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

Thursday, 9 February 2012

A Country Road. A Tree. Evening.


A place for everything, everything in its place – Benjamin Franklin

Writers are frequently asked to talk about what inspires them. It’s a difficult question for me to answer because I don’t believe in inspiration, not in any Romantic sense of the word and I never talk about my muse. I believe in ideas. My definition of inspiration is a good idea. And I can get a good idea anywhere.

I had a religious upbringing. It didn’t do me any harm but I can’t say my world view has not been affected by what I was taught. I never really got churches, though. Or graveyards. The idea that you need to go to a specific location to talk to a god or to remember your loved ones never made sense to me. You never got Jesus dashing off to the synagogue so he could commune with his heavenly father and why would I want to drive forty-odd miles to stand around in a graveyard my parents never went near in their lives simply to remember them?

I’m not big on place. That doesn’t mean I’ve never been to places. I have. Loads. And what I learned from going to all those different places is that none of them is that different. I’m sure I inherited that attitude from my father who never wanted to go anywhere. He used to say, and I never argued with him, that “contentment is being happy with whatever you had at any given point in time.” He never said, “…and space,” but that was implied.

There is, of course, no right way to be a writer. As a young boy in sixties Scotland I was exposed to the poetry of fellow Scots Robert Louis Stevenson and Robert Burns along with a selection of English poets like Wordsworth, Tennyson and John Masefield. By the time I got to secondary school I was sick to the back teeth of babbling brooks, vagabonds and fields of daffodils and it took the war poetry of Wilfred Owen and the bleak verse of Philip Larkin to make me realise that there was much more to this poetry malarkey than nature poems. The poem that made all the difference to me was ‘Mr Bleaney’ by Philip Larkin and one of the things I liked about it was its descriptions. The poem opens:

This was Mr Bleaney's room. He stayed
The whole time he was at the Bodies, till
They moved him. Flowered curtains, thin and frayed,
Fall to within five inches of the sill,

Whose window shows a strip of building land?
Tussocky, littered. 'Mr Bleaney took
My bit of garden properly in hand'
Bed, upright chair, sixty-watt bulb, no hook

Behind the door, no room for books or bags —
'I'll take it.

His depiction of the room is reduced to a checklist and I liked that; it respected me as a reader and allowed me to use my own imagination. One of my personal writing edicts is: Say what you have to say and get off the page. That doesn’t mean all I write is flash fiction but it does mean I’m come to appreciate how little you can get away with when it comes to descriptions.

dogvilleHave you ever seen the film Dogville? Essentially it's all filmed on a sound stage. The buildings of the town are represented by a series of simple white outlines on the floor and a church spire suspended above the ground. Even the eponymous 'dog' is present only as an outline. No dramatic backdrops, or exquisite realistic period trimmings. All you are left to look at are a few tables and chairs. Oh, and the actors. Not everyone’s cup of tea but I loved it.

This is an expanded version of an article I wrote for Amy Tupper for her blog on the theme of ‘Writers And Their Chosen Settings’. When Amy asked me to write this article she suggested I include a section of my own writing. It wasn’t easy but I came up with this description from my first novel:

The town of Rigby had been built piecemeal over the years. It nestled itself uncomfortably in a sheltered escarpment not quite the archetypal seaside town it purported to be. But it did its best. Its architecture ran the full gamut from the seventeenth century on, though you’d be hard pushed to call what remained from that time Georgian. They were functional cottages when they were built; practical. Now, they were empty, but no one would commit to doing away with them out of some misplaced sentimentality. Most of the residential part of the town was of solid Victorian stock, though they’d been building ever since. It always smelled of paint and seaweed. It had a cenotaph with eighty-three names on it (eighty-four if you counted the graffito), a sizeable park complete with pitch and putt, a duck pond (but no ducks) and a statue of someone long-forgotten covered in bird-do. There were public baths, innumerable guest houses and B&B’s, a retirement home or two and a Town Hall, with a library grafted on at the rear. Its promenade was an austere place on days like this, when the holiday crowd was back working away wherever they came from. Most of the shops had been boarded up for the winter and it seemed like winter was getting earlier every year and lasting longer. He half-expected that one year they’d forget to open up at all and no one would notice. The shorefront was comprised of a huge arc bordered by a great stone wall a yard across. He’d walked the length of that more times than he cared to remember.

That description was not in the first draft of the novel and it was a chore to write. All I said in that first draft was that Rigby was a seaside town in the north of England and really that says it all especially if you make the connection to the Beatles song, Eleanor Rigby – “All the lonely people / Where do they all belong?” To my mind that’s all the information you need to conjure up the town in your own mind. It’s really an amalgam of every seaside town I visited as a child, although, I suppose, primarily the Scottish towns of Ayr, Troon, Saltcoats, Ardrossan and Largs. That said, I’ve seen enough films and programmes on TV to realise that there’s much of a muchness about all seaside towns, places to retire to and die, take for example the titular town in the recent BBC series, Sugartown (Filey) or the resort in the Michael Caine vehicle, Is Anybody There? (Chalfont St. Giles which also doubled as Walmington-on-Sea in Dad’s Army). But I could never say that any of those places inspired me. I needed to have my protagonist live somewhere and that was the right kind of place to put him.

My third novel is set almost exclusively in a park. The park I used as a model was the one at the end of my street, Victoria Park in Glasgow, but very little of the actual park makes it into the book, for instance:

The pond was shaped like a giant kidney bowl. It was something he noted every time he came to it. He also remembered that the Bible said the kidneys were the seat of the deepest emotions, not the heart.

The pond is not shaped like a kidney bowl. I wanted to include the remark about the kidneys and so the shape of the pond changed. I also added benches because I needed a bench for my protagonist to sit on. The swans were there already though. Bottom line, it could have been any park anywhere; I never mention it my name nor do I even say what city he is in not that it’s hard to work out.

Most of the action in my last novel takes place in the flat I live in at the present. It gets a makeover in the novel but the structure is still the same: three bedrooms, kitchen and bathroom. Not that I do much describing of anything. All we learn about the protagonist’s bedroom, for example, is that when her father moved house (while she was at university) he had taken photos of the layout and replicated the room to the best of his ability in his new flat. The only things I even mention are in the room are her bed and an Eyes of Laura Mars poster that she decides is creepy now and needs to go.

If I was to think of a word to cover all my writing, the poetry, the stories and the novels I’d probably go with ‘chamber pieces.’ Okay, that’s two words. The road that the two brothers walk down in Milligan and Murphy is just a road. I don’t even mention that the road is in Ireland. It’s obvious where it is and why state the obvious?

Phenomenologists are well aware of the close ties between self and place. In the early works of Beckett it’s quite easy to place the text in an Irish, frequently Dublin-based, setting. In Watt when Watt arrives by tram he alights at Harcourt Street Station in Dublin, from which he will take a second tram to Foxrock and then walks cooldrinaghto Cooldrinagh, Beckett's family home, which was the model for Mr Knott’s house; none of the place names are mentioned but the action had to take place somewhere and that was where he was familiar with at the time. In the later works the sense of placelessness is much, much stronger. Where do Didi and Gogo wait for Godot, for example? Beckett may well have had a location in mind – possibly the high moorland south of Dublin – but that is pure conjecture and irrelevant; they could have waited anywhere.

“Place refers to the conceptual fusion of space and experience that gives areas an individuality, an identity of place. Thus, the geographical concept of place refers to the areal context of events, objects and actions.”[1] The French have a word for it:

MILIEU: the physical or social setting in which something occurs or develops.

In English we might say ‘environment’ but it doesn’t really say it. People make places. We carry meaning with us. We don’t leave it lying around for others to enjoy. And, for me, the point here is that we carry it with us. When Samuel Beckett wrote Mercier and Camier he was in France. It was his first post-war novel and his first in French. And yet it was set in and around Dublin. Watt was Beckett's second published novel in English and, again, largely written on the run in the south of France during the Second World War.

So do I have places that I have an attachment to? Not so much. I accept that there are different mes depending on who I am with but I’ve never been able to perceive a different me based on where I am.

Bioregional animist psychology is focused on a concept of oneness, not unity per se but specifically oneness as unity indicates there are two things that are united or BECOME one. The difference on this point lays in that you do not become what you already are but you can become aware of what you are.[2]

I get that. I could wander down to the Clyde and watch the water and enjoy a few minutes of calm but I think too much can be made of the physical journey and location. Why can’t I simply imagine being there? I have access to that level of awareness anywhere. What if the Clyde wasn’t there or Wordworth’s Lake District or R.S. Thomas’ Wales? What if they’d been born in Brisbane or Seattle and I’d been born in Johannesburg?

George Ovitt, in his article ‘Fiction and Empathy’ makes this comment when talking about Proust:

[E]ach of us carries within his mind a world that is as real as the material one which we inhabit—the place where the authentic self resides.[3]

This is something I believe in strongly, the notion of place within us. I talk about this in a recent poem:

sisyphusAfter Sisyphus

I return to the place
within myself
to begin again.

I take

a deep breath and begin
again, begin
suffering again.

This is

a sacred place, private.
One can suffer
anywhere, that is true

but it

is never enough to
simply suffer;
things must be done right.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

The idea for this poem came from reading an article about depression which talked about it being rooted in self-centredness. As soon as I read that I got an image of the centre of a person as a place that one could travel to and the rest came naturally. I was reminded of the tabernacle that the Israelites used to carry around with them – literally a tent, a portable temple, that they lugged with them. Later the apostle Paul said, “Do you not know that your body is a temple…?” and so the idea of a location within the individual where atonement could take place was born.

I’ve used this idea before:

A Poem is not an Empty Room

All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone. — Pascal

empty-roomA man walks into
an empty room.
There is nothing there
and no one there.

That is to say no
one else is there.
He is all alone
with his own thoughts.

Entering the room
is significant.
Being in the room
is significant.

Where the room is
is irrelevant.
Who the man is
is not important.

What it really
means to be alone
is something he
might consider though

while he's waiting.

Wednesday, 05 December 2007

The empty room is inside the reader. When he connects with the poem he does it within himself, he gets to connect with a part of himself that he might not have realised was there, as if he’d walked into a room with him. I view ‘place’ in an abstract sense. When you say that a person has found his place in the world you’re probably not talking about a physical location.

Some phenomenologists talk about a “storied sense of place” and my understanding of that is that when we enter an environment we begin to create a ‘story’ that comprises of our experiences in the landscape as well as our physical and intuitive awareness of the place: we impose a narrative structure rather than simply becoming aware of one. The writer Barry Lopez illustrates this here:

When we stop and look at a beautiful sunrise or sunset, for a few minutes we remember what life once was for people. It's not so much a moment of beauty as a moment of memory.[4]

lopezWhen I first read ‘storied sense of place’ I actually misread it as stored and I imagined that we accessed this, that somehow we got in touch with a collective unconscious. I’m not sure that that exists. I certainly don’t believe in imprints or psychic energy hot spots or anything like that. When I went to Dublin it was naïve of me to expect to feel Beckett there. I may well have imagined that I felt him there if my imagination had been good enough but it was not.

In his essay, ‘An Intimate Geography’ Lopez writes:

Over the years, I have seen, heard, tasted, palpated, and smelled many remarkable things around the place. I do not recall a single day of attentiveness outdoors when something unknown, something new, hasn’t flared up before me. I’m kept from the conceit that there is anything singular in this, though, by the streams of tourist traffic that speed past the house daily, winter and summer, en route to recreation areas in the mountains or to launch points on the river. To most, my landscape must seem innocuous, ordinary.

Still, I’m happy in this undemonstrative, rural place. In my conversations with it, I know, once more, who I am. It inundates me continually with mystery, because its nature is too complex to be fully known. (italics mine)[5]

The phrase that jumps out at me here is the part I have italicised. If the place was possessed of more than mere aesthetic charm then I would expect more people of a sensitive nature to pick up on it and sensitivity doesn’t belong merely to writers and artists. Places can refresh us; I give you that. As a young teenager I was to be regularly found out wandering through the countryside or along the beach, the kind of “undemonstrative, rural places” mentioned above. Hard to imagine that when you see me now. But when I look at what I was writing back then there isn’t exactly a huge amount of nature poetry. There is some – I’ve been writing for forty years and there’s not much I haven’t written about at some time or other – but no one would ever call me a nature poet or at least not a poet of the natural world; nature fascinates me – human nature.

One of my literary heroes, whom I’ve already mentioned, is Philip Larkin. “Geographers are firmly bound to place. Space is not homogeneous: something always happens somewhere; everything takes place. Larkin takes the opposite view; he is the poet of undifferentiated space.”[6] Even a poem like ‘Here’ – ostensibly about a place (on the surface, Hull)…

                 a terminate and fishy-smelling
Pastoral of ships up streets, the slave museum,
Tattoo-shops, consulates . . .

…is really, once you get into it, about anywhere and generic terms quickly take over:

                                            flat-faced trolleys,
Push through plate-glass swing doors to their desires —
Cheap suits, red kitchen-ware, sharp shoes, iced lollies,
Electric mixers, toasters, washers, driers —

I am writing this ‘here’ and you are reading this ‘here’ – your ‘here’, not my ‘here’. No one has ever seen ‘there’. We talk about it like we talk about tomorrow but ‘here’ is omnipresent. People assume that Hull was a source of inspiration for Larkin but just because he had a sense of the place – there is no doubt it suited him – doesn’t mean that it inspired him. Not all senses are pleasing and a sense of place can be as unpleasant as it can be pleasant. What Hull has is more placelessness than any place has a right to. I suppose in Larkin’s mind it was much like the set of Dogville, functional and undemanding.

                    it's not the place's fault...
Nothing, like something, happens anywhere.

(from 'I Remember, I Remember')

Quiet and out of reach, nowhere is the place Larkin really wanted to be. As he confirmed in late middle age: “As for Hull, I like it because it's so far away from everywhere else. On the way to nowhere . . . and beyond . . . there's only the sea.”[7] When I think about the places I used to wander as a boy on the whole they did little to distinguish themselves – a beach is a beach and grass and shrubs are grass and shrubs – and I suspect that was one of things I liked about them; that they didn’t encroach on my thoughts.

Place is unavoidable unless you write purely dialogue and the more I write the more I’m drawn to that mode of expression. My radio play, Vladimir and Estragon are Dead, for example, takes place in limbo – there are only the two characters, no props, no scenery – and in my novel, Left, a large section of the book takes place in cyberspace and is presented as a simple chat log. I’m not the first writer to do that kind of thing, in fact entire novels have been written as pure dialogue: Delores Claiborne, by Stephen King is one that might surprise most people – the story opens with a quote that does not close until the very last page of the book – but there have been other novels written in dialogue before: Nicholson Baker's Vox springs to mind, although it's not completely in dialogue, and there's also Corey Mesler's Talk. I've personally written two short stories completely in dialogue, 'Just Thinking', which was published in The Ranfurly Review and 'Ugly Truths' which appeared in Ink, Sweat and Tears. It's quite refreshing actually to be able to forget about those boring descriptive passages.

I don’t think writers who feel the need to go to specific places to charge up are weird. Okay, I do think they’re a little weird but I respect their right to be weird just as I understand that there are those writers who need to write with their lucky typewriters (just ask Isaac Bashevis Singer or Cormac McCarthy about that). It takes all sorts to make a world. We need poets who know how to write a decent haiku and storytellers whose verse can quieten a class of eight-year-olds, we need writers who can recreate a place on a bit of paper for all of those who will never have the chance to visit and we need writers capable of unflinching inner vision, too.

Gilbert-and-George1I saw an interview with the artists Gilbert and George recently on BBC4 and I was very struck by something Gilbert Proesch said, which I’ll leave you with:

[W]e’d never want to go and see another city [other than London where we live] because everything is in the brain. We don’t need to see beautiful mountains, beautiful villages … We don’t have to be inspired by the Pyrenees or Egypt because, for us, it is all in the brain inside. – Mark Lawson Talks to Gilbert and George, 18 July 2011, BBC4



[1] Gary Greif et Marcelo Cruz, ‘Reconstructing Urban Boundaries: The Dialectics of Self and Place’, Cybergeo : European Journal of Geography

[2] Self and Place, Bioregional Animism, 9 July 2010

[3] George Ovitt, ‘Fiction and Empathy’, Atticus Review

[4] Lois Wadsworth, ‘Between Two Worlds’, Eugene Weekly

[5] Barry Lopez, ‘An Intimate Geography’

[6] J. Douglas Porteous, ‘Nowhereman’, About Larkin

[7] 'A voice for our time', in P. Larkin (ed.), Required Writing quoted in J. Douglas Porteous, ‘Nowhereman’, About Larkin


Elisabeth said...

The notion of place as existing within our minds is a notion that Gerald Murnane espouses Jim, as do I.

This is an inspirational post. It has set me wondering about my own sense of place. Usually it's located in interiors. I'm not one to write about the plains or vast open spaces like Murnane. I prefer indoors, and having said that I just looked up one of my early descriptions of place as remembered from my childhood. It follows:

'They live in an old Edwardian, red brick and angular, at the bottom of a stiff, tree-lined street. Once this house had blended smoothly into the shape of the neighborhood, manicured, protestant and polite but now no one bothers to prune the faded hydrangeas and red geraniums any more. Their branches wave about like the arms of a mad woman against the gravestone grey of fence palings.
The girl hesitates at the front door as she pulls it shut behind, long enough to catch a glimpse of the statue of Jesus hanging prostrate from his crucifix on top of the piano in the front hall. His feet are cracked where the nail has been driven in and although someone has tried to glue the feet back in place the plaster has split up to his knees and he now hangs loosely from his arms and swings in the updraft from the open door.
The girl squints in the sunlight as it slices a line into the shade beyond the front porch. She’s parted her long hair to one side and leaves it untied, Veronica Lake style. It’s still the warm end of summer and too hot for heavy clothes but the house inside with its thick walls and dark spaces is chilly even on the hottest days.'

I shall ponder some more on this post, Jim. I think place and space are important, however detailed, but I'm also inclined to agree with the folks who argue that as far as writers are concerned - at least on the page - place is 'all in the mind'.

Kass said...

Of course, perception enhances, if not creates 'place.' It's interesting that Rachel Fenton's latest post is an interview with New Zealand poet, Keith Westwater, who is deeply informed by his geography.

I know that when I enter the valley approaching my cabin I breathe deeper and often audibly sigh. My entrance into 'place' is physical in every way, with every sense: sight, sound, smell, touch, taste. Our senses are interpreted by the brain and this leaves a lot of room open for varied responses.

Love the idea of literary Chamber Pieces. Mine would be Uneasy Pieces.

Also love the expression, "Sick to the back teeth."

Jim Murdoch said...

I struggle with descriptions of places, Lis. There are more in Living with the Truth than any other novel because I thought I needed them but more and more I’ve let them slip by the way. If you look at jokes you realise how little information a person really needs: Two men walk into a bar… Are they old men, young men, related in some way? Is it a wine bar, their local, or what? When I hear that joke I never visualise the two men nor the bar. They are abstracts and I treat them that way. I get particularly irritated by poems that are nothing but descriptions. I don’t much see the point of them. But then I’m not a great lover of landscape painting. Paintings are always more interesting when people are in them.

It’s interesting, Kass, that when it comes to music I much prefer orchestral works, concertos and symphonies especially, but when it comes to the written word I am a huge fan of brevity (says the guy who regularly writes 3500-word-long blogs) in fact I just got a review copy in the post this morning and the book’s just over 420 pages and as much as I enjoy the author in question a part of me wished I’d checked the page count before agreeing to review it; 220 would have been so much nicer.

As a kid I was always outside, rambling through the countryside, down the shore, wandering round the town; it never really mattered to me as long as I was out of the house whereas nowadays I only venture outside when I absolutely have to and I don’t much enjoy being out when I am. Strange how we change. And not always for the better.

Marion McCready said...

I guess, in poetry, it comes down to each individual poet's conception of the role of the image. Your writing is very much part of the 'anti-poetry' tradition, as is Larkin's, (my Michael Hamburger-isms coming out here!). For me poetry is image and the special relationship between nature / place and poetry is central to that. I admire your poetry (very different from mine which comes from the Romantic/Symbolist tradition), we are trying to achieve different ends with our work which makes neither right or wrong just different.

Dave King said...

Your poem, After Sisyphus< is a cracker Jim. I think it might even be your best.
Oddly, I have just finished the first draft of a poem on a poem being a crowded city. I'm sure of it yet. Too near to it. So don't know yet if I will post it, but there was enough overlap between it and "A poem is not an empty room" for your to resonate strongly with me.

I do think there are landscapes in the mind, but I certainly don't go along with Gilbert and George (nothing new there, though!) in thinking therefore the external one can be jettisoned.

Anonymous said...

Excellent, as ever, Jim, and provoking much reflection.

I have a powerful sense of place; it informs everything I write. But almost invariably its influence occurs away from location: place becomes internalised as part of what John Cowper Powys terms the mythology. So memory and association become crucial elements of the process. There are particular settings out of which certain poems have grown that I would not want to re-visit in reality.

Jim Murdoch said...

Who says the image has to have a role, Marion? That’s where so many problems arise these days when people try and define poetry. I think it’s ludicrous myself. It’s like saying that jazz can’t be music because it’s not classical or that New Orleans jazz is the only true jazz. I don’t believe I do write anti-poetry, just a different kind of poetry; the nature at the centre of my poetry is human nature as opposed to the environment humans live in. I am more interested in abstracts than concrete reality. When reading a book I never visualise the characters or the locations. Even when someone provides a detailed description—and I don’t skim over it because it’s boring me—I still pay little attention to it and forget it right away. I couldn’t describe Ivan Denisovich or Holden Caulfield and all I could tell you about George and Lenny is that Lenny is a big guy and George, by comparison, looks small but since I’ve seen the film adaptation I tend to picture Lenny these days as John Malkovich and George as Gary Sinese anyway. I had no idea what Randle P. McMurphy looked like when I read the book; now, of course, he will forever be Jack Nicholson.

You’ve made me curious and I’m going to do some research of anti-poetry.

I’m glad ‘After Sisyphus’ and ‘A Poem is Not an Empty Room’ resonated with you, Dave. Last year was a quiet year writing-wise but the dozen poems I finished were all ones I was pleased with. I look forward to seeing your take on the poem as city. I know I don’t comment as much as I used to on your poems these days but I’m trying to be good and not use up my whole day passing comments.

Gilbert and George interest me. I don’t like all their art or even their approach to art but I do admire the fact they’ve stuck to their guns all these years. They’re idealists and I can admire that. As for wearing a suit when one doesn’t actually have to? Nah, don’t get that.

And, Dick, I admire the fact you can write about place and not bore the pants off me. That I can assure you is a rare gift. I think this is because, as I mentioned to Marion above, your poems focus on the people within those landscapes and even where there are no people the animals are proxies.

Marion McCready said...

Not really trying to define poetry as understand its development: how social/historical/aesthetic/political pressures have given rise to the different movements in the history of poetry. Why poetry today is what it is, it doesn't (we don't) exist in a vacuum. I can't recommend enough the Michael Hamburger book :)

Jim Murdoch said...

I’ve added the book to my Amazon wish list, Marion. It seems like something I’d enjoy. Poetry used to be so easy to define—if it rhymed it was poetry—but nowadays we seem to have got ourselves tied up in knots trying to define it. There was a video online a while back but I can’t find it anymore where some 80-odd poets try and define what poetry is and it veers between hysterical and plain sad. When did it get to be so ruddy complicated?

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