Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Hovis Presley and Elvis Mcgonagall - more great poet names

I can't leave (for unfinished business north of the border) without mentioning a couple more Great Poet Names: Hovis Presely and Elvis Mcgonagall. Happily they belong to Great Poets otherwise it would be a Great Waste. I don't know if these guys ever met, but I like the way they took the Elvis Presley icon and reformed it in their own image.

Hovis Presley

Hovis - who came from Bolton and died tragically young a few years ago - wore the name ironically, being a pint-swilling down-beat Northerner. His dead-pan delivery, dreadful puns and perfect timing made him idolised by the likes of local lads Peter Kay and Johnny Vegas. He wowed them at the Edinburgh Festival and was tipped for greatness, but he was a shy man and backed away from fame.

I met him a few times and he was tremendously supportive and encouraging. I'd have chatted more but I thought there'd be plenty of time. There wasn't.

Small but tasty volume of his work Poetic Off Licence available here including the immortal:

I once spent an evening with Lola or Layla
She said make me breathless I hid her inhaler.

Elvis Mcgonagall

On the 3rd of March 1960, Elvis Presley spent two hours at Prestwick Airport, Scotland en route home from national service in Germany. Big Agnes McGonagall, a starstruck baggage handler, was left with the memory of a lifetime. Nine months later, on 22nd December, 1960, Elvis McGonagall was born on Carousel B in the North Terminal.

Elvis cleverly combines the name of a rock superstar with that of William Topaz Mcgonagall - the The Worst Poet in the World. He is more rock and roll, is normally dressed entirely in tartan and is generally a bit shoutier than seen here, but this must be sacrificed on the altar of topical comment because I can't resist using this clip:

(American readers tired of the Brits harping on about the election may prefer his: This Land's Not Your Land A Republican Party Protest Song )

He's been our guest at the Dead Good Poets and is currently on tour but not to us this year *sad face*.

p.s. Incidentally both men's real name is Richard. Perhaps they just didn't want to make Dick of themselves.

p.p.s. Elvis Presley was known as Elvis the Pelvis. I've often thought it was good he wasn't called Sydney. Sydney the Kidney wouldn't have the same ring to it. Or, indeed, Shamus.

See you all next week!

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Naming the fish, and other creatures

One of the powers and responsibilities of a writer is to name people that don't exist (or re-name ones that do and then claim they don't). Being chronically indecisive, I find this much harder than I ought.

Did I mention I'm writing a novel? Fifty thousand words in and I don't have a name for my lead character - a keen but accident-prone local authority worker who has to fight vengeful librarians and the undead. (I know! What can I say?)

Back in March, InkyFool opined 'a fictional character should have one dull name and one extraordinary name. It doesn't matter which way around.'  My own predilection is for the impressive: as Moptop mentioned recently that Isambard Kingdom Brunel can't be bettered in that department. But something extreme wouldn't suit an ordinary girl like... you see? Dammit! How can I sell the book if the lead doesn't have a name? Alright, it's not without precedent but...

This is like the trouble I had when renaming myself. I'd been divorced a long time and had chosen to wear the married name like a scar, but I'd felt more and more uncomfortable with it over the years - and then someone with the same name started writing successful novels - grrrrr. It shouldn't be that hard to change should it? Even dolphins have names for each other.

Proper names are poetry in the raw. Like all poetry they are untranslatable. (WH Auden)

And there are some doozies out there. When I used to work in a bank it was like being on a very slow episode of I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue ("Please welcome to the Mortician's Ball - Earl Fire and Dame Nation, and from Australia - Digger Pitt"). We had customers called C Breeze (a sailor perhaps?), F Sharp (music teacher?), a firm called Costall & Deer and - I kid you not - a Mr P Ennis. My dad used to work with an old sea-dog called Barney Scattergood and a friend of mine swears she went to school with an Ophelia Dickie.

Needless to say I had a lot of bright ideas when it came to a new name for myself, especially as I was a performance poet by then. Would I follow in the unholy tracks of the vampire poet Rosie Lugosi and become Cruella Diverse? Or take a nibble off my chum Gordon Zola's block and become Wendy Dale? What about Helena Handcart? Gracie Spoon? Ann O'Malley? I dabbled with Clare Willow-Fish for a while but in the end I just went back to my maiden name because I couldn't take the responsibility!

(It's easier when you have a bunch of things to name - I named my goldfish alphabetically after my favourite movies as a teenager. But Citizen Kane ate all the others then died of indigestion. It's a good job I don't have children - for various reasons.)

So help me out here - give me a good, memorable-but-not-barking-mad name (first & last) for a thirty something English woman who gets into scrapes. You see - it's not that easy when you can only pick one is it? 

The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names. (Chinese proverb)

Friday, 23 April 2010

Are Tuesday's blue (& what does Nick smell like?)

An interesting blog by InkyFool - (read it here) last week has led me in curious directions. It was about Synaesthesia - a neurological condition where, as InkyFool says: 'colours are perceived as smells, smells as sounds, sounds as tastes etc'. Interesting stuff and I'd expand on it but he's done it so well I need say no more. 

A comment from Mrs M led me to this article in the Guardian - one chap's take on the first leadership debate was that Gordon Brown's name tastes to him of soil mixed with Marmite, Nick Clegg's reminded him of pickled onions and Spangles (whatever happened to Spangles *sigh*) and Cameron's was like ink and macaroons. Topical tie-in: tick.

Seems odd, doesn't it? But what if more people make these sort of links than we realise - possibly even you? It reminds me of a loose and unscientific piece of social research I pottered with a few years ago. (Science? BrokenBiro? Yeah - who knew?)

I forget how it started. It's not a question we ask each other, or information we volunteer. But for a while I asked everybody I met what their week looked like when they pictured it in their mind. Stop reading this for a second and close your eyes. What does next Tuesday look like? How do you picture August? What about ten years ago? 

Mine's very dull, a bit like a diary - no colours - with the past petering out of my head to the left and the future heading off to the right. I was astonished by the answers I got. So astonished that I still recall some of them (no, of course I didn't write them down, I told you it was 'loose'):

  • Lots of people pictured the different days in specific colours - i think yellow was popular for Mondays and blue for Tuesdays.
  • One married couple, who had never discussed this, had the same colours for the same  days
  • Some people pictured a cartoon bone-shaped week, with Saturday and Sunday being the bigger ends, often in brighter colours - except amongst the unemployed
  • One person's year spiralled away from them 
  • An eco-minded friend pictured his week as a walk through a tunnel of trees

There were many more. But no-one had ever discussed it before, there seemed to be the assumption that of course everyone imagined time the same way. Now isn't that interesting? Maybe some of us have other ways of thinking - unique to us and weird to other people - that we don't even consider. What? Doesn't everyone think the moon smells exactly like cardamom?

I'm going to continue my experiment now and ask you all  - what does your week look / smell/ sound like? 

Oh, and here's a bit of a poem I just wrote about it:

I touch you, taste that scent of early hyacinth
like a waterfall that flashes blue and pink.
Feed me on violins, let me gaze upon
the salty sweet of your voice, call my name
and I will come to you with kiss of cinnamon,
hot as fresh-baked newspapers
whose words tickle like spider ants,
leave an after-taste of cathedral bells.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010


The other day I (and 2000 other poets and sundry other lucky beneficiaries) received an email, subject: 

This is a mass email to warn everyone about the scum who run The Dead Good Poets Society.

Erm... hello? Does he mean us? He surely does! It's a long story - the author being not only Disgruntled but Deranged. I'd love to say more but the matter is 'with the Police.'

Anyway, I thought I'd share some fun facts about SCUM - just so you know who you're dealing with here.*

  1. Scum is:A filmy layer of extraneous or impure matter that forms on or rises to the surface of a liquid or body of water. Impure thoughts? That could be us. Extraneous? Yes - who needs a poet? 
  2. Or: A rabble, lowest dregs of society. We have roused a few rabbles in our time. It's a bit of a specialty 
  3. Scum on Eileen was a popular song in the eighties by some rough boys
  4. Translates into French as: écume, mousse, couche de saleté. Why does everything sound better in French? Les Bons Poets Morts.
  5. The only English language word that can be made from the letters U-S-M-C (United States Marine Corps). Not us, no SIR!
  6. The Scum Manifesto - a radical feminist tract calling for the genderside of men - is alleged to have used the word as an acronym for the Society for Cutting Up Men. I don't think they meant when you're driving either. While the Dead Good Poets Society does not advocate such behaviour, we may be willing to make the odd exception.
  7. In Olden Days, barbers used to offer customers the surface layer of soap and hair in the sinks with the immortal line: 'Scum thing for the weekend, sir?'
  8. Scum was a hard-hitting film about young offenders made in 1977 by Alan Clarke. Alan Clarke was my friend Gill's uncle. My friend Gill has been to Dead Good Poets Society, but no young offenders hit her hard at any point.
  9. There's a church called Scum of the Earth. It's in America. (No! Really?)
  10. Scum can actually be quite co-ordinated. You must have seen Strictly Scum Dancing?

So. Don't Scum the Cowboy With me Scummy Jim. Call yourself a poet and that's the best descriptor/analogy can come up with?  And yes, comperes has two e's - but not both together! 

I could go on. But I was better brought up than that. Yes folks, mama told me not to scum.

I thenk you.

* We used to be called the Evil Dead Poets, but for some reason failed to get any funding under that moniker. Scum to think of it, we're failing to get funding under this one too!

Sunday, 18 April 2010

We apologise for the eruption of normal services

This is a topical tangent due to the eruption of the Eyjafjallajoekull volcano in Iceland this week.

I confess to a fascination for volcanoes and if you're that way inclined there are few better places to visit than Java, Indonesia. The island has more than 40 volcanoes, you can't turn around without tripping over one. The one pictured is Mount Merapi. I visited in the early 90s staying in a village near the base. My companions planned to climb the cone at dawn, but having sampled the lower flanks the day before I wasn't up to the challenge. Everyone else went to bed early in readiness so I went for a stroll in the village - and didn't the bloody thing erupt? Glowing red boulders of magma spewed into the black night. The villagers came out to watch nervously. I don't remember being very scared: I was young, it was some distance away and it seemed relatively restrained.

I was in Java again in 2008 and learned Merapi had erupted in 2006, killing 5,000 and leaving 200,000 people homeless. Whole villages were buried in a solid sea of cooled lava. It's a restless planet we live on.

It feels wrong to like volcanoes, but there is something beautiful about the earth at it's most extreme - the coal-black deserts of Lanzarote (you'd HAVE to own a yellow car
if you lived there), the ice and fire of Iceland, the restless landscapes of New Zealand (right).

But my favourite volcano is in Java - Mt Bromo lies in a stunningly beautiful crater system called the Tengger massif - it's the little smoky one on the left in this picture.

I took this at dawn - the best time to view it - before going down into the crater. It sits in the middle of a vast unearthly plain called the Sand Sea. It's a bit like walking on the moon - except you can breathe (if you don't mind sulphur). And there are steps up to the rim of its quietly-smoking crater.
The second pic is a view from the rim of Mt Bromo. Enjoy (from a safe distance)

Postscript on Merapi  (4 Nov 2010) - An escalating series of eruptions over the last week have left 38 people dead The Guardian

Friday, 16 April 2010

Making the Headlines

We all like a good headline. Here are some to to save you from General Election burnout.  Let's start with the wartime classic:

Eighth Army Push Bottles up Germans’ Rear

(a fine example of Syntactic ambiguity popular amongst headline writers who like a laugh but can later claim all innocence.) 

I worked on the Wirral News for a year and was often called upon by the editor (who recognised my 'special' talents) to come up with catchy headlines. I was especially proud of one about a local student's sponsored walk in Jordan: 

Dead Sea Stroll

...most of them have drifted from memory. If they drift back I'll be sure to let you know.

Anyway, here are some favourites collected over the years from my local papers:

Magistrates Act on Indecent Shows

Big Surprise Expected

Enter your child now!

‘Suicide’ deliberate

Mayor Welcomes Badger Bill (a piece of legislation, but particularly apt for us because the paper's mascot called Bertie Badger - hence the lapel badges with the immortal slogan: 'I've Been Badgered By Bertie') 

The careful placing of one headline at the same level and in the same font as one on the opposite page can lead to entertaining 'mash-ups:

Beauty Pageant Opens opposite: Samantha’s Lovely Legs

My favourite local headline was the report of the death of an Irishman in the local river: Cork Man Found Floating in Mersey

One local journalist contact insists he regularly miss-spells end of British Summer Time reminders for comic effect: Don’t forget to put your cocks back!

While you're thinking about the funniest headline's you've come across, here's an entertaining song about Headlines, which I am indebted to Moptop for supplying:

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Deathly, indeed

I know that many of you reading this are literary types so I hope you won't be shocked and disappointed to learn that I've been reading Harry Potter's final outing - Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Book 7) [Adult Edition] and it is indeed 'deathly.' 

As a writer I suppose I should be encouraged by the possibility that even if I wrote a really BAD book it could still be one of the best selling novels ever. 


I liked the first few books - light-weight romps which were perfect escapist fun for times when I have been over-tired or poorly - but the later ones? Dear me! - not fit to be read without heavy doses of medication. Was there no editor? Did someone stand with a gun to JK Rowling's head and force her to pad* it out into a 600 page monster so the publishers could charge more? It just goes on and on and on and on... and all sorts of characters get killed off and I don't even care - kill the lot of them I say.

There's supposed to be a big surprise finish. Somebody dies. I've lasted this long without knowing but it's been fun to guess - does Malfoy perish in a tragic peroxide-related incident? Are the Weasley's subject to anti-Ginger death squads?  Does Hermione vanish up her own arse? Or are the readers so overcome with the sheer rambling awfulness of the so-called 'plot' that they expelliarmus themselves?  

Actually - it's more fun making up untimely demises for the characters than reading the book - join in if you like.

Apart from that, all my joy has gone. Even Snape can't cheer me up - although more about him anon. On the plus side I should finish it tonight and then I can go back to Proper Books.

* I say 'pad' not 'flesh' because the latter implies there is something living and breathing in there.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Writing the truth

I'm back from Scotland now (oops - did I not mention I was going?). An 8 hour drive through snowy landscapes to find spring has arrived in Wirralia, daffs blooming, and a dead duck in the middle of the lawn. Really.

Not a joke. Not a metaphor. Definitely not a double entendre. A duck. Dead. I'd have taken a picture but I had to act quickly, so all you're getting is a picture of the local soup where I was in Scotland*. But I digress.

This post may seem to be rambling, prevaricating and procrastinating but there's a reason - some of the best stories are the ones that Cannot Be Told. Sometimes you witness remarkable occurrences which embrace the humour and pathos of life, scenes which could (if written) become literary or cinema classics - events which really happened to you, which are emotionally true and press to be told. But the telling would compromise, embarrass, expose or demean somebody else. That makes them out of bounds. Some of the richest pickings in your life are Not For Public Consumption.

So you'll hear no more about it. A great screenplay goes unwritten. Think Local Hero, Thelma and Louise, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Whiskey Galore.

All you're getting is a dead duck. And now it becomes (as everything does) a metaphor - ripe for plucking but shot down in it's prime, potentially significant and wanting further examination, bundled up for the sake of decency and put out in the wheelie bin.

So where do we stand as writers? Do we 'publish and be damned' by running rough-shod over the feelings and reputations of others in pursuit of a 'good story' like tabloid journalists? Do we squeeze out every ounce of creative juice to camouflage the details as though our protagonists were part of a witness protection scheme? Do we wait until everyone involved is dead or demented? How far would YOU go and when would you stop?

* Historical note: Dr Samuel Johnson and James Boswell breakfasted at Cullen on 26 August 1773 on their tour of Scotland. Boswell wrote, "We breakfasted at Cullen. They set down dried haddocks broiled, along with our tea. I ate one; but Dr. Johnson was disgusted by the sight of them, so they were removed."