There once was a man from Merton,
Who only ate salads with stilton,
He liked pickles of course,
With lots of brown sauce,
And got pretty excited by mutton.
Utterly useless! It was no good. That was my tenth attempt at writing a limerick and I’d failed miserably. I had gone to bed the previous night thinking myself the next Edward Lear but in the revealing light of Sunday morning, I realised that I was no better than a freckle-faced Pam Ayers, aged about 7 and already rhyming ‘duck’ with silence and guilty looks towards her friends.
I still don’t know how I managed to reach the point at which I had come to realise that I have no skill with rhymes. All I do know is that an email pinged into my inbox early on Saturday night. It was from Sir Clive James, who was finally responding to the letter of thanks I'd sent him some weeks ago. After he'd finished praising my blog and telling me a witty anecdote about Michael Aspel, a keg of beer and a length of rubber tubing, he asked me to ring him at my convenience.
‘Hello, Sir Clive?’ I asked, seconds later.
‘Hello there, Dick. You got my email then.’
His voice was a rumble on the other end of the line. It made my chair vibrate and people living in a five mile radius were undoubtedly becoming sexually excited for no apparent reason.
‘I did get your email and very intriguing it was too,’ I said.
‘I meant it to be,’ breathed Sir Clive. ‘I don’t always write my emails in verse but I wanted to entice you, Dick. I have plans and they involve you.’
‘Me? In your plans?’
‘After I finish my Edinburgh show, I’m editing a volume of verse and I’d like you to be involved.’
Now my own excitement became sexual and I begin to perspire. ‘Me? Involved in a book of verse with you, Sir Clive? I’d be absolutely delighted. You probably know that I’m an unpublished but prolific poet. I once wrote you a sonnet sequence that you might be interested in reading. There’s only 157 of them but that’s three more than Shakespeare wrote to his Dark Lady... But you don’t have to worry about my embarrassing you. I only ever refer to you as my Bald Australian Essayist and Critic.’
‘Hold you horses, Dick,’ said Sir Clive. ‘You haven’t heard my plan yet. All my friends are contributing to the volume. I’m asking each of you to take a verse form and then write me half a dozen poems in that form. The only exception is Stephen Fry who is writing me one long epic poem in rhyming Alexandrines.’
‘So you’re saying that I can’t write you some sonnets?’
‘Selina Scott is writing me some sonnets,’ said Sir Clive. ‘I want you to take charge of the limerick.’
‘The limerick?’ I cried. ‘I’m a rondeau man at the very least. Or give me the chance to write a satire in verse. Have you read my 170 line "Epistle to Jeremy Paxman on the State of His Sock Drawer"?’
‘Unfortunately, I have,’ murmured Sir Clive, ‘which is why I’d like you to take the limerick.’
‘But that’s the least important verse form that there is! Did Wallace Stevens ever write limericks? T.S. Eliot? The great Percy Bysshe or George Gordon?’ I protested. ‘Some might even consider it doggerel. No, with all respect, Sir Clive, I think you’ll find that I’m more suited to representing the poems of the great Augustan writers. Who have you asked to be the modern day Alexander Pope?’
‘Russell Brand,’ said Clive. He couldn’t have bloodied his knuckles any more had he plucked out the knife he’d stuck into my liver and inserted his hand into the open wound.
I hung up mortified.
‘I can’t write limericks,’ I said to Judy as I wandered into the kitchen. She just shrugged and carried on putting up shelves.
With the sound of her power drill hitting a burnt brick, I sloped off back to my study where I sat myself down at the desk and began to scribble limericks. As any artist will tell you, beginning is the most difficult part of the act of composition. Finding your way into words isn’t half as difficult as finding a topic that merits action. I just threw ideas on the page, trying not to censor myself but wanting to explore the deep creative recesses of my mind.
There’s a London cabbie called Fry
Whose wit is surprisingly dry,
He’s always up for a jape,
Wears a green velvet cape,
And hosts a popular show called QI.
Terrible but worse was to come...
There once was a lady called Vanessa,
Whose cleavage was delightfully immense-a,
One day on the show,
She bent over low,
And I saw her knees through her crevasse-a.
No. No. No. And No.
There once was a man called Bill Oddie,
Whose sense of style was quite shoddy,
He’d mixed red with green,
In a Hawaiian gabardine,
And hung duck calls all over his body.
After a eight or nine more examples, I finally penned my limerick about the man from Merton. It didn’t please me but this was after nearly five hours work so I went off to see if Judy had finished with her shelves. I found her sitting at the kitchen table drinking a coffee fortified with rum.
‘Have a look at my limericks and tell me what you think,’ I said, handing her my pages of third-rate Lear.
'You’ve been looking down Vanessa’s dress again, haven’t your Richard?’ she asked, five minutes later.
‘Not really,’ I replied. ‘Sometimes I can’t help it. She seems to fill the room.’
‘More like she fills your eyeballs,’ said Judy throwing the pages of hard won rhymes to the table and grabbing a pen. ‘You can’t send any of these to Clive James. He’ll think there’s something wrong with you. Here...’ She turned a page over and scribbled on the back for all of ten seconds. ‘There,’ she said. ‘Give that to your “Sir Clive” and tell him that it's a Judy original. Let him put that in his book.’
I looked at the page.
There once was a man called Madeley
Whose poems were written quite badly,
It made his wife so insane
She'd rather unblock the drain,
Lest she plucked out her own eyes, quite gladly.
And with that she disappeared into the back garden.
The sound of a suction pump soon filled the morning silence and Judy appeared from the shed carrying her set of drain rods.
As I sat amid the scattered debris of my poetry career, I felt quite blessed that I had a woman like Judy who would help me recover. I don’t know where I’d be without her, at times. I certainly don’t know what kind of a state the drains would be in. They’d been blocked since I’d eaten a second helping of Mrs. Corbett’s rice pudding last week.
And that was it! It was like a door had been opened in my brain and light flooded the place where inspiration, that emancipated wretch, had been lying in heavily whiskered filth in the middle of its once dark cell. Inspiration blinked a few times and then rose to his feet. Suddenly moved by a real subject, the pen danced in my fingertips. I looked down and saw the following words, written in indelible ink on the white work surface.
There once was a woman called Judy
Who saw unblocking drains as a duty,
What clogged them, I bet:
Rice Pudding Corbett,
Which I sent down the loo last Tuesday.
And that, my friends, is how art happens! Magical. Other worldly. Like a gift sent down by heaven and given its own show on ITV. And what’s more, it would make Sir Clive James so very happy.
Beat that, Stephen Fry!