Over the past few years regular readers will have heard me mention and sometimes even quote from my unpublished novels. I finished Milligan and Murphy in August 2005 about three years after my play Vladimir and Estragon are Dead. I had kind of thought that after writing that I’d put my fascination with all things Beckettian to bed, but apparently not. The book was written in the two years we were living in an unfurnished flat in the Gorbals. You can actually see the flats in the photo below. They were brand new and we were the first occupants. It was a nice flat. We could actually see teams of rowers skooshing up and down the Clyde from our window. To get to work in the morning all I had to do was walk over the St Andrew’s suspension bridge, trudge across Glasgow Green and get a bus on London Road for the town centre; by Glaswegian standards, idyllic. Carrie and I didn’t have our own offices at this point and so the living room was subdivided into two office spaces and a TV-watching area. It sounds crowded but it was a big room and everything worked out just fine.
We were both working then—actually only a few blocks from each other—but we kept different hours. I’ve always been an early bird and so I was up and out the door at the back of six every morning and settled at my desk with my second coffee of the morning by seven, giving me the place to myself for a good hour and a half; to compensate for the early start I got to leave an hour early too. Things were very comfortable. We had no debts, money to burn and really the last thing I expected to be doing under such circumstances was writing, but those two years were exceptionally productive and, despite the fact the flat was a tad on the small side, a part of me regrets not just buying the damn place.
Anyway, one morning I got up, carried out my ablutions, dressed, prepared my lunch, stuck on my hat and coat and headed off to work. It was a day like any other day. Probably wasn’t even a Tuesday. (If you’ve read my first novel you’ll get the joke.) As I crossed the footbridge, out of nowhere—okay, not exactly out of nowhere, out of the dark recesses of my mind—came the following sentence:
Milligan and Murphy were brothers.
I had no idea who they were or anything like that or how they could have different surnames and still be brothers or imagine they were brothers. I certainly had no idea who was doing the talking. No, all I had were those five words. By the time I'd crossed Glasgow Green I had a paragraph but I was still none the wiser. The thing was—and let every writer out there heed this warning—I had neither pen nor paper on me at the time (rare for me, but true) and so I had to keep that paragraph in my head for the next half-hour until I got into the office, grabbed a sheet of paper and scribbled it down before I lost it. Granted, the paragraph was not as long as it ended up in the book but it was still a load of words to try and keep straight in my head. I wrote the words down and then got on with my day job.
When I got home I typed them up and did nothing more. At this point I knew two things:
- This piece of writing was going to be called Milligan and Murphy
- This was going to be a novel
I did nothing more for, as best I can remember, about a fortnight. Now, I know a novel is not like a rare gemstone but I felt like I was poised to split a diamond and terrified that I was going to mishit the thing and it was going to shatter into a thousand unusable pieces; into diamond dust. "The tale is told of Joseph Asscher, the greatest cleaver of the day, that when he prepared to cleave the largest diamond ever known, the 3,106 carats (621g) Cullinan, he had a doctor and nurse standing by and when he finally struck the diamond and it broke perfectly in two, he fainted dead away." It’s pure myth but that best describes how I felt: everything depended on what I was to write next.
So I waited and I waited and I waited. I kept spinning the words I had written so far in my head and gradually an idea emerged. Of course no sooner had it emerged than I pooh-poohed it, but it wouldn’t go away. And when you have an idea like that, in my experience you have but one option: write the damn thing out.
I have never really bonded with Samuel Beckett’s novella, Mercier and Camier. I can see Vladimir and Estragon evolving (devolving?) into Hamm and Clov, but a younger Didi and Gogo would be like the younger Krapp, more positive as well as more naïve. It would be a lie to say that I’d always wanted to rewrite Mercier and Camier because no such thought had ever crossed my mind, but the idea of a Vladimir and Estragon: The Early Days did, I have to say, appeal. I’d already imagined them dead and in some kind of limbotic state so why not go the other way? And so that’s what I did—sort of.
The question I kept finding myself asking was: What caused Didi and Gogo to become tramps in the first place? No one is born a tramp and yet, somewhere along the line, the wanderlust takes a hold of certain people. What would cause someone to one day up and leave everything and turn into homo peripateticus, aimlessly wandering the roads? There are plenty of recorded cases of men who have, for no apparent reason, abandoned their lives and been discovered, often hundreds of miles away, living completely different lives and unaware of what they’ve done, but there are more who, to escape what’s going on at home, simply run away. Is that what happened to them?
Beckett was insistent that all he knew about his characters was what was written on the page. He once recalled when Sir Ralph Richardson "wanted the low-down on Pozzo, his home address and curriculum vitae, and seemed to make the forthcoming of this and similar information the condition of his condescending to illustrate the part of Vladimir ... I told him that all I knew about Pozzo was in the text, that if I had known more I would have put it in the text, and that was true also of the other characters." So I was going to get no help there and the text says little about where they had been prior to ending up where they are. For example, Vladimir insists that they were employed as grape pickers in the Mâcon country— Mâcon is the name for the red and white wines which come from the Mâconnais section of Burgundy, France. This region is the most southerly in Burgundy, and also the largest—but Estragon is having none of it, although he doesn’t deny seeing the Eiffel Tower. Whether they are still in France when they have this conversation is another thing entirely.
It is said that every generation has its own Shakespeare and I suspect that the same will apply to Beckett. Whether Shakespeare in modern dress dilutes the quality of the writing or Waiting for Godot performed by an all-female cast somehow sullies the work, I’m not going to debate, but as generation follows generation, people find they can relate to these plays in new and unexpected ways. The more I thought about it the more I realised I was more interested in Didi and Gogo: The Next Generation than trying to imagine younger versions of these much-loved characters.
When is Waiting for Godot set? Clearly after 1889, because that’s when the Eiffel Tower was constructed, but other than that there’s little in the way of clues. Bishop Berkeley, one of the few actual people mentioned in Lucky’s tirade, died in 1753 so that’s no help. In 1875 Charles Peterson walked into the Kapp brothers’ elegant Dublin tobacconists and declared he could make pipes better than the ones they were selling, so it must have been after this date that Pozzo purchased his Kapp and Peterson. The most helpful reference, assuming this is what he is referring to, comes from Lucky when he babbles on about the “skull in Connemara” because in 1947 a Connemara farmer found a fully intact skeleton clad in Viking armour. This was, however, a change made to the French original (which talks about la tête en Normandie).
It’s not important but if there's one thing Beckett scholars love to do is scratch around in the dirt for details like this. The other people who love poking around for such trivia are readers of historical fiction. When Beckett wrote Waiting for Godot the discovery of the skull in Connemara was news; because time has marched on, one can forget that.
So, was I going to make my protagonists twenty-first century vagabonds? I have to say the thought never crossed my mind. Despite slipping in the odd detail as mentioned already, there is nothing in Waiting for Godot to really pinpoint where or when it is set. There are those who would argue that the action takes place in the Wicklow hills and their arguments do have a certain validity, but it’s not important. There are those who point to every tree in Mercier and Camier and say that it prefigures the tree in Waiting for Godot, despite the fact that the man himself said he based the set of Godot on Caspar David Friedrich’s Man and Woman Observing the Moon—not that we always trust what Beckett has to say.
Once I finally started writing those opening few pages to Milligan and Murphy one thing became clear: it was set sometime in the past. In my head the timeframe is the mid-nineteen-thirties and, as with Beckett, there are a few cultural references to draw on, if you’re keen to pin it down. Firstly, there is a scene where one of the characters talks about being in a mental hospital. The 1930 Mental Treatment Act modernised many terms: asylums became known as mental hospitals and so the book has to be set after this date. Secondly, one of the ships mentioned at the end of the novel is the Homeric which was built for North German Lloyd in 1913 and named Columbus. Construction was halted until 1914 due to the World War and the ship ceded to Britain in 1919 where it was sold to White Star and Dominion Lines and renamed Homeric. Its route was Southampton-New York and it was scrapped in Scotland in 1936. So, mid-nineteen-thirties.
This is, of course, assuming that the action is set in the real world. Just as Beckett never mentions Dublin by name, nowhere in my book does it say that the setting is the Irish Free State (as Ireland was between 1922 and 1937). None of the towns mentioned will be found on any map, although the town from which Milligan and Murphy hail, Lissoy, is the old name for Auburn in County Westmeath which sits in the middle of the island. The original Irish name for the village was Lissoy, i.e. Lios Uaimhe, fort of the cave.
Our story, such as it is, begins with our heroes, such as they are, sound asleep in bed.
It is a Tuesday. All my novels begin on a Tuesday. They also all feature protagonists whose names begin with the letter j: Jonathan Payne (Living with the Truth, Stranger than Fiction), James Henry Valentine (The More Things Change) and Jennifer Wilson (Left). The same is true here:
Murphy’s given name was John. As circumstance would have it this was to be his half-brother's also. Milligan’s paternal grandfather, whilst making the most of his deathbed, had compelled his son to swear an oath. The rotten old man had made the boy give his word that he would not break with family tradition in this particular regard and so, albeit years later, after some pointless-but-necessary debate with his new wife, Milligan’s father had taken the required legal steps to have his firstborn son registered with the appropriate authorities: John Milligan. From that day forth the two boys went by their surnames. Surprisingly they were close, though not joined at the hip.
Mercier and Camier look like Laurel and Hardy. I preferred to go down the Tweedledum and Tweedledee route:
Both took after their mother in appearance if in no other way: all three of them were short, stout, snub-nosed and sleepy-eyed, more like lost puppies than evil dwarves, it must be said.
Needless to say I am not the first to see a correlation between Lewis Carroll and Beckett:
Tweedledee and Tweedledum are not far from tramps and prefigure their modern counterparts Estragon and Vladimir or Clov and Hamm. Their verbal exchange only points to the difficulty of codifying possible meanings and, like Beckett’s characters, they seem to have no society, no history, no occupation, no real personality or identity except their names, and are very dependent on each other, which mutual dependence only helps to generate incomprehensibility and indeterminacy.
But what of my opening line? Clearly they are not brothers. No, but that isn’t important to them. This is how that opening paragraph developed:
Milligan and Murphy were brothers. They introduced themselves to the world as such and such was the blatant straightfacedness that accompanied this assertion that few felt remotely inclined to press the matter further. As it happens there was sufficient physical similarity between the two men to win over even the most sceptical of individuals. That said, most people had enough things to worry about without losing any sleep over the likes of these two. Needless to say, they weren't actually brothers. No. For the record they were half-brothers; each had been dragged screaming from the innards of the same mother though a different father had been guilty for them winding up there.
They are, its fair to say, very alike, a fact my beta readers picked up on, but it is deliberate. There are differences: Milligan is quick tempered and impatient and likes to be told stories before going to sleep; Murphy is the more serious of the two, he smokes a pipe, has a decent singing voice and has a tendency to interfere with himself when no one’s looking. Both are lazy, fond of the drink when they can afford it and not especially bright.
So what is Milligan and Murphy about? As we’ve seen with Beckett a great deal of his work concerns the fact that people are not in control of their lives. There are, for want of a better expression, other forces at play. This is probably shown clearest in the mime Act Without Words I where a man in a desert is tormented by an unseen party who lowers items, some of which he can reach, others of which he has to work to reach (by stacking cubes) and still others that are whisked out of his reach. Milligan and Murphy are instructed by their mother to go looking for work. On the way there, after discovering a lucky penny, they encounter an old man who gets them to think about where they should be going before vanishing mysteriously without saying goodbye. A minor detail? Perhaps, but not if he was a pooka. We never find out the old man’s name but it’s not hard to work out who he appears to be:
They turned their backs on the man and found, much to their annoyance, that they had reached a road junction. Decisions, decisions, decisions. Why were they all of a sudden limping on two different opinions? They knew exactly which direction O’Connor’s farm was. This was not the first time they had been directed there.
As they mulled over their options, a voice was heard from behind them:
“Excuse me. Excuse me, gentlemen. Neither of you would happen to have a carrot about his person?” They turned as one and looked at the man who was now sitting on the ground dusting off his bowler, “Or a turnip. A turnip would be good too.”
Is this Gogo or the ghost of Gogo? I’m not saying. Or he might be a pooka pretending to be him—pookas never say goodbye. Suffice to say, the two find themselves, for the first time in their lives, heading off into the unknown. They wind up in Drumclaven and, after an encounter with a policeman who does little to make them feel welcome, they end up seeking sanctuary in “the local chapel of St. Brigid, the patron saint of travellers, fugitives, poets, scholars, chicken farmers, milk-maids and bastards” where the not-too-unkindly priest explains the point of the book:
“Gentlemen,” he began and then thought to soften his message, “Boys… lads… not everything in this life is reasonable. It is easier when you’re talking about good things and bad things. You murder a man in cold blood, for example, and then you think to yourself, Self, did I do a good thing or a bad thing? And your self says to you, ‘Look up Exodus Chapter Twenty,’ and you do and there it is in black and white. It’s a lot harder when it comes to reasonable and unreasonable things.
“You’ll have heard it said that everything happens for a reason. Well, poppycock! Simply because someone makes a statement like that doesn’t make it any truer than my insisting that the moon is made out of green cheese which it may or may not be; I have no empirical evidence either way. It is true, God has His grand plan—I have to believe that (it’s more than my job’s worth not to)—but it will come to fruition despite what we do not because of it. Make no mistake, we are all spanners in God’s works, you and I and everyone else. That’s what free will is all about.
“People do unreasonable things all the time—and by that I mean things for no good reason at all—and when they start to look for reasons why they did what they did in the first place, they find there aren’t any. That doesn’t mean that answers won’t ever exist for what they did, however, the answer comes at the end of the sum not before it. How would you feel Mr Murphy, Mr Milligan, if your schoolteacher had asked you one day what equalled four?”
“Two and two equals four,” fired back Milligan.
“Which can be true,” said the priest, “but what about three plus one or seven minus three or the square root of sixteen?” He had lost them there. “Reasons, if they exist at all, are always to be found before we do things; answers, once we’ve worked them out (if we ever figure them out), always come into being the fact.”
The emphases didn’t help.
“So did we sin or not, Father?” enquired a now more-confused-than-ever Milligan.
“That… is for each of you to answer.”
With that he nodded to both men and headed off quickly towards the rectory leaving the two bewildered brothers standing there.
There are no reasons for unreasonable things. They want to know why they left but the fact is that, purely on the spur of the moment, for no good reason, bad reason or any ol’ reason. Now that they’ve left they have the problem of where to go. Beckett would have them go nowhere and end up back where they started from. I do things a little differently. I take them through a wee adventure, not a very taxing one, and settle them with the local ex-madwoman in Rathnerth who takes on the role of their mother and I could have left them there, but where would be the fun in that? Do they get to escape or does their author have something else in store for them? Mercier and Camier felt a presence, the author of their destiny, but what about Milligan and Murphy?
“Since we left home wouldn’t you say that, on the whole, we’ve landed lucky? Look where we’ve ended up after just a few days.”
“You’ve got a point. It must be that penny we found. Would you ever have credited that such a wee penny could have so much luck attached to it?”
“I don’t mean the penny. Don’t you feel as if someone’s looking after us?”
“Someone? You mean someone… up there?”
“I do not.”
“It stands to reason. God, or possibly one of the saints, maybe; if He’s too busy.”
“Murphy, how on earth do you think that you and I could possibly fit into God’s plans? We’re not great thinkers. We’re not great doers. There must be a million people lying in their beds right now who could do whatever He might need doing faster and better than you or I could hope to.”
“I don’t know. Maybe it’s not so important a job. Maybe He needs someone dispensable. We’re that and more.”
They are right, of course. Just like Puckoon’s Dan Milligan had his author looking out for him so, too, do Milligan and Murphy. Whereas Mercier and Camier’s journey was plagued by “a long line of maleficent beings” things actually go disconcertingly well for these two. But their journey is not without hitches. Who is the stranger astride his “sturdy black Raleigh 3-speed” in hot pursuit?
I never set out to rewrite Beckett, or to emulate him or even to do a Beckett Lite parody or pastiche, but I cannot pretend he wasn’t an influence and those who know his work well will doubtless be able to see that. If you know nothing about him, have never read anything by him and have never seen one of his plays, there is still a lot to enjoy here and, who knows, you might even enjoy it more.
If you want to know you’ll have to buy the ruddy thing; it’s available now from the FV Books site in paperback. An ebook version will follow in due course.
 Teke Charles Ngiewih, ‘From Carroll to Beckett: Retrospection and Prefiguring; The Romantic and (Post)Modern Context of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through The Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There’, L'Observatoire Réunionnais des Arts, des Civilisations et des Littératures dans leur Environnement