One Point of Interest

One role I have in life is as co-editor of the Sphinx site where we publish OPOI – or ‘One Point of Interest’ – reviews of poetry pamphlets. I’m really pleased that one of our new reviewers, Jane Thomas, has taken the same approach, and written an ‘OPOI review’ of The Girl Who Cried. I can’t post this on the Sphinx site, of course – that’s only for pamphlet reviews. But I love this as an approach to reviewing anyway: it means just focusing on one aspect that you’re particularly struck by, and that only briefly.

Jane said she was happy for me to share her review – so here is what she wrote:

TGWC coverThe child inside

The crux of this glorious collection for me is:

How can I wake at fifty
with the same pain I woke with aged five? (p45)

The realisation that we always carry the child we were within us, with its most basic fears and traumas. That the adult version is just a build of years and experiences, like the stream of poems we find here.

Each page has a small square instead of a title. I think they may be small empty frames relating to the frame references – ‘unframed photographs’ (p60), ‘Your frame is f***ed’ (p53), and ‘Jesus Christ Almighty, I’ve been lugging this thing’ (p41) – but for me they also look like tick boxes: every year survived and ticked off. All the time the poet is just trying to survive: ‘Can I float?’ (p35).

It also feels like a study of the alienation that we all feel (maybe even more so in recent times). And the oft held belief that it is ours to deal with alone:

Nobody wants to know about me, or this.
Nobody. You want ‘an easy life’. (p9)

But when you read this collection you do want to know about the poet and her experience.

I grabbed your sleeve. I slipped pebbles
in your pockets: weighed you down. (p11)

Each poem slips a pebble to the reader, some shiny, some rough but they make you feel lighter – the assurance of common human experience. Some poems make use of psychoanalytic language hinting that the poet is speaking to someone and by the end of the sequence there is hope. It feels like now that the little girl has had a chance to cry, grieve and speak she is less likely to ‘drown silently’. In the final poem the poet is both loving herself and another and is being heard in the wider world. I suggest you join the audience and the journey in this inspiring book for alienating times.

Jane Thomas


How to frame a Conversation?

new frame_1One of the things I love most about poems is how they’re like little frames on the page. A poem can be like a picture on a wall: here is a scene, often with a twist. A collection can be like a gallery of one person’s work (an anthology, or magazine, is a gallery of a range of artists’). Of course the pictures have been hung in a certain order, in certain spaces, and in conversation with each other, as well as hopefully with their reader (viewer, as she wanders through). 

By writing The Girl Who Cried I’ve taken a gamble: I’ve hung an exhibition that’s tried to frame something fundamental from my own experience, and see if anyone responds with recognition. There’s the gamble: on it not being just me who carries this intruding burden, which is a particular kind of severe, anxious loneliness.

And frames have been important in my thinking. The thing I’ve yearned for, or think I’ve felt myself lacking, has been a kind of ‘framing’: a wish for someone’s understanding to ‘frame’ me. Hold me together. (This is matched by an equally primitive terror: the fear that I’ll get trapped, perhaps inside that person’s ‘frame’. A space that’s far too small and confined. A space that’s dangerous.) 

So, frames play out in this drama I am also trying to find a frame for. (A drama whose very nature feels pre-word.) How to find words to frame my experience?

IMG_20200617_093840021 (1)

I’ve tried – in my book. I’ve tried to document a lifetime’s navigating. With its title-less poems, each their own shape on their page. I’ve even added drawings – the thing looks rather like a room in a gallery, as you come in through the door, into its frame. And there are a couple of notices at the entrance: two epigraphs, and opening poems that sound an alarm, and lay the ground: The work you’ll find in this exhibition, they alert, concerns the artist’s preoccupation. And there are two key poems in the book which make explicit use of the frame-image, and a number more that do so obliquely.

But… things don’t fit neatly into frames. It’s been a long work-in-progress, a to and fro. How to find words to frame these things, when the experiences are themselves without the frame of words?

Another thing I love about poems: that they can frame sensation, felt sense, bodily trauma, not just thoughts. 

I find my poems wear their frames quite closely. There’s a claustrophobia perhaps – well, that is pertinent. A confined space inside the frame I allow myself, (too fearful to expand and speak).

But the other thing is this book is a conversation. It’s trying to provide the frame as well as explore the search for it: to be, or provide precisely the kind of connection it seeks. At the same time as keeping safe.

Everything passes_1And actually, yes, in writing the poems I have been having that conversation with myself. Crucially. And attempting, eventually, to render my wordless experience intelligible: to frame it in words. 

These poems are also in conversation with each other: albeit separated by the white wall between their frames. And they hope very much to be in conversation with a reader. A conversation that has started now.

I’m taking part in HappenStances Conversations with Poets series (a Zoom webinar), on 2nd July. See here for details, and to register.

‘Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.’

Red BookThis is one of my favourite lines from one of my favourite poems. I know Mary Oliver herself is said to have grown tired of everyone loving ‘Wild Geese’, but I can’t stop. It’s the unexpectedness of the lines that make that impossible. 

The first: ‘You do not have to be good.’ The first time I read that (a long time ago now) I couldn’t believe it. The relief. Then, before we get comfortable: ‘You do not have to walk on your knees / for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.’ The combination of depth of feeling, with ease of expression utterly compels me. I was thrilled at how extreme the situation was that she’s describing: that degree of shame and toil. The desert like the decades we live (walk on our knees) through. She’s saying we don’t have to, but with maximum compassion: there’s no doubt she knows we have, and we do, and that she has too.

Each line in the poem is a full, clear, simple sentence. There are so few adjectives – so the first that does appear leaps out: ‘You only have to let the soft animal of your body / love what it loves.’ That ‘soft’.

(I like noticing the adjectives in this poem: ‘soft’, ‘clear’ [‘pebbles of the rain’], ‘deep’ [trees – which is just lovely], ‘wild’ [geese, of course], which then allows the positive outburst of: ‘the clean blue air’ through which those geese fly high.)

And then there’s the line I started with:

‘Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.’

The acknowledgment in this line. I like the fact we’re now together in this. There’s no room for doubt: you have your despair; I have mine. This poem (poet) meets us here: joins me on this vital similarity. That, in itself, is quietly marvellous: it leaves this (at times, despairing) reader so much less alone. It’s GENEROUS…

TGWC cover

The Girl Who Cried

So what brought me back to this line now? Sitting here, thinking how will I introduce my own, new, strange book, which just arrived for preorder in the HappenStance shop? And of course, in the midst of this awful, global situation – which none of us could have anticipated.

(Bloodaxe, by the way, chose Wild Geese as the epigraph poem for its famous anthology Staying Alive with good reason.)

My book. Why have I written it? Well, to start with, I couldn’t stop myself. I mean, if I was to go on writing poetry at all, these were the next poems that insisted on being written.

It is a(nother) quite brave book for me, detailing as it does the most basic, long-lasting and embarrassing inner struggle. This was the book that sat for me behind the first I wrote – Noir. I had to write that to get behind it to this – although once I did, I saw I had also, over some years, been writing them in parallel.

I carried on, writing poetry as simply and as clearly as I could. At one stage, I thought of these as ‘woodcut poems’. But there was something too thin or harsh about the book – as opposed to ‘harsh and exciting’ – and so I started introducing my drawings. I realised they were needed – to accompany these poems out into the world. 

They brought a bit of air, and together the poems and pictures lifted a little off the page. (Helena Nelson, publisher at HappenStance, also suggested removing each poem’s title – which helped lighten the pages further.) Something happened… The pictures, along with certain phrases in the poems (e.g. ‘I know / I shouldn’t walk on flowerbeds’ – phrases I think of as ‘human bridges’), HELPED.

‘Meanwhile the world goes on’, wrote Mary Oliver. And later:

‘Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.’

I could never have foreseen, of course, publishing in the midst of a global pandemic: the awful loss and pain and anxiety so many have suffered and are suffering and will suffer, and all of us gripped in this thing…

I guess some things remain human. I’m not certain why it is we go to such lengths not to tell the truth about ourselves: why the shame is so pronounced. This is my attempt to do something different – ‘Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine – and by doing so, too, perhaps to further discover my ‘place / in the family of things.’ 

Here is Mary Oliver reading ‘Wild Geese’.
Here is a link to The Girl Who Cried.

Occasionally a poem HELPS

Around any corner an amazing encounter may await. That’s what happened for me with Jennifer Copley’s poem ‘The Two Friends’. It just stunned – stuns – me. At every reading. A short piece – 13 lines. Set in three uneven stanzas. It’s irreverent, and concerned only with acceptance.

It’s a much happier poem than many I love. The title’s perfect – has a timeless, childlike quality. But the exclusivity of that ‘Two’, for me, coupled to its definite article and noun…  This pact is real. And sound.

The poem tells the story of the friendship between a small mouse and the corner of a field. ‘It’s his favourite corner / where he feels safe. / The corner is happy to have him.’ A good arrangement, then – excellent.

Although, of course, nothing is static, or perfect or permanent. The corner’s stuck there, the mouse comes and goes. (The mouse has legs and feet, the corner is a corner and has no choice but stay put: it’s in its nature.)

When the mouse is away, the corner frets – how can it not? And he doesn’t so much worry that something bad may have happened to the mouse; his worry is riddled with self doubt. ‘The corner worries he won’t come back, / that he’ll find a better corner elsewhere.’ And – indeed, because

‘A long time ago the corner’s mother did just that.’

But then this poor corner is reassured immediately, gloriously, compassionately. In bursts the poet, no less, and wielding an exclamation mark like a small sword. Breaking through convention, tearing down those paper walls.

‘Don’t worry, little corner! I am the writer of this poem
and I can reveal the mouse will always return’

In one last, exquisite twist, she also concedes that the mouse will age, and tire (though not of the corner) – life is tough, and gruelling; all the more need for that safe pact.

I love the fact The Two Friends are so different – in nature, size, strength – yet symbiotic. Of course they’re vulnerable – in completely different ways. The more physically robust corner is the more worried. Though that mouse’s fur is, increasingly, ‘bedraggled’, (and there’s that sting in the tail of the final word, ‘nettles’).

IMG_20190714_162929458 (2)Most of all I love the authorial authority – like a children’s book narrator – of this poet in this poem, including her necessary, wonderful, surprise appearance. I like the humour. I love the corner.

As a portrait of friendship – resonance – why it’s necessary – I’m not sure it leaves a thing unsaid.


by Jennifer Copley, from Some Couples, HappenStance, 2017.



Visibility versus invisibility

IMG_20190315_182112027 (1)‘… This book – which grew from the seed of the pamphlet – asks: what are we to do with the darkness? The things, and people, often left silent and invisible.

By some strange twist, I found myself at the British Library a week ago, taking part in an event organised to celebrate poetry pamphlets on the eve of the tenth Michael Marks Awards. Five of us had been invited to share reflections, and poems; I was very glad to have been included…

“My poetry pamphlet (The Long Woman, Pighog Press) was shortlisted for the Michael Marks Award six years ago – in 2012. This was a huge help. The pamphlet was a stepping stone to a full collection, and the book very much a continuation of work started there: it was encouraging to get that cheer along the way.

I decided I’d reflect a little on that, alongside some poems and thoughts about visibility and invisibility. But first, a short quote from DJ Enright – because it made me smile:

‘The poet is to give a reading from his new book… the dutiful publisher carries a dozen copies of the poet’s new book to sell at the reading… Now it is over, and the publisher gathers up the unsold books, counting them glumly… he trudges home, weary and puzzled – How can thirteen copies be left over from a dozen?’

Why do we write the things? 

Perhaps, considering many of us – most of us – can safely assume we’ll return home with more books than we left the house with, could writing poetry be a way of being safely ie invisibly visible?

Certainly, when I first started writing the poems that became The Long Woman, it was like a portal had opened in my skirting board for all the experiences and anxieties I’d never known how to process so had filed away, invisible and silent in my ‘normal’ life.

Here’s a short poem in two voices – the one who can, and the one who can’t, speak out and be visible:



Thank you so much for your invitation
I stand by my bed in the dark

I am very sorry but I have decided
I crouch by my bed in the dark

This is not a decision I have made lightly
I’m near the curtained window, crouched

I hope very much you don’t feel
I’m by the curtained window, trembling

All I really want you to know is how
I shake by my bed in the dark


That’s a person who, I think, is clearly hiding. But there are lots of ways of being invisible. Here’s a completely different one:



I love this time of year, time of day:
the light, pale-egg and misty; platform
almost empty. Malcolm says we’ll wander,
find somewhere nice for lunch. We always do:
Italian spaghetti, a carafe
of red wine. I’ll have to watch my frock.
I love all the bustle of Soho,
like another planet. The awards
don’t start till 6. And, do you know, I don’t
even mind meeting the Queen, the mood
I’m in. Plus I put the milk bottles out
already, and extra food for Saturn.

Malcolm’s eyes are the colour of clear sky.
I’m sure to make the 11.03.


Scan 2I was delighted when the poems I was writing were gathered together in a pamphlet – The Long Woman, published by Pighog. I loved the cover image (though they told me later this was arrived at inadvertently, photographing something like the shadows on a barbecue…).

Of course, I was thrilled when the pamphlet was noticed by that year’s Michael Marks judges. It was a lovely surprise. (I’d hardly thought of poetry prizes – it was a good time! I didn’t abide on Twitter; didn’t know about the ‘circus’.)

I failed to materialise for the awards evening – another reason I was grateful to be asked back now (and, maybe, another reason I was).

I enjoyed hearing a hero of mine, Tracey Thorn, on Desert Island Discs a few weeks ago, speaking about singing in a wardrobe: how she wanted a voice but not to be seen. 

I declined the invitation, giving my reasons – I am very sorry I have decided; this is not a decision I have made lightlyBut I was glad, truly – almost as if ‘someone somewhere may have seen me’:



All day I pad on bare cracked feet
nowhere, jug heavy,
in and out the kitchen door.

I’m with the kids: feed them
chicken, potato, ice cream;
hear the six-year-old say thank you.

But I can’t talk to any of the women who come:
I bear them orange mugs of tea, sit;
I am sealed.

I feel
someone somewhere may have seen me once;
now he’s thin as my dreams.
And my poor kids roll round their mattresses
in nothing but boxers and twisted sheets.

Until, finally,
just as heads the size of moons
sink into crushed pillows,
the sky blinks

and I’m gaping from my high window:
for miles and miles, I see the dark trees gather;
one moment fractures blue,
and then the rain comes.

One two three, drops big as bullets
(Andy downstairs pantomimes
he’s been wounded)
and suddenly every mouth turns upwards

and mine is the biggest
and the first

to drink and drink and drink.


Encouraged, I pressed on – writing these poems; building, as I thought of it, an alternative-version world from the inside out. One that had always been apparent to me, but sat just inside the visible world.

Another letter-poem. Again I think it’s about invisibility. About vulnerability not being seen, despite the apparent baldness of the scrutiny. It’s laid out like a letter on the page, so here’s how it looks in the book:




NoirEventually the pile of poems grew to a book: Noir (another cover I love!), published by HappenStance in 2016. 

It got a number of reviews I really enjoyed reading, and a strange kind of echoing silence – which I also found, in itself, interesting. 

The book is crammed with characters with visibility issues, most of whom are me.

One last poem: I enjoyed hearing the book’s publisher, Helena Nelson, talk about this one at a pop-up in Aldeburgh this autumn. (I even liked the pop-up aspect – blink and you miss it.) 

There’s plenty visible in this poem: all that surface cluttered with domestic detail; so cluttered, in fact, we may miss what’s been left outside the frame:



Once he’s done she makes him up a nice bed
for the night. Takes sheets and blankets, neatly
folded, from the linen cupboard outside
her bedroom and carries them down the stairs.
While he enjoys a final cigarette
and scotch in the small walled garden, she smoothes
the sheets out on the put-you-up mattress,
then tucks them tight in hospital corners.
Early next morning she cooks him breakfast:
tea, orange juice with bits in, soft boiled egg,
two slices of white toast and marmalade,
sweet black filter coffee boiled on the hob.
She walks him to the station, allowing
plenty of time for him to buy a bar
of chocolate and a newspaper, and still
be comfortably on the 9.23.
It’s only after his late train pulls out,
and a passing friend, concerned, touches her
back gently, that she bends double on
the pavement outside the station, and cries out.


I love poetry pamphlets. I review many of them for HappenStance’s reviews site, Sphinx; I know they come in all sorts of shapes, sizes and voices. Maybe, for some of us, they’re an opportunity to peep over the parapet – and to be glimpsed.

Thank you for including mine in this evening’s celebration of them.”

‘I was much further out than you thought’

IMG_20180105_125224092_HDRThe poem ‘Not Waving but Drowning’ by Stevie Smith is only twelve lines long. Yet, the first time I read it, it created in my mind, for evermore, a whole world – and life story. Not the poet’s – or certainly not directly; no, ‘the dead one’’s:

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

The poem paints a vivid scene. We see a man waving; drowning; overhear words spoken perhaps in a crowd – at least, I picture a small knot of people gathering on the shore; maybe, someone quoted in the local news – a witness. (And Stevie Smith did get her original inspiration from a newspaper story, she said.) But these aren’t just casual bystanders; they also know or knew the man, at least in passing. Maybe they’re neighbours, or townsfolk, or relatives. Or all of the above.

Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.

My old Penguin copy.

Of course, it’s perfect: the lack of punctuation, that longer line, like voices speaking over themselves. And the choice of ‘his heart gave way’ (which, in another sense, it turns out, is what’s happened). The ‘larking’ also seems crucial: the front we put on to face the world…

It’s a very sad poem, of course. But also beautiful. Why? Because, of course, here’s the irony: by telling the truth about this poor ‘dead one’, the poet tells this truth for all who need to hear it (and, who knows, maybe that’s all of us?). And hearing a truth you need to, in and of itself, reduces isolation. That, at least, has been my experience.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

‘Oh, no no no, it was too cold always’

I’m not sure when I first read ‘Not Waving but Drowning’ – and of course the phrase and concept has so long now been absorbed into our language (surely the greatest evidence of the poem’s veracity and integrity…?) – but my Penguin copy of Stevie Smith Selected Poems edited by James MacGibbon (first published 1978) is inscribed to me from a friend in 1984. Today I turn yellowing pages…

Recently I found myself exploring my conviction that I might never have thought of attempting to write a poem of my own if Stevie Smith hadn’t written this one. (I’d always loved reading poetry – and, indeed, this little green book was given to me while I was studying English at UCL. In my second year, I even ended up living in Palmers Green, where Stevie Smith spent most of her life.) But I’d never thought seriously about trying to write a poem of my own. 

Perhaps it’s an odd thing to dwell on but it’s prompted this post: answering to myself the question why, then, is that so? What is it about this short poem that mattered so much to me?

Stevie Smith. Pic by Akshay Nagaraju B (Own work)

The power of this short poem

Here it is. The power of this short poem to tell a long and layered story. The power of this short poem to stun and move me. The power of this poem to trigger both empathy, and regret. Its power to point a finger, and highlight enormous sorrow without blame or manipulation or confession.

The power of this short poem to tell a truth about me. (And, maybe related, the realisation that my experiences of being alive might have relevance to someone else.) Beyond all that, the power to invigorate me, again and again, with the sheer brilliance of good writing. Of all that can be achieved by distilled crafted language – and the insights it carries. It’s not an especially clever poem (though of course it is). It’s not impressively intricate (although of course it is). It is emotionally true, and honest. It sticks its neck out – and says, clearly, the thing it has to say. And that’s something perhaps I value above all else.

Stevie Smith speaks about and reads ‘Not Waving but Drowning’ here.

‘…. A lot of people pretend, out of bravery really, that they are very jolly and ordinary… But sometimes the brave pretence breaks down and then, like the poor man in this poem, they are lost.’

‘Oh no, love, you’re not alone…’

jb_ziggystardustNearly everyone my generation has their own Bowie ‘story’, or history – his work touched or touches so many of us. (Including two of my own very favourite allies – one brother, one son…) As for me, when I was a teenager, I appreciated Bowie’s androgyny. Never a girlie girl by any stretch, it helped me see people could be however they wished and felt comfortable. My friend says Bowie encouraged everyone, by his example, to ‘be themselves’. I think that’s right – though I probably didn’t think about it like that at the time.

I do remember my brother had a poster up on his bedroom wall of Bowie dressed as Ziggy Stardust in a wool cat suit. This was a long way from anything we saw around us in our own lives. It was… intriguing. Bowie could not have been a much more different Englishman from our own father, for instance, whom we rarely if ever saw out of a shirt and tie. But you didn’t need to want to wear a skin-tight cat suit or slink across a stage in platform heels and extreme eye shadow. You needed to know it was okay to be however you were.

‘Cause if you stay with us, you’re gonna be pretty Kookie too…’

david-bowie-low-album-cover-billboard-embedFrom ‘Life on Mars’ – where ‘the lawman’ is ‘beating up the wrong guy’ – to ‘Kooks’ – which I later loved singing along with to my kids – to ‘Golden Years’ – ‘Don’t let me hear you say life’s taking you nowhere…’ – Bowie’s music often touched on alienation. People sometimes referred to him as a chameleon or master of masks. That wasn’t how I saw his work. For me, it all fitted together like a well-calibrated whole. And the unifying factor was this willingness to go out on a limb.

‘Always Crashing in the Same Car’, from Low, for instance, offers a powerful metaphor for internal strife. We can – do – spend whole lifetimes ‘always crashing in the same car’. We each have ‘cars’ we crash in… For me, that ‘car’ is a metaphor that really works. (‘I was going round and round’ doesn’t just conjure vinyl on a turntable.) And Bowie’s work is full of these. Stories of struggle and strife and scapegoating… songs that go some way towards reversing it. And make it ALL RIGHT.

I’ll stick with you baby for a thousand years
Nothing’s gonna touch you in these golden years

Meanwhile, of course, Bowie himself was quietly an artist. He was not the personas he created. But he exercised his freedom to work in his own way with his own materials. The worlds he created were extraordinary. The inner sleeves – envelopes. And Black Star, when it arrived, was no exception. Here he was again, in his own inimitable way, sharing the vulnerability of becoming an older person, facing loss and grief and death.

1934675_74252020983_7671994_n (1)
My ‘Bowie’ years…

‘How long, how long…?’

‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide’ was the first song I thought of that January morning I rose to news of his death. ‘Time takes a cigarette, puts it in your mouth…’. Whenever all my life I’ve listened to that song, and he gets to the part when he opens all the stops and sings ‘Oh no, love, you’re not alone’ – as a young person and, now, quite an old one – I feel ‘not alone’. 

And that’s, I think, what Bowie always meant to me, with his human voice (nothing synthetic or extraterrestrial about it, to me). However alien at times any of us may feel, we are ‘not alone’. What he shared was human and lonely – and then perhaps at times, inspiringly, less lonely. (He found his friends and companions and collaborators, and this suggested to me I too might find mine…)

How long, how long, must I regret?
I never found my people yet;

wrote poet Ruth Pitter in her magical poem ‘The Lost Tribe’. Maybe David Bowie made it that bit safer to be looking?

Question: What is big and red and eats rocks?*

I think it was on my first day at primary school that someone told me this joke – which, looking now, I see must come from Bennett Cerf’s 1960 Book of Riddles. I immediately identified with the image – as I still do today. In my mind, aged four, I thought uh oh – could it be me?

Wolf Gang
Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote. Photo by Wolf Gang.

As an adult, I’ve pored over  the work of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. The subtle mess he brought to his roles I find extraordinarily moving. It’s like seeing ourselves writ large. The way he played humans. Characters who were always flawed but also understandable, even lovable. In whatever mess or difficulty. (And, yes, I felt a physical kinship too – if not me, my father or brother could so easily be played by this actor…)

Vain or furious

Hoffman won his Oscar for Capote. Understandably. But he always shone – however downtrodden or disheartened his part. However thwarted or flawed. Vain or furious. Just from the fact he looked so closely. I loved his portrayal of an emotionally shut down son and brother in The Savages, for instance – which I watched again this summer. (One afternoon, curtains drawn…)

The opposite of romantic: as Jon Savage.

Stilted, coping, rigid with frustration and disappointment, at one point Hoffman’s character, Jon Savage, puts his neck out playing squash. He then appears suspended by a brace from a doorway in his drab, brown-walled home. The opposite of the Hollywood hunk – onto whom we project wildly.

Human frailty

Truth is, as humans, we are all too often misfits. A bundle of appetite and good intentions. Hot with disappointment. Gullets weighed down with rocks of shame. Hoffman explored human frailty from every angle: overbearing and controlling, as The Master; malevolent, dogged and privileged as Freddie in The Talented Mr Ripley – adapted of course from the priceless Patricia Highsmith. (Remember that scene where he calls Matt Damon’s Tom on ‘peeping’? It’s like nothing else I’ve seen: ‘Tommy, how’s the peeping? Tommy, how’s the peeping? Tommy Tommy Tommy Tommy Tommy.’) Or falling apart at the seams, in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead

riddle1The list goes on. Does anyone play anger, loathing, distress, or emotional shutdown better?


* Answer: A big, red, rock eater.

Love & lack in the Larson universe

Me, in my new ‘Mixed Idioms’ t-shirt.

How can I write about Gary Larson cartoons when he doesn’t want them shared anywhere on the web? As he explains here, in an online letter:

These cartoons are my “children,” of sorts, and like a parent, I’m concerned about where they go at night without telling me. And, seeing them at someone’s web site is like getting the call at 2:00 a.m. that goes, “Uh, Dad, you’re not going to like this much, but guess where I am.”

Meanwhile, I struggle to imagine the series of posts I’m planning without any reference to the fact these cartoons are, for me, touchstones. So I’ve settled on a short piece geared to anyone, like me, already familiar with the Farside cartoons to which it refers. Of whom I know there are plenty. And there’s only one place to start…

Bluebird of Happiness

Remember Ned? Sitting on his bed, facing his windowsill, on which has just landed ‘the Chicken of Depression’ – dear Ned, in all his dishevelled splendour. Unshaven, unslept, slumped alongside his broken mirror, under a naked lightbulb…:

The Bluebird of Happiness long absent from his
life, Ned is visited by the Chicken of Depression.

Ned has quite a lot in common with Wendall Zurkowitz, ‘Slave to the waffle light’ – although Wendall may seem more ‘on top of things’, in a surface way – not least, that we approach both from behind. There’s something so vulnerable about people’s backs – the fact they’re observed without observing.

We see them as they are when they’re alone. Especially, as with these two, in their own home-environments. They’re not presenting brave faces to the world – as no doubt they often must. This is them at home. Slumped. Attending honestly to what they care about. And lack.

Signpost on my ‘loop’.

Brilliant writer

I love these characters – and ‘characters’ they are. The joke is excellent; the humour’s funny. Punchlines deliver. And Larson is the master of the perfectly-worded caption. One step out of place here, he might lose us completely; he never does. For Larson is a brilliant writer. His cartoons are like poems, or sublimely-turned short stories. And the fact he writes so carefully and accurately matters almost as much to me as the drawings. At least, the two aren’t readily separable.

Plus, somehow, he speaks so clearly to ‘our’ vulnerability – through his characters and their every-day settings. And his vulnerable characters are ‘so exquisitely vulnerable’, as a friend of mine put it. But he’s never cruel or unkind. He never ridicules.

Those who people his cartoons are lovable. That’s the overriding sense: of compassion. For them. In their absurdity. By extension, for us all who are absurd and vulnerable. Even when we’re out there, trying. (Remember the ‘Larson boy’, as my brother and I always called him, pushing on the pull door at the ‘Midvale School for the Gifted’?)

It’s not surprising, really, that Wendall Zurkowitz looks so stressed and anxious. Waiting on his waffle light. (As we all must.) It takes some effort to cope with life, all things considered. And when you acknowledge we’re this vulnerable. It takes courage.  

p.s. Ned-in-my-head

I wrote a poem once for the ‘Ned’ in my head. Gave him a cat; hoped it might help:

A milky drop forms on the teat of one tap,
then falls all those miles and silent miles
to the deep echoing ravine below, where
Ned’s useless legs half float like moon-legs
in the gentle water’s white soft soundlessness,
its surface striped with bleak light
filtering through Ned’s closed blind.

Later, propped against pillows, staring out
at the rain, the rain, the kind that weaves
this way then that, like an energetic grey
skin of wind, Ned gulps at his coffee,
spills some down his chin; snorts, sobs,
snuffles, coughs, and slaps a tissue to his face
and lips. Poor Ned weeps for three whole minutes.

Then, dragging his laptop back out of the drift,
clicks on his inbox, even though its flaccid
desktop icon shows it’s empty. Turns his head
as the bedroom door creeps slowly open.
The big orange cat enters. Disappearing beneath
the hump and edge of bed, it springs like Cato
out of nowhere into Ned’s open arms.

Why can’t George Harvey Bone fall for someone kind?

9780349141565_Hangover SquareI’ve been worrying about George Harvey Bone more than half my life now. What is it about him? He, the lead character of Patrick Hamilton’s 1941 novel Hangover Square, recalled by an old schoolfriend as a ‘tall, shambling, ungainly, shy, haunting, readily affectionate figure’; ‘a noticeably uncruel boy in that cruel and resounding atmosphere’.

Of course he’s lonely. At one point we’re even told ‘He seemed to carry his loneliness about him on his person, like someone branded.’ He is, largely, alone. On earth. We learn this in the opening pages – where he’s, briefly, spending Christmas with his aunt in Hunstanton. But, as Olivia Laing puts it so well in The Lonely City, aloneness is not the same as loneliness:

Cities can be lonely places, and in admitting this we see that loneliness doesn’t necessarily require physical solitude, but rather an absence or paucity of connection, closeness, kinship: an inability, for one reason or another, to find as much intimacy as is desired. Unhappy, as the dictionary has it, as a result of being without the companionship of others.

Above all, it seems, what George Harvey Bone experiences is this lack – and this he transmutes into an unbearable crush: unbearable for us, at times, to witness. Unbearable, in the end, for him to endure. The emotional drama Patrick Hamilton packs into this potentially quite slight-seeming plot is colossal.

Why had he taken a taxi! Why did he get into ‘states’ like this? He had suddenly got into a state of panic because he had thought Netta might not be in her flat, and he couldn’t wait to find out, couldn’t stand a train with a change. But what did it matter if Netta wasn’t in her flat? There was tomorrow, there was the day after….

Hangover Square
The first copy I ever read: I love this cover.

‘a train with a change’

How I appreciate that ‘train with a change’. What anxious person wouldn’t? It’s pure anxious energy.

If anything, George Harvey Bone’s ‘bouts’ of hope are almost more painful than the times of grinding hurt and disappointment. (Remember that classic line from the 1986 film Clockwise? ‘It’s not the despair… I can stand the despair. It’s the hope!’) The hope that things may work out for him, in ‘love’; or, more, that he may outrun its clutches. The hope he may discover he is a good person after all – and thus, entitled to be happy.

He walked alone along the Downs, this sad, ungainly man with beer-shot eyes who loved a girl in Earl’s Court – carrying an old bag of borrowed clubs and thinking of nothing but his game of golf. His face shone, his eyes gleamed, and he felt, deep in his being that he was not a bad man, as he had thought he was a few hours ago, but a good one…  

Our hearts go out to him. Though little can this help. From the moment we meet Netta Longdon we’re in no doubt of George’s chances. Nor even, really, is he. Except at the very start – when he fantasises she could just be his ‘fireside girl’. The fact is George is in the grip of a fierce compulsion – self-loathing caving in time and again to panic…

‘he had been happy’

So what is Patrick Hamilton’s purpose in committing his fundamentally decent, lovable but isolated George – ‘the uncruel young man into which this uncruel boy had grown’ – to such a cycle of destruction? Is the ‘story’ that George Harvey Bone is so alone, lost so much too young, that his loneliness now defines him? The symbol of ‘Maidenhead’ – yearned-for idyll; ‘he had been happy there with his sister Ellen’ – hanging over all this.

My existing copy.

Is there a point in trauma beyond which there is no hope? Despite a character’s flights of self-delusion? Is, in fact, distrust poor George’s biggest problem…? Distrust in life; distrust in his capacity to cope with what it may throw at him? And the hopeless, clearly safely-futile crush actually quite an ingenious solution – to kill his time, mop up his wasted spools of energy? 

Every time I read the novel, I want to repair these things. See George find the peace he needs. The kindness. Far away from his fascistic circle. We see many times within the book that that’s one missing element: kindness. For instance, when he’s run into his old friend Johnnie, and together they reminisce about George’s only great friend, Bob Barton:

‘I know I miss him,’ said George, in that naive, frank tone of his, ‘terribly.’

‘Oh, so do I,’ said Johnnie, but it occurred to him that he probably did not miss Bob in the same way as George, or to anything like the same extent…

‘playing the piano’

Or in his dealings with the white cat who lives in the hotel with him. There’s a repeated image of the cat’s sharpening its claws as like ‘playing the piano’. This is so original and endearing and resonant, and it comes straight from George’s own imagination:

…This purring, this surrender of its being to a rhythmic and externally audible throbbing, in its turn seemed to induce in the cat a sort of frenzy, a frenzy manifesting itself mainly in its front paws, which, in an agony of restless pleasure, stretched and relaxed, the right paw stretching while the left relaxed, and the other way about, in eager alternation. George called this ‘playing the piano’.

For me, these interludes with the cat sit in vital contrast to all that’s cruel inside this perfect book – of which there’s plenty. Including of course real violence.

Let’s just leave George here, then, for now. Where he belongs? Safe. Resting. And at least enjoying an image of resonance…

He lifted up the bedclothes so that the cat could come in. The cat, hesitating, came half in, and began to paddle and purr.

‘Come on, pussy,’ he said. ‘Stop playing the piano and go to sleep.’

But the cat went on paddling and purring and he still had to keep the bedclothes held open for it.

Finally the cat dived down under, and turned round laboriously, and went on purring, but stopped paddling.

‘Come on. Let’s go to sleep, pussy,’ he said.

The cat purred, and he began to breathe heavily…