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

Sunday 30 September 2007

English in its underwear

Scots is English in its underwear. It's difficult to be pretentious in a language like that.

I’m sorry to say that the above quote is not one of mine. I’m far from sorry to say that I knew the man who said it. William McIlvanney is a much-respected Scottish writer who wrote vernacular fiction years before Irvine Welsh and who can not only be credited with creating Tartan Noir crime fiction (Ian Rankin dedicated his second ‘Rebus’ novel to him) but also with making it literary. He has just published his latest novel after a ten-year gap.

CBC Radio One has recently broadcast an interview with the author and this is, I'm not ashamed to say, nothing less than a shameless plug, not that I imagine he needs it.

Anyone who has read even a couple of my blogs will realise that language fascinates me and I owe a lot to this guy. He has pointed out more than once that the lower down the social ladder you get, the more metaphorical (and this encompasses similes, metonymies and synecdoches), the more idiomatic, and quite simply, the more poetic the language gets. The poetry we got at school was canned, full of preservatives, contrived. It couldn’t hold a candle to what we heard in the playground.

My background was not that dissimilar from McIlvanney’s. Our fathers each more intelligent than he was, educated with a son he didn’t quite get. Neither could see the point in reading fiction, “summat someone’s jist made up oot o’ their heed,” but both did read non-fiction. We both started off as poets before we became novelists – in spite of, or because of, all the Burns we had to read (it’s hard to be sure) – but neither of us could leave the poetry alone; like a toddler, it gets into everything.

The most important thing I learned from him is that it matters how you say something. It’s not enough to state your case and get off the page. Meaning is more than simple understanding; it’s a whole other ball game.

Look at these two examples:

Running was a dangerous thing. It was a billboard advertising panic, a neon sign spelling guilt. Walking was safe. You could wear strolling like a mask. Stroll. Strollers are normal. (Laidlaw)

Life's a spendthrift mother. Once she has given what she has, it's ungrateful to complain that she didn't have the foresight to take out an insurance policy on your behalf. (Strange Loyalties)

My own writing is quite different to McIlvanney’s – I never felt the need try and emulate his style even in the couple of short stories I’ve written in dialect – but the simple fact is he was the first writer I ever met in the flesh and got to talk to and, do you know what, he was just a bloke: no airs and graces and certainly no pretensions, as if being a writer was no different from being a miner or a teacher or the guy whose job it was to lock up the swings at night, something maybe I could be.

A couple of serious articles on the subject of Scottish metaphor worth having a look at:

A Scottish Identity: Experimental articulation through a dynamic system of metaphors

Metaphors we liveD by

Thursday 27 September 2007

A case of ‘the readers’

I have readers. Yay me! Hello readers and by that I mean the readers out there who’ve generously decided to subscribe to my blog. At least the two of you I know about. I appreciate the commitment.

The problem is – yes, I know I always have to look on the dark side – commitment smacks of relationship and I’m not sure I’m ready for that. I know, I’m the one who led you on, hanging my blog out there for all and sundry to have a gander at but suddenly I’ve gone all shy. Sorry about that. You see, in my life I’ve proven quite good at the art of attainment – if I wanted something then I usually managed to get it or get as close to it as I could till I got bored being around it – but I’ve not been so hot at maintain-ment. (Okay, not a real word but bear with me).

Now all of a sudden I have readers with opinions and thoughts and expectations and I have no idea what they expect. Oh my, they might even have standards. What happens if I let them down? I have written a lot in my life but I’ve honestly never actually imagined an audience other than myself. All I had to do was please myself which actually is nowhere near as easy as you might imagine. Now I have a bloke in Tacoma who could be my long-lost brother and a cartoon character from Vancouver hanging on my every word. Christ, the pressure!

Maybe it said it on the box and I forgot to read it when I purchased my ‘Acme Instant Writer Kit’:

Just add water. Warning! May cause readers. If critics appear cease using the product immediately.

I thought I could just get away with sitting in my room scribbling away and that was it. I guess not. Oh well lads. I hope you know what you’re letting yourselves in for.

Monday 24 September 2007

Why is a writer like a cup of coffee?

I’ve just finished reading Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating with the Dead. It started life as a set of lectures she was asked to give at Cambridge University in 2000 and I can’t say I’m displeased she decided to work these up into book form. The book deals with some pretty fundamental questions: What is ‘a writer’? Who do we write for? Is writing for money a bad thing? and so on.

The thing I found interesting from a personal point of view is how many of the questions I really didn’t have a definitive answer to. My question is: Do I need the answers?

I used to do this thing – you couldn’t really call it a game more a way of annoying someone – where I’d ask why they did something e.g. cross the road and whatever their answer was I’d ask why again. Let me illustrate:

   Q: Why did you cross the road?
   A: To get to the other side.
   Q: Why do you want to get to the other side?
   A: So I can go home.
   Q: Why do you want to go home?
   A: To get my dinner.
   Q: Why do you need your dinner?
   A: Because if I don’t eat I’ll die.
   Q: Why will you die?
   A: Because my body’s designed that way.
   Q: Why is your body designed that way?
   A: Because that’s what God decided.
   Q: So God made you cross the road?

You get the idea. God can, of course, be replaced with The Big Bang if you prefer. The point is if you keep asking enough questions it doesn’t matter where you start off the answer is always God or The Big Bang. You can analyse things into the ground if you’re not careful. Why should there necessarily be a one-to-one correlation between action and reaction?

What I think I’m saying is that being a writer is less of a physical thing and more of a chemical thing, like making a cup of coffee. Not everyone makes coffee the same way nor enjoys it the same way. Some people don’t even like coffee.

So the question needs to be asked:

   Q: What kind of coffee are you?
   A: God alone knows.

The above is, of course, not a definitive answer by any manner or mean. You might want to check out the following ‘answers’:

Stephen King: Why did you become a writer?

Melissa Soldani: How Did You Become a Writer?

Anne Fine: How did you become a writer?

Clarence Major: Necessary distance: afterthoughts on becoming a writer

Ally Carter: When did you decide to become a writer?

If pushed I’d go with what Paul Auster wrote in Hand to Mouth,

“Becoming a writer is not a ‘career decision,’ like becoming a doctor or a policeman. You don’t choose it so much as get chosen, and once you accept the fact that you’re not fit for anything else (a claim incidently also made by Samuel Beckett), you have to be prepared to walk a long, hard road for the rest of your days.”

Friday 21 September 2007

A question of identity

Identity is a big thing. I’m not sure if it’s more of an issue for a writer than an actor for example but then I’ve no idea what an actor feels. I do get the desire to want to be someone else because I’ve never been especially happy with the person I am. From my early teens though I identified with being a writer but that was always an idealised self, my alter ego, my version of the superhero. I was always acutely aware however that there was a “real me” on the inside and it was important that he not get allowed to take control of the writing process.

A not unreasonable assumption many make is that writing, by its very nature, has to be autobiographical. Not so. Not in my case anyway. Only now I’m working on my fifth novel have I come close to anything like that and what I’m finding is that it’s much harder than I would have ever imagined. It’s uncomfortable to write and the only way I can seem to cope is to fictionalise it, to push it further and further away from reality.

What do you look for when you read a book? A hero or a predicament at least you can identify with? I look back on things I wrote years ago and I’m not sure I could write them now. Even with all the evidence piling up on the shelf behind my desk to substantiate my claim to fame I still feel uncomfortable referring to myself as a writer. I wonder whose rubber stamp I need planted on my life to make who I am valid.

If I was writing now it would help. By that I mean the physical act of writing which I love. Thinking about writing – which I know is a necessary part of the process – doesn’t seem to cut it. Nor does writing about writing.

Who-I-Am is a place I keep revisiting. It’s somewhere I’m continually drawn to and I wish I never had to leave but it’s not home yet. I’m planning to retire there one day but not today.

Monday 17 September 2007


I’ve just signed up to BlogRush and I’m not sure. I think I’ve done it right; the widget (if that’s the right term for the wee interface) is squatting unobtrusively at the bottom of my side panel and seems to be working okay. Now all I have to do is sit back and wait.

Understandably I’m nervous. This is the first of my websites to get pushed out into the world – the rest are still under construction – but I suppose this is the most important one. The thing is, the reason this site exists is to direct/attract people to my writing when I finally get my main website out there and there’s this horrible issue that I find myself continually struggling with: how much does/should the reader really need to know about me before deciding to take a chance on whether I can string a story together or not?

Personally I’d rather back right out of the picture. My books/stories/poems are far better than any blog entry I’ll ever make and yet that’s what most people will judge me on, something I’ve cobbled together in a half-hour. It doesn’t seem quite fair when, if you think about it, I devoted an hour a word to my first novel! I worked out once that I sacrificed an entire day of my life to its first sentence alone and, do you know what, every time I read the ruddy thing I still want to change it.

I guess it all come back to the question: how much of the writing is really veiled biography? Of course I’m a guilty as the next man; I’ve read more about Samuel Beckett than Beckett actually wrote on top of reading everything he actually wrote, and I can’t say that all this knowledge (and I’ve forgotten more than I know) doesn’t help somewhat but it also gets in the way too.

Anyway, for now I’ll let the blog stand or fall on its own merits. At least my wife reads it regularly.

Friday 14 September 2007

Two minutes and twelve seconds

Word count: 442 words

This will take you 2 minutes and 12 seconds to read. Approximately.

I had to go to the doctor’s yesterday. I was there a week ago and he gave me some medication which, to say the very least, did not agree with me. To say a little more, it was like being dragged, kicking and screaming back to one of those weeks when you were a kid and sick and just starting to realise how much the human body can hurt itself if you disrespect it too much. It had been a long time since I had felt so miserable and what hurt – though way down the bottom of the list of the things that really really hurt – was that the root cause was taking something to make me feel better.

Anyway, that sets the scene. I went armed with a history of my miscellaneous aches and ailments hoping, once looked at together, an underlying cause might manifest itself. Of course, when the list came out of my bag the doctor’s hands went up – physically I think though it might just have been metaphorically – and I was reminded that we only had ten minutes and if I wanted him to read the thing I’d have to book another appointment. Could I not simply give him the bullet-points? Of course the reason for spending the time on the notes was to make sure that everything was covered, in the right order and described as accurately as possible and, as you would expect from a writer, a great deal of time went into its editing and polishing.

So, what could I do. I gave him a garbled account, he took some blood, said he would arrange for me to see a specialist and I thanked him for his time.

Afterwards that I got to thinking: how much could I have said in ten minutes? Well, the average number of words for a male comes in at about 125 words per minute so we’re talking 1250 words. More or less.

You do realise that a man would've spent about three minutes thirty-three seconds on this blog if, in the unlikely circumstance, he'd been reading it out aloud to a friend. Since the “normal” reading speed falls in at about 200 words per minute he'd likely only be down a couple of minutes.

The modern world loves its sound bites and tag lines but a joke is far more than a punch line. So what’s my point? My point is this: life is more than just getting the point. Sorry I took so long getting there. Hope I didn’t waste your time.

Saturday 8 September 2007

Twenty-seven dictionaries

I’ve always known that I owned a lot of dictionaries but until today I’ve never actually sat down and counted them. In total I have 27 including the 2 thesauri and my wife has another dozen of her own. That’s a lot of dictionaries.

Neither my father nor my mother to the best of my knowledge ever owned or even read a novel. My mother in the years leading up to her death would pick up the odd woman’s magazine from a second-hand shop but even those she only skimmed. My father bought books by mail order, self-help books mainly but we also ended up with four sets of encyclopaedias, The New Universal Dictionary and Hartrampf’s Vocabulary Builder and I owe a great deal to both of these two excellent books which I sat and read like novels. It puzzles me that it took so many years for it to dawn on me that I was a writer; words always fascinated me. I remember seeing a copy of the complete Oxford English Dictionary at school (all twenty volumes of it) once locked away where no one would ever use it and I thought then it was such a waste.

In the eighties I moved out and needed to start building my own reference library. I began with Collins English Dictionary and Roget’s Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases though I always missed the Hartrampf’s. I finally found a decent copy in a second-hand shop in the west end of Glasgow a couple of years ago.

The sad thing of course is how little I ever need to consult these books nowadays but I couldn’t bare to part with them or box them up.


The New Universal Dictionary (Psychology Publishing Co. Ltd., 1955)

Hartrampf’s Vocabulary Builder (Psychology Publishing Co. Ltd., 1963)


Collins Gem Crossword Puzzle Solver (Collins)

Collins Gem French Dictionary (Collins)

Collins Gem German Dictionary (Collins)


Collins English Dictionary (Collins, 1980)

Roget’s Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases (Longman, 1981)

A Dictionary of Euphemisms (Hamish Hamilton, 1983)

The Penguin Dictionary of Modern Quotations (Penguin, 1980)

The Penguin Dictionary of Proverbs (Penguin, 1983)

Longman Dictionary of English Idioms (Longman, 1979)


Home Study Dictionary (Peal Press, no date)

Cassell’s French Dictionary (Cassell & Co, 1928)

The Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought (Fontana, 1986)

The Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang (Oxford University Press, 1992)

Dictionary of Phrase & Fable (Parragon, 1991)

Walker’s Rhyming Dictionary (George Routledge & Sons, 1775)

The Penguin Dictionary of Curious and Interesting Words (Penguin, 1984)

1000 Most Challenging Words (Fact on File Publications, 1987)

The Cynic’s Dictionary (Corgi, 1983)

The Dictionary of Misinformation (Futura, 1985)

The Rude Dictionary (Scholastic Children’s Books, 1992)


The Enlarged Devil’s Dictionary (Penguin Modern Classics, 1967)

The Abridged edition of the New Dictionary of American Slang (Harper Collins, 1987)

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary (Merriam-Webster, 1995)

The Newbury House Dictionary of American English (Monroe Allen, 2000)

A Dictionary of Hiberno-English (Gill & MacMillan, 1999)

Monday 3 September 2007

French computer sex

I have a question to which I am confident there is an answer but one for which I don’t want to know the answer: In French who decides what gender something is? Before the 1940s the expression ‘computer’ existed but it referred to someone who performed calculations, not to a machine, so, when the term ‘computer’ was finally assimilated into our daily lives who in France decided if its computers were male or female?

The French for ‘the computer’ is l’ordinateur which, because the French drop off the vowel in le and la when it precedes a noun beginning with a vowel, doesn’t help; is it le ordinateur (male) or la ordinateur (female)?

I could look it up but I like the mystery. I like the idea of some Département de l'attribution du genre aux objets neuters (Department of the Assignation of Gender to Neutral Objects), in a little dusty office off the Rue de le something-or-other inhabited by a secret society of ancient Gauls sitting around trying to determine whether a camcorder is male (which it is) or a DVD is female (actually it’s male too).

I knew a man once who explained that a chair (la chaise) was female because you sat in it – very Freudian – but it didn’t ring true with me then and it doesn’t now.

I’m sure there is an explanation and it’s probably that the people choose, the first person who uses the word has the honour to pick its gender, like the naming of a star or a hurricane. The thing is, I don’t really want to know. The question has always delighted me on its own merits not as a thing to be answered. It stands besides such gems as: How many angels can fit on the tip of a needle? and Why don’t you love me anymore?

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