Talking the talk

‘…you’ve a fine bit of talk, stranger, and it’s with yourself I’ll go.’

That’s what Nora Burke, the young wife of Dan Burke, an elderly farmer, tells the tramp in J.M. Synge’s one-acter ‘In the Shadow of the Glen’. The setting is an isolated cottage in County Wicklow in Ireland in the year 1903. Dan is pretending to be dead and Nora is alone in the house with the ‘corpse’ when a tramp comes in. Nora goes out to look for Michael Dara, a youthful shepherd. That’s when Dan reveals to the tramp that his death is a ruse. Dan springs up again when Michael proposes to Nora, and kicks out Nora who leaves with the tramp, for a life of freedom, as even the Wikipedia will tell you, in its synopsis. But that’s missing the point. Nora goes with the tramp because…

‘…you’ve a fine bit of talk, stranger, and it’s with yourself I’ll go.’

It’s neither the first nor the last time that a woman has fallen for ‘a fine bit of talk’. As a man, I can only have secondary knowledge of what goes on in a woman’s mind, as Alexander Pope, the English poet (not the English pope, there’s disambiguation for you!), pointed out back in the eighteenth century. But this particular characteristic of women is perhaps the most endearing to men like me who are anything but ‘strong and silent’ – or rich, or influential, or famous, or successful, or anything of the ilk to appeal to the ur-instincts of the mother woman looking for a father for the superman according to the dictates of the Life Force – that’s the kind of horse apple people like George Bernard Shaw had the time & the leisure to dish out, you guessed it, in 1903! GBS was also an Irishman and a dramatist, like Synge. And he wrote his four-hour four-acter ‘Man and Superman’ the same year as Synge’s Shadow of the Glen. Synge died at 37, Shaw lived to be 94 – need I say anything more?

Yet Synge’s tiny output of five short plays and an unfinished one have accompanied me throughout my life, whereas I put Shaw’s numerous plays – and the prefaces, which were longer at times! – up for jumble sale shortly after graduation. I began life talking – or trying to talk like a Shavian – until I realised that there’s more of a Nora Burke than of an Ann Whitefield (the heroine of Shaw’s M&S) in every woman, especially the kind of women who had caught my eye & whose eye I was trying to catch in return.

As things turned out, I didn’t catch their eye – there was nothing much to catch anyway! – but I must have caught their ear, don’t ask me how. And that was their undoing. I talked and when I couldn’t talk – because they were out of town e.g. – I wrote. I wrote letters. My mother used to call it my epistolary literature – sarcastically, of course – but how did she guess? The beginning of all literature is a pretty girl who’s foolish – call it romantic enough to believe that life will not be as boring with someone who’s got ‘a fine bit of talk’. I call it the Nora Burke syndrome. Could even have called it the Nora Barnacle syndrome, in honour of Joyce’s muse & spouse. That would be the third Irishman in our gallery, and a dramatist too, for that matter!

In my case, I dragged those pretty girls through the dusty streets of Kolkata in the afternoon heat – and talked. God knows what I talked about – I mean that literally, since neither I nor the girls know any longer (I checked!). We walked the walk & I talked the talk. Not walking my baby back home but talking my baby back home. Though a suspicion strikes me even now. Did they listen? I should have quizzed them but I was far too busy following my own train of thought. I did check to see, from time to time, whether they were on board and listening – and they gave me a beautiful, heartwarming, slightly tired, slightly flustered smile. Or maybe they simply looked? I’ve forgotten. But I haven’t forgotten that look.

Since the days of the troubadour poets, women have been a sucker for poetry, because poetry is just another name for the way men are supposed to talk to women – for a certain purpose & with a certain intent, I hasten to add! The knight errant was handy as the action hero but the chatelaine was secretly in love with the minstrel. Not Tom Cruise but Robin Williams, if you know what I mean, ask any Hollywood screenwriter. And the best of all poetry is oral poetry. And the best of all oral poetry is when you are talking to a girl & telling her – no, the best of all oral poetry is when you are – I was about to write kissing her, but the Indian censor board wasn’t all that liberal in those days.

And I still have to tell you about Europe and Kasia and so on – shush! She’s listening! So let me give this choice piece of advice to all young men wondering what makes young women tick.

Try talking to them.

And why do you think it’s mostly women who read, by which I mean books, novels, these days? And they write ’em as well, in case you haven’t noticed. Practically taking over that side of the business too, I’m afraid. It’s their turn to talk now, it seems.

Try listening.


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