Saying The Unsayable

Young

Checking through my social media the other day, I came across expressions of outrage at statements made in print by the journalist and self styled ‘social commentator’, Toby Young. I was not particularly surprised, given that Young makes a habit of inviting outrage by espousing right-wing, libertarian views likely to infuriate more liberal sections of the British population.

I first became aware of Young a number of years ago, when he appeared as part of a panel on the BBC TV lunchtime programme, ‘The Daily Politics’. As befits the BBC requirement for political even-handedness, Young had been invited to put the case for The Right on the issues being discussed. On that occasion, his views did not seem particularly extreme, until talk turned to Free Schools, then being promoted by the Cameron government.

On this subject, Young showed himself to hold ideas close to those of 19th century public schools, ideas which, if put into practice, would have further deepened the inequalities current in English education, and would have resulted in taxpayers bearing the cost for setting up and running establishments that resembled ‘traditional’ prep schools. Free schools were his particular hobby-horse of the time, and I was struck by his clear delight in seeking to contradict the consensual views of other members of the panel.

I was interested enough to read his extensive profile on Wikipedia, much of it written by himself, and discovered that his career, such as it is, has largely been based on the practice of attracting attention to himself by claiming the right to say whatever he likes, no matter how offensive, in support of freedom of speech. Recently, he has been involved in the setting up of an organisation which seeks to give succour to writers and academics whose views have been attacked, on grounds of ‘political incorrectness’.

During his journalistic career, he himself has been criticised for, among other things, misogynistic and homophobic tweets, anti-Semitic views, advocacy of eugenic ideas relating to intelligence, and most recently, claiming that spending public money on saving lives of elderly people during the coronavirus crisis is ‘irresponsible’.

My first reactions to such ‘coat trailing’ used to be anger and a desire to see the perpetrators silenced, but over the years I have come to feel that it is better that those who hold such outrageous views, and use them in cynical attempts to gain public notoriety, should be allowed to express themselves as freely as the law permits. By letting them air their poison, those of us who are less extreme in our beliefs are able to identify them for what they are, and to counteract the harm they do by more rational (and humane) argument.

I am, however, aware that this is a position that my younger self would never have tolerated. But then, intolerance can, itself, be poisonous, can it not?

Hors de Combat

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It is common knowledge that the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is a great admirer of Winston Churchill. He has written a biography of the wartime leader, and it is reputed that his relentless drive to become leader of the Conservative Party, and thus PM, has grown out of a desire to emulate the great man.

Watching his daily press briefings during the current health crisis, I cannot help wondering whether, somewhere in his secret heart, Boris is relishing having a situation to manage which has been described as ‘the most serious since World War II.’

These thoughts were further stimulated by hearing his choice of metaphor in a recent broadcast: according to our national leader at Westminster, we are ‘at war’ with the virus.

Unfortunately, Boris’ rhetorical style does not match up to that of his erstwhile hero. Instead of a clear and measured delivery, our PM provides for us, through often spluttering verbal episodes, messages which can be convoluted, at times even self-contradictory. A notable example of this was his exhortation to the vulnerable to stay at home, but to feel free to go out and enjoy themselves.

Without wishing to be party political, I cannot help but compare his performances with those of the First Minister of Scotland, who has been, so far, a model of honesty, transparency and lucidity in her messages to the public.

As someone self-isolating on grounds of age and health, and therefore not currently participating in any battles, I much prefer her straightforward clarity to his attempt to draw a somewhat inappropriate historical parallel.

 

True to Form

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When I was still at primary school, my parents bought me a book entitled ‘A Pageant of History’. It was a child’s guide to kings and queens (mainly English) and national heroes and heroines (Churchill, Drake, Nelson and the like). Each topic was covered in a couple of pages, and the general thrust of the publication (coming as it did only a few years after the Coronation of Elizabeth II) was to reinforce the superiority of ‘Britishness’ and glorify the ‘New Elizabethan Age’ as it was then being dubbed. It was very much of its time, and in keeping with what was being taught in schools.

One of the iconic figures described was William Shakespeare. His background and writing career were briefly summarised, and at the foot of a page, almost as an afterthought, his Sonnet 116 (‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds / admit impediments . . .’) was printed in full. I found it fascinating.

I could not understand much of the meaning, other than that it was about love, but the strange language and the rhythm of the poem held my attention and were like a puzzle to me. I even went to my elder brother, who had recently finished secondary school, and asked him what it meant. He told me that it was very complicated and meant for grown-ups, and that I would understand it when I was older. Consequently, the poem endured as an enthralling mystery, eventually committed to memory and its meaning struggled with over the years.

It also left me with a fascination with sonnets: the variety of structures applied in the form, the differing subjects for which the form has been used over centuries. It was almost inevitable that I would come to attempt to use the form in my own writing, and I have been delighted to have had a couple published. My early fascination with one particular sonnet also led me to play around with its ideas and language.

The poems below were both published online in  Allegro Poetry 24, in March 2020.

 

The Bonfire of The Collected Works

The final straw, that last rejection slip.

Its savagery left me in no doubt

as to the weakness of the works. Found out!

The editor, whose words cut like a whip,

was right to deal his harsh but honest blow,

despite the hours I’d spent, relentlessly

struggling to give my words integrity.

So ended all my hopes; they had to go.

One last read-through, then thrust into the fire.

Sometimes odd lines still drift into my mind,

nothing of substance, nothing to admire.

I try to grasp them, sensing on my hand

a chill, like memory of dead desire,

or flakes of ash on a November wind.

 

Response to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116

Tumbledown, an ancient house to let,

this fabric that endures of you and me

attracts no offers; not for rent, not

even as investment to

guarantee us comfort in frail age. The

beams and rafters, bricks and roughcast of a marriage

now show decay, the wear and tear of

time; what once was regular, now out of true.

Still, we try to show that neither of us minds,

and even to best friends will not admit

that love and trust surrender to impediments.

Copyright © Gordon Gibson

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A Problematic Poet

I first encountered the poetry of Philip Larkin when I was a student in the late 1960s. Although he had gained a growing reputation at that time, particularly on the strength of The Whitsun Weddings (published in 1964), he was not, perhaps for reasons of propriety, being taught in many Scottish schools.

I was impressed by his ability to focus on the everyday, in both subject and language, and intrigued by the sometimes morose mood he evoked in his poems. And of course it was fashionable to be able to quote from some of his ‘disreputable’ works, so different from the standard fare of the classroom.

Larkin has been much in my thoughts recently, after borrowing from a friend Somewhere Becoming Rain, a collection of critical writings on the poet by Clive James, published in October 2019 during his own final illness. James, an admirer of Larkin, had written reviews, criticisms and poems in appreciation of the poet’s work throughout his own literary and journalistic career, and presented these chronologically in his collection.

Since his own death in 1985, Larkin’s reputation has suffered because of revelations which subsequently surfaced about his personal life: his political views and admiration of Margaret Thatcher; his outrageous statements in private correspondence with friends; his refusal to marry any of the women with whom he had relationships; and the increasingly outspoken language of some of his unpublished poems, first made public in his posthumous Collected Works.

James, in his later writing about Larkin, felt obliged to explain or apologise for what he saw as mischief or bad judgement in some of the letters and unpublished work, while holding fast to his belief that here was a truly great poet. Reading what he had to say sent me back to read poems I had not revisited in a long time.

If you wish to consider / reconsider your own view of Larkin’s place in 20th century writing, the link below will take you to an excellent starting point, giving an overview of his biography, a good selection of his best-known poems and some contrasting critical views.

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/philip-larkin

All In A Flash . . .

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When I started trying to write stories, I didn’t try my ‘prentice hand on Flash Fiction, mainly because I wasn’t exactly clear what the category entailed. Lots of publications, especially those online, called for submissions, but their guidelines differed greatly in what they were looking for.

Some sought stories of between 1000 and 1500 words. Others indicated word limits varying from under 50 words to no greater than 500 words. Then, when it came to subject matter, there were requests for romance, crime, horror, fan fiction and myriad other topics.

Feeling rather confused, I checked out some of the recommended sites. Again, the variety was spectacular: some pieces resembled free verse poems; others were jokes briefly retold; there was a profusion of experimental work, and even personal confessions of a remarkably frank nature.

I felt that the demands of such a brief yet loosely defined form was beyond my capabilities at the time, and I concentrated on longer (perhaps more conventional) stories. If I am to be frank, as a reader, I often felt that much of the Flash Fiction I came across was not greatly to my taste, and so I tended to expend my energies elsewhere.

It was a number of years later, after taking part in an online writing workshop, that made use of a writing prompt, I found myself with a ‘short, short story’ that I was fairly pleased with, and remembering the criteria for Flash Fiction, I sent it to an online publication.

Despite my previous uncertainty about the form, the piece was accepted.

I haven’t written any similar stories since, so perhaps it was merely a flash in the pan.

 

 

To read the story, click here:     Sisterly Devotion

 

Uppers and Downers

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A Google search for ‘advice to writers’ throws up more than 25 million sources. Facebook, having discovered my interest in the area, regularly sends me examples of such advice, and I find it difficult to ignore these words of wisdom.

Sometimes they suggest approaches which are genuinely helpful. Mostly they repeat or contradict what others have already offered. Still, I usually read them, just in case they contain the secret of literary success. I persevere in hope.

However, one recurrent theme which has been helpful is widespread encouragement not to become downhearted when work is rejected. For the aspiring writer, it is depressing enough to have a single piece turned down; when a series of rejections pile up over a period of time, this can lead to deep gloom, paranoia and self doubt.

The advice-givers all seem to understand this, and in their various ways encourage the writer to ignore each put-down, and press on: ‘editors all have different tastes’ they say; ‘it’s only the opinion of one person’; ‘look at the number of times Watership Down and Harry Potter were rejected by so-called professionals’ etc etc.

I particularly remember reading one article which suggested: ‘Aim for 100 rejections in a year.’ This seemed, at least, to put my situation into some sort of perspective.

On the other side of the coin, there is the intense satisfaction that comes from having work accepted for publication.

Perhaps even more encouraging was an unexpected request I received towards the end of last year:

Dear author,

I am a professor emeritus at the University of Toulouse, and former president of the French Society for Scottish Studies. My project is to gather a selection of recently published pieces of Scottish poetry, to translate them into French (involving PhD students under my supervision) before submitting the collection to a publisher. . . .

Over the years, I have realised that, in France, we have no such anthology of modern Scottish poetry giving an insight into the heart of post-devolution Scotland. What’s more, Francophone readers must be made aware of the fact that Scotland is a multilingual nation where poetry is thriving. One of my interests in Scottish culture and literature for many years has been how to translate into one single language (French) texts “naturally” including two or three languages… and I haven’t found the perfect answer yet. However, this project concerning one-language poems offers another approach to translating them all into standard French. . .

The request sought permission to translate my poem Whale, first published in New Writing Scotland vol.29, The Flight of the Turtle, July 2011.

I have to confess that I was surprised and delighted that my poem had been noticed in another country, and was thought to be of sufficient worth to be translated.

Made up for many rejections!

 

Pour encourager les autres?

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Photo by Arnaud Jaegers on Unsplash

I have become indolent over the festive season. Too much time spent in front of the television, hardly any time spent writing. However, I did feel an obligation to keep up with broadcast news and social media, and it was on these platforms that I came across examples of ageism that, while not sending me into a spin of geriatric panic, did cause me to exert myself into raising an eyebrow.

On a radio package, seeking to explain the collapse of the Labour vote in the North of England, I heard an activist complaining that the losses sustained by the party were almost entirely attributable to ‘elderly voters’ deserting to the Conservatives. There was a thinly veiled implication that the entire population of over-65s was to blame for the success of Boris and his Brextremists.

Having watched some depressing vox pops on TV during the election campaign, I could understand the activist’s dismay – to a certain extent. But there was something just a bit worrying about his condemnation of a whole section of the population in one pronouncement. It also occurred to me that if he wished to attract these voters back to his particular fold, it was a poor strategy to begin by insulting all of them, whether or not they had ‘loaned their votes’ to the Tories.

More worrying, because closer to home, was the comment I saw on social media which bluntly asserted: ‘All pensioners are evil.’

The context for this was discussion of research which showed that, if the only votes which had counted in Scotland had been those of 18-24 year olds, every constituency in the country would have returned an SNP MP to Westminster. The post showed the annoyance of an advocate for Scottish independence towards those older voters who, not sharing the dream, prevented a clean sweep.

As a pensioner who does share the dream, and who voted accordingly, I was rather miffed to find myself included in the sweeping condemnation. Now, the comment quoted was almost certainly intended as a joke, and as Frankie Boyle always points out, jokes are just words; but like Tory voters in t’ north of England, ‘No’ voters in Scotland are unlikely to be transformed into ‘Yes’ voters in a coming independence referendum by gratuitous insults (no matter how jocular).

And every vote will be needed.