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Reflections of a working writer and reader



At The Shed

We were at The Shed as part of an invited audience to help Graham Fellows record a half-hour programme for Radio Four.

Fellows is a British comedian, perhaps better known to many people in his incarnation of John Shuttleworth, an aspiring singer/songwriter from Sheffield in South Yorkshire, and a bit of a nerd.

The recording for Radio Four involved Fellows sorting out his antecedents and his influences and telling exactly what books or cultural events have had a bearing on his development as a comedian. He was helped by a couple of actors who read the literary lines that have lodged in his brain.

We listened to John Hegley (who likes chicken soup spiked with Ecstasy) singing Luton Bungalow, about the house in which he grew up.

Hovis Presley, the Bolton wit and poet who died of a heart attack in 2005 when he was only forty-four, was represented by three of his short poems: Thought For Christmas (“Wait ages for a wise man, then three come at once”).

We listened to poems and extracts from the work of Keats and Laurie Lee.

Some pathos was provided by the reading of the last logs of Donald Crowhurst who, in a deeply conflicted psychological state, leapt from the deck of his trimaran and watched it drift away, during the round-the-world race in 1969.

The real surprise item was a reading from Hunger by the Norwegian writer, Knut Hamsun. This is a tiny sample:

If one only had something to eat, just a little, on such a clear day! The mood of the gay morning overwhelmed me, I became unusually serene, and started to hum for pure joy and for no particular reason. In front of a butcher’s shop there was a woman with a basket on her arm, debating about some sausage for dinner; as I went past, she looked up at me. She had only a single tooth in the lower jaw. In the nervous and excitable state I was in, her face made an instant and revolting impression on me – the long yellow tooth looked like a finger sticking out of her jaw, and as she turned toward me, her eyes were full of sausage. I lost my appetite instantly, and felt nauseated.

(Knut Hamsun, Hunger)

2 Responses to “At The Shed”

  1. bloglily says:

    John, That seems like such a good idea for a radio program. I so enjoy learning what sorts of things influence people I admire. One of my favorite reads is Wallace Stevens’ occasional book — a place where he recorded lines from obscure French philosophers and a recipe for an exotic coffee drink.

    As for hunger, it’s interesting how seldom we actually experience that sensation. I liked Hamsun’s description of his “nervous and excitable state.” And the three wise men at once made me laugh. xo, BL

    jb says: I suppose most writers have something like Wallace Stevens’ occasional book, often called a commonplace book, or simply a notebook. The Stevens’ one sounds like a pretty good blog.

    Your sentence about hunger is double-edged, because there are many of us who experience physical hunger and not much else. The thing about Hunger, the book, is that, although the protagonist is hungry for food, the hunger of the title is a metaphor for the hunger of a writer to transform words and phrases into art.

    But I fully concur with your enjoyment of learning about another’s antecedents.  Is it the sense of order, the proof that one thing follows another? The hope that there may be something other than randomness?

  2. bloglily says:

    (hits self in forehead) — In fact, you’re exactly right — I just checked my copy and it is indeed called a commonplace book. What’s more, it was given a fancy French title by its editor: Sur Plusieurs Beaux Sujects. Do you think Hunger worth reading? The passage you’ve quoted is quite beautiful and I’m curious about how the rest of the book holds up.

    I suppose learning what influenced admired writers is interesting partly because you get a glimpse of how a good writer transforms what they’ve read and seen into something altogether new. And I find it reassuring to know that even the finest writers have been fans of other artists — that they’re not above the mixture of envy, admiration and possessiveness that a fan feels toward the object of her devotion.

    jb saysHunger is a wonderful novel, in fact all of the first four of Hamsun’s novels are well worth reading. Isaac Bashevis Singer, referring to Hamson in his Nobel acceptance speech,  said: “the whole modern school of fiction in the twentieth century stems from Hamsun, just as Russian literature in the nineteenth century ‘came out of Gogol’s greatcoat.’ ”

    But literature has always worked by influence. Each age produces a few individuals who build on the work of their forefathers. They take everything that has gone before and add to it in a qualitative sense. Then the next generation inherit a different canon.