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

Wednesday 30 September 2015


A Divorce

They cut off my right leg last month.
It was gangrenous –
but it was still my leg.

And there's something wrong
with the left one now.

I don't believe in fate
but I do in déjà vu.

27 March 1984

divorceGood as new. Good as new. It’s a marketing thing, a positive spin. A divorced person is not a single person. We say some’s “single again” but they’re not. Single people can marry. Divorced people remarry. When I came back home after my first marriage fell apart I told people I used to be a whole person but when I married I gave up half of myself and I never got it back in the divorce. And that was true. Solitude became loneliness—I even write a poem about that in 1989—and I didn’t like being lonely. There’s another expression kicking around for an ex-married person: “damaged goods”. Well, that was me. What was left of me wasn’t right.

I don’t often write commemorative poetry—it’s never my best stuff—but this was a poem I made myself write and, of course, the end result isn’t my best work but my poems were for the longest time my diary. That seems to have fallen off in recent years.

In 1996 I wrote a poem called ‘Shadowplay’. The last stanza is:

No, I don't believe in destiny
but I do in inevitability.

I hadn’t realised until now that I’d used a similar expression before and, inevitably (sorry), the thought gets developed a little further in my new book:

JIM: So there’s no such thing as destiny.
JOE: If by destiny you mean predestination, no, but there is probability, predictability and inevitability.

History repeats itself. People forget and, oh, so quickly. When I was a kid one of the books I was devoted to was The Public Speaker’s Treasure Chest. I pawed through it for years but only one quote sticks in my mind: “The one thing man learns from history is that man learns nothing from history.” I have no idea who they attributed that to but George Bernard Shaw said, “Hegel was right when he said that we learn from history that man can never learn anything from history.” George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” and André Gide said, “Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again.” We all think if we got a second chance we’d do things differently. I wonder how many of us actually do. The title of my new book is The More Things Change and I’ll leave you with this quote:

The more things change the more we go out of our way to stay the same, to stare the future straight in the face even if it is through rose-tinted glasses. It’s nothing to do with an extant Destiny. It’s all to do with the irresistibility of the self, that we get to be who we should be and woe betide all who willingly stand in our way.

Sunday 27 September 2015


After David

I have heard there is a god
who looks for men of crushed spirits.

I don't know where to look for him,

but if he wants to find me
I will not hide.

23 March 1984

The Lord is near to the broken-hearted and saves the crushed in spirit. – Psalm 34:18.

The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. – Psalm 51:17.

On the surface my poem does seem to be in tune with King David’s thoughts but I actually have it back to front. God was never looking for me. He knew where I was all the time. I, on the other hand, wasn’t looking for him either. Not really. Not sincerely. I studied his Word and enjoyed showing off how knowledgeable I was but although I imply in the poem my spirit had been crushed that really wasn’t the case. Certainly not in 1984. Maybe my spirit was scuffed when I wrote the poem but I had nowhere near hit rock bottom. And even when I did I know I only went through the motions of contrition. It was artificial. But then that covers my whole approach to religion. I expected that by going through the motions I would become… what? Holy? A cat can spend its whole life learning to bark like a dog and wag its tail at all the wrong times but it’ll never become a dog. It’s not enough to do what some religion tells you is right and not to do the things they say are wrong. You need to believe those things are right and wrong.


Years after all this I made a friend online, a woman, who was having an extramarital affair. She was also religious and I was just about to pack it all in. I forget which church she attended but I don’t know any major religion that condones adultery. She had her reasons—my husband doesn’t understand me (I forget the specifics)—but as far as she was concerned God would understand. I said to her, “God might well understand but that doesn’t mean he condones what you’re doing.” She couldn’t handle that. She’d decided what God was like and her God understood, had forgiven her and would continue to forgive her every time she climbed into bed with this guy. Talk about delusional.

I was never that. I just kept practicing my bark and wagging that tail.

Wednesday 23 September 2015


Arachnophobia II

He's there!
in the shadows of your past
hiding in my name –
visible only in outline.

I can't see his eyes.

Spider-shadowIrresistibly, like a dream,
he moves, somnambulant,
into the light.

Please don't let him touch me.

(For F.)

20 February 1984

As with ‘Arachnophobia’ (#570) this is not a poem about spiders. I have no real problem with spiders. At least not the dinky things we get in this country. But they do serve as a useful metaphor at times. I mentioned they crop up in my new book. I actually found three references:

There are so many things in this world to be afraid of: spiders (arachnophobia); clowns (coulrophobia); crowds (enochlophobia); going insane (maniaphobia); the blank page (vacansopapurosophobia); long waits (macrophobia); being alone (monophobia); being forgotten (athazagoraphobia); being ridiculed (katagelophobia); all of these and most others can be attended to by family or friend, therapist or priest (it all amounts to much the same in the end) but the one thing no one can evade and, as such, is pointless being afraid of, is the realisation that one day you will perish; you will cease being, you will fade away and those too who knew you and those who knew of you.


Getting back inside the park was easier than he’d expected. He tried the main gates first on the off chance they might not have been locked. They were. He sighed and stared at the padlock. Inconsiderately Life had neglected to equip him with heat vision so at this precise point in time all he could do was stare at it. There was a spider crawling slowly over the thing. A shaft of pearly moonlight caught it and he was so utterly transfixed by the beauty of the moment he completely forgot why he was there. It didn’t last and he felt awkward and conspicuous standing there once it ended.


My wife handed me a snapshot once, a picture of me sitting on my bench from the time before. “See?” she said. “See?” See what? I looked like I suppose a thirty-odd-year-old Magritte might have looked but I didn’t see myself in the photo. I still have it somewhere, probably where she put it since I would never have been able to think of the right place for it. I brought a hoard of boxes with me when I moved. No, I remember! I tore them up. Yes, in a fit of… I don’t know… self-righteousness. Who would have believed me still capable of such passion? Ripped to shreds. All of them. Swept under the bed with the dust and spiders. It’s likely there unless she took it with her when she left and it wasn’t one I destroyed. Unless I flushed them down the plughole or the toilet bowl. That is a distinct possibility.

In case you’re interested I’ve just finished my ninth read-through of the book. I am now working through the 250 notes I made and once I’ve done that I’ll send the amended file to my tablet and begin the tenth read-through. The goal, it took some seventeen read-throughs with the short story collection, is to be able to read the thing from beginning to end without stumbling once. There is no guarantee that any of the above will stay the way it is—the beta readers still have to have their say and then my wife will get her blue pencil out—but I’m reasonably satisfied with it. Haven’t found a typo or a spelling mistake in ages! Punctuation’s another matter; it’s not an exact science but we do our best and try to be consistent.

Sunday 20 September 2015


Depth of Feeling

I uncovered a feeling inside
and gave it a name – Love
and somehow it came to be.

Try to efface it
and you'll find, behind the mask,
pheromonal and naked,
a deeper expression
and another name...

(For F.)

2 February 1984 

masksLove has, for a long time, been my whipping boy. It’s a word I loathe. I have no problems with the emotion—I’ve felt in many times and in many ways—but that’s really the problem. The Greeks are supposed to have a word for everything. In the case of love most of us know four: agápe (love of humanity), éros (erotic love although, oddly enough, the term incorporates Platonic love), philia (shared experience, or brotherly love) and storgē (love of family). There’s a fifth, epithumia, the Greek word for strong desire, which can have either a positive or negative connotation; the positive connotation is usually translated ‘strong desire’ while the negative connotation is usually translated ‘lust’. There’s also philautia, self-love or self-respect. Again it comes in two flavours: the unhealthy variety is associated with narcissism—you became self-obsessed and focused on personal fame and fortune—whereas the healthier version enhances your wider capacity to love.

In 1973 John Alan Lee identified six basic love styles—also known as “colours” of love—that people use in their interpersonal relationships. According to Wikipedia:

Eros – is a passionate physical and emotional love of wanting to satisfy, create sexual contentment, security and aesthetic enjoyment for each other, it also includes creating sexual security for the other by striving to forsake options of sharing one's intimate and sexual self with outsiders.

Ludus – This style is used by those who see love as a desiring to want to have fun with each other, to do activities indoor and outdoor, tease indulge and play harmless pranks on each other. The acquisition of love and attention itself may be part of the game.

Storge – This style of love grows slowly out of friendship and is based more on similar interests and a commitment to one another rather than on passion.

Pragma – This love style is based on the perceptions of practicality. People who prefer this style approach their relationship in a "business-like" fashion and look for partners with whom they can share common goals.

Mania – This style usually flows out of a desire to hold one's partner in high esteem and wanting to love and be loved in this way seeing specialness in the interaction.

Agape – In this style of love one derives one's definition of love in being altruistic towards one's partner and feeling love in the acts of doing so. The person is willing to endure difficulty that arises from the partner's circumstance. It is based on an unbreakable commitment and an unconditional, selfless love.

Where does puppy love fit into all this? Maybe limerence, a term coined by the psychologist Dorothy Tennov and defined as a state of mind which results from a romantic attraction to another person typically including compulsive thoughts and fantasies and a desire to form or maintain a relationship and have one's feelings reciprocated.

In my poem I don’t name the name. To this day I couldn’t tell you how I loved F. It wasn’t a simple love. I was attached to her. I still am. Which brings us neatly to attachment theory. And that opens up a whole other can of worms. In my first novel, Living with the Truth, Truth explains to Jonathan how he’s loved:

        Truth touched his fingertips together one at a time before answering: “Well, falling in love is easy. It takes no effort at all. You’ve done that.”
         “I feel a ‘but’ coming.”
         “But... true love, which is what you’re on about, is volitional, not emotional.”
         “I don’t get you.” This was going to be difficult.
         “Love—even the word—is a soft cushion to rest your feelings on, fancy wrapping paper, sugar coated good ol’ fashioned desire half the time; lust made respectable. You see there’s real love and there’s cathexis.”
         “Which is...?”
         “Well it’s love, too, but it’s more a what-can-you-do-for-me kind of love rather than a what-can-I-do-for you sort.” [Cathexis is the investment of emotional significance in an activity.]
         “You’re telling me I’ve never known real love?”
         “I’m telling you you’ve never known real love.”

Did I really love F.? I wrote the above a few months after we’d separated. How applicable to me that is I honestly couldn’t say. It’s all foggy now.

Wednesday 16 September 2015



Shared dreams in the Morris –
snowbound and silent.

I saw you in silhouette
and I loved what I saw.

Illuminated briefly
I saw still further
and loved still more.

(For F.)

22 January 1984

La Scala GlasgowBy 1984 F. and I were a thing. No one knew what kind of a thing—not sure we did—but it was impossible to hide there was something between us. She, as I’ve said already, was still technically married and, at least at the start, I might’ve been too; I’d have to check the dates. Either way we shouldn’t have been anything. But that’s the trouble with things. They just want to be and there’s not much you can do to stop them.

We decided to go to the pictures in Glasgow, out of the sight or prying eyes. I have no idea where I got my hands on a Morris and I couldn’t even tell you what model it was but none of the images on Google look right. Suffice to say we drove to Glasgow—the La Scala on Sauchiehall Street (long gone)—and as we left it began to snow and heavily. About five miles from home it was obvious we weren’t going to make it and so I put the car in a spin (I must’ve been mad to attempt that) and headed back to the nearest settlement. So, technically (that word again), I’m not sure we were ever snowbound. We found a pub where it was obvious a lot of others had had the same idea and we waited on the snowploughs.

People write poetry for many different reasons and one is certainly to commemorate significant events. The events of that Saturday night weren’t the most memorable—we didn’t cross the Rubicon or the Delaware or anything—but they form a part of the fabric of my life. Most of the poems written about this time were never really written for public consumption; I, although I never realised it at the time of writing, was only ever going to be their ideal reader. I wonder if F. still has her copies.

Sunday 13 September 2015

Pirate Talk or Mermalade


[C]ontemporary life is all about dialogue now, tweets and blogs overwhelming the well-made prosaic – Terese Svoboda

At The Millions, Emily St. John Mandel wrote:

This book is something entirely new: a novella that’s also a sort of poetry, a poetry that’s also almost a stage play. Pirate Talk is a strange and nastily beautiful book.

It’s not something entirely new because I’ve read several books that consist of nothing bar dialogue—I’ve even written a couple—but I agree with the “strange and nastily beautiful” bit. This is a literary novella about pirates and I don’t imagine too many of those come along in a lifetime. The only other book I’ve read about pirates was Treasure Island and I pretty much expect Pirate Talk to be my last. There’s something about pirates—I’m talking about the Golden Age of Piracy which ran from about 1650 until the mid-1720s—that’s ripe for caricaturing. And that’s pretty much what happens here. But here’s the thing, Terese Svoboda doesn’t focus on the pirates so much as she does on a sixteen-year-old wannabe pirate and his younger brother who ends up tagging along. (The brother’s eleven at the start of the book and may actually be his sister or at least his half-sister.) So if I was to compare this book with anything it would be with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. These are minor characters given voice.

The book opens in 1718 on Nantucket Beach and ends in 1728 somewhere in the Arctic. A lot happens in between—severing, slaughtering, scarring, scrimshawing, subterfuge, singing, slavery, sodomy, shipwrecking and stranding—but mostly a lot of talking. And surviving: these two are great survivors even if they don’t always survive in one piece hence the severing and the scarring. There is action but for obvious reason mostly they talk about what they’ve done or what they plan to do. This is nothing new. All Shakespeare’s battles took place in the wings.

Unlike most dialogue novels the conversations are not always between two people and since there are no speech tags it always takes you a few lines to work out who exactly is doing the talking. For example this is how Chapter 8 begins:

        You don’t know the glory of being hung on a hook and dragged by your lip when you must leap from the water just to ease off the pain. Pull it out!
        It will leave a gash if I pull it straight. I keep seaweed at the bottom that defies the wounds of the flesh. How else does a fish last with a grimace of hooks?
        You departed so strangely, the winter upon us, and Peters fast approaching.
        It had to be.
        I have the whale’s eye still. Will that help?
        Don’t show it, there be sailors about even in the dark of this clouded night and the ship’s heaving to the gunwhales. It might roll away.
        I’m sorry to catch you.
        I’m glad to be caught. When I saw it was your hook, I rejoiced. Just wrench out the barb. I will brace myself against you and the rail, tight.
        That’s better. I have been hauled up by the mouth four times looking for you and your brother, each time promising this and that until they tossed me over.

Turns out the first speaker’s a mermaid and the second is the younger brother. The mermaid appears several times throughout the book and this is not actually her first appearance. She was seen on land earlier on:

       This fishy part is new and shocking. [that’s the boy talking]
       Not so new. The skirts all women wear to confound men hid it. The cane laughed at you.

The mermaid only appears to the younger of the two as a mermaid. She insists the boy is actually a girl and her sister and she’s come to return her to their father. The boy’s naturally suspicious. He suspects she’s out to drown him: “Dust to dust, as the church says, not water to water.” What her intentions are we never know for sure and legends differ wildly but it’s not unknown for mermaids to lure young men to follow them beneath the waves either to their deaths or to live in an enchanted state.

The whale’s eye needs some explaining. In the opening chapter the two boys have run across a beached whale:

        I’ve seen boats as big as this whale. I’ve seen gryphons the same size, with teeth growing in even as they were taking their last breath.
        You have not. And not a live one.
        I’ve been to sea, I’ve seen all you’re supposed to, being at sea. I am sixteen, after all.
        If you’d stayed at home, you would’ve seen to Ma. I’d be a pirate twice, with two voyages under me, if I didn’t have that.
        Quit your carping. Go stand on its middle. Maybe it will release its wind if you jump on it.
        For sure it will stink to heaven if I jump on it.
        Let’s poke out its eye.
        It’s a wonder you’re not tired of poking whales, a’roving on the ocean like you do, with all the new sail.
        Here’s the stick—let’s do the eye.
        Cap’n Peters says there’s luck in a whale’s eye. Some men use saws on such as the eye, to examine the socket and take away the skull too.

They do eventually pop the eye out of its socket and carry it with them as a good luck charm.

Of course before everything else this is an historical novel in as much as you would expect the language used to be rflyingsheepealistic. In an interview Svoboda says she’s “a great admirer of Defoe so … did have an appreciation for how talk was reported then.” How accurate exactly it is (or ought to be) is quite another thing. Arguments rage about the use of dialect but there was nothing in this book I struggled with, at least as far as the language goes. It’s a balancing act and I think she gets it about right. Her Frenchman was a little Pythonesque for my tastes though:

        Aye, well, I don’t doubt that he had zome meanz about him. Give Miz Hanged and her bird the, the how-do-you-say? cloizter where she might go pale in the arm and the faze so as to fetch a better huzband in zee first zlave market we come to, or persuade Julian Julien zhe is worth a virgin’z ranzom. White as zee znow you will be by zen, and a big enough purze for uz, like az not. And find her a fine comb of fizhbone got from her father, the fine caztrated Julian. Adieu, mon cheri, I will veezit you zoon, zo zoon. Az for her having a brother—Julian Julien muzt have led a buzy youth.

The silly voice does tip the whole thing over into pantomime though and I was glad to see the back of the Frenchman I have to say. “Hanged,” is what the parrot says, not the clichéd, “Pieces of eight.” It’s the only thing he says. Which is how we know it’s the parrot talking and his well-timed interruptions can be funny. Then again by this stage in the proceedings the brother-who-might-be-a-sister is dressed up in drag as a woman (or properly attired as a woman if, indeed, that is what he/she is) so, yes, there are a few pantomimic moments in the book like when the one puts the eye out of the other:

        Aye Let me seize that sword of yours. You’ll do yourself harm.
        My eye! You have cut mine eye! You have poked out my eye!
        My eye, my eye!
        It’s just the one, you can do all your looking with the other.
        Get away. Get away. My eye!
        Hold it with your thumb to stop it bleeding.
        We’ll get you a patch, a lovely patch out of hide, or a black swatch. It’s not like losing another leg.

Of course, the other thing we expect from our historical novelists is that they do their research. And she did including, she says, “a course on pirates at [the College of] William and Mary”. Elsewhere she says, “Pirate Talk or Mermalade was written without hope of publication—really the best frame of mind if you can stand it.” I would agree there completely and there’s little chance of a book like this getting onto The New York Times bestseller list but most of the books on that I wouldn’t want to read anyway. This, on the other hand, was (mostly) a delight. Compared to other dialogue novels it’s not the best—I think I would hand that award to Dave Eggers for Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?—but it certainly has its moments and it’s pretty obvious that a poet’s written this. (She has eleven books of poetry under her belt.)

In a self-interview she has this to say on the subject of why we should expect more dialogue novels in the future:

I have a note from when I started my fifth novel, Pirate Talk or Mermalade in 1997: “Why this is only dialogue: history is a series of whispers. The landscapes change but the whispers continue.” While landing Pirate Talk, I kept having to justify Why Only Dialogue. Talk Like a Pirate Day had yet to be invented, and Philip Roth hadn’t run his all-dialogue story in the New Yorker. Thirty years ago, Chip McGrath at the New Yorker told me I did description well. With my usual perversity, I did without. Both for the fun of it, and because I love Daniel Defoe’s dialogue. People from another time in history differ in culture from ours, their world and language is closer to sci-fi than the contemporary. I wanted the reader to feel as if he were listening through some temporal fold that physics is always promising that would allow him to overhear voices in the 18th century. But really, contemporary life is all about dialogue now, tweets and blogs overwhelming the well-made prosaic.

In her review Jacquie Piasta writes:

It seems that Pirate Talk or Mermalade is meant to be a novelty. But the book's whimsical streak turned out to be its greatest weakness. This is a shame. Everything else about the book creates the foundation for a terrific novel. With some minor editing, it could become an interesting, engaging story that is also accessible to read. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if these brothers became something akin to Harry Potter.

laurel-and-hardyI’m not sure I agree. The term ‘novelty’ is a bit demeaning; it suggests short-lived and of no great consequence. Of course she then imagines these two on a par with Harry Potter and that’s never going to happen either; Didi and Gogo have their fans but they were never going to outshine Laurel and Hardy. But I do have to agree that a little editing would’ve gone a long way. Quite simply all I would’ve added was an introductory paragraph summarizing each upcoming chapter. Once this was a common practice—Jules Verne used it in most of his books—and would go a long way to making the readers’ lives a bit easier. Cormac McCarthy resurrected the approach in Blood Meridian:

Chapter I

Childhood in Tennessee – Runs away - New Orleans – Fights – Is shot – To Galveston – Nacogdoches – The Reverend Green – Judge Holden – An affray – Toadvine – Burning of the hotel – Escape.

That would’ve been helpful.

In his review on Goodreads David Katzman says that “PToM has a learning curve” and that’s a good way of putting it. If you’ve never read a novel in dialogue before they can be a bit disorienting until you see how the author’s handling it because each makes up his or her own set of rules and some are easier than others; Seth Abramson writes that “it’s much like … reading one’s first manga, and struggling to follow words and images in their right-to-left, rather than left-to-right slipstream.” I’m struggling to get to grips with Philip Roth’s Deception at the moment but I’ll get there.

If you’ve no interest in pirates I wouldn’t worry too much about that. It’s less about buccaneering and more about families and what keeps them together. The simple fact is that most of us would stick with our brother even if he accidentally put out one of our eyes. After all we do have another one. And, if we’re really lucky, perhaps a whale’s eye and who knows what we might see if we looked through it?

You can read two chapters online: Chapter 1Chapter 2.


tsvobodaThe many faces of Terese Svoboda’s writing include eleven books of poetry, fiction, translation, and over a hundred short stories. Trailer Girl and Other Stories, her third novel, was recently reissued in paper. “Unnerve thyself: the violent and enthralling short stories in Trailer Girl detonate on contact,” writes Vanity Fair. Her memoir Black Glasses Like Clark Kent was termed “Astounding!” by the New York Post, selected as a Japan Times “Best of Asia 2008” book, and won the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize. Praised as a “fabulous fabulist” by Publishers Weekly for her last novel, Tin God, Vogue lauded her first, Cannibal, as a female Heart of Darkness. Svoboda is also the recipient of the Bobst Prize (for Cannibal), the Iowa Prize for poetry, and the O. Henry Award for the short story. Her work has been selected for the “Writer’s Choice” column in The New York Times Book Review, a SPIN magazine book of the year, and one of the Voice Literary Supplement’s ten best reads. Her opera WET premiered at LA’s Disney Hall in 2005. She has taught at Sarah Lawrence College, The New School, Bennington, Davidson University, the University of Hawaii, the University of Miami, Fairleigh Dickinson, Williams College, San Francisco State College, and the College of William and Mary, and is teaching fiction at Columbia’s School of the Arts. She is married to the high-tech inventor Stephen Medaris Bull, and she is the mother of three children. They live in New York City.

Wednesday 9 September 2015



Coming in the dark
as you did
I never noticed your approach
till after you'd arrived
and only then
because you stopped.

Though I couldn't travel with you –
I watched you from afar:
once you were safe
I followed suit.

(For F.)

14 January 1984

couple in the darkThere is a line in my poem ‘They’ (#571), “They come in the dark”, which I never explained or commented on in my accompanying notes. Most people reading it will assume that I mean these unnamed individuals, the “they” of the title, arrive under cover of dark to set up their kangaroo courts and/or carry out their summary executions. No. It’s much simpler than that. I mean they achieve orgasm without the lights on. I could’ve added—although I chose not to be explicit—that they’d be in the missionary position at the time; the pun would’ve been a bit too crude.

I never liked the ailurophobic wife. Her husband and I used to be good friends and so it was hard to hate him despite what he stood for but I could never warm to her. Sex is dirty and like any other dirty business you do it in the dark which is how I imagined them rutting. Of course if you’re engaged in fornication or adultery or any unnatural or unclean acts (according to them), well, “There is no gloom or deep darkness where evildoers may hide themselves” (Job 34:22) so you may as well leave the lights on.

This, then, is not a poem about literal travellers but as the great Stan Lee would say, “Nuff said.”

Sunday 6 September 2015



(A Bitter Poem)

Cryptic gurus
pumped up with ego
they mimic the others
and visibly balk
at signs of disbelief.

They remember you and
they'll claim you.

They don't care:
they forget what it's like
to be alone at night
without their ailurophobic wives.

They come in the dark.

Cling to your memories:
it's all that they'll leave you.

And dream –
they can't stop you.

(For K.)

27 November 1983

obey-logoWho are they? They have been lots of different people. They are still lots of different people. No one knows how many of them there are. They’re in the government. They’re in the church down the road. They’re in the schools our kids attend. They’re next door and across the street. They’re in the heavens above. They are nameless and faceless, mostly nameless and faceless. The only thing we really know about them is that they’re there. They always have been. They always will be in some form or other. And they will always disapprove of us.

I went to school with K. She was a tomboy, rough and a bit butch if I’m being honest but nice enough. She’d used to play football with the boys rather than hang around with cissy girls. After my first marriage fell to pieces I went home and thought I’d give religion another try. In the intervening years K. had also decided to give God a go. As it happens she picked the same one as me. Would never have imagined that but there you go. K. had a friend, a best friend, a girl who we all called Totie but not because she was small but she was sweet. They saw this and made a note. And kept watch. And in time they decided that K. needed a talking to. Just to keep her on the straight and narrow.

When you join any religious group you willingly agree to accept its god’s laws. The difficulty is finding a religion that believes what WE want. An excerpt from my new book:

They think they can get to know [God] by studying holy texts or consulting self-appointed swamis and gurus. And if these don’t exactly paint the picture they’re looking for they just up sticks and try elsewhere or, if all other avenues lead to dead ends, form their own cult, sect, schism or, in the case of Henry VIII, full-blown state religion. Which is messed up but one can sympathise.

The Bible talks a fair bit about homosexuality but not so much about lesbianism. The only scripture I know about is Romans 1:26: “For this reason God gave them up to dishonourable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature…” I don’t mind God making it wrong—he made eating pigs wrong when the mood suited him—so he can pretty much dictate what we do and we either take it or we go our own way. In the end I chose to go my own way. Forming my own religion seemed a bit too much work.

Carrie and I were watching a programme on TV a week ago where a kid wanted to go to summer camp and the mother wasn’t having it. The kid asked for “one good reason”—not an unreasonable request (very adult of her)—to which her mother replied, “Because I’m your mother.” She did have a reason and she thought it was a good reason and so why not explain? In all the years I knew K. she never did anything to confirm or deny her sexuality. Why did they have to jump in and assume she had designs on Totie? They destroyed their friendship. They probably destroyed her faith too.

I’m not sure if “to claim” means the same elsewhere but here in Scotland if you claim someone then you’re saying you’re going to fight them some time in the near future: you’re claimed.

Ailurophobia is fear of cats although the woman I’m referring to didn’t so much fear cats as she hated them so I suppose ailurodiumia would probably be a more accurate term. I can understand people being afraid of cats—makes as much sense as being afraid of spiders—but I really have no time for anyone who hates cats.

Wednesday 2 September 2015



spiderAmongst the ruins of my life –
the hedonist crouches, arachnid,
in the long shadows.

I do not believe in ghosts
but I believe in you.

20 November 1983

I’m not afraid of spiders. I have no great love for them either but I try to avoid killing them. I used to read The Amazing Spider-Man from time to time but he was never a favourite. For starters I wasn’t a fan of Ditko’s art; he couldn’t hold a candle to Jack Kirby. That, of course, was back in the day. Once Todd McFarlane got his hands on the web-slinger in the eighties it was a different matter. This poem’s not about spiders though. They’re just a metaphor. I’ve just written a dozen poems for F. over a few shorts weeks and most of them not very good (which is why I’m not sharing them) although they serve as reminders for me of what was going on with us. This one is not for F. but it is about her, about us anyway.

Probably one of the last things you’d call me would be a hedonist. I can, and do, enjoy stuff but pleasure is something that tends to go off quickly in my experience. In my new book I describe a father and son as follows:

Both struggled with the concept of joy and what little things did give them guilty pleasure—the adjective is really superfluous as all pleasure was synonymous with guilt—they each felt the need to internalise; it was certainly not for sharing with the world. And so the two of them would settle in front of their respective television sets, watching with the selfsame look of intense concentration on their faces and never so much as crack a smile, shed a tear or pass comment on the proceedings, belching and breaking wind excepted. Pleasure was an aside, something that came along the way and rather surprised each of them when it did catch them unawares.

Both characters are called Jim but neither’s me, not all me; both contain elements of me; both are exaggerations of me, caricatures. There is some truth in the above quote though and I’ve always been a bit envious of those people who could let themselves go and not pay for it in the morning or even ten minutes later.

Spiders also make an appearance in the new book but I’ll leave that excerpt for ‘Arachnophobia II’ (#577).

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