I don’t remember Guildford

It’s Edward Lear’s bicentennial this year. I’ve always had a fondness for Lear. I grew up reading his poems; the Complete Nonsense was one of the first books I read cover to cover, and almost certainly the first book of poetry. It paid off; when I took the Cambridge entrance exam – back when you could get into Cambridge by putting on a performance in the entrance exam – I answered a question about the Romantics by writing about Lear’s verse. I may have been inspired by a running joke in John Verney’s novel Seven Sunflower Seeds in which Berry, the narrator, is told to read the whole of [King] Lear for an essay, gets the wrong end of the stick and sets about reading the whole of [Edward] Lear – the limericks, the long poems, the stories, the travel journals… (Great writer, John Verney.) I saw Lear – as did Berry and presumably Verney – as an overlooked poet of yearning and melancholia, with a late-Romantic suspicion of society and belief in the solitary imagination.

There was an Old Man in a boat
Who said, ‘I’m afloat, I’m afloat!’
When they said, ‘No! you ain’t!’
He was ready to faint
That unhappy Old Man in a boat.

They do tend to do that kind of thing. Here’s George Orwell on Lear:

“They” are the realists, the practical men, the sober citizens in bowler hats who are always anxious to stop you doing anything worth doing. For instance:

There was an Old Man of Whitehaven,
Who danced a quadrille with a raven;
But they said, “It’s absurd
To encourage this bird!”
So they smashed that Old Man of Whitehaven.

To smash somebody just for dancing a quadrille with a raven is exactly the kind of thing that “They” would do.

Getting the bit between his teeth, Orwell goes on to suggest that “the whole theory of authoritarian governments is summed up in the statement that Pobbles were happier without their toes”. Nonsense isn’t just nonsense; even the limerick about the Old Person of Basing has a subtext:

There was an Old Person of Basing,
Whose presence of mind was amazing;
He purchased a steed,
Which he rode at full speed,
And escaped from the people of Basing.

Orwell:

It is not quite arbitrary. The funniness is in the gentle implied criticism of the people of Basing, who once again are “They”, the respectable ones, the right-thinking, art-hating majority.

In similar vein, Michael Rosen (whose post inspired this one) writes:

nonsense is not without any sense. It nearly always creates something new which doesn’t tally with aspects of the world or aspects of texts which we regard as normal or conventional. So it frequently offers parallels, parodies, inversions and distortions. I guess we find a lot of this funny or attractive because it breaks up the world or texts we live with under compulsion and necessity.

He’s not wrong – Orwell wasn’t wrong either. But I feel that this argument, like Orwell’s, misses or underrates something very important about Lear’s “nonsense” work, and about “nonsense” works in general (although I think we now have other names for them). (Just as my own teenage idea about Lear as an Arnoldian post-Romantic is an interesting angle, but plainly isn’t the whole story.)

I’m thinking of the element of play, which may have no point at all or even be ostentatiously pointless. Consider Lear’s limericks, with their famously near-identical first and last lines. W.S. Gilbert couldn’t be doing with them and wrote this brilliant parody:

There was an Old Man of Dundee
Who was stung on the arm by a wasp.
When they said, “Does it hurt?”
He said, “Not very much,
It’s a good thing it wasn’t a hornet.”

(Best recited quickly.) But I think Gilbert’s sarcastic worldliness was also a way of being tone-deaf or missing the point. Put it this way, going nowhere is what Lear’s limericks do. Take that Old Person of Basing: reduced to its essentials, what his poem says is

There was an Old Person of Basing
Who made his escape from Basing

The poem undoes itself, in other words – by the last line there isn’t an Old Person of Basing. It reminds me of children’s rhymes that end by deconstructing themselves, or of this short piece by the Russian absurdist Daniil Kharms:

There lived a redheaded man who had no eyes or ears. He didn’t have hair either, so he was called a redhead arbitrarily.

He couldn’t talk because he had no mouth. He didn’t have a nose either.

He didn’t even have arms or legs. He had no stomach, he had no back, no spine, and he didn’t have any insides at all. There was nothing to speak of! So, we don’t even know who we’re talking about.

We’d better not talk about him any more.

The movement of thought is ostentatiously, extravagantly pointless, as if to say: “I’m telling you something worth hearing… oh, no, I’m not! I’m making sense… oh, no, I’m not! I’m talking… oh, no, I’m not!” A lot of nonsense work (although I think we now have other names for it) performs this kind of defiant doodling and rug-pulling; Edward Lear certainly did.

We can see what’s going on a bit better if we insert Lear into his tradition: what I think of as the great tradition of Basingstoke. (Lear never actually referred to Basingstoke in his verse, but the Old Person of Basing is close enough; it’s about a mile and a half, to be precise. Moreover, Basing has priority over Basingstoke, historically if nothing else; Basingstoke is first recorded (in the tenth century) as Basinga stoc, which translates as “satellite settlement dependent on Basing” or more loosely “Basing New Town”.) Back in 1997, Michael Dobson noted the recurrence of Basingstoke in his LRB review of a collection of nonsense verse. Take this, from the “Water-Poet” John Taylor (so called because he made his living as a wherryman):

This was no sooner knowne at Amsterdam,
But with an Ethiopian Argosey,
Man’d with Flap-dragons, drinking upsifreeze,
They past the purple gulfe of Basingstoke

(“Upsifreeze”, apparently, is an adverb meaning “to alcoholic excess”.) A couple of decades later an anonymous poet invoked Basingstoke for no apparent reason at all:

When Basingstoke did swim upon the Thames,
And swore all thieves to be just and true,
The Sumnors and Bailiffs were honest men,
And Pease and Bacon that year it snew.

Basingstoke seems to have been a byword for solid English mundanity, whose appearance instantly accentuates the nonsensicality of nonsense verse, even at the time of the Civil War – which is remarkable in itself, given that the town saw a lot of action during the war: Basing House was Royalist, Basingstoke itself Parliamentarian. (You won’t find Basing House on the map now.)

But it didn’t end there. Back – or rather forward – to Gilbert, a writer who knew how to play with words but was never quite content just to play. He strikes me as a conflicted writer, somehow. (Yes, it’s Taking Victorian Comic Writers Altogether Too Seriously Week at the Gaping Silence!) I get the feeling that Gilbert could write so well, so quickly and so playfully that he distrusted his own fluency and wanted to puncture it somehow. In Ruddigore the character of Margaret, otherwise known as Mad Meg… well, I’ll let her tell it:

Margaret. …when I am lying awake at night, and the pale moonlight streams through the latticed casement, strange fancies crowd upon my poor mad brain, and I sometimes think that if we could hit upon some word for you to use whenever I am about to relapse – some word that teems with hidden meaning – like “Basingstoke” – it might recall me to my saner self. For, after all, I am only Mad Margaret! Daft Meg! Poor Meg! He! he! he!
Despard. Poor child, she wanders! But soft – someone comes – Margaret – pray recollect yourself – Basingstoke, I beg! Margaret, if you don’t Basingstoke at once, I shall be seriously angry.
Margaret. (recovering herself) Basingstoke it is!

Using Basingstoke as a cure for nonsense, while maintaining perversely that it teems with hidden meaning, seems typical of Gilbert. (As Dobson points out, the character of Mad Meg was based on Elvira, the intermittently sane heroine of Bellini’s I Puritani, whose madness derived ultimately from the English Civil War – the war between, among other places, Basingstoke and Basing. Coincidence? Probably.)

Can we extend the Basingstoke-nonsense connection into the twentieth century? We certainly can, and things get more interesting when we do. Here (in full) is Henry Reed’s 1941 poem “Chard Whitlow”, a parody of T.S. Eliot:

As we get older we do not get any younger.
Seasons return, and today I am fifty-five,
And this time last year I was fifty-four,
And this time next year I shall be sixty-two.
And I cannot say I should like (to speak for myself)
To see my time over again— if you can call it time:
Fidgeting uneasily under a draughty stair,
Or counting sleepless nights in the crowded Tube.

There are certain precautions— though none of them very reliable—
Against the blast from bombs and the flying splinter,
But not against the blast from heaven, vento dei venti,
The wind within a wind unable to speak for wind;
And the frigid burnings of purgatory will not be touched
By any emollient.
I think you will find this put,
Better than I could ever hope to express it,
In the words of Kharma: “It is, we believe,
Idle to hope that the simple stirrup-pump
Will extinguish hell.”
Oh, listeners,
And you especially who have turned off the wireless,
And sit in Stoke or Basingstoke listening appreciatively to the silence,
(Which is also the silence of hell) pray not for your selves but your souls.
And pray for me also under the draughty stair.
As we get older we do not get any younger.

And pray for Kharma under the holy mountain..

What connects this quiet and precise parody to the older nonsense tradition is its dogged absurdity, the care which Reed takes to speak in Eliot’s late voice while saying almost exactly nothing. (As we get older we do not get any younger – and I love the image of the poet in front of a Third Programme microphone, solemnly apostrophising the listeners who have turned off.) Parody very often has this quality of nonsensical play; one way, and one of the more enjoyable ways, to undermine the text you’re parodying is to keep the form and remove the sense. You’re reading something dignified and meaningful and then… oh no you’re not; the rug is pulled, and you’re just reading some meaningless doodles. Some of the best – and funniest – comic writing is in the form of parody, in my experience – Dwight MacDonald’s Faber anthology of parodies is one of my very favourite books. It’s a form that gives the writer endless scope for going wrong, writing differently… writing nonsense.

Monty Python eventually got round to Basingstoke, too, but it took them a while. It was the third episode of the final series, and everyone was getting a bit tired by then, so there’s something rather laborious about the result.

Fawcett Sir, we all know the facts of this case; that Sapper Walters, being in possession of expensive military equipment, to wit one Lee Enfield .303 rifle and 72 rounds of ammunition, valued at a hundred and forty pounds three shillings and sixpence, chose instead to use wet towels to take an enemy command post in the area of Basingstoke …
Presiding General Basingstoke? Basingstoke in Hampshire?
Fawcett No, no, no, sir, no.
Presiding General I see, carry on.
Fawcett The result of his action was that the enemy …
Presiding General Basingstoke where?
Fawcett Basingstoke in Westphalia, sir.
Presiding General Oh I see. Carry on.
Fawcett The result of Sapper Walters’s action was that the enemy received wet patches upon their trousers and in some cases small red strawberry marks upon their thighs …
Presiding General I didn’t know there was a Basingstoke in Westphalia.
Fawcett (slightly irritated) It’s on the map, sir.
Presiding General What map?
Fawcett (more irritably) The map of Westphalia as used by the army, sir.
Presiding General Well, I’ve certainly never heard of Basingstoke in Westphalia.
Fawcett (patiently) It’s a municipal borough sir, twenty-seven miles north-north east of Southampton. Its chief manufactures …
Presiding General What … Southampton in Westphalia?
Fawcett Yes sir … bricks … clothing. Nearby are remains of Basing House, burned down by Cromwell’s cavalry in 1645 …
Presiding General Who compiled this map?
Fawcett Cole Porter, sir.
Presiding General (incredulously) Cole Porter … who wrote `Kiss Me Kate’?
Fawcett No, alas not, sir … this was Cole Porter who wrote `Anything Goes’.

And so wearily on. I think part of the problem is that, while the sketch has floated free of its parodic moorings – at least, it’s hard to see what this would be a parody of – it doesn’t have the free-ranging inventiveness of the best nonsense. (Even that sober Henry Reed poem has its stirrup-pump and that quietly ridiculous age joke.) But Basingstoke abides.

Parody – and the über-parody of absurdism, parodying form as well as content – was one place where nonsense found a home in the twentieth century. The other major stream of twentieth-century nonsense derives from Surrealism; in his piece on Lear, Orwell writes in passing:

Until Surrealism made a deliberate raid on the unconscious, poetry that aimed at being nonsense, apart from the meaningless refrains of songs, does not seem to have been common.

Much freer associations of ideas and images have been possible in poetry since Surrealism – and perhaps, in English poetry, since Dylan Thomas in particular; he could rattle off the bizarre combinations of imagery without a care, and on some accounts without much thought either. (A. J. P. Taylor recalled that he once saw Thomas revising a draft of a poem by methodically crossing out all the adjectives and replacing them with alternatives chosen at random – “Makes it more interesting for the readers, see?” On the other hand, Thomas was having an affair with Taylor’s wife at the time, so this perhaps isn’t the most reliable testimony.) Nonsense has come back in under the banner of the ‘surreal’, in poetry and especially in song lyrics. In the present day, when song lyrics are described as ‘surreal’, I think a lot of time what we’re hearing is what an earlier age would have called nonsense. That said, it’s arguable that nonsense always had a home in songs, if you looked in the right places – i.e. not too high up the cultural scale:

The grey goose and gander went over the green
The grey goose went barefoot for fear of being seen
For fear of being seen, my boys, by the light of the moon
Rise early tomorrow morning all in the same tune,
Rise early tomorrow morning all in the same tune!

The collector who noted down the earliest version of this song (in 1891) added: “Many years ago, this used to be a favourite song round about Leeds, though a very silly one. … Before railways and cheap trips acted like general diffusers of London music hall songs, suchlike ditties in country districts were common in the kitchens of quiet public houses .. I need scarcely say that this delightful production would be sung only after a certain degree of conviviality had been reached.” When better?

Whether it derives from capital-S Surrealism filtering down or subterranean folk nonsense seeping up, a lot of contemporary song lyrics are written in a ‘surreal’ register. When James Mercer sang

You’re testing your mettle
With doeskin and petals
While kissing the lipless
That bleed all the sweetness away

you could just about follow the train of thought if you tried (mettle/metal?/petals/soft/kiss/lipless/skull?/bleed/desiccate?…), but a large part of what makes the lyric work is the way the images bounce off each other without hanging around long enough to make sense: it’s a refusal to communicate, but a playful one that (paradoxically) invites the listener to join in. There’s a similar but more extreme effect in one of Paddy McAloon’s first Prefab Sprout songs, “Don’t sing”(!):

Like most I come when I want things done
Please God don’t let that change!
(The anguish of love at long range)
Should have been a doctor-O,
Then they could see what they’re getting.
Oh no, don’t blame Mexico!
They ask for more than you bargain for and then they ask for mo’, oh, oh
Oh no, don’t blame Mexico!
That’s a feast that the whisky priest may yet have to forgo, oh, oh
Rob me of colour and make me sound duller but never go away

“Don’t sing”, indeed – everything about that song is fighting against the condition of being a song (the ridiculously forced rhyme on “mo’”, the transparently fake folkie touch of “doctor-O”) – and fighting against the condition of having something to say or saying it intelligibly. (On the other hand, I haven’t read The power and the glory, which seems to be referenced here; it may all be in the book.) At the same time, with each successive line you’re right there with the singer, feeling what it’s like to have your mind full of stuff that doesn’t quite fit together.

Not that nonsense (which we now call by different names) is always about refusal and frustration. Sometimes it just lets the language play, takes it for a walk, lets it go… somewhere else. Take the Beta Band’s “To you alone” (lyrics, presumably, by Steve Mason):

She’s like the snow-capped trees in my jigsaw,
Loose at the seams with inferior dreams
She’s like a fool that you meet in the heart store
Hand in the pail and the blacker the veil,
The blacker the veil…

Hearing that, you know just what he means. Actually, no, you have no idea what he means, but you feel what he means. Or rather, you feel what he’s doing, even if you can’t begin to say what it means. It’s an Escher castle in words – an impossible construction, one that can’t really exist; and yet there it is, between your ears.

One final example:

I often dream of trains when I’m alone
I ride on them into another zone
I dream of them constantly
Heading for Paradise
Or Basingstoke
Or Reading

I often dream of trains when I’m awake
They ride along beside a frozen lake
And there in the buffet car
I wait for Eternity
Or Basingstoke
Or Reading

Robyn Hitchcock, who else. It’s striking that the insistent real-world detail of “Basingstoke or Reading” makes the image more dreamlike, more nonsensical: “Paradise or Basingstoke” on its own would just be bathos, and would have an artful, deliberate ring to it. The prosaic phrasing of the second verse – the first line especially – comes with a similar kind of depth charge of strangeness.

To envisage the world as it is, and yet entirely other -

Seasons return, and today I am fifty-five,
And this time last year I was fifty-four,
And this time next year I shall be sixty-two.

The grey goose went barefoot for fear of being seen
For fear of being seen, my boys, by the light of the moon

Presiding General Who compiled this map?
Fawcett Cole Porter, sir.

When Basingstoke did swim upon the Thames,
And swore all thieves to be just and true

On the Coast of Coromandel
Where the early pumpkins blow,
In the middle of the woods
Lived the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò.
Two old chairs, and half a candle,–
One old jug without a handle,–
These were all his worldly goods:
In the middle of the woods,
These were all the worldly goods,
Of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò,
Of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò

- that’s nonsense (although we generally now have other names for it). It’s a form of mental exercise, I think. Above all it’s a form of play, and requires no more justification than that. For a moment, as the poem or the song occupies your mind, you’re thinking differently, experiencing the world differently, making sense of it differently. Or, for a moment, not making sense at all. Just for a moment.

One Trackback

  1. [...] Thanks to Shelley Rainey of the Bailey Sisters for this one. It’s a nonsense song; Frank Kidson, who collected it in Leeds in the late nineteenth century, noted rather sniffily that “this delightful production would be sung only after a certain degree of conviviality had been reached”. You could also say that it’s part of a great tradition of nonsense poetry, or possibly more than one tradition. [...]

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