Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Wednesday mixture

W.H. Who?

Duncan Fallowell, novelist and columnist in the First Post, is astounded that, after what he describes as last year's mass orgy for John Betjeman, there is nothing being published in the whole of this year to mark the centenary of the birth of one of our greatest poets, W.H. Auden. Faber are apparently to do a revised version of the Selected Poems at some point, but nowt else. Mr Fallowell reckons that this says more about the state of British publishing than any other single fact.

My own modest researches show that if you enter the name Betjeman into the title search on the British Library catalogue, you get 47 results. Enter Auden and you get 226. This is a reflection, I think, of the 'seriousness' of the respective poets: Auden attracts far more lit crit of the academic kind. Betjeman, by contrast, was a much more 'popular' poet; he appeared on the telly a lot himself, and also proved suitable for TV slebs to go on about how important he was in their lives.

Charley's Aunt

To the Theatre Royal, Bath, last night to see the very first performance of a new production of Brandon Thomas's 1892 classic, Charley's Aunt. Stephen Tompkinson stars, and Mel Smith directs.

Charley's Aunt is a full-blown English farce, with a touch of sentiment, one of the big smash hits of all time. It was probably the first play to exploit to the full the comic spectacle of a respectable member of the aristocracy appearing in drag.

The plot concerns a number of Oxford undergraduates who desperately need a chaperone to enable them to entertain their girlfriends to lunch (how times change, eh?). They therefore persuade one of their number to dress up as the aunt of one of them. Matters deteriorate from then on in true farcical fashion.

Well, the old play creaks a bit in places, but there are still plenty of laughs, and the last ten minutes are a model of how to round things off with perfect economy. Considering that we were seeing the very first performance of this version (I gather that the dress rehearsal ended one hour before curtain up) it was pretty slick and will doubtless improve. It goes on a sixteen-week tour and is worth seeing if it comes your way.

The history of Charley's Aunt is worth studying from a writer's point of view. Brandon Thomas wrote it as a vehicle for William Sydney Penley, a star of the day. A contract was signed between the two of them, giving Penley a seven-year lease as manager, with the option of a further seven years. Thomas got an advance of £50 against royalties, but in the fourteen-year period of his lease Penley earned £200,000 from the play.

That wasn't the only problem. The contract gave Thomas total control over the text, but on a preliminary tour Penley butchered the play, giving himself all the best lines and introducing bits of business. M'learned friends had to be summoned to put matters right.

Assessing risk

Further to Monday's post about the difficulty of thinking clearly, the Financial Times carried an article over the weekend which considered why it is that humans are so bad at estimating risk. It turns out that we overestimate the risk of bad things happening, in just the same way as we overestimate the likelihood of good things happening. The results, both for individuals and for society, can be profoundly unhelpful.

Mr Bringhurst's other talents

A while back, I reviewed here, with some enthusiasm, the inspiring text on typography, The Elements of Typographic Style, written by the Canadian Robert Bringhurst.

I mentioned in passing that Mr Bringhurst is something of a polymath, but is perhaps principally a poet. And now, in an article in the Times, Jeanette Winterson writes about another Bringhurst book, The Tree of Meaning: Thirteen Talks.

This book, says Ms Winterson, 'is a wonderful journey through the possibilities of language, wherever found, and the inevitability of poetry and storytelling, something that he understands as both necessary and natural.'

The Tree of Meaning isn't even published in the UK, but Winterson suggests that her readers should order it specially. I might. But the point that struck me most forcibly is that, although Bringhurst is widely recognised as the expert on typographical design, Winterson knows nothing of that -- just as I know nothing (yet) of his poetry or his work on language. But she does say that The Tree of Meaning 'has been beautifully produced, and is well worth the having as well as the reading.'

Short notes

Peter Cox is a formidably successful marketing man, author, and now agent. You can read about his background here. More to point, perhaps, he now blogs about the publishing business. He also offers advice to writers on

The longlist (22 titles) for the UK's Romantic Novel of the Year Award has been announced. A shortlist of six titles will be follow, as is traditional, in time for Valentine’s Day.

The Peter Owen publishing company, one of the UK's small but perfectly formed independents, has started a blog.

Elastic Press is another small UK press that I hadn't come across before. It's dedicated, as far as I can see, to the weird and fantastic, in the form of single-author short-story collections. They were winners of the British Fantasy Society Award for Best Small Press, 2005. Thanks to Roger for the link.

Apology. Despite Blogger's defences, a number of spammers have penetrated the comments section of this blog. Life is too short, I fear, for me to delete all of them, but they are normally entirely obvious.


Anonymous said...

Real risk is when they announce they are sending sexagenarians to surge around Baghdad. I don't think that's an overestimation.

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