Searching through my notebooks recently I found, scribbled cryptically at the corner of a page, “like a fat man peeling quails’ eggs.” And a few pages later, “eyes so big he looked like an owl in aviators.” What was I going for with the quails’ egg thing, I wonder? Some sort of juxtaposition about unexpected delicacy and physical size, maybe.
Often notes from the past like this, while sounding kinda beguiling, have lost their immediacy and applicability. I s’pose I must have been thinking of something as I hastily recorded them, but God knows what it was.
Whereas my crappy similes have a weird transience, others – really good ones – stay in the mind for years. Decades. This week I was reading an autobiographical piece by Henry Winter, one of my fave football writers. He mentioned having a brother, Tim. Timothy Winter, I thought, and immediately after, “…comes to school with eyes as wide as a football pool.” Now there’s a line from way back; a poem we did at high school, and a simile that seems to make sense on some level way deeper than language given that no-one knows what a football pool is.
A writer of prose whose similes stay in the memory is of course Raymond Chandler, particularly on facial expressions. Here are two very different smiles, for example:
"Her smile was as faint as a fat lady at a fireman's ball."
"His smile was as stiff as a frozen fish."
Perhaps the real reason that “like an owl in aviators” hasn’t made it out of the notebook and into a story is less to do with its lack of quality and more to do with the fact that my workmanlike prose doesn’t suit it.
I’m not Charles Causley or Raymond Chandler. In future, I’ll leave the poetry to them.