Some time around 1981, I shared a bottle of British Council bubbly with the satiric writer Tom Sharpe, author of the Wilt books. He was telling me his father had been a fervent supporter of the National Socialists and thought Hitler was the best thing since Bluebeard. This was in Paris, looking out on the Champs de Mars. “There’s nothing like a Nazi father,” said Sharp, “to bring out the comic muse.”
I used to be a bit of a fan of the Wilt books but I haven’t gone back to them in a long while. Does the withering comedy still stand up? What happens to satire when its targets move on? I was reminded of Wilt’s manner and voice while reading Death Comes for the Poets. While few of us had Nazi dads, the satiric muse springs from wanting to kick the pricks. Death Comes for the Poets takes a pot shot at the incestuous world of poetry and its British Council offshore holdings.
Jobbing in the service of poetry occurs in the small hours in Maidstone, above a pub, an audience you could count on two hands, including a child and the nuns and your arch enemy from the poetry wars in the back row. Scattered applause. One book signed, none sold.
Our puffed-up poet is Fergal Diver, wine buff, food writer, the kind of preener who uses the word ‘aficionado’. He repairs after his desultory reading for a solo Indian meal and a 2005 Rioja. Death Comes for the Poets is the product of decades in the poetry jungle, looking out for the undercover snakes and swatting at the mosquitoes. “Utterly Maidstone.” Maidstone is only the start of it: the booze, the bad meals, the trains fucked up, the books not sold and only a haiku to show for your troubles at the end of the month.
The fun is in the roman à clef aspect. The authors tongue-in-cheekily invite the reader to join up the dots, to match their fictional poets with real-life counterparts. They’re composite beings, you feel you might have met them at the backs of readings, or heard them wittering in Bloomsbury offices, or taking the steps three at a time at the South Bank, but you can’t quite put your finger on them. Tambi Kumar is the sub-continent gone fruity, with slightly off English. The Oirish poet Barnaby Brown is steeped in folk up to his oxters. Damian Krapp of Tavistock Square, who runs the big little magazine on a shoestring, is, well, crap as a poet. They’re all figures from central poetry casting.
It’s a satire of the state-sponsored poetry world, held up by pubs and little reviews and diminishing funding, teetering on the edge of collapse, with a few wild men poets wheeled in from the outer islands to give the poetry tea party its undercurrent of authenticity. One by one they fall.
Cut to Victor Priest, head honcho at Artcrimes, driving a Porsche and with plenty of readies. Priest’s stomping ground is Lambs Conduit Street, gentrified Hackney, and a cliff-top house where he indulges his culinary savvy. There’s a lot of eating and drinking in this who-done-it, and death does make us hungry. Priest is a private dick, a gentleman gumshoe derived from Conan Doyle crossed with the man from U.N.C.L.E. The poets are being done away with and it’s Priest’s job to get to the bottom of it.
Mrs Diver hires him. One of the delightful aspects of this noirish bard-slaying novel is the way it echoes, borrows from and sends up the characters, locations and tics of a slew of genres: tv cop programmes, Chinatown, The Third Man. Priest is assisted in his quest by two acolytes: wide-boy Joe Biggs and Naily, a Scottish punk with a stud through her tongue.
This is a view of Britain from vantage points off-shore; a state of the poetry nation. Not with the nostalgiform of lanes and choir stalls but an island whose poetry world operates like The Avengers: poetasters galore, Kumar wittering on about Tagore, Emma Peel lookalikes. There is a lot of micro-sociology in Death Comes For the Poets: you could rocket it out to space and the sages there could reconstruct the state of Britain’s poetry world from the novel’s details.
Much amusement, then, in this puncturing of poetic pretension. The flickering affirming flames are snuffed out like tea lights in front of the altar. Like all good satire, it is salutary. Yeats’ words preface Death Comes for the Poets: “None of us can say who will succeed or even who has or has not talent. The only thing certain about us is that we are too many.”
Next time you’re reading above the pub in Maidstone or Scunthorpe you would do well to look behind you. You never know who might stab you in the back with a well-honed stiletto or the business end of an icicle.
Padraig Rooney’s In The Bonsai Garden won the Patrick Kavanagh Award in 1986. The Fever Wards was published by Salt in 2010. He lives in Basel, Switzerland.
Death Comes for the Poets by Matthew Sweeney and John Hartley Williams is published by Muswell Press, £12.
(to read previous Magma blog reviews, please click on the ‘Reviews’ tag immediately below)