Books: Stealing Tom's plunder this on two

Martin Rowson recalls his wrangles with the Eliot estate over his version of `The Waste Land'

"`In the room the women come and go Talking of Michelangelo.' Does that suggest anything to you, sir?"

"Yeah, it suggests to me that the guy didn't know very much about women."

"My sentiments exactly, sir. Nonetheless I admire T S Eliot very much."

"Did you say `nonetheless'?"

This exchange, between the hard-boiled Private Eye Philip Marlowe and the leading dame's black chauffeur in Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye was part of the inspiration for a comic book (although I prefer the term "graphic poem") I produced nine years ago, reissued this week by Picador, retelling T S Eliot's The Waste Land as a kind of Chandleresque film noir whodunnit. Although I think I succeeded in producing the first and only precisely Post Modernist comic book of our times, in the process I nearly went mad, and became far more intimately acquainted with the ways of English copyright law and the vicissitudes of publishing than I had ever expected or wished.

The rather unexpected connection between Chandler and Eliot (they were also both born in the same year) finally set me in the right direction on a vague project I was working on in the late Eighties to satirise The Waste Land and have a kick at this gnarled old totem pole which has blighted so much 20th- century poetry struggling to grow in its shadow. I wasn't getting very far with my original idea for a "Waste Land Colouring Book" ("Colour this rock red. Colour Mr Eliot's mood black"), when I made the detective story connection. After all, the way the bloody thing's taught owes more to forensics than to any kind of aesthetic response: identify the quotations, seek out the allusions, and if you're lucky you might get a motive. Then there are the lowlifes, typists, fortune tellers, Smyrna merchants and drag queens engaging in sterile sex and meaningless conversations amid parched deserts, stinking rivers and squalid bars, not to mention the backstreet abortionists and the corpse buried in the garden. Moreover, the poem involves a quest, a search for the Holy Grail, a stab at redemption in a fallen world by a man in this case Parsifal who is himself not fallen. It's a small leap from the Holy Grail to The Maltese Falcon, from Parsifal to Philip Marlowe...

And I had a wonderful image that perfectly synthesised the film noir, hard- boiled oeuvre of Raymond Chandler and the impenetrable moaning of moody old Tom Eliot. There's a scene in Howard Hawks' film of Chandler's The Big Sleep where the cops dredge a Packard out of the ocean, with Marlowe's clients' dead chauffeur still at the wheel. In many ways this scene is the acme of Chandlerism, with recent rain, the night, cars, cops, a corpse and Marlowe thigh-high in trouble. And its meaning is almost completely opaque. During filming, Humphrey Bogart, playing Marlowe, asked Hawks the significance of the stiffed chauffeur in the car. Hawks didn't know, so he asked the scriptwriters. They didn't know either, so they 'phoned Chandler, who said he'd forgotten. Which is perfect. Making sense doesn't matter: narrative is subsumed in a sense of style, and we all gladly go along for the ride not caring less. Exactly the same can be said of The Waste Land. Anyway, I took this scene and melded it with the opening line of Section IV of Eliot's poem, "Death by Water","Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead..." which I rendered into hard-boiled argot in the caption to the scene: "It was Phlebas the Phoenician... He'd been dead a fortnight..."

The caption, however, had to be changed. Before approaching Penguin, the book's original publisher, my then agent had sent the proposal to Faber, Eliot's old company. They had rather sniffily rejected it on the ground that "Valerie wouldn't like it". Valerie is Mrs Eliot, old Tom's widow, still going strong and still fiercely defending the sacred flame. In time, as we'd expected, Penguin received a letter from solicitors representing the Eliot Estate, observing that Penguin proposed to publish "what would appear to be some form of comic book version of our client's copyrighted work".

Rather naively, I'd worked on in the belief that, although I couldn't expect to quote any of Eliot's own words without permission (which I knew wouldn't be forthcoming: I'm not Andrew Lloyd Webber, after all), I would, at least, be able to quote the quotations quoted by Eliot. As old Tom had plundered the literature of Europe, Asia and three millennia to produce a poem which is almost the sine qua non of the cut-up technique, both in effect and comprehensibility, it seemed only fair that I should be able to do likewise. I hadn't, however, taken account of Compilation copyright. It got worse. We sent a photocopied manuscript of the 60 pages of artwork to the solicitors who, ignorant of poetical things, sent it to Faber. I was told (even though I shouldn't have been) that Valerie came in one day with Seamus Heaney who, seeing the manuscript in an intray, picked it up, read it, then returned it, saying to Valerie as he did so, "It's a hoot, Val!" Her response went unreported. The manuscript was returned with all perceived infringements of the Eliot Estate's copyright marked in pink highlighter pen. Apparently their copyright extended to cover the word "Michelangelo", the sound effect "Throb Throb Throb" as produced by a taxi, and the images of Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis.

For our part, we did our best to appease them. For instance, in the poem the secretary, following her liaison with the young man carbuncular, "smoothes her hair with automatic hand, / And puts a record on the gramophone". The record I had her play was a pastiche of Cole Porter's "Let's Do It". To sweeten the Eliot Estate, I had to remove the second line of the verse "Leicester and Good Queen Bess did it / Tom and Vivienne I guess did it / Let's Do It, Let's Fall in Love!" Meanwhile, letters continued to pass between Penguin's solicitors, Mishcon de Reya, and the Eliot Estate. "We should like to point out that your statement that at page 41 the picture featured is Margate Sands is not correct, the picture is in fact of Pegwell Bay." We even tried a grovelling letter on behalf of myself and Penguin to Valerie from Antony Julius, Mishcon de Reya's in-house Eliot expert, later solicitor to the late Princess of Wales. (She might have had reason to doubt our sincerity, as Julius subsequently wrote an excellent and satisfying book detailing the extent of Eliot's antisemitism.) In the end I changed every single line and every name quoted from the original poem. To satisfy my wounded artistic soul, there was also an American edition which was published untouched by lawyers' hands, thanks to the entirely admirable "parody defence" embodied in American law.

Some of the changes lent the book a satisfyingly surreal edge. I had originally illustrated Eliot's line "Jug jug jug jug jug jug" by having my hero (called Chris Marlowe, obviously) walk past six jugs labelled "jug" on the run from the bad guys in the British Museum. At the insistence of the lawyers, the labels were changed to "Ampora", "vessel", "gugglet", "pitcher", "ewer" and "crock". Likewise, where Eliot quoted the classics, I was obliged, with help, to make up passages from entirely fictitious Latin writers, although I'm not going to say where I did this, as this was part of the fun. Still, scarred but unbowed, the book was finally published, unheralded by writs or injunctions, in November 1990.

There were some nice reviews. My favourite compared it to a "literary Where's Wally?", and mentioned (without listing) six different references or allusions to painting, poetry, film and opera in one single frame. I was aware of only four. Then there were the two PhD theses written about my Waste Land, one of them, unintelligibly for me, in Italian. This seemed entirely appropriate. So did the 1994 opera version, only the third adaptation, after Krazy Kat and Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, of comic or cartoon into this arcane medium. As the composer Stephen McNeff observed, if you're going to turn something as obscure as The Waste Land into a comic book, the only possible next step is to turn it into an opera. It was performed to critical acclaim at the Donmar Warehouse, even though no copies of the book could be sold in the foyer as they'd all long since been pulped.

But although it may have been absent from the bookshops for eight years, my little detective story, in many ways more allusive, elusive and mysterious than either of its parents, has maintained a vigorous half life all its own. I'm frequently asked for copies by lecturers whose own copies have crumbled beyond photocopiability, as a teaching aid to this monstrous shibboleth of Modernism. Personally, I'm still of the opinion that Eliot's Waste Land is obscurantist, mawkish, constipatedly pious, elitist, inconsistent, miserable, overrated nonsense which wouldn't look out of place on the inner sleeve of one of Led Zeppelin's later albums. In light of this, whereas old Tom might have concluded this article with a shower of quotes and some low moaning from the Upanishads, I'll content myself simply by saying, "buy it".

`The Waste Land' by Martin Rowson is published by Picador, pounds 12.99

Arts and Entertainment
The starship in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
filmsThe first glimpse of JJ Abrams' new film has been released online
The Speaker of the House will takes his turn as guest editor of the Today programme
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special
Arts and Entertainment
Jude Law in Black Sea


In Black Seahe is as audiences have never seen him before

Arts and Entertainment
Johnny Depp no longer cares if people criticise his movie flops


Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game