Monday, 30 September 2013

Some dare not by fear


From my son's (French) school, an emailed note about late arrivals:


Subject: Delay college students

Colleagues,

We noticed that some college students (especially 6) do not dare knock on the grid when they are late in the morning. Therefore, they remain outside / roundabout or return home until the next hour. Some dare not by fear, others by shyness.

This is not safe for our students. I would appreciate to encourage them to enter the gate / lodge and the service person will leave school to enter. They will then be directed to their school lives.

Note: This note does not apply to delays students.

Thank you for your cooperate

Sunday, 29 September 2013

W. H. Auden - forty years on

W. H. Auden died in his sleep last night, forty years ago.

Earlier in the evening he had given a poetry reading to the Austrian Society of Literature in Vienna and then returned to the Hotel Altenburgerhof, in the Walfischgasse. He was 66 years old and was, indisputably, the greatest Man of Letters of the 20th century.

'Man of Letters' isn't a phrase one hears much any more, as such tweedy exotics no longer exist and Auden was among the last. He published around four hundred poems but was also a playwright, critic, librettist, theologian, travel writer, essayist, journalist, translator, reviewer, lecturer and film-maker. 

He was by far the most accomplished of poetic virtuosi -  he could turn his hand to the most rigorous syllabic verse and to traditional forms (sestinas, sonnets, villanelles); he could grind out Anglo-Saxon metrics, ballads, limericks, clerihews, light verse, song lyrics and much more besides. There was nothing he couldn't do, and do supremely well, in verse.

The best piece I've ever read about Auden originally appeared in the TLS in January 1973. It's by Clive James, and was prompted by the publication of Epistle to a Godson the previous year. You can, and should, read it here. It's a brilliant introduction to both the life and the work.

Auden's first collection was the tiny 1928 booklet Poems (see below), hand printed by his friend Stephen Spender in an edition of 'about 45'. All known copies are now accounted for, and priceless. Auden would not republish most of the poems in this collection, and James in his review suggests, intriguingly, that the poet spent the rest of his career in flight from his own virtuosity, his huge Shakespearean gift. It's a theory.  


Poems (1928)

The first poem in that first little book is entitled (with admirable modernist anonymity) 1(a). Here it is in full:


The sprinkler on the lawn

Weaves a cool vertigo, and stumps are drawn;

The last boy vanishes,

A blazer half-on, through the rigid trees.



The rest are just as good - but isn't that great?


©  The Estate of W. H. Auden

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Celebrity











Frankie Howerd!

We share a birthday (March 6th) and, to a degree, a sensibility - or at least a weakness for innuendo. It was Howerd as the gossipy slave Lurkio in the 1970s BBC television comedy Up Pompeii! who delivered the ripest of all doubles entendres when, faced by a giggling cluster of sexy Vestal Virgins said, by way of salutation: "It is a great honour that you do me", before turning to the audience, aghast at their laughter, scandalised by their lewdness. It was, I think, Talbot Rothwell who wrote the show, the man behind so many lamentable 'Carry On' scripts.

One remembers Frankie Howerd fondly as a filthy performer, but he was really nothing of the kind - the audience provided the filth, he the pretext. He was, if anything, rather prim. I saw him only once on stage, at the Southend Cliffs Pavilion in the early 1980s. It was a matinee, and the house more than half-empty (not quite the same thing as less than half full). He wore a terrible tan suit, a wig like Weetabix and his yellowish camel-face had sagged into a permanent bilious glare. He shuffled on stiffly, looked into the audience with distaste, licked his chops, adopted a characteristic posture (left hand on hip as if massaging a bad back, right hand raised, elbow pressed to the other hip, hand splayed in a camply emphatic rhetorical gesture) and he was off. The whole first half of the show consisted of a rambling explanation of how he came to be here "in this posh garage", as well as several unsuccessful attempts to sing "Three Coins in a Fountain" accompanied by an elderly pianist ("She's deaf, poor thing, stone deaf"). We all laughed helplessly, and constantly. "Give us a smile missus. Show us your teeth. No - don't hand 'em round!". All the trademark oohs and aahs were delivered in a kind of ripely eldritch shriek while the Brezhnev eyebrows did their thing; he made us imagine we were capable of any manner of wickedness. Excellent. When he said, as I expect he was contractually obliged to: "I was flabbergasted. My gast has never been so flabbered!" we all howled and clapped and even whistled. He  pursed his lips and looked dismayed.






Friday, 27 September 2013

Jeanne Moreau sings!

Jeanne Moreau sings Le tourbillon de la vie in Truffaut's Jules et Jim (1962).

How lovely to hear an untrained voice sing a beautiful song. Here's another - Anna Karina  in Godard's Pierrot le Fou sings Ma ligne de chance, attended by Jean-Paul Belmondo.

This is one of the early films Godard would later disown. He's nuts. I'd trade all the lacklustre doctrinaire Maoist videos he went on to make in the 1970s for this three-minute clip. Life is here, and love. I hope our children will one day get to see such films as they should be seen, on a big screen - but it seems unlikely. Pierrot le Fou (1965) is an absolutely immersive movie (as they say nowadays) - in Cinemascope and saturated Eastmancolor (which has to be seen to be believed). A wonderful film.













Thursday, 26 September 2013

Samuel Wright & Josh Lustig - The Marshes

Have you read Joyce's Dubliners recently? It's breathtakingly good - and coming back to it after almost thirty years I'm almost prepared to argue it's his best book. It's certainly the most subtly organised and psychologically penetrating of his four great masterpieces, and while it lacks the modernist fireworks of Ulysses and the numbing originality of Finnegans Wake it has more to say about the human condition, the human heart, than either of the intimidating masterpieces. It has more, therefore, to offer the older reader. I'm thinking in particular, and for reasons which will become clear later, of An Encounter in which two Dublin schoolboys play truant and come across an unprepossessing middle-aged man who engages them in an increasingly sinister, one-sided conversation:

After a long while his monologue paused. He stood up slowly, saying that he had to leave us for a minute or so, a few minutes, and, without changing the direction of my gaze, I saw him walking slowly away from us towards the near end of the field. We remained silent when he had gone. After a silence of a few minutes I heard Mahony exclaim:

"I say! Look what he's doing!"

As I neither answered nor raised my eyes Mahony exclaimed again:

"I say... He's a queer old josser!"

"In case he asks us for our names," I said "let you be Murphy and I'll be Smith."

It's unclear what precisely the man is doing. Urinating? Defecating? Masturbating? Something else? I wonder how many readers realise that 'josser' was (and for all I know still is) a Dublin slang word for God. At least that's what my tutor at university once told me although I can find no evidence of this elsewhere. If it is indeed the case Joyce is doing something attractively subversive here. Another  Josser links to my blog about the variety entertainer Ernie Lotinga, who made a series of low-budget comedy films featuring an eponymous character named Josser - Josser on the River (1932), Josser Joins the Navy (1932) and Josser on the Farm (1934). Lotinga played Josser, but that's all I know. Let's get back to Joyce - or rather another very promising author called Samuel Wright.


Samuel Wright

I was reminded of An Encounter when reading Wright's Best Friend, a spell-binding short story that strikes me as a dark, latter-day equivalent to Joyce's original. It appears in The Marshes, a collaboration between the author and the photographer Josh Lustig, whose images beautifully capture the atmosphere of East London's Hackney Marshes, where the story is set.


Hackney Marshes by Josh Lustig

Best Friend seems to begin where An Encounter ends - it's another truant adventure but unlike the Joyce story it has a grim aftermath. Two boys (Bobby and Jay) bunk off to spend the day tearing around the Marshes and at one point they see something:

"Look!" Jay hissed.

Bobby turned back. On the other side of the water was a guy sitting down. And then Bobby saw he had his trousers down and was having a shit.

Jay said "uugh" really quietly.

The guy stood up. His hands were shaking. His flabby white bum looked cold and horrible amongst the trees. It somehow made the mud more muddy, and the tangle of the branches dirtier and more rubbishy.

What happens later that day is vividly rendered and memorably horrible. Here's what Robert MacFarlane (chair of judges for the 2013 Man Booker prize and author of The Old Ways: A Journey On Foot, one of my favourite books of the year so far) had this to say:

        [W]hat a dark, beautifully made, intricately imagined document it is. I have read it through 
        twice now, if it is something one reads through (rather than around, or into and out of), and 
        I find myself no closer to comprehension (which would not anyway be your goal, I know), 
        but fascinated and troubled by it. It stakes out a space. It is not easy to shake.

He's right. Superb typesetting, haunting images and elaborate inserts (see below) combine to make this a very collectible first edition. But it's the words that compel. Samuel Wright won a Society of Authors prize for this story earlier this year and is now working on his first novel. We should all look out for that.


The Marshes by Samuel Wright and Josh Lustig (Tartaruga Press, 2013)

The Marshes is published by Tartaruga Press in a limited edition of 300. Order a copy here.
You can read Best Friend as a download for just a quid by clicking here.

Dubliners extract © The Estate of James Joyce

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Sweeney Agonistes

I suppose this counts as a Favourite Snatch, but it's hors de series. From T. S Eliot's Sweeney Agonistes, the only one of his plays I've managed to read all the way through (it's very short). The deeply sinister Sweeney (who, despite my references in yesterday's blog to Eliot's favourite comedian Ernie Lotinga, I imagine sounds more like the actor Kenneth Cranham) has the following exchanges with Doris, a working girl. Apologies for the slightly wonky layout.


SWEENEY: I’ll carry you off
To a cannibal isle.

DORIS: You’ll be the cannibal!

SWEENEY: You’ll be the missionary!
You’ll be my little seven stone missionary!
I’ll gobble you up. I’ll be the cannibal.

DORIS: You’ll carry me off? To a cannibal isle?

SWEENEY: I’ll be the cannibal.

DORIS: I’ll be the missionary.
I’ll convert you!

SWEENEY: I’ll convert you!
Into a stew.
A nice little, white little, missionary stew.

DORIS: You wouldn’t eat me!



Extract ©  The Estate of T. S. Eliot. The Complete Poems and Plays published by Faber and Faber



I've never seen a performance of this play.

The British premiere in November 1934 was staged in a first-floor flat off the Charing Cross Road. The following year it was revived by Robert Medley's Group Theatre under the direction of Rupert Doone, who equipped the cast with cellophane masks. It was Medley who had, as a fellow Gresham's schoolboy, prompted the young W. H. Auden to become a poet by asking him, during an afternoon walk, whether he wrote poetry at all. Auden claimed it was at that very moment he knew what he wanted to do with his life).

A pirated version of Sweeney Agonistes was produced by the unscrupulous New York publisher Samuel Roth, who not only printed the 'Agon' without permission and added the hoodlum title 'Wanna go home, baby?' but then wrote to the New York Post denouncing the author as 'both a prig and a blackguard'. 

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

On Ernie Lotinga

There's an elaborate sculpted frieze above the entrance to the Odeon Cinema at the quiet eastern end of Shaftesbury Avenue. It's only fully visible from the far side of the street, which is for some reason the least frequented stretch of pavement in all of central London. The next time you're passing make a point of crossing the road and looking at the frieze for a while - it's worth the effort.

It was designed by Gilbert Bayes for the opening of what was then known as the Savile Theatre in 1931 and depicts ‘Theatre Through the Ages’, from Greek tragedy to Punch and Judy. It's described in great detail by Chris Partridge on his fascinating blog Ornamental Passions. Below is the eastern end of the frieze, with figures in modern dress, including a line of chorus girls.


Lotinga (extreme right) on the Odeon frieze

Two other figures represent the Twentieth Century, or at least that third of it which had passed at the time of its making. The first is Sybil Thorndike as Saint Joan, a role she played in the George Bernard Shaw play that was something of a 1930s sensation. Another figure is surprising - T. S. Eliot's favourite comedian, Ernie Lotinga. I briefly mentioned Eliot and Lotinga in my review of the third volume of Eliot's letters for the Literary Review earlier this year. Eliot praised this once hugely popular but now completely forgotten music-hall performer as 'the greatest living British histrionic Artist, in the purest tradition of British Obscenity'. I'd never heard of him, so I looked him up.

Lotinga (1876-1951) was a big star in the 1920s and 30s and married for a time to Hetty King (1883-1972), a celebrated male impersonator. Her real name was Winfred Emms and, while it's an exaggeration to see them as the Brad and Angelina of their day, they were certainly very famous and you can see two short clips of them larking around together in public here, accompanied by a recording of Hetty singing. The first is from 1916 and appears to be shot in the grounds of a military hospital - a morale-boosting concert for wounded soldiers home from the Front? The second is a 1926 trick film showing Hetty in female and male guises, a music-hall Tiresias. Fascinating.


Hetty King en travestie

You can also see a clip of Ernie on stage in a 1931 production of My Wife's Family, a broad farce in which he would appeared on and off much of his career. Click here and wonder at his uncanny resemblance to Eliot.

Eliot wrote 'fragments' of Sweeney Agonistes in the late 1920s and published them in one volume in 1932. I wonder whether he had Lotinga in mind when he created the marvellously sinister lead character - "Every man wants to, has to, needs to, once in a lifetime, do a girl in". When I read this short play I now hear Lotinga's oddly effeminate déclassé voice.

More about these 'Fragments of an Aristophonic Melodrama' tomorrow, perhaps.

Monday, 23 September 2013

On Jack Clemo

In yesterday's blog I mentioned the poet Jack Clemo, a writer I'd never heard of before coming across his name in A. T. Tolley's magisterial Poetry of the Forties in Britain. Tolley rates Clemo's The Clay Verge very highly, and I'm reading this collection at the moment. It's very good. Here are some notes on his life.

He was born in the village of Goonamaris,  near the Cornish town of St Austell, in the heart of china clay country with its surreal topography of snow-white waste heaps and livid turquoise lakes. His father was killed at sea in the First World War and he was raised by his Non-conformist mother (a powerful and dominating presence throughout their life together), attending the village school to the age of 13. His education ended with the onset of his blindness and what followed was a life of extraordinary privation. Living in great poverty with his mother in a tiny granite cottage, he was entirely deaf by the age of twenty and became completely blind in 1955. His mother (who died in 1977) and his wife Ruth Peaty, whom he married in 1968, could communicate with him only by tracing letters with a fingertip on the palm of his hand.

He is, I think, on the strength of what I've read so far, a quite extraordinary writer in a tradition going back to Milton and Blake. He is a Christian visionary poet and austerely Calvinist, exploiting fully the Biblical associations of 'clay' and finding in the lunar landscapes of the region one of his central and abiding themes. He's also a mystic erotic, or erotic mystic.

He continued writing to the end of his life and was, given his circumstances, both a prolific writer and a consistently good one. His prose works include Wilding Graft (1948), The Shadowed Bed (1986), and the autobiographical Confession of a Rebel (1949) and The Marriage of a Rebel (1980). I've just ordered the last two from abe.com.

The poetry collections are The Map of Clay (1961), Cactus on Carmel (1967), The Echoing Tip (1971), Broad Autumn (1975), A Different Drummer (1986), Selected Poems (1988), Banner Poems (1989), and Approach to Murano (1993). I've picked up the Selected and will think about the others - all available at a low price on the internet. And before you ask I've already checked our local independent bookshops.

The tiny cottage in which Clemo lived for most of his life was demolished, despite much local protest, in 2009. When writing this blog I came across this wonderful short film about his lifeYou can see an obituary here and (below) read an example of his work:


The Flooded Clay-Pit

These white crags
Cup waves that rub more greedily
Now half-way up the chasm; you see
Doomed foliage hang like rags;
The whole clay-belly sags.

What scenes far
Beneath those waters: chimney-pots
That used to smoke; brown rusty clots
Of wheels still oozing tar;
Lodge doors that rot ajar.

Those iron rails
Emerge like claws cut short on the dump,
Though once they bore the waggon’s thump:
Now only toads and snails
Creep round their loosened nails.

Those thin tips
Of massive pit-bed pillars – how
They strain to scab the pool’s face now,
Pressing like famished lips
Which dread the cold eclipse.



Poem copyright Jack Clemo, Selected Poems (Bloodaxe Books 1988)

Sunday, 22 September 2013

British poetry of the 1940s

Listed below are fourteen volumes of poetry published by thirteen British poets during or just after the Second World War. According to A. T. Tolley in The Poetry of the Forties in Britain (Manchester University Press, 1985), these are the outstanding poetry books of a decade culminating in the Festival of Britain in 1951. Do you recognise many? Or any?

George Barker Eros in Dogma (1944)

Charles Causley Farewell Aggie Weston (1951)

Jack Clemo The Clay Verge (1951)

Keith Douglas Collected Poems (1951)

Lawrence Durrell A Private Country (1943) and Cities, Plains and People (1946)

Roy Fuller A Lost Season  (1944)

David Gascoyne Poems 1937-1942 (1943)

W. S. Graham The White Threshold (1949)

Patrick Kavanagh The Great Hunger (1942)

John Heath-Stubbs Beauty and the Beast (1943)

Dylan Thomas Deaths and Entrances (1946)

R. S. Thomas The Stones of the Field (1946)

Vernon Watkins The Ballad of the Mari Llwd (1941)

Tolley doesn't include Eliot's Four Quartets (and has his reasons, but it's like omitting Citizen Kane from any list of great films), and there are other surprising omissions - but on the whole his choice reflects two aspects of 1940s poetry in Britain that have long fascinated me:

a) that during the war there was a tremendous growth of interest in poetry for reasons that should not surprise us - paper shortages, a sellers' market, a readership temporarily aware of higher things and a lack of alternative distraction, apart from reading and listening to the wireless.

b) that most of the poetry published during and after the war (and, to be sure, most poetry at other times) is not very good. This applies especially to the dire Apocalyptic poets who managed to be not very good in many ways - obscure, pretentious, unmemorable, highly conventional.


David Gascoyne - Poems 1937-1942

Yet this poetry represents, in a way, precisely What We Were Fighting For and its cultural value is hard to over-estimate. Despite Tolley's brilliant spade-work I think comprehensive study of the poetry written and published in Britain during the Second World War has yet to be written.

I'm not the one to do it. Looking at my bookshelves I see I have a copy of the Gascoyne (published by Poetry London with dust jacket and illustrations by Graham Sutherland) as well as a tatty paperback of Deaths and Entrances and the complete poems of W. S. Graham (my favourite of all the poets in Tolley's list, although The White Threshold is a weak collection compared with what came later). I've also got a Keith Douglas Collected (not 1951 though) - but, apart from a bound set of Poetry London in five volumes, the lavish wartime magazine edited by Tambimuttu - that's it. I've never read Eros in Dogma (Barker is not a favourite poet), Farewell Aggie Weston or either of the Durrells; I know and admire a lot of Roy Fuller's later poetry but not this debut volume. I once chatted to John Heath-Stubbs over a drink at some Poetry Society shindig (we exchanged limericks) and can get by happily without too much R. S. Thomas (you've read one, you've read 'em all - and I know that's one reason why he's so admired). Have just ordered a copy of the Vernon Watkins but feel I may have left it too late to catch up. 

Tolley points out that if we exclude Watkins (who left Cambridge after a year following a nervous breakdown), Keith Douglas (who died aged 24) and John Heath-Stubbs are the only products of 'the ancient universities'. Few of the others went to university and Kavanagh, Clemo and Graham had very little formal education of any kind. This is in striking contrast with the previous generation of so-called McSpaundays - Auden and his gang - who were all middle- and upper-middle-class Oxbridge types. What, if anything, does this tell us about British poetry and British society at the time?

Tolley's chosen poets are also distinctly regionalist or non-metropolitan writers - the Welsh Watkins and the two Thomases, the expatriate Durrell, the Scottish Graham and the Irish Kavanagh. Jack Clemo (who before reading Tolley I'd never even heard of) was from Cornwall. Have you even heard of Clemo?

He's extraordinary - a real discovery. I'll blog about him tomorrow. 



Saturday, 21 September 2013

Bingo Master's Breakout

Here's Mark E. Smith and his Mancunian combo The Fall performing Bingo Master's Breakout, their debut single dating from 1978. What you have to do is play the song and sing along then read the blog to savour the full Salvete multi-media experience

As it happens I worked for a day as a Bingo caller (as the regular caller was off work) and the experience left its mark - wasting time in numbers and rhymes has become a lifestyle choice. I've long pondered over the extraordinary cultural richness of the bingo caller's repertoire. It is (as you'll see below) an elaborate accumulation of the time-honoured, the superstitious, the ribald and the surreal.

1 Kelly's Eye: a reference to 19th century Australian brigand Ned Kelly's monocular iron helmet.

2 One little duck: from the resemblance of the number 2 to a duck; see also '22'

3 Cup of tea or You and me

4 Knock at the door

5 Man alive

6 Tom Mix: after the star of silent era Westerns. Less evocatively "half a dozen"

7 Lucky for some

8 Garden gate

9 Doctor's Orders: Number 9 was a laxative pill dispensed by army doctors in the Great War.

10 (David's) Den: The name refers to whoever currently resides at Number 10 Downing Street.

11 Legs Eleven: A reference to the shape of the number resembling a pair of legs. Players traditionally give a wolf whistle in response.

12 One dozen

13 Unlucky for some

14 The Lawnmower (The original lawnmower had a 14 inch blade.)

15 Here (as elsewhere below) the number is simply spelt out thus: "One and five - fifteen' or rather "fifteen-ah"

16 Sweet 16, never been kissed

17 - 20  See 15 (above) but twenty may be called as "Two-oh - blind twenty", the zero resembling a milky cataract, if you see what I mean. Likewise 30, 40, 50 et seq.

21 Key of the Door: the traditional age of majority, on reaching which a house key would be entrusted.

22 Two little ducks The numeral resembles the profile of two ducks.  The traditional player esponse is often, "quack, quack, quack".

23 The Lord is My Shepherd: The first words of Psalm 23 in the Old Testament.

24 Knock at the door

25  Two and five - twenty-five (see 15)

26 Two and six, half a crown in the pre-decimalised currency (equivalent today to 12.5p

27 Duck and a crutch. The number 2 looks like a duck (see '2') and the number 7 looks like a crutch.

28 Two and eight, or "in a state".

29  See 15

30 Burlington Bertie. Reference to a music hall song of the same name composed in 1900. Burlington Bertie is also bookmakers' slang for odds of 100 to 30.

Or (and this is terrific)

Dirty Gertie. Common rhyme derived from the given name Gertrude, used as a nickname for the statue La Délivrance, a 16-foot statue in bronze of a naked woman holding a sword aloft, the work of French sculptor Émile Oscar Guillaume (1867-1942).  It is located at the southern edge of Finchley at Henly's Corner, at the bottom of Regents Park Road. The statue has a number of local names including "Dirty Gertie", "The Wicked Woman", and (most popular - to the exclusion of its real name) "The Naked Lady". The statue was created as a celebration of the First Battle of the Marne when the German army was stopped from capturing Paris in August 1914. The usage was reinforced by Dirty Gertie from Bizerte, a bawdy song sung by Allied soldiers in North Africa during the Second World War.

31 See 15

32 Buckle My Shoe

33 All the threes

34 See 15

35 Jump and Jive (from the dance step)

36 Three dozen, or three-and-six

37 - 43  See 15. Why none of these numbers merits any more distinctive call is a cultural mystery

44 Droopy drawers, a near-rhyme that refers to sagging trousers.

45 - 51  See 15. Fifty may be called as "Five-oh - blind fifty"

52 Danny La Rue. A reference to drag entertainer Danny La Rue (1927-2009). Also used for all other numbers apart from 12 ending in '2' (see '72' below). Alternatively 'Chicken vindaloo' reportedly introduced by a Butlins Holiday Camp caller in 2003.)

53 Here comes Herbie - 53 is the racing number of Herbie the Volkswagen Beetle in the popular Disney film. Players usually reply "beep beep!".

54 House with a bamboo door

55 All the fives.

56 Shotts Bus, refers to the former number of the bus from Glasgow to Shotts. There's a whole world in that 'former'.

57 Heinz Beanz. Refers to "Heinz 57", the "57 Varieties" slogan of the H. J. Heinz Company.

58  See 15

59 The Brighton Line - refers to the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway (which became part of the Southern Railway during the Grouping of 1923, which created four large companies from many smaller ones, such as the LBSCR)

60-61  See 15, although 60 may be called as "Six-oh - blind sixty".

62 Tickety-boo

63-64  See 15

65 Stop work - a reference to the age of mandatory retirement for men, in the days when such a thing was possible.

66 Clickety click

67-68 See 15

69 Anyway up. The number appears the same upside-down. "Meal for Two" is the lubricious alternative is a reference to the sexual position soixante neuf.

70 Sometimes "Seven-oh, blind seventy", or see 15

71 Bang on the drum

72 Danny La Rue (again)

73 - 75  See 15

76 Trombones "Seventy-six Trombones" a song from the 1962 Hollywood musical The Music Man.

Or (and this is my favourite of the lot) "Was she worth it?" This refers to the pre-decimal price of a marriage licence in Britain, 7/6d. The players traditionally shout back "Every Penny"

77 Two little crutches

78 - 79

80 Gandhi's Breakfast (i.e. "ate nothing")

81 - 83  See 15

84 Seven dozen

85 Staying alive (pre-dating the Bee Gees' popular hit record from 1977)

86 Between the sticks (orig. obsc., as they say in the OED)

87 Torquay in Devon - a baffling reference to this resort on the English Riviera

88 Two Fat Ladies

89 Nearly there (or Almost there)

90 Top of the shop


So there you have it - one of those permeable lingustic systems that is both conventionally stable but subject to continuous revision. Now listen to The Fall again. Catchy.

Friday, 20 September 2013

Night and the City

The Times Literary Supplement this week carries my review of four reissued novels by Gerald Kersh, a long-neglected author who is undergoing a well-deserved revival. Kersh, born in London in 1911, was a big name in the 1940s and 50s but by the time he died in New York in 1968 he was broke and almost entirely forgotten. He was a fantastically good popular writer and amazingly prolific (over twenty novels, twenty collections of the short stories in which he excelled and thousands of pseudonymous articles for dozens of defunct periodicals). Where to begin?





A good place to start (as I say in my review) is a marvellous collection of macabre short stories called Nightshade and Damnations. 

One of these is called "Men Without Bones" and has the most brilliant and shocking twist in its final sentence. Four words, and your world is turned upside down. It made me yelp, throw the book to the floor and do a little jig to clear my head. You should read it. Once. Then read the rest - stories that feature ghosts, monsters, clockwork monarchs, apes, Shakespeare, medieval foot soldiers, tattoo'd time travellers, Leonardo da Vinci, mermaids and Martians.

Kersh's biggest success was the hard-boiled pulp novel Night and the City, which remains his best-known work. You can see the trailer for Jules Dassin's brilliant 1950 film version here. Richard Widmark and Gene Tierney, in London together. What a cast! 



Thursday, 19 September 2013

Eponymous Eimear McBride

The list of eponymous adjectives derived from an author's name is short and distinguished, but relentlessly masculine. Here are some, in alphabetical order as they occur to me:

Ballardian, Becketian, Brechtian, Dantesque, Dickensian, Eliotian (after T. S. Eliot, though some prefer Eliotic), Freudian, Joycean, Jungian, Kafkaesque, Keatsian, Lawrentian, Marlovian, Miltonic, Nabokovian, Pinteresque, Rabeleisian, Shakespearian, Shavian (as in Shaw) Swiftian, Tennysonian, Tolstoyan, Wildean and Yeatsian. 

Can you think of any female equivalents? Woolfean? Murdochian? Mantelic? Shriveresque?  None of these seem to be in circulation. Why are no women writers thus eponymised? Or if they are why can't I think of any? Who, in any case, decides what form the eponym will take? What cultural and linguistic rules apply? Why don't we say, for instance, Pinterish? Pinteric? Pinterian?

The reason for today's blog is that there's a new name to add to the list, and for once it's not blokeian. Eimear McBride's first novel has this week generated a new critical term - McBridean.


Eimear McBride 

The term (compilers of a future OED should note) appears in the September/October issue of The New Humanist, in Toby Lichtig's review of McBride's debut novel A Girl is a Half-formed Thing. It's the kind of review that can cause a stampede at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the kind of review that restores your faith in reading and writing and the power of the novel. It's also the kind of review that critics rarely get to write - both level-headed and unequivocally ecstatic.


McBridean

Lichtig's coinage 'McBridean' refers to her radically experimental style of writing, something that is completely new and immediately convincing. While her prose has its roots in the great modernist texts of the 1920s - Ulysses, Mrs Dalloway etc. - it's far rougher and more psychologically compelling than anything by Joyce or Woolf. Strange things happen to a McBridean sentence, which is rarely a sentence at all. Language is dismantled and rebuilt while all the rules of grammar and lexis are confidently rejected, creating a new prose form that transmits the narrator's thoughts and feelings directly into the reader's consciousness without (or so it seems) the mediation of an author's voice. It's an amazing achievement and confirms the Wordsworthian (!) view that "every great and original writer in proportion as he is great and original, must himself create the taste by which he is to be relished". McBride's writing demands a new approach from readers, critics and (oh gawd) academics.

Toby Lichtig's review is here. You can read my TLS review here and Anne Enright's amazing Guardian review here. Then buy your copy from the publishers, Galley Beggar Press here.

It's a book that will never appeal to a mass audience but - to make an unlikely comparison - is like the first Velvet Underground LP. Very few people bought that, but (famously) everyone who did buy it formed a band. It's precisely that kind of book, and if you care about real literature (and since you read this blog I expect that you do), if you can't stand the homogenised meretricious pap that makes up most mainstream publishers' fiction lists, if you want to read something that makes you feel how you felt when you first read Joyce or Beckett or Woolf, if you want to read a new novel that for once makes your hair stand on end and your heart pound and your brain race and your eyes itch you really must drop whatever you're reading and get to grips with A Girl is a Half-formed Thing. 





Tuesday, 17 September 2013

NoViolet Bulawayo



Hi! My name is Nao and I am a time being. We are on our way to Budapest: Bastard and Chipo and Godknows and Sbho and Stina and me. East of the Tolly Club, after Deshapra Sashmal Road splits in two, there is a small mosque. Two twists of smoke at a time of year too warm for cottage fires surprise us at first light. They appear more often now, both of them, and on every visit they seem more impatient with me and the world. 

This paragraph is bolted together from the opening sentences of five shortlisted novels for the 2013 Man Booker Prize. I couldn't find a copy of the sixth (The Luminaries) but I think the above proves that there's not much distinction in any of the writing, not much evidence of style, and not much to choose between the respective authors. All five sentences, you'll notice. share the modish present tense. It's hardly worth pointing out that great novels have great opening sentences, something that snags the memory. Can you think of a great novel that doesn't? I shan't type out several dozen examples that come to mind, and simply observe that the sentences above could be rearranged in any order and still make as much sense, and create as little impression. Of course, one wouldn't want to read nothing but great novels - but it strikes me that most modern fiction is homogenised, style-free, relentlessly middlebrow and unambitioious.

This year's Guardian First Book Award shortlist includes We Need New Names by the Zimbabwean author NoViolet Bulawayo (and I'll resist making the obvious gag but just point out that the first sentence of her first book is the second sentence of my first paragraph). Her novel is also shortlisted for this year's Man Booker - an unusual distinction for a first book. On the author's 'official website' (you'll search in vain for an unofficial one) Junot Diaz ('Pulitzer Prize-wining author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao') is quoted as saying: "I knew this writer was going to blow up [sic]. Her honesty, her voice, her formidable command of her craft - all were apparent from the first page."

Here is the first paragraph, as it appears on her official website. You can judge for yourself:

We are on our way to Budapest: Bastard and Chipo and Godknows and Sbho and Stina and me. We are going even though we are not allowed to cross Mzilikazi Road, even though Bastard is supposed to be watching his little sister Fraction, even though Mother would kill me dead if she found out; we are just going. There are guavas to steal in Budapest, and right now I'd rather die for guavas. We didn't eat this morning and my stomach feels like somebody just took a shovel and dug everything out.


Extract © NoViolet Bulawayo


Is anything lost, is anything gained, if the whole thing is put into the past tense?


We were on our way to Budapest: Bastard and Chipo and Godknows and Sbho and Stina and me. We were going even though we were not allowed to cross Mzilikazi Road, even though Bastard was supposed to be watching his little sister Fraction, even though Mother would kill me dead if she found out; we were just going. There were guavas to steal in Budapest, and I'd rather die for guavas. We hadn't eaten that morning and my stomach felt like somebody had just taken a shovel and dug everything out.

Hmmmm.


Other extracts © the respective authors

Monday, 16 September 2013

Schopenhauer and the Booker Prize

Wise words for a Monday morning:


“The art of not reading is a very important one. It consists in not taking an interest in whatever may be engaging the attention of the general public at any particular time. When some political or ecclesiastical pamphlet, or novel, or poem is making a great commotion, you should remember that he who writes for fools always finds a large public. A precondition for reading good books is not reading bad ones: for life is short.”  - Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms.


Schopenhauer


The shortlist of novels nominated for the annual Man Booker Prize was announced last week, and Schopenhauer's words come to mind, as they should every year at this time. Tomorrow's blog will feature NoViolet Bulawayo's debut novel We Need New Names, one of the six finalists. As if you needed reminding the others are:

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (Granta) 
Harvest by Jim Crace (Picador) 
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (Bloomsbury) 
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (Canongate)
The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín (Viking)

I read Jim Crace's Harvest when it came out and thought it was really very fine. Written at full tilt in six months it is, the author has informed us, his last book. He's the bookie's favourite (and bookmakers always know a lot more about literature than anyone else, including authors). I hope he wins because it's a good novel (about the enclosure of common land in the Middle Ages) and he's a very good writer. I shan't read Colm Tóibín's novella about the Virgin Mary because he's a terrible writer, really terrible. Of the others, and with Schopenhauer's words fresh in our thoughts - what to say?

Four of the six authors are female and none is British. Eleanor Catton's second book is a period novel about the New Zealand gold rush which has been highly praised. It's very long indeed, so I shan't read it. Most reviews praise the 'exquisite' composition and plotting, the seamlessness (as if writing were a branch of couture) and the lack of lumps or bumps (as if writing were also a form of pastry-making). I don't value polish and (Crace aside) I don't much like historical novels for the same reason I don't much like television costume dramas, because I'm constantly on the alert for anachronism, lexical or visual, and this is tiresome.

A Tale for the Time Being? The title really annoys me. Auden wrote For the Time Being (a Christmas Oratorio) in 1941-42, and it was published in 1944. It was prompted by the death of his mother and is a noble work. Annoyingly when one goes to Google (as I did just now to check the date of publication) it's the Ozecki book that comes up, not the Auden title. It seems to me a silly appropriation, as if the author wrote A Book about War and Peace or A Story for Madame Bovary. I realise this is on itself not the grounds for dismissing a book but I've just watched the author give a reading at the Norwich Writers' Centre (you can see it yourself on YouTube) and it (the reading) and she (the author) annoyed the hell out of me. For her the "Time Being" is a literal creature, without Auden's ambiguous  sense of contingency. She might argue that she'd never heard of the Auden poem - that wouldn't surprise me. There's more: in a dire new development this is a book that comes with an official trailer.

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri? I'm unsure how to pronounce 'Jhumpa'. Jumper? Yoompa? It's a minor annoyance, comparable (as Iris Murdoch noted in Under the Net) to drinking in a pub the name of which you don't know. However this is the one I'd read if (a) I hadn't already read the Jim Crace's Harvest and (b) I ever read novels on prize shortlists, which I don't. As Schopenhauer says, life is short.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Under the Net


Following yesterday's blog here's a recommendation. Iris Murdoch's first novel may not be her best but it's always remained my favourite. Dedicated to Raymond Queneau and published in 1954, Under the Net is the most rewarding and exhilarating of all modern-day London novels, set largely in and around Earl's Court, Fitzrovia, Clerkenwell, Marylebone and the Goldhawk Road, with a quick trip to Paris and a farcical episode in a suburban film studio thrown in. It's a very funny, picaresque story, featuring a footloose expatriate Irishman (Jake Donaghue), his morose sidekick Finn and a cast of marvellously odd characters including the millionaire firework designer Hugo Belfounder.

Belfounder is based on Murdoch's friend Yorick Smythies, Ludwig Wittgenstein's star pupil from 1937, who was often the only person allowed to take notes in Wittgenstein's lectures. A first edition of Under the Net, inscribed by Murdoch to Smythies, is currently offered for sale by Sevin Seydi Rare Books, and their website offers a cherishable background note:

Murdoch's friendship with Smythies prospered after her return to teach at St Anne's College in 1948. “What a poor image of Yorick Hugo Belfounder is! But this is unkind to Hugo. The fault is mine”, Iris noted in her journal. Smythies resembled a cross between Hamlet and the grave-digger, thin, stooped, myopic, tall, pure-of-heart, given to the slow catechising that Wittgenstein favoured as a method of investigation, and to strange abstinences. At the age of five he put a sign on his door reading, “Do not disturb: reading Plotinus”. Close friends use of him the same phrase as Iris of Hugo: he was “totally truthful”, to the point of wild eccentricity. Like Hugo, Yorick in real life was divided between two women-loves. Like Hugo, who ends apprenticed to a Nottingham watch-maker, Yorick wished to become a bus conductor but, Iris noted, was the only person in the history of the bus company to fail the theory test." - Peter Conradi, "Did Iris Murdoch Draw from Life ?",  Iris Murdoch Newsletter 15 (2001).

Other delights in Under the Net are a hectic pub crawl around the empty City one summer night culminating in a boozy moonlit swim in the motionless Thames (and the transformative effect of swimming would in time become a Murdoch motif), the psychic Charlotte Street cafe proprietress Mrs Tinckham, the political firebrand Lefty Todd ('Why have you left politics? Left Politics needs you!') and a movie star dog called Mr Mars. 

What's most impressive about it is the way the author creates in Jake Donaghue a completely plausible male narrator. I can't think of a more convincing portrayal of male psychology by any female writer - the fears and insecurities, the boasting, the cocksureness, the romantic yearning and the disorganised intellectual arrogance are all spot-on. It's a wonderful novel. Look out for an early Chatto and Windus edition, with its beautiful cover: (below). The Penguin paperback (further below) has a cover design  by Len Deighton, of all people.



Chatto and Windus edition



Penguin edition (with cover by Len Deighton)

Friday, 13 September 2013

Iris Murdoch and Frank Kermode

Here's the critic Frank Kermode interviewing Iris Murdoch for BBC Schools television. I suppose it dates from 1962, given the reference in the credits to her novel An Unofficial Rose, published that year. That makes Murdoch and Kermode, both born in 1919, 43 years old at the time. You can watch them politely locking horns here, wondering betimes what the bloody hell happened to public service television's role in the transmission of serious literary culture, to our high-minded and aspirational education system, to the practice of literary criticism and to the art of good conversation.

More about Iris Murdoch tomorrow, I think. I'm just off to catch cheeky Jonathan Ross interviewing author Katie Price (whose fiftieth book comes out later this year!!!!). I expect  TV's "Wossy" will make a few choice remarks about the famous glamour model's assets!!!!! Her breasts!!!!!!!

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Vocabulary test

During an episode of Fry's English Delight, an amusing BBC Radio 4 programme dedicated to things linguistic, the presenter Stephen Fry set what he called 'a mini vocab test', reading aloud the following list of six words, challenging the listeners to define each in turn:

cadenza

obtrude

cyborg

sylvan

sagacious

casuist

None of these is in common everyday use, but none of them seems to me to be outlandishly obscure. I expect Fry (or his researchers and writers) wanted to tantalise the audience with words that might just evade the understanding of even the most erudite listeners. He - or they - made no mention of the difference between passive and active vocabularies, yet this is an essential distinction - between words we understand when we see or hear them, but which we seldom or never use in our own speech or writing. Fry's list forms part of my passive vocabulary so, like you, I could come up with an off-the-cuff definition which would pass muster in most contexts, but I can't imagine many normal situation in which I'd employ the words, because simpler options are available and because I want to be understood by my readers and listeners. Perhaps in Fry's case - he is a famously eloquent person - the gap between his passive and active vocabularies is narrow, and both categories are in his case exceptionally large when compared to the average Joe. He's made a career out of it.

When assessing language competence linguists always distinguish between the productive skills (speaking and writing) and the receptive skills (listening and reading). I shan't bore you with the self-evident differences, nor point out that reading and writing are very different skills and that one can read Shakespeare without necessarily writing like him. We cannot write with the same ease and speed and fluency at which readers read - ask any writer, or reader. This is all down to the difference between production (which is hard work) and reception (which may also be hard work, but for different reasons). One of the central flaws in most forms of language assessment is the assumption that a learner doing GCSE French (say) should be equally adept in all four skills - speaking, listening, reading and writing - and assessed accordingly, while in reality even a native speaker would have very different levels of competence. As for my own French say, or German - I can read in both cases immeasurably better than I can write, just as I can order a meal in either language but not follow the average news bulletin (although to be sure that's as much a question of cultural knowledge as linguistic ability).

Back to Fry's list. I was prompted to make my own. See what you make of these. Ready?


sempiternal

peradventure

vatic

coruscating

senescent

moribund


If you know the meaning of each well done - but so what? If you don't - again, so what? A wide vocabulary is a Good Thing, of course, although in public life these days we are suspicious of anyone who appears too clever, too literate, too erudite. The power of rhetoric (as Fry pointed out in an earlier episode) is no longer seen as a virtue but a sign of untrustworthy slickness. Fry is unusual - a widely-loved media figure who is smart  and endorsed as a sort-of public intellectual, although a cruel critic once described him as "a stupid person's idea of a clever person".

"Coruscating" is frequently misused - it means "glittering" and not (as many people seem to think) fiercely or corrosively, blisteringly critical. It is wrong to say that "a backbencher launched a coruscating attack on the party leader" unless (and it's unlikely, given the standard of parliamentary debate) the attack took the form of a rhetorical tour-de-force.

Enough already. Here's a very funny sketch about language by Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie in their early heyday. It's called Tricky Linguistics.


Wednesday, 11 September 2013

33 Reasons Not to Date a Small Press Publisher


Ross Bradshaw is the presiding genius, driving force, chief cook and bottle washer behind the Nottingham-based independent publishers Five Leaves Press and, in a better-organised society, his image would appear on the twenty pound note, honouring his role in the country's cultural life. In case you're looking for love, he's compiled the following checklist of engaging disincentives:


Ross Bradshaw


33 Reasons not to date a small press publisher

Note: this list refers to the traditional male small press publisher.  In the case of the new generation of female small press publishers, delete preliminary  point and change He to She

.

He will have a beard

1   He will be broke.

2   He will not want to go on holiday.

3   When he goes on holiday he will visit every bookshop within fifty miles.

4   He will already have a partner, better off than himself.

5   He will talk non-stop about how terrible Waterstones is

6   Apart from when complaining about Amazon

7   Or moaning about the Arts Council.

8   He will have friends who are poets.

9   He might be a poet.

10  At launch parties everyone will ignore you unless you are a writer.

11  He will start work at 6.30am.

12  His idea of fun is a book launch 200 miles away.

13  His idea of nice wine is Kwiksave  BOGOFF, left over from a book launch.

14  He will not own a car, can't drive and disapproves of cars.

15  He will ask for lifts in your car,  without knowing he is doing it.

16  His office will be very untidy,  spilling over with unsaleable books.

17  It will not be clean.

18  On principle he will only publish books that lose money.

19  He believes in the creative economy while contributing nothing to it.

20  He resents successful small presses.

21  He will not have a pension plan.

22  Other than you are his pension plan.

23  He will never  retire.

24  His share of the phone bill will be 80%, but he will pay only 50%.

25  He will have authors staying who have travelled 250 miles to read for twenty minutes to an    
audience of seventeen.

26 You will have seen the same seventeen people at every reading for thirty years.

27 50% of his income will go on buying books.

28 He will talk to you at length about the book he is editing.

29  He will ignore your advice when you suggest changes  or wonder  who would buy such a book.

30  He knows the names of every book reviewer in the UK. None  of them know his name.

31 He anxiously scans the review pages of the Guardian every Saturday even though his last book
review in any broadsheet was in 1992.

32  He will give you a copy of his own published novel, which did not get the attention it deserved.

33 He mutters.


So there you are. Quite a catch. Please form an orderly queue.

Monday, 9 September 2013

On Bernadette Lafont




Who is the best French actress?

Without a moment's hesitation I'll nominate Bernadette Lafont, who (I've only just discovered) died recently, aged 74. She was the thinking man's Bardot, the drinking man's Deneuve, the sinking man's last hope. To adapt a cliché, she didn't so much light up the screen as the entire auditorium. She was a wonderfully complex talent, a fixture in French cinema and theatre for over half a century, and she specialised in playing tough, raucous, ballsy, independent women with sharp wits and an even sharper tongue. She was also, always, good. Although in her early years she played tarts and opportunists she never played a villain (apart, that is, from her role in Just Jaeckin's Gwendoline, a silly 1984 soft porn sci-fi extravaganza based on a popular bande dessinée, in which she played the Queen of the Yik-Yak, in a series of eye-popping costumes). My point is that she combined natural integrity with intelligence, emotional honesty and humanity

She came from Nîmes and had an Arlesian accent, kippered in later years by drink and tobacco smoke. Directors adored her and she worked with everyone, or almost. Women liked and admired her; men feared and fancied her. Her natural setting was a Left Bank cafe. She was gorgeous.

She made her screen debut, in 1958, aged 18, in a magical, sunlit 17-minute short called Les Mistons, directed by François Truffaut. Over the next fifty years she was quite fantastically prolific - I count  over 120 feature films and as much work in theatre and on television. In most of these she tended to be, if not the star, then certainly the best reason for watching.

What's her best film? She was superb in Claude Chabrol's gloomy Le beau serge, widely regarded as initiating the nouvelle vague. There are many others - Truffaut's Une belle fille comme moi, Nelly Kaplan's La Fiancée du pirate, Chabrol's brilliant À double tour and Les bonnes femmes (in which Lafont anticipates the Amy Winehouse look by forty years and is quite explosively sexy), Claude Miller's L'effrontee and dozens of others. She was always terrific - stroppy, sensual, seldom pretty but always beautiful. She had strong features - a biggish nose, engaging overbite (and biting her lower lip expectantly was a trademark expression), a wonderful dancer's posture and (for many years) long dark hair which became, in middle age, a chic platinum bob. She was protean yet always recognisable, and as she grew older became adept at playing tough unconventional women - she could never be cast as a mere housewife but tended to play widows, divorcees, unmarried academics or hotel proprietors (see Les petits couleurs (2002) directed by Patricia Plattner and ask yourself why we don't make films like this in Britain). She was always cast as a fighter, a contrarian, taking on the authorities or the community, a stubborn challenge to the status quo. She remained strikingly attractive as she got older, with wonderful taste in frocks and haircuts and a clear delight in her work and the work of others. She smoked during television interviews, always talking talking talking. She never really faded. I fancied her fiercely, of course, and all that she stood for. She had a dash of Germain Greer and Vanessa Redgrave about her, and of Susan Sontag too, but with added Gallic allure and vehemence. She was leftish politically with something of the soixante-huitard veteran about her. You can't say that about Bardot or Deneuve.

So what was her best film? Hard to choose and there are many I expect I'll never see as it's years since new French films were routinely screened in London's many now-defunct repertory cinemas. I'd go for Jean Eustache's astonishing 1973 masterpiece La maman et la putain (The Mother and the Whore). It's a film that doesn't allow easy summary, and hardly has a plot at all. Le Figaro called it 'an insult to the nation' and Télé-7-Jours called it a 'monument of boredom and a Himalaya of pretension.' Both of which, needless to say, I see as recommendations. It's very long and very slow and disarmingly inconsequential until one realises that it's as close as cinema has ever got to a depiction of how most of us live most of the time. It's an epic of redundancy, pointlessness and misdirection. It's superb.


It's a harrowing movie, set in and shot during the summer of 1972, exploring the unstructured and selfish lives of three youngish people in Paris. It's a love triangle, of sorts, with the self-absorbed Alexandre (Jean-Pierre Léaud, perfectly cast) involved with his older girlfriend Marie (Lafont) and a Polish nurse Veronika (Françoise Lebrun).

It's a film that defies summary and easy analysis because there's no plot to speak of, just an accumulating series of lengthy meandering scenes that peter out without resolution, accompanied by huge amounts of dialogue. It's like life, in other words, and there's no better depiction of how things were in the 1970s for many of us. One aspect of the way we lived then, and easy to overlook, is that none of the characters possess any furniture. They live on floors, on mattresses or beanbags or cushions until one minor character (played as I recall by the director himself) somehow acquires a wheelchair. David Thompson cryptically remarked that the film should only be screened unannounced, to unsuspecting audiences expecting something lighter and triter. 

Lafont was in her early thirties at the time and (among other vividly-remembered pleasures) she incarnates beautifully the anxiety and pain and rage of a slightly older woman losing her lover to a younger rival. It's a film saturated in sadness, exemplified by this very lovely three-minute clip. Nothing much happens - it's like seeing a volcano erupt quietly. It's as beautiful and moving a scene as any in cinema. She does so little, and it means so much.



Sunday, 8 September 2013

Sylvia Plath uncovered

A while back I blogged about the great designer and typographer Berthold Wolpe and I've just found an engaging short interview with his assistant Shirley Tucker. Both of them worked for Faber and Faber and this video clip appears on the publisher's website. To date it's been viewed by fewer than twenty seekers after knowledge so perhaps this blog's readers (and there are now more than 20,000 of you) can add to that number.



Shirley Tucker

Shirley Tucker is less well-known than Wolpe, but she designed some book covers that these days are routinely described as 'iconic'. Here's one of them, from 1963:




It's good, isn't it? A whiff of Bridget Riley op-art, the suggestion of life spiralling out of control with that unsettlingly off-centre set of concentric circles, the simple bold lettering and austere colours - black and cream and green. It's a serious book by a serious writer. It's about mental illness.


When it came to the fiftieth anniversary edition, the publishers suggested in their press release that the book is a genre piece aimed at women, like television's Sex and the City:

When Esther Greenwood wins an internship on a New York fashion magazine in 1953, she is elated, believing she will finally realise her dream to become a writer. But in between the cocktail parties and piles of manuscripts, Esther's life begins to slide out of control.


They also commissioned a new cover. Here it is:







Bubblegum colours, brightly lipstick'd Vogue model dabbing away with her chic compact and that spindly piss-elegant calligraphy; strawberry jam red and custard yellow (malign corporate colours shared by McDonalds and the Soviet Union) and plenty of pink skin. It looks depressingly like a piece of chick-lit. The critical reaction, not only among Plath's admirers, was ferocious.

The excellent Feminist blog Jezebel wrote: 

If Sylvia Plath hadn't already killed herself, she probably would've if she saw the new cover of her only novel The Bell Jar. For a book all about a woman's clinical depression that's exacerbated by the suffocating gender stereotypes of which she's expected to adhere and the limited life choices she has as a woman, it's pretty fucking stupid to feature a low-rent retro wannabe pinup applying makeup.


Images © Faber and Faber Limited