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Monday 29 June 2009

The Very Thought of You


The Very Thought of You I swithered when I was first offered this book for review. It looked like it might be sentimental slush. It has one of those tug-at-the-heart-strings covers, a child, lagging behind, staring forlornly back as she heads off into the unknown with her fellow wartime evacuees. It felt contrived. It looked Photoshopped. I was looking for reasons not to like it but I'll come back to the cover later.

I don’t hate love stories; I've never gone out of my way to read one. In fact I had a quick scan of my bookshelves before I began writing this and I couldn't see a single love story there. Not a one.

When I replied I said I'd read the book if it was written from the child's perspective. I was told it was and the book duly arrived a few days later. The girl is certainly a key character but there are large chunks of the book without her. It was also written in the third person – I had hoped for a first person narrative (I've read a few books written from a child's perspective and I've liked them all) – but I'd got the book now, I might as well read the damn thing.

The Very Thought of You is not a love story. It is a story about love. There is a difference. Regarding this the author says:

I began with some shadowy but idealised lovers, and the entire story was so empty and untrue that the exercise felt mechanical. I had to excavate more deeply. Painfully and slowly, I came up with the cast of The Very Thought of You – various emotional cripples and misfits, who struggle to find connections with each other.

Yes, there is a love story at the centre of the book but it is not the novel's only love story. The book deals with two things: loves (of various kinds) and distances (for different reasons). There is a simple short paragraph towards the end of the book that follows a quote from Wordsworth's ode 'Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood' that makes what I think is a key point:

…But there's a tree – of many, one –
A single field which I have looked upon,
Both of them speak of something that is gone…

Perhaps life was one long story of separation, just as Wordsworth had said. From people, from places, from the past you could never quite reach even as you lived it.

There are a variety of loves described in the book: the love between parents and child, between husband and wife, the love of a teacher, for a lover, even the love of a housekeeper for her employer but most importantly, love from a distance. There is no unrequited love that I can think of although the love that is returned is not always what is expected or needed.

The story revolves around the evacuation of children from London to the relative safety of the countryside at the onset of World War II. We follow Anna Sands, an eight year-old, as she leaves her mother, Roberta, to go they know not where. All Anna hopes is that her final destination will be beside the sea:

"Is Leicester at the sea?" she asked a woman with a list of names.

"No, dear, nowhere near the sea."

That settled it. Anna did not want to stop here. She joined the queue for a new train, even through nobody seemed to know where they were going.

She made for a window seat.

"When do we get to the sea?" she asked a patrolling teacher. His eyes were quizzical.

"You mustn't be too disappointed if you don't end up at the seaside," he said. "Anyway, it's too cold for bathing at this time of year." Anna asked no more, but sensed with a sickening heart that she was on the wrong train.

As luck would have it Anna, along with more than eighty other evacuees, is swooped up by the elegant Elizabeth Ashton and bused to her husband's ancestral home, Ashton House.

She is there for a number of years but returns home before the war ends. Despite the fact she'll probably never get to use the bathing costume her mother bought her the day before her departure, Anna realises that she has won a watch ending up here. She writes to her mother:

Dear Mummy, my train went to Ashton Park in Yorkshire. It is huge. We play in the gardens a lot.

The story then suddenly shifts to Warsaw and to Clifford Norton and his wife 'Peter' (after Peter Pan). This was unexpected. But they don't stay in Poland very long. In fact in the next few pages we see them pack up and return to the "strange, corpse-like" city that London has become without the sound of children. The Nortons, who we learn are friends of the Ashtons, appear at the periphery of the main story and are a clever writerly device providing an external eye on the war because they get to go where the Ashtons can't. This could have been done using news reports but it's far more interesting to have a human perspective on things. In the acknowledgements at the end of the book we learn that these were a real life couple; Sir Clifford, as he ended up, was a cousin of the author and it was reading "his letters and dispatches from the Warsaw embassy" that piqued her interest in this period in history.

What I did begin to feel very early into my reading of this book was that it read like a novelisation rather than an original work. The reason I suspect is that Rosie Alison spent years working in television as a director and has learned how to structure a story in a particularly televisual way. (Notice in the quote above how she refers to the book's characters as its "cast".) This is not a criticism, merely an observation. I have watched a lot of TV over the years and it is no bad way to learn a certain kind of storytelling.

While staying at Ashton House young Anna gains some unexpected insight into the relationship between her hosts. The first happens one night when, having wet her bed, she is sneaking down to the laundry room for clean sheets so she won't be embarrassed in the morning. As she steals down the corridor she notices that the Ashton's bedroom door is ajar:

[S]he waited with dread to hear the clack-clack of Mrs Ashton's heels walking towards her. Blood pounded in her eats as she crouched there, still clutching the damp sheet.

No footsteps came near her, but there were sounds, and Anna strained to listen. She could hear an agitated voice – Mrs Ashton, she thought – from the next room, It must be the middle of the night. Didn't they know their door was open?


Though she could only catch snatches of what was being said, she recognised a desperation which frightened her. Mrs Ashton was swearing and choking on foul words at her husband. Violent language she had never heard before. Guttural sounds which chilled her.

She crept away as silently as she could.

Of course the book's omniscient narrator hangs around so we get to find out that what Elizabeth is so angry about is that her period had just arrived, ergo she is not pregnant – yet again.

Looking to the past our narrator informs us that the Ashtons were once pretty much the perfect couple until, during a holiday to Bruges in the summer of 1931, Thomas – Mr Ashton – takes ill:

By the evening, his throat was sorely inflamed, and in the early hours of the morning he lay semi-delirious with fever. A doctor was called to their hotel room, and his expression soon became grave.

"It is polio," he told Elizabeth. "We have an epidemic of it at the moment. You must not drink the water."

He is taken to hospital where he needs a tracheotomy to help him breathe but it is only his wife's insistence and finally intervention that he gets to return to England. Ultimately that saves his life. He recovers but several months in an iron lung take their inevitable toll on him. His legs begin to waste away and despite all his physiotherapist's efforts he winds up wheelchair bound.

Obviously this puts some strain on their marriage and the answer they come up with, like many couples whose marriages are heading towards the rocks, is to have a child to serve as an emotional bridge between them. But, as you've just read, it isn't happening.

bbc building In the midst of all this emotional turmoil Alison shifts our attention to Rosie, Anna's mum, who is also childless – in a metaphorical sense at least. She finds a job at the BBC and through that develops a circle of friends who help bring her out of herself. In time she even acquires a young lover.

Elizabeth too soon finds comfort in the arms of other men. At first they are nameless and faceless. She makes trips to London and comes back a different woman. Her husband is not a stupid man and realises what is going on but decides not to confront her. He throws himself into his teaching and his studies.

In time, however, he finds himself distracted by one of the young teachers, but being your typical stiff-upper-lipped English chappie he keeps those feelings to himself. Our friendly omniscient narrator reveals to us that his feelings are in fact reciprocated. Very much so. The girl, unable to cope with her feelings, decides to leave but right before she does she hands him a letter revealing the depths of her feelings for him. But then she's gone.

You may think by revealing what I have in the last couple of paragraphs I've spoiled the story for you but really these events are just the first tentative strokes. Two more people come into the Ashton's lives that ignite real passion and true love. And, of course, everything ends tragically. In the meantime Anna has to cope with a tragedy of her own which results in another significant encounter with the Ashtons, one that affects the rest of her life.

And then, with 60 pages to go, Anna is plucked from Ashton House and drawn back into life in war torn London. Surely the story had finished. What more needed to be said that required 60 pages? Maybe three or four to tidy things up. But no. We get to see the rest of Anna's life.

The book's prologue ends, a little unexpectedly, with this paragraph:

There is one tree which particularly draws the eye, a glorious ruddy copper beech which stands alone on a small lawn by the rose garden. It was on a bench under this tree that the duty staff recently found an elderly woman sitting alone after closing hours, apparently enjoying the view, On closer inspection she was found to be serenely dead, her fingers locked around a faded love letter.

It's no surprise to learn this is Anna who is drawn back to the house as an old woman. But this is not her only visit as an adult. There is one in the sixties where, as a grownup now, she can talk freely about the things that went on in their respective pasts and the effect it has had on her. The question we have to wait almost to the very end of the book to discover is: what letter is she holding because there are many letters in this book, some of which get delivered and some which do not.

There, if you think I've revealed too much just know that I've really told you very little.

GoBetweenNovel The blurb on the press release informed me that "[a]nyone who loved L. P. Hartley's The Go-Between or Ian McEwan's Atonement will fall for this extraordinary coming-of-age novel". In The Go-Between, Leo is pressurised into passing letters back and forth; in Atonement, Briony is only asked to deliver a single letter, the wrong letter as it happens, but, in The Very Thought of You Anna is merely asked to retrieve letters. All three books are very different but the key element is the same in each of them: the long-term (and to varying degrees detrimental) effects of children being exposed to adult relationships before they can fully grasp what they are witnessing.

But did I enjoy the book? Yes. Apart from one convenient discovery right at the very end of the book nothing felt contrived. Yes, there had to be a plot device to get Anna down the corridor that fateful night and her bed wetting was a perfect choice, much better than having her heading off for a midnight snack in the kitchen; that also would have worked but it would have changed the character of the girl.

Despite the fact that there was not as much of Anna in the book as I might have hoped she was well fleshed out. She too is a plot device if you think about it. She needs to be in certain places at certain times for things to move on but the things that happen to her feel believable. The same goes for all the supporting cast; even the minor characters managed to avoid feeling like cardboard cut-outs.

What I didn't like about the book was that it was a little too neat and clean. Neat in that all i's were dotted and t's crossed. Clean in that if this had been presented as a TV movie I would have been quite happy to watch it with my wife but I'm sure she would have enjoyed it more than me. There is also nothing graphic about the book. There is swearing but no swearing, sex but no sex (no sex to speak of). In American cinematic parlance I'd have to describe it as 'very PG-13'. If Anna had been the narrator I could have understood this but not written in the third person.

I mentioned before that it felt like a novelisation. On the subject of adaptation, Alison had this to say over at Notes from the Underground:

As I look back over Heyday’s list of optioned novels, I wonder what have been the guiding principles behind those choices. When weighing up a novel’s dramatic potential, we look for compelling characters or relationships, an intriguing viewpoint, a powerful drama, and a story which reaches through to a satisfying destination. A distinct world is an advantage, as is a story with an urgent moral or dramatic imperative. Anything too meditative or internal is difficult, as is anything with a profusion of characters dispersed over too many years. Unity of time, place and action help.

If you take the points she raises above and make that a checklist then you could tick off every one when it comes to this book and I would be surprised to find the possibility of turning this into a film never crossed her mind as she was working on it. Heyday is the film company she works for by the way.

This is a well-written book. It's certainly not literary fiction but it is intelligently written with an eye for detail but just enough detail to get the readers' imaginations going. That I appreciate. At 306 pages it's about the right length but if it ever gets filmed I'm sure they'll lose a good 50 pages. We really don't need that history of the Ashton family as interesting as it might be. An audience will tolerate only so much back-story.

In his review of the book, Guy Fraser-Sampson (remember I reviewed his novel Major Benjy a while back) had this to say:

I fancy most men would run a mile from this book if they were to pick it up in a bookshop. When will publishers realise that a good book will sell on its own merits and does not have to be neatly pigeon-holed as "Chick Lit" or "Bloke Lit" or "A woman's book" in order to move off the shelves?

If you read his review you'll see it's very positive. That's two blokes that have enjoyed this novel. And I suspect others would but, and this is the point I made when I reviewed The Sonnets, this book could find a wider audience with a different cover. Why should they decide what I'm going to like?

Alma clearly does think this book is a seller though. According to

Alessandro Gallenzi, publishing director at Alma, said: "I thought I was reading a page from Jane Eyre or The Go-Between". The book is being positioned as Alma's lead title for [this] year. It will be published in trade paperback in June. Gallenzi said the initial print run would be about 10,000.

You can read the first three chapters here and make your own mind up. All I can say is that my wife is now looking to read the thing and that was simply based on the chat I had with her to order my thoughts before I sat down to work on this.


Rosie-Alison-web Born in 1964, Rosie Alison read English at Keble College, Oxford. She is Head of Children's Development at Heyday Films, which is the British production company behind the Harry Potter film series for Warner Bros. Prior to joining Heyday, Rosie had been a documentary producer/director for more than 10 years - working at the LWT arts department, BBC Music & Arts and Talkback Features. Her programme credits have included The South Bank Show, Omnibus, The Lipstick Years and Grand Designs. She has recently co-produced two feature films (The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, just released, and the forthcoming film Is There Anybody There?).

Thursday 25 June 2009

Read me! Read me now!


stumbleupon-128x128 Most of you reading this just now will have your own blog. The odds are you're on Facebook and probably Twitter too. I probably read your blog and the blogs of your friends who probably read my blog and each other's blogs too. And those of you who aren't reading blogs are probably twittering away to each other and writing things on each other's walls. It's all the same names, the same faces, the same avatars. We all gather round our virtual water-coolers and pass the time of day.

Don't you find it all a bit claustrophobic?

So, how do you attract new readers and (hopefully) make new friends? It's a problem we all face. We want to be read. Desperately. We think we have something worth reading but how do we rise to the top of the morass of blogs out there? There are a few ways but they all come under the same umbrella: you get nothing for nothing. It feels about time for a chart. So let's have a chart:


It's a chart showing how many readers I get every day. The total for the month was 3289 so we're talking an average of 110 a day. Not bad. As you'll see some days peak at 200 while others dip down to 50; the highs follow new posts which are back up to two per week and we'll see how long I can keep that up. Let's just review where all those people are coming from:


It makes interesting reading because it shows that 1252 (38%) of my readers are coming to be via searches on Google. Yahoo makes the Top Ten with 66 visits but the rest barely register: Search (6), MSN (6), Ask (5) and Bing (4). Bing is Microsoft's new search engine in case you've never heard of it.

The next biggie is Stumbleupon and for the few seconds it takes me to log the post the return is well worthwhile – 449 visits. I also log every new post with Digg and Reddit but I couldn't see a single click originating from either site. The thing is, Digg has an Arts and Culture sub-heading. I checked, and the most dugg entry for the last year under that sub-heading, with 13902 diggs, was this photo of a wee kid fist bumping the President of the United States.


Yes it's cute. I guess it's even artistic but how is my story about a new translation of Kafka's letter to his dad (which, at time of writing, had one digg) going to compete with that?

We now move onto Entrecard which is made up of three entries totalling 473 visits. One of these is and this puzzled me, especially when I looked because I couldn't see anything pointing to my site. Then I noticed the Entredropper tab. This is a place where you can get a list of sites in batches where you can make quick drops to build up your Entrecard credits. The average time spent on my site from these 229 visits was 23 seconds each. So, although it adds to my stats these are meaningless numbers. I may get fewer hits with Stumbleupon but the quality is higher.

Entrecard, for those of you unfamiliar with it, is a blog advertising network where blog owners can exchange advertising on each others web sites. Like many things on the Web it started out as a good idea (and I've made a few good contacts through it) but in recent months I can see people losing interest. We've all found those sites that interest us and have them in our RSS feedreaders so why bother with Entrecard? The icon isn't hurting me so I'll leave it for just now but my days of resolutely clicking on 300 sites a day to try and attract visitors are long gone.

The other two entries of note are friends of mine, Ani Smith (down in me) and Colin McGuire (A Glaswegian Immaturity) both of whom I mention from time to time on my site and both of whom have links on their sites to mine. And there are lots of others that didn't make the Top Ten.

This is what I do when I put up a new post: I log onto Yahoo Buzz, LitMixx, Post on Fire, Reddit, Stumbleupon and Digg (all of which are community-based news article websites) and leave an entry for my site; I bookmark the site with I submit articles to the Just Write blog carnival and occasionally the Everything worth Reading carnival; if the post is a book review I'll also submit an article to the Book Review blog carnival. I've also started sending out broadcasts to my 'friends' on BlogCatalog. If the post is poetry related I sometimes drop Ron Silliman an e-mail and he very kindly puts up a link on his site.

I go through that for every post I put up and yet still about 40% of my readers come via search engines. It does make one wonder if all the effort is worth it.

Here's a graph that shows all visits that have originated solely through search engines since I started this blog nearly two years ago:


It's a slow but steady climb. And I'd like to see that continue.

Here's one last chart:


This is more comforting. These are figures for people who have clicked on direct links and the amount of time spent on my site. Not surprisingly my post that included the wee video clip of Samuel Beckett talking is the top post and I doubt it'll be toppled although it's gratifying to see just how popular When I was Five I Killed Myself is; it really is a lovely little book. What you have to bear in mind though is that I got 685 visits the day I posted that review and the bulk of them can be attributed to Stumbleupon (464 clicks). I've just discovered a similar site called Dropjack which I'm going to give a go too. It can't hurt.

When you type When I was Five I Killed Myself into Google my review comes up third which is not bad at all considering Amazon is #1. But why does's review come in at #2 with 1771 views? Perhaps it's to do with tags. The tags for their entry are child dark family psychiatric and psychological. The tags for mine are: autism and book review. Would they make that much difference? Or is it simply down the number of hits?

When I first started my blog I read a lot about SEO (search engine optimisation) but the bottom line as far as I can see is that for wee sites like mine this is not an area to become obsessed over and I haven't. Maybe I should take more care choosing titles for my posts and maybe I should use headers more and embolden text and tweak the titles on my pictures but one has to weigh up the pros and cons and I already spend far more time working on my blog than I ever intended.

There have also been a few one-off things that I've done to drive traffic my way like registering with blog catalogues, e.g. (159), (68), (30) and (7). Out of 60,000+ visits that's not a lot but, as the saying goes, it's better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. I just discovered a new one,, and registered with them. It took less than a minute and if I only get one visitor I guess that's worth a minute of my time.

I've had a look to see if there are any niche-based social networking sites specifically dedicated to writing and I couldn't find a one. Well, that's not really true. There are a plethora of sites where you can post bits of your own writing, a chapter or two of your novel, and see if anyone reads the thing. I'm talking about sites like CompletelyNovel or Authonomy where loads of newbie authors wait around to see if they're going to be discovered. (And, yes, if you click on the Authonomy link you'll get my page.) There are loads and loads of people out there who want to be read fighting for the attention of a few readers. At least that's what it feels like to me.

Who goes to a site like Authonomy to find something to read? We already have a superabundance of stuff to read. I don't want to have to go searching for new talent, I want it to come looking for me, metaphorically speaking. I want a cute pop-up like I get with Digg telling me about new books, and plays, about film adaptations of novels; I want to know about writers and their lives, about the things they wrote; if there's a new explanation of The Waste Land out there then I want to know about it. So much stuff must be happening out there that if we don't tell each other about it then it'll pass us by. A good example of that was the recent BBC run of poetry programmes. If Rachel Fox hadn't gone on about them continually – continually in a nice way – then a lot of people would have missed out on them. That's the kind of thing I'd like to see in my pop-up!

To my mind the best kind of advertising is the kind you don't need to go looking for, the poster on the bus shelter or the promotional ad on your Mars Bar or the flyer that floats through your letter box. The last two are especially attention-grabbing because you have the thing in you hand.

So I guess I have two questions although there's much of a muchness about them.

What sites, if any, do you visit to search for literary content?


What efforts have you found successful in promoting your own site?

Oh, and here's a third question:

If you don't have an answer to either of those questions, could you at least do me the favour of stumbling this post? Just click on the icon below. Thank you very much.

Monday 22 June 2009

The Plains

 The Plains Cover AU.jpg

I'm not really a fair dinkum writer. I've stopped short of writing everything I could have written - Gerald Murnane

Widely studied in Australian literature departments in the late seventies and eighties, Gerald Murnane was touted as an important new voice, someone to watch, perhaps even someone with the right credentials to one day snag the country’s second Nobel Prize. Early success never panned out into popular appeal, however, or even international recognition although for some reason he has always been very popular in Sweden where he is regarded as a major writer. In 1999 he won the Patrick White Award, an award given annually to an Australian writer whose work, in the opinion of the Award Committee, has not received adequate recognition. That seemed an understatement as most of his works were out of print by that time.

Jump forward to 2008 and we find Murnane picking up a cheque for $50,000 and an Australia Council Writers Emeritus Award which recognises the achievements of writers over the age of 65 who have made an outstanding contribution to Australian literature and who have created an acclaimed body of work. This year his ninth novel since 1974, Barley Patch, is being published. Might a Nobel Prize by about 2020 be a distinct possibility? We'll have to wait and see. In 2006 Ladbrokes set his odds at 33/1 – surely they must have improved since then.

His lack of commercial success is likely a direct result of his lack of interest in topical material although, like Beckett (who also eschewed topicality in his work), this affords his work a certain timeless quality. In interview on The Book Show, the full transcript of which you can read here, he said:

I call myself a marginal writer. I don't mean this as a disparagement of other writers at all, but I'll just say it in relation to myself; I am not the sort of writer who writes about the things that were yesterday's newspaper headlines. The things I write about tend to be more private matters. Again, the word 'marginal' comes to mind, but in a strange way my concerns have lasted for … as the reissue of [Tamarisk Row] proves, my concerns are still of interest to people, whereas had I written about yesterday's newspaper headlines I might have been old hat and passé by now.

He has always been a determinedly personal writer, fixated on questions of time, memory, and the self. One could say the same of Beckett and that certainly never got in the way of him getting a Nobel Prize. I'm not sure what his fan base was like in Sweden at the time. Needless to say Remembrance of Things Past would be one of Murnane's desert island books.

In the introduction to his Oxford monograph on Gerald Murnane, Imre Salusinszky writes:

Like Blake, Murnane has the courage of his own obsessions, following them through to their conclusions even when those conclusions may be unsettling or distressing for the reader; and his imaginative strength derives from this courage.

I'd like to hone in on the word 'obsessions' here for a minute for Murnane can certainly be described as obsessed on a bad day, preoccupied-to-a-fault perhaps on a good day. Any man who has taken the time to write a history of his bowel movements since the constipated, white-bread forties (admittedly not published) and has taught himself Hungarian without ever intending to visit the country, deserves a second glance. He has also written 50,000 words on "people who might have loved me", maintains a file of "miracles", and a "shame" file that documents the number of times he's put his foot in his mouth. All of this and more fill seven filing cabinets that line two walls of the plain, suburban room where he types, one-fingered, behind drawn curtains. "I am a person who needs to be in control of things," he says, "What you see is extremely neatly organised mess." That "mess" he expects his sons to pass onto a library after his death although he says that any biographer should not hold his breath looking for a file of dark confessions.

Rather than observing the real world, Murnane prefers to imagine what a person like him might find if he ventured out. He has hardly left Melbourne since 1949. He has never been on an aeroplane. He can't understand the workings of the International Date Line. He has no sense of smell and only a rudimentary sense of taste. He has never owned a television set. He has never seen an opera. He has never worn sunglasses. He has never leaned to swim. He cannot understand, nor does he believe in, the theory of evolution. He has never touched any button or switch or working part of any computer or fax or mobile telephone. He has never learned how to operate a camera. Since about 1980 he has never gone into a library except to attend a book launch or similar event. He believes "that a person reveals at least as much when he reports what he cannot do or has never done as when he reports what he has done or wants to do" which is why when he gave a lecture at the University of Newcastle in 2001 – that would be Newcastle, Australia – he included all the above facts about himself. I have no doubt that all are still applicable.

If you were only going to read one book by this author it really ought to be his slim 1982 novel, The Plains, the book in which he attained his mature style:

I admired the plainsmen because from a landscape of very little promise they could get much meaning. I like to think that from an apparently uneventful life I've got a great deal of meaning. – An Obsessive Imagination

The Plains Cover The Plains is a dense story about a filmmaker who spends years researching a film on the seemingly featureless Australian outback and its people. In place of the salt-of-the-earth sheep farmers one might expect to inhabit central Australia the narrator encounters an idealised world filled with aesthetics and intellectuals; wealthy landowners divided into factions idly speculating on metaphysics; I don't believe there's a sheep in the whole book.

The book opens with the following short paragraph:

Twenty years ago, when I first arrived on the plains, I kept my eyes open. I looked for anything in the landscape that seemed to hint at some elaborate meaning behind appearances.

It was his intention to make a film entitled, The Interior, about the outback and its effect on those living there. The title itself turns out to be metaphorical.

Murnane evokes grasslands and prairies, prizing their capacity for abstraction and indefiniteness, but the plains are also those of language, the "Interstitial Plain" that exists only as it posits the potentiality of every other plain, or plane, of existence. – Nicholas Birns, 'Gerald Murnane. The Plains', New Issues

Plainly he has some idea of this before he arrives in the nameless "large town" at the start of the book armed with "folders of notepaper and boxes of cards and an assortment of books with numbered tickets between their pages"; he has clearly done his research – at least he believes that he has.

His first task, though, is to find a patron; to persuade one of the landowners to bankroll his project. This problem he approaches in an oblique way by hanging round the local bars where he jumps on every opportunity to worm his way in with these men. There are clearly unspoken protocols to be adhered to. He begins by telling them he is on a journey, a journey that he has already begun in a far flung corner of the plains that no one has heard of. This was easy enough because "[t]he true extent of the plains had never been agreed on" and "many places far inland were subject to dispute":

I told them a story almost devoid of events or achievements. Outsiders would have made little of it, but the plainsmen understood. It was the kind of story that appealed to their own novelists and dramatists and poets.


The plainsman's heroes, in life and in art, were such as the man who went home every afternoon for thirty years to an unexceptional house with neat lawns and listless shrubs and sat late into the night deciding on the route of a journey that he might have followed for thirty years only to arrive at the place where he sat…

This, with the gift of hindsight, describes not only where we find our unnamed narrator, well down that imaginary road after twenty years living in the plains, but also, it would appear, Murnane himself, perhaps even as far back as 1982.

The great landowners hold audience in an inner room of one of "the labyrinths of saloon bars on the ground floor of the hotel" in which he is staying. He waits his turn. And he waits. And waits. The landowners are nothing less than capricious and when he is finally called we witness the only extended 'conversation' in the entire book. He finds himself in a room with seven landowners who appear in no great rush to interview him. They just sit around drinking and talking amongst themselves until finally one man, identified only as "7th landowner", who up until this point had been lying on a stretcher, gets up and approaches him at the bar at which point all the others stop talking. He senses his opening to present his case and steps to the centre of the bar:

I told them simply that I was preparing the script of a film whose last scenes would be set on the plains. Those same scenes were still not written, and any man present might offer his own property as a location, His paddocks with all their long vistas, his lawns and avenues and fishponds – all these could be the setting for the last act of an original drama. And if the man happened to have a daughter with certain qualifications, then I would be pleased to consult her and even to collaborate with her in preparing my last pages.

The plainsmen prize writing but find film too obviously visible. Most aren't interested but the 7th landowner's interest is piqued (we learn later that he is an enthusiastic amateur photographer) but before offering him a position in his household he points out some of the weaknesses in the filmmaker's pitch:

My proposal suggested that I had overlooked the most obvious qualities of the plains. How did I expect to find so easily what so many others had never found – a visible equivalent of the plains, as though they were mere surfaces reflecting sunlight? … He believed, nevertheless, that I might one day be capable of seeing what was worth seeing … [y]oung and blind as I was…

So the filmmaker moves his things into the man's house but barely leaves his mentor's library. As the years march on and he gets caught up in the prevalent philosophising over the nature of the plains. He begins himself to view them as a metaphor for everything in the lives of its inhabitants and gradually moves farther and father away from being able to make a start on his film. The external plains lose their fascination and he begins to see in the way the landowner hoped he might and explore these inner landscapes. Inner Australia has become a jumping off point, a point of departure, an approach Murnane uses in much of his other writing. Discussing his book of stories, Landscape with Landscape, Xavier Pons makes this observation:

The first story 'Landscape with Freckled Woman', introduces the narrator and his dreams of exploring 'inner space' of 'unfolding' the landscape in order to reach 'the real world' from his vantage point on St Kilda Road in Melbourne. This 'unfolding' implies a merger of spatial and temporal notions, and concerns the mental landscape that Murnane in other contexts refers to as 'the plains'. – Departures, p156

The preservation of history is another important thing to the landowners, "shaping from uneventful days in a flat landscape the substance of myth". He arrives intent on recording aspects of their heritage but in his researches he ends up discovering symbols, stories and parables that lead him down a very different path.

The second section of the book finds the filmmaker ten years down the line and he's still not shot any film. He spends his days in his mentor's library. There he becomes preoccupied with the landowner's wife who also spends some of her day there. Before you jump to the conclusion that we have the potential for an affair I should point out that, although they exchange polite conversation at other times, in this library they don't even acknowledge each other, she spending most of her time in the rooms devoted to Time: "we never spoke, and even when one of us looked across the library the other's eyes were always turned to some page of a text or some page awaiting its text'. For a while the compulsion to communicate something to her distracts him but it passes.

It's not giving away anything to tell you that he never makes his film. His life becomes completely occupied with doing research for it and even after twenty years the landowner shows no signs of tuffing him out on his ear. His hope is that his young protégé will finally get to see the invisible. Nicholas Birns, who I quoted above, says this far better than I can:

That is the presiding trope of the plains - the search for a meaning beyond the visible, the projection of the given onto an indiscernible horizon. This quest may be in vain, or it may actually have an object, albeit occluded and remote. As much as this search beyond visibility is mocked, Murnane's incantatory tones simultaneously privilege it.

The plains have been mapped in previous centuries. This is referred to as the Golden Age of Exploration. The events in this book take place in the Second Great Age of Exploration. The plainsmen now employ writers and artists whose remit it is to interpret the plains and to find new ways of understanding and inscribing this vast physical space.

In his paper, The photographic eye: the camera in recent Australian fiction, Paul Genoni explains how in the book's third and final section the filmmaker's patron gently redirects his interest from moving to still images leading him to a final metaphysical moment:

With his project in disarray, the film-maker is eventually prevailed upon by his patron to take up a camera, and to search for the essence of the Plains within ‘that darkness’. The patron in turn insists upon photographing the film-maker in the act of taking a photograph. But in this carefully composed tableau vivant, with which the novel concludes, the film-maker is posed with his camera reversed, with his eye not at the viewfinder but at the lens. He is photographed in the act of photographing his own eye, or indeed what lies behind it. He is about, ‘to expose to the film in its dark chamber the darkness that was the only visible sign of whatever I saw beyond myself’.

That is, the film-maker is caught in the act of photographing what it is that is entirely personal to him, Time. His project has collapsed in the knowledge that he cannot complete a project based on the unification of space around the common notion of place, because the unique element of Inner Australia is discovered to be Time, the Opposite Plain. This solipsistic and isolated gaze of the explorer of the Second Great Age of Exploration is the antithesis of the empire expanding gaze of the explorers who drew the maps in the Golden Age of Exploration.

The book is also not an easy read and reminds me of parts of Beckett's trilogy. I was pleased to see that it wasn't just me that sees the Beckett connection:

Imre Salusinszky's essay on Gerald Murnane bubbles with an enthusiasm which almost convinced me that I have underestimated the writer. He reads Murnane as a philosophical writer, placing him in a tradition stretching from Dostoevsky through Sartre and Beckett to Robbe-Grillet and Paul Auster. Undaunted by the resonance of big names, Salusinszky goes on to link Murnane's name with a range of philosophers, focussing principally on Derrida. Murnane's fiction is 'an adventure of consciousness', an exploration of human isolation in the face of a reality composed of ultimately unknowable structures. – Susan Lever, 'The cult of the author', Australian Literary Studies, Oct 93

What I find amusing is that Murnane himself in his essay, 'The Breathing Author', which is an edited version of the Newcastle lecture I mentioned earlier, explains that when he studies philosophy at the University of Melbourne in 1966, after handing in his first essay, his tutor took him aside and told him that he had failed to grasp even the basics of the subject. Despite this handicap he managed to obtain a second-class honours in Philosophy One purely by being able to recall passages from books and comments made on them by his tutors.

He does hold one piece of philosophy dear and which has served as a source of inspiration: "that everything exists in a state of potentiality; that is to say, anything can be said to have a possible existence". He explains:

A thing exists for me if I can see it in my mind, and a thing has meaning for me if I can see it in my mind as being connected to some other thing or things in my mind.

In my view, the thing we commonly call the real world is surrounded by a vast and possibly infinite landscape which is invisible to these eyes (points to eyes) but which I am able to apprehend by other means. The more I tell you about this landscape, the more inclined you might be to call it my mind. I myself call it my mind for sake of convenience. For me, however, it is not just my mind but the only mind.

That quote could slip seamlessly into The Plains and you wouldn't notice it. Clearly there is a lot of Murnane in the book and I doubt he would deny it.

The Plains is a strange book. Murnane is happy with the description 'fable' but whatever you want to label it this is certainly not a book to be taken literally. Very little happens over a long period of time but, when it does, Murnane doesn't dwell on it preferring to focus on the spaces in between. We discover almost nothing about any of the characters, in fact, huge chunks of what is a very slim volume, are devoted to outlining the history-come-mythology of this peculiar society; this is Australia but it is not Australia.

It is certainly not a book to read when tired. The subject matter aside, he writes in long sentences and doesn't make his points quickly. "One of my greatest pleasures as a writer of prose fiction," he writes, "has been to discover the endlessly varying shapes that a sentence may take." This book will not appeal to everyone. Many will not be able to finish it (it took me two goes) and even when they do finish it they'll wonder what it was all about. And that's fine. The book's protagonist finds himself in much the same situation trying to come to "see" the plains. In fairness the book does what I am sure he set out to do, to convey the inexplicableness of the plains and the mindset that comes from living there and in that respect it succeeds admirably. I would have no problem reading anything else by him.


Murnane was born in Coburg, Melbourne, in 1939 and has almost never left the state of Victoria. Parts of his childhood were spent in Bendigo and the Western District.

He briefly trained for the Roman Catholic priesthood in 1957 but abandoned this path, instead becoming a teacher in primary schools (from 1960 to 1968), and at the Victoria Racing Club's Apprentice Jockeys' School. He received a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Melbourne in 1969 and then worked in the Victorian Education Department until 1973. From 1980 he began to teach creative writing at various tertiary institutions.

In 1969 Murnane moved to the Melbourne suburb of Macleod, where he has lived ever since.

He married in 1966 and has three sons.




Recommended further reading:

Karin Hansson, Gerald Murnane's Changing Geographies

Paolo Bartolini, Triptychal Fiction: re-interpreting Murnane's work from The Plains to Emerald Blue

Sue Gillett, Gerald Murnane's "The Plains": a Convenient Source of Metaphors


This is an extended version of the review that originally appeared on the Canongate site.

Thursday 18 June 2009

What does a poem do?


164-skeleton-with-skull-q90-315x500 If you'd like to take a moment to have a look over at Writers' Bloc you'll find a nice set of 5 poems that's I'd like you to have a look at and then I've a few words to say about them. The link will open in a new window.

For a very long time I have been preoccupied with what a poem is. I'm not talking about the multifarious and contrary opinions of what makes a poem a poem. I'm talking about fundamentals. All music is made up of rhythm and melody and usually harmony. Go back a step and you can reduce music to pure sound, sound organised in time if you want to be pedantic.

So, what happens when you apply that same kind of logic to poetry? When you peek behind the words, what do you see?


Something to Think About

Can a poem, for example, contain no poetry? That is the question I ask in 'Something to Think About'. What happens when you strip away all the rhymes (internal and external), the metaphors, the similes, the onomatopoeia, the alliteration and the everything-that-most-people-associate-with-poetry? What attracted me to Larkin's poem 'Mr. Bleaney' was the fact that it was just about the most barren thing I have ever read. Even its rhymes were arranged so that if you read the piece properly you missed out on most of them. And yet it was still a poem. Why? Why was it a poem?

The bottom line had to be that a poem was more than an amalgam of technique and form.

'Something to Think About' is a poem about thought. And poems are things to be thought about, not merely read. Every poem contains a poet's thoughts. That is all they contain. And what does the reader do? He thinks about them.

What I'm saying is that poetry at its core is a way of thinking. That's what I was on about in my poem 'Changeling':

Turning fourteen I started
thinking poetry.

At the time I never really considered what I meant by "thinking poetry". It was such a part of me that it was the expression made total sense and it still does. I had to lose that ability to appreciate it though. It's not as weird as it sounds. I simply find I can tune into the poetic possibilities of what's going on around. As the words pass through my head they sound like bits of poems, opening lines mainly, as if I'm testing out everything I experience to see if there's a poem in it. Most of the time there isn't.


A Thoughtful Poem

The idea of poetry as pure thought is developed further in 'A Thoughtful Poem' which states its purpose explicitly in its opening stanza:

The purpose
of this poem is to make you think.

It is completely up front with the reader. It is related to an earlier poem called 'Reader, Pleaser Supply Meaning' because I believe very strongly that meaning is the remit of the reader. A poet provides an environment, a framework of words, for the reader to use to hang a meaning on and that is it.

But where does the meaning come from? It comes from the only place it can come from, your life. If you have no knowledge of or experience with a subject then you will not be in a position to fully grasp what's going on. You need to go away and acquire the necessary knowledge before you proceed to the next level. The poem itself may provide that knowledge but you have to process it for it to work.

Do poems go off? People I find, and I include myself here, tend to go for new things. If I see a list of books by an author I'm always drawn to the most recent one. The same goes for a poetry magazine; I veer towards the wordsworth latest issue. Why? True some poems do date but it takes years; many years. Wordsworth's poetry hasn't gone bad but it has dated; it is no longer as accessible to an audience as it once was.

In this particular poem the point I'm making about additives and preservatives is that once you open up a poem it's no longer new; it affects you, it changes you. I'm talking about the immediacy of reading a poem for the first time. There's just you, alone with the poem. It's one of those moments that you can't get back. And so, I, the poet, leave the two of you together to take as long as you like. If you go back to it later it won't be the same. That's what I was on about in my poem 'Sons' where the poem says:

"What sex am I?"
the poem asked.

"You are a boy."

"Then there is life in me.
I shall go and sleep
with a virgin mind."

A poem is a catalyst, which, according to The American Heritage Dictionary is, "One that precipitates a process or event, especially without being involved in or changed by the consequences." – italics mine.

This is what I was getting at in 'Mirror, Mirror':

(Because poems are whores;
they become what you want,
but there's always a price.)

A poem never changes. The words remain the same. No matter how many people read it, no matter how many different meanings they impose on it, a poem never changes. You do. No one has no reaction to a poem. No matter what they think they will have been affected. Just like an infection though some will shrug its effect off. Others will find their lives changes forever.


The Skeleton of a Poem

Beckett worked with sounds before anything else. If something doesn't sound right then it probably isn't right. A poem needs to flow in a way that prose does not. 'The Skeleton of a Poem' reduces a poem to its most basic elements. There are no proper words asking that you ascribe them with meaning. There are just 'das' and 'DUMs' and that's about it. This is a real poem – I forget which one – stripped down so that all you have is the sound and the rhythm. It is not without meaning because now you'll look at every poem you read and realise that underneath all the cleverness there is a skeleton that is essential of the poem will have to shape and shape is fundamental if you are to attribute any meaning to it.

When you hold a poem in you hand the first thing to feel for is its skeleton, its bone structure. You look for iambs and trochees. In accentual-syllabic verse we could describe an iamb as a foot that goes like this: da DUM. There are others and you can see a whole list in this Wikipedia entry.

If we look at the first stanza of this poem:

da DUM

what we're presented with is a wee bit on the odd side. No nice iambic pentameters here, oh no. What we have is:

bacchius / spondee
spondee / iamb

in fact I toyed with the idea if a set of poems showing parts of speech and metrical feet but this one poem gets the basic idea over well enough. Visual poems aside you cannot have a poem without these. Indeed that could be an argument against visual poems being 'poems' but that's an issue for another time.


The Lowest Common Denominator

What does a poem do? What is the first thing it does? Take everything else away and what are you left with? It occupies time and space.

The function of
this poem is
to use up time.
There is no more.

This is the point to 'The Lowest Common Denominator'. The very least that anyone will do when reading a poem is use up time. Whether that 400px-P_fraction.svg becomes a waste of time depends on the individual. So I decided to write a poem that only set out to do that.

It admits up front what its function is. It does so mechanically, like a pre-recorded message. You could leave after the first stanza. You stay of your own free will. You have lost your time; the poem has it now and there are no refunds. You cannot appeal to a higher authority. You cannot ring me up and say, "Jim, could you change your poem so it does something else?" because that is all it was designed to do. Sorry.

The poem is a direct response to people who, after reading a poem or a story or interacting with any art form, come out with something like, "Well, that was a total waste of time." They annoy the hell out of me. Art requires time. Even more, it demands it. Before you get down to liking it or not liking it you have to be prepared to devote time to it. How much is up to you. As I walk around an art gallery I'll glance at every painting there but they do not all get the same amount of time. Some never get a second look. I make that call.

Think about that verb for a moment: devote. I chose it carefully. It has religious connotations, true, but the point I wanted to make was that poetry requires time specifically set aside for its appreciation. You can't have a poetry tape playing in the background while you work on your computer the way you can with music; there's no such a thing as background-poetry. Devotion also suggests zeal. You need to approach poetry with the right mindset. You need to be receptive, open.


Second Draft

The last poem, 'Second Draft', is related to 'A Thoughtful Poem' in that it is also concerned with the ageing process: how poems go off. This is more from a writer's perspective than a reader's I have to say. I look at some of my older poems and I want to take a hatchet to them. I don't of course. They were as good as I could do at the time and they also reflect my mindset when I wrote them. I would tackle the subjects in completely different ways now. It's also a comment on youthful poetry in general. When I see a lot of poems online I just know they're by newbies because they go on and on and on. Mine certainly did.

As I get older I find that I have less that really needs to be said and need less words to say it. I know what you're thinking: Christ, Jim, how can you say that when you look at the length of your posts? and you're quite churchill right. I offer in my defence Winston Churchill. An anecdote my dad was fond of telling concerned how much time Churchill needed before giving a speech:

Winston Churchill is said to have replied, "Two hours," when asked how long he needed to prepare a two-minute speech. When asked how long he needed to prepare a two-hour speech, he said, "I'm ready now." - The Confident Speaker by Harrison Monarth, Larina Kase, p 210

And I'm the same. I've set myself a goal of two posts a week and so I don't have the time to whittle them down to the bare essentials. My poems are a different matter entirely.

I had in mind Beckett's final poem, written on his deathbed, 'What is the Word?' when I wrote this poem. I find the image a very striking one, a dying man searching for that one last word that will give his life meaning. I suspect the word Beckett would have settled on actually would have been 'folly' because he was nothing less than disparaging of his own efforts.

But what are you really trying to say? I've had people ask that. Usually, being Scots, all I get is: Ah don get it. And that's when I know I've usually said too much. Basil Bunting, in his advice to young poets included this section:

Put your poem away till you forget it, then:

6. Cut out every word you dare.
7. Do it again a week later, and again.

It's good advice. I put it this way: Say what you have to say and get off the page.

I think I have done.

So, I'll go.


Monday 15 June 2009

The Sonnets

The Sonnets cover I have a problem with Shakespeare's sonnets – I don't understand them and I'm sure I'm not alone. When I do look at them other than the odd line or two that has passed into cliché (e.g. Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?) means anything to me. They were never covered at school. At least I can't remember them being covered. If any were then it would most likely be Sonnet 18 from which the line I've just quoted comes. I always thought it was a love poem. By that I mean I thought it was a poem expressing romantic love. And I naturally assumed that the poet is addressing a woman, perhaps the Dark Lady whoever she was even though she is not explicitly mentioned.

Nope. It's a poem about two blokes.

Okay, so are we saying that Shakespeare was gay? Certainly there are those who have argued that he was at least bisexual but that's not the kind of love we're talking about here. This poem we're being told these days is about platonic love. Or maybe not. Homosexuals – not that the word even existed in Shakespeare's day – cannot procreate, not in a biological sense, but they can produce something jointly that will last. This poem is an example of that. The final line reads: So long lives this, and this gives life to thee. In other words this poem required two things to come into existence, the ability of the poet and the beauty of its subject, be that a male or a female.

What is interesting is that this follows the seventeen procreation sonnets so called because they all argue that the young man to whom they are addressed should marry and father children. In the eighteenth sonnet the notion of producing a child is set firmly in the realm of metaphor.

So, who is the subject of this poem? We do not know for sure but there are two main candidates for the position. Most believe it was either Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton or William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke. If the latter, it has been suggested that the seventeen sonnets correspond in number to Herbert's age at the time.

wriothesley_southampton In his novel The Sonnets, author Warwick Collins opts for Wriothesley, who just happens to have been a patron of Shakespeare. (Wriothesley apparently is pronounced "Risly" You've gotta love the English language haven't you?) There are 154 sonnets in total and the bulk of them, 126 in total, are addressed to this young man, the first of three characters that appear in these poems, the Fair Youth.

Collins then sets himself a task: to try and extract a plot from these sonnets that would in fact revolve around the time when he believes they would have been written. He clearly also aimed to be as accurate as possible and, after doing a bit of research myself, I find that he has been. Of course he has had to make certain choices along the way but on the whole he has made those choices from the available facts or most commonly accepted theories.

So, we've established that he's decided the young man is Henry Wriothesley. Fine. Why then would Shakespeare a) be writing him sonnets in the first place and b) be encouraging him to get married? The answers are simple. In 1592 due to the prevalence of the bubonic plague all London theatres were closed thus leaving a lot of out of work actors. What did Shakespeare do at this time? Collins suggests that he was taken in by Wriothesley and stayed with him until the ban was lifted in 1594. During that time he occupied himself working on two plays, Richard III and Love's Labours Lost and writing his collection of sonnets. The fact is that we do not know exactly when the sonnets were written – this period in Shakespeare's life is part of his "lost years" – but Collins' plot makes sense historically. If he was living with his patron one would expect him to sing for his supper. That covers point a).

To answer b) we need to know a bit about Wriothesley. Henry Wriothesley succeeded to his father’s earldom in 1581 and became a royal ward under the care of Lord Burghley, probably Queen Elizabeth's most trusted advisor. Educated at the University of Cambridge and at Gray’s Inn, London, he was 17 years old when he was presented at court, where he was favoured by Queen Elizabeth I. If the sonnets were indeed addressed to Southampton, the earlier ones urging marriage upon him must have been written before the beginning (1595) of his relationship with Elizabeth Vernon, cousin of the Earl of Essex, which ended in 1598 with a hasty marriage that brought down Queen Elizabeth's anger on both the contracting parties, who spent some time in the Fleet prison in consequence.

But this still doesn't answer why Shakespeare was putting pressure on his patron. What was the big deal? He was a young man and so surely there was no rush. Well, there was no great rush but it does seem to have mattered who he married. I mentioned that he was a royal ward; well one of the chief rights of guardians was to nominate who they might marry. In Wriothesley's case he was commanded to marry Burghley's own granddaughter, Lady Elizabeth de Vere. If he refused then he would be fined the crippling sum of £5000 which, in 1594, when he came of age (that would be twenty-one), he duly paid.

1594 is after this book ends though so let's not get ahead of ourselves. You might well imagine the pressure his family would be putting on this young man to do the right thing. Well, you'd be wrong. They wrote poems at him, at least they – and by 'they' I mean his mother – commissioned Shakespeare to produce a number of sonnets encouraging her son to marry. These were obviously very different times.

There is also another issue here. Wriothesley's mother, the Countess, was a Catholic, from one of the most illustrious and leading Catholic families in England; the queen, Elizabeth, was a Protestant and religion was a big deal in the 16th century. So there's a whole religious undercurrent to this story that Collins barely touches on but I suspect this is for good reason, the boy is nineteen and his passions are being directed elsewhere.

The book opens with the narrator, Shakespeare himself, standing on the bank of a lake watching his patron take an early morning swim. After a short dip he calls out:

"Will you not swim, Master Shakespeare?"

I did not answer.

"Come, gentle man," he sang out. "Swim with me."

I, the nominative, smiled to myself and answered, "I prefer to keep a watch, my lord!"

"Come," he repeated. "The animals will not run far. If they do, we'll catch 'em."

Alas, he thought my concern was with the horses. Around us lay an unsettled land, the woods had spies in them, and there were those whose loyalty was to the other great families – a number of whom did not wish him well. Yet he regarded himself an invulnerable. If I were not here, he would have let the horses wander and have happily chased them for a morning, naked and alone, without a thought for himself or for those who might see him in a state of nature.

Out on the lake my lord still swam. Now he turned and sang out to me in his clear, melodious voice, "Come, live with me, and be my love, and we will all the pleasures prove."

I observed him laugh at his own joke – knowing that he quoted Christopher Marlowe at me, and aware that it fretted at my profession of poet and incited my jealousy. He enjoyed reminding me that our great Marlowe also vied for his patronage. Perhaps, too, he relished the suggestion that Marlowe would be more responsive than I to his playful overtures.

Marlow There is some evidence that Marlowe was making erotic advances to the Earl targeting him in his poem 'Hero and Leander' but the evidence as to whether Marlowe was a practicing homosexual is slim; to those who want him to be he is. What he is though is the second character from The Sonnets, the Rival Poet; poems 77 – 86 refer to him. Other people have been put forth but Marlowe is the forerunner by a long shot.

So the book introduces us to a scene heavy with homo-erotic tension and it's not until page 30 where Collins lets Shakespeare makes it clear how he feels about his lord:

With a clean page before me, I began by praising my master's beauty as though he were my beloved mistress, at the same time asserting that my love was not physical, but spiritual.

So why is this young man not marrying? The subtext suggests that he is at the very least ambivalent about his sexuality. The sonnet that Shakespeare pens straight after these lines is Sonnet 20. In his analysis of the poem, Nigel Davis, has this to say:

[T[he poet here unequivocally states that the subject being made into a man removes any sexual dimension to their relationship and that he is "pricked out" specifically and exclusively for "womens' pleasure": the natural sentiments of a heterosexual man and the complete opposite of what you would expect from a homosexual man. Perhaps the author stating unequivocally that there is no prospect of sexual intimacy between the two of them is prompted by the subject being bisexual, if not homosexual. That the subject has needed so much prompting in the first 17 sonnets to get married and father children strongly supports this notion.

So why did Shakespeare continue to write what read like love poems to this man? G.B. Harrison, who edited the New York edition of Shakespeare: The Complete Works, observed: "It was a common belief in Shakespeare's time that the love of a man for his friend, especially his 'sworn brother,' was stronger and nobler than the love of man for woman". Okay, that makes sense.

Things change overnight however with the introduction of the third character from The Sonnets, the Dark Lady.

Now, whereas there's not much argument to be had about who the first two characters might be, there have been so many women put forth as the Dark Lady. Some thought she might be the Countess of Pembroke, Sir Philip Sidney's brilliant sister. George Bernard Shaw proposed she was one of Elizabeth I's ladies-in-waiting, Mary Fitton, and even wrote his own play about her. Penelope Rich - the most powerful courtesan of her day and the first cousin of Queen Elizabeth I - was another suggestion as has been the queen herself. Another theory was that she was the landlady of an Oxford inn and the mother of Shakespeare's supposed illegitimate son, Henry Davenant. She might have been Shakespeare's London landlady, the delightfully named Marie Mountjoy, or the black prostitute Luce Morgan, the "Abbess of Clerkenwell".

EmiliaBassanoBut in the 1970s, having studied the papers of the court apothecary and astrologer Simon Forman, the historian A L Rowse came up with the name of Emilia Bassano, daughter of a court musician and wife of another, Alphonse Lanier. Now this woman does appear in Collins' book and for a while he leads us down the garden path.

Emilia enters the plot in chapter 11. While in conversation with the Countess Shakespeare notices a small retinue in the courtyard and a dark-haired woman catches his eye:

"Who is the lady, madam?" I asked.

"Why, Master Shakespeare, I believe you are smitten."

Sensing her amusement, I replied, "You forbid my further interest?"

"An Italian whore," she said, "since you ask."

I added, as lightly as I could, "Handsome, even so."

It transpires that she is actually married to Lord Hudson, who has been Shakespeare's patron in the past and would be again in part due to Emilia's showing him a copy of The Taming of the Shrew but she does not have designs on Shakespeare, in fact, when he makes advances to her she bites his hand and soon thereafter disappears from the plot and leaves the position of the Dark Lady up for grabs.

Shakespeare is not the only guest his patron has staying with him.

There was another presence in that great house, one who hardly stirred from his rooms because of his labours, whose wife and several children I had seen mostly at a distance.

John_Florio This turns out to be John Florio, an Italian scholar, an accomplished linguist and lexicographer, who, history records, was a great influence on Shakespeare. I'm sure it's a contrivance on Collins' part to have him in the house at the same time as Shakespeare (although it's historically accurate that he did live with the Earl for some years) but his presence there although enabling Shakespeare access to his personal library also provides the identity of the real Dark Lady, at least who Collins has decided the Dark Lady is going to be, Florio's first wife, Lucia, "a handsome dark-haired woman … in her middle twenties" with whom Shakespeare begins an affair. And then things get a little complicated.

I said the book was well-researched and so the fact that Florio is actually a spy comes as no great surprise. It has been suggested that Florio was employed by the efficient Elizabethan spy system under Sir Francis Walsingham because of his linguistic abilities but here Collins assigns him the role of plant and places him in the employ of Lord Burghley to a) provide added pressure on Wriothesley to marry and b) to report matters of interest back to him. Fortunately for all those involved, employing as spy a man who spends his every waking moment it seems huddled over his books was probably not the best decision Burghley ever made. But it does make things interesting.

Let me be clear, this book is not great literature and Collins is certainly no Shakespeare even when he tries his hand at writing a couple of sonnets in the Shakespearian style. As a work of fiction it's a great textbook though. This book does not pretend to present a factual account of the writing of The Sonnets but it does provide a plausible account within a framework of facts that can be agreed upon. Remember we're talking about the "lost years" here. No one knows for sure what went on and it's not as if Shakespeare sat down and wrote his memoirs before he died to put the record straight. In the books afterword Collins has this to say for himself:

Anyone who attempts to write on the subject of Shakespeare's sonnets approaches these great and mysterious works with considerable trepidation.

My own chief interest in writing The Sonnets was not so much to attempt to explore the social or physical world in which Shakespeare lived, as the landscape of his mind – the mind that produced his unprecedented body of work and which is, to some extent, revealed to us most directly in the poems themselves.

Given this background, it seemed to me that my approach should be to attempt to create a narrative frame for as many of Shakespeare's sonnets as could reasonably be incorporated (eventually some thirty-two poems were used) and to allow those sonnets – each reproduced in full – a leading role in creating that 'colour'.

And, for the most part, he succeeds. We see a day's events unfold and there's our Bard-to-be scribbling away in the night:

I burnt my nightly hours as he inferred, confined to my small room, bent over my formal rhythms, counting the beats on my fingers, feeling for the thread of sense which would hold together the discreet observations and soaring praises they would contain.

Okay, it's a little clichéd but it never tips over into caricature. And, again for the most part, things are played straight-faced. The only time Collins lets his guard slip is when – and anyone who watches the TV show Smallville will know exactly what I'm talking about – he slips in a quote (or misquote) to amuse his audience:

"Play on, madam," I said, remembering a line on which I had been working, feeling for the scansion in some recess of my memory. "If love be the food of music," I said, "play on." That didn't sound quite right. I resolved to work upon it.

By his third attempt, I think, he gets it right. That kind of thing worked fine in the Doctor Who episode The Shakespeare Code but it felt like a cheap shot here. He doesn't milk it and I have to say had I been writing the book I would have found them hard to resist, too.

SWF_Shakespeare_In_Love The question has to be asked: Will this book encourage people to want to discover more about Shakespeare? I don't know. Did the country's theatres suddenly find themselves playing to packed houses after Shakespeare in Love was aired? I don't know. Certainly the film makes no pretence at consistent historical authenticity and that is not something that can be said about this book.

It's a novel. It can be read as pure entertainment. It can be read in a couple of hours. The story is not complex and the characters are only as deep as they need to be. I didn't find this a problem. Indeed it's very Shakespearean – and here I'm thinking about his plays – which don't burden us with loads of exposition and yet manage to suggest wars going on just off-stage and we buy into it.

Despite being 250 pages in length I'm sure if a word-count was done this would only be a novella – there is a lot of white space in this book. And I think that's why I found the book an easy read, it was well spaced-out and I didn't find myself going cross-eyed as I struggled to keep my place on the page. That is an important thing to me these days.

I didn't like the cover. There's nothing wrong with the cover. It's competently done with the title nicely embossed but it would sit quite happily on a table full of bodice-rippers and not look out of place. And I expect that's where a lot of booksellers who simply don't have the time to peruse every book they're intending on selling will put it. Which will mean only a certain demographic will buy it. I would never have given it a second glance myself. I only considered reading it because an unsolicited review copy arrived one day. And, much to my surprise, I actually found I enjoyed it.

Marketing is a strange science at the best of time. And this is a strange book. It's not a literary novel but it delves into literary things. Not as deeply as I might have liked but enough to show people that there is much more to The Sonnet than a bunch of dated love poems.

If you have any interest at all in The Sonnets then this is a fine place to start your investigations.

Needless to say there are sites aplenty online that you can access with information on Shakespeare, many of which provide analyses of the sonnets. I would draw your attention particularly to: - the timeline is very helpful

Shakespeare Online - contains paraphrases and analyses. There is also a section on Was Shakespeare homosexual? which mentions The Sonnets specifically.

The Place 2 Be: three essays trying to identify the Young Man, the Rival Poet and the Dark Lady.


warwick Warwick Collins is British novelist, screenwriter, and yacht designer. His first poems were published in the magazine Encounter during his early twenties. He has published eight novels, including The Rationalist, Gents and The Marriage of Souls. Gents, recently republished after 10 years, was widely reviewed as a literary classic. He maintains a blog which he updates rarely. More detailed information about him can be obtained from Wikipedia.

The Sonnets is published by HarperCollins under The Friday Project imprint. The Friday Project which was originally an independent publisher notable for being the only print publisher wholly concerned with finding material on the web and then turning it into traditional books. Following poor Christmas sales in 2007 it went into liquidation in March 2008. In May of that year HarperCollins bought certain assets of the company from its administrator and subsequently released this paperback in April 2009.

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