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Monday, 21 December 2009

The last post




Well, that’s me for this year. I’ve decided to take a couple of weeks off over Christmas and New Year, a couple of weeks off from blogging that is. This will be my last post of 2009.

I’m not one who gets over-reflective at this time of year but I did check my stats for the last twelve months and I was pleased to find that I’ve had just shy of 40,000 hits. When I started this blog back in August 2007 I never imagined it would do so well. I wasn’t even that sure I could keep up a blog for this long. I thought I’d’ve dried up yonks ago and yet here I am 263 articles later and I’m still churning them out. We’ll have to see what 2010 brings.

2010, eh? Christ, when I was a kid I never thought I’d still be alive in 2010. What I want to know is where are all the flying cars and tinfoil suits?

My most popular post this year was actually a book review, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, with 1046 hits in 9 months, however, I think that in time Why I hate love poetry, which managed a respectable 882 hits in only 6 months, will be the overall winner. My most popular post to date is still Beckett’s voice with 1441 hits, after that we have When I was Five I Killed Myself with 1329 hits and then One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. It’s the articles on poetry that dominate the chart though. There’s clearly still a great deal of interest in the subject.

I’d just like to say a thank you to everyone who has taken a few minutes out of their busy lives to share them with me. If I could perhaps book a few in advance for next year before they all get clogged up I’d be very grateful. A special word of thanks goes to all those who’ve made the effort to pass comment on my efforts. Since most of you have your own blogs I don’t need to tell you how encouraging that can be. And an extra special word of thanks goes to my good wife who proofreads and edits everything that goes up here; I’d be lost without her and that’s a fact because I’m pretty lost with her.

Can I wish all of you a very Merry Christmas and, when it comes, a Happy New Year? I’ll see you all on the other side.


Thursday, 17 December 2009

A poem is not a puddle


I'm unsure how helpful this will be to anyone out there; in fact I suspect some of you might find it quite boring. But I've been meaning to try and cover this topic for a while and I'm hoping it might be helpful in some way. I'm going to talk about two poems which were both written under much the same circumstances. In the first case I was lying in bed unable to sleep. In the second I'd literally just got into bed when the idea came. In both cases I got up, went through to my office, took an A4 sheet of paper, drafted the piece and then went back to bed. In both cases this process will have taken maybe five minutes. What you see on the page is literally a dump and this is how I work with every poem I write, I get the words out of my head and onto the page. Once they're on the page I can't forget them. If anyone could be bothered writing down my Laws of Poetry, Rule #1 would likely be Never be without a means to record your poetry and Rule #2 would be Never keep an idea for a poem in your head longer than you absolutely have to.

I've been asked before: Where do your ideas for poems come from? and the simple fact is they're how the thoughts in my head resolve themselves. Some people dream, others write poetry, some (Samuel Taylor Coleridge) even write poetry in their dreams. That sounds like a rather romantic notion but I'm being quite serious. So many people talk about how they often dream about the last thing that was on their mind as they slept so why is it so unreasonable that a poet end up writing a poem about same? I don't think it is.

This is not a How to Write Poetry Guide. This is simply a record of what I have done to end up with a poem. In both cases the poems appeared in my head as a clump of words, what usually ends up in the final piece as a whole stanza, maybe two. Let's look at the first poem:


This is how the poem 'Background Silence' began life. If I can transcribe it for you it reads:

Background Silence

The silence was always there
behind the noise of everyday life
               cars and mobile phones
Just as
The emptiness was always there
behind the façades of faces and houses
               smiles and frowns
Just as
the blankness was always there
behind the words on the page

There is always something in our road
keeping us from the truth.

The text in black was written first, then the red, then the blue.

And this is what the final poem looks like. The text in blue is what remains of the original draft:


The silence was always there
behind the

sounds of monitors and pumps

just as

emptiness was always there
behind the

well wishes and smiles and lies

just as

the blankness was always there
behind the
on every card you read


there is always something
block our view
of the nothingness that is


Tuesday, 04 August 2009

The poem has now been shaped into alternating stanzas of 7-3-7 and 2 syllables. The structure came quite naturally the lines wrapping around the 2 and 3 syllable lines that give the poem a rocking motion. A syllabic structure has its weaknesses, that I concede, because, just as in music, sometimes we have, for example, 3 beats in the space of two or words where we skip over syllables. I mean who says ev-er-y these days? In olden days if poets wanted to drop that middle syllable they'd make sure we knew by writing ev'ry but that would distract today's readers.

Acciaccatura_notation If I read the piece and find that it doesn't scan then I'll look for alternative words. You'll see that I've dropped the definite article before 'emptiness was always there' because it adds an unnecessary syllable. The poem wouldn't fall to pieces if I left it – most people wouldn't even notice (they'd flick over it like a grace note) – but I would.

The first draft is generalised, the final version, contextualised. You can see the lines that jumped out at me:

the blankness was always there
behind the words on the page

Blank cards! As soon as I had cards in my head I thought about where we use cards. The phrase 'façades of faces' made me think of hospitals where everyone does that, patients, doctors and visitors; the rest was easy and obvious.

Here's the second poem:


Transcribed this becomes:


My father used to mark us out of ten
The dishes
Nine out of ten
The gardening
Eight out of ten

Anything less than 5 out of ten
came with a belting.

I'd give my childhood maybe a four
4 out of ten
Marks is another word for scars
I have these too (both literal and figurative)
the ones you can see and the ones you can't

but there's no one left to punish
so I punish myself
Is that what you wanted to hear, doctor?
Is that worth a 10?

And once edited and formatted we have:


dad used to give me marks out of ten:
homework – seven out of ten,
the disheseight out of ten.

Anything less than a five
came with a
clip on the ear.

Marks is merely another word for scars.
I have those too, the ones you
can see and the ones you can't

I'd give my childhood a three.
That's me being generous.

Dad's no longer here and so I have to
mark myself. Is that what you
were waiting to hear, doctor?

What do you think this poem
might be worth? Maybe an eight?

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Again, the blue bits are what remained of the original draft. The structure is a 10-7-7 stanza followed by a 7-7 stanza. It took very little adjustment to find this shape. Again it came quite naturally. This is why I'm no good at writing sestinas or sonnets or any other poem where structure comes first. I suppose Rule #3 would be: Form is dictated by content: do not force a poem into an unnatural shape.

This time there's not been so much change but the violence has been toned down from 'a belting' to 'a clip on the ear' and 'punish' has been cut. 'Gardening' became 'homework' purely because to lose a syllable but the fact is it could have been anything; the specifics aren't especially important and I didn't spend hours sweating over which chores to include, they’re simply examples. There was a time when I would have. I would have sat on that poem for six months till it was absolutely perfect but I don't think that perfection is so important: Rule #4Good enough is good enough. (These are not serious rules by the way, just what's jumping into my head as I write this.)

4 our of 10 A lot of people would look at a poem like this and assume I had a truly awful childhood. It certainly wasn't a perfect ten but then neither was it as bad as a three or even a four. My father didn't give me marks out of ten but he was the kind of dad who if you came home with a score of 98% he'd want to know where the other 2% was. The same goes for corporal punishment. Yes, I grew up at a time when that was in vogue but we were always smacked on our rears and my dad's hands were so solid no belt or slipper was ever needed I can tell you. And no one has ever clipped my ears. Rule #5Poems do not need to be biographical.

I can tell you what was on my mind when I thought of the poem. Firstly I had been asked to write a poem containing certain words which I'm still working on, 'mark' was one of them, secondly, I've been seeing a nice psychotherapist of late and, typical shrink, she started off by asking me about my mum so I told her about my dad because, I said, "You can't understand my relationship with my mother until you understand my father's relationship with his wife." So all that was swimming around in there and this poem is what resulted. Which is how it goes. Rule #6Everything is fodder. Rule #7Chew your food properly.

The same goes for the first poem, I'd been asked to write a set of poems about silence and that was pretty much all that was in my head when I went to bed. Did some Muse visit me? Was I inspired? Not in any magical way. Rule #8Inspiration is a good idea and that's it. When you have a good idea, go for it. If not, Rule #9If you don't have a good idea then any old idea will do.

This is how I have always worked. And much the same goes for prose too, get it out of your head as quickly as you can and then, over as long as it takes – and that can be minutes or years – work on it until it does the job for which it is intended. Rule #10A poem is a tool, not fine art. Make it look nice by all means but never forget it has a job to do.

I am desperately keen to do as much as possible to demystify poetry. When I was a teenager I believed that this aura came over me and I could only work while 'inspired' and so, once that initial rush of ideas was over, I thought that was me, I added a date, numbered it and stuck it in my big red folder. What a waste.

I don't believe in mysteries. There are things that are hard to explain and things we don’t know about yet. Writing is not a mystery. It can be analysed. There are clear techniques that can be applied. Rule #11A poem is not a poem just because you say it is. Think about how you write poetry. Do you have any rules? Or do you think that all rules are bad and that your words should be allowed to flow and pool as they see fit? If you do that's fine but as far as I'm concerned: Rule #12A poem is not a puddle – remember that.

Oh, one last thing, my normal handwriting is quite a bit neater than that. Just thought I'd mention.

Monday, 14 December 2009

The Invisible City

Theinvisiblecity I am developing a growing respect for historical novelists. The lengths to which they go to personally authenticate every scrap of information in their novels has to be admired. While researching The Invisible City Catalan author Emili Rosales travelled to Naples, to Venice and to Saint Petersburg and read extensively about The Enlightenment and neoclassical architects. And all of this to solve a niggling little problem. You see, the one thing I've learned about historical novelists is that they like to plug holes in history. If they can plug 'em with facts, great, if not, fiction will do quite nicely, thank you very much.

Rosales' family arrived in the Ebro delta two hundred years ago at the time a new city was being constructed on the behest of Charles III. This city – to be called Sant Carles de la Ràpita – was to be to Madrid what Saint Petersburg was to Moscow, an altogether classier capital. And then, for no good reason it seems (surely not simply on a whim?), all construction ceased and the workers' settlement was left to grow into what it is today.

Early in the book his friend, Armand (an older boy who for no good reason takes Emili under his wing), tells our protagonist:

The surprising thing is that there's really no collective memory of what happened … If you think about it, we're only talking about your great-grandparents' great-grandparents. It's absurd that no recollection exists among the townspeople, not even a distorted, transformed version of events.


The unskilled workers who stayed on after the plans were abandoned were the least informed. The architects, delegates, engineers, the ones in charge of the project, they all left. So, what remains is some sort of mythical echo, or not even that, a collection of terms that have lost their meaning,

Finding out anything as children is hard but a philatelist Armand takes him to visit one day quite out of the blue says:

Did you know I have a plan of the Invisible City?

And he does. And he gets it. But poor testosterone-fuelled Emili gets distracted by a girl who appears from the back room with "porcelain-white skin, moist eyes [and] large pink lips" and all of a sudden the old man is closing the folder and giving him "a tetchy glance" presumably due to his apparent lack of interest.

Coincidentally our protagonist has the same name as his author. In a recent interview Rosales was asked why:

I like to play with that, and I think readers enjoy this ambiguity. A novel is alive while the reader trust the narrator, and if it helps.

Anyway, time passes, the boys grow up, and 'Emili Roselli' the character becomes the young owner of one of Barcelona's top galleries. Then one day though, quite out of the blue, he receives an old manuscript written by an Italian architect, Andrea Roselli (a relative surely?) entitled Memoirs of the Invisible City which details how he became involved in the project to construct Sant Carles and just as importantly (although it's a while before we realise why) how his relationship developed with Giambattista Tiepolo, a prolific a Venetian painter and printmaker.


Museo Civico_G.B. Tiepolo-Il tempo scopre la verità e fuga la menzogna

Il tempo scopre la verità - Giambattista Tiepolo


What we do get is to read the memoir along with Emili as he translates it, every second chapter, and bit by bit we get caught up along with Andrea in the political intrigue of the day and in his romances too.

And then there is "the Tiepolo" – heavy emphasis on the the – which everyone seems to know about bar our contemporary hero. Time and unforeseen circumstances drag both our heroes (because Andrea is no less a hero than Emili is) into deeper and deeper waters; Emili ends up looking for the Tiepolo, Andrea ends up looking to do something with it. Emili first hears the name 'Tiepolo' from the stamp collector who chooses not to explain the connection with the map however by the time Emili receives his mysterious gift the shop has long closed.

This is not the only mystery in Emili's life. While at university he received a phone call from his old headmaster, Father Patrici, urging him to return home as his mother is ill, in fact she is dying. Emili had never known his father and now the headmaster reveals that "[s]omeone who was not your mother or your grandfather … paid for your studies." He does not know who but urges the boy to pursue the matter with his mother while he has yet time. Emili chooses not to and determines to bury the information. How could this possibly have anything to do with the Invisible City? Yes, I wondered that too but I had to wait a very long time to find out.

Usually with a two-pronged storyline line like this you expect it to meet in the final chapters but considering the two protagonists are several centuries apart that seems unlikely which is where "the Tiepolo" comes in. It turns out that Tiepolo was commissioned to do a number of paintings for the new city. That's old news and all his paintings are catalogued and their whereabouts known. So there must be another one and everyone assumes that Emili has been able to work out where it is.

Only he hasn't. Sure the manuscript talks about Tiepolo quite a bit. Andrea Roselli is instructed to collect him from Venice and travel with him to Madrid which he does and certainly a friendship develops between them but that's about it, Andrea carries out his task and then finds himself travelling to Saint Petersburg, once again on the king's behest, but not before managing to fall in love with the royal architect Francesco Sabatini's beautiful fiancée, Cecilia Vanvitelli, a wilful eighteen-year-old, who, bizarrely, he persuades to marry the much older Sabatini so the two of them can be close.

But things don't exactly go to the lovers' plans. The king steps in:

"Señor Roselli, I have asked Minister Esquilache and Señor Sabatini to train you as an architect and engineer, so that one day you might be able to direct the most ambitious undertaking of this kingdom."

"I am pleased, Your Majesty to be able to serve you."

"But that moment has not arrived yet. I wish to send you to Russia to study how Tsar Peter built his city. You are then to return here, prepared to erect a new city that will glorify the country and contribute to the enormous progress of Spain. Use you best endeavours, Señor Roselli; go to St Petersburg and learn all their secrets, see if the marvels we hear about are true."

And that puts the kybosh on that.

Meanwhile, in the present, Emili is having problems of his own. As I've said his childhood friends are all grownup. Armand is now a "fashionable politician", Sofia Mendizábal is into real estate along with her husband Jonàs who's also into drugs, his sister, Ariadna, is in a wheelchair and not too far in the book their mother ends up in mourning; not quite the suspects in an Agatha Christie but it's a start. I can't say I warmed to any of them especially.

Jonàs gets himself arrested and Emili dutifully goes to visit. It is not a great visit and a lot of the past gets dredged up. He leaves and "close[s] the door softly."

Years ago, when we raced together through the Invisible City, we were in a similar situation. None of the group could have known what lay ahead of us. Sometimes I think that Jonàs is what I might have been, and I have the absurd feeling that the worst part of myself was passed to him, in concentrated form, Perhaps for this strange reason I went back into the room and stared at him in silence, He was still talking, as if I'd never left, his eyes curiously fixed on me and the door.

"But I'll tell you one thing. The painter with the shitty exhibition [who he believes is having an affair with his wife], he won't last long. The only thing she wants, the only thing she's ever wanted is the Tiepolo. I did love her."

Having said that, he crumpled down, like a building that collapses after years of being riven with cracks.

The Tiepolo, again.

And then the Mafia appear. Well, they don't appear. Sofia tells Emili that they've been calling, threatening, looking for the money for the drugs that the police confiscated. All will be all right if they can only locate the Tiepolo. Only Emili hasn't a clue. He's translating as fast as he can and then he gets to the end and he's none the wiser.

Time to find out what Ariadna knows.

I'm not a great fan of mysteries. They've been done to death and pretty much every formula there is has been tried out. What works for this book is the fact that the two strands of the story take place so far apart in time. Salient facts are dribbled out as you would expect but it's not until chapter 13 entitled Does the Mystery End or Begin? that things start to come together and then, of course, we have one chapter until the Epilogue where something we've quite forgotten about gets resolved – always a nice bonus.

The actual mystery is effectively handled. It would make a perfectly watchable TV movie. And the writing is fine too. It's a good story, told well enough but, and I have to be honest I've found this with all the historical novels I've read of late, the history takes up a lot of space and there're a pile of names and places to keep in your head a lot of which are just mentioned in passing.

da_vinci_code_xlg I'm not sure who this book would appeal to especially. I'm tempted to suggest the Da Vinci Code Brigade but since I've neither read the book nor seen the film I could be wrong. Art is important in the book as is architecture but you don't need to know that much about them to get the idea what's going on. If I did have one major criticism, and this is something that Agatha Christie is guilty of, the novel's readers are deprived of one major clue right up until the big reveal at the end. This is annoying but I got over it because by that point I was dead keen to get to the solution which, as most solutions are, is fairly obvious once you think about it. The trouble is hindsight is a great thing.

The Invisible City won one of the most prestigious literary prizes in the Catalan language in 2004, The Sant Jordi Prize and since then Rosales has been touted as "one of the brightest and more promising new voices in recent Catalan literature" which doesn't really mean anything to me I'm afraid. I'm sure that's a good thing but he's the first Catalan writer I've read I have nothing to compare him to. There's a list in Wikipedia but none of the names ring a bell besides what I got to read was a translation and although Rosales says he's happy with it I can't say what subtleties might have been lost.


Photo of the author Emili Rosales is a writer and publisher who, after spending his childhood and adolescence in Sant Carles de la Ràpita, moved to Barcelona where he studied Philology. He soon began to work with a number of different publishing projects until he started his present job as literary director of Planeta’s Catalan-language publications. He has also worked as a secondary school teacher and translator. Although The Invisible City was his fourth novel it was the first to be published. The others have now also appeared in print, although not in English translations as far as I can see: La casa de la platja (The Beach House, 1995), Els amos del món (Lords of the Earth, 1997) and Mentre Barcelona dorm (While Barcelona Sleeps, 1998).

The Invisible City is available from Alma Books, priced £7.99.


PDF of the first 9 pages of the novel

Interview with Emili Rosales in The View from Here

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Fighting ghosties


Before all you mental heath professionals start jumping all over me I do not pretend for one moment to be an expert or even well read on this topic. It did present itself as an interesting way to get people to consider how they look at poetry.


When the British psychologist Sir Frederic Bartlett was working at Cambridge University during the First World War, memory had only just started to be considered a psychological rather than a philosophical subject. A game of Chinese Whispers gave him an idea which he developed into a simple experiment. In 1932 he asked a group of people to listen to the following short folk tale:

One night two young men from Egulac went down to the river to hunt seals and while they were there it became foggy and calm. Then they heard war-cries, and they thought: "Maybe this is a war-party". They escaped to the shore, and hid behind a log. Now canoes came up, and they heard the noise of paddles, and saw one canoe coming up to them. There were five men in the canoe, and they said:

"What do you think? We wish to take you along. We are going up the river to make war on the people."

One of the young men said," I have no arrows."

"Arrows are in the canoe," they said.

"I will not go along. I might be killed. My relatives do not know where I have gone. But you," he said, turning to the other, "may go with them."

So one of the young men went, but the other returned home.

And the warriors went on up the river to a town on the other side of Kalama. The people came down to the water and they began to fight, and many were killed. But presently the young man heard one of the warriors say, "Quick, let us go home: that Indian has been hit." Now he thought: "Oh, they are ghosts." He did not feel sick, but they said he had been shot.

So the canoes went back to Egulac and the young man went ashore to his house and made a fire. And he told everybody and said: "Behold I accompanied the ghosts, and we went to fight. Many of our fellows were killed, and many of those who attacked us were killed. They said I was hit, and I did not feel sick."

He told it all, and then he became quiet. When the sun rose he fell down. Something black came out of his mouth. His face became contorted. The people jumped up and cried.

He was dead.

BARTLETT WITH PIPE and once they had finished, like you just have, he got them to repeat the story. Of course no one could repeat it verbatim – it's too long for that – but from what people could and could not recall Bartlett realised that what each individual was doing was altering it to fit their existing knowledge and beliefs, and it was this modified story which then became fixed in their memories. Bartlett's findings led him to propose the notion of 'schema' – the cultural and historical contextualisation of memory – which has important implications for eyewitness testimony and false memory syndrome, and even for artificial intelligence!

This effectively means that we cannot trust our memories because there's a filter in between, editing and revising what we see and hear. It's like the wife when you tell her that her husband has died in a car crash, she simply refuses to 'hear' it: "No, he's not dead. You're being silly. How could he be dead? He's just gone to the shops. He'll be back any minute. Just you wait and see."

Remembering begins at the point of perception. If we perceive inaccurately then we will remember inaccurately. But even if we perceive accurately who is to say that we will remember accurately? You read that story at your own pace but what you remember is the gist of the story, maybe the odd specific detail like the number of men who were out hunting or how many were in the canoe; even now, especially because you're focusing on these new words, it's slipping away.

Those are just facts and figures though, the two men and the five in the canoe. They're the easy bits. The most important thing that Bartlett noticed was a normalising and rationalising of the events in the story. The very title of the piece “War of Ghosts” emphasises the fact that ghosts are an integral element of the story and yet in Bartlett’s original research, the subjects increasingly omitted the word “ghosts” when they recalled the piece.  This seems to be due to the fact that ghosts were concepts that were not prevalent within the normal schema of his test subjects. Also none of his test subject were Native Americans either so the whole scenario was foreign to them and they did their best to make it make sense in their heads.

We transform, we resequence events, we simplify, we crave order and sense and if something won't fit, well, we simply reject it. Do you remember what the two men were hunting by the way? Some remembered them as out fishing. Fishing is normal. People fish the world over. But how many hunt seals these days? Or maybe that jumped out at you because it was unusual because just as we try and fit what we read into a framework we can come to terms with the fact is – and advertisers make the most of this – we will often remember the weird and wonderful before we'll remember the humdrum as long as there's not too much of it and then we start to select. A good example of that if the film Airplane. It wasn't till the third or fourth viewing that I could honestly say I'd caught the bulk of the gags.

So what has all of this to do with poetry? Quite a bit I think.

Poems are strange places, foreign lands. I've never read a single poem in my life and felt comfortable there right away, not even that 'Mr. Bleaney' I keep going on about. They are as alien as a bunch of Red Indian spirits going off to war. And I wrote 'Red Indians' deliberately, not to offend but to underline the fact that when I read 'Native Americans' my brain hears 'Red Indians' because I was brought up in a world where that's what they were called. When I read that story one of the first things I wondered was why the men weren't called 'braves'; that would have made more sense to me because I have a representation in my head of their world based almost entirely on Wild West films I saw as a kid. That's also why I changed 'ghosts' to 'spirits' because I've never heard an Indian talk about ghosts; they use the term 'spirit', as in 'Great Spirit'.

You'd imagine that memory comes into play after a poem has been read, a consequence of perception, but the fact is that remembering begins with the first word and is a process that continues while the poem is being read and after it is finished. It also has to contend with everything else that's going on round about it. Sometimes I think it's good to sit for a second and think about how much multi-tasking our brain has to do.

Kant first coined the word 'schema; He described the 'dog schema' as a mental pattern which

…can delineate the figure of a four-footed animal in a general manner, without limitation to any single determinate figure as experience, or any possible image that I can represent in concreto (Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, p1781)

which makes schemata an effective tool for understanding the world. Through the use of schemata, most everyday situations don't demand effortful processing – automatic processing is all that is required. People can quickly organize new perceptions into schemata and act effectively without effort. For example, most of us have a 'stairway schema' and can apply it to climb staircases we've never seen before.

So, is there such a thing as a 'poem schema'? Of course. And then you come up against a piece like this:


and you go, "No, wait a sec, that's not a poem," because it doesn't conform to what you have in your head as a poem. Schemata aren't fixed in stone though. This is a poem by the Scottish poet Stephen Nelson and it's very clear that his definition of 'poem' is a lot broader than a lot of people's. Not only does this poem fight with what we have with out head's definition of a poem, it also makes our perception work overtime: we fill in the blanks: 'st a t e' becomes 'state', we can't help it.

Easterhouse Egulac is meaningless to me – 'Egulac' in case you've forgotten was the village where the two men in the story came from – and I expect that Easterhouse will be meaningless to you unless you're from the Glasgow area. I've never actually been there. We used to drive by an area when we were kids which for years I always associated with Easterhouse but I've never confirmed that it was so my mental picture of the place could be completely faulty. I also imagined it as a scary place but again that's not based on first-hand experiences, just what people told me, so my 'Easterhouse schema' could be, and likely is, faulty. Then again, the Easterhouse that existed in the sixties, which is when I formed that schema, probably doesn't even exist any more. I simply don't know.

There are three ways we can deal with Stephen's poem – it's called 'Oot the Hoose' by the way: one is assimilation, we can broaden our definition of 'poem' to include it so that when we're faced with a similar poem we can cope quicker; another is accommodation, we can form a new schema solely for that poem or that kind of poem – perhaps slipping it neatly into a 'concrete poems schema' – and the last one is rejection, forget about it, just because he says it's a poem doesn't make it a poem.

So, is all this just fancy talk for experience? I suppose in layman's terms 'experience' is the word most of us would use but 'baggage' seems closer in its implications. We all bring baggage with us; experiences are momentary but their effects on us often are not and they affect how we respond to things in the future: do we embrace or do we avoid? If you've come to associate bad experiences with poetry perhaps you avoid the stuff. Maybe you had an English teacher who force-fed you Byron, for example. If you have, firstly my sympathies but perhaps you'd be good enough to set aside a new schema for the poem that I'm building up to.

stairs Poems are not like dogs or staircases or even folk tales about dead Indians. They require a higher degree of interpretation. When retelling the ghost story a couple of people rendered the line "Something black came out of his mouth" as "he foamed at the mouth" and another as "his soul passed out from his mouth" neither of which being an entirely unreasonable alternative. They did not take the line literally. With figurative poetry there is even more scope.

The following poem requires that you access two schemata, the one for pain and the one for hunger. These are universal concepts. It's a lucky person who has never been in pain of felt hungry but they are also very broad subjects, pain especially.

Of course no two of will have identical schemata for pain and hunger. You have no idea what I was going through when I wrote this piece. If I was in pain, what kind? Physical? Emotional? Intellectual? Could the whole thing be a metaphor for something else? I'm not going to tell you. Suffice to say who I am will likely be very different to who you are. What you'll need to do is make the poem your own. It will either resonate with you or have you scratching your head. If it's the latter don't worry about it. I may explain where it came from in the comments but I don't think that will help. It'll be too late.

See how you get on. This is not a test. Well, it is, I suppose. Just not one that gets marked.


Pain is the opposite of hunger,

a certain kind of pain that is,
a certain kind of hunger and

that certain kind of pain will
consume that certain kind of

hunger, will swallow it whole, but
it won't work the other way round.

It can with different kinds of pain.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Monday, 7 December 2009

Whiffling in Liff or what to buy a constipated logophile for Xmas

Loo If you're like me you will delight in the discovery of a new word, even one you might never find a use for, although sometimes a word is so good that you simply have to make room for it. I gave the protagonist in my third novel wind so that I'd have an excuse to use the word 'borborygmi' or some variant thereof. Actually the sentence I ended up with reads: 'Jim’s stomach gurgled borborygmically something that sounded not unlike, “Uh, oh.”'


n. pl. bor·bo·ryg·mi

A rumbling noise produced by the movement of gas through the intestines.

[New Latin, from Greek borborugmos, of imitative origin.]

liff What amazes me is for all the words we have and for all the words that have fallen into disuse there are still so many things for which there is no suitable word. A few years ago my daughter bought me a copy of The Meaning of Liff by Douglas Adams and John Lloyd which contains made-up words for many of those instances that the world's lexicographers have sadly neglected. Actually they're not strictly made-up, they're the names of places. Liff is a place.

The preface to the book reads:

In Life*, there are many hundreds of common experiences, feelings, situations and even objects which we all know and recognize, but for which no words exist.

On the other hand, the world is littered with thousands of spare words which spend their time doing nothing but loafing about on signposts pointing at places.

Our job, as we see it, is to get these words down off the signposts and into the mouths of babes and sucklings and so on, where they can start earning their keep in everyday conversation and make a more positive contribution to society.

Douglas Adams
John Lloyd

*And, indeed, in Liff.

And the entry for Liff goes as follows:

LIFF (n.)

A book, the contents of which are totally belied by its cover. For instance, any book the dust jacket of which bears the words. 'This book will change your life'.


Now, I was delighted when my daughter bought me this thing. I have no idea what the event was, a birthday or Xmas probably (these being the main occasions when we find excuses to spend too much money on each other) but the whole idea of a new book of fun words pleased me no end. I flicked through it, read a few entries, and then we moved onto the next present to be opened. And, to my embarrassment (and, daughter, if you're reading this I do apologise) I don't think I ever opened the damn thing again.

I know where it is. I could go and get it right now but that's not the point. The point is that there are a lot of people who get presents of books – and this is especially true at Xmas – and these are books that illicit the same response and end up on a shelf somewhere forgotten about until the time comes for a clearout and, lo and behold, don't these all end up in charity shops two or three years later! And, I'm wondering what exactly is the point?

A novel is one thing or a biography – Xmas is always a big time for celebrity bios and even novels "by" celebrities – but I'm not sure how to feel about these word books. I have several that I picked up in charity shops over the years, books like The Rude Dictionary, impulse buys, books I manage to convince myself in a second that I must have to add to my collection of dictionaries (see the full list here) and they do that, they take up a place on my shelf but they're never referred to. And since the advent of the Internet that situation has gotten even worse. Indeed the entire Meaning of Liff is available online here. Check out LUDLOW, POLBATHIC and SMEARISARY if you've a spare minute.

So what do you buy a logophile for Xmas?

whifflingcover (email-version) Well, there are still books with funny words out there. Douglas Adams' book is certainly still on the go but there are new ones appearing all the time. I was contacted a few months back by one Adam Jacot de Boinod (a researcher on QI) who was hoping I'd be willing to promote his new book, The Wonder of Whiffling. No, it's not a place but if I'd known about it when I wrote that sentence I mentioned above I'd have had a damn good try to squeeze that word in too:


v. whif·fled, whif·fling, whif·fles


1. To move or think erratically; vacillate.

2. To blow in fitful gusts; puff: The wind whiffled through the trees.

3. To whistle lightly.

To blow, displace, or scatter with gusts of air.

He was unable to send me a review copy – not even a review PDF which I thought odd – but he did send me a bit of background to the book:

MeaningOfTingo My first book The Meaning of Tingo began as my interest in the quirkiness of foreign words was triggered when one day, working as a researcher for the BBC, I picked up a weighty Albanian dictionary to discover that they have no less than 27 words for eyebrow and the same number for different types of moustache.

My curiosity soon became a passion. I was unable to go near a bookshop or library without sniffing out the often dusty shelf where the foreign language dictionaries were kept. I started to collect favourites: nakhur, for example, a Persian word meaning ‘a camel that gives no milk until her nostrils are tickled’; Many described strange or unbelievable things. How, when and where, for example, would a man be described as a marilopotes, the Ancient Greek for ‘a gulper of coaldust’? And could the Japanese Samurai really have used the verb tsuji-giri, meaning ‘to try out a new sword on a passer-by’? And where would you expect to find a cigerci, the Turkish for ‘a seller of liver and lungs’?

tingo In the second book Toujours Tingo I looked at languages from all corners of the world, from the Fuegian of southernmost Chile to the Inuit of northernmost Alaska, from the Maori of the remote Cook Islands to Siberian Yakut. Some of them describe, of course, strictly local concepts and sensations, such as the Hawaiian kapau’u, ‘to drive fish into a waiting net by striking the water with a leafy branch’; or paarnguliaq, the Inuit for ‘a seal that has strayed and can’t find its breathing hole’. But others reinforce the commonality of human experience. Haven’t we all felt termangu-mangu, the Indonesian for ‘sad and not sure what to do’ or mukamuka, the Japanese for ‘so angry one feels like throwing up’?

Then, with my third book The Wonder of Whiffling I moved onto the English Language – from Anglo-Saxon to Trailer Park Slang – I have waded through dictionaries from the origins of English with Anglo-Saxon through Old and Middle English and Tudor-Stuart, then on to the rural dialects collected so lovingly by Victorian lexicographers, the argot of 19th century criminals and the slang from the two World Wars,

I’ve discovered many old words that make very useful additions to any vocabulary today. Most of us know a blatteroon (1645), a person who will not stop talking, not to mention a wallydrag (1508), a worthless, slovenly person, and even a shot-clog (1599), a drinking companion, only tolerated because he pays for the drinks. Along the way I’ve discovered the parnel, a priest’s mistress, through the applesquire, the male servant of a prostitute, to the screever, a writer of begging letters.

I’ve scoured the dialects of Britain. In the Midlands we find a jaisy, a polite and effeminate man, and in Yorkshire a stridewallops, a tall and awkward woman. In Cornwall you might be described as ploffy plump); in Shropshire, having joblocks (fleshy, hanging cheeks); while down in Wiltshire hands that have been left too long in the washtub are quobbled.

How fascinating they are the journeys many words have taken from their original definitions with grape: originally a hook for gathering fruit and later a cluster of fruit growing together: friend: a lover later a relative or kinsman; sky meaning a cloud; frantic: insane; corset: a little body and mortgage: a death pledge. In Tudor times drink actually meant to smoke tobacco; walk; to roll, toss, move about and later to press cloth and steward: a keeper of the pigs and later, as wealth expanded, of herds of cattle and land.

Now, not having read the book myself, I can't say too much but having looked at a few sample pages (which you can find here) I know exactly what to expect. Here’s one page for example:




Now, see the bit I've highlighted, I've lived in Scotland all my life and no one has ever promised me a chippie-burdie although I have been offered a chip butty on occasion. It's not a very helpful definition either. I found this text online which includes the sentence:

Ye're juist like a wheen bairns, staunin afore the sweetyman's windy, lickin yer mous, an Tod-Lowrie sayin til ye, 'Bide a wee, hinnies, an ye'll get aa thae bonny-dies for naethin – gie me yer votes, my bonny lambs, an ye'll get a chippy-burdie to play yersels wi some day! '

Now I'm a Scot and I'm struggling with this but I doubt it's a chip butty that's on offer here. After a bit of digging I came up with this definition in Jamieson's Scottish Dictionary:

chippie-burdie, s. A term used in a promise made to a child, for the purpose of pacifying or pleasing it; I'll gie you a chippie-bur die, Loth. — Perhaps a child's toy, called a cheepy-burdie, from the noise made when the air is forced out; or a corr. of Fr. chapeau horde, a cocked, or, perhaps, an embroidered hat.

And I bet that's where de Boinod found it too.

I have a confession to make. I never read on the loo. I've never read on the loo. The very thought of it makes me uncomfortable. When I'm in there I'm there to do a job (or perchance to wee) and my mind is focused on that. I've seen plenty of characters on TV and cartoons with some bloke on the loo reading his paper but that has never been me. I don't read in the bath either. Just imagine the damage that could get done to a book! I think if I was a loo reader I might have read The Meaning of Liff by now. And I suspect that the target audience for The Wonder of Whiffling would have to be people of that general persuasion.

Uncle John Some publishing companies have openly embraced the 'bathroom books' niche market, releasing titles such as Uncle John's Bathroom Reader, which contains short, self-contained humour essays, general interest articles and trivia. Other intentional bathroom books may offer quick condensations of famous literary works or factoids about celebrities. These books are marketed specifically to those who seek something to read during their inevitable down time. This I did not know.

Of course now I do I see there are a plethora of books aimed at the closet reader (pun intended): Passing Time in the Loo, The Great American Bathroom Book, the aforementioned Uncle John's Bathroom Reader, The Ladies Room Reader, Lavatory 101 - A Bathroom Book of Knowledge, Thoughts for the Throne; The Ultimate Bathroom Book of Useless Information and, for the constipated among you, 1,001 Facts That Will Scare the S**t Out of You: The Ultimate Bathroom Book to name just a few.

If you know someone of a literary bent who habitually spends too long in the bathroom and is not a boy circa fourteen years of age then The Wonder of Whiffling may be just the thing for them. In fact even if it is a teenage boy it might be nice for a change though I wouldn't bank on it. Anyway, The Wonder of Whiffling, or to give it its full title, The Wonder of Whiffling: (and Other Extraordinary Words in the English Language) is available in hardcover from Amazon price £7.78 at time of writing which, for a book 256 pages long, is probably not that bad a price and that's post free if you can take advantage of their Super Saver Delivery offer.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Identity parade

invisible-man Why is it so much easier to stand before a portrait of a writer one admires than to look in the mirror? We all do it. And we persist in doing it convinced that if we just stare at the face of the next portrait down the line for long enough we'll finally see ourselves. And we'll make sense. I've never found anyone out there who writes like me. If I did I'd very likely quit and let him get on with it. No point in the two of us eating ourselves up over a few lines of poetry.

I bought a book maybe fifteen years ago, a text book called simply Literature, which, amongst a host of other things, contains photographs of many of the authors represented therein and I remember clearly sitting and going through them, page by page, and looking for the 'author' in them. What should an author look like? I paid particular attention to the eyes. I didn't expect their faces to look like mine but I was looking for something, something in them that I could identify with.


I had expressed this idea in a poem a few years earlier:


Though I kept my rooms on
I'd given up all hope of an audience
when one day I was summoned.

It was like an interview in the womb
before being granted life.

He read what I'd brought without comment,
and then addressed me in the half-light:

"There is a drowning man in us all,"
he said,
"and like a man who never sleeps
he is driven mad by his own existence."

He said no more;
but then he'd said it all.

We never met again.
I did not expect we would.

And that's all I can remember,
except his eyes:
as if some prisoner inside him
was peering out through them at me.

I had only ever seen them in a mirror.

17 October 1986

This was my 600th poem and I remember at the time being very pleased with the results. It was part of a sequence of poems called simply The Drowning Man Poems of which this was the climax if you will and probably the best one; I think there were a couple after this.

At the point of writing it I had met only one other published poet and although a far more genial and articulate character than I was he did have sad eyes, at least that's what I saw, although I have become well aware over the years of my talent for projection. Seriously, what's that guy doing on the right?


The issue under discussion here, of course, is one of identity. Like most words we use it without thinking about it. We feel we understand it so why get tied in a knot trying to define it? Simply because there is no simple definition and that can lead to misinterpretation. 'Identity' makes me think of the word 'identify' and 'identify' feels lost without a 'with' to tag along on after it. Is 'identity' the same? To acquire our own identities do we first need another to frame that identity?

Wikipedia opens up its entry on 'Identity' with the following helpful definition:

Identity is an umbrella term used throughout the social sciences to describe an individual's comprehension of him or herself as a discrete, separate entity.

So, fundamentally, 'identity' has to do with how different we are to others rather than how much we are alike others. There is, of course, the notion of 'group identity', 'belonging', if you will. I am a poet ergo I am a member of the group of poets. But I am also an individual.

So, who am I? I am, or have been, all of the following: father, son, brother, uncle, nephew, employee, colleague, manager, student, teacher, friend… You get the idea. The list goes on and on and yet, when I look in the mirror, when I look into the sad eyes of the bloke staring back at me in the mirror, what do I see?

A better example is when I see my photo up on the Web identifying me as an author. What the hell is my face doing up there?

Much of the groundwork on identity from a purely psychological point of view was done by a guy called Erik Erikson. Needless to say, others built on his work but the one that interests me is James Marcia who put forth a paradigm that focuses on the twin concepts of exploration and commitment. I listed some of the things I have been in my life. There have been more that I have explored but I found they weren't me. It's an expression we use all the time but have you really thought about it? I was self-employed for a bit. It's a fact. I could give you the dates. But I didn't include it in that wee list because it wasn't me. Okay, it was me. I did the work. I got paid. I sent my accounts into the tax office. But I was never comfortable in the position and got out of it and back into regular employment as soon as I could. You could say I'm self-employed now. I sell books and get paid for them and I do keep records but until I can pay my way based solely on my writing I regard my writing career as the tax office would, a paying hobby.

And how does being thought of as a hobbyist make me feel about being a writer? Yeah. Nuff said.

But let's stick with 'poet' because unless you're Seamus Heaney hardly any poet earns enough to be more than a paid hobbyist if even that once you add everything up. So I can say, hand on heart: "I am a poet," and yet – can you believe this? – after close to forty years writing the damn stuff I still feel that there's something out there called 'poetry' and there's what I do that I call 'poetry'. 'S nowt as queer as folk, eh?

Why do I feel that 'identity' and 'identify with' are mutually exclusive terms? Because one is personal and the other is social: it is possible to be a part and feel apart at the same time like feeling alone in a crowd. Identity is more than a feeling though, it is a definition. I don't feel I'm a poet, I know I'm a poet. How I feel about being a poet is another thing entirely. I'm a man. That is incontrovertible. And yet, when I'm in the company of a certain kind of man – testosterone-fuelled, beer-swilling, football-crazed and women-hungry – I feel uncomfortable being a man. Granted in that kind of company I'd probably feel more uncomfortable being a woman but you get my point.

In his essay, What Is Identity (As We Now Use The Word)? James Fearon takes this stab at defining 'personal identity' (the whole thing is worth a read too):

Personal identity is a set of attributes, beliefs, desires, or principles of action that a person thinks distinguish her in socially relevant ways and that (a) the person takes a special pride in; (b) the person takes no special pride in, but which so orient her behaviour that she would be at a loss about how to act and what to do without them; or (c) the person feels she could not change even if she wanted to.

Not sure why he uses 'she' but this obviously applies to both genders.

It's (c) that jumps out at me. I'm a poet in the same way that I'm a man. I can't change either. Okay, I can stop writing the words down but I don't believe that would stop me being a poet and I could stick on a frock but that wouldn't make me a woman except in some very weird carnival.

venn-diagram My social identity as a poet is an odd thing since I don't socialise with poets. Not in a real world sense. But if we go back a couple of years to before I was active online I still had to contend with how I perceived myself as a member of the set of poets (think Venn Diagrams). The fact that I didn't socialise says a lot about me. I knew there were others like me out there and yet I deliberately kept myself to myself. Was this an ego thing? Not really. I, as do a lot of people, view writing as a private thing. We don't even discuss what we're working on with our mates. So what would a group of poets do? Here, I'll show you mine if you show me yours. No, I don't think so.

I think my social identity as a poet really suffers because I'm not a social person in any aspect of my life. I would sing, "You will always find me in the kitchen at parties," but that simply isn't true – I'd never go to the party in the first place if I could get out of it – but if I did, yes, I'd be in the kitchen with the women. Safe.

I can't shake the feeling I get though when I see a photograph of a writer or watch them being interviewed. I want to ask of them what non-writers ask of me. Well, actually I don't because I've heard enough to know that they will probably be nothing like me. Which brings us round to imposter syndrome, which I wrote about back in February in my article 'Are you an imposter?', the feeling that you're a fake and about to be found out any day.

I don't think I'm doing anything particularly radical with my poetry but I wonder if E E Cummings ever sat down and looked at one of his poems and thought: Who am I kidding?

Now you might think all I'm looking for is a wee bit of reassurance, a pat on the back – "Don't be a silly bugger, Jim, of course you're a poet" – but I'm not. Pats on backs don't last very long anyway. Like most of the things I write like this I'm really addressing the poets out there who feel like me, who look in the mirror and don't see a poet looking back at them. Maybe one day you will. I hope you do. But if you don't my bit of sage advice would simply be: Stop looking in mirrors. And stay clear of portraits galleries too.

Let me leave you with a few more portraits – ladies this time – and you tell me which one's the poet.


Monday, 30 November 2009

Seeing Things

Seeing Things cover Oliver Postgate was a small man in a big world. He made small films – his business was in fact called Smallfilms – and never aspired to make big ones. He lived a quiet life mostly in small towns in middle England pottering away at whatever happened to come his way; his life had no grand plan. Not that many people will instantly recognise his name, not in the same way that the name Gerry Anderson is known, but his work is known and loved and has been cherished by generations of British children many of whom are now in their sixties and, I dare say, seventies.

Charlie Brooker in The Guardian called Oliver Postgate "the greatest children's storyteller of the last 100 years." I'm not sure I would go that far – there are several contenders for that title – but I'd happily go with one of the greatest children's storytellers of the last 100 years. He is best known for four characters, or groups: Bagpuss, The Clangers, Ivor the Engine and Noggin the Nog. Everyone who knows them will have their favourites. An old boss of mine adored Bagpuss and I earned serious Brownie points when one year I bought her a cuddly toy for Xmas. For me it was Noggin the Nog whereas my wife was completely smitten by the Clangers when I introduced her to them about twelve years ago; being an American she had had a very different childhood.

If you're a Brit then, and of a certain age, encouraging you to read Oliver Postgate's memoir, Seeing Things, will be no hard task; the book sells itself. We all want to be reminded of those days and to discover the origins of our favourite characters and how they were brought to life. And all of that is in the book. But that only covers the middle years really of Postgate's life. The real question I wanted answered was how the hell he wound up doing that for a living. Let's put it this way it wasn't a childhood dream to animate; he wasn't even particularly interested in art or writing stories. No, nothing like it.

The very first Noggin the Nog

What he was was a problem solver. Not logistics as much but rather mechanics. He could have just as easily found himself with a career as an inventor. Or indeed an actor. Though probably not a farmer. And definitely not a soldier.

Throughout his life Oliver has shown a talent for coming up with new and interesting ways of doing things, some more successful than others; the prospect of "an hydraulic typewriter" filled his potential clients "with horror", for example, but he persisted. His electroplated medallions proved unmarketable and his forays into motorised toys were equally unsuccessful although his toy fork-lift trucks sounded like fun. His mechanical shop displays, which were in vogue in the fifties, were successful enough while the trend lasted, but nothing lasts forever.

One machine that did work well for a time – one couldn't call it an invention per se since the thing already existed – was the washing machine that he cobbled together for his mother:

It worked triumphantly well as a washing-engine. It washed the clothes really well, beautifully clean and quite undamaged. It would even rinse them if you ran water through it with a hose from the tap.

Daisy [Oliver's mother] was absolutely dismayed by it. Just looking at the thing, standing like a home-made cannon in the corner of the scullery, filled her with dread. Hearing it in action alarmed her terribly, though both Ray [his dad] and I thought its noise magnificent, like the sound of tramcars copulating. This simile, though apt and evocative, did nothing to improve Daisy's confidence.

However, Daisy was nothing if not loyal to the cause. She screwed up her courage and consented to use the washing-engine. She was, perhaps understandably, cautious in her approach to it. She would drop the clothes in at arm's length, fill it with hot water from a hose, reach out and pour in the soap-flakes, drop on the lid and then, with the door to the kitchen held open, flick on the switch and run out, locking the door behind her. I wondered why she locked it. It was almost as if she was afraid of the engine, which was going 'Yerk-graunch-slop, yerk-graunch-slop, yerk-graunch- slop' to itself in the scullery, was going to clamber out and chase after her.

Needless to say that is exactly what the machine was doing and one day it fell over and blew all its fuses. A "high-speed food mixer" was better received and worked fine till one day Daisy didn't tighten the lid properly and the thing "distempered the scullery from floor to ceiling with Yorkshire pudding batter." Throughout the fifties Oliver persisted at trying to find his niche but finding backers for his inventions was a problem and he never had the capital to try and go it alone, not until his television career but we’ll get to that.

The very first Ivor the Engine (remade in colour here)

Before all of this came his acting career which lasted most of the forties. Acting Oliver stumbled into through lack of direction. He'd thought that a career in stage design might be for him but that didn't work out. Still attracted by the idea of being somehow involved in theatre work he considered aiming for a job as a stage manager and then he thought: "[W]hy not go the whole hog and be an actor?" Besides it "had a simple decisive ring to it."

And so he dutifully enrolled at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art in Earl's Court and arrived on the first day of term "[c]arrying a pad and pencil and a bound volume of Shakespeare's plays." If this smacks of a certain naïveté then you're not too far off the mark. 'Innocence' would probably be a kinder term. What you have to remember was when all of this was happening: Oliver was born in 1925; this was a completely different age.

This is something you notice as the book progresses through the years. Oliver is not prone to much social commentary but there is some and we notice a real change in the world he has to live in and his attitude towards it. But as a boy in England in the thirties and forties his life was far closer to ideal than idealistic.

Before his stage career came his remarkably brief army career. When you listen to Oliver narrate and you hear that calm, measured voice, you probably think: What a nice chap – I bet he wouldn't hurt a fly. And your assessment would be spot on. If there's one thing that rings true throughout this book is the fact that Oliver Postgate was a decent bloke and not just the kindly old man he ended up as but right from childhood on he was, well, just plain nice. And all of that is fine. But what was this nice peaceable eighteen year-old going to do when he received his call-up papers advising him to join the Household Cavalry at Combermere Barracks in Windsor in November 1943?

I wrote the Commanding Officer of the Household Cavalry at Windsor, politely letting him know that I would not be joining his regiment on the day appointed but that in order to avoid inconvenience I would present myself for arrest at the gates of Combermere Barracks at 11:30 in the morning of 13 December 1943.

Which he does. And the chapter that follows is one of the funniest in the book and easily comparable to anything Spike Milligan wrote about his encounters with military bureaucracy. When Oliver arrives at the barracks his encounter at the guardhouse does not go with military precision:

'Hallo.' I said, 'I've arrived.'


'I've come to give myself up.'

He looked up. 'To give yourself what?' he asked.


'Up what?'

'No, not exactly.'

'You've come to join up?'

'No, not really.'

'Got any papers?'


'Look, you can't join the army if you haven't got the proper papers.'

'No, I'm not here to join the army.'

'What then?'

'I'm here not to join the army.'

The soldier thought about this for a moment. Then he said: 'You know, I'd have thought you would have been better off doing that somewhere else.'

Anyway, with far more difficulty than one might imagine, he manages to get himself locked up, court-martialled and sentenced to three months in a very civilised manner. After that he was supposed to be sent down the mines but the army manages not only to let him go, but to also hand him a ten-bob note (50p) and an open rail ticket.

The opening to Bagpuss

From there, rather than down the mines, Oliver finds himself moving though a number of jobs on farms, none very exciting. Sadly the chances of bedding any famers' daughters never comes his way, though looking back, he reckons that was probably a good thing.

Although he didn't choose to fight in the war, and there was a family precedent for being a conscientious objector, he did, however, make a number of attempts to join relief efforts and finally – on arriving home in Finchley in October 1946 after returning from yet another farming job along with a "genuine bull-nosed Morris" as a present for his mother, who immediately called it "Daisy" (all their cars had names) – he found a letter offering him the job of ambulance driver in one of the Relief Teams run by the Children's Fund. And so began another chapter in his life and another chapter in the book, 'The Honey Barrel.'

It's the nature of autobiographies that they tend to be anecdotal and you feel you're missing out on a lot, that years slip by and nothing happens and it's impossible not to say this about Postgate's memoir. The thing I get from it is that his life was, far more than most people's, episodic. He didn't leave school, get a job as a gofer at the BBC before catching the eye of some wily producer looking to train up an animator. No, nothing like that. Things just landed in his way. Occasionally, usually after a chat with his legs, he'd sidestep them but mostly he'd grip the bull by the horns and give it a jolly good go.

One of the last projects he tackled was "painting a Bayeux Tapestry-type 'illumination'" as he puts it and, in a brief conversation he has with himself, not merely with his legs, the two of him have this to say:

'Done it again, done it again.'

'Done what?'

'Taken on something you don’t know how to do. Committed yourself to delivering inside a year the sort of thing that other people have taken a lifetime to complete, and which you may not be able to do at all because you don’t know the first thing about it. That's what.'

'I can find out.'

'But you're not the right sort of person. You're not an artist. It isn’t your sort of thing. People are supposed to go to college and do courses, learn about Composition, study the history of Art, get diplomas, before they even think about doing things like that.'

'So what's new?'

'Oh nothing I suppose ,' the voice muttered, and shut up.

A very similar interchange takes place when he first conceives of Ivor the Engine. What you have to remember about Smallfilms is that Oliver was the writer and narrator, Peter Firmin, who tends (and ought not to) to get a bit forgotten, was the artist and model maker. I say "ought not to" and by that I mean by the general public, Oliver in no way attempts to push his nose out of the picture.

Clangers episode 'The Intruder' (entire episode)

You're probably wondering why I've not mentioned Oliver's animation work too much and there's a good reason for this. The people who will jump at the chance to read this book will already be well-versed in his little worlds although I doubt there will be many out there who can name much that he's done bar the four I've already mentioned. I suspect a few will know about Pogles' Wood but I'd never heard of The Pingwings or Alexander the Mouse. In reality he created twelve or so "worlds" as he describes them several times in the book.

Since my personal favourite is Noggin the Nog, I'll let you know that the original idea for the little Norse saga came from Firmin:

One day, while he was travelling through Neasden on his way to the studios at Wembley, it occurred to Peter that the [Lewis] chessman in the Edward VII Gallery could well have been called Nogs, that their prince was a Noggin and that the wicked baron with the twirly moustaches could be their wicked uncle, perhaps a Nogbad.


Peter thought of a tale from the land of Nog. It told of the death of a much-loved king and of his son, Prince Noggin, who had to choose a bride within six weeks, because if he did not the crown would go to his wicked uncle, Nogbad the Bad.

And so on and so forth. Some of the elements were even proposed by Peter's four year-old daughter, Hannah, who was much taken by the film Nanook of the North and decided that Noggin's bride, once he found her, was to be Nooka, daughter of Nan of the Nooks. It was Oliver that tidied up this original plot and very soon we got to hear for the first time these immortal words:

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…

What did come as a surprise was just how many Noggin the Nog sagas there had been. There were twelve series in total beginning with 'King of the Nogs' and ending with 'The Icebergs'.

The Pogles episode 'King of the Fairies' (entire episode)

Several times over the years Peter and Oliver thought that their time was up, as far as their brand of animation went, but opportunities kept opening up by way of audio recordings, books, musicals even; and then there was the foreign film market. Eventually the day came when the BBC didn't ask for anything new:

Apparently an edict had been issued by the powers-that-be to the effect that the viability of programmes (i.e. their worth and chance of continuing), was henceforth to be ratings-led (i.e. judged by the number of people watching). As the purpose of television was to entertain (as opposed to instruct or educate), the basic policy was to give the children exactly the sort of thing that they were already known to enjoy and deliver it in a form and manner that was especially exciting.

All you have to do is look at much that is presented in the name of children's entertainment today to see how well that's worked out.

It was not a young Oliver Postgate that wrote this book though, it was an elderly man looking back on a life where the world has changed so much. He could have contented himself with just getting his recollections on paper as accurately as possible but in addition to that he stops several times to pass comment and in some cases judgement on his own actions and the actions of those about him. While in Australia serving as Artist-in-Residence at the Western Australian Institute of Technology – a role that utterly bemuses him because nothing appears to be required of him other than to be "the Oliver Postgate", someone none of the students had ever heard of – he is shown some films by some of the students and asked if they're any good. His response is noteworthy:

[Y]ou can't really ask how 'good' a piece of work is by itself. You can only ask how well it does what it is setting out to do. A film is a communication and a communication has to communicate something. It doesn't matter how glossy, clever or avant-garde the pictures are, if they aren't about anything, they are about nothing, and consequently their success can't be judged.

[T]here are, in every production, two components, what the word is about and how it is made. They are both necessary but the how is essentially the servant on the what – if only because a marvellously made film about nothing is still a nothing.

His own films may have been small, produced under primitive circumstances (in an ex-cow-shed at one point), and nowhere near the quality of studios like Disney but what cannot be said about any of them is that they meant nothing. Meaning is a fluid term. It's not simply something intellectual. When someone like me says that Noggin the Nog or Bagpuss or any of the others means something to them, that means something. What it means is that it has added meaning to our lives. People say that about great works of art, surely not wee short films made for kids. I would beg to differ.

The very first Pingwings

I would heartily recommend this book to anyone who has been touched by this man's work. What you will learn, especially from the latter part of the book, is how much more this small man contributed to this big world we all live in. His work on solar power is likely unknown to most as are his contributions to the peace process, such as his pamphlet Thinking it Through: The Plain Man's Guide to the Bomb which was distributed to the various delegates and diplomats who were in Geneva preparing for the United Nations' Second Special Session on Disarmament, which was due to take place in New York the following June.

oliver_postgate_104803t If a small man shouts loudly enough then I guess the whole world will be able to hear him.

Seeing Things is published by Canongate Books and is available in hardback in a beautiful edition accompanied by photographs and illustrations in black and white and in colour. The price is £16.99 which may seem a little steep but this is very much a present not just another old bloke's autobiography. No dust jacket though, but it doesn't really need it.



Documentary: "Ivor the Engine" and the story of "Smallfilms" (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)

Oliver Postgate's site with some of his political articles

The websites of Smallfilms, Noggin the Nog and The Clangers

An interview with Oliver Postgate

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