A collection of short stories and journalistic commentaries depicting my simple life
and how I fit in with the modern day universe of our times




            I was in a pub recently when the conversation, somehow got round to T.S. Eliot. I gave some considerable thought about this for a quite a while and said with a force of conviction, “his name is an anagram of ‘toilets’.” Everyone was very impressed with my newfound ascorbic wit and caustic criticism for the subject matter and suggested that I should therefore put together a collection of literary reviews and critical appreciation. I immediately agreed and then realised that I had never actually written any, so I thought I may as well have a crack at it now. So, here then is an extract from my forthcoming literary collection (don’t hold your breath), provisionally titled ‘The Moving Finger’ in full appreciation of how, many children first learn to read.

                I must admit that I approached the latest novel by the author Pilkington Glass with considerable trepidation. It occurred to me that in the last few years, there have been a great many so-called ‘nature novels’ in which the author follows the adventures of a group of animals, expressing their thoughts and emotions in human language (Watership Down being the best example). At first glance even the idea behind Glass’s novel seemed somewhat rather uninspiring. In this book, called Butterside Up, Glass has created a saga around the lives of a small family of North Sea haddock. Even at the outset, it might seem to a casual reader that any writer trying to express, in English, the thoughts of a haddock is going to encounter considerable difficulty, since haddock are not known to be particularly strong thinkers. And yet as the book progresses, we see that Glass has coped well with that problem, almost by fully ignoring it. Large sections of the book are taken up with the atmospheric and naturalistic conversations between members of the family, giving a unique insight into what it actually means to be a haddock in the early twenty first century, in the middle of the North Sea. (‘It is salty, isn’t it?’ ‘Yes it is.’  - ‘It is wet, isn’t it?’ ‘I’ll say it is.’ And so on.). Yet even at this level, the novel can be read as a stunningly simple, although barbed, comment on the human situation – as seen from sea level, so to speak.

            But Butterside Up is much more than that, and gradually unfolds as a truly classical saga. It’s hero is the middle brother of a family of eighty seven haddock children whose name is Birds-Eye. At the beginning of the book he is emotionally neutral, uninvolved in his environment, regarding the North Sea simply as his omnipresent and unvarying nursery, restaurant, lavatory and bedroom (or, as we later find, brothel). His closest friend is a younger haddock called, because of his peculiar colouring, Nail-Varnish. Nail-Varnish is something of an heretic and keeps on having weird ideas, considered by the rest of the tribe as somewhat obscene or even taboo – for instance, he has a tremendously curious desire to know what chips taste like.

            Together, Birds-Eye and Nail-Varnish, joined by Nail-Varnish’s ugly sister Paper-Bag, go to visit one of the elders of the tribe, a so-called ‘Toothless-One’ (this is a slight slip up by Glass as haddock normally only lose their teeth when they lose their heads). This elder and sage, a fish of many summers called Eighty-Pee-a-Pound, tells the young ones of the history of the haddock race and of the Early Days when the haddock ruled the world. In those times there was no crime and no envy, only peace and plenty and very larger numbers of children. It seems that as a master race, haddock were kind and considerate both to other creatures and to the environment, their central dictum being expressed in the simple motto ‘the sea is all around us’. Things might have continued in this pleasant fashion forever had it not been for a jealous and stupid member of the haddock royal family called Prince-Fathead. Prince-Fathead was apparently not only jealous and stupid but also weak and greedy and, in a desperate bid for personal power and short term gain, he swam to Hull and signed a contract with a firm of trawler men. As a result, the entire royal family of haddock went to visit the best hotels in the world but never actually came back. The rest of the haddock world, now leaderless and lacking a clear policy on any of the major issues of the times, became little more than a slave nation, indistinguishable from most other species of round white fish.

            However, adds Eighty-Pee-a-Pound, it is widely believed among haddock all over the world that there is still a sort of earthly paradise or heaven, where old and good haddock go to be fed and looked after in tranquillity and calm. This fishy Valhalla is called, in the language of the haddock, ‘Las Vegas’, and many of the older fish believe that it is not merely a legend but is a reality and is situated somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean. It is an idea that causes Eighty-Pee-a-Pound much difficulty as he tries to communicate it to his eager young listeners. This is because, in haddock speech, any bit of water they are swimming in at the time is called by the generic term ‘the Sea’, and any bit they are not occupying at the moment is known as ‘more Sea’. Hence their sense of global geography is extremely limited, and their ability to talk about it, almost nil.

Even so, these ideas ferment in the mind of young Birds-Eye and he discusses them frequently with his chosen mate Willow-Hips and his mother Tugboat-Annie. A few weeks later their part of ‘the Sea’ becomes heavily polluted by a new sewage effluent outlet – itself a poignant comment on Man as seen from the haddock viewpoint – and suddenly Birds-Eye has the idea of taking his family and friends to look for safer grounds in the supposed Las Vegas. If you have not read Butterside Up the bare story might seem to you rather dull, perhaps as a haddock version of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years Of Solitude and nothing more. If I have given that impression, I have done the book a great injustice. For although any cheap novel writer might have thought of the idea of a family of haddock emigrating from the North Sea to the Atlantic, it takes a genius of Glass’s calibre to have them make the journey overland.

In the major section of this picaresque fable, the family come ashore at Skegness – widely held to be one of the more bracing parts of Lincolnshire – and then they turn towards the north. In considerable desperation, they pass through the outskirts of Sheffield, where they are forced to beg from door to door, and then, instead of heading towards Blackpool and ‘more Sea’, they make a mistake (due to some really bad road signs) and head towards the Lake District. It is in describing the isolated beauty and romantic wilderness of the lakes and fells around Derwent and Keswick that Glass reaches the heights of his writing ability. His brilliant and vivid word portraits of the rolling heather clad hills and glassy lakes, almost unpopulated apart from the occasional rabbit or curlew (and, of course, the haddock) represent the very best of modern literature.

From the neutral and unspoiled scenery of the Lakes, the haddock move on to the town of Carlisle where they have many adventures, including being short changed by a rascally electrician. It is in Carlisle that a major row develops among the party, revealing a tragic and hypocritical flaw in the character of Nail-Varnish who leaves them and sets up as a travel agent. Embittered, but by no means disillusioned, the rest of the party carry on with their quest and eventually see the new ‘more Sea’ from a dockside at Solway Firth. It would be churlish of me to reveal the final ending of the book, except to add that I am sure that there are some overt religious overtones in the way they see what they believe is the one and only Las Vegas, and are then accidentally crushed to death by a falling crate of Swedish sex aids.

As a novel, Butterside Up, although long, is a curiously subtle mixture of delicate fable, pointed allegory and inaccurate zoology. Yet it is strangely humourless. The one light touch is in the character of a callow yearling known as Hucklefin-Berry – and even he is allowed only one joke. As if in tragic counterpoint, Berry points out another group of emigrating fish, says ‘There’s no home like plaice’, and is immediately struck dead by what haddock call in their own language ‘a virus infection’. From that moment on, Butterside Up is no laughing matter.

Perhaps it is through the created language of the haddock, that Pilkington Glass has made his greatest contribution to memorable fiction. And, in the same way in which Tolkein fans took to speaking Elvish, so, perhaps the haddock tongue will gain currency. Particularly memorable is the verb ‘to boffle’, meaning to ‘swim in water so polluted with untreated sewage that it is difficult to see very far in front of you’; a feeling familiar to many of us in our everyday lives, I’m sure you’ll agree. Also, I liked ‘a praddler’, meaning ‘a young fish – usually a child – who is continually boffling while pretending that he isn’t.’ Finally the haddock have a word for the most dreaded thing of all, the act of being hauled onto land by a hook, slit open with a sharp knife and subsequently being boiled in oil; they call it ‘being Thatchered’.

I wish Mr Glass the very best of luck with Butterside Up. I understand that he is already working on a sequel, to be called Sunnyside Up, in which he follows the fascinating story of a small shoal of smoked salmon sandwiches. I can hardly wait.



BUTTERSIDE UP ~ A BOOK REVIEWSocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

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