Muddy Mouth


When two of Frank’s heroes collide, great art is made…

I was a teenage Samuel Beckett fan. I owed my early enthusiasm to my English teacher, Richard Shone, who taught me between the ages of thirteen and eighteen, through my O and A Levels. He encouraged me to read widely outside the syllabus of set books, introducing me to Tristram Shandy and Franz Kafka among much else. But it is difficult to calculate the effect on my young brain occasioned by the fact that one of the first serious novels I ever read was Beckett’s Watt. I still consider it to be probably the funniest book ever written. And that was the thing with Mr Shone. Himself greatly appreciating the comedy in a writer still too often seen as bleak and miserable, he was eager for me to share that appreciation. After Watt, I devoured the Molloy / Malone Dies / The Unnamable trilogy – and all before my sixteenth birthday.

My other great hero at the time, in another field, was Robert Wyatt. I was introduced to him by my older brother, who brought home the early Soft Machine LPs and the pair of records by Wyatt’s successor band Matching Mole. What I loved about Wyatt was that, unlike seemingly everyone else in those days, he sang in a defiantly English accent. Also, at a time when hairy prog rock persons were caterwauling about pixies and elves and unicorns, Wyatt’s lyrics were more like snatches of conversation, prose rather than poetry. On the second Soft Machine album, for example, the entire text of the song “Hullo Der” is as follows: “If I were black and I lived here, I’d want to be a big man in the FBI or the CIA. But as I’m not and of course I don’t, and as I’m free, white and twenty-one, I don’t need more power than I’ve got except for sometimes when I’m broke”.

My twin infatuations came from wholly different worlds, and resonated with me in different ways. But then, in 1975, they somehow collided, gloriously. Wyatt’s solo album from that year, Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard, included the song “Muddy Mouth”. Accompanied by Fred Frith on piano, Wyatt sings an aching, plaintive song about a man in a bleak Beckettian landscape, masturbating in an outside toilet (or possibly an actual, rather than a euphemistic, bog). The whole mood of the piece, the combination of sadness and squalor and mordant humour, seemed to me then, as it does now, the closest anything in “rock” music has got to the spirit of Samuel Beckett.

Here are the words:

Deep in the undergrows, Handy sighed with relief. He’d come alone in the dark, he’d come again at dawn, if not before the morning cock rise. Meanwhile in the bushes above, behind the towpath which goes along beside the canal leading to the sea, which in turn leads on to all the major oceans, Indian, Atlantic, Pacific, I can’t remember the names of the others off-Handy-cided to leave. He’d come apart at the seams, endangered life and lawn order before, the more since he lies. Even under oaf, Handy lies, when he feels caught between right-hand wrong. I think he just might have been wrong this time, which in turn left him with few alternatives to relieving himself by hand, alone in the dark, hiding in the bog.

Listen, and enthuse. (The clip begins with a brief prefatory piece.):

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About Author Profile: Frank Key

Frank Key is a London-based writer, blogger and broadcaster best known for his Hooting Yard blog, short-story collections and his long-running radio series Hooting Yard on the Air, which has been broadcast weekly on Resonance FM since April 2004. By Aerostat to Hooting Yard - A Frank Key Reader, an ideal introduction to his fiction, is published for Kindle by Dabbler Editions. Mr Key's Shorter Potted Brief, Brief Lives was published in October 2015 by Constable and is available to buy online and in all good bookshops.

4 thoughts on “Muddy Mouth

    June 21, 2013 at 15:33

    As you noted at Hooting Yard, yes he is an unreconstructed Communist but you know, that sheer cussedness is a part of what makes him a true national treasure.

    jonathan law
    June 21, 2013 at 17:29

    The words to Wyatt’s lovely song Free Will and Testament have always struck me as being rather like a (late) Beckett text:

    I cannot know what I would be if I were not me, I can only guess me. So when I say that I know me, how can I know that? What kind of spider understands arachnophobia? I have my senses and my sense of having senses. Do I guide them? Or they me? The weight of dust exceeds the weight of settled objects. What can it mean, such gravity without a centre? Is there freedom to un-be?… I would disperse, be disconnected. Is this possible? … Be in the air, but not be air, be in the no air.

    ‘Funniest Book Ever Written’ is always a good subject for a pub argument. Watt must be a hot contender, though I seem to remember some pretty arid stretches. I always used to insist that Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman was the world’s funniest book – but to tell truth I haven’t read it in 30 years and my taste for that sort of post-modern post-Joycean rigmarole has waned rather. Martin Chuzzlewit is by far the funniest Dickens and The Code of the Woosters the funniest Wodehouse – at least, of the ones I’ve read.

      June 21, 2013 at 17:53

      A criminally neglected book, though not quite a contender for “funniest ever”, is Don’t Point That Thing At Me by Kyril Bonfiglioli. “Hard-boiled crime thriller meets P G Wodenouse” gives some idea of its flavour. Highly amusing.

      Yes, there will have been times when I would pronounce The Third Policeman the funniest ever. Like you, I have not reread it for many years, and in some ways am reluctant to do so in case it fails to measure up to my fond memories.

        June 21, 2013 at 18:09

        I just reread The Third Policeman and indeed there are genuinely hilarous passages even now. But perhaps because I’m older and more aware of my mortality then the horror of the narrator’s situation weighs heavy. And the end is just chilling.

        Honestly having reread all of O’Brien in the last 3 years then ‘At Swim Two Birds’ has reclaimed its place as my favourite of his works.

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