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

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Jock Tamson's Bairns


[L]abels are for tins not people – Cally Phillips, A Week With No Labels

Let me take a couple of paragraphs to ease you into this week’s article. I watch a lot of science fiction. New stuff or old I’m really not fussed although if you want to label me I’m more of a Trekkie than a Star Wars Geek. Over the years science fiction has changed considerably and one of the main areas is that of tolerance. On Wednesday evenings my wife moderates an online forum for an hour during which I get to watch a ‘Jimmy programme’ so for the last few months I’ve been working my way through old Outer Limits episodes from the original series that was first aired in 1963. To say they’re dated is an understatement: the women are all helpless and in almost every one where there’s an alien the first thing people imagine is that it’s out to kill them whereas in the Star Trek: The Next Generation universe they usually give everyone the benefit of the doubt and women are frequently cast in positions of authority. Sometimes they’re both wrong in their assumptions and that’s the problems with assumptions—we’ve all heard the old joke about the you, me and ass—they’re sometimes way off the mark. Aliens can’t help that they’re different to us but there’s one thing that’s common across all science fiction: 99% of the time the humans don’t like to be called aliens—everyone else has to wear that label.

So what’s this got to do with today’s book which has nothing to do with science fiction? Quite a bit actually. Because the subject is disability. And the disabled—or, if you want to be more PC, the differently-abled—are not like you and me; they might as well be aliens. Some have big heads and bulging eyes and talk strangely, sometimes incomprehensively:

“Does he take sugar in his tea?”
Hello, why not ask me?
I might have a disability,
But to answer for myself I still have the ability.
Just ’cos I’m not stood up like you:
Does not mean there is very little for myself that I can do…
—Michael W. Williams, Connah’s Quay

For twenty years, up until April 1998 Radio 4 ran a weekly series called Does He Take Sugar? The reasons for its cancellation were even commented on by Parliament. You and Yours, Radio 4's weekday consumerist programme, was given the remit to include disability-related coverage in its content. I mention this for a reason. Part of me actually approves of the absorption into mainstream programming because that’s how things become normalised. It starts off small: the first female newscaster, the first interracial kiss, the first disabled actor to appear in a prime-time series. My wife and I are long-standing fans of the show Silent Witness. In season sixteen a new character was introduced played by the wheelchair-bound actress and comedian Liz Carr and virtually nothing was said about her appearance or her limitations. And that’s how it should be. She’s not an alien. I had to dig and dig to find out what’s actually wrong with her because she’s doesn’t talk about it because it’s not who she is although she does admit it’s a “huge definer” of who she is.

Aliens aren’t real and so we cope just fine with them. People with physical disabilities are and although we might often feel awkward round them we quickly suss out their limitations and are often surprised by how well they manage all things considered. And then there’s mental illness. That we don’t cope with so well. We don’t like things we can’t see. If a man has lost his leg or part of his leg we might skip inviting him to kick a ball about with us in the back yard but what about a man who’s lost his mind or a part of it?

Did you know Amazon has a Disabilities Best Sellers list? I certainly didn’t and I would never have thought to look had I not seen a brief mention of it in something Cally Phillips wrote online. Who goes there to look for books? Probably people with disabilities or people with family who have disabilities. Do black people only read books by black authors? Would a gay man read a book by a transgendered author? Is a self-published author letting the side down if he reads mainly traditionally published novels? Aren’t labels problematic?

The expression ‘We’re a’ Jock Tamson’s bairns’ sounds like it might’ve been culled from a poem by Robert Burns but the nearest he got to saying that, although the expression was probably common enough in his day, was when he wrote the song ‘Is There for Honest Poverty’, more commonly known as ‘A Man's a Man for A' That’ which ends:

For a' that, an' a' that,
It's coming yet for a' that,
That Man to Man, the world o'er,
Shall brothers be for a' that.

The expression means ‘We’re all God’s children’ and it’s a fitting title for Cally Phillips’ short collection of stories. It’s a sampler—free as an ebook—and contains four short stories and an sizeable excerpt from her novel A Week with No Labels which stands on its own quite well.

We may all be Jock Tamson’s bairns, we may all be equal under law but we are not all born equal; we are not all the same. In the book’s introduction Cally writes:

There is a scientific model which is called The Bell Curve. It’s the way we work out what is ‘normal’ in any given situation. It is defined as follows:

Noun: A graph of a normal (Gaussian) distribution, with a large rounded peak tapering away at each end.

Traditionally the Bell Curve has been used to judge ‘intelligence.’ This is fraught with a number of difficulties. In the first place defining ‘intelligence’ is very difficult. Nevertheless, people labelled with learning difficulties (intellectual disabilities or in the bad old days mental retardation) are considered outside the Bell Curve by very dint of them having an intellectual 'abnormality'. The question I ask is: Who ‘judges’ whether they are ‘normal?’ The answer: The ‘normal’ people of course. Do you see a potential problem with that?


Moron, idiot, imbecile, cretin: I used all those terms as insults when I was a kid. I didn’t realise that they meant anything other than stupid. A moron, for example, used to be the term used for an adult with a mental age between eight and twelve. He’d take umbrage if you called him an idiot; there the mental age is two years or less. In time all of these got absorbed under the blanket term ‘retarded’ which now is also seen to be pejorative and there’s a big push on to eliminate the use of the word. It’s just a word. It’s people who turn a perfectly serviceable word into a derogatory one, e.g. ‘gay’. Am I a depressive or am I simply optimistically-challenged?

The opening four stories in Cally’s book deal with four individuals:

They’re based on personal experience but Cally’s keen to emphasise that they’re fictionalised accounts:

If there is any resemblance to real people in these fictional characters I’d say it’s only the good bits which are ‘real’, I’ve made up the bad bits!

In an interview with Susan Price she explains a bit of the background to the stories:

I was lucky enough to get to work (and get paid) doing 'drama' in mental health and disability settings and from that I developed a creative style (and a business) using drama as advocacy. For a lot of the time I was working in a pre-literate culture. So the 'writing' was very, very flexible as a concept. But for me, the active involvement in drama and 'voicing' the unvoiced through writing was absolutely the best time of my creative life (so far).

This is, I should point out, after a career working in television and theatre—her writing credentials are not to be sniffed at—and it was only for the sake of her health (and sanity from all accounts) that she left. Everyone has something. In her case it’s ulcerative colitis and I was interested in what she had to say in one of her blogs about how this has affected her perspective:

I’m lucky in that I’ve never personally had to deal with extreme mental health issues—unlucky in that while remaining mentally ‘strong’ a certain toll has been taken on me physically—and my condition is, I believe, quite a mimic of depression—I describe it as a ‘physical’ depression—when active, an extreme lethargy caused by physiological things (a compromised immune system leading to inflammation and bleeding) so that even if I’m in the happiest of moods my body tells me otherwise. Thus I have quite a lot of sympathy for people who experience what I’d call ‘real’ depression.


I’ve worked with and been friends with people diagnosed or ‘suffering’ from mental health problems. I’ve got family members who I know have had undiagnosed mental health problems for years. The 1 in 4 statistic is conservative in my opinion. We are all on a spectrum – but the focus for me definitely comes down on the side of looking at how to look after our mental health, not how to classify or label mental ‘illnesses’

Having been optimistically-challenged for many years I have to agree with her.

Let’s meet Gary:

Let me tell you all about Gary. Which really means just list what I ‘know’ about Gary and which tells you next to nothing of his reality. Of his individual lived experience. It’s a comment from the outside. I feel uncomfortable even attempting it. But what else can I do? I have no other way to introduce you to each other. So let me give you the ‘facts’ as we see them. Gary is blind. Gary doesn’t talk. Can’t talk? His hearing is suspect. His means of communication are therefore quite limited. As is his mobility. Despite being a huge lad, Gary’s preferred method of movement is to shuffle along on his bottom. He’s usually holding a sort of scruffy security blanket looking thing in one hand, which is actually used to wipe drool because he’s not good at keeping his mouth shut, and making some kind of a noise between a squeak (happy) and a scream (unhappy.) He is usually accompanied, at least here, by a care worker. Not exactly in hot pursuit, but usually in some level of distress or bemusement. Gary is not an easy lad to ‘care for.’ Because communication is so limited.

One of the big issues facing writers of science fiction is how to paint an alien world in as few lines as possible and this is the problem Cally faces here. On Silent Witness Liz Carr simply rolled into shot—don’t quote me on that because I can’t remember her first scene—and our eyes and ears did so much of the work for us. Cally has to describe a character who is alien to us and who exists in an alien environment:

Gary is known for exhibiting ‘challenging behaviour’ all too frequently causing ‘incidents’ that have to then be ‘reported’ and so whoever is attached to Gary knows they are not in for an easy ride. To me it seems fairly obvious that Gary will exhibit this ridiculous term ‘challenging’ behaviour. Think about it for a minute. What is Gary’s world like? Or more importantly, what is Gary’s experience of our world like? At best it must be hostile and worst terrifying. Can you imagine having to move around shuffling through the dark on your bum without the ability to tell someone what you want or know what’s round the corner. I wouldn’t like it, and I’m sure you wouldn’t. I suspect we might exhibit ‘challenging’ behaviour in such circumstances.

This is one of the reasons why people might avoid reading books about disabled people and yet they’ll happily pick up books about spies or adventurers in foreign lands or spacemen, people whose lives are far removed from their own. Why not read about people with disabilities? Is it because we’re okay with different but not with less?

There is a danger when you include a disabled character in a work of fiction that you become preachy: no one likes to get preached at. If I want to get preached at I’ll go to church. That said people don’t just read to be entertained; they read to be informed, to be educated, to be made to think, to see the world from a completely different perspective. And we don’t really get that because we don’t get to be inside Gary’s head. The narrator is our conduit. It’s like when she talks about Heather:

The game Heather likes to play is Animal Noises. And since she’d had such a poor start to the day, it seemed only fair to start with that. You may think you see a problem here. Heather can’t make any recognisable noise. And she can hardly move. Note ‘hardly.’ It’s all a question of how deeply you look. How profoundly you pay attention. Over time we have noticed that there is some movement. She can hold my hand. She doesn’t squeeze hard but she is doing the holding, it’s not me holding her. She can wave that hand about a bit, for a short time (when she’s not holding mine obviously) and she can stretch her neck and put out her tongue. With effort. Beyond that, like so many people with profound and multiple disabilities, she talks with her eyes. I’m still learning how to read eye-talk, it’s not that easy, but believe me, it can be done. It just takes more effort. Well, you don’t just leave someone on the bus now do you? You don’t just ignore the only way they can communicate? You learn. You try. You go to where they are. If you can’t meet them half way, you go as far as it takes to meet them. Well, that’s what I do. That’s nothing other than common sense and common decency in my book.

heil2I have, as many of you know, a cockatiel and, over the years, have been constantly amazed by his ability to communicate with me. You wouldn’t think there’d be much to see in those beady little eyes of his but you’d be wrong there. There’s a mind. People use the term ‘bird brain’ as an insult but clearly these people have never spent much time with a bird.

As far as stories go there’s not much of a story to any of these first four pieces. They all lead up to a moral—Gary does indeed get to play God and we’re told why that’s important—and so, yes, they are a bit on the didactic side. Part of the problem is that, although fictional, because of the setting they feel more like factual accounts, memoirs. The group is where we expect them to be, sitting in a circle with the similarly-ably-challenged—a scene from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest just jumped into my mind, the one where McMurphy is trying to get everyone to vote to watch the game—and so we are already in a, for most of us, alien, if-not-clinical-then-at-least-institutional environment.

Jonjo’s story is better because he gets to narrate part of it himself. There are obvious reasons why giving Gary and Heather a ‘voice’ would be problematic but if animals can speak for themselves—I’m thinking of Grant Morrison’s We3 and The Plague Dogs—then why not? But here’s a bit of Jonjo for you. Jonjo, before we start I should mention, is twelve and has ADHD:

[B]reaking a rule is a bad thing to do. And accidents do happen, my brother Bruce says. And one happened to me. While I was running. I don’t really remember it that well because I was in the middle of the happening so I couldn’t see what was going on, but Bruce says that I hit the car and bounced off the windscreen and nearly flew over the roof (which is kind of cool because I didn’t think kids could fly unless they were Peter Pan and he’s not real) and then I crumpled on the ground. Like a rag doll, Bruce says. Or it might have been a rag dog. I can’t remember. Either way. I like the flying bit of the story more than the rag bit. And I didn’t feel much like a rag. I felt like something which had been squished and flattened. Like when I dropped a big bit of concrete on my finger, but all over my body. Next thing I knew I was in this bed in the hospital. And it was nice and white and the sheets were crispy and the lights were sort of floody and there was another boy in the next bed. And I wanted to get up and run. And I couldn’t move. I couldn’t run. I was stuck. Like in a prison. But the prison was my own body. It wasn’t nice. It was my accident. Well, dad says it was the ‘consequence’ of my accident.

And everyone wanted to know ‘the reason’ why it had happened.

‘There is no reason to an accident,’ I said.

And then they all started on the same old story, ‘what’s wrong with Jonjo?’ ‘Why can’t Jonjo sit still?’ except now I couldn’t even sit at all. I had to lie down. It was awful.

This I liked better.

Angus has Asperger syndrome and we’re quite used to characters in fiction who have Aspergers. They’re quirky and often provide comic relief because they take things literally: Abed from Community or Max from Parenthood or, probably the most well-known example, Ray from Rain Man. Angus isn’t interested in most things but the things he is interested in he’s very interested in:

The ‘facts’ as they are written down on his ‘profile’ are thus: ‘Angus acts like he isn’t interested.’ What value ‘facts’ eh? Of course, in a way he’s not interested. He’s not interested in many of the things you and I are interested in, but he’s very interested in the things he’s interested in – things you and I can’t be bothered to spend time on. For example, would you spend hour after hour looking at tin foil? Would the telephone area codes across the world be fascinating to you? … but what harm is Angus causing by his interests? Okay, when he blurts out some facts about the D-Day Landings randomly in the middle of a conversation on something seemingly unrelated it can be annoying but just because he’s ‘inappropriate’ doesn’t mean he’s not interested. He just has poor social skills. And I suggest that in dealing with Angus most of us exhibit pretty poor social skills. We don’t give him credit. We expect him to fit in with us. Why should he? Who is to say that his interests are more or less worthy than my interest in nineteenth century popular fiction or your interest in embroidery/horse-riding/sports. Each to his own, eh? We’re all Jock Tamson’s Bairns.

This is less of a story and more of a character study and hence probably the most preachy of the four standalone pieces. And, of course, it makes good points—there are plenty of good points to be made—but I would’ve still liked to see Angus do something. The whole problem with the does-he-take-sugar mentality is that it talks over the heads of the disabled and perversely that’s what happens here: Angus is talked about. In the first two stories more of an effort is taken to talk for the individuals in question. This is why the story I liked best here was the one where Jonjo gets to speak for himself.

week-with-no-labels-a-cally-phillipsThe five episodes that comprise A Week with No Labels were originally released on Kindle between the Monday and Friday of National Learning Disability Week back in June 2012 and were later collected into a single volume. ‘Monday’ is included in this sampler.

The feel here is different. Whereas the short stories focussed on an individual here we have a group run by a woman—her ‘label’ is ‘facilitator’—called Kate. The No Labels Drama Group consists of, in part:

ANNIE Is a forty six year old woman NOT a child so please don't treat her as one. She is an excellent natural actress and could give Meryl Streep a run for her money.

BARRY Is in his sixties and loves a good drama. He is the leader of the gang and demands the same high level of commitment from others as he puts in himself. Some may say he's a dreamer, but he certainly gets things done.

BILBO is in his fifties and likes to dance. Oh how he loves to dance. And no, he’s not a hobbit. Here’s the story. He was christened William Robert. He was known as Billy-Bob by his dad. His brother misheard this and called him Bilbo. The family compromised on Bilbo. It was just a hobbit they got into and it stuck.

DEIRDRE Doesn't like being called 'spazzy'. Okay so she's got a 'lazy' arm but that's no reason for abuse. She suffers from tunnel vision (and when she's around it seems to be catching) She likes to read, write and organise others.

MANDY Takes everything literally. Everything. Which can get her into a lot of funny situations. And some not so funny ones.

STEVIE Is in his twenties. He likes colours. He doesn't like talking but he's a whizz at mime. His favourite colour is brown and his favourite texture is crinkly.

That’s about half. Maybe it’s because Cally comes from a theatre background but I really appreciated this dramatis personæ at the beginning of the book because it’s easy to lose track of everyone. The problem with the ebook, of course (the problem with all ebooks), is that you can’t keep your finger stuck in the front so you can flip back and forth as necessary. Groups are hard to write. I’ve never tried it. I have no idea where I’d start. I always feel sorry for those actors in Shakespeare who have maybe one line and yet have to hang about on stage trying to look interesting. On stage at least you can have a wee keek to see what they’re up to but on the printed page it’s not so easy to keep all those plates spinning and I do have to confess I did lose track a few times but that’s me; I freely admit that I struggle with (and find myself disliking) stories where there are too many characters. This is an entertaining piece though and the best thing in the book because we get to see these people in a real life setting, preparing for and performing in a play. It has the feel of the kind of thing our kids might do on a rainy Sunday afternoon—devise an entertainment which is full of mistakes and bad acting—but that’s part of its charm too.

My main problem with the book as a whole is that it’s about disability. It’s not just that there are disabled characters there. Virtually everyone in the book has some physical and/or mental problem; it’s hard enough to avoid the elephant in the room but when you’ve got a herd what’re you going to do but get trampled underfoot? This is not our world. This is like reading about pygmies in the Congo (or would that be short statured Congolese?): fascinating but still completely alien. There is a long list in Wikipedia of books where at least one of the characters has mental health issues. I’d tried to think of a few while I was writing this and was disappointed that Of Mice and Men at least didn’t jump to mind. The equivalent film page is much better organised.

This doesn’t mean that the book is not a worthwhile read because it is. I don’t suffer fools gladly and I can only imagine what it would be like being disabled and living in an idiocracy where every day they have to explain the blindingly obvious to someone who should know better. Jock Tamson’s Bairns is well-written, accurate, entertaining and sobering too. If it’s preachy—no, it is preachy—it’s because it needs to be. And just for a moment spare a thought for all those preachers out there who heave themselves up into their pulpits and repeat what they’ve said time and time and time again but whose words fall on deaf ears.

I think the novel A Week with No Labels would be the better read—this is only a sampler—and, of course, there’s nothing stopping you buying the book as soon as you’ve read that first chapter; that’s the beauty of the Internet. As a taster though—and for free—this is a decent introduction to the subject and the writer. You can download a copy here. A Week with No Labels is available here for a not unreasonable £2.99. In her review of the novel Julia James said “this modest production may be the most significant book I’ve read on my Kindle this year.” You can read her full review here.


CallyCally Phillips was born in England of Scottish parents. Now settled in Turriff, she has lived most of her life in Scotland. Educationally she has an MA (Hons) in Moral Philosophy with International Relations from St. Andrews University and an MSc in Applied Psychology of Intellectual Disability (Portsmouth) as well as a PG qualification in drama from Academy of Live and Recorded Arts, a PG Dip in Multimedia Design from Napier and an Open University Diploma in Health and Social Welfare.

She has been writing professionally for twenty years and has had drama broadcast on TV and radio as well many plays for stage. She was artistic director of Bamboo Grove Theatre Company from 2002-2006 and has worked with a variety of mental health/learning disability groups on creative projects.  She has undertaken residencies with Dumfries and Galloway Arts Association and West Lothian Youth Theatre as well as teaching many creative courses from dramatic/screenwriting to digital film editing and production.

She is currently the director of the Edinburgh ebook Festival which takes place in August and is working for Ayton Publishing Limited preparing a major new catalogue of Scottish writing which will be launched in 2014: “I’m nearly 11 volumes into my first 32 volume collection of ‘Forgotten Fiction’ – copy editing, introduction writing and general obsessing over publishing and history on a daily basis.”

She is the author of four novels, four collections of short stories and five books of plays including Bond is Back where the action takes place during a Bond-themed party that is more Abigail’s Party than Casino Royale.

You can read more of her work on the McStorytellers website.

Sunday, 18 August 2013



I think that honesty is like a piñata with nothing inside. – Ben Brooks, Lolito

Let’s cut to the chase. No one these days picks up a copy of Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 modernist novel Lolita ignorant of the fact they’re going to be reading about the seduction of a twelve-year-old girl by a middle-aged man. Since I’m going to be talking about Lolita quite a bit let’s level the playing field: Lolito is a very British 2013 novel by Ben Brooks in which a fifteen-year-old boy encounters a mature woman on the Internet and ends up agreeing to meet her in the real world for the purpose of having sex. Yes, that’s a spoiler but some things are best spoiled.

What makes something wrong? If you’re a Christian then usually the answer to that question is: If God says it’s wrong then it’s wrong. Lying’s wrong. Stealing’s wrong. Adultery’s wrong. But what if you’re not a practicing Christian? Who says what’s right and wrong? Well tend to we defer to the government. Parking on double yellow lines is wrong. Peeing in public is wrong. Having sex with someone under ‘the age of consent’ is wrong. But what makes these things wrong? Even in Bible times things weren’t as simple as I implied: just ask the Canaanites, the Amalekites the Gibeonites and a load of others races no one hears about any more since the Israelites massacred them. Thou shalt not kill except when God says it’s okay.

There was, of course, no ‘age of consent’ back then. The Bible defined marriage as something that you needed a man and woman for, not a male and a female, and so as it was generally accepted that a girl became a woman when she had her first period so that meant, in theory and in practice, it was okay to marry most girls as soon as they hit puberty and the only consent that was needed was that of the girl’s father. Humbert Humbert would see that as perfectly reasonable:

The median age of pubescence for girls has been found to be thirteen years and nine months in New York and Chicago. The age varies for individuals from ten, or earlier, to seventeen. – Lolita

Kids are nowhere near as ignorant as they used to be. And by that I mean they’re nowhere near as innocent as they used to be. In times past (and not that far in the past) it wasn’t that unusual for a woman to climb into her betrothal bed and know nothing about sex or even where babies came from. If sex was innately horrible no one would want to do it. There’d be laws against it. As it happens sex is usually satisfying, but can run the gamut from terrifying to earth-shatteringly wonderful. Sex in the right circumstances is not wrong. Sex is natural. Kids discover that quite early on and then learn—added bonus—it’s apparently better when there’s two involved. Who’d of thought that? Nowadays kids have sex much, much earlier than they did even in my day—I never even kissed a girl until I was sixteen—and it’s no biggie. Maybe it should be a biggie but for most kids it’s not. They don’t see it as something wrong usually they’re told it’s wrong and then, because someone’s told them it’s wrong (with that perversity that belongs to most teenagers) they want to do it all the more. Making something ‘wrong’ isn’t always a good idea. Look at Eve and the fruit tree.

The protagonist in Ben Brooks’s new novel Lolito is fifteen. He’s called Etgar. And to say that he’s sexually aware is something of an understatement. An innocent he is not. It wasn’t ripped from him. He, like most kids, handed it away without a second thought. It’s okay to have sex with someone under the age of consent if you’re also under the age of consent, especially if you’ve both consented. It’s may not be legal but there’s definitely a bit of a double standard thing going on here. We know we can’t stop them and so we turn a blind eye. They might get shouted at but no one’s calling the cops unless one of the parties is very young. Kids know that smoking and drinking are illegal and yet they go out of their way to experience them. Why not sex? What’s the difference?

Talking about differences what’s the difference between ignorance and innocence? In her dated (but still thought-provoking) essay on the subject Amélie Rives begins as follows:

It seems hardly possible to open this subject, without at first becoming involved in a statement of axioms; for, on reflecting that Ignorance means a want of knowledge, and Innocence, freedom from guilt, purity, this thought at once presents itself —that, while a person, wanting in knowledge, may often be innocent, the very lack of knowledge may as often lead him into guilt.

And, conversely, that while another, thoroughly instructed in what guilt means, may of his free will indulge in, or refrain from, wrong-doing, the fact of such knowledge on his part, in no way affects the innocence of his nature, or actions, when according to his ideas of right and wrong he has done what he considers to be right.[1] (bold mine)

She ends with:

To those who consider that a lack of knowledge constitutes innocence, and therefore imply that an embroidered flower is more truly innocent than any thinking child can ever be, no matter what the amount of restraint exercised over its reason and curiosity, these views can hardly seem judicious, but at least I venture to hope that there are many who will agree with me in my belief that Innocence is only in the highest sense worthy and useful when it is the result of choice, not of accident.[2] (bold mine)

Does Etgar know that drinking alcohol is illegal? This is how the book opens:

We’re fifteen and drinking warm cider under the cathedral grounds’ pine trees. It’s seven-thirty.

He’s with his friends, Sam and Aslam and Alice:

Alice is my girlfriend. She has a sharp nose, size four feet and Raynaud’s Syndrome. In the morning her mouth tastes of stale milk. I imagine her recent search history: how to make an Ouija board, does anal hurt, Haruki Murakami.

She tells him she and her family are going away on holiday over the Easter break. To Antigua. Aslam doesn’t know what Antigua is but Etgar knows what he’s going to do while she’s away:

I want to remain in bed, watching documentaries about exotic marine life and sporadically masturbating over shopping channel presenters. I want to call Alice three times a day for reassurance that she’s not putting her mouth against the mouths of people who aren’t me.

It’s a plan. His parents will be away too. They’re going to Russia. Why Russia? I’m assuming a nod to Nabokov (pronounced Na-BOW- (as in bow and arrow) cough) who was Russian. That said Etgar’s not an especially Russian name; it is popular with Israelis apparently.

The plan starts of as, well, as planned. He talks to Alice and then looks up things in the Internet (the spelling and punctuation are not perfect):

        Elliot Trump has uploaded new pictures.
Katya De Vangelo has got John Gordon-Levitt, popcorn and rosé ready for a night in with the girlies.
        Carly Yates thinks that some people can just fuck off.
        Horney milf wants you’re cum
        Sentence: ass raping til death
        Dirty brit amateur swingers fuck in woods
        A man and a woman are sitting side by side on thrones. They are wearing crowns and medieval clothing. The woman says she wants King Dick to come back because her vagina is lonely. The man next to her says he is Prince Dick and he gently presses her thigh as she bites into a turkey leg. She shouts for the archery competition to begin. Amundsen [Etgar’s dog, named after the Norwegian explorer] wanders back into my room, sniffs at nothing and lies down on the rug. Three men in medieval clothing pull out their dicks and start fiercely masturbating while aiming at a target ten feet away. I feel confused. I don’t understand.
        Carrie Machell is in a relationship.
        I have won a free Macbook.
        I take the sock off my dick and throw it at Amundsen.

Why’s he confused? What doesn’t he understand? When I talked to my contact at Canongate about how I was thinking about approaching the review—not that I was asking permission, I was just mentioning—she said, that Etgar “has a very young naïve streak, which I think is indicative of the fact that you can’t put a number on maturity, and there are different levels of it.” Okay so we have innocence, ignorance and now immaturity to factor in. Maturity comes in different flavours—emotional, physical, mental—and it’s pretty obvious that despite the fact his body is ready for sex and his mind is reasonably well-informed about what can count as sex he’s still lacking when it comes to an emotional appreciation of what sex can be about. It can be about orgasms. Mostly at that age that’s all it’s about. It’s about clearing your mind for an hour or two so you can think about other things. It’s something to do to break the boredom of everyday life that doesn’t cost money.

The GraduateLolita is a funny book. Lolito is a funny book. The Graduate is a funny film. Just because all of them deal with the “seduction of the innocent” (to quote Fredric Wertham out of context) is by the by. All three are funny and all three are tragic. You might say paedophilia (or, perhaps more correctly, hebephilia in the case of Lolita and ephebophilia in the case of Lolito) is no laughing matter but there’s a funny side to most things if you look hard enough. Humour is often cruel and if you have a victim deserving of a measure of cruelty then it’s all the easier to make fun of him. How many jokes have been told involving Adolf Hitler and he’s a far more deserving case than anyone else mentioned in this article. What we also have to remember is that Humbert Humbert, Macy (the woman Etgar ends up with) and Mrs Robinson are works of fiction: no children were harmed in the writing of these novels.

As Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate is almost twenty-one, although questionably, the only thing criminal about Mrs Robinson’s actions is the adultery (and it’s been a long time since anyone was shocked over an act of infidelity) because the age of consent was eighteen by then and had been since the 1920s (prior to that, and in a lot of American states it was 10, can you believe?) but he was still a bit naïve. I mention The Graduate because of a comment made by Matt Haig about Lolito:

Lolito is really something else. A twisted age-gap love story that is deadpan and grubby and strangely poetic and funny and wrong and also very right. It us like how The Graduate would have ended up if Dustin Hoffman had watched a lot of Loose Women and drank Strongbow and spent too much time on the internet.

There was no Internet when Charles Webb wrote his 1963 novel The Graduate and such a thing was no less unimaginable in Nabokov’s day but then what about this scene? A reflection in a rectangular frame. What does this quote from Lolita remind you of?

It happened for instance that from my balcony I would notice a lighted window across the street and what looked like a nymphet in the act of undressing before a co-operative mirror. Thus isolated, thus removed, the vision acquired an especially keen charm that made me race with all speed toward my lone gratification.

Is there any difference really between Humbert’s act of voyeurism and Etgar looking at porn on the Internet? One might even argue that Etgar’s is the lesser offence because the likelihood is that those he’s watching know it’s happening and are willing participants. I think Nabokov would’ve liked the Internet—Humbert certainly would but we need to be careful not to confuse the two—because he was fond of the concept of the avatar. Often he makes cameos in his books carefully hiding behind what we would think of today as a user name: case in point, in Lolita the character of Vivian Darkbloom is actually an anagram for “Vladimir Nabokov.” Vivian is Clare Quilty's writing partner; Clare is male, Vivian is a female. Lolita tries to confuse Humbert by telling him that Vivian is a man and that Clare Quilty is a woman. And people pretending to be something they’re not happens all the time on the Internet which is why Macy, who had originally introduced herself to Etgar as ‘Hattie’, ends up sending him a short video clip to prove she’s not a man.

What drives Etgar online in the first place? A falling out with his girlfriend Alice. He’s looking (in part) to recapture what he’s lost, what he feels has been taken from him. Not sure if that’s love but I suppose when I was fifteen sex equalled love. Why would someone let me—not that anyone did—make out with them if they didn’t love me? Humbert is also looking to recapture something lost: his feelings for a girl named Annabel Leigh:

When I was a child and she was a child, my little Annabel was no nymphet to me; I was her equal, a faunlet in my own right, on that same enchanted island of time; but today, in September 1952, after twenty-nine years have elapsed, I think I can distinguish in her the initial fateful elf in my life. We loved each other with a premature love, marked by a fierceness that so often destroys adult lives. I was a strong lad and survived; but the poison was in the wound, and the wound remained ever open, and soon I found myself maturing amid a civilization which allows a man of twenty-five to court a girl of sixteen but not a girl of twelve.

One thing Nabokov was keen to point out was that anyone who purchased a copy of Lolita hoping to be titillated would be disappointed. From the book’s foreword:

Viewed simply as a novel, Lolita deals with situations and emotions that would remain exasperatingly vague to the reader, had their expression been etiolated by means of platitudinous evasions. True: not a single obscene term is to be found in the whole work. Indeed, the robust Philistine who is conditioned by modern conventions into accepting without qualms a lavish array of four-letter words in a banal novel will be quite shocked by their absence here.

The same cannot be said for Lolito. Expletives abound and the sex is described graphically. Some might say ‘pornographically’ (“the copulation of clichés”[3] to quote Nabokov on the subject) but I’ll stick with ‘graphically’. Here, for example, are a few lines from Lolita:

Age of Innocence[The classroom] was smelly, with a sepia print of Reynolds’ “Age of Innocence” above the chalkboard, and several rows of clumsy-looking pupil desks. At one of these, my Lolita was reading … and there was another girl with a very naked, porcelain-white neck and wonderful platinum hair, who sat in front reading too, absolutely lost to the world and interminably winding a soft curl around one finger, and I sat beside Dolly [Lolita] just behind that neck and that hair, and unbuttoned my overcoat and for sixty-five cents plus the permission to participate in the school play, had Dolly put her inky, chalky, red-knuckled hand under the desk. Oh, stupid and reckless of me, no doubt, but after the torture I had been subjected to, I simply had to take advantage of a combination that I knew would never occur again.

Now a few lines from Lolito and, I should make this clear, this takes place before Etgar gets involved with the older woman online:

        ‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘Is there anything you want to try that we haven’t?’
         ‘Like what?’ I pictured Alice choking me, hitting me and flailing me. I pictured Mum visiting me in hospital, tutting and saying ‘kids these days’ to a patronising nurse who quickly leaves the room to dial Social Services. ‘No hitting.’
         ‘I didn’t mean hitting.’
         ‘What then?’
         ‘I watched a golden shower thing the other day. The guy had like goggles on and she did it on his face.’
        I laughed. ‘I don’t know. Is that funny or disgusting?’
         ‘No. I don’t know. There were like things I didn’t like before you. So maybe.’
        She lifted her head off my lap.
         ‘Like what?’
         ‘Like tits. Also eating out.’
         ‘Don’t call it that.’
         ‘What do I call it?’
         ‘I don’t know.’
         ‘Eating clams.’
         ‘No eating.’
         ‘Prawn cocktail.’
         ‘I’m breaking up with you,’ she said. ‘Unless we try it.’


        She pulled down her pants, threw them onto the toilet seat and lifted one leg up and over me. ‘Where should I make it go?’

Watersports are classified as a paraphilia. That Etgar would agree to participate in this (which some might regard as an act of humiliation) does say something about his character; he’s pliable. The woman online doesn’t have to groom him over months—as happens in the case of Lolita—and within a couple of days he’s agreed to meet her in the real world after already having had cybersex with her a couple of times. The events in Lolita drag on over a couple of years. The main events in Lolito take place over a single weekend. But I guess that’s life in the modern world.

There are problems with both books. In Lolita we don’t get to see the girl except through Humbert’s eyes, although there are times when what he says is quite revealing:

I recall certain moments, let us call them icebergs in paradise, when after having had my fill of her—after fabulous, insane exertions that left me limp and azure-barred—I would gather her in my arms with, at last, a mute moan of human tenderness (her skin glistening in the neon light coming from the paved court through the slits in the blind, her soot-black lashes matted, her grave grey eyes more vacant than ever—for all the world a little patient still in the confusion of a drug after a major operation)—and the tenderness would deepen to shame and despair, and I would lull and rock my lone light Lolita in my marble arms, and moan in her warm hair, and caress her at random and mutely ask her blessing, and at the peak of this human agonized selfless tenderness (with my soul actually hanging around her naked body and ready to repent), all at once, ironically, horribly, lust would swell again—and "oh, no," Lolita would say with a sigh to heaven, and the next moment the tenderness and the azure—all would be shattered.

What was she really thinking? She’s compliant and it’s really only Humbert’s possessiveness that ultimately drives her away. Is there a point when she becomes guilty too?

In our hallway, ablaze with welcoming lights, my Lolita peeled off her sweater, shook her gemmed hair, stretched towards me two bare arms, raised one knee. “Carry me upstairs, please. I feel sort of romantic tonight.”

Once Lolita has lost her innocence we see a change in her and she does become more controlling; she’s well aware of the power she has over Humbert and isn’t beyond manipulating him.

Ben Brooks only lets us see things through the eyes of the boy so we learn little about his (legally at least) abuser but, here too, there are a few insights:

        Macy’s upper arms and chest are dotted with purple bruises the size of ramekins. She looks at me looking at them. She doesn’t say anything. I press a thumb against a dark spot on her ribs and gently trace the outline of it, wondering if it’s possible to feel physical pain in that many places at once.
         ‘Did you get mugged too?’ I say.
         ‘Kind of,’ she says.
         ‘Did you get mugged by your husband?’
         ‘Let’s get breakfast. You’ll be ill if you don’t put something in your stomach.’
         ‘You don’t want to talk about your husband.’
         ‘No, I don’t.’ She winces and moves back to the bed, pulling on her hoodie and putting up the hood. She sits down. ‘I’m sorry,’ she says, putting her arms out in a come and touch me way. ‘I don’t want to talk about him. He’s not here.’
         ‘I know,’ I say. I climb into her lap and put my head against her tits. ‘I’m sorry too. I want to be your husband. I want us to live in a tree house.’

What’s going on in the woman’s head? Is her husband a wife beater? Would it be okay if he were? Would that excuse her in some way? Humbert’s account is a defence—“you took advantage of my disadvantage”—but Etgar merely recounts what goes on and how he feels about it:

The word debauchery hangs in my head. I wonder if I’m debauched of if Macy is. I definitely don’t feel debauched. I feel lost and quietly panicked.

coverOn someone called Nikki wrote, “I'm on the last 20 pages of Lolita, and once again finding myself in utter amazement and full of love for Nabokov's words. This is the greatest love story ever written.” She’s not the first to use those exact words. Lionel Trilling also called it “the greatest love story of our time”; the quote is used on the covers of some editions. In the preface to The Annotated Lolita Alfred Appel, Jr. says, “Lolita is surely the most allusive and linguistically playful novel in English since Ulysses (1922) and Finnegans Wake (1939)” and he’s right. To illustrate, Nabokov laboured for a month on a single fairly inconsequential sentence (which he himself reckoned would “be skimmed over or not noticed”[4]):

In Kasbeam a very old barber gave me a very mediocre haircut: he babbled of a baseball-playing son of his, and, at every explodent, spat into my neck, and every now and then wiped his glasses on my sheet-wrap, or interrupted his tremulous scissor work to produce faded newspaper clippings, and so inattentive was I that it came as a shock to realize as he pointed to an easeled photograph among the ancient grey lotions, that the moustached young ball player had been dead for the last thirty years.

In that respect it is a beautiful novel and it’s easy to fall in love with the prose and lose perspective: shit no matter how eloquently described is still shit. Brooks, on the other hand, although his wordplay is often clever, is no match for Nabokov. Few are. I’m not. But Brooks cons us in his own way. His book is cheeky and irreverent and doesn’t seem to take anything seriously for long. So Amundsen craps on the living room floor. So what?

I can’t say I was shocked when I learned that Etgar was fifteen. But what if Etgar had been Etrina? We definitely view the sexes differently. It’s the old story: a young man is out sowing wild oats; the female equivalent is a slut. Should I have been shocked? It is a criminal offense after all. Maybe I should’ve been but I wasn’t. Partly because I know it’s all made up but mostly because if I’d been fifteen and had the chance to have sex with an older woman I can’t pretend I wouldn’t have been tempted. I wouldn’t have seen it as a crime. It would have been an opportunity.

But is Lolito a love story? Etgar’s a poet—as was Humbert actually—and here’s one of his poems:

Macy Poem #1
In the event of a zombie apocalypse
in which you were a zombie
my plan would be
to eat three bars of Galaxy
drink six cups of tea
and lie somewhere
clearly visible
but vaguely comfortable
and not try to decapitate you
or stop you from infecting me
with zombie virus.

Okay it’s not a very good poem but what I noticed once I made this connection is the other correlations I could find between Lolita and Lolito, but in most cases the link is between Etgar and Humbert. Humbert is a kid on the inside. He’s living in a fairy tale of his own construction and so is Etgar. All that stuff about going to live in a tree house for example: pure fantasy.

There’s also an odd scene in Lolito—I thought it odd anyway—when Macy takes Etgar to, of all things, a gay bar and then vanishes for a while leaving this young man to fend off advances on his own. Nabokov was a homophobe whose own gay brother apparently scared the living daylights out of him. It’s not exactly a major theme in Lolita but it is important to Humbert—who thinks he looks like a film star anyway (although I don’t think he had James Mason in mind)—that he’s not gay:

The boyish qualities of a nymphet tempt the reader into interpreting Humbert’s quest as essentially homosexual, but we may be less absolute in our judgment and practice of pop psychoanalysis when Humbert tells how during one of his incarcerations he trifled with psychiatrists, “teasing them with fake ‘primal scenes.’ ” “By bribing a nurse I won access to some files and discovered, with glee, cards calling me ‘potentially homosexual’ .”[5]

Humbert, by my reading, is pleased that he’s put one over on the doctors, that he’s hidden his true self.

I’m not saying that Etgar feels a strong need to prove his heterosexuality but I would be curious to learn what was going through Brooks’ head when he inserted this chapter into the proceedings since all it does is (unnecessarily) delay the two of them having sex.

Gay, of course, has changed in meaning over the years and now rather than ‘bright’ or ‘homosexual’ ‘gay’, at least among kids Etgar’s age, means ‘lame’ and a couple of times in the book it’s thrown out as an insult. Perhaps I’m reaching.

Humbert also becomes rougher and rougher with Lolita as the book progresses—partly due to the drink (Etgar also drinks to excess)—and he does hurt her:

She would mail her vulnerability in trite brashness and boredom, whereas I, using for my desperately detached comments an artificial tone of voice that set my own last teeth on edge, provoked my audience to such outbursts of rudeness as made any further conversation impossible, oh my poor, bruised child.

Etgar doesn’t hit Macy but someone has—remember the bruises in the quote above—and so it’s hard not to think of her as a grownup Lolita. Lolita, of course, dies in the book—at eighteen during childbirth—but what if she had lived? It’s the old story of the abused becoming the abuser. It’s too easy to tar and feather Macy without knowing the full story.

The bottom line is that things get quite muddy by the end of the book. I’m not going to tell you how it ends and I apologise for spoiling Lolita for any of you if you intend to read it in the future but the fact is that Nabokov lets that cat out of the bag in the book’s self-penned (under the name John Ray) foreword—but I do think there’s more to Lolito than I’ve been able to get out of it from a single read. At the end of Lolita Humbert says:

This then is my story. I have reread it. It has bits of marrow sticking to it, and blood, and beautiful bright-green flies.

In the final chapter of Lolito Etgar is sitting with his mum in the garden when she plucks “a green insect” off her forearm. Maybe I am reading into it but it’s impossible to read a novel called Lolito without recalling Lolita and it will always sit in its shadow. As for whether Lolito is a good book in its own right, I think it is. It made me think. I made me sit through three hours of Yale lectures[6] on Lolita and a BBC documentary[7]. Lolita is dated. The book is dated. The first film is certainly dated. The questions it raises are more relevant now than ever. Lolito is interesting and relevant because it deals with a problem that doesn’t perhaps get the amount of attention it ought, like husband beating, for example.

TadpoleA similar situation is dealt with in the 2000 film Tadpole in which a fifteen-year-old boy falls in love with his stepmother, Eve, (played by Sigourney Weaver and so totally understandable). He doesn’t have sex with her but he does with his mother’s friend and his parents just shrug it off. The film got a PG-13 certificate in the States and a 15 certificate in the UK. Based on 106 reviews collected by the film review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, 77% of critics gave the film a positive review. The whole abuse thing was carefully side-stepped by most people:

Oscar believes his stuffy, history professor dad is insensitive to Eve's needs and decides that, regardless of the obvious obstacles, he's going to win her love during his visit home, hoping to impress her with his charming manner, his knowledge of philosophy, and his ability to speak French. This plan is slightly derailed when he has an unexpected sexual encounter with Eve's fun-loving best friend, the also-40-year-old Diane. – John R. McEwen, The Republican

Unfortunately for the young ladies Oscar also has an obsession with his stepmother, Eve (Sigourney Weaver). Currently being ignored by the boy’s workaholic history professor dad (John Ritter), Oscar believes he can give the woman what she needs. As it turns out, he’s just as like to give Eve’s best friend Diane (Bebe Neuwirth) what she needs. Hilarity and adolescent confusion ensue. – Ron Wells, Film Threat

“Hilarity and adolescent confusion ensue.” Indeed. Harold and Maude it was not. Now that was a love story.

Bottom line then: If you’ve read this far then you know what you’re letting yourself in for if you decide to pick up a copy of either Lolita or Lolito. Both will make you think. Ben Brooks made me think that I’m glad I was fifteen in 1974 rather than now. I’m not actually that crazy about being fifty-four right now.


[1] Amélie Rives, ‘Innocence versus Ignorance’, The North American Review, Vol. 155, p.287

[2] Ibid, p.292

[3] Vladimir Nabokov ‘On a Book Entitled Lolita’

[4] Ibid

[5] Alfred Appel, Jr., ‘The Artifice of Lolita’, The Annotated Lolita

[6] Open Yale Courses: ‘English 291: The American Novel Since 1945’, lectures five, six and seven.

[7] How Do You Solve a Problem Like Lolita?, BBC4, originally aired on 13 December 2009

Sunday, 11 August 2013

The Care Home

The Care Home

HONESTY, SEX, GUILT, DRUGS, LOVE, PAIN. – Lee Carrick, The Care Home

First-time novelists face two problems. The first is what to write about. The second is how to write about it. I’m not sure which is worst. What usually happens is they try to write about their lives but because they’re usually young they’ve not lived and nothing much has happened to them but they milk what they have and present it in the dulcet tones of their favourite writers as best they can manage to imitate them. Most first novels simply need to be got through and stuck in a drawer as a constant reminder of just how inadvisable it is to try to write a book. Everyone has a book in them and that’s exactly where most should stay.

Lee Carrick’s The Care Home is a first novel, well, first novella—it’s only ninety-two pages long—and it shows. It also shows potential. It’s clearly semi-autobiographical although I suspect the ratio is nowhere near a clean 50:50; there’s a lot here that’s clearly autobiographical. An awful lot. It reads more like a memoir than a novel. But that’s okay, a lot of novels are presented as memoirs although the patina of fiction is often, as I suspect here, palpably thin.

Occasionally, however, a first novel comes along that kicks your feet from right under you: Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting or Iain Banks’s The Wasp Factory. And, of course, sometimes a first novel is just the first one the author’s managed to get accepted; Iain Banks wrote his first novel when he was eleven. If the character of Nicky Daniels in The Care Home is really a barely-disguised Lee Carrick (which I believe he is) then he’s been trying to write a book for a while but has been wise enough to stop once he realised he was writing the wrong book. And it takes guts to go back to the bottom of the hill and begin again. So all credit to him for even finishing one even if it is only a novella. Now was it worth the effort?

Lee hails from South Shields which is a coastal town in Tyne and Wear in the north of England, located at the mouth of the River Tyne and about five downstream from Newcastle upon Tyne. It has been for many years a centre of the shipbuilding industry; the Scottish equivalent would be Clydebank which is just down the hill from me. I’ve been to South Shields—my sister married a bloke from there—but to be honest the action in this book could be set anywhere which I consider a plus. This, however, is what Lee says about his hometown on his blog:

South Shields is the social equivalent of a life support machine; it will keep you alive, you can breathe the air, eat the food and drink the water but it will provide few positive emotional experiences. You can breathe in and out, in and out, in and out and your blood will flow but you will never truly know what life can give you.

And my birth town is not unique; this country is littered with similar areas that infuse their residents with nothing; no reason to stay and no reason to leave. They have been forgotten by time, culture and the interesting people. They are a flat-line on a monitor when life should zigzag like a healthy heartbeat; sharp highs and desperate lows, wins and defeats, elation and misery. Then one can thoroughly explore the vast scope of the human condition.

This is the world Nicky Daniels has grown up in. He’s eighteen, none too bright, suffers from depression, has a criminal record, a bit of a drug problem and not much going for him apart from the scabby, uncared for flat he’s somehow ended up with. Oh, and he thinks he might be a writer. We don’t learn much about his family or his past but we can imagine:

A year previously I had been kicked out of my grandparents’ house. My grandmother accused me of stealing a box of Pro-Plus. I denied it. She told me to leave. I left. Since then I had been living in a council flat on a street in South Shields affectionately known as Heroin Row.

I had managed to stay on at college for a year, surviving on state benefits, cash hand-outs and food parcels from friends and family. But after a year it became too much…

For all you might forgive him if he wallowed in what life has doled out to him the one thing he has going for him is that he doesn’t seem to want to. He wants to work. He wants to improve himself. And if the first step on that road to… well, out of South Shields for starters … happens to be the shittiest of jobs in a care home then so be it.

I chose that adjective with care. It’s one of those words that’s moved away from its origins and we probably don’t think about what we’re really saying when we say a TV programme’s shit or we feel like shit because we don’t like to think about shit. It happens behind us—or underneath (you know what I mean)—and it’s not the kind of subject one brings up in polite conversation. Well, those of a delicate sensibility need not apply because in a care home shit is unavoidable. As Nicky is informed:

One hundred per cent of the residents were incontinent to some degree or another and thus they would all wear a sanitary pad that resembled a baby’s nappy. The management were so worried that a family member would hear the pad being referred to as a nappy that you could be sacked for the most innocent of Freudian slips. At no time were the inhabitants of the home to be likened to children. The sanitary pad was held in place with a pair of net underpants that were so sharp they would leave nasty criss-cross marks all over the rubbery backsides and upper legs of the person wearing them.

His first day does not go well but he survives. At home that night he reflects on his “crazy day”:

On my first day I had wiped faeces from an old man’s testes, watched a seventy-two year old woman finger herself, vomited on one of my new colleagues, bed bathed a lady who was so ill she didn’t even know I was there scrubbing her breasts with a moist flannel, and all for £3.60 an hour.

Surprisingly—and this says something about the character of the boy—he turns up the next day (on time even) ready for more.

Ricky Gervais got a bit of stick recently for his comedy Derek, most of it, it has to be said, before the pilot even aired. For those who haven’t seen it it’s set in a care home and Gervais plays the lead, Derek, who seems mentally limited although we’re never told exactly what’s wrong with him; it doesn’t matter. In an interview he said:

derek_front_340In any sitcom, there have to be two ingredients. The first is that the characters have to be trapped, either literally or psychologically. Look at Porridge or Bilko or Steptoe and Son. The other ingredient is that the characters have to be a family, either literally like The Royle Family or Only Fools and Horses, or metaphorically, as in Dad's Army. They have to be fighting outside forces together. In Bilko, for instance, they have the attitude that, "We're all in this together. It's us against the world." While in Only Fools, they are joining forces to fight the economy.


[In Derek] they're fighting the outside world. They often say, "No one cares". So I have a lot of uncaring intruders coming into the care home. A council man comes in and he clearly doesn't care. And sons and daughters drop off their parents, and immediately start looking at their watches. They are all outsiders who don't care. They are a stark contrast to the people who work in the care home.

Derek is a hero, an innocent. Nicky is not. Well, actually he is a bit. He hasn’t lived. He’s barely had a girlfriend. This is only his second job—he lasted sixteen days with Kentucky Fried Chicken—and he doesn’t seem to have much of a life. He’s not a drug addict, not like Renton in Trainspotting, but he has a bit of a habit—crack cocaine is his drug of choice—although I don’t know how he affords the stuff on £3.60 an hour I have because he also comes across as surprisingly responsible, a man who pays his bills with the one exception—on principle—of his television licence:

They would send me letters twice a month which I would put in the bin without opening; TV’s are more dangerous than guns, but you shouldn’t need a licence.

The Care Home is not a sitcom but is often funny, although you’ll need to have “a certain sense of humour” to appreciate it. I do think most of the rules that Gervais is applying to a good sitcom can apply to a good novel.

Surprisingly Nicky settles into his job. He’s assigned to the elderly mentally infirm ward—or EMI for short:

EMI was the polite, politically correct way of announcing that the residents of this ward are nuts, insane, mental, dementia ridden pensioners, pre-dead humans dressed in pastel cardigans; clothes they would have long ceased to wear if they were compos mentis enough to remember that the evil that is vanity and narcissism could be used for good when deciding to throw away beige, moth bitten attire. These poor souls had forever lost the ability to function normally as productive members of society; in fact, they were now considered a burden.

The residents fall into three types: the bedridden—those incapable of movement, the sitters—who can get around but would be in danger of falling and breaking a hip if they tried, and the walkers:

[T]hese particular residents still have the strength to walk, and walk they do. All day, every day, round and around, constantly searching for a door that will lead them out of the hell that their family has placed them in. Their mumblings were incoherent, but the look on their faces was obvious; they were desperate. Desperate to leave anyway they could. Desperation looks different as we age, for a child it appears and disappears in a moment, but in the elderly it’s tattooed on their faces and screaming to be heard.

The home is required by law to do a background check on all its employees. Remember I mentioned Nicky had a criminal record? In his case it’s assault but this doesn’t stop the home from hiring him. To his mind this says everything about the place.

The book settles down after this into a routine. Nicky talks about his work and he talks about his attempts to write. Eventually he gets a girlfriend—one of the women who works there—and so he talks about his love life and his sex life too. As a writer myself I found the sections when he’s talking about why he feels he needs to write interesting and I suspect these are the most autobiographical bits in the book but that’s fine. Anything to get away from the shit:

I never wanted to be a poet, I never dreamed of having an anthology on the national curriculum, it was just simple to write, somewhere to start and fun.

I wrote then as I do now to reveal myself to the world without having to converse with anyone. I find conversation too combative and useless when trying to reveal the depth of a real emotion. I discovered, through reading, that in the world of fiction nothing was impossible or prohibited, not anymore anyway, and so a writer no longer had to contemplate the what ifs?, the can you imagines? or the wouldn’t it be wonderfuls? There is nothing more liberating than a blank page on the table and a pen in the hand and no preconceived ideas of what one might write. With a stroke of the pen you become the God of the pages.

As a lifelong depressive I also found myself relating to the sections where the Black Dog says his bit:

2428222_f260And now the Black Dog was on my shoulder, whispering in my ear and sinking his rabid teeth into my neck.

– What have you done, Nicky, what have you done? You should have known she was a coke slut, she didn’t insist on protection and she let you cum inside her; you silly little prick. What were you fucking thinking, and now you’ve certainly caught herpes, that shit’s for life man, no getting rid of it, what are you going to tell your girlfriend? And you spent one hundred quid on toot, on toot, Nicky! You’re borrowing money from your family for food and then you go and spend a hundred notes on white powder. It’s your first fucking day at work, man. Sort yourself out.

Nicky doesn’t have an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. Like Churchill—and Samuel Johnson before him—he has a black dog on his back. (There is an excellent article by Paul Foley on the subject: ‘Black dog’ as a metaphor for depression: a brief history.) Giving the dog a voice and a personality was a touch of genius.

For the most part the patients are nameless and faceless or as good as nameless and faceless. Nicky has no qualms about accepting a blow job in Eddie Davis’s room but then Eddie’s reached the seventh and final stage in his dementia:

Very severe cognitive decline. This is the final stage of the disease when individuals lose the ability to respond to their environment, the ability to speak and, ultimately, the ability to control movement. Frequently individuals lose their capacity for recognizable speech, although words or phrases may occasionally be uttered. Individuals need help with eating and toileting and there is general incontinence of urine. Individuals lose the ability to walk without assistance, then the ability to sit without support, the ability to smile, and the ability to hold their head up. Reflexes become abnormal and muscles grow rigid. Swallowing is impaired.

Eddie wouldn’t have had a clue what was happening. This sounds very callous but I used to have a sister-in-law who had been a geriatric nurse for many years and a more emotionally-detached woman I have yet to meet; her ability to compartmentalise and switch off was absolutely frightening and she told me straight that it would have been impossible (for her at least) to survive doing the job she did without being able to switch off. It’s sad how quickly Nicky manages this. But everything changes—later that day in fact—with the arrival of Janey Taylor who’s being wheeled in just as Nicky is about to leave for the night:

I got my coat and waited for Louise in the corridor, we had decided to go for a few drinks after work. Karen appeared from around the corner pushing the new inmate in a wheelchair. As she approached me she began to shout and scream.

– John, John, John. Howay man, John.

They went past me and Janey Taylor looked at me directly in the eyes. She was still screaming when I walked through the locked double doors with Louise and off the ward.

Janey thinks that Nicky is her husband.

Janey’s husband had died five years previously, his name was John Taylor and he was a welder from Newcastle. She had three children, two girls and one boy, all of whom were alive. Her son, Ronald, had emigrated to New Zealand in the 1980’s. Her two daughters, Sylvia and Elizabeth, still lived in the North East. There were no records of them ever having visited her.

When Nicky is around Janey is manageable—when she’s not trying to kiss him—and so she becomes his special case and gradually we start to see a change in Nicky. He was never a bad lad but he had a lot of growing up to do. Now he starts to see his patients as people and not simply lumps of flesh to be cleaned, fed, rotated or medicated. For me, though, the most moving story is of the first death Nicky has to cope with. Over three pages we watch Jimmy Pepper die and it’s terribly moving:

I fetched some clean sheets from the linen room and met Sheila there. Jimmy looked terrible, his eyes were sunk into his head and he was struggling to breath.

We had to take his vest, underpants and sanitary pad off first and replace them all. I had to lift Jimmy’s bony, dying body off the mattress and hold him in position while Sheila fought with his vest to get it off. I then took down his underpants, removed his pad and replaced them both. All the while, Jimmy was dying.

We then removed his blankets, leaving him uncovered. I pulled his lifeless body over to me while Sheila pulled his bed sheet from under him before replacing it. Jimmy continued to die.

I then covered him with some new blankets. Sheila instructed me to clean his room, including vacuuming the carpet. I got the vacuum from the utility closet, took it back to his room and turned it on. The vacuum was loud and annoying, as all vacuums are. Jimmy lay there dying.

Sheila returned and told me that she had called the family and told them to come right away. I was told to wait with Jimmy until they arrived and ensure he was clean and presentable. She went back to her office; she probably had paperwork to do.

So I pulled up a chair beside his bed and sat with him, watching the life drain away from his eyes was very sad.

Jimmy was a “miserable old bastard” but he ends up dying alone apart from Nicky. Later on we learn why his two sons had failed to appear. And it’s probably the most upsetting thing in the book.

schcWhen I first started reading this book I expected to find examples of horrendous abuse—there’s been a bit on the news recently about Southern Cross Healthcare (Sean Abbott from South Shields, admitted four charges of assault on the patients in their eighties)—but there wasn’t any. Really what this is is a coming of age novel, a fairly classic Bildungsroman:

A Bildungsroman tells about the growing up or coming of age of a sensitive person who is looking for answers and experience. The genre evolved from folklore tales of a dunce or youngest son going out in the world to seek his fortune. Usually in the beginning of the story there is an emotional loss which makes the protagonist leave on his journey. In a Bildungsroman, the goal is maturity, and the protagonist achieves it gradually and with difficulty. The genre often features a main conflict between the main character and society. Typically, the values of society are gradually accepted by the protagonist and he is ultimately accepted into society—the protagonist's mistakes and disappointments are over. In some works, the protagonist is able to reach out and help others after having achieved maturity. – Wikipedia

That paragraph is a decent enough summary of this novella but part of the problem here is that Lee chose to write a novella rather than a novel. 25,000 words is all find and good—and I’m a huge fan of the novella when it’s done right—but you have to be choosy about what you write about and some of this felt rushed. At the end of the book after surviving an overdose—which happens somewhere between chapters nineteen and twenty (a wasted opportunity)—something happens that will change his life forever:

I received an email from a magazine that I had never heard of. They got my details from a literary website, of which I was an inactive member. The email gave details of a writing competition based in London. The challenge was to write a novel or a novella over a weekend in their offices in Camden. The plan was to write from eight in the morning until eleven at night; fifteen hours per day for two days. The prize for best novel was a published ebook through a reputable company that I had heard of.

imagesWe’re then told that what we’ve been reading has been the results of those two days. We don’t find out if he won. If he had I wouldn’t have believed it because this is not a prize-winning novella. But it does excuse some of its weaknesses, its lack of refinement. Perversely the book also lacks the rough-and-readiness that made Trainspotting such a startling debut. Trainspotting was about drugs, end of story. One of Nicky’s early efforts is a book called Sniff:

It made sense to me that if I couldn’t take cocaine I might as well write about it; I hoped to trick my mind into thinking we were still doing coke by explaining what it was like in the form of a novel entitled Sniff.

I had been reading a lot of Irvine Welsh books at the time and I decided to try and write in a style that was similar to his; it was the style that I liked to read, so I decided that it should be the style that I write in.


I wanted to write Trainspotting for the cocaine generation. I wanted a low budget movie to be become an international success, but most of all I wanted the recognition.

I rewrote the first 30,000 words of Sniff, ironing out the flaws and adding to the plot; when I’d finished, I realised something. I hated it. I stopped writing it and never added to it again.

What I had realised was that I couldn’t write like Welsh, not because I was a bad writer, but because I wasn’t Irvine Welsh. I knew that I had to find my own style, my own content and be satisfied with what I could produce.

It’s a good thing he did. One Irvine Welsh is quite enough. In subsequent goes he also resists trying to imitate Bukowski and Burroughs although maybe the ghost of Hemingway is still hanging around here. I don’t think Lee has found his voice yet. This is a bit too polite in places. Yes, Nicky swears but he also uses words like “converse” and each of the three times the word crops up it rankled me. Geordies are like Glaswegians: if we use a word like “converse” we’re taking the piss.

As a story this works fine. As a novel maybe not so much and I suspect the problem there is that it’s sticking too close to the truth—novels are fictions; fictions are lies so if you’re going to lie make it a good one—but it has something. Most of it is perfectly readable—a good, solid three-star read (if I gave stars which I don’t)—but every now and then there’s a glimmer of a fourth star and even a suggestion of a fifth. I wouldn’t have spent the last three days working on this article if I didn’t think there was something here worth encouraging.

You can buy the ebook for a mere 77p—I bought my own copy, no one asked me to review this—or if you prefer a paperback it’s available as one of them too. The book was published by McStorytellers and McStoryteller-in-residence Brendan Gisby’s like me; he wants his authors to be read which is why he keeps the price down.

Ping services