Colin West: Nonsense and Stuff

Those who have come across my work will know I’m a fan of the three Rs — Rhyme, Rhythm and Repetition (and obviously Alliteration too!) But how did it all begin for me?

Well, growing up in the early fifties, after the standard start with nursery rhymes, I remember the poetry of song lyrics. My mother sang around the house as she went about her work. I thought she knew every song ever written, and am still haunted by some of the evocative lines.

Take my hand, I’m a stranger in Paradise, all lost in a Wonderland…

All I want is a room somewhere, far away from the cold night air…

These words conjured images in my mind. They were poetic, mysterious and a little scary. The radio, too, provided more thought-provoking material.

Will I be handsome, will I be rich, here’s what she said to me…

And other songs tickled my funny bone.

I’m a g-nu, a g-nother g-nu…

My mum read to me too — from a book of hers which was a cherished school prize. My grubby finger-prints still mark the page I loved most, which featured The Owl and the Pussycat. Going to school myself, there were more words to amuse and sometimes perplex me, such as the misheard

There is a green hill far away, without a sitting wall …

How sad, I thought, for them not to have a wall to sit on.

A few years later, we were singing along to the folk songs of the British Isles and beyond, with the radio programme Singing Together. The accompanying booklets were decorated with great illustrations by the likes of David Gentleman and Barbara Jones. I learned about my three Rs from such songs, although I didn’t realise at the time, I was merely enjoying them.

Hey, ho, here we go, donkey riding, donkey riding…

Bobby Shaftoe’s gone to sea, silver buckles on his knee…

Funny place for buckles, I always thought.

We did touch on poetry too, although my abiding memory of Nicholas Nye is that of our teacher explaining that the mention of gumption was nothing to do with floor polish.

This was also the era of TV and my favourite programme, Rawhide, had a catchy theme tune.

My heart’s calculatin’ my true love will be waitin’…

And of course, there was Robin Hood, who was forever riding through the glen with his merry men.

I also loved the funny songs of the time.

Don’t dig there, dig it elsewhere, you’re digging it round when it ought to be square…

Wait a minute, it’s stopped hailing, guys are swimming, guys are sailing…

But the times, they were a-changin’ and soon there were different types of lyrics to feed my mind.

I was born with a plastic spoon in my-y mouth…

And the people bowed and prayed to the neon god they made…

And throughout all this, I maintained an admiration for songs from an earlier era, with their clever lines.

Do do that voodoo that you do so well…

The things that you’re li’ble to read in the Bible…

I tried writing my own songs, but could no more keep my guitar in tune than I could do a backward somersault. So instead I wrote poetry, of sorts. It was revealing to me that the chap who sang about Jennifer Eccles having terrible freckles was also a proper poet who wrote proper books. And I also realised about this time that books were far better value than expensive L.P.s. What’s more, they were harder to scratch, and friends didn’t ask to borrow them so much.

I became fascinated by the way artists such as Edward Gorey and Tomi Ungerer could bring an extra element to poetry collections. By now, on my post-grad course, my tutor showed me a book he’d recently illustrated. “He’s got hundreds of them,” he remarked as I read the ground-breaking poems of Michael Rosen, illustrated by Quentin Blake. Meanwhile I was writing my own nonsense and discovering more by Mervyn Peake, J. B. Morton, Walter de la Mare and others, and catching up with Belloc, W. S. Gilbert and Ogden Nash. I produced a slim volume entitled Tomorrow I’ve Given up Hope which was seen by Dennis Dobson, who published my first book, Out of the Blue from Nowhere, the following year. I embarked on a bumpy career as an illustrator and author producing a range of books, but poetry always being my first love.

Colin West

Colin West was born in Epping in 1951 and studied Graphic Design at Wolverhampton Polytechnic, and Illustration at the Royal College of Art. He is the author/illustrator of over 60 children’s books, including poetry collections Not to be Taken Seriously, The Big Book of Nonsense and Never Nudge a Budgie! His latest collection, Nutty Nonsense has all profits going to the charity Children’s Literature Festivals. He currently lives in East Sussex and is as busy as ever writing and drawing. You can hear Colin reading some of his poems on the Dirigible Balloon. https://dirigibleballoon.org/