The Accidental Life …

An Editor’s Notes on Writing and Writers

by Terry McDonell

Reviewed for New York Journal of Books by Stevie Godson 

Terry McDonellHere’s an irony: If ever a book title needed editing, it could be the one on the cover of award-winning American editor Terry McDonell’s new book.

The Accidental Life it’s called—An Editor’s Notes on Writing and Writers . . .

What a massive understatement. Misleading, too. Let’s hope the immense pleasure of its contents isn’t lost to too many potential readers. That would be a shame.

The Accidental Life: Part-memoir, Part-journalism how-to—complete blast would be much more appropriate!

Of the many memorable anecdotes McDonell recounts in the book, a favorite for fans of the drug-laden “glory days” of gonzo journalism will doubtless be the one about a surreal game of golf he played with the genre’s chief proponent, Hunter S. Thompson. Joining the acid-assisted duo was writer and Paris Review co-founder George Plimpton. Almost inevitably, given the participants and the circumstances, the game also involved copious amounts of alcohol, flying golf clubs, honking geese and guns—well, one gun, anyway.

“It occurred to me . . . that having a story to tell about acid golf with Hunter and George was probably good for my career,” McDonell drily observes.

For anyone who doesn’t know who he is, during a career spanning 40 or so years Terry McDonell has headed up some of the brightest and best American publications, including Rolling Stone, Newsweek, Esquire, and Sports Illustrated.

He’s a master of headlines and deadlines and of winkling the words out of even the most recalcitrant writers.

Working and playing with a talented cast of writers, editors, actors, musicians and authors, including such diverse and colorful characters as musician Jimmy Buffett,Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner, writer P. J. O’Rourke, and the aforementioned Hunter S. Thompson, his has been a successful and often wild ride.

And it’s clearly not nearly over.

McDonell has taken on the digital age with every bit as much enthusiasm, co-founding Lit Hub—a daily serving of the best in literary culture—and dishing out more of his sane and sage advice on everything from plagiarism to the perils and promise of Internet journalism and the business of making money online.

It wasn’t all fun and chemicals, of course, this accidental life Mr. McDonell so entertainingly recalls, and a few of his regrets are also included in this hard-to-pin-down book.

In addition to doling out no-nonsense nuggets of editorial advice for those who need them, Mr. McDonell is hugely adept at picking out and passing on the juiciest gossip, the most glorious lines of prose, and the naughtiest of memories.

It’s an irresistible mix.

(Stevie Godson is a columnist for South African newspaper the Daily Dispatch, a copy editor and a former books page editor.)

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The Latter Days …

… a memoir by Judith Freeman

Reviewed for New York Journal of Books by Stevie Godson

The Latter DaysBorn into a community of devout Mormons, it’s only when she starts kindergarten that Judith Freeman realises different lifestyles exist in the outside world: It’s apparently full of heathens and other interesting people.

A feisty child, unafraid of speaking her mind or of bullying boys, Judith quickly gains a reputation for being a bit of a rebel. Even as a small girl, she complains about having to tithe 10 percent of her hard-earned chores money to the rich and powerful church: “and we’re talking about gross income, not net,” she recalls. “God gets his money before Uncle Sam.”

The fact that she’s the only one in her large family to have been born in a Catholic hospital adds to Judith’s feelings of being an outsider. Later, when she asks her mother why—the Catholic Church was, after all, openly referred to as the Church of the Devil by most Mormons—she’s told “it was brand new and I wanted to try it out”.

That still doesn’t explain her name.

“Judith, a Hebrew name from the Old Testament, one favored by Jews. Judith who seduced Holofernes, luring him to her tent only to cut off his head in order to save her people.

“A Catholic hospital. A Jewish name. A wrathful, sword-wielding woman. How did they imagine I’d turn out?”

Despite the usual bumps along the way, including an almost unbearably large one with the birth of a child whose health was so fragile it was touch-and-go whether he’d even survive, how she eventually turned out doesn’t seem so bad at all.

Married at 17 to her sister’s older ex-boyfriend, life back then for the now-successful author seemed set for disaster, particularly when her little boy was born blue, his colour caused by a lack of oxygen due to a malformation of his heart, a transposition of the great arteries.

Eventually, and after much uncertainty “he is among the first children with a transposition to survive after undergoing a recently invented surgery to reconfigure the inside of his heart since the arteries themselves cannot be switched . . . He will be a pioneer, the heart surgeon says: If he survives he will be a model for what is possible. Since I come from a long line of pioneers, this somehow seems appropriate,” she writes.

Almost inevitably, as the subsequent strain on her marriage takes its toll she falls into an affair with the married surgeon—a sophisticated, older, wealthy man who was born in Europe, speaks five languages, and wears shirts with his initials monogrammed on the pockets.

“He is as foolishly in love with me as I am with him,” she writes, offering no excuse nor any explanation.

It’s a disconnect that’s present several times through the course of this memoir; a disconcerting distance between herself and her story, almost as though she’s telling someone else’s tale. An editing shortfall, perhaps, rather than any failing in the actual writing, it’s occasionally frustrating for the reader.

Her son survives, though her marriage and her faith do not, and by age 22—having packed in more experiences than many people do in a lifetime—Judith decides she will become a writer.

Raised in Ogden, Utah, 30 miles from Salt Lake City, Judith is the sixth child and second girl in the Mormon family into which she is born. There are two more boys born after her. Luckily, her mother loved babies.

Theirs wasn’t a particularly big family by Mormon standards: although there is no prohibition on birth control for members of “The One True Church”, some of their neighbours had broods of 11 and 14.

“Children are like special gifts to Mormons who believe not only in an afterlife but in a pre-existence as well,” she says, “an ethereal realm where souls are lined up as if in a crowded celestial waiting room, waiting for a chance to pass through the veil and come into this world. To create a baby is to open the heavenly portal and let a spirit pass through.”

Having any children at all was to her father’s apparent regret. If he hadn’t had them he might have become a real musician, he tells her “when I was old enough to appreciate such a comment, and also be stung by it. What child wants to think she kept a father from his dreams?”

A harsh, sometimes verging on cruel, taskmaster, and a devoted Mormon, her father was one of a kind. A drum-playing liberal Democrat in a largely Republican environment, he was given to wearing colourful clothes—“he never met a pair of plaid pants he didn’t like”—and natty hats.

Evil, he once told her, came into the world with syncopation, “because that’s when people started moving their hips”.

“He made evil sound like fun . . . ,” she recalls.

By no means a history of her family’s chosen religion, nor any excuse for the lifestyle choices the author makes along the way, her memoir nevertheless contains some fascinating tidbits about both. – Stevie Godson

(Stevie Godson is a columnist, a copy editor and a former books page editor.)

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Fall of Man in Wilmslow

by David Lagercrantz

Reviewed for New York Journal of Books by Stevie Godson  

Fall of Man in Wilmslow WHEN Detective Constable Leonard Corell is called to a house in a quiet English suburb he discovers a man lying lifeless on his bed, white froth dried into a dribble of powder at the corner of his mouth, a half-eaten poisoned apple on the bedside table.

In another part of the house, two wires hang from a ceiling while a pan bubbles on a tabletop hotplate next to clamps for the wires and some kind of transformer. The stench of bitter almonds—cyanide’s telltale trademark scent—pervades the air.

It’s more like something from a twisted fairytale than a real-life scene in small-town 1950s England.

Even more startling is the identity of the dead man. He is Alan Turing, the eccentric maths genius whose Enigma code-breaking skills helped deal a victorious blow against Hitler just a few years earlier.

But there is no sinister murder mystery for the detective to solve. Turing has committed suicide.

This is the intriguing, completely true (except for the appearance of Detective Leonard Corell), beginning to a slow-paced but thoroughly absorbing novel based on the life and death of one of the 20th century’s most brilliant men.

Feted by the British government for helping to save England from the Germans—he was awarded an OBE in 1945—Turing was arrested in 1952 after reporting a burglary at his house. (Even though homosexuality was a crime, the naive genius told police he suspected his lover, a man he’d picked up and taken home.)

Found guilty of gross indecency, Turing’s security clearance is immediately rescinded. He can avoid jail, he’s told, but only by agreeing to take the female hormone oestrogen—not quite chemical castration, more an awful experimental hormonal handicap.

Provided the doses are high enough, sexual desire disappears within a month. Among the side effects (considered negligible by the authorities): temporary, though some would argue potentially permanent, impotence, and the development of breasts.

The question, according to Detective Corell’s bosses, is not how Turing died but whether, before killing himself, he’d been careless with state secrets.

After England’s spy scandal a few years earlier, when Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean fled to the Soviet Union, homosexuals were more ruthlessly pursued. After all, as Chief Superintendent Charles Hammersley is at pains to point out to the young detective, they are the ideal blackmail victims.

“They’ll do almost anything to stop their leanings from being exposed,” he says. “Our friends at the FBI have also noticed that the Russians specifically try to recruit queers … the Americans have a new, very professional organisation … you’ve perhaps heard of it … It’s called the CIA and they have carefully analysed perverts and come to the conclusion that they can’t be trusted.”

Something of an eccentric, if slightly bigoted, misfit himself, Corell becomes fascinated not by any investigation into Turing’s death, because there isn’t much of one, but by the mathematician’s work. The policeman’s imagination is fired by mention of a paradox said to have caused a crisis in the world of mathematics. The more he finds out, the more he’s reminded of his own unfulfilled dreams of reading higher maths at university—dreams thwarted by his intellectual father’s hedonistic wastefulness. He spends hours reading Turing’s papers and theories, including the mathematician’s obsession with developing a machine that can think for itself.

As the frustrated academic delves deeper into Turing’s world and work, he stumbles close enough to some top secret truths about the mathematician’s time at World War 2 code-breaking headquarters Bletchley Park—and beyond—to seriously endanger his own life.

In Swedish author David Lagercrantz’s skillful hands, maths and science conundrums that might otherwise bore the lay-reader form fascinating, sometimes convoluted twists along Corell’s pathway to the truth.

This noir-ish novel is neither conventional thriller nor mystery. There is, after all, no surprise about real-life Enigma code-breaker Alan Turing’s tragic fate; many of the other characters in the book are also real; as are many of the events described.

There’s a slow “otherness” to the writing, possibly connected to its translation from the original Swedish, which suits the somewhat plodding character Lagercrantz has created in Corell, as well as an old-fashioned Englishness he captures surprisingly well.

It’s a pity about the title, though. Perhaps it worked better in the original Swedish. Assuming the author meant to equate it to the biblical Fall of Man, it’s technically okay, but it’s a clumsy construction, off-putting and hard to remember.

Since writing this odd, though strangely satisfying novel—released for the first time in the US this month, but written and first published in Europe in 2009—Lagercrantz has leapt from virtual obscurity to literary stardom after being chosen by the estate of the late Stieg Larrson to write the fourth book in the series that began with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The result, The Girl in the Spider’s Web, debuted at #1 on The New York Times best seller list and sold more than 200,000 copies in its first week of release. – Stevie Godson

(Stevie Godson is a columnist, a copy editor and a former books page editor.)

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The problem with filth filters

Rude place names - graphic from The Sun newspaperI’D NEVER heard of “the Scunthorpe problem” until about 4am on Tuesday, when insomnia saw me catching up on some reading matter over a large mug of freshly brewed coffee.

What I did know was that Scunthorpe is in Lincolnshire, on England’s eastern side, and is the country’s largest steel processing centre. I’ve never been there, though, and of its problem I knew nothing.

I do now, thanks to etymology-geek Tom Chatfield’s book, Netymology: A Linguistic Celebration of the Digital World.

Turns out “the Scunthorpe problem” isn’t confined to that eastern English town—it’s a geeky label emanating from something that happened there in the late 1990s. Its definition gave me such a chuckle that my coffee ended up in a lot more places than it should have.

Explained Tom in the UK’s Guardian at the time of his book’s release: “Computing can be as much combat as collaboration and the Scunthorpe problem is a perfect example.”

The stories behind sleek technological terms are often “messily human”, he added, (which of course is why he could write a whole book about them).

“Entirely innocent words can fall victim to machine filth filters thanks to unfortunate sequences of letters within them—and, in Scunthorpe’s case, it’s the second to fifth letters that create the difficulty.”

Well, of course!

So bad is the problem that, at one time, the poor townsfolk were prevented by global internet service AOL from setting up user accounts. Its effect eventually became known in cyber circles as the Scunthorpe problem—a dubious honour, I think.

“… those who live in Penistone, South Yorkshire—or people with surnames like Cockburn—may be equally familiar with algorithms’ censorious tendencies,” notes the author.

He doesn’t mention what those so-called filth filters made of Britain’s myriad other “mucky” names. Some of them are so colourful they’re enough to make a bishop blush.

Take your pick from such horrors as the hamlet (we’d call it a dorp in South Africa, I guess) of Shitterton in Dorset; Crapstone in Devon; or Old Sodbury in Gloucestershire.

Shitterton—which supposedly means little town on the stream of a midden or sewer—topped the list of most embarrassing British place names in a recent survey. I wouldn’t mind betting those who live there pooh-poohed that result (sorry!). They’re so proud of the name that most of the 50-odd households chipped in around R280 each to have it chiselled into a solid marble block heavy enough to end repeated thefts of the sign bearing it.

Such schoolboy snigger-inducing places as Brokenwind in Aberdeen, Scotland, and Backside, also in Aberdeenshire will, of course, easily slip through the filters. As will Scratchy Bottom in Dorset; Happy Bottom, also in Dorset; Sandy Balls in southern England’s New Forest area; Golden Balls in Oxfordshire; Pratts Bottom in Kent; and North Piddle in Worcestershire.

Author Philip K Dick, on whose books several films have been based, including Minority Report and the cult sci-fi classic Bladerunner, isn’t always so lucky. Only this week, a list sent to me of some of his books arrived exactly as follows:
“Philip K ~censored~ – The Divine Invasion
Philip K ~censored~ – Radio Free Albemuth
Philip K ~censored~ – A Scanner Darkly
Philip K ~censored~ – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Philip K ~censored~ – The Man in the High Castle
Philip K ~censored~ – The Simulacra

Reminds me of the time my own name was jokingly “censored” on 5fm’s (then Radio 5) Chuckle and Chat Show: I was introduced on-air as Stevie Bleepson! – Stevie Godson

(A version of this column first appeared in the Daily Dispatch)

The Rude Map – graphic from The Sun newspaper

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The Road to Little Dribbling …

… by Bill Bryson

Reviewed for New York Journal of Books by Stevie Godson

 

Bill Bryson - The Road to Little DribblingBilled as “a loving and hilarious, if occasionally spiky, valentine” to the author’s adopted country, Bill Bryson’s follow-up, two decades on, to his bestselling Notes from a Small Island, is sometimes that—and sometimes not.

His famously droll way of highlighting the “small island’s” foibles still puts in an appearance but his “spikiness” is apt to descend into not much more than an old man’s grumbles over slipping standards, litter louts, and the like. Not that the grumbles aren’t sometimes justified, it’s just that the author’s clever edginess is often lost along the way.

Time, it would seem, has turned the American-born recently naturalized Brit’s quirky take on an entire nation into a series of somewhat cranky rants.

Ironically, while planning a route for this trip, Bryson decided to avoid, as far as possible, the places he went for the book’s predecessor. “Too much danger of standing on a corner and harrumphing at how things had deteriorated since I was last there,” he says.

He needn’t have worried.

A visit to the Seven Sisters, “one of the great walks of England,” triggers a pages-long moan about aging. Time was when he used to see only two small, dark caves when he tilted his head back in front of a mirror, he says.

“Now I am confronted with a kind of private rainforest.”

The last thing this reader hoped to discover in the book was a description of the fibrous material with which the author’s nostrils are packed. But there it is, in all its “glory.” Thicker than a coir doormat, apparently.

“Somebody needs to explain to me why it is that the one thing your body can suddenly do well when you get old is grow hair in your nose and ears,” he complains.

Bryson first went to England when he was 20, and he’s lived there on and off ever since.

“My time in Britain describes a kind of bell curve, starting at the bottom left-hand corner in the ‘Knows Almost Nothing at All’ zone, and rising in a gradual arc to ‘Pretty Thorough Acquaintanceship’ at the top,” he explains. “. . . recently I have begun to slide down the other side toward ignorance and bewilderment again as increasingly I find myself living in a country that I don’t altogether recognize. It is a place full of celebrities whose names I don’t know and talents I cannot discern, of acronyms (BFF, TMI, TOWIE) that have to be explained to me, of people who seem to be experiencing a different kind of reality from the one I know.

“I am constantly at a loss in this new world. Recently I closed my door on a caller because I couldn’t think what else to do with him. He was a meter reader . . .”

Bryson never did discover the Little Dribbling of the title, although in an island that’s known for nutty names (Scratchy Bottom in Dorset, for example; Pratts Bottom in Kent; and North Piddle in Worcestershire, to name a few), it’s entirely possible it does exist.

The main attraction of Britain for Bryson, one of the things he “really, really” likes about it, he says, is that it’s unknowable: “There is so much more to it—more than any person can ever see or figure out or begin to know,” he says, and he’s worked out that all the known archaeological sites “would require no less than 11,500 years of your time.”

Even after his extensive list of what’s good about the place (including saying “you’re the dog’s bollocks” as an expression of endearment or admiration—a phrase I’d put firmly in the category of the slipping standards Bryson so abhors), one is left feeling this is less a humorous travel book than it is an excuse for a ramble around an old man’s pet peeves.

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Of luscious lips and sillypops

From "Welcome to the House of Fun" by Stevie Godson (all rights reserved)

From “Welcome to the House of Fun” by Stevie Godson (all rights reserved)

THERE’S nothing like a quick slick of lipstick to momentarily boost my mood. Little things, as the saying goes. Unfortunately, it was one of those little things — eye-shadow was another — that made my dear late mother-in-law slightly suspicious of me when we first met. An old-fashioned soul, she was probably worried I wore it only to entrap her son.

So when a friend who knows of my penchant for the odd and unusual sent me the following tidbit she found on social media, it resonated ever so slightly:

“In 1770,” went the odd item, “British parliament banned lipstick saying it had the power to seduce men into marriage, which was classified as witchcraft.” [sic]

Bad grammar notwithstanding (it was, of course, lipstick, not marriage which was classified as witchcraft), I was intrigued and had to find out more.

My research showed me not only was it true, but also that artificial teeth, false hair, iron stays, high-heeled shoes and “bolstered hips” were banned under the same legislation. Not only was the full penalty of the law  — whatever that was — imposed, but any resultant marriage was declared null and void.

A paper written by third-year Harvard student Sarah Schaffer in 2006 — made freely available by that august institution’s Digital Access to Scholarship at Harvard programme — produced more delicious details. According to Sarah’s paper, various lipstick status laws were formulated down the years to protect men, long pre-dating any laws concerning lipstick safety (which would, of course, have primarily protected women).

Lipstick, or lip rouge, could be devastatingly dangerous and contained all sorts of weird substances at different times in its history, including sheep fat, human saliva, highly lethal lead, crocodile poo, and extracts from potentially deadly poisonous plants. Gives a whole new meaning to the saying that you have to suffer to be beautiful, doesn’t it?

No such suffering seems to have troubled Roman empress Poppaea Sabina, second wife of the notorious Emperor Nero. The previously twice divorced Poppaea set out to captivate old Nero, who succumbed to her charms and married her in 59AD. A vain woman, Poppaea had around 100 attendants to “maintain her looks and keep her lips painted at all times”, says Sarah’s report: “Indeed, most wealthy Roman women had specially-trained make-up and hairstyling slaves, cosmatae, who were overseen by a headmistress of the toilette, the ornatrix.”

Those ancient Roman divas sound even worse than some of today’s spoilt-brat celebs.

But back to the 18th century ban, and the truism where there’s a will, there’s a way. Although cosmetic enhancement was illegal, the use of (mostly) subtle lip stains prevailed. By the end of the 19th century, and just as the largely joyless Victorian era was coming to an end, there was a groundswell of support for doing away with the ridiculous legislation.

It wasn’t only women who wanted the law overturned. “Artifice must queen it once more in the town,” wrote essayist and caricaturist Max Beerbohm, in his 1894 work  A Defence of CosmeticsNot that he was particularly on the side of the women, he just wanted them out of the way.

They had begun to take up sport, you see – the cause of Max’s alarm. “With bodily activity their powder will fly, their enamel crack,” he warned. “They are butterflies who must not flit if they love their bloom. Now, setting aside the point of view of passion, from which very many obvious things might be said (and probably have been by the minor poets), it is, from the intellectual point of view, quite necessary that a woman should repose. Hers is the resupinate sex.  On her couch she is a goddess, but so soon as ever she puts her foot to the ground – lo, she is the veriest little sillypop, and quite done for.”

Luckily for this lipstick-lover and others I know, we’re able to choose how much, how little or even if we colour our lips, although as relatively recently as 1906 a couple of American states considered banning the cosmetic in case it poisoned any men who kissed the women wearing it!  — Stevie Godson

(A version of this column first appeared in the Daily Dispatch)

 

 

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Kitchens of the Great Midwest

…  A novel by J Ryan Stradal

Reviewed for New York Journal of Books by Stevie Godson

Kitchens of the Great MidwestIf Eva Thorvald—whose life we follow (more or less) from the time she’s born—ever prepares your food, rest assured it will taste exquisitely unlike anything you’ve ever eaten before. In Eva’s skillful hands, even the most mundane dishes are good enough to set your taste buds singing like choruses of cartoon angels.

A feted chef, her sporadic pop-up supper club—started when she was just 20 years old—boasts long waiting lists and stratospheric ticket prices.

She’s the Taylor Swift of the stove-top and, among food snobs, almost as influential.

But it wasn’t always that way. Eva’s childhood meals were more fish sticks and frozen peas than gourmet fare.

Brought up by her Aunt Fiona and Uncle Jarl, Eva doesn’t remember Jarl’s big brother Lars, a chef who everyone said was a legend in the kitchen. He died of a heart attack a few months after she was born.

No matter, unbeknown to the young woman her facility with food was probably written in her DNA. Her biological father spent weeks before her birth plotting a menu for his daughter’s first months. In deference to her toothless state, week one included such tasty treats as guacamole, pureed prunes and applesauce.

As fate would have it, the only memorable edibles in Eva’s childhood were the red hot chile peppers she grew and loved. A misfit at school, she even used them to get her own back on the bullies, concocting something that, once eaten, they would never forget. The tempting churro bites she generously handed out on her 11th birthday were enhanced with the aid of an eyedropper, some scorching off-the-Scoville-chart chocolate habanero chile powder, and a hot infusion chile oil (recipe thoughtfully supplied).

Happily, the chile oil is not the only recipe in the book.  From classics such as Caesar Salad—done Eva’s way without anchovies and cheese, just like creator Caesar Cardini’s 1920s original—and French Onion Soup, to Mississippi Mud Bars and Resurrection Rolls, they’re scattered throughout, as befits any foodie novel worth its salt.

Up front, in the acknowledgments, the author gives: “Very special thanks to my great-grandmother Lois Bly Johnson’s church, First Lutheran Church of Hunter, North Dakota, and all of the contributors to the 1984 edition of the First Lutheran Church Women cookbook, on which five of the recipes in this novel are based.”

No prizes for guessing which ones they are.

Eva’s magical way with food notwithstanding, I found her personality flat as a pancake.

Not so some of the book’s other characters, such as Pat Prager, a God-fearing, nosey neighbour busybody. Forget all that skinny-malinky sophisticated supper club fare; I’ll take some of her artery-clogging bars—sweet and tart lemon; rich and heavy peanut butter and chocolate—any day of the week (recipes, again, thoughtfully supplied.)

Will I be making any of Pat’s cholesterol-laden concoctions myself? Bet your sweet cinnamon roll I will.

(Kitchens of the Great Midwest: A novel by J Ryan Stradal is published by Pamela Dorman Books)

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Colour me surprised

Unicorns Are JerksCLOSE the curtains and crack out the crayons – colouring-in for grown-ups is on its way. Why the closed curtains? Well, you probably wouldn’t want the neighbours to see what you’re doing, would you?

I first came across the phenomenon a couple of months ago after discovering that specially designed adult colouring-in books were selling up a storm in America.

“Hmmm,” thought I, “this looks interesting … chances are high it’ll hit our own shores soon,” and put it on the backburner. I’ve been digging around the subject on-and-off ever since, planning to write about the topic at a later stage. Now, to my extreme annoyance, it’s gone mainstream, with no less an august publication than The New York Times devoting a full feature to the offbeat “genre”.

The reason for the sudden interest? More than 1-million sales worldwide of Scottish artist Johanna Basford’s  Secret Garden, “a 96-page collection of elaborate black-and-white ink drawings of flowers, leaves, trees and birds”.

According to the US newspaper, it recently topping Amazon’s best-seller list, racing ahead of even To Kill A Mockingbird author Harper Lee’s briskly selling, controversial and heavily publicised new novel Go Set a Watchman.

“People are really excited to do something analogue and creative at a time when we’re all so overwhelmed by screens and the internet,” the illustrator told the paper. “And colouring is not as scary as a blank sheet of paper or canvas.”

Inevitably, several “serious” publishing houses are jumping on the bandwagon with such titles as Splendid Cities: Color Your Way to Calm already published. More are apparently waiting in the wings.

It’s probably a good job the New York Times didn’t dig as deeply as I did in researching the phenomenon – their readers may well have been shocked by some of the other titles on offer. Talk about putting the “adult” into “grown-up”!

Suffice to say The Fetish Coloring Book, “containing equal amounts of both naked men and women”, doesn’t really need an explanation.

“It will make you laugh and blush,” says the online bookseller, adding: “It is a remarkable way to say ‘I love you’ on grandma’s birthday, your friend’s birthday, your mother’s birthday, your colleague’s birthday, and so on, and so on.”

I can’t imagine what mom and grandma would have to say about that!

And it’s only one of many rude versions.

Less offensive, perhaps, but equally odd is Fat Ladies in Spaaaaace, “a body-positive colouring book – there’s a whole universe of body types out there, and they all deserve to be represented”.

If you don’t fancy any of those, you can colour-in just about everything else, from Game of Thrones to the Dia De Los Muertos: Day of the Dead and Sugar Skull Coloring Book to Unicorns Are Jerks - “a colouring book exposing the cold, hard, sparkly truth”.

Whatever you do, don’t scoff at the idea – give it a decade or two and your crayoning efforts might even be sold as art. Remember those painting-by-numbers abominations (completed versions featuring everything from puppy dogs to crying children are still to be found on junk shop walls)? Not only did a 1950s effort, featuring florid pink flamingos, sell recently for almost R1,500, it was even, said the seller, signed by the artist!

That’s really pushing it, I reckon (although, to be fair, whoever filled the garish picture in did manage to stay inside the lines!). – Stevie Godson

(A version of this column first appeared in the Daily Dispatch newspaper)

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Urn-ing eternal life

Sunlight on ivy (2)I’M NOT given to thinking about my own demise very often – far too depressing, I find – but when I do, I try to focus on the drama of my farewell, stage manage it in advance, as it were. (Way in advance, I hope.)

There was a time, for example – quite a long period of time, in fact – when I rather fancied my farewell should take the form of a high-kicking parade, with a special performance by a troupe of dancing boys to accompany my shuffle off this mortal coil in all the showbiz style I was used to at the time. I’d probably been involved in one too many Extravaganzas. The fact I was great friends with the show’s flamboyant feather master probably had something to do with the fantasy, too.

Implicit, of course, was the fervent hope I’d be miraculously able to watch all the fun from a nearby cloud, or some such wafty spot. And a show like that really wouldn’t be such a hardship for at least some of my grieving buddies to attend, either, would it?

As well as the dancing boys, I also wanted to take a letter with me into the afterlife from my ex-boss explaining that the little white lies I’d told in the course of my job were all at her behest.

The beloved wasn’t too keen on the idea of a parade – pooh-poohed it, in fact – though if I’d specified feathered dancing girls he’d probably have felt a little differently about it. But, in any case, I’d lost touch with the feather master and his partner when they’d gone to live in Hong Kong, so who would do the costumes?

In the end, it just wasn’t viable.

I know, I told him. You can bury me at sea.

Well, I’d always loved the ocean and at that stage we lived in land-locked Joburg so it was something we didn’t get to enjoy too often.

It wasn’t that simple, though (he reckons my ideas never are). A full, musical accompaniment would be required: a recording of my favourite tenor singing Gounod’s Ave Maria – specifically the one the composer wrote over Bach’s Prelude in C; Maria Callas singing La Mamma Morta (for the drama, not the words); and Guns N’ Roses singing Knocking on Heaven’s Door.

To my amazement, the beloved – while not exactly thrilled – reckoned he could do it. The only trouble was his version lacked some of the ceremony I would require.

“I’ll take a CD player, hire a rowboat and then tip you over the side when we’re out far enough,” he joked – at least, I think he was joking.

I hadn’t thought about it for years – as I said, I try not to – but the other day a friend said she’d come across a biodegradable urn.

Looking just like a giant cardboard takeaway coffee cup with a picture of a tree on the outside, it contains, among other things, your ashes and the seed of a tree. If everything goes according to plan – and you’d better hope whoever buries you has a green thumb – the tree grows and becomes your living memorial.

“I’d like to be a spreading oak,” raved a friend, “shading a long Sunday lunch table filled with happy, laughing friends … eating delicious fare ….”

Said another: “I’ll be a Japanese maple.”

As for me, I’ll stick with my sea-going ceremony – even if it is in a rowboat. — Stevie Godson

(A version of this column first appeared in the Daily Dispatch)

Picture: © Stevie Godson – All Rights Reserved

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Bugs and bonanzas

Lexical by Brett JordanWE’VE been well and truly wamble-cropped in our house lately. As if it isn’t bad enough that I’ve been battling an evil, recurring infection for months, the beloved’s just been felled by a different kind of bug.

I’ve been ducking and diving out of his germ-laden way as much as possible, but to no avail – as of two days ago, a painful, hacking cough has had me in its clutches.

Multiple sneezes and a fuzzy, aching head tell me a rotten cold isn’t very far behind.

Health-wise, it definitely hasn’t been the best of times chez Godson recently, but I’m happy to report that when it comes to words, there’s been a bonanza. I haven’t even had to search for them; they’ve come winging my way as purposefully as a swarm of bees.

Take wamble-cropped (as indeed I have, wholeheartedly!). Popular in England between 1485 and 1603, it means unwell, according to Paul Anthony Jones, a writer, musician and author of word origins guide Haggard Hawks and Paltry Poltroons, who I came across on the Mental Floss website the other day. On its own, he explains, the word “wambles” was used more specifically by the Tudors of merry old England to describe queasy tummy rumbles, of which I’ve had more than my fair share lately.

They could also be described by another of Mr J’s obscure words – borborygmus, which derived originally from an onomatopoeic Greek word. “Borborygmi are produced as the contents of the intestines are pushed along by waves of muscle contractions called peristalsis,” he says.

I know them well after my ghastly preparations for a recent colonoscopy. Several glasses full of liquid laxative, as well as jugs full of water – not the best way to spend a day! – guaranteed the sensation for me.

Now, to add to my woes, there’s the cough and incipient cold.

Always on the lookout for a silver lining, and bearing in mind my late mother-in-law’s admonition to feed a cold and starve a fever, when I stumbled across an entry on the Macmillan Dictionary blog about “starve” and “cold” I thought I’d found a consoling wordy connection to that, too. I should have known better: Starved WITH the cold, the entry was headed.

Reading on, I discovered it bore no relation to the folk remedy at all. “In Ireland”, explains the blog’s Stan Carey, “… you will sometimes hear people say starved or starving to mean cold or freezing instead of the usual very hungry.”

“Starve” derives from old English word “steorfan”, which originally meant “die”, albeit in an unspecific way. The definition narrowed in the 14th century to mean “die of cold”, later narrowing even more to its current meaning – to die of hunger.

Such narrowing – also known to linguists as restriction or specialisation – is a common semantic process, says Mr C, throwing in some surprising examples. “Accident used to mean any occurrence, before it took on the more restricted sense of something unfortunate that happens by chance,” he says.

Similarly, an undertaker was anyone who undertook to do work. Deer meant animal, and meat was any kind of food. And that’s exactly what I’m looking for right now. A tasty snack, that is, to feed my cold (but nothing so rich it will set those wambles off again).  – Stevie Godson

(A version of this column first appeared in the Daily Dispatch newspaper)

Photo: Lexical by Brett Jordan

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