Imagine if you can a man
6'5" in his stockinged feet
Let me re-phrase that
and start again
Imagine if you can a man, 6'5" in his socks
and a scowl that stretches from his English roots
to the forbidden pastures of The World of Fun. And imagine
a man if you can, 6'4" as he stands framed against
a crime he didn't commit but only dreamed of,
night after night, and the days
are getting shorter, and the months and the years.
If you can imagine, imagine a man who stands 6'3",
and he's standing next to a dwarf holding
a mirror. Everything in a poem means something
but not everything is important. Imagine if you can
a man who's 6'2" according to his police file
and 6'1" according to his doctor
and of absolutely no account according to his ex-wife.
Now, having imagined this man, let's move on
and listen to him talking about tonight's subject,
by William Makepeace Thackeray.
or if you are listening to this in another time zone,
good morning/afternoon/night (delete as appropriate).
It's my pleasure and my honour etc.
as many of you will be aware,
is Thackeray's homage to Hemingway's novella
The Old Man and The Sea,
a story about an old man and the sea.
In The Tempest,
the same tired old questions
Hemingway bores us all with for, thankfully,
not very long but long enough:
the price of fish, the price of fish, the price of fish,
and will I ever see my home again?
The fish, of course, is a metaphor for something,
but critics are divided as to what.
Some say this, some say that.
Personally, I think it's whatever.
That's one of the great things about literary criticism:
she's all things to all men, and some women.
Now - I know what you're thinking:
you're thinking how much did I give to listen to this drivel?
William Makepeace Thackeray enjoyed horseback riding
and kept a horse, and the horse in literature
is pretty much the same as a fish in the sea.
If you don't believe me, try catching one.
What do we want in life, from life, after life?
Thackeray says horse,
Hemingway says fish, or bull, or anything you can kill.
Eliot (either one, it doesn't matter) says dinner on time,
the correct wine,
and it all amounts to the same thing.
And I know what you're thinking:
you're thinking why,
in The Tempest,
does Thackeray have Miranda try to stop Lear
from gouging out Romeo's eyes?
Being in love with the ghost of your own mother
(who, as it happens, looks like your father)
doesn't seem a credible reason,
and anyway what's it got to do with her?
She should be minding her own business,
and preparing for her swimming lessons with Ophelia.
Which brings me neatly and sweetly to my point.
During his lifetime
Thackeray was ranked second only to Adele,
Beyonce, Rihanna and Christina Aguilera,
but these days nobody listens to him
and his most famous work, Vanity Fair,
is consistently outsold by almost everyone,
including people who can't compose a decent sentence.
The reasons are many and various, but might include:
Thackeray is realistic but not realistic enough;
Thackeray is not sentimental but he is somewhat out of time,
and when he enters a room the 18th century enters with him;
Thackeray digresses and talks to the reader
and too often breaks the illusion of everything being an illusion.
So imagine if you can a man, 5'9', with thick wavy hair
and a broad nose upon which sit small wire-framed eyeglasses.
He walks with a slight limp
and his fingers are stained with nicotine.
Each evening he sits in a dimly lit room
and writes letters to himself. This is how people
disappear, this is how your friends forget
about you, this is how small insignificant maladies
develop into debilitating life-threatening illnesses. And suddenly
I notice the janitor is lingering at the back of the hall,
and not very subtly drawing my attention to the keys he is holding.
My time is very nearly up, it seems.
I'm not sure I've said everything I wanted to say,
or made myself at all clear.
Before I set out I had all the words in the correct order
but somehow they became jumbled,
and many escaped to freedom while my back was turned.
My approach was comforting, like the family doctor
who should have retired around the time the last King died,
and he's at your bedside smoking his pipe
and wearing soft woollen mittens
that make his handling of the leeches a little clumsy.
My ideas were clear as the air on a frost-bitten morning
when Clarity perches in the boughs of a leafless tree
like a bird, a sparrow or, more seasonably, a robin,
and the air is clear, neither misty nor hazy,
and there's no smoke drifting from kitchen chimneys
because everyone has central heating.
My insights were liberating, as when one's teacher
explains you don't need to read books,
because books only conceal Clarity as a coffin contains a carcass,
and you should go out into the world and live,
and words are only things in a world of things,
and they should be freed from the bindings that bind and limit them,
and your mind with them,
like a boat that was at anchor and is set adrift
to drift on the relentless ocean where old men can be found
looking for the past, when they were alive.
Yes, I had it word perfect and it was all going to be okay.