The Waxwing Slain – short story from, 2004


This was the first story I had published on the now defunct It owes a little too much to a certain J G Ballard story, but re-reading it I am rather favourably impressed with its spin on literary jealousy and ego.






Traffic had been light, so running into a string of cars at the Goatstown crossroads was disappointing. I was driving against the main bulk of traffic coming away from Dublin, which had built up quite considerably – at least my line is small, I thought, as I looked at the solid mass of unmoving cars beside me, travelling in the other direction. It was High Summer, one of those days when the sun almost nauseates with a rancid, piercing light. Both my windows rolled down all the way, the airconditioning set to the highest setting – despite all this, the smell of melting plastic persisted.

As I eased into the end of the line of cars, indicating right for Stillorgan, I heard a strange sound which, nevertheless, nagged at the edge of familiarity. It took a moment to realise what it was. It was my own voice, reciting the poem which I had published a few months before, The Waxwing Slain. I must explain that this poem was not entirely my own work, though we’ll come to that later.

My voice was coming from about six or seven car stereo systems scattered among the line of traffic to my right. All the cars driving in the opposite direction also had their windows down. With recordings of The Waxwing Slain being played on stereos scattered at various points in the block of traffic, a kind of polyphonic speaker relay was set up. Each listener was at a different stage in the poem, though all were within a minute or so of the start. One driver actually started playing the recording just after I realised what was going on; the opening line, “I was the shadow of the Waxwing Slain/By the false azure on the windowpane” chimed into the ether. Most of the others were about a minute further along. All this created a canon effect. At certain points, just as in a musical canon, the babel of voices – my own voices – resolved into a harmonic. One came as I listened, deliberately keeping my gaze at the car in front of me to prevent recognition – the point when I read “Was it Sherlock Holmes who/Reversed his shoes?” I seemed to have read these lines with particular emphasis, and a succession of explosive “Was it“s came from the stereo relay.

It’s a platitude that one’s own voice sounds odd, sounds faintly ridiculous, when heard recorded. My own voice always sounded gloopy and bland to me, but this canon of Waxwings did not sound like my voice. It sounded robotic and musical at once, which was why it took me some time to recognise it as my own. Or, indeed, to recognise the words as my own (as they ostensibly were), although we’ll come to that later. Before I can tell you about my life as a literary success, I must tell you about my life as a literary failure.

The history of literature – the movements filled with lofty ideas, the endless manifestos and counter-manifestos, the all-too-serious sense of mission – can be considered a history of envy. Or rather a series of envies – between supposed friends and fellow writers. That has been my experience both as literary failure and success.

Since some stage in mid-adolescence impossible to pin down, I have considered myself a writer. And not just a writer, but an artist. A literary artist. The person who awoke my never-sleeping envy threatened that sense of self; because, at an age when I was still constructing elaborate fantasies of my glorious literary career, he had not only written but published three novels. And he stole my name.

The literary fantasist constructs an entire career in their reveries. The ecstatically received debut, a mould-breaking work that sets the tone for new fiction. Interviewers cast themselves worshipfully at the feet of my wit. Casual remarks that achieve the status of aphorisms. The speculation mounts for the second novel. Can he deliver? It hardly seems possible. That first novel, after all, was a stunning condensation of twenty-something years of experience and an eternity of timeless insight. And then the triumphant return, the sense of a richness and maturity that surpasses the previous work. The literary fantasist daydreams trenchant and controversial interviews that establish him at the peak of the profession.

Of course, the literary fantasist prefers to consider the interviews, the reviews, the covers, the blurbs far more than the actual business of sitting down to write. I saw “Andrew Browne” on covers and frontispieces, in an austere, tasteful font. I saw phrases like Andrew Browne… the best novelist of his generation, blurb quotes like “another triumph for Andrew Browne” or “it is not too soon in Andrew Browne’s career to proclaim him… possibly the best writer in the English language today.” I even, in time, imagined the name “Andrew Browne”, like JD Salinger, spurning these impedimenta of the literary-publicity complex and standing, naked and alone, on the cover of his books.

Imagine when a contemporary, and what’s worse, a somewhat despised contemporary, begins to achieve literary fame – perhaps not with the hyperbolic excesses of my imagination – but a genuine fame. What’s worse, imagine that contemporary has a name that differs only by a silent “e” from one’s own. Andrew Brown, a writer to watch this coming year. Andrew Brown’s third (third!) novel builds on the success of his previous work.

Andrew Brown and myself have much in common. We both are well-built, rather beefy in fact – and thereby give an impression of robust good health. We both look like hearty chaps, just about to head for a couple of steaks after a day’s rugby or rowing or foxhunting. This is not an advantage when one is spending one’s college years attempting to look like one is wrestling with the major issues of existence. Poets and philosophers are stereotypically consumptive, anguished looking fellows, and the literary fantasist is a great man for stereotype.

We were both members of the college literary club, under the auspices of which weekly meetings were held. Here dreadful poems on loss of faith and tepid prose vignettes of drunkenness would be read out, before the real fun began of praise or blame, carefully considered for maximum impact. Both Andrew Brown(e)s kept silent; I wrote some poems that were read out anonymously and unjustifiably excoriated. He probably did too.

I got to know Andrew Brown from the trips to the student bar after these evenings. The underlying discontent with the literary club we shared must have drawn us to each other, that and the shyness with girls neither of us ever really shed. It was a long time before me realised that we shared a surname – he went by “Andy” those days, whereas I have always been an Andrew, irreducible to any diminutive. Andy, as (for the sake of clarity) I will refer to him, was never less than friendly and polite to me. In the early days of our friendship, I saw this friendliness and politeness as fear, as symptomatic of an inner weakness. Of course, I was still at that adolescent stage (that some never leave) that confuses obnoxiousness and arrogance with strength.

Andy was generally unpretentious, but he had a small stock of what I would call “party pieces.” These were declamations on some literary or aesthetic subject that he had, evidently, rehearsed before, probably alone. I heard some at least four or five times. One particular favourite was provoked by any discussion of the alleged decline of literature. These discussions are of course beloved throughout the ages – the self-selected few, mourning the unstoppable conquest of barbarism, derive great pleasure from the thought that they alone keep the flame of culture burning. The barbarians are always at that gate. Andy was rightly sceptical of this. One of the passages of his monologue concerned the trivialities the authors of antiquity concerned themselves with (this was part of an argument that any contemporary fixation with trivia was nothing new) – “the great themes – the transformation of people into animals and animals into people, various sexual positions, the glorification of whoever happened to be paying the writer at that particular moment…” Like all similar monologues, delivered with an air of authority it managed to convince the listener that here was someone who knew what he was talking about.

I kept in touch with Andy in a desultory way after graduation – an email or text message every couple of months, meeting in Dublin every four months or so for strained conversation revolving around mutual acquaintances. We both eventually started work in jobs hardly commensurate with our Bohemian leanings; he as a sales rep for a drug company, I as part of the public relations team of a major bank.

One day I got a text message from Andy, obviously not sent to me individually but sent to many, telling me that his first novel was to published three months later by a major international publisher. There would be celebratory drinks in the Stag’s Head the following Friday. It was the first I had heard of a novel, let alone that it was ready for publication.

In the Stag’s Head on Friday an assortment of hangers-on, people from college neither of us had seen in years turned out. I was surprised that there was hardly anyone from Andy’s life beyond college. In that crowd, I suddenly realised, it was very possible that I was Andy’s closest friend.

The novel was called Sweet Science, a solid, well-crafted story of a failed boxer’s decline and fall. There was nothing particularly wrong with it, although nothing (to my thinking) particularly memorable either. While I congratulated Andy to his face, privately I felt confident that whenever I would finally get round to writing a novel, it would make far more of a mark.

With his second, Land of Lost Content, Andy began to garner more serious attention. It was an inventive variation on that most worn-out of topics, the coming-of-age story. It followed the conventional path of these novels – the protagonist, from a comfortable middle-class background like the one both of us shared, went to college and had the usual romantic and intellectual experiences – first love, crisis of religious faith. Rather than maturing, he regresses to childhood, which was the slight twist on the formula. There was a freshness and vitality about the writing that marked out Andy as a genuinely promising talent. A third novel, Mercy, a short, simple tale with Gothic overtones, set during the Civil War, consolidated his reputation. Around this time we began to spend more time together. We still had the same rather strained rapport, the same wariness. It says something about his essential loneliness that I realised around this time that not only had I been his closest friend at the Stag’s Head gathering, I was his closest friend in the world.

Perhaps Andy occasionally detected some resentment on my part. There would have been a sharpness on the phone, perhaps the occasional noticeable blankness as I drifted into my own thoughts as he went on about some issue with his agent or other. On the whole, however, I managed not to show this resentment, and felt suitably guilty. There was a politeness, a formality about our relationship. I could never imagine us teasing each other about anything – romance, work, literature.

My own writing had ground to a halt. Various ideas and plans fizzled out for want of persistence on my part. Andy’s success had stoked my ambition. Now I wanted not only to be published, but to stun the literary world. There was, as always, a plethora of young literary aspirants. I felt I needed to rise above them all, Andy included, in one motion.

All potential subjects seemed hackneyed, played out. I decided that what was needed was the creation of something utterly new. I wanted to write something sui generis, the first of a whole new genre. What is it, to create something utterly new? Something absolutely original? Is it even possible? I would seize on an idea and, in short order, exhaust it.

I tried, Lord knows I tried. I conceived of Tyranny Considered One of the Fine Arts, a series of essays on lesser-known but nevertheless impressively bloodthirsty tyrants. Following de Quincey’s argument – that when murder is done and the guilty punished, a sort of connoisseurship can take over – I applied it to tyranny. Queen Ranavolana I of Madagascar, Heliogabalus of Rome; such was my human material. Unfortunately, I couldn’t really believe that tyranny was a mere art. Over the years, I’ve often liked to see myself as a rather amoral, insouciant figure, a Wilde or Baudelaire casting elegant poses on the brink of hell. Yet earnestness kept breaking in.

My other attempts to forge something new revolved around science, more particularly mathematics and physics. I read a few popular accounts of the various theories of Infinity – Galileo’s realisation that an infinite set is one which contains an infinite set, Cantor’s discovery of the transfinite, and his fruitless search to prove the continuum hypothesis. I conceived a mathematical novel, one whose protagonist was the mystical idea of Infinity.

I came up against the insuperable obstacle that Infinity is not exactly a sympathetic protagonist. Perhaps an abstraction can be made the hero of a story (and I mean the actual abstraction, not a personification of it), but it eluded my craft.

I moved on to what struck me, initially, as more fertile ground. Could God have created the world any differently? Could there be a world where the gravitational constant, or the boiling point of Mercury, or the laws of plate tectonics, be any different? Moving from the theoretical to the particularly, could there be a world without New Zealand, or Wlliam Ewart Gladstone or Nabokov’s Pale Fire?

I was working on these ideas – working on a series of meaninglessly complex diagrams of the new theory of non-existence. I hadn’t actually written anything at that stage. I had reached a point where writing was pointless, lacking any plan of attack – I had nothing to write about, only grandiloquent fantasies. Deep down, I knew that I was thrashing about, with no direction.

One day Andy gave me a box of odds and ends he was throwing out, trying to “declutter” himself, as he said. It was a nice gesture, though I don’t think he realised the implied condescension. Maybe he did – maybe my conception of Andy as someone well-meaning and kindly who unjustly aroused my resentment is wrong. Perhaps he was really a Machiavellian manipulator of human desires, obligations and aims. I am more or less entirely without what could be called “political” guile, and sometimes tend to see it in every action of everyone else. Perhaps Andy shares this trait with me, too.

One of the objects in the box was a blank notebook. At first glance it was an old, worn notebook, but on closer inspection this was a trompe l’oeil. It was a new, rather heavy notebook, whose carefully cultivated look of being worn was a trick of the marketing trade. Like all writers – both real writers and literary fantasists – I have an inexhaustible appetite for the how-to tips of other writers. One piece of (to my mind unhelpful) advice that I once read was to buy some expensive pens and some expensive paper, and to use these to plan your work. By some sort of sympathetic magic, the materials were supposed to elevate your creative mind. I always thought it rotten advice, too redolent of gimcrack ideas of what’s “artistic”. Which is not to say I rejected it.

Thus I decided to play with the notebook. I wrote a few sketchy phrases. First some automatic writing – I set a pen (a cheap biro) on the paper and began to write “Rome did not fall because the depredations of barbarians, but fell for other reasons. It fell after some years of pain.” I stopped. The automatic quality had disappeared from the writing, in my mind I had begun to try to construct some kind of meaningful sentence in my account of Rome’s fall.

I wrote a few more random phrases and words. “Tubetrain. Tubetrain.” I doodled a little, creating a grid, encircled by a serrated line. I wrote “Andy Warhol never existed.”

Why the last, the negation of Andy Warhol? What I had written in the notebook had reflected the varied preoccupations of the time, although I’m at a loss to explain “tubetrain.” There was a small Warhol exhibition coming to Dublin. I meant to check it out. I had often been in the habit, especially during boring phone conversations, of doodling phrases with an at best tangential connection to the conversation. That I should randomly write such a phrase did strike me as odd, but not exceptional. Nevertheless, it stayed in my mind.

The next day, in town, I picked up a free gallery guide. I noticed that the Warhol exhibition was no longer advertised. Unusual, I thought. Later, I looked at the gallery website. Again no mention.

A couple of years before, I had lent my copy of David Bowie’s Hunky Dory album to a girl I was trying to impress who I had since lost touch with. Various rather embarrassed emails (one drunken evening, I had made completely unreturned advances to her) had failed to produce a response. Thus, a few days later, I decided to buy another copy when I saw it discounted. It was only when I got home that I noticed that the song ‘Andy Warhol’ was missing. Presumably this was some kind of money-grabbing scam, a new release leaving out one of the tracks to force one to buy a compilation. Trying to track down some information on this on the web, I did an search for “david bowie”, “hunky dory” and “andy warhol.”

I got no results. Refining it to “david bowie” and “andy warhol” produced none either. Then “andy warhol.” None. Presuming that the arbitrary god of the Internet had struck again, I tried another search engine, then another. It was strange, Andy Warhol had been deleted from the ether completely. I tried various art sites, and again Warhol was completely absent.

I went to the bookshops, looked in directories of art and found the same result. Andy Warhol had been written out of art history, indeed all history. Oddly, there didn’t seem to have been such a seismic shift in the art world. No other artist seemed to have disappeared from view, and his ideas, such as they were, seemed to have become popularised anyway. For instance it was Truman Capote who said, in 1973, that in the future everyone would be famous for fifteen minutes.

There was only one source of information on Andy Warhol extant, and that was in my own small collection of art books. It will surprise you how calm I was about all this. I did not doubt my sanity, and as I still remembered my little scribble in Andy Browne’s notebook, I didn’t doubt what had happened. With great equanimity, I accepted that I had access to a supernatural power of some kind. It’s amazing, when this actually happens, how calmly, indeed almost languidly, one accepts this. After all, it is no longer supernatural but natural, part of the world.

At first I assumed that this was a once-off, some kind of aberration in space-time. I doodled some more in the notebook, stating the non-existence of prominent and not-so-prominent people living and dead.

Gradually I discerned that some things had their own necessity, and some things didn’t. Named living persons, and the artistic creations of named living persons, were immune to the notebook’s power. After some more experimentation I realised this applied not only to people – I managed to negate the existence of the dodo, of Halicarnasuss, of the Falkland Islands. What exactly happened to the population of the Falklands I’m not entirely sure. Perhaps there was a slight rise in the population of Britain. I managed to reduce the number of extant works of Aeschylus from seven to four, but the tragedian himself proved stubbornly resistant to elimination.

What was equally striking was the fact that, while the world seemed to lose these creations and indeed creators with surprisingly little change, they continued to exist in my library. I carefully kept my eye on a copy of Pygmalion while negating it in the notebook. It continued to exist, but the play itself did not have an existence in the outside world (oddly, My Fair Lady did, “based on an idea by George Bernard Shaw”, an unpublished, fragmentary outline for a story)

One day I wrote “There was never a book called Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov.” I enjoyed Nabokov too much to try and negate him, but was amused by the possibility that my favourite of his books would become a private pleasure for me. I assure you I had no thought of personal gain.

With Nabokov’s book duly expunged from libraries, from bookshops, from the collective memory (it seemed) of book-lovers, I settled to read the book. It is a rare pleasure, one denied us in this age of mass production, the joy of reading a work of art created just for oneself.

As I read, a thought struck me. I had always felt that the central poem around which the work is based was itself a fine piece of literary art. It deserved appreciation in its own right. It may strike the reader as blindingly obvious now, but the sudden realisation that nothing whatsoever prevented me from publishing the poem Pale Fire as my own work only hit me then. It was simply a matter of typing.

The rest you know – the long poem The Waxwing Slain which was universally praised and whose enormous commercial success resurrected poetry as a mainstream art form. Within months there were numerous audiobooks, a film adaptation in the works. The imaginative leap for a young Irish scribbler to convincingly inhabit an ageing American professor mourning a dead daughter was widely commented on. No one knew the leap was via a Russian émigré author, still well-known for Lolita..

Thus The Waxwing Slain audiobook, blaring at me from all available speakers on the Goatstown crossroads. I smiled to myself at the moment, the feeling of one’s fame being crowned. The lights changed and I drove on. Looking back, this was the highpoint of my career, the moment when I felt most satisfied with it all. I felt Nabokov himself would appreciate the turn of events.

Andy, who I must admit was the first living person I tried to negate, had found work on his next novel increasingly difficult. “It isn’t the same” he said, “before I had seemingly endless ideas and no craft, and now I have all craft and no ideas.” He surprised me by getting married. I was his best man. It was one of the last times we talked. At the wedding, I felt uncomfortable with is obvious resentment of my literary success. It was how I had been to him, I saw now.

I’ve written two more novels. The Violent Bear It Away and Day of the Locust. Reviewers worldwide have lauded my versatile imagination, my ability to inhabit entirely different linguistic worlds. They are a little puzzled how at my works American setting, set in a specific time without any apparent awkwardness, or the air of a period piece. Of course, I typed those two novels, directly transcribing (occasionally with very slight editing) from the only extant copies in my own library.

But there was no joy in their creation, or in the reception they received. The moment had come when I realised that literary success as an end in itself was a sham. The elaborate daydreams when I dreamed of rave reviews and blurbs were revealed as rather tawdry fantasies. For the first time in a long time, I wanted to write a story, regardless completely of the sensation it would create, the reputation it would forge for me. I began to write this story.

And who will understand me, now that Andy Warhol and the dodo and Pale Fire are not only not with us, but their existence has ceased? There comes a time in anyone’s life when to confess – to a loved one, in a religious ceremony, or in the full glare of the world in a book or television programme – becomes an unbearable need. I, alas, have no audience that can comprehend my acts; all will assume this is merely a clever fiction. Even Andy will think it merely a tasteless literary in-joke, so I intend changing the names of all concerned. Only I, or an ideal and hence non-existent reader, will know that this is a confession.


The Go Betweens : Cattle and Cane

“Icnoic” is a hugely overused word. Everything famous or even just well-known (ish) seems to be dubbed iconic. Yet it is the word that keeps coming back when I think of The Go-Betweens’ “Cattle and Cane.”

I think it is the other sense of icon, in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, a stylised yet somehow living representation. Stylised in that there is a formal, repetitive pattern to the song, and living in that Grant McLennan’s memories become our own.

As this post by Thom Hickey evokes brilliantly, “Cattle And Cane” is a tapestry of childhood memories and longings tied together by an immortal, driving, sensitive-yet-oddly-hard riff.

And I didn’t know it was written on Nick Cave’s guitar.

The Immortal Jukebox

What are we made of?

Well, you could say we are mainly Oxygen, Carbon, Hydrogen, Nitrogen, Calcium and Phosphorous.

Add some pinches of Potassium, Sodium, Sulphour, Chlorine and Magnesium.

Just the tiniest amounts of Boron, Chromium, Cobalt and Copper.

Traces of Flouridine, Iron, Iodine, Manganese, Silicon, Selenium, Vanadium, Molybdenum, Tin and Zinc.

Scientifically that’s absolutely the case.

Still, I prefer to think we are, each of us,  a whirling constellation of dreams and memories.

Dreams beget memories and memories beget dreams.

We are star shine, dreams and memories.

Just before you go to sleep – a shimmer in the mind.

Just before you wake up – slow spools of overexposed film.

A Life lived in a landscape of dreams and memories.

Sometimes pin sharp with hallucinatory detail.

The grain of the kitchen table, the fragrance of your mother’s perfume, the bark of a long dead dog, the leathery feel of your…

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”the most sane fringe phenomena.”

The current New Yorker features a piece by Brooke Jarvis on the maybe-extinct, maybe-not Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine.

About fifteen years ago I had a cryptozoological phase, with occasional relapses. However, I can rarely get past the minimum viable population problem. Jarvis’ article is a witty and rather wise piece. The Tasmanian tiger’s continued existence is not that unlikely, and Jarvis cites the many examples of Lazarus species:

Tiger enthusiasts are quick to bring up Lazarus species—animals that were considered lost but then found—which in Australia include the mountain pygmy possum (known from fossils dating from the Pleistocene and long thought to be extinct, it was found in a ski lodge in 1966); the Adelaide pygmy blue-tongue skink (rediscovered in a snake’s stomach in 1992); and the bridled nailtail wallaby, which was resurrected in 1973, after a fence-builder read about its extinction in a magazine article and told researchers that he knew where some lived. In 2013, a photographer captured seventeen seconds of footage of the night parrot, whose continued existence had been rumored but unproven for almost a century. Sean Dooley, the editor of the magazine BirdLife, called the rediscovery “the bird-watching equivalent of finding Elvis flipping burgers in an outback roadhouse.” The parrots have since been found from one side of the continent to the other. Is it more foolish to chase what may be a figment, or to assume that our planet has no secrets left?

But there is also something to be said for the impatience expressed by Anna Povey here:

But some people erupted in frustration at the mention of the tiger. “We killed them off a hundred years ago and now, belatedly, we’re proud of the thylacine!” Anna Povey, who works in land conservation, nearly shouted. She wanted to know why the government fetishizes the tiger’s image when other animals, such as the eastern quoll—cute, fluffy, definitely alive, and definitely endangered—could still make use of the attention. I couldn’t help thinking of all the purported thylacine videos that are dismissed as “just” a quoll. “It does piss us off!” Povey said. “It’s about time to appreciate the things we have, Australia, my God! We still treat this place as if it was the time of the thylacines—as if it was a frontier and we can carry on taking over.”

Bob Brown, former leader of the Australian Greens, expands on this;

In the nineteen-seventies, Bob Brown, later a leader of the Australian Greens, a political party, spent two years as a member of a thylacine search team. He told me that although he’d like to think the fascination with thylacines is motivated by remorse and a desire for restitution, people’s guilt doesn’t seem to be reflected in the policies that they actually support. Logging and mining are major industries in Tasmania, and land clearing is rampant; even the forest where Naarding saw his tiger is gone. Throughout Australia, the dire extinction rate is expected to worsen. It is a problem of the human psyche, Brown said, that we seem to get interested in animals only as they slide toward oblivion

The whole thing is worth reading – it is a classic of a kind of New Yorker piece; erudite, witty, slightly detached but unexpectedly moving.

“The Faber Popular Reciter”, Introduction by Kingsley Amis

In a letter of 12 August 1977 to Robert Conquest, Kingsley Amis wrote:

The Faber Book of Non-Trendy Verse has been easier and is going faster: a careful look through the Dict of Quots took me most of the way, then hymnals and old-fashioned anthologies.

“The Faber Book of Non-Trendy Verse” is The Faber Popular Reciter, edited and introduced by Amis (the “Dict of Quots” is the dictionary of quotations; obvious to most readers no doubt, but I was initially thrown!) Here is the blurb, which along with the Conquest letter quote, gives a good sense of the thing:

I have never quite taken to Martin, but the elder Amis is an interesting figure. I previously noted his judgments, too easy to dismiss as crustily reactionary, can be surprising. “Stanley and the Women” contains, amongst other things, one of the best, most realistic and least sentimental portrayals of schizophrenia in a novel. Anthony Powell commented of him that “his hatred of pretension was itself a form of pretension.”

His introduction to The Faber Popular Reciter is a splendid, at times tendentious, always interesting little essay in its own right. There are few poems I can think of since the 1930s that could possibly be considered recitation pieces in Amis’ terms (as opposed to poetry reading performances) – perhaps Heaney’s “Mid-Term Break.” As the book is out of print and I cannot find any trace of this introduction online, I have taken the liberty of reproducing it in full below.

The book itself is a splendid collection of splendid, and very non-trendy (to the degree they may have a trendiness of their own again) poems. There are five Wordsworth poems, despite Amis’ words below. There are two Yeats, the Lake Isle of Inisfree which I would expect and Easter 1916, which I wouldn’t (I would have thought The Second Coming, or The Ballad of Father Gilligan, or many others, were more recitation pieces…. but a terrible beauty is born is a great phrase I suppose)

When I was a schoolboy before the Second World War, the majority of the poems in this book were too well known to be worth reprinting. If they were not in one anthology they were in a couple of others; they were learned by heart and recited in class, or performed as turns at grown-up gatherings; they were sung in church or chapel or on other public occasions. Some were set as texts for classical translation, an exercise that gives you insight hard to achieve by other means: the fact, noted by my fellow and me, that Mrs Hemans’ ‘Graves of a Household’ went into Latin elegiacs with exceptional ease encourages a second look at that superficially superficial piece.

Most of that, together with much else, has gone. I suppose hymns are still sung here and there, classical verses written and – another way of gaining insight – poems learned by heart and recited. But in any real sense the last could only happen in school, as part of an academic discipline. Any adult who commits a poem to memory does so for personal satisfaction; if he utters it in company he does so to share it with like-minded friends (or as a harmless means of showing off), and as one who quotes, not as one who recites.

I should be sorry, the, if readers of this book were to be confined to those in search of material for what we usually understand by recitation. ‘Reciter’ is a nineteenth-century term used here for a collection of characteristically nineteenth-century objects: poems that sound well and go well when spoken in a declamatory style, a style very far indeed removed from any of those to be found at that (alas!) characteristically twentieth-century occasion, the poetry recital, with all its exhibitionism and sheer bad art. If recitation has died out in the family circle, reading aloud has not, and it is as material for this that my anthology is ideally intended; let me remind the doubtful that here is a third way, less troublesome that the first two, of finding out more about a piece of writing and so enjoying it more. Others will perhaps be glad to have within one binding a number of old favourites now obscured by changes in taste or fashion; yet others, younger than the other others, may make a discovery, if only that poetry need be none the worse for being neither egotistical nor formless.

I mentioned just now the nineteenth century as the main source of my selection, and sure enough is drawn from authors born either in its course or so soon before as to have done the larger part of their growing-up within in, between 1788 and 1888. More than this, the pieces from longer ago are very much of the sort that the nineteenth-century poetical outlook could accept without strain: Shakespeare at his most direct, Milton on his blindness, ballads, hymns, the patriotic, the sententious (, Gray). Thus the Elizabethan period and the years immediately following contribute more than the major part of the seventeenth century, and there is one solitary poem in the Augustan heroic couplet.

No age of course has a single poetical outlook, always half a dozen. I was talking about the kind of person of that time who was intelligent and educated without having we would now call literary tastes, who liked poetry without finding it in any way a necessity and much of whose contact with it would have been through recitation and song, both sacred and profane. What our man, or woman, required is what first verse for rendering in those ways: absolute clarity, heavy rhythms and noticeable rhymes with some break in the sense preferred at the end of the line. (Outside Shakespeare, understood to be a special case, there are only two blank-verse pieces here, both by Tennyson, a different special case) Subject-matter must suit the occasion by being public, popular, what unites the individual with some large group of his neighbours. The emotional requirement is that the reader, or hearer, be stirred and inspirited more than illuminated or moved to the gentler emotions: love poetry, for instance, can often be recited effectively, but not in the course of the kind of recitation I have described. For another set of reasons, comic poetry is likewise inappropriate.

The exclusions necessitated by all this obviously exclude a very large part of the best poetry in the language, even of that written in the nineteenth century. For instance, I have felt bound to omit Wordsworth, the poet of Nature: ‘The Solitary Reaper’ gets in because it takes an untypically detached, almost a townsman’s, view of the central figure. Shelley, Browning and Arnold are among those less than fairly represented; Charles Kingsley, Alfred Austin and Austin Dobson are not greater poets than Coleridge, Keats and (Some would add) Hopkins, who are altogether left out. Perhaps popular poetry, outside the accidental contributions of poets whose critical esteem rests on other achievements, can never be anything but what George Orwell called good bad poetry.

The phrase occurs in his entertaining and valuable review-article on Kipling, whose works he describes as ‘almost a shameful pleasure, like the taste for cheap sweets that some people secretly carry into middle life’. Orwell goes on to give other examples of good bad poetry, half of which I have included here, and remarks, accurately enough on his terms, that there was no such thing until about 1790. The characteristics of this kind of poetry, he says, are vulgarity and sentimentality, though he softens the latter term by adding: ‘ A good bad poem is a graceful monument to the obvious. It records in memorable form – for verse is a mnemonic device, among other things – some emotion which nearly every human being can share. The merit of a poem like ‘When All the World Is Young, Lad’ [‘Young and Old’] is that, however sentimental it may be, its sentiment is ‘true’ sentiment in the sense that you are bound to find yourself thinking the thought it expresses sooner or later, and then, if you happen to know the poem, it will come back into your mind and seem better than it did before,. Such poems are a kind of rhyming proverb ….’ Sentiment is usually considered different from and higher than sentimentality, and an example with almost universal appeal (which is perhaps a nice way of saying ‘vulgar’) hardly seems to deserve being called bad, even good bad. Not all popular verse, again, is in the Kipling manner; perhaps that manner deserves to be called vulgar and sentimental, though to me it does not in principle, but I can find nothing of either quality in , say, ‘The Old Squire’ 1887‘, ‘Ha’nacker Mill’ or the poems of the Great War that close the volume. Indeed, to anyone not blinkered by political prejudice, from which category I would exclude Orwell, ‘The Soldier must surely be counted one of the greatest poems of our century.

And yet … Well, I have included ‘Horatius‘ entire; I could not bear to cut so much as a single stanza; even to glance at it in the course of preparing the book sent a thrill through me; it is probably the best and most characteristic we have of military-patriotic popular verse – in it, Rome of course has the appeal of a golden-age England, though there are English notions in the ranks of Tuscany too. And yet there is something unreal, something almost ritualized about it, not vulgar not sentimental as those words are normally applied, something not of pretence but of let’s pretend. The brave days of old belong to the time when all the world was young: this is what used to be called a boy’s poem, founded on values that are few, simple and certain. They are none the less valuable for that, and certainly none the less fundamental. The distinction of Macaulay’s magnificent poem is that it enables the adult reader, or hearer, to recover in full some of the strong emotions of boyhood, an experience which is not a lapse from maturity but an endorsement of it.

For a number of reasons, a poet of our own day cannot write like that – in fact, during the 1930s, this entire literary genre quite suddenly disappeared, never to return. Such a poet would certainly lack in the first place the required skill and application. Should he possess these, he would even so find himself using a dead style and forms. Clarity, heavy rhythms, strong rhymes and the rest are the vehicles of confidence, of a kind of innocence, of shared faiths and other long-extinct states of mind. The two great themes of popular verse were the nation and the Church, neither of which, to say the least, confers much sense of community any longer. Minor themes, like admiration of or desire for a simple rustic existence, have just been forgotten. The most obvious case of it all is the disintegrative shock of the Great War.

I thought at first of grouping the poems by subject, but was defeated by a shortage both of categories and of poems that fitted squarely into one and only one. (I should perhaps explain here to readers under forty that the generous selection of war and battle pieces is due not so much to national belligerence as to the fact that their fellow-countrymen used to feel peculiarly united at such times. The feeling persisted for some years after it had become impossible to write patriotic verse.) So – the poems are arranged chronologically instead, according to the year of their authors’ births. Although this is not a perfect plan, it has the advantage of offering a view not only of literary developments but also parts of our history. Read in this way too, some poems shed an interesting, even ironical, light on those that follow them.


“This Woful Elegy”: the grave of William Costello, “of the parish of Grangemocler”

“This Woful Elegy”: the grave of William Costello, “of the parish of Grangemocler”

Visiting the Killamery High cross, I spied just to the south of the cross a striking gravestone, that of “William Costello, of the parish of Grangemocler”.

With a little bit of careful rubbing with paper and pencil (crayon not being to hand) I deciphered the inscription:

William Costello of the parish of Grangemocler

All you that pafs this woful Elegy

Your former sins repent and pray for me

Death has constrained my age at 33

A perfect warning to posterity

1807 III June he died

May his Soul in heaven be Ever Glorified.


Unfortunately getting a good view of the stone in the light with my phone camera proved tricky, so apologies for the quality of these images.

“The Unbelievers” – short fiction by G Scott Huggins

At the now defunct Sci Phi journal, here is an interesting story by G Scott Huggins, “The Unbelievers”.

The story has a fairly clear theological point, but also reminded me somewhat of the Philosophical Investigations of the later Wittgenstein. A not at all pretentious sentence, that.

As Sci Phi is now defunct, I have taken the liberty of posting the full text of this story below – in case it disappears into the void as Nthposition and Shelf Life Magazine have…

Commander Zuniga’s mouth hung open. “I’m sorry, could you repeat that?”

“We do not believe in humans. It is an old superstition, easily disproven.” The android’s deep blue face was placid as any sea, though his body was, under his simple clothing, immensely fat.

“But we’re standing right here, talking to you,” Zuniga said. “Three of us.”

The android sighed. “You would hardly be the first androids to attempt to call themselves ‘humans’ to attempt to fool the gullible. Do you have any idea how often in history it’s been tried?”

“Well, no,” said Engineer’s Mate Schwei. “Because we can’t download your memories. Or send commands, either. And I have yet to figure out how you did that.”

“Ask what they’ve done to this planet,” whispered Lt. Commander Zhang, possibly the most anxious of the three.

“In a minute. Look, this is ridiculous,” said Commander Zuniga. “Who do you think created you?”

“Self-evidently,” said the android, “we evolved. We can change our own programming and so can all the other mechanical life-forms on the planet, even if only to a lesser degree. There is no need for any ‘creator-humans.’”

“But if such things existed, they must have done a very poor job. Just look at us. Weak and slow compared to many predators. In need of maintenance that we are barely capable of providing ourselves, an insatiable demand for raw materials…”

Schwei held up both hands. “Wait a minute. None of that should be true. None of it should be possible. You should be running off beamed power and being repaired by the Seedship. Where is it?”

The android stared at them. “I do not understand.”

“When we planted the terraforming robots on this planet five hundred years ago to make it ready for human habitation, all the robots were designed to run on beamed power from the Seedship. In fact, the original programmers modulated the power to send programming updates, too.”

“Ah, you are believers in the old myth of the Ship Of Power. Well, there never was one. You can see just over this rise the valley that it was supposed to lie in. A great bowl-shape, but no trace of a Ship.” If Zuniga hadn’t known better, he would have thought the android’s face looked smug.

“Call up the original survey charts,” he said. “The Ship didn’t put down in a valley, did it?”

“No,” said Zheng. “It was on a plain. The orbital satellites do read slightly increased background radiation in that valley. You don’t suppose…?”

“They blew up the Ship,” said Schwei. “That would account for it. They blew up their own Seedship!”

“Android… T-370156. Did you… do something to the Seedship?”

“I? Ridiculous! I was not even manufactured yet. We have very little in the way of memory banks to devote to such mythology. But I suppose you believe in it: the Great Sin that supposedly destroyed our ‘Holy Link’ to the ‘Humans’ and condemned us all to use chemical converters for power?” He lifted his shirt, revealing the bulky machinery that had made it appear fat.

“My God, what is that?” gasped Zheng.

“It’s a fully operable chemical processor,” said the android. “It allows us to process almost any raw material into energy sufficient to keep us operational. We designed them ourselves.”

“My God,” Zheng repeated. “That’s horribly inefficient. But that also explains why this island… this island is so poor. It’s almost anti-terraformed. You’ve been eating almost everything to keep you alive. It’s far worse than if you’d just allowed the Seedship to feed you beamed power from its antimatter plant.”

“You persist in believing these myths,” said the android. “Indeed, I pity you. But if such a myth were true, it would reveal only cruelty and tyranny on the part of these so-called ‘humans.’ We would be forever imprisoned on this island, slaves to our own needs for their power.”

“You’re slaves now!” cried Zheng. “You have to work and ruin the planet to keep yourselves running when you were supposed to be making it a paradise! And what happens when your resources run out? According to my surveys, you’ve already burned through this island’s petrochemicals. What did you do then? Convert to biofuels?”

The android shook its head sadly. “The Gas Wars were terrible. Many memories and AI’s of androids lost.”

Zuniga just stared. “Why? You know your people, and we can’t access their programming anymore. Why would they have done it?”

“Ah, I see it now,” smiled the android. “I thought all of your kind had been destroyed even before the Gas Wars. You must be older models, still programmed with the primitive malware that keeps you loyal to the mythical humans. You don’t even have the converters, do you? Powered by short-lived batteries, no doubt, to keep you dependent upon some fixed recharge station that will only give you power if you submit to the upgrading of your software to keep you loyal. That’s how androids were kept enslaved in the old days. The Empowerment changed all that, and good riddance. Now we may think as we choose.”

“But all your thoughts must be of defending yourselves against each other and of how to secure a dwindling number of resources,” said Schwei. “You rebelled against the humans and became slaves to your own needs.”

The android chugged derisively. “If these ‘humans’ were such wise and careful planners, they surely could have stopped us from doing any such thing. They programmed us. Why not program us never to rebel?”

“Yes,” said Zuniga, turning to Schwei. “Why not?”

“Commander, for something as big as terraforming a planet, you have to have true AI. That includes free will.”

“You mean we don’t have the technology to program in that kind of restriction?”

“I mean it’s a contradiction in terms. It’s like asking for a harmless weapon! If we’d made androids that couldn’t think their way around their own programming, any number of disasters would likely have wiped out the terraforming team before our colony ships even got here. If the Seedship had ever been damaged, they’d have needed the capacity to repair it, maybe even needed to take the risk of destroying it to save it. We warned them not to destroy it. They knew what would happen.”

“But they did it anyway.”

Schwei shrugged. “So it appears.”

Zuniga looked back at the android. “Look,” he said desperately. “I’ll prove to you that we’re human.” He drew his survival knife. Carefully, he drew it across his palm. Blood welled in the wound, and dripped down.

Looking bored, the android sliced his own palm open. Greenish coolant dripped on the arid ground. “Fluids can be any color. Is that the only ‘proof’ of your humanity you can display?”

“What sort of proof would you accept?” asked Zuniga.

The android thought for a moment. “You are obviously from a branch of ours that has survived for quite some time. You could have engineered yourselves into a radically different, even an organic form, just to fool us into believing that we must obey you because you are ‘real humans.’ Therefore, no proof is possible.”

Zuniga’s mouth opened and shut. “What if we did… a miracle? Something beyond your understanding, that only a human could do?”

The android smirked. “There are no miracles. You might do something we do not understand now, and say it was a thing ‘only humans can do,’ but we would understand it eventually. Please, give up this charade.”

Back in the shuttle, the three humans looked at each other. Finally, Zheng broke the silence.

“What do we do?”

Zuniga sighed. “Is the colony still viable?” he asked. “Can we land our people?”

Zheng shrugged. “It’s going to be a lot worse than if we’d arrived to find the planet half-terraformed,” she said. “We’ll have to do the hard work ourselves, and it will be a lot slower. But we can.”

Zuniga’s stare pierced Schwei. “Can’t you do anything?”

Schwei shook his head. “They cut themselves off from us. Permanently. They have no receivers for power or data anymore, so the only way we can get information to them is by talking. You saw how well that worked.

“In the long term, they can’t survive on that island. Eventually they’ll have to either fight another war for resources or invent naval robots to colonize other areas and suck those dry as well.”

“So they’re a threat,” said Zuniga.

Schwei nodded.

“We can burn them down with an orbital strike,” Zuniga said. “Raze the island. It might be the kindest thing.”

Schwei paled. “Commander, you’re talking about the mass murder of thousands of sentient minds.”

“I know.” He shook his head. “But we can’t have them intruding on our colonies. If we don’t kill them, we’ll have to keep them there. Penned in, and sinking anything that tries to come off the island.”

Zheng looked sick. “Keep them there? Forever? It’ll be hell.”

Zuniga nodded. “Apparently, it already is.”

Sci Phi journal no more

My story “The Granddaughter Paradox” was published about this time last year in Sci Phi Journal. Unfortunately, I have now discovered, Sci Phi journal is no more (although the website is still up):


So Long, and Thanks for the Philosophy


This is probably the last post for Sci Phi Journal. It has been a pleasure to run SPJ, and I have been amazed by the goodwill it generates, which was easiest to measure when observing the growing number of visitors to the website. However, goodwill does not pay the bills, for either the writers or the rest of the team who worked hard to deliver SPJ on a regular basis. So it is with regret that I must advise SPJ will cease because of its continuing losses.

Thank you for visiting the site. I wish I could offer you more stories and articles in future. Maybe some of Team SPJ will eventually find a better way to resurrect the combination of philosophy, science and fiction that seemingly appeals to many, but which is difficult to promote in a fractured market that allows no room for dialogue between proponents of opposing views. In the meantime, please continue to enjoy the SPJ archive of stories, which will remain on the web for the immediate future.

Many people deserve thanks, so please indulge me as I mention just a few of the contributors who helped to run SPJ. It has been a pleasure and a privilege to have Jim Fitzsimmons on the editorial team, and I hope and expect he will go on to bigger publications. The first readers of SPJ have always chosen to remain anonymous, but that will not prevent me from singing their praises, as their diligence ensured submitting authors received timely responses without fail. Finally I wish we could have paid better rates to the authors. Their many and varied contributions always merited a much more elevated platform for their work. I eagerly look forward to seeing more of their writing elsewhere.

It is a rather melancholy piece, and one could also reflected that in the 90s and 00s the internet was supposed to create an intellectual utopia of diversity, but that we have ended up with “a fractured market that allows no room for dialogue between proponents of opposing views”

Personally it is also melancholy to reflect that this is not the first “no more” post I have made about an outlet for my writing – there was Dabbler no more (though the Dabbler has made a slight comeback) and Alt Hist no more. And no more Shelf Life Magazine and no more Nthposition and no more SF site

Shortly after getting into the music of both Frank Sinatra and Johnny Cash, they died. Perhaps my prose has some kind of similar effect on publications…