Hello Sausages, an elegant assemblage of the collected works of the late Ian Dury (1942–2000), is a family affair, lovingly edited by Dury’s daughter Jemima and designed by his brother-in-law, the artist Joe Tilson. Numerous typescripts, handwritten notes and other fragments show the machinery of the poet’s agile mind, the mechanics involved as a lyric progresses from page to stage.
A rotten deal
Dury‘s lyrics have a frequently corrosive edge, which can be traced directly to the brutal turn his life took at the age of seven, when he caught the polio virus in a public swimming pool in Southend-on-Sea in 1949. This sudden physical deformity, the withering of his left arm and leg—how does a bright little lad recover from that without some residue of bitterness? Not only are you suddenly deformed, you get weaker faster and die younger than “normal” people, many of whom also openly make fun of you.
A rotten deal, but Dury dealt with it. In the 1960s, the British government decided to let a few bright kids slip through the steel net covering the working class, give them grants and let them get an education. Dury was one of those lucky lads. He quickly decided that art school, full of nude birds and drink and drugs, would be a good place to embark on the bohemian trek. He wanted to be a painter, and studied with Peter Blake (who remained a lifelong friend), but quickly realized he was not destined to be the next Caravaggio. So his art became words and music of a very distinctive kind. A faux Cockney, he spent 40 years refining the accent and becoming fluent in a fertile mix of East End slang, Polari [Ed.: the theatrical and gay subculture jargon that brought us words like naff] and romanticized criminal argot.
Making poetry pay
Dury wrote poetry, but knew full well that poetry would never pay the rent. His great good fortune was to find a musical collaborator who could fit his jingle-jangle lingo into a powerful musical framework. Chaz Jankel is a brilliant musician who shaped Dury’s inspired rhymes into a form perfect for the time, a kind of musical-verbal mashup that has never been duplicated. Reading these riffs on the printed page, some stand up as poems, while others run smoothly only when attached to a musical meter. “You can’t write poetry if you’re a rock-and-roller,” Dury explained, “but I tried to put a bit of poetry into each song.”
He peopled his tales with a rich and varied cast of characters, vivid exemplars of bohemian and working-class English life: “Billericay Dickie” (“all mouth and trousers”), Plaistow Patricia (a funky junkie) and the self-described “Fucking Ada,” among many others—a Dickensian gallery of ne’er-do-wells, skivers and blaggers conjured into vivid reality and very popular songs, courtesy of Jankel’s sure musical touch. It was the right moment to launch this bizarre amalgam of music hall, jazz, rock and poetry. “Sex & Drugs & Rock’n’Roll,” indeed. It was 1979; everyone we loved was still alive.
Dury’s word storms, a perfect blend of vulgarity and eloquent poetic observation, contain fragments and echoes, influences as disparate as the comedians Tommy Cooper and Max Wall, the Last Poets [Ed.: The group that evolved out of the black nationalist movement], Philip Larkin and even dear old John Betjeman, if John had been ricocheting around the suburbs on Desoxyn.
His rants prefigured hip-hop and rap, perhaps most conspicuously in the linguistic stunner “Reasons to Be Cheerful,” an extended montage/homage to the heroes, villains, pop icons, touchstones of Dury’s unsentimental cultural education. In this and other musical monologues, Dury subtly belaboured the rough hide of the crumbling state of England that the malevolent grocer’s daughter Thatcher and her wrecking crew were in the process of dismantling.
His rousing 1981 anthem “Spasticus Autisticus,” whose title was inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 film Spartacus (“We are all Spartacus!”), was Dury’s response to the patronizing treatment of the disabled. It was promptly banned by the BBC on the grounds of bad taste. Its author would have doubtless relished the irony of having his raucous anthem blasting out at the opening ceremonies of London’s 2012 Paralympics.
A prolific swordsman despite his physical shortcomings, Dury also wrote convincingly about sex with the fairer sex, delivering the naughty bits with vaudevillian aplomb. “You’re More than Fair (You’ve Got a Gorgeous Bum)” traces the progress of a seduction in a vivid merging of the profane and the profound that transcends its intrinsic earthiness, and supposedly caused many a Florence Nightingale to willingly remove her uniform. “Wake Up and Make Love to Me,” his homage to the male phenomenon known as “morning wood,” contains short lyric lines that in their deceptive simplicity rival anything by John Donne (before Donne got religion):
I come awake
With the gift for womankind
You’re still asleep
But the gift don’t seem to mind
Dury’s time on earth was unfairly brief, but he left his mark, and what more can a dead poet ask than to have one’s most tender verses “daughterized” and immortalized in such a delightful book?