Invitation to deceive




It leaps out at me from a regular e-mailing from an outdoor clothing store:


(they’re naive and trusting).


The flexible villanelle

I’ve written before about the villanelle, that very strict verse form (all lines rhyme, only two rhymes used, two lines repeated many times) that sounds ridiculous but is extremely powerful in Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night” (that’s one of his repeated lines; the other is “rage, rage against the dying of the light”). I tried out one myself and commented that it ended up rather more mournful and fatalistic than I wanted.

Well, I’ve written some more villanelles. CAUTION: WRITING VILLANELLES CAN BE ADDICTIVE. There’s one other serious one. But I thought: someone saying the same things over and over again. What does that sound like? Three of the answers I came up with were:

# A politician of a certain sort (Fascist, say) making a speech.

# An old-fashioned comedian with his familiar stock-in-trade phrases.

# A bore in a pub who has cornered a listener.

I’ve written villanelles to fit all three. Here’s the bore in the pub. For reasons of credibility and verisimilitude, there’s some bad language.



Did I tell you I used to be in oil?
You don’t mind if I scratch this awkward itch?
It literally makes your blood to boil

The way they treat the sons of their own soil.
She had it in for me, the snooty bitch.
Did I tell you I used to be in oil?

I used to be the right-hand man of Doyle
But last year I slept one night in a ditch.
It literally makes your blood to boil.

They used to say, “It’s him!” like I was royal
That stuff was really mine, but some cheap snitch…
Did I tell you I used to be in oil?

The shit who sacked me looked like a gargoyle,
I told him about her and queered her pitch!
It literally makes your blood to boil.

What did I get for all my fucking toil?
You know me, right? I should be fucking rich.
Did I tell you I used to be in oil?
It literally makes your blood to boil.

I’m guessing not many villanelles are like that. It turned out less light than I’d planned: here’s a guy who’s obviously brought about his own downfall, but he lacks the saving ability to admit it was his own fault and remains consumed by resentment – which he visits on anyone who can’t get away. So it is a kind of tragedy.

A Serious Concern

In a village I often drive through, there’s a sign advertising CANINE BARBER.

Dog face

Dog face

Now I’m one of the least prejudiced people around, but I’d rather my hair was cut by a human.

Aunt Ellie and Miles Kington

Miles Kington

The wonderful Miles Kington, jazz musician and humorous writer, died in 2008. One of his last columns featured pairs of sentences that sounded just the same but had completely different meanings. I went away thinking about this. Soon after, he died; but I had my own example, which I would have loved to share with him:

“Aren’t telly plays extremely meretricious, Ed?”

Telly is British slang for TV and this sentence could also be an editorial comment: “Aren’t telly plays extremely meretricious? – Ed.”

and, where the speaker has an actress relative:

“Aunt Ellie plays sex dreamily,” merry Tricia said.


Ex-ecutionerSpellcheck can save us from embarrassing errors – as long as the mistake isn’t a real word. But its vocabulary is quite limited. It’s American, for a start, and although I’ve finally convinced it that I want British English, its knowledge of this foreign tongue is limited.

Words that are common in some areas of life and work are unknown to it. If you’re involved in any kind of academic or public sector discussion about politics or administration, you’ll be familiar with the word DISEMPOWER (take power away from some people, usually with the implication that they have a right to the power). I’m writing a philosophical sort of book about Liberalism, UK version. I wrote something like,

“Unresponsive bureaucracies sometimes disempower citizens”. Spellcheck didn’t like “disempower”. It didn’t believe the word existed. It offered just one alternative: DISEMBOWEL.


Not in the UK, surely?


Now just a short poem I wrote recently on a short break in Norfolk.



Over the vast pub fireplace hang the horse-brasses
So many I have never seen
Figures of horse, fox, crown
Snowflake, cross, shapes I do not know
All glinting from the light, wavering from the fire.
Cunning and care made them
Clever thought, steady hand
The landlady polishes them.

Outside the night sky is stark
Slow-burning bright in black
And I am off the land and out of time
And speak with a voice of others who saw the stars.

These things together tell me
I am human.

Horse brasses


Lies, economy with the verite and statistics

Governments, managers, advisors and consultants think like this.


George spends on average one and a half minutes a day putting on and taking off shoes and other footwear.


Over a year this amounts to nine hours, seven and a half minutes. That’s without allowing for the extra one and a half minutes in a leap year. So add on a third of that one and a half and in the average year, the time used up is nine hours, eight minutes. That’s without considering time taken in maintenance activities such as cleaning shoes and clipping toenails.


Recommendation: cut one leg off, saving four hours, thirty-four minutes minimum.

T-shirts, T and poetry

Friends of the Earth inform me that it takes the amount of water to manufacture one t-shirt that would be needed to make 15,600 cups of tea. A thought-provoking statistic – but straight away, I start wondering if that’s why they’re called t-shirts. Or is tea named after tea shirts? Did British colonial officials once relax on the verandah having changed into a tea shirt to drink tea?


Now I take t-shirts seriously, like them. I have quite a collection, many commemorating somewhere I’ve been (Georgia, Fair Isle Bird Observatory, the most south-westerly pub in England – The Saracen’s Head, St Agnes, Isles of Scilly – plus one printed with my own wording, “Ho, Johnny Wildman, where art thou?”).

Towards the end of a walking holiday, though, the dirty clothes do mount up and of course are dead weight to carry. Working on that FOE statistic, maybe I could convert a small fragment of a dirty, old t-shirt into cups of tea?

By the way, that personalised wording refers to a favourite snippet from my history reading. During the Commonwealth period when we were between kings, the radical Leveller group had fallen out with Oliver Cromwell, but one of their number, a Major John Wildman, had defected to Cromwell. His former comrades put out a pamphlet attacking him. You can imagine what this would be like today – a pamphlet or blog post from a far left group attacking someone who’d abandoned them. The Leveller pamphlet read,

“There was a great stone, and it fell in the sea, and it gave a great PLOP. Ho, Johnny Wildman, where art thou?”


Incidentally, I was at a reading last night by performance poet Luke Wright. I’d seen two of his poems before and thought one brilliant and the other rubbish, but this was all good. Few performance political poets have such subtlety and compassion, plenty of passion but nothing of bludgeoning you into assent.

New Something

This was a piece I wrote for a Chelmsford writers’ group on the subject of “New Beginnings for the New Year” and with an allotment of 1,000 words.

New Year


New Beginnings for a New Year

New beginnings? Isn’t that a whatdoyoucallit? You can’t have old beginnings. I suppose you could say the beginning of the Hundred Years’ War is an old beginning now, but it was a new beginning when it began, which was the beginning of the Hundred Years’ War, I think. I mean, there’s only any point in saying anything if the opposite is possible. Like…what’s the opposite of two plus two is four? Four plus four is two? I was always better at English than Maths. Or is it two minus two is four? Or minus two plus minus two is minus four?

I suppose you could just about say that an old beginning is something that really is a beginning, but it’s been used before for other beginnings – like pawn to king four. Or pawn to queen four. Whereas WHITE: 1: RESIGNS would be original, I think. “It was a dark and a stormy night” would be an old beginning, then. Or if you started your novel with “In the beginning was the word”, which is a pretty silly statement because of course in the beginning of a story there’s a word, in this case “in”. Now that’s a point: if I remember rightly, copyright expires seventy-five years after the death of the author, but if the author of the Bible is God, is God dead? I believe theologians and philosophers are still arguing about it. The theologians say he is and the philosophers say he isn’t, if I recall rightly. In any case, even if he is dead, when did he die? That’s crucial if you’re quoting from the Bible without paying royalties.

I suppose someone must have thought this through because some gravestones have biblical quotes on. Mind you, I’m not sure who the action for breach of copyright would be against.

What about new endings? Well, obviously if a story or a football match or something is new, the ending will be new – except I suppose if it’s old hat it’s not new, like Manchester United scoring in surprisingly long injury time or a book ending with THE END just in case you were tempted to start reading it back to front in which case it would say DNE EHT. Esle gnihtemos yas dluow ti neht. Sorry, I got a bit carried away.

So let’s go back to the new beginning. I make that three hundred and ninety-five words, which isn’t bad considering. Four hundred and seven now. Four hundred and twelve.

There was a man in a Len Deighton spy story called Harvey Newbegin, an American. He was called Harvey Newbegin because he wasn’t. I don’t mean he was like The Man Who Never Was, except of course he was, because he was fictional whereas The Man Who Never Was was real. And Welsh, apparently. This Harvey Newbegin was an immigrant to the USA from some Baltic country, which explains why he chose to rename himself Harvey. Anyway, the hero pushed him under a bus, which made him Harvey Newend. I did mention that this wasn’t true, didn’t I? I mean it’s fiction, not that what I’m saying about Len Deighton’s book isn’t an accurate summary, though it’s years since I read it so it might not be.

Who said “In my end is my beginning?” Was it Eliot? Someone did say he was anal retentive, so that might be right.

Why do we want new beginnings for a new year anyway? The break-off point for the year is purely arbitrary. Up until the eighteenth century they began the new year in spring some time, not on 1st January at all, which plays havoc with dates, so for example if a Civil War battle was fought on 21st February 1645 according to accounts at the time, that’s actually 21st February 1644 to our way of thinking. No, 21st February 1646, I think. See? Chaos. What if the Royalists turned up on 21st February 1644 and the Parliamentarians on 21st February 1646? Could be a bit awkward for any Royalists commemorating their easy victory, but it would have kept the casualty figures down. That is, of course, if we were fixing the battle at a point on the map, which because of the earth’s rotation and the earth circling the sun, would be quite a long way in space from the same point on the map a year or two earlier, assuming no-one had moved the map. No – would it be at the same point in space because what goes round comes back? But then there’s the expansion of the universe to take into account, so that would mean the Parliamentarians turning up somewhere in deep space, which would be unfortunate, though how they’d get there I don’t know.

Did you know the rate of expansion of the universe is increasing? We’re all rushing apart faster and faster according to Stephen Hawking, which means that our feet are ageing slightly faster than our heads, which I’m not sure is true of me at all, though remembering when I last looked closely at my feet, maybe it is. But in Australia it’s the other way around. Old heads on young feet. With other bits in between.

Some people make resolutions at the New Year, but usually they aren’t new beginnings at all because they’re the same resolutions they made last year or the year before, like eating less or writing a novel. Or writing less and eating a novel. Personally I find Dickens indigestible.

Some people just go out, get drunk and sing badly. It’s usually not new beginnings in their songs, though, it’s bits in the middle or at the end that are new. Getting drunk is known as getting rat-arsed, though I don’t understand that at all. I have not observed that drunken people have small hairy arses, though some Welshmen have. And they had them before they got drunk. Not that I’m any kind of expert on Welsh backsides. Er…

Happy Christmas



In the words of a Panamanian Carol, who was a well-known gangster in Arkansas, 1925-6:
We wish you a Merry Isthmus
We wish you a Merry Isthmus
We wish you a Merry Isthmus
And a ****** *** ****.


Another way of saying this is “Compliments of the Season!” – which is odd. For a quarter of the year you say, “FROSTED SHOOTS!” . For the next quarter you say “SUNBURN!” For the next, it’s “SNUFFLES!” and finally,

iced beard


Happy Christmas, all!


No, it’s not me. I’m turning aside from poetry for a moment to talk about TV programme magazines – the ones that tell you what’s on TV for the next week and when.



Inside the magazines is masses of well-organised information. The covers give a different impression, screaming at you to try to get you to buy. Apparently what most people are interested in is the soaps. As I don’t watch any, this just mystifies me. A big picture of a woman I don’t think I’ve ever seen comes with a headline like “DEBBIE IN TERRIBLE CRASH – WILL SHE LIVE?” It may seem callous, but I don’t care.


This week it was




(1): Getting married is what people tend to do at weddings, I’ve noticed.

(2): What’s Peter hiding? I don’t know. Female sexual parts? A teddy bear? An obsession with model railways? A season ticket for Manchester United? Body odour? Genital warts? The bodies of his six previous partners? A woolly bobble hat?


Any suggestions?