Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Boob News

Another death announced today -- one that, with all respect to his family and friends, personally speaking I'll find a little less hard to come to terms with -- is that of Erich Segal, whose career unusually straddled both academy (most recently as honorary Fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford) and airport bookstall (as author of Love Story et al).

In neither of these roles can I honestly say Segal's activities touched me very intimately; yet I have reason to lament his passing, because I lose with it the opportunity ever to ask him rather a specific question -- and one which possibly only he alone would have been in a position to answer.

For some years now I've been fascinated by an unlikely but to my mind unmistakeable instance of artistic resemblance. -- As in, "Any relation to any person living or dead is purely coincidental." Well, sure, but sometimes, particularly where it's hard not to divine some satiric intention behind the portrayal, it's a stretch to believe that Coincidence, acting without conspirators, could be such a wag. And in that sort of vein I am profoundly, if trivially, fascinated by the figure of Jeremy Hillary Boob in the Beatles film Yellow Submarine, and the nagging chink of a possibility -- remote, unthinkable even, and yet extraordinarily compelling once admitted -- that the character might conceivably be a slightly unkind caricature of the key late modernist poet J.H. Prynne.

It is hard not to be similarly unkind in laying out the evidence, which I am reluctant to do: partly because it seems mean in itself; partly because JHP is an acquaintance of mine and a close friend of close friends (and is aware, I know, of this blog, to my hot and cold running bafflement and panic); and partly because such a gossipy speculation can only occupy a fatuous register that is, I dare say, to Prynne himself and his friends and colleagues, quite abhorrent and insulting (and properly so, I admit): so to ventilate it like this is a clear case of conduct unbecoming. But it is in a way precisely this bathetic incongruity that makes the whole idea -- as is so often said of potboiler novels like Segal's -- unputdownable.

So, here are the points of correspondence that initially tantalised me:

1. The names: Jeremy Hillary Boob vs. Jeremy Halvard Prynne. Notwithstanding the famous anecdotal divulgence in Veronica Forrest-Thomson's 'Cordelia or "A poem should not mean, but be"' regarding

...J.H. Prynne, the memorable poet
Who is happy to say that the U.L.
Has got his middle name wrong.
He claims it stands for Hah

Hillary certainly could be taken to look like a mordant, teasing undermining of Halvard, degrading (or elevating) its no-frills Old Norse robustness into a kind of ambiguously transgendered laciness and levity: a metamorphosis which culminates near-ecstatically in the supplanting of "Prynne" by "Boob" (signalling both 'fool' and 'tit', presumably, especially in 1968). "Jeremy Hillary Boob" is, essentially, the rude noise released by letting all the air out of a balloon called "Jeremy Halvard Prynne".

2. They're both poets. Admittedly, Boob's obsessive predilection for rhymed line-endings could hardly seem less apt in light of Prynne's own poetry, but in 1967 (when Yellow Submarine was actually in production) JHP was by no means an established poet; those who became acquainted with him would presumably have thought of him more as a critic and scholar who, perhaps, who knows, wrote poems on the side. At any rate, Yellow Submarine seems to be having fun more with the idea of poetry as vocation, and as an area of study and enthusiasm affording or promoting a kind of narcissistic seclusion, than with the extempore versifying of Boob per se. (Can I just mention that there is something tremendously satisfactory about typing the phrase "Boob per se", especially with the italics, and if you ever have the opportunity to do the same, I would very cordially urge you to seize it.)

3. The particular fixation of the mickey-taking on Boob's exertive polymathism, which as you can see in the clips below expresses itself almost as a kind of self-involved dance. This, contrarily, is very much a signature of Prynne's poetic work, and one would imagine was a notable feature of his casual conversation and his critical prose in the mid/late 60s, when he was, after all, in his thirties and hardly wet behind his ears, for all that his vertiginously crossdisciplinary poetry was still ahead of him.

4. There is -- it feels dirty to say it, but if we are to clinch the making of this case we must, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, be brave -- an amply discernible vocal similarity between JHP and JHB. For those who haven't heard Prynne speak (a very large constituency indeed, and one that would include the great majority of his readers as well as the even greater part of his non-readers), it is hard to present any suasive evidence on this score. Prynne's audio-recorded utterances are few and, of those, most that I know of are recent and might not convincingly enhance my argument were I to produce them here, as they present us with a voice some octaves lower than Boob's and mellifluous in a wholly different order of seduction. You might hear it perhaps in the private recordings I have in my possession of some gripping voiceover materials that Mr Prynne kindly recorded for a student production I created in 1993: but to air those here would feel like the betrayal of a long-held confidence, for all that their original intent was in the realm of public broadcasting (or, let's say, narrowcasting). So, I think you'll have to trust me on this one, unless you too possess the first-hand experience to make an assessment for yourself.

Before we go on, then, here is the Jeremy Hillary Boob sequence from Yellow Submarine -- starting at around 7 minutes into part 4:

So, how do you like them apples, etc.

Now as I have said, I found these four blatant correspondences extremely compelling when they first struck me: but the question that arose seemed unanswerable: who among the makers of Yellow Submarine could possibly have had any kind of (half-affectionate, possibly) beef with a then hardly-known academic and barely emergent poet? Who could even have crossed his path? To begin with, even I was sorely unimpressed with the best theory I could come up with -- that at some private party of the kind that occasionally, throughout "the 60s", the record shows, used to bring together poets who from our current vantage appear to exist on irreconcilably different sides of the tracks, a party that we might imagine being thrown by, say, Tom Pickard, Michael Horovitz, someone like that, that at a party of that heady ilk, Prynne might, can you even imagine such a thing?, might just have run, over a pale ale or a contested last pork scratching, might just have run into Roger McGough, who was then at his Summer With Monika height and had been drafted in to punch up the funny in the Yellow Submarine screenplay.

No, no, I know, it won't do, it won't, will it, no, no, it won't.

But then, just a few months ago, unable to bear the itch of dissatisfaction at the whole unresolved mess of it all, I pursued a couple of new threads and noted with some interest that another of the screenwriters (amazing how many people it took to write Yellow Submarine, given that it's taken only one to write, say, J.H. Prynne's Poems) was Erich Segal. I vaguely remembered that the author of Love Story had some surprising scholarly hinterland, and started to look into it.

Well, so, long story slightly less long, it seems, from what I can piece together -- no doubt the obituaries over the next couple of days will help with this, so, hm, yay! for dying, Erich -- Segal was studying for his doctorate in comparative literature at Harvard around 1961-62, during which period Prynne was there too. So, a much earlier meeting, perhaps (if it ever happened), with JHP writing poetry in a quite different mode to the work that started to emerge later in the decade. I've yet to find the particle of biographical history that suggests that Prynne and Segal ever breathed the same argon, and it may be that not one iotum of even such tenuous evidential potency can now be found, and the harder one looks it seems to matter both more and at the same time more emphatically not at all, and I suddenly feel very tired: but as a useless hypothesis, it's better than JHP playing late-nite pass-the-parcel with one of The Scaffold, n'est-ce pas?

So, I mean, nothing, nothing, it's all nothing, and now Segal can neither confirm nor deny, unless we fetch Derek Acorah for a follow-up to the Jacko seance; but, if anybody out there in TV Land has any light to shed -- or any merciful darkness to bestow -- the comments field at the foot of this post gapes and twitches in dilated anticipation.

In the meantime, let's all just enjoy the way in which my stated suspension of this blog until March has, almost inevitably, stimulated such a surge of posting activity. Well, if people will keep dying... x


Mark Espiner said...

Are you sure Segal was the creator of Boob? It might have been Joe Orton or Tom Stoppard who also wrote drafts. Or Joseph Heller. I have to say, though, your thesis is strong. Can't Prynne confirm? Did he know Segal? Do they have a classical spat in some journal somewhere?

Jonny Liron said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jonny Liron said...

I did mention this to Jeremy once and he said that was aware of Erich but hadn't met him.

Orlando Reade said...

It's probably been said, but "Love means never having to say you're sorry" has always struck me as being the most extremely moronic advice.

Chris Goode said...

Mike Weller suggests on his blog that "[Prynne's poem] 'Die A Millionaire' pronounced DIAMONDS-IN-THE-AIR (Kitchen Poems, 1968) may have appealed to late Erich Segal scripting millionaire Beatles' movie after Lennon toon 'Lucy in the sky with ...' (1967)."


Alison Croggon said...

A month behind the eightball - but thanks so much for this. Every time I see Yellow Submarine (my son loves it, so I have had several opportunities) I wonder exactly the same thing. I suppose I'll keep wondering, but it's nice to know I am not alone in my trivial speculation.

Emily Critchley said...

_Compelling_ thesis.
You can listen to Prynne reading 'Cocaine' by John Wieners at Archive of the Now:, tho he reads this huskier than he normally speaks - more like Boob for sure.