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AE Housman – Writer-insighter

AE Housman and the SEO tags

AE Housman. Bath. Dorset. Love. Not Your Heart Away. Spam.

These are the key words flagged up in bold in the search engine tags, presumably bold and bigger because I’ve used them more than other words, like MBA or Midnight At the Oasis. I don’t know much about Search Engine Optimisation, just bits and pieces. Use tags. Put links in to other websites, preferably ones who are going to do the same to yours. Include random

Headings

in the text. No, I don’t know why either. It just does.

Does it make a difference? Well yes. Type in Not Your Heart Away in Google and me and AE Housman are top of the bill. In a manly way, obviously. Nothing (embarrassed cough), “unhealthy.” Read in the abstract though, that tag list sounds like the kind of thing people wearing pyjamas shout at passing cars on city streets. It all made sense at the time.

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Why Not Your Heart Away?

From A Shropshire Lad:

housman

When I was one-and-twenty I heard a wise man say,
“Give crowns and pounds and guineas but not your heart away;
Give pearls away and rubies but keep your fancy free.”
But I was one-and-twenty, no use to talk to me.
When I was one-and-twenty I heard him say again,
“The heart out of the bosom was never given in vain;
‘Tis paid with sighs a plenty and sold for endless rue.”
And I am two-and-twenty and oh, ’tis true, ’tis true.

That’s why. Alfred doesn’t look the grooviest malchick who ever spacked out on cider in Wiltshire, but appearances can be deceptive.

I had never read the whole poem until a couple of months ago, long after I started the book. I’d heard the line ‘blue remembered hills’ the way lots of people sort-of almost have.

Dennis Potter wrote a play called that, about middle-aged men dressing up as schoolboys and playing in the woods, a affluent retirement dystopia that leans a little too heavily on Lord of the Flies transposed to Surrey with an element of Brian Rix farce thrown in to make it massively succesful, I would have thought.

What I like about A Shropshire Lad is something that some kind reviewers have said about Not Your Heart Away; underneath the sunny, bucolic forever trance of the memory of those hills there’s an unstated menace, something you can read as almost a dread of finding whatever it is you went there looking for.

A long time ago I went to see a magician, a shaman, a white witch, call it what you will. He told me one of the things I keep close to me: Be careful what you wish for, in case you get it.
Not original maybe; a homily that is at least as old as Icarus, who wanted to fly and like Ben, flew much too close to the sun.

But that, for me, is the thing hidden at the heart of the blue remembered hills, the heart of the poem. The heart of Not Your Heart Away too.

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Self-publishing

A lot of people are moaning about literary agents, their attitude, their fixed idea that they’re essential,  the apparent lack of much to justify this view and the seeming rise of self-publishing. But it’s nothing new at all. I just found the most delicious thing I’ve seen for a long time.

Lots of people have heard of AE Housman. If you haven’t you probably know the phrase ‘blue remembered hills,’ taken from his epic poem A Shropshire Lad, even if that’s all of the poem you know. Dennis Potter wrote a play about it. It’s epic in the sense that it’s passed into the emotional landscape.

And every publisher turned it down.

Housman had to self-publish it, way back in 1896. According to Wikipedia (so it must be true) even Housman was surprised how big it got with its deep pessimism and obsession, proving that there are more people in England about like that than was ever officially acknowledged, although as a national characteristic it seems to fit quite well.

So the good news is you don’t need an agent, or nowadays, even a publisher. The bad news seems to be for the established book trade. When you think you’re a gatekeeper it helps if you can keep the gate closed or if you can’t do that you need to be doing something positive. Otherwise there’s not much point to you at all.

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Blue remembered hills

I wasn’t going to call it Not Your Heart Away. It started out being called No Returns but that looked much too much like something Bruce Willis would be happy to get his vest on for, one more time. Claire’s mum would have been impeccably icily polite, I think.

But then I remembered Housman’s poem, the same way Claire did. Unhappily I wasn’t sitting at a sunny dream-filled evening table outside the Red Lion, with the oak trees throwing their shadows over an Aston-Martin, but it doesn’t happen a lot, as Ben was to find out. I’d always wondered where the lines about blue remembered hills came from:

Into my heart an air that chills from yon far country blows

What are those blue remembered hill?

What spires? What farms are those?

That is the land of lost content. I see it shining plain.

The happy highways where I went 

And cannot come again.

It’s one of those comforting, unsettling lines that keeps on rattling around my head, filling it with the longing, the discontent and the flat, dead sense of loss. It was from A Shropshire Lad, which much as I’d hate to contradict the heroine of the book wasn’t written in Shropshire at all. Earlier in the poem the narrator gives advice to a young man, urging him not to give his heart away too soon, nor to fall in love at twenty, marry and find yourself out of love and in those days pretty much irrevocably married at twenty-one.

So really the title should have been But Not Your Heart Away. But that would have looked artificial, too long, nonsensical as a title and much too late for Ben anyway. Someone should have told him. Except Liz did.

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