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

Sunday, 7 June 2015


Common Denominator

Every evening
Sweet William
sits on the wall
watching Stiletto
and the cars
creeping quietly
down the street.

He knows her room
and sometimes he
kneels outside the window
on the fire escape
and watches through a
crack in the curtain
or more often just listens.

The sounds he likes best
are like children sobbing
and he understands that.

6 September 1981

This has always been one of my favourite poems and is the first in a series featuring William. The last was #919, ‘The Gospel According to Sweet William’, written in 2002. Mostly he just gets called William. The street in the poem, the ones the cars creep down, is Blythswood Street in Glasgow. It runs alongside the park in ‘Heat’ (#530). Anderston Bus Station used to be situated in the shopping complex at the blythswoodbottom of the hill and it was well-known as a place you could buy drugs or meet one of the city’s ladies of the night. In September 1993 the bus station was closed dealing a fatal blow to the shopping area of the complex, which was completely abandoned by the middle of the 1990s following the loss of what was essentially its anchor tenant. It was, however, only in 2002 with the redevelopment of the area that the prostitutes were forced to move.

It was on Blythswood Street I saw my first street walker. I think I saw three but the one I remember was a big—and I do mean big—black woman who would’ve been more at home strutting down 28th Street in Manhattan. I was both fascinated by her and terrified of her. Seriously, she would’ve eaten me alive. I’ve no idea how old I was but I’m guessing maybe sixteen or seventeen. For the record let me just state that I have never been with a prostitute and I’ve only even knowingly spoken to one around 2000 when we were living in the Gorbals. I got off the bus at the Calton Bar on London Road—I used to cross Glasgow Green to get to our flat—and a young woman approached me. I thanked her for her kind offer and apologised—seriously and sincerely, I apologised—but I had to get home and really didn’t have the time. And that was that. Of course after that I realised that spot was one of the places they hung out in the east end and used to look out for them.

William is special. And by ‘special’ I mean he has autism or Asperger's or something like that. It becomes clearer in the later poems but I was clear in my own head here. He sees the world differently to you and me.

There are no residential fire escapes in Glasgow, not like in New York. That was poetic licence on my part. Besides the poem doesn’t have to be in Glasgow.

‘Common Denominator’ was first published in Sepia #42 but not until February 1993 by which time the magazine had abandoned its yellow covers and postcards and was a much more polished affair.


Tim Love said...

"It was on Blythswood Street I was my first street walker" - Typo?

Jim Murdoch said...

Absolutely, Tim. And fixed.

Kass said...

Beautiful poem! Children sobbing....

Jim Murdoch said...

Thank you, Kass. There have been a number of times in my life where I’ve sat back after writing a poem and thought, Where the hell did that come from? and this is definitely one of those occasions. I don’t expect it took me long. Although I often play with my poem for weeks (at least I did back then) the first drafts are usually written in minutes, seconds sometimes, which, honestly, makes me feel less like a writer and more like a scribe for my unconscious who’s obviously been pondering these things for years.

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