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

Thursday 30 August 2007

The miracle of language

I don’t get language. I know a lot of words though I’m always a little wary of dropping most of the big ones into conversation not out of any lack of confidence but because they don’t belong in conversational English. Take a word like borborygmia for example (the sound of wind moving through your digestive tract), it’s a lovely word but what’s the point in using it if you have to explain it?

I was having a quiet spot at work today and, as I do, I was pondering why we use the term ‘paragraph’ to describe a distinct division of text. The ‘graph’ bit I got – from graphein “to write” – but what did the prefix ‘para’ mean? I thought about parachute, paramount, paraplegic, Paraguay – okay maybe not Paraguay – but I couldn’t figure it out and I didn’t have a computer to hand.

Now I see it comes from the Greek paragraphos, "short stroke in the margin marking a break in sense," and that makes sense, some sense. Maybe one day I’ll look up the history of the written word and see if what I think is right. I don’t really need to know. Words change their meanings. I see that all the time. My wife will ask me if I’ve ‘taped’ such-and-such on TV but what she means is have I set the DVD recorder to save the programme on the machine’s hard drive, but, “Did you set the tape?” works just fine.

But back to work. I happened to mention what was going through my mind to the girl next to me. More fool me. I’ve only known her a week but that was long enough to find out that her favourite film was Zoolander the only author she ever mentioned was John Grisham and she’d never heard of Waiting for Godot so why was I so amazed when she showed no interest at all in the question?

Like I said at the start, I don’t get language but that’s never stopped me being fascinated by it. I don’t get childbirth and I’ve witnessed it. I know a lot of words but I really don’t understand that much about any of them. Thank God for my readers to help me out.

Thursday 23 August 2007

Why we read

I picked up a book today for the first time since God alone knows when, a fiction book that is. All I seem to have been reading of late have been textbooks – how to write HTML, how to blog, the ins and outs of web marketing – it can wear you down.

The book, not that it matters too much, is On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan. I’ve not read anything by him since The Cement Garden despite the fact we have practically all of his books in the house. The attraction was its size. Best to break oneself in gently.

I have mixed feelings about reading which I could put down to my age but it’s not the case because I’ve always had them. Do I like reading is perhaps the first question that deserves an answer and the answer is, no.

Let me clarify. I don’t particularly enjoy the physical act of reading – I can never get comfortable, my eyes start to itch, I get sleepy – unless (and it is a BIG unless) the author manages to captivate me, entrance me – call it what you will. We use the term ‘novel’ to describe a book-length piece of prose and that’s where the problem lies for me. On the surface every book is new, which is where the term ‘novel’ is derived from but there’s new and there’s new.

There was a time when anything remotely female caught my eye. Nowadays I wander around peering at the ground unless (and it is a BIG unless) the girl/woman/lady has that certain je ne sais quoi. It’s usually unqualifiable and the females in question tend to come under the heading ‘not conventionally beautiful’. It is the same with books. I don’t want to get intimate – and let’s face it, reading is pretty intimate – with any old book that says it’s a novel.

Secondly then, so why do I read? You never know. You can suspect but you never know until you crawl in between the covers. Sure, you can ask you friends, “How was it?” but they may have simply not connected the way you will. Of course, as I get older, I can talk myself out of getting uncomfortable very easily.

Anyway we’ll see how this goes. It’s keeping my interest so far.

Monday 20 August 2007

Good reads

I’ve joined a new site by the name of Goodreads whose purpose is to provide a home for a pile of book reviewers to store and share information. (Note to self: there must be a better collective noun for book reviewers. Maybe ‘column’? A column of book reviewers).

The chore, which is where I am at the moment is entering all the books, or at least a good whack of the books, you’ve read. (Hm is ‘a good whack of’ a proper collective noun?) As a writer you might imagine I’ve read a ton of books (and would that be Avoirdupois or Troy) but I don’t own many of them. (Actually, if I’ve read a ton of books I probably own about 7 or 8 hundredweight of what I’ve read – I still have quite a lot of books).

The thing I’m finding is that there are books on my shelves that I know I’ve read and yet I can’t remember a damn thing about them. I even remember enjoying them at the time. Now, the question is, does this reflect badly on me or the author? I suppose a bit of both. The thing is, I got through my fair share of classics in my youth. Now I’m not saying that no one is writing great literature anymore but only time will tell I suppose if its effects will be lasting. The sad fact is that a lot of the time we don’t realise we are in the presence of greatness.

And, of course, what makes anything great? I find myself giving all the books on my list four or five stars and it’s not because I’m particularly magnanimous in my praise, it is just that I have read a lot of good books and the reason for that is I’m a bad reader. I have to be getting something out of a book to commit valuable time to it. And time is valuable. So I take my time – sometimes an extraordinary amount of time – before I fork out hard cash on any book which is why if I’ve loved a certain book by one author I won’t rush out and buy everything they’ve ever done, Samuel Beckett and Richard Brautigan excepted. (I know – go figure). When I was younger I made a point, for a few years anyway, of only reading books by either Nobel prize-winners, or, when it came to sci fi, Hugo and Nebula award winners. And that wasn’t a bad thing, if a little narrow-minded of me.

I remember a scripture from my childhood and I suppose a lot of other people’s: But beyond this, my son, be warned: the writing of many books is endless, and excessive devotion to books is wearying to the body (Ecclesiastes 12:12). It is so true and yet I still love being around books, I love the smell of them (even the old fusty ones) and I love owning them even books I’ll probably never get round to reading which I suppose is like buying expensive wine you can’t afford to drink. I just wish they weren’t so damn expensive these days and I’d bought more when they were only 35p each (the price I paid for my first book).

Friday 17 August 2007


I was playing around with keyword checking websites yesterday, trying to get a feel for them. Meta tags were so much easier. I started with the kinds of keywords I thought might work for my site but didn’t come away much the wiser. So, I thought, let’s have a go with some words where I know what to expect so I tried “transformers” and lo and behold hardly anyone was searching for that word until a couple of months ago, now 100,000 people a day are investigating them. Cool.

Okay I said, let’s try something that women will search for. Assuming men were more interested in the contents than the containers I typed in “bra” but I was so wrong: only 60% of all searches were by males. I told my wife and she said to look up “breasts” which I obediently did and the results were also a bit of a surprise: a mere 67% of males. To be honest I expected more but I was forgetting about breast cancer and implants.

Then I took a closer look at what breasts were being looked at. Jessica Alba’s were by far the most popular (7594 searches) and then I noticed the fifth one the list: just after Jessica there were 6881 searches for “13 year old breast”. The thing is, there were no entries for fourteen-year-olds or fifteen-year-olds or any other age. What’s so magical about thirteen-year-old girls? Back in 1972-73 all the girls I knew were thirteen and I actually don’t recall being particularly obsessed with any of them; they were all strange creatures and I don’t recollect any of them being particularly well-endowed. That said I had an eye for the older woman even back then.

Still I think back with some fondness to those years. I’m not so sure I’d want to relive them. I’m positive I wouldn’t want to be thirteen now. I’m not so sure I like being forty-eight now. I get wanting to believe that the grass is always greener and I’m becoming more and more nostalgic as the days go by but there’s danger in that too – living in the past uses up what little time we have in the present. Carpe Deum as they say.

Tuesday 14 August 2007

Jeanette and Richard

I love Jeanette Winterson in much the same way I love Richard Brautigan. I think she’s beautiful and it delights me no end when I rediscover – because I never remember – that we’re the same age; he’s handsome in a way that only my wife will ever see me and it pleases me, again for no logical reason, that we both had daughters even if he did give his an odd name (Ianthe). But that’s not why I love them.

My wife owns every book Jeanette has ever written. She even has a DVD of her screenplay. I have virtually everything Richard ever wrote though I doubt I’ll ever have the money to afford some of the early poetry books. I’ve not read all of Jeanette’s books nor am I in a rush to buy the last couple of Richard’s novels that I’ve not got to (The Hawkline Monster and Dreaming of Babylon). The reason is the same: I’ve read everything Samuel Beckett ever wrote.

I own a copy of every piece of fiction that Beckett ever wrote. I have DVDs of all his stage plays, CDs of all his radio plays, I have video clips of his television plays and more books about the man than most libraries. There is nothing I have not read or seen and there never will be again.

So I eke out the Brautigan. I’ve a good twenty or thirty years left in me; there’s no rush. And I’ll get around to all the Winterson too in time. At least I’ve not made the mistake with her and gobbled up greedily everything she has ever written as soon as it was available. There are certain writers in this world who need to be savoured. Asimov, by his own admission, is a decent enough storyteller, as is Philip K Dick, but with a few special writers the journey is the destination.

I met Jeanette once in a Waterstones; she’s totie (Scots for small). She made a mess of signing my book and was quite disarming, very human. I wanted to tell her she was beautiful but I chickened out besides I felt shallow, judging a book by its cover, and so I said I thought she was the most articulate person I had ever met which I think might have embarrassed her about as much. I don’t think I would’ve felt such a strong urge to tell Richard Brautigan he was handsome.

Saturday 11 August 2007

Imaginary buddies

I just read an article called The Buddy List: The Fifteen Most Dynamic Duos in Pop Culture History.

I have to admit to being pleased to see Vladimir and Estragon there (albeit at #6). There were some glaring omissions, Batman and Robin was the first that jumped to my mind but, on checking the criteria the compilers imposed upon themselves, I could see why they weren't there. I was less convinced that Mulder and Scully should be excluded because they wound up as a couple but what the heck.

I was also sorry to see George and Lenny from Of Mice and Men were not on the list. You couldn't call Lenny a sidekick but they’re definitely not on an equal footing. Of course I became aware of the notion of George and Lenny long before I read the book. The pairing of the big dumb bloke with the little street-wise guy was a regular feature in the American cartoons I watched as a child and perhaps it is there that the origins of my own literary creations dates back.

What puzzles me more is that basically I'm a solitudinous individual. I can do the whole team-player thing when needs must but I work better on my own which is important if you have aspirations to be a writer. And yet all my novels revolve around pairs: Truth and Jonathan in the first two, Jim and Joe Hoover and, of course, Milligan and Murphy in the fourth. Even the kids' book involved the uneven partnership of a reclusive mole and an adventurous mouse. Looking more closely however only Milligan and Murphy are on an equal standing, half-brothers who pretend to be brothers and wish they were twins.

Buddies don’t need to go through shite alone. And maybe that’s one of the reasons I write so I don’t need to feel so alone; there’s someone, no matter how abstract, who will read and think about what I’ve had to say. That that someone might not come along for years isn’t important. I wrote in a short story once: “A comedian told a joke in a forest but there was no one there to hear it. So was it funny?” I don’t know the answer to that one but I could just as easily have asked: a writer wrote a story in a forest but there was no one there to read it, so did it mean anything?

I’ll guess I’ll have to leave that one for you to answer, Bud.

Wednesday 8 August 2007

The guy in the corner

I’ve been looking through some social networking sites for writers, Storylink, Readerville and Writing.Com. I’m trying to get a feel for them, to understand where they fit into the mix these days but I’m not quite there yet. I used to be involved with Zoetrope a few years back but it consumed so much of my time I quit and wrote a couple of novels instead.

Things have changed. The lingo for one. And the mentality. Now don’t get me wrong, I spend hours online as does my wife. I still own all my reference books – I have a shelf full of dictionaries – but I rarely need to get off my backside to check one. And that’s a good thing. I believe that’s a good thing. Between us we own five computers and have totally embraced this new technology but only up to a point. And that point for me was about ten years ago. I haven’t moved on not because my experience with Zoetrope was bad because it was anything but.

Now I’m told I need an author website, a blog, a MySpace page and something called a Squidoo lens. I need a profile and I need to be shoving it in people’s faces. The problem is, I don’t really know what I’m expected to say. It’s why I write. The writing is far more interesting than I am but it seems I can’t divorce myself from it which bothers me because the work should be able to stand alone and apart. It needs to. It was designed to. Everything out of me that was necessary to give the work life is still there, all jumbled up in the words and that’s fine but as soon as you know one thing about me that’s not relevant to the book then the flavour has changed because people judge.

I can see there are protocols, web-etiquette and the like but for the moment I think I’ll just hang out over here in the corner muttering to myself and see if maybe one of these days someone will take pity on me.

Tuesday 7 August 2007

Fuzzy truths

So what’s with the title? I suppose I should’ve made this the first blog but I didn’t. The quote is from a poem I wrote some time ago. It’s a line of thought I’ve been absorbed with for most of my life.

I was brought up to believe that one day I would get to know the truth and that knowledge would in some way free me (John 8:32) but the problem was I couldn’t tell. I was presented with things and told they were true but I pretty much only had people’s words for it. I didn’t feel freed. In the main, of course, it was the bigger issues, the existence of a personal god and the meaning of life. Their truths were not without proofs but, for the most part, what was needed was a leap of faith to believe the truth.

Beliefs are another thing completely. They don’t need to be true. In some cases it’s not even essential that the individual believe that they’re true. In those cases it’s a matter of going through the motions because doing something, feeling something is perceived as better than doing or believing nothing.

Which bring us to lying. I was brought up to believe that lying was wrong, even white lies to be honest. Much has to do with intent. But what makes something a lie? The intention of the one talking is not the only factor. One has to consider how the hearer chooses to interpret what he hears. And that choice may not be a conscious one either.

We continually redefine words throughout our lives and those definitions inevitably become more and more complex, meaning becomes harder and harder to ascertain. So, do we revert to some kind of convoluted lawyerese to make sure we’re understood or do we simply accept that nothing is certain? Or do we just go with our best guess? I just love the concept of fuzzy logic:

I love you >= my sister < (a wife or lover)

As a writer I have to deal constantly with the almost impossible task of communication. A long time ago I realised that I can only go so far down that road and that from that point on the words are in the hands of my readers who will make of them what they will. Some will take one look at them and leave well alone, others will hoist them up on their backs and head off into the distance. Either way what truths exit lie outwith my control.


Writers are all liars. We all are.
But at least they are honest liars.

They write down those necessary lies,
the kind that move men to leaps of faith
or excuse us when we fail to jump.

In the end it doesn't matter that
they let us down in the cruellest ways.

August 18, 1996

Monday 6 August 2007

Death and heroes

Ingmar Bergman is dead. He died a few days ago but I only just found out. I'd watched two documentaries about him on BBC4 a couple of weeks ago and, for the first time, the early film, Sawdust and Tinsel. I immediately went into the living room and told my wife. "That's sad," she replied and I tried to remember the last person whose death I took note of but I couldn't. It was an actor, of that I was confident, who had died but I couldn't think of his name. Now I've had time to think about it I realise it was the comedian-turned-actor Mike Reid.

It would be in the 1970s that I became aware of both men. It is quite possible that I had run across a Bergman film before that but I would no doubt have found it boring and it would have gone over my head. Reid, of course, was one of the original stars of The Comedians, a TV show featuring a host of stand-up comics. There was nothing subtle about his humour.

The first Bergman film I remember seeing - and it is still, sentimentally perhaps, my favourite - was The Silence. What struck me about it was its understated quality. It was also my first - and only for a very long time - exposure to the notion of female masturbation. That said, the scene in question happens and that is it. It is never referred to, explained or commented on and that it so true about the rest of the film. So much is unsaid and left to the viewer to make of it what he will.

I can't pretend that each death hasn't affected me not because I held either especially dear - I was devastated when Eric Morecambe died and I'm not looking forward to hearing of Woody Allen's passing - but because they were a part of my past. There places in my past are assured, nothing can change them but their places in my future will be taken by other funny men and filmmakers. Little by little I am having to live my life without these benchmarks and touchstones. Little by little I'm becoming surrounded by strangers.

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