National Poetry Competition approaches, and the deadline for this year’s Bridport Prize looms, I have no doubt there are many up-and-coming poets dreaming of how one of these prizes could change their lives. If you’re one of them, I don’t blame you. The poetry world is such a thankless one for so much of the time that frankly any kind of recognition from the establishment is cause for celebration. A win in the Bridport or the National could even be career-changing, as the likes of Carol Ann Duffy and Colette Bryce can testify.
But a big win like this could be something of a poisoned chalice, in its own way.
I do enter these competitions, from time to time. Well, OK, not Bridport – I’ve blogged before about why not – but I try and use my Poetry Society member’s free entry to the National every year. Yet when I do, there’s still a lurking fear that any dreams of success could mutate all too easily into nightmares. That, in short, a big win could turn me into the poetic equivalent of Chris de Burgh.
For the benefit of my younger readers, allow me to explain. Back when I were a lad, before middle age and cynicism set in, there was a badly dressed troubadour whose songwriting I followed avidly. He lived in a castle. He had eyebrows like two large Tiger Moth caterpillars. And he was the nearest modern equivalent to the travelling minstrels of medieval times, wandering the countryside with his repertoire of fairy tales and murder ballads. They were quirky, subversive, rude and occasionally iconoclastic – and I loved them. I still remember, as an impressionable schoolboy, the shiver that went through me the first time I listened to Spanish Train. A song about God and the Devil playing poker for souls – not the sort of theology I was usually exposed to by the Christian Brothers! I remember singing duets with my brother, staggering half-drunk through the streets of Birkenhead, on the way home from some party or other: oh the leaves are falling and the wind is calling and I must get on the road. I was never all that rebellious in my youth; but somehow blasting out Patricia the Stripper on the sixth-form ghetto blaster when the head of year walked past seemed to make up quite nicely for all the absinthe, marijuana and fornication that I never had the nerve to attempt. To this day, if you catch me at the wrong moment after a beer or two too many, I can treat you to a full rendition.
You see, back in the day, Chris de Burgh was actually rather good. He was like me: a compulsive storyteller. He was fascinated by fairy stories. He sang some of the best peace songs ever written. Occasionally he was really rude, in a naive, Benny Hill, chasing-scantily-clad-women-in-circles-round-the-nearest-tree kind of way. My brother, the metal-head, used to play the Apocalypse Cycle from Into the Light at full volume in his hall of residence, and fellow students really thought it was the next big thing in heavy metal. Chris de Burgh could be all things to all people.
But then it happened. This bard with the razor wit and the rainbow voice went and had a hit. A huge hit.
Yes, with a twitch of one megalithic eyebrow, de Burgh secured his fortune for the rest of his life. And buried his career with it.
Now this is the problem. Ardent follower though I am, I have to confess that nine times out of ten, the reaction I get at the mention of Chris de Burgh (apart from “Who?”), is “Wasn’t The Lady in Red a pile of shite?” It doesn’t matter how much I talk about the radical back catalogue: the songs about strippers, or murderers, or celestial poker games. “Wasn’t The Lady in Red a pile of shite?” is all I hear. Unless I’m talking to a blue-rinsed Daily Mail reader, at which point I get really hot under the collar, because CHRIS DE BURGH WAS NEVER MEANT TO BE ENJOYED BY BLUE-RINSED DAILY MAIL READERS!
There we have it: the curse of the “greatest hit”. One big success, and you can be pigeon-holed for life. You may spend the remainder of your creative career trying to replicate the magic formula – and kill off your creativity in the process. Think of all the great novelists who produced one successful novel in their lifetimes, and never published anything thereafter because they simply couldn’t come close to recapturing the magic of that first triumph. Or the ones who had a big success and followed it up with dozens of sub-standard re-runs. Or the ones forced into doing something so radically different that their original fans are left baffled and alienated, and who never quite win new ones.
There’s also the risk that even if you do follow up the “greatest hit” with something wonderful, the public just won’t want to know. Another of my favourite hippie troubadours, Ralph McTell, suffers from this more than most. He may have a good 45 years’ worth of wonderful songwriting under his belt but he's still expected to wheel out Streets of London at every opportunity. “Streets of London Syndrome” was brilliantly lampooned by the Big Train team back in the 1990s, but there’s a truth behind the joke. I know one award-winning poet who loathes his “greatest hit” with a passion, but has to perform it at every single gig because this is what the audience demand.
I’ve got to be honest. I can’t really defend The Lady in Red. The best I can do is point out the injustice that plenty of far more “credible” musicians have recorded far worse songs, and somehow kept their reputations intact while de Burgh’s has been ground into the mire. On a sliding scale of awfulness, The Lady in Red might score a full 9 out of 10, but Wonderful Tonight – quite possibly the most nauseating song ever written? – merits at least 30,000: and yet there are still people who claim that Eric Clapton is God! And what about Stevie Wonder? A songwriting genius, it’s true; but why is he allowed to get away with the sentimental bilge that is I Just Called to Say I Love You, while de Burgh gets pilloried for an inconsequential little ditty about his ex-wife’s red dress? It doesn’t matter how much I protest that The Lady in Red was an aberration, that he shouldn’t be judged on the strength of one embarrassing song. Judged he is, and probably always will be.
This is why I dread becoming Chris de Burgh. It’s the lurking fear that, were I to have a big hit sometime in my poetic career, it will be the start of a slippery slope. That I’ll cash in. I’ll sell out. Or else I’ll yearn to do something different, but won’t be able to get gigs unless I keep performing the same old “classic”. I dread that one day I’ll make one concession too many, and everything worthwhile that I’ve ever done and stood for will be lost in a single act of all-consuming mediocrity.
I’m going to go on protesting the greatness of Chris de Burgh. Every few years he’ll create a peace song of epic proportions, and remind me exactly why I used to revere him. The trouble is that for every Up Here in Heaven or The Last Time I Cried there are a dozen unnecessary re-runs of The Lady in Red. And they don’t exactly help my case.
I try not to get too despondent. I still want to believe that in years to come, the reputation of Chris de Burgh will be redeemed – that our children’s children will be able to sing his songs the way I used to sing them, with sparkling eyes. But in the meantime I feel the tug of an expanding waistline. I catch a whiff of that expensive malt whisky I never used to be able to afford. And I know that if I ever wrote the literary equivalent of The Lady in Red, I would probably go the way of Chris de Burgh.
So don’t pay the ferryman, ladies and gentlemen. Don’t even fix a price.