem or maybe a few less in the first? Well, that would be telling.

Borrowed Knowledge

As a child
    I knew I knew everything.
No one believed me
    and over time I
    forgot most of it.

When a man
    I thought I knew many things.
I knew of many things
    and I believed
    the things I knew were mine.

Now, of course,
    I've grown old and it is clear
    to me I knew nothing.
It is the one
    thing that I know for sure.

Two plus two
    is not mine, nor the capital
    of Venezuela,
    nor the reasons
    I'm all alone tonight.

02 October 2007

P.S. I wasn't alone on 2nd October 2007 and we watched Numb3rs, two episodes of Medium and taped Huff to view later.

Monday 2 March 2009

Go Fish



There are only two albums I have ever bought after hearing a single played once on the radio in my car. One was Watermark, by Enya, after hearing 'Orinoco Flow'; the other was Script for a Jester's Tear, by Marillion, after hearing (and this is where my memory fails me) either 'He Knows You Know' or 'Garden Party' whilst driving down the side of Central Station in Glasgow. The former I bought in Ayr as that's where I was headed at the time; as for the latter I parked the car, crossed the street to either HMV or Virgin – they were both side by side at the time – and handed over my hard-earned cash there and then; five minutes later the tape was on and I was off home with the thing up full bung. I actually know of a guy who bought the album purely for Mark Wilkinson's excellent artwork which will feature below. I have since followed the careers of both Enya and Marillion – in particular its larger-than-life lead singer, Fish (he's 6' 5" tall in old money) – and I own every studio album which they have released. Enya's records have become a bit samey over the years but it's okay background music; Fish's output is something else entirely.

Derek William Dick, a.k.a. Fish, born 25th April 1958 in Dalkeith, the lead singer of Marillion between 1981 and 1988 (after they dropped the 'Sil' for fear of being sued by the Tolkien estate) and a solo artist from then on. So, considering the options open to people when you look at his name, how did he end up with the moniker, Fish? I'll let him explain:

[W]hen I was a forestry worker and I was way up in the north of Scotland, I had a traditional little Scottish landlady who was incredibly tight with money. She started charging me extra for baths and stuff, and I was limited to one bath a week. So I used to go in for my bath one night a week, and I'd sit there and keep on running the water, and stay in there for three or four hours. And, because there was one toilet in the house, and her being the traditional tea drinking Scottish landlady, she had to go next door to go to the toilet, which was my revenge. I used to stay in there for ages.

There was a mate of mine who asked, "Are you some sort of fish?" Having a real name like Derrick William Dick, you need a nickname pretty fast in this business. I could never imagine being introduced on stage as, "Derrick Willie Dick on vocals". People still stay, "What's your real name", and I say Derrick William Dick, and they go, "No man, your REAL name." The "Fish" name just kind of stuck. – Spotlight Feature on QSoundLabs, August 2002

Now, let's be up front here. I've never been a great one for remembering lyrics. It's fine when the band's playing but I'd struggle to sing much of Dark Side of the Moon on my own and I can’t think of an album I've ever played more. I mention this because I don't really want to talk about music here. It's my opinion that Fish is one of the greatest unsung songwriters this country has produced. And I'd like to give a few examples to back up that claim.

If you go to his site and read a few of his e-mails to his fans you become aware very quickly that although he has made a living as a singer-songwriter for close to thirty years he has had to work hard to pay his bills at the end of the month. Sure he has his core of die-hard fans but that's not enough to rely on in today's marketplace which is interesting because Marillion's third album reached No.1 in the UK and the song 'Kayleigh' can be found on most compilation disks from that time; it got played to death. The thing is, although they had their fifteen minutes of fame they were never what you'd call a high profile band. I was a fan and yet I've hardly ever seen them on TV; even at the time they did a turn on Top of the Pops and that was about it.

The problem some might suggest is that, a lot like one of the bands they hero-worshipped, Pink Floyd, they weren't a singles band which is unfair because they released a lot of singles. Comparisons with early Genesis and being labelled 'prog rock' – or at best 'neo-prog' – did nothing to help them. Granted Genesis-pre-Phil-Collins was another influence and it's hard to listen to the 17 minute B-side 'Grendel' and not think prog rock – longish song, twiddley keyboards and soaring guitars – and, yes, Misplaced Childhood and Clutching at Straws were 'concept albums’ (which had really become a dirty word by then) but they were also damn good albums too with real tunes with verses and choruses and everything. He's never denied his roots:

Over all the years it's hard to pinpoint individuals but in the early days it was Floyd, Genesis, Yes as well as The Faces, The Who and Zep. Since then a lot more have been added to the broth. – 10 Questions with Fish

One thing Marillion always did, and Fish has continued to do, is include complete lyrics with each of their albums showing their high regard for them. What I'd like to do is go through the first album and highlight a few of the lines that have struck me. They're not great poetry. I think very few songs make great poetry. They're designed to be complemented by music so it's perhaps a little unfair to present them on their own but this is really only an introduction – links to all the songs are provided. Fish is master of using strong melody lines to carry the lyrics, and inflects perfect dynamics - lights and shades - so that every possible meaning is ripped from the words. I'm not going to analyse every song. I simply want to pique people's interest. Incidentally Fish does write poetry I discovered recently but I've never read any.

There are about five books now, the two originals which I don't use anymore, they stopped in about 1987 or so. There is a small blue book with my poems in which was really the main book from Misplaced through Clutching and into Vigil. And then it went onto a big black book and there is a big brown book which have got various bits and pieces in. I have always tried to take one out on the road, to sculpt the notes of it all, but it doesn't work. I don't have the discipline to really keep that one going. – Interview 17th July 1995, The Funny Farm Kitchen

Script for a Jester's Tear


If Script for a Jester's Tear don't move you lyrically, you're one stone cold soldier. – Menswear, Prog Reviewer,

The year is 1983, a few days before Margaret Thatcher wins a landslide victory over to become the first female British prime minister. Punk has devolved into New Wave and Synthpop and the New Romantics are on the rise. The dinosaurs of the progressive rock movement are shells of their former selves (Yes – 'Owner of a Lonely Heart' – I rest my case.) This was the year, driving down Union Street, I first heard Marillion.

The opening track is the title track. It begins with a quiet solo voice accompanied by a Tony Banks-esque piano:

So here I am once more
In the playground of the broken hearts
One more experience, one more entry in a diary, self-penned
Yet another emotional suicide
Overdosed on sentiment and pride
Too late to say I love you
Too late to restage the play
Abandoning the relics in my playground of yesterday

I'm losing on the swings
I'm losing on the roundabouts
I'm losing on the swings
I'm losing on the roundabouts

Too much, too soon, too far to go, too late to play
The game is over, the game is over


Live (including Gabriel-esque makeup)

Complete lyrics


That second stanza, which surprisingly isn't turned into a chorus, is very striking. The old adage is well expressed in the poem 'Roundabouts and Swings' by Patrick Chalmers. Here are the lines after the poet asks the fairground-man what his work is like:

"Said he 'the job's the very spit of what it always were,
'It's bread and bacon mostly when the dog don't catch a hare,
'But looking at it broad, and while it ain't no merchant kings,
'What's lost upon the roundabouts, we pulls up on the swings."

It's a fatalistic philosophy that's helped many people cope assuming that the bad times would be balanced out by the good times. Fish's lyric is pure pessimism but then he was depressed when he wrote it. It struck me quite strongly because I was feeling very negative at the time; life was a no-win situation. I never sat and analysed the lyrics any further. It was those lines I waited for every time I played the piece.

If you insist on drawing comparisons with Genesis then, yes, the album does begin very much like Selling England by the Pound but I'm not sure how helpful comparisons like this are. The songs are not good or bad because they're comparable to Genesis, they're either good or bad songs – full stop. Fish has one of the most unique voices in the business, charismatic, powerful, sentimental and capable of turning on a sixpence from a calm angelic voice, to an angry deranged madman. He can do a decent Peter Gabriel, yes, but I don' think I've heard Gabriel ever be as powerful or in-you-face-aggressive as Fish can be and I've heard a good bit of Gabriel's solo material as well as all his Genesis work.

Like a lot of writers Fish is not big on over-explaining his work. In an e-mail to his fans he said this:

I'm not going to explain all levels as if I was to just unwrap the goods then it would remove (a) the mystique (what there is) and (b) some of the fun in the list. I love the dissections…

E-mail 16th December 1996


The second song was the powerful 'He Knows You Know'. As it happens it's about drugs and that's how Fish used to introduce the song on stage as "The Drug Song". In the video Fish is shown in a straightjacket having visions of a Jackson's Chameleon as featured on the album artwork of Marillion's first three albums. Looking at the lyrics now it's obvious:

Fast feed, crystal fever, swarming through a fractured mind
Chilling needles freeze emotion, the blind shall lead the blind
You've got venom in you stomach, you've got poison in your head
When your conscience whispered, the vein lines stiffened
You were walking with the dead

but it was the chorus that hit me:

He knows, you know, he knows, you know, he knows, you know
But he's got problems


Official Video (yes, the jester's in it)

Complete lyrics


I wrote recently about being an imposter. This was something I have suffered from all my life, beginning with religious guilt, the fact that I didn't seem able to make contact with my spiritual side. I studied and at one time I had a quite respectable knowledge of the scriptures and I could easily quote chapter and verse. I could 'prove' things scripturally but the 'proofs' didn't mean anything to me. I was a fake, a fraud, and no one knew because I was good at putting on a front but if there was a God-with-a-capital-G up there then He would know. The metaphor of drug use hit home with me. I felt that I had venom in my stomach; my conscience nipped away constantly at me; I was as good as dead.

The song though is clearly about addiction and Fish's problems with both alcohol and drugs are well documented. The man in the song ends up "Singing psychedelic praises to the depths of a china bowl..." – certainly a more poetic turn of phrase than "Calling Hughie on the porcelain telephone" but no less pointed. In the sleeve to Misplaced Childhood he wrote:

The touring lifestyle fed my addictions on every level and when the bus dropped me off at my newly acquired house in Albert Street, Aylesbury I found myself very alone and dislocated from all the distractions that had fed my desire to escape commitments, responsibilities and realities.

I reverted to type and the 'White Swan' pub became an annexe to my house.



'The Web' which many cite as their favourite track was the one Fish wrote to get in the band in the first place which is perhaps where the opening line "The rain auditions at my window" comes from; it actually began life as an instrumental. Like a lot of Fish's stuff we find ourselves in a room remembering:

Attempting to discard these clinging memories
I only serve to wallow in our past
I fabricate the weave with my excuses
Its strands I hope and pray shall last
Oh please do last
Oh please do last

In dealing with depression you'd think this would be a track closer to my heart. It also deals again with lost love – Fish has never been that lucky in love – and I've been there too. Who hasn't?


Complete lyrics


'Garden Party' was – one the surface – a lighter piece but with clever lyrics:

Garden party held today
Invites call the debs to play
Social climbers polish ladders
Wayward sons again have fathers
"Hello, dad!" "Hello, dad!"

Edgy eggs and queuing cumbers
Rudely wakened from their slumbers
Time has come again for slaughter
On the lawns by still "Cam" waters
It's a slaughter, it's a slaughter

It's cheeky and irreverent. I loved it. Having a clear verse and chorus made it prime choice for a single and it did well; it is still a track the crowds demand after all these years.

Bear in mind that Fish's roots are working class like mine. It's only to be expected that he would be disdainful of upper class soirees like these and he rips right into them. We also see here appearing another common thread of Fish's writing, a political edge. He grew up in the same Scotland as I did. We're only a year apart in age and so we'll both remember the harsh years of the seventies, Three-Day Weeks, the miners' strike and the subsequent power cuts and lay-offs. Politics was never spoken about in our house but I could see the news and add two and two together. People think it's bad now under Labour but this was the mess when Ted Heath handed the reigns over to Harold Wilson in 1974.


Official Video

Complete lyrics

I'll let Fish tell you about 'Chelsea Monday':

Chelsea Monday was written roundabout January or February this year. The lyric idea was spun by seeing a number of people walking about Chelsea on a very, very early Monday morning. And it was this sort of actors that you don't know their names... And they were going down buying the morning Daily Expresses, it was a ritual, and they were looking at themselves in the window, as if to buy the paper was actually a take, it was part of some formal play they were in. It was also about young ladies, who often, sort of like me, live in their bedsit apartments, and they've got their Marks & Spencer's duvets and their collections of books and things. We put the two ideas together and confirmed that with the dreamers that you often get down in London that think that the paths are actually paved with gold. And we came up with this, again typical Marillion depressive vibe thing, where you've got the girl in the bedsit. She'd love to be an actress, but she's never got the guts to sort of make that jump from standard 9-5 into the great big world of entertainment industry. And rather than face the prospect of failure she decides that she's going to commit suicide and go out in a blaze of fame. It's one of those nice, sad, depressing vibes. – Interview with Mark Kelly, Radio Forth, Scotland, 14th September 1982

I guess he was feeling talkative that day. The song opens:

Catalogue princess, apprentice seductress
Hiding in her cellophane world in glitter town
Awaiting the prince in his white Capri
Dynamic young Tarzan courts the bedsit queen

My dad had a two Ford Capris when I was a kid, a beautiful Consul Capri in the sixties and then the 'classic' Mark 2, in green I'm afraid, not white. For a while it was the in car immediately recognisable on the streets of seventies Britain and as much a part of that decade as kipper ties and flared-trousers! I was a little surprised that the car in Life on Mars was a Ford Cortina and not a Capri. Perhaps that would have been too close to The Professionals.

The very early Marillion does owe some debts to Genesis but lyrically there is a far cry between the abstract lyrics of Genesis and the down-to-earth Marillion. Fish is a Scot and we Scots do not mince our words. He may not want to talk about his work line for line but when he sets his pen in a certain direction it does not miss its mark: lost love, suicide, drug addiction and The Troubles in Northern Ireland are all obvious targets.



Complete lyrics



And this is where the final track ends up, 'Forgotten Sons', a strong finish to the album and a mark of what was to come later with the next album – and especially its title track – Fugazi. The story this time, a guy has lost his girl – perhaps it’s the guy in the first song – he finds himself on the dole and then the next thing the sparkly ads – It's a man's life in the army! – have reeled him in. A taster:

From the dole queue to the regiment a profession in a flash
But remember Monday signings when from door to door you dash
On the news a nation mourns you unknown soldier count the cost
For a second you'll be famous but labelled posthumous

In the introduction to the live version on Reel to Reel Fish says: “This is dedicated to all those who fell on a pavement outside Harrods last Christmas.”
Harrods is an exclusive shop in Knightsbridge, London. On December 17, 1983, an IRA bomb exploded, killing six and wounding many others. That the song is about the Northern Ireland conflict is clear by the line:

You're just another coffin on its way down the emerald aisle

I'll leave you to work out the pun yourselves.

The album is not without its weak points: the otherwise powerful "Forgotten Sons" in which Fish reels off a parody of the Lord's Prayer is probably the low point. Who hasn't tried to lampoon the Lord's Prayer? I certainly have and mine was pretty awful too. It began, "Our father in the radioactive heavens." Nuff said. I'm told the production quality could also be better on the original – the version of 'Forgotten Sons' is supposed to be better on Reel to Reel – but I guess my ear isn't that fine tuned.


Reel to Reel version + homemade video

Complete lyrics


Is this album a masterpiece? D. Q. Ramos from Sintra in Portugal thinks it is. This is part of his Amazon review:

Script for a Jester's Tear is a masterpiece. Don't expect commercial songs here, from the lyrics, to the deep evolving songs, this album is a pearl from beginning to the end.

Would it go on my Desert Island Discs list? Edwin Roosjen from Hoofddorp in The Netherlands thinks it should:

Deserted Island Top Five: Iron Maiden - Live after death, Marillion - Script for a jester's tear, Pink Floyd - Dark side of the moon, Arena - The visitor, Rush - Chronicles

For a debut album it is outstanding on so many levels and, when you read as many reviews as I have to write this essay, there certainly are very few who mark it less than excellent and those who do tend to be people who see the words 'prog rock' and switch off. What is particularly striking are the number of people who make special mention of the lyrics in their comments. A flawed masterpiece then, though it wouldn't be on my Desert Island Discs list because in my humble opinion the group gets better but I'll maybe talk about that another time.

Now, if you've skimmed through this post without clicking on the videos for God's sake go back, do your ears a favour and have a listen to a few. I'd never seen the videos for the two singles before and they're not bad for being very eighties. (And they said the seventies was the generation that fashion forgot.)

Sites also worth a visit:

The Company – The Official Fish Website

Explanations of song elements in Marillion albums – Script for a Jester's Tear (complete album) – Fish group

Complete lyrics


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