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

Wednesday, 12 August 2015


For F.

Two one-legged men
limping down the road
sharing a single crutch
and each, in turn,
being a crutch to the other.

Both must go on
for neither has the strength to alone
and neither knows how
to leave the other.

16 September 1983

Murphy with border 1-6 ratioThis must be one of the oddest love poems ever and yet that is what it is. I hadn’t noticed before but it’s interesting that here we have more damaged people. The Ophthalmologist’s Wife (#552) was blind and, metaphorically speaking, so was her husband and now her both characters have lost a leg, a support, e.g. a spouse. I always liked the metaphor here but I was never that crazy about ‘For F.’ as a poem; it lacks. I eventually turned it into a story in my novel Milligan and Murphy:

          For a while they lay there like three sardines. Finally Milligan spoke up. “Mr Ahern?”
           “What is it, Mr Milligan?”
           “Would you tell us another of your stories just to help us get off?”
           “Certainly, Mr Milligan, I most certainly shall.” He considered for a moment. “Did you ever hear about a thing with two heads and three legs?”
          Milligan hadn’t. Murphy hadn’t either but didn’t let on.
           “Is it a joke?” he wanted to know though.
           “Not in the way I imagine you’re thinking, Mr Murphy, but some would say that life is the joke and we are the butt of it. Once, gentlemen, there were two men; almost two men, should I say, because neither was whole; in fact, there was a peculiarity common to each of them; for both men, at one time or another, for reasons best known to themselves, had been relieved of the burden of a leg; the right leg, as it happens, in each instance; and, as it happens, as things do; they found themselves together on the same road and headed in the same direction. It appeared to them that there was no good reason not to travel a while together. It was the first time either of them had met a fellow amputee and they thought they might have much to discuss. As it also happens, there was little either had to say about the inconveniences of unidexterousness that the other had not experienced first-hand. The topic was exhausted quickly and they limped on their way in quiet contemplation of the road ahead since neither found they had left much behind them worth thinking about. They travelled slowly for the most part. Misfortune struck after the first furlong. The crutch of one became caught between two rocks causing the man—let us call him F.—to stumble and fall. Vainly attempting to save himself he lunges for the crutch and in doing so snaps it in two in such a way as to render it irreparable. What is the other man—let us call him M.—to do?”
           “Don’t know,” replied Milligan not realising it was a rhetorical question.
           “The man’s options are limited, mainly, it has to be said, by his adherence to certain Aramaic and Greek texts, particularly one tale, which may or may not have been just a story, concerning a citizen of Samaria which he understood to be a town in Palestine named after some man—though not the resident in question—who once owned a hill, of all things. Should he stay or should he go? He owed the man nothing. It had been taken for granted that they would stay together until they parted and that that time would come at a time agreeable to either one, though not necessarily, both of them. This was clearly not the time. What to do though? M. was in a quandary. He was utterly perplexed. The answer was simple, of course, as all the best engineering solutions are; so straightforward that it took them a full hour to figure it out: they would share the one good crutch they had between them.”
           “I don’t follow.” Milligan was not one for puzzles even when he wasn’t falling asleep.
           “F. stood to the left of M. and leaned on him. M., in turn, leaned on his crutch and so, with two heads and three legs, they set off into the distance. From time to time they swapped over and F. would take the crutch. Interestingly, when I met them several years after this event, they were still together with only the one crutch between them. I asked them why and F. said quite simply that they had never found the need to vary the arrangement.”
          Milligan said nothing; he was asleep.
           “Did you really know those two?” asked Murphy. “Or is it just a story?”
           “Mr Murphy, I have known those and so many like those.”
           “And yet you travel alone.”
           “I do, I travel alone, but that is a story for another day. Good night, Mr Murphy.”
           “Good night, Mr Ahern.”

You can still buy a copy of Milligan and Murphy as an e-book from Smashwords or as a paperback from FV Books.


Kass said...

Maybe all poets are damaged in the sense that our associations (word and social) come from a place of deep confusion over the human condition. I like how you refer to poetry as a disease in The Nature of Poetry in your book, Reader Please Supply Meaning (not sure if I have permission to reprint it here - if any other commenters are interested, they could get the book from -
Jim's Poetry

Jim Murdoch said...

I have no problem reprinting the poem, Kass:


      The Nature of Poetry

      Poetry has as much to do with words
      as emulsion has to do with fine art.

      I don't know if we inherit it
      or contract it but there's no known cure;
      it has to run its course.

      It helps of course to get the words out
      but they're only part of the problem.

      The symptoms differ radically,
      though most are incurable, some fatal,
      all painful.

      Don't say you understand.
      How could you possibly understand?

      9 March 1996

Do I believe all artists are damaged? No. Nor do they have to be to create art. And yet the more you read about the great artists—I am, of course, using the word in the broadest sense—the more you realise that we’re often dealing with people with more than your average emotional baggage. I remember when I first read Asimov’s novelette The Bicentennial Man. It had a HUGE impact on me. The metaphor of the art as malfunction has never left me. That simple idea has haunted me for years. People joke about someone being dropped on their head as a kid. Well I was or at least I might’ve been; I rolled off a kitchen table while my mother’s back was turned. No idea what part of my anatomy hit the floor first. I also had meningitis as a little boy. How much “damage” was done I have no idea but the romantic in me—he’s still there I’m afraid—likes to imagine there was a day when I became a writer although I’m perfectly happy with being born one too.

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