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Monday 30 May 2011

A member of the set of imaginary writers


Identity is such a crucial affair that one shouldn't rush into it. – David Quammen

Here’s another one of those words that we use all the blinkin’ time and think we understand: identity. The first thing I think of when I hear the word ‘identity’ is Superman, as you do. He has a secret identity (Clark Kent). As does Batman (Bruce Wayne), the Flash (Barry Allen amongst others), Daredevil (Matt Murdock), Spider-Man (Peter Parker), Captain America (Steve Rogers) but not Thor; he used to be Donald Blake but now he’s pretty much Thor all the time and let’s face it everyone knows who the Fantastic Four are and the closest the Thing ever gets to a secret identity is slinging on a mac and a trilby. I don’t have a secret identity. I don’t even have a cape.

In philosophy, identity (also called sameness) is whatever makes an entity definable and recognisable, in terms of possessing a set of qualities or characteristics that distinguish it from other entities. Or, in layman's terms, identity is whatever makes something the same or different. – Wikipedia

Identity is whatever makes something the same or different. Now that is a sentence to sit and mull over along with cup of coffee and a plate of biscuits.

We all value our individuality but at the same time we want to be one of the gang. It’s like wanting your cake and eating it, isn’t it? Most of us start off our writing lives by identifying with some writer and trying to imitate them making them our role models. We want to be a writer like them. At first we feel our words need to be like theirs but then we realise that if we simply sit at a desk and write on a pretty regular basis then that works too. I don’t think there’s any one of us who isn’t just a little curious about how other writers work, what hours they keep, what their office looks like, how many words a day they think is ‘normal’.

I didn’t do that so much. I never idolised any particular writer. I adored Larkin’s poem ‘Mr. Bleaney’ but I wasn’t that interested in the rest of his stuff. Or him. So my first role model was a poem, not a person. Later I added a poem by William Carlos Williams but even though I bought a book of his poems it was just the one poem, ‘The Locust Tree in Flower’ (the compact version) that caught my attention. Apart from a couple of Williams-esque poems I never tried to imitate either writer at the time. It was the spirit of the poems that I adopted. I never looked for biographies on them or anything like that. I really wasn’t very interested in the writers. I only discovered what Williams looked like a few years ago. I was taken by what they’d written and I’ve always found that to be the case.

But back to Superman/Clark Kent, real name Kal El. Secret or not ‘Clark Kent’ is an identity but then so is ‘Superman’. Who then is Kal El? How do you identify Superman? The outfit with his underpants on the outside, the billowing cape, the ‘S’ logo. If he didn’t dress like that you’d have to wait for him to leap a tall building in a single bound before you’d know, either that or tell you what colour underwear you’re wearing, something like that.

Self-esteem is a term used in psychology to reflect a person's overall evaluation or appraisal of his or her own worth. Babies don’t have self-esteem. They don’t look pleased with themselves when they burp or fart at least not until they notice that it gets a favourable response. We have a cockatiel that does that. Every night now when he gets put into his cage he clambers up on the front and does ‘wings’ which in birdy-gestures is the equivalent of giving us the finger: I do not want to go to go to bed now! And how do we respond? We ooh and ahh and generally make approving sounds, the kind of sounds we usually make when he rings the chimes in the window or does something clever. You can almost see the confused look on his face but the simple fact is that he’s started doing it more and more because he obviously likes the approval. He feels good about what he’s doing but is that really self-esteem since the approval he gets comes from outside him?

Self-esteem, self-worth, is not a simple thing to calculate. And at different times in your life certain things are more heavily valued – perfect skin as a teenager, a facility with words when chatting up girls – it all depends on what’s important to you at the time. But how do you know if your assessment of your true worth is accurate? You need an assessor. That makes one think immediately of an individual, a person who we go to to look for some kind of validation but I think we can look at it more broadly. We need a way to assess ourselves. That’s where setting goals comes into play. I toyed with the idea of saying ‘ambition’ but I’ve always thought about ambition to be as much of a negative as a positive quality which it may or may not be depending on the individual and what they’re willing to do to meet their ambitions. Also ambitions tend to focus end-of-the-road achievements, like becoming captain of the football team or something like that. Goals are what you score on the way there.

For writers goals can and should start off quite modestly. I think the first big one I had to reach was to develop perspective. When I first started writing I pretty much thought every time I put pen to paper I was capable of producing a work of staggering genius and it was only a matter of time (and not a very long time) before I wrote one and then, after getting the hang of it, the next work of staggering genius would be a lot easier until every time my pen touched a piece of paper raw, undiluted genius would flow onto the page. I charted my changing views of myself in this poem:

Borrowed Knowledge

As a child
I knew I knew everything.
No one believed me
and over time I
forgot most of it.

When a man
I thought I knew many things.
I knew of many things
and I believed
the things I knew were mine.

Now, of course,
I've grown old and it is clear
to me I knew nothing.
It is the one
thing that I know for sure.

Two plus two
is not mine, nor the capital
of Venezuela,
nor the reasons
I'm all alone tonight.

2 October 2007

As it happens I wasn’t physically alone when I wrote the poem but I was alone in the respect that I was still writing in isolation. With the exception of my wife, who by that time had pretty much stopped writing anyway, I had only actually met two writers in the flesh, both friends of my wife as it happens. In August I had started my blog but if I got half-a-dozen hits a day I was jumping for joy. I still felt very much alone. I was a member of the set of imaginary writers. I knew there were other writers out there but they weren’t real to me.

My big problem when I first started out was I had no accurate means of mensuration at my disposal. I knew no other writers. I didn’t know how to be a writer, good, bad or indifferent. I’d look in the mirror and try as I might I couldn’t see a writer looking back at me. I couldn’t tell you the day I looked into the mirror and saw a writer looking back but it was quite a while after I looked into the mirror and saw a man looking back.

act393sI’ve mentioned this comic before, Action Comics #393, cover date: October 1970, ‘The Day Superboy Became Superman’. It’s always had a big effect on me, the realisation that one day you’re a boy and then suddenly, miraculously, people start talking about you as a man. There are cultures throughout the world where they have an official age but even there everyone acknowledges that it’s more of a symbolic thing than anything else. According to the Jewish tradition a boy becomes Bar Mitzvah (son of commandment) when he reaches thirteen years old and for a girl, a Bat Mitzvah (daughter of commandment) when she is twelve. My understanding is that Jesus didn’t start his ministry until he was thirty because that was the age when people would regard him as a man and take what he had to say seriously. It’s academic. You get my point.

A few days ago, for only the third time in my life, I went to a gathering of writers, not a virtual gathering but a literal one in an actual pub with real people who complained because I apparently have a firm handshake. The first was a poetry reading I’d been invited to at which I spoke to no one and no one spoke to me; the second was some writers thing in Prestwick of all places and all I can remember about that was hearing Tony Warren talk about Coronation Street – both of those were thirty-plus years ago. This time it was a monthly gathering of writers in Glasgow called ‘Weegie (as in Glaswegian) Wednesday’ at which I got to chat to a nice girl called Stephanie originally from Utah and a couple of others who ended up sat at the table from which I didn’t move all evening except to order a second Diet Coke and to leave. Everyone was nice, very nice, but it got very noisy and crowded and noisy crowds are not really my cup of tea. I don’t like conversations that have to be shouted and I usually end up sitting around regretting never having learned to lip-read. But what really got me was how uncomfortable I felt about myself being there as if I was still pretending to be a writer, as if I hadn’t earned the right to be there.

If I were to pick a verb to go with the word ‘self-esteem’ I think it would be ‘bolster’, as in to support or reinforce; strengthen. One of the main reasons to attend a gathering like that is, I guess, to encourage one another: Look! You’re not alone, there are loads of us flogging the same dead horse and trying to get blood out of stones – you are not alone. And if one of the group has a bit of success then it proves that success is possible because you know a flesh and blood person who actually managed it. There was a girl at my table who had just sold a book and everyone looked so pleased for her and it seemed genuine. That was nice. It was nice that people took encouragement from someone else’s good fortune. And it was to the girl’s credit that she downplayed her success.

Writers don’t usually have thick skins – it’s a side effect of being sensitive souls – and right under our skins lies our self-esteem. It’s the first thing that gets it when we get praised or criticised. Self worth is like an IQ. A high IQ signifies potential, nothing more. A six-year-old can have an IQ of 200 but what will he have done with it in his six years? Self worth is the difference between talent and skill: a skilled craftsman is not necessarily a talented one. And by ‘talent’ I mean a special natural ability or aptitude. Skills come with practice and even the best, the naturals, the Lang Langs and Yehudi Menuhins of this world need to practice to develop their skill set.

The question is: are you basing your self-worth on what you have produced or on what you believe you can produce? If I believed that I had written the best poem, the best short story, play and novel that I was capable of then what am I doing still writing? People judge by appearances. They judge people – other people but also themselves – by what goes on outside of the body, the extra few pounds they might be carrying, the fact that their boss is younger than them, the fact they’re still living with their parents as if all or any of that is an accurate way of measuring worth. And people will judge us by what we produce but only we know what we’re capable of.

A writer is, it is said, his or her own worst critic which is why many re-write their material over and over until they get it right. That’s not a bad thing and probably one of the biggest mistakes newbie writers make is not appreciating the importance of editing their material, but that’s a skill thing – it has nothing to do with talent. There is a danger though that you find you’re never satisfied and simply can’t let go of the material. Again this is a skill thing, knowing when you’ve done the best you can at the time even though you know that in time you could do much better. You will do much better. We all do. But not everything we write has to be a work of staggering genius because most people really don’t want to read works of staggering genius.

Just as an overweight person can use that as the sole measure of their self-esteem I think that writers can do much the same. I’ve hardly written a word for the past three weeks – it happens, I’ve been doing other stuff – and now I’m sitting here at 1:30 in the morning because I’m on a roll and feel I need to write while the ideas are flowing. I’m happy writing. I’m doing what I should be doing. I make sense now. Not being able to fix the new toilet seat a couple of weeks back made me feel bad but if I’d sat down and started writing all that would have been forgotten very quickly because toilet seats aren’t important; writing is.

What is a writer? In its most simplistic terms it is someone who writes. I write ergo I am a writer. But how I define the word ‘writer’ is far more complex than simply equating it to the act of writing. Stephen King is a writer so is Doris Lessing, Joyce Carol Oates, Douglas Adams, Neil Gaiman, etc., etc. Add to that several million other writers and you get a composite picture of what a ‘Writer’ is. I am a member of the set of writers. And my place in the pecking order, how I feel in the company of other writers, clearly affects my self-esteem. I can certainly identify with them – Stephen King sits at a desk like me and writes onto a laptop like me (in that respect we’re the same) – but I’m also acutely aware of the differences between me and him. Remember how Wikipedia defined ‘identity’: “identity is whatever makes something the same or different.”

I learned a new expression today: collective self-esteem. Seems a bit contradictory at first but here’s how it’s defined:

That part of an individual’s self-concept which derives from his knowledge of his membership in a social group(s) together with the value and emotional significance attached to that membership Henri Tajfel, Human Groups and Social Categories, p.255

I had never heard this term before but it’s an interesting one I think. If I were to drawn a Venn diagram of writers it would be a dirty great big circle with all the writers in the world inside it. It’s not that simple though. We have all kinds of writers in that circle, amateurs, professionals, hobbyists, all vying for a good place. Where do I fit in the pecking order? In a room full of writers the calibre of most of which were quite unknown to me I chose to feel small even though I had probably written more than each of the three ladies I was at the table with if only because I was about twenty years older than each of them and so had a head start.

In his book Language and Identity: National, Ethnic, Religious (p.76), John Earl Joseph identifies five positions that are embedded in Tajfel’s proposition:

  • that social identity pertains to an individual rather than to a social group;
  • that it is a matter of self-concept, rather than of social categories into which one simply falls;
  • that the fact of membership is the essential thing, rather than anything having to do with the nature of the group itself;
  • that an individual's own knowledge of the membership, and the particular value they attach to it - completely 'subjective' factors - are what count;
  • that emotional significance is not some trivial side effect of the identity belonging but an integral part of it [italics his]

ADVENTURE-COMICS-247_coverI may have been writing in isolation for many years but I was always aware that I was a part of a much larger group. Which brings me back to comics. Another one I remember from my childhood was Adventure Comics #247 (April 1958) where Superboy’s application to join the Legion of Superheroes is rejected because, as Cosmic Boy says on the cover, his “powers are too ordinary.” Of course he does end up being granted ‘honorary membership’ by the end of the issue but even then he has to wait until August 1964 (Adventure Comics #323) before he becomes a regular member.

Can you imagine how he would have felt? Superman is the quintessential superhero and even as a boy he must have realised this. It was bad enough that he had to hide his true identity from most of Earth’s inhabitants and so was well used to not belonging but to be rejected by his peers or if not rejected outright and only then afforded ‘honorary’ membership, that must have stung. But like I said at the start, I’m no superhero. But I’m also not ordinary. I’ve never felt ordinary. And I’ve longed to belong, not in an abstract sense because I belong to lots of different sets, but in a let’s-go-for-coffee sense.

Tajfel was the first to conceive of a collective self-esteem but it was nine years later that Riia Luhtanen and Jennifer Crocker in an article in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin proposed a system of assessing it. It can be tweaked according to the ingroup that the person being assessed is affiliated with but this is how is would work for a writer:

Please read each item carefully, and respond by using the following Likert response scale:

  1. = strongly disagree
  2. = disagree
  3. = disagree somewhat
  4. = neutral
  5. = agree somewhat
  6. = agree
  7. = strongly agree

    1. I am a worthy Writer.
    2. I often regret that I am a Writer.
    3. Overall, being a Writer is considered good by others.
    4. Overall, being a Writer has very little to do with how I feel about myself. [1]
    5. I feel I don’t have much to offer to other Writers.
    6. In general, I am glad to be a Writer.
    7. Most people consider Writers, on the average, to be more ineffective than people from other creative disciplines.
    8. Being a Writer is an important reflection of who I am. [7]
    9. I co-operate with other Writers.
    10. Overall, I often feel that being a Writer is not worthwhile.
    11. In general, others respect Writers.
    12. Being a Writer is unimportant to my sense of what kind of a person I am. [1]
    13. I often feel I’m useless as a Writer.
    14. I feel good about being a Writer.
    15. In general, others think that Writers are unworthy.
    16. In general, being a Writer is an important part of my self-image. [7]

Items 2, 4, 5, 7, 10, 12, 13 and 15 are all reverse coded.

The Collective Self-Esteem Scale captures four different aspect of collective self-esteem:

  1. Membership esteem: how one judges oneself as a member of the group (items – 1, 5, 9, 13)
  2. Private esteem: how one judges the group itself (items – 2, 6, 10, 14)
  3. Public esteem: how one judges how others evaluate this group (items – 3, 7, 11, 15)
  4. Identify esteem: how one judges the importance of one’s membership in this social group to one’s self-concept (items – 4, 8, 12, 16)

Do I need to be a member of the Set of Writers to be a writer? No. I don’t need to join any organisation, pay any annual fee, wear a badge or register myself anywhere. That doesn’t matter. I know there are other writers out there and no matter how hard I try to say that my relationship to these literally millions of strangers doesn’t matter the fact is it does. Avoiding all contact with other writers might help but it’s not the answer.

Of course there are subsets to which I belong. I’m not simply a writer, I’m a member of the Set of Poets, of Scottish Writers, of Male Novelists, Self-Published Writers, Writers Who Blog, Children’s Writers With Beards and so on and so forth. My self-esteem as a Poet is better than my self-esteem as a Playwright for example: I’ve been paid for my poetry but I’ve never even offered one of my plays to a local theatre group to see if they’d fancy a crack at it.

I’m not suggesting that any of you should take the test but feel free to. I do think the questions are interesting though and worth thinking about. You’ll note that I did actually answer four of the questions. I’ve since had a think about those answers and I’m not sure the answers are accurate because what I was answering was really how I felt about being a writer not how I felt about being part of a group made up of writers. That’s not so important to me. That said I can’t pretend I don’t have a need to be accepted for who I am, to take off the glasses and don the cape or maybe the other way around.

And to end on a light note I’ve just discovered there is a Collective Self-Esteem Network on Facebook (it’s affiliated to the Mutual Admiration Society) where fellow members “give Facebook hugs in a totally Care Bear loves Pedicab way!” I’m not joining. I have enough problems with the groups I’m already a member of.

Further Reading

For a short explanation of collective self-esteem’s four aspects see Julie A. Garcia and Diana T. Sanchez’s article here.

A clear explanation of Likert scaling can be found here.

Wednesday 25 May 2011

The Book of Lies


Shouldn’t History explain everything? – Mary Horlock, The Book of Lies

Up until the age of about twelve or thirteen I had no real idea about voice. Writers told stories, mostly in the third person I suppose, and the reader tagged along. I think the first book where I became fully aware of voice would be Catcher in the Rye. I know it’s a book that many readers grow out of – indeed the last time I read it, when I was about thirty-five, I was quite underwhelmed by it – but at the time, and I imagine this might have been even truer back in the fifties when it was first published, I’m sure that it accurately reflected the teenage colloquial speech of the time and every few years since some new book has been heralded as the new Catcher in the Rye for its generation: Generation X has been called a Catcher in the Rye for the 90s and Less than Zero purports to be The Catcher in the Rye for the MTV generation. There have also been Catcher in the Ryes for the Atari generation, the iPad generation, the Twitter generation, the MySpace generation, the Grunge generation, even the fortysomethings.

One thing I’ve never read yet is something that says it’s a Catcher in the Rye for girls. I’m not saying that there aren’t girls out there who appreciate Salinger’s novel but in my experience the book is especially-loved by males-of-a-certain-age. I was one of them.

I think that Mary Horlock’s debut novel, The Book of Lies, might be one of those books that is best appreciated by females-of-a-certain-age. This is not to say that I as a male didn’t enjoy it because I did – very much actually – but I was never a fifteen-year-old girl and I was only a fifteen-year-old boy for about two months when I was thirteen. But what the narrator and main protagonist of this book has in common with Holden Caulfield is a voice, an idiolect if you want to be all fancy pants about it which is exactly the kind of thing Catherine Rozier would say as I will illustrate shortly. But first let me read you the blurb on the back of the book:

It’s been a fortnight since they found her body and for the most part I am glad she’s gone. But I also can’t believe she’s dead, and I should do because I did it.

Now if the title wasn’t enough to get me to start thumbing though the book, that short extract most certainly would have and then to find that it was written by a fifteen-year-old girl about her best friend, well, I was interested. Only that’s not the only story here. Oh, no. The thing is, is history repeating itself?

History is a big deal where Catherine lives. I know everywhere has its history but not all histories are as interesting as Guernsey’s. Okay, if you’re as geographically-challenged as I am you probably have no idea where Guernsey is (hell, I thought the Falklands were up by Shetland) but I read in the Metro that apparently 6% of all six- to twelve-year-olds think the Outer Hebrides are on another planet. The Bailiwick of Guernsey is a British Crown Dependency in the English Channel off the coast of ChannelIslandsNormandy. Along with Jersey (also a bailiwick) it forms the Channel Islands. So, on the map it’s closer to France than it is to England but it’s still ours. I say that with no great sense of national pride because in general the Brits do not have what you might call a deep and abiding relationship with the islanders. Although its defence is the responsibility of the United Kingdom, Guernsey is not actually part of the UK so when on 15th June 1940, the British government decided that the Channel Islands were of no strategic importance and would not be defended they effectively gave up the oldest possession of the Crown to the Germans without firing a single shot. The Channel Islands served no real purpose to the Germans other than the propaganda value of having occupied some British territory but they did build four concentration camps in Alderney, change the time zone from GMT to CET in order to bring the islands into line with continental Europe and, as part of the Atlantic Wall, the occupying German forces and the Organisation Todt constructed fortifications round the coasts of the Channel Islands; in fact Hitler had decreed that 10% of the steel and concrete used in the Atlantic Wall go to the Channel Islands. The British Government's reaction to the German invasion was muted and it’s a subject that many have been happy to see brushed under that carpet.

Okay, Jim, all very interesting and all that but I thought you said this was a book about some fifteen-year-old girl who kills her best friend.

And it is. Bear with me. “What did you do in the war, Daddy?” is a question that all kids of my generation will have asked their fathers. Catherine’s father was only a small boy then but his father was on the island when it was occupied as was his brother, Charlie, and for years Catherine’s father has been trying to find out the truth of just what his father and brother did during the war because the facts are not at all clear. There is talk of collaboration and betrayal and murder. And it all involves best friends.

Charlie’s friend is Ray Le Poidevoin which is apparently quite a common Guernseian surname. Catherine’s friend is Nic, Nicolette Louise Prevost, and I’m sorry, Mary, but every time I read that I read it as Nicorette. No one would have got the joke because Nicorette, even though it’s been around since the sixties, didn’t become well known until the nineties and this book is set in the eighties, 1984 to be precise, and the book jumps back and forth between a letter Catherine is writing to her mum to set the record straight “‘The Testimony of C. A. Rozier’ [Transcribed by E.P. Rozier],” his brother (Catherine’s late father) in which her uncle tries to do the same.

Towards the end of the book there is a letter from one of the Germans addressed to Catherine’s father giving his side of events in which he says:

[T]here are more than two sides to any story. The truth is like a prism through which the light shines, but the patterns it creates can distract and confuse.

Like all of us Catherine is trying to understand her place in the world. Like all of us she looks to her family for some guidance:

Poor Mum. How do I ever begin to tell her what I did any why? If Dad were still here he’d know what to do. He’d start by saying that you have to go way back. Perhaps if Mum had done that sooner she would have seen what was ahead. If I’m writing this for anyone I suppose I’m writing it for her. She knows what happened to Dad is connected to what happened to Nic. It’s amazing, really, how everything connects. But what would you expect on this tiny island? We all know each other, or worse, we are related.

We talk about getting away and seeing the world, but we never do. We stay here making the same mistakes, over and over. I’m a murderer and it’s not my fault. I can blame the Germans, and I can blame my parents and I can blame my parents’ parents. Don’t you see. Once you know your History, it does explain everything.

There is a lot of history in this book and I like how Mary Horlock handles her history. Rather than having Catherine slow up her narrative with constant asides explaining what everything is, not that she doesn’t explain anything, the dry bits are included as footnotes which, if you’re caught up in what’s on the page, you can go back to later. There’s a nice map too at the start of the book not that there is, as you might imagine, much to the island.

I’ve said that Catherine is a fifteen-year-old girl – unfortunately overweight and a clever, which means she’s unpopular:

[M]y classmates at Les Moulins College for Cretins, the only all-girls’ school on the island … mostly all hate me for no good reason. Just because I sit at the front of the classroom and get all the questions right and hand my homework in early. And they call me Cabbage because of it. Teenage girls are très mega horrible, and Nic was exactly like that but prettier. She’d been moved down from the Grammar School, having been put down a year on account of her dyslexia. For some people (me) that would have been embarrassing, but my classmates took one look at her long blonde hair and big green eyes and turned dyslexic too.

The fact that Catherine doesn’t swoon over her like everyone else piques Nic’s interest so she gets to know her and finds she quite likes her:

Some people go for pale and interesting. That’s what you are: pale and interesting.

Catherine is pleased but she’s not lost 50 IQ points in the process. She realises that maybe Nic “wanted someone fat and frumpy to make her feel better than she already was.” Still she starts to see Nic as “the sister I’d never had but always wanted.” And then the chapter ends with:

And remember: two sisters, like two brothers, can be completely different.

Next chapter we get to read the first transcript of Charlie Rozier’s testimony to his brother. At first I didn’t think anything of the fact but as I started to work my way through the book I started to notice that things mentioned in Catherine’s account also appear in Charlie’s. For example, in one chapter Catherine is at a party; in the next, Charlie comes home to find Nazis in his house and refers to the group as a “party”:

What I do know is this: by the time I was marched into our front room the Germans had found what they’d been looking for. Happened Esme was right, and there had been some little party I’d missed out on.

It’s a small thing, easily missed (and I’ve probably missed several), but the few I did pick up on underline that there are parallels between the two stories. Catherine starts to see this and so, in a bid to understand, reads everything she can find out about what happened back then, something which is made easier by the fact her father has taken on the role of the island’s unofficial (and mostly unappreciated) historian. Most of the islanders are happy for the past to be forgotten since most of them (or their families) have something to be ashamed of. There was no resistance on Guernsey, not in the same way you think of the French Resistance; a little passive resistance but that’s about the size of it. Cooperation was an everyday thing but out and out collaboration, if I can distinguish between the two, and informing was not uncommon either. People did what they needed to do to survive including fraternising (i.e. sleeping with) the enemy or stealing from their neighbour if necessary. Catherine’s father might have been as willing as the rest to forget what had happened had it not been for what happened to his brother who ended up in a French concentration camp, who although he survived, returned a broken man.

If this seems a far cry from the book you probably thought I was going to be talking about at the beginning, I apologise. That book is still there; our primary narrator is Jackiestill a fifteen-year-old girl who notices things like the “Boots 17 Cherry Pie-coated lips[tick]” her friend is wearing, who insists on capitalising words FOR EFFECT, who overuses the preposition “per” and is just as happy referencing Jackie as she is Shakespeare.

Charlie doesn’t get quite as much page-time as Catherine but he’s well-rounded and has his own voice. What is interesting about all the characters, but you obviously notice it more with the two narrators, is the peculiar turns of phrase that are used on the island. You can see that there’s a French influence there but it’s not French. For example this is how Charlie opens up his testimony:

P’tit Emile, man buoan fraire. You are my dear and only brother, but how can two brothers be so different, eh? You got the good stuff: the brains, the looks, our mother’s love, whilst I, bian sûr, was poisoned.

Some of the expressions are easy to guess: ‘mon Dju’ is obviously a variation on the French, ‘mon Dieu’ (my God) but what do you make of “Si nous pale du guiabye nous est saure d'l'y'vais les caurnes?” Charlie self-translates that one: “Speak of the devil and you shall see horns.” In French that would be  « Parlez du diable et vous verrez les cornes » so there will be a few times you will struggle. What Charlie is speaking is Dgèrnésiais which Catherine describes as, “Medieval Norman French mixed with Latin, Welsh, Scotch and Brandy.”

Dgèrnésiais is the traditional language of Guernsey. It is a variety of Norman, similar to the dialects of Norman spoken in mainland Normandy and also to the Anglo-Norman used, after the 1066 invasion, in England. There is some mutual intelligibility with Jèrriais, the Norman dialect spoken in Jersey. It is mainly spoken by older people living in rural parts of the island and is sometimes referred to by the semi-disparaging name "patois". Catherine’s father’s press is called The Patios Press although all his publications are in English. There is a note, for example, at the top of the second transcription to check the patois used with someone called Mrs Mahy.

Horlock took especial care to get her language right consulting a 94-year-old islander, Miriam, who, when asked about the best swear words to use was politely advised, "The thing is, Mary, we never used this sort of language. The men might have spoken it but we didn't!"

This is an intelligent, well-written book. It doesn’t always feel like that because of Catherine’s style of writing. I was surprised there weren’t hearts over the i’s and underlining in fluorescent pink and all the other things that girls-of-a-certain-age feel they need to do to effectively communicate both their message and the emotional state they were in when they wrote it. The book was apparently inspired by her old diaries from when she was a girl. In an interview she said this:

I knew I wanted to write a book.  I had been experimenting with fiction but hadn’t written anything that I wanted to show anyone.  I knew as soon as I started writing about Guernsey that this was the novel to share.

I would be sitting in our flat in central London, imagining I was back in our house on Guernsey looking out over the cliffs.

Then I rediscovered my old diaries and it brought back to me all the good things about growing up on Guernsey but also how frustrating it can be as a teenager, not even able to get on a bus and escape to a different town, like you can in England.   There’s something particular, and particularly isolating about growing up on a small island.  It feels a lot like adolescence.

I cannot pretend for a minute that I could see where she was going with this two-pronged storyline. Yes, yes, I could see the obvious parallel because they state it explicitly: Catherine says she murdered Nic and Charlie maintains he murdered his father. But what happened is not always what people say happened or think happened. And then there’s the death of Catherine’s father. Could her mother have done more to stop her husband’s death just as Catherine’s grandmother might have done more to protect her own husband? There’s a lot of guilt going around in Guernsey . . . and some of it is well deserved. “Guilt is the only reason anyone does anything,” says Michael, a friend of Catherine’s, and she thinks he may be right. Living on Guernsey one can see why one might think that might be right.

This is also a far deeper book than I expected at first. In fact the death of Nic rather fades into the background a bit. Yes, it happened, yes, it was a tragedy (although if Nic hadn’t turned into an UBERBITCH halfway through the book I might have cared more) but it is just the catalyst that drives Catherine to finish her Dad’s job. The thing is – and this is both brave and clever – we don’t get to know all the answers at the end, in fact what Catherine does is list all the things we’ve probably missed while reading the book and the first thing you will probably want to do once you’ve finished it is pick it up and read it a second time with a bit more care.

Reviews of the book have been generally favourable. Of course me being me I sought out the worst to see what they had to say. Probably the worst anyone had to say about it, other than those who just didn’t get it, was this one from Amazon: “It all reads like a slightly convoluted episode of Midsomer Murders, bit twee, bit trite and English and wholly unbelievable.” They are, of course, entitled to their opinion but I can’t agree with it. I do agree that Catherine’s narration can be a bit annoying at times but I can’t imagine spending any length of time with any fifteen-year-old and not being annoyed after a bit. Horlock, herself, actually describes the novel as "a murder mystery in reverse."

Let me leave you with a video of the author talking about the book:


Mary-Horlock-Mary Horlock was born in Australia but grew up on Guernsey in the Channel Islands. She studied at Cambridge and went on to work as a curator at Tate Britain and Tate Liverpool. She is a former curator of the Turner Prize. Horlock lives in London, England, with her partner, the Lacanian psychoanalyst and psychologist Darian Leader, and their two children, and she is currently writing a book on art, lies and camouflage, based on the life of her great-grandfather, an official war artist and Second World War camoufleur. Although she has written widely on modern and contemporary art, this is her first novel.

Having committed to writing Horlock now has several books in the pipeline. She's writing a non-fiction book about her great-grandfather and also working on the second book in a planned Island trilogy. "A ghost story", it will be set on Sark, where Horlock spent her childhood holidays, which she describes as "a place full of myths and legends, very richly steeped in pirates and witches, really isolated.”


Alice O'Keeffe, ‘Island of Lost Souls’, The Bookseller, 10th December 2010

Friday 20 May 2011

The factional me


[B]iography risks exaggerating a subject’s importance. Is it enough to document a public figure because they were there? Readability, reason and relevance — the three R’s of writing — are challenges that should not be overlooked. – What are the problems of writing biography?

I am more than the things I have done. I am the things I have imagined, the things I have dreamed. I am as much what I believe myself to be as I am what I have proven myself to be. My body has no choice but to live in the physical world but in my mind I can fly.

I don’t have a lot of biographies and even fewer autobiographies. And most of the autobiographies I have are not especially satisfying because they are written like biographies, as if the authors weren’t really present in their own lives: I did this, I went there where I got this. They don’t let us in, not like fiction does. The problem with biography is that it’s nonlinear; it’s always written looking back on events. Yes, you can say in which order it was written but experience is cumulative. The me who wrote Living with the Truth had only thirty-odd years’ worth of being me to draw on. The man who is writing now has fifty-one years which, of course, contain those first thirty-odd, but they’re not as fresh as they used to be; lives go off. When I look at them it’s with fifty-one-year-old eyes. I can’t remember writing Living with the Truth; I remember what I think it was like. In truth I couldn’t even tell you how many weeks it took to write. And I remember even less about its sequel.

I do have a partial autobiography written. It covers about my first thirteen or fourteen years which is how old I was when I wrote it. I’ve never read it since but my wife has. I’ve tried but I can never make it past the first page. One of the reasons I’ve never read it, other than the purple prose (probably more the violet end than indigo to be honest), is the fact that I know it’s a load of pretentious crap. It’s crap because it’s edited to take out all the stuff I didn’t want people to read, basically all the stuff, if I ever did decide to write a real autobiography, I’d want to talk about now. The names of my best friends or my teachers are of little relevance in the grand scheme of things. The reason I wrote the thing that way was because it was being written for a girl I was in love with, the first girl I was ever truly in love with although I had had a crush on another a few years before that. As she was going to be reading it – which she did – it had to present a picture of me that I wanted her to see and so it was heavily tuttied up.

There is a lot of autobiographical writing to be found online and I don’t just mean sites where we get a day-by-day account of what’s going on in their lives – got up, went to the bathroom, had breakfast, walked the dog, etc. etc. – but they focus on moments in their life often traumatic ones or if not the white hot events at the core of the trauma then the ones circling its centre. Much of this is simple therapy, getting things out of your head onto paper where you can view them objectively. Not a bad idea and one I approve of. I suppose the question is: why would anyone else want to read these scraps of writing? Clearly those who have been through a similar trauma do, which sounds odd at first – why wouldn’t they want to distance themselves from anything that reminded them of what happened to them? – but I suppose there’s some perverse comfort in hearing that others have been similarly tormented and survived. We want to be understood and the best people to understand us are those who understand what we’ve been through. But even if we haven’t been through what they have isn’t it fascinating to put ourselves in their place, to try to feel what they feel, to develop empathy?

I suppose so. I think the real issue here is can we understand that kind of pain by proxy?

Some people, of course, use true-life happenings to develop their writing skills, the ‘classic’ write about what you know proposition. Often these pieces end up being highly fictionalised and only contain the odd shard of truth. Here’s the opening paragraph to my short story ‘Relish’:

I bet you don’t remember the first time you had fish fingers covered in batter rather than breadcrumbs. I do, but you saw that coming, I’m sure. I was eight, it was 1964, it was teatime. I was sitting in front of the television – in a state of great anticipation – with my tray on my lap as the very first episode of Stingray was televised. Like all kids my age I’d grown up on a steady diet of Thunderbirds, Fireball XL5 and Supercar. This was a new beginning. We were all sitting there – not all in my mum’s front room you understand – but we were all together in spirit, Ronnie, Mousie, Tom, Paul and Drew. We were just kids. What did we know? We knew what we liked and Gerry Anderson would’ve been quaking in his shoes had he known that we six sat in judgement of his new baby as we did of Captain Scarlet, Joe 90, UFO and Space 1999. I have no idea what I was eating when any of those aired but I remember the fish fingers well enough. I ended up picking off the coating and just eating the fish. My mum complained at me for it but what do mothers know? I’ve eaten a lot of meals in my time and watched a heck of a lot of TV but I have no idea what makes that particular memory stick out

The first bit is absolutely true. I remember that clearly. I have no idea if the chips were straight-cut or crinkle but my tea that night was fish fingers, chips and peas, most likely tinned garden peas because that’s what my mum bought. The names are all boys I knew at some time during my school years but not at the same time. Here I make us sound like a gang but we weren’t. Ronnie was always called Ronald and Drew was actually Andrew. When I knew ‘Mousie’ (pronounced ‘Moosie’ – this was Scotland remember) he was still known as Derek; he acquired the nickname later because he never grew much and was as small as a mouse. At the time I watched this programme I’d never befriended Tom (although we were in always in the same class throughout school) and by that time Andrew’s family may have moved to Wales. Paul was the boy next door and we were never friends.

Andrew appears in my novel Stranger than Fiction too:

That was the house on the right, Number 8, the one on the left being Number 10. The rest of the street had been bulldozed into oblivion to make way for the new estate. Number 10 was home to his first friend Andrew Danzig. The Danzig’s were of Polish origin—Andrew’s grandfather, one Wladyslaw Danzig, a warrant officer in some navy or other, had ended up marrying an English girl and immigrated.

Needless to say he was not Polish although his surname is similar to Danzig and I never met his grandfather that I can remember. The Andrew in the book does leave for Wales through. It also records the fact that I saw a clip on TV once of some Welsh school kids and was convinced he was one of them but he didn’t join the family firm as happens to the Andrew in the book; he actually became a professor of mathematics – I googled him a while back. The grandfather was actually modelled on a retired Swedish sea captain I was acquainted with for a couple of years. And Andrew was my very first friend. Why include these details? Basically to give the writing a feeling of authenticity. The narrator in ‘Relish’ says he was brought up in a FlatsScottish council flat. I was brought up in a semi-detached council house. I now live in an ex-council flat but not the same one I was in when I wrote the story. My one-time best friend Neil lived in a block of high-rise flats – it was those I was thinking about when I wrote the story – but you'll notice he never made the list of friends, nor did Ian or George or the other Tom.

When I look at this particular story I find it riddled with autobiographical details but only my brother or sister would have any chance in picking out the facts from the fiction. They’ll no doubt remember my mum saving Green Shield stamps from the Co-op though whether they’ll remember a trip to Ayr to trade them in I don’t know. The first time I was ever bought Edinburgh rock was in Ayr but I couldn’t tell you if my sister was there at the time. What I can tell you is that her name’s not Sally – I’ve never known a Sally.

My first girlfriend was certainly not called Agnes Clare McGuffey but she did become a born again Christian. The last time I saw her was also not in front of Tesco’s but rather outside the drycleaners I was working in at the time. And, no, she didn’t force a religious tract into my hand.

‘Relish’ was the first of a collection of short stories I began writing while I was stuck on my third novel. I think of it as a warming-up story – there's nothing essentially wrong with it and it’s certainly not the worst thing I’ve ever written but if it never got published I’d not worry about it. To my mind its biggest weakness is that it is too rooted in my own childhood and I can’t read it objectively; maybe it’s a better story than I imagine but I don’t think so.

I have a rather simplistic view of the differences between fiction and non-fiction: the first is made-up stuff, the second aims to be factually accurate. That doesn’t mean that an autobiographer can’t start a sentence with, “I think…” because, if truth be told, virtually everything we remember has to have that caveat attached to it. I’ve told the story about watching Stingray so many times now that I honestly couldn’t say with one-hundred-percent accuracy what happened that night. I remember I was sat in my dad’s chair slap-bang in front of the TV screen – probably too close – but I’m only assuming I didn’t eat the batter because I remember another time that I didn’t – perhaps I’ve got them mixed up in my head. Perhaps it was cut green beans rather than peas. I have no idea if I had a drink with my meal. Milk, perhaps? I don’t know. I don’t actually remember the show, the titles, yes, but then I’ve seen them dozens of times and they’re pretty well impressed on my memory.

There is a new(ish) genre of writing called ‘creative nonfiction’ that I hear people talking about. I imagine the Wikipedia definition is as good as any other:

Creative nonfiction contrasts with other nonfiction, such as technical writing or journalism, which is also rooted in accurate fact, but is not primarily written in service to its craft. As a genre, creative nonfiction is still relatively young, and is only beginning to be scrutinized with the same critical analysis given to fiction and poetry.

It goes on:

For a text to be considered creative nonfiction, it must be factually accurate, and written with attention to literary style and technique.

The best way to explain it is with an example. Although the term was not in use at the time George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London is a work of literary non-fiction; factually accurate and written with style. I think a lot of non-fiction writers felt they had to distance themselves from their subject even when that subject was themselves and so I’m happy to see a new genre emerging: give a thing a name and suddenly it becomes real.

unreliable memoirsThe problem, as always, is that some people have thought that allows them to fictionalise the facts. A good example is Clive James’ memoir appropriately entitled Unreliable Memoirs where James admits right from the jump that he has incorporated fictional passages into his factual account. There was no hoo-ha about it in the press because he was open about it. Others, notably James Frey in A Million Little Pieces, have been ‘found out’ and that’s cast a cloud over the whole autobiography industry. He lied – that’s the bottom line that most people see – and the public generally doesn’t like being lied to. Biographers who don’t do their research properly also irritate us (Deirdre Bair’s biography of Beckett is a good example) but they’re only human and weren’t there at the time; they can’t help it if they’re lied to, all they can do is pass on the lie in good conscience.

I’ve never been tempted to write biography. It’s not that I’m afraid of the research because actually I enjoy research. I’ve never found anyone who interested me enough to justify the amount of time I know I would end up spending on the project.

[Hermione Lee, t]he biographer of Virginia Woolf … fervently believes that ''you have to have emotional feeling to do the work.'' She felt a profound sense of bereavement when she finished her biography and had to give Woolf back to the wider world. Silly, she knows – but ''I felt she had been mine.'' – Brenda Maddox, ‘Biography: A Love Affair or a Job?’, The New York Times, May 9th 1999

Not all biographers agree with her.

When Hermione Lee asked Peter Ackroyd, who has written the lives of T. S. Eliot and Charles Dickens, whether he liked his latest subject, Thomas More, Ackroyd bristled. Liking is irrelevant, he answered. Biography is a job, and he gets on with it. – Brenda Maddox, ‘Biography: A Love Affair or a Job?’, The New York Times, May 9th 1999

I think I would be more like Lee. I’m not sure I’m capable of taking a journalistic approach to recording the events in a person’s life. Of course if liking one’s subject were a prerequisite there are plenty of people whose lives would never be addressed except in fiction and the fact is the public has always been fascinated by monsters. We want to understand. No doubt that’s what prompted Truman Capote to write In Cold Blood but from all accounts he got caught up in his research and the book (rightly it seems) comes under criticism for not only its lack of objectivity but also the way in which it sensationalises the story. Tom Wolfe wrote in his essay "Pornoviolence":

The book is neither a who-done-it nor a will-they-be-caught, since the answers to both questions are known from the outset ... Instead, the book's suspense is based largely on a totally new idea in detective stories: the promise of gory details, and the withholding of them until the end. – Tom Wolfe, 'Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine', pp.163-164

It has also been argued that Capote changed facts to suit his story, added scenes which never occurred, and re-created dialogue. That’s the problem with reality. It so often lacks the edge that fiction has and yet we just love biopics, we don’t really care if the dialogue is 100% accurate; we just want to be a fly on the wall and imagine. That’s where faction is needed, the bastard child of fact and fiction. As I’m writing this there are ads on TV for Peter Bowker’s biopic of Morecambe and Wise’s early years and I’m really looking forward to seeing it. As for how accurate it’s going to be I’ll be content if the actors playing Eric and Ernie are believable. All the rest I’ll be happy to file under “it might have been like that” rather than expecting a definitive history besides, and this is the problem with written biographies, they only have a couple of hours, probably less, to say what they have to say. What to leave in, what to leave out – very hard. And as soon as you start selecting you start fictionalising, playing with what’s true and what might be true.

A S Byatt considers the predicament of the biographer in her novel The Biographer’s Tale which she describes in her book of essays On Histories and Stories:

My own short novel, The Biographer's Tale, is about these riddling links between autobiography, biography, fact and fiction (and lies). It follows a poststructuralist critic who decides to give up, and write a coherent life-story of one man, a great biographer. But all he finds are fragments of other random lives – Linnaeus, Galton, Ibsen – overlapping human stories which make up the only available tale of the biographer. It is a tale of the lives of the dead which make up the imagined world of the living. It is a study of the aesthetic of inventing, or re-inventing, or combing real and imaginary human beings. – p.10

eric-morecambe-1When I was in Morecambe last (first and last actually) I visited the statue of Eric Morecambe by Graham Ibbeson and stood in line (the British love queuing and automatically form an orderly line except at bus stops for some strange reason). As I waited for my few moments alone with him so that Carrie could take my picture I watched the other people. It was clear that everyone there had a great affection for the comedian and felt, I would imagine, a lot like how Hermione Lee came to feel about Woolf: he was theirs. I have read a biography of Eric but it wasn’t quite right: I was missing from it. Does that make sense? I was never a part of his life (except in the most abstract of senses, a member of an audience of millions) and yet he was very much a part of my childhood and despite the best efforts of The Two Ronnies Christmases never were the same after Eric’s death. I can’t imagine writing about Eric without writing about me. I can best explain Eric to you by explaining what Eric meant to me. The bottom line though is that Eric Morecambe is for most people an “imaginary human being,” but I think that is true about all of us; even those we live closest to, we imagine all sorts of things about. They say they love us and we imagine the love we feel for them is the same love they feel for us.

As I said before I have no plans at the moment to write a biography and I can’t ever envisage wanting to sit down and write the rest of my autobiography. Really it was pretty much all downhill after fourteen and what reason could I possibly have for dredging all that up? It could be argued that it gives the rest of my writing context. That I can’t argue with but I also think there’s a great danger in knowing too much about an author – as I do when it comes to Beckett – because it’s hard to read the work as it was intended to be read.

Sunday 15 May 2011



MissingWhen I reviewed Karin Alvtegen's novel, Shadow a couple of years ago I fessed up to the fact my knowledge of the crime fiction is based almost solely on TV and film adaptations. What I was unaware of at the time was the fact that Alvtegen's novel Missing had in fact been adapted for the small screen (by Scottish Television of all people) but I had no recollection of having seen it. A shame because her novel is eminently adaptable; it has a small cast and could be as easily filmed in the back streets of Glasgow as it could be in Stockholm where the book is set. In fact you could even get away without any special effects, dead bodies or anything.

What I liked about Shadow is that it was a detective novel without a detective, either a world-weary professional or an annoyingly enthusiastic amateur sleuth. That’s not the case with Missing but to be fair Missing is less of a detective novel than it is a psychological thriller. There are crimes, several murders in fact, but they’re all in the background. What little we learn of them is via the ever-helpful media, through TV and newspaper reports. Instead Missing dwells on the main suspect, a homeless woman, Sibylla Wilhelmina Beatrice Forsenström; in fact she’s not simply the prime suspect, she’s actually formally charged with the crime in her absence.

This is the first newspaper report she reads:

There has been a breakthrough in the investigation of the 'ritual slaughter' of Jorgen Grundberg (51) in his room at the Grand Hotel last night. A woman suspect, Sibylla Forsenström (32) is wanted by the police and has been formally charged in her absence. As The Express learned yesterday, this is the woman with whom the 51-year-old was seen on Thursday evening. The receptionist on duty that night has now told the police that Mr Grundberg himself booked a room for the woman, who gave what turned out to be a false name. The wanted woman managed to get through the police cordon early on Friday morning, leaving behind several articles including a wig that she allegedly wore the previous evening. The police also found a briefcase which, some sources suggest, may contain the murder weapon. The police are not prepared to reveal any details about the weapon. Fingerprints on the briefcase identified the woman as Sibylla Forsenström. The same prints were found on the key to the victim's room and in her hotel room, where a glass with the victim's prints was also found.

The police are baffled as to her whereabouts. In 1985 she escaped from a mental hospital in southern Sweden where she was an in-patient treated for psychological problems. Since then she has not been in contact with any state or local authority agency. No one seems to know anything about her life during the intervening fourteen years. Police records of her fingerprints were kept after an incident involving a car theft and illegal driving in 1984. Sibylla Forsenström grew up in a well-to-do family, based in a small industrial town in east Småland.

As she has been without a fixed address since 1985, the public are asked to let the police have any relevant information. However, the police also warn that she is likely to be confused and violent. Forensic psychologists, currently examining a diary found in her briefcase, claim that several notes are of a disturbed, incoherent character. The photograph, as the police are anxious to point out, is over sixteen years old. The waiter who served the woman and her alleged victim on Thursday evening described her as polite and well groomed. He is assisting a police artist with the creation of a more up-to-date image. Information about the wanted woman should be given to the police, either at the nearest police station or by phoning 08-401 0040.

Grand HotelOkay, she was there, looking to con someone out of a free meal and a room for the night (hopefully) without having to cough up more than a bit of charming conversation which, much to Jorgen Grundberg’s disappointment, she manages. This is a scam she’s perpetrated on numerous occasions at the Grand Hotel as well as others and so far it’s never backfired. This time it does.

In the morning she’s woken by a knock on the door. Someone wants to ask her some questions. She imagines it might be the management, that Grundberg had somehow cottoned on to what she was all about or it might even be the police. She does what she always does when faced with discovery: she runs.

She put her ear to the door and heard steps walking away. There was a laminated chart showing emergency exits right in front of her nose and she studied the options while she fumbled with the safety-pin in the waistband. Checking the number of her room, she found that it was just two doors away from the emergency stairs. She rushed to get her jacket and handbag, and then listened again at the chink in the door. Cautiously, she opened the door a fraction and peeped into the corridor. It was empty.

She stepped briskly into the corridor, shutting the door behind her quietly. Seconds later, she was running down the back stairs. They had to lead to a door opening into the street.

Then she remembered. The briefcase! She had left it behind. It pulled her up short, but it took only a moment of hesitation to realise her briefcase was lost. And so was the wig in the bathroom. Shit, almost 740 kronor down the toilet and such a brilliant investment too which should have given her many nights of undisturbed sleep. Even the complimentary soaps and the little shampoo bottles had been forgotten.

At the bottom of the stairs she stopped in front of a metal door with a lit green Emergency Exit sign. Pushing on the locking bar, she opened the door enough to put her head outside. A police car was parked just twenty-odd yards away, but it was empty and this gave her enough courage to step out into the street. She looked around, realising that she was at the back of the Grand Hotel.

Needless to say she’s had nothing to do with the murder. She was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Okay, she was up to no good but she was no murderess. So what’s she’s going to do? And could things get any worse for her? Actually, yes. The real murderer has also been paying attention to what’s going on in the media:

God! I too wish to thank You for Your protection. You have not left me alone in my task but sent that woman to shelter me. You are allowing her to atone for her sins by giving her a sacred purpose. For this I thank You, Lord God. Amen.

Yes, I know, a religiously-motivated serial killer (yawn), but Alvtegen's twist on it is interesting so maybe I’ll take that yawn back. Anyway the next murder includes a note from the murderer masquerading as Sibylla. She phones the police and says that she’s innocent but realises that’s not going to do much good. But what can she do? Hide for the rest of her life? She’s already been off the radar for years but this is quite different. It must only be a matter of time before she makes a mistake and is arrested.

Joanne Froggatt

Okay, let’s back up a bit. How does someone with a name like Sibylla Wilhelmina Beatrice Forsenström end up living as an unperson? As Sibylla tries to escape her present we the readers get to learn about her past:

Almost all the parents of her fellow pupils were working in her father's [metal foundry]. Mr Forsenström was a leading member of the Local Council and his pronouncements weighed heavily. Most of the jobs and much else in Hultaryd depended on his say-so…


Managing the successful family firm kept him very busy. He had no time to concern himself with bringing up children and he wasn't interested anyway. The excellent carpets in the Forsenström mansion showed no trace of a path beaten by him to Sibylla's room. He left for work in the morning and came back in the evening. He ate at the same dining table, but was often engrossed in thought or checking through accounts and other documents. Sibylla never had a clue about what went on behind his correct façade. She just finished her food properly, leaving the table as soon as she was given permission.

Her mother is no better. Possibly worse. Her father only ignores her. Her mother determines to mould her:

Sibylla's mother had always made a point of emphasising how special her daughter was, which of course gave Sibylla's schoolmates every justification for ostracising her. It mattered very much to Beatrice Forsenström that Sibylla should know her position in the social hierarchy, but it mattered even more that everyone else should know it too. Nothing had any real worth to her, unless others valued it too and preferably found it very desirable. Beatrice derived her greatest pleasure from arousing admiration and envy.

Over the following chapters we get to see just how far they push their daughter and what happens to finally cause her to snap; turn her back on them and why, in her hour of need, she feels she can’t turn to them for help.

While all that is being revealed more murders are happening and it looks as if it’s only a matter of time before she’s going to be caught until, while hiding in the attic of Sofia High School, she gets her big break in the form of a fifteen-year-old schoolboy, ‘Tab’, Patrik to his mum and dad. And here we have our annoyingly enthusiastic amateur sleuth. It’s Patrik that stops the rot by suggesting that the two of them solve the mystery themselves which they spend the second half of the book trying to do.

Missing adaptationThis is where the book faltered a bit for me. The bottom line is that someone is needed here to help her. She has been out of the loop for many years and things like the power of Internet are unknown to her – she would never have imagined going into an Internet café and looking stuff up. So a nerd is exactly what she needs but a nerd whose mum is a cop and who happens to know a guy-who-can is stretching it just a bit. I know we have computers now and it is a wonderful thing but I do sometimes get a bit irritated by the ease at which characters in films and on TV rattle a few keys and find exactly what they’re looking for. And that is basically what happens here. If the boy a) didn’t have a cop for a parent and wasn’t able to access police records using her (or, as it turns out, a colleague’s) computer and b) didn’t know a techie who could, for a few thousand kronor, locate the key piece of information, the book would stall, dead in the water. If you can forgive these improbabilities then there is a lot to enjoy here. If I’m being extra picky then I think the newspaper reports are a bit too detailed and helpful plotwise and not quite journalistic enough in style but that’s a minor quibble. Of course what she learns I’m not going to tell you but any TV cop worth his salt would have made the connection she does; still who is to say they didn’t because we never get to hear how their investigation is progressing. The media leads her (and us) to believe that they’re not looking for motive, but maybe they are and we just don’t know about it.

Really though, for me anyway, the crime aspect of this book is secondary to the real story of how Sibylla ends up where she does. If you removed the whole crime and just told her tale up until that night it would still make a decent read. What the crime does is provide an unexpected opportunity to move her life forward because once she sees what the guy-who-can can do Sibylla suddenly has options she never imagined she ever would have. We never find out what happens to her. We never see if, after all she’s been though, she finds a modicum of happiness, but that’s fine. Not every question should be answered.

On her website she writes where the idea for Missing came from:

The idea … I got one early morning in October on a platform in a tube station. A woman in my own age, barefooted, with a plastic bag in her hand came jostling her way through the crowd of stressed early morning commuters, begging for money. I saw her urge through the crowd, amongst lowered eyes and disturbed headshakes. Still, she carried her presence with dignity. I couldn't let go of my thoughts of that woman. I started to wonder about how a human being can grow into such extreme loneliness, that there was no one around to catch her when she started to loose her grip. And I became fulfilled by a deep respect for this woman, and for all these characters that just don't give up, instead choosing to keep on fighting their battle.

I read this book in two sittings. I read three-quarters of it the first day in fact. It is a quick read. The chapters are short so it’s easy to think, I’ll maybe just squeeze in another one and then another one and another. Perfect for a rainy afternoon, a long-haul flight or lounging on the beach.


Alvtegen_KarinKarin Alvtegen-Lundberg was born on June 8th, 1965 in Huskvarna, Sweden. In addition to writing novels – Missing is her fifth – she has also worked as a writer for television having written episodes of the Swedish soap operas Rederiet and Tre kronor. She also wrote the film script to the 2004 film Hotet and has worked in the art department on several other films. Translation rights have been sold to 30 countries and each novel has sold several hundred thousands of copies.

Alvtegen has received a number of literary awards, including The Glass Key for Best Nordic Crime Novel, the Best Swedish Crime Novel Award, the Danish Academy of Crime Writer's Palle Rosenkrantz Award for Best Foreign Crime Novel of the Year. She has also been nominated for two of the most prestigious crime novel's awards in the world: The CWA International Dagger, for Shadow, and The Edgar Allan Poe Award, for Missing.

She is grandniece of the children's novelist Astrid Lindgren, best remembered for writing the Pippi Longstocking books.

Tuesday 10 May 2011



I do not experience your experience. But I experience you as experiencing. I experience myself as experienced by you. And I experience you as experiencing yourself as experienced by me. And so on. – R D Laing, The Politics of Experience

A post over at my friend Dave King’s blog where he was looking for his readers to submit lines of poetry that we felt were immortal started me thinking about the poetry that has had the greatest influence on me. It’s not a long list I’m sorry to say but that says more about how little poetry I’ve been exposed to rather than the quality of that poetry. In the main it’s been individual poems but there is one exception, a book of poetry, and a most unusual book it is. For starters it was written by a man who is far better known as a psychiatrist than a poet. That man was Ronald David Laing.

I’ve never had a great deal of interest in the big three sciences – biology, chemistry and physics – but I do like formulae. I think it’s simply amazing that you can reduce things to a stream (and often a very short stream) of letters, symbols and numbers. The one I remember from school is something called the coefficient of frictionµ. (µ is the twelfth letter of the Greek alphabet which we pronounce ‘mu’.) It tells you how slippery things are. Ice on steel has a low coefficient of friction, while rubber on pavement has a high coefficient of friction. Under good conditions, a tire on concrete may have a coefficient of friction of about 1.7 where a value of 0 means no friction whatsoever. The coefficient of friction is, however, an empirical measurement – it has to be measured experimentally, and cannot be found through calculations. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a formula, and here it is:

μ = F /N

In other words: the static friction coefficient (μ) between two solid surfaces is defined as the ratio of the tangential force (F) required to produce sliding divided by the normal force between the surfaces (N).

So what has all this to do with Ronnie Laing? Bear with me.

In 1953 Laing began working at Gartnavel Royal Hospital in Glasgow becoming, at the time, the youngest consultant in the country. Anyone who has seen or read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest will have some idea how mentally ill patients were treated back then. Only this sounds worse. Laing noticed that none of the doctors actually talked with the patients – they treated them as ailing organisms as opposed to poorly people – and so he proposed something radical: he took twelve women patients, all schizophrenics, and spent months getting them to open up about their lives and their illnesses allowing them to talk to each other and form bonds in the so-called ‘Rumpus Room' rehabilitative project.[1] His peers couldn’t decide if he was extraordinarily dedicated or simply a bit eccentric. The results, however, were dramatic. After only a few months all twelve of them were considered well enough to leave hospital and return to their families. Within a year though every last one of them had been readmitted. Laing would seem to have failed. But he didn’t give up. Instead he refocused his attention and began to research the families of these patients. His conclusion was that the doctors who were treating these people so that they could be returned to their families using what was available at the time – insulin comas (which brought patients to the brink of death only to see them revived by glucose solution fed into the stomach) and electroconvulsive therapy – were making a terrible mistake: they were sending them back to the private horror that had first created their patients’ individual madnesses. To suggest thomas_szaszthat he was blaming parents for causing schizophrenia in their offspring is simplistic however but it did start him wondering just how much environment contributed towards mental instability.

Thomas Szasz, a contemporary of Laing and someone with whom he felt some affinity, put forth this theory:

Mental illness is the game-playing tactic adopted … by those who are dissatisfied with the rules of the game in which they are a player.[2]

And an article looking back on Szasz’s long career opens as follows:

Future historians may well cast Thomas Szasz as an intrepid campaigner for the blindingly obvious: people do not have “mental illnesses” but experience a wide range of moral, interpersonal, social and political “problems in living.” All such problems concern, or have an impact on, our sense of who and what we are and could just as easily be called spiritual crises.[3]

Much the same could be said about Laing indeed, along with Laing’s friend, David Cooper, “[t]he quite different ideas of these men came to be bracketed inappropriately under the rubric of “anti-psychiatry”—an expression coined by Cooper though disclaimed by Laing and rejected outright by Szasz..”[4] It’s a wonder that we’re not all crazy, every single one of us.

If mental illness was what happened in extreme cases of family problems then what about the thin edge of the wedge? What about (so called) normal families? What coping mechanisms did the individual members employ? To investigate this Laing turned to something called game theory. And, no, he didn’t simply sit them down and watch them playing Scrabble. He was more interested in those secret games people play.

What Laing found was that couples used their everyday actions as strategies to control and manipulate each other. Even acts of kindness and love he viewed as weapons used to exert power and control. In the first episode of the TV series, The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom, an excerpt of which I’ve embedded at the end of this article, one of his colleagues, Clancy Sigal, an American novelist and screenwriter and a co-founder of the Philadelphia Association along with Laing and others, had this to say:

Laing really did feel that the family was an area for strategising. Love was a way in which one person tried to dominate another person: I love you but I’m making a condition for that love which is impossible for you to fulfil and so there’s nothing you can do to earn my love even though I’m telling you you have to earn my love.

What began simply as scepticism towards ways of thinking that are too often taken for granted became a way of life for Laing. He began publishing books and became a media celebrity, very much a British Timothy Leary, a primal force in the UK’s timothy-learygrowing antiestablishmentarianism – no ‘dis’. As in the States in the United Kingdom the counterculture movement of the 1960s was mainly a reaction against the social norms of the 1940s and 1950s. At no other time has the family and ‘traditional family values’ been under attack.

According to an article in The Independent back in 2008 there was talk about an up-and-coming film (provisionally titled Mad to Be Normal) that was to be made about Laing’s life starring, I would have thought, a perfectly-cast fellow Glaswegian Robert Carlyle. Although it now looks as if the film may never appear the article had this to say about Laing:

Among those considered to be his most celebrated admirers at the height of his influence in the 1960s when he was a regular feature on television were The Beatles, Jim Morrison, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes.


But by the time of his death on a Riviera tennis court in 1989 at the age of 61, R D Laing's reputation was at an all-time low, dismissed as the drunken high priest of failed Sixties hedonism, a fallen icon of the sex, drugs and rock'n'roll generation and wrecker-in-chief of traditional nuclear family values.[5]

So what happened?

Laing was born and raised in Govanhill in Glasgow. It was, and still is, one of the roughest areas in the city. It has a reputation for deprivation and poverty and the high rates of crime that follow them. If that was not bad enough he was brought up in the mother and father of dysfunctional families. His parents had been married for ten years before they had Ronnie, an event that surprised the neighbours because his mother managed to conceal her pregnancy and even denied having had sex with her husband. By comparison with their neighbours the Laings were actually reasonably well off but that didn’t stop his father, David, worrying about his career which caused him to have a three-month breakdown.

His mother, Amelia, was nothing less that peculiar:

According to one friend and neighbour, ‘Everyone in the street knew she was mad.’ The Laing family home was frequently curtained and dark; and, as if to avoid contamination by the outside world, Amelia ‘was rarely seen outside her house. She even burnt her own rubbish at home, lest neighbours found what it contained’.[6]

He was clearly not a wanted child, nevertheless, “Amelia felt constrained to behave in ways that conformed to the prevailing standards of what a mother should feel towards her offspring.”[7] On one occasion she gave her son an expensive pedal car for his fifth birthday but he only received this after she had burned his much-loved rocking horse on the grounds that he was excessively attached to it. It was around about this time that his parents told him Santa Claus did not exist. He never forgave them, claiming in later years that the realisation they had been lying to him triggered his first existential crisis. Amelia also policed his diet in case he ate anything that had come in touch with the lower sort of people – jam and jelly babies were especially offensive to her. (I mean, seriously, how could any wean be brought up in Glasgow without a steady diet of ‘jeely pieces’?) Ronnie’s relationship with his father was better but only up to a point because his father often sided with his wife, probably to keep the peace.

Jeely Piece Song: Matt McGinn (lyrics here).

Ronnie’s salvation was education. Not only did he have school to escape to but just across the back garden lay one of Glasgow's original Carnegie libraries in which he spent his time, as he put it, “working my way from A to Z.”[8] By the time he was fifteen he was familiar with Voltaire, Marx, Nietzsche and, of course, Freud. In 1945 he entered Glasgow University to study medicine. Failing his final exams – and having to face his parents’ sense of disgrace – caused him to leave home and he hardly ever returned; he passed his finals six months later and graduated in February 1951. There seems little doubt that his life-long empathy for the mentally disturbed can be traced back to his relationship with his mother. in fact in the documentary film, Did You Use to be R D Laing? he said as much. She died in 1986, a little under three years before her son. During the service he began to cry uncontrollably and one of the mourners commented: “[H]e was still three years old in relation to her, his rage still there.”[9]

Needless to say when he came to have his own family it was not a rip-roaring success. His son Adrian, speaking in 2008 said:

It was ironic that my father became well-known as a family psychiatrist, when, in the meantime, he had nothing to do with his own family. … When people ask me what it was like to be R D Laing's son I tell them it was a crock of shit.[10]

And his daughter, Karen, who now works as a humanistic psychotherapist said:

I have sat in on sessions with my father while he was working with clients and experienced his genius as a man who could relate to another human’s pain and suffering. There seems to me to be a huge void and contradiction between R D Laing the psychiatrist and Ronnie Laing the father. There was something he was constantly searching for within himself and it tortured him.[11]

Although Laing’s excesses in later life will certainly make an entertaining film the fact is that his role in overturning the established orthodoxy of the day cannot be ignored:

Laing believed that mental illness was a sane response to an insane world[12] and that a psychiatrist had a duty to communicate empathetically with patients. Once, when faced with a naked schizophrenic woman rocking silently to and fro in a padded cell, Laing took off his own clothes and sat next to her, rocking to the same rhythm until she spoke for the first time in months.

As a psychiatrist, both brilliant and unconventional, RD Laing pioneered the humane treatment of the mentally ill. But as a father, clinically depressed and alcoholic, he bequeathed his ten children and his two wives a more chequered legacy.[13]

A few years before I became aware of R D Laing I wrote a poem called ‘Street Games’ which I showed to my own father. His response was that life was not a game and, of course, he was right – life is serious business – but he was also so very wrong. At the time I didn’t have the words to defend myself but I knew he was wrong. It wasn’t until I got my hands on a library copy of Laing’s book of poetry, Knots, and read the opening poem that I had the words:

They are playing a game. They are playing at not
playing a game. If I show them I see they are, I
shall break the rules and they will punish me.
I must play their game, of not seeing I see the game.

Okay it’s not Wordsworth and there will be those who might argue that it’s not even proper poetry but I don’t care. My Vintage edition catalogues it under ‘Psychology’ and that’s fine by me.

I read that single piece over and over again. Never had so few words made so much sense to me.

does my bum look big in thisDoes my bum look big in this? Honestly, is there a right answer to that question? The answer she wants to hear is, “No, dear,” and any man who doesn’t give that answer toute de suite and with a smile on his face needs his head seeing to. Care needs to be taken so as not to sound disingenuous. You have to say that, “No, dear,” with just the right amount of sincerity and without too much pussyfooting around the issue or it might look as if that was not your initial reaction. It’s a game. She knows exactly how big her bum is and how big that thing she’s squeezed it into makes it look. Words show 7% of our feelings and attitudes, tone of voice shows 38% and body language shows 55% – she will know if you say one thing and mean another and yet she wants you to lie to her, to be in cahoots with her. She’s not interested in the truth. She’s not interested in constructive feedback. She’s looking for positive reinforcement. You can take the moral high ground – “It’s for your own good” – and the best of luck if you do.

Collusion has resonances of playing at and of deception. It is a ‘game’ played by two or more people whereby they deceive themselves. The game is the game of mutual self-deception. Whereas delusion and elusion and illusion can be applied to one person, collusion is necessarily a two-or-more-person game. Each plays the other’s game, through he may not necessarily be fully aware of doing so. An essential feature of this game is not admitting that it is a game.[14]

Now is that not what Laing’s poem is saying but far more eloquently? But who is the ‘I’ in the poem? As far as Bobby Matherne’s concerned it’s the therapist who “must join them in their game to keep them as clients, or else they will leave therapy. In addition, the therapist must break up the game for the couple to move from a disjunctive conjunction to a copulative conjunction from now on.”[15] I didn’t read it that way when I was nineteen (which is probably how old I was at the time): I saw the ‘I’ in the book as me and the ‘they’ were my parents.

Of course no one played games more than Ronnie:

[L]ike a contemporary pop star Laing was, in some respects, a product of the publics who read and celebrated him; a point which is nicely captured in the distinction that Adrian Laing draws between ‘Ronnie’, the father he knew, and ‘R.D. Laing’, the public celebrity. … I do not mean that he was a mere representation in radical culture. R.D. was one of Ronnie’s roles and had to be played to exist.[16] [italics mine]

A number of the poems feature Jack and Jill but no hills as far as I can remember. Jack and Jill also appear throughout his book Self and Others as proxies to help him get his points over, like this one about elusion:

Jack and JillJill is married to Jack. She does not want to be married to Jack. She is frightened to leave Jack. So she stays with Jack but imagines she is not married to him. Eventually she does not feel married to Jack. So she has to imagine she is. ‘I have to remind myself that he is my husband.’

A common manoeuvre. Elusion is a way of getting round conflict without direct confrontation, or its resolution. It eludes conflict by playing off one modality of experience against another. She imagines she is not married and then imagines she is. Elusive spirals go on and on.[17]

There isn’t a ‘Jack and Jill’ poem in the book to fit the above scenario but this one here is typical (and not too knotty):

Jill can see Jack can't see,
and can't see he can't see.
Jill can see WHY
Jack can't see,
but Jill cannot see WHY
Jack can't see he can't see.

Jack 'sees' Jill is blind
and that Jill can't see she is.
Jack realises they both are.
If the blind must lead the blind, it is as well
that the leader knows he is.

Jack can't see he can't see
and can't see
Jill can't see Jill can't see it.
and visa versa...

The word ‘knots’ only appears three times in Self and Others and all in the one paragraph, here:

Some people undoubtedly have a remarkable aptitude for keeping the other tied in knots. There are those who excel in tying knots and those who excel in being tied in knots. Tyer and tied are often both unconscious of how it is done, or even that it is being done at all. It is strikingly how difficult it is for the parties concerned to see what is happening. We must remember that part of the knot is not to see that it is a knot.[18]

It is, however, the perfect metaphor and made a huge impression on me at the time and still. The expression Laing uses in the book’s introduction to describe these ‘knots’ is “the final formal elegance in these webs of maya.” Maya is a Sanskrit word that in Indian religions has multiple meanings centred around the concept of "illusion".

At the time when I first read this book I had only been married for a few months and my wife and I were still trying to work out what our respective roles were. Yes, she was ‘the wife’ and I was ‘the husband’ but what did that mean? We knew what it meant for our respective sets of parents but surely that wasn’t what it was going to mean for us. And for months we circled around each other, each of us trying to ‘read’ the other. It was impossible not to look at Jack and Jill and not wonder if either of us really knew the other. As Laing says in the opening chapter to The Politics of Experience:

I see you, and you see me. I experience you, and you experience me. I see your behaviour. You see my behaviour. But I do not and never have and never will see your experience of me. Just as you cannot "see" my experience of you. My experience of you is not "inside" me. It is simply you, as I experience you. And I do not experience you as inside me. Similarly, I take it that you do not experience me as inside you.

"My experience of you" is just another form of words for "you-as-l-experience-you", and "your experience of me" equals "me-as-you-experience-me". Your experience of me is not inside you and my experience of you is not inside me, but your experience of me is invisible to me and my experience of you is invisible to you.

Having been brought up in a religious household the second poem in the book really hit home with me:

They are not having fun.
I can't have fun if they don't.
If I get them to have fun, then I can have fun with them.
Getting them to have fun, is not fun. It is hard work.
I might get fun out of finding out why they're not.
I'm not supposed to get fun out of working out why
they're not.
But there is even some fun in pretending to them I'm not
having fun finding out why they're not.

A little girl comes along and says: let's have fun.
But having fun is a waste of time, because it doesn't
help to figure out why they're not having fun.

How dare you have fun when Christ died on the Cross for you! Was He having fun?

patti-smith_by_mapplethorpeI think it must have been just about this time that I first heard Patti Smith’s opening to ‘Gloria’:

Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine
meltin' in a pot of thieves
wild card up my sleeve
thick heart of stone
my sins my own
they belong to me, me

Religion is a game. It was in our house. God may not have played dice with the universe but he did with us. I was told I had to have “a personal relationship” with God, something to this day I struggle to comprehend, and so I did what any other kid with any sense would do: I faked it. He was a parentally-sanctioned imaginary friend. So I played along. I went through the motions. I lied. No one taught me to and by the time someone told me it was wrong I had amassed so much evidence to the contrary that I just kept schtum and went about my business appearing to be what they expected me to be. No one even told me we were playing a game, what the rules were (but we still weren’t supposed to cheat). All I knew was what the prize was and I was supposed to keep my eyes on it:

Paul and Silas thought they was lost
Dungeon shook and the chains come off
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on
Freedom's name is mighty sweet
And soon we're gonna meet
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on

(from ‘Keep Your Eyes On The Prize’)

After a few weeks Knots went back to the library and it was to be about thirty years before I owned my own which I bought in a little second-hand bookstore in Hayward, California of all places. The book’s imagery never left me though and in 1996 I penned this poem:

Cathexis (in memoriam RDL)

Jack loved Jill
because he needed someone to love
and Jill happened to be there.

Jill wasn't sure if Jack loved her
but she wanted to be loved
so she believed that he did.

Jack said the words he felt he should
not realising Jill would only hear
what she wanted to.

But saying the words felt good too
and no one was being hurt
so what's so wrong with that?

Truth is over-rated if you ask me.

2 March, 1996

It’s a poem that still pleases me very much but I’m also not the only person to be inspired by Knots. In my researches I found this poem by Bruce Whealton:

Act Naturally

Just act naturally!
Naturally, I am learning,
just what to do,

Do people learn, naturally,
how to act natural?

I must learn social skills
so that I will know
what to do, naturally,
when I want to act,

There is also the poem ‘v. (for R.D.L.)’ by Phyllis Webb here.

I started off talking about formulae and so let me finish there. Some people object to poems being viewed as problems to be solved. Formulae are not problems – they’re the answer to problems and that’s what many poems are, a working example. In Knots R D Laing presents us with scenarios but he’s not asking us to solve these so much as to see if we can relate to them. And isn’t that something we do with all poetry, look for ourselves in the lines and in between them?

One Amazon reviewer made this observation about the collection: “Broadly mirroring the pattern of a life, from a child's observation of adults, through adult sexual relationships and finally to the nihilistic aspects of old age…” I hadn’t noticed that myself but it’s an interesting observation. though not one that affected my own choice to arrange my poetry collection in that order.

There was a short film made in the early seventies with Ronnie explain­ing how “peo­ple have a habit of tying each other up in knots” and some actors did read­ings of some of the poems but I’ve not been able to track down a clip. You can read examples of some of Laing’s ‘knots’ here. Here is the link to that BBC documentary I quoted from earlier:

Finally, let me leave you with a clip from Did You Used to be R D Laing where Laing talks about his mother and, if what he’s relating is accurate (you can never be too sure with him) then it’s clear to see where his first knots originated:


Janus Head, Vol.4 No.1 – Special Issue: The Legacy of R. D. Laing


[1] David Abrahamson’s comment here is illuminating.

[2] Gavin Miller, R. D. Laing, p.25

[3] Phil Barker and Poppy Buchanan-Barker, ‘No Excuses: The Reality Cure of Thomas Szasz’,, 4th August 2010

[4] Ron Roberts, ‘Madness, Myth and Medicine—The Continuing Relevance of Thomas Szasz, Now in his 91st Year’, The Psychologist, 2nd August 2010

[5] Jonathan Brown, R D Laing: ‘The celebrity shrink who put the psychedelia into psychiatry’, The Independent, 29th December 2008

[6] Gavin Miller, R. D. Laing, p.7

[7] Daniel Burston, The Crucible of Experience: R.D. Laing and the Crisis of Psychotherapy, p.2

[8] Ibid, p.9

[9] Ibid, p.17

[10] Susan Laing quoted in Russell Miller, ‘RD Laing: The abominable family man’, The Times, 12th April 2009

[11] Karen Laing quoted in Russell Miller, ‘RD Laing: The abominable family man’, The Times, 12th April 2009

[12] This quote, or similar, is often attributed to Laing but the nearest I can find is from chapter 5 of The Politics of Experience: “The experience and behaviour that gets labelled schizophrenic is a special strategy that a person invents in order to live in an unliveable situation.”

[13] Elizabeth Day and Graham Keeley, 'Dad solved other people's problems - but not his own', The Guardian, 1st June 2008

[14] R D Laing, Self and Others, p.90

[15] Bobby Matherne, Book review of Knots, 2007

[16] Nick Crossley, Contesting Psychiatry: Social Movements in Mental Health, p.102

[17] R D Laing, Self and Others, p.32

[18] Ibid, p.139

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