Comment from Brian Bilston:
Brian Bilston “What a lovely review. Thank you so much. I’m delighted you enjoyed it – and were moved to write a lovely poem of your own!” (July 21, 2019, Facebook)
Dear Mr. Bilston: I am writing this letter because I will not stay quiet - your brand new novel has ruined my diet. Yes, my diet, I said; it’s those custard creams that protagonist “Brian” always eats in reams. I was in the shop and suddenly wanted custard creams (why?!) they’re too crispy and clotted. It’s the Diary of a Somebody that’s gotten to me - those subliminal suggestions of custard creams for tea!
Poems by Brian about “Brian” from the Brian’s Poetry Laboetry in a novel
Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest (let’s not mention the empty biscuit box in the recycling bin and me feeling a bit queasy round the tummy) I have to say this is a delightful novel. Or is it a delightful anthology of poetry? Or is it narrative poetry?
Whatever it may be, just about every chapter contains a poem, because the protagonist, “Brian Bilston” – the same name as the author – makes up his mind to write a poem every day for a year. Some days he’s too depressed to write one himself but makes up for it by writing more on other days. Some days he quotes the poetry of his nemesis “Toby Salt” or a poem by the Object of His Affections, “Liz”.
Brian and “Brian”
The author’s name, Brian Bilston, is a pseudonym. Will Mr. Bilston ever reveal his real self? He said he will not, even now that he is famous. Like “Hendrik Groen” the author who everyone thought was a wickedly amusing old-timer writing about curmudgeonly old-timers in an old age home, I suspect that the real man behind the pen name is just a little bit like the main character. The real author is represented online as a photo and silhouette of a man with a pipe, which is a pun on the painting of a pipe by René Magritte, called “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”, meaning “this is not a pipe”.
However, the main, first-person character, “Brian Bilston”, is really, really sad and in need of some therapy, or chemicals, or someone to love, or self-confidence or something, anything! (He reminded me of “Jesse Pinkman” in Breaking Bad.) He stops putting out the garbage and he stuffs the bills that he gets into a heap and doesn’t deal with them, and you know where that leads to.
Laid off from his job, he writes poems – and, compliments to the author – poems that cover every permutation of line, rhythm, rhyme, meter and stanza, and every genre of poetry, and some historical types, and just about every play on words that you can come up with. He really likes wordplay, such as puns, gosh he likes puns; phonetic mix-ups such as spoonerisms and alliteration, on purpose of course; obscure words and meanings, which actually makes up a whole poem, My Favourite Words (p. 151); oddly formed sentences, even oddly shaped poems; and double entendres, including naughty ones.
There is not a form of poetry, from sonnets to haikus to lyrics to things that sound like “Weird Al” Yankovic had a hand in them, and anything in between, that is not in this book. It’s 384 pages and there’s a poem on almost every page.
A poem a day keeps the madness away?
There is an artist, Abbey Ryan, who decided in 2007 to make daily paintings for her blog. Each painting is a meditation on the present moment. She’s still doing a painting a day. It is, apparently, something that some artists do – if you google it you’ll see – it keeps their “hand in”, imposes a work discipline, is a sort of meditation, and is excellent practice.
Brian Bilston did the same for this book – a poem every day for a year. He gave up his day job and wrote this (as he told his fans.)
Therefore, the question is – how do you judge or interpret a book that is both a novel with poetry and poetry within a story? I suppose – each one on its own merit.
The novel is poignant and funny and the reader wants very much for the poor sap “Brian” to be OK. Though sometimes I wanted to give him a sharp kick up the backside. His life is described in such a way that it seems domestic and commonplace, which means that most readers will find some connection. Readers find out what he likes (those darn custard creams, his cat, and books, lots of books, and Liz and his son, “Dylan”), and dislikes (the pompous ass Toby Sharp, Jeremy Clarkson, his ex-wife’s new age aphorism-spouting boyfriend), and what he wants (to be able to sell his poems about death and to have his poems published). Let’s face it, he is not exactly ambitious and sometimes plainly in denial, like when he buys a garden shed to write in.
Write what in, exactly?
Ah, you are itching to know how it turns out. Well, that would be a plot spoiler and I ain’t telling. It suffices to say the ending was thoroughly satisfying and I read it at the unholy hour of 5 am on a Saturday morning because I just couldn’t wait to find out.
As for the poems, amongst them are some of my favourites that were published before the book came out, like the sweet, sad and ever so quotable one about the penguin living in his house (which by the way is not quite the same as the earlier version):
Penguin Awareness - by Brian Bilston I’ve been aware of penguins since I was three: I think one may have moved in with me. The signs are everywhere. The smell of saltwater in the air. There are moulted feathers on my chair Yesterday I found a fish upon the stair. But when I turn around there’s no one there, for he moves in the shadows, like Tony Soprano; I am forever stepping in guano. I don’t know why he’s come to live with me. There are better places for him to be. But when I’ve gone to bed, I can hear the tread of his soft heels across the kitchen floor, and the opening of the freezer door. And I picture him there, his head resting on a frozen shelf, dreaming sadly of somewhere else, thinking about the hand that life has dealt him, and I wonder if his heart is melting. (Diary of a Somebody, p. 23)
Aw! The penguin does remind me of “Brian”, who has really not had much luck at all, to the extent that his heart is also melting and even his teenage son notices that he is seriously depressed and frustrated.
There are too many clever, amusing, moving, sad, mystifying, simple and polished poems in the book to critique each one. It would take me months just to define them. From what I’ve been able to check, he has written poems in most of the rhymes form in English poetry.
But he did not just do it for the sake of showing off his prowess – Bilston achieves an almost perfect match each time between the tone and subject matter of the poem in the diary entry for the day, and the events in the Life of Brian. (See? All this punnishness is rubbing off on me.) For instance – acrostic poems: The “Acrostic Guitar” one (p. 30) had me at a loss – what was acrostic about it? Until I realized the first letter of each line in the poem starts with the letter which is the string pitches on a guitar – E, A, D, G, B, and E. Now I know.
Bilston is not hung up on rhyme schemes. He sometimes rhymes so perfectly it’s almost annoying, but he also uses half rhyme, near-rhyme, lazy rhyme, slant rhyme, cross rhyme, or no rhyme, etc. In fact, “Toby Sharp” constantly criticizes “Brian’s” ability to make rhyming verses. And some very sharp detectives also have critiques of “Brian’s” technique. But nevertheless Bilston manages to achieve a suitable rhyme scheme, line setup and verses for the forms (genres) of poems, including the more obscure ones like tankas and villanelles.
And what’s more he is consistent – the book is deliberately constructed and the poetical and narrative elements are carefully interwoven. For instance, on p. 303, the detective, who has gotten a hold of “Brian’s” diary, mentions that his haiku written in chapter 1, 31 January, has eight syllables in a line, rather than seven. I went back to check, and sure enough, it was eight.
A poem for everybody
There is a poem for everybody, but I have my favourites, apart from Penguin Awareness. And one poem is purely a favourite because I have been wickedly brainwashed by Brian Bilston into Custard Cream Lust. I can honestly say that, apart from starting to eat Coco Pops after watching What a Girl Wants (2003) too often while I was in hospital (the movie was on repeat in the ward), I have never had such an unexpected result from reading a novel.
I’m going to have to read something that makes lettuce leaves sound desirable to get over it.
This Is Just To Say - by Brian Bilston I have eaten the custard creams that were in my hotel room and which have probably been there since last Christmas Forgive me they were delicious so custardy and so creamy and so soft (Diary of a Somebody, p. 56)
Another poem is now completely stuck in my head, since it has alternative words to the carol “We Three Kings of Orient Are”, that was written by John Henry Hopkins Jr. in 1857. I know because I have to play it on the piano every year at Christmas, and it is a genuine ear-worm. You can click on the video at the bottom of this post and sing along with Bilston’s modern version:
We See Gigs - by Brian Bilston
We see gigs of ambient ska,
Acid jazz and indie guitar.
Blues and Britpop, soul and hip hop
following yonder stars.
O stars of reggae, stars of punk,
Stars of Belgian neurofunk,
Sublime evenings, sometimes leaving,
Trying not to get too drunk.
Avant-garde industrial rock,
Honky Tonk and bubblegum pop.
Cuban mambo, duelling banjos,
O stars of country, stars of trance
Stars of new age folk from France,
Find some new kicks, dump the Netflix,
Enter into life’s great dance.
(Diary of a Somebody, p. 381)
What’s to love? Everything!
The whole novel is delightful. Even people who don’t like poetry will like it. If you’ve ever wanted a gentle and un-scary introduction to poetry, try this. And for those who cannot even think of reading anything that is not strictly a novel, Bilston even wrote a poem about how to read a poem. What more could you want? Has Bilston fulfilled his promise to write a novel that is also an anthology? Oh yes, and it’s a marvel!
This novel has done one more thing that I did not expect – it has made me more determined than ever to keep on writing poetry. Thank you, Brian Bilston, Poet Laureate of Twitter.
How to read a poem - by Brian Bilston
Always have a drink in your hand,
preferably a large one
(the drink, not the hand).
Before commencement of reading,
delicately frisk the poem.
it may contain an incendiary device.
(Extract from Diary of a Somebody, p. 300)
“We Three Kings” to sing to
To give credit where credit is due: This different but nevertheless swinging version of “We Three Kings” was recorded by Steve Roberg, and published on Oct 3, 2012. It is original arrangement and recording, licensed to YouTube by Audiam (Label). I chose it because it does not sound so much like a hymn.