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Utter Nonsense in Hastings

You might see this title and think “Yes, and…?” or even “Is that an instruction?” Hastings, after all, is no stranger to utter nonsense.

Cathy Simpson reviews a delightful book which looks at the work of the masters, Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, and their close connections with Hastings.

Written by Michael Short and lovingly illustrated by his wife, Elaine, this book’s subtitle is Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll, and all that jazz – and that’s really where it all started. The book came about as the result of a concert performed at Hastings Museum & Art Gallery in 2010. It included poems by the two writers, some of which were set to music by the jazz composer Neil Ardley and then by Michael Short himself. A historic narrative linked all the items together, and provided the starting point for this book.  Songs and poems were performed in a totally deadpan manner despite the hilarious, nonsensical words – a device which often makes the humour even funnier.

In truth, the whole book has something of this quality to it. Michael Short is a well-respected academic, and his historic accounts of Lear and Carroll pay meticulous attention to detail. Edward Lear is best known for his poetry rather than his painting, and does not immediately spring to mind in connection with the Pre-Raphaelites, but he and Holman Hunt took a holiday here together. Lewis Carroll was primarily a mathematician, and it is good to see some of his puzzles included here. And, of course, there are the well-loved verses from both writers, sometimes detailing the circumstances in which they were written, sometimes relating these circumstances to Short’s own musical interpretations.

It was a fascinating time historically, but it’s the wonderful little anecdotes which really make this work sing; such as Lear’s landlady in St Leonard’s feeding him on meat cut from an enormous leg of mutton.  Then he noticed that an elephant was missing from a local circus procession and wrote to a friend: “On the whole I do not recommend dead elephant as daily food.”

There is also an edifying account of Carroll’s experiences of speech therapy at Ore House. It is this kind of intimacy which makes the book really readable; it’s unusual to gain this degree of insight into these characters, but it stays comfortably this side of being gossipy.

All the favourites from Lear and Carroll are here, such as The Owl and the Pussycat, and Jabberwocky – but, for me, the pick of the bunch is The Mad Gardener’s Song, from Sylvie and Bruno (one of Lewis Carroll’s lesser-known works).  I’ve tried to read Sylvie and Bruno.  It’s like trying to wade through cement – and then in the middle of it there’s this wonderful poem, not unlike You are Old, Father William.

Here’s one of the verses, just to whet your appetite:

He thought he saw an Argument
That proved he was the Pope:
He looked again, and found it was
A Bar of Mottled Soap
‘A fact so dread,’he faintly said,
Extinguishes all hope!’

The book concludes with a review of the actual performance, and also a note to say that they hoped that it would encourage people to read or re-read Lear and Carroll. I hope this book does, too.

Michael and Elaine Short will be talking nonsense and signing copies at
Battle Pop Up Bookshop (inside Costa on the High Street)
on Easter Saturday – 30 March, 10.30am – 3.30pm
and
Waterstones Hastings
13 April, 10.30am – 3.30pm

Utter Nonsense in Hastings
Michael & Elaine Short
Published by Circaidy Gregory Press – visit their website.

Posted 08:58 Tuesday, Mar 26, 2013 In: Poetry

Also in: Poetry

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