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Sunday, 13 January 2013

By All Means


Kathy Nightingale: What did you come here for anyway?
Sally Sparrow: I love old things. They make me feel sad.
Kathy Nightingale: What's good about sad?
Sally Sparrow: It's happy for deep people.
Steven Moffat, ‘Blink’, Doctor Who

In the 1970s the prevalent view among primary-care physicians and the public alike was that unhappiness, even in some cases everyday unhappiness, was the result of a chemical imbalance in the brain—which drugs could fix. Nowadays people are more willing to view sadness as simply a part of the human experience; a natural reaction to painful circumstances. All of us will experience sadness at some point in our lives. It’s a transient feeling that passes as a person comes to terms with his troubles. The general consensus, though, is that people should be happy and if they’re not happy they should still want to be happy and should be doing something about changing their circumstances so that they can be happy for as often as—and for as long as—possible. And, yet, here’s the thing: perfectly healthy (ergo presumably happy) people regularly go out of their way to listen to sad music or songs, watch sad films (boxes of Kleenex at the ready) and read sad books. Why?

Happiness, constant happiness, must get monotonous. The same could be said for never-ending sadness; that would be just depressing. Life is all about variety. We have a wide spectrum of emotions to pick from. Why stick with blinding white?

Glenn Schellenberg is a psychologist at Toronto University whose particular field of interest is music. Recently he analysed every Top 40 hit from 1965 to 2009 in terms of tempo and whether the song was in a major or minor key and the results were interesting: in 1965 every song in the Top 40 was in a major key but there was a radical shift in the eighties and nineties. By 2009 only 18 out of the Top 40 songs were written in a major key. He has some thoughts as to why the change:

I think that people like to think that they're smart. And unambiguously happy-sounding music has become, over time, to sound more like a cliché. If you think of children's music like 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star' or 'The Wheels on the Bus,' those are all fast and major, and so there's a sense in which unambiguously happy-sounding songs sound childish to contemporary ears. I think there's a sense in which something that sounds purely happy, in particular, has a connotation of naiveté.

People have come to appreciate sadness and ambiguity more. Life is more complicated, and they want the things that they consume as pleasure to be complex similarly.[1]

There’s a lot of talk online about the positive benefits of sadness. Sad people do better in tests;[2] they don’t jump to obvious answers. According to Dr Birgit Wolz, a psychotherapist, author and "cinema therapist" based in Oakland, the painful emotions released by sad movies are often helpful:

What makes sad movies so 'enjoyable' is this: They allow us to confront very real and deeply sad feelings in a safe and protected environment. They allow us to confront real issues by experiencing 'reality' in a safe distance on the screen because our emotional responses feel real.

Movies draw us into the viewing experience but, at the same time—often more easily than in real life—afford a unique opportunity to retain a perspective outside the experience, the observer's view.[3]

The simple answer is that “negative moods make people more thoughtful,”[4] they, in effect, prepare us to get more out of a thing, be it a piece of music, a film, a book or even a test.

Now, what the hell has thing to do with Tim Love’s new book of short stories?

After I’d finished my first read-through Tim’s book I dropped him an e-mail letting him know I’d finished it. I know Tim a wee bit; the online British writing community is not exactly huge and it’s only a matter of time before we run into most of our peers. I read his blog and he reads mine and occasionally we even make an odd comment. So we’re not exactly besties but we get on fine. In part this is what I wrote to him:

I’ve just finished my first read-through of your book, Tim. Enjoyed it very much. Not sure what the hell I’m going to say about it but it’ll be fine I’m sure once I get started. [...] I really have nothing negative to say but I’m not sure how to talk about what I enjoyed about it without it coming across as negative. You see I enjoy sad things. ‘Enjoy’ is completely the wrong word—who in their right mind enjoys being sad?—but sadness resonates with me and there are a lot of sad characters in this book and all shades of sad too. It didn’t reduce me to tears or anything—I’m always a bit perplexed when I hear that people cry over books even though I know my writing’s had that effect on people and I am flattered by the fact—but it did affect me.

His response?

Just see what comes out. Your apparent negativity might interest others. I've had 2 comments about the book so far – [one at Tony Williams’s Poetry Blog] and a verbal one saying how gloomy it was.

child-called-it-bookI actually don’t think the book is gloomy but it’s all semantics, isn’t it? One person’s sadness is another person’s gloom. I do think it is a sad book, though. It’s not sad like A Child Called “It”; it’s sad because it’s real. I’m not saying that A Child Called “It” is all made up because it’s not but it takes too much imagination for me to relate to its narrator (I had the same problem with Sybil); it might as well be science fiction. The characters in By All Means I got.

Even though my mother never left my father I found Tim Love’s story ‘The Big Climb’ something I could relate to completely. Like everything I read I looked for ways into the piece. My parents did take me on a caravan holiday when I was about three—two years younger than the boy in this story—but I’ve only the vaguest of memories of it; what I do remember better were the many, many walks I went on with my dad, sometimes just the two of us as in this story, often with the whole family. Of course I don’t remember much about any one specific walk—other than one where my daughter came along and struggled to understand the concept of going for a walk for the sake of walking, that we weren’t going anywhere—but the notion of going for a walk with my dad and talking about stuff is something I’ve no trouble relating to. And that’s all that really happens in this story: a dad takes his son away for a break and they walk up a hill. We learn that his wife’s left him but little about the whys and wherefores.

“We’ll have to go home soon you know Sam.”

“Can we have chips with Sid and Doris?”

“No, I mean our real home. We’ll go back on the train, and when we open our front door there’ll be a pile of letters. One of them will be from mummy saying she’ll come back.”

“How do you know?” Sam says.

“Because I know everything.”

“Do you know where she is, papa?”

“She’s having a holiday.”

“In a caravan like ours, with bunk beds?”

“Yes, but with her clothes scattered all over the place.”

“And cups of tea all over the place too?”

“Yes, and the shopping and washing not done.”

“And the telly on all the time?” said Sam, “and her crying all the time?”

“Is that what she did Sam?”

“Sometimes. And she forgot things. But I don’t forget. I eat up all my food.”

“What else did she say?


“Did she ever say anything about me?”

“No. Can we look for her caravan now papa?”

“We’ll try. What colour do you think her caravan is? What colour does she like?”

“Pink I think. Can we go there?”

Everybody wants to know the truth but what if our conduit to the truth is faulty or limited? What if the truth can only be accessed through a five-year-old boy? This is a simple story, more of a character study than a proper plotted story with a beginning, a middle, an end and a nice pithy moral slipped in there for good measure. We get to tag along with these two for a couple of days and listen in. And it works beautifully. But despite the humour—kids do say the funniest things and Sam has yet to grasp the concept of puns—the sadness refuses to go away. It made me sad reading it even though neither of these people exists. Somewhere though there will be a dad of a five- or six-year-old whose wife has walked out of their life. I went online and on the first page of my search found this:

I have been married 19 years and my wife walked out on the night of her 44th birthday. I was blindsided and am still in shock. We have 3 teenage girls and the younger two are still in the house their mother walked out of. Anger, confusion, resentment, guilt, pity, still in love.......She just said she wasn't happy anymore. What is this all about?[5]

Over on Goodreads one of the reviewers, Lucille, in answer to the question ‘Why do we read sad books?’ wrote: “I read sad books to feel. To check if I'm still human, that I'm not bitter or heartless.”[6] There’s a term that came into vogue in the early eighties, ‘compassion fatigue’, and it’s never gone away. I’m actually wondering if sadness is actually what I felt when reading this story. Perhaps what I was feeling was compassion and empathy masquerading as sadness. If I can feel something for two made-up characters then I guess I’m still okay? Right?

We have a similar situation in Tim’s story ‘Definitions’ (which is broken down into eight sections each with a definition as a subheading) in which we accompany Dave as he goes for his weekly swim:

dure[7] – to fill

During lunchtime each Tuesday Dave would make straight for the Holiday Inn and buy a ticket from the receptionist for the pool which was open to the public in the morning. He'd been going there for months – it was secluded, tasteful, and he knew the staff by name (he had studied their badges). He would change into his one-piece, swim 20 lengths, then shower in the only cubicle. He'd use a palmful of almond soap from the dispenser for each armpit, one for his groin, then wash the chlorine from his hair and let the suds clean the rest of him. After, he'd treat himself to a traditional meal in the hotel restaurant ready to face work again.

Today he completes his lengths, returns to his locker, collects his towel and t-shirt. But someone's in the cubicle. He waits.

johnny-cash-a-boy-named-sue-cbs-3Sounds banal. Is banal. Tim could’ve described Dave changing a tire on his car or picking a Xmas present for his nephew. The thing about Dave is that Dave used to be called Diane and not in a Johnny-Cash-Boy-Named-Sue kind of a way. I was never a girl called Jemima nor have I ever felt remotely inclined to become a girl and yet I do get the whole being different thing. He’s got problems to deal with and gets on with them; life doesn’t stop simply because you wake up one day and realise that you’re a man trapped in a woman’s body. And yet despite Tim’s best efforts to present what must be a normal lunchtime-in-the-life-of-Dave I found it impossible not to home in on the tragedy of the situation even though Dave’s determined not to a tragic or ridiculous character. It’s the situation that’s tragic.

In 1968 British Pathé released a short documentary entitled Prague – The Sad City. The voiceover—male, Received Pronunciation—tells us that, “[t]he Czechs have a sad character: they knows about revolution, invasion, occupation.” Even nowadays it has the reputation of being a rather dull, sad city, grey like the weather. The film is only repeating what the Rock Hill Evening Herald reported on September 18th, 1968 as thousands of Soviet guns formed a ring around the city:

The steel ring of Soviet artillery is evident to anyone travelling outside the now tranquil but sad city. Heavy cannon rockets and missiles point at Czechoslovakia’s capital from north, south, east and west.[8]

It’s no wonder Jonas’s aunt, Miss Kretchova, who his English friend Mike meets in Tim’s story ‘Prague ‘86’ comes across as a sad character.

"So you've seen the Old Town and heard how we cruel Czechs pull the plug out on the Christmas carps?"

"Yep. Jonas has told me all about that." As he gave me my cup he threw me a cautionary glance then retreated to a radio with fretwork of a palm-treed desert island over the speaker. He turned it down low then rushed on to another. The room was filling with soft music and mutterings. "I was looking out of your window while you were in the kitchen Miss Kretchova. The square down the road seems busy."

"October Square, yes, I often watch the people there, around the...oh Jonas, socha? English you know, it is not so good." She lowered herself painfully into a chair by the table. I saw how thin her white hair was.

"Statue", said Jonas distractedly.

"Ah yes, yes, around the Lenin statue. It is very sad, you know. I knew the artist who made it; Vladimir Stropoff." She reached for a photo beside her. "I'm sorry", she said, her voice trembling, "you must think me a silly old woman, but they were good times for me. It was in '68. You know what happened in '68 Mike? So often the foreigners they forget."

Once they’ve left Jonas explains to Mike that his aunt has been living in the past for the previous eighteen years. “It was her last assignment before the purge. […] No one employed her after that; she'd taken too much advantage of the freedom. She's never got over it.”

‘Olga, December '76’ sounds like it might be another Prague story. Actually it’s set in London and has a great opening line:

Not so much as a postcard for three years, then she phoned me at eight one morning to say that they'd tied a pig to Battersea Power Station and would I like to come down.

They’d been at university together but now are very different people:

I'd always been the quiet one, and in the years since I'd left for University I'd learnt more words and had become even quieter, but I'm sure I must have said something in the train, probably about needing a degree to do therapy. She was as unselfconscious as ever, a whirlwind giving me no time to think. You can't be like that nowadays without being diagnosed as on some kind of spectrum even if you're an artist. I wondered how many people had taken advantage of her openness.

What’s sad about this story is that all of us—all of us over a certain age that is—will have friends we’ve grown apart from. I certainly have and it’s impossible not to feel something about them. The biggest mistake any of us can make though is meeting up again and thinking it might be possible to recapture something of that past. That’s what goes wrong in ‘Late’ too. The narrator gets a phone call from an old mate telling him that their mutual friend—the third Bare (no I didn’t spell that wrong)—has died. This time it’s ten years since they’ve seen each other.

"Thought you'd better know", he said.

"We should visit, I suppose."

"His dad didn't say exactly where the grave was. It's a big place."

"Let's meet at 1pm on Saturday. It'll be like old times."

Needless to say it’s not. Alan arrives late and they end up wandering round a graveyard in the dark getting drunker and drunker on the cider Colin’s bought; they even manage to get themselves locked in. Like all the other stories there’s humour here but really I just felt embarrassed for these two. As one should.

Now, let’s see, there are nine stories in this collection, which ones haven’t I talked about yet? ‘Doors and Windows’, ‘Method of Loci’, ‘Dreams’ and ‘Fractals’. The first two involve gay men. The history of the word gay is a fascinating one—nowadays most kids think it means lame (I wonder what they calls gays then?)—but I’ve always thought of it ironically since so many in the past lived (and still continue to live depending on where they live in the world) sad and oppressed lives. I think about people like Frankie Howerd, Kenneth Williams and Charles Hawtrey—all of whom were actively gay whilst homosexuality was still illegal in the UK—and there isn’t one of them that isn’t more tragic than comic. As the narrator in ‘Doors and Windows’ says:

I had to learn from those around me, but my colleagues were inexperienced in love, my kind of love. I let myself be guided by cultural conventions, finding it useful to swot up on the arts and subscribe to mailing lists – that two men should go to the opera together or visit a gallery is nothing strange, I belatedly realised. Alas, I've never had much of a liking for the Arts.

Like Colin in ‘Late’ he ends up wandering around streets from his past and tries to look up an old friend, the man who’d introduced him to the gay scene and stopped him making a fool of himself. Predictably enough the man’s long gone but (conveniently from a storytelling point of view) the young man whose moved into his flat is gay and they make a date to visit and art gallery the next day, a date which our nostalgic narrator has no intention of keeping.

‘Dreams’ and ‘Fractals’ both focus on writers. It’s hard not to write about what you know and I doubt there are many of us who have resisted that pull. Tim writes:

Many writers had sad childhoods, or long periods of childhood illness. Those who write about childhood often do so to get out of depression. Tintin went to Tibet because Hergé was in therapy and wanted life to be simple, covered in eternal snow. The therapist said I had a good mind and should keep busy, so I'm doing this distance learning degree. Being childless helps with objectivity. That's the theory anyway.

fleetwood-mac-dreams-warner-bros-3‘Dreams’ finds another middle-aged man wallowing in his past—“My parents' loft is full of broken pieces of my childhood.”—and I have a story myself that says almost the same thing so this one felt like very familiar ground to me. I was also obsessed with origami for a time but I never got Rupert the Bear or Asterix the Gaul. I loved Blondie, Tangerine Dream, tried never to miss The Old Grey Whistle Test. Wasn’t that impressed with Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Dreams’ but I had a copy of Rumours although I far preferred Tusk. So this could be me with a bit of tweaking and being the sad git that I am there was no way this story wasn’t going to make me feel sad.

‘Fractals’ also covers familiar ground, the act of writing. I’ve written more about it in poems but I do have one short story set on a train where a writer is debating adding a sex scene to his latest novel. Tim also has a thing for trains; they crop up in several stories. Not sure what to read into that. This one reminds me of Amos Oz’s Rhyming Life and Death in which we watch an author weave the characters he interacts with into a work of fiction.

I'm not getting any younger. Nowadays all my drafts shrink to flash fiction. The lyrical ending remains in full while the rest rots away except for the plot-hinges and a sentence of description for each setting and person. It's not such a disaster though – delve a layer further down and each bit's ready to be expanded to fill the void – the broken-handled RNLI mug used to hold pens, bought in Torquay after their first night together; an overheard comment in the canteen that makes him realise he'll never get promotion; the row of sensible shoes by her door – little things that say so much, that say the deeper you go, the cheaper life gets. You see, I think the two states of existence aren't Life and Death but immortality (which for me lasted about twenty-five years, and for my aunt until she became a widow) followed by the knowledge that one's going to die. Really die. Nothing after. And not much before. Even those closest to you are chemicals. When I see people battling, fretting and laughing I play along. I don't have to believe in their hopes and dreams. She'd understand, the bus-stop woman. But writing's different. It's like watching a film – it's not pretending to be real so I find myself getting involved, easily moved. This year I've not written anywhere near enough.

Actually none of the pieces in this collection is short enough to get away with being called flash fiction. But I know exactly where he’s coming from. It’s literary impotence. We can’t get it up or if we can we can’t do much with it. Last year I wrote 11 poems, all within a seven week window, and a few hundred words of a novel I’m starting to think will never get off the ground. The pessimist in me—who is a majority shareholder of my psyche—is not optimistic.

One of my favourite quotes—regular readers of this blog will know where I’m going here—is by Aldous Huxley. It’s underlined in my copy of Brave New World:

Actual happiness always looks pretty squalid in comparison with the overcompensations for misery. And, of course, stability isn't nearly so spectacular as instability. And being contented has none of the glamour of a good fight against misfortune, none of the picturesqueness of a struggle with temptation, or a fatal overthrow by passion or doubt. Happiness is never grand.

I think happiness and sadness are far closer together than people realise. Most people assume they’re polar opposites—elation versus depression—and although such extremes exist (just ask anyone who suffers from Bipolar Disorder) the rest of us spend our time walking the tightrope of contentment, wobbling a bit to the sad side and then a bit to the happy but never staying in either for too long. Sadness is not regret. Sadness is not shame, guilt or embarrassment. Sadness is a counterweight; it keeps happiness in check.

Although written over a twenty-four years period (between 1987 and 2011) and, of course, never designed to be anything other than nine standalone pieces, some of which have already been in print, this collection works quite well as a unified whole. In a diagram on the companion blog site on which Tim is posting short essays talking about the writing on the stories he has uploaded a diagram showing in what ways the stories are interconnected but the other articles are interesting too. Like most—probably all—writers I’m always fascinated to hear about the genesis of a story. It always makes me feel better about myself when I realise just how much they’ve struggled and how unhappy they still are with what they’ve done.

Is this the quintessential short story collection? No, I think Borges, Joyce, Carver and… I dunno… Chekhov are safe there. But once you’ve read all of them and are looking for something else to accompany you on a plane or a bus or a train then I would recommend giving Tim Love’s wee collection a go especially if you enjoy the slice-of-life approach to the telling or stories and don’t mind the company of sad people. One last thought on sadness—I’ve already written more than I intended—sadness is like love, just as there are many kinds of love there are many kinds of sadness; there are at least nine kinds in this book, in fact that would’ve been a good title, Nine Kinds of Sadness (a bit like Eleven Kinds of Loneliness or Four Kinds of Rain). I have no idea why he called it By All Means.

Only one of the short stories in this collection appeared online but the site has now folded. There are one or two stories by him out there though if you want a taste of his style:


Tim Love lives in Cambridge, England, having lived in Portsmouth, Norwich, Bristol, Oxford, Nottingham and Liverpool. He works as a computer programmer and teacher, and is married with two bilingual (Italian) children. His prose has appeared in Panurge, Dream Catcher, Journal of Microliterature, etc., and has won prizes run by short Fiction and Varsity. His poetry pamphlet Moving Parts was published by HappenStance in 2010 and you can read my review of it here. He blogs at


[1] Alex Spigel, ‘Why We’re Happy Being Sad: Pop’s Emotional Evolution’, NPR, 4 September 2012

[2] ‘Sad People Do Better, Job Study Finds’, Daily News, 1996 (See also ‘Feeling grumpy “is good for you”’ on the BBC website)

[3] Michael Machosky, ‘Sad movies have therapeutic value, experts say’, TribLive, 25 June 2009

[4] Nick Nauert PHD, ‘Sad Movies Make Many People Happy’, PsychCentral, 28 March 2012

[5] ‘My wife of 19 years walked out.......’, Men’s Health, 23 June 2006

[6] Comment on the ‘The Fault in our Stars discussion: why do we read sad books?’, 5 April 2012

[7] 1. Hard; harsh; severe; rough; toilsome. 2. To last; to continue; to endure. – Webster’s Dictionary

[8] ‘Soviet big guns ring Prague’, Evening Herald, Rock Hill, 18 September 1968


Tommaso Gervasutti said...

As ever I understand it is a very detailed and scrupulous post, I have only read the beginning and now I am going to continue carefully. But how true, how true the initial particular the reflection about the monotony of happiness...although I am sure after much loss and bereavement people like me would ravenously long for that monotony!

Jim Murdoch said...

I’ll be honest, Davide, I’m not sure I’d know what to do with monotony-inducing happiness. Happiness for me is best in small doses, that way I can appreciate it. It tends to creep up on me to be honest; I suddenly realise I’m feeling something unfamiliar-but-not-exactly-unpleasant and realise I must be feeling happy. The problem with happiness is that it can so easily be lost; there are so many things in this life ready to pull us down. I used to say a pessimist could never be disappointed. If you expect the worst then life has to be full of pleasant surprises. It’s not as daft a philosophy of life as if first sounds.

Tommaso Gervasutti said...

Yes, I completely agree. I have had my small doses, very small of happiness in life and I have been pulled down by probably the most tremendous loss one can suffer.
Death is a great dictator!
The good thing is that despite it I keep being eager and hopeful to find some of those small doses. Although it's hard... and often one's good disposition is not enough. Luck? Destiny?...Big words.

Anyway, your post is great.

Tommaso Gervasutti said...

And I agree especially with "the painful emotions released by sad movies are often helpful".

Jonathan Chant said...

Warm and generous review loaded with many observations that are, appropriately enough, uplifting and inspiring. Great work Jim.

Jim Murdoch said...

Glad you appreciated it, Jonathan. Some authors make a reviewer’s life easier than others.

Ken Armstrong said...

"Some people seem to think they have a right to be happy all of the time." Somebody said that to me once and I think it's part of the problem people have. They think they're not living-right if they're not happy whereas, sadness is definitely part of the deal of being alive and should not be shrunk away from.

A great thoughtful review and the snippets of dialogue read very very well indeed.

Jonathan Chant said...

I'm with you Ken.

Jim Murdoch said...

I’ve never really got happy people, Ken. I’m perfectly capable of being happy. I was happy only yesterday. I watched the first of a five part documentary on Morecambe and Wise and I smiled like a daftie all the way through especially when they showed an early version of the ‘Greig’s Piano Concerto’ routine which they’d apparently done about five years earlier and it’s only just been unearthed. Even Morecambe’s son didn’t know it existed. But I don’t have to be happy. In our house Carrie and I will often talk about “a Tracey”; it’s a euphemism we’ve adopted for someone who insists on being happy all the time, the eternal optimist. The real Tracy was one of the receptionists in my last office. She got the nickname ‘Tink’ (as in Tinker Bell from Peter Pan) which gives you some idea what she was like (although, as I recall, Tinker Bell was actually quite a moody bitch). I don’t see sadness as a synonym for unhappiness because I don’t really think of myself as an unhappy person; I’m just not someone who’s happy for no good reason. Happiness, thinking about your taste of chocolate, is something you don’t need a lot of in this life; a little goes a long way. Moments of happiness from my past have kept me going for decades.

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