The Book of Upside Down Thinking: Brian Patten, Forget Me Not Books
And now for something completely different, as someone once said. A priest halfway between Heaven and Hell, a tax collector, a magician, a philosopher, a blind man, a monk and a hammer, and quite a few donkeys are featured in Brian Patten’s new collection of jokey and wise rhymes.
Why so many donkeys? The answer is that many of the poems in Patten’s latest collection, The Book of Upside Down Thinking, are based on stories that date back to the 11th century, and are attributed to Nasrudin, a Turkish character who is also known as Goha in Egypt, and Si’Djeha in Morocco and Tunisia.
Patten says in his foreword: “On the simplest level the stories are jokes and anecdotes that help show the world from a different and unexpected perspective. They were often used as teaching stories, containing, if not exactly morals, then certainly wisdom. While in Morocco last winter I turned some of the stories into verse, adapting some quite substantially. Others are my own invention, inspired by and written in the spirit of Nasrudin. The aim of them all is to rattle the cage of conventional thinking.”
The four-line poem ‘At The Border’ will give you some idea:
“You must have some means to identify yourself,”
The officious official said.
I held a mirror to my face.
“Yes, that’s me,” I said.
Another four-liner, ‘Revelation’, concerns God and Mammon, and has an unmistakeably Mersey Poets flavour, too: “God giveth and He takes away - / He must have been in church today. / Celestial light upon the altar shone. / But the silver candlesticks were gone.”
‘The Hammer’s Revelation’ concerns a monk who is hammering into a wall in order to hang up an icon. A hole appears in the masonry, and he finds himself looking into a beautiful garden, a “paradise” which turned out to be “the thickness of a brick away”. The poem ends with these lines: “He praises God for the revelation / And ignoring the work the hammer had done / Singing hallelujahs / He stepped out into the sun.” Patten has said of this poem: “Its meaning seems clear enough, but there are various ways to read it …. Who or what was behind the revelation, God or the hammer? ... I suppose you could complicate things a bit more by asking if it is simply about the power of belief.”
Brian Patten, along with Roger McGough and Adrian Henri, became a poetic celebrity while barely out of his teens in the 1960s when the trio’s anthology The Mersey Sound was published by Penguin. It has become a long-lasting poetry bestseller, appealing to and inspiring successive generations who had not realised poetry was for them, too.
It is now 22 years since Patten’s last poetry collection for adults, Armada – and for some of his fans, this might not be the volume they were expecting. The deceptive simplicity of The Book of Upside Down Thinking places it in an area somewhere between his very successful verses for children, and what he has himself termed a “groan-up” collection. But it would be wrong to regard these verses, which have been published by a “gift book” imprint, ForgetMeNot Books, as lightweight or makeweight.
Patten has always used plain language in his poems, from ‘Little Johnny’s Confession’, to ‘The Minister for Exams’ and ‘So Many Different Lengths of Time’, and such poems have often included a philosophical line of inquiry. These new and old little verses, echoing an age when donkeys were almost as ubiquitous as cars are now, contain an austere and often bleak wisdom as well as plenty of humour.
The hardback edition is beautifully produced, with the poems interspersed with Islamic patterns on certain pages. There is a serenity about these verses. Take your time, seems to be one of Patten’s messages, in the collection’s final entry ‘Ripples’: “People are writing their diaries at the day’s end. / How can they know so soon what’s happened?”