If you see a nervous llama Try your best not to alarm her You will find she’ll stay much calmer If you prove you wouldn’t harm her.
The easiest thing that you can do Is stick your elbows down with glue. Hop along upon one leg, Block your nose up with a peg.
If you feel she’s still not right Paint your toes and fingers white. Lay a penguin on your belly Stand all night in a bowl of jelly.
Should you find she’s still upset You could wear your trousers wet; Fill your shoes with frozen peas, Lay a fish across your knees.
If, by now, she hasn’t cheered Buy yourself a plastic beard, Pretend to be a garden gnome, Then pack her bags and send her home.
You know what it’s like: you know exactly where you’re going and, confident of your ability to arrive at the predicted destination, you take your eye off the ball for just a second and end up down quite a different alley. This came about because last week, whilst writing about a camel, I happened to notice that a hybrid camel/llama existed and it was called a Cama. (Although, if zoologists had any soul, it would surely have been a Calmer.) Anyway, the point it, this could only occur in the zoo: a helping hand was surely required. For a start, the llama comes from South America whilst the camel does not. Also the size difference between the male camel (in this instance) and the female llama would seem to provide what I can only describe as an insurmountable problem for the two amorous beasties. I can see little prospect of this union occurring naturally without severe damage occurring to at least one of them. (We can all guess which one – even more so if the resulting Cama was to take after his/her father in the birth-weight department.) “Oh yes, young ‘miss you-know-best llama’ would be regretting the additional gin and lime then, wouldn’t she? It’s one thing enjoying a night out, but quite another when you find yourself waking up beside an entirely different species…” (“Why grandma, what a big mouth you have – also a very small brain.”) Anyway, this was supposed to be about a llama but, inadvertently became about a cama and, for no better reason than it sounded like it should be less agitated, it found itself here…
It came as no great surprise – certainly to me – that W.H. Auden and I did not get on. I approached the slim anthology with all due reverence and read slowly and carefully, at times using my finger to trace the words in the hope that, like my six year old grandson, it would help me make sense of it all. It did not.
I started with the foreword, written by John Fuller, of whom I knew nothing other than what is written on the jacket. (I have since discovered that he is himself, a published poet and founder of a publishing house that was responsible for publishing some of Auden’s work. If he was a politician, he would have to lie to some committee or another to explain it.) He clearly loves Auden, but if I’m honest, it is unsurprising as they seem to have much in common: I found his introduction almost as impenetrable as the poetry that followed it. I know very little about Auden and most of what I do know, probably wrong. I believe that he was born in Britain and that he travelled to Spain in support of the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War, but he did not immerse himself in the unpleasantness quite as fully as his compatriot George Orwell, returning to the UK after seven weeks (six of them spent some distance away from the unpleasantness) before moving to the US, where he remained at a comfortable arm’s length throughout the Second World War. I am sure that he led a rich and colourful life, but that is the extent of my knowledge and I deliberately refrained from learning more, hoping that the poetry itself would tell me all that I needed to know. Well then…
As I always do with poetry, I read each poem twice: once to let the words in, once to let the meaning follow. On this occasion, the latter seldom occurred. The poems veer wildly between incomprehensible and infantile, with just a little bit of banal thrown in for good measure: Then I pulled on the hairy breeches / Smelling of peat from skua-breeding Harris / Caught round the waist with a calf-leather belt*. On occasions I was struck by Auden’s use of words – particularly words with which I am unfamiliar – and tried to understand why he used them, particularly as, more often than not, they seemed to clunk into place like a discordant voice in the Kremlin. Mostly they disrupted whatever ‘flow’ I could muster and I couldn’t help but think that they had not been used because they were apposite, but just because he knew them: See how clever I am, I bet you’ve had to look that word up. I would love to share some examples with you, but as I did not have the foresight to mark them during my first two readings and had no desire to spend precious time researching them, I would have to go searching for them again and, to be honest, I would probably sooner chew my own socks. I was most struck by this overt show of ‘cleverness’** in England to me is My Own Language which chugs along quite nicely, if unmemorably, rhyming and for the most part scanning quite nicely, until German words, then phrases and eventually whole sentences begin to arrive on the hidden whim of a crowbar and it all falls to pieces, toppling down on a cry of ‘But see how clever I am.’ Too late for me I’m afraid. I was bored on the first reading and irritated before the second.
Mostly, even when I have little or no idea of what the greater intellect is banging on about, I can enjoy the flow of the words. Not with Auden, unfortunately. I found that the deliberately (I presume) jarring nature of some of his lines – random words dropped into a line like hand-grenades – completely off-putting, particularly when allayed with a couplet that could have been written by a two year old cat and a rhyming dictionary. An example of an unsurpassed versatility? It appears to me, more like a man desperate to prove that he can get away with just about anything. Many of his poems appeared to be cut-outs (Bowie used this method to great effect with many of his lyrics) which is a great way of writing, but Auden seemed to miss one vital point – it is still intended to make some kind of sense, or at least to paint some kind of picture when it’s done. To me, these poems – particularly the prose-poem ‘Argument, part iii’ (I have no idea what happened to parts i and ii and, frankly, I’m not at all sure that I care) would have been best served by being left alone in the first place. Wherever it came from, it didn’t deserve it.
One thing that did strike me quite forcibly about some of Auden’s work is that it reads just as well if you do so from bottom to top. Try it with his poem ‘August 1968’. It is remarkable; it makes just as much sense backwards. If that was deliberate***, I take it all back. The man was some kind of genius.
I was always aware of the fact that I was reading an anthology which carried with it the possibility that I was missing out on the ‘good stuff’ – this one contains none of his ‘long poems’ thankfully – and that, therefore, I was not getting the full picture, but if this was Auden’s ‘Match of the Day’, I certainly had no desire to watch the full game. Maybe I do him a grave injustice. Will I read more to find out? Almost certainly not: I am sixty-two years of age and the world is full of chocolate, wine and peanuts…
*Getting Dressed – which is about getting dressed. I have searched for a deeper meaning but to no avail. If it exists, it must be down one of the lead mines that he apparently loved so much. I looked up Skua hoping for some insight. It is a seabird renowned for its prolific production of guano. **Definitely not intelligence. ***It wasn’t
When taking high tea with a camel, Be careful, you shouldn’t upset This most anti-social of mammals – You wouldn’t want one as a pet.
His manners are frankly appalling, His personal hygiene is low And if he should sit at your table There is something you really should know.
When asking ‘Do you take sugar?’ – And, surprisingly, some camels do – You should always take care not to snigger When querying ‘One lump of two?’
Like everybody else that has ever been on holiday to Egypt or Tunisia, I have ridden camels. They are smelly, uncooperative, uncomfortable and unevenly tempered – it is like riding a history teacher. Only 6% of the world’s camels have two humps (Bactrian – including the critically endangered Wild Bactrian) whilst the remaining 94% have only one (Dromedary) – balanced, presumably, by a chip on the shoulder. The camel’s hump (or humps) does (or do) not contain water (they carry that in a recyclable bottle in their backpack) but actually contain fat that metabolises very rapidly into water when the animal is unable to drink (think fat-free mayonnaise). A camel’s faeces is so dry that the Bedouins are able to burn it without further drying – although it still, presumably, smells of burning shit and almost certainly explains the lack of appetite for toasted marshmallows in Bedouin culture. A camel’s eyes and nostrils are designed to keep out wind-borne sand and its thick coat keeps it cool (much like a Parka in the 90’s). Its feet are especially designed to stop the heavy beast sinking into shifting sands and its toes are uniquely shaped to give teenage boys something to titter about. They mate whilst sitting down – something we have all attempted to do at the back of the cinema back in the day. Evolution has turned the camel into one of the most incredible, biologically adapted creatures in the natural world – but they remain deeply unpleasant and they still smell of old socks…
Thompson had snapped up the last gazelle, Melville had bagged him a whale. Attenborough had almost half of a zoo, Steve Irvine had all of a snail.
John Cleese got a furry young lemur, Doc Salmon, herself, got a germ. There are hundreds of folk got a beetle, The Beatles, themselves got a worm
Nomenclature becomes daily harder – A wasp was the option for Muse – But when Kirk had accepted his Dik-Dik There can’t have been much left to choose.
I’m always intrigued about the business of having things named after you. First it was animals, then insects, then bacteria and parasites. Why? I guess it was ok in the past, when you got an antelope or a whale, but now everybody seems to get an invertebrate of some kind. I never even dreamt that there were so many types of wasp** (although I will dream about the little buggers now). Nobody cares about the name of something that has just stung them: they care about squashing the blighter. And let’s face it, nobody wants a disease named after them. Just ask Mr & Mrs Covid from number 19. Now it is planets and stars and I start to understand. Sooner or later, we are going to discover life out there and the odds are, I suppose, about 50/50 who is going to be hunting whom. If they turn out to be the hunters, I guess it must offer some kind of protection to be able to say, ‘Did you know, by the way, that your planet is named after me? Yes, honestly, I am Derek…’
**I do like the fact that Greta Garbo has a solitary wasp named after her.
‘Poetry is indispensable – if only I knew what for.’ Jean Cocteau.
It’s funny how readily random instances, like Saturday evening Hen Parties, can collide. Synchronicity mixes ingredients, throwing them together like a prospective Masterchef contestant, with equally unpredictable results: 49% tastes great, but looks awful; 49% looks great, but tastes awful; 1% both looks and tastes great but is served by a chef having at least one finger swathed in bright blue plaster and encased within a vinyl glove, and 1% consists solely of sliced finger and blood. It would be almost two years ago, and certainly recalled only by those of you of very long memory and very forgiving nature, in an occasional thread of poetry (The Haphazardly Poetical) that I wrote a poem called ‘An Appreciation of Poetry’ (reproduced below) in the realisation that I had none. Or very little, anyway. Outside of Wilfred Owen, Emily Dickinson and John Betjeman – all of whom I love – I have never fared well with any poetry outside of the scattergun genius that was Spike Milligan. It has always felt like a bit of a hole in my soul: something I really should attempt to fill, but frankly can never be bothered.
Yesterday I was reading a piece written by Alan Bennett about the poet Philip Larkin, with whom – like sashimi – I am totally unacquainted. Alan Bennett is a great fan (of the poet, not the raw meat – although I would not presume to pontificate on his attitude towards uncooked protein): such a great fan that he is happy to cast aside Larkin’s overt racism and misogyny as an irrelevance. I realise that this has the potential to close many doors on me, but I am unable to do so. I cannot admire one aspect of a person whilst I despise another*. Most people must, I suspect, have some redeeming features, but are they sufficient to actually redeem them? How saintly would Chris Evans need to be in order to make up for the fact that he is still Chris Evans**? The point is that despite his private opinions, what Larkin wrote for publication – exposed only what he felt would be acceptable to those who knew him only through his work: he laid bare his soul, but only the part of it he wanted the reader to admire***. I think to some degree we all hide – or at best disguise – pieces of ourselves that we fear others will find distasteful: I, myself, will never be seen in public without socks. Most writers will accept that they will be hated by some, but will not be happy to find that the haters hold the majority view, especially when all they have ever done is to read a first draft to their mother. Nobody – except for Mick Hucknall – wants to be Mick Hucknall. Everybody wants to be loved: perhaps viewed as fragile but plucky; best of all to be understood as misunderstood.
The third little thread of my crocheted blanket of fate was accrued yesterday when I stumbled onto a little hard-sleeved collection of poetry anthologies by (in alphabetical order) W. H. Auden, John Betjeman, T. S. Eliot, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and W. B. Yeats, at the back of a shelf filled with photographs, mugs, microscope, grey felt hat, knitted chimp, shells, fossils, and an empty Marmite jar. Why these particular six scribes had been assembled I do not know, but my hastily constructed plan is to read them all. Not all at once of course, that would be plain foolhardy, but I will as time goes by, let you know how I have progressed in reading them one at a time, although if I’m honest, this entire enterprise may result in nothing more than a short-course monthly footnote e.g. ‘Didn’t get on with Plath’. Certainly it would be as well not to expect an informed critique from me – that will not happen – the ramblings of an ill-informed oaf will not shine any light upon the works of literary giants, perhaps far more upon how wrong an ill-educated old fart can be. Just be assured, I will do it and I will let you know each time I finish a collected nosegay. You may learn about my heart-felt reactions to the collections, or, far more likely, what I was eating whilst I read them. I will consume the poetry, but what will subsequently emerge is anybody’s guess. Auden will be first. Wish me luck – as I do you…
*Not, I now realise, completely true. Spike Milligan himself had, by all accounts, a very questionable attitude to the women in his life (albeit one I was unaware of until relatively recently). I would love to tell you that this knowledge will lessen my opinion of his work, but it will not. Reading his books was, after all, the first thing my wife ever banned me from doing in bed – laughter, apparently is not conducive to sleep. Eating crisps dipped in Marmite – should you be curious – was the second.
**I refer here to the British Radio and TV personality Chris Evans, and not Captain America – whom I certainly would not choose to annoy. If you are at all familiar with the former, you will get the joke. If you are not familiar with the former, I can only point out that if you were, you would.
***‘The poet is a liar who always speaks the truth.’ Jean Cocteau (who was, himself, a poet, so Lord knows what he actually meant.)
An Appreciation of Poetry
The gilded art of polished phrase That punctuated schoolboy days Where words of love and joy and rage Lay lifeless on each dog-eared page.
Majestic lines so flatly read Drummed into every schoolboy head And arch displays of erudition Locked in brains by repetition.
Where verses raised in cool élan Are lost to empty rhyme and scan, Forget the words, but keep instead The rhythm sounding in your head.
Observe the faithful paradigm The rumty-tum of metred rhyme That void of all emotion drips Unthinkingly from idle lips.
And then recall a line or two Of the poem writ by you-know-who That told a tale of daffodils And wand’ring over lonely hills.
Who said we should Stop All the Clocks? And what on earth are Jabberwocks? Why do I smile when I stumble upon A Subaltern’s love for J. Hunter Dunn?
‘Come [something] bombs and fall on Slough’ (I must recall that word somehow) And memorise a verse from Pope Now… who had feathers – was it Hope?
Chorus: Though I know the lines and it sounds absurd All I ever learned was a string of words. My mind is full of couplets I can only half recall, Which maybe makes them monoplets – if they’re anything at all.
Be careful of them – vicious things Can break your arms with beating wings – And if you venture near their eggs I’m sure that they could break your legs.
And if they’ve got a Cygnet brood Don’t try to calm them down with food: You won’t appease them with your bread They’ll only peck your heels instead.
They’re always ready for a fight, Like Al Capone all dressed in white. Don’t think that this is Donald Duck, These giant birds don’t give a damn*.
The fearsome reputation of the swan is undeserved and erroneous. I have fed swans from my hand many times, if anything they are more circumspect than ducks or geese – and certainly less likely to take a chunk of flesh than a squirrel. The trick is to let them approach you. Like all birds, they will attempt to protect their nests and chicks – they will make themselves look as big as they can**. Swans, like most birds, have hollow, lightweight bones: their wings will snap much more easily than a human arm. They do have powerful legs though, and clawed feet that you might want to keep out of the way of. We all know how the upper, serene part of a swan’s body is at odds with the maelstrom that is paddling madly below-decks. I think if I was expected to remain impeccably stately at all times, whilst being obliged to paddle like the clappers beneath the water line, I might just get a bit short tempered myself from time to time…
*For those scant few people of the same age as me – like Nausius in ‘Up Pompeii’, I couldn’t think of a rhyme there.
The chimpanzee would be a fool, To turn his brain to making tools: To evolve himself to number one, Far better if he made a gun.
I’m always puzzled by why, exactly, we became what we are whilst chimpanzees did not. They have brains, they have opposable thumbs, they are bloody minded and, at times, blood thirsty – why are we the ones with the overdrafts? Why do whales allow themselves to be harpooned, why do dolphins get caught in fishermen’s nets? They must know something we do not – and God help them if we ever find out what it is…
I have just realised that chimpanzees also appeared in week 12 (although a completely different rhyme) of our little glide around the zoo. You know what it’s like, constantly finding yourself back at a cage you’ve already seen…
Never wave an ice cream cornet In the presence of a hornet, If they want to taste the thing They possess a fearsome sting.
And, unlike the Bumble Bee, Are very much less mannerly: Always happy to inject Their poison where you least expect.
If you’re walking round the zoo And you somehow find that you Are trapped between the beast and sugar, Swat the stripy little bugger.
So, science tells us that every creature has carved for itself an evolutionary niche: every creature has a role to play. Tell me, please, what is the role of a hornet? Other than being even more belligerent and bloody-minded than a wasp, what does it do? It seems to have developed as a consequence of some entomological arms race: more likely to sting than a bee, more painful than a wasp, bigger than them both; it is the China of the insect world and every bit as unreliable. If you avoid being attacked by it, it will probably find a toddler to attack instead.
PS I do sometimes have readers in China. No more I guess…
Built like tower cranes on feet And rendered pink by what they eat, Thank the lord that politicians Do not provide them with nutrition. (Because nobody wants a shit-coloured flamingo).
Come on, everybody knows the joke about ‘you are what you eat’, but flamingos, at least to some extent, really are. Everybody loves a flamingo don’t they? Well no, not me. Have you seen those beady little eyes? They may be pink – and nothing pink is ever bad – but surely the knowledge that they only get to be pink by eating certain algae and shrimps gives some pause for thought. What colour would they be otherwise? Would they still be cute if they were brown? Why, evolution being what it is, do they not eat stripy algae so that they are disguised in the reeds? There must be some natural advantage to being pink. Maybe it’s a visual warning to all predators: I taste just like one of those god-awful pink wafers that you always get in a biscuit selection, and nobody wants to eat one of those…
I write these little rhymes in batches simply because when I start one, the opening couplet to another unfailingly pops into my head – annoyingly distracting me from the original which can then take some time to finish. (Limited space in my brain, only room for one rhyme at a time in there.) Originally I thought that I might do a dozen, but it has stretched now to 26* – half a year’s worth – so I thought that I might go for the full year. Who knows, by the time I get there, fifty-two may well be the number of animals in the world that have not yet made it onto the WWF Red List. I have to remind myself from time to time that these rhymes are not meant to be ‘clever’ they are meant to be silly. I’m not really made for ‘clever’. My attempts at ‘clever’ usually emerge as ‘pompous’, so by and large I leave that to other people. Childish is much more my cup of tea. On a scale of Stephen Fry to Charlie Cairoli, I come in somewhere adjacent to the Chuckle Brothers. Pomposity appears to me to be the domain of the politician. I would never make a politician. I do not have the necessary conviction that I know best and I have a face that even my grandchildren cannot take seriously, but if I do sound like a bit of a dick from time to time, I rely on you to tell me. If I sound like a dick all of the time, then I apologise, but would suggest that you and I are probably not suited as companions going forward.
I know just what a panda is, I know the panther too. The parrot is well known to me, I’ve seen one in the zoo.
We all know how a penguin looks And pigs are nothing new, But what a pangolin is like I haven’t got a clue.
It could be that it’s tangerine, It could be that it’s blue… I thought I’d try and draw one And this is what I drew.
It isn’t great – I know that’s true, I’m sure it could be neater, But have you ever tried to draw A shy, scaly anteater?