January 09, 2013

Sic Transit Gloria Romance Novels

Did you know that the Vauxhalls and Pandas going down the M6 Toll Rd in Britain's West Midlands are rolling along on top of Mills & Boon romance novels? Yes, after some concerted googling inspired by an offhand reference to the "romance motorway" I came across in the TLS, I can confirm that 2.5 million Mills & Boon romances were pulped and mixed in with the tarmac to create the surface of the M6 Toll. That works out to 45,000 happy endings per mile.

Interviewed by BBC news at the time, the Project Manager hastened to assure Mills & Boon readers that it was only the physical properties of the books, not their content, which had determined their fate. Still, especially at this time of heightened sensitivity to the march of time as one year gives way to another, it's hard for the imagination not to be caught by the "golden lads and girls all must, as chimney sweepers, come to dust" aspect of this story.

I couldn't help hearing in my head an echo of the poem which opens that classic work of American Literature, Edgar Lee Masters's Spoon River Anthology, which starts like this:

Where are Ella, Kate, Mag, Lizzie and Edith?
The tender heart, the simple soul, the loud, the proud, the happy one?
All, all are sleeping on the hill.

Where are Elmer, Herman, Bert, Tom and Charley
The weak of will, the strong of arm, the clown, the boozer, the fighter? 
All, all are sleeping on the hill...

The hill being the location of the town cemetery, whose inhabitants, it turns out, are not sleeping peacefully. Frustrated by the pious, hypocritical epitaphs on their graves, one after another they give it to us straight, what their lives were really like, the struggles, the iniquities, the violence and senselessness. It's a great, energising read. In fact, even with it being poetry, I don't remember any of us being bored by it when we were assigned it at school (an American rite of passage, I believe), although maybe that was because a lot of the struggles were about sex -- for the author as well as for his characters, I later learned.

Here's my Mills & Boonified version:

Where are Mary Belle, Toy, Skye, Tansi and Capri?
The tender heart, the simple soul, the loud, the proud, the happy one?
All, all are pulped...

Where are Nacho, Mace, Bear, Chase and Reed?
The weak of will, the strong of arm, the clown, the boozer, the fighter?
All, all are pulped...


Sic transit gloria romance novels is not Latin for "Thus do romance novels become transit lanes" although I like the way it sounds as if it is.

What Sic transit gloria means is "Thus passes glory". If you've seen the very funny Wes Anderson film Rushmore (and if you haven't, you should) you may remember Jason Schwartzman as Max making impressive use of it as a conversation opener.

Max:   Sic transit gloria. Glory fades. I'm Max Fischer.
Rosemary Cross:   Hi.
Max:   Hi.


Its other famous incarnation is in the phrase Sic transit gloria mundi -- "Thus passes the glory of the world" -- which used to be intoned at Papal coronations to remind the new Pope of the impermanence of earthly honours.

So there you have it. Thus passes the glory of 2.5 million romance novels, turned into a relief road for Birmingham.

All names of Romance novel characters taken from actual Mills & Boon novels.
No Romance novels were hurt in the writing of this post.

 
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