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Thursday 30 September 2010

You are what you read


[L]iterature is not an aesthetic experience but practical help for being human. – The Reader Organisation

There are three main theories concerning how we read, The Traditional Approach, Cognitive Reading Theory and the Metacognitive View. The first is the simplest:

Reading equals decoding therefore any problems in decoding are a result of problems in encoding.

This theory requires a reader to be a passive participant who simply receives information while an active text makes itself and its meanings known to them.

That’s an easy enough one to disprove. This is because writing isn’t maths. In maths 1 + 1 = 2 and no one would argue with you but the English expression “You and I are one” isn’t so simple:


I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one – as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me. – John 17:21


True love leave no traces
If you and I are one
It’s lost in our embraces
Like stars against the sun.

(from ‘True Love Leaves No Traces’ – Leonard Cohen)

You say, this is mine and that is thine. What is the use of doing any spiritual practice unless you give up the feelings of mine and thine? Get rid of the narrow feelings of mine and thine and realise that you and I are one. – from Bhagawan’s Divine Discourse in Sai Kulwant Hall, Prasanthi Nilayam on 18th May 2010


Hi, nice to meet you.
You and I are one in the same.
Goodbye, I can see you walk until you're running away.
The moon glows and the sun shows
what you're going to say.

(from ‘Hi’ – Army’s Leaning)

Now you and I are one serious illness away from bankruptcy. We may not know it, but if you get a serious illness, you lose your job because you can’t work. You lose your job, you lose your health care. – An interview with Sen. John Marty, Politics in Minnesota, 23rd July 2009


You get the idea: one mind, one body, one purpose, one kind. Context is everything. But let’s face it, how many of us are reading the words “you and I are one” for the first time here? We already have a pretty good idea what it could mean.

Of course if a mathematician wanted to he could prove that 1 + 1 = 1 too:

a = 1
b = 1

a = b
a2 = b2
a2 - b2 = 0
(a-b)(a+b) = 0
(a-b)(a+b)/(a-b) = 0/(a-b)
1(a+b) = 0
(a+b) = 0
1 + 1 = 0
2 = 0
1 = 0
1 + 1 = 1

(For a full explanation of this see the annotated version here.)

we2mainThe traditional view relies on the fact that words mean what they say. To use a mathematical analogy though, words are variables and not constants. We use the four letters l, o, v and e to stand in for a wide variety of feelings: romantic love, brotherly affection, national allegiance, familial feeling and quite often as a hyperbole – let’s be serious, no one really loves strawberry yoghurt.

In the traditional view we start with the words and work up to meaning. The linguist Dr David Nunan even refers to this process as the “bottom-up” view of reading.

The cognitive view starts off with the reader first of all who actively constructs meaning as opposed to merely extracting meaning. The words are just a part of what’s needed. The reader’s personal experiences and knowledge are also factors in this equation and since they are unique then the resultant meaning will also be unique. The danger here is that we read into a text.

Man: I love you.

Woman: I love you too.

Man: No, you don’t understand. I love you.

Woman: Oh, I see.

The woman heard the words and interpreted them as, “I have affection for you,” and that might have been an appropriate response based on her evaluation of their relationship up to that point. But the man used the selfsame words to say that his feelings have moved beyond affection. He’s saying, “I want to have sex with you,” isn’t he? Or is he?

Woman: You mean you want to sleep with me?

Man: Oh, no. Nothing like that.

Woman: Oh, I see.

Of course he does want to have sex with her but he’s read into her response that she doesn’t and so backtracks like crazy. Then when she says, “Oh, I see,” the second time what she’s saying is, “No, I don’t see.”

hypothesis Ken Goodman’s view of reading is that it is a “psycholinguistic guessing game”[1], a process in which readers sample the text, make hypotheses, confirm or reject them, make new hypotheses, and so forth, all of which involves a constant toing and froing between long- and short-term memory. Here, the reader rather than the text is at the heart of the reading process.

Metacognition, on the other hand, involves thinking about what one is doing while reading. Reading is not an end in itself. It’s reading with a purpose and it involves three steps:

  • Preparing to read
  • Constructing meaning while reading
  • Reviewing and reflecting on what has been read

You might think of it as serious reading. An athlete will warm up before exercise but we readers, reckless devils that we are, simply pick up a book and begin. Most researchers seem to agree that metacognition develops, as a person gets older because this requires an ability to stand back and observe oneself.

Basically there are four kinds of reading:

  • Skimming: Reading rapidly for the main points
  • Scanning: Reading rapidly to find a specific piece of information
  • Extensive reading: Reading a longer text, often for pleasure with emphasis on overall meaning
  • Intensive reading: Reading a short text for detailed information

When you read you are looking to comprehend what you’re reading. Understanding the words does not equal comprehension. Comprehension depends on the reader's prior knowledge and reading strategies which I’ll come back to. Comprehension does not necessarily lead to learning – at least, not to learning of a meaningful, useful kind. To comprehend a text we need to:

  • Engage with the text
  • Connect with the text
  • Evaluate the text
  • Reflect upon the text and your own responses to it

And we can do all that and still forget what we’ve read.

How many people can remember the actual words of books they read two years ago? As Bartlett demonstrated in the 1930s, people do not ordinarily remember much of the exact information they read. (See my previous article Fighting ghosties.) Instead, they learn the "gist" of it. They pick and choose. They use selected portions of the information to address issues important to them.

What about what you read two minutes ago? Think about it. At the start of this post I included 5 quotes that included a specific phrase. Without scrolling back try to answer the following:

  • What was that phrase?
  • What was the politician’s name?
  • What was the songwriter’s name?
  • What Bible verse did I quote?
  • What was the last quote about?
  • What was the band’s name?
  • What were the titles of the two songs?

I wrote the damn article and I reckon I managed 2 of the 8 answers. And the reason for this is that I didn’t read them to remember them. I read them to make sure I had a selection that made the point I was trying to make and the odds are you got that point and saw no reason to retain additional data. It’s like a map scribbled on a scrap of paper – when you’ve arrived where you’re going why hang onto it?

But is that any way to read a novel? Novels are all about the journey, not so much the destination, aren’t they?

reading-in-bed I mentioned reading strategies earlier. What exactly is a reading strategy? Obviously it’s a way of reading and by that I don’t mean lounging in a chair or propped up in bed although our physical position when reading would strictly also be a part of any strategy.

If you read with intent you’re much more likely to get something out of what you’ve read. These days I read most books with the intention of writing a review of them. To that effect I’ve adopted the following reading strategy:

  • I find out a little about the book before I begin, at least reading the press release
  • I take notes as I write
  • I read in manageable chunks (40-50 pages) at a time
  • I don’t read if I’m tired
  • I read in a well-lit place, generally my leather chair in my office
  • I think about what I’ve read in between sessions
  • I talk about what I’m reading with my wife
  • I research the author and often the subject and see what other reviewers have had to say
  • I write my review
  • I respond to comments on the review
  • I pretty much forget everything I’ve read and written and get on with something else

I’m being partly facetious with that last bullet point, but the simple fact is that after all that I find that when called upon to talk about a book I’ve read only a few weeks beforehand I often only have a very sketchy idea what it was about. And I suspect many people are like that. Reading is something that you enjoy while you are doing it. It is temporal; transitory. It’s like looking out of a train window. The words flit past. You’ve no sooner read one and then there’s another one, so many that you stop trying to read individual words and your eyes gobble them down in chunks: glub, glub, glub. No time to chew, or taste. Just swallow and take another bite.

How long does it take to remember then?

I think that’s the wrong question. We should be asking: How much do you want to remember? I don’t think most of us want to enough. We take reading for granted just like we take eating for granted. Once I got into my late forties and my blood pressure and weight started climbing I began to realise that there was a science to eating. As a kid I ate what I wanted when I wanted and burned off any excess hot_cross_bun with ease. My weight hardly ever varied. Now I look at a hot cross bun and I think, 200 calories, mostly carbohydrates. I’ve had to change my whole attitude towards eating and I’m thinking that I need to modify my attitude towards reading too because the words are running right through me and doing me very little good. Because, seriously, what is the point of reading if you’re going to forget it all?

What we have to understand is that memories are physical. We think of them in abstract terms but they are housed in a physical container: you – ergo they are physical. That doesn’t mean you can poke your finger in your ear and scratch the 25th of May 1963 but that doesn’t stop the fact that if you cut a certain chunks out of someone’s head (primarily the hippocampus, entorhinal cortex, and perirhinal cortex) you will be giving them a radical memory-ectomy. Long-term memory, unlike short-term memory, is dependent upon the construction of new proteins.

If a reading strategy can be compared to an exercise regime then what’s the reading equivalent of a good, balanced diet?

Actually it’s a good, balanced diet. A balanced diet with protein, good fats and complex carbohydrates can balance the activity in the temporal lobes of the brain. Eating protein at every meal can help stabilize blood sugar levels and help prevent the brain fog that sometimes happens after high carbohydrate or high sugar meals. Omega-3 fatty acids are a major component of the gray matter of the brain and can also improve brain activity. Antioxidants in the diet also can improve memory by decreasing the free radical damage that can occur with age. Supplements that support memory include antioxidants such as alpha-lipoic acid, vitamin E and vitamin C. Ginkgo biloba is an herb that enhances circulation in the brain, which can improve memory and concentration.

Most of what’s in that last paragraph I don’t understand. I cut and pasted it from an article on The Diet Channel here. But I have the gist of it. And I’m working on it. Plus I have a wife who does understand it.

The bottom line is that the more you understand what you’re doing the better you will be at it. That goes for eating, reading, driving a car – everything. Because there are rules for everything. When you eat you need time to digest what you’ve eaten and the same goes for reading. You need to give yourself time to process what you’ve read. Unfortunately unlike digestion that kind of thinking doesn’t take place automatically. You have to actively go over in your head (chew over) what you’ve read.

You are what you eat.

You are what you read.

You are not what you drive but people usually read into what your drive, add 2 and 2 and get 5.



The War Against Reading

Critical Reading

Reading Theory

Schema Theory


[1] Ken Goodman, Reading: A Psycholinguistic Guessing Game

Sunday 26 September 2010

The Pigeon

pigeon In 1993 I borrowed a copy of Patrick Süskind’s novella, The Pigeon, in 1993 from the library. I had only read 9 pages before being struck with the inspiration for my own first novel, Living with the Truth. When my idea struck me, I put the novella aside, sat down at my desk and began to write a novel. It really was as simple as that. A few years ago I picked up a fresh copy thinking that it might be nice to actually finish the book but somehow I was distracted and probably never got past page 12 that time. I should perhaps mention that the entire book is only 77 pages long and I’ve just read it in one sitting so I kinda feel a bit bad that it took me seventeen years to read all of them.

The irony is it’s actually my kind of book.

The protagonist is Jonathan Noel. He’s fifty-three and lives alone in a tiny Parisian flat. He works as a security guard in a bank five minutes from where he lives. He has no friends, doesn’t associate with his neighbours and barely talks to the concierge, Madame Rocard:

For ten years – as long as she had lived in the building – he had never said more to her than “Good day, madame,” and “Good evening, madame,” and “Thank you, madame,” when she handed him his mail.

He has lived there for thirty years and treated her predecessor and her predecessor’s predecessor in exactly the same manner. He is the same at work. All interpersonal communication is kept to a bare minimum. He arrives on time (five minutes early in fact), does his job to the letter and goes home. And he has done that for very little pay and poor holidays since he settled in Paris. His job title is “guard” but he’s little more than a glorified doorman spending his whole day “standing stock-still at the doorway or at most patrolling back and forth in measured steps along the lowest three marble steps.”

He had once calculated that by the time of his retirement he would have spent seventy-five thousand hours standing on these three marble steps. He would then assuredly be the one person in all Paris – perhaps even all France – who had stood the longest time in just one place.

He is a nobody, as close to a non-person as he can possibly get. And that’s the way he likes it. His goal in life is to maintain a state of “total uneventfulness”. In fact the only “event” he ever expects to “rattle his inner equilibrium” was likely going to be his death some day. Everything else conforms to his sense of order. Or to more accurate he has twisted his life to ensure that he never disturbs anyone and hopes that the care he takes in this regard with be rewarded by their leaving him the hell alone, thank you very much.

So what happened to get him to this state? In a book this short we’re not going to get much of a back-story but we learn that, when a boy and living in or near Charenton, he returns home one day in July 1942 to find that his mother is no longer there:

His mother was gone, his father said, she had had to go away for a long trip. They had taken her away, said the neighbours, they had taken her first to Velodrome d’Hiver and then out to the camp at Drancy, from there it was off to the east, and no one ever came back from there.

Velodrome A few days later his father vanishes too leaving him confused and alone apart from his younger sister. An uncle saves them and keeps them hidden on his farm near the village of Puget until the end of the war. When the boy comes of age his uncle insists that he enlists and so he spends the requisite three years in the army, the greatest part of a third of which “he spen[ds] in hospital, recovering from a shot in the foot and one in the leg and from amoebic dysentery.” On his return to Puget he learns that his sister has emigrated to Canada and his uncle now wants him to get married “post-haste” to a girl from a neighbouring village. The naïve boy does as he's asked “although, he had only an imperfect notion of married life” and lo and behold the girl gives birth a mere four months after the marriage and then subsequently ups and offs “with a Tunisian fruit merchant from Marseille.” Marriage had not brought him the “state of monotone serenity and uneventfulness” that he hoped it might.

Drawing on all these episodes, Jonathan Noel came to the conclusion that you cannot depend on people, and that you can live in peace only if you keep them at arm’s length.

Since he has now become “the laughing-stock of the village” he empties his bank account and heads for Paris where for once he lands on his feet, finding both employment and accommodation to suit his needs and temperament. And thirty years later that’s exactly where we find him. His solution to abandonment is proactive rather than reactive: he abandons the world; it can no longer abandon him.

Because the novella is such a prominent genre in the German tradition, German writers and critics have Goethe been fond of theorising about it. Many of these theories proceed from features reflected in the etymology of the term ‘novella’, the word for ‘something new’ in Italian. A seminal example is Goethe’s 1827 definition, recorded in Eckermann’s Conversations with Goethe, of the novella as an unheard-of event that has taken place. – Helen Watanabe-O'Kelly, The Cambridge History of German Literature, p.310

In The Pigeon, the “unheard-of event” is the cameo appearance of a pigeon, the new thing that sends Jonathan’s life into a tailspin. The same day I read this book Carrie and I watched Tim Blake Nelson’s interesting film Leaves of Grass in which Edward Norton plays two very different twin brothers, one of whom is an Ivy League professor. The film opens with him lecturing his class:

Passion ... is essentially and mercilessly human and the best that we can hope to do is quell it through relentless discipline. To Socrates the healthy life is comprised of constant focus by the individual to excise those forces that weaken or confuse his understanding of the world around him. He implores us to devote our lives to this kind of control, meaning our every waking moment. Socrates recognised what every philosopher and religion, for that matter ... have all observed, which is that the balance needed for a happy life is illusory. – ‘Bill Kincaid’, Leaves of Grass

One Friday morning in the month of August 1984, while he was on his way to the bathroom, after listening carefully to ensure no one else is in the hall, Jonathan sees a pigeon outside the door of his room and goes into panic. This is something he has no control over. At first I wondered if Jonathan was ornithophobic. That would explain his reaction. Birds outside where they’re supposed to be are one thing but a bird in an enclosed space barring his exit is something else. But that’s not it.

The word ‘Kafkaesque’ is a hard one to define:

  • Marked by surreal distortion and often a sense of impending danger – The Free Online Dictionary
  • Marked by a senseless, disorienting, often menacing complexity –
  • Having a nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical quality –

Kafka but the simplest one to my mind is that something feels like Kafka might have written it. Kafka could have written The Pigeon. Easily.

Jonathan’s reaction to the pigeon in his hall is immediate and extreme. His hair stands on end, he breaks into a cold sweat, his heart starts palpitating. He slams the door and collapses on his bed expecting to “suffer a heart attack or a stroke or at least [to] black out”. His mind is a “riotous mass of the most random terrors”:

You will die, Jonathan, you’ll die, if not right away, then soon, and your whole life has been a lie, you’ve made a mess of it, because it’s been upended by a pigeon, you must kill it, but you can’t kill it, you can’t kill a fly, or wait, a fly, yes, a fly you can manage or a mosquito or a little bug, but never something warm-blooded, some warm-blooded creature like a pigeon that weighs a pound, you’d gun down a human being first, bang bang, that’s fast, just makes a little hole, a quarter of an inch thick, that’s clean and it’s permissible, in self-defence it’s permissible, article one in the regulations for armed security personnel, it’s required, in fact, not a soul blames you if you shoot down a person, just the opposite, but a pigeon?, how do you shoot down a pigeon?, it flutters around, a pigeon does, so that you can easily miss, it’s a gross misdemeanour to shoot down a pigeon, it’s forbidden, that leads to confiscation of your service weapon, to loss of your job, you end up in prison if you shoot a pigeon, no, you can’t kill it, but you can’t live, live with it either, never, no human being can go on living in the same house with a pigeon, a pigeon is the epitome of chaos and anarchy... (italics mine)

So what is he to do? He resolves to gather together his valuables, fills a suitcase and flees the first chance he gets. He does his sums, makes plans to stay in a hotel and works out how many months he could survive if he lived frugally. But how long do pigeons live? And what if it bred? “[T]hey breed at a frantic pace...”

And that is what he does. What follows is one day in the life of Jonathan Noel. You would think that once he had escaped his flat then he could calm down, go about his daily business and in time return to find the bird gone. He might feel a little embarrassed but no one would know. He wouldn’t be “the laughing stock of the whole neighbourhood” which is his greatest fear. Simply being the focus of people’s attention is bad enough.

Jonathan has been so unnerved by the appearance of the pigeon that he finds it hard to concentrate at work which leads to a single oversight. Part of his duties involves him opening the entrance grille to allow the director Monsieur Roedel’s limousine in and out of the courtyard. He is so preoccupied with his own thoughts that only when the driver honks his horn does he realise:

They honked again and even waved, as if they had been waiting for several minutes now. At the entrance grille! Monsieur Roedel’s limousine! When had he ever missed its approach?

He is mortified. But things are going to get worse.

During lunch rather than going home as he normally would he buys “two raisin rolls and a pint of milk and walk[s] over to the place Bouccicaut, a small park in front of the Bon Marché department store,” where he eats and watches the world pass him by.

clochard One particular individual catches his eye, a clochard, a tramp, a man he has seen from time to time for the past thirty years. He envies the man, “a kind of angry envy”, he’s envious “of the happy-go-lucky way the man led his life”:

While Jonathan fell in for duty every day at nine on the dot, the clochard would come along at ten or eleven; and while Jonathan had to stand at attention, the fellow would lounge comfortably on a cardboard box and have a smoke...

Distracted he gets up to return to work but forgets to dispose of his milk carton. Not being able to bear leaving it where it was he trudges back, leans over to get it and tears his trousers. Quelle disaster! An appeal to a local seamstress falls on deaf ears – she has a three-week backlog – and so a temporary repair is effected with the aid of some Sellotape and keeping even stiller than usual.

By the end of the day as he lies down on his hotel bed he is resolved to commit suicide the next morning. He lies there in the dark in despair. He’s not even sure what room he’s in for sure:

[I]t isn’t your room in your uncle’s house, it’s the room you had as a child in your parents’ house in Charenton – no, not your room, it’s the cellar, yes, you’re in the cellar of your parents’ house, you’re a child, you only dreamed that you had grown up to be a disgusting old guard in Paris, but you’re a child and you’re sitting in the cellar of your parents’ house, and outside is war, and you’re trapped, buried, forgotten.

Suddenly he has an epiphany, the start of one in any case, and then he hears a noise:

It was a knock. Very soft. And then there was another knock. And a third and a fourth, from somewhere above.

And no it’s not the personification of truth. But it is a moment of truth. He packs his case and heads home to face his fears.

Outsider This is a fascinating little book. And Jonathan Noel belongs there right alongside Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, Camus’ Meursault, Sartre’s Roquentin, the narrator in Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Raven’ and the starving author in Knut Hamsun’s Hunger. Likely lovers of Dostoevsky’s work will also appreciate this book, since the Russian's main characters often enter a vicious circle in which they think something bad will happen and this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, which can only be prevented through great determination and effort:

Dostoevsky ... had concluded from his observations while in exile, that there was more to man than reason and enlightenment. He became convinced that men were capable of the irrational as well as the rational, and that, in fact, the irrational was in many ways man's essential element and the rational was often only a flimsy construction built upon it. – Jen Marder, Mike Meyer, and Fred Wyshak, Notes from the Underground, a study guide

Jonathan has assiduously avoided irrationality. Things need to make sense. The irrational, once introduced into his life, infects his very being and what we witness is this infection running its course. And there can only be too outcomes: it can kill him or it can cure him.

I’ve searched high and low and no one has anything really bad to say about this book; most reviews grant 4 or 5 stars, the majority having come to the book after reading Perfume: The Story of a Murderer and keen to read something else by him. In fact the main source of disappointment is that the two books are very different and that’s not The Pigeon’s fault. It has much more in common with his dramatic monologue The Double Bass which I had heard of but never seen. I would happily read him again.


suskindphoto Patrick Süskind was born 1949 in Ambach, Bavaria, to the literary translator and political journalist Wilhelm Emanuel Süskind. Between 1968 and 1974 he studied Medieval and Modern History in Munich and Aix-en-Provence before becoming a freelance screenwriter. In 1980 The Double Bass, his first play, became an international success and has been shown on stage in Germany, Switzerland, London, Edinburgh and New York. In 1985 he published his only novel to date, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, which goes on to be made into a successful film. In 1987 he rejects all prizes (the FAZ Literaturpreis and the Tukan-Preis, most famously), dodges the media and slowly withdraws from the public. Next to nothing has been heard of him since.

Since The Pigeon in 1987 he has published only two works of fiction: in 1991 the short story Mr. Summer’s Story, and, in 1995, his short story collection Three Stories and a Reflection. A collection of essays, On Love and Death appeared in 2006.

Without ever granting interviews or making public appearances, Patrick Süskind lives in Munich and France with his partner, a publisher from Munich, and their son. He continues to work on screenplays.

Apart from inspiring my own novel, The Pigeon has also been the basis for a performance piece by John Wild & John Mowat called The Pigeon Affair and a movement-based performance work by the Faculty of Creative Arts at the University of Woollongong in Australia, called simply, Pigeon.

Thursday 23 September 2010

Interrogating poetry


Public toilets have a duty to be accessible, poetry does not. — Geoffrey Hill

There seems to be a school of thought that says a poet will lose brownie points if he doesn't make his readers work a bit. A reader with any sense knows he's going to have to work a bit to get anything from a poem. Poems by their very nature contain layers of meaning. They are not equations, however; things to be solved.

Let’s take an example, the poem 'Whoroscope' by Samuel Beckett.

‘Whoroscope’ is a long poem (98 lines) in which the philosopher, Rene Descartes, waits for his morning omelette of well-aged eggs, while meditating on the obscurity of theological mysteries, the passage of time, and the approach of death. There is no rhythmical pattern, and the poem’s mannered colloquialisms and oratorical informalities give it an aura less of poetry than of desultory chatter. Samuel Beckett uses minor and sometimes intimate details of Descartes’s life that he found in a biography of the philosopher written by Adrien Baillet.

There is no doubt that ‘Whoroscope’ is a difficult poem. It comes with 18 notes from the author, for goodness sake. What it is not is an impossible poem. There is a difference. With study one can learn what Beckett is referring to. The facts are out there. You could read Adrien Baillet’s biography for starters. Beckett learned the facts and we could learn them to. Now whether the effort involved in learning those facts makes the poem worth reading is another matter, but the bottom line is that a reasonably clear understanding of what Beckett was trying to convey is possible.

There are other poems where I can guarantee that you will never work out what the author intended because the author had no clear intent. He has left that entirely with his readers. I have poems written years ago that when I look at them now I wonder what must have been going through my mind. I just can’t remember, so even if you did sit me down and give me your interpretation of my work, I wouldn’t be able to say yea or nay. The best I could say would be, “Well, that sounds plausible.”

It is in the nature of words not to adhere to rigid definitions. Even a simple word like ‘cat’ will mean so many different things but most of us define a cat based on personal experiences of cats we’ve known. My mother had cats all her life and so my own definitions are based on years of interactions with those cats. I never think that a cat in the street is going to leap at me and try to claw my eyes out and yet some people are terrified of cats. And some are just dog people.

And that’s just a word. The more words we string together the harder things get.

Q: Why did the chicken cross the road?

A: To get to the other side

Everyone’s heard that. But what does it mean? It means the chicken wanted to get to the other side of the road. No? Or does it mean that the chicken was trying to kill itself so it could get to “the other side”, a popular euphemism for life after death? (See the notes on the interprchicken-crossing-the-roadetation of Beckett’s radio play All that Fall.) Without context your guess is as good as mine.

Poems frequently lack context, especially the very short ones. No one thinks of a haiku as especially complex but most of them are. They can be read superficially and so often seem to be obvious but that’s the difference between glancing and seeing. To see you need to look. And most people don’t think they have the time for that.

One of things people often ask poets to do is explain their poetry. What does it mean?

Seems like a reasonable question.

In an interview in Jacket Magazine the poet John Ashbery was asked this question:

John Tranter: I remember buying a book called Singular Voices by Stephen Berg: it was an anthology where each poet contributed a poem and then wrote an explanatory article to go after it. Berg mentioned in his introduction that you had declined to provide a poem and an explanatory article, and that you were going to write an essay about why you’d declined. Did you ever write the essay?

to which he replied:

John Ashbery: No, I never did it, and at some point he stopped asking me about it so I guess he realized that I didn’t really want to do it. It just seems that people will do almost anything rather than read a poem and try and come to terms with it, you know. A statement from the poet about what he meant in the poem is considered to be very helpful, but my point is that it really isn’t going to help anybody since it’s just a paraphrase, operating at some distance. And it’s rather annoying to be asked to do something like that, especially by a poet, who should know better. — italics mine

Poets write about life, real life, the kind of real lives that you and I live. Sit down one of these days and try and make sense out of your life and you’ll realise that it doesn’t translate into words so easily. So why should poems be easy? Because that’s the job of the poet; they’re supposed to be good with words, aren’t they?

In an article about Ashbery the reviewer, Nicholas Lezard, presents the first stanza from one of his poems:

The room I entered was a dream of this room.
Surely all those feet on the sofa were mine.
The oval portrait
of a dog was me at an early age.
Something shimmers, something is hushed up.

and then asks:

So, what's all that about? You learn quickly, reading an Ashbery poem, that the word "about" isn't exactly the right tool with which to evaluate it. However, you also find that, once started, an Ashbery poem is hard to put down or dismiss. You might not understand what he is saying, but he has a tonal directness, an almost conversational charm, which makes reading him a pleasure.

I’m not sure why Lezard didn’t quote the whole poemOval Dog because it’s not long. Here’s the whole thing:

This Room

The room I entered was a dream of this room.
Surely all those feet on the sofa were mine.
The oval portrait
of a dog was me at an early age.
Something shimmers, something is hushed up.

We had macaroni for lunch every day
except Sunday, when a small quail was induced
to be served to us. Why do I tell you these things?
You are not even here.

In a review of the collection from which this poem comes Ramez Qureshi had this to say:

The pace slows down for that famous Ashberyian climax of the final humanizing line, in this case both a note of erotic pathos and an address to the absent reader. Consider the beginning: the room is a dream of itself. We are alerted to Ashbery’s quasi-surrealist influences in Roussel and Reverdy. The room, because it is dream, becomes the place for poetry, “the scene of writing” in Derrida’s phrase, from which Ashbery can address his reader, from which “something shimmers” yet is “hushed,” a description of Ashbery’s voice.

Rachel Barenblat came up with this:

Although ‘This Room’ is short, it pulls me through a range of emotions. With Ashbery, I leap from seeing that there is something at the core of a dream/life that is unspoken (or unspeakable) to a line about quail that makes me think of Alice in Wonderland. And then, at the end of the poem, my laughter turns sad as the narrator wonders aloud why he speaks.

Moira Egan said that someone by the name of

Professor Bacigalupo ... mentions the thing that I said on the radio interview, that, if you read Ashbery’s ‘This Room’ (Questa Stanza!) as a kind of ars poetica, some of the lines function as well as any definition of poetry that I know.

Sy Dedalus’s thoughts:

Such loss in these lines. The dedication "For Pierre Martory 1920-1998" in Your Name Here suggests a specific "you," but there is never a specific "you" in Ashbery. And of course, the absence of "you" does not only imply death; "you" could be in the next room – the next compartment of memory, since this is a poem primarily about memory. But how suddenly those last lines come, with all their weight. That is Ashbery's genius: making the ordinary heavy and meaningful, and thereby reinscribing meaning in throwaway statements like "Why do I tell you these things?"

John Ashbery is Geoff Klock’s favourite poet. Here are his thoughts on ‘This Room’:

Ashbery is a strange poet: many of his poems feel like dreams. "Stanza" — the poetry equivalent of a paragraph — is an Italian word that means "room," so Ashbery suggests that anything he talks about in his poetry is likely to be a dream version of a real thing. A major theory about dreams (from Jung I think) is that everything in the dream represents a part of the dreamer, so Ashbery identifies all the feet as his and the portrait of the dog as himself. In a dream, as in Ashbery's poetry, you can barely tell what is going on, though what you glimpse always seems very important: what he says in this poem is true of his style generally: "Something shimmers, something is hushed up." The problem with seeing poetry as a kind of dream is that a dream is an essentially private experience; John Stuart Mill said that while prose is written to communicate with others, the poet speaks to himself, and is "overheard" by readers, who are not directly a part of what is going on. Ashbery is thinking of this as he offers us a strange statement on food which seems important to him but means nothing to us, and then wonders why he bothers. The poem sets up the volume, in which we glimpse, but never quite see, the personal experience contained in the poems.

Lera Auerbach had a good crack at it:

It is a beautiful short poem that exists on polyphonic levels and floats freely between them. The beauty is in its simplicity — the domestication of a dream. Yet the poem takes the reader to that deliciously fragile place, where “something shimmers, something is hashed up.” Some of the most defining moments, when life reveals itself as is, can only shimmer on the edge of consciousness. One can only glance at it sidelong, but never directly. You can’t stare at the sun; you can only squint through your half-closed fingers.

The first line connects to René Magritte’s thought provoking painting ‘La trahison des images’

Magritte - This is Not a Pipe
featuring a pipe with a sign “This is not a pipe”. The words only appear to contradict the image, but are, in fact, correct: the painting itself is not a pipe.

What is reality? What is an idea of reality? Where do dreams end?

All these feet on the sofa and the oval portrait of the artist as a young man, pardon me, as a dog, (my own life as a dog has been over-stimulated by the smell of that quail) – seduce the reader to smile inwardly.

Again this child-like unpretentious simplicity where time and generations melt. (Of course that portrait had to be oval! Don’t you just see it in its slightly ornate dark-wood frame? And the greenish old wallpaper on the wall on which it hangs?)

The passive voice in the line about the quail makes it sound like the quail gave permission to be served for lunch. The combination of the past tense and passive voice is a recipe for a disaster in the hands of a lesser writer, but Ashbery, with a mischievous smile, creates magic with it.

The most striking line is the last line of the poem. Just like the poet is missing from that dream of a room (yes, the dream goes on forever in some other realm, different from the one in which he is writing the poem), so is the reader, the “you” is missing from the reality-room-space of the poet. The ghost visit of a poet in this dream of a room is parallel to the ghost visit of a reader in the space of this poem. Yet both ghosts shimmer and can somehow sense each other’s presence (or absence). Similarly, the independent voices of a fugue can intervene and briefly cross each other’s horizontal paths while making perfect sense harmonically (thus vertically).

Tim Thornton cuts to the quick:

This I love, but I can hardly begin to fathom why.

John Ashbery was once asked why the Germans in particular loved his poetry so much, and he replied “They never said.” Another time he said:

I think my poems mean what they say ... There is no message, nothing I want to tell the world particularly except what I am thinking when I am writing.

Beckett said something very similar:

Beckett had been warning us all along about the meaninglessness — or the Lessness — of his work. Or as he put it himself in referring to the language of his novel How It Is, meaning is a "rumor transmissible ad infinitum in either direction". And elsewhere he avedons_beckett_1979 emphasized that Language is what gets us where we want to go and prevents us from getting there. — Raymond Federman, The Imagery Museum of Samuel Beckett

Whether we are aware of it or not, a function of our minds is to take in raw sensory input and discern patterns in it from which meaning can be derived. Art takes place in the space between raw perception and automatic interpretation and wakes us to fresh ways of seeing. As beauty is in the eye of the beholder, meaning is produced by the one who perceives, although under the guidance of clues embedded in the work. The interaction between the reader and the literary work is prompted and maintained by successive gaps or incongruities in the narrative structure which make interpretation necessary and grant the space in which to interpret the relation of the elements in the work. — Elizabeth Drew and Mads Haahr, Lessness: Randomness, Consciousness and Meaning

Would it help if I said what I think or would it simply add to the confusion?

One of the reasons that many people don’t understand poetry is that they ask the wrong questions. It’s like the person who views a piece of Abstract Expressionism (and Ashbery’s work has been compared to abstract art[1]) asks:


What is it supposed to be? Probably one of the best-known poems about reading poetry is by Billy Collins and he makes his point well in the final two stanzas:

Introduction to Poetry

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a colour slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

In his article What Poetry Can Not Say, Robert Peake concludes with this paragraph:

This push-pull relationship between the idea of the reader and the integrity of the intangible subject is what makes writing even a single poem that matters a remarkably profound pursuit. It is also what makes each attempt so immensely pleasurable, infinitely more so than simply living and thinking in ways unexamined and unexpressed. So let us praise not only difficult poetry, but the beautiful dance between what can not be said and how much we need to say it.

It’s a good way to describe the relationship between a reader and a writer, a poem standing in as the writer’s proxy. It’s not the place of the poem to give and give and give, the reader also sometimes has to give ground, change their perspective, ask the right questions and try and not get upset when the answers are now what they expected on wanted to hear.

Every poem I write is an experiment, an attempt to say one thing and mean something else. Wouldn’t it be easier if I just said what I meant? Yes, of course, it would but I don’t have those words and so I use the ones I have available at the time. Why am I telling you this? You’re not here. I don’t even know who ‘you’ are. I need to tell someone though and I guess you’ll do.

The shape of a poem encourages a certain mindset if it does nothing else. When you see a column of words on a page you think immediately, Ah, I'm going to have to think about this. There will be more going on that just the words.

Many people are not open to poetry but that's because they've encountered poetry that slams a door in their face. Bafflement, they believe, is part of the condition of modern poetry. Great poetry, as T S Eliot said, can communicate before it is understood. I'll be honest Eliot's meanings don't always jump off the page at me but I can't say they don't communicate. So, what is the difference?

E=mc2 E=mc2. There I have communicated something. Do you understand what I said? Yes, I said, “E=mc2,” but do you understand what that means? Most of you know that E=mc2 means “energy equals mass times the speed of light squared” but what does that mean? It means that energy and mass are the same thing under different conditions. But what does that mean? I know what the words mean but I don’t understand them. And the same goes for most poems. There’s not a single hard word in the John Ashbery poem. It’s no harder to read that the Billy Collins poem. Both require work to get to the deeper meanings that each poem contains.

To many Billy Collins is the anti-John Ashbery, well known for his accessible poetry but consider this statement by him:

I think accessible just means that the reader can walk into the poem without difficulty. The poem is not, as someone put it, deflective of entry. But the real question is what happens to the reader once he or she gets inside the poem? That's the real question for me, is getting the reader into the poem and then taking the reader somewhere because I think of poetry as a kind of form of travel writing.

I agree totally. Every poem takes you on a journey. You can drag your heels and not get very far or you can fly. It’s up to you. Let me leave you with a poem of mine which you can walk into without difficulty but what you do in its rooms (Italian: stanze) is entirely up to you:

A Poem is not an Empty Room

A man walks into
an empty room.
There is nothing there
and no one there.

That is to say no
one else is there.
He is all alone
with his own thoughts.

Entering the room
is significant.
Being in the room
is significant.

Where the room is
is irrelevant.
Who the man is
is not important.

What it really
means to be alone
is something he
might consider though

while he's waiting.

Wednesday, 05 December 2007


[1] Interviewer: I suppose there are many things we might expect from a poet who has so strong an interest in painting as you do. Various critics have suggested that you are a mannerist in words, or an abstract expressionist. Are you conscious of anything like that — or perhaps of performing a cubist experiment with words?

Ashbery: I suppose the ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’ is a mannerist work in what I hope is the good sense of the word. Later on, mannerism became mannered, but at first it was a pure novelty — Parmigianino was an early mannerist, coming right on the heels of Michelangelo. I have probably been influenced, more or less unconsciously I suppose, by the modern art that I have looked at. Certainly the simultaneity of cubism is something that has rubbed off on me, as well as the abstract expressionist idea that the work is a sort of record of its own coming-into-existence; it has an “antireferential sensuousness,” but it is nothing like flinging a bucket of words on the page, as Pollock did with paint. It is more indirect than that. When I was fresh out of college, abstract expressionism was the most exciting thing in the arts. There was also experimental music and film, but poetry seemed quite conventional in comparison. I guess it still is, in a way. One can accept a Picasso woman with two noses, but an equivalent attempt in poetry baffles the same audience. — The Art of Poetry No 33: John Ashbery, The Paris Review

Sunday 19 September 2010

The Woman Before Me

The Woman Before Me

We are all just one event away from the loss of love, of the status quo, of the illusory balance of our lives. And this is terrifying and liberating. – Ruth Dugdall, ‘Why I Write’

There are many people in prison who maintain their innocence: for some that’s just what they’ve been told to say no matter what evidence is put in front of them; others truly believe in their innocence – they may acknowledge that they have committed some offence according to the laws of the land but they believe they are answerable to a higher power, if not God then at least their own conscience and there are those who because of some miscarriage of justice find themselves incarcerated for a crime they did not commit.

But let’s ask you a question: Who of us is truly innocent?

The police have been known in the past to fit somebody up, to plant evidence, to ensure that someone they regard as a criminal is convicted of something; if they can’t pin a specific crime on that person then as long as they get them for something then their consciences will let them sleep at night; as far as they’re concerned, the universal balance will have been restored.

Rose Wilks has been sentenced to eight years imprisonment for the accidental manslaughter of a baby boy, Luke. She has, from the very beginning, maintained her innocence and has continued to do so. She is now almost four years through her sentence and her parole hearing is due. In fact it’s only a mere six weeks away. So what are her chances of being released early? On the surface one would think she has a better-than-average chance: she’s been a model prisoner, is trusted by the prison officers and is generally dubbed up with new inmates to help them acclimatise.

The catch is there is really only one criterion that the parole board is interested in: remorse. Everything else that might concern then is powered by demonstrable proof of that single emotion. But is a woman who has constantly maintained that she was innocent of the crime for which she has been convicted capable of showing genuine remorse? She accepts that she is guilty of some fairly minor offences but nothing that would have involved her being locked up for any length of time.

A number of people’s opinions get considered: Jason Clarke, her partner, who even though he never loved her (something she was aware of when at liberty), has stood by her; Emma and Dominic Hatcher, the parents of the child who died; the staff who have had her in their charge for the past four years and, most importantly, the parole office, Cate Austin, a new ‘Care Bear’ as the staff refer to her position.

Cate and Rose have a number of things in common apart from their gender: for starters both have been mothers (Rose lost her son Joel while he was in Intensive Care, Cate has a young daughter), but neither has had a man for the past four years and both of them have wound up in prison because of things that went on in their pasts.

Six weeks as I’ve said is all Cate has to make her determination. And Rose knows it. The Rose Wilks that Cate meets in prison is not the same Rose Wilks that was convicted though. After four years of having to survive as a nonce, a term used for those convicted of offences against children, and (mis)treated accordingly she’s learned how to play the system and she has her own agenda. Yes, she wants to be free. But that’s not all.

The Woman Before Me begins, as many books of this ilk do, with a flashback to the night of the murder:

Creeping across the threshold, I listen to the silence of the sleeping house. These middle hours between three and four in the morning when the deepest sleep can be reached, make the kitchen seem larger and emptier than in daylight. Different. Although the difference is me. This time I’m saying goodbye.

The fragrance of Emma is everywhere, the delicate tang of her green apple perfume. That small wooden box, holding an assortment of tea bags, on the shelf – I’ll never see her bend over it, her hair falling like a veil, sweeping it away as she dithers over her selection. And Luke. She told me I’ll never see him again.


Through the kitchen into the large dining room, I move slowly. I don’t want to miss a thing. I want to capture the memory of it. That is where we’ve sat, Emma and I, cradling hot cups of tea. I notice the red paint on the walls, the white pine of the window seat. On the table is a packet of Silk Cut cigarettes, a box of matches. She’s supposed to have given up, but today has been a hard day.


I climb quietly up the stairs, avoiding the places I know would groan under my weight. Night-lights illuminate the hall, making me blink. Emma’s door is ajar and I can see into the bedroom. Her curtains are open and the moon is full.

Emma sleeps facing the window, the duvet pulled high on her face. Next to her is the bulk of a man, hidden under the bedding, Dominic. Entering their room, I creep up to her foetal shape … and wonder if I could touch her without her waking. Only inches separate me from her sleeping body.


Leaving Emma I walk further along the hall to the nursery, snaking behind the half-closed door. Inside the small room is the beautiful baby boy, asleep in his cot. … Usually I just watch him sleep, but tonight that isn’t enough.

He’s familiar with my touch and smell. He stirs when I lift him and I think I hear a voice in the next room. I pause but hear nothing. His weight is natural to me, I cradle him expertly, one arm along his body, my hand on his thigh…

I love him, love him fiercely.

I hear something in the next room: I freeze, waiting and the noise becomes louder. Low whispers and then moaning. The repetitive sound of the bed banging against the wall. Careful not to wake Luke, I place him back in his cot and make my way from his room, passing the bedroom where Emma’s moans are getting louder, “Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.”

Silk Cut So the scene has been set. This is the night of the fire. This is the night Luke dies. The cause of the fire is ascertained to have been a lit cigarette. But who lit it? Rose is also a smoker and Silk Cut is her brand of choice. In the morning the police arrest her, question her and based on what she admits to they charge her but she refuses to admit to lighting a cigarette in the house:

“Did you light a cigarette?”

“No! I would never smoke around him.”

“Did you drop a cigarette as you left, starting a fire in the house?”


“I will ask you again; did you light a cigarette in the Hatcher’s home?”

“No, I did not.”

“A cigarette started that fire and you admit to being there, in the early hours of the morning.”

“But Emma smokes! It would have been hers. She was awake when I left. She was having sex with her husband.”

Sergeant West looks at me with undisguised contempt. “Mrs Hatcher was alone last night. Her husband was sleeping elsewhere.”

Eh? Okay, so who is the man sharing Emma’s bed? I’m not saying but what I will say is that we find out quite early in the book but it doesn’t answer the real burning question here: who is responsible for starting the fire? What is interesting is that Rose doesn’t make more about the presence of this other man when it comes to her trial. Her reason? She has worked out who it is and decided not to involve him. But why? Why be willing to go to prison for a crime she maintains she didn’t commit? Because we’re all guilty of something, that’s why. She’s tried herself and found out that she is wanting.

The Woman Before Me won the Luke Bitmead Novel Award and the CWA Debut Dagger Award and so I can’t sit here and say it’s a bad novel because it clearly isn’t. It is, however, what it is. It just does it quite well. It’s formulaic, yes, but some formulae are more interesting than others: M + S = G is boring (where M = man, S = smoking gun and G = guilty) but that’s where the great crime writers distinguish themselves. The question here is: Does Ruth Dugdall manage that?

The book is 288 pages long divided into 57 chapters averaging 5 pages each. The first four chapters are headed BEFORE; the rest, NOW. The BEFORE section is written in the first person by Rose. The NOW section comprises of ‘Black Book’ entries by Rose in which she tells her life story addressing Jason. Interspersed between these entries, we see Cate’s story unfold, told in the third person. I found Cate the most predictable character here. It’s a common ploy of crime novelists to have a fair degree of overlap between protagonist and antagonist and I never truly engaged with her. She does her job, metaphorically and literally. This is where the editing was a bit sloppy. Not all the ‘Black Book Entry’ chapters are indicated; also the chapter numbers get mixed up 21, 23, 24, 22, 25 – I don’t know if the number are just wrong or if chapter 22 is printed in the wrong place but it doesn’t muck up the overall story since chapters 22 and 25 are both part of Cate’s storyline.

What we do start to realise as we read through Rose’s black book is that a lot has gone on in her life that might explain if not exactly excuse her creeping into a friend’s house in the middle of the night. A few facts:

I was brought up in Suffolk, in a seaside town where my family owned a shop. Lowestoft had seen better days and the once-grand town houses along the front were now split into flats and lived in by single mums and teenagers on benefit. There were four of us: me, my mum and dad, and Peter. He was two years older than me, a beast of a boy with piggy eyes in a pale podgy face and a brain the size of a pea. He had my mother’s pale colouring but none of her delicacy. He used to bully me endlessly, as older brothers do, but Mum said I had to make allowances because Peter was ‘special’, meaning he was stupid.

Elaeagnus_angustifolia Her mum suffers from what her father calls ‘loony spells’, bouts of depression that make her take to her bed for days on end; her father looks for comfort in the arms of Mrs Carron, “a flouncy woman with musky perfume and pink lips” according to Rose. On her ‘loony’ days, not wanting to be stuck in the shop getting under her father’s feet, she would sneak into her mother’s room “snuggling under the duvet and play at dens.” Outside in the Elaeagnus tree a blackbird has made its nest. It becomes the focus of both their interests:

“My chick,” she says, stroking my arm, “my Rosie.”


“I wish,” she said, and I held my breath, not having known her to wish for anything, so knowing it was important. “I wish I could look in that nest.” She surprised me. “Climb up, into the Elaeagnus – no, fly up there like a bird and peer in to see how many chicks, how many preciously thin, hollowed-boned babies are waiting, mouths wide for food.”

So there, there’s the first variable in this complex equation. But it’s only the start. In time her mum dies and Rose gets sent to stay with her Auntie Rita who drags her to her regular séances where Rose starts to gain a broader appreciation of just what exactly death is and isn’t. Then Jason comes on the scene and a warning from her dead mother that things will end badly if she doesn’t give him up. But what do the dead know? Just as Rose comes with baggage so does Jason, an ex he can’t quite get over but Rose is content to work around that until he decides he isn’t being fair to her and wants to leave. Then she plays her ace.

Like all books of this ilk it’s easy to look back and see where all the clues are and think this is bad writing because they’re so obvious but the fact is that when I was reading this I didn’t know what was coming. Who the man in Emma’s bed turns out to be was no big surprise but that’s misdirection on the author’s part – here, here’s a clue to keep you happy. And, yes, it is a clue but it’s not the evidence we need to help us decide if Cate’s assessment of Rose will be fair.

One thing I should make clear: Cate is not reinvestigating the case. Despite Rose’s assertions that she is innocent of the crime for which she has been convicted Cate is proceeding from the premise that the jury got it right, that is was guilty of accidental manslaughter. Her guilt is not an issue. Her suitability for reintegration into society is. Only we, the readers, get to read Rose’s black book until the very last chapter when Rose hands it to Cate. Is this as she’s walking out of the gate? I’m not saying. Does Cate recommend her release? I’m not saying. And I’m not saying what Jason and Emma and Dominic have to say or why Emma comes to the prison and waits for Cate. No, I’m not telling you.

What I will tell you is that Rose is guilty. She is guilty of a long list of things. She is guilty of loving people and believing people and trusting people. She is guilty of trespass and voyeurism. She is guilty of withholding the truth, even out-and-out lying. She is guilty of taking advantage of people, of manipulation too. She is guilty of stalking. But did she deserve to spend four years in prison and does she deserve to be released? You’ll have to read the book yourself to find out but be warned, like all crime novels, don’t be sidetracked by easy answers that come your way throughout the book. The real answer doesn’t come until page 286 so, if you’re in the habit of reading the last chapter to find out whodunit – don’t!


ruth.dugdall From the East Anglian Daily Times:

Ruth was born in 1971 and spent her early life in the Hull area, before moving to Ipswich when she was seven and her dad got a job down here. She went to Chantry High School and read voraciously – invariably darker material. “Books were always a place where you could fit in - create your own little world.”

After A-levels at Westbourne School she read English and theatre studies at Warwick University. A visit to prison – not as an inmate, obviously! – convinced her she wanted to work in jails after graduation, using drama therapy and suchlike to help offenders.

Ruth got a job with an Ipswich-based charity that helped people get their lives running better. Then, aiming to work in prisons and use drama and writing, she did an MA in social work at the University of East Anglia. She qualified in 1996 and worked in Lowestoft:

I loved being a probation officer. They get a really bad press, but I think they do a great job. People generally have the totally wrong idea about what they do. They think they're there to befriend offenders and give them cups of tea and sympathy; actually, it's all about challenging them and getting them to accept what they've done and think about the victim.

When the Carlford Unit opened in 2000 at Hollesley, near Woodbridge, she actively sought to work there. The prison takes some of the most serious young offenders in the country. Not an obvious choice for a place of work, you'd think:

I've always sought out situations that I want to know about, and maybe that frighten me as well. I think that's why I became a probation officer. If somebody says something that is shocking, I want to know more! I think this is important for writers and artists: I will ask that question other people won't ask.

Ruth wrote short stories, often drawing on work-related experiences. At the turn of the millennium –working in Lowestoft and living in Halesworth – she took a writing night-class in Bungay. The first story she wrote was from point of view of Ruth Ellis, the last woman to hang in England.


James Version [Her first novel] The James Version … won a competition at the Winchester Writers' Festival. Ruth didn't intend to self-publish, but as the prize was 50 bound copies it seemed logical to pay for extra ones and sell them.

Wise move. Outlets such as Waterstones, Ottakers and even WH Smith took it, thanks to its local flavour, and 700-plus books were sold. Ruth returned to social work – not back to a prison environment this time but, instead, training student probation officers.


Ruth Dugdall is a committed writer - committed with a capital C. She aims to write every day – squeezing in three hours last night, for instance, when the children were in bed. Weekends, birthdays, even Christmas Day . . . none of them an excuse for work not to be done:

I am a writer who writes every day. I always have a notepad with me, whatever bag I've got. If I'm in Caffè Nero, and notice someone, or overhear something, you can pull the pad out. Someone was telling me the other day how her mum was obsessive with the rug, and combed the fringes. I thought, God, that's good! Use that . . .

Ruth – unusually – has two publishers. The Woman Before Me is published by Legend Press. At the same time she also struck a deal with Solidus Press who are bringing out her third book, The Sacrificial Man, this year too; they have also reissued The James Version. She is married to Andrew, a human resources director with the online retailer, with whom she has a daughter, Amber, and a son, Eden. She is currently working on her fifth book.

Let me leave you with an interview with her:

Since I completed this review Ruth tells me that the book has been nominated for the People's Book Award - the only literary award that is decided solely on public vote. If you'd like to vote for her then here is a link to the appropriate web page.

Friday 17 September 2010

Aggie and Shuggie 27



Yer proapin up tha bar late t’night, Shuggie.


Too troo, Oggie. See us ower anither pint o heavy an a packet af dry-roasted peanuts.


Wan pint cumin raight up. An thur’s yer nuts.




Whit is it, Shuggie? Wimmen trubble?




Ah, nuff said, mate. Ah’ve bin known t’enrage tha fairer sex masel oan occashun. Wis ye sniffin roon tha floozy frae nummer tweny-fair?


Nah. Ah’d get killt proaper af Aggie caught me chasin’ anither burd. Besides, fer aw her many, many failins Ah’m still kinda foand af the auld ba un chain. At’s jist…


Jist whit, Shugs? Ye cun tell me. Tellin a barkeep’s like confessin tae a priest oanly Ah’m mair likely tae tell ye tae say, “Gie us three Johnny Walkers an wan fer yer guid sel,” af ye get me drift. Noo, whit wis it?


At’s nuhin, Oggie.


Ah huff no doot tha at wis nuhin. Wimmin’re no like us, Shuggie. Whit we hink as nuhin they hink’s summat major. Why d’ye hink Ah run a pub?


Ah huff nae idea. Did ye no inherit it frae yer faither?


Tha Ah did but tha reason Ah hung oante it wis because Ah gets tae spend ma days wi men. Blokes who get whit Ah say an Ah get whit they’re oan aboot.


Wull at’s like this, Oggie. This wumman cawd up doin sum phonemarketin malarkey an Ah happened – quite innocently – t’menshun tha Ah might huff – wance or twice ye unnerstan, just in passin – looked at nuddy wimmen oanline. Now, how wis Ah tae know tha Aggie wis lissnin?


D’ye zip up the back or sumhin? How loang huff you bin married, Shuggie?


Long enuff tae know they’re aywis lissnin. Ah know. Ah know. Oanywise noo Ah’m relegated tae tha coach an ma back as killin me. Ah jist wish…


Ah, regrets, Shuggie. Ah could paper this place wi em. D’ye fancy a wee single malt t’chase tha pint doon?


Ah widdne say, ‘No,’ Oggie.


So, ye’re sayin, “Yes.” Yes?


Aye, Ah’m sayin, “Yes.” Huff ye effer known a Scoatsman refuse a drink? Dis tha Pope shite in tha foarest?


Fair point, Shuggie. Thur ye go. Talkin aboot regrets d’ye rememmer tha book yoor Jim brought oot aboot a year ago? Tha wan wi tha humungous blue butterfly oan tha cover?


Stranger than Fiction? Aye.


Wull, Ah wis oanline masel last night – NOAT lookin at poarn Ah may add – an Ah stumbled upoan a new refyoo.


Who by?


Ah dunno. Sum wumman cawd Cheryl Anne Gardner.


Oh, aye.


Aye, Ah wis lookin up stuff about runner beans – Ah’ve bin hinkin af growin sum oan ma alloatment – an Ah came upoan this site called POAD People an, as you do, Ah hudda wee gander at it an whit d’ye know, a refyoo af tha book.


An wis it decent?


Aye! Ah’ll say. She gied it 9/10. Tha’s okay.


Tha’s very okay achally.


She says e’s a loat like Douglas Adams. Tha’s yon bloke tha did Tha Hitchhiker’s Guide tae the Galaxy n at ain’t he?


Tha’s im.


Wull, Ah might jist gie yoor Jim a go then. Ah quite liked tha Hitchhiker’s Guide when at were oan tha telly.


Ah’ll let im know an see af Ah cun get ye a signed coapy.


Hanks, Shuggie. Yer okay, Ah don’t care whit they say.


E’s goat a new book af poyems oot at tha minute. Had a few decent write ups. Last wan wis frae some bloke cawd Gabriel Orgrease.


Whit kinda name as that? As she a mechanic?


Naw, a stonemason I hink.


How come you thought e wis a mechanic?


Tha name: Gabriella Grease. Tha’s not er real name is it, Shuggie?


Nah. An at’s a bloke.




Anywise, Ah’m aff. Af Ah tell Aggie aboot tha refyoo ye neffer know at might jist put er in a guid mood an ye neffer know whur tha might lead. Night Oggie.


Night Shuggie.

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