The Crickets

In all parts of this fair world, the industrious writer faces distractions. As I sat down at my desk this afternoon I was more conscious than ever of the sound of crickets. I first noticed their ceaseless chirruping, of course, upon my arrival. I did not remark on it, but registered it nonetheless, marking it down as one of the more notable differences between my old home and my new.  At the same time I presumed I would soon get used to it.

That is almost, but not exactly, the case. The sound is now a familiar one; as familiar as the buzzing of electrical cables, or starlings playing on the roofs. Yet I would hesitate to say that it has become mere background noise. For crickets are never easy to ignore. Their song remains the same, but the tone and volume has a tendency of shifting subtlety. Just when you think you’ve got them pegged, they move into another gear. The chirping changes. New crickets move into the vicinity and raise the chorus to a new level. The chatter rises and falls, folds and unfolds, rolls and, when you least expect it, relents.

Crickets never really stop: the industrious writer grasps this early on. They keep on humming, day and night. They always have something to say, and it isn’t always nice to hear. On certain days their tune has about it a wistful melancholic air. On others it buzzes vibrantly, like a happy refrigerator. More often than not, however, it drones like the lawnmower of a zealous gardener. You want to shut it out, but you can’t. The only thing to do is to accept that it is there, that it will always be there, and that if you wait long enough, it will probably move into another register: not distinctly different, but never quite the same.

As with the crickets, so with the critics. They will always be with us, muttering and moaning, grousing and grumbling, objecting and opposing. You can’t pretend to drown them out entirely. At the very least, though, you can accept their awkward, eternal presence, and enjoy those brief moments in which their murmur becomes music.

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The Critic’s Work

The critic’s work is never done; none believed this so much as Johannes Speyer, to the extent that he spent the vast majority of his career actively avoiding the act of criticism. As Wolfgang Heizler’s biography has pointed out, Speyer was first and foremost a critic of criticism. His life was one in which he limbered up, stretched his mind, and prepared himself methodically for a task that he never had any real intention of completing. Rather than write about books, he wrote, at some length, about the (im)possibility of writing about books: the problems and the pitfalls, the complications and contradictions. He criticised himself out of existence.

Chapter Six, Part Three.

Measuring Up

‘A critic once said to me, “Leo, you truly are a giant among men”. I smiled. “You flatter yourself,” I replied: “I’d always thought of myself as a man among dwarves”. The last time I checked, said critic was referring to me as a louse. That must make him a grub.’ (Leo Barnard)

Real Ale in Real Taverns

The world is full of non-believers, as Mr Frank Key proves in this post. It seems that some queer souls think the ‘singularly squalid tavern’ that is The Cow and Pins is a figment of Mr. Key’s imagination. A singularly squalid thought, that’s what this is.

Whilst we’re on the subject of spurious taverns, nevertheless, I might as well add that a young man of my acquaintance once made similar accusations regarding the existence of my favourite London public house, The Crippled Bee. I ought to point out that this man was a critic: a so-called ‘firebrand’ of the younger generation, whose ‘hilarious’ articles on the state of Belgian fiction had ‘delighted’ literary crowds in South London. He was, in short, short. Short on imagination, short on soul and short on credit at the bank of talents. His passing resemblance to Bob Dylan was never going to take him anywhere (except perhaps to a job as critic for a popular national newspaper, which is what he now does).

I am, however, veering off the point. The fact is that, though I should not like to think of myself as a man who forms cliques, or refuses to extend welcome to anyone outside of a specific belief system, I do nonetheless draw lines. And this man, red cravate and all, stood squarely on the other side of one of those lines. Which is why, all things considered, that when he asked me the whereabouts of that fabulous tavern The Crippled Bee, I took it upon myself to produce a prevarication. May all the gods forgive me, but I even went so far as to suggest that he was right to question its geographical location, for the actuality was that said tavern did not actually exist.

You must understand my motives. The Crippled Bee is a quiet place, frequented by a gentle sort. It has a thoroughly artistic identity, it always has done, but it doesn’t like to throw it in one’s face. A few literary events take place every now and again (take this one, for instance) but nothing out of the ordinary. There’s nothing remotely showy about the place – which is why the idea of it being populated by this young man and his cronies filled my pint glass with the dark ale of fear. Better to keep them away, no?

No. I probably shouldn’t have gone so far. God knows the place could do with a little more business, especially in these troubled times. And perhaps we old folk might have learned something from this curly-haired oik. On the other hand…

Smudged Lurgsy

Research calls me away for a week, denying me the opportunity to engage in such critical mayhem as may or may not be found in and around the margins of this dear blog of mine. I implore you all, however, to feel quite free to fight among yourselves in the meantime, for I have no intention of feeling left out. Indeed – inspired by my blog-hosts’ proud insistence on a brand new feature  – I even have gone so far as to leave you a little something to play with in my absence.

As some of you will no doubt know, the Bulgarian poet Tomas Lurgsy lived in London between 1975-9, refreshing his mind after a generally flawed attempt to reignite romantic rural poetry in his homeland (see here). During this short period he wrote some of his first poems in English – and a lot of his worst in any language. There were, nevertheless, a few gems – the majority of which concerned his increasing paranoia over the subject of flooding. The origins of this fear are not hard to pinpoint. In 1971 a flashflood hit his hometown in Bulgaria. The local graveyard, in which Lurgsy’s father had been lain only weeks before, was ferociously hit. Mr Lurgsy’s headstone (bought cheap and thereby weaker than your average grave-marker) was never recovered from the ensuing wreckage. The widespread pyschological damage caused by this event was equally difficult to correct. Still, Lurgsy set about it in the way he knew best: by scribbling lines of poetry onto the back of shop receipts, paper bags and bus tickets.

Though these were undoubtedly the best things he wrote at this time, he treated them casually, rarely working ideas up into any sort of significant form. Most of the works are, thus, incomplete scraps: tantalizing glimpses of what might have been. For this reason alone, scholars have long been treading on each others’ toes to throw forward their own theories; to sort the jumbled masses of half-finished odes into some kind of pattern; to substitute smudged or missing words with something of their own; something suited to their grand critical masterplan. ‘Herein lies the true Lurgsy’ wrote one critic. And lo, the graverobbers descended upon the body of literary fragments.

As the initial dust began to settle, it appeared that at least half a dozen commentators were narrowing their focus to a single piece; four, seemingly unfinished lines scrawled on the reverse of a cinema ticket. What was so special about these four lines? Who can say? Perhaps they represented a summary of Lurgsy’s London work. All the big themes were there: flooding, graves, morbidity…. Ah, but not all the words were there. One word – the second word – was smudged beyond detection: quite impossible to make out. What could it be? Everyone, literally everyone, had a different answer.

Many months have passed – and yet the battles wages on. Lurgsy’s smudged word has become, for some, a holy grail. It seems so simple – and yet the options are, it appears, endless. What better thing to do, therefore, but to open the floor to the wider world? Let them all have their say. One person’s word is as good as another, no?

Well, maybe not, but I am content to let that concept wander away for now. In the meantime, allow me to present to you Lurgsy’s infamous London lines:

the —– crushed, blood thoughts regather:
roll to rivers in bad weather;
rushing forth to greet again
the field of my dear father’s grave 

 As for the mysterious second word (or, indeed, words) well, the choice is yours. I have provided a sprinkling of suggestions from the most eminent Lurgsy scholars (no prizes for guessing who put ‘ball-sack’ forward), though you are far from dissuaded from dipping your own toe in the great pond of poetic propositions. As I said, feel fight amongst yourselves. I look forward to entering the fray at a later date.