I possess two items from my childhood. Both are books. Somehow I have held on to these through the upheavals of my life, including having twice sold vast collections of books to support my various needs (and long-past addictions) twenty and more years ago. When I did my last big ‘sell-off’ in the early nineties, I managed to hang on to my early J. H. Prynne Poems and a few signed collections of poetry as well, but that’s about it. I occasionally run into people who remark that they own books containing dedications from writers to me. But that’s the way of it, and though I enjoy having books around me, I am not stuck on owning things, and have little regard for material possessions.
Yet I do have those two books from childhood. One is Bedtime Nursery Rhymes, which was given to me on my second birthday by my maternal great-grandmother Coupar. She wrote in the front in her very formal, aged hand: ‘To dear little John, on his 2nd birthday from his Great-Grandma S. G. Coupar 1965’. This intrigued me through my childhood, because it became my only memory of this Goldfields woman, and I long mused over the formality and affection working together in the capitals for Great-Grandma, the initials in her name, counterpointed by the ‘dear little’. Should they have been in caps as well, I wondered? This seemed to me as much poetry as the wonderful rhymes inside which I still know by heart and recited to my son Tim when he was still in his cot.
But what’s more interesting, I think, is that the rhymes in that book are ‘Tales Retold for Younger Readers’. The nursery rhyme being given the recognition as adult text it should be accorded? Some of them are terrifying, even in their simplified and versified forms (some derived from fairy stories, others from Mother Goose and so on). ‘Solomon Grundy’ was the complete horror narrative.
Which brings me to the theme of this piece: how much plot it does or doesn’t take to tell a story. As I said in my earlier Morpheus piece, plot has never greatly interested me. And the material I am tracking here is integral to the writing of Morpheus, as it is to other fictions and certainly poetry. The retelling of a tale is not just condensation, bowdlerising and censorship. It’s also reconfiguring for an audience in the expectation that will find alternative points of entry. My nursery-rhyme book, mass-produced on cheap paper, printed in the Eastern bloc (‘Printed in Czechoslovakia by PZ Bratislava’) becomes a perverse détente at the height of the Cold War: the publisher, based in London, was the ubiquitously and fetishistically named Golden Pleasure Books Limited (purveyors of folk wisdom to children). As a child, I shared its ‘versions’ with thousands of other English-reading children around the world.
But getting back to the ‘point’: these tales-in-rhyme are partial, incomplete, or ‘lacking’ in some way, yet for me they were entirely adequate and told enough of a story for me to envisage ‘the rest’ or more. And this became the principle of my writing life (though I don’t always observe my own precepts! for me, really, anything goes in text): to show glimpses, not complete pictures. To let part of the tune be heard, not the whole thing. To have an incomplete music, rather than the full score. And for the painting to suggest rather than illustrate (all of the illustrations in my nursery-rhyme book are in blue: that was partial enough insight for me!).
When I discovered science fiction at the age of nine, my life changed. I devoured four or five books a week and this went on for years and years. I started with John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids and The Day of the Triffids, and though they have plot aplenty, it was more the glimpses into fear and inevitability, cause and effect, that compelled me. I would read large plot-driven Silverbergs or Frank Herberts or Asimovs, but it was the atmosphere of, say, Dune, or the great Library of Trantor, that lured me. And my reading of imperialistic, totalitarian, militaristic urges was done at the same time as reading Marx and Kropotkin (I was in my teens by this stage), and rather than enforce a reactionary politics, it illuminated the history I was so forensically interested in by giving it imaginary status and manifestations as well. Analogies, parables, fables… tales… have all interested me. All of this took me to One Thousand and One Nights; it took me to the theorists Propp and Todorov. Reading against my political grain was illuminating.
But I digress again. Tangents. That’s what drives a narrative for me. Plot is digression, is movement: it just doesn’t have to be event-driven to be causal. Back to Great-Grandma’s precious gift. One of my favourite limerick-squibs is this:
About Jack a Nory,
And now my story’s begun;
I’ll tell you another
Of Jack and his brother,
And now my story is done.
This is a piece of metatextual wonder, pure theory. It is completion/closure, and eternally open. It is the paradox that entices me to narrative and to reject plot (almost). The rhyme analyses its own condition of telling, opens doors and tells you everything (there is to know) while telling you nothing. This is the glimpse into eternal possibilities: you fill in the gap/s. It is also concision, craft and philosophy. To me, it seemed supremely logical. I liked logic. And I liked tangents. Poetry. Short fiction. The two have always seemed to me so closely related. In the Katherine Mansfield stories, ‘The Doll’s House’ and ‘The Woman at the Store’, we engage with narrative poetry at its very best. Prose poetry: open-form, run-on, succinct, evocative through telling no more than is needed. When I first read ‘I seen the little lamp’, I knew all I needed to know. That was the poem in the story, and the story was no story without the poem.
When I was a child, I ran a small magazine: I printed it on a silk-screen printer (as a vegan, I wouldn’t use silk now) and distributed to friends, families, and neighbours. I filled most editorial, writing and production roles myself, like most kids who do such things. I wrote poems and stories. A magazine should have both. They were two sides of the same coin. The difference? Poems had shorter lines and needed to ‘tell’ less. The stories had ‘run-on’ lines and told something, but not too much. An alien encounter, a kid riding his bike towards a corner where a truck had ignored a stop sign. Stop. No more information necessary. The cliff-hanger, but with no follow-up. No part two, no satisfaction. Poetry and stories had to bother, had to irritate, never seem complete. And novels… novels could do that too.
I mentioned two books from my childhood. The other was the classic, Charley, Charlotte and the Golden Canary by Charles Keeping, published by OUP. It’s an illustrated book of political, social, ethical and imaginative genius. Its ink-smudged illustrations (within bold, sketched lines) no doubt started a revolution in the illustration of children’s literature. I have wondered how much Keeping drew on the early advertising work (especially for women’s shoes) by Andy Warhol. I could Google it, but I can’t be bothered: I don’t want to find out that way. It’s just a personal impression for a book I wish to remain personal, and yet to share. In this book, I see that social contradiction at the core of anarchism: mutual aid. This story of urban development, class (struggle), high-rise and the old city, friendship, loneliness, alienation, redemption, fate, hope and freedom, is brief, to the point, poetic. Not a lot happens, but enough happens to make it seem epic. Here are some of my favourite lines:
But this isn’t enough. What mattered to me was the way the ‘prose’ seemed like non-end-stopped lines of poetry (sure, I wouldn’t have thought of it in such a way, but I did like the lines as they were arranged): the precise way it appeared on the page, above an illustration, mattered. It was in large print and was actually laid out like this:
And that, for me, was a short way from the layout of the texts in my nursery-rhyme book. Maybe this, with a ragged edge instead, would convince the sceptical reader that it functions as a poem as much as prose:
And I already knew there was more than rhyme to poetry — my mother, a poet, had told me that!
I won’t connect the dots — reader, you can do that. I’ve just told you a story, as I said I would. It’s my story, but it’s probably someone else’s as well. Maybe quite a few people’s. One last thing though: I should say that Charley, Charlotte and the Golden Canary carries a inscription from my maternal grandmother (daughter of Great-Grandma Coupar) and grandfather. It says and is laid out thus:
on your 5th Birthday
From Nanna and Pa.Pa. xx