Kevin Saving on

Four Smokestacks and a Joker

Ian McMillan, The Tale of Walter the Pencil Man (2013)
Tom Leonard (Trans), Mother Courage and her Children (2014)
Richard Skinner, the light user scheme (2013)
Pauline Plummer, From Here to Timbuktu (2012)
All published by Smokestack Books (Middlesbrough)
and
Domenico Iannaco, Galahad (Joker, 2010)


The Tale of Walter the Pencil Man (words by Ian McMillan, Drawings by Tony Husband) is, at the very least, about something important: the futility and utter wastefulness of human conflict. It tells the fictional story (in Sesta Rima -ababcc) of two soldier-artists of the First World War -and is lodged securely in the O What a Lovely War!/ Blackadder Goes Fourth school of history. The 'bard of Barnsley's narrative sets off promisingly enough:

Imagine this: A pit village, 1914;
A row of houses standing in the cold.
A covering of snow has settled on the green
A winter sun is shining like fool's gold.

but sags somewhat in the middle, with predictable rhymes and wavering, uncertain scansion. Some of the action is, militarily at least, unlikely -whilst Husband's black and white artwork tends towards the schematic. If this production's 'marketing target' is the 'Young Adult' age-group -and this is uncertain- then The Tale of Walter the Pencil Man might well form a useful primer to the events of 1914-18. It obviously means well.

*
Bertholt Brecht's play, Mother Courage and Her Children has deservedly become a classic since it was first penned in the late Thirties. This new translation -by the scottish writer Tom Leonard- sees the eponymous anti-heroine kitted-out with a Glaswegian patois, though this can seem intrusive. For instance, the Michael Hofmann/John Willett version (of 2006) renders Mother Courage's closing song as follows:

The new year's come. The watchmen shout.
The thaw sets in. The dead remain.
Wherever life has not died out
It staggers to its feet again.

Leonard's new text reads:

It's springtime noo! move on your way
the snow's aw gone. the deid lie deid
but you that huvny died as yet
the powers that be, they still do need.

Two other examples (from the end of Scene Eight):

From Ulm to Metz, from Metz to Munich!
Courage will see the war get fed.
The war will show a well-filled tunic
Given its daily shot of lead.
But lead alone can hardly nourish
It must have soldiers to subsist.
It's you it needs to make it flourish.
The war's still hungry. So enlist!
(Willett)

From here to there, from there tae aw place
Courage's cart will aye be seen
The war needs guns tae fill its bawface
For guns and bullets always keen!
But guns an bullets willny fill it
Its regiments they still need you
so join the ranks, get to your billet
sign up yir name tae fight the noo!
(Leonard)

Having no expertise with the German tongue -has, I wonder, Mr Leonard?- I feel unqualified to discuss which translation is the more authentically 'Brechtian'. I do have decided views about the on-going corruption of standard English for anything other than the most compelling reasons (Leonard has plenty of 'previous' here). Perhaps Brecht's use of a highly idiosyncratic Hamburg dialect provides some excuse -and it is certainly possible to see how 'dramatic' or 'comic' tension might be enhanced by this stratagem. This new 'take' is definitely a very 'free' one, but I don't believe that it represents much in the way of 'improvement' on versions already in existence. That said, I'm certain that Mr Leonard would readily concur with Brecht's own 'notes' to the play, which avow that (during wartime)

the big profits are not made by the little people. That war, which is a continuation of business by other means, makes the human virtues fatal even to their possessors. That no sacrifice is too great for the struggle against war.

*

the light user scheme, by Richard Skinner, consists of an imagistic series of 74 vignettes of which the first, 'all she wants grows blue' is, for me, the most successful:

She would stand alone in front of a mirror, stroking her belly,
looking for signs.
She was puzzled by the expression she saw there.

Later, he climbed up to the bridge and looked out over the city.
It was night and the city orange.
The river swelled, folding in on itself, like muscles.

It is possible to see that this vignette is 'about' a failed pregnancy and its aftermath. Other examples, with titles like 'the secret springs of action' and 'tanzania, 1903' are more uncertain in their intentions.

'Mule Tours'

As a boy, he saw a white horse plummet into water
and longed to join the circus in Colorado.

As an old man, he saw a white horse standing
just off Piccadilly Circus, with steam pluming from its back.

He thought the horse had maybe lived a double life
as he knew a crazy mother
would suspect of her wicked daughter.

Of course, none of this is new: Ezra Pound was writing 'observations' like this over a hundred years ago, as In a Station of the Metro (1913)

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
petals on a wet, black bough.

The most dangerous drawbacks to this kind of novelistic technique are opacity and/or pretentiousness, coupled with an openness to parody by the likes of Tim Key (and, indeed, others).

Diana glides in her diaphanous gown
towards those distant dunes;
merging with the Saharan night
she drops, swift as a falling star,
to take a dump.

*

The best of the four Smokestacks reviewed here has to be Pauline Plummer's From Here to Timbuktu, which features a modern-day group of tourists/pilgrims travelling to the west African town for an assortment of reasons. Plummer exhibits a sharp eye for both characterisation and telling detail, satirising her protagonists (mostly in Chaucerian rime royal). As her holiday-makers tell their tales and enact their little dramas, the writer makes no attempt to disguise her inspiration by Boccaccio and Chaucer. One is inclined to forgive Ms Plummer her occasional wrenched-rhymes for the trenchant points she makes regarding western consumerism and spiritual bankruptcy. The Californian lawyer, Rick, is a good case in point:

He's fifty but he doesn't have a wife
Just dates a string of pretty girl friends
But dumps them when he's bored -a fun-filled life
Where thrilling pleasure doesn't have to end.
Commitment free. Like an oyster you depend
Upon yourself -buy health, install a gym
To build up pecs plus pool for daily swim.

Plummer has written a warm and witty, ultimately moving, narrative -and I even gained the impression that she may actually have been to Tombouctou. It helps.

*
Domenico Iannaco's Galahad (Joker, 2010) is an intense, ambitious meditation suffused by a species of speculative, apocalyptic, quasi-Arthurian symbolism which inhabits a world far removed from any which this reviewer has encountered. A brief example will have to suffice (from 'The Temptation. The Price', -eighteenth of twenty-four cantos):

The androgynous Dragon,
Comes full of the
Tragic perverted Beauty of a suicide
And bouncing
On his knees, he sees the spiders
And the snakes chewing the throat of a comic hero,
In a vortex of dull surfaces,
To be there and then.

That Iannaco is a talented illustrative artist is amply evidenced by this edition's striking front cover, 'Beatrix' -depicting a girl who is at once both haunted and haunting. I love the illustration, but was less enamoured of the writing style, albeit still impressive for an Italian writing in his second language.

Kevin Saving © 2014