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

Sunday, 11 January 2015


Family Life

Little boy sat on his own,
headphones on:
jamming his mind full of Bowie
to drown out his screaming parents.

Sister’s putting on her war paint:
Friday Night…
Alex Harvey concert at The Apollo.

Baggy-eyed newsreader
mouthing goldfish words.

Father to the pub…
Mum to the bingo…

Little boy to the sherry bottle
and the cigarette packet.

14 August 1976

‘Family Life’ was first published in Words 6. I seem to recall is was affiliated in some way with Aberdeen University but I can find no evidence in the journal to that effect. This was the first poem I ever had published. It was also the first—and for the longest time the only—poem I was ever paid for, the grand sum of £1.50, the value of two issues of the journal. As much as that delighted me I was disappointed when I received my contributor’s copy and noticed they’d omitted the poem’s title.

It’s not remotely biographical. My dad never went to the pub, not in the same ways that other dads went to the pub (I’m not suggesting that he never went inside a pub but it was a rarity), and my mum certainly never went to the bingo. They did on occasion have a drink at home but it was more likely to be martini; Christ knows why I made it sherry. I don’t think my mother ever smoked but Dad had certainly given up long before I showed any interest in having a drag. And no, I don’t have a big sister. But I think I might’ve quite liked one.

I’ve always liked Bowie and he definitely was on a roll in the seventies but he was just one of many singers I listened to. The Sensational Alex Harvey Band were a Scottish band. I had their single ‘Boston Tea Party’ which I still think’s a great song but I didn’t really know them apart from that. He did play the Glasgow Apollo many times. In an article in The Glasgow Herald David Belcher recalls a famous show in 1975:

During one of those shows, Alex reached the usual dramatic denouement of the song ‘Framed’, portraying an innocent man fitted up by the polis. The band stopped playing, leaving Alex a broken figure in the spotlight, looking up pitiably to some higher power, pleading: "Ah didn't do nothin'." From the darkness, a Glaswegian voice insisted: "Aye, ye did—ye shagged ma sister."



Gwil W said...

I think it's time for a cuppa.

Kass said...

Yep, Gwil has the right idea.
Like the poem.
It speaks.

Jim Murdoch said...

You know I looked at your comment for a couple of days, Gwilliam, before I dawned on me you’re talking about the Boston Tea Party. (You were talking about the Boston Tea Party, right?) God, I am thick. I was a real tea jenny as a kid but somewhere along the line I developed a taste for coffee and never looked back. I can still enjoy a cup of tea but it’s been a while since I had a decent cup. And I can’t stand fruit teas or infusions of whatever they’re called.

Glad the poem called out to you, Kass. Wonder what you’ll make of today’s offering. It’s interesting look back on old poems like this because I’m actually approaching objectivity. I read once that you should sit on a poem for ten years before announcing it as finished. I can see the sense in that.

vito pasquale said...

Jim - Who is the baggy-eyed newsreader? Just someone on the tv? He's a kind of an interloper in the poem, a dark presence. Unidentified. . .

You were only 17 when you wrote it and to see it published must have been a real thrill. Title or no title.

Jim Murdoch said...

There are a number of candidates as you’ll see here, Vito, but the one I was thinking about was Peter Woods most likely. What I was thinking of here was the omnipresent TV—what my dad often referred to as “the one-eyed gogglebox” or the “one-eyed god in the corner”—effectively a fifth member of this family. With the sound down he’d be like a goldfish and, of course, some goldfish look like they’ve got puffy eyes. And, yes, of course I was delighted to see my name in print although technically I’d already had a couple of dozen poems published in the school magazine the four years I was there. Sadly I threw them out—such an idiot!—and I can only remember the title of one of them but every year I had more poems in than anyone else.

Ken Armstrong said...

Perhaps the truths we change in our writing says the most about us. Maybe not though, maybe it's just the quest for the most suitable word to use.

Jim Murdoch said...

It’s a good point, Ken. Yes, I have changed a word, a fact, because it didn’t fit. In ‘Deconstructing Jimmy’ I wrote:

      Whenever I have needed something
      it was never there:
      the capital of Peru or the

      TV remote, the exact bus fare

but in ‘Borrowed Knowledge’ it became

      Two plus two
             is not mine, nor the capital
             of Venezuela,
             nor the reasons
             I'm all alone tonight.

simply because I needed the extra syllables. The “fact” is that I can remember the capital cities of hardly any countries; geography was never my forte.

But there have been times when I’ve changed the facts to hide certain truths. Or at least to universalise them. You should always—always, and not just in my poems—question the use of the first person singular. Yes, my poems are far more autobiographical than my prose but I cherry pick and graft things on. You can never be certain.

Ping services