humour

Petrified by proper poetry

A good five years ago I thought I’d lost my affinity for poetry, though more recently I decided maybe I’d just been reading the wrong kind of stuff. In the meantime I started using haikus as writing exercises but that was as close to writing poetry as I got.

Recently we talked about poetry at an Ilkley Writers meeting. There were a couple of poets present, but a few of us were in the ‘frightened of poetry’ camp. Frightened of the rules, frightened of getting it wrong, of being found out by ‘real’ poets, sounding pretentious and making fools of ourselves. We’d all been put off poetry at school, with sonnets and rigid rhyming schemes, then looked at ‘grown up’ poetry with no rhyme or reason (sorry…) and felt completely adrift. I quite like rhyming poetry, I said, and someone else (who’s keen to start writing poetry) agreed. I suggested, if she wants to write poetry and is having trouble, why not try rhymes? Rhyming poetry’s for kids though, she replied. And there lies one of the problems.

If anyone’s familiar with the Hancock’s Half Hour episode The Poetry Society from 1959, they will know where I’m coming from. Proper poetry for grown ups must be deep and serious, must not contain any rhymes, and absolutely on pain of death must not be intelligible to the casual reader on the first run through. If performed, it should be intoned with plenty of pauses and a frown. The casual listener (of which there will be few) should be made to feel like the dunce at the back of the English class.

Thankfully, this is not universally true, as I’ve been discovering lately, but it’s been true often enough (or has seemed true, at least) that some of us have taken it on board and shied away. One of the group (not a poet, but not frightened of poetry, in fact he’d just written a humorous rhyming poem about Charles Darwin’s sojourn in Ilkley) pointed out that popular poetry, the stuff that engages audiences and sells festival tickets, is usually funny and may or may not rhyme, by the likes of John Hegley and Roger McGough (he didn’t mention Pam Ayres but I guess she’s a popular entertainer poet too. Personally, I’ve never got past her accent but I applaud her use of it – more people should keep their regional accents). A poet in our group told me lots of modern poetry rhymed: WH Auden and Tony Harrison to name two. Tony Harrison had come up in conversation elsewhere that week, to do with dialect (of which undoubtedly more later) so I ordered a book of his poetry at my local library and I’ll see how it goes. While I was there I picked up a slim volume by Helen Burke, whose poetry I’d enjoyed at a reading a few months earlier. I may be beginning to lose my poetry fear.

John Hegley and Helen Burke poetry books

Advertisements

A Blink of the Screen, short fiction by Terry Pratchett

I might not have read this collection if my dad hadn’t recommended it then lent me it, which just goes to show something or other. Years ago, near the height of my Pratchett-fandom, I read a couple of pre-Discworld novels (The Dark Side of the Sun, and Strata) and my boat, as it were, remained distinctly unafloat. I haven’t fancied reading his recent sci-fi collaboration with Stephen Baxter, though I did enjoy a radio adaptation of Nation, and I don’t recall reading any of Terry Pratchett’s short stories. So a whole book of them, well over half of which was non-Discworld output, didn’t sound like I needed to rush out and read it (as indeed I haven’t, it came out in 2012). Occasionally (whisper it) I can be wrong, a little hasty in my judgement, for not only did A Blink of the Screen turn out to be most entertaining, the Discworld offerings on the whole were the weakest of the lot.

The non-Discworld stories in the book cover the period 1963-2010 (Discworld 1992-2009), some serious but most with his trademark humour to the fore, and mostly within the broad spectrum of speculative fiction (horror, fantasy, science fiction or some blend thereof). Each one has a short (or not so short) introduction by Pratchett, setting it in context or adding a relevant anecdote. Twenty-four pages of colour illustrations are slotted in, mostly by Josh Kirby, quite a few you probably haven’t seen before. There is also a foreword by AS Byatt which gives an unexpected glimpse into her life – I love the thought of her curling up with a Discworld novel after a long day writing Literature.

I can’t quite decide whether this is a fan’s book or not. There are definitely some parts of the Discworld section that are strictly for the fans (football cards tied in to Unseen Academicals, for instance), and a deleted extract from a Granny Weatherwax/Nanny Ogg story called The Sea and Little Fishes. However, even some of the Discworld parts should have wider appeal, like the story for The Times Higher Education Supplement in 2005 in which various senior members of the Unseen University discuss the ludicrous idea of inspecting and somehow measuring the productivity of a university, which any academic subject to the REF will surely raise a weary smile at. Among the non-Discworld gems are the character who turns up to meet his author, the time-traveller called Mervin who ends up somehow in Camelot mistaken for Merlin, and the computer who believes in Father Christmas. All in all, as long as you’re comfortable at the comic fantasy end of SF, I imagine there will be plenty in this collection to keep you entertained for a while.

I wrote this review a week or two before Terry Pratchett died, then put it aside for later as I often do. It meant that at the time of his death I’d recently been reminded just how good a writer he was, which I’m very glad about.

Becoming a Geordie by long proximity

Cover of Larn Yersel' Geordie by Scott Dobson

An invaluable guide. Well, quite entertaining anyway.

A few years ago in a post about rendering accent in writing, I mentioned that after 10 years of living among Geordies I’d attempted to write a Geordie character, only for OneMonkey to recoil in horror at my ineptitude. Well, a couple of weeks ago I had another go (completely different story, and characters) and this one passed muster. I’m not saying it would fool a native, just that OneMonkey judged it bearable.

I had a feeling I might do better this time, I can now read and interpret the whole of the 1960s educational pamphlet Larn Yersel’ Geordie, even if I can’t say most of it out loud. I have understood each one of OneMonkey’s uncles in normal conversation, and barely notice that his dad speaks a completely different dialect from me. Despite living back in West Yorkshire (‘the South’ as OneMonkey calls it) for years, I appear to be morphing slowly into a North East native, scoring 100% on the Chronicle’s How Geordie Are You? quiz (though I’m not convinced of its scientific accuracy…) and recognising more than half of these You know you’re a Geordie when… signs in myself. Time to go recalibrate myself with some Yorkshire dialect poems.

Queen Lucia by EF Benson

This 1920 novel of middle-class country life never fulfilled its comic potential, sadly. There were a scattering of amusing episodes that went nowhere, and an awful lot of everyday life that made me shake my head in despair rather than laugh.

Mrs Emmeline Lucas, universally known as Lucia due to her pretentious scattering of Italian phrases in conversation, is undisputed queen of Riseholme society. This doesn’t seem like much of a prize to me, as the village of Riseholme appears to house some of the most vain, selfish, mean-spirited, shallow and catty members of the idle rich around. Nevertheless, where Lucia leads her subjects gleefully follow, at garden parties, musical evenings and the like. She sets the local tastes in art and literature despite having little qualification to do so. During the summer of this book, however, there are stirrings of rebellion – some of her subjects start trying to think for themselves, and what’s more, there are outside influences. Naturally, chaos ensues.

At times Queen Lucia feels like it’s going to be a satire, at other times a farce, but for me it never quite works as either and perhaps it only set out to be a gently comic novel that I’d have enjoyed if I’d been around at the time. It’s not angry socialism rearing up, for I’ve enjoyed a multitude of Evelyn Waugh, PG Wodehouse and F Scott Fitzgerald novels containing more than their fair share of spoilt rich creatures. I just couldn’t find any point of contact with patronising Mrs Lucas and her ‘silvery laugh’ and her baby talk (‘Me vewy sowwy’) though I did have some sympathy for her sidekick, camp middle-aged bachelor Georgie with his dyed hair, and talent for embroidery.

Queen Lucia is the first in a series and I believe some or all of the novels have been adapted for TV. That might be more successful as the comic potential could be developed and brought to the fore. I downloaded it for free so anyone who feels they might have more luck with it can do the same, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

Writing in alphabetical order

This month’s exercise at the Telegraph Short Story Club is a 26-sentence story in alphabetical (or reverse) order. These were my first 2 slightly tongue in cheek attempts:

As if by magic the shopkeeper appeared. Ben jumped, dropping the packet of Smarties he’d been about to slip in his blazer pocket.

“Caught you,” the man sneered. “Damned kids, thinking they can get one over on me. Every year it’s the same, I’d flog the bloody lot of you.”

“F-f-flog?” stammered Ben, who was shocked but not as frightened as his occasional speech impediment made him seem.

“Go on, hop it before I ring your headmaster.”

Hurrying out of the corner shop before the old man could change his mind, Ben collided with someone hurrying the other way. If there was one person Ben should never have run into, it was Jack Grosvenor. Jack was feared and loathed in equal measure, an arrogant, swaggering bully from the fifth form, manipulative and sly.

“Knightley, what the hell do you think you’re playing at?” he barked. “Let’s see. Maybe you could make it up to me.”

Nearby was an independent record shop that was slowly going out of business. Our Price records had opened up a few streets away and all the schoolboys took their pocket money there these days.

“Perhaps you could liberate a cassette or two for my listening pleasure,” suggested Jack. “Quickly, I didn’t mean next week.”

Running along the street away from Jack, Ben’s stomach was doing somersaults and he felt like keeping going. Sprinting into the sunset, as it were. Tomorrow he’d have to go to school though, and Jack would find him and make him pay. Under the watchful eye of the record shop owner, Ben sidled down an aisle, watching the watcher rather than looking where he was going. Vinyl cascaded across the floor and Ben legged it, grabbing the nearest tape box while the shopkeeper’s attention was elsewhere.

“What have you done to my LPs, you little hooligan?” he bellowed.

X-Ray Spex were belting out Germ Free Adolescence from a builder’s radio as Jack kicked his heels in the street.

“Yes!” he shouted, punching the air when he saw Ben running towards him with a cassette box, but then he saw what it was. “ZZ Top, bloody hell.”

And going the other way…

Zaphod Beeblebrox was Alan’s role model. You would have thought he’d have picked someone better, or at least more achievable. Xena, Warrior Princess, had in fact been his first goal, but it had been doomed to failure. When his wife found the costume at the back of the wardrobe she assumed it was for her, and flounced off to Birmingham for sisterly solidarity and a good moan. Vadim next door had been most understanding, helping Alan come to terms with his new life. Until then, Alan had wondered if he might be suppressing his feminine side, hence the aspirational Xena (thus avoiding anything too pink and girly), but the way he took to baking his own pies in his wife’s abandoned pinny he thought that couldn’t possibly be it. That was why he’d gone for a real man’s… alien, on his next attempt.

Smooth-talking, super-confident Zaphod had been the stand-out character for Alan, when he’d read the Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy all those years ago. Regrettably, he was more of an Arthur Dent by nature, and the change in approach wasn’t easy. Quite how all those slick suits at the posh bar next to the station managed it, he wasn’t sure. Pheremones, maybe. Or the size of their wallets. No matter how hard Alan tried to throw himself into being cool or wild he couldn’t bring himself to do it. May I buy you a drink, he’d say. Like Zaphod would bother asking! Killer chat-up lines just weren’t compatible with the thickness of glasses Alan needed to wear, and it was about time he faced it.

Jenny had been watching the man with the bottle-bottom specs all evening. Intrigued by the loud suit and cocktails which didn’t seem to go with the rest of him, she decided to go over and liven up her night.

“Have we met before?” she asked, leaning against the bar next to him.

“Gosh, I don’t think so,” he said.

“Funny, I could have sworn you looked familiar. Excuse my mistake.”

“Don’t worry about it,” he said.

“Can I join you anyway?” asked Jenny. “By the way, what’s your name?”

“Alan,” said Alan, wishing it was something cooler and wondering what Zaphod would do next.

If you feel inspired (and really, how could you not) do come and join us.

Diary of a disorganised writer

Tuesday morning: Remember there’s an interesting submission deadline on Friday. 1000 words doesn’t sound too daunting, not too late to start. Use the commute to write copious notes on proposed story.

Tuesday evening: Write 350 words of story, not bad. Retire for the night feeling positive.

Wednesday evening: Have crisis of confidence, then get sidetracked by discovering some particularly useful parish registers for family history have been scanned in and are available for free online. Drifting off to sleep, remember Wednesdays are supposed to be blog days.

Thursday evening: Abandon the 1000-word story. It’s too near the deadline and anyway it wasn’t going anywhere. Back to parish registers.

Friday: Final week of two MOOCs to catch up on. No time for writing.

Saturday evening: Check writing diary and notice the deadline was Sunday not Friday. Re-read the 350 words, decide it has potential. Strip away 50 words, bang out 900 more, prune a further 200. Fall into bed, smug but exhausted. Realise it still needs a title.

Sunday morning: Spend two hours thinking up titles. Go with the one that first suggested itself as sleep beckoned last night. Sit back with a cup of tea, feeling proud.

Sunday afternoon: Remember to submit story. Write delayed blog post. Make mental note to keep better track of deadlines in future. Find half-written blog post from Monday.