The Wrong Conversation

Clearly, the metrical innovation of mid-nineteenth century narrative verse is a bit of a minefield, particularly when you take into account the deconstructionist shenanigans of the 1970s, so, I found myself wondering about the Longfellow piece. Patrice, characteristically, had no qualms.

‘If you’re not prepared to take risks,’ he said ‘then the cut and thrust of literary discourse is not for you!’ He uttered the words with a sort of gentle melancholy, knowing, I think, that I would rise to the bait.

‘Then I’ll schedule a call with Doctor Parnell,’ I said.

Patrice is in Singapore, I am in Spain and Doctor Parnell is in the western United States, so scheduling was an issue, but we settled in due course for eight o’clock in Los Angeles, five o’clock in Madrid, and eleven o’clock in Singapore. Doctor Parnell would have to get up early; Patrice would stay up late and I wouldn’t have to do anything at all.

The moment Doctor Parnell came into view I sensed that the interview was to take an unexpected, perhaps even a bracing turn. Doctor Parnell was wearing rather striking eye shadow: indigo blue, I think. Her eyebrows were similarly assertive: they were painted a dark, shiny black and they rose to a point above her nose where they almost touched, like dislocated angel’s wings, or the carefully arranged tips of symmetrical autumn leaves. Her hair was arranged in a precipitous bun at the top of her head, kept in place by a bright yellow bandana. In addition to being about twenty-five years younger than her academic record – or, indeed, her prose style – would have suggested, Doctor Parnell was, to be blunt, disconcertingly glamorous.

‘Where the hell have you been?’ she demanded. ‘I’ve been waiting a whole hour!’

‘Hello, Doctor Parnell!’ Patrice began. ‘It is a great pleasure to meet you at last!’

I gathered that is what Patrice had intended to say before the doctor made her robust foray into the teleconference – and he had simply gone ahead and said it anyway. A film specialist, Patrice’s knowledge of cinema is prodigious; his knowledge of the world – not so much.

‘I got up early for this!’ Doctor Parnell said, ‘and you guys are an hour late!’

I wondered how I could possibly have miscalculated the time difference.

‘I do apologise,’ I said, concluding instantly that my supine tone rendered this a capitulation rather than an apology. I hadn’t mistaken the time.

‘About the work,’ she said, getting to the business at hand with breath-taking despatch, ‘how much are you going to pay?’

Patrice is undoubtedly more at home when musing on literary outliers: he was not the man to judge a correlation between advertising income and an article on mid-nineteenth century poetry. Doctor Parnell, I could only assume, was similarly adrift from the harsh realities of the market if she imagined a literary magazine might pay a sum worth discussing. We are very much in the Great Tradition that equates the spiritual rewards of the writing life with material penury.

‘We had thought we might begin by talking about your thesis,’ I said. ‘It’s certainly original!’

Doctor Parnell in her paper had advanced the view that Longfellow had made significant stylistic borrowings from the less well known early 19th century New England poet, H W Dangerfield.

‘My thesis?’ she said. ‘Do you want to do this or not?’

Patrice giggled. ‘Touché, madame!’ Patrice becomes more Gallic when he is rattled. ‘But we are an academic publication!’ he added, as though this were the killer argument. ‘We must observe a degree of . . . rigour!’

‘I charge the market rate,’ Doctor Parnell replied, a tad sourly, I felt.

Is this an imaginary market, I thought, but I didn’t say this. Instead, I said, ‘Doctor Parnell, we are not entirely sure that the parameters of your argument would find a ready audience, at least among our readers.’

‘Are you guys for real,’ she said.

At the top right-hand corner of the screen I saw that a new participant was asking to join the conversation. The name at least was familiar. I granted access.

‘Good morning!’ the new arrival said in a cheery, slightly patrician voice.

‘Who’s this?’ Doctor Parnell asked.

‘Your namesake, I believe,’ I said.

‘Doctor Parnell,’ I continued, addressing the younger of the two doctors. ‘Remind me of your specialist credentials.’

‘It’s all written down in the prospectus – coding, web design, digital marketing,’

‘Quoi?’ Patrice asked. I do not believe I have ever seen him revert so precipitously to his inner Gaul.

‘I believe we are in the wrong conversation,’ I told the tyro online marketing whizz. ‘You are speaking to the editors of “On Lines”, a poetry portal.’

‘Poetry!’ She uttered the word as though it were unsavoury.

‘You liked the Longfellow piece?’ asked the other Doctor Parnell still cheery.

Patrice, I think, would have lingered. He wanted to discuss a marketing plan with the digital doctor, since fate had delivered a rather exotic brand of expertise to our otherwise settled world, but she cut him off and hurried away to locate the people she had been scheduled to speak to.

Such are the perils of business in the age of Zoom.