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

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Aspartame and me


Writers drink a lot. A lot of writers drink—it’s a bit of a cliché, the semi-(if not completely)-sozzled novelist—but I suspect that far more writers will be addicted to caffeine than alcohol. I don’t drink. Of course I drink. I just don’t drink-drink. I haven’t had an alcoholic beverage since… hang on I’m thinking… since my wife’s son came to visit. We popped into a bar on Great Western Road when I was out showing him around our great city or at least the parts of the great city that interested me—i.e. the shops—and we popped into whatever the name of the bar was (because I’ve no idea what the bar was and it’s probably been renamed three or four times since) and had a pint. At least I think I had a pint. I might have had a soft drink. But that was years ago. I was still working then so easily five years ago. Doesn’t time fly? Since I fell ill and started taking Pregabalin (as a reasonably effective treatment for Generalised Anxiety Disorder) I’ve never touched a drop. It’s been easily a couple of years since I came off the pills and, apart from my blood pressure medication (which I’m told I’ll be on forever—thanks Mum) I’m drug free but I’ve not started drinking.

Only I wasn’t drug free. Every day I was gulping down anything up to a dozen mugs of coffee. So that’s maybe 90-150 mg of caffeine per cup. It all adds up. There are side-effects to taking Pregabalin and one is weight gain at least that’s the effect it had on me; 10lbs when I first went off it and then another 10lbs when I tried to come off it the first time and had to go back on it. I wasn’t obese but I was overweight and so to lose the weight I went on a diet, the first diet of my life; up until the age of fifty I had been able to eat what I liked and hardly gained anything and what I did gain I walked off but that had all changed. Part of my diet involved not taking any sugar in my coffee and, at the same time, my wife thought it would be a good idea, bearing in mind how much of the stuff I swallowed in a day, to switch to decaffeinated; it was also time for the milk to go. And so in one foul swoop—why isn’t it ‘fowl swoop’? birds swoop—I switched from lovely, sweet, milky, soothing, coffee-tasting coffee to this bitter, mucky-looking liquid which was one step too far and so I started adding sweetener to it.

CokeI’d tried using artificial sweeteners before but never stuck with them. Nothing beats real sugar; Demerara preferably, at least in coffee. This time, though, I made more of an effort and so I dug my heels in and broke the habit of a lifetime. Yay me. Having lost the twenty pounds, I decided to stick with the alternative coffee drink; I’d got used to it. In the evenings I’d also got into the habit of drinking two classes of Coca Cola before bed: sugar-free, decaffeinated Coke—the real thing. And, as I’ve said, that’s been my habit for a long while now. Of course there are a variety of sweeteners on the market. I personally think there’s much of a muchness about them—they’re all pretty awful-tasting—but then I’ve never had what you might call ‘sensitive’ taste buds; the subtle flavours in a glass of red wine are lost on me and I couldn’t tell the difference between a Merlot or a Shiraz if my life depended on it. The containers arrived with the messages (that’s Scottish for ‘groceries’) and the spoonfuls went in my coffee cups, easily eight a day. The thing is there is a difference between sweeteners and it’s a BIG difference. The kind that comes in the tub with the red lid has been making me poorly and I never realised it.

When I fell ill about five years ago one of the major symptoms was brain fog, cognitive dysfunction to give it its Sunday name. It’s a common symptom of depression and anxiety and I’d experienced it before. You go to the docs, get a script for the pills, take the pills for a few months, stop stressing, wean yourself off the pills and life goes on. The thing about the brain fog was that I always regarded it as a symptom of a bigger problem: remove the stressors, remove the depression, remove the brain fog. It was logical, it made sense and it worked. And then, during the first week of December, guess what returned with a vengeance?

A phantom limb is the sensation that an amputated or missing limb (even an organ, like the appendix) is still attached to the body and is moving appropriately with other body parts. There are decent enough explanations for it. I’ve never suffered from it but I can imagine the confusion I might feel if I got an itch in the left foot that I no longer had. It would make no sense to me at all. There would need to be a leg there to get itchy and that’s how I felt about the brain fog. Where was the depression? Where were the stressors? And so I did what any amputee would, I imagined there was something there causing the fog when I could plainly see there was nothing. I had no stressors in my life. I wasn’t ill, I wasn’t in debt and I wasn’t addicted to anything. If anything, life was just plain rosy. I had just published my third novel (and dead proud I was about it, too) and then my wife went to America to visit her parents which she does every few months, so an annoyance but little more than that; I had work planned and had made a start when, a couple of days in, the brain fog returned with a vengeance. So I started looking for causal factors. Nothing happens for no reason. And, of course, I looked where I expected to find the problem. I looked for things that might be depressing me, things I might be upset about and stressing over and they were there. The thing is no one has a stress-free life. We talk about having one, dream about having one, might even think we have one but even deciding what we’re going to put on for tea is a cause of stress. But who said we were supposed to eliminate all stress from our lives? Isn’t the deal to learn to deal with stress before it becomes anxiety?

Milligan and Murphy CoverSo I started to imagine what I might be stressing about: the fact that no one was offering to review Milligan and Murphy (okay, that has been getting to me but I know what it’s like when you start doing reviews and there’s no way you can say, “Yes,” to everyone); the fact that no one was buying Milligan and Murphy (but let’s be realistic, if no one’s reviewing it how are people going to know it’s available for purchase?); the fact that I felt pressured to start my next novel so I could tell people I was writing my next novel and was therefore a real writer and not some guy who just happened to write five novels but wasn’t really a real writer deep down; and, of course, as time started to go on and the fog started to get a grip I found other things to fret about like not being able to read or write and bit by bit I got worse and worse so that I couldn't tell you if I was coming or going or if I’d been and gone.

And then one day, and not for the first time I might add, I looked up ‘brain fog’ on the Internet and there was, as always, this whopping great big list of things that could cause brain fog—a list that would send House apoplexic—but this jumped out at me:

[E]arly 96, things started to go into what I call an "acute" phase for me personally. I began to have migraines two to three times a week. I had an "urgency to pee" that was really frustrating, infections were ruled out by my doctor. But the worst thing was, I began to experience an extreme case of "brain fog" which has been well documented as a symptom of aspartame poisoning (but I did not know this at the time). I felt exhausted 24/7, could barely get through the day, and felt like I was drugged, groggy, not able to concentrate. I would of course drink more diet coke to try to "wake up." I believed I was dying, actually, but no one was able to find anything wrong. The doctors started to treat me like a hypochondriac, and I was very worried.

At the time, I had a friend who had headaches from aspartame, and I always pooh-poohed her claim. I was so addicted to diet coke that I was in total denial that it could be the cause of my problems. She suggested I get off of all aspartame, which I was reluctant to do, because, after all, everyone said it was ok, and how could it possibly cause ALL these problems. No way! But after so many doctor visits with no help, I decided I had nothing to lose. I spent a lot of time wondering "what will I drink?" (a classic sign of addiction). But I did manage to quit, and amazingly enough, there was improvement. About 5 days after quitting, my family and I went on a camping trip over the weekend, and I ran out of drinks. Being not totally convinced yet, I drank two diet cokes on Saturday night, and woke up Sunday morning with the brain fog or grogginess. I knew then, that aspartame was responsible. – Debbie, Google Answers

I thought: What the hell? By this time I was about ready to go back to the doctor and try something, anything. My fear—a not unreasonable one—was that he would jump to the obvious conclusion based on my history and psychologise the problem; I don’t think he was ever one in favour of the chemical-imbalance-in-the-brain school of thought. So I stopped putting the sweetener in my coffee and I stopped drinking the Diet Coke. I’m writing this a week later but the change was visible the very next day. My wife came back from the States a few days ago, said the difference was noticeable and then started testing my mental acuity which she was pleased to see was perceptibly sharper, although my hearing had not improved (but then neither had her mumbling).

So why am I telling you all about this? Well, first and foremost, because if there are any of you out there using artificial sweeteners, do seriously step back and think just how clear-headed you really are. No two of us are the same. I can get drunk off wine gums but both my brother and sister have a high tolerance for alcohol. In general I don’t handle drugs well and it’s just as well I don’t have to take many of them. When I fell into my first depression at about the age of twenty-four I had no idea what was going on with me and it’s only now, almost thirty years and four breakdowns later, that I have a handle on what’s normal for me. The brain fog that came with the depressions was of a certain kind but the one that descended when I started taking the aspartame was nothing less than a pea-souper. Over the last six months I have lost so much time, time I will never get back. I’ve written most of my novels whilst depressed. It’s a rotten thing to experience but it can be worked through. This recent brain fog was like nothing I have ever experienced; completely debilitating. Did I mention the headaches by the way? Again I think I’ve had a constant headache for the last six months. So many things can cause headaches and since I have a lot of neck and back pain anyway (which I keep intending to get seen to but never get round to) I assumed the headaches were all my own fault, took two paracetamol, and soldiered on. An “urgency to pee” is not something I especially noticed but I do tend to urinate a lot, whenever I have the slightest urge and, as I drink so much, I’ve never considered that a symptom of anything worse than a full bladder.

There is a lot about aspartame online. I have no idea how much of it is true, but there is usually no smoke without fire. Wikipedia has an entire article devoted to the aspartame controversy which begins:

FDAThe artificial sweetener aspartame has been the subject of several controversies since its initial approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1974. The FDA approval of aspartame was highly contested, with critics alleging that the quality of the initial research supporting its safety was inadequate and flawed and that conflicts of interest marred the approval of aspartame. […] [C]ritics such as activist Betty Martini have promoted undocumented claims that numerous health risks (such as multiple sclerosis, systemic lupus, methanol toxicity, blindness, spasms, shooting pains, seizures, headaches, depression, anxiety, memory loss, birth defects and death) are associated with the consumption of aspartame in normal doses.

Publicity of this controversy has been spread through an elaborate health scare and "Internet smear campaign" involving hoax e-mails repeating Betty Martini's widely circulated conspiracy theory. Her undocumented claims are still repeated by thousands of self-published Web sites.

Before last week I knew nothing about any of that. All I knew was my wife said that the sweetener with the red lid wasn’t as good as the one with the yellow lid so we bought the one with the yellow lid until they ran out and then, being a frugal (i.e. penny-pinching) Scot I said just buy the red one: “I mean how bad can it be?”

Bad. It can be bad.

I’ve read some of the articles about the sweetener and I find it hard to believe that any chemical could produce all the negative side-effects that people claim—aspartame could not be the cause of nearly every illness out there—and the efforts to which some people have gone to harm the reputation of the product have done as much to discredit themselves which is a shame. I can only speak for myself. So no links to the vast number of sensational claims. It was a spur of the moment decision for me and it worked. It might help you too. Normal is something we all aspire to. None of us really know what normal is, though. We have an inkling what normal-for-us might be but even then that doesn’t mean that we should settle for that just because it’s familiar.

I have no axe to grind. I’m not going to sue James Schlatter who discovered aspartame back in 1965 or G.D. Searle Company, the company he was working with, or the person who first approved it for use in dry goods in 1974 or the one who approved it for use in carbonated beverages in 1983. I’m not even going to write my MP or picket Tesco demanding they stop stocking products that include it in their ingredients. I don’t have time for any of that. I’m simply going to stop ingesting the stuff. And so is my wife. Carrie poured three large bottles of Coke down the sink yesterday and when I get a minute the sweetener is going in the bin too. And I’m going to get on with my work. Finally. And with a clear head.


Editorial note:

The sweeteners of the yellow and red lids to which Jim refers are products containing sucralose and aspartame. While most of the bad press has been garnered by products containing aspartame (e.g. NutraSweet, Equal, Canderel), there are also many claims of problems associated with the ‘yellow lid’ products containing the chlorinated sugar sucralose (e.g. Splenda). If you have an interest you will find hundreds of articles about both. It is difficult to trust the information published to counter these claims since the products are in widespread use and very lucrative. I would like to refer you to an article published by the European Commission's Directorate General for Health and Consumer Protection entitled Opinion of the Scientific Committee on Food: Update on the Safety of Aspartame. While its conclusions do not support the broad body of anecdotal evidence against aspartame, there is enough information in the opinion to make one think hard and long about what you are putting into your bodies. Also not using any kind of sweeteners (and salt sources) opens up a whole new world of taste experience.

Carrie Berry

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Perfect Blue: An introduction to the poetry of Kona Macphee

Perfect Blue

[T]he older I get, the more I value sincerity and directness. I think it’s tragic that “sincere”, at least in the context of the arts, seems to have become a euphemism for “naïve”, typically trotted out in a pejorative way to suggest “well-meaning but amateurish”. What is sincerity, if not simply meaning what you say? – and thus quite the opposite of sophistry, spin and relentless post-modern “irony” (which seems to be euphemistic for “all a big, knowingly self-referential in-joke”). – Kona Macphee

There are not many things in this life I believe in. I believe lots of things but that little preposition makes all the difference as it does with love. I believe that poetry is important—it’s certainly important to me—and I also think I believe in poetry as a force for good. I’m talking here more as a poet as opposed to being a reader of poetry. If no one read any of my poetry it’s still done its job for me; it’s got what’s been going on in my head onto a piece of paper where it’s much easier to deal with it. Over the past few years I’ve talked a fair bit about my process of writing not because I think mine is the right way to go about writing poems but because mine is the only one I have a handle on. I know many writers don’t like to talk about their writing process or even what sparked the idea that grew into a poem and that’s fine but how are new poets to learn anything unless more experienced poets talk about how they write?

Some people have some funny ideas about how one should go about writing. The most obvious one is: Write about what you know. That’s never been why I’ve written. I’m interested in exploring what I don’t know or at least what I don’t know well enough to distil into a few words. The better advice is: Write about what you care about. I suspect that poet Kona Macphee might agree with me here; she strikes me as a caring person. I don’t know her—never met the woman—but I do own a copy of her poetry collection Perfect Blue. She didn’t send me a review copy or anything like that; I actually put my hand in my pocket and bought a copy which is a rare thing for me to do, not because I’m mean or anything (although I am careful with my pennies) but because there are so many older poets whose works I’ve not read that I’m more likely to go for. But clearly there was something about the few samples I read online that piqued my interest. That said the book has been lying around for a good year waiting on me getting round to it. My bad. (To put that into perspective I’ve had Seamus Heaney’s New Selected Poems 1966-1987 sitting beside me for a good six months and have only glanced inside once so she’s in good company.) But now I have and I’d like to tell you a bit about it and her.

The book tells us a wee bit about her:

Kona MacpheeKona Macphee was born in London and grew up in Australia, where she worked as a waitress, shop assistant and apprentice motorbike mechanic. She studied musical composition at the Sydney Conservatorium, violin at the University of Sydney, and computer science and robotics at Monash University, later taking an M.Sc. at Cambridge as a Commonwealth Scholar. She received an Eric Gregory Award for her poetry in 1998, and has published two collections with Bloodaxe, Tails (2004), and Perfect Blue (2010), which won her the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize in 2011.

She is a freelance writer and software developer, and lives in Crieff, Perthshire.

Kona Macphee's website has a microsite linked to it featuring her own commentaries on the poems in Perfect Blue as well as sample poems and audio recordings of her readings

The microsite is of particular interest because there you can download The Perfect Blue Companion, a 58-page booklet in which she talks about poetry in general but specifically provides a commentary to every poem in the collection. I think this is inspired and wish I’d thought to do the same with my own poetry collection in fact I might just do that some time in the future.

I don’t go to poetry readings. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number I have been to in my life. I like the idea of them but the poems just come to quickly—bam! bam! bam!—and you have one go at getting the piece and then they’re onto the next one but I like the idea of poetry readings. I could actually enjoy a reading, were he still alive, by Larkin (not that he gave poetry readings), because I’m already very familiar with the work; I can now enjoy the reading as an experience unique to itself. What Kona noticed was this:

My own interest in audience development is relatively recent. In 2008 I started selling the remaining copies of my first collection to raise money for UNICEF. As part of this fundraising drive, I cozened various "real-world" friends and acquaintances – people who would never normally read poetry – into buying a copy and coming to readings. They often commented that they were able to get into poems more easily at readings because of the preambles: those little bits of background context, or explanation of motivation, that a poet will typically provide when introducing a poem. Even that small amount of informally-delivered information was enough to give this somewhat ambivalent new audience a "way in" to poetry (and yes, some of them retained this newfound interest, borrowing anthologies and exploring further in their own time).

I think this is a very valid point because when I think about being taught poetry at school it wasn’t until the teacher started talking a bit about the poem—its context, where the poet was at in his life, something—that I started to sit up and take some interest; before that I didn’t know how to, as Kona puts it, find my “way in.”

So what’s she’s done in her companion is, in effect, type up the kind of things she might say in between poems. Of course by the time I got round to downloading the pamphlet I’d already been through the collection on my own, not that much stuck, but still that’s more my fault than hers; memory like a sieve.

The collection is broken into three parts, ‘Perfect Blue I’ and ‘Perfect Blue II’ bookend the collection; ‘The Book of Diseases’ is sandwiched in the middle. In his review of Perfect Blue Tim Love is quick to point out that “[a]bout a third of the poems are end-rhymed, and several others are metered in some way, with the elevated diction traditionally associated with sonnets. Patterns abound.” He’s right and if you click over and read what he has to say he provides plenty of examples but in these days when free verse feels like the only verse I’m always delighted to find another poet who, like me, is interested in structure. In an old blog entry she talks about this:

When I’m teaching creative writing, I often like to do an exercise involving constraints – a poem in a highly rigid form, for example, or a set of prescriptive (“Use all these words”) or proscriptive (“Don’t use any adjectives”) rules. It’s one of the most exciting paradoxes of creativity that constraints can actually enhance creative output […] The constraints of something like sestina form can have a similar effect, being both focussing and oddly liberating, and frequently allowing writers to produce a completed 39-line poem in the tight timescale of a workshop exercise.

This reminded me of something I mentioned in my review of Imagine: How Creativity Works:

Unless poets are stumped by the form, unless they are forced to look beyond the obvious associations, they'll never invent an original line. They'll be stuck with clichés and conventions, with predictable adjectives and boring verbs. And this is why poetic forms are so important.

Which brings me to the first poem I’d like to highlight from the collection: ‘The problem of the bees’ which opens with this verse:

beeInside the templed city, writers tend
the stone-walled gardens of their cleverness,
and flaunt them, with the air of pioneers,
who think they’ve mapped the limits of the west,

You can read her commentary on the poem here where you’ll see the poem is not all about writers but this opening stanza also reflects some of the feelings Kona has about academia:

Too often, formal education leaves people with the impression that contemporary poems are cryptic, mocking little devils with (only) complex meanings that must be tortuously unpicked. Combine this perception with the cultural mysticalisation of the poet as a tormented and unstable artiste inhabiting some exotic bohemian niche – wholly "other" – and it's not surprising that people consider poetry with a sense of mistrust, expecting to be tricked by it and made to feel stupid and excluded.

It’s clearly important to her that she finds a balance between stretching herself as a poet whilst still producing accessible work without resorting to poeticisms. I started talking about believing in stuff. A suitable synonym would be ‘trust’ and this is what Kona is aiming at with her commentaries:

It seems to me that a poetry reading will sometimes help to overcome this mistrust precisely because an engaging and informative preamble, delivered in an honest and open way, gives new readers a reason to trust: they can see that the poet is just another ordinary person, who is not attempting to deceive, mock or belittle them but rather to communicate. This allows them to listen neutrally – or even positively – rather than defensively, and be pleasantly surprised by their own enjoyment.

e__e__cummingsIt seems not unreasonable that E E Cummings would be a poet she would be drawn to because, as she said in this old interview, “Cummings captures many of the things I most like in poetry – a distinct individual voice, an incantatory quality, a spiritual and emotional intensity, an absence of heavy-handed ‘look-how-clever-I-am’ erudition.” All you have to do is read her blog to see that she is as down to earth as they come. The first poem in the collection, for example, is about shopping and there’s nothing more everyday than that. Here’s how ‘Iubilate’ opens:

Laden as they were with plastic bags
of all the usual crap they harvested
and carted home, enmazed

within the polished, repetitious panes
of shop displays tricked up like sideshow mirrors
to proffer different selves,

not one amongst the weekend shoppers raised
their eyes beyond that retail paradise
into the vaulted space

starbucks1above the Main Arcade, where one lone pane
of Perspex near the Starbucks end revealed
a colouring of sky

unmired by moss, or weathering, or grime,
a rectangle of clarity restored

In the commentary here Kona talks about how much she hates shopping and “the spiritual emptiness of the shopping-mall” but she never actually explains the title which I thought was remiss of her even though in the commentary on the next poem in the collection she does tell us that a “Pietà (Italian for "pity") is the Christian symbol of Mary cradling the dead body of Jesus in her arms.” I found ‘iubilate’ finally in the Latin expression ‘Iubilate Deo’ (Rejoice in God) but it did cause me to stall right there in the starting blocks.

There are a number of religious images in the book but I’m sure she references them because that’s what she’s familiar with. The poem ‘Addiction’, for example, ends with:

Across the clear-skied coldness of the town,
a starched cathedral cancels its assurances;
the pinned moon suffers on its pointed spire.

and there are plenty of instances where she could have proselytised had that been her inclination but God is more noticeable for His absence than anything else. She’s just as likely to reference Jet Li (‘The short answer’), Chuang-Tze (‘The earthworm’) or Al Capone (‘Syphilis’) as she is God although I did quite appreciate the tiny poem with which she ends the middle section:


Your span’s prescribed by hands unknown;
as to the rest, you’re on your own.
The time is nigh, the hour is close:
you won’t exceed the stated dose.

The Epilogue is a programme most British television viewers of a certain age will be very familiar with. It was a five minute sermonette broadcast at the end of the night (when TV actually signed off); in Scotland we had our own version called Late Call. At least that’s what it reminded me of.

Now for a lot of people a quatrain made up of iambic quadrameters with masculine end rhymes is very old fashioned. And it is. No doubt about it. But is it appropriate to the material? It’s like the poem ‘Self-portrait aged 8 with electric fence’ which begins:

warningI steeled myself
and touched the wire:
it turned my hand
from flesh to fire,

In this case iambic dimeters but exactly the kind of sing-songy verse you would expect from a eight-year-old. But would that eight-year-old have ended with:

and now I reach
for words that sound
each arc of hurt
from hand to ground?

Okay, if the book was full of poems like this I wouldn’t have bought it nor would I be recommending Kona as a poet you should check out but they have their place in her canon just as my own nursery rhyme (‘Nursery Crime’) has its place in mine.

But why write poems like this in the first place? In the introduction to her commentary she’s hinted at it but in this old blog entry she states it in a clearer fashion:

I often wonder how many writers have been driven to write out of a deep and unsatisfied need to be heard. I’m pretty sure it’s true of me, and of many other writers I’ve spoken with or read about. Certainly, it’s easy for creative, introspective types who “march to a different drummer” to end up feeling alienated and misunderstood; perhaps writing is partly an attempt to find an audience (or, in one’s writerly solitude, the fantasy of an audience) that is truly able to receive what one needs to say.


I find the most troublesome kind of not-listening, though, is the kind engendered by defensiveness (for example, in the face of criticism, or some well-worn and seemingly [irresolvable] conflict). In situations like this, where my own feelings of woundedness are pushing me towards self-preservation, towards closing in and shutting out, it takes an incredible effort of will to listen, to really hear what’s being said – and this never seems to get any easier (nor I to get any better at it, sadly).

She wants to be heard. Being heard doesn’t necessarily mean kowtowing to ones audience—i.e. dumbing down—but making them feel comfortable enough to raise their game.

Kona Macphee is a recovering perfectionist and self-declared “slow writer”—it took her years to produce enough poems for her first collection and after seeing it published she found she’s seemingly lost the ability to write:

My not-writing staved off the perfectionist fear of writing badly, but my creative silence nagged at me. In the end, inspired (or perhaps needled) by my husband’s prolific invention blog, I decided to take a risk: I set up a blog of my own, and committed to publishing a poem on it every week. Now, I don’t know if anyone can write an excellent poem every week, but I certainly can’t: therefore, in committing to the blog, I had to give myself permission to fail, and to fail publicly. At the time this required a huge leap of faith, but three years, 158 poems (some good, some marginal and some dreadful) and a new book later, the ability to tolerate my own intermittent crappiness has emerged as the single most useful skill I’ve acquired as a writer.

This is a very honest thing to admit—and a brave thing to attempt (and, no, I’m not following her down that path; I’m perfectly happy writing at a snail’s pace)—because it puts this collection in context. But again it also reveals something about her that she mentions in an interview:

I also like to hope it’s encouraging for new writers to see so-called professionals producing spectacular failures on a regular basis.  None of us should ever be afraid to experiment; a failure’s just a failure, not a huge black stain on one’s character.

She doesn’t actually talk much in her blogs about her creative process which I think is a shame and, of course, the daily poems have all disappeared now but it must have been an interesting experience to see poems you might have read in draft appear, years later, in polished form behind a glossy cover.

Poems should stand on their own and not rely on footnotes or commentary or knowing the author’s life history and these do but once you do know a bit about a writer it’s never a bad thing because you start to look again at pieces you thought larkinyou got not that you got them wrong, it’s just that there’s more to get. When I read her post ‘Love and loneliness’ which ends with her recalling, as a young girl of fifteen or sixteen copying out Philip Larkin’s ‘Talking in Bed’ in her notebook and, as she puts it “already sensing some of its dark veracity”, I couldn't help but remember what I was like at that age and I realised that perhaps not all the sadness I was seeing in the poems was me reading into stuff.

I’ve already said that structure is a big thing with Kona. Here’s one that uses a palindromic word count to shape its stanzas: 1-2-3-4-3-2-1. It first appeared as poem of the week in May 2008. It reminds me both of Larkin in tone and a very old poem I also wrote about a worm in a similar vein. Here is hers:

The earthworm

one imagines
an earthworm dreaming
it might become a
butterfly or even
just Chuang-

share its
urge to fashion
finer dirt from dirt,
to pass what
it passes

the ground
earthworm-info0encompassing what’s left
of life’s green surge
and ebb, what’s
left of

You can read the commentary to the poem here. Word-count forms are not common in the west so the nod to Chuang-Tzu is obviously contrived but this is the kind of poem teachers would encourage kids to write; counting words is much easier than syllables and let’s not go anywhere near meter. The triple-diamante structure is interesting even if it’s not centre-justified on the page. I’m not a big fan of shaped poems but that doesn’t mean I haven’t attempted a few.

There are lots of different kinds of poets out there, all with their own agendas. So why does Kona write? In an article in Poetry Express she writes:

It goes without saying that opinions differ wildly on what poetry is “for”. For me, at least some of the time, writing a poem is about communicating an emotion by recreating that emotion in the mind of the reader – the poetic equivalent, perhaps, of the “Show, don’t tell” dictum beloved of prose writers. In my own experience, the poems most likely to evoke a visible emotional response in readers are those wondrously satisfying ones that had a similar effect on me as I wrote them. I’m certainly not the first poet to notice this; Robert Frost once said:

“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.”

At its most absorbing and enjoyable, writing poetry can feel more like archaeology than construction; rather than creating something new, the poet is delicately dusting and probing to reveal some wondrous artefact that already exists. When a poem is emerging like this, I’ll sometimes uncover something – occasionally an image or metaphor, but most often a line, particularly a closing line – that instantly releases a wave of emotion (in my case, usually grief). Inevitably, it’s these poems that seem to have the most impact on other readers, inducing a similar emotional response.

The best way, of course, to get to know any poet is to read their poetry. The poems I’ve cited or quoted from up until now are not her strongest work. I’ve not included these here because there is a goodly amount accessible online. Five poems from Perfect Blue are available on her website and I found a few elsewhere:

From Perfect Blue

Other poems

As I mentioned above Perfect Blue won The Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize in 2010. Here’s what the judges said about why they chose it:

Her compassion, seriousness and technical accomplishment were all evident over a wide range of subjects and forms. She can also describe moments of vulnerability directly and with courage. It was a book that we found ourselves returning to. What impressed us most of all was the way that Macphee’s work combined clarity and depth with a surprising and sometimes unsettling view of the world.

I don’t have any problems with that description. I am not entirely convinced that all the poems in this collection work and if you’ve read Tim Love’s review mentioned above or this one in Osprey Journal you’ll see some other reservations but she is definitely one to watch.

Let me leave you with a filmed interpretation of her poem ‘Prodigal’, a commission for the Impossible Journeys exhibition for Edinburgh’s Hidden Door 2 festival, which highlights the depth of her writing. It’s not part of this particular collection though. You can find the text here along with four other poems.

Filmpoem 12/ Prodigal from Alastair Cook on Vimeo.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

The Levels


[S]he had been brought up to know things to do with words, and to do with being able to act, as a girl, more like a man than most men do. Open. Strong and direct. She knew what she wanted. – Peter Benson, The Levels

Blokes don’t read love stories. They read about spies and soldiers and adventurers and aliens; they read about shiny things that go fast and explode; dangerous things; exciting things. Offer most men a love story and they’d sniff at it. The odd thing is that all of them will have been in love, probably several times in their lives, and most of those experiences will, especially at the start of those relationships, count as some of the happiest memories in their lives. I’m a bloke and I can report, hand on heart, that that’s true for me; falling in love is wonderful. And, yes, I admit it, especially when I was young and hormone-driven it was sometimes hard to tell the love from the lust but it wasn’t all about the sex; there were genuine feelings there, a sense of belonging, of being more than a son or a student or someone’s mate. Being in love was—is—wonderful. So why, when I look at my bookshelves, are there so few books that deal with it? One of the main reasons I would suspect is that most of my books were written by men—men who, although every single one of them will have loved and (most likely) have been loved back by the object of their affection, never thought to write about it. Odd, eh?

A while back I was sent a review copy of Peter Benson’s last novel, Two Cows and a Vanful of Smoke, which was a decent book but for some reason it failed to charm me; I just didn’t connect with the protagonist. When it came to writing the review I struggled to be objective and, try as I might, I’m sure that my lack of enthusiasm seeped through. I even ended my review with the following:

I feel bad about not being about to be as excited as Christian House in The Independent and I would certainly give Benson another go but I really was the wrong reviewer for this particular one.

It happens. Alma Books have now seen fit to rerelease Peter’s back catalogue as e-books, so I decided I’d give him another go and volunteered to read his first novel, The Levels, which won the Guardian Fiction Prize in 1987, The Author's Club First Novel Award, and a Betty Trask Prize. Since then he has written another seven books although there is a big gap between The Shape of the Clouds (1997) and Two Cows and a Vanful of Smoke (2011). The reason I picked The Levels was not because of the awards nor because this was his first book; I chose it because it was a love story, specifically a story of first love and a coming-of-age story which I’ve always been a sucker for. The title refers to the Somerset Levels, a sparsely populated coastal plain and wetland area between the Quantock and Mendip Hills.

In a recent interview Peter says this about himself:

I’m an instinctive writer. I don’t plan. I don’t write behavioural traits on index cards, or cover a cork board with plot points connected with arrows and colour-coded reminders. I make the occasional note, but beyond that, I simply run with the story, and hope that I’m heading in the right direction. I never know how a novel is going to end, or if any of my people will fall in love, get in the wrong car, eat pasta on a Thursday night, buy a dog, walk into a pub or die. A bit like life, I suppose. And although I always tell students to ‘write the whole thing down and worry about editing when you’ve finished…’ (advice given to me by my first agent) I don’t follow this advice myself, and edit as I go.

This information I have to say enamours me to him because that’s how I write. He also says that every novel he has written has begun with a jolt, something else I can relate to. This particular novel began when its opening line came to him as he was drifting off to sleep:

I riddled the stove, stoked it, and carried the ash to the heap. A breeze came off the sea, miles away, a flooding wind.

Not, perhaps, a contender for the Best First Line in a Novel Ever Aware but I’m not one of those people who believes that if your first line fails it’s all downhill from there.

Two Cows and a Vanful of Smoke[3]Once I started to get into The Levels something dawned on me: this was a very similar setup to Two Cows and a Vanful of Smoke. In The Levels Billy lives at home with his parents where he works in, for want of a better word for it, the family firm—he’s a basketmaker; he has a best friend, Dick, who’s not too bright and prone to getting into bother and during the course of the novel Billy acquires a girlfriend as the story progresses. In Two Cows and a Vanful of Smoke Elliot doesn’t live with his parents but he spends so much time there he might as well, he works as a farmhand, has a friend called Spike who’s not too bright and prone to getting into bother and during the course of the novel Elliot also acquires a girlfriend. The difference—and it’s a significant one for me—is all to do with percentages. In Two Cows the girl is a subplot; in The Levels she’s the fulcrum on which the events rest. Two Cows also suffers from the fact it has a plot; The Levels does not, it’s a slice of life mostly with a bit of reminiscing at the start.

I liked The Levels so if you’re reading this Peter you can breathe a sigh of relief. There is nothing contrived about it. It’s perfectly believable. Billy and Muriel are not Heathcliff and Cathy; they’re not Romeo and Juliet; they’re not Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler. It has more in common with any number of popular holiday romances than anything penned by D H Lawrence and yet it’s so much more. It reminded me of Keith Waterhouse’s seminal work, Billy Liar, specifically the relationship between Billy and Liz. Billy is from the north of England; Liz is from London; they are poles apart and yet draw together. If only Billy has the balls to get on the train for London and head off towards the bright lights with her. Benson’s Billy lives in Somerset; Muriel is from London; the attraction is immediate but Benson’s Billy faces the same predicament at the end of his book as Waterhouse’s Billy: is he willing—or more importantly able—to get on the train with her and leave everything he has ever known?

The Levels begins in the present so it’s not hard to work out what’s happened. This is how Alma’s blurb describes the book:

Drove House has always loomed large over village life. Boarded-up for years, it is reputed to be brimming with ghosts, and is shunned by the locals – all except Billy, for whom it has been the site of childhood dens and secret adolescent adventures. When the captivating Muriel moves in with her bohemian mother, they sweep out the ghosts and breathe new life into both the house and Billy’s quiet rural existence. After an idyllic summer, though, Muriel returns to her life in London, and the newly empty Drove House becomes the backdrop for Billy’s struggle to reconcile the vanishing agricultural lifestyle he has inherited with the glimpses of a baffling new way of life Muriel seemed to offer.

So he doesn’t go. How could he go? His dad’s back’s gone and although the old man potters around acting as if he’s in charge, it’s clear that Billy’s the one that’s got to shoulder the responsibility for keeping the business afloat. For as long as he can. The days when every woman carried her shopping basket with her are dying out; plastic bags are the future and the odds are that Billy will be the last of a dying breed.

During the 1930s, over 9,000 acres (36 km2) of willow were being grown commercially on the Levels. Largely because of the replacement of baskets by plastic bags and cardboard boxes, the industry has severely declined since the 1950s. By the end of the 20th century only about 350 acres (1.4 km2) were grown commercially, near the villages of Burrowbridge, Westonzoyland, and North Curry. The Somerset Levels is now the only area in the UK where basket willow is grown commercially. – Wikipedia

Of course it’s not just shopping baskets he makes but not as many as his father could:

wicker-baskets-imageHe could make more types of baskets than I can name. Cockle pads, Fisking maunds, hundreds of Withy Butts, Seedlips, Creels, Winchesters, Swills, Flaskets, Hampers, Panniers, Pottles and Punnets, Wiskets, Fishtraps, Butter flats and Sieves.

As I’ve said the love story is central to the story but it’s really only the battlefield on which Billy wages a war with himself; with who he is, what he aspires to and what’s important to him. He goes into the relationship a boy and comes out a man although the loss of his virginity has little really to do with the outcome.

That the book is most likely based on Peter’s own experiences is not hard to guess—a great many authors start out there (I was a bit of an exception there)—he was a basketmaker and was living in Dorset at the time The Levels was published although he was actually born in Kent. Dorset borders Devon to the west, Somerset to the north-west, Wiltshire to the north-east, and Hampshire to the east; all part of the West Country as it’s known in the UK. Mostly rural, it’s income comes primarily from agriculture and tourism; being largely flat, the Levels are well suited to bicycles. And it’s tourism that brings Muriel, her bike and her artist mother to the area; they’ve leased the supposedly haunted manor house for the summer, it having lain abandoned for years. Our first encounter with it is years earlier. It is a favourite place for Dick and Billy to go to play. They manage to reassemble a fifteen fowl hen house in the double forks of the tallest tree in the garden and it serves as a tree house for a time until the wind blows it down:

Many things happened there. We played ghosts. We looked through the dirty windows at the rooms, dusty, dark, the views from partly opened doors showing other partly opened doors into rooms we couldn’t see through any window. An overgrown elder scratched at the galvanized roof of a lean-to, once, twice, in a cold winter night.

Only once, though, do they venture inside and allow their imaginations to scare the bejesus out of themselves.

I said that this was a love story but—wisely—Peter doesn’t dive straight into it. Billy does mention the girl in passing a couple of times but the first few chapters of the book concentrate on helping us to build up a clear picture of Billy. Although none of the main characters in the book could ever be said to be two-dimensional, no one is fleshed out like him and this isn’t simply because he’s the narrator, although that obviously makes it easier. It’s actually surprising how little description some of the characters get, Muriel especially. The landscape on the other hand, as I had expected, is thoroughly described; snippets of descriptions slip in everywhere building up a detailed picture of Somerset. Muriel appears as a memory at first as I’ve said but from that very first appearance the differences between the two are obvious:

From my place at the supper table, I could watch the road. A waxing moon slid up the sky, a clearing sky, a gloomy evening mist eased itself into the spaces between the trees that bank the rhines. We ate a tin of apricots and I washed the dishes while they sat down.

When I’d finished, I left the house by the back door, walked through the orchard, and followed the river where it straightens. I walked over South Moor towards Drayton. As the sun grew bigger, it sank, the pink deepened in the hour to an orange and bloody red. I could see Langport and Muchelney Abbey. Many of the houses here are built from Hamstone. They were glowing in the evening. We walked this way once, but all she said was, ‘There are ten people in the world, and eight of them are hamburgers.’ I hated that.

A rhine (or rhyne), or reen (South Wales) (from Welsh rhewyn or rhewin, meaning a ditch) is a drainage ditch, or canal, used to turn areas of wetland at around sea level into useful pasture.

Muriel’s a city girl; you would expect her to be ignorant. She’s no different than the people who visit Billy while he’s working:

I have interested women here, watching, from that association or that guild. They are the kind of people who first came when my father asked them years ago, and I have inherited them. He comes and stands behind them in the door, but can’t be bothered to say anything, who can blame him? Why he ever asked them is a mystery. They have nothing in common with us, other than the word ‘common’, which they think we are. They always ask how many baskets I make in a day and say how nice the workshop smells. I have to tell them about willow. They bore so quickly. They always look lost between something they forgot to do when they were younger and something terrible that is going to happen one day. I try to say things that will make them think I’ve wits, and some things old basketmakers say, like ‘Never stand to the right of a basketmaker’. I tease them. They wear work shirts with ironcreased sleeves. They never buy anything, though say they’re lovely and I’m so clever. One or two ask to have a go, but I tell them I can’t stop. They will crouch and stare at me.

The time period is never stated explicitly but as Peter is ages with me and as a teenager Billy talks about the UK as a member of the EEC, the main events in the book have to take place after 1975 making Billy about seventeen (since he can legally drive) if he’s a proxy for Peter, but he’s young seventeen; I related strongly to him. At times though the book felt as if it was set further back, perhaps in the thirties, but then I imagine life wasn’t that dissimilar to what it had been then.

On the surface there’s nothing that special about Billy’s story; there’s nothing special about Billy. He’s not well educated, lacks life experience, hasn’t travelled far from home and hasn’t much ambition; he’s quite naïve in fact. Muriel, on the other hand, is everything he is not and from the start she realises this is just a fling. Not that’s she’s not fond of Billy but when he says he loves her, the response is not what he might have expected:

‘Muriel,’ I had said, ‘I love you.’ She’d looked up from her towelling, dabbed a string of water off her stomach, and smiled.

‘You love me,’ she said, ‘I’ll never forget.’

Been there. Done that.

This is a gentle short novel—176 pages when out in paperback—but there is a lot to recommend it. I especially liked its cyclical structure. The book ends where it begins:

Spring. A new beginning. I tried to make it so. Another day. I riddled the stove, stoked it, and carried the ash to the heap. A breeze came off the sea, miles away, a flooding wind.

It’s a nice touch.


Peter BensonBorn in 1956, Peter Benson was educated in Ramsgate, Canterbury and Exeter. His first novel, The Levels, won the Guardian Fiction Prize. This was followed by A Lesser Dependency, winner of the Encore award and The Other Occupant, which was awarded the Somerset Maugham Award. He has also published short stories, screenplays and poetry, some adapted for TV, radio and many translated into other languages. His new novel, Isabel’s Skin, described as “a slick gothic tale in the English tradi­tion, a murder mystery, a reflection on the works of the masters of the French Enlightenment and a tour of Edwardian England” will be published by Alma this autumn.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Don't waste my time


Time equals life; therefore, waste your time and waste your life, or master your time and master your life. – Alan Lakein

Time is precious. I say that and it reads like a cliché. Time is valuable but most people aren’t willing to pay us a fraction of what our time is worth. I know what the government says the average wage is—currently that would be about £26,000 per annum—but I’ve never earned anything like that. In fact when I was on £15K I thought that was good money, about £7.70 per hour before taxes. So what is you spare time worth?

I am going to die. Not soon. At least I hope not soon. But we all die. If I live as long as my parents that means I’m two-thirds done. If I read a book a week until the day I die that means I have time for just about 1200 books. I’m two-thirds done and I’ve not read 2400 books. I’ve not read 1200. 600, maybe. As I write this I feel very, very guilty that I have wasted decades of my life. From a scholarly perspective I have and I have to live with that. But I’ve lived an interesting (if not exactly an exciting) life that I’ve been able to draw from. Living takes time and if you don’t live what have you to write about? I met a girl once—androgynous-looking thing she was—a Canadian, who was visiting the UK with her fiancé who was a family friend with latent gay tendencies—an odd couple; let’s put it that way. She just finished university after doing two degrees back-to-back and although she was clever—Christ, was she clever—she was also completely ignorant about life; all her life up till that point had centred around academia and her fiancé was literally the first boy she’d dated. I wonder if they’re still together.

My dad told me that when I got older time would speed up. Now I’m the first to admit that I’m no science geek but I knew that that wasn’t going to be the case and yet the older I get the more time feels as if it is speeding up; weeks scurry past as if they were days and I am always—always, always, always—always behind in my goals. Milligan and Murphy came out three months behind schedule and yet when I look back on those three months, although I know I was busy for every single day of them, I still have this huge list of things to do. I had planned to do another mass submission of poems and stories like I did in 2010 but it’s now 2012 and I only sent out a handful of things last year. What have I been doing? And more importantly was the return on my investment worth the effort involved?

Time management, at least according to Wikipedia, “is the act or process of planning and exercising conscious control over the amount of time spent on specific activities, especially to increase efficiency or productivity.” I’m clearly very bad at it. And, despite the success I’ve had in every job I’ve ever done—shop work, office work, training—I don’t think I’ve ever been especially good at it because I’ve always put in extra hours in all of them; it’s the only way I’ve ever been able to maintain my own personal standards. That’s always been the problem with me. I’ve never been content with ‘good enough’. Good enough was never good enough.

Now I only have my writing to worry about and, unlike so many writers—hell, I used to be one of them—I have all day every day to be a writer. Luxury. Ab-so-lute luxury. And yet I hardly write and it’s starting to annoy me. Honestly I wrote more when I was working sixty hours a week. Writing has never been a job for me. I can’t treat it like one. Not the creative side of my writing. I can sit down—I do sit down—faithfully every day and hammer out articles like this and book reviews no probs—1000 words a day average which is perfectly respectable—but I am finding that I can’t do that when it comes to my fiction. And I think that’s because I see the art of writing as something quite different to the craft of writing. I can sit down any day and write on any subject you give me and it will be competently done, possibly even entertaining and informative but I won’t care about it. Many people say about what they do to earn a living, “Oh, it’s just a job.” And I’ve had just jobs. But my fiction-writing doesn’t feel like it could ever be just a job.

It’s easy to identify where all my time is going. It’s gobbled up by reading blogs, newsfeeds and Facebook entries and I’ve been thinking about a lot of the stuff that I’m reading and it is a complete, total and utter waste of time. Facebook is the easiest to illustrate. In some of the groups there are people who will say something like:

While writing, do you ever find yourself making the same facial expressions your characters do? Like furrowing your brow?

I picked that one purely at random and no offense to whoever posted it if you happen to read this; I could have chosen from a couple of dozen easily. It is actually a fair question. I’d never thought about it before. And I’m not sure I can say categorically that I don’t but I suspect I don’t. So far eleven people have stopped what they’re doing to answer that question. Who knows how many people have read the question, taken a minute to think about it and then decided as they couldn’t think of anything witty to say they’d not say anything at all and they probably spent more time trying to think of something witty that those who actually left a comment. The thing is on its own that question will have only wasted a minute or two of anyone’s time and so you could say, “Where’s the harm?” It’s a cumulative thing though, isn’t it? Ten questions like that will waste ten minutes and then there are the cute photos—which I am guilty of posting—and the blogs telling us what they did on holiday last week and once you add it all up an hour of your life has vanished that you will never get back. I easily spend an hour every day just weeding out the stuff I’m not even going to bother reading. It’s probably more. I should really time myself.

XoomJust before Xmas I got a Motorola Xoom tablet to replace my Kindle which I’ve not been happy with since I got it. Kindle is supposed to read PDFs and it does read them but not very well and, as I have hundreds of articles saved in PDF format (most about Beckett in case you wondered) I really was looking for something that could handle them. That was why I bought the tablet but I discovered that it had other uses that I had not anticipated: I could use Google Reader, e-mails and check Facebook on it and so that’s what I’ve started doing, often while watching TV or while taking a break for a meal or a snack. I scud down the list, identify the stuff I actually want to read and pass on. Most things get my attention for about a second. It seems very harsh but it’s practical because I don’t have time to waste and—and I’m being deadly serious here—if I can’t organise my life so that I’m in a position—clear-headed and refreshed—to do some real writing then I’m going to take an axe to all these other things I’m doing to try and keep up my public profile. If I could see the benefits of putting in all this time—i.e. I was starting to sell a few books—then I might feel that it was justifiable and it’s okay not to write for a couple of years while I attend to this but that’s not the way it’s going.

Why do we do what we do? Before I started blogging I spent a long time—weeks, literally—reading about how one blogged. I knew it was never going to be enough to write and readers would miraculously appear, eager to read what I’d written, so the question was: How was I going to attract them? I found several approaches, different places to list my entries, places like Digg and Stumbleupon, and the fact is after religiously listing my blog I can now boast hits exceeding 8500 per month which works out to about 1400 per individual post since I only post six times a month. That said, only a fraction of those stay on the site for more than a few seconds; it’s terrifying to see how many don’t even hang around long enough to read more than a couple of sentences. I wonder why because, without being cocky about it, I write good stuff most of the time: well-researched and pondered over. The problem is not me. It’s everyone else. We are all so acutely conscious of how little time we have that we quit on things before we give them a chance and I think that’s a terrible shame.

A lot of people, like me, have a regular blogging schedule and that’s recommended. Some hardy souls post daily, others weekly but the frequency isn’t really as important as the regularity. That’s what people say. What I say is that there’s only about two blogs that I subscribe to (out of a total of about 250 currently) that I actually look forward to and both of those individuals (who I will not embarrass by naming) only post once a week. If I didn’t see a post by them in my feedreader by Sunday night I’d go and check to see if there was a problem with the program. Most people could stop posting for weeks and have done and I’ve never even noticed. I feel bad about that but the bottom line is that so many people don’t post stuff that really matters. We post because it’s time to post. Because we think people expect us to post. And they don’t. They really don’t.

The old adage says: If you have nothing good to say, don't say anything at all. I say: If you don’t have anything meaningful to say don’t say anything at all. Don’t waste my time. Don’t waste your time. Time is precious, especially if you’re a writer, especially-especially if you’re a 21st century writer who has to do all the ancillary crap that, in the good old days, other people did for you like arranging promotional material or reading tours or posting out review copies. We don’t have time to waste. So you really need to ask yourself if you’re investing your time wisely. What is the facebookreturn on investment? Return is a hard thing to measure but let me illustrate. I belong to a Facebook group for self-published writers and for a while there the group discussions were being clogged up by incessant promotion: Read my book! Read my book! Will someone please read my goddam book? And a few times I chipped in and pointed out that these people were all frittering away their time marketing to the wrong people. As you all know I do regular book reviews. Mostly I review books by traditional publishers but if I get an interesting offer I’m game to plug anything I think is worthwhile; it would be hypocritical of me not to and I do often feel guilty that I don’t have more time to review some of the excellent independently published material that crosses my path, but there you go. The thing is most of the people in the group do book reviews and all of us have more books in our to-read piles (or shelf in my case) than we can ever get through unless we do nothing bar read those books for a straight year because that’s how long it would take me to read my pile. So why market to people like that? It’s a waste of time. The people we want to locate are those who are looking for something to read. And that’s the hard thing. That’s where investing time in a site like Goodreads is probably a better idea because there will be people there actually (and possibly even actively) looking for stuff to read.

I think all of us would do well to step away from the keyboard for a few minutes and just have a wee think about how we fill our time but especially how we might be guilty of contributing to the burdens of others. My mother had a favourite expression (it’s not new but she liked it): You are what you eat. I have another one: Rubbish in, rubbish out. If we fill our minds with crap what are we going to produce? More crap. Crap begets crap.

This post will fall on deaf ears mostly as is usually the case with good advice but if I get even one of you to stop and think then this post has been worthwhile. That’s me said my piece. I have an hour and a half left this afternoon and I aim to use it wisely. Starting with a fresh cup of coffee if only to stretch my legs.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Magnus Opum

Magnus Opum-GR

Every writer of modern fantasy was influenced by Tolkien to some degree. He was the premiere fantasy writer of the last century, and all of us writing today owe him a huge debt. – Terry Brooks

If you enjoyed JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit there’s a good chance that you’ll enjoy Jonathan Gould’s Magnus Opum. Or not. I guess it all depends on how passionate you were over The Hobbit. Some readers are a bit precious about Tolkien’s work and parodies like The Wobbit and Bored of the Rings don’t sit well with them. I was probably about fourteen when I first read the book and I’d no sooner finished it than I fed a sheet of paper into my dad’s old typewriter and began to pound out a sequel. Several chapters in and with Bilbo and his new companions trapped atop a giant’s table I had pretty much written myself into a corner and so it was with some relief—but really more annoyance—that I learned that apparently Tolkien had already found the time to pen his own not insubstantial follow-up and so I abandoned the project.

Tolkien intended The Hobbit as a fairy story and wrote it in a tone suited to addressing children although he said later that the book was not specifically written for children but had rather been created out of his interest in mythologies and epic legends. This is something Jonathan has also said about his own writing, that it’s not specifically aimed at children—and the reviews from adults of his first two ebooks, Doodling and Flidderbugs, provide ample evidence that grownups can and do appreciate his unique approach to storytelling—but this reviewer most definitely had to access his inner child to enjoy them. Which I did, be they parables, fables, satires or just funny stories. The blanket term he uses to describe his style of writing is ‘dag-lit’ which I discuss in my review of his first two books but if you’ve not read my article this is how he defines it:

It’s a term I’ve used to create a genre for my books, obviously based on things like chick-lit and lad-lit. Dag is Australian slang for someone who is uncool and doesn’t follow the crowd but usually in a funny kind of way. Originally it was an insult (a bit like nerd) derived from the wool industry (the dags are the bits of poo stuck to the wool on a sheep’s bum) but its meaning has been flipped around and many people (myself included) now wear that badge with pride. I like it, partly because, like a true dag, my stories don’t follow the crowd and can be hard to classify. It also gives a sense of the audience I’m writing for. Dags can be young or old, male or female – they just need to have their own unique view of the world. And that’s a good description of the sort of readers I’m aiming for. – L.T. Suzuki, ‘Jonathan Gould Interview’, Author’s Den

That Magnus Opum is derivative goes without saying but I’m going to let Jonathan say it anyway:

Magnus Opum is an epic fantasy with a twist. Tolkien meets Dr Seuss.

It’s an interesting amalgam especially since Geisel felt that children couldn’t handle ancient myths, except those that were largely visual: Thor and his hammer, Hermes and his winged sandals. But then he was thinking about very young children. Neither The Hobbit nor Magnus Opum is suitable for very young children.

The question is: Is it a parody?

Those who oppose parody dismiss it as merely secondary (rather than original) and contend that it tends to mock its model and criticise its target, that it does not pay any respect to acclaimed works of art and their creators, that its humour is tasteless, and that it, therefore, ultimately damages its intertext. Parodists have also been suspected of being envious of the success of others and resorting to parody as a means of revenge. – Beate Müller ed., Parody: Dimension and Perspectives, p.5 – italics mine

There are those who argue for a more positive view of parody but in general the word has been viewed negatively for so many years that they have their job cut out for them. For parody to work well it does rely on a knowledge of the original text and where that is lacking many of the in jokes will fall flat on their faces. Here, for example, is how The Hobbit begins:

the_hobbit_book_coverIn a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle. The door opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with panelled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats-the hobbit was fond of visitors. The tunnel wound on and on, going fairly but not quite straight into the side of the hill—The Hill, as all the people for many miles round called it-and many little round doors opened out of it, first on one side and then on another. No going upstairs for the hobbit: bedrooms, bathrooms, cellars, pantries (lots of these), wardrobes (he had whole rooms devoted to clothes), kitchens, dining-rooms, all were on the same floor, and indeed on the same passage. The best rooms were all on the left-hand side (going in), for these were the only ones to have windows, deep-set round windows looking over his garden, and meadows beyond, sloping down to the river.

And this is how the home of Magnus, the Kertoobis, is described in Magnus Opum:

The village of Lower Kertoob was, as the name suggested, built at the bottom of a shady green hill. When the Kertoobis first arrived there many years ago, there had been talk of establishing another village at the top of the hill, to be called, of course, Upper Kertoob. There were even plans to found a series of In-the-middle Kertoobs on the slopes of the hill as well. As it turned out, life in Lower Kertoob was so idyllic that nobody ever got around to actually making a start on any of these other Kertoobs. Still, the intention was not forgotten, and to that day, the hill was always referred to by the inhabitants below as Upper Kertoob.


Home for most Kertoobis was a little five-sided house, known as a kertottage. Each of the five walls was painted in a different colour, with the brighter sides facing towards the street and the duller sides facing towards the back. The two street-facing walls each had their own separate front door, so you weren’t stuck with going in and out of the same old door every day. The other three walls were filled with an array of oddly sized and shaped windows, to provide numerous different views of the world around.

Inside the kertottage, a very particular floor plan was always followed. There was a master bedroom as well as a spare bedroom because Kertoobis loved sleepovers. Then there was a lounge room, a dining room, and a baking room for making pflugberry pies.

So, yes, there are obvious similarities but I don’t hear a mocking tone here. And that’s an important consideration for me. Here though is how The Wobbit begins:

The WobbitIn a wholly below-ground apartment there lived a wobbit. His apartment was not as nastly, dirty, and wet as a hole, but it wasn't as fresh, bright and fun as a beach house. It was definitely at the "nasty" end of the home spectrum. Plants can cheer a place up, but the wobbit's apartment only had the mold in the walls and the mildew in the bathtub. It was a basement apartment, and that means fungus.

The wobbit was not very well-to-do, and his name was Bunkins. He worked as a barista at a local coffee bar, which was honest work, at least. Prior to that he was in banking.

So, no, I don’t think it would be fair to call Magnus Opum a parody of The Hobbit. It is, however, a pastiche based on the definition in Oxford English Dictionary:

a medley of various ingredients; a hotchpotch, farrago, jumble

This meaning accords with etymology: pastiche is the French version of the Greco-Roman dish pastitsio or pasticcio, a kind of pie made of many different ingredients.

There is no mockery intended here; Jonathan’s not trying to be clever or to get a cheap laugh by ridiculing his source material—think Spaceballs or Saturday the 14th or many of the Carry On flicks—but that doesn’t mean he takes his sources too seriously either. The mocking of course does not need to be malicious—many fans create spoofs to laugh at themselves.

Of course I should point out that The Hobbit itself is not all that original. There is a long article in Wikipedia where Tolkien’s influences are discussed; The Hobbit clearly owes a debt to Norse mythology and I no sooner read that than I heard the opening words to Noggin the Nog:

In the lands of the North, where the Black Rocks stand guard against the cold sea, in the dark night that is very long the Men of the Northlands sit by their great log fires and they tell a tale... and those tales they tell are the stories of a kind and wise king and his people; they are the Sagas of Noggin the Nog.

Edward Wyke-Smith's Marvellous Land of Snergs, with its 'table-high' title characters, strongly influenced the incidents, themes, and depiction of Bilbo's race in The Hobbit; Mirkwood appeared first in The House Of The Wolfings by William Morris, Samuel Rutherford Crockett's historical novel The Black Douglas was a touchstone as was the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf.

Nothing is truly original. But that’s okay.

As much as there are obvious similarities between Tolkien’s Middle-earth and Gould’s world there are differences: the quasi-medieval world populated by dwarves, elves, trolls and various monsters, or their counterparts—check; the small, meek, overlooked hero on an epic quest—check; the powerful villain who is set on world domination—not really; the strange, magical artefact that can save everyone—again not so much, in fact there’s no magic whatsoever in Magnus Opum.

FoxInSocksBookCoverBut what about Dr Seuss? I didn’t grow up with him and it wasn’t until I had a daughter of my own that I read my first book of his which I think was The Cat in the Hat Comes Back and perhaps one other; Fox in Socks rings a bell. To this day I’ve not read his best known books.

Most of the time, Ted never even thought of himself as a children's author. He simply did what he did: drew pictures and wrote rhymes. Honing his style with his first books, driving himself (and the other authors writing for Beginning Books) to mercilessly high quality standards, his style remained essentially unchanged through the years. Other than his brief stint at research in 1949, Ted basically never considered that he was writing for children. He was happy that adults and children loved and bought his books, but he wrote and drew to amuse himself. – Melissa Kaplan, Theodor Seuss Geisel: Author Study, 1995

What we get when grownups write about him is usually along the lines of what Dr Seuss himself called “bunny-bunny” tripe. That is, he was “everyone’s inner child”; he was “the master of the batty and wacky, the lord of the goony and loony,” the “creator of inspired lunacy,” and so forth. In other words, cotton candy cuteness. Fun, fluff, and frivolity along with an occasional commonplace moral lesson, we are left to understand, is about all we can expect from this man who himself abhorred the “cute.” – Robert L Short, The Parables of Dr Seuss – p.x

The fact is that there is hidden depth to what this man wrote:

The Lorax (1971), about environmentalism and anti-consumerism; The Sneetches (1961), about racial equality; The Butter Battle Book (1984), about the arms race; Yertle the Turtle (1958), about Hitler and anti-authoritarianism; How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1957), criticizing the materialism and consumerism of the Christmas season; and Horton Hears a Who! (1950), about anti-isolationism and internationalism. – Wikipedia

And the same is true when we look at the writing of Jonathan Gould. All you have to do is look at what people have written in their reviews of Doodling and Flidderbugs—which you can read here and here—to see that there is a surprising depth to his writing. How many kids’ books get called a “social satire” let along a “political satire” and yet these are accurate descriptions of both books.

So, is Magnus Opum also a satire?

Not so obviously as the previous books, although there are satirical elements. The common factor that runs through all of Jonathan’s books so far has been one of difference especially the inherent difficulty in communicating with someone else who is holds an opposing viewpoint or simply who sees the world a little differently to you. The most obvious example is the difference in ideologies held by the Triplifers and the Quadrigons in Flidderbugs: the tribes disagree on just about everything but the most fundamental issue on which they cannot see eye to eye is with regard to how many points the leaves on the Krephiloff Tree should have: the Triplifers are adamant it is three, the Quadrigons insist it is four. It takes one member from each tribe to put aside their differences and listen to the opposing view before peace can be achieved. And that’s very much what happens in Magnus Opum. Only in this case we have The Glurgs versus everyone else; everyone else being the Kertoobis, the Doosies, the Cherine, the Oponiots, the Querks, the Frungoles, the Gleeprogs and the Pharsheeth and a few others.

And this is another area where we see a nod to Dr Seuss in the fact that a number of the aforementioned races are anatomically outrageous, e.g. the Doosies have three ears, “two in the normal places and another on the back of their heads – so they could hear absolutely everything that was said by anyone in the vicinity” and then there’s the Gleeprogs, “a race of highly evolved fish capable of living on land, [but who had yet] to evolve lungs and so were required to go around with large bowls of water over their heads.” The important thing is that Jonathan doesn’t just insert a bizarre creature or character without some explanation and this is something Geisel felt strongly about:

This is the crux … a man with two heads is not a story. It is a situation to be built upon logically. He must have two hats and two toothbrushes. Don’t go wild with hair made of purple seaweed, or live fireflies for eyeballs … Children analyse fantasy. They know you’re kidding them. There’s got to be logic in the way you kid them. Their fun is pretending … making believe they believe it. – quoted in Thomas Fensch, The Man who was Dr Seuss: The Life and Work of Theodore Geisel, p.97

Seuss is, of course, world famous for the (occasionally groanworthy) rhymes in his books. This is not so evident in Magnus Opum. There are a few rhymes like:

If you’re after the newsy,
Then speak to a Doosie.


If you seek for the truth, of course,
Never make a Doosie your source.

and a number of songs that Shaindor has a habit of spontaneously bursting into but they’re more reminiscent of The Hobbit than anything Seuss wrote. In Magus Opum Shaindor sings:

Oh Mountains of Mounji, so high in the air,
When I climb your great heights I forget all my cares.
I shall breathe your fresh breeze, dip my feet in your streams,
And be carried away to a land of sweet [dreams].

And in The Hobbit Thorin sings:

Far over the misty mountains cold
To dungeons deep and caverns old
We must away, ere break of day,
To find our long-forgotten gold.

Labyrinth-Movie-Poster-copyThere is, however, a playfulness to Jonathan’s use of language that does remind me of Seuss. For example, wherever the diperagoff is mentioned it is always referred to in full as “the seldom seen but much discussed diperagoff” no matter who’s doing the talking; likewise the Drungledum Valley always gets called “dingy, dungy Drungledum Valley” which reminded me also of the Bog of Eternal Stench from Labyrinth.

This is how the book begins. Some months earlier Jangos, Magnus’ brother, had got the Grompets:

On the whole, Kertoobis were the most settled race you could possibly imagine. Their idea of excitement was sitting around on the main street discussing the pros and cons of using fresh or preserved fruit in pflugberry pies. Their idea of adventure was going out through the left door and in through the right door every day except Wednesdays, when they liked to reverse the pattern. But every so often, strange things happened to individual Kertoobis. They would get a kind of wanderlust, a desire to go out and see the big wide world around them. This desire was so inexplicable to the average Kertoobi that a name had come into use to describe it, a name that was uttered with amazement and fear. That name was the Grompets and Jangos had as bad a case of it as Magnus had ever heard.


There were a number of treatments recommended for the Grompets but these generally involved ropes, chains, shackles and large buckets of water, none of which Magnus was keen to impose on his brother.

And so, one day, Jangos upped and left. At first he sent back reports of his travels and the wonders he had seen—delivered by messenger flythrops (birds with bright lilac wings and bulging green eyes “frequently used as a delivery service due to their rare gift of being able to read minds through pictures”)—wonders like “the glistening gardens of Glen-Arbee and the sweeping sands of the Drushida Dunes.” And then, one other day, the reports stopped. Finally, some three months later, a pair of Doosies arrive in the town:

Of all the races, Doosies were the biggest storytellers and gossips you could ever meet. They had three ears – two in the normal places and another on the back of their heads – so they could hear absolutely everything that was said by anyone in the vicinity. In addition, they had long, prehensile noses, perfect for sticking into other people’s business. Unfortunately, they only had one eye and not a very good one at that, so there were often substantial discrepancies between what they heard and what had actually happened. Not that this ever got in the way of a Doosie telling a good story.

One of the stories they have to recount concerned the discovery of “[t]hree bodies … on the road leading to the rim of the fabled Whounga Canyon, famous for its iridescent cliffs;” two Cherine and a Kertoobi with a letter addressed to Magnus Mandalora. Glurgs are blamed for the crime. Overcome with grief Magnus quickly determines to seek vengeance:

Magnus found it difficult to even think the word, let alone say it. It was one that was not often uttered in the village. The Glurgs. The most horrifyingly revolting, detestably repugnant creatures ever to have defiled the world. Vicious and savage and ruthless and cruel. The Glurgs were the scourge of all other races, the enemy in a great struggle that had gone on for as long as history had been recorded.

A great wave of fury swept over Magnus. He hated the Glurgs for what they had done to his brother, hated them like he had never hated anything before. He wanted to hurt them like they had hurt Jangos. He wanted to kick them and beat them and bash them and mash them till nothing was left of the whole accursed race but the slimy, squalid mulch they had been born from.

So our hero’s quest begins but it’s not for something tangible like a holy grail or a ring; no, it’s for something abstract. No sooner has he set out on his travels than he encounters the Plergle-Brots and would have perished there in the Plergle Swamp were he not rescued by one of the mighty Cherines, Shaindor, who serves as his guide and protector until they reach the city of the Cherines, Sweet Harmody. No better ally could he have hoped to run into because “[t]he Cherines had been at the forefront of all the great Glurg Wars;” they had defeated them in the past, driven them from their lands and destroyed all their strongholds bar one, Hargh Gryghrgr, where, Magnus learns, they have been amassing troops for a new assault. When in Sweet Harmody, Magnus finds his quest modified. He is asked to volunteer to act as a spy on behalf of the Cherines. He is to infiltrate Hargh Gryghrgr and discover what “the Krpolg” is; they fear it is a terrible new weapon and are hesitant to attack the Glurg without this intel. With Shaindor as his protector and with a Pharsheeth, Biddira, as their guide they set off to find the Parghwum Pass that will lead them over the mountains. So not quite The Wizard of Oz but when they stop to consult the wisdom of the Great Oponium I did wonder a little.

The Hero’s Quest is one of the basic fantasy plots and on the surface you would think that The Hobbit ticked all the boxes only it doesn’t really. For starters there is no clear antagonist. Smaug, the dragon, is merely an obstacle to overcome as is the Blerchherchh in Magnus Opum. The great quest Bilbo sets out on is to reclaim treasure stolen by the marauding dragon, something tangible, but even once the mysterious Krpolg enters the picture Magnus’ quest is still abstract; rather than revenge he finds himself looking for information which, admittedly, will hopefully lead to his being able to avenge his brother’s murder. Bilbo certainly has a wizard as one of his travelling companions and “supernatural” aid is a key element of the Hero’s Quest—even in Star Wars Episode 4: A New Hope, Obi-wan Kenobi gives Luke Skywalker a lightsaber, an object that later helps him confront his father, Darth Vader—all Magnus gets handed is the letter-opener that belonged to Gronfel the Brave since he’s too small to wield the legendary warrior’s actual sword. The real question is what are Bilbo and Magnus fighting for in the end? Both start off with one goal in mind and end up in a completely different place.

Both books begins in peace—in the case of Magnus we first meet him out in his pflugberry field, trying to get his borse, a creature worthy of Dr Seuss that “looked a little like a cow and a little like a pig and not an awful lot like a horse at all [and whose] two legs on the left were substantially shorter than the two legs on the right,” to plough a straight line—and both books ends in peace but it is a different kind of peace. Life goes on as normal but things are not normal. And only the privileged few know what’s different. When Bilbo returns home he finds he is no longer accepted by respectable hobbit society but he doesn’t care; Magnus, following his return, is “regarded as a bit odd, rather grumpy … and extremely private, but as the Kertoobis were by and large a tolerant lot, this was all fine by them.” The difference is knowledge. Magnus returns home knowing a truth that most of the Kertoobis, the Doosies, the Cherine, the Oponiots, the Querks, the Frungoles, the Gleeprogs, the Pharsheeth (and, it turns out, even the Glurgs) are not ready to accept. It feels anticlimactic, but it’s realistic. If he had marched back into his home town wearing the Golden Fleece things might have been different. Instead he is just older and wiser.

Lord of the RingsBottom line, then. When I first read The Hobbit I loved it—that’s obvious—but I was younger then. I’ve never read The Lord of the Rings (I did see the films and, Christ, they were long) but I cannot in all honesty think of any other work that one might classify as fantasy that I have read. Not Stephen R. Donaldson, Robert Jordan, Robert E. Howard, George R.R. Martin or even Sir Terry Pratchett. And so I have to admit that I wasn’t looking forward to read Magnus Opum as much as you might imagine, considering how effusive I was when writing about his previous works of fiction. It was the Hobbit thing. No matter how good a job he was going to do with this from page one I saw ‘Magnus’ and read ‘poor man’s Bilbo’. It was, for me at least, impossible not to and that was the book’s downfall because it’s not The Hobbit. And I don’t think I am especially precious about the book. It’s just a hard act to follow. That said, with all the current interest in Peter Jackson’s forthcoming film I have little doubt that those who have read all of Tolkien and are desperate for the next best thing (or next-best thing) will be tempted by Jonathan’s book and I expect the majority will be pleased by what they find there; it’s certainly a far cry from The Wobbit. I do wish though that he had displayed more originality. Yes, make it a fantasy quest by all means, but not a pastiche of The Hobbit and not another story where the moral, for want of a better word, is that different does not equal bad.

As I wrote this there are seven 5-star reviews on Amazon and a couple of 5-star reviews on personal blogs and I fully expect there will be more by the time I post this. I don’t give stars and everyone is entitled to their own opinion. The question I have to answer, though, before I finish is this: Does the book succeed in doing what the author intended it to do? I would have to say: Yes, and I think a lot of people will enjoy this, BUT I think he is capable of more and, for my money, this book only highlights his potential. I look forward to seeing what he comes up with next. Just please not a Rocky Horror Show / Fraggle Rock mashup.

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