It is the holiday season. We turn once more to Everyday Play (see NB, March 25) in search of some necessarily frivolous means of entertainment. The art critic Mel Gooding is quoted here, for example, provocatively suggesting that real artists are prepared to deface, deform, destroy and generally trash books – to commit “shocking Crimes against the Order of Things as They Are and Should Be”. Commit a holiday act of “symbolic anarchy” by painting over the pages of a Victorian novel (as the artist Tom Phillips has been doing for years with his ongoing project A Humument). Make your own spoof Ladybird book (as Miriam Elia has done with We Go to the Gallery etc, since 2013). Or, if anything involving a whole book sounds too much like hard work, there are always the simpler writing games: write a six-word memoir; write to order (“Find someone else to write what you want”); become an eavesdropper (“Write only what you overhear”).
Anyone, meanwhile, can write a limerick – can’t they? Perhaps once the basic trick is mastered, the mechanism gets going all too well. A History of the World in 100 Limericks (Pitkin, £6.99) by Mick Twister has been loiting near our desk for a while now; it demonstrates what happens when someone is allowed to go to work in this noble poetic form unhindered:
Some of the earliest writing
Was used to tell stories of fighting,
While ancient Sumerians
Logged their experience
And their accounts (less exciting).
This being a reissue, however, of a book first published in 2013, the Twister version of history stops with the financial crisis of 2008:
There once were a lot of big banks
That failed to maintain reserve tanks,
And left to posterity
Pain and austerity,
Taking large bailouts with thanks.
We do not seek attempts to bring the story of this century up to date. But we fear they will come our way, all the same.
The clunking of such limericks can be part of the fun, of course – as the jokes in Christmas crackers are said to succeed not by being amusing in themselves but by making your guests groan in unanimous exasperation. That effect would explain, too, why there is a modicum of charm for us in the efforts of the artificially intelligent computer program GPT-3 (see July 8) to write a limerick. We asked for one, and this plunge into bathos is what we got. Find someone else to write what you want, indeed …
There was a young lad named John
Who was always very smart
He was always writing limericks
But nobody ever heard
What the last line said
Perhaps there will be time for word games on the transatlantic flights that many readers will be taking – many more than could attempt the same journey in the past two years at least. From London, the home of cockney rhyming slang, some will find themselves disembarking and making their way to a hotel in Pulled Pork, or catching the red eye north to Abel + Cain. Or south to What’s Up Ducky or Acute Angina.
If you know what we are on about, congratulations: you are a qualified reader of the rhyming slang that adorns the useful map of the US of which a corner is reproduced here. It appears in Adam Dant’s Political Maps (Batsford, £30), a majestic and colorful compilation, featuring delights such as Dant’s metaphysical take on Cambridge, a proudly Scottish account of London and “Lindon” – a rather attractive image of London “as it might have been”.
Dant’s “Cockney Rhyming America” rechristens the “places of another distinct realm” with a “new (and completely) irrelevant nomenclature set” that is “in essence of no use to either party”. There is something admirable in this rejection of the merely utilitarian approach to cartography. Not pictured here: Sanjeev Bhaskar in the north west, Dirty Hippy to the south and the Midwestern state of Rommel’s Panzers. Don’t follow? Don’t get in a two and eight about it. Other maps of America (non-rhyming) are available.
Literary trainspotters may like to know that the fine art of adorning the cover of a novel with a title plucked from Shakespeare is not – not yet – entirely dead. This year, for example, without looking hard for such items, we have spotted both there are more things by Yara Rodrigues Fowler (or There Are More Things; Both versions of the title seem to be in circulation) and, published last month, Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin. Both novels happen to be second novels.
Perhaps somebody’s summer involves taking down a cheap copy of Shakespeare from the shelves and crossing out and/or annotating all the phrases that have made themselves useful to Shakespeare’s successors in this way; and finding out for us which plays and poems have made themselves most or least useful since the seventeenth century. Bonus points for confirming our (willfully flimsy) theory that the difficult second novel is the point at which the “emerging” novelist starts to get twitchy and reach for the grand allusion. We recently mentioned Gerard Woodward’s novel I’ll Go to Bed at Noon (July 8), for other reasons. But yes, that is a second novel, too.
Larkinology. Having touched recently on matters such as the poet’s centenary and his admiration for Margaret Thatcher (July 15), as well as his translation into Latin (July 22), what else is there to say for now? Only that if you listen to Larkin Revisitedthis month’s anniversary series on BBC Radio 4, presented by Simon Armitage, you may catch the TLS poetry editor, Camille Ralphs, having her say on Larkin; and that we have now noticed that Larkin has a wretched cameo in the Letters of Basil Buntingpublished last month by Oxford University Press.
Edited by Alex Niven, the Letters reveal Bunting, in a letter to his friend and fellow poet Tom Pickard, in June 1978, railing against the critical predilections of the academic establishment. “They only deal with dead writers and Philip Larkin”, Bunting writes of the collegiate “blighters”. “It isn’t [sic] so easy to tell Larkin from a corpse.”
Here, even as he sets about embalming bunting in turn, in full scholarly regalia, Dr Niven cannot resist supplying an annotation that is really an extra kick aimed at Larkin’s midriff – more bootnote than footnote:
Philip Larkin (1922-1985), hard-right British poetaster and trad jazz critic. His neo-Georgian light verse was the antithesis of BB’s non-conformist modernism.
Perhaps this is the general attitude to expect of scholarly (blighterly?) editions in the future.
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