Arts journalism, like crime, doesn’t pay. So I’ve been thinking of getting a side hustle. ‘You know about books and stuff,’ say friends who are getting married. ‘What should we have for our readings?’ If I can advise friends, why not strangers? By the laws of wedding economics — pick a number and add some noughts — I could make a marital mint.
We’d start with a couple’s questionnaire. No good my offering Rainer Maria Rilke if they’re more of a Purple Ronnie pair. Then a consultation over Zoom, before proposing something old, something new, something sonnet, something haiku.
It is, tentatively, wedding season again. Boris and Carrie kicked us off last weekend. I wonder what they went for? Catullus for him, Rachel Carson for her? When my husband Andy and I were married two years ago, we worried more about the readings than just about anything else.
The Bible bit was easy. Our vicar offered the Song of Solomon, the Marriage at Cana and ‘a perennial favourite’ Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. We chose sounding brass, clashing cymbals and the greatest of these is love. When it came to the personal readings, we hummed and hawed and dragged our heels. Nothing soppy was the first rule. ‘Not a cute card or a kissogram,’ as Carol Ann Duffy has it in ‘Valentine’. Nothing obvious. I sink a few inches in the pew every time a maid of honour embarks on the ‘roots underground’ passage from Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. Third rule: no old nuptial chestnuts. ‘Classic or cliché?’ asked one friend considering ‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds/ Admit impediments’.
Nothing with the rumple of bedsheets. No John Donne: ‘Busy old fool, unruly sun.’ No e.e. Cummings: ‘i like my body when it is with your/ body.’ And no John Fuller: ‘I’d like to find you in the shower/ And chase the soap for half an hour.’ Think of the rector, the godmothers, the maiden aunts. Consider, too, your reader. A friend who spoke at her sister’s wedding struggled through 30 lines of A.A. Milne’s ‘Us Two’. ‘You try saying “Pooh” 25 times,’ she recalls, ‘in front of a full congregation.’ Beware, for similar reasons, Edward Lear’s ‘The Owl and The Pussycat’.
Less fraught, perhaps, at funerals. By the time it comes to it, you’ve already gone to the great poetry anthology in the sky. If you really want a reading from the collected works of Richard Curtis (‘Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone…’), then go for it. You’re past earthly judgment.
The trouble with weddings is that when the reader takes the pulpit, you’re sitting there in the silliest outfits you’ve ever worn — morning suit for him, meringue for her — while your nearest and dearest decide what your reading — Shakespeare, Stevie Smith, Sophocles, Sting — says about you and your prospects.
What you think adorable, your guests may think odd. The writer D.J. Taylor tells me he read the ‘prize packets’ speech from H.G. Wells’s The History of Mr. Polly at his wedding to the novelist Rachel Hore. ‘“Wimmin’s a toss up,” said Uncle Pent-stemon. “Prize packets they are, and you can’t tell what’s in ’em till you took ’em ’ome and undone ’em. Never was a bachelor married yet that didn’t buy a pig in a poke. Never. Marriage seems to change the very natures in ’em through and through. You can’t tell what they won’t turn into — nohow.”’ The bride wishes it to be known that she rolled her eyes.
If it’s a church wedding, the vicar has a veto. ‘Interesting’ was the verdict of our reverend reader when we unveiled our choices. One friend was told by their vicar to ‘please, please steer clear of Harry Potter’. If it’s a registry office, a beach, the Las Vegas Wedding Chapel or Gretna Green, you can go rogue. Brides magazine suggests quotes from Sex and the City, Friends, Justin Timberlake and Disney’s Frozen.
The Frozen example falls into a curious category of wedding readings, the gist of which is: she’s a catch, he’s a slob. As the Frozen trolls sing: ‘So he’s a bit of a fixer-upper/ But this we’re certain of/ You can fix this fixer-upper/ Up with a little bit of love!’ What I hadn’t reckoned on was that the ‘fixer-upper’ in our relationship might be… me. ‘Can you please,’ said Andy, on the day we were engaged, ‘not spend the entire honey-moon being stressy about book reviews?’ Stressy? Book reviews? Moi?
With three weeks to go before the ceremony, Andy tried out the opening to George Orwell’s ‘Confessions of a Book Reviewer’: ‘In a cold but stuffy bed-sitting room littered with cigarette ends and half-empty cups of tea, a man in a moth-eaten dressing-gown sits at a rickety table, trying to find room for his typewriter among the piles of dusty papers that surround it.’ He might have compared me to a summer’s day, or our love to a red, red rose. Instead, he likened his bride to a harassed, balding man with varicose veins and spectacles.
I could have taken offence, but I took comfort from the fact that at least the groom knew what he was letting himself in for.