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Monday, 28 September 2009

The Shadow of a Smile


Shadow I've been quite lucky over the past few months to receive a goodly selection of recently published books to review. This has exposed me to writers I might never have read otherwise and, for the most part, I've been enriched by the experience. So, when I got the opportunity to read the debut novel by Kachi A. Ozumba, a Nigerian writer, I jumped at the opportunity.

The only other African writer I've read has been Ben Okri, coincidentally also a Nigerian, and so I was keen to see how this fellow measured up. The blurb on the back of the book compares Ozumba to Okri, perhaps a little predictably, but I wasn't going to hold that against him. Nor was I going to hold the fact that I wasn't that keen about Okri based, admittedly, on the only novel of his I've read, the rather amorphous Astonishing the Gods. Despite not being crazy about the book as a whole the one thing I could see clearly was that Okri could write and quite beautifully too.

So I sent off my e-mail and said I'd be happy to have a look at the book. And sure enough, a few days later there was the familiar and comforting thwup! from the hall. On tearing open the envelope I found just the quaintest wee book – and as regular readers will know I am a sucker for quaint wee books. The catch was it wasn't the whole book. Oh, no. It was an advance reading copy including only three chapters, a fifth of the book.

So, here goes: a fifth of a review.

Wait a sec. Let me go back to the Okri for a minute. If I'd only read a fifth of Astonishing the Gods I have to say I would have been far more positive about the book that I have been above. The book begins well with a great opening line and a wonderful premise. It would have made a superb short story but it dragged a bit as a novel. What had excited me at first got old quite quickly.

So, what about Ozumba? Well, the first chapter opens with our protagonist Zuba and his friend Ike being locked into a prison cell, a cell that coincidentally already holds four men, for a crime they maintain they did not commit. The next two chapters provide a flashback to when Zuba was young through to when he leaves university and is just about to start his national service, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

If I was going to offer Ozumba any writerly advice, based purely on his first page, it would be to cut the adjectives – dim corridor, yellow walls, pockmarked concrete floor, rust-and-dirt-coloured bars – but he gets better. That said Okri is also one who tends to over-describe things, if I remember correctly. Maybe it's a Nigerian thing. Once we get the preliminaries over – personal effects handed over, guards bribed – the description of the politics of their cell is fascinating even if things feel as if they're a bit rushed: they meet their co-captives, get fed, fail to meet their lawyer (although they hear him outside), have a pee in the communal slop bucket and settle down to try and sleep while the mosquitoes snack on them all night – all of that in less than twenty pages. Now, I'm not one for dragging things out but even by my standards I would have included a bit more detail. That said, and here is my gripe, I have no idea what is going to come next. So, maybe by the time I'd have read the whole 320 pages I'd been sick of the place. I don't know. I loved One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich but I hated, and never finished, Bernard Malamud's, The Fixer.

When my wife was asking me about the quality of the writing my answer was something along the lines of, "Well, you know, I was too interested in what he was talking about to take much note." Is that a good or a bad thing? Let's just say he's not hard to read. The situation within the cell is fascinating in exactly the same way that reading about life in the Russian Gulags was for me. It kept my interest and it kept me turning pages. There were a few native expressions I wasn't sure about. Most are explained but he leaves a few to the context to suggest.

NigeriaP30-500Naira-2001-donatedsrb_f Each cell has a pecking order. At the top is the prefect. When the two men first enter the cell they are treated roughly until they cough up 500 naira each, what's called the "cell sho". Once they do they're shown their place in the pecking order. An old man is in last position and he's told: “Shift, shift, Papa … You will still be the last. And if by the end of the week you’re still here without completing your cell-sho we’ll give you only standing space.”

Ozumba doesn’t state explicitly what the dimensions of the cell are. What he does say is that a six-foot tall man was lying "with his head propped up against one wall and his toes brushing the one opposite." So less than 6' wide but how long? Probably not much longer. Probably just enough room for six men and one slop bucket.

After they have settled the prefect wants to know who they are:

     “New man, you in white vest, come here,” the prefect said.
     “Get up! Get up!” Mike waved at Zuba. “Obasanjo is calling you.”
     Zuba scrambled to his feet. He had heard that cell prefects were called presidents. But he never thought they actually took a sitting president’s name. He stood straight before the prefect. “Mr President sir!”
     A smile softened the prefect’s features. “What’s your name?”
     “What kind of a name is that? Is it Igbo?”
     “Yes. Short for Chikezuba.”
     “What does it mean?”
     “The Lord created enough wealth.”
     “Did He?”
     Zuba rubbed his keloid.
     “What kind of a lump is that on your forehead? Or is it a scar?”
     Zuba snatched his hand off his face. He shook his head and said nothing.
     “What happened to your forehead?” the prefect persisted.
     “It’s from an accident, when I was a child.”
     “What brought you people here?”
     Zuba hesitated. Wasn’t it the case that people were sometimes beaten up if they claimed innocence? “A case of stealing.”
     “What did you steal?”
     “They said we stole money, and personal goods, from a family.”
     “Did you?”
     Zuba hesitated again. He shook his head.
     The prefect stared long and hard at him. “Well, it happens,” he said finally. “Do your people know you’re here?”
     “No. But I’m sure they’ll find us soon.”

The keloid is a big thing with Zuba. In fact that's the title of the second chapter.

Keloids can be considered to be "scars that don't know when to stop." A keloid, sometimes referred to as a keloid scar, is a tough heaped-up scar that rises quite abruptly above the rest of the skin. It usually has a smooth top and a pink or purple colour. Keloids are irregularly shaped and tend to enlarge progressively. Unlike scars, keloids do not subside over time. –

Now, I have no idea how this is going to play out but by the time Zuba gets locked up at the start of the book he's had a lifetime of having to explain what this thing is on his face usually followed by his having to endure taunts the most predictable one being "Scarface".

The second chapter jumps straight into things with the car accident that killed his mother and caused the wound on his forehead that developed into the itchy keloid that plagues his life. As with the first chapter the incident is dealt with the minimum number of deft strokes. All the fussy adjectives have gone. Instead we get to see Zubu afresh, as a little boy literally scarred for life by a terrible accident. We also get to meet his sister, Nonye, four years younger than him and someone he is very close to.

As a result of being tormented at school Zuba broaches the matter with his father, Professor Chukwueloka Maduekwe. His response is incisive if a little heartless:

    “You have something to say?” his father finally asked.
    “Yes, Daddy. I want this kee loid removed. It has made me ugly.”
    He was startled by the roar of his father’s laughter.
    “You mean you’ve started thinking about girls? At this age? What are you, ten or eleven?” He laughed some more.

So the keloid stays. From all accounts, at least this is what he is told, removal is not that simple. The thing can reappear and be even worse after. Best to leave well alone.

In the third chapter he goes to university and does well:

   He had had an essay published in his university’s biochemistry journal – a rare feat for an undergraduate – and his Head of Department was encouraging him to take up a career in science, and offering his services as mentor. Zuba had spent a great deal of the last semester with the man he had come to call his school father. He showed his father the journal during a rare father-son outing to a pub.
   “Hmmm. Exploring the Biochemistry of Keloid and Scar Formation. Excellent!” The professor closed the journal and placed it beside his glass of beer. He extended his hand for a presidential handshake. “Congratulations. Making good in your course, are you?”
   “Yes, Dad. But it’s more than just a course to me. It’s what I want to do with my life.”
   “Writing scientific essays?”
   “Researching and writing. I want to be a researcher.”
  Professor Maduekwe laughed. “So you will like to spend the rest of your life as a lab rat, locked away from people, with microscopes, test tubes, slides and pipettes for company?”
   “No, Dad. I will not only research. I will lecture too, like… like…” He rubbed his keloid. “I’ll just lecture too...”

But his father wants him to come and join the staff at the school he has just set up. Needless to say Zuba is none too keen. Besides he has his national service to get out of the way. His father offers to have a word with a friend at the National Service Directorate but his son sticks to his guns and gets posted to "Lokomo, a village in the southwest of the country [which had] been in the news a few months back when the inhabitants demonstrated over their lack of amenities."

And that's where I had to leave Zuba. The question I have to answer is: Do you want to know what happens to him, Jim? Yes, I have to be honest and say that I do. But I would also like to know a bit more about what's happened to him up till now. I expect coming of age happens pretty much the same way no matter what country you're in but there must be vast cultural differences in how that hurdle is negotiated and I felt much of that was skirted over. Perhaps this is because Ozumba didn't want to detract from the real focus of his book, the wrongful imprisonment and mistreatment of his protagonist, but I suspect it's because he's lived this life and there's nothing out of the ordinary there as far as he's concerned.

The press release has this to say about the book:

The author Jackie Kay says about Kachi A. Ozumba's forthcoming title, The Shadow of a Smile: "Kachi A Ozumba not only writes about a big important subject, corruption and imprisonment in Nigeria, he does so with consummate skill and humour. The Shadow of a Smile is a compelling novel that centres around Zuba, a complex and fascinating character whose weakness turns into his strength. Ozumba has a brilliant ear for dialogue, he brings Nigeria bubbling to the page. At times poignant, lyrical and often very funny, Kachi Ozumba is a talent to watch out for."

I expect she got to read the whole book. I certainly hope she did. The press release also promises that "[t]here is as much of The Shawshank Redemption in this story as there is Don Quixote." Now, that would be interesting if he can pull it off.


pic.php Kachi A. Ozumba was born in Nigeria in 1972. He is a winner of the 2006 Decibel Penguin short story prize, and his story ‘What’s in a Name?’ was published in the prizewinners’ anthology Volume 1: New Voices from A Diverse Culture.

He is the author of the travel memoir: Through the Eyes of an African: Impressions of the Danish Society and the Folk High Schools and is also one of the founders of the Nigerian Amateur Writers' Network (NAW-Net). You can read a number of his short stories online in the following e-zines: 'Arrival' in Pulp.Net, 'The Devil's Lies' in Liars' League and 'An African Dog and His Balls' and 'The Police Is Your Friend' in In Posse Review.

Ozumba holds a university degree in philosophy from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria and an MA in creative writing from the University of Leeds. He is currently living in Newcastle where he is pursuing a research degree in literature/creative writing.

The Shadow of a Smile is published by Alma Books, RRP £12.99

You can download the first three chapters here and make your own mind up.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Poetry for kids (part two)

Link to part one.


Here's an interesting chart for you:


I've cut the chart off at four entries because that's all there were.

Is no one writing new nursery rhymes or are there simply quite enough to suit our current needs? In the previous article I already mentioned some of the classic nursery rhymes we've all grown up with but what struck me, when my father came home with a set of Arthur Mee's Children's Encyclopædias, was just how many nursery rhymes there used to be. Have any of you ever heard of these ones?

Mother may I go and bathe?
"Yes, my darling daughter!
Hang your clothes on yonder tree,
But don't go near the water."

CheeryPunchrev2 Punch and Judy
Fought for a pie;
Punch gave Judy
A knock in the eye.

Says Punch to Judy:
"Will you have any more?"
Says Judy to Punch:
"My eye is too sore."

A, B, C, tumble down D.
The cat's in the cupboard
And can't see me.

Now what do you think
Of little Jack Jingle?
Before he was married
He used to be single.

That's enough of that although there's a great article on the role of cats in nursery rhymes here if you're interested. I decided to see what I could find under "new nursery rhymes". My initial efforts led to spoof nursery rhymes like this:

Never speak to strangers,
Though statistics clearly show
We'll probably be murdered
By somebody we know.


Jack and Jill went into town
To fetch some chips and sweeties.
He can't keep his heart rate down
And she's got diabetes.


Humpty & Hamble were happy,
Until the day he said
He couldn't "extend their relationship"
`Cos he'd married Little Ted.

002 Anyone unfamiliar with Play School won't get the last one I'm afraid but I thought it was funny. There were a selection of vulgar ones but you really don't want to hear them as clever as many of them were. Not for children, and probably not the slightest bit vulgar either, is This Little Piggy Went to Prada.

I found these two on Rory Ewins' site. He also has a large collection of limericks. His reason for writing these? "I’ve been reading old ones to the little guy, but how many times is he going to encounter pudding strings and haycocks?" Fair point.

The Oven is Hot

The oven is hot,
The oven is hot.
Will I fiddle with the knobs?
No, I will not.
Will I reach up high and grab
The handle of the pot?
No, I will not,
Because the oven is hot.

The Washing Machine

The washing machine
Makes a wonderful sound
As it jumbles the washing
Around and around

We open the door
And we pop the clothes in
And they tumble around
In a spin, spin, spin.

There's a list of nursery rhymes on Wikipedia but I couldn't see one with a date later than 1915. A considerably longer list can be found here. Of course some of Spike Milligan's poems would do for very young kids but I can't think of any one that one could describe as a nursery rhyme.

ringaroundtherosie_willcox The thing about nursery rhymes is that so many of them, and the ones that have lasted, are nowhere near as innocent as they sound. 'Ring-a-Ring o'Rosies' is all about the bubonic plague outbreak in the seventeenth century although some have suggested it goes as far back as the 1300s. There are two versions:

Ring-a-Ring o'Rosies
A Pocket full of Posies
"A-tishoo! A-tishoo!"
We all fall Down!

Ring around the rosy
A pocketful of posies
"Ashes, Ashes"
We all fall down!

The first is the one I grew up with whereas when I asked my wife just now, the second version is the one she rattled off, word perfect, (my wife is American) although she admits has heard regional variations using 'A-shoo' rather than 'Ashes'.

The thing is I can't imagine teaching my kids a rhyme about Swine Flu or AIDS. Thinking back to when I was a kid myself one has to wonder if they don't already exist because when I was at school sick jokes about starving Biafrans were commonplace. So, why didn't we devise rhymes?

Maybe it was just my school or I simply can't remember but there are plenty of unsavoury schoolyard rhymes out there in fact I discovered a whole site devoted to them. A few of the tamer examples then:

In 1966
The Queen pulled down her knicks
She sniffed her bum
And said yum yum
It s better than Weetabix

Michael Jackson came to town
Pepsi-Cola shot 'im down
Coca Cola lit 'im up
Now we all drink seven up!

Pepsi-Cola came to town
Coca Cola shot 'im down
Dr. Pepper fixed 'im up
Now we all drink seven-up

A sigh is but a breath of air
Ascending from the heart.
But when it goes the other way
It's nothing but a fart.

The last one is a good example because the girl who posted it had this to say about it: "Here's one my older sister came home with from her first day of kindergarten." And that was in 1958 apparently.

The question is, did a poet — and by that I mean an adult poet — sit down and compose 'Ring-a-Ring o'Rosies' or any of the above or did they, like so many of the jokes I've heard in my life, simply appear, fully-formed, one day. Of course someone 'wrote' every one of them but after a while, once in the public domain, these things take on a life of their own. I certainly don't expect the person who wrote the Michael Jackson ditty to e-mail me for breach of copyright although Coca Cola may well sue or something.

One has to wonder though if nursery rhymes are still relevant these days. In a post last year the website Nursery Rhyme Favourites asked that very question and here's part of their argument in defence:

I often wonder if one of the reasons literacy rates have dropped so much in the last 30 years is because children today are exposed to less and less nursery rhymes.

Consider this:  nursery rhymes have been around for hundreds of years.  Nothing can survive that long unless it is proven to be worthy or useful.

And in a related post they list seven reasons why nursery rhymes are still critical for a child's development. I'd like to just pick the last point:

7. Although WE may think they're old, nursery rhymes are brand new to each new crop of toddlers. Today's toddlers have never heard the traditional nursery rhymes before.

24071 Is this why we keep going back to the same old rhymes, because we have enough for the job? The argument seems sound enough. A big deal is made about traditional nursery rhymes too: traditional = good, trustworthy.

You can read a report by the California State University Institute for Education Reform here which certainly includes nursery rhymes in its lists of things to do to promote good reading but one can also overstate their importance. What the report does conclude is that "phonemic awareness as the most potent predictor of success in learning to read". It further states:

The lack of phonemic awareness is the most powerful determinant of the likelihood of failure to learn to read because of its importance in learning the English alphabetic system or how print represents spoken words. If children cannot hear and manipulate the sounds in spoken words, they have an extremely difficult time learning how to map those sounds to letters and letter patterns - the essence of decoding.

No I had no idea what a phoneme was either and even after I looked it up I found myself struggling but this part of the report helps:

The research outlines a progression of phonemic awareness development in pre-school, kindergarten, and early first grade that includes the ability:

  • to hear rhymes or alliteration

  • to blend sounds to make a word (e.g., /a/-/t/ = at)

  • to count phonemes in words ( how many sounds do you hear in "is"?)

  • to identify the beginning, middle, and final sounds in words

  • to substitute one phoneme for another (e.g., change the /h/ in "hot" to /p/)

  • to delete phonemes from words (e.g., omit the /c/ from "cat")

Now, although the report doesn't state this explicitly, wouldn't you agree that all of this can be found in a healthy selection of nursery rhymes especially the ones that delight in word play? Another thing, a wee while ago some of my friends were memorising and reciting poems and I decided to pass on this. On of the reasons was my lousy memory. And yet, when I think about it, I can remember loads of poems; they're all nursery rhymes admittedly but they're still poems. I can't remember being taught them but clearly I was.

"Listening comprehension precedes reading comprehension." This is really what all the above is saying. That quote comes from Tony Stead, senior national literacy consultant for Mondo Publishing in New York who goes on to say this:

JackJill7-fromOldMotherGoose In order for a child to understand what they are reading, they have to be able to hear the language first. A lot of the traditional rhymes, such as 'Jack and Jill' and 'Humpty Dumpty,' were repetitious and allowed us to memorise basic structures and patterns in the English language, then put it together. It's important that young children learn to memorize through verse. Research shows children learn more in their first eight years than they do in the rest of their lives. This is a powerful time to teach them to be readers and writers. Instead of enhancing children's imaginations, today's media have stunted it … Rhyme is important in developing phonemic [hearing] awareness in children … It's harder in elementary school to teach kids to read when they do not have oral support… - Why Nursery Rhymes?

In olden times, nursery rhymes were used by the elders to teach spiritual teachings and thereby imbibe a sense of being religious in a kid. They have also been used to lampoon political and social events. All of that has gone by the way but as a fundamental tool for teaching basic language skills it looks like there is nothing quite like them. And the ones that have stayed are the ones that work the best. So, why re-invent the wheel? In fact bestselling author and literary consultant Mem Fox states in her book Reading Magic that "rhymers will be readers". Based on research by experts in literacy and child development, she claims that children who know eight nursery rhymes by heart by the time they are four years old will be among the best readers by the time they are eight years old. (

So, where does this leave us? I would hope with a renewed appreciated for nursery rhymes and — more importantly — the need to read them to our kids. And when they squeal, "Again! Do it again!" we should do exactly that. It's not important that we understand what we're doing. It's enough that we do it. The doctors say we should eat five portions of fruit and veg a day, so, if we know what's good for us, we do it. Teachers say read regularly to your kids. So, do it.


Further reading: I came across this post after I completed this but it is worth checking out: Poetics and Ruminations: Rhyme, Meter, and Poetry for Children

Monday, 21 September 2009

Aggie and Shuggie 19



Sketch of a haggis in the wild

(Marag fabulosus)











Da! Wake up!


Whu? Wha? Whurtza fire? Ach, at's yoo, Maggie. Whit time's it?


At's early, Da. Da, Ah needs t'talk t'ye. An whittur ye daen still kippin oan the couch? As Ma neffer goanna fergiff ye fer tearin up Unca Jim's book?


Thank Christ ye woke me. Ah wis huffin an awfe dream.


Whit aboot?


Me an yer Unca Jim wis aff oan this haggis hunt, the first o the seasun. We wis jist sneakin up oan thur fobhríste[*] crawllin thru the heather, oor meurans raised reedy fae the wee toe-rags t'cum scurryin oot aw roads an then this wee nyaff oan is first hunt stearted sneezin an befair we cud say "Fur fa yer oanest, soansie face,"[†] thur wis this affy lood drumna an a herd af haggii the size af buffallos wis bearin doon oan us an Ah wis runnin fur ma life. Oanly Ah goat stuck in a boag but it wisne a boag, it were a bowl af cold poarrige…


Da. Da! Stoap haverin. Pay attenshun. At's impoartunt.


Whit is it, hen? An befair ye steart Ah didne tear up yer Unca Jim's book, it wis jist a page an it were an emerchancey.


That disne mayter noo. Thur's a noo refyoo aff Unca Jim's noo book up oanline.


As that's aw?


Aye, but thur's a proablem. E gies away spoilers.


No way!




An who did that?


Guy Fraser Sampson.


Who that when e's at hame?


Frae Purswarden.


Whit's a firm af accootunts daen refyooin oor Jim's book?


E's no an accootunt, Da. E's a lawyer aechully.


A whit?


At's jist is day joab. E writes books un at tae. E wrote Maja Beanjy.


Wis tha no aboot a doag ur summat?


No. Oanywise, whittur we goanna dae?


Aboot whit?


Ur we goanna tell Unca Jim?


How cun we no, hen? Wis atta gud refyoo?


At wur bitchin, Da.


Ah guess Ah'll hufta take im oot an get im pished furst. E's a bagga nerfs at the minute. Fine. Leaf it wi me.


Raight, Da.


An, hen?




Ye dinne fancy makin yer owd faither a cuppa tea di ye?




An mibbe a wee roll an soasage?


Don't push it.



[*] For details on the jargon used with reference to the haggis hunt see the online haggisclopedia under Part 7: Jargon.

[†] From To a Haggis by Robert Burns

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Poetry for kids (part one)


38600_logo Now, let's not pretend for a second I know anything about this subject. Well, that's not quite true. I have a daughter and she was a kid for quite a wee while. And, of course we did all the nursery rhyme stuff, the classics, 'Humpty Dumpty', 'Ol' King Cole', 'Mary Had a Little Lamb', but after that I sort of lost track until she turned into an angst-ridden teenager writing angst-ridden poetry that she refused to let me read.

I was thinking about the poetry I did at school and to be honest the first poetry I remember doing was in Primary 6 — which would make me about 10 — and our project for that year was Robert Burns. That's the only time I can ever remember pupils being made to recite a poem in front of the rest of the class although I can't remember me doing it; I guess it was traumatic and I blocked it. The next year was poetry intensive — Wordsworth, de la Mare, Masefield, Tennyson etc (thank you Mr Wallace) — but what happened between five and nine? I have no idea.

And this got me thinking. What poetry is there out there before we introduce our kids to the 'real stuff'? I have to say I've never been slightly tempted to write poetry aimed at juveniles. I have a couple that come under the general heading of 'nursery rhyme' but that's about it and they were written many years ago. This is the only poem I can think of that might appeal to juveniles and that's mainly because it involves bodily functions:


Sometimes you have to go
to zed
before you can get
to be
and sometimes you need
to stop
to pee on the way back.

7th June 1997

Now, I'm sure those out there with pubescent children (and some pre-pubescent children though trying to find out what age range that covers is next to impossible) will know whether that would appeal to their kids. (American readers can, of course, replace 'zed' with 'zee'.) I'm not sure the title might not confuse but then at what age is it proper to introduce alternative philosophical schools of thought and poke fun at them? I don't think I would've got the title till I was well into my teens.

I wrote my first 'official' poem when I was thirteen by which time I was I was in love for the first time in my life. That relationship lasted four years and if I hadn't been the emotional runt of the litter it would have led to marriage so it was no crush I can tell you. If socially I was backward, intellectually, at least, I was old for  my years (and had been for years) so I'm not sure I'm the best person to ask what those wilderness-years kids would read. Even as a kid I wasn't interested in kids' stuff.

I suppose what I'm looking for is the poetic counterpart to Tracy Beaker.

I did a search using Google Insights to see what I could find comparing 'poetry for kids' (orange), 'poems for kids' (red) and 'kids poems' (blue). The resultant chart is interesting:


Searches for kid-related poetry are apparently on the increase but why is the UK lagging so far behind? It can't be anything to do with head count because look who's at the top. Well done New Zealand.

I typed in "poems for kids" into Google and the first site that came up was Kenn Nesbitt's of whom I knew nothing. I had a click on one of two, e.g. 'My Nostril Smells Awesome' and 'My Chicken's On the Internet' which were a bit on the silly side but they were also pretty much what I expected, light verse arranged in quatrains on topics that would keep the kids' attentions. And then I clicked on this one which is exactly the kind of poem I think should be directed at young potential poets:


Today I wrote this poem,
but I'm not sure if it's good.
It doesn't have the things
my teacher says a poem should.

It doesn't share the feelings
I have deep inside of me.
It hasn't any metaphors
and not one simile.

It's missing any narrative.
Alliteration too.
It isn't an acrostic,
diamante, or haiku.

There's nothing that's personified.
It doesn't have a plot.
I'm pretty sure that rhyming
is the only thing it's got.

It sure was fun to write it,
and I think it's long enough.
It's just too bad it's missing
all that great poetic stuff.

I put it on my teacher's desk
and, wow, she made a fuss.
She handed back my poem
with an A++++!

Basically this poem would have had the same effect on me if I'd read it at eight that 'Mr Bleaney' had when I was thirteen. Larkin taught me that poetry was more than technique. This poem does much the same. It's like a lot of the poetry I've been writing myself of late, self-referential works that make you question the nature of poetry. The other thing I liked about the site was that it also gives lessons in how to write poetry. It does focus on funny poetry and I really have no problem with that. As kids age they'll vary the topic and approach to suit their moods and needs.

So, I moved on and a couple of sites down the list came to Poetry180 which is designed to present a poem a day for each day of the American school curriculum. I like the idea of that. Poetry is something you can most certainly get too much off. And kids can get sickened off very easily. The poems in this site are definitely the next step up from Kenn Nesbitt's. Most of the poets were unfamiliar to me but that's neither here nor there. The one that leapt off the page though was #127, Julie Sheehan's 'Hate Poem' from which I'd like to show this excerpt:

The blue-green jewel of sock lint I’m digging
     from under by third toenail, left foot, hates you.
The history of this keychain hates you.
My sigh in the background as you explain relational databases
     hates you.
The goldfish of my genius hates you.
My aorta hates you. Also my ancestors.

A closed window is both a closed window and an obvious
     symbol of how I hate you.

There's no happy ending to this one. It's funny but in a very different way to Nesbitt's work. It'll also be a poem that youngsters can relate to because they tend to express their emotions is all-or-nothing ways; best friends at the start of the day can be bitter enemies by close of play.

There are quite a few good poems in the list. I liked #086, 'Sure' which deals with drugs and death — a far cry from the romanticised vagabonds I was reading about — and #097, 'The Hymn of a Fat Woman' which deals with body issues and religion and the very timely #099 'From On Being Fired Again'. I don't think I knew an unemployed person all the time I was at school but within three months of leaving school I was one as were many of my school mates; the times certainly were a' changin'. And they clearly still are.

I thought I was going to have to wade through loads of sites before I found what I was looking for but I guess not. I think this single web page would probably have enough links for anyone but The Children's Poetry Archive would be as good a place to start as any. It's not on that list. I found it researching nursery rhymes which I'll discuss in a separate article.

From all accounts the inclusion of poetry in the day-to-day curriculum is not something that has been given a high priority in recent years. One has to ask why. In his essay Sharing Poetry with Children, Roberta Mazzucco, points the finger at the teachers:

For many, poetry is a difficult and boring assignment to teach. Since the teacher may not have enjoyed poetry, the minimal amount in the reader is just fine. As is the case also with the state of science in many schools, there is a lack of confidence in teaching the subject, so it is avoided at all cost or minimally done. Even worse, the teacher’s lack of enthusiasm results in a half-hearted attempt to cover the poem.

The whole article is worth a read because he gives some good pointers about how to teach poetry. Like this:

Because of the short length of many poems, they are convenient for teachers to use whenever the moment seems appropriate. Here again there is the danger that every lull becomes the time for the teacher to whip out a poem. Poetry needs to come in at relevant and timely moments. A poem for every day and every occasion can be overkill. We want neither to keep poetry a secret that most readers cannot fathom, nor to trivialize it so as to make it banal.

Most of the literature suggests that any unit on poetry should presume that children have been listening to poems from the beginning of the year and that this is not just a two or three week foray into a genre which will then be forgotten. The literature on poetry and young children also suggests the strong tie between the reading and writing of poetry. The writing of poems is to be strongly encouraged because it not only helps the child to understand the poets’ craft but affords the child another outlet for expressing his/her ideas and emotions

Teacher ignorance and apathy are one thing. In the introduction to his book, Teaching Poetry in the Primary School: Perspectives for a New Generation, Dennis Carter addresses another problem:

On the one hand there are the demands made by poetry, the spirit of creativity and the nature and needs of children. On the other there are those made by the Education Reform Act of 1988 with its National Curriculum and, more recently, by the National Literacy Strategy (NLS) with its 'Literacy Hour'. Unless these contrary forces are reconciled, however, the future of poetry in schools and, more importantly, the future development of children's sensibilities are grim indeed.

Who'd be a teacher these days? is all I have to say on that.

I have no doubt that poetry cropped up from time to time throughout my childhood, at school at least, but the only years I remember poetry from were Primary 7 (age 11) and Third and Fourth Year (ages 15-16) at secondary school. Why these years? Because the teachers were especially good at bringing the poems to life. I've mentioned Mr Wallace before. As kids we were never told much about him and he never told us much apart from stories about him chasing Germans round haystacks. He was old though — probably a good 60 — and I've always held the opinion that he had been brought out of retirement to teach us. I'm grateful for that because he was old fashioned. Had we had a younger teacher then we might have been exposed to the likes of Edward Lear and Ogden Nash, not that there's anything wrong with them but they were easy to catch up on in my own time later. As an article on the website puts it:

It is a simple fact that some children are more drawn to words and literature than others. Sometimes all it takes is the influence of the right person or book at the right moment, to tap something that is set to blossom inside — a love of language, of the sound or meaning of words, of their look on the page. But it is critically important for all children that the right opportunities, the right people, be there when the moment is at hand.


The trick is how to translate this energy, once aroused and captured, into the desire to read poetry seriously, to do the intellectual work necessary to gain a basic mastery of the literary art, just as one does, say, with math, biology, or Spanish. - Serious Play: Reading Poetry with Children

I'd like to leave you with a quote from the article What's Children's Poetry For?

We can overprotect children from difficulty refusing to expose them to things beyond their knowledge when the purpose of education is to teach students things they don't know. But there's a difference between exposing children to things beyond their knowledge and exposing them to things beyond their comprehension.

It's a wise teacher who knows when to make the transition from poetry that simply entertains to poetry that makes his or her students think. I have a lot to be grateful to Mr Wallace for even if this thank you has been a long time coming because I'm sure none of us really appreciated what he was guiding us towards.

I'm not sure what the future will bring. I can guess but that would me being pessimistic. What I do believe is that natural poets will find their true calling with very little encouragement. And this is where the Web is so important. It's where our kids will look for encouragement and support and there are sites (One Night Stanzas jumps particularly to mind) to provide exactly that.

Next time: In this day and age who needs nursery rhymes? In the meantime, those of you with kids about the right age might want to check out Poetry Matters: Writing A Poem From the Inside Out — the book looks interesting. I wish I'd been presented with something like that when I was ripe for it.

Also, especially for those in the UK, the Ofsted report on Poetry in Schools makes interesting reading as does a generally positive report on the effect of The Literacy Hour in English Schools by Stephen Machin and Sandra McNally prepared for the Centre for the Economics of Education, London School of Economics.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Balancing on the Edge of the World


Balancing on the Edge of the World I wanted this book twice. It comes from having a failing memory. I don't remember the first time I wanted it but I found it lying at the bottom of my Amazon shopping basket so somewhere along the line I'd read something about this book and decided it was for me. Not sure why I didn't buy it at the time but I clearly intended to buy it later.

The second time was when I read one of the many articles that have been afloat amongst the flotsam of blogs lately mentioning that Salt Publishing were in danger of going under. A call was put out to throw them a lifeline. Buy a book. Just one. But buy one now. So I did. I'd never bought anything from them before and I really didn't know that much about them other than the fact they seemed to be held in high esteem by a lot people so I logged onto their website and started to go through their back catalogue whereupon I chanced across Balancing on the Edge of the World and thought: I'll be having that.

Only after that did I realise this was the second time I'd decided to buy it. Some people would regard that as an omen. I don't. But this was clearly a book that interested me. Maybe it was just the cover. It's relaxing. One of my friends thought it was more interesting that I'd chosen a book of short stories from a publisher known for the quality of its poetry collections. What can I say?

After I finished the book, which took several days what with one thing and another, I had mixed feelings about my choice. Now, of course you'll jump to the wrong conclusion and think: Oh, he mustn't have liked some of it and there you'd be wrong. Feelings are not black and white. It's not a matter of 'like' or 'not like' because even if I said I liked the book you'd expect me to qualify that remark. And so I will.

If you're interested in traditional stories with beginnings, middles and endings with plots and clearly-defined characters then this may not be the book for you. If you subscribe to the slice-of-life school of storytelling and you believe that a story can get by with a point rather than a plot and if you don't need a CV for every character who pops his head into the tale then read on. This is storytelling for the 21st century. No preamble, no pussyfooting around. Readers are expected to contribute to the overall experience. Which has its risks but the payoff is much greater when the right reader and the right writer get together on the page.

After I'd finished the book I sat down and thought: Now, which of these stories can I remember without picking the book up?

There was:

  • The one about philosophy in a pizza shop.
    'Condensed Metaphysics'
  • The one about the boy who gets attacked.
    'Daniel Smith Disappears Off the Face of the Earth'
  • The one where they were wandering around on the beach.
    'Going Back'
  • The one where the boy went camping with his dad.
    'Compass and Torch'
  • The one with the cat and the kid with the power.
  • The short one chronicling a generation.
  • The 'experimental' one with all the names of rolls.
    'A Glossary of Bread'
  • The one with the sex scene.
    'Into the Night'

I added the titles afterwards – I couldn't remember any of them. Now, for a guy with a lousy memory, eight out of fourteen is not bad. What's interesting is that I didn't remember the last two stories in the book, particularly considering the fact that the very last story, 'Who's Singing?', is actually quite a well constructed character study and the penultimate story, 'The Way to Behave', has the best bit of extended dialogue in the book; Baines is also a playwright so no great surprises there. All in all, I'm not sure what my little exercise proves.

Each of the eight brought forth a different set of emotional responses, none of which was 'hate' or 'not like' let me hasten to add, and I could probably rearrange them into a Top Eight but I'm not going to. These are the six I couldn't remember:

  • 'The Shooting Script'
  • 'The Way to Behave'
  • 'Who is Singing?'
  • 'Holding Hands'
  • 'Star Things'
  • 'Leaf Memory'

Looking at this list I found I could remember the gist of the first three I've listed but I didn't have a clue about the rest. When I did flick through them I discovered that these were among the more abstract of the stories on offer, paintings, impressions, rather than sharp photographs. 'Star Things' is actually more like watching a slide show, individual snapshots that build up to a composite 'picture':

No one knows where the Johnson children come from. No one knows where they go. Everyone knows what the business was their father went away on; some can guess why he broke down the back door with a hatchet.

In the wood there's something crackling.
        Angela Johnson leaves the gate swinging. Down the hill there are boys. Johnson boys and others, breaking branches and slinging them. They jump, knees bent, swinging, till the whole tree winces; twigs and leaves spark and sizzle as they hurl them down the slope.
        'Don't worry, no one will see.'

My daddy might come looking.
        For children like the Johnsons the Social Services come looking. Children like the Johnsons have heads that are alive.
        The boys come round, fists like pebbles in their pockets, legs in corrugated socks, their cropped hair bristling in the sun.
        'Your dad's a Jew, then, isn't he?'

My daddy's got a star that fell out of the sky.
        'What star? Hah!' Doubled up, snorting, kicking the tree trunks, throwing sticks looping upwards, 'Got a star, my eye!'
        'Yes, he has, he's got a meteorite he found while he was walking.'
        'You're joking, what's it look like?'
        Split across, and in the middle there's a wheel shape all in silver.
        Elbows leaning on the tree now. 'What's this made of?'

Now, think about it, this is an excerpt from what I thought was one of Baines' least memorable stories. And I think you would agree with me that it's not bad writing at all. Do you see where I'm coming from here? This is what she had to say about that story:

'Leaf Memory' consists of the splicing of two narratives, the protagonist's first-person memory of being pushed in a pram by her grandmother interwoven with the starker (and italicized) authorized family version of her grandmother's life. As far as I was concerned, this was the only way to tell this story: it was both the way that 'came to me' and it was the way that, when I thought about it editorially, best conveyed the impact of the difference between two dynamic but clashing realities or versions of the truth. In fact, this story – and much of my work generally – is about the fact that the ways in which we tell stories, the modes we use to tell them, can very much affect their meanings. – Barbara's Bleeuugh!

'Leaf Memory' is actually where the title of the book originates. I dropped her an e-mail and this was her response:

[I]t's meant to echo (though not replicate of course) the recurring phrase in the story 'Leaf Memory' 'the rim of the world...', 'resting on the peak of the world' etc. I hoped it would sum up the theme of the book, which is power balances, and in particular the struggle to keep a balance of power for those who are disenfranchised or on the edge of society and its mainstream stories.

Baines does children well. They make appearances in several of the stories. If 'Star Things' was (for me) one of her least memorable stories then 'Compass and Torch' has to be probably the most memorable. It's a simple enough story – none of her stories are complex, at least not on the surface – a boy is going camping with his father, a father who is no longer living with the boy's mother. A straightforward, short paragraph near the beginning sums up everything:

The boy is intent. Watching Dad. Watching what Dad is. Drinking it in: the essence of Dadness.

It's almost a poem. It's certainly poetic. This conceit, this pencil sketch, is then teased out into a full-blown character study. The boy is working hard to find common ground with his father. I found this section here to be the most touching:

But they don't need a compass after all. They are adventurers, after all. Compasses are things that boys and dads tend to have, but which, when they are alert and strong at heart, they can leave behind. It is no accident that they both left their compasses behind.
        'I keep mine by my bed,' he tells his dad. 'Where do you keep yours?'
        'In my desk,' says the man.
        The boy nods with satisfaction.

A lot of people – especially non-writers – get overly interested in the origins of a story. 'Compass and Torch' has cropped up in several interview Baines has given online but here's the gist of it:

This story was triggered by actually seeing a young boy and his father setting off for a camping trip in the way the father and son in the story do, but I soon realized it was really informed by my own childhood and family experiences. These last probably affected my perception of the real-life pair in the first place: I wasn’t even really seeing them for what they were – maybe in reality they were as happy as Larry and had a wonderful understanding – so the story was not at all about them. – Sarah's Writing Journal

CompTorc.JPEG A much more detailed account can be found in her interview with Vanessa Gebbie, here and you can actually read the whole story online here. Watch out for the end of the piece, especially that final paragraph.

It is a simple story, as I've said, and – and this is probably true about most of the tales told here – they're easy to get through and then you can move onto the next. Even though I read the book over four days – bear in mind it's only 95 pages long – I still feel that I rushed it. This is always a problem with short story collections. I sometimes feel that I should ration myself to one story a day and read something else, a novel, say, for the rest of the time. My gut feeling is that I bolted down some of these stories and the ones that I couldn't remember were the ones that required the most chewing before digesting. My bad.

I particularly enjoyed the structure of 'A Glossary of Bread'. It's something I've seen done before in fact I know of a novel and an autobiography written in the form of a dictionary – The Complete Knowledge of Sally Fry and Encyclopaedia of an Ordinary Life. No doubt there are others. I've always wanted to do one myself. 'A Glossary of Bread' is a linear story that tracks the British towns that the narrator, a young girl, moves to along with her peripatetic family, from Wales ('baps') to the Midlands ('buns') to somewhere else ('cobs'), up to Glasgow ('muffins') and then back to somewhere else in the Midlands where they call rolls 'barmcakes'. It could have been anything but bread is a metaphor and an important religious symbol; the story has a particularly religious undercurrent. I was a little surprised to discover that she had a hard time placing it:

I had a devil of a job getting it published. It was turned down by most of the few print literary magazines which still existed and passed over in several competitions before at last making the finals of the Moondance film festival story competition and being published in Stand and on East of the Web (short stories were just then taking off on the web). I have to say that before I finally placed it I had almost completely lost faith in the story, and was even doubting my own aims as a prose fiction writer. – Me and My Big Mouth

GlosBrea.JPEG You can read the whole story online here.

One of the things that I liked especially about this collection as a whole was the lack of a sense of place. And even where place names are used, as in 'A Glossary of Bread', they're just names. I have never been to Rhyl in Wales and I've no idea what they call rolls there. It doesn't matter. They could have been made-up names.

This story also highlights a technique Baines uses to good effect throughout the books, slight of hand, directing your attention to something small when she's really talking about something big. She does it in 'A Glossary of Bread', in 'Compass and Torch' and in 'Who's Singing?' where, as you've probably guessed, singing is not what the story is about. Everyone eats bread and everyone sings or at least attempts to. Not everyone discusses metaphysics over pizza although apparently this story was based on a true incident. I say based in italics because the story was originally published as reportage. She explains how that came about in an entry on her blog here.

Fathers take a back seat in this collection, significant in a book "about power", which is what the blurb on the back says, and yet they are rarely the strongest of characters. In 'Power' the family haven't seen the father for weeks, in 'Holding Hands' he's dead (not a spoiler – honest), in 'Compass and Torch' he believes he's already "lost his son", in 'Star Things' he's a subject of derision by the neighbourhood kids, in 'A Glossary of Bread' he's a man slowly losing control of his family and in 'Going Back' another husband is losing his wife to, what one reviewer suggested as, Post-Natal Illness. Most of the other males fare poorly too, like the man in 'The Way to Behave' when his wife and his lover arrange to meet and the underhand agent-sum-mentor in the satirical 'The Shooting Script'. Power here belongs to others.

The only male protagonist is in 'Daniel Smith Disappears Off the Face of the Earth'. And it's the only one where males exercise power, the males being the people who accost him. On the whole this is a straight blow-by-blow account until the end of the piece when it melts into poetry:

And they're off, down the end of the road.


flicking out on a sulphur circle

and they're away, assimilated in a city of

flicking images

and pulsing sounds


Daniel Smith is dissolving

while prehistory glitters out of the sky.

I have no idea who the man is in 'Into the Night' for example. It's one of the shortest stories in the book at three pages – only 'Conundrum' is shorter, at two – and it's basically a snapshot of the lead up to and the morning after a one night stand. In it the woman is the hunter. We have no names, we don’t know where she is other than the fact it's a "different city" and "[s]he's far away from home." My guess is it's probably a business trip but that just a guess. It's integral to the story I believe that we know as little as they know about each other. It's hard finding representative quotes at times because often you need a page or more for the true flavour to come out but in this story one single paragraph is an absolute tour-de-force: this woman can write. Just take note of how much she packs into this little block of text:

They stumble alone into the lift of his hotel, two strangers, two points of pure desire coming together, pure body, yellow-stained hands mapping breasts beneath the black fabric, parting her thighs, jutting cock clamped in her fist, their particular personal histories washed away by their blinding bathing mouths. He shuts the door of his room, shuts it on the city, on all that each of them was before this moment, this night; entangled, tearing at clothes, they move towards the bed, tripping briefly on something, some possession which might define him, which he kicks deftly out of the way. They arc towards the bed's surface, and all of their pasts is tongued, licked, sucked from their bodies, chased to the base of her spine, flicked from her nipples, her cunt, drowned with his cock in the lagoon of her mouth and the liquid delta between her thighs, lost altogether in the widening rings of their orgasms.

This is tight, effective writing that manages to be erotic and poetic and yet it reveals more than two anonymous, writhing, naked forms. This was written by someone who knows how to squeeze meanings out of words till they squeal.

This book was well-plugged when it first came out. You'll find interviews with the author all over the web so I'm not going to list them all off. The couple I've mentioned will probably be enough for most of you and even they contain links to others. I read the book from beginning to end something which I learned she rarely does and yet she's clearly put thought into its layout. The opening stories are almost comical, they're certainly light-hearted, but I wouldn't say they're typical. There's not a huge amount of humour in the rest of the book. The two stories that bookend the collection are also a little different, more ironic. Adults dominate these stories too which makes them stand apart from the rest in which children have a more central role. So, it's a literary sandwich.

Elizabeth Baines Baines describes her aim as to write a story that is "something jewelled, dense, which will glow in the mind long after you have finished reading it" and I think she has managed that in this collection. Not every story shines; there are some semi-precious stones in here, even a couple of lumps of hematite which isn't the most exciting thing to look at but it feels cool. There is variety here. Some of the stories are straight narratives, others are lyrical. This is a book of literary fiction and I define 'literary fiction' as writing in which how something is said is more important than what is said. I think it will be a rare thing to find a reader who loves every story in the book but they do serve as an excellent showcase of her abilities. I'd read her again but I'd probably go for a novel next time. Chamber pieces have their place, and they are often – wrongly – dismissed as light music, but there are times you just want to wallow in a symphony.


Too Many Magpies Elizabeth Baines was born in South Wales and lives in Manchester. She has been a teacher and is an occasional actor as well as the prize-winning author of plays for radio and stage, and of two novels, The Birth Machine and Body Cuts. Her stories have appeared in numerous print magazines such as Stand and London Magazine, and in anthologies including Bitch Lit, Power (which is where I first read her) and Best Short Stories from Stand Magazine. She has won previous awards for her stories in a Radio 3 competition, in the Listowel Festival competition, in the Writers' Inc competition and twice in the Moondance International Film Festival short story competition. She was a founder co-editor (with Ailsa Cox) and publisher (with Ailsa Cox and John Ashbrook) of the acclaimed short story magazine Metropolitan.

Her new novel, Too Many Magpies will be released by Salt Publishing in October and a further collection of stories is currently in the works.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

21st century sound bytes

Anaxagoras According to Google Analytics the average time someone spends on my site is about 48 seconds. So, let's cut to the chase. If you're a writer – I don't care if you're a poet, a playwright or a novelist – have a think about this: if you were invited to submit an entry for the next Dictionary of 21st Century Quotations what would it be?

Hold that thought.

First let's go back a few years. To somewhere about the end of the 5th century BC to be precise. Okay that's not very precise but bear with me. That's when some bloke called Anaxagoras lived. Ever heard of him? Me neither. But if you google quotes by famous Greek philosophers you'll find this wee gem:

The descent to Hades is the same from every place.

Now, that's not too far away from Robert Burns' "A man's a man for a' that." It's a cool quote – so's the one from Burns – succinct, profound and to the point.

I pulled the quote pretty much at random from a website and all it said about him was that he was born in 500 BC and died in 428 BC. Oh, and he was Greek but that wasn't hard to guess. I did some digging and found that the quote actually comes from a work by Diogenes – now him I'd heard of. According to Diogenes, when someone lamented the fact that Anaxagoras would die in a foreign land, he replied, "The descent to Hades is much the same from whatever place we start." (Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, Book 2, 11)

Now Anaxagoras is certainly not the least known of the Greek philosophers but the sad fact is that to the man in the street he's just a name in a book of quotations.

Okay, let's jump forward a bit, say to the year 4509 AD. Do you imagine Anaxagoras will be remembered then? Assuming we've not succeeded in annihilating ourselves or Nature hasn't helped us on our way out of existence I suspect he will be. He's wangled his way onto a computer now so his chances have been improved considerably unless a computer virus wipes all the world's data overnight. I guess keeping oneself alive in the public consciousness isn't such an easy thing.

Fine, back 2500 years to the present day.

If you watch TV or pick up a glossy magazine you'll see how everything has been distilled to the sound byte. We have never been as interested in quotes as we are right now. There is so much going on that we simply don't have time to relish interviews any more. We get a few seconds kindly whittled down by the nice people at the TV channel or the magazine's editor. Most of the time there's little or no context, just a few words usually, maybe a pretty (or unflattering, depending on the magazine) photo to go along with. And then we're onto the next one.

Now let's slip back just fifteen more years. In 1994 Cees Nooteboom wrote a book called The Following Story which I read about a year ago. In it I made a note of these two sentences:

Time is the system that must prevent everything happening at once.

Conversations consist for the most part of things one does not say.

Now, what do you think the odds are of either of these quotes cropping up in the next Dictionary of 20th Century Quotations? None too high I'd say. I suppose he'd have a fighting chance of getting into the Dictionary of Modern Dutch Quotations but would it be either of these quotes? Who decides? Do you and I get to vote on what humanity ought to remember? And why shouldn't we?

In 100 years no one will remember me. Sniff. No, this is not me feeling sorry for myself. I'm simply stating a fact of life. In 100 years time my daughter will be dead and that will be it. I expect my writing will kick around for a while, there are copies of my novels all over the world and I suppose a few of them will knock around for a few decades after that but probably by then we'll be recycling ever scrap of paper we have lying around.

But what if I had the chance to get into one of them thar quotation-type books? Out of all the hundreds of thousands of words I've written what's worth remembering? Actually I can think of a couple quite easily:


I don't believe in destiny / but I do in inevitability. [Shadowplay]

Writers don’t have lives. They have ongoing research. [The More Things Change]

Of course I'm being generous to myself with two quotes but what the hell, it's my blog.

Modern Quotations My dictionary of modern quotations is old now, it's The Penguin Modern Dictionary of Modern Quotations, second edition (1980) edited by M and M J Cohen. Now they have The New Penguin Modern Dictionary of Modern Quotations edited by Robert Andrews and it's also into its second edition. I suppose the next one with be The Even Newer Penguin Modern Dictionary of Modern Quotations.

I found the introduction to my edition of the dictionary illuminating. In it the Cohens explain a bit about how the quotes were collated. Bottom line: they sat down and picked. They had plenty of help – the BBC allowed them to check programmes for accuracy, the Observer, the Sunday Times and the New Society published letters requesting memorable sayings and the Observer also allowed them access to the files of its Sayings of the Week – but, at the end of the day, it was as much down to chance as circumstance whether a quote found its way in or not. They freely admit that some sources (they cite as examples the radio shows ITMA and The Goons Show) provided more good lines than they felt they could include. They also admit to a "predominately English" bias.

titbits In the Foreword to the Second Edition they say they have culled all entries that they found to be "dated, forgettable or unfunny" but it also seems they have gone to much greater pains to seek out quotes deemed worthy of inclusion expanding the number of periodicals they placed ads in to over a dozen quality periodical broadening its reach to include the Radio Times, Gay News and Private Eye. So none in the Women's Weekly, Titbits or Melody Maker then.

Not every memorable quote can be attributed but just because we don't know who said them first shouldn't mean they don't get included. So, here's one from my childhood:


Can't means won't.

I'm sure there are loads of kids who squirm when they hear those three words. Personally if I never heard them again it would be too soon but I think they should be remembered too along with other slogans like "Better dead than red" or "Go to work on an egg."

I had a flick through my book to see what injustices I could find. The first was an obvious one:


Adults are obsolete children. [Quoted in L L Levinson's, Barlett's Unfamiliar Quotations]

Now, you tell me, is THAT the most memorable things Dr Seuss ever wrote? I asked my wife which line of his came to mind (without telling her why I was asking) and I got:

I do not like green eggs and ham.

I do not like them, Sam-I-am.

Okay it's not especially profound but then neither were many of the quotes included in the book, for example:


How tickled I am! [Running gag in comedy act]


Keeping Up With the Joneses [Title of cartoon strip]


Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be [Title of play]

Ken Dodd Memorable? Perhaps. Worth remembering? Well, that's another thing completely. But does everything we pass down to the next generation need to be meaningful and profound? Perhaps not. I mean Doddy's comment means something to me because I've seen him so many times. I get all nostalgic about it. But will it be assimilated into popular culture in the way that 'keeping up with the Joneses' has? Nah. In 50 years hardly anyone on the planet will remember Ken Dodd in just the same way as the old music hall performers have all but been forgotten.

It's a memorable and as funny as the Goon Show line: "Oh! Sausinges!" I heard Harry Secombe talk about how this line originated. It was to test a theory he had about humour He believed that basically anything could be made funny by pure repetition. And he was proved right. With a very short time audiences were waiting in anticipation of the line and delighting in it. Memorable? Yes. Worth remembering? As some footnote in the history of radio comedy, sure.

Favourite quotes? So many. So many. Here're four that jumped out at me just for the hell of it:


Life is rather like a tin of sardines – we're all of us looking for the key. [Beyond the Fringe]


A circle in the longest distance to the same point. [Every Good Boy Deserves Favour]


I am at two with nature. [Quoted in Woody Allen: Clown Prince of American Humour]


A memory is what is left when something happens and does not completely unhappen. [The Mechanisms of Mind]

But the big question is: What line of yours would you like to pass onto the next generation if you were only allowed one or perhaps two?

I asked a few of my friends to offer up some suggestions from their own writing. And do you know what? I got two back (you know who you are) and only one them actually met the preconditions. That doesn't mean that only two replied. Others did and were quite apologetic about their inability to provide me with what they considered a suitable quote.

And that puzzled the hell out of me. I imagined people would be falling over themselves to show off their wise and/or witty one-liners. So I'm throwing it open to all comers, let's be 'avin' 'em, or if you don't feel like sharing a quote then maybe a sound byte about our sound byte culture, eh?

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