Notes to stanzas 0 to 5
0.1 Next up on BTV:* At first sight these initials seem to be an acronym for the new American-style commercial television station the government seems intent on franchising. Perhaps they stand for ‘British Television’ rather than ‘Brummagem Television’; though it could just as easily be ‘Beta Television’ (the BBC’s being ‘Alpha Television’). The ‘B’ is uncertain, but ‘TV’ reproduces the habit of broadcasters on the other side of the Atlantic of abbreviating the word ‘television’ as if it were two hyphenated words. The predilection in the United States for firing hyphens into perfectly good words, like protons to split the linguistic atom, has proliferated so rapidly of late that the effect has gone thermonuclear: the superheated semantic atmosphere created by this morphemic fission has, that is, produced such a dreadful explosion of lexical ‘fusion reactions’ that it is perfectly easy to believe a sickening dialect of the kind portrayed in this poem could, if the effect were allowed to spread any further, be the ultimate fallout.
0.2 drag-queen:* A homosexual who dresses professionally as a woman: usually a theatrical female impersonator or male prostitute who wears extravagant feminine attire and behaves in an exaggerated, lascivious manner for the comic and/or erotic entertainment of patrons. It is very important that there are notions implicit in the term ‘drag’ of advertisement, ostentation and transaction; it is therefore differentiated from ‘transvestism’—which is a non- commercial private sexual behaviour, ‘hermaphrodism’—which is an unfortunate genetic mutation, and ‘transsexualism’—which is the delusional state of believing yourself (like Vita Sackville-West and her literary analogue, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando), despite a total absence of biological corroboration, to have been born into the wrong sex.
0.5 one-pound coin:* Another hyphenation. No self-respecting Englishman has ever referred to the sovereign in such a way. This clumsy phrase is used, rather than certain metrically much more balanced alternatives (such as ‘sovereign coin’), in order to pile up the hyphenated Americanisms in this epigraphic stanza and thereby provide a foretaste of the artificially grafted neologisms (cleavages, in the Freudian sense) of which that country seems so fond (like The Duchess of Malfi, whose ‘vulturous eating of the apricocks’ from a grafted tree [II.i.2] belies her pregnancy with offspring of a dubious genetic heritage: ‘a springal that cuts a caper in her belly’) and which self-propagate in the futuristic dialect of this poet’s dystopian vision. See passim.
′drag-′queen ′darts, ′bar-′room ′farce, ′one-′pound ′coin, ′so-′so ′parts.
The effort to reproduce these emphases makes the reader himself feel rather like a machine for stamping coins, the inexorable mechanical revolutions of which keep bashing out the poem’s words. Or perhaps the poem is more like the piston driven machine and the reader the hero of a melodrama strapped to the conveyor belt, his head moving slowly closer and closer to the repetitively slamming stamp.
The sense of dangerous infection with everything that we call Birmingham (both the industrial city itself and, by extension, its industry of discounted mechanical reproduction) is a typical one. In Robert Southey’s Letters from England, for example, the poet’s fictional Iberian alter-ego Don Manuel Alvarez Espriella is left reeling after the briefest of encounters:
I am still giddy, dizzied with the hammering of presses, the clatter of engines, and the whirling of wheels; my head aches with the multiplicity of infernal noises, and my eyes with the light of infernal fires,— I may add, my heart also, at the sight of so many human beings employed in infernal occupations, and looking as if they were never destined for any thing better. Our earth was designed to be a seminary for young angels, but the devil has certainly fixed upon this spot for his own nursery-garden and hot-house… Every man whom I meet stinks of train-oil and emery. Some I have seen with red eyes and green hair; the eyes effected by the fires to which they are exposed, and the hair turned green by the brass works. You would not, however, discover any other resemblance to a triton in them for water is an element with the use of which, except to supply steam engines, they seem to be unacquainted…
The noise of Birmingham is beyond description; the hammers seem never to be at rest. The filth is sickening… it is active and moving, a living principle of mischief, which fills the whole atmosphere and penetrates every where, spotting and staining every thing, and getting into the pores and nostrils. I feel as if my throat wanted sweeping like an English chimney.
[Letter 36, pp.196-8]
0.6 sh*tter than Byron’s:* If it were not for the scatological inarticulacy of the comparative I would certainly concur. But this is a typical effect: good taste precludes my seconding of the sentiment and, by default, I feel implicated in condoning what is in fact a much more disturbing visionary canto than any in Don Juan, despite (in fact because of) its trashy inferiority of style.
0.6 so-so parts:* Perhaps we are meant, beneath the creak of this see-sawing expression of mediocrity, to hear a homophonic version—‘sew-sew parts’—the ‘stitching and unstitching’ of Yeats’s Penelopean lines: fragments of an unfinished and unfinishable tapestry, embroidered by day and unpicked by night to delay the consummation of an appalling future it must never be allowed to depict, commemorate or instigate.
0.7 slang: As well as the definitions under the first sense: ‘language of a low and vulgar type’ etc., the OED also provides the following senses for slang: 2. ‘Humbug, nonsense.’; 4. ‘A license, esp. that of a hawker.’; 5. a. ‘A travelling show.’, b. ‘A performance’, c. ‘attrib. As slang cove, cull, a showman.’; 6. ‘A short weight or measure.’
poetry had estranged herself from the Nobility; knights no longer went out on adventures to seek giants or dragons, or to liberate the Holy Sepulchre; she had likewise become more and more alien to the citizen, since he considered it unwise to brood over verses and rhymes, when he was called upon to calculate his profits in hard cash. Even the "Sons of the Muses," the Scholars, had become more prosaic, since there was so much to learn and so many universities to visit, and the masters could no longer wander from one country to another with thousands of pupils. Then poetry (as everything in human life gradually descends) began to ally herself with beggars and vagrants. That which formerly had been misfortune and misery became soon a sort of free art… Mendicity became a distinct institution, was divided into various branches, and was provided with a language of its own.
Doubtless… it was the gypsies—appearing… in larger swarms than ever—who contributed greatly to this state of things. They formed entire tribes of wanderers, as free as birds in the air, now dispersing themselves, now reuniting, resting wherever forests or moors pleased, or stupidity or superstition allured them, possessing nothing, but appropriating to themselves the property of everybody, by stratagem or rude force.
[Taschenbuch fuer Geschichte und Altherthum in Sud-Deutschland, I, 330. trans. D. B. Thomas The Book of Vagabonds and Beggars London: Penguin, 1932, pp.7-8]
As a piece of pure speculation, I would add that the probable reason ‘slang’ is the word for the way these people speak (deliberately to trick the decent) is that it is their own word for these linguistic tricks. D. B. Thomas continues his introduction to Luther’s glossary of Rotwelsche Sprache thus:
[It] was a strange conglomeration of hybrid, misbegotten phrases… As in all lingos of the kind, Beggar Welsh, with its twisted allegory and bastard metaphor luxuriates in the heterogeneity of its associations, and glories unashamed in its unacknowledgable larcenies from other tongues… Much that seems obscure comes from another language, but occasionally it would seem that by some twist of fate a root meaning, forgotten and unused elsewhere for many centuries, lingers on in the undergrowth far from the high road of progress. Latin and Hebrew supply most of the strange outlandish words… clerks in Minor Orders had been tramping the hedgerows for three centuries: from Prague to Bologna, from Oxford to Paris generations of wan-dering scholars had begged a crust and a glass of wine to further them on their way. Nor do the beggars spurn the Pandemian Goddess—those hungry mendicants pretending to be followers of St Jacob or St Michael, the Abram Men, and the ‘Scholastics’ whom the vulgar call vagantes who deceive innumerable simple men with their artful tricks. And so the Latin. [1932: 53-55]
The word slang, amongst such people, could be a shibboleth: a mystifying variant of ‘lang’ which shifts that Latin word away from its perfect integration of physical and semantic properties. ‘Lang’, that is, traces the semantic and phonetic length of the ‘tongue’ perfectly. The addition of the initial sibilant would seem to transform both the name and the organ of speech that provides its etymological root, and its vehicle of articulation, into the forked tongue of the snake: the perfect tool with which to form the baffling, antithetical conceits that trick the simple-minded. Slang is the tongue of the serpent. the tongue is a fire:
Quean:* From Old English cwene (weak feminine), as opposed to the cognate form cwén (strong feminine) which gives us ‘Queen’. The word, having returned to a position of homophony, became a sardonic counterpart of its homonym, meaning slut or hussy. By this process it has retained only the variant spelling as an orthographic reminder of a previously much more tangible bifurcation of the stem based upon what might be called ‘etymological irony’. It has always therefore been implicated in Republican carping. A sneering example appears in an epigram Byron sent to John Murray from Ravenna on August 17th 1820 (Letter 817. Prothero [ed.] 1904: p65): a world of iniquity
Mr. Hoby the Bootmaker’s soft heart is sore,
For seizing the Queen makes him think of Jane Shore,
And, in fact, such a likeness should always be seen –
Why should Queen’s [sic.] not be whores?
Every whore is a Quean.
The word has now unfortunately come to mean an effeminate homosexual or, indeed, a ‘drag-queen’. As if the <a> had been imported from the word ‘drag’ and concealed beneath the fabric of a feminine homonym like the male member underneath the pervert’s lingerie. This ongoing semantic deviation from the upright progress of its sister-word is expounded by the deviant persona responsible for the Byronic parody.
In fact, I would argue, it is made even more acute via an obversive reassertion of the old phonetic difference. That is to say, he intends this word to be pronounced differently from Queen. It is a Birmingham Queen not only in the sense of counterfeit or shoddy, but also in having a Birmingham accent. The word is to be rendered something like ‘quayn’ and therefore comes perilously close to homophony with coin, usually uttered in that dreary part of the country as ‘quoyn’. This transformation of the mouth into a zone of semantic (and moral) ambiguity by yawning slides of vowel pitch is one of the most devastating weapons in the poet’s satirical arsenal. He is flirting with the metamorphic power of poetry to change us physically and mentally by recruiting us to the performance of its sound and sense. He is daring the reader to become the object of the satire, for a while at least. Rejection of this trashily alluring culture is to happen as an exorcism of the evil influence that has quite literally taken possession of our muscles and our minds.
1.1 Byron’s line is ‘I want a hero, an uncommon want’: the effect being of a semantic flip from ‘desire’ to ‘lack’. Here there is a similar flip of the entire line achieved by means of an elongated pun. This ‘sex-reversal’ is mirrored by the prosodic flip of feminine to masculine rhyme in the pronunciation of ‘Juan’. See below.*
1.2 as trailer-trash as Bonnie Tyler:* A recent addendum to the OED reads, ‘Trailer, n. 9. Cinema. A set of short extracts from a film advertising it in advance’ (something not dissimilar to the ‘programme introduction’ of the previous stanza.) Its combination with ‘trash’ is another of the hyphenated Americanisms in the poem.
1.3 Mancunian:* An inhabitant of Manchester. This was, alongside Birmingham, the other major English city created by the rapid expansion of industrial capitalism during the Industrial Revolution. Both conurbations pose a serious problem for the Saxon shire system in England: Manchester spreading into both Cheshire and Lancashire, and Birmingham making a mockery of the boundaries of Staffordshire, Worcestershire and Warwickshire. ‘Mockery’ is the right word. Birmingham especially seems to owe its existence to a bloody-minded capitalist and industrialist rejection of the ancient authority of both the shire towns (like Warwick and Worcester) and the diocesan seats (like Lichfield and Coventry) which surround it. As such, both cities stand as particularly unbecoming monuments to the defiance of the ancient institutions of English culture which has led inexorably to this nation’s moral decline. The petty rivalry implied in this line between two such remarkably similar revolutionary cities is revealed by this satire as part and parcel of the small mindedness which is the result of the proletarian mindset they have conspired to spawn.
1.5 like Byron in Don Juan:* The reversal of the anglicized and metrically feminine bisyllabic ‘Ju-an’ (to rhyme with ‘new one’) back to the Castillion and metrically masculine monosyllable ‘Hwon’ is the opposite of the process (see passim) of introducing, by means of metrical implication, a diæresis into Birmingham diphthongs. ‘The metrical gender’ of words (in this semi-technical sense) is never allowed to remain stable.
1.6 ¥wan:* The reader will have noticed the unusual orthography throughout this poem. There are two versions of the sterling livre symbol £ and € (one single barred, the other double barred for emphasis) which are used to correspond directly to the runic edh (ð) and thorn (þ) letters of Old English. It is pleasing to reassert the distinction of these two phonemes. For this reason, I would personally be in favour of their reintroduction into English orthography. The currency symbols used here serve to remind us, however, that the words belong to the commercial television station (which introduces their use in the epigraphic stanza), intent on commodifying the language rather than returning it to an old phonemic writing system.
1.8 c*nts:* Its paradoxical detachment from the proper sex makes this squalid usage of the most profane of words much more offensive even than its precise, earthy employment in Lawrence and Joyce. The synecdochic derogation of women is bad enough, but only the worst educated men use it in reference to the stupidity of one another. This process of collapse from ‘cunning/quaint’ femininity to the index of plebeian imbecility is co-relative to that via which currency descends from inherent value to ‘fiat-money’. Thus the word is emblematic: the epitome of the counter. This society is one in which exposure to the sexual organs and the words denoting them is so quotidian that both are a debased currency. This poem, however, warns of an imminent threat to language and culture. It would not be justifiable, I think, to use this word’s appearance in the poem as a pretext for its expurgation, as has been the case with both Ulysses and Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
2.1 Spain:* The dichotomy of England and Spain is as archetypal as that of England and France. The choice of a Spaniard, Don Manuel Alvarez Espriella, to provide Southey’s critical vision of England in 1807 (when the countries were on the verge of a new alliance against France) must have come quite naturally. Spain is the familiar ‘other.’ As the two great Atlantic naval empires of the reformation and counter-reformation, for example, England and Spain were, in the C16th and C17th, two sides of the same American coin.
2.2 lager lads:* One might expect drunkards of this name to be German rather than English. If the persona were more committed to his attack on the English, a more apt coinage might have been ‘the bitter boys.’ This would, however, preclude the implicit comparison of this unwanted plague of locusts with the Spanish Gitanos, whose dialect Thomas and Borrow both reveal to be called Germania.
2.2-3 El Candado:* Spanish for ‘padlock’. Perhaps this is intended as an infamous jail in Madrid in which drunk and disorderly English football supporters (the new ‘Zincali’) are to be imprisoned in large numbers.
2.3 football fans:* Needless to say, this abbreviation of ‘fanatic’ is American.
2.3 brain:* The intoxicated football supporters are being satirized for having (literally) the single-mindedness of a gang or crowd. Of course, the pressure of the rhyme here might be the only reason for the singular form, but I think the implication of individualist rationalism as an alternative mentality to be mourned in an English culture which has been entirely taken over by the lumpenproletariat is strongly intended.
2.4 pulling moonies:* the slang sense for moony in the OED is 4. b. ‘slightly intoxicated’. In the broadest semantic way, this does at least suit the context of drunkenness. The vulgar description of the level of inebriation which precedes it, however, suggests the ‘fans’ are much further gone; why, in any case, pleonastically add to such a powerful indictment with a phrase one might gloss merely as ‘behaving tipsy.’ A much more fitting explanation might be that a moony (a count noun in this sentence rather than an adjective, you’ll notice) is supposed to be a futuristic slang term for a drink. A pint of stout or porter does, after all, have a smooth white head of foam when first ‘pulled’ which, when viewed from above by the addled drinker at the point of taking his first quaff, might just resemble the full moon.
2.5 calimari:* Spanish for ‘squid’. One of the most beautiful sights available to the Mediterranean traveller is of the hundreds of lambent squid and cuttlefish that bob to the surface of the calm night sea attracted by the moonlike lantern of a fisherman. One sincerely hopes this timeless image of civility and intelligence is slowly returning as the waters around Gibraltar are cleared of their mines and oil-slicks. For this poet to imaginatively compare such a simple miracle to fish-suppers regurgitated in a torrent of beer from the œsophagi of drunks is truly sickening.
2.6 Another Helicon becomes another Hell:* The first of what I will refer to throughout as ‘Birmingham Alexandrines’. There are quite a large number of these hexameters in the poem; the vast majority occurring on the sixth line of the stanza. I intend to provide further illumination of this effect at a more appropriate juncture below. The important thing to notice here is how the line pivots on a rather unnecessary repetition of the word ‘another.’ Why not ‘A Helicon becomes another Hell’? The indefinite article does quite enough to suggest the idea (itself a debilitating one, even without reference to the infernal regions) that there is more than one Parnassus.
2.7 I’m pissed:* Such a crass claim of intoxication, rather than a genuine confession on the part of the poet, is probably more likely to be a parodic reference to the following contemporaneously unpublished stanza which appears on the back of one of the pages of Byron’s manuscript of the first Canto of Don Juan:
I would to Heaven I were so much Clay—
As I am blood—bone—marrow, passion—feeling—
Because at least the past were past away—
And for the future—(but I write this reeling
Having got drunk exceedingly to day
So that I seem to stand upon the ceiling)
I say—the future is a serious matter—
And so—for Godsake—Hock and Soda water.
The reader will note here the fixation on the future, the sense of insidious intoxication and the reversal of perception (‘I seem to stand upon the ceiling’), all of which are characteristic of the present work. I don’t think we are seriously to understand that Byron is actually drunk when he writes this. Much more likely is the explanation that he begins the stanza under the influence, reaches the word ‘future’ in the fourth line and abandons it only to complete the octave in the morning, tinged with the guilt of a hangover, in such a way that it both confesses and captures the drunkenness which embarrassingly disabled him the night before. The Scotch rhyme of the final couplet is picturesque self-admonishment. One can almost smell the pickled breath of the belligerent Glaswegian alcoholic and feel the spray of spittle off his recalcitrant lips.
‘Pissed’, of course, could also literally mean micturated. In this case the persona could be allying itself not so much to the ‘fans’ (the drunken vomiters) as to the ‘calimari’ (that which is expelled). ‘Pissed’, in this reading, is an action rather than a state; the idea being that we see the voice of the poem not as the ‘psyche’ of the poet (his breath and soul) but as the persona’s urine: a waste product rather than an essence.
3.1 Danny LaRue:* A professional ‘drag artist’. One imagines the other personalities to be cut from the same cloth.
3.8 Marieannes:* Marie-Anne is a French pastiche of Britannia. She is often conflated with a personified ‘Liberty’ because her first appearance—bare-breasted in that typically rustic French manner—is in Delacroix’s ‘Liberty leading the people’. Contrary to popular belief, this painting was produced to commemorate not the Jacobin revolution of the C18th, but the revolution of July 1830 in which the legitimate Bourbon monarchy (re-instated after the defeat of Napoleon by Great Britain) was replaced with the ‘Orleanist’ monarch Louis-Phillipe. This depressing event was actually very similar to the so-called ‘Glorious Revolution’ in England in 1688. It was carried out by Bourgeois politicians in order to create exactly the kind of faux constitutional monarchy which they had identified as the only power capable of defeating their own Revolutionary Imperialism at Trafalgar and Waterloo. Another of the iconic national artworks created to commemorate what was, therefore, actually a short-lived Whigist coup in 1830, was Berlioz’s arrangement of La Marseillaise: to this day the official version of the national anthem. So much for vive la différence. What followed was anarchist insanity in the Paris Commune, The Internationale and Les Folies Pigales.
4.2 queer:* This is the first of innumerable examples in which this poem’s drawling Birmingham diphthongs are stretched across two syllables by means of an implicit diæresis: a particularly unpleasant form of phonetic prevarication which nevertheless serves, by means of a kind of phonic mimesis, quite helpfully to mark the key concepts in the poem’s dealings with the moral and cultural prevarications which are its theme.
4.4 Rivera:* era 1
4.5 aristeia:* A rare example of a genuinely justifiable diæresis (such as the one in the word ‘diæresis’ itself).
4.2-6 The rhyme ‘Von’, ‘Bourbonne’, ‘Beaumont’ is off. ‘Ray Bourbonne’ is a feminized and Frenchified version of ‘Ray Bourbon’ (an American female impersonator with links to the Communist Party) designed to insist on both the iambic stress and the correct vowel sound to rhyme with Von. Presumably, ‘Beaumont’ is intended to be pronounced with a silent <t>, as in French. It can only be a half-rhyme if it is: the final consonant being a velar, rather than an alveolar, nasal. It is characteristic of an uneducated anglophone pronunciation to stress the last syllable of all French names. This bourgeois overcorrection marks the speaker out as Birmingham nouveau riche in comparison with the aristocratic anglicisms of Byron, who rhymes ‘Ribaupierre’s’ with ‘grenadiers’ and ‘appears’ (DJ VIII.71) and ‘Gulf of Lyons’ with ‘only die once’ (DJ II.39), as might any unpretentious artisan.
4.8 panto-dame:* This is typical of the debased amphibious hyphenations in the poem. The Greek prefix panto- which elevates the term to which it is attached to a superlative, unique or all-encompassing status, has become a decrepit slang abbreviation of the infantile theatrical form pantomime. A term which might have meant the quintessence of noble womanhood is therefore rendered, quite literally, as a travesty: an ageing thespian of dubious sexual morality playing a risible old battleaxe to glut the basest comic appetites of the crowd.
5.6 two-bit:* another Americanism with a vulgar pun. The phrase means ‘worthless’ and derives from a jocular American name for the ‘quarter’, the coin worth 25 cents. The name suggests the existence of an entirely fictional coin, the ‘bit’, worth one eighth of a dollar. I say fictional, but crucial to the distinction between decimal and Imperial coinage is the idea—still carried as an idealistic hope in the latter—that coins of intrinsic value can be physically divided in order to create ‘change’. This is the reason for the Base-12 system of calculation in the shilling, for example. As a way of partitioning the circle, twelve is a much more useful number than 10. This is something the Greeks and Romans learned from the inventors of the measurement of Time in ancient Babylon. And this astronomical, geometrical system was applied to money in order to mirror on Earth the way the gods revolved the heavens. Before the rot set in, the silver penny could literally be divided (‘cleaved’ you might say) into the ha’penny and the farthing; similarly a groat could be divided into four pennies, a shilling into four threepenny ‘bits’ and a sovereign into four crowns; and the reverse impressions on the coins were divided into four sectors by means of a symmetrical Christian cross for precisely this reason. Of course, this is only possible if coins are worth what they claim to be worth.
5.6 Mrs Shufflewick:* A crude penile pun: a bowdlerized version of ‘shuttlecock’. There are overtones of the role of Industry in the masculisation of women here too: the shuttle being the weaver’s tool and the mechanisation of the shuttle—in one of the earliest developments of the Industrial Revolution—making it possible for women (whose arms were shorter) to operate the looms. Thus the industrial working class was feminized and the conflation of bolshevism and so-called women’s rights was begun. The Spinning Jenny is the true ancestor of Celia Pankhurst; the bawdy proletarian hermaphrodite, Mrs Shufflewick is the imagined offspring.
5.7 Stars don’t get a look-in:* ‘Look-in’ is seemingly used here as in the OED sense 2. ‘Sporting slang. A chance of success’ and ‘stars’ as in celebrated performers. These early hints of a reversal in the transitivity of gaze and its relation to the night sky cannot however be ignored. Celestial bodies are made out to be the eyes of readers in the poem’s heavens from which the voice seeks (paradoxically perhaps) to hide. Think again of Einstein’s ‘relativity’. See: 118:8, 144:2
5.7 ditty:* A quid-dit(t)y [Poet’s note]
5.8 unsung city:* The last line of this stanza originally read ‘My real Queen comes from a real city’, expressly recalling Eliot’s ‘unreal city.’ Clearly Eliot means both ‘spectral’ and ‘ersatz.’ I think the cinema must play a role here. These are not just (un)real but also (un)reel cities. Eliot sees cities ‘superimposed’ on one another : Dante’s Inferno, London, Troy, Baudelaire’s Paris and so on. And it is this last which I think provides the key. Eliot spent 1911 in Paris at the time when Lumiere’s crowd scenes and the ‘fantastic realist’ work of the Gaumont’s artistic director, Louis Feuillade, were the newest and strangest way of envisioning the urban scenery of the undisputed world capital of cinema. When Eliot returns to London (after the war), he can see these ghostly monochrome moving-images of Paris ‘unreeling’ through the City’s streets, mingled with memories of the ‘filmreels’ of marching soldiers and the European walking wounded.
© Copyright S.A.M. Trainor 2002-2008