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Monday, 31 May 2010

Timoleon Vieta Come Home

timoleon_new_jacket Timoleon Vieta Come Home is an odd book. It is the fourth book by Dan Rhodes that I’ve read and so I was expecting an odd book. Expectations are dangerous things and personally I’m thinking of giving them up. I’ve clearly not got the hang of them. Does this mean that Timoleon Vieta Come Home was a disappointment? No, far from it. And I can see elements of his previous work in this book – it’s definitely a Dan Rhodes book and people who have read his other stuff would do well to consider reading it – but it wasn’t what I expected. I expected a novel – it’s billed as his first novel – but what I got was half a novel and a collection of short stories. That I didn’t expect. It’s certainly a novel approach to telling a story.

The book opens with a quote from Lassie Come-Home by Eric Knight:

...dogs are owned by men and men are bludgeoned by fate.

It is an appropriate quote. Timoleon Vieta is no Lassie however:

Timoleon Vieta was the finest breed of dog. He was a mongrel.

The self-conscious preening, superior airs and inbred neuroses of the pedigree were not for him. His heritage was clearly such a mess that any attempt to untangle it could only be a futile exercise. Even so, its very mystery had served to revive a few flagging conversations as people scrutinised him and saw beauceron in his coat, a touch of Swedish Vallhund in his outsized ears, something Nordic in the slight curl of his tail, pinscher in his gait, or sloth in the way he so often lay on the ground or in the armchair he had made his own. But really there was nothing much to go on, and nothing pure to save.

So opens the novel and that’s as much as the first page has to say. The second describes the dog – “black with occasional spots of white and tan” – and takes a guess at his age, seven, or thereabouts. The only thing that distinguished him from any of the local strays was that he clearly had an owner who doted on him and his “eyes were as pretty as a girl’s.”

So ends the opening chapter and potential readers of the book will have been unlikely to have read further. They, dog lovers especially, will have assumed this was going to be a heart-warming tale of a dog that falls on hard times but rises to the challenge and everything works out well for him in the end, a kind of canine Oliver Twist perhaps. And, if this was the first book by Dan Rhodes that they had read one might forgive that supposition but this is Dan Rhodes we’re talking about here and he doesn’t write books like that.

When I wrote this review there were 47 reviews on the Amazon website and their palindromic arrangement really says everything:

5 star – 14

4 star – 7

3 star – 5

2 star – 7

1 star - 14

A sample then:

I have never thrown a book away before, but don't want to be responsible for anyone else feeling fondly for the dog and then enduring his end – penfold

It is one of the most beautiful tales ever written about unconditional love and the essence of being. – universe1763

Penfold was not the only person to consign this book to the bin. Lynda Kelly did the same: “[I]t went in the bin because in no way was I going to make someone else feel the way I did.”

Now hang on a cotton-picking minute, isn’t this supposed to be a funny book? Doesn’t Dan Rhodes write them thar funny books? Well, yeah, but a lot depends on what you find funny. The Observer calls the book:

A delight, a masterpiece of beautifully unforced comedy.

I’m not so convinced about the comedy bit. I think it’s misleading. The book didn’t have me clutching my sides. I don’t think I even cracked a smile. It wasn’t that kind of funny. There are lots of funnies in this book: funny-ha-ha, funny-strange, funny-ironic and funny-downright-deceitful.

Tom Brown I’ve never read Tom Brown’s Schooldays and I suspect I never will. I have seen the 1971 television adaptation and that was quite enough. I remember next to nothing about the storyline other than one scene, the infamous “roasting” in front of an open fire. I suspect the incident only takes up a few pages in the book – it only took up a few minutes on the telly but it’s stayed with me for years. I’m sure Thomas Hughes would be a little disappointed that all I took away from the book was this one moment of cruelty but that’s how the book affected me. The reason I mention a book about a young boy’s time in the British public school system is that I believe it is relevant to what happens to the dog in this book. When I first encountered ‘The Bosnian’ in this book I never imagined I’d been comparing him to the sadistic, cowardly Flashman and yet the parallels are there.

When we first meet Timoleon Vieta he is owned by the pseudonymous Carthusians Cockcroft (showbiz people tend to do that), a once successful "bandleader and bon viveur", a composer of pop music for television and stage who, after a thoughtless remark about the number of foreigners in the UK during a TV interview, had fallen from grace faster than Simon Dee and Gerald Ratner combined and is now living on a small pension and irregular royalties whilst wallowing in past glories in a rundown farmhouse in Umbria:

I tried to explain, but nobody would listen. I tried to apologise. I called the newspapers, but they just weren’t interested in doing anything other than burying me alive or make me look stupid in cartoons. I wanted to tell them that I hadn’t meant it, but I could hardly say I had been cruelly abandoned that morning by a Moroccan businessman, and that I was having some kind of personal crisis. I was only racist for a day. Everyone’s racist for a day at some point in their lives.

He is desperately lonely. He is also, as you may have gathered from that quote, desperately homosexual. He wants to be loved but has learned to settle for occasional breaks in his isolation when these come his way.

His neighbours are also all ex-pats but they have quickly tired of him. They keep writing "how-we-did-up-our-house" books with cringeworthy titles like Olive Oil and Sunset: an Umbrian odyssey. There are occasional short-lived flings, but his only constant companion is his dog. His last great (possibly one true) love was a boy in silver shorts with long blond hair and both a penchant and a talent for pleasuring old queers. To Cockcroft's dismay, the boy has fallen into the clutches of his archrival, Monty ‘Misty’ Moore, his onetime collaborator on a doomed musical, Wrens. Cockcroft’s big success was writing the music to a Seventies children's TV programme called Bibbly and the Bobblies which gets a revival during the course of the book Telletubbies due to cult following by drug-addled student sorts; a clear nod to the Teletubbies there I would have thought.

So desperate is he for anything resembling affection that he throws his arms around and his home wide open to a morose stranger who appears on his doorstep one morning; a man he had run into during a drunken weekend in Florence when he was handing out business cards willy-nilly to every Tom, Dick or Harry who took his fancy – straight or gay – offering board and lodging in exchange for companionship and a little fellatio each Wednesday evening at seven. It is an offer he’s made many times, half in jest, and he’s never seriously expected any takers.

‘The Bosnian’ is not the slightest bit gay and is as Balkan as I am (he’s “never even been to Bosnia, and ... wasn't sure he'd be able to find it on a map”) but he is in a bit of bother and has decided this would be a safe, out of the way place to lie low. Although basically a nasty piece of work, like Flashman, he is not entirely unprincipled and a deal is a deal. So every Wednesday he feels honour bound to knock on Cockcroft’s bedroom door and cough up his rent. Better than “spunky biscuits” – don’t ask. The irony is that Cockcroft would have kept him round sex or no sex. His demands are so basic that he never even presses ‘The Bosnian’ for a name and we readers only find it out on page 303 of the 305-page book.

The dog is a far better judge of character than his master and makes it obvious that he doesn’t like ‘The Bosnian’; the feeling is mutual. His master, however, is putty in ‘The Bosnian’s’ hands though and no sooner has he usurped the dog’s seat in the car than he manages to persuade Cockcroft to let him take his pet far away and abandon him; it’s either that or wait until the dog goes for him whereupon he insists that he would be unable to stop himself breaking the creature’s neck:

‘It is nature. He attack me and he will die,’ he said, mimicking a karate chop. ‘I am from Bosnia, and in Bosnia we are killing the dogs all the time with only our hands.’ Again he mimed a karate chop.

‘Oh no. You can’t do that.’


The thought of living alone frightened Cockcroft as much as it always did before it happened, but he loved Timoleon Vieta to distraction even though the dog seemed to have gone cool on him.

He presses him but so desperate is Cockcroft to both hang onto ‘The Bosnian’ and protect his dog that he acquiesces. And so, on page 119, Timoleon Vieta is summarily dumped in Rome, in front of the Colosseum Here our half-a-novel comes to an end.

Lassie Come-Home The plot summary for Lassie Come Home reads as follows:

Hard times came for Carraclough family and they are forced to sell their dog to the rich Duke of Rudling. However, Lassie, the dog, is unwilling to leave the young Carraclough boy and sets out on the long and dangerous journey from Scotland to Yorkshire in order to rejoin him.

This is how the second half of this book plays out, part The Littlest Hobo and part The Yellow Rolls-Royce. Lassie was always saving the day which is not really the case here. He’s just there. In all of the stories he has a cameo – a fleeting vision of hope perhaps? – and then moves on. Yes, Timoleon Vieta has an incredible journey (another movie reference) ahead of him but strangely Rhodes focuses less on him than the lives he touches.

The titles of the stories are the names that he acquires on the way: Abbondio, Teg, Something Chinese, Giuseppe or Leonardo da Vinci, Dusty and Henri. The last ‘story’ is actually the last chapter of the novel-proper where we find out what happens to the original trio. Considering how little time the dog spends in each of the six stories you might be surprised to find that he gets renamed but he does and it works.

For my money these six twisted tales are worth the price of the book alone.

In ‘Abbondio’ we find out what happens immediately after ‘The Bosnian’ drives away when a policeman who realises what’s going on tries to befriend the dog which he hopes to present to his wife as a new pet.

Timoleon Vieta’s longest stay in any of the stories is in ‘Teg’ where he keeps company with a Welsh girl who has travelled to Rome to be with Enrico, the man she loves, only to find out that he wasn’t quite what he had claimed to be. The dog meets her beside the Trevi Fountain after she’s thrown her now ex-boyfriend out of her hotel room. She’s eating “a bar of horrible Italian chocolate”:

The dog shuffled closer. She looked at him, and he cocked his head to one side. ‘All right then. One piece,’ She threw it high, and the dog leapt up and caught it. She wasn’t enjoying the chocolate at all, but she knew its importance in times of trouble. She had read that eating chocolate was supposed to be like having sex. It was something to do with chemicals. She thought about that for a while. Eating chocolate was probably better than having sex with her old boyfriend, but it didn’t come close to being as good as having sex with Enrico. Having sex with Enrico in Tenby had been the best thing she had ever done. She broke off and ate another square.

In ‘Something Chinese’ we learn how Shanghai-born Mai ends up living with an old professor of Sinology in Italy.

‘Giuseppe, Or Leonardo da Vinci’ is a story very similar to the second storyline in Little Hands Clapping in fact the whole book has a similar feel, a darker outer shell around a sweet centre. This particular tale concerns a predestined love affair between a sweet, deaf girl and the town’s juvenile delinquent and how the girl tries to cheat fate and the awful consequences.

In ‘Dusty’ the dog enters the life of Pietro at a critical moment while his severely retarded and terminally ill daughter lies dying. By the end of this story Timoleon Vieta is almost home and then fate steps him and he has to begin his journey afresh only by now he is far from fresh. It is a setback but the little dog rises to the challenge.

‘Henri’ takes place almost entirely in Cambodia. It is the story of Malic and the French dentist who ends up fixing her teeth before marrying her sister Morakot and taking her to live in France. Before they settle the couple plan a trip of Europe and who do you think they end up feeding crisps, biscuits and more chocolate to in Pisa?

Malic’s favourite photograph was the one where her sister was standing in front of the lopsided tower in Italy. Sitting by her side, and looking longingly up at her was a scruffy dog, Morakot had told her all about how the dog had followed them from the street outside their guest house, and that it seemed so nice and friendly that they hadn’t wanted to chase him away. They had named him Henri, after one of the dentist’s friends in Phnom Penh.

These are all short tales, parables almost, of love, loss and betrayal and all of them are stunning. But none of them are especially funny, not funny-ha-ha anyway. And that’s fine as long as you’re not expecting funny-ha-ha.

In the final chapter of the book ‘Timbo’ makes it home for the second time and you’ll have worked what might happen or you won’t. I’m not telling you. Like everything to do with Dan Rhodes it’s a little twisted My personal feeling is that he takes the easy option and ties things up a little neatly, albeit in his own fashion. One thing I didn’t mention earlier is that Timoleon Vieta is a mongrel with a coat "of various, apparently random lengths", i.e. a shaggy dog. Wikipedia defines the shaggy-dog story as follows:

In its original sense, a shaggy dog story is an extremely long-winded tale featuring extensive narration of typically irrelevant incidents, usually resulting in a pointless or absurd punch line. ...

Shaggy dog stories play upon the audience's preconceptions of the art of joke telling. The audience listens to the story with certain expectations, which are either simply not met or met in some entirely unexpected manner.

And that’s as much as I’m going to say about the ending.

If the book has a weakness it’s the two main characters, both living under false names, both pretending to be (or aspiring to be) what they’re not. Neither is an especially likeable character and even when both back stories are revealed I didn’t find myself with much sympathy for either of them. There is also a danger in writing a tragic-comic camp character that he veers into caricature and Cockcroft does feel at times like a poor man’s Liberace.

Encyclopedia_Britannica By the way apparently "Timolean Vieta" and "Carthusians Cockcroft" were printed on the spines of volumes 22 and 5 respectively of the 14th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Cockcroft's piano is also a "Spelman Timmins" (volume 21). I should also mention that between chapters there is occasionally a childlike picture of a dog, accompanied by a phrase like, 'Sharing everything sweet and delicious with lovely master', 'May I continue living with my master forever and forever...?' or 'It's true that I'm living in a world flooded with the light of love.' These were part of the original manuscript that Rhodes submitted. On his website he explains:

In the closing months of writing Timoleon Vieta Come Home I was having a bastard of a time finding the right pitch for my eponymous mongrel. I wanted him to be a normal, resolutely un-anthropomorphic dog, but I still wanted the story, just occasionally, to drift over to his point of view. Hmmm… I was stuck. The solution came when I met Vien Thuc, a Buddhist monk from the city of Dalat in the Central Highlands of Vietnam.

Vien Vien Thuc shares his pagoda with a pack of ragged mongrels who, at least in silhouette, answer the description of Timoleon Vieta that I had written years before. As fortune would have it he paints pictures of them, in silhouette, accompanied by perfectly worded canine thoughts. His dogs are innocence itself, living only in the present where they pass the time dreaming of food and their master, and idly wondering what else they ought to be thinking about. His words are a million times better than anything I would have come up with, so I picked six canvases, bought them for the going rate then handed him a slim wad of fifties for the rights to use the images and words in the book. Back home I engaged in some rudimentary rostrum photography involving a stepladder and two pairs of trainers, and put his paintings into the manuscript at strategic points, where they became at once an integral part of the storytelling and of the design of the book.

On the whole I liked this book. I get why dog lovers might get up in arms about it but it’s only a book. The thing is the dog’s not the only thing that suffers in this book. There is a lot of pain and suffering (both physical and emotional) and death in this book and I didn’t see any of the dog lovers shedding a tear for the poor humans and what they had to go through. I actually thought that more people might object to all the gay stuff but that was barely mentioned. I don’t think this is his best book. I actually suspect he’s not written his best book yet. Writers, if no one else, will find his approach to the novel refreshing, perhaps not completely successful, but a good effort.


Rhodes despite having a Welsh surname and living in Edinburgh is actually an English writer. One of Granta magazine's Best of Young British Novelists 2003, his novel Timoleon Vieta Come Home won the Authors' Club First Novel Award and was shortlisted for the Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. He is the winner of the 2010 E.M. Forster Award.

Born in 1972 he has worked in various jobs including stockroom assistant in a bookshop and teaching in Ho Chi Minh City. He says that 1980's band The Smiths are "still the soundtrack to my life – I can't work out if they saved it or ruined it". You can read my review of Gold here and my review of Little Hands Clapping here. The fourth book I’ve read was Anthropology, a collection of flash fiction which I may or may not get round to writing about some day.

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Making up words (part two)



Link to Part One

Probably the most extreme example of a household language is idioglossia, also known as cryptophasia, and commonly referred to as twin talk or twin speech. Children who are exposed to multiple languages from birth are also inclined to create idioglossias, but these languages usually disappear at a relatively early age, giving way to use of one or more of the languages introduced. Apparently autonomous languages (yet another word for the same thing) exist in about 40% of all twins. So it’s far from uncommon but the chances are higher with identical twins. There have been high profile cases though like June and Jennifer Gibbons and the Kennedy twins who had well-developed secret languages that only they could understand. Wikipedia describes the language used by the Kennedy twins, Poto and Cabengo:

Their language was spoken extremely quickly and had a staccato rhythm. These characteristics transferred themselves to the girls' English, which they began to speak following speech therapy. Linguistic analysis of their language revealed that it was a mixture of English and German (their mother and grandmother were German-born), with some neologisms and several idiosyncratic grammatical features.

and provides a short extract from a conversation between the two girls to illustrate:

Pinit, putahtraletungay. (Finish, potato salad hungry)

Nis, Poto? (This, Poto?)

Liba Cabingoat, it. (Dear Cabengo, eat)

La moa, Poto? (Here more, Poto?)

Ya. (Yeah)

Nell Probably the best-known example, albeit a fictitious one, is in the film Nell where Jodie Foster’s unintelligible, idiosyncratic language is made up of English-like phrases that are a blend of stroke-impaired speech and twin language.

The most commonly known made-up language (if you’re British and of a certain age) is Unwinese, the creation of the British comedian Stanley Unwin who spoke a mishmash of English and expressions of his own devising. It gets classified as gobbledegook but that’s really a misleading term because there are rules and other people have learned them to imitate him; it’s closer to the language game gibberish. I once saw him interviewed by Michael Barrymore and the entire interview was carried on in Unwinese which was fun for them I’m sure, but hard on the poor audience. Recurrent expressions were:

Deep joy: Pleasing

Goodlilode: Good or excellent

Nockers (as in "I did nockers"): Not

Terribold: Terrible

Remarkibold: Remarkable

Horribold: Horrible

Flollop: Fall, or Go

Once a polly tito: Once upon a time

Thriftymost on your banky balancer: Very good value

Goodlibilode: Goodbye

Garbage path: Garden path

Deep folly: Foolish deed, but sometimes simply means Complicated arrangement(s)

Huffallo-dowder: Up and down

Notice how -bold and -bode are common suffixes. This is similar to what rappers do inserting "-izzle" after a word's last pre-vowel consonant while discarding the remaining letters. I wrote a short article about Unwin a couple of years back called Basic Engly Twentyfido if you’re interested and there are some video links too. I have a great deal of affection for him. I was also very fond of the pianist and entertained Victor Borges and one of his routines involved Inflationary English. The rule is a simple one: any time a number is suggested within a word, inflate its value by one. Simple examples would be:

"Anyone up for tennis?" becomes "Anytwo up five elevennis?”

"I ate a tenderloin with my fork" becomes "I nined an elevenderloin with my five'k"

These two ‘languages’ were created to entertain not obfuscate but they manage to do both. Argot, however, is a secret language used by various groups – including, but not limited to, thieves and other criminals – to prevent outsiders from understanding their conversations; it dates back to 1628 and under the strictest definition, an argot is a proper language, with its own grammar and style. The closest I’ve come to that was in the civil service when I was there. Memos were written (yes, it was that long ago) in what I think of to this day as abbreviationese, a form of bureaucratese; if there was a way to reduce the numbers of letters you had to write then that’s what you wrote. Nowadays we have textese, or as they would call it, txtk, and twitterspeak where most of the words seem to need to begin with twi-, twe- or twa-: twaiting (twittering while waiting), tweetaholism (the continued use of Twitter as an addiction that is difficult to control) and twitterrhea (just use your imagination).

I wouldn’t call any of these words neologisms, not right away. They’re actually protologisms. Wikipedia says that it was coined by Mikhail Epstein, the Professor of Cultural Theory and Russian Literature at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, and that it was first used in 2005. It’s from Greek protos, first, plus logos, word.

The difference between a protologism and a neologism is that the latter has actually been used somewhere, even if only once, while a protologism exists only as a suggestion of a word that might be used. – World Wide Words

Heaney So, when is a word a protologism and when is it a nonce word? Okay, a nonce word is a temporary word created to serve a purpose and then dropped later. Seamus Heaney has a poem called ‘Nonce Words’. I think this term could be applied to many of the made-up words poets use. I don’t make up words often but I have done like in this early poem:


in a crowded supermarket ...
gaping mouth ...

and a tight knotted little hand

The word was created solely to try to communicate how a mentally disabled child might think. It’s not a very good poem, which is why I’ve just quoted from it, but you get the idea. Carrie is fond of them, like “egocentenially” in her poem, ‘reflex’ or “preconflagrations” in her poem ‘hairfire’, in fact the title would count as one too. James Joyce is probably the best-known exponent of the made-up word. Some only exist in his novels (particularly Finnegans Wake):

The fall (bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbron-ntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohooh-oordenenthurnuk!) of a once wallstrait oldparr is retaled early in bed and later on life down through all christian minstrelsy. The great fall of the offwall entailed at such short notice the pftjschute of Finnegan, erse solid man, that the humptyhillhead of humself prumptly sends an unquiring one well to the west in quest of his tumptytumtoes: and their upturnpikepointandplace is at the knock out in the park where oranges have been laid to rust upon the green since dev- linsfirst loved livvy.

and just as well if you ask me. Since many of the words used in the book are actual combinations of other words, e.g. the very first word of the book ‘riverrun’, they’re described as portmanteau words. More common examples of these are words like ‘smog’ which was coined around 1900 as a portmanteau of ‘smoke’ and ‘fog’. ‘Brunch’ is another which was first used in an edition of Punch in 1896. Later we have acronyms that get absorbed into the yuppie everyday speech like Yuppie (young upwardly-mobile professional), Wasp (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant), Oink (One Income, No Kids), Dinky (Double Income, No Kids Yet) and, apparently, Jap (Jewish American Princess).

I think one single thing comes through this article and that’s the fact that we’re not satisfied – not any of us – with just using language. And the more one is into words the more frustrating it can be just to use the words we’re given. This is why neologisms, new words, appear all of the time. It’s a desperate need to find ways to accurately communicate what’s going on in our heads. What gets me, and I was only talking to Carrie about this the other day, is how many things, everyday things, I don’t have a word for and have to rephrase what I’m saying to work around the problem. For example, everyone knows what a liar is. Hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of lies are told every day. If a person who tells a lie is a liar when what do you call a person who is lied to? Why is there not a word for that? We have a tester and a testee, a donor and a donee, so why is it a liar and the lied to? Eh? Why not a lyee? Makes sense to me.

I remember a competition on Radio One years ago looking for new collective nouns (Seriously, why is it a murder of crows?) and the winning entry was “a persistence of Jehovah’s Witnesses” – marvellous! It’s a bit like an ostentation of peacocks (yep, that’s a real one) but please tell me who decided on a cartload of chimpanzees, a piteousness of doves or an implausibility of gnus. I read those out to my wife just now and her response? “Someone just made those up.” Of course they did. Every word we’ve ever had was made up. What I want to know is how they got people to accept that you could get away with calling a group of starlings a murmuration. What’s wrong with ‘flock’? In an episode of Inspector Morse, Morse asks one of colleagues at the scene of the crime if there is a collective noun for pathologists. They decide on 'a body of pathologists'.

There’s a word – I mean, why wouldn’t there be? – for “any word that doesn't appear in the dictionary, but should”; it’s sniglet. Comedian Rich Hall made it and has published several books of them. In a 1990 interview, Hall was asked if the "Sniglets books [were] completely for comic value?" He answered:

Yeah. Well, no. I wouldn't say they're completely for comic value. I mean, I get letters from schools all the time saying how they've incorporated a sniglet book into their reading program. You can look at a lot of the words and sort of break them down into their etymological origins. And you can learn a lot about how and where words derive from. When you assign this frailty of human nature a word, then the word has to work. It has to either be a hybrid of several other words, or have a Latin origin, or something. – Reuven Lerner, ‘An Interview with Rich Hall’, The Tech, Sept 25th 1990

I can understand that. I know what I was like when I discovered prefixes and suffixes. They were like verbal Lego bricks to me; you could just keep adding them on at  the beginnings and ends of words to your heart’s content. One of the words I love for this reason is hemidemisemiquaver which Americans call a sixty-fourth note but seriously hemidemisemiquaver is a much cooler expression. There is a quasihemidemisemiquaver but it’s rarely used (Beethoven's Pathétique Piano Sonata is one example in case you’re interested) and only practical in slow pieces.


Of course the Pathétique Sonata brings us right back to where we started all this: names. What was wrong with Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13? The name – Grande sonate pathétique if we’re going to be fussy – came from his publisher. But that brings up the whole issue of nicknames, pet names and even pseudonyms. Remember I mentioned the expression my wife and I use, “a Tracey”? Well, her nickname at work was ‘Tink’ after Tinkerbell from Peter Pan. Unusual for girls to have nicknames, at least when I was at school none did, none that I can remember, but the boys most certainly did: Gee-Gee, Buh Buh, The Nor, Chips (even the teachers called him ‘Chips’), Croc, Big Nell, Wee Nell, Pro, Midge. Teachers too: Spider, Mark Spitz (after the swimmer), Stookie, Shuggie, Bobby Lennox (after the footballer). Even my own name: Jim, Jimmy, James, Jamie, Jimbo. We just can’t seem to leave well alone. A random selection from online (some are animals in case you were wondering):

Kosaburo but gets called Kosanji

Athina but gets called Theenie

Toffee but gets called Snoffs

Gypsy Rose but gets called Gypsy Monster

George but gets called Eddie

Cricket but gets called Wiggle

What I don’t get is calling a big dog ‘Tiny’ or a redhead ‘Blue’. I mean, seriously, what is going on there? Apparently Australians are very bad for that one. Or what about the parents who name their kid one thing and call them something else right from the jump.

Of course, people don’t just have nicknames or pet names for people, they often have cute names for parts of their Wicked Willie anatomy, usually their private parts. Probably the most common is to refer to a man’s penis as “Little [whatever the guy’s name is]”, but there are others: Captain Fantastic (or just ‘The Captain’), Godzilla, Chewy, Thumper, Pepe, Mr Happy, Winky. Breasts also get nicknames: “the boys” (after the (in)famous Wonder Bra ad), “the girls” (I heard that in an episode of Castle recently), the twins, Pinky and Perky (if you’re British), Thelma and Louise. And that’s without getting into the enormous list of euphemisms for parts of the body.

Have I covered everything? I doubt it.

That’s as much as I have to say on the subject for now anyway but I’d be keen to hear of your own experiences with . . . I want to write ‘oikolectia’ but is that the right word? I don’t want to rewrite my sentence but at the same time I don’t want to use the wrong word because there is nothing worse than using the wrong word when you’re known as a writer. Maybe the right word is ‘oikolectics’. Dialectics is a proper word so why not oikolectics? We’ll go with that.

Monday, 24 May 2010

Our Tragic Universe



[M]agic is as easy as putting a shortcut on a desktop if only we knew it. – Scarlett Thomas, Our Tragic Universe

Meg, the protagonist of Scarlett Thomas’s new novel Our Tragic Universe bears a striking resemblance to the author herself. Scarlett was born in 1972 which makes her 38 which is the same age as Meg. Meg ghostwrites science fiction novels aimed at a teenage audience under the penname, ‘Zeb Ross’, while she is thinking about her real novel provisionally called Sandworld or Footprints or Notebooking or possibly The Death of the Author which was actually the working title for Our Tragic Universe. Scarlett worked in genre fiction for years writing Lily Pascale Mysteries before giving them up to concentrate on literary novels. Both Scarlett and Meg do journalistic work (e.g. Scarlett was commissioned by The Independent to do an article on chicklit, Meg spends most of this book working on an article on New Age literature) and book reviews. Both have writer friends; Scarlett still keeps in touch with some of her New Puritan friends. Both live with their boyfriends. Both relax by knitting or playing the guitar or taking long walks on which Meg is accompanied by her dog Bess; Scarlett also has a dog, also a bitch (at least she did in 2003), who she refers Dreamer to as ‘Bookdog’ but I believe is actually called Dreamer; both dogs delight in chasing blue balls down staircases. Both women end up running away to the sea: Scarlett moved to Canterbury which is close to Devon which is where the new novel is set. Meg winds up in a fisherman’s cottage in Slapton Sands which is just about as close to the sea as one can get without falling in. There’s more but you get the idea.

In an interview on in 2007 Scarlett had this to say about her writing:

I'm very much someone who wants to work out the answers. I want to know what's outside the universe, what's at the end of time, and is there a God? But I think fiction's great for that – it's very close to philosophy.

No doubt when she wrote this she was thinking about what her next novel was going to focus on. Her chosen topic is pretty much everything (life the universe and) but it’s played out on a very small canvas. Most of the action takes place in pubs, over meals with friends and on walks with her dog. And what doesn’t take place there takes place in Meg’s head. For ‘action’ read ‘conversation’ by the way. Apart from driving between homes, pubs and work – none of it at high speed pursued by baddies – there’s not a lot of action in this book. One car does end up in the river but there’s no body in the boot.

The blurb promises a “brilliant new philosophical page-turner” which I would think would be a challenge for any Bright Young Things author – philosophy is not known for it rivetingness – but when a reviewer described one of her previous novels, Bright Young Things, as a cross between The Beach and Waiting for Godot I was open for just about anything; I like books which you can’t easily pigeonhole. What the blurb doesn’t mention is that at the core to this book there’s actually a love story. And there seems to be a pattern in her books based on this question posed by Colleen Mondor on the Bookslut site:

Romance plays a small part in both PopCo and [The End of] Mr. Y, although Alice and Ariel are admittedly far more focused on many other concerns in their lives than finding Mr. Right. (Not to stray into chick lit territory, but…) Why include the romance at all? Did both Alice and Ariel need to find a man along the path of finding themselves (and the treasure)? Or did they need somebody to flesh out the plot with, debate moments in the storyline and solve puzzles with? The guys are not critical to the story, in other words, but do they end up being critical to the women the stories are about?

All good stories work according to one of two models: tragedy or comedy, as we all know. In a tragedy everyone ends up dead, and in a comedy everyone ends up married. In both you have a central love story. You can mess about with these: combine them to form quests or epics, invert them, subvert them, lighten or darken them -- but they are still there. People don’t seem to like to read novels where everyone ends up dead, for some reason, so what you usually find are novels that conform to the comedy structure, like chick lit and lad lit; novels that are actually short stories (they have no conclusive ending, no central love story and usually one concealed but relatively simple theme); and novels that work within the rules (sort of) but try to screw around with things a bit, like mine do. Of course not everyone notices when you screw around with things...

Her answer would do just as well had I asked why include the romance between Meg and Rowan in her latest offering. The book would survive without it but it does add an additional layer of interest. This is not the only romance in the book if you take a fairly broad interpretation of the word ‘romance’. In fact the interrelationships between the Soap various characters are all a bit tangled. (Cue end credit music to Soap.) Here are the bullet points:

  • Meg lives with Christopher, a “thin, jagged beautiful blue-eyed” waste of space, who once seemed to understand her inner soul but now doesn’t.
  • Christopher’s father, Peter, runs a vegetarian café in Totnes and lives with the much younger Milly, a twenty-eight-year-old harpist, who Peter’s children, Josh and Becca disapprove of.
  • Becca is married to Ant whose brother, Drew, an actor, is Meg’s ex fiancé but who actually fancied Rosa, now Meg’s ex-friend, and is now about to act opposite a badly-miscast Rosa (according to Meg) in a remake of Anna Karenina, Meg’s favourite book.
  • Meg’s friend Libby is married to Bob, but is having an affair with Mark, “a bedraggled guy who had washed up in Churston” and was living in a beach hut there.
  • I have no idea who Mark is related to but Bob is Rowan’s nephew and Rowan is living with, and trying to be faithful to, Lise even though she’s already had an affair because, she maintained, she believed Rowan was having one, and still is, with Meg.
  • Meg and Rowan can’t actually decide if they’re having an affair or not. They’re trying not to but may be by accident. Or Fate. Or because the story needs it.
  • Frank, Meg’s old History lecturer, lives with Vi, an anthropologist who’s the one who teaches Meg how to knit.
  • Vi’s twin sister, Claudia, is an editor for Orb Books who publish the ‘Zeb Ross’ books and have commissioned Tim Small, who’s married to Heidi who’s having a long-time affair with Christ-knows who, to write the next ‘Zeb Ross’ novel about the Beast of Dartmoor.
  • The Beast’s relationships are not discussed apart from an appearance “panting softly” in the bedroom on the stroke of midnight of a woman called Margaret who lives in Dartmeet. The Beast may not be real or it may simply be a big dog or possibly a big cat.
  • ‘Zeb Ross’ isn’t living with or having an affair with anyone because he’s definitely not real but the publisher has decided that he has OCD which is why he never appears in public and why Josh doubles for him on his official website. The fact that Josh coincidentally has OCD and a fear of the number six is a distinct advantage. At one point he gets trapped in a card shop by a rack full of Sixth Birthday cards and has to be rescued by Meg and Milly who ends up buying all the cards and handing them in to a local charity shop.

Confused? Wait till I start talking about all the philosophy.

In an interview on the 3am magazine website she had this to say:

Ever since I started writing I've been obsessed with the idea of creating narratives around groups of people trapped together.

Okay this motley lot aren’t trapped in the same way as the six applicants in Bright Young Things who answer a job advertisement asking for bright young things for a big project and wake up on a deserted island after their pre-interview coffee is drugged. No, but they are trapped in relationships and friendships and work commitments.

These are not the only players in the book, not by a long chalk, but they are the main ones. Every now and then names like Sebastian and Clare pop up out of nowhere and vanish again. I’ve pawed through the book trying to find out who they are but can’t. Maybe they were mentioned in half a sentence a hundred pages earlier. I don’t know. It’s not exactly a cast of thousands but there are more people in this book than I personally needed to know about. There’s easily another two dozen names that pass by like ships in the night. A dramatis personæ would have been a real help. I wish they hadn’t fallen out of popularity.

So, I hear you asking, where’s all the philosophy in this? A good question. This brings me to probably the most important character in the book, but one who doesn’t actually threaten to appear until over 400 pages into the 444-page book. He would be Kelsey Newman, author of The Science of Living Forever, which we find Meg dipping into with a view to reviewing on the first page of the novel. In fact she does write a review but when she takes it in to her editor he tells her that he didn’t send her the book. So who did? That’s the first of a number of mysteries Meg has to solve. Another one is how to get a ship in a bottle. Only she doesn’t want to know the answer to that one. What she does want to know is why a ship in a bottle is washed up on the beach at her feet. And what did the nice (but a little strange) man she met in the woods as a child, the one who “looked like a wise old tree”, mean when he foretold her future saying:

You will never finish what you start ... You will not overcome the monster. And in the end, you will come to nothing.

Don’t worry, it’s nowhere near as creepy as it sounds though what her parents were doing letting their six-year-old daughter roam alone in strange woods I have no idea. Robert, “like the herb” – that’s the man’s name – lives with Bethany who might be his wife or his daughter or even his granddaughter and possibly a Faerie, teaches her about flower arranging, yoga and tells her about magic although his explanations go mostly over her head. It’s all over in eight pages or so but it’s her first encounter with New Ageism. And a telling one.

The other thing the book is about is writing. Most of the characters are involved in one way or another in the literary scene and so the nature of writing inevitably crops up.

The End of Mr Y The main thread of the book is a philosophical one, and it all revolves around a book. This was a key element in The End of Mr. Y, too, a book that purported to explain the nature of reality. In Our Tragic Universe it’s Kelsey Newman’s theories. The gist of it is probably best explained by Newman in the book’s epilogue:

[N]ow you won’t mind ... if I tell you something shocking. You are already dead. You died a long time ago, probably billions of years ago. In fact, you are already immortal, although you may take a few more lives to properly realise it. You are currently living, and re-living, in what I will term the Second World, which has been created by the Omega Point as a place where you prepare for the rest of eternity. No one knows much about the First World. It probably looked a lot like the world we are living in now, for reasons I will come to in a moment. It is the world whose scientists originally created the possibility of Omega Point, and thus ensured the immortality of all its beings. You were certainly one of those beings once. How do we know for sure that we are in the Second World and not the First World? Remember that the Omega Point is infinitely powerful. It can, and therefore will, use its Energia to create an infinity of universes that look just like the one you are in right now. There is therefore and infinity-to-one chance that we are not living in a universe created by the Omega Point; it is mathematically impossible for us not to be. ... It is far more likely that we are in a post-universe, which is eternal, than in a finite universe, which must be long-gone.

He then goes to say he will explain why we are stuck in this Second World in his next book, available from all good retailers. The Omega Point is “essentially the God constructed at/by/in the end of time”, what Jung termed the “Collective unconscious”, “a conscious, infinite entity from which the archetypes emerge” – this Newman explains in the second book, entitled predictably – Second World, in which he also explains that the Omega Point is made up of Energia, “a mysterious life force, or energy, or Qi.”

The second part of Newman’s new book is entitled ‘The Hero’s Journey’ and this is where Meg starts to feel as if she’s a character in a novel which, of course you and I know, she is. The hero’s journey is fraught with trials, monsters to be encountered and overcome. This ties in with a conversation she has earlier with Rowan in which she realises:

‘Well, all narrative is simulation ... Narrative is representation, or imitation, or mimesis – it stands in for something that it is not. ... But even a “true story” isn’t life by definition. Life is life. But on the other hand all we know about it is what exists as narrative. As Plato says there are true stories and there are false stories. The only difference, presumably, between a premonition story about the Titanic and a real account of it is the timing...’

Rowan responds:

‘So in that case it’s probably true then: premonitions are people predicting narrative, rather than events; telling tragic stories about things where tragedy appears to be inevitable. And then when the stories are compared – the “fictional” story and the “true” story – they are similar because they are stories.’

‘I bet almost all stories with ships in them have some kind of disaster at sea, just like all stories with animals in them put the animals in peril. In narrative any equilibrium must become a disequilibrium, All narrative involves change from one state to another: happy to sad, or sad to happy usually. But it can be alive to dead, broken to fixed, confused to comprehensible, separate to together – anything,’

‘Every ship is a shipwreck waiting to happen.’

kent_logo Life is a great quest, according to Newman and Scarlett, who teaches creative writing at the University of Kent and will know all about the seven basic plots, has sent her heroine on one. On the way she has to collect certain things, keys to knowledge mainly; she has to unlock the secret of the ship in the bottle, discover the meaning of Robert’s prediction, work out how to knit a sock and decide what she wants out of life. She has also to face certain demons, including the Beast of Dartmoor which may, or may not, try to devour one of the aforementioned characters towards the end of the book.

Prophecy is an interesting narrative event and a surprisingly popular one. What greater beast could a protagonist be pitted against than their own destiny? Fate is a theme that often occurs in Greek writing and the story of Oedipus is discussed in the novel; Newman attests that rather than “a profound symbol of the curse of knowledge and desire [Oedipus becomes] a failed project, a Game Over, an aborted Quest.” Why? Because Oedipus found out he was the monster. That’s no good. “[T]he monster has to be outside you, and you have to kill it and move on until you get your treasure and your princess and become enlightened and then ascend to the Road to Perfection.”

Scarlett Thomas has always described her novels as novels of ideas. The New Puritans she was part of in the nineties had this as part of their manifesto. Although she has been keen to point out that this grouping was an experiment, a one-off, there’s no doubt that she would never have got involved in the first place if she had not at least has some empathy with their cause which was essentially to do for literature what Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg had done for cinema with the signing of the Dogme 95 Manifesto.

In novels, plotted novels, things happen for a reason. In badly-plotted novels you know if someone sneezes on page 23 then they’ll probably come down with some mysterious malady by page 51. Life isn’t like that. And what we get in this book is life. I would love to do a Venn diagram of this book just to see where all the overlaps are. Meg plays the guitar, so does Peter and Rowan. Is this relevant? No, not really. A lot of people can play the guitar. And knit. And know about Tarot cards. If there’s a prophecy in a novel then that’s meaningful but how many people in the real world have their palms read or their fortunes told and life muddles on regardless?

Which brings us to the concept of the “storyless story” and the simple fact is that there is very little real story here. By story I mean plot. It has a plot, a thin one, but the plot is not the point of the book nor do we have a neat ending. We could project a neat ending but it might all end in tears too. Real life doesn’t have plot elements like red herrings or MacGuffins. It has coincidences. And coincidences are meaningless – that is not to say they can’t acquire significance – because there was no controlling force behind them, be it God or the Omega Point, to assign them one.

This is a complex novel. It doesn’t always read like one and you can get lulled into a false sense of security if you’re not careful. By ‘complex’ I mean ‘clever’ but it is also a hodgepodge. I mean that in the nicest possible way. There is just so much material in it and I’m not entirely convinced she manages to make all the disparate elements cohere but she has a damn good crack at it. This is, of course, based on a single read through. I suspect, had I the time and the inclination, then it would make more sense to me on a second read. I can say that I enjoyed trying to make sense out of it. That it didn’t make as much sense as I expected says more about my expectations than Scarlett’s ability as a writer. I suspect she did what she set out to do in this book, hide a piece of post-structuralist metafiction inside a love story. Or something like that.


Scarlett with guitar Scarlett Thomas was born in London in 1972. She was educated at a variety of schools, from a state junior school in Barking (which still had free milk) to a weird boarding school which was kind of nowhere. As a teenager, Scarlett demonstrated against many things, including the Poll Tax and the first Gulf War. Eventually, she went to the University of East London to do a degree in Cultural Studies, for which she got a First.

Her first three novels feature Lily Pascale, an English literature lecturer who solves murder mysteries. Each of the succeeding novels is independent of the others.

In 2000 she contributed to the controversial anthology All Hail the New Puritans, and she's has found the association a hard one to shake. In 2001 her novel Bright Young Things was published to wide acclaim, although it is not widely available now due to bad publishing. In the same year the Independent on Sunday included her in a list of the 20 best young writers in the UK. In 2002, she won an Elle Style Award for her novel, Going Out.

She has appeared on Newsnight and written for a variety of publications including the Guardian, the Independent on Sunday and Scotland on Sunday. To relax, Scarlett enjoys going for long walks, playing her guitar, knitting, playing strategy games and listening to Radio 3. She may still have a dog and a boyfriend. I don’t know for sure.


Our Tragic Universe is available from Canongate and all good retailers for £14.99 or less. Oh, and the cover is far nicer than the illustration would suggest. The yellow is actually gold and it feels very nice in the hand.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Making up words (part one)


ingsoc_0 One of the nice things about language is that you can make up your own. I’m not talking about Esperanto or Interlingua or anything like although I’ve always found the notion of creating a new international language fascinating. I loved all the Newspeak in Nineteen Eighty-Four, the Cityspeak in Blade Runner and the Nadsat in A Clockwork Orange. Not that I have any problems with English which, odds are, will end up becoming the world language one day in one form or another and probably a heavily Americanised version but I could live with that. If you’re interested Wikipedia has a comprehensive list of constructed languages.

I remember the question of what language people spoke pre-Tower of Babel cropped up once in our house. My father reasoned that it would have been some form of Semitic tongue since Hebrew and Aramaic were the main languages of the Jews, God’s people, and he would have kept their language intact. (Aram was Shem’s son and Noah’s grandson.) The implication is, had original sin not occurred, and Eden had spread the whole world over then we’d all be speaking with Jewish accents and probably still running around stark naked. But seeing as what we’d all have perfect bodies we wouldn’t mind. I wondered where Yiddish came into the picture. It’s actually a High German language, an adopted tongue in the same way 1st century Jews came to speak Greek because that’s what they needed to get by.

I don’t use very many Hebrew words. They’re kind of hard to slip into day-to-day conversation and actually the only ones that jump to mind at the moment are Sheol and shibboleth. Yiddish expressions I use not infrequently: schmuck I like and schlemiel, schmaltzy, shtuk and shtum. It’s strange how they all begin with the letter s but I have no answer for you. I asked my wife for one and she came up with “putz” – I didn’t take it personally. There is a term called Yinglish which is interesting but don’t get me started on Yeshivish.

The main use people make of their ability to expand the language is naming things. Okay most of us have names that go back hundreds if not thousands of years. James is a good couple of thousand years old: it’s derived from the same Hebrew name as Jacob, meaning ‘holds the heel’. But I can imagine Eve turning to Adam, when their firstborn son appeared: “Let’s call him after your dad – he’d like that.” Or maybe she did and Adam said, “No boy of mine is going to get called Godfrey.” No, they had to invent a name. And they came up with ‘Cain’ which some say means ‘a spear’. Not the name I would’ve given my boy but then any name’s better than Adam which basically means ‘dirt’; what was God thinking? I guess he named the kid after the first thing he saw after the baby was born in the good ol’ Native American tradition:

A young Indian boy asks the Indian chief, “Grandfather why do all of us Indians have strange names?”

He replies, “Well son in the dawn of the day into which the young is born, the Indian brave will leave his teepee. The first thing he sees will be the name of his young. Like your sister, Running Deer, the first thing your father saw was a running deer and your brother Flying Eagle, the first thing your father saw was a flying eagle. Now do you understand me, Two Dogs Fucking?”

So I guess it could’ve been worse: his brother (Abel) was called ‘Vapour’.

Kal-el Every now and then some poor kid gets a novel name. And I don’t mean naming them after the FA Cup winners that year or something daft like that, although it has been done. I’m thinking of all the kids like Kal-el Coppola Cage, Nicolas Cage's first baby with his wife Alice Kim (Kal-El is Superman’s birth name); Sage Moonblood Stallone and his brother Seargeoh; Jermaine Jackson’s kid, Jermajesty and glamour model Jordan’s daughter, Princess Tiaamii. There’s a list in The Times of the 50 craziest celebrity baby names and no sign of Zowie Bowie (actually Duncan Zowie Haywood Jones) or Rolan Bolan (full name, Rolan Seymour Feld). Moon Unit Zappa was there though.

Celebrities are not the only culprits. According to the BBC website:

· A study discovered that 7,261 girls have been called Kylie, with another 288 named Madonna.

· But film characters also proved a hit with six babies named Gandalf after the wizard from Lord of the Rings, and two lucky boys given the name Superman.

· Thirty-six sets of parents called their child Arsenal after the football team.

· Sporting legend Tiger Woods has also made his mark with 1,200 boys named after him - or the animal.

· And some kids didn't escape being branded - with the names Reebok and Adidas cropping up too.

Of course, if you don’t like your name there’s always the option to change it to something more appropriate, like the Glastonbury teenager, one George Garratt, who changed his name to Captain Fantastic Faster Than Superman Spiderman Batman Wolverine Hulk And The Flash Combined. He did it online for £10.00.

His grandmother is apparently no longer speaking to him. In Italy, a couple was banned from naming their son Friday - Venerdi - because the name could expose him to ridicule (the court ordered the boy's name be changed to Gregorio, named after the saint's day on which he was born); conversely a judge in New Zealand made a young girl a ward of court so she could change her name from Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii to something sensible. In New Zealand again, a couple was banned from naming their baby 4Real, so they chose Superman instead.

Names are important:

One particularly suggestive study, done in 1954, looked at 1,682 case histories of children treated in a mental health clinic in New Jersey. Boys with unusual first names (names that occurred only once or twice among the group of children) were more likely to have moderate or severe emotional disturbance, compared with boys with more common names. (The same effect was not found among the girls in the clinic, however.)


In another study ... sixth-graders' self-concept--how effective, attractive, and valued they felt--was related to the desirability of their first names. Moreover, children with desirable first names scored higher on a standardized test of academic achievement. One possible interpretation is that teachers expect children with more popular names to do better and so, over time, those positive expectations translate into actual higher levels of achievement. – Robert Needlman, ‘Names and Personality’

Once we’ve managed to screw up our kids for life there are plenty of other things we can name, like flowers (if we breed a new one) or stars (if we find a new one). Lily Allen has a flower named after her (a lily of course) as does the Duffydil Welsh singer Duffy (‘the Duffydill’); Maria Callas and Katherine Jenkins have also had flowers named after them. As for stars, there’s a website (who says the web is not a dangerous place?) where, for a measly £49.95, the International Star Registry will select on your behalf a star from a constellation visible over the relevant Hemisphere so that you can see it with the aid of a telescope. You can, however, choose the constellation yourself:

For example, if someone particularly likes cats or horses, they may be especially pleased to have a star named after them in the constellation of Lynx - "the Cat" or Pegasus - "the Winged Horse"!’s prices start at a bargain $19.95.

Obviously a lot of satisfaction can be had from naming something. But clearly there are consequences to giving something a wrong or inappropriate name. (Ever heard A Boy Named Sue?) Should you be able to hear or look at a name a glean something from it? When is a name more than a label?

There are rules of nomenclature certainly as far as the sciences go but most of us aren’t scientists, besides a lot of time the names scientists pick are pretty obvious: horny backed toad, black hole – that shows a real lack of imagination. That doesn’t mean the rest of can’t make up our own arbitrary rules. There are rules for naming racehorses, for example. In an interview Jockey Club registrar Rick Bailey explained:

We have a limitation of exactly 18 characters, and there are some special permissions that you have to get, for example, so that if you wanted to name a horse after a person, you would need to seek written permission from that person. One of the best ones that I remember in my 17 years here at the Jockey Club is, several years back, we had a filly named Barbara Bush when Mrs. Bush was still first lady at the time. We received a letter of permission on White House letterhead. So that was pretty exciting. – ‘The Science of Naming a Racehorse’, NPR

Cheering on a horse called ‘Barbara Bush’ feels as daft to me as looking up at the sky at a speck of light called, ‘Tom Baker’ . (Yes, there is one. When asked how he felt about having a star named after him, his response was: "I'm over the moon!")

Of course neither the horse nor the star care what we call it. My mother had no imagination when it came to naming her cats: her black cats were called Blackie and Sooty; the white one was called Snowy; the ginger one, Tigger; the one that looked like Tom from Tom and Jerry, Tom; the black and white one, Minstrel and the big one, Biggie, because he had no other distinguishing feature. I have a goldfish called Fishy and a cockatiel named Poirot but who gets called ‘Birdie’. And the slugs are all called ‘Sluggie’.

There is another way we get to name things. Take the new bridge across the Clyde, the Clyde Arc. No one calls it that.

It’s known colloquially as ‘the Squinty Bridge’, owing to its diagonal path across the Clyde. Or Dublin’s ‘Monument of Light’ which gets called ‘the Spike’ because that’s exactly what it is, a spike 350ft tall. When my daughter was a kid she used to meet her mates at ‘the big pointy thing’ which was a local monument. When I was her age I used to meet my mates at ‘the green bridge.’ The thing was there were actually two green bridges and even when the local council painted it blue it was still ‘the green bridge’. We like names that make sense or are familiar. And this is especially true within families.

Everyone knows about dialects but have you ever heard the expression oikolect before? It was a new one on me until a while ago when my wife introduced me to it. Whereas an idiolect is a form of a language spoken by an individual as distinct from a group, class, or nation, an oikolect is a language spoken by a household.

eco-, oeco-, oec-, oiko-, oik- (Greek: house, household affairs [environment, habitat], home, dwelling; used in one extensive sense as, “environment”).

I’m sure if you think about it you’ll be able to think of a few words that your family define in a unique way. I’ll give you a good example: when I was a kid my parents had two downstairs rooms apart from the kitchen, the one at the front of the house (the one kept for good) was ‘the front room’, the other room, the one we lived in (which you would imagine would have been referred to as ‘the living room’) was actually called ‘the house’. My wife even has a poem called ‘A Room Called House’.

Another expression that I think was unique to my family was the word ‘cornish’ to refer to a mantelpiece. I have no idea where that originated. Kitchen stools were ‘buffetts’. I’m guessing as to the spelling but I need to distinguish them from the word ‘buffet’.

A woman I knew told me about bringing her newborn son home – she already had a daughter of about three at the time – and as she had the child on the table her daughter was getting in the way taking way too much interest in the proceedings, anyway, when the nappy came off the little girl looked at her little brothers genitalia and announced: “Mummy! John’s got a pom-pom on his bottom.” From that day on the familial euphemism for the private parts of males became ‘pommie’.

My wife and I have a few expressions that are unique to our own household. An annoyingly effuse (and generally not very bright) girl is ‘a Tracey’ after a girl I used to work with. ‘Decoder ring poems’ is an expression we coined for poems that only make sense once you have a key piece of information that you could not possibly glean from the poem itself. Her poem ‘A Room Called House’ is a decoder ring poem. Its true meaning is indiscernible without knowing about my family’s oikolect. One I remember from when I was a teenager was referring to a perm as ‘a frizzbomb’ and that stuck for a while.

Sometimes I deliberately missay words just for the fun of it: tevelision (television), deaf and tootly (definitely), bumbershoot (umbrella). I’m not sure if they count but I suspect they do because my family know not to correct me and it’s only certain words. I personally think it’s a way of compensating for being serious so much of the time. It’s the same with the bird. I talk to the bird all the time and also do his responses which include a number of words of ‘his’ own invention: dogs become ‘doggie-birds’; my daughter is ‘blonde bird’ (not sure why since she’s not actually blonde); singing has become ‘singering’; twittering, ‘twitification’; screaming, ‘noiseification’; his treats (which are square cuboids) and simply called ‘square things’ to differentiate them from his regular food which are ‘round things’ (actually they’re cylindrical) and so on. He also has a tendency to slip into a Northern accent.

Next time: idioglossia, neologisms, gobbledegook, gibberish, Unwinese, inflationary English, argots, textese, twitterspeak, sniglets, abbreviationese, protologisms, nonce words, nicknames, pet names, euphemisms and acronyms. I think that covers it all.

Monday, 17 May 2010



Beckett with a different personality disorder – Greg, Goodreads reviewer

There are geniuses and there are geniuses. And Spike Milligan may have been one or the other. Spike wrote other novels but none betters this. It took him four years and he swore he'd never write another:

This damn book nearly drove me mad. I started it in 1958 and doodled with it for 4 years. I don’t think I could go through it all again...

There is, it is said, a fine line between madness and genius and Spike Milligan has slipped off it many times in his career on both sides. Mostly he has straddled it which does sound painful.

Puckoon is a work of genius and a work of madness, about three-quarters genius to one-quarter madness. The more the book progresses the more jumbled it gets and eventually it crumbles to pieces in our hands, the main protagonist literally left hanging but it works in exactly the same way that Spike’s many TV sketches work where the characters are left mumbling, “What are we gonna do now?” whilst shuffling off camera.

Dr-Strangelove Puckoon is a satire in exactly the same way that Dr. Strangelove is a satire and there are surprising similarities. Both deal with significant (and very serious) political events: with Puckoon it was the partitioning of Ireland; with Dr. Strangelove it was the threat of nuclear war. Both involve two warring nations: Russia vs. America and Britain vs. Ireland and therefore different ideologies: communism vs. democracy and Roman Catholicism vs. Protestantism. Both end in pandemonium. Actually they don’t but they could have if Kubrick had stuck with his original idea of a cream pie fight in the war room; Puckoon climaxes with a brawl in an old folks’ home. They were both written at the same time: Puckoon was published in 1963, Dr. Strangelove was released in 1964. They both involve ex-Goons: Milligan was chief writer but Peter Sellers’ ability to play multiple characters – as he does in Dr. Strangelove – went a long way to making the show a success.

The events in Puckoon take place over a few weeks in 1924 when the Boundary Commission has just about agreed on where the border between Northern and Southern Ireland will lie. The only thing that stands between them and getting to the pub before closing time is “the microcephalic community of Puckoon” a fictitious village which Spike locates “[s]everal and a half metric miles North East of Sligo”. When an accident destroys the surveyor’s equipment they decide to get the matter over with by all putting “one hand on the red pencil and draw[ing] a line that falls naturally and peacefully into place:”

In what was meant to be a solemn moment, all hands held the pencil and pulled slowly across the map. All was silent, the room filled with suspicion. Occasionally a gasp rent the silence as they all strained for the advantage.

‘Steady, someone’s pulling to the benefits of Ulster.’

‘Lies, all lies.’

‘Who gave that jerk?’

‘Ah! I felt that.’


Finally the pencil reached its destination. Faces broke into relieved smiles and a series of rapid unplanned handshakes ensued.

Boundary Commission

The problem is that the border cuts right through the heart of Puckoon separating houses from outhouses, the church from its graveyard and annexing a corner of the pub where the locals crowd because the drink is thirty percent cheaper there. Here is a good example of the chaos this causes:

Mr Murtagh, stinking town clerk and amnesic, arose with a sheaf of closely typed quarto papers, removed his reading glasses and began to read.

‘Ahem! Report of an accident on the Ballyshag Bridge over the River Puckoon. As we all know this bridge has been divided in two by an unthoughtful boundary commission.’

There were three cries of ‘Shame!’ and one of ‘Bastards!’

Last week, a motor car containing a driver and a charabanc of old pensioners were in collision. The car finished on the Ulster side of the border and the charabanc on ours. As a result the case was being held in two countries at once. Witnesses were rushed by high-powered car from court to court to give evidence and they weren’t getting any younger. The driver of the charabanc, a Mr Norrington, a retired English actor, had been thrown from his driving seat, his body laying athwart the border; now his legs were being sued by the passengers of the charabanc, and his top half was claiming damages from the car driver.

The solicitors predicted that the case would last three years because of the travel involved.

It’s farcical. It’s supposed to be farcical, though no more farcical than building a wall through the middle of Berlin. The Berlin Wall, which began its constriction in 1961, wasn’t the only wall apparently and more than 20 German villages encountered a similar fate. One was Mödlareuth:

While the 166km-long Berlin Wall turned West Berlin into a capitalist island in communist East Germany, Mödlareuth was divided by the other wall, the 1,400km inner-German border of concrete, minefields and watchtowers.

After the second World War the Bavarian side, including the village church, was suddenly part of the American, later Allied sector, while the school and the pub was in the Soviet zone.


A 700m-long concrete wall, three metres 30cm high, was eventually constructed through the centre of the village in 1966, surrounded by a death-strip with automatic machine guns and a separate run for guard dogs. – "United" German village remains divided, The Irish Times, Oct 4, 2005
Moedlareuth wall

I have no idea whether these events were known to Spike when he wrote this book but clearly the arbitrariness of borders was.

When an attempt is made to bury one of the locals across the border in what had now become “British territory”, Barrington, the customs officer in charge of the Border Customs Post, has a few preconditions:

‘I presume the deceased will be staying this side permanently?’ ‘Unless someone invents a remarkable drug – yes,’ answered the priest. ‘Then,’ went on Barrington, ‘he will require the following: an Irish passport stamped with a visa, to be renewed annually for the rest of his – ‘ Barrington almost said ‘life’ – ‘stay’, he concluded.

Well, that was that. While the deceased is off having his passport photo taken it’s decided that all corpses on the Unionist side of the border be exhumed, repatriated and reinterred on Irish soil. A plan is concocted involving the church’s newly appointed gardener, “Dan Milligan, son of a famous paternity order”.

Milligan is the reluctant hero of the book. We meet him right at the start. He is the personification of idleness:

With a roof over his head he had ceased to work, living off his [war] pension and his wits, both hopelessly inadequate.

For a while it feels as if the book is going to be Milligan-centric but as more and more characters are added to the mix he does tend to get lost in the fray – both the metaphorical and the literal one. In many respects this feels like a book of cameos because many people – Milligan’s wife, for example – only appear for a few lines and then vanish again. In the film adaptation Milligan’s wife is played by one of Spike’s daughters and she’s barely onscreen for a minute.

What makes Milligan such a fascinating character is the fact that he’s self-aware; he realises that he’s a character in a work of fiction. There are several interchanges with the writer. At one point in the novel, he stops and “looks” at the bottom of that page of the book (the one we're reading) to see which page he's on and in another he says:

I’m gettin’ out of dis chapter, it’s too bloody unlucky for me.

There are occasions too when the author addresses us directly. It’s fun to see the fourth wall treated like this especially when Milligan begins to lean on his relationship with the author getting him to change the plot to suit him. At one point finding himself about to be shot by the sentry guard...

Milligan looked imploringly out of the page.

‘For God’s sake don’t let him shoot me, Mister.’

at which point the author has the soldier about-turn and march away. Of course Milligan can’t resist pressing his luck:

‘God, you got all the power in this book.’ He stroked the stubble on his chin. ‘You havin’ all the power of de author, can I have a request?’


‘Dat dirty soldier that nearly pissed on us, make him do something that will get him into trouble.’

The soldier returned to his post, sloped arms, fired three rounds in the air, dropped his trousers and sang Ave Maria. The Sgt of the Guard came hurrying from his tent.

‘Private Worms?’ he shouted, ‘You’re under arrest.’

A powerhouse raspberry was the reply.

Needless to say the author doesn’t always jump when Milligan snaps his fingers. Oh, no. And Milligan gets his comeuppance by the end of the book.

Apart from the many asides – Spike loves to digress – there is an actual honest-to-goodness subplot involving a considerable amount of explosives which the I.R.A. decide should be smuggled though the checkout in a coffin. The I.R.A. for the purpose of this book consists of “[t]wo little men with the arse out of their trousers”, Shamus Ford and Lenny Braddock, thereafter referred to simply as “two ragged-arse men” who never have more than one cigarette between the two of them. Two hundred and eighty pounds of T.N.T. masquerading as the late Mrs Eileen Ford passes through the border crossing with all the requisite paperwork and is buried on the English side. Needless to say when Milligan and his cohorts sneak over to dig up their coffins they return with one filled with explosives and the bombers head off with the body of the late Dan Doonan.

There is also a sub-subplot concerning an escaped black panther which no doubt to keep costs down never made it into the film and I doubt it appears in the stage play either.

It’s easy to read Puckoon superficially as a very silly book. It is a very silly book. Milligan’s taste in humour is silly. All you have to do is listen to five minutes of any Goon Show to realise what makes him laugh. It’s the flexibility of language. With the Goons he had the option to include silly noises and with his Q series there were many visual gags but the core of his humour has always been the subversion of the Queen’s English and indeed the British establishment:

"Spike's humour was all about irreverence, and I like that," says [Richard] Attenborough. "I know I'm regarded as an establishment figure, but I was crucified by the establishment for Oh! What a Lovely War, Gandhi and Cry Freedom. So I relate to Spike. Irreverence is an essential part of our culture. I admire that enormously." – Bob Flynn, 'It's fantastical, magical stuff', The Guardian, 23 July 2002

Humour has changed over the years. Things you could get away with in the 1960s are verboten now. There will be SouthPark those who look at Puckoon and regard it as sexist and racist and it is. It has also sold over six million copies and never been out of print. In the same way that South Park will have a go at anyone Milligan was the same. The book has been filmed as I’ve said (with mixed success) and also adapted for the stage. Theatre director Zoë Seaton was well aware of the flaws in the original text but felt that today’s audiences were sophisticated enough to take Milligan’s politically incorrect flourishes in their stride:

It was written in the 1960s and you’ve got a Jewish character with a big nose, and a panto-style Chinese policeman. That’s something we’re not used to nowadays. But we wanted to be true to the book, and we also remember what Spike said: “I’m not racist, I hate everybody.”

The simple fact is that no one comes out of this book smelling of roses, especially the Irish who are caricatured to within an inch of their lives; the Paddywhackery is laid on with a trowel. Spike did not hate everyone by the way. He was a great humanitarian and in some of the more serious moments in the book, all two or three of them, that comes through like the conversation in Holy Drinker between Dr. Goldstein and the village grocer O’Brien on the subject of abortion in which Goldstein has this to say:

It’s a bloody cosy little argument that, for the likes of get-rich-quick- abortionists. It’s not a child, it’s just formed, it’s just – it’s just – just anything they want to call it to ease their bloody consciences! A mother sees her child born deformed due to some drug she took during pregnancy and has the child put to sleep! What right have we? When a man is mutilated in the war we don’t kill him! We are the cowards. We can’t stand seeing a deformed child. That child could grow up and enjoy life. Happiness is a state of mind, not body.

I’m not sure how well these asides fit in with the general tone of the book – he certainly didn’t preach during his Goon Shows – but they are good points and often overlooked when people talk about the book. The fact is they really get lost, buried in the onslaught of gags and wordplay which is what people love about him. A lot of the time you’ll read things and not always realise he’s being funny like this malapropism:

It was only the rubber tyres on me bike save me from being electrified.

or referring to himself as “an unsuspecting’ human bean”. It’s an old joke. It doesn’t matter. A younger, better one will be along in a minute. But probably what stands out is the Irish “logic”. Milligan asks Murphy why he’s wearing a “terrible lookin’ trilby” to which Murphy replies:

We sold der hat stand, an’ dere’s no place ter hang it.

Or take this interchange:

‘I heered a crash,’ said Murphy. ‘I examined meself, and I knew it wasn’t me.’

‘It was me,’ said Milligan, ‘I felled off me bi-cycle. Tank heavens the ground broke me fall.’

‘Oh yes, it’s very handy like dat,’ said Murphy.

I’ve read this book three times now. It still confuses me even after watching the film twice but mainly because the film takes liberties with the text. It doesn’t matter. If you treat the book like a collection of loosely connected sketches then you’ll cope just fine. As a great novel it has a long way to go but as a great comic novel it stands alone in exactly the way that Spike Milligan did in real life. He had a completely unique approach to humour.

Spike Milligan If you’ve never heard of him then this is as good as any place to start. If only because you’ll be able to pick up one of those six million copies for pennies. My own copy is a 23rd reprint from 1982. It’s beginning to show signs of wear (as is its owner) but I wouldn’t part with it. And you won’t want to yours. And even if you’re flush and want a shiny new copy you’ll still be pleased to note that the original illustration by Spike himself still graces the cover.

For more about Spike Milligan see my two-part post, here and here.

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