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

Sunday, 25 January 2015


The Pathologist

It was a strange meeting –
between Jones
and his successor...
one that neither could have
prepared for:
the old Doctor categorized
by his injuries and numbered.

No longer the processor
but the processed,
mortified, he lay there
and sighed –
in the manner of the dead.

31 August 1978


Sepia was an interesting magazine that ran from 1977 until 2002 as best I can see. It was one of the many small press magazines that were kicking around in the late seventies and the quality of the early issues left a lot to be desired but it was clearly a labour of love. Each one, at least for the first few issues, arrived in the post with a Sepiasepia-tinted postcard glued to the cover which usually fell off but what the heck? He didn’t just publish poetry. He produced wee booklets about Captain Beefheart too and something called The Cropthorne Camera of Minnie Holland, 1892-1905. The photo on issue 8 was of the switch station on the Ffestiniog gauge railway circa 1880 run by Mr and Mrs Will Jones from 1929 until 1968.

As best I can tell ‘The Pathologist’ was first published in Sepia 8 in April 1979. It also appeared in Effie 5; I don’t have a date for that but I suspect it was later. What was nice about Effie is they published it alongside ‘Stray’ with the correct layout and punctuation. The tone here is very similar to ‘The Venereologist’ but I think I’ve done a better job with the metaphors especially the double meaning of ‘mortified’. I was very pleased with that and it still makes me smile. Not quite sure why the new pathologist was called Jones other than the Welsh practice of tagging on a man’s job title at the end of his name to distinguish him from all the other Joneses out there: Jones the butcher, Jones the baker, Jones the pathologist.

I’ve been thinking about the first line and I suspect I borrowed ‘strange meeting’ from Wilfred Owen’s poem of the same name but I wouldn’t read too much into that.


Joseph Hutchison said...

The Surname Internet Database says: "This famous surname, widespread throughout the British Isles, and the most popular surname in Wales, one in ten Welsh people being so-called, is nethertheless of English medieval origins. It derives either from the male given name John, or its female equivalent Joan, both Norman French introductions after the 1066 Invasion. Both names are written as Jon(e) in medieval documents, and a clear distinction between them on the grounds of gender was not made until the 15th Century. However, because western society has almost invariably had a male as family head throughout history, bearers of the surname Jones are more likely to derive it from a patronymic form of John, than a matronymic form of Joan. The personal name John, ultimately from the Hebrew "Yochanan" meaning "Jehovah has favoured (me with a son)", has always enjoyed enormous popularity in Europe, and particularly so after the famous Crusades of the 12th century. The name, which is found in some four hundred spellings, is in honour of St. John the Baptist, the precursor of Christ."

Read more:

Assuming you didn't know all this, we have an instance of an irony getting embedded in a "simple" poem by the force of linguistic history, not intention.

But the word that really gets me is "process", "The fact of going on or being carried on, as an action, or a series of actions or events" [OED]. A view of life when defined by one's occupation. Bleakly funny!

Jim Murdoch said...

This is what it’s all about, Joe, the making of a poem your own and, by extension, I’ll never be able to look at this piece the same again but that’s fine. I have a poem I think of as ‘the Barry poem’ because a girl I let read it said it reminded her of some guy called Barry and she talked about it as ‘the Barry poem’ and henceforth it will always be ‘the Barry poem’. I’ve heard about novelists spending days pondering on the names for their characters. I’ve really never done that. I pretty much pick the first name that comes into my head. Jonathan Payne, for example, the protagonist in my first novel was called Jonathan because I got the idea for my book from a book called The Pigeon where the protagonist was called Jonathan Noel. The surname was obvious: ‘Payne’ because he was a man in pain. I probably thought about that for all of twenty seconds. I doubt I even dwelt that long over Jones but it really needed to be a name with a single syllable and Jones is sonorous; you feel you want to pause a second after uttering it. Maybe that’s why I chose it. But it was very much a gut decision. It’s rare for any of my poems to have a named individual in them. Can’t think of another offhand.

vito pasquale said...

It’s great that you’ve given the background to the poem and its initial publishing. Not that this has anything to do with the poem (except for the cover of Sepia) but I happened to be in Ffestiniog, just after having been in Aberystwyth, Wales for the 1983 International Sheep Dog Trials. Until I read this article I hadn’t thought to see if there was anything online about the competition and, indeed there was: some nice “vintage” photos on the Border Collie Museum website. It was nice to revisit that time. Seems like yesterday.

The poem is interesting. As instructed, I won’t read too much into the “Strange meeting,” but it is that sigh near the end, which to me, animates the poem. And the first three lines are almost a poem in themselves.

Jim Murdoch said...

I know you’re like me, Vito, you’ve been writing for a while and have more poems lying around than you know what to do with. And our favourites are always the most recent pieces. In the late seventies I sent batches out all the time and my acceptance rate was decent even if it was the same poems that were being taken again and again. So, of course, I got a bit bored with them and as I’ve never been anywhere near prolific I pretty much lost interest in sending stuff out. I’d proved something to myself: I could get people who didn’t know me from Adam to accept my poems on their own terms. That was important. Taking the next step was the problem because I didn’t know any other poets and that seemed to be important. Besides life got in the way and although it didn’t do the poetry any harm—poetry loves misery—I didn’t ever see me making a name for myself. Not as a poet anyway although at that time I never imagined for one minute that I would turn to prose.

I’ve never been to Wales. Love talking to the Welsh when I get the chance. Some of the northernmost Scottish accents are lilting like that. I stayed in Oban once and went into shops to buy any old rubbish just to try to strike up conversations with the locals. I know I’d be the same in Wales. And that was what disappointed me so much about Dublin when we visited; it was being run by foreigners.

Sheepdogs I have no experience of and little interest in. I’m really not a dog person. The girls next door bought a chocolate lab a few months back and it was cute then—all baby animals are cute—but now she’s big but still daft and every time I encounter her she ends up scratching me in her enthusiasm. I far prefer the disdain of cats: Oh, pet me if you must.

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