Cockroach at the typewriter.

At the bottom of the road, there is a shopspace that keeps changing hands into faddy niche shops. Most recently it was a pop-up shop selling antique French furniture, a venture that lasted marginally longer than the Garra Rufa fish pedicurist that had recently vacated the space. Before that, a variety of hairdressers turned over.

It’s recently been occupied by a long-running bookshop not 100-yards away, Books On The Park. I’d been to Books On The Park before, it was supremely cramped and a bit surly. Still, indie bookshops are a dying breed and must be supported, so we went into the new space.

Beyond all the pristine folios — a superb cloth covered collection of Chekhov’s short stories and Norse histories priced just outside of mid-month whimsy — were  perfectly kept books of all topics. This is fairly novel, as these kind of shops tend to have a bit of a jumble sale approach to quality. There were boxes of books earmarked for charity shops that had not made the standard.

I’m a terrible hoarder, with a bad habit for picking up books I will have no time to read, but the allure of excellent covers is always too great to resist. Some people are suckers for classic Penguin cover designs, and they’re right to be, but I have a huge soft-spot for Faber & Faber. Very under-rated, and wilfully modernist a lot of the time, they are stark and beautiful. I picked up a couple of paperback editions of Beckett plays (editions I haven’t got already), and ended up in the poetry section. Scanning the spines, I pulled out a brilliant yellow book collecting poems by Don Marquis, called archy and mehitabel.

 

I’ve never heard of Don Marquis, but I opened it up and it reminded me of two favourite things: ee cummings and George Herriman’s Krazy Kat & Ignatz.

Like Krazy Kat, archy & mehitabel features a cast of animals — the text is written ‘by’ a cockroach called archy, and featuring a lot of animals that have previously been humans: mehitabel, the cat; warty bliggens, the toad; freddy, the rat.

In punctuation-absent, faux-broken free verse, Marquis creates rich characters filled with back-story, warmth and humour. There’s an irreverent play with language that pokes fun at its formal absurdity whilst defining clear accents, lexicons and personalities of its characters. mehitabel’s refrain of “wotthehell” here is a great example:

i have had my ups and downs
but wotthehell wotthehell
yesterday sceptres and crowns
fried oysters and velvet gowns
and today i herd with bums
but wotthehell wotthehell
i wake the world from sleep
as i caper and sing and leap
when i sing my wild free tune
wotthehell wotthehell
under the blear eyed moon
i am pelted with cast off shoon
but wotthehell wotthehell

the song of mehitabel (extract), Don Marquis

There’s a depth to the words and use of language that raises it above a pretend naïvety; the use of animal characters is to offer the ability to indulge a different perspective and gently poke fun at the human world from a differently privileged position.

A little research showed that there is a clear link between archy and mehitabel and Krazy Kat and Ignatz: George Herriman illustrated the original newspaper publications of Marquis’ columns, in his typically brilliant way:

Which makes me very happy, and reminds me of the wonderful purpose of physical bookshops, particularly second-hand ones: accidental discovery, judging books by their covers and trusting your own hunches. Love live indie.

One day they’ll pass, and we’ll say “wotthehell wotthehell”.

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