The Blind Leading The Blind
The Blind Leading The Blind
There seems to be a specific subgenre of Irish ad that goes for the insufferably pompous approach. I am a little wary of giving these brands more exposure via this forum, as it may thereby prove that these ads work in some way. Personally, the kind of approach here puts me right off what the advertiser is trying to get across.
The archetypal pompous ad is the 2010 effort promoting Terminal 2 in Dublin Airport. Unfortunately, the timing of this with the recession/bailout era made it seem like an ad for emigration. Also, from the opening line (“Ireland is a small island in a big ocean”) we hit the motherlode of the humblebrag approach of Irish advertising – we may be only wee, but we did invent the Beaufort Scale and Yeats;
Dante unaccountably left out the makers of Irish banking ads from his Inferno. Personally, I find it hard to discern which circle of the inferno they would be consigned to. With the perpetrators of “simple” fraud? With the barrators? With the counsellors of fraud? Perhaps Dante’s system would explode with the many many options.
I am unsure which is worse – the pseudo-witty bank ad or the pompous, earnest bank ad about how totally serious and amazing they are. AIB’s “We’re Backing…” campaign, as well as hitting all the pomp buttons, managed to irritate me even more by misusing adjectives as nouns (see also Aer Lingus’ irritating rather than pompous “Smart” campaign)
This post was provoked by coming across this instant classic of the pomp genre from Enterprise Ireland. One of the recurrent themes of the pomp ad is how like utterly hard everyone is like working with their like meals from a plastic tray and so on. Amazingly this has nearly a million views:
The pompous GAA ad is a whole other subgenre of the pompous Irish ad subgenre. And here again A I f***ing B take the biscuit with their attempt to butter up the Irish public after, you know, crashing the economy (not alone of course) by linking themselves with the epitome of all things Real and Authentic in Ireland, the GAA:
I feel a whole post decrying pompous GAA based ads coming on… another fertile source of pomp ads is telecommunications. Eir have especial form in this. I sorta almost like the way the stirring sounds of Fionnghuala are set to stirring scenes of how amazing Eir’s products are (incidentally, here’s a story headed “Just when you thought Eir’s customer service couldn’t get any worse) when of course the self-same internet encapsulates the forces wiping out the culture that created Fionnghuala (if you see what I mean)
Sadly, I am unable to track down the ultimate pomp ad – one for Centra, whose slogan “For The Way We Live Today” was conveyed in an inexpressibly awful pomp-rock musical setting, to accompany vignettes of couples arguing in sign language, a conductor looking sweaty, and various other entirely emotionally false scenes of supposedly modern Ireland.
I couldn’t find that ad on YouTube, so here’s a pleasingly unpompous 90s Centra ad … with satisfyingly naff music, and an overall message not of saving the world or reflecting the stirring diversity of modern Ireland, or hard work being like so totally awesome, but of being about buying stuff in a shop:
Could you stop using Google products? Completely? Not just Google Search, but Gmail, Calendar, and all the rest of their stable of products and services.
Nithin Coca has done just that, and tells the story on Medium. What is particularly interesting – and concerning – is how difficult this turns out to be. This is a contrast to even Apple and Facebook :
With Apple, you’re either in the iWorld, or out. Same with Amazon, and even Facebook owns only a few platforms and quitting is more of a psychological challenge than actually difficult.
Google, however, is embedded everywhere. No matter what laptop, smartphone, or tablet you have, chances are you have at least one Google app on there. Google is synonymous for search, maps, email, our browser, the operating system on most of our smartphones. It even provides the “services” and analytics that other apps and websites rely on, such as Uber’s use of Google Maps to operate its ride-hailing service.
Google is now a word in many languages, and its global dominance means there are not many well-known, or well-used alternatives to its behemoth suite of tools — especially if you are privacy minded. We all started using Google because it, in many ways, provided better alternatives to existing products. But now, we can’t quit because either Google has become a default, or because its dominance means that alternatives can’t get enough traction.
Coca’s motives for quitting Google relate to Edward Snowden’s revelations re PRISM. No matter what one’s specific motivations might be, it is concerning that one company has embedded itself in our devices, and by extension our lives, to such a degree. Coca’s piece is refreshingly free of hyperbole, even giving Google their due, and outlining just how it got to be so dominant via his own experience:
Here’s the thing. I don’t hate Google. In fact, not too long ago, I was a huge fan of Google. I remember the moment when I first discovered one amazing search engine back in the late 1990’s, when I was still in high school. Google was light years ahead of alternatives such as Yahoo, Altavista, or Ask Jeeves. It really did help users find what they were seeking on a web that was, at that time, a mess of broken websites and terrible indexes.
Google soon moved from just search to providing other services, many of which I embraced. I was an early adopter of Gmail back in 2005, when you could only join via invites. It introduced threaded conversations, archiving, labels, and was without question the best email service I had ever used. When Google introduced its Calendar tool in 2006, it was revolutionary in how easy it was to color code different calendars, search for events, and send shareable invites. And Google Docs, launched in 2007, was similarly amazing. During my first full time job, I pushed my team to do everything as a Google spreadsheet, document, or presentation that could be edited by many of us simultaneously.
Like many, I was a victim of Google creep. Search led to email, to documents, to analytics, photos, and dozens of other services all built on top of and connected to each other. Google turned from a company releasing useful products to one that has ensnared us, and the internet as a whole, into its money-making, data gathering apparatus
The full article outlines Coca’s alternatives to Google Products. Some things – like, paradoxically, quitting Google for search, are quite easy. Others are much more challenging….
I didn’t realise that this piece is from as far back as 2006. Twelve years ago! Charlie Booker’s persona can grate after a fairly little while, but on Banksy he was right on the nose:
Banksy first became famous for his stencilled subversions of pop-culture images; one showed John Travolta and Samuel L Jackson in a famous pose from Pulp Fiction, with their guns replaced by bananas. What did it mean? Something to do with the glamourisation of violence, yeah? Never mind. It looked cool. Most importantly, it was accompanied by the name “BANKSY” in huge letters, so everyone knew who’d done it. This, of course, is the real message behind all of Banksy’s work, despite any appearances to the contrary.
Take his political stuff. One featured that Vietnamese girl who had her clothes napalmed off. Ho-hum, a familiar image, you think. I’ll just be on my way to my 9 to 5 desk job, mindless drone that I am. Then, with an astonished lurch, you notice sly, subversive genius Banksy has stencilled Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald either side of her.
Wham! The message hits you like a lead bus: America … um … war … er … Disney … and stuff. Wow. In an instant, your worldview changes forever. Your eyes are opened. Staggering away, mind blown, you flick v-signs at a Burger King on the way home. Nice one Banksy! You’ve shown us the truth, yeah?
That’s the spirit! The rest of the piece is on the same lines, and even in the short space of a few more paragraphs Booker’s rhetorical approach is close to outstaying its welcome – but he has already skewered Banksy’s pretensions perfectly.
On St Patrick’s Day 2005 this piece appeared on the SAU Blog. It is somewhat in the spirit of my grumpy thoughts on book clubs from 2006 in the same online publication. Re-reading it, I didn’t lake for definitive pontification – see my dismissal of Catch-22 below.
Have things changed? Alas, conformist anti-conformity is even more prevalent now. Of course, the record store is now an endangered species. James Hamilton’s comment, the first on the site, is on one level of its time, on another as relevant as ever in our age of bourgeous-bohemian virtue signalling:
I too have wondered why record shops should stock those books in particular. I can only come up with one, rather weak, explanation. The supersized record shops of today sell what approximates to every CD, in every genre. Thus, everyone shops there at one point or another. How to stay “edgy” and countercultural, therefore? The books serve as a sign to the customers that the (huge, corporate) store they are in is, in spite of appearances, against “the man”; it’s as young and fancy-free as they are.
I’ve never actually seen anyone buy a book in one of these places, which lends some substance, if not much, to that view of things.
Anyway, here is the review:
“Airport novel” is a derogatory term conjuring up images of the latest Danielle Steel or Tom Clancy schlockbuster piled up high in Terminal B. It is shorthand for a weighty pot-boiler with just enough sex and violence scattered throughout to make Heathrow to JFK bearable. Mass travel has brought about changes in reading habits – the French had their romans du gare. My own reading is perhaps too much influenced by commuting on the bus. If there was such a thing as the “bus novel”, it would be a bitty work, divided into handy chunks that one can read between stops, with a typeface large enough that one doesn’t lose one’s place when jostled.
“Airport novel” seems an obsolete term now, although the masters of the genre continue to churn them out; anyone who has been in an airport recently will know that the bookshops now resemble the average high street emporium. Surprising, serendipitous titles may not lurk on every overlit shelf, but neither do airport book stores stock only the soon-to-be-a-major-movie books. There are a lot of self help books of varying quality, from the sensible to the silly, and how-to-make-a-million-by-next-week type books – but after all every bookshops’ Mind, Body, Spirit section (what a curious formulation!) is equally groaning with stock.
Record stores, increasingly, don’t just sell musical recordings. Video games, DVDs and assorted hi-fi paraphrenalia are also available; indeed, Our Price dropped “Records” from the end of their name some years back to emphasise the fact that they sold far more than records. “Record store” is, therefore, perhaps something of a misnomer nowadays. Nevertheless, the record store gives a good idea of what media is aimed squarely at the all-important yoof demographic.
Most largeish record shops now sell books. And far more than “airport books”, record store books share a grim homogeneity and sameness that depresses, especially when one considers that this, one supposes, is in someway characteristic of “my generation” (I’m 26).
There is a surface diversity to the subject matter of record shop books. Naturally, there are a lot of books about popular music. The vast majority are either bland pap or wildly pretentious pap, although there are some gems (such as Peter Guralnick’s rise and fall of Elvis diptych – Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presleyand Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley) amongst the dross. It is always an interesting exercise to pick up any magazine devoted to popular music – especially the more ostentatiously “intellectual” of them – and read the reviews therein. Adjectives pile up, awkward metaphors and similes congeal together – lacking the common language that enable writers on classical music to at least communicate something, however imperfectly, about the music they described. As Truman Capote said of Kerouac, it’s not writing, it’s typing.
But just as music is less and less important to the activities of the record store, books about music are less represented in bookstores than one would assume. Increasingly dominant are books about gangsters, drugs and football hooligans. Some, such as Howard Marks’ hugely popular Mr Nice, combine one or more of these categories. Someone once told Alan Coren that the most popular categories in publishing were golf, cats and Nazism; thus his next work was entitled Golfing For Cats and featured a putter-wielding moggy wearing a Nazi uniform on the cover. I presume a book on a drug-dealing gangland boss-cum-football hooligan has been done – if not, a fortune looms for the reader who wishes to steal the idea.
Novels sold in record stores are either written by stand-up comedians or are “cult” novels. “Cult”, of course, has become a completely meaningless term. In Your Face Here, their rather repetitive account of various “cult” British films (repetitive because it follows a predictable pattern – underappreciated British genius makes transcendent film underappreciated at the time only to gain later “culthood”), Ali Catterall and Simon Wells describe how the makers of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels deliberately set out to make a cult movie. “Cult” novels include some awful stinkers, such as the wildly overrated Catch-22 (the same not terribly funny joke told again and again and again. And again.) and such ludicrous “counter cultural” tosh as The Dice Man.
Then we come to the what could be called the anti-Bush, anti-capitalist shelves. Michael Moore is one of the great capitalists of our age, for he has made a wildly successful career through giving the people what they want. The shelves of all bookshops groan with his many imitators, all hoping to get in on the immensely lucrative isn’t-America-terrible-bandwagon. A few years ago, most of these books would have had slickly-designed covers and been written by photogenic young women (cf. Naomi Klein), and decried the West’s suicidal obsession with slicky-designed, photogenic branding and such evils. Now, would-be zany cover montages and clumsily wacky titles abound. The anti-American bestseller now is a cousin of the McCarthy’s Bar type book, a constant and ingratiating barrage of jocularity that ultimately exhausts.
There are some other categories of book one comes across in a record store. Tower Records have shelves groaning with occult manuals of various kinds, and books about tattoos. They also have a section of erotica, which looks to be anything but erotic in any meaningful sense.
Why is all this so saddening? For all the surface variety of theme and tone, record shop books are truly homogenous. Like anything ostentatiously “alternative”, there is much more conformism here then anywhere else. These books are conformist aesthetically, socially, and politically. The books sold in record stores reflect the fact that self-conscious transgressive tastes are the most truly conservative of all.
There’s a real sense of ahistoricality about the shelves. Aside from a few novels of sufficient culthood (The Catcher in The Rye, Portrait of An Artist), nothing written before 1960 seems to feature. Unless they were lucky enough to enhance the gaiety of nations by using hallucinogenic drugs, ancient civilisations may as well not have existed. Religion exists to be debunked, or denigrated in the name of “spirituality”.
Contemplating the books available in a record store is a bit like contemplating what used to be called men’s magazines but now can only really be called lad’s magazines. Even the ones that used to be somewhat “quality” – GQ, Esquire – now plough the same thematic furrow. Men of around my age, it would seem, are only interested in clothes, pornography, gadgets, criminality, the acquisition of “rock hard abs” and more clothes. It’s not a comforting thought. Neither is it comforting to contemplate the conformist anti-conformity of the books marketed at my generation.
Around the time I wrote this I was partial to insider accounts of film-making, and was favourably impressed with the sheer amount of time wasting this seemed to involve. I was also unfavourably struck by the pomposity of the whole enterprise, a pomposity which seems to have grown since. Where is the irreverence of authors like Rob Long now? Once superhero movies would be roundly mocked, now everyone wants to be in one. Re-reading this, as well as being struck by Long’s piercing one-liners, I am struck by how much space I devoted to my dislike of the Algonquin Round Table.
Set Up, Joke, Set Up, Joke
by Rob Long
London: Bloomsbury, 2005
Falling in love with a writer is a lot like falling in love in the more usual sense. Little things, rarely amenable to rational analysis, decide the matter one way or another. The same goes for deciding that a writer is or is not simpatico. A deft, insightful passage, or clumsy, trite lines, can make the difference one way or another when deciding.
I gave Dorothy Parker every chance. I read, stoney-faced, the supposed witticisms of the Algonquin Round Table (I can imagine few circles of hell more unbearable than that company, with everyone competing, it seems, to say something witty and clever), the verse “a kind of dilution of A. E. Housman and Edna Millay” as Edmund Wilson put it whenever it tries to be more than the light, strained wit of the book reviews.
However, what finally made me fall out of love with Dorothy Parker (not, it should be clear, that I was ever much in love with her in the first place) was a passage quoted in the preface to Christopher Silvester’s The Penguin Book of Hollywood from a letter to her friend Alexander Woollcott in the late thirties:
Last week the board of directors of Selznick Pictures, Inc. had a conference. The four members of the board sat around a costly table in an enormously furnished room, and each was supplied with a pad of scratch paper and a pencil. After the conference was over, a healthily curious employe [sic] of the company went in to look at those scratch pads.Mr David Selznick had drawn a seven-pointed star; below that, a six-pointed star, and below that again, a row of short vertical lines, like a little picket fence.
Mr John Whitney’s pad had nothing whatever on it.
Dr A. H. Giannini, the noted Californian banker, had written over and over, in a long, neat column, the word “tokas”, which is Yiddish for “arse”.
And Meryan Cooper, the American authority on Technicolor, had printed on the middle of the page, “RIN-TIN-TIN”.
The result of the conference was the announcement that hereafter the company would produce twelve pictures a year, instead of six.
I don’t know, I just that you might like to be assured that Hollywood does not change.
Readers who find this passage hilarious, or even mildly amusing, may be wondering why it marked the moment I definitely decided that Dorothy Parker was actively the kind of writer I don’t like. Perhaps it’s the idiocy of implying a relationship between idle doodles and mental activity – as if a writer’s doodles would be perfect pentameters. Perhaps it’s the pervasive cheapness of the shot. More profoundly, reading Silvester’s entertaining but repetitive compendium of writing on Hollywood, one got tired of this kind of thing. For one thing, a book which devoted 24 gossipy pages to the making of the Taylor-Burton Cleopatra, set against with one passing reference to Singin’ in the Rain, can be fairly said to have lost sight of the fact that at times the Hollywood “system” does transmute dross into gold.
Writers writing about writing are bores. Only someone of the genius of Borges could pull it off, and there the interest was more in the metaphysical conceits and the laconic, allusive style. Writers writing about writing are even more boring when they are writing about the difficulties of being a writer. And they are most boring of all when they are writing about the difficulties of being a writer dealing with the philistine plutocrat Hollywood executives. Parker’s plaint seems to exemplify this. My sympathies are with the execs.
Excerpts from Rob Long’s Conversations With My Agent were an oasis in the Silvester book. There was no sense that writers were higher beings, cruelly mistreated by the Neanderthal suits. Writers are not only as avaricious as the money men and women, but in their own way more powerful. Long introduced the Hollywood Inversion Principle of Economics (HIPE), the principle by which most of the truisms of everyday business are reversed in Hollywoodonomics. Other businesses live by net profits; Hollywood is transfixed by the gross. Far from being the put-upon peons of popular consciousness, the “creatives” have power in Hollywood unmatched anywhere except perhaps in Silicon Valley, able to delay projects indefinitely by simply hanging around watching cartoons.
Rob Long is a rare beast, a Hollywood Republican. He contributes to National Review, for starters. Or maybe not that rare a beast – it’s instructive to reflect that the movie stars who successfully achieved elective office – Reagan, Schwarzenegger and Eastwood – were all Republicans (of course, Eastwood’s success was at a much lower level). His conservatism is lightly worn here – a reference to not being a Hillary Clinton supporter (in the context of tickets to a Clinton fundraiser being used as currency in the status-frenzied Hollywood world) and a hilarious description of a meeting of the Writers Guild of America, West. While working writers loathe the idea of a strike:
The non-working writers are a more querulous lot. Freed from the burden of actually having to show up to a job every day, they look to the occasional WGA strike to round out their social calendar, to catch up with old friends on the picket line. And since all writers crave excuses for not writing, what better excuse for being unproductive than a strike? Writing? Not me. I’m honoring my brother and sister scribes! I’m taking part in the labor movement! Lazy? Untalented? Nope. Just committed to social justice.
Unsurprisingly, the WGA is fixated on the Blacklist, described by Long thus:
The Blacklist was, essentially, a list of writers who, because of their affiliation with the Communist party, were unemployable by the major studios. It now functions as a handy excuse for older writers who, because of their incredible lack of talent, were unemployable by the major studios.
Long is bracingly cynical about the writers capacity for self-delusion. This ties in with the more general capacity for self-delusion of the – well, I’ll let you decide which nickname is most just for Hollywood:
Hollywood has two pompous nicknames for itself: “the Business” and “the Industry”. Both names pack an ironic punch: calling it “the Business” must surely elicit a sickly smile from shareholders of the Sony, Vivendi, and AOL/Time Warner Corporations, who are probably still waiting for the spending to stop and for the business to begin; while the nickname “the Industry” – with its connotations of industriousness – is equally silly when one considers that the most prevalent activity on any soundstage is the reading of magazines and the eating of pastries.
Having dilated on the boringness of writers complaining about the hardship of being a writer, it may seem hypocritical to claim that reviewing the book is especially difficult. However, one of the occupational hazards of book reviewing is the occasional rave or slam that owes more to the circumstances in which the book was read rather than its own inherent quality. For instance, once I wrote an embarrassingly over-the-top positive review of Gullimero Martinez’s The Oxford Murders, which I enjoyed greatly largely because it was the first non-medical book I had read after a set of exams. I would revise my enthusiasm somewhat (though not completely) now, but there it is in cyberspace, my hysterical overpraise, until the end of time or at least the internet.
Perhaps there was some reason in my own life why I read Set Up, Joke, Set up, Joke straight through in one sitting – which is, after all, for a certain kind of book the most genuine praise a reviewer can bestow – and in a year it will seem much less than what it seems to me now.
I hope not. Set Up, Joke, Set Up, Joke is greatly enjoyable, and to adapt a horrible cliché of blurb-speak, recommended to those who love reading about Hollywood and all its works and those who hate reading about Hollywood and all its works. The book follows a former bright young television comedy scriptwriter, now a somewhat older television comedy scriptwriter whose ideas have dried up. The rather loose structure of the book is a following of Long and his writing partner through a year and a half of development, as they go through the process of firstly trying to come up with an original idea, then the humiliation of developing material “for talent”:
Which means, simply, that you’re coming up with a show for an actor who the network not only likes but is paying to sit around and be available. The word talent in this context simply means actor and/or actress. It doesn’t mean talented. It is just a noun, interchangeable with the word mammal.
There is a sort of framing device, which involves a series of meetings mimicking the meetings that occur during development, but commenting on the book itself. Invariably, the interchangeable commenting on the book profess to “loving it”, before immediately suggesting radical changes, usually involving the Long figure’s likeability. Long is very good on the pomposity of Hollywood verbiage. Another example from this incredibly quotable book:
So with the star suitably dazzled by flattery and woozy with gold fever, the network searches around for a writer. They’re looking for auspices, which, like most industry terms, is neither accurate nor wholly literate … Hollywood almost always has two or three ways of describing the same job, each imprinted with its own little status DNA. There’s no real difference, for instance, between a cinematographer and a director of photography, except that the former probably gets paid more money. Actors can be described as a wonderful piece of talent, an element, and, at the very top, a creative force. And a television writer is sometimes a unique comic voice, then, if lucky, becomes a writer/producer, which, if everything works out, evolves into a show-runner, until, finally, the six-figure auspices, as in: We will pay a lot for a show produced under that writer’s auspices.
There are serious bits amidst the fun. Most serious is the story of Paul. Paul came to Hollywood a little bit after Rob Long (apparently there is a sort of generational collegiality in Hollywood, with those who came around the same time seeing themselves as classmates of a kind). Over the years they kept in touch, with Long going on to the success of Cheers and his other ventures, and Paul becoming a development executive at a successful film production company. Paul got fired, and went out for a drink with Long:
Getting fired from that kind of job was a rite of passage in a young executive’s life, it seemed to me. We met that night, talked, drank a few beers, and said good night.The next day, he shot himself.
Long reproduces his eulogy, rather touching stuff about letting people know what they mean to one and such:
A week after Paul’s death, I wrote three letters to friends who have been good to me, who are important to me, but who I have never told. They were embarrassing letters to write, and the minute I dropped them into the mailbox, I regretted it. But they were sent.I did these things in honor of Paul. My good friend Paul. A person I never knew.
Then the sucker punch:
It went over pretty well. The writer’s ego in me is impossible to smother, so I was gratified when people came up to me later, after the service, to thank me for my words, and to ask for copies. But a true writer is more than an egomaniac. He’s also a pathological liar. And in my eulogy, I hadn’t told the truth.”What did we talk about that night?” Well, actually, I remembered what we talked about that night. Paul asked me for a job. I told him that I couldn’t give him one.
This is a long way from the Dorothy Parker view of noble, smart writers corrupted by evil business. The writers in Long’s universe are as venal and driven by ego as anyone else in Hollywood, possibly more so.
Television is, as Myles Harris pointed out in the Social Affairs Unit Web Review, pervasive in most of our lives. Those of us who own televisions and who tell ourselves and others that we never watch it can surprise ourselves by reflecting how much time – precious, fleeting, never-to-be-recovered time – is spent in front of the box. Even those who affect to hate it seem to watch an awful lot of it – Long recounts the tale of a prominent television writer who affected to a New York Times interviewer that she never watched. She turned out to possess “an upstairs television”, “a downstairs television” and “a kitchen television”. I actually believe Long, however, when he says that:
I never watch the damn thing either, and certainly never waste my time with anything as awful as Temptation Island. This had less to do with my elevated sensibilities than my all-consuming jealousy. Why turn on the tube – even just to flip around the dial – and run the risk of seeing a show more successful and popular than anything my partner and I have ever written? Or, worse, better than anything my partner and I have ever written?
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 (https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-character-of-a-happy-life/Wotton, 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.