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

Sunday, 14 February 2016



Kay Sexton writes with loving clarity about the natural world, and is astute about the complexity and cost of our negotiations with it.... …absorbing and highly readable....Hilary Mantel, author of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies

In October 2013 an article appeared in The Guardian talking about a Scottish landowner’s plan to reintroduce wolves (and bears too) to the Scottish highlands but he faced opposition from farmers, walkers and legal experts. It might surprise some to learn that wolves no longer roam the British Isles—I was more stunned to discover that wolves had to be reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in the United States in 1995—but it’s true. Roman and Saxon writings suggest that wolves once were commonplace in Britain. Wolf hunts took place regularly and, inevitably, over time they were hunted to extinction. King Edward I, who reigned from 1272 to 1307, ordered the total extermination of all wolves in his kingdom and by the reign of Henry VII (1485–1509) they’d just about managed it. Official records indicate that the last Scottish wolf was killed by Sir Ewen Cameron in 1680 in Killiecrankie although there have been sightings north of the border as late as 1888. You can read a nice wee article about the history of wolves in Scotland here.

Nature copes. It’s what it does. We’ve got used to it coping. We expect it to cope. And as long as you don’t throw too much at it at once and give it a little time it can absorb and assimilate most things. You wouldn’t think that the eradication of an entire species from a small island in the North Atlantic would change things very much. After all we still have foxes and they’re kind of wolflike. Why would we want to bring such a dangerous predator back? Because Nature didn’t cope as well as we expected:

A report published in 2007 in the Proceedings of The Royal Society, entitled ‘Wolf reintroduction to Scotland: public attitudes and consequences for red deer management’, concludes that reintroduction of wolves to the Scottish Highlands would have significant ecological benefit by limiting numbers of red deer, reducing the need for costly deer culls and allowing natural regeneration of the Caledonian pine forest. – Why reintroduce wolves?

It’s a contentious subject and the debate rages on. The most recent article I could find was this one, in the BBC News Magazine, in October 2015.

But that’s the real world with all its red tape and public opinion. The great thing about fiction is it can bypass all the debate and shilly-shallying and just get on with it which is what Kay Sexton does in her novel Gatekeeper. The blurb then:

It was not simply the job of her life; it was her life…

Claire Benson has been wrongfully expelled from an Animal Activist Group and she is furious, until she discovers she’s been singled out for more significant work. A task that demands all her skill, training and nerve.

The Project aims to re-introduce wolves to their natural environment. If all goes to plan, a pack will be secretly released in the Scottish Highlands and Claire will be their Gatekeeper—safeguarding their transition from exiles to natives. The task is covert and perilous, requiring her to understand the land, its people and—above all—the true nature of these extraordinary beasts.

When we meet Claire she’s breaking into an illegal puppy farm along with Liam, Mick, Vidya, Vince and Ansel. They know what they’re there for, the smaller puppies (they have to be practical), but her cohorts are not all on the same page and Liam heads off on his own; he’s sure there’re mink there. Mink farming is banned in Britain and Liam is naturally incensed:

‘This is wrong. They’ve got to be freed.’

‘Don’t be stupid! They aren’t native, they’ll…’ But he’d stopped listening: he was pulling the bolt cutters from his belt, setting them against the small padlock holding the nearest closed cage.

Claire froze, breathing deeply, trying to work out her options. If the mink were freed they would destroy the local habitat—it was impossible Liam didn’t know that. The predators would kill every rodent and small bird for miles around, as well fish; even poultry from farms.

In 1998 the Animal Liberation Front released 6000 mink into the Hampshire countryside:

The RSPCA condemned the release and animal welfare groups said the ALF operation was a damaging own goal because many of the mink, which were bred in captivity for export to the United States, Scandinavia and Russia, would die of starvation. – The Times reprinted in

What’s the difference between a terrorist and an activist? This question is raised twice in Kay’s book. Claire’s answer:

If you know when to stop … then you’re not a terrorist.

The difference between mink and wolves is a simple one: wolves are supposed to be here.

Because of the incident with the mink Claire ends up leaving the animal rights group and is at a bit of a loose end until Ansel approaches her with a once-in-a-lifetime offer involving wolves. It’s fair to say that The Project is a shady organisation. The more I read through the book the more I was reminded of Rosemary’s Baby. We learn that Ansel is a member and someone called Blaine although that’s not his real name. Ansel becomes Claire’s handler—all very cloak and dagger—but he’s the only one she’s to have regular contact with; it’s not like they all get together for motivational talks every Monday morning. No. If she wants to join—if they’re willing to let her join (it’s a buyer’s market)—she has to play by their rules:

‘Let me get this right,’ she said. ‘I’m to give up an unspecified amount of my life, to probably not work with wolves, with no guarantee that what I’m training for will ever transpire. I’m in competition with another woman, whom I won’t know, for one chance to act like a combination PR schmoozer and ordinary member of the public. I’m not allowed to tell anyone what I’m doing, and if it comes to the crunch I’m on my own.’

So maybe a bit Mission Impossible too. “Your mission, Claire, should you choose to accept it…” She gets sent to Morocco—ostensibly as a temporary tallier for an ongoing migration project—and then to Italy—mainly in Rome where she sticks out like a sore thumb but there’s also a field visit to Anatolia—and, finally to Scotland where it looks like things have not gone according to what she believed the plan to be. In each place she has to guess why she’s there really and who might be affiliated with The Project. Who would go for such a deal? Well, someone like Claire. And this is where this book is a little misleading because the book is less about wolves and more about Claire finding out who she is.

My wife read this book before me—I was tied up editing and it had to wait its turn—so I knew she’d given it five stars on Goodreads (as I write this it’s sitting on 4.67) although she’d not got round to writing an actual review. I mention this because all my regular readers will know that my wife is not known for her expansive praise. About 100 pages into the book—and struggling to get into it—I asked her, “Why did you give it five stars?” She knows Kay—Kay was a regular contributor to Carrie’s literary journals—but even so she’s like me: if you get a five-star review from me you deserve each and every one of those stars. I forget her exact reasons—we talked about it for a while—but I do remember clearly her summation: “I’d have given it six stars if I could.”

My wife likes stories. She’s been reading a lot of late and the books she finds herself drawn to are those with strong storylines. She wants a book she can’t put down. Me, I don’t much care about stories. I’m into imaginative use of language. If there’s a tale to be told too then great but I’m particularly drawn to books that can tick the “character is plot” box. And this is the problem with every book ever written: you can’t please all of the people all of the time. You can do nothing about reader expectation.

So you’re saying you hated it, Jim? No. No, I didn’t. There’s hardly a character in the book that you’d describe as flat. Certainly many have… what shall I go with?... gaps in their CVs but that’s only to be expected as pretty much everyone is holding back a part of themselves. Apart from Claire. We get unfettered access to her although it is via an omniscient narrator. My problem was relating to Claire and Carrie was quick to point this out: “She’s not you.” That’s true but Holden Caulfield and Ivan Denisovich weren’t me either. But I could imagine being them. I couldn’t for the life of me imagine being Claire or wanting to be. I have nothing against wolves but I’m also not passionate about wolves. Stick a charity collection bucket under my nose and I’ll dig my hand in my pocket but that’s me.

Who, then, is Claire? Well, there’s a lot of Kay in her but if you don’t know Kay that’s not much help. Think of a younger Sigourney Weaver—circa Aliens—and you’re getting there.

Like most writers Kay writes a blog although like most writers it gets less attention these days than it once did. In it, however, she does have a fair bit to say about writing and so I thought I’d ask her a few questions about Gatekeeper based on what she’s written in her blog:

1. In a blog back in 2006 you wrote: “I encourage my students to write a sentence that states the intention of a story, novel, poem or flash and to keep it at the top of their work as a reminder of their intentions.” What would that sentence be for Gatekeeper?

The sentence for Gatekeeper would be ‘You can’t change the world without changing yourself’

2. In another blog you wrote: “Fiction is about telling a good story—if that happens to illuminate truth along the way it's a bonus, but it's not the purpose of the art.” What’s the story here?

Fiction is an art, and like all arts it is, or should be, interpretive. I see an awful lot of the ‘write what you know’ and ‘do you have the right to tell this story’ kind of narrative being thrown at, and by, creative writing students, particularly around MFA modules. Some of the world’s finest novels are failures – Moby-Dick for example has an appalling structure, Infinite Jest is not so much a cliffhanger ending as fall off a cliff ending etc. Verisimilitude is as best a requirement of journalism, a consideration for creative non-fiction and (in my view) nothing at all to do with fiction. I don’t want to know if an emotion or experience is accurately depicted, I want to feel as if I’m having that emotion or experience via the writer’s skill. Which is not to decry privilege and ownership. I recently reviewed a novel by Joyce Carol Oates where I think the issue of ownership (right to tell this story) became a hurdle for me as a reader. Privilege often encourages white writers to step into ‘the other’ which is okay imaginatively but not if it blocks writers categorised as ‘other’ from achieving publication with their own lived experiences. The balance between respect for other cultures, lives, ideologies and an artist’s natural desire to experiment can be difficult. It is a balance we best master by attempting it, not by pretending it doesn’t exist, nor by ghettoising writers into what they can write about, nor, in fact by self-censoring. But we must be prepared to take criticism if we don’t pull off that balancing act with real skill.

3. In yet another blog you wrote: “Before I write about a person or place, I walk through their life; feeling, seeing, smelling, tasting, touching every aspect of their reality.” How did you do this with Claire?

I met several wolves, in zoos, in privately owned parks, in the care of people with dangerous animal licences and in the (dubious) care of people who had no licence and no interest in getting one.

4. “There are things I wouldn't do, but sometimes the only way to get inside an experience is to try what it feels like to be, not to observe.” Did you do anything “interesting” whilst researching Gatekeeper?

The answer for 4 is the same as 3. Some of the wolf handlers I met were putting their careers on the line to talk about what happened to cubs in a captive pack. At least one person I met was keeping a wolf illegally and his lifestyle was frightening. A couple of times I wondered what would happen if he decided he didn’t like me, but I was lucky enough to get on his right side and stay there!

5. One reviewer (the poet and novelist Bunny Goodjohn) had this to say about Claire: “Claire Benson is not a pack animal. A loner and active member of an animal rights group, she works undercover to liberate animals from South Coast laboratory facilities, but even in that close-knit group, she is the outsider. No one gets close. And she prefers it this way.” Wolves on the other hand are pack animals; in fact you talk about solitary wolves going insane. Why would a loner be a prime candidate to look after a pack?

It’s not so much that Claire is a good candidate but that the extreme edge of animal rights activism creates an environment in which isolation is the norm. I wanted to look at what makes a person head ‘out there’ – I’ve known a few, professionally and most people know of others, Timothy Treadwell, for example. Such behaviour is quite alien to most of us but inside those groups it is seen as admirable and to be supported. In exploring what sends people into that behaviour I also wanted to look at what might bring them back.

6. The book was shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize and yet you ended up self-publishing it. I’m puzzled especially since you’ve had other books traditionally published. Why did you choose this route?

I was invited to submit Gatekeeper to the Amazon White Glove programme via my agent. We gave it a lot of thought and decided to go ahead for two reasons:

  1. I had nothing to lose. Gatekeeper had done the rounds and not been picked up for publication. Many people liked it but they expressed similar concerns – Claire was too violent and not appealing enough to succeed as a female protagonist. As I’m much keener on interesting characters than appealing ones, I didn’t feel much compulsion to change the novel to satisfy that kind of concern but that left me with ‘self' publication or no publication.
  2. my husband was in the middle of cancer treatment and it gave me something to focus on other than his health or lack of it.

7. What are you working on right now?

I’m working on some short stories and revising a novel about the 1920s that features rivers and pornography as key themes.

Rivers and porn, eh? Well, sex always sells at least that used to be the case. But, as well know, the public are a funny lot.

Bottom line then. Is Gatekeeper a good book? Yes, it is. No doubt about it. Like all books it will appeal to a certain demographic but that’s not a criticism; that’s just the way it is. Don’t let the fact various publishers turned the book down put you off. It’s a matter of taste, yes, but these companies exist to make money and the less they have to risk the better. We all know the stories of now famous books that were turned down time and time again. Next month I’ll be posting a review of a detective novel that got accepted by a publisher—they’d a cover designed and an entry on their website and everything—who then at the last minute decided not to go ahead leaving the author to scramble around looking for a new publisher which, amazingly, he found.


Kay Sexton proves that there’s hope for all of us. She left school with no discernible qualifications and has had a plethora of jobs ranging from glamour model, mortician’s assistant, dental receptionist, chambermaid and nudist camp agony aunt (there has to be a book in there somewhere). Eventually she had to enter the real world and spent more than a decade as Chief Executive for charitable and environmental organisations worldwide. She has also been a house writer for several environmental/social responsibility non-profits.

Her publication credits range from H&E International to France Today to the World Water Forum Annual Report. Kay’s fiction has been chosen for over forty anthologies and been broadcast on Radio 4. In addition to the Dundee International Book Prize Kay was also shortlisted for the Willesden Herald short story prize in 2008, a finalist for the Bridport Prize in 2009 and was long-listed for the Sunday Times EFG Short Story prize in 2010. You can follow her misadventures in literature on her blog which she does update from time to time.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016



I don't know what William saw in us.
It's true, he used to undress us with his eyes
but they were so gentle
you couldn't be angry with him.

He had his name for all the girls.
He used to call me Looker –
because I looked back, he said.

No one's ever seen me naked
the way he saw me clothed.
Not even in a mirror.

29 June 1988

It’s been six months since my last poem. Funny, if you’d asked me about the past I’d’ve sworn I was writing poems constantly, well, one a month anyway and maybe it averages out to that but clearly I wasn’t in any rush to get my ideas finalised. On Boxing Day the Drowning Man returned. Now it’s Sweet William’s turn. This is his second. appearance The first was in 1981, ‘Common Denominator’ (#534). A long break. And then this, ostensibly out of the blue.

Looker is a prostitute as was Stiletto in ‘Common Denominator’ and Hot Stuff in the next poem in the sequence. What exactly his relationship is I never found words for. He is drawn to them. He sits on his wall and watches them but he’s different to the men who pay them, there’s an innocence to him.

Sunday, 7 February 2016


The Return of the Drowning Man

I thought he'd gone
but I was wrong.

Weighed down by feelings
he'd sunken deeper inside me.

(Only the darkest passions
live this far down.)

And I could feel
the weight of the ocean over him.

26 December 1987

I have no idea what prompted this poem but the date might be significant, Boxing Day, the day after Christmas and always a bit of an anti-climax. An article in The Irish Times at the end of last year opened with the following statistics:

ONE-in-six people believe Christmas is the loneliest time of the year, according to a survey.

A quarter of people surveyed by the Samaritans said "everything feels worse" over the festive season.

The charity is expecting an upsurge in the number of calls it receives over the holiday period.

The survey also revealed that one in 15 often spent Christmas [alone] while one in 25 said they were with family and friends but actually were alone.

This is nothing new. For years we’ve been aware of the problem.

On the whole this poem feels like it’s missing something and I think this is because by now I was starting to think of The Drowning Man Poems as a set and even though I didn’t have a plan for the sequence I did realise this was just the next logical statement. Maybe when I get to the end I’ll repost the whole group and you can see what you think.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016


Julia Please

I told her that I loved her
to fill the gaps between us.
But the gaps were too big
and my words were too small.

So with nothing more to cling to
she held herself and shivered,
then with neither word not gesture
she turned and walked away.

17 December 1987

Between leaving school in 1975 and 1999 I wrote only two short stories. Lots of poems—I was a poet after all—but prose didn’t have much of a pull on me. I don’t have exact dates for the stories but they were both written in the late seventies. The first was a most odd one—a priest has a conversation with a terrorist who, if I remember correctly, had planted a bomb in his church—the second, after much revision, became ‘Waiting’ in which an unfaithful husband comes home to find his wife has discovered the scarf he’d bought for his lover. In the story the following line appears:

Able to stand it no longer he spoke first, small words that couldn’t possibly bridge the gap between them.

The poem is a reduction of the short story, a distillation. I’m not sure it works but it was an interesting thing to attempt. I have no idea why I chose the name Julia by the way. I’ve never known a Julia—a couple of Julies—but something clearly appealed at the time.

Sunday, 31 January 2016



The truth is hard
like yesterday's friend
and if we must live with the past
does it have to feel like incest?

17 December 1987

I can’t remember the last time I spoke to Rita. It was long after 1987 and a lot had to happen to both of us in between. This poem’s not about her but the more I found myself not wanting to talk about this poem the more I found myself thinking about Rita. I think the last time I talked to her—talked to her properly like friends can—was a few days before she gave birth to her first (and for all I know only) child. I have no idea how I found out where she was but somehow the information filtered down to me and I decided to visit but as I had to go to the hospital for a physiotherapy appointment I chose to chance my arm and to be honest I rather wanted to avoid regular visiting hours because you can’t talk then. I had nothing especially to talk to her about—we had no unresolved issues to put to bed—but I did want to be able to talk to her. To be honest I can’t remember much about what was said apart from one thing. She said, “Jimmy, I’ve done some terrible things, things I’ll never tell you about so don’t ask me.” Those may not have been her exact words. I don’t think she said “terrible” but “awful” doesn’t sound like her. It doesn’t matter. She’d done things she was deeply ashamed of and that much she did want me to know even if she couldn’t bear to relate the specifics.

I’ve loved Rita for over forty years even though I’ve not spoken to her in twenty and hardly saw her the ten prior to that. We were never anything more than friends. I would’ve liked to have been but she knew that would’ve ruined what we did have and so she gently disabused me of that notion. Then she got married and I got married or maybe I got married first and we drifted apart but were always pleased when we did run into each other. We got to pretend we were teenagers again for a few minutes and not adults who’d messed up.

I’ll never know what Rita has to live with. She probably imagined I wouldn’t be able to look at her if I knew. The thing is I really can’t imagine anything that would stop me feeling the way I do about her even though she hasn’t been that person for a long time. She’s probably a granny by now for Christ’s sake, Granny Rita. I don’t have a photo of her and I’ve tried to find her online but there’s nothing. I think I may have got her married name wrong and ‘Rita’s’ not even her legal name; I don’t know why her family called her that but it’s who she’ll always be to me. A while back I found a picture of a Russian girl that reminded me of her and this is what stands as a placeholder in my mind. I think it’s appropriate anyway. Most of our memories are mostly imaginings anyway.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016


Guilt Box

We kept it in a box –
our guilt –
and fed it daily
and watched it outgrow us
but we wouldn't let it go
and finally it consumed us.

16 December 1987

I’ve written two or three poems like this. I like taking something intangible and making it real. We say, “My love for you is real,” but, of course, it’s not, not in any palpable sense. The problem with guilt or love or any other emotion or cognitive experience is that it’s abstract. I used to ask my daughter how much she loved me and she’d say, “This much,” and throw her arms wide. I wonder how wide that was. Today I love her 63" as best I can tell using my wife’s metal tape measure, maybe a fraction more; let’s say a fraction more. Wouldn’t life be so much easier if, when asked back then, she could’ve said, “Today I love you 42" but I expect it may grow. Give it time.”

Love is a shared emotion. It doesn’t have to be but it’s best shared, better anyway; unrequited love is not without its pleasures though. And this is true for other emotions. People say that a sorrow shared is a sorrow halved. I’m not sure I agree but I’ll let it stand. Grief can most certainly be shared or then again maybe not. I didn’t share my sense of loss over the death of David Bowie with the world. Others experienced their own personal losses at the same time and that made it feel like communal grief. When Churchill died Laurie Lee, the writer of Cider with Rosie, wrote, in The Daily Telegraph, “Not since the war has there been such a shared emotion.” I can see why he would feel that was true but I think it was an illusion.

And what about guilt? Oh, I can assure you that can be shared. Misery loves company.

Sunday, 24 January 2016



(For M.)

I circumcised my heart for her.
It lay bare and bled for days.
But after a while it turned hard.

I still said those familiar things
because I'd always said them and

one day I said them to you
but I don't know if they're true.

26 February 1987

Most people think of circumcision as a minor surgical operation, the removal—for health or religious reasons—of a man’s foreskin. In the Bible that’s mostly what it means but occasionally it’s used metaphorically, for example, when God tells Moses to speak to Pharaoh Moses says, “I am of uncircumcised lips, and how shall Pharaoh hearken unto me?” and, later, the apostle Paul tells the congregation in Rome, “But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart.”

I’ve always had a problem with the Abrahamic covenant. I could very easily not have a problem with it if God had only explained why circumcision. But he didn’t. He so often doesn’t. And for years people have been trying to guess why exactly circumcision? Why that? Was it not enough that they not shave? Or he could have commanded them, like the monks, to sport a tonsure? Where would be the harm in that?

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