The essence of true humility


I suppose there is a danger I will be accused of becoming obsessed with the fact that artists are inadequately appreciated. So I felt that I should perhaps give an example of the opposite.

It could be fifteen years back now; Sarl Onwater had gained the Sinecure supporting the literary arts. Those of my generation will remember what a difference he made. Previously those who had purchased this duty would restrict themselves to putting on something of an ‘event’ where a handful of artists would be paid a reasonable sum to come along and give a recitation of their works. The sinecurist responsible would ensure that there was an excellent dinner, fine wines, and considerable social cachet in attending. They would then sell tables to those with more money than literary understanding. Indeed it was reckoned that with luck you could even turn a profit on the event.

Old Sarl on the other hand just announced that he would commission two pieces of art a week, paying one alar in cash to the artist, in advance. Given that an alar is a weeks wages for a working man, this wasn’t lucrative, but he made sure that it was spread out across the entire spectrum, poetry, essayists, novelists, even literary criticism (although that did cause some moaning.) This meant that many a struggling man or woman of letters managed to feed the family for another fortnight.

Now whilst I had ‘arrived’ and was even an established figure on the literary scene, it must be confessed that there isn’t much money in poetry. So I was never too proud to accept one of Sarl’s commissions. But at the time the incident I am about to recount occurred, I was doing reasonably well. Whilst not, in reality ‘in funds’, I didn’t have any creditors who had got to the threatening stage. So when Sarl spotted me in the street and called me across I wasn’t looking to ingratiate myself with him for another commission. But instead he asked me to come up with the names of twenty up-and-coming writers [a technical term which is used as a synonym for ‘penniless’ within the profession] that he could keep in mind for further commissions. I gladly agreed to do it. I sat down on a bollard overlooking the estuary of the Paraeba and set to work. Obviously I was biased, but I reasoned that he would doubtless ask a number of writers, all of whom would also be biased, so he would undoubtedly end up with something reasonable.

As I was sitting there who should come up but Gumption Silvernant. The first thing I knew was he was addressing me.

“I say, poet fellow.”

Well obviously I looked up.

“Yes, you, Tallis whatsyourname. Need a poem, willing to pay.”

Now this was novel. It was rumoured that he’d fought off six knife wielding footpads whilst armed only with a rolled up copy of the Port Naain Intelligencer, because he’d seen a ten dreg copper piece on the floor and feared they would pick it up before he did. Now a ten dreg would buy between three and five tankards of ale, depending where you were and how ill you wanted to be, but I think it gives you a feel for the man.

So I said, “Ah Master Silvernant, what sort of remuneration did you have in mind?” It is as well to establish these details early within a business relationship.

He pursed his lips, which with his prominent nose made him look like some strange bird, and said judiciously, “I might go as high as fifteen dregs.”

Now a less seasoned campaigner than I might have exploded with indignation, but I merely nodded and said that I would give it some thought. He went on his way and I went on mine, in my case, off to the Council Building where the Council of Sinecurists meets.

I asked after Master Sarl Onwater, to be told that he was in a meeting. For a man making a loss on his sinecure, old Sarl took his duties seriously; apparently this was a meeting to set the city budget or something. But still, I took a seat at a table in the Sinecurists refectory, purchased a bottle of inexpensive wine and sat and waited for him.

Well I was joined by old Rory, capital chap even if he is a lawyer, and he asked after Shena my wife and we chatted and I sent for another glass and we passed the time most pleasantly.

Anyway as these things happen a friend of Rory’s joins us. A major landowner from the south, I was introduced to him as Frolicking Jan, but I think his proper name was Jan Aldright who owns most of the good land south of the Paraeba. Well the bottle ran out but I asked Jan what he fancied and he named a wine. So I gestured to the waiter and he brought a bottle. When I saw it I nearly turned pale, damn stuff is an alar a bottle, but I suppose Jan never had to buy it, just settled his bill at the end of the month. Still I poured it with a generous hand and had a glass full myself. It’s probably worth the money, a beautiful wine.

Still by the time Sarl Onwater arrived there was eight of us round the table and we were on at least the third bottle of the expensive stuff. He squeezed in next to me and I gave him the list, and he used that as a way of introducing me to everybody properly. Now that’s why I always look back on his day as a golden age. By the time he’d finished telling people who I was, he’d got them interested. Old Rory looks at me and asks, “Wife wants a bluidy soiree. Can you do one?”

What can a poet say to this but yes? “Rory, get her to invite a score of her friends, and I’ll keep them entertained for an evening. I’ll start them with something light and humorous, follow that with something a bit saucy about somebody they’ll probably know that will have them giggling behind their fans, put in a couple of classics and finish with something sad and thoughtful that will take them into supper in reflective mood.”

He jotted an address on a piece of paper. “Drop round tomorrow before lunch and we’ll finalise the arrangements.”

Well that broke the floodgates, by the time they’d all finished I’d got a birthday party, a daughter’s coming of age to celebrate, two evening entertainments to enliven and a masked ball to attend and celebrate in verse after the event.

I sat back in my chair and contemplated my luck. It was then that I noted Gumption Silvernant sitting at a table watching me. I remembered then that he’d got a sinecure. From memory his was cleaning dog mess off the street. He paid a chap to do it and more than covered the cost by selling it to a tannery. Well he was watching me carousing with the great and the good and his eyes were almost out on stalks. Indeed I think he was almost overcome by the fact that he was going to get a fifteen dreg poem out of me.

It was about then, with only Sarl and I left at the table, that old Sarl gestured quietly at the bottles and asked whether he should put it on his account. You know, you had to love the old chap; a man less likely to dent your pride never lived. But I thanked him and said that he had done me so many favours I was forever indebted to him as it was. Being a poet you’re expected to be somewhat over extravagant in your praise so never be afraid to lay it on thick.

Anyway he had to go and I summoned a waiter and asked for the bill. When I got it I dam near wet myself. It was well over five alars. I glanced around casually, but already there was one waiter lurking near the door, another by the entrance to the jakes, whilst a third even leaned casually in the kitchen doorway. These men were good. I was left wondering whether they were used to entertaining poets and men of letters, or whether Sinecurists were also slow at paying their bills.

It was at this point Silvernant came across. Well I bade him sit down, poured him a glass from what was left in the bottle and drank his health with what was left in my glass. Then I asked for a moment of quiet from him, as I was about to compose.

On the bill I wrote the following

When an Urlan’s Destrier

Pisses nectar

Miser Silvernant

Will pour silver out

I realise it isn’t what you might call great poetry, but honestly, what do you expect for fifteen dregs! Then I folded the bill, took a candle and dripped wax across the join and sealed the document. I presented it to him with a flourish and asked for my fifteen dregs. Given that the wine he’d drunk was probably worth ten times as much he didn’t even quibble.

I bowed and left. When the head waiter made to stop me I merely gestured behind me and said, “Master Silvernant has the bill.”

At the door I glanced back. Gumption Silvernant’s face was frozen in a look of horror and the waiters were closing in on him.


Should you wish to venture further into the world of Tallis Steelyard, you could always purchase

Tallis Steelyard. The Monster of Bell-Wether Gardens and other stories.



As a reviewer commented, “For easy and total immersion into a fictional world, a Tallis Steelyard/Port Naain Story is hard to beat.
This book (one of several) offers tantalising glimpses into the variety of lifes adventures enjoyed by a jobbing poet (sans the rhyming aspect), in a diverse variety of short tales.”

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