A 1960s Juvenile Reader: Classic British Comic Strips and ‘Just William’

Literary & Linguistics, Media & Communications, Popular Culture

As a counterweight to the surfeit of 1960s American television that comprised a large slice of my diet of home entertainment, my juvenile literary tastes back then were decidedly more Anglophile. Plunging into the graphic art world of the 1960s comic book I digested everything I came across catering for adrenalin-pumping, red-blooded British boys.

Desperate Dan, ‘The Dandy’
Among these beacons of popular culture were The Beano (which starred Dennis the Menace and Gnasher), The Dandy❈ (featuring Korky the Cat and Desperate Dan), Knockout (Billy Bunter), The Hotspur, The Rover (these two papers were prime examples of the “Boys’ Own Adventure” style of stories) and Eagle with its centrepiece inter-galactic hero ‘Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future’, not to forget Tiger which catered for British schoolboy football mania with the stellar-booted striker ‘Roy of the Rovers’. The individual comics were grouse fun but what I most enjoyed was the comic book annuals of The Beano, etc., where I could indulge myself in reading a whole end-of-year book comprising a cross-section of the comic’s different strips⚀.

At primary school in the sixties the punitive powers-that-be weren’t all that rapt in comic books as reading material…my confiscated copy of ‘Dennis the Menace Bumper Comic’ (before I had a chance to read hardly any of it!) bore witness to that. From what was on offer in the school library, the one children’s book I did take a shine to was Just William, I should say series of books because there 38 (some sources say 39) ‘William’ books in all! All of the books were collections of short stories, with the exception of one in novel form.

Richmal Crompton
Just William was the creation of female English author Richmal Crompton (Lamburn). As a child feverishly devouring all the William books I shared with the overwhelming bulk of readers the uncritical assumption that Richmal was a man. How wrong were we all!!! Miss Lamburn was a school mistress (ironically – in an all-girls school!) who contracted polio and spent the rest of her life writing the William series of books as well as 41 adult novels❦.

The character of William (surname: Brown) was apparently based on Richmal’s young nephew Tommy…in the books William is scruffy and untidy in appearance, and given to directness, rebellion and straight talking – which sometimes lands him in strife. He is the leader of his own small gang of school friends who go by the name of “The Outlaws” (comprising his best friend Ginger as well as two other boys, Henry and Douglas). William is 11, an age he stays at, despite the series of books stretching over a period of nearly 50 years! [‘Just William’, Wikipedia entry]

‘William the Dictator’
Most of the books follow the ordinary run of events of William and the Outlaws entangling themselves in minor mischiefs, usually involving nothing worse than the ill-conceived idea of painting a terrier blue! But occasionally William strayed into more edgy and outright polemical territory. In the short story ‘William and the Nasties’¤ William’s band emulate Hitler and his fellow National Socialists in order to terrorise a local Jewish sweet-shop owner (featuring in the 1935 collection William the Detective [‘Five Fascinating Facts about Just William’, www.interestingliterature.com].

Just William’s topicality
A good number of the Just William books regularly reflected current events of their day. William the Conqueror (published in 1926) was resonant of European colonial power imperialism leading up to WWI. William The Dictator (1938) reflected the world’s concern with fascism and National Socialism. Similarly, William and the Evacuees (appearing in 1940) was set against the backdrop of WWII. In the post-war period, the superpowers’ preoccupation with the space race inspired new books like William and the Moon Rocket (1954) and William and the Space Animal (1956) [‘Just William’, Wikipedia entry].

Just William book spin-offs
With such popularity that the Just William books attained (12 million sales in the UK alone), they inevitably flowed through to adaptation to other forms – cinema (three films in the 1940s), two television series (one in the mid-1950s and the other in the early 1960s), radio and even theatre. As well, the schoolboy hero spawned a host of Just William merchandise…from jigsaws and board games to cigarette cards, magic painting books and figurines of William [‘Richmal Crompton’s Just William Society’, www.justwilliam.co.uk]

Celebrity fandom: Lennon as William
Some time after the Beatles visited Australasia in 1964 at the height of “Mop-top mania”, I remember hearing that John Lennon had been a fan of the fictional William in his boyhood. Lennon’s devotion to the books prompted him to form his own, real-life version of the Outlaws, moulding his friends Ivy, Nigel and Pete into a Liverpudlian boy foursome. With John of course as leader, the boys engaged in “small acts of defiance and daring” on their local turf [J Edmondson, John Lennon: A Biography (2010)]. The revelation that I had been propelled into the stratospheric company of such a youth icon as Beatle John, only served to magnify my primary school days zeal for all things William Brown!

PostScript: Continental comic book legends
My childhood taste in comics were not exclusively confined to the gold standard of British comics. Like millions of other children I was also captivated by those ancient Gallic tormentors of Roman legionnaires, Asterix and Obelix (Astérix le Gaulois by Goscinny and Uderzo). In equal measure I was in the thrall of Tintin, Hergé’s creation of a globe-roaming Belgian boy-reporter. Each comic album of The Adventures of Tintin was a lesson in political geography embroiling Tintin in high-stakes adventures in a new and exotic land. But as rewarding as the respective adventures of Asterix and Tintin were, in my book nothing quite scaled the same exalted heights of anticipation as did the prospect of dipping into the treasure trove of Just William’s world.

╼╾╼ ╾╼ ╾╼ ╾╼ ╾╼ ╾╼╾╼ ╾╼ ╾╼ ╾╼ ╾╼ ╾╼ ╾╼ ╾╼ ╾╼╼╼ ╾╼ ╾╼ ╾╼ ╾╼ ╾╼ ╾╼ ╾╼ ╾╼ ╾╼╾
❈ The originals The Beano and The Dandy were of course far superior to the highly derivative and latter imitations like The Topper and Beezerand Cor!!
⚀ not to be overshadowed, schoolgirls had their own comics and annuals such as Bunty and School Friend Annual
❦ the most accomplished of which was Leadon Hill. The tone of the adult novels was more pessimistic than the Just William series, dealing with themes of divorce and infidelity [Danuta Keen, ‘Not Just William: Richmal Crompton’s adult fiction republished’, The Guardian, 21-Apr-2017]
¤ the name ‘Nasties’ is the result of William’s mishearing of the word ‘Nazis’

Lexical Adventures in Suffixland: Getting Creative with Naut and Nik

Literary & Linguistics

Two of the more interesting suffixes borrowed by English and put to good neologistic use are naut and nik. The origins of the word ‘naut’ have connotations of travel and water, Naut derives from an Ancient Greek word, translated as ‘naútēs‘, meaning ‘sailor’, sometimes rendered as ‘to navigate’. From naut we get the word ‘nautical’, something nautical relate of course to water and ships, although the root word naut has been employed to form new words which relates more to the sky or to atmosphere rather than to water.

imageThe first use of this suffix in the above sense seems to emanate from Greek mythology and the story of Jason and his crew who sailed according to legend in search of the Golden Fleece – the Argonauts. The etymology is: Classical Latin Argonauta; from Classical Greek Argonautēs; from Argō, Jason’s ship + nautēs, sailor; from naus, ship [Webster’s New World College Dictionary]. The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles dates it’s use in English from 1596, so it’s been in currency for a long time.

The post-war phenomenon that has given naut words their impetus and continued relevance was the Space Race from the late 1950s, initially involving only the USSR and the United States. The US space program brought astronaut into common use , a word formed by simply conjoining the prefix astro (= stars) with naut. Far from being newly coined, the word itself has a history that long pre-dates the 1950s and 60s “Race to the Moon”. In 1930 the term was used in a pioneering Sci-Fi short story, ‘The Death’s Head Meteor’ by Neil R Jones (and there are other instances of the word in fiction go back to the late 19th century). The explorations of space fired the popular imagination, propelling astronaut into common usage to describe those (especially American) who ventured into space on behalf of the “Free World”. Astronaut may have been influenced by the term aeronaut (aero meaning air or atmosphere, as in aeronautics, from Ancient Greek aēr = air) in use to describe balloonists dating from the 1780s [http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Astronaut]. With the long-term goal of reaching the Moon accomplished by the US in 1969 and further Moon missions planned, it was of no surprise that the more precise lunarnaut soon crept into the vocabulary.

imageAs the Soviet Union entered the bipartite race with the intention of ‘conquering’ space and establishing a technological superiority over the US, the Russian Cold Warriors wanted for ideological reasons naturally enough to differentiate their extra-planetary achievements from those of their capitalist foes. So when the first successful spaceman Yuri Gagarin went up in Vostok I in 1961, the word cosmonaut (from Cosmos, the Universe, from Ancient Greek Kosmos = order) came into the lexicon – the New York Times attributed its genesis to Premier Khrushchev “and Soviet publications” [‘Russians coin a word for him: “Cosmonaut”, NYT, 13 April 1961].

The expansion of the Space Race to other nations outside of the big two spawned a whole lot of other naut-based neologisms. The first Indian in space (1984) was initially depicted as a cosmonaut (because he flew under the Soviet space program), but Indian pride and patriotism and the advancement of their own, homegrown space program, soon led to the evolution of a distinctive term for Indian space-traveller, vyomanaut (from Sanskrit vyoman (= sky). Although among Hindi-speakers there has been some debate about the rival merits of other terms, eg, there is a measure of support for anthanaut (or antharnaut), derived from anthariksh, meaning ‘space’ in Hindi.

When China joined the “Man-in-Space Club” by launching their own pilot beyond the stratosphere in 2003, the Chinese inevitably found their own term to describe it – tàikōnaut (taikon the Chinese word for space or cosmos, derived from tàikōngrén = spaceman) [‘Taikonaut’, Language Log, http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/]. Although it was apparently a Chinese-Malaysian who first used the term for Chinese astronaut and the Xinhua News Agency uses it in its English-language publications (but not the Shenzhou space program).
NB: For a pure Chinese rendering of the concept, either hángtiānyuán or yūhángyuán (literally translated as sky navigator or sailor and Universe navigator or sailor respectively) more accurately capture the essence of the meaning [ibid.]

Another word invented to describe the profession of space explorer of a specific country or region is spationaut, meaning a French astronaut, from Fr: spationaute (= space navigator). Spationaut is also used more generally to delineate astronauts from other European states, although a more suitable, generic term for this might be Euronaut.

Along the lines of aeronaut we also have aquanaut which might be a grander way of describing an underwater diver (the prefix ‘Aqua’, from Ancient Greek for water), which is distinct from an oceanaut whose scientific marine exploration is done in a submarine. Other naut terms signifying navigation in either a precise or looser sense include:

imagechrononaut (a time-traveller – inspired by Doctor Who or Back to the Future?)
cryonaut (one whose body is preserved by cryonics)
cybernaut (a voyager in cyberspace; user of the internet or virtual reality. Could also be called an infonaut)
gastronaut (person with a keen appreciation of food, ie, a more formal name for a ‘foodie’)
hallucinaut (a hallucinator)
neuronaut (one who studies the brain especially the effects of psychedelic drugs). Compare with psychonaut who explores one’s own psyche under the effects of drugs.
oneironaut (one who explores dream worlds)

As can be gleaned from the above there is a high degree of artificiality in the construction of many of these naut words. Some involve the choice of a convenient word (eg, gastronaut) rather than involving an act of literal navigation. Another concocted naut word with an interesting medical-related origin is responaut. The term was first applied c.1964 to a group of people at a particular facility in England with severe breathing difficulties whose condition needed them to be attached virtually permanently to the newly invented iron lung (mechanical respirator) in order to preserve their lives. ‘Responaut’ (formed from combining respirator + naut) was chosen because these patients experience similar problems to astronauts and oceanauts in establishing and maintaining communications and vital air supplies [Sunday Times (Lon), 12 January 1964, cited in Word Finder (Oxford English Dictionary), http://findwords.info/term/responaut].

The word Juggernaut contains the form of the naut suffix only by coincidence. It it unconnected to the idea of navigation or sailing, having come into English currency from a difference language group. Juggernaut derives from Sanskrit via a Hindi word, jagannath, meaning literally, world lord or protector. In English it has come to signify anything to which persons blindly devote themselves to or are ruthlessly crushed by [Shorter OED on Historical Principles].

Turning to words with the suffix ‘nik’, these come to English from a different path being of Slavonic origin with some Yiddish influence. Nik suffixes are very common in Slavonic languages, we find for example polkovnik (meaning colonel) in Russian, Polish, Czech, Bulgarian, Ukrainian and so on. Just as the Space Race gave naut words a new impetus, nik also found its way into English from Russian after the Soviet Union’s successfully launched a space craft named Sputnik in 1957.

imageThe word beatnik was coined by journalist Herb Caen [San Francisco Chronicle, 2 April 1958] to describe adherents to the “Beat Generation”, a sort of subculture movement characterised by youthful anti-conformism and hip culture (cf. the word ‘hipster’ as used today), devotion to jazz, drug use, Eastern religions, pseudo-intellectualism. Through the writings of ‘Beat’ leaders such as Jack Kerouac, other neologisms followed the pattern of beatnik … jazznik, bopnik, bugnik [Jack Kerouac, Brandeis Forum, ‘Is there a Beat Generation?’, 8 Nov. 1958].

The Cold War tensions of the 1970s spawned another new word formed from the root nik – refusenik. Originally, refuseniks were individual citizens (many Jewish but not exclusively so) of the USSR and other Eastern Bloc countries who were denied permission by the Communist authorities to emigrate. Over time the application of ‘Refusenik’ in colloquial English has broadened to take on the meaning of “a person who refuses to do something, especially by way of protest [Oxford English Dictionary (online)].

Peacenik is a word, often used in a derogatory way to describe someone who is an activist or demonstrator who opposes war and military intervention [www.dictionary.reference.com/browse/peacenik]. The term is thought to have originated in the 1960s [possibly 1962 according to www.wordorigins.org]. It’s precise origin is not known but very likely the term arose out either out of the anti-nuclear weapons movement or the anti-Vietnam War movement of the sixties. Peacenik is a synonym for pacifist or dove.

An unrelated but similarly manufactured word to peacenik is peaceoholic (sometimes spelt peaceaholic). Peaceaholic and other words with an -aholic or -oholic postfix are formed by analogy with the word alcoholic (into English from Arabic via French or Middle Latin). So we have shopaholic, workaholic, chocoholic, etc. which convey the sense of an addiction to or obsession with an activity or object.

Other nik words with a Yiddish flavour to them include Nudnik and Kibbutznik. Nudnik means obtuse, boring, a bothersome person a pest (nudyen = to bore). The Jewish Chronicle reports (18 February 2009) that Nudnik has entered modern Hebrew … “a common and even respected modus operandi in Israeli society. A nudnik is someone who is constantly asking you for something or otherwise taking up your time” [www.thejc.com]. Kibbutznik is a name given to workers who are members of an Israeli collective farm (a Kibbutz).

Review of The Epic Film : Myth, Meaning and Mass Entertainment

Cinema, Literary & Linguistics, Media & Communications, Social History

The Epic Film: Myth and History, Derek Elley [re-published 2014, originally published 1984]

The onset of the 21st century seemed to herald a revival in the epic genre in film. Large-budget “Sword-and-Sandal” movies of the early 2000s such as Gladiator and Troy, labelled “Neo-epic films” by cinema critics, have reinvigorated the genre. At the same time, a new blockbuster phenomenon in the shape of the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter series of films, padded with wall-to-wall distinguished British (and Commonwealth) actors, have extended the epic genre, and in the case of the ‘Rings’ cycle, given the flagging “Sword-and-Sorcery” sub-genre a new lease of life.

imageThe author’s approach to his subject is a somewhat scholarly one, although the book also remains accessible purely on an entertainment level. Elley begins by making clear the distinction between the heroic and the epic … “heroes alone do not make an epic,” other ingredients especially the “all-important mythic quality” is needed to elevate the narrative to a higher plane, the ‘supra-human’ dimension. The author then proceeds to trace the transition from the epic in its original, literary form to its cinematic form.

The book concerns itself to a large extent with the type of epic film much in vogue in the fifties and sixties, drawn from the history and mythology of antiquity (Greece, Rome, Egypt, Mesopotamia). Right up front I’d have to say that I think that the author is inclined to take the genre a bit too seriously. The epic movie, in whatever phase or incarnation it takes, has been something difficult to be especially serious about! By definition the standard form of the epic has tended to be characterised by an indulgence in excess – grandiosity, vulgarity, basically everything 8XL in size! Mention the epic film and people often think of monumental Hollywood flicks like Ben-Hur, Spartacus, Cleopatra, and the like. Conspicuous consumption the order of the day, so much so so that it could be suggested that epic films should be primarily seen as a kind of parody of themselves.

The Epic Film spends a good deal of time examining another type of epic movie, the Continental Sword-and-Sandal variant of the species which further takes away from the serious side of the genre’s purpose. The Sword-and-Sandal as the book points out is also known in the trade as a Peplum movie (from the type of brief robe or tjunic worn by both sexes in them). The Peplum had its heyday between the late 1950s and the mid 1960, usually set in Ancient Greece or Rome and filmed at Cinecittà in Rome (for a time the world’s film studio of choice) and/or in the campagna in Italy or Spain. The elements of the genre are well-known and entirely formulaic: heroic but one-dimensional gladiatorial strongmen, a bevy of immaculately beautiful but defenceless heroines, a paper-thin storyline appallingly scripted and only coincidentally unrecognisable as history, incoherently edited, low budgets, sloppily shot with atrociously wooden acting and haphazardly dubbed into English.

imageFootnote: the popularity of the Italian Peplum provided career change opportunities for body builders as many would-be actors like Steve Reeves, Mark Forest and Kirk Morris, made the transition from the bodybuilding game to become leads in Sword-and-Sandal sagas. Interestingly, many of the Italian musclemen-stars took Anglo-sounding names in an attempt to make them more appealing to the American market, thus the well-known Sergio Ciani became on screen the aptly named “Alan Steel”.

Steve Reeves’ phenomenally successful Labors of Hercules (1957) was the springboard for a spate of strongman-centred Pepla. From the mid sixties a number of the Peplum strongmen made the switch to Spaghetti Westerns which spectacularly filled the void when the popularity of the Sword and Sandal costumers began to wane. Spaghetti Westerns utilised the same device of giving its Italian stars American-sounding names, the most famous of which were the ‘Trinity’ duo, Terence Hill and Bud Spencer.

Whilst acknowledging the limitations of many of these B-grade epics Elley soberly proceeds to unearth all manner of meaningful cinematic aesthetics from the likes of Samson against the Moon Men, Hercules and the Tyrants of Babylon, etc, etc. The author describes his text somewhat grandly as an extended essay on defining “the epic form in its filmic context”. The definition in the book that took my eye is attributed to Charlton Heston, “There’s a temptingly simple definition of the epic film: It’s the easiest kind of picture to make badly” (Chuck should have known – he appeared in his fair share of dud epics in his career).

imageElley points out that spectacle is the most characteristic trademark of the epic genre, and that trait is (or was) synonymous with Hollywood. Although we connect the Pepla of that era with Italy and the Continent, we tend to associate the wider phenomenon of epics with America. The author quotes Peter Ustinov to good effect: “I’ve always thought that only the Americans can do Ancient Rome pictures. Both cultures have the same kind of relaxed, rangy pomp. Both have exactly the same kind of bad taste”.

The book is adorned with some 88 pictures in glorious black-and-white and these may hold for some readers the greatest interest. Amongst these is a still from the 1964 movie The Fall of the Roman Empire, a long range shot of a Late Roman frontier fortress under attack – complete with a modern Italian villa and two parked fiats close by in the background. Another revealing picture contains a close-up of the cleft-chinned Kirk Douglas as the fabled Ulysses, his heroic countenance somewhat spoiled by the clearly visible but unsightly appearance of Kirk’s varicose veins! Or equally entertaining, is the photo of Victor Mature as Samson, teeth gritted, valiantly wrestling a ‘savage’ lion which has the look of having been recently rejected by a local LA taxidermist.

Many of the era’s epic films that came out of Hollywood tend to be prone to snatches of excruciatingly bad dialogue. The book provides a wealth of atrocious quotes from the genre. Savour if you will these little vignettes which run the gamut from overblown dramatic(sic) intensity to inane absurdity:

image“When you speak of destiny, this is something I must at last believe” (delivered with exaggerated emphasis), Genghis Khan, in Genghis Khan (1965).

“Love and hate are horns on the same goat”, Rune woman, in The Vikings (1958).

“At one time, when you were a little fella, you were always asking questions!”, Joseph, to Jesus, in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965).

This last line of dialogue, tinged with more than a touch of folksy mid-western Americanism, could easily have rolled from the mouth of failed actor-turned-US president, Ronnie Reagan, whilst whittling wood on the back-step of his Californian ranch.

By focussing on 50s and 60s Hollywood and Italian epics Elley largely neglects the first resurgence of the Sword-and-Sorcery film which took place in the late 70s and early 80s … the Star Wars cycle, Excalibur, Conan the Barbarian, etc (all made before The Epic Film‘s original publication in 1984). Other (admittedly minor) sub-genres of the epic such as the Sinbad saga films (The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, and so on) and the Swashbuckler/Pirate films don’t get a guernsey at all … although the Sinbad movies could just as well be categorised as adventure-fantasy films, rather than strictly Sword-and-Sorcery ones.

Elley’s study of the epic film genre is informative and instructive in so far as it goes. Ancient Greeks and Romans, Biblical figures, barbarians and Norsemen, all get a good run, but Elley’s historical survey cuts off at the end of the Dark Ages. I’m left with a tinge of regret that he didn’t take a more expansive approach in the book to include the grand and occasionally grandiloquent epic movies made about legendary Britons of a later era like Arthur and Robin Hood, as well as the more modern epics like Lawrence of Arabia or Dr Zhivago and even extend it to examples of the genre as diverse as 2001 a Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes.

In Praise of Terse Verse: Limericks, Clerihews and Modern Haikus

Literary & Linguistics

Shorthand forms of poetry have maintained their widespread popularity up to the present, especially when contrasted with denser, seemingly impenetrable types of formal, academic poetry. This can be seen in contemporary verse forms like ‘Shrink Lit’ and the modern haiku poem, as it can in older, informal verse genres such as the epigram, the limerick, nonsense verse and the clerihew.

The limerick’s Irish genesis can be traced back to the 18th century and the Maigue Poets of County Limerick. Structurally, the limerick uses a stanza of five lines with a strict rhyme scheme of AA-BB-A. It embodies the spirit of nonsense verse and the modern variant sometimes tends to use obscene themes for humorous intent. Limericks have also been a vehicle for popular children’s nursery rhymes – eg, Old Mother Hubbard, Little Miss Muffet, Hickory Dickory Dock, Jack-and-Jill, etc. etc.

The best-known serial exponent of the limerick was Edward Lear who popularised it in A Book of Nonsense in the mid 19th century (although he himself did not use the term ‘limerick’). Lear’s limericks contain an inherently circular logic to them …. a typical, absurdly inane example of his limericks is:

There was a Young Person of Smyrna
Whose grandmother threatened to burn her.
But she seized on the cat,
And said “Granny, burn that!
You incongruous old woman of Smyrna.”

The clerihew has also been a popular verse-style with its emphasis on simplicity of form and use of whimsical themes. It’s inventor, Edmund Clerihew Bentley, began penning verses using the eponymous device as a schoolboy. One of Bentley’s most celebrated clerihews goes:

Sir Christopher Wren
Said, “I’m going to dine with some men.
If anyone calls,
Say I’m designing St. Paul’s.”

As demonstrated, a clerihew is a form of light verse usually consisting of two couplets (four lines), with lines of uneven length and irregular metre, the first line usually containing the name of a famous or well-known person [www.dictionary.com]. It employs a specific rhyme scheme, AA-BB, and it’s intent is humorous or possibly gently chiding. Less charitably the clerihew has elsewhere been described as “rhyming doggerel”.

Alice in Wonderland
Another of Bentley’s playful clerihews has fun with the author of the brace of universally popular Victorian classic books Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass:

Lewis Carroll
Bought sumptuous apparel
And built an enormous palace
Out of the profits of Alice.

Of Ivanhoe author Sir Walter Scott, Bentley wrote:

I believe it was admitted by Scott
That some of his novels were rot.
How different was he from Lytton
Who admired everything he had written!

And of colonial novelist H Rider Haggard:

Sir Henry Rider Haggard
Was completely staggered
When his bride-to-be
Announced, “I AM SHE!”

Later, Bentley’s own son, Nicholas, had a go at the clerihew:

Cecil B. de Mille,
Rather against his will,
Was persuaded to leave Moses
Out of “The War of the Roses.”

Over the decades a number of famous writers have turned their hand to composing clerihews including GK Chesterton and WH Auden. Auden’s interest was engaged sufficiently to publish a collection of clerihews in a book called Academic Graffiti – a couple of his best efforts are:

Henry Adams
Was mortally afraid of Madams:
In a disorderly house
He sat quiet as a mouse.

Louis Pasteur,
So his colleagues aver,
Lived on excellent terms
With most of his germs.

Footnote: the clerihew, despite (or very possibly because of) its juvenile shallowness and nonsensical nature, has had an ongoing relevance as a teaching tool in engaging primary schoolchildren in the art of poetry-writing.

The Haiku Society of America defines the haiku as “a short poem that uses imagistic language to convey the essence of an experience of nature or the season intuitively linked to the human condition”. In English it’s structure consists of three unrhymed lines of five, seven and five syllables respectively (17 syllables in all).

The modern haiku has struck a cord in America more than anywhere else, though a great many of the experimenters in this form have tended to not adhere to the established 17 syllable/three line criteria. Outstanding US poets and writers who have dabbled in the haiku include illuminati like Robert Frost, ee cumings, William Carlos Williams, Carl Sandburg, Richard Wright and Wallace Stevens, and a swag of the leading 50s and 60s beat poets including those Beat Generation icons Kerouac and Ginsburg.

In its modern, western incarnation, the haiku has had no greater recent proponent of the genre than David M Bader. The NYC attorney turned haiku humorist, had the Western Canon of literature firmly in his sights in a book first published in the mid-2000s as Haiku U: From Aristotle to Zola, 100 Great Books in 17 Syllables.

Moby Dick, American fiction’s time-honoured classic of the ultimate fight to the death between man and cetacean, is given a contemporary, environmental twist by Bader:

Vengeance! Black blood! Aye!
Doubloons to him that harpoons
the Greenpeace dinghy.

Homer’s ancient classic Odyssey (all 24 books) is hilariously condensed into the form of an unfavourable weather bureau forecast:

Aegean forecast –
storms, chance of one-eyed giants,
delays expected.

Similarly, Bader’s makeover of Jane Austen’s seminal novel of English manners Pride and Prejudice strips it back to reveal the appearance of a newspaper classified:

Single white lass seeks
landed gent for marriage, whist.
No parsons, thank you.

Bader’s take on Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov is a triumph of ubër-alliteration. With a clever play-on-words he economically ‘nails’ the odious persona of Humbert Humbert in 17 syllables:

Lecherous linguist –
he lays low and is laid low
after laying Lo.

Bader also produced an earlier book [Haikus for Jews: For You, a Little Wisdom] in which he set down examples of distinctively Jewish Haiku – characterised in the main by recourse to a self-deprecating and at times a downbeat, cynical brand of humour.

Five thousand years a
wandering people – then we
found the cabanas.

“Through the Red Sea
costs extra.” Israeli movers
overcharge Moses.

Jewish triathlon —
gin rummy, then contract bridge,
followed by a nap.


Shrink Lit: the Great Tomes of Literature Writ Very Small!

Literary & Linguistics

Some time around the early 1980s certain scribes started to bring the merits of “shrink lit” to the attention of literary publishers and by extension to the public … four centuries, I might add, after the Japanese developed the Haiku style of written expression. I raise the nexus because I can’t help think that the traditional and venerable style of Haiku was one of the influences motivating the rise of shrink lit. Other more contemporary catalysts have included the whole technological communications revolution and the increasingly busy lifestyles of people, etc.

Shrink lit, as the term implies, reduces famous and highly vaunted literary works to concise light verse – usually comprising around 8 to 12 lines of rhyme. Long and complex novels, plays and poems, are subjected to a radical scaling back process. The books are pared back to the bone whilst trying to preserve the essence of the story and hopefully the spirit of it as well (this is the theory at least!). Great for readers with short attention spans!

In the early 1970s one of the pioneering manifestations of this light-hearted form of imitation was an American book called Shrink Lits: Seventy of the world’s towering classics cut down to size, by Maurice Sagoff. This work took on the task of economising many of the best known fictional classics such as Don Quixote, Gulliver’s Travels, Dante’s Inferno, Shakespeare and The Hobbit. The gruesome and brutal Old English epic poem Beowulf is rendered thus:

Monster Grendel’s tastes are plainish.
Breakfast? Just a couple Danish.
King of Danes is frantic, very.
Wait! Here comes the Malmo ferry
Bring Beowulf, his neighbor,
Mighty swinger with a saber!

The inclusion of The Great Gatsby, Lolita, Moby Dick and Catcher in the Rye in Sagoff’s collection gave the book a distinctly American flavour. I seem to recall that Anthony Burgess not long after this attempted a more homogeneously British collection of verses based on the modern English novel replete with his characteristic snobbery and acerbity.

Australians, being the reactive/adaptive creatures they are, weren’t long in assembling their own home-grown version of shrunken literature – Oz Shrink Lit: Australia’s classic literature cut down to size, edited by Michele Field. Oz Shrink Lit has proved to be popular over the years with uni students who are English majors, especially those assailed by a sense of oppression at having to tolerate an undemocratically chosen syllabus which necessitates tediously long and sometimes just tedious novels.

‘The Harp’ shrunk into ‘Down & Out in Surry Hills’
67 Aussie books, each one cut down to a handful of summarising verses, the sheer range of texts is impressive. Among the shrunken classics are The Man From Snowy River (outrageously punning on ‘regret’), The Harp in the South (could be retitled “An Ode to the NSW Housing Commission” once given the Oz downsize treatment), A Woman of the Future, Summer of the 17th Doll and Puberty Blues. Juxtaposed against these Australian classics are harder to categorise entries in the collection: Clive James’ Unreliable Memoirs and, somewhat bizarrely, the Sydney White Pages.

The book comes in a handy, appropriately reduced size, 148mm x 90mm – just right for slipping through recession-shaped holes in coat pockets, losing on the bus, etc. Each verse is decorated with charming illustrations by that effervescent trans-cis Pacific cartoonist, Victoria Roberts. Victoria is really good at giving the countenances of her creations that look of crumbled anxiety, perturbed faces conveying a sense of harassed humanity in the onslaught of a perplexing post-technological age. Not only that, she is extra good at drawing kangaroos and dogs!

Cut-down ‘Bliss’
Oz Shrink Lit is the sort of book that would make any self-respecting dilettante salivate, offering as it does (the mirage of) instant erudition in an economy of words. Anything that can make Classics Illustrated look complex deserves our sincere admiration. For a particular tasty sample of Oz Shrink Lit’s humorous, condensed versification we need go no further than it’s take on Peter Carey’s Bliss, a quirky, modernist novel in the fabulist tradition (later translated to the screen in a vivid, memorably offbeat 1985 movie adaptation):

Always selling, always nice,
Ad Man Harry snuffs it twice,
Wakes to find he lives in Hell,
Now his wife does adverts well.


Lawrence of Thirroul: Wyewurk and Kangaroo

Biographical, Literary & Linguistics, Politics, Social History
Wyewurk 1922
Wyewurk 1922

If you didn’t know it was there, you would drive right past it. In a quiet back street in the Illawarra beachside village of Thirroul … No 3 Craig Street. For three months in 1922, this inconspicuous bungalow with the jokey name Wyewurk was home to one of the 20th century’s greatest writers, DH Lawrence. That Bert Lawrence lived briefly in Thirroul was not a wholly momentous or exceptional event by itself. In the course of his “stop-go” global peregrinations Lawrence lived in over 300 addresses across the world! What gives it import and binds the great writer to this country was that he used this sojourn in the Illawarra to write almost all of his 421 page novel about Australia, Kangaroo.

"Valley of the Cabbage Tree Palms"
“Valley of the Cabbage Tree Palms”

After the Great War DH Lawrence (DHL), opted for a life of voluntary exile, eventually journeying to Australia with his German wife Frieda, the latest destination in a globe-trotting quest by the writer for spiritual fulfilment. They stayed briefly in Perth, before sailing on to Sydney. Lawrence’s initial plan was to stay for an extended time, however he found Sydney not to his liking, forming a distinct antipathy to its form of rampant democracy. In Kangaroo he describes pre-Harbour Bridge Sydney as “loused over with small promiscuous bungalows around which lay an aura of rusty tinned cans” (its fortunate that DHL didn’t pursue a career as a real estate agent on the Sydney harbour!). He also went so far as to wish that something akin to a tsunami would engulf the city. Lawrence escaped from Sydney finding refuge in a coal-mining settlement 70km to the south. That Lawrence found a haven from the cosy suburbia of Sydney in coal-mine littered Thirroul is a wry irony, given his hatred of coal-mining, his father’s vocation back in Lawrence’s native Nottinghamshire.

The "Pale sea of green glass" at the front of Wyewurk
The “Pale sea of green glass” at the front of Wyewurk

Descriptions abound in Kangaroo of the bungalow in which they lived and of Thirroul more widely. Lawrence evocatively depicted the beach directly below ‘Wyewurk’ as “the pale sea of green glass that fell in such cold foam. Ice-fiery, fish-burning … full of brilliantly clear water and delicately-coloured shells … strangely sea-scooped sharp sea-bitter rock floor, all wet and sea-savage”. In the thinly-autobiographical novel Lawrence called the town ‘Mullumbimby’ and their bungalow ‘Coo-ee’ (presumably he came upon ‘Mullumbimby’ in a state map as it is the name of an actual town far away in Northern NSW), and delineated Wyewurk thus, “The house inside was dark, with its deep verandahs like dark eyelids half closed … overlooking the huge rhythmic Pacific.”

DHL & Frieda  von Richthofen (née Lawrence)
DHL & Frieda von Richthofen (née Lawrence)

The hastily-written and unrevised novel Kangaroo itself is not valued highly in the overall oeuvre of DHL by critics or academe, eg, “Kangaroo is little more than an egregious failure” [Macdonald Daly, 1997 Penguin edition of Kangaroo; “a generic gallimaufry with a primarily pastoral focus” [Joseph Lenehan Davis, ‘Place, pastoral and the politics of the personal: a semi genre-based exploration of D.H. Lawrence’s Kangaroo‘, PhD dissertation, University of Wollongong, 1992]. What the novel attracted most notice and subsequent comment for was its depiction of a secret right-wing army in Australia which was planning a coup d’état. Lawrence in Kangaroo seems to have anticipated the advent in the late twenties and early thirties of semi-fascist groups in Australia such the Old Guard and the New Guard.

imageIn the isolated village of Thirroul, between the sea and the escarpment, DHL found an anonymity and ‘stillness’ that he had craved but had hitherto been denied. The freedom, artistically, he found in Thirroul, enabled him to write over 3,000 words a day of his Australian novel [John Worthen, DH Lawrence: The Life of an Outsider] . Frieda and Bert left Thirroul and Australia in August 1922 for the US via Wellington, NZ. Settling near Taos in New Mexico, Lawrence completed the final chapter of Kangaroo and hastily edited the book. Taos with its serene native pueblos and western ranches was the next staging post in Lawrence’s lifelong “savage pilgrimage“, his descriptor of the search for a more fulfilling lifestyle than that promised by industrialised Western civilisation. Lawrence believed that “every continent has its own great spirit of place”. In the course of DHL’s terrestrial wanderings, both Thirroul and Taos, in their different ways, embodied the powerful spirit he was seeking.

In the years after the Lawrences departed Australia Thirroul slowly extricated itself from its coal-mining preoccupation. To a degree it has remained a sleepy coastal holiday town, whilst also building a lively arts community for local artists and musicians. Wyewurk, bereft of the DHL aura, slumbered back into a cloak of invisibility. It continued to be owned by the Southwell family whilst a succession of renters occupied it. In the 1970s people (some local, some from further afield) started to take an interest in the literary significance of the writer’s 1922 residence. Unfortunately, despite the apparent public interest, the occupants of Wyewurk (a dentist and his wife) repeatedly denied access to the house.

The Craig St bungalow viewed from the cliff-top
The Craig St bungalow viewed from the cliff-top

This situation got worse from the Lawrence enthusiasts’ perspective after a local real estate agent bought Wyewurk from the Southwells in 1984. The new owner categorically refused any access to the property at all. Lawrence scholars (who would later coalesce into the “Friends of Wyewurk” and also form the nucleus of the DHL Society of Australia) grouped together to lobby politicians resulting in an interim conservation order being placed on Wyewurk. Despite this the owner submitted plans with Wollongong Council to add a two-story extension to the bungalow (which if implemented would effectively “cape cod” it).

Thus began a protracted period of litigation, the outcome of which saw the Heritage Council of NSW rejected the owner’s ‘Pavillion’ plan. The Wyewurk group rallied support for the preservation of Lawrence’s house in its original form from public figures like Patrick White, Manning Clark and Judith Wright, from various national and international DHL scholars, and the local community. Later, support was also forthcoming for its retention on architectural grounds after the architects’ council declared Wyewurk to be the oldest surviving example of the Californian bungalow style in NSW (possibly in Australia)[S Jobson, ‘How we battled to save Wyewurk’, Rananim, Nov 1995, 3(3)]

The Wyewurk saga dragged on for several years more with the Australian community divided on the issue. Predictably, with all the publicity, the Sydney Morning Herald couldn’t resist the temptation to refer to Wyewurk as “Lady Chatterley’s beach house” [SMH, 29 July 2003]. Submissions to the Commission of Inquiry followed including proposals to turn Wyewurk into a centre for arts activities. At one point the owner is believed to have approached Wollongong Council with a view to the Council purchasing the house from him which was rebuffed (the Council’s lack of vision heralding a gaping missed tourism opportunity). Despite the building’s literary and cultural significance the Commissioner ultimately ruled that the owner be permitted to erect a one-story addition to Wyewurk. Surprisingly to all involved in the dispute, in the end the owner decided not to proceed with the approved changes to the bungalow![Jobson, ibid.]

DH Lawrence Reserve
DH Lawrence Reserve

Wyewurk today is still there in Craig Street, pretty much as it was (the exterior at least) in Bert Lawrence’s time though more strongly fortified now – a minor miracle of survival! The preservationists won, but since sightseers and Lawrence devotees are barred from viewing its lawns, verandahs and the jarrah wood table on which Kangaroo was crafted, it remains something of a Pyrrhic victory. Since 1984 the estate agent/owner has done what he can to block the public’s view of the bungalow through fences, the planting of trees and dense shrubs, a garage and a marauding dog on the property ready to bark at inquisitive and unwelcome visitors. There are no plaques in front of the cottage proclaiming its connection to the great English novelist and poet. The only indicator signifying that “Lawrence was here” is 35 metres away in a tiny reserve overlooking Lawrence’s “green glass” Pacific. In late 1998 the Council named the reserve in honour of DHL and installed a commemorative plaque.

Wyewurk with cute, friendly "dangerous dog" sign
Wyewurk with cute, friendly “dangerous dog” sign

Postscript: Lawrence’s visit and the publication of Kangaroo have exerted a profound influence on a number of Australian artists and other creative practitioners in the arts field. These include composer Peter Sculthorpe, Nobel laureate Patrick White, artists Sidney Nolan, Brett Whiteley and Garry Shead. Artists Whiteley and Shead set up their easels in the backyard of the adjoining cottage to Wyewurk (with the similarly quaint name of ‘Wyewurrie’) in 1975 and painted several Lawrence-themed pieces❈ including a diptych of the bungalow where Lawrence penned Kangaroo [S Jobson Darroch, ‘Claws in the Arse’, www.dhlawrencesocietyaustralia.com.au].

❈ one of Shead’s paintings amusingly depicts Lawrence trying to ward off a frenzied attack from a red kangaroo on the back verandah of ‘Wyewurk’