Titles in search of books

I’ve often got book titles muddled in my head before wondering what they would be like if they had really existed.

How, for example, would these presumed lost works stand up as literature, as classics?

  • A Timely History of Briefs: possibly a soft-porn title to be kept under the counter?
  • Shady Gifts of Feys: a fairytale of bondage and more, perhaps.
  • The Unbearable Importance of Being Lightly Earnest: a lost title by Oscar Kundera — or was it Milan Wilde? I get confused.
  • Noh Country for Omens: Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens adapted by Cormac McCarthy for the Japanese stage.
  • You Rang, M’Lord? A lost episode of Downton ghost-written by Tolkien, originally titled The Rings of the Lord.
  • Scents and Sensitivity: Jane Austen’s handbook on allergic rhinitis and other aspects of hay fever, edited by Noel Coward.
  • Tender Is The Knight: prequel by Sir Walter Scott Fitzgerald in which Ivanhoe gets saddle-sore.
  • A Room of One’s Own with a View: the tale of Rapunzel re-imagined by Woolf and Forster.
  • The Angry Caterpillar: the diary of a butterfly larva with IBS.
  • Alice threw the Working Class: how Dodgson’s heroine rose above her humble origins to graduate from Oxford debt-free.

Suggestions below, please, as to the kind of mash-ups you wouldn’t mind seeing on bookshelves.

Ifor y Peiriant … who?

Daniel Postgate: Cenhadaeth Nadolig — Bluebell
An Ivor the Engine Story
Pictures by Peter Firmin
Society for the Protection of Animals Abroad 2009

Grown-up British children of a certain age will surely remember Ivor the Engine, a stop-motion 2D animated series created by Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin sixty years ago, in 1959. While primitive by today’s standards—originally black-and-white before becoming colour, and very jerky—that was all part of its charm, along with its slow gentle narratives and quirky deadpan narration. Accompanying picture books and annuals meant one could keep the enjoyment going, reading them to younger children (as I did with our kids, for example with The Dragon).

Fifty years after its first appearance and a year after the death of Oliver Postgate his son Daniel revived the series’ characters for this one-off picture book in aid of veterinary charity SPANA, with versions in both English and Welsh. With a very rudimentary knowledge of the language and memories of the original TV broadcasts I’ve struggled through the Welsh version at leisure, but with pleasure too.

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Nostalgia revisited

Image credit: WordPress Free Photo Library

Roddy Doyle: Two Pints
Jonathan Cape 2012

It’s 2011, going into 2012, a tumultuous year or so in Europe affecting everyone from the great and the good down to the two old soaks in a Dublin bar. The Eurozone crisis, a succession of deaths in the pop world, visits to Ireland by the Queen and Barack Obama, the London Olympics, other sporting events, tribal loyalties—they’re all up for discussion by these worldly-wise observers meeting up for the odd jar or two.

Nameless, though with individual voices, this middle-aged pair come together to chew the fat on family, fame, news and other miscellanea in short conversational vignettes. In some ways they are a modern equivalent of Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon: the spotlight is totally on them and their inconsequential chat full of what might or might not be of meaningful significance: always humorous, sometimes poignant and for us now, at a few years’ remove, it’s even somewhat nostalgic.

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Cleansing the heart

Thomas De Quincey:
On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts
No 4 Penguin Little Black Classics 2015 (1827)

A note in this postcard-sized publication, issued to celebrate eighty years of Penguin paperbacks, tells us that the 26-year-old author was somewhat affected by the Ratcliffe Highway murders in London’s East End in late 1811. We know from The Maul and the Pear Tree how deeply traumatising for the public those violent killings were, and De Quincey apparently was to write more than once about them over some three decades.

In 1827 he wrote this witty satire for Blackwood’s Magazine—a piece which, incidentally, I fancy the Brontë siblings would have eagerly pored over—in the course of which X. Y. Z. (De Quincey’s pseudonym) quotes verbatim a lecture to the fictional Society of Connoisseurs in Murder. As the magazine editor noted, “We cannot suppose the lecturer to be in earnest, any more than Erasmus in his Praise of Folly, or Dean Swift in his proposal for eating children.” But we can also suspend our disbelief for a while to examine the outrageous claims of the anonymous lecturer, all written in a perfectly learned and civil style. Entitled the Williams’ Lecture on Murder (in honour of the supposed perpetrator of the Ratcliffe Highway atrocities) the text is full of Latin and Greek quotations which fortunately are here translated for us in square brackets.

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Cynical but insightful

Nick Yapp: Bluff Your Way in Teaching
Ravette Publishing 1998 (1987)

This fell out of the bookshelves recently where it had somehow got wodged in and unnoticed. I didn’t ignore the irony as I myself had somehow got wodged into school education, only managing to extricate myself many years later by the skin of my teeth (and with my heart in my mouth, just to mix metaphors). I couldn’t finish this when I first came across it for it was much too painful — despite its deliberately humorous take on the state of pedagogy it was too close to the madness that pertained in British teaching at the time, and no doubt still does. Would a revisit bring back the pain?

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Manual for men

Credit: https://www.penguin.co.uk/series/LBGU/ladybird-books-for-grown-ups/

J A Hazeley and J P Morris
How It Works: The Husband
Ladybird Books 2015

My guess is that this book is designed for anyone who is not a husband — the wife, the fiancée, the boy in need of a role model, extraterrestrial visitors and the like — but, speaking as a husband, I found much to enlighten me within these pages. Like many practical manuals it describes the subject’s strengths and weaknesses, gives insights into his interior workings and pictures him at work and play, following lone pursuits and attempting to socialise. What it doesn’t do, however, is to suggest ways to improve or maintain the husband; quite the opposite — in its otherwise comprehensive thoroughness it seems to implicitly advise a take-it-or-leave-it approach. It’s a rather fatalistic and bleak picture that’s painted.

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Cockatoo memento mori

Cockatoo (image credit: http://thegraphicsfairy.com/vintage-clip-art-cockatoo-engraving-natural-history/)

Grandmother Mary once had a canary (or so it was said at the zoo)
though I was distracted, nay, even attracted by large piles of elephant poo.
It wasn’t the smell — this much I could tell — that drew my attention to these,
nor even the texture or neat architecture occasioning all my unease
but the terrible sight which ramped up my fright: a gaunt yellow-grey cockatoo!
The song that it sung as it strode up the dung was turning the air somewhat blue!

“Grandmother Mary once had a canary!” it trilled, but with four-letter words.
The bulk of the song was equally strong — it even appalled other birds.
The story it told in language so bold concerned sweet Grandmother Mary:
the bird did insist, “She’s a mad scientist and, me, I was once her canary!
She fed me oceans of foul-smelling potions to turn me from fair looks to foul.
Convinced, the old meanie, that she was Athene, she tried to change me to an owl!
She got it quite wrong,” or so went its song, “mistaking Birds Custard for glue —
for Grandmother Mary ate something real scary — and turned into elephant poo!

Old Gran we interred, as advised by the bird, soon after its heart-rending story.
It raves this sad song on her grave all day long: a cockatoo memento mori.


Doggerel inspired by the first line of the parody of the Scottish Cock o’ the North song and dance tune. One of the many bawdy versions includes these lines:

Aunty Mary had a canary up the leg of her drawers
When she farted it departed to a round of applause.

It is possible to sing my lines to Cock o’ the North — just — but you many need to take it at a funereal pace and possibly pop it into the minor key