Mrs Stephen Fry’s Guide to Marriage

How To Have An Almost Perfect MarriageFor some time now, writer, comedian, actor, host and general word-smith Stephen Fry has operated two Twitter accounts, one for himself and one for “Mrs Stephen Fry”, an alter-ego of sorts and a good excuse for him to make all sorts of funny and sometimes vulgar puns. Around the time he released his second memoir, The Fry Chronicles, she released her first book, Mrs Fry’s Diaries.

In her second book, How To Have An Almost Perfect Marriage, she provides her advice on having a successful marriage, interspersed with tales from her (apparent) relationship with Stephen, as well as raising their five, six or seven children (they never seem quite sure). The book covers everything from first dates to divorce, including the wedding day, the way to a man’s or woman’s heart, home keeping, having children, coping with festive seasons and extended families, and how to deal with various problems that may come up, and all of the advice is so utterly ridiculous you cannot help but laugh out loud and keep reading on.

A lot of the advice is actually just thinly veiled attempts at slagging off both men and, more particularly, Stephen himself, which is almost odd to read when we know it really is Stephen writing it. However, I suspect he enjoys inventing this false mythology of sorts about himself, as his wife (who is occasionally referred to as Edna) reveals his supposed lazy drunkard ways, and she refuses to believe all this fame and acting nonsense of his, insisting that she is the only one with any sort of fame in the relationship.

The profile picture for Mrs Stephen Fry's Twitter account, worth checking out here!

The profile picture for Mrs Stephen Fry’s Twitter account, worth checking out here!

If I have any criticisms of this book, it might be that the humour starts to become very repetitive after a while, and I found I couldn’t read the whole thing in one sitting (despite being less than 200 pages) because I think I would’ve become bored or possible even infuriated with it. But if you break the reading into chunks, perhaps a couple of chapters at a time, it should remain fresh and funny.

One last thing that is interesting with this book is the way in which it was published. Through the Unbound website, potential readers were asked to pledge their support by funding the book themselves before it was even written, with the promise of receiving the book once it was published, and their name written in the back alongside everybody else who supported it. It’s a clever idea, and is very similar to how Ben Folds Five chose to fund their album that they released last year, too, so it’s clearly a concept that is catching on. I like it because it gives consumers more of a say in getting these things published and released, and it allows authors to write the books they really want to write, knowing full well they have the support of the public already.

To finish off, here’s a short extract from the book – the start of a chapter titled “Between The Sheets”:

As a married couple, there is one subject it’s very important to discuss openly and frankly, and that’s the subject of ‘you-know-what’.
Without you-know-what, you and I wouldn’t exist – it’s fundamental to life and, so I’m led to believe, pleasure. You-know-what is everywhere – on billboards, on television, on the sides of buses. There are you-know-what magazines and you-know-what shops on the high street, even you-know-what-on-the-beach cocktails. As the advertising industry so succinctly puts it, ‘You-know-what sells.’
And yet it’s still important, in this age of permissiveness and Hollyoaks, to remember the real purpose of you-know-what. No, dears, not procreation – that’s merely an unfortunate side-effect. The real purpose is to annoy your neighbours. Without that, it’s meaningless. Why else would a couple bounce up and down, grunting and howling like a pair of rabid baboons (or in our case, one rabid baboon and his reluctant handler)?

If this made you laugh at all, there’s a very good chance you would enjoy this book. I know I certainly got a good few laughs out of it!

Has anybody else read this, and if so, what were your thoughts? If not, do you think you would read it?

Tagged again (three times) – 33 more answers to questions you’ve asked me

So, since writing my Blog Tag post a week ago, I’ve been tagged thrice more, each time with 11 new questions, by TanyaCricketMuse, and Book Club Babe. While I’m not going to do the whole tag post again, I shall answer the questions, so, enjoy!

Tanya’s questions:

1. If you had the power to ban a certain book, or certain kinds of books, however productive the outcome may be (think Twilight or Oliver’s Story), even if you knew a huge majority of readers might thank you for it, would you?

Oooooh good question. I’m in two minds here. I wouldn’t ban Twilight, actually, because while my backside could write a better and more original story, it did get a lot of young people (who somehow missed the Harry Potter boat) reading. And on a general level, I don’t think any book should be banned, because of freedom of speech and creative expression and blah blah heard it all before yada yada. BUT…50 Shades Of Grey is just revolting. And the overwhelming success of this putrid piece of work is a startling revelation for both the literary world and the masses gobbling it down gluttonously. So I guess if I was going to ban a book…

2. What is one book you wish you had written?

The dictionary. Imagine the royalties! Actually, wait, no, does anybody even buy dictionaries anymore? With some encyclopedias no longer in print…okay, a book I wish I had written. Hmm. Great Lies To Tell Small Kids. I love that little book, and its sequel. So many good ideas, such as “if you place a slice of ham in a DVD player, it’ll play a short film about pigs.” Brilliant.

3. You have finally achieved world domination and as new king/queen of the world, you need to fashion yourself a crown. But of course, you’re too cool for precious metals and the like. What would your crown be/be made of?


4. Have you ever wondered how a doggie biscuit tastes and wanted to try?

Hahahahaha, what? No, no I really haven’t wondered this. And I’ve wondered a lot of things with food. I once ate a jelly baby, a piece of chocolate and a chicken nugget all wrapped together because somebody dared me to do so. But I am not trying a doggie biscuit.

5. Is there a book that you weren’t able to complete for whatever reason, but lied about it and told people you did? Which one?

Don’t think so? I quite openly admit when I can’t finish books. Like Dune. I’ll try again one day, I’m sure I’ll like it eventually. And War and Peace…oh man that was so hard, so much rambling it made me sound rather to the point in comparison.

6. Your choice of instant pick-me-up food?

I presume this question is referring to picking me up when I’m down, and not food with which to chat me up at a drinking establishment of some nature (“Hey baby…want one of my chips?” “Well hello…”). Probably chocolate or ice cream, I must confess. Though I love a lot of food. I love hearty meals on cold, wintry nights – they warm up the body and the soul sometimes. I also love some fruits, particularly the summer fruits we have in Australia which pretty much mean that it’s summer here, such as mangoes, peaches and nectarines.

7. If there was an appendage you could add to the human anatomy (wings, talons, a tail…), what would it be?

I’d have to say wings, because I’d love to be able to just fly around, and it’d save so much money on driving and other travelling expenses. But a close second would be a tail because, well, it’d just be awesome.

8. If you could go back in time and stop a famous event from taking place, what would it be and why?

No, I don’t think I would. Those who have read Stephen Fry’s novel Making History will know why I’m saying this (although this is an opinion I had long before reading that book). But if I really had to, I would go back in time to not too long ago, and convince Status Quo not to ruin themselves by appearing on an ad for a supermarket in Australia (fellow Aussies will know exactly what I’m talking about…it’s such a shame).

9,10,11. All the book characters you’ve ever loved are people in your immediate friend circle. Who would you turn to:

a) to make a bucket list with you and go all over the world fulfilling each item on the list?

Zaphod Beeblebrox from The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. He’d turn it into a party.

b) to plonk down next to you on that patch of moon land you guys bought, feel awesome, and somehow keep each other from dying of boredom until the next space shuttle comes to pick you up?

Zaphod Beeblebrox from The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. He’d turn it into a party. (What? It’s true!)

c) when the world thinks you’re responsible for the attack on the entire human race by some random scary evil alien monsters and you are the only one who knows what they want but nobody will listen to you and you need somebody to help you save the world? 

Yossarian from Catch-22. He could ramble his way out of anything. Or maybe Jeeves from Jeeves and Wooster, he could solve any problem.

CricketMuse’s questions:

1.  Ice cream, sherbet, gelato, frozen yogurt or sorbet?

I’m going to have to say ice cream, although they’re all fairly amazing. Gelato has grown on me a lot in recent years (not literally…”Oh look! That man’s left arm is covered in gelato…”)

2.  Window seat or aisle seat on the plane?

Window seat, absolutely window seat. So if a bad guy jumps on the plane, we can exit via the window and have an epic duel on the wing of the plane and…oh wait that wouldn’t work on so many levels.

3.  What’s playing in your car stereo?

At the moment it’s flicking between Lake Air, the new album by Dappled Cities, and Synthetica, the new album by Metric. But other albums in there include Stevie Wonder’s Music Of My Mind, The Cat Empire’s self-titled album, Serj Tankian’s Harakiri, and I forget the other album in there (it’s a 6 CD stacker).

4.  Favorite breakfast on a Saturday morning?

Sleep. Closely followed by coffee. And then maybe something with eggs.

5.  Water ski or snow ski?

I have a confession to make…I haven’t tried either. But I suspect water skiing would be scarier but fun.

6.  How would you spend $100 if you had to spend it in two hours?

Two hours? It wouldn’t last me two minutes! Probably on music or movies or books. Or food. Really nice food. I love going to super duper fancy restaurants…I think as a child and even a teenager I thought it was some unattainable dream to go to really expensive restaurants. I don’t even know why I viewed it that way. Having said this, the food at these places isn’t always amazing, but it usually is.

7.  Who would you interview given the opportunity? (past or present)

Oscar Wilde, maybe? That guy would be hilarious and insightful, I suspect.

8.  Have you ever watched an Imax movie?

Just last weekend, actually, I watched The Dark Knight Rises at Imax in Sydney (which is now the biggest Imax in the world, after renovations earlier this year…take that, world!). Was pretty amazing.

9.  Can you cope without coffee in the morning?

I just passed out at the mere suggestion of such a dangerous act. In other words, no, absolutely not. I went without coffee for a year in 2007, which coincidentally was a year I took off from university between degrees. As soon as I considered going back to uni, I took coffee drinking back up. I find if I don’t have the morning coffee, not only am I inconsolably grumpy and tired, but by early to mid afternoon I’m normally suffering from withdrawals. There’s worse things I could be addicted to.

10. Your favorite black and white movie?

This is a tough one, but I did recently get my hands on a copy of The Artist, which I am yet to watch but which I suspect might become my favourite B&W movie (though I think this question was referring to older movies…oops).

11.  Who would you like to get stuck in an elevator with–Harrison Ford or Julia Roberts?

Harrison Ford, so I could make crappy Star Wars and Indiana Jones jokes.

Book Club Babe’s questions:

1. You have been put in charge of creating a new national holiday. What’s it called, and how do we celebrate?

I have always loved that International Talk Like A Pirate Day, which while not official, is so much fun to actually participate in (it has a website if you’re curious (just google it (isn’t it funny how google has become a verb)), and it happens on September 19 I think). Aside from this, I think it would be great to have a national holiday that was in celebration of reading and writing. It’s something worth celebrating, I think. And we’ll call it “Stay-In-Bed-And-Read-Day”, or Sibard, for short (hey, it has the word bard in it, intriguing).

2. You have been given an unlimited budget to make or remake a book’s film adaptation. Which book do you choose, and who would you cast?

One book I have always wanted to see made into a film (or several films) is Magician by Raymond E Feist. I have no idea about who I would cast though, because many of the characters are so young for much of the film. But I just think it would translate so well if it was done properly, by the right sort of director.

3. Robots have now become our personal servants, but here’s the catch. You only get one robot, and it can only do one chore. What will it be?

Teleport me to places. And back again, otherwise that would backfire mighty fast. Otherwise, probably clean.

4. It’s stay-in-and-do-nothing-night. What’s your reality show guilty pleasure?

Eww, reality show? Nup, I don’t think I watch anything that comes under that banner. The closest thing I would watch to that is a few quiz shows, like QI and Would I Lie To You. When I stay in and do nothing, I normally watch comedy. Most recently the 5th season of 30 Rock, and Danger 5, a bizarre Aussie comedy series that parodies the 60s and 70s spy films and shows, except the bad guys are Hitler and the Nazis, which makes about as much sense as the Nazi dinosaurs that appear in the second episode.

5. You have been given a “Death Note” (look it up) where you can write any person’s name in it and that person will die. You can even describe their death in graphic detail. But you only can write down one name…who will it be?

This is going to be a boring answer, but nobody. I would never wish death upon anybody, no matter how much I hated them. Actually, frankly, if I hated them I would wish something other than death on them.

6. Which Disney animal sidekick would you want as a friend?

Timon and Pumbaa?

7. You’re now in charge of a celebrity’s Twitter account. Who do you want to Tweet for, and what would your first Tweet be?

Oh lordy. It’d have to be someone I wasn’t too fond of, so I could tweet silly things. I really don’t know with this one, this is a tricky question. A good one, but a tricky one. Maybe somebody really annoying so I could tweet lots of inappropriate things and have their twitter accounts shut down. Though I suspect that’s not quite the answer this question was seeking…

8. If you were a fragrance, what would you smell like?

A breath of fresh air. No not really. A mystery, wrapped in an enigma, wrapped in delicious – no not quite. Probably just man, spices and books. Hahaha.

9. If you could eat any one food and not gain weight or overall health issues, what would you eat?

Banana Bread. Love that stuff. I’d eat it with everything. Well, not quite, I don’t know how well it would go with steak, for example.

10. What’s the one phrase or cliché that drives you the craziest?

When people say ‘literally’ and they don’t mean literally at all, that drives me insane. Also, when Aussies say “youse guys” instead of “you guys”…seriously, that sounds awful!

11. You’ve hit the jackpot and won a romantic evening with the sexy celebrity of your choosing, but he/she hates your favorite book. Like burned it because they just could not stand the sight of it. Proceed canoodling anyway?

Oooh, tough one. I guess not everybody has to like the same thing, but burning it is a bit excessive. I think I’d have to even the score somewhat before canoodling could recommence. But I’d eventually get over it…I think a lot of my (real) love interests have never read the book before.

Well, that’s it folks! 33 more questions answered, and my cold-filled brain is now completely mushy, so time for more coffee. Hope you enjoyed reading my rambling.

A Stephen Fry book on classical music? Why yes!

Long time readers of my blog will know that I am quite the fan of Stephen Fry, and have read all of his fiction books, as well as having referenced his book on writing poetry through my several On Poetry posts. Although not as well known as his other books, Stephen Fry’s Incomplete & Utter History of Classical Music is both highly entertaining and enlightening, and I figured it was worth a blog post of its own.

Starting off life as a radio project on a classical station, this book follows the path of classical music in a chronological order, from the ancient Egyptians and Sumerians, right through to the way classical music still permeates modern society, particularly through the likes of film soundtracks and other similar avenues. Fry establishes the differences between the different phases of music, from Baroque to Romantic and so on, and spends considerable time on many of his favourite composers.

What really grabs me about this book, though, as always, is Fry’s remarkable way with words. Instead of being pretentious and snobby, as would be so easy with such a topic, the tone is conversational, light and bubbly, with much of Fry’s trademark wit and humour shining through at every turn. The humour is prevalent in some of the things he says seemingly out of nowhere – “Mozart is now seven, and no doubt about to retire already…you see, Mozart years are rather like the inverse of dog years” – but also in a visual sense, such as when discussing Beethoven’s Symphony No 5 and writing in giant letters “DE DE DE DERRR, DE DE DE DERRR”. And yet, what may appear as silliness often has purpose behind it too, so you sit there nodding your head in approval, soaking up like a sponge everything that Fry discusses.

If you want to learn more about classical music, and many of the great classical composers, all while being entertaining and having a good laugh along the way, this is the book for you. I barely knew a thing about classical music, but I did thoroughly enjoy this.

Have you read this book before? Do you know of any other good books about classical music?

Stephen Fry’s fiction: A look at all four of his novels

Stephen Fry is well loved around the world for many things – for his work on television and film, his writing and of course his charming personality and love for words and verbosity. As a friend once said: “Ah, Stephen Fry. Now there’s a man who knows how to construct a sentence.”

Considering this, I thought it would be fun to write about the four novels Stephen Fry has written over the years, because I have met many the Stephen Fry fan who was not even aware he had written any novels, let alone four. Furthermore, in my opinion at least, these stories are as good as one would come to expect from a man who simply revels in his own startling intelligence and wit.

The Liar

Published in 1991, The Liar was Fry’s first novel, and for many it appears to be his most autobiographical work of fiction (read this alongside his first two memoirs and you’ll see what I mean – if you are wondering about his memoirs, I will most certainly return to them in a later post). The book is centred around Adrian Healey, who goes through a public boys school and Oxford, before becoming a spy of sorts. Throughout this all, Adrian lies chronically, which makes him an unreliable narrator but also brings quite a lot of fun to the story, with revelations appearing suddenly out of nowhere as the book progresses, and old truths suddenly being declared a lie. For a debut novel, this is daring in both story and language, full of vulgarity that may shock and offend some, yet delivered with such eloquence it is frankly impossible not to be charmed by it all. Perhaps Fry’s funniest novel, though maybe not the best place to start with his fiction work.

The Hippopotamus

Fry’s second novel, published in 1994, was the first I read, and I was enticed by the blurb on the back of the book, which reads as follows:

“Ted Wallace is an old, sour, womanising, cantankerous, whisky-sodden beast of a failed poet and drama critic, but he has his faults too.
Fired from his newspaper, months behind on his alimony payments and disgusted with a world that undervalues him, Ted seeks a few months’ repose and free drink at Swafford Hall, the country mansion of his old friend Lord Logan.
But strange things have been going on at Swafford. Miracles. Healings. Phenomena beyond the comprehension of a mud-caked hippopotamus like Ted…”

Really, after reading that, buying this book immediately was inevitable and downright logical. The story is partly epistolary, as Ted reports back through letters to his sick god-daughter Jane on the various happenings at the mansion, including the arrival of other house guests searching out the supposed miracles occurring within. The writing style is perhaps more tame in this book than his first, though the story is still outrageously shocking and hilarious at points, and once again brimming with serious and intelligent undertones, as well. This is a good place to start with Fry’s books.

Making History

Fry’s third novel is arguably his best, and certainly his most ambitious. This alternate history story is also his longest, clocking in at close to 600 pages, and yet it is the sort of book which, once started, is difficult to put down until it’s finished. The story is set around Michael Young, a young historian who meets an ageing physicist obsessed with the horror and atrocities commited by Adolf Hitler before and during World War II. When the two of them discover a way to stop Hitler ever having been born, they follow through with their plan, thinking they will avert one of the world’s worst catastrophes, but when Michael reawakens he finds himself in the wrong country, in a world vastly different from the one in which he grew up, and, scarily, in a much darker and more frightening world too. Slowly Michael realises that this alternate history turned out far more horrific, in ways he could never have began to imagine. It was a daring line for Fry to take with this story, but he pulls it off convincingly, not taking any short cuts and not holding back at any points, and delivers a truly stunning and thought-provoking novel. This is definitely my favourite work of fiction by Fry, and I would highly recommend this to any history buffs out there.

The Stars’ Tennis Balls

This novel, published in 2000 (and with the title changed to Revenge in the United States), is Fry’s attempt at a psychological thriller, and was largely inspired by The Count Of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, being, essentially, a modernisation of that classic tale of revenge.  It begins in 1980, as seventeen year old Ned finds all the pieces of his life – education, work, even a beautiful girl – coming together perfectly. However, a few badly timed events lead his life in a completely different direction, and the novel instead follows this new phase of his life, and, eventually, the vengeance he seeks to make upon those who caused these changes in his life. While still funny, this novel is tinged with a sense of bitterness and anger which gives it a sizzling energy as you turn each page, and simply adds to the growing evidence that Fry is a master of the English language, and a genius of storytelling.

Have you read any of Stephen Fry’s novels? If so, what did you think? If not, do you think you would read them?

I dedicate this blog post to great book dedications

As eager as I often am to jump straight into the story when starting a new book, there is one thing I always have to do first – check to see if there’s a book dedication.

While many dedications are quite simple and usually just include the mention of loved ones, every now and then I stumble across one that includes a bit more, such as a cheeky sidenote, or  something completely different and silly, or sometimes a more serious and inspiring message. I have gathered here some of my favourites, all of which are taken from my personal book collection (so hopefully there will be a few you haven’t read before). Enjoy!

“To my daughter Leonora, without whose never-failing sympathy and encouragement this book would have been finished in half the time.” – The Heart of a Goof by P. G. Wodehouse

“Simply and impossibly: For my family.” – Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

“This book is dedicated to my bank balance.” – Silly Verse For Kids by Spike Milligan

“To my mother, who liked the bit about the horse.” – Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams

“To Vik Lovell, who told me dragons did not exist, then led me to their lairs.” – One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

“To my dear brother Desmond, who made my boyhood happy and with whom I have never had a crossword, mind you he drives his wife mad.” – ‘Rommel?’ ‘Gunner Who?’ by Spike Milligan

“To the love of my life, my soul mate, and the greatest person in the world: Me.” – The Alphabet of Manliness by Maddox

“To ………………………………………….
                (insert full name here)             ” – The Liar by Stephen Fry

“For Stephen and the bills.” – Mrs Fry’s Diary by Mrs Stephen Fry (Stephen’s alter ego)

“This book is dedicated to my family, for their unfailing faith and enthusiasm; to Caroline, for her fund of stories and luminous presence; and to all those who are persecuted for daring to think for themselves.” – The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman by Louis de Bernières

And finally, perhaps my favourite book dedication of all time, and one I mentioned briefly the other day. I decided this one might be easier to just take a photo, rather than type it all out. Sorry about the glare. Enjoy…

From Calcium Made Interesting by Graham Chapman. Do you think this story is real? I certainly do (I particularly love the mention of Douglas Adams, too).

Are there any great or funny book dedications you have come across? I’d love to hear them if so!

On Poetry – Part 6: Exotic forms – the Haiku, Luc Bat and Tanaga

In this post, we are going to look at forms of poetry that originated in languages other than English. In many cases, there is the argument that a lot of the power of the poetry has been lost, or at least changed, through the language differences, but many will also argue that these forms are still lovely in any language, and I certainly believe this to be true.

We’re going to look at the haiku, as well as two similar forms, the senryu and the tanka, before moving on to the luc bat and tanaga. All are relatively short and quite simple to understand, but as always if you have any questions, feel free to ask.

The haiku, senryu and tanka

All three of these forms are of Japanese origin, and all have very similar rules. We’ll start with the haiku, a form that many people know to be a three line poem, with five syllables, then seven syllables, then five syllables for the lines. What less people seem to be aware of is that there are more rules than this to the haiku – the haiku needs to have some sort of reference to the season, or at the very least the weather or atmosphere (often known as a kigo word), and it should include little if no verbs, instead engaging the senses with an image of nature, a single moment. As a quick example, I’m going to make something up on the spot (uh oh):

The sun shimmers on
the icy cold winter waves,
no life to be seen.  

The senryu follows the same syllabic rules of that haiku, but instead focuses more on the human nature (without that kigo word) than the physical or geographical nature. English-speakers and writers tend not to follow the syllabic conventions so strongly for this form, and overall it hasn’t been as popular as the haiku (though often the content of the two has been mixed up anyway, and the rules appropriated for different purposes). Despite this, this form was popular with the American beat poets like Ginsberg, Corso and Kerouac.

The tanka is similar to both these forms, only with five lines and a syllable count of 5,7,5,7,7. It is becoming more popular, and there is a growing amount of websites dedicated to the tanka online, for those interested in this odd form. The other rules for this one are rather vague and lost in translation, so again it is best just to enjoy it for what it is.

Luc Bat

The luc bat is a Vietnamese poem, in which lines of six syllables alternate with lines of eight syllables (‘luc bat’ translates as ‘six eight’). The length is not fixed, but the rhyming pattern makes this a form that is easier to do than to try and explain. The sixth syllable of the first line rhymes with the sixth syllable of the next line, but the eighth syllable of that second line then rhymes with the sixth syllable of lines three and four, and the eight syllable of the fourth line rhymes with the sixth syllable of the fifth and sixth, so that each rhyme appears three times (though not always at the end of the line), until the end of the poem, where it will finish rhyming with the first line again. If this doesn’t quite make sense, look at this example below, taken from :

The luc bat shows two trends.
The poem’s rhyme scheme tends to climb;
Lines alternate in time.
A six-beat line is prime; an eight-
Beat one succeeds its mate.
The form is not ornate, and yet
Does its job… Don’t forget,
To conclude this vignette, it bends.

Hopefully you can see the rhyme pattern in this poem – I have underlined one set of rhyming words to illustrate how it works. The best way to get your head around this form, as always, is to try it!


The tanaga consists of four seven-syllable lines, usually with a rhyme scheme of aaaa, although it has lately been changed to abab, abba, and aabb. It is a Filipino form, and is not particularly well known in English as yet – so much so that there aren’t any well known English tanagas (an opportunity for a talented poet, perhaps?), so I will simply move on and show an example, this one coming from the ever trusty Stephen Fry book, The Ode Less Travelled (I am suspecting he wrote this one):

The tanaga owes its genes
to forms from the Philippines.
To count all your words like beans
you may need adding machines. 

So there we have it, five forms from non-English speaking languages, all quite easy to master and quite fun to write.

Do you enjoy any of these forms, and will you try any you haven’t heard of before?

What are your thoughts on the language barriers – do you think these poems still work in English? Do you still enjoy them in English?

On Poetry – Part 5: Comic Verse – The Limerick, The Cento, and The Clerihew

We’re nearly at the halfway point for April, and thus the halfway point for the many poets participating in NaPoWriMo. I suspect many are feeling the same as I am – exhausted and deflated. Writing poetry daily under this kind of pressure can quickly turn this hobby into a chore, and I find the best thing to do in such a situation is to change the tune, to break it up a little. So, we move from the villanelles and sestinas I have discussed in previous blogs to comic forms that will remind us that poetry can be fun and simple, too.

I am going to look at three forms of comic verse – the limerick, the cento, and the clerihew – and briefly discuss what they entail, along with some fun examples, to show that these forms can be just as much fun for adults as for children.

The Limerick

The limerick has been popular for the last two centuries, and is a five line poem normally of a silly, funny or sometimes even lewd nature. Despite its simplicity, it does in fact stick to a strict rhyming pattern, where the first, second and fifth lines rhyme with each other, and the third and fourth lines rhyme with one another. What really gives the limerick its power, however, is the rhythm, which has a bouncy feel to it using double weakly stressed syllables, and this type of rhythm is known as an anapestic rhythm. The rhythm can be demonstrated by the following pattern, where dashes are weakly stressed syllables, and the back-slashes represent emphasised syllables.

1) – / – – / – – /
2) – / – – / – – /
3) – / – – /
4) – / – – /
5) – / – – / – – /

Of course, not every limerick adheres strictly to this pattern, but you’ll find if you do it gives the poem a lot more power and buoyancy, which often adds to the comic feel you are wanting to achieve. I’m going to provide two examples for this, one by Edward Lear, and one by Spike Milligan (which is slightly off in terms of rhythm, but which still works). Particularly in the case of the Lear limerick, read it aloud to hear the rhythm we just discussed.

From Edward Lear’s Book Of Nonsense

There was an Old Man with a beard,
Who said, “It is just as I feared!
Two Owls and a Hen,
Four Larks and a Wren,
Have all built their nests in my beard!”

There was a young soldier called Edser from Spike Milligan’s Silly Verse For Kids

There was a young soldier called Edser
When wanted was always in bed sir:
One morning at one
They fired the gun,
And Edser, in bed sir, was dead sir.

The Cento

The cento is remarkably easy to explain, and a surprisingly good way to come to terms with a particular poet and their way of writing. Why? Because the cento is made up of individual lines taken from fragments of other poetry, often all from the same poet (although you can mix them up). The result is a parody of that poet, particularly if using well-known and much loved lines, and yet, despite the parody, it can also be a form of tribute to the poet, especially if it still works well together. The example I am going to give is by Ian Patterson, and is a cento made up of lines from some of Shakespeare’s sonnets. I have taken this poem from Stephen Fry’s marvellous book on poetry, The Ode Less Travelled.

Ian Patterson’s Shakespeare Cento

When in the chronicles of wasted time
That thy unkindness lays upon my heart,
Bearing the wanton burthen of the prime
To guard the lawful reasons on they part,
My heart doth plead that thou in him dost lie
The perfect ceremony of love’s rite,
And scarcely greet me with that sun thine eye
To change your day of youth to sullen night,
Then in the number let me pass untold
So that myself bring water for my stain,
That poor retention could not so much hold
Knowing thy heart torment me in disdain:
        O cunning love, with tears thou keep’st me blind,
                Since I left you my eye is in my mind.

The Clerihew

The Clerihew, named after Edmund Clerihew Bentley, is a four line poem non-metrically written in rhyming couplets, where the first line is a proper name with nothing added. They tend to be clumsy in feel, and are supposed to tell a biographical truth about their subject. Other than that, there’s not much to them really. I’ll include two examples, both of which are taken from Stephen Fry’s book again, and the first of which is actually his own attempt at one.

Oscar Wilde
Had his reputation defiled. 
When he was led from the dock in tears
He said “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at two years.”

Sir Humphrey Davy
Abominated gravy.
He lived in the odium
Of having discovered sodium.

So there we have it – three forms of poetry that are a bit more fun, and a nice way to give yourself a break, particularly if you happen to be writing thirty poems in thirty days!

I would absolutely love to see people’s attempts at these forms, too, so please feel free to share (I will be sharing some more comic verse of my own soon).

Lastly, you can find Part 1 of this series, which included some of my thoughts on poetry, here, Part 2 which looked at some great poetry books here, Part 3 which looked at the villanelle here, and Part 4, focusing on the sestina, here – please do click on these links and check out these pages if you haven’t already, as there may be something that grabs your poetic interest on those posts too.

Happy reading and writing, poets, authors, readers and friends!

The Wit and Wisdom of P. G. Wodehouse

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a blog in which I discussed a few different books of quotations, including those famous and those relatively unknown, many funny and some wise. Since then, I have bought another book of quotations, one which focuses on just one amazing author, P. G. Wodehouse. The book is called The Wit and Wisdom of P. G. Wodehouse, and is compiled and edited by Tony Ring.

I wanted to write a blog about this specific book for a number of reasons. Wodehouse was an amazing author, and a much loved humorist  during his long and illustrious career as a writer, during which he wrote nearly a hundred books. His books were quintessentially British, often making fun of the English aristocracy, but his writing was of such a nature as to be enjoyable by all kinds of readers. Evelyn Waugh believed that Wodehouse produced “three wholly original similes on each page,” which, if this is an exaggeration, is only a very slight one at that. Wodehouse’s ability to manipulate and play with words is unique, masterful and utterly joyful, and has inspired many writers over the last century.

This anthology includes some of the best quotes by Wodehouse from all his various novels and characters, and is compiled so that each left page contains witticisms, while the right hand pages have words of wisdom. For fans of Wodehouse, it is fun to indulge in some of these classic moments, while for newcomers it may provide a nice entrance into the world of this man’s magnificent mind.

Here are some of my favourites from this book:


“Warm though the morning was, he shivered, as only a confirmed bachelor gazing into the naked face of matrimony can shiver.”

“He was in the acute stage of that malady which, for want of a better name, scientists call the heeby-jeebies.”

“‘…I assure you, on the word of an English gentleman, that this lady is a complete stranger to me.’ ‘Stranger?’ ‘A complete and total stranger.’ ‘Oh?’ said the bloke. ‘Then what’s she doing sitting in your lap?'”

“A melancholy-looking man, he had the appearance of one who has searched for the leak in life’s gas-pipe with a lighted candle.”

“It was one of those still evenings you get in the summer, when you can hear a snail clear its throat a mile away.”


“It was my Uncle George who discovered that alcohol was a food well in advance of modern medical thought.”

“It is a good rule in life never to apologise. The right sort of people do not want apologies, and the wrong sort take a mean advantage of them.”

“I was one of those men my mother always warned me against.”

“I attribute my whole success in life to a rigid observance of the fundamental rule – Never have yoursself tattooed with any woman’s name, not even her initials.”

“The advice I give to every young man starting to seek out a life partner is to find a girl whom he can tickle.”

“That’s the way to get on in the world – by grabbing your opportunities. Why, what’s Big Ben but a wrist-watch that saw its chance and made good.”

If you’ve never read any Wodehouse, I urge you to do so. I would perhaps suggest starting with one of the Jeeves and Wooster novels, of which there are plenty (there are also four seasons of a television show based on Jeeves and Wooster, which starred Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie – I always read these novels in their voices as a result).

Happy reading!

Everybody loves quotes – a look at a bad, a good, and an amazing book of quotes

The title of this post may not be entirely accurate – I have come across the occasional person who doesn’t like quotes, but for the most part I think the statement holds true. As a result, there have been many books full of quotes published over the years, all with varying levels of quality. Many of these books tend to contain the same tired old quotes, while only a few are more comprehensive, and try that bit harder to impress the reader.

I plan on looking at three books of quotes – the first one is overwhelmingly mediocre, the second one is quite decent and comprehensive, and the third one is just amazing. In all three cases I’ll explain my thoughts as I go.

Caustic Quotes: An A-Z of quotes, insults and one-liners by Helen Ingram

At first glance, this book seems quite good. The back boasts that the book contains over 8000 quotes on 160 different subjects, all fully indexed, which certainly seems like a comprehensive quote book. But when you open it up, it quickly becomes apparent that some important aspects are missing. Firstly, none of the quotes are referenced to their original author – I know that sometimes it is hard to track down the author of a quote that has been passed down through the decades or centuries, but surely most of these quotes could be traced back to their authors? Secondly, the quotes themselves are pretty rubbish. They’re not of the quality one would expect, but rather the kind of quotes you see on bumper stickers, quotes that are supposed to be funny but just make you wrinkle your eyebrows while you wait for the laugh to kick in, only to find it never does. Unfunny and uninspiring – don’t go wasting your money on this one.

The Funniest Thing You Never Said: The Ultimate Collection of Humorous Quotations by Rosemarie Jarski

This book is a dramatic improvement, and was probably the best quotes book I owned for quite a long time. Again, it boasts about 6000 quotes, but this time the quotes are much funnier, and while many have been heard before, there are a few in there that surprised me, too. But perhaps more importantly, every quote in this book is properly referenced, and the contents are organised into topics while the index focuses on the authors, so you can look up your favourite authors, comedians, actors, and so on, and track all the quotes included by them (some of whom feature dozens of times in this book). This is definitely a good book for quotes, and perhaps sets a pretty solid standard on which to compare other quote books against.

QI Advanced Banter: The QI Book of Quotations by John Lloyd and John Mitchinson

Those of you who have seen the television show QI or read their other book The Book of General Ignorance (which you can read about in an earlier blog post here) will probably already know what to expect of this book. Rather than just collect any old quotes, the authors painstakingly spent years gathering their favourite quotes and pieces of witty banter, and then cut most of it out so that they were left with the absolute best witticisms for this book, many of which are not contained in other books. The quotes are hilarious, intelligent, thought provoking and at times inspiring, and the indexing in this book is the most detailed I’ve seen, with brief explanations of what each author of each quote does for a living, to help put some of them into context. The book also contains the usual prologues by Stephen Fry and Alan Davies, both known from the television show, as well as a preamble by the book’s authors. Quite simply, this is the only book of quotes you will ever need. If you like quotes, buy this book, as you will not be disappointed.

It is really only fitting then that I end this post with a quote, I suppose. For a bit of fun, I will write down the first quote I find when randomly opening up QI Advanced Banter. I promise I won’t cheat.

Ahhh, interesting. Here goes.

“Poets have hitherto been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.” G. K. Chesterton

On poetry – Part 2: Great books for reading and writing poetry

In my last post, I discussed how important it is to both read and write poetry to fully understand and appreciate it. I also pondered on the fact that poetic form and structure is not really taught in school any longer, nor is actually writing poetry particularly encouraged, and that this perhaps contributes to the general feeling of ill-ease which most people feel towards poetry. Yet, as I admitted, despite spending the first two decades of my life loathing poetry, I eventually changed my attitudes through learning to write poetry in its many forms and following its many varying rules, and this in turn helped me to enjoy reading poetry, as well.

Now I would like to share some fantastic books that may help you to appreciate both reading and writing poetry, whether you’re a reluctant novice or a seasoned poet. I will begin with a book that takes us right back to the basics of poetry, then move on to an anthology of poetic forms, before moving on to a more broader volume of poetry that encompasses the art form from the last few millennia.

The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking The Poet Within by Stephen Fry

This probably won’t come as a much of a surprise, but Stephen Fry loves poetry, and it has long been a hobby of his. In this book, he strips poetry down to the absolute basics, breaking it into four sections. First, he introduces us to metre, including different metres, iambs, end-stopping, enjambment and caesuras, and much more. Secondly, he explains rhyme, including different categories of rhyme, arranging rhyme, and what makes good and bad rhyme. Next, he goes into form, covering the stanza, why to bother with form at all, ballads, heroic verse, odes, closed forms such as villanelles and sestinas (and many more), comic verse such as the cento and limericks, exotic forms such as the haiku and senryu, sonnets, and shaped verse. Lastly, he looks at diction and poetics in today’s world.

What makes this book great, apart from the fact that it breaks down poetry to the fundamentals, is that with each section Fry has included a number of poetry exercises to help you master it skill by skill. He even includes a “how to read this book” foreword that explains how to make the most of these exercises. To top it all off, he is very enthusiastic and quite entertaining in his explanations, writing in a precise and accessible manner that will enable poets of all levels to gain something from reading this book. An absolute must read for budding poets everywhere.

The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms by Mark Strand and Eavan Boland

This book differs substantially from Fry’s book, and focuses much more on the actual poetic forms themselves. It is a book often used for studying poetry at a university level, but you don’t need to be a university student to get something out of this book – you just need to be curious and open-minded. It is perhaps the most comprehensive listing of poetic forms, covering most of the major verse poems,  shaping forms such as elegies, the pastoral, and the ode, and also open forms.

What is remarkably useful about this book is that for each poetic structure, a dozen or so poems of that form are supplied to help you come to grips with how the form works. Often the poems range dramatically in terms of when they were written, so as to show how the form has evolved over time, and so often you will find classical poetry mixed in with quirky, contemporary poems that play around with the conventions of each form. This is definitely a book for those who feel a bit more confident with the basics of poetry and want more of a challenge.

Poetry For The Spirit: Poems of Universal Wisdom and Beauty edited by Alan Jacobs

This book is only an anthology of poetry to read, but it is an amazing anthology. It focuses on spiritual poetry, and ranges from over 4000 years ago to the twentieth century, presenting the poetry in chronological order, from pre medieval times, to medieval times, and then century by century. As a large amount of poetry throughout history has explored this side of human existence, whether directly, or indirectly through themes of nature and life itself, this anthology says just as much about the evolution of poetry as it does the evolution of spirituality. I would recommend this book to anybody looking for some inspiration in their poetry writing, as you are bound to find some here.


So, there we have it. I will probably do more posts in the future on poetry, and perhaps will explain some of my favourite poetic forms, to illustrate why I believe knowing poetic form is so important to enjoying poetry on any level. But for now, if you have always wanted to write poetry but have never known where to start, these books should help set you on your way, especially the first two books.

Do you know of any books that look at poetry that you have found particularly useful?