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Bitter Lemmings by Tom Holt

Bitter Lemmings (1997)

by Tom Holt

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There are some who want to do you harm in the world and there are others who just want to cheer you up so, what I think is, give cheer up a chance. This kind of an open love letter to Tom Holt rather than a two-bit review of Bitter Lemmings because we have history, not that Tom’s aware of it.

I started reading Tom Holt’s novels in Chemistry lessons at school (sitting at the back, teacher myopic) and managed to read almost all of them before failing that GCSE and having to move on. Despite having not met him, I think I can call him Tom because I’ve now read everything under his name and forked over a lot of my pocket money. I say “under his name” because in 2016 I found out he’s also writing under the pen name of K.J. Parker and I’ve only read the first three of those (keep your eye on the little old lady with the cage).

As Tom is clearly fascinated by metalwork and the contraptions that shape it, I don’t understand why he isn’t writing steampunk humour, but he isn’t, so there it is. Also, why would someone with a line in comedy start in such a bleak way with a book of anti-war poems (trenches, maggots in eye sockets)? Perhaps because humour often comes out of the author’s darkest place (Hancock, Milligan). Tom thinks he does social commentary but it has no cutting edge to it. The other side to this author is the classicist and I can say that some of his best material is in the histories. The loose ends he’s written are his mock-lobster spin-offs of E.F. Benson’s Mapp and Lucia, The indies Holt Who Goes There? and Bitter Lemmings, plus Drabbles (look it up) and short murder mystery contributions to historical compendiums from Roman times to Queen Victoria. Yep, read ‘em all.

Expecting Someone Taller (Teutonic legend, Bayreuth Festival, fab, my favourite), Who’s Afraid of Beowulf? (Viking magic vs tech.) and Goatsong (also my favourite; a quasi-genius comic/tragic story about a Athenian playwright in the Syracuse period) – these are Tom Holt’s masterworks. Don’t tell him I said his early works were best and he hasn’t done anything half as good since because he’s been told that too often and the next time could be the proverbial straw. Just under that level of quality are Tom’s novels Flying Dutch (Der fliegende Holländer), The Walled Orchard (sequel to Goatsong), A Song for Nero and I also like, but can’t explain why, Olympiad (particularly the wrestler idea and the fact that the actual first Olympic Games, supposed to be the subject, only sneak in for the last two pages). All of the above will stay in your head forever. The next level down are, sadly, just ordinary and forgettable books. Then, at the far end of the scale from accomplished to confusion, is Snow White and the Seven Samurai, which there’s no point reviewing because you can’t polish one of those.

Tom writes a lot of material in the mythopoeic style, as he has said himself. To do this, just take an existing legend or a classic story that has already permeated our cultural consciousness for centuries, bring it out to run around in the sun once more and parody it. Tom particularly likes doing this to old operas (producing good books) and gods and heroes (less successful). This should be easy because the characters have been constructed already (people connect to and like them), the places have already been mapped and readers enjoy spotting the references to the original. He tries to hammer out new plots for these characters, with mixed results though.

My father, who did pass Chemistry and hasn’t read more than two of Tom’s books, had a conversation with him once and asked why he kept referring to some strange engineering company (in Wish you Were Here, etc.). Tom Holt answered that, simply, the name sounded attractive. I’ve thought about that and can agree, particularly for mythology and fantasy places, that the intriguing hook of their name is half of the attraction (Lothlorien, Shangri-La, El Dorado, Cricklewood, Valhalla, Taunton, Albion, Dungeness). Later on, Terry Pratchett visited my school and told us all that Tom Holt had secretly written a Mills & Boon. This may have been revenge for Tom showing Pratchett’s wizard (sorry, “wizzard”) character wandering aimlessly around one of the circles of hell in Faust Among Equals. Mr Tom also sends Sir Terry up in Bitter Lemmings (song 21).

So why am I writing this now, when I’ve never reviewed any of Tom Holt’s books before? I think it’s because I didn’t feel qualified to tell him he could do better, he could write more books that match the quality and inspiration of Expecting Someone Taller and Goatsong. The latest seem to me comparatively a little tired. Why do I now feel qualified to comment? That would be because I’ve just finished the last of them, the “filk” song book Bitter Lemmings.

What is filk? I’m answering my own questions here: It is a musical non-phenomenon that originated in fantasy and science fiction fandom back in the 1950s. If this book is your first exposure to filk, you will pick up on the format that they snatch an existing tune and write funny new words for it. The fandom origins explain why there are so many references to popular and iconic films, books and characters. Tom Holt self-identifies himself with his animal spirit guide, the lemming. Not the rat itself per se but the metaphor it suggests of a population unthinking following a leader to their doom, over a sheer drop, whatever. He wants to tell us we are all lemmings and we should wake up, start thinking for ourselves and not just blindly follow what the crowd is doing. This metaphor falls down a little because it is founded on an untruth: A director and camera crew in Norway herded a load of lemmings and forced them over the cliff to make their documentary more interesting. That little fact also tells you all you need to know about human nature.

Here’s a sample from number 25 (funny but the least pc):
“When I was but a young man, and I hadn’t any sense
I hung around with a dentist’s girl, who I loved with a love intense.
Now that’s all fine and splendid; where I went so very wrong
Was marrying the dreary bitch, the subject of this song.”

Bitter Lemmings is, in essence, written to cheer up a whole room full of people and get them red in face and spilling cider. I particularly like song 22, “The Skunk-Breeder’s Daughter” who can’t get laid. This work is family orientated, so sorry of those two examples gave you a different impression. You have to sing it though, which is trickier with the fast-talking lyrics in a couple of the songs. There are home truths, one is a minor rant, some lines are memorable (“Give me my entourage of losers” to the tune of Jerusalem), there’s a fair bit about lemmings and the whole thing is encompassed and drawn together by Tom Holt’s languid wit. He’s written this with no expectation that it will be circulated widely or discussed outside the obscurity of filkdom and he’s been kind enough to direct all the proceeds to the filk aficionados themselves, for the purpose of paying the travel costs of people who would like to attend filky gatherings.

I read everything by Tom Holt, got sucked into a four year sequence and flunked Chemistry for one simple reason. I hoped he’d find his way back to the standard of his earlier books, back in the days when the excitement shone through the pages and I could see that he was in love with writing and being a writer. Since that, I’ve seen too many that read as if he’d been forced to produce a word count and hadn’t put enough delight and heart into the project. On first sight, I was expecting someone taller. There’s still time, Tom, our Somerset lad. You’ve still got that funny flame inside.

A sense of humour is a pretty personal thing and mine was shaped by writers like Tom Holt and some of his greatest rivals.

Tom’s rolling swamps of Somerset are a peaceful part of England and the county has been so since the time of King Arthur, even unto Glastonbury. They’ve never invaded Devon and they’re the best neighbours that Dorset ever had. Having been there a few times, I can tell you why. After an evening devoted to song and drinking in that pub where straw found its way in on locals’ boots and there's a stray dog under the table, after four or five hours of volume, snakebite & black and no tourists, I found I was going absolutely bloody nowhere. ( )
  HavingFaith | Aug 19, 2017 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Tom Holtprimary authorall editionscalculated
Nyrond, ZanderIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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