Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Sunday, 5 July 2015



Ob lies in the hallway
and thinks of flies.
The flies on the cadaver of his past.
In the sticky heat he lies
and dreams of flies.

lands on the silent body
and pauses for a moment
as if it could remember.

Its first act of change
the consumption of its past.

6 November 1982

This is the second of four poems dated 6 November 1982. This tells me something. Some, if not all of these, are old ideas that I’ve deliberately sat down, worked at and decided were good enough to call finished. There are a couple of other blocks like this which we’ll get to eventually if I don’t decide to pack all this in and go and do something interesting instead. (Nod to an old kid’s show.) Looking at this one it’s pretty obvious what I’m on about. My wife has left me and I’m trying to decide what I want to do, who I want to be for the rest of my life. But it’s hard to let go of the past and I keep revisiting it even as it’s becoming less and less appealing to do so. The metaphor is obvious and not especially well executed. I just couldn’t find a not awkward way of saying ‘What-was-Ob’. And why Ob? Obliterate? Obituary? Objectify? Obsession?

For the record I was not brought up to believe in reincarnation although I do like the trope as a literary device.


Wednesday, 1 July 2015



The man with the strange name
passed her by
thinking strange thoughts
in a stranger's tongue.

His dark clothes caught her eye
for a moment
and then he was gone.

A feeling came and went
but she didn't know its name
and tried forgetting
what she wouldn't want to understand.

6 November 1982

I wrote ‘A Marriage’ (#541) on 27th June 1982. So it’s been over four months since I’ve produced a poem and a couple of months since my wife left me. And then this little Beckettian number pops out similar in theme to ‘Itch of an Amputated Leg’ (#538) and ‘Heat’ (#530) only this time the observer is a female and their eyes don’t meet. I’ve never really had a clear image of the man. I supposed he was probably a Hasidic Jew but it wasn’t really important. All that mattered is that the two characters were alien. In Milligan and Murphy there are a couple of instances where one of the brothers locks eyes with an animal and I find myself returning to this again in my new book:

I approached my bench in the early afternoon to find the [cat] lying doggo on the ground beside it. As I went to sit it opened its eyes, which had been shut, identified me as the source of the disturbance, did a quick risk assessment, decided in an instant I was harmless, feckless and most likely worthless and went back to basking in the heat. An hour or so later it got up and padded off in search of some shade. And that was that. In retrospect I am not sure what passed between us during the split-second when our eyes met but it is the only time I have encountered any creature and felt I was in the presence of a kindred spirit, a fellow dosser. I use the adjective kindred reluctantly—it falls short and I dislike the mystical undertones—but I can think of no other that comes close.

And earlier on in the text:

A preposterous fluffy lion was sitting as regally as in could in the centre of the bed. He stared at it and the lion stared back. If it was complicit it wasn’t letting on.


Sunday, 28 June 2015


Itch of an Amputated Leg

I turned up the volume
for 'Waiting for the Man'.

Sweat gathered in the furrows on the forehead
of the man pruning roses
and he squinted to see in our room.

Mopping his brow
he noticed the young American
who returned his smile and passed on by.

His eyes followed her bare legs
and for a moment he remembered...

something without words –
or thought he did.

24 May 1982

Over the past six months I’ve been posting poems that span my relationship with my first wife. I’ve not posted them all—some were just too embarrassing (in more ways than one)—but when you look at the body of work there are some interesting (if only to me) patterns. I’ve already posted ‘Heat’ (#530) and in a while I’ll waiting for the manpost ‘Empathy’ (#542) which is the first poem I wrote after my wife left me and all three of them involve wordless exchanges with strangers.

It was very hot in 1982. The young American lived in the block of flats across from us, the building we could see out of our living room window, and I often saw her walking up and down the steps. She was a teenager and pretty without being stunning. And she caught my eye. One of dozens over the years who has. I would love to see them all lined up to see what physical characteristics they have in common but I don’t think that’s it. Mostly I never had crushes on these girls—that’s the kind of thing I’d need regular contact to form (so we’re talking co-workers usually)—but I very much wanted to understand this “at first sight” phenomenon. I’ve kinda always pooh-poohed the notion of love at first sight but we’ve all experienced something similar: we’re walking along the street and happen to meet a stranger’s gaze—full eye to eye contact—for a second, maybe two (although it feels so much longer) and something passes between the two of you, something you can’t put into words and often something a little uncomfortable too.

We’re all familiar with Proust and his madeleine cake

No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me.

but what I’m trying to capture he is something less, much less. There are only so many faces on the planet and so every one of us will remind someone of someone they’ve once known or met in passing but there are simply too many people to remember. And yet there is a sense of the familiar that persists.

The reason I know she was an American by the way is because her photo appeared in the local rag. I may even still have the clipping somewhere. I don’t think I ever spoke to her or even passed her in the street and my only actual memory of her is of her sunbathing outside our window although she’s not the sunbather in ‘Sunbather’ (#550).

Wednesday, 24 June 2015


A Marriage

One day he tried too hard and broke it.
He patched it up
and it still worked,
though not as well.

The wheels still went round.

No one noticed any change
till one day it fell to pieces
and they all wondered why.

27 June 1982 – 23 September 1982

When is something finished? As writers we face this problem all the time. With my poems it’s when they get their number and go in the big red folder. Then they’re done and, with a couple of exceptions, never touched again. Nowadays the time between conception and completion is not long and if a poem sits in my draft folder for too long the odds are it’ll never get finished. At the moment there are 72 poems and bits of poems there. The oldest dates back to 2008. There are more in notepads lying around the flat that go back decades. Every now and then I’ll open up a document at random and see if I can do anything to make it work. Mostly I can’t. Or I’ll change a word or two and save it again. A friend lost her mum in 2011. The day I heard I wrote her a poem which I’ve still not sent to her. The last time I looked at it was in March 2014. On that date I made my 59th change to the poem. So far I’ve spent five hours on it and I suppose one day I’ll let her read it in whatever state it’s in by then but not yet.

On 23rd September 1982 my first wife left me. She’d told me some weeks beforehand that she wanted to and I begged her to reconsider, to give me time to change but it was an impossible task. She said to me, “I don’t know what I want but broken-heartI know I don’t want you.” So what chance did I have? I walked in on her and my best friend sitting in the dark listening to music, the guy she’s now married to. Of course she insists there was nothing going on at the time and it was all in my head. Of course she does.

For some years after my wife divorced me our daughter would periodically ask me why we broke up. Once she got old enough the question changed. She wanted to know what the two of us were doing together in the first place. It’s a good question and a much easier one to answer: people—and by ‘people’ I mean our parents—said we shouldn’t be together and so we decided to show them. Parents can be dumb.

‘A Marriage’ was first published in Kissing the Sky #1 in 1990.

Sunday, 21 June 2015


The Circular Line

Her breasts were large and heavy and they hurt her
standing, as she had done for half an hour,
while the train drained of people.

A side seat came free
and silently she slipped
into states of unconsciousness.

No one thought to wake her.
No one thought and she had to go round the circle again.

8 July 1982

When I was a kid it was expected that you’d give up your seat on a bus for a woman, any woman but especially an old or pregnant woman as is the case here. Robyn Wilder asked the question on Twitter: PREGNANTS AND MUMS OF TWITTER: Please tell me of the times you’ve been ignored/refused a seat on public transport and the worst responses are listed here. Interestingly the first tweet in response was from Joanna Bolouri who said, [N]ever. Scottish folk are ace. On the whole we are but I have noticed a definite change over the years. When I was a kid you got up for any woman, even a girl. Now it seems to be only deserving women that get treated with the respect they deserve but often it’s other women who give up their seats and not the men. There’s another interesting article here in which 84% of the pregnant women interviewed said they’d been forced to stand on public transport at one time or another.


Of course there are often women who choose to stand even when a seat’s vacant and not a few times I’ve been on a bus and the last free seat’s been beside me and some woman’s got on and preferred to stand rather than sit beside me. And it actually upsets me, so much so it’s found its way into my new book:

He was always the last person someone sat beside and it drove him to distraction; didn’t happen so much on trains for some reason. There had been numerous occasions when women had got on—some quite advanced in years—and had chosen to hang onto a stanchion rather than sit beside him. He took all of these slights (his word) personally. He was so paranoid about it he couldn’t help but stare at people as they made their way up the bus with this desperate look on his face that cried out, “Here! Sit beside me… please. I’m a nice man. Honest. I won’t try to engage you in conversation or lean into you or fart or pull a peach out of my pocket. I’ll sit here as quiet as a tree. But PLEASE sit here beside me.” Unsurprisingly this tactic put more people off than it reassured. People being people.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Swear it

  Rage Guy

Swearing was invented as a compromise between running away and fighting – Peter Finley Dunne

I’ve never been one for swearing. My parents never swore—okay my dad said ‘bloody’ a couple of times (and by ‘a couple of times’ I literally mean twice, possibly three times, in all the years I knew him)—and none of the adults I knew used bad language, at least not in front of the children. Kids were the first and most of their curses were pretty tame—you’d call someone a wee jobbie or something like that—and if you said ‘fuck’ someone would go and tell your mammy on you: that was a bad word.

When I got older I tried it out but it was an uncomfortable fit. The words just didn’t feel right in my mouth. I felt like I was reading someone else’s lines. So I pretty much stopped. It didn’t really matter whether the words were blasphemous (goddamn), scatological (pisshead), animalistic (bitch) or sexual (dyke); none of them felt mine. Racial slurs weren’t something that sat particularly well with me either; that said I never thought twice about referring to a newsagent’s as a ‘Paki’s’ or suggesting we go for a ‘Chinky’ of a weekend but that was me talking about a building and a kind of meal and not an individual. I never personally knew anyone of any race other than Scottish or English and so there was never anyone around to call a ‘sambo’ but I still chuckled when Love Thy Neighbour was on and Eddie Booth called the guy next door a ‘nig nog’ but then I laughed when Bill called Eddie a ‘white honky’. No way would a show like that get made nowadays and yet it ran for seven seasons back in the seventies (not counting the Australian spin-off). Of course why it worked is that both Eddie and Bill were bigots and on top of being of different ethnicities they were also of different political persuasions; not sure if either of them was religious. Their wives got on just fine.

The bottom line is that I’ve never really understood swearing. I’m a Scot and we probably mince more oaths than most—even the Aussies—and so I’ve been surrounded by people effing and blinding all my life. It doesn’t offend me but I still don’t get it. I get the need at times to vent or insult but what’s so magical about f-u-c-k or c-u-n-t or s-h-i-t-e? It’s a bit like shorthand. I might as well say, “You’re a number two,” because we all know what that’s a euphemism for.

At Graham Chapman’s memorial service John Cleese pointed out that he was “very proud of being the first person to ever say 'shit' on British television” before proceeding to be “the first person ever at a British memorial service to say 'fuck'!”. And that got a big laugh. Why? Because swearing’s lost its power.

Felix Dennis is credited with having been the first person to say the word 'cunt' on live British television; that was on The Frost Programme as far back as 1970 apparently. According to The Guardian in 1965 when Kenneth Tynan said 'fuck' on TV four separate House of Commons motions were tabled in Parliament and the Queen received a letter from the morality campaigner Mary Whitehouse; in 1976 when the Sex Pistols swore on the Today programme they were unofficially banned from TV but in 2004 more than 10 million people watched John Lydon on I'm a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here! call the voting audience at home “fucking cunts” for failing to choose him as the night's loser and fewer than 100 members of the public complained. Ten years from now I wonder if anyone’ll bat and eye. This year the OED’s added a whole range of derivatives of the four-letter Middle English swear word ‘cunt’ including ‘cunted’, ‘cunting’, ‘cuntish’ and ‘cunty’; the complete list is here. I wonder what took them so long?

Words only have power if people assign them power. As Lenny Bruce put it on Swear to Tell the Truth: “[If] nigger didn't mean anything anymore, then you could never make some six-year-old black kid cry because somebody called him a nigger at school.” That’s a word that’s making a comeback I see. For a long time no one but no one could get away with the n-word. That was a baaaaaad word. But not so much now. The opinions on this webpage run the whole gamut but I’ll highlight this one:

It's Just a Word African Americans use it to call each other the word in a friendly matter, but if a Caucasion [sic] or any other person out of their race called them that they would play the racist card. If they think if it’s such a bad word, then don't use it. Otherwise the word is used in a new slang to "friend" so I don't really see a problem.

I’ve never used the word in my life except… actually I think this may well be the first time. A part of me can’t see what all the fuss is about. I know all about the history of the word and its implications but it wasn’t a part of my world; I was a young man before I met my first black man. He played a guitar in our front room and let me touch his hair; I liked him. Louis C.K. has a few thoughts on the subject:

And it’s not just us white folk. GloZell’s also confused.

So why do we swear? For the most part it seems swearing’s like honking the horn on your car which is something else I’m not sure I’ve even done. I can see why in an emergency one might honk a horn but even then it’s always struck me as an extra thing and much better to keep control of your vehicle. I’ve certainly never honked my horn out of pure frustration which is odd because I’m prone to being frustrated but I guess I mostly internalise it. Also we rarely just say a swearword. I can write, “He said, ‘Oh, fuck!’” but you and I know that effort went into that expression. He exclaimed it. He declaimed it. He cried out, “Oh, fuck!” Or maybe he did just say it but even if he did so much more was implied. It might’ve been a surprised ‘fuck’ or an astounded one, an unbelieving one, a disgruntled one. Basically swearing’s a safety valve. You can swear at a guy or punch him in the face. I must’ve sworn at someone somewhere along the line—even if it was one of the tamer swearwords—but I’ve never punched anyone in the face. Never wanted to. Not my style. So swearing can be a good thing. It lets you let of steam. Unless, like honking your car horn, you overdo it. And then someone gets out of their car and either swears at you or punches you in the face.

One of the world’s great swearers is, unsurprisingly, a Scot: Billy Connolly. In a 2011 review Megan Howden writes:

Connolly swears continuously and does not apologise for it. To him they are words just like any others and he enjoys using them immensely. A fifteen minute routine in the perfect uses for the word ‘cunt’ is one such example from his show. While I cannot count or begin to estimate the number of expletives that passed his lips during the prolific two hour and forty minute show I can truly say that I have not seen a more charming performer. Whether some of the sting wears off through his wonderful Glaswegian accent or his confident, matter of fact usage changes the tone, I do not know but there is not another individual on the planet for which I would gladly fork out money to have my vocabulary desecrated by.

What’s interesting about Connolly is that his swearing does not lose its power through overuse. I could transcribe the fifteen minute routine described above but so much would be lost in the translation. I’m not saying swearing can’t be written down because obviously I’ve been doing precisely that but its true power is in its spoken form. In the article ‘The Utility and Ubiquity of Taboo Words’ Timothy Jay writes:

The taboo lexicon is like a box of tools engineered for a wide range of emotional expression. This is what is meant by their utility: one can achieve a myriad of personal and social goals with them. From an evolutionary standpoint, swearing is a unique human behaviour that developed for a purpose. Taboo words persist because they can intensify emotional communication to a degree that nontaboo words cannot. Fuck you! immediately conveys a level of contempt unparalleled by nontaboo words; there is no way to convey Fuck you! with polite speech. The emotional impact of taboo words produces a unique high level of arousal unlike other nontaboo emotional words

We talk about colourful language—a polite enough euphemism for imprecation—but when you listen to a master-cusser like Connolly the expression makes so much more sense.

I think swearing’s like nudity. Most of us aren’t comfortable walking around in the altogether. Even those with beautiful bodies tend to keep them under wraps. And then you get those blokes… like Billy Connolly now I think about it, whose TV documentaries regularly featured him frolicking around in the nude. (Thankfully in his last one on death he managed to keep it in his pants.) So am I equating swearing with honesty? I think I probably am. Broadly speaking. I’m not saying you can’t swear and lie at the same time—one always has to consider the context—but in day-to-day speech I actually think swearing is used to underline the veracity of what’s being said. Feel free to disagree. I have no evidence to substantiate this claim. It just seems to make sense to me. (Opinions differ: see this debate.)

Of course Connolly’s an uneducated Scot so what would he know? Well here’s an erudite Englishman with a few words to say on the subject:

(Actually Billy has two engineering qualifications; one collected by mistake belonging to a boy named Connell (according to the liner notes of the compilation album Transatlantic Years)).

Much is not understood about swearing. All you have to do is look at the final section of Timothy Jay’s paper to see that a lot of work lies ahead of researchers. In his paper he suggests that “swearing is highly likely from a Type A adult in a stressful social situation” but that doesn’t really fit me; even when I was at my most stressed and working myself into the ground I was more likely to burst into tears than a tirade of expletives.

But what of the future?

Now don’t let us give ourselves a parcel of airs and pretend that the oaths we make free with in this land of liberty of ours are our own; and because we have the spirit to swear them,—imagine that we have had the wit to invent them too. – Tristram Shandy

Puzzles me why ‘Nazi’ hasn’t been adopted by more people. If you really want to offend someone call him a ‘Nazi’. There was a time when the word ‘Nazi’ didn’t exist. Prior to 1920 no one would’ve known what you were talking about. And so with ‘cunt’ from the Latin ‘cunnus’. Prior to about 75 B.C. that one would’ve gone over most people’s head too. Vaginas certainly existed before the Romans: each and every one proceeded from one.

As the old cusswords lose their vigour why aren’t we replacing them with still more vulgar, obscene or blasphemous words? Probably because once you’ve turned the volume up to eleven there’s nowhere else to go. I would suggest that more swearwords have gone out of fashion than new ones have been invented (or maybe designated would be a better verb since a lot of the time the status of a word is simply changed in the minds of its uses, e.g. faggot or spastic). Does anyone ever use those words? What if I said, “I thumb my nose at you”? Kids would just laugh at you nowadays. Or what about ‘bite my thumb’ or ‘cock a snook’? Here’s an article with ten words that used to be frowned upon. And this article shows that the debate over swearing has gone on for a long time.


One of my favourite science fiction novels is A Time of Changes by Robert Silverberg. In it all the people speak in the third person, in fact, it is regarded as swearing to use the first person pronoun. I read it first as a teenager and went to some trouble a few years ago to locate a copy; it had lost none of its oomph. It's a very interesting novel, the concept of swearing minus what we recognise as coarse language.

Science fiction authors have had a wonderful ol’ time inventing new swear words and it’s a great way to get around the censors. Who, for example, batted an eye when Mork said, “shazbot”? What did it even mean? I bet the question Craig Charles gets asked most at interviews is what ‘smeg’ means? Likewise the use of ‘frell’ and ‘dren’ in Farscape allowed the television series to get away with dialogue that would normally never have made it past broadcasting and network censorship. The same applied to ‘frag’ in Babylon 5 and ‘frak’ in the original series of Battlestar Galactica followed by a host of other shows the latest I’m aware of being Defiance with ‘ganchi’, ‘haigi’, ‘skragi’, ‘jek’, ‘shtek’, ‘gwoke’, ‘chup’ and ‘shtako’ but then there are five alien tongues in the show. Now, of course, ‘frack’ has entered our everyday language as a mining term although in that context it’s actually been around since the 1950’s as an abbreviated form of ‘fracturing’.

I don’t ever see a time when we evolve to a point when, as a species, we no longer feel the need to swear. Remember before swearing meant “to use offensive language, especially as an expression of anger” it meant “to make a solemn statement or promise undertaking to do something or affirming that something is the case.” That is still the dominant meaning: HYFR (Hell Yeah Fucking Right). It raises everything to another level: “Just in case I didn’t make myself clear let me make myself fucking clear.”

Saturday, 13 June 2015



In my last year at school
I spent much time
in Central Library
thumbing though
encyclopaedias of modern art
and photography year books
looking for naked women.

Somehow their art
never reached me –
only their nudity.

28 April 1979

This poem is not untitled. It is entitled ‘Untitled’. I never gave any of my paintings titles. There are only two left—Carrie got them framed and they hang in our living room—but for some odd reason I could never think of what to call them. The same goes for all my musical compositions apart from the songs. Some people don’t give their poems titles. I have one poem without a title, my one and only haiku. All the rest have titles or at least labels; there’s a difference between a title and a label. A title is an opportunity and for so many of us, a lost one.

One of my favourite artists is the Belgian René Magritte. Most of his paintings have titles that, on first glace (and most subsequent glances), have little or nothing to do with the subject matter of the work of art. This was deliberate:

The titles are chosen in such a way as to keep anyone from assigning my paintings to the familiar region that habitual thought appeals to in order to escape perplexity.

Ah, habit, the “great deadener” as Beckett put it. “Habit is a second nature,” Proust once wrote, “it keeps us in ignorance of the first, and is free of its cruelties and magritte_pills05enchantments.” Habits are learned. Instinct is not. Titles are also artificial. No tree has a title.

My wife and I were talking on Friday morning about where we store our medicines and vitamins and what it should be called. Although we’ve lived here for about twelve years and managed to find our way back and forth to the pills with little or no trouble it seems we’ve never agreed upon a formal name for the area. I call it ‘the pill shelf’ which is inaccurate because it’s a small bookcase and has three shelves but ‘pill shelves’ or ‘pillcase’ don’t sound right. Carrie suggested ‘pharmacy’ but that, as far as I’m concerned, is a building. Of course we could just call it ‘the pills’. You see the kind of life we live, the things we have to worry about.

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