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

Wednesday, 23 December 2015


An Old Friend

The pangs of conscience came later
like an ancient dog,
blind and arthritic,
that he could not bear to destroy.

Though a good few paces behind him,
and forever late,
it always arrived,
knowing no one else would have him.

Even if the old man could find sleep,
when he opened his eyes
the dog would be there,
its pearly gaze transfixing him.

17 October 1986

I’m not a bad person. I tell myself I’m not a bad person. Some people think I am. I’ve done bad things—who hasn’t?—but does that make me bad? And who’s to say what’s good and what’s bad. If you’re a Christian that would be God and there’s not much he’s not expressed an opinion on over the centuries—theft, murder, fornication, idolatry—but he’s never been big on explaining why certain things are bad for us.

Eleven years after I wrote this poem I did a bad thing. According to some. I started living with a woman who wasn’t my wife. My mother point blank refused to meet Carrie until we’d tied the knot. Perhaps she couldn’t stop us living in sin but she was sure as hell not going to sanction the union by breaking bread with us. Carrie understood on an intellectual level—on an emotional level she was upset—but we were all adults and we got over it. At least we got on with it. When my mother was dying—not that we realised that was the case until it was too late—both me and my wife were there and Carrie did most of the practical work. Before she died Mum called Carrie her “angel”. Which she was.

People can and do spoil things. They do it by trying to impose their own set of standards on others. Often they’re well-intentioned—my mother certainly was—but even when we do get to do our own thing somehow they manage to sully it. We don’t just want to do our own thing. We want people to approve of us. From the new book (the 'Jim' is not me but there's a lot of me in him):

[F]ornication was a sin he had found both need and opening to commit on a number (albeit a small number) of less than ideal occasions before although not for some years and, as he recalled (it was not that long ago), it was a mightily enjoyable sin, one of the classier ones that didn’t involve oxen or asses, if you discounted the post-coital guilt that always followed. That he had renounced his parents’ moral code, opting to decide for himself what was right and wrong, was one thing. Living with their disapproval was another. Not that they ever knew. It didn’t matter that they never did and they never would. That was neither here nor there. What mattered was that had they known they would have disapproved. More than that, they would have been hurt, mortally wounded. They would have sat there with otter eyes, hanging their heads wondering where they went so wrong.

Today, by the way, is our eighteenth wedding anniversary. The photo is of the card I gave her. And, yes, they’re pencil shavings.


PhilipH said...

I enjoyed this one too, and the rest of your post Jim.

Guilty, M'lud. Yes, we're all guilty of many things.

And, as the Bard has it, 'Conscience doth make cowards of us all...'

Kass said...

I'm intrigued by the idea that we don't like to get rid of our conscience (or guilt). It does hang around until we become friends. Mighty good poem. Very nice anniversary card. Congratulations!

Jim Murdoch said...

Elsewhere though he says, Philip, “Conscience is but a word that cowards use … to keep the strong in awe.” I know what Hamlet’s getting at—modern translations render ‘conscience’ as ‘fear of death’—but my thinking is more in line with King Richard’s. We don’t talk much about honour these days but there was a time—if the rewritings and reimaginings of history are to be believed—when doing the right thing was everything. Was Adam brave to eat the fruit his wife offered him? He risked everything without even realising what that everything comprised of. It doesn’t matter if it’s true or Moses just having a crack a metaphor the situation is one that probably every one of us has had to face: Do I do what I think is right or do I do what others tell me is right?

I’m not sure, however, Kass, that once we have made our decision and it’s gone, as I put it in the book, “pear-shaped tits up” that we choose to hang on to the values that have caused us pain. I have rejected my parents’ moral code. Completely. I was delighted when I heard the two girls next door were getting married. Genuinely. But in the back of my head a voice tells me it’s wrong. I cannot shake it. That’s what indoctrination does to you. You can stop doing what they’ve told you and go your own way but you can never enjoy the rest of the journey as much as you’d like to. Guilt is an odd thing. It’s easily triggered by things outwith our control. Over time I developed a taste for it. If I felt a twinge of guilt afterwards then I’d done it right. Which it twisted. But that’s what they do to us.

In the poem what I’m talking about is the ineffectualness of the conscience. More often than not it doesn’t stop us doing what we want to do irrespective of the rightness or wrongness of what we’re about to do. Instead it arrives too late to do any good.

Kass said...

Jim, for some people, conscience never arrives. I'm with you on the residual effect of parental and religious conditioning. I'm not sure I will ever know the answer to your question, "Do I do what I think is right or do I do what others tell me is right?"

Rain-in-the-Face said...

Back on July 4 1974, my dad had done something inexplicable
when it came 'time' for the old lady dog, blind and arthritic
to be put down. I was 13 at the time.

Reading your words, this Christmas morning, has plucked
the thorn from my foot and drained ancient poison.

what an unexpected gift of compassion.

Jim Murdoch said...

I’m glad my poem became something useful to you Rain-in-the-Face. I really have no problem with people making poems their own. Meaning belongs to the reader. You bring your baggage and make something new. And, occasionally, it’s something wonderful. Thanks for leaving the comment.

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