Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Happy Burns' Night!

Another January, another Burns’ Night. I make no secret of my liking for this particular poet even though I have a distaste for the patina of professional Scottishness that has grown up around him. But perhaps that’s just me being a killjoy.

Until recently I had believed that Robert Burns had made the worst deal in publishing history when he sold the copyright to his Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect for an outright fee rather than take a commission. But then, I heard about the unfortunate Mervyn Peake, artist and Gormenghast author, who apparently designed the logo for Pan Books. He was offered an one-off fee or a commission every time a Pan book was sold. Acting according to advice from Graham Greene who turned out to be better at overweening Catholic guilt than financial forethought, he accepted the former and so lost a fortune. Ah me, but as the bard of Alloway himself allowed: ‘The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men / Gang aft agley’

So, to kick off our Burns’ Night festivities, here’s a clerihew by GK Chesterton (I think):

When reading Robert Burns

What a lot one learns.

He said a king can make a belted knight.

And he was right!

And now here’s Eva Cassidy giving us My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose:

And finally, a famous one from the man himself. Enjoy:

To A Mouse

Wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim'rous beastie,

O, what a panic's in thy breastie!

Thou need na start awa sae hasty,

Wi' bickering brattle!

I wad be laith to rin an' chase thee

Wi' murd'ring pattle!

I'm truly sorry man's dominion,

Has broken nature's social union,

An' justifies that ill opinion,

What makes thee startle

At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,

An' fellow-mortal!

I doubt na, whiles, but thou may thieve;

What then? poor beastie, thou maun live!

A daimen icker in a thrave

'S a sma' request;

I'll get a blessin wi' the lave,

An' never miss't!

Thy wee bit housie, too, in ruin!

It's silly wa's the win's are strewin!

An' naething, now, to big a new ane,

O' foggage green!

An' bleak December's winds ensuin,

Baith snell an' keen!

Thou saw the fields laid bare an' waste,

An' weary winter comin fast,

An' cozie here, beneath the blast,

Thou thought to dwell -

Till crash! the cruel coulter past

Out thro' thy cell.

That wee bit heap o' leaves an' stibble,

Has cost thee mony a weary nibble!

Now thou's turn'd out, for a' thy trouble,

But house or hald,

To thole the winter's sleety dribble,

An' cranreuch cauld!

But Mousie, thou art no thy lane,

In proving foresight may be vain;

The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men

Gang aft agley,

An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,

For promis'd joy!

Still thou art blest, compar'd wi' me;

The present only toucheth thee:

But och! I backward cast my e'e,

On prospects dreaer!

An' forward, tho' I canna see,

I guess an' fear!

Robert Burns

Thursday, 19 January 2012

You'll Never Get Rich...

Came across an odd little piece on-line earlier today* which states with some firmness that in order to become a writer it is first necessary to join the USA military.


I feel I have to differ.

While I have any amount of respect for the US military (except when it’s urinating on corpses, raping their comrades, massacring villagers and blowing up sections of the British army that is) I doubt that service is a necessary adjunct to the literary life. After all, Claire Tomalin’s recent Dickens biography makes no mention of his stint in Fort Baxter and history does not recall any incident of Geoffrey Chaucer being screamed at by a crew-cut training sergeant who wishes him to give him twenty. Maybe that’s the real story behind Shakespeare? Forget the Earl of Oxford, the reason the historical record is so scant is that he was involved in Navy SEAL ops in curiously unspecified middle eastern countries.

It’s a sign of changing times. When I was of an age to serve we were told to join the army and see the world. I suppose I should be pleased that it’s now join the US army and write a book but my heart isn’t really in it.

And while I wish Mr Cole every success in his writing career, I do think he overstates the importance of marching on a writer’s development. I also think he massively overestimates the importance of being unhappy. He reminds me of the story about the fin de si├Ęcle author George Gissing who did not have the best of luck in his career. On one occasion HG Wells (I think it was) was extolling the virtues of a young writer he had discovered when Gissing growled ‘Has he starved?’ as if this was a necessary, if regrettable, prerequisite to being an author.

Well call me a cynic, I think they’re both wrong. I don’t know an easy way to become a writer save actually writing things and getting them published, but what do I know? I never served.

Friday, 13 January 2012

Save the Book!

You may well have come across this fun film as it’s popping up all over the internet at the moment:

I think it’s great, but I do regret the little dig at e-books at the end. For the record, I do not own a kindle or whatever, but am planning to get one fairly soon. This, however, does not mean that I am going to place all my books into a great pile and burn them to ashes while dancing about the flames in manic glee pausing only to worship in the sodium gleam of a dozen laptops. Nor does it mean that I will never buy a book again, spurning the printed page with the arrogant sneer of the technowhore. No, some books I will obtain for the reader, others I will continue to buy the analog (as it were) versions of.

In 1970’s film and TV science fiction, the two items that were invariably assumed to have been abandoned by those of the future were the necktie and the book. The necktie is with us still and shows no sign of leaving. I suspect the same of the printed book.

Oh it may change. I believe and hope that it will get better. Already publishers are re-discovering how to print attractive hardback novels, an art I had believed long lost and am joyful to see return, and hopefully similar trends will arise.

Part of the problem is that some people have taken to fetishising the book as icon. There are collectors out there who buy many books but would never dream of opening, let alone reading, them. It is the object not the content that becomes important. Coupled with this is the cultural shell shock caused by the mass book burnings indulged in by the Nazis though it has to be said that the crime there was the choice of books burned, not the destruction of wood pulp.

Of course I could be wrong, in which case apologies and my next post will be hand written on vellum and available to view at your nearest monastery. Enjoy.