Wednesday, 19 June 2013

An exceeding amount of poetry

Inspiration can be a phenomenon which is slightly short on details.  When, moved by reading Mary Hamer's excellent fictional rendition of Kipling's and his sister's life (Kipling & Trix), to read the man's poetry, I was unprepared for the sheer size of the task.  A few days ago, the equally excellent Herts Library service procured for me Kyle Cathie's edition of the complete verse, which proved to comprise over 600 pages of closely-set rhyming stuff.  Where did people from previous generations derive their literary energy, and what happened to its source? Was there a secret River of Prolificity, which has long since been stifled by some kind of cultural alluvium? Nothing daunted, I levered myself into my poetry climbing-boots, whittled a fresh ballad-stick and set off for the foothills.

The journey begins with - to further strain the metaphor to creaking-point - some outlying scree and minor ascents, which are of largely academic interest.  The Departmental Ditties are technically highly proficient light verse, documenting and satirising the British and (to some extent) native cultures and behaviours that defined the British Indian Imperial period.  Many of the themes that Kipling went on to elaborate and become notorious for are present here, such as the  blasé cynicism regarding the hardships of the colonial life (and especially the climate) among those who had not experienced it; the corruption and bribery that oiled the imperial wheels and the often torrid love affairs that distracted The White Men from their Burden.  The poem that stood out for me, like a significant preliminary peak, was The Last Department, in which Kipling brilliantly diverts the language and culture of British India to describe the inevitability and nature of death. The link will disclose the whole poem, but here's a taste:

When leave, long overdue, none can deny;
When idleness of all Eternity
  Becomes our furlough, and the marigold
Our thriftless, bullion-minting Treasury

Transferred to the Eternal Settlement,
Each in his strait, wood-scantled office pent,
  No longer Brown reverses Smith's appeals,
Or Jones records his Minute of Dissent.

And One, long since a pillar of the Court,
As mud between the beams thereof is wrought;
  And One who wrote on phosphates for the crops
Is subject-matter of his own Report.

This is macabre, satirical verse at its best, and well worth engraving above your own office cubicle.

Look out for further dispatches from Mount Kipling, as I inch towards the summit, without the benefit of oxygen.  In the meantime, those reasonably adjacent to the Borough of Sutton near London may wish to attend a talk being given by Mary and the acclaimed literary biographer Andrew Lycett, at Sutton Central Library on the evening of July 3.  Andrew's biography of Kipling was rapturously reviewed, and won the accolade of being selected as a TLS International Book of the Year by Terry Eagleton. It should be fascinating to hear the fictional and biographical approaches compared.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Telephone lines

I have previously discussed, in this blog environment, literature inspired by or related to work (see Working Titles, among others).  During the hours I am obliged to devote to my market research call centre work (employment for which I am grateful, but which I would never encumber with the label of 'inspiring' ) a refrain from WH Auden's lovely The Fall of Rome runs incessantly through my mind: 

Caesar's double-bed is warm 
As an unimportant clerk 
On a pink official form.

I hereby offer an embarrassingly trite poetic work response of my own, in the form of three limericks bemoaning the lot of a telephone market researcher which, if nothing else, may have rarity value in their combination of form and subject.

The request, which we make to a tranche
Of companies, (Head Office or branch)
To ask them some questions,
Provokes some suggestions
That would make a contortionist blanch.

A Market Researcher from Herts
Conducted his surveys in farts,
(Although he used wheezes
And belches and sneezes
To convey the more technical parts).

I'm sorry, she can't take your call;
She's recently had a great fall,
Been kidnapped by Cossacks,
Has eloped to the Trossachs
And is trekking through deepest Nepal.

I humbly invite you to render your own work into limerick form, and thereby make the publication of a quirky Christmas best-seller a virtual inevitability. Huzzah! We shall be rich.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Literary Thirkells

A quirky ripple of literary synchronicity is running through our household at present.  We suspect it's to do with the Victorian wainscoting.  The phenomenon began with my reading Mary Hamer's deftly-imagined novel depicting the lives and travails of Kipling and his sister, Kipling & Trix, then developed into my wife discovering and then bequeathing to me the novelist Angela Thirkell (the Kiplings' cousin) and has most recently manifested itself in a reference to Thirkell's novels in the Elizabeth Jane Howard novel my wife is reading, The Light Years. Cue X-files theme.

So I must add Ms Thirkell's literary work to the already overflowing basket of blessings with which my wife has presented me (where it nestles cosily alongside a regally ancient cat and a fiendishly ingenious domestic budgeting spreadsheet, among other articles).  We have both started our Thirkular tour with High Rising, an inter-war tale of family, love (largely camouflaged beneath bushels of shyness or circumstance) and society.  The introduction  - by Alexander McCall Smith - to the recently reissued Virago edition makes comparisons to P.G. Wodehouse, a resemblance one can see in the playfully imaginative comedic language. For example, the headmaster of the school attended by the principal character's son barks: 'in the voice of a sergeant-major who had been educated among sea-lions'. Indeed much of the book's charm and humour derives from Laura's (said leading personage) robustly cynical utterances to, and descriptions of, her youngest son: 'Laura had once offered to edit a book called Why I Hate my Children'

There are echoes, too, of Barbara Pym, Nancy Mitford and Jane Austen which combine, as the book simmers slowly and its ingredients blend, into a delicious concoction of social and character observation and the attempts of Angela and Fate to weave together kindred souls into a knot of romance.  There is a good deal of clever suspense established as to who will end up with whom and how, and a sublimely-drawn villain in the form of the manipulative, scheming secretary, Miss Grey.  Thirkell also offers some excellent writing about writing, as the popular novels Angela produces to keep her son in clothes (in which he can rapidly make mysterious holes) are contrasted with the more conventionally respected history books written by the irascible, curmudgeonly but much-loved  Master of the Big House, George Knox, suspected amorous target of 'The Incubus', Miss Grey.  The link in the first paragraph will waft you towards the UK Thirkell Society, a journey I recommend that you make.

Taking the connections off in a slightly different direction, Kipling & Trix has inspired me to borrow Kipling's complete verse from the library, in order that I can extend my knowledge beyond scattered portions of 'If' and a couple of well-known refrains. All I need now is a sponsored two-month holiday to get through this book.  Lazy, he wasn't.