Connect Magazine Bard’s Eye View Jun-Jul 2003

Bard’s Eye View

I’m really proud to come from Totnes, although, strictly speaking, I don’t. I wasn’t born here, I wasn’t brought up here, but I’ve lived here longer than I’ve lived anywhere else so, when I’m doing a gig elsewhere in the country, to all intents and purposes I come from Totnes. I say so, and people titter. I explain to the rest of the audience why they’re tittering. And they can join in.

But I’m proud to be associated, however vaguely and spuriously, with that alternative Totnes. Recently I took part in an anti-war demo. I was invited to read a poem. Do you have any war poems? Anti-war poems, obviously, ha ha. But I didn’t. I don’t have any pro-war poems either, I said, sheepishly. Well, hardly any. Ha ha.

In the end I read an Adrian Mitchell poem, from the Body, a simple, moving piece with no hidden meanings. It ended ‘Long live the children.’ You can’t argue with that.
The march was reported in our local paper, the Totnes Times, alongside a piece stating that, in accordance with the owner’s wishes, this would be the last time they’d report such events ‘til after hostilities had ceased.

Pavement graffiti was stepped up. (!) ‘Boycott the Totnes Times’ thundered a paving stone by the Civic Square. ‘Back the Troops, Sack the Masters’ muttered a slab outside Revival, in the Narrows. The biodegradable graffiti became so plentiful, remained so articulate, topical and detailed it was like public service broadcasting, an alternative local paper in itself. I half expected to find a £250 and under column outside Woolworth’s, or a round up of the WI’s by the Guildhall.

Then a real alternative came along. At first glance it is the Totnes Times – same blue banner title same typeface, paper, print,– closer inspection reveals it to be the Troubled Times. It’s brilliant. Passionate, funny and informative. Poetic, even. There are many definitions of poetry, ranging from ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’ through ‘the synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits’ to my favourite: ‘poetry is news that stays news’. By this criterion the Troubled Times just about qualifies. Although galvanised by Ray Tindle’s decision, it’s more than just a spoof or one-issue satire. And you don’t have to be local to enjoy it. Ask someone you know in Totnes to get you a copy. Or get to know someone in Totnes. Remember to approach them gently. If you find you startle them away, try Harlequin Bookshop. Here you’ll need to speak firmly and brook no nonsense. Buy one of my books while you’re there.

Andrew Motion recently spoke of the need to ‘perform acts of imagination in the face of barbarism’. Recent months saw many such acts, some of them brave some, some funny, most unreported. One protest image that has stayed with me is the one word, Peace, spelt out in capitals on a hill in Ashdown Forest, East Sussex by an intrepid group of thirty or so nudists. Or, rather, nude people. A subtle distinction.

It was a sunny day but you knew it was cold. They’d risked goose-bumps in their dedication to the cause. Their nudity was, obviously, the key attention-grabber, but so it wouldn’t then distract from the message they were spelling out, they chastely covered their privates with their hands. Not out of modesty I imagine, but concern that overt genitalia might distract from the message. They may also have had an awareness that those going nude in public outside designated naturist zones can be prosecuted for obscenity – an ironic possibility set against the obscenity of war.

For me their display served to highlight the fragility, vulnerability and downright creatureliness of human beings. (My spellchecker doesn’t accept the word creatureliness. It has four settings: Casual, Standard, Formal and Technical. I’m going to have to upgrade it to Slightly Pretentious.) I found it poignant and funny, and it was effective, too, in getting the message out: It made the front page of the Guardian, and page three of the Sun. Well, I made up the second bit, but it does suggest an idea.

Protests aside, I think Nude Spelling has a lot to offer, as both a participation and spectator activity. I hesitate to say sport. Nude Adult Spelling, I should say. It’s a bit like synchronised swimming, only drier, and more nude. I think it would make an excellent TV game-show. Amusing, mildly titillating, and crucially, educational.

I see groups of people of all backgrounds ages and body-types, in all weathers, huddled together on hillsides around the countryside ‘til the word is given. Then (no conferring) they begin to move. Cameras would be far enough away not to dwell on genitalia but close enough to see what was spelt and see the process by which the collective amorphous throng takes shape and form and achieves language. In Advanced Nude Adult Spelling participants could be allowed boots and gloves to mimic certain fonts.

You think I’m joking- or at least I hope you think I’m joking – but I think it could have an educational, scientific, research aspect. Groups would have to act as a single organism, each nude individual like a stem cell, following inner promptings to find, by feel and intuition, which letter to contribute to, and how. We would see whether men or women are more drawn to being vowels or consonants. Whether they naturally formed serif or san serif fonts. It would also be an opportunity to test my theory that no matter what the average IQ and disposition of the individuals in a group, its overall intelligence and good humour diminishes in proportion to its size. Thus the larger the crowd the less complex its responses and the closer it is to becoming a single-celled organism. If correct this would shed light on the phenomenon whereby a countries of apparently responsible, compassionate citizens behave in irresponsible ways.

I’m not saying nude adult spelling will provide answers or remedies for this. I am saying, if there are any TV producers out there who recognise a winning format when they hear it, that I’d be happy to be the host of such a show. Or just a humble spell-checker. Meanwhile I’ll be running workshops in Totnes

Leaving nudity, but staying with spelling: On Poetry and Wordplay workshops I always ask people not to worry about spelling and grammar, but focus on writing what they feel like and letting it flow. But there’s one spelling mistake which does get to me, a little, and while no-one wants to come across as a repellent, smartarse, anally retentive pedant now – but no-one’s perfect, at least not in my eyes – when I talk about the essential difference between complementary and complimentary therapies. Because there is a difference. And it has to be said, in the beginning of Connect’s existence, the back pages did say Complimentary rather then Complementary. And it always got to me.

Recently someone said to me: You can spell it either way – it means the same thing. And I thought, right, this is going in Bard’s Eye View. There comes a time in every anally retentive pedant’s life when he has to stand up and be counted, to the nearest decimal point.

So, let me spell it out: A complimentary therapy is one you get free with something else, e.g. an Indian head massage free with every 40 litres of unleaded petrol. (Strictly speaking that’s a complimentary complementary therapy.) A complement is that which fills up or completes. To complement someone is, well, it’s like Jack Sprat who’d eat no fat, and who’s wife would eat no lean, and so between them both they licked the platter clean. There’s was a complementary relationship, an early role model of sorts, although diet-wise they were very much of their time. A compliment is an expression of admiration or praise. When you compliment someone you say something like: ‘I love your top, Monica, it accentuates the Slavic majesty of you cheeks’; or, ‘Hmmm, Rupert, nice moussaka.’

Of course the above compliments, if offered without discernible sarcasm, could conceivably bolster self-esteem and pep up a flagging immune system. This other meaning of complimentary therapy leads into the area of affirmations and the placebo effect, a rich field which I intend to explore next issue. I really think you’re going to enjoy it. You are, you are, you are.

Trust me. I’m adopted.

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