I confess that I perhaps didn’t take Tedan Millthrop as seriously as I should have. He claimed to be a poet, which is fair enough. After all, all sorts of people claim to be poets. Between ourselves I feel the bar is set a little low. It seems that anybody capable of writing, and is too embarrassed to admit that they are both unemployable and have no useful trade or craft, can claim to be a poet. Alas that some of them do.
Now when I look around at the poets of Port Naain, it has to be acknowledged that I see them falling into four distinct groups. Ignore for a moment their level of ability, (because frankly it seems to have little bearing on success) the groups are as follows.
There are those who, like me, manage to make a living from our art. It is not what one would call a good living. We are at the mercy of whim and fancy, buffeted by the fashions which sweep through the ranks of our patrons. But still, somehow, we survive.
Then there are those who have independent means, or at least well paid employment allowing for plentiful leisure time. These too are poets. They gather with other poets, they produce verse, and they publish and perform it.
The third group is composed of those who, through some freak of chance, have managed to become successful. Their collected works, when published, sell out rapidly. The various printed periodicals fawn over them and pay them to write articles on the nature of poetry. If you were to ask somebody met at random in the street to name a poet, it would be one of this group.
The final group is probably the largest. They write little, they earn nothing, but they read widely and can discourse knowledgably on the work of those in the previous three groups. They work hard and have little time for leisure, given the demands imposed upon them by the need to support their family. Yet what little time they do have for poetry they treasure. Whether it is ten minutes snatched from their employer to scribble down a few lines that just occurred to them; or perhaps a rare evening spent listening, by invitation, to one of this city’s finest, this is when they feel most alive. I confess a fondness for this group. In them one finds the purest love of our art, unsullied by the crass demands for pecuniary return.
And then you find those like Tedan Millthrop. To be honest, he was very much one of the fourth group. But he aspired to call himself a ‘real’ poet. Now given he had not got independent means, he couldn’t join the second group. Joining the first group demands a modicum of luck, a lot of very hard work, and a lifetime of sporadic meals eaten wearing garments which probably fitted their original owner better. Tedan wanted to move straight into the third group. He wanted to be a successful and prosperous poet.
In all candour, this is probably possible but I have not heard of it happening, save in a certain genre of novel. Normally in the course of the novel, the protagonist not merely achieves recognition for his art, but marries the girl of his dreams and saves the city from some unlikely plight as well. But still, Tedan was not merely determined, he was methodical.
So he started asking questions. These are not the questions a wise individual asks publically. Instead he asked the sort of questions best asked (if at all) in darkened rooms to people who do not recognise you.
He asked after the names of the paramours of apparently respectably married publishers.
He drank with the employees of some of the cities less reputable bordellos and after winning their confidence, he probed gently into the more embarrassing amatory dissipations of literary agents.
He seduced the ladies who are employed, in their private office, by the editors of various journals with literary pretensions.
Slowly he built up a picture and started to form a plan. But then he met a gentleman called Naxo. In reality Naxo met him. He stopped Tedan as the latter slipped surreptitiously down a dark alley.
“Ah, Tedan, I’ve been watching you.”
Unable to see the face of the person talking to him because of the deep shadow, Tedan was noncommittal. “You have.”
“You’re making good progress.”
Tedan warmed slightly to his interrogator. “I am?”
“Yes. It’s a pity that your methods are perhaps twenty years out of date.”
Tedan was shocked by this. His dismay obviously showed in his face. Naxo continued, “Don’t worry. Meet me in my office tomorrow morning. Here’s my card.”
With that Naxo continued along the alley and faded into the shadows. At home, by the light of the candle in his kitchen, Tedan scrutinised the card. Naxo’s office was apparently in Duggan’s walk, a narrow lane off the bottom end of Ropewalk. It was between a craftsman carving false teeth from marrow bone and a purveyor of herbal remedies, all of them green.
Next morning Tedan made his way to Naxo’s. The office consisted of one room with a door that opened directly into it from the street. Naxo was present. Again his face wasn’t easy to see as he was silhouetted against the window.
As Tedan listened, Naxo outlined a plan of campaign that would ensure Tedan’s book was an immediate best seller. The process started by ensuring that his collection of verses was printed on best quality paper, and with the cover cut from the finest embossed pink mott leather. Naxo had an artist who would work Tedan’s picture into the embossing, thus guaranteeing interest and author recognition.
Tedan nodded wisely at this. Everybody knows that it is impossible to sell books unless their front cover is an expensive artistic masterpiece. Indeed some of those who illustrate the front covers of books will earn more from the book than the author. But that is the price one has to pay for guaranteed success.
Then with the book to sell, Naxo explained that he would put it out to his contacts. These were people who would ensure that Tedan’s book was seen in all the right places. So one contact might carry it into a meeting of the Council of Sinecurists with her, and would describe it in glowing terms to a friend. Obviously they would ensure the conversation could be overheard by others, something guaranteed to pique their curiosity.
Similarly others would describe it to influential dinner guests. They would explain that they were so enthralled by the book they couldn’t stop themselves from reading selected passages to their fellow diners.
Naxo didn’t neglect competitions and similar. His scheme included Tedan’s work not merely entering, but winning several which Naxo described as being of recognised significance within the trade. Apparently his ability to guarantee Tedan winning was due to the fact that Naxo, some little while previously, had started these competitions for exactly this purpose. Also given his contacts within the university, the book would become one of the set books for the year.
Somewhat overwhelmed, Tedan regained his composure and asked, in a trembling voice, “How much will it cost.”
Naxo then produced a sheet of paper showing estimated sales. “As you can see, thanks to our promotional activities, this is what we estimate your sales will be. This achieved, our costs will be covered from our share of your sales income.”
“How big will that share be?” Tedan asked.
“We will take a half of all sales during the period we are promoting the book. But obviously when we’ve finished promoting, you’ll be established with a good level of sales and all the money then is yours.”
With this glowing prospect set before him, Tedan, dazzled, signed not one but six contracts. He also handed over ten alars, which is a not unreasonable sum. But as Naxo explained, it was necessary to act as pump-priming money, cover legal fees, and also to bridge the funding gap. Tedan was assured that the money would be credited to his account when Naxo’s share of the sales income was calculated.
Over the next month, Tedan’s life was a whirl. Or at least the nights were. He would be hustled from one late night meeting to another, surrounded by shady figures who all knew each other and were on first name terms. He visited dingy offices tucked under the gambrel rooves of rotting tenements. He watched strange figures adjusting printing presses of unusual design in gloomy cellars. He drank wine with brash ladies who were somehow interchangeable and whose names he could never remember.
Indeed at one point I suspect he caught a fever. Certainly some of the meetings he described to me had a hallucinatory quality. Did he really join a circle of squatting figures in a tomb yard listening to a dog headed creature describing how the programme was going? And then there was that night when he lay in his own bed and Naxo appeared in front of him without apparently needing the door or window to gain admittance. That can only have been a result of delirium.
I was summoned by Tedan’s wife. A sensible lady, she felt that if her husband was sitting bolt upright in bed having conversations with people who weren’t there, it was not a good sign. I dropped in that evening, just to talk to him, and my presence seemed to calm him a little. So I made a point of calling in to see them every two or three days. Then one evening I got a message, ‘could I come at once?’ I arrived and candidly felt that Tedan had indeed looked better. Normally his hair and beard were neatly combed. He had obviously let himself go. Also his eyes were wild and frankly I’m not sure he recognised me. I tried talking to him but was getting nowhere. He was obviously feverish, and kept sitting up and shouting. Finally I left to try and get a physician of some sort. I was too late. Apparently I’d barely left the room when Tedan suddenly stopped shouting and stared at somebody who wasn’t there. Tedan’s wife claimed that her husband reached out as if taking a piece of paper from somebody and scrutinised it. He looked up and gasped, “All that money and you want my soul as well!”
With that he appeared to have a heart attack because by the time I got back, he was dead.
And his book? As far as I know, it sold three copies, I picked up one for dregs later at a house clearance.
And in Duggan’s walk, the shop of the carver of false teeth is next door to the herbalist. There isn’t and never has been a shop in between them.
Should you wish to learn more of life in Port Naain,
When he is asked to oversee the performance of the celebrated ‘Ten Speeches’, Tallis Steelyard realises that his unique gifts as a poet have finally been recognised. He may now truly call himself the leading poet of his generation.
Then the past comes back to haunt him, and his immediate future involves too much time in the saddle, being asked to die in a blue silk dress, blackmail and the abuse of unregulated intoxicants. All this is set in delightful countryside as he is invited to be poet in residence at a lichen festival.