Nasty Little Press, 2011 £5.00
Reviewed by Charlotte Gann, Ross Kightly and D A Prince
This short sweet collection from John Osborne is really good fun. It’s an easy read, not a word out of place—a poetic Nick Hornby for the next generation. The formula seems simple: humour, with a pinch of pathos, perfectly scanned, and away you go. But it is really good fun—and I could have happily read three times the number of poems at one sitting, chortling away to myself.
Osborne’s jokes are funny—if, at times, well worn (I found the jilting-girlfriend theme a tad hackneyed, for instance). But his work throughout is immaculately executed. It’s generously packed with contemporary references to popular culture, jokes, and flights of wonderfully imagined fancy—like this, from ‘A go home moment’:
......Maybe hailstones will start smashing through the pub ceiling
......more biblical than Moses.
...... 'Follow me!' someone will say, running outside,
......climbing down a manhole cover
......and they’ll all gather in a nuclear bunker
......and see the Mayor in full regalia,
......local celebrities playing computer games on beanbags.
......'Were you followed?' the Mayoress would ask,
......taking drinks orders.
More than once I thought I’d reached the end of a poem, only to turn the page and find, with real pleasure, there was plenty more where that came from.
Some of the pieces moved me. My favourites included ‘Pages from Ceefax’ (“‘Let’s all quit Facebook!’ I type as my status update”), ‘A go-home moment’, and ‘Ambition is like a bumbling tourist guide’:
......'. . . I’m pretty sure if we take a shortcut through this field . . .'
......The man next to me tells me he was almost an airline pilot
......as we wade through the muddy grass,
......but he failed the final exam
‘The admin of being PM’, on the other hand, left me rather colder: though perfectly well turned, it seemed to exist simply for the sake of its one central joke. That said, ‘Frozen’ made me laugh out loud, an experience I very much enjoyed while sitting reading a poetry pamphlet.
I’d definitely recommend this little book, with its 14 eloquent poems. I loved its look and feel too, and almost-pocket format, although I was a little interrupted by a couple of typos, including one in the very first poem.
This one comes in a curiously-sized format, not quite half of A5, and it has a nice feel in the hand—though its compactness does mean the print is rather small on the attractive yellow paper.
Enough of the carping: this is a fine collection combining many virtues: humour combined with pathos, plus effective characterisation, all demonstrated in the first poem 'Surprise' which also displays another of the collection's virtues: colloquial and conversational rhythmic vigour. A birthday party thrown by a girlfriend to which none of the narrators friends turn up—things do not go well and
......By the time we sang the happy birthday song
......the waiter was so pissed he'll probably be fired
......but anyone who can dance like that
......is wasted in catering.
And the poem also has a satisfyingly rude ending involving an uncomfortable recollection of attempting to show everybody "a massive bruise on my knob".
'Our waitress is Employee of the Month' illustrates the anecdotal and observational qualities of the work: the waitress wonders if she won the award for helping an amputee and this leads to a conclusion in which
...... we know that if any of us start to choke on a bone
...... we will feel her arm around us.
'Most people aren't that happy, anyway' is a bit more wide-ranging though it still focuses on one character who is always getting things wrong possibly because of "his son/on a kidney dialysis machine" and it ends with a very intriguing image that uses popular culture rather well. There is no portal to jump through "into a time before you lost your glasses" and when
...... you remembered to put the oven on
...... before you went for that walk
...... on Christmas afternoon
In fact there is quite a range of popular and contemporary cultural reference in the collection, ranging from the metaphor of a substitute goalkeeper to stand for an inability to take centre stage and visits to Ceefax, Scalextric, Macbook, Facebook, cryogenics and answering machines or automatic call centres. Both computer Firewalls and tourist guides become effective metaphors and the last poem has a fine surreally apocalyptic feel to it. What more can you want?
D A Prince:
Little?—yes: this A6 pamphlet makes most A5 pamphlets look overblown and gangly. Nasty?—definitely not: cream paper, serifs, and poems that are compulsively readable. Still, it’s an eye-catching name for a press.
Read the opening lines of the first poem, ‘Surprise’, and I don’t think you’ll be able to resist reading on:
......It’s you I feel sorry for.
......You hired the room
......and when no-one RSVP’d
......you assumed my friends were too cool to RSVP
......and ordered a finger buffet for fifty.
I’m not going to tell you what happens (you’ll have to buy the pamphlet for yourself, plus some as presents while you’re at it). Osborne’s territory is the poetry of social embarrassment and small failures, bravely borne with a stubborn optimism; he is a performance poet but one whose poems are just as good on the page. Deceptively easy in style—free verse, natural rhythm, casual everyday idiom—these fourteen poems sit happily together. Pulling out quotations for this review has been hugely time-consuming because each attempt led to a delighted re-reading of the whole pamphlet—and I’m not complaining about this. A stanza from ‘The admin of being Prime Minister’ gives the flavour:
......On your first day in Number 10
......you need to read the instruction manual
......for the central heating, work out how to get into the loft.
This is the level the poems work at—domestic, everyday, until even the Prime Minister’s role is reduced to getting books from Amazon, and a Yahoo password. Osborne knows this is his strength, as he brings out in ‘Our waitress is Employee of the Month’:
......because she knows it’s important
......to appreciate the small things.
This couplet is used first of the waitress’s mother, and then—changed to a single line—of the waitress herself. Out of context this appears minor, but it sums up the appeal of this pamphlet and its focus on the life-affirming human contacts that keep us going. Luke Kennard’s description on the back cover has already claimed the adjectives I wanted to use— “imaginative, big-hearted and refreshingly life-affirming” —so I won’t spend time looking for others. Instead I’ll settle back to enjoy these poems again.