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

Thursday 29 December 2016


The Lights of Zebulun

"On you go. Go on!
Show us something poetic.
Do one of them poem-things.
What do they call it? A sonnet.
Yeah, do us a sonnet."

So I opened the eyes
of the blind men there
and unstopped their ears.

But they didn't want
what I had to offer:
"Too bright! Too bright!"
they cried, "We can't see!"

So I brought down the curtain
and left them in the dark.

29 August 1989

Zebulun was the sixth and last son of Jacob and Leah and the founder of the Israelite Tribe of Zebulun. The name in the poem, however, refers to the land of Zebulun, part of Israel's northern coastal plain. This is where, according to Matthew 4:13-16, Jesus moved first when he began his ministry to, according to Matthew at least, fulfil a prophecy spoken through the prophet Isaiah: "Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the way to the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned." I had two other scriptures in mind when I wrote this poem: Matthew 12:38: "Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, 'Teacher, we want to see a sign from you'" and Matthew 13:57: "But Jesus said to them, 'A prophet is not without honour except in his own town and in his own home.'"
I'm no prophet but I am oddly enough a truth-teller although, as we've seen evidenced this year, truth has never been less popular. "Tell us what we want to hear," the people cry and so the candidates do. Although being deemed worthy of the accolade 'Word of the Year 2016' I have to say the term post-truth was a new one on me but there’s another relatively new word that didn’t get as much attention: truthiness, defined by Oxford Dictionaries as "the quality of seeming or being felt to be true, even if not necessarily true." We do indeed live in strange and troubling times.
I don't know about you but many times over the years when people've learned I'm a poet I've been asked to recite one off the cuff. And they're always disappointed because they were expecting something light, something that rhymed, more Pam Ayres than... well, most people would struggle to come up with another poet; Robert Burns would probably still get a mention here in Scotland. Entertainment has its place—I'm not against entertainment—but I say again, it has its place. It's worrying when the charismatic charm the public and end up in positions of power.
"Whoever has ears, let them hear." (Matthew 11:15) You will know the truthiness and it will set you free.

Sunday 25 December 2016



There are people's worlds
collapsing all the time.

Some say it's a "bug:"
The Black Death was a "bug."

And they give us pills
to make themselves feel better:

an empty gesture
in the face of gods.

You can't see them either.

29 August 1989

When I was thirteen I was sitting in my English class and the world ended or at least it began to end. At least that's what I thought. Somewhere in the distance there was this almighty explosion and a rumble that shook the whole room and I thought the world was about to end. When it didn't I felt like an idiot—the loud boom had been a huge cooling tower being demolished—but the important point here is my gut reaction. I was terrified. Luckily I didn't fall to my knees and start praying or anything (that would've been hard to live down) but I might've done such was my fear, the fear that's been installed in me by my well-meaning, godfearing parents.
Here's the thing though: why was I afraid? Because I wasn't sure I'd be saved. The simple fact is I had a far better chance then than now. I knew I was going through the motions but at least I was trying and that counts for something. Doesn't it? Hard to second-guess God.
There's a brief mention in The More Things Change of "the signs of the times"—wars, earthquakes, famine, pestilence etc—because the propinquity of the end of days is part of the plot and I make a joke of it but that's now. In the early seventies we read into everything and that's a terrible way to live, it really is.

Wednesday 21 December 2016


Now What Does this Do?

you never realised
your imagination
had a manual override
nor that it was so effective
and so conveniently placed.

The handbook said nothing
and yet you would have thought
that that would.

29 August 1989
Not quite sure what to say about this one. What puzzles me more is what I said when I showed it to B. because I showed her all my poems at this point.
If he had a choice, lose his libido or his imagination, what would a writer choose? It's a preposterous proposition but for a second or two try to take it seriously. When I first came online I found myself getting into some quite involved e-mail exchanges with no less than three different women and all about poetry. Poetry! I'll say it again: poetry. All my life I'd waited for a woman I could talk about poetry with and here were three and I hadn't even been looking very hard. B. had gone to university to study English but had to quit because of ill health--I still have her copy of The Faber Book of Modern Verse which she gifted me having no further use for it (red flag there)--but I could never really talk to her about poetry. She's read poetry, discussed poetry, written essays on poetry but she'd never written any poetry and that is a gulf to cross.
One of the women I corresponded with in those early days was called Deb and we got on to the subject of the erotocism of poetry which has nothing to do with writing erotic poetry. She was the first person to suggest that what one experienced in the process of writing a poem could be throught of in sexual terms. And why not? Research shows that during ejaculation, men release a cocktail of brain chemicals, including norepinephrine, phenylethylamine, serotonin, oxytocin, vasopressin, nitric oxide and the hormone prolactin. Phenylethylamine is the interesting one because it triggers the release of dopamine which is the brain's reward when we complete or achieve something.
Now I'm no scientist and the research concerning dopamine and its relation to creativity is contradictory but all I can say about the few months surrounding this poem is that I was constantly looking for my next fix. I coudn't write them poems fast enough. Never in my life have I experienced anything like it. Of course there was a price to pay and when I crashed at the end of this I crashed big time: no poems for three years solid and my second major depression but let's not get ahead of ourselves.

Sunday 18 December 2016

The Fan Man

The rent will be high but it’s not so bad if you don’t pay it. – William Kotzwinkle, The Fan Man


You would think that novelizations would be something way down the list of things a film director would be interested in. Surely he’d have people who’d sort out stuff like that. And maybe some do but no one less than Steven Spielberg himself summoned William Kotzwinkle to a top-secret viewing of his new film E.T. the Extra Terrestrial to discuss its novelisation. Kotzwinkle remembers the encounter well:

Steven took me down a hallway, through a door, into an office and then a closet. He pulled out this box that was so wrapped in tape that I had to use my jackknife to open it. Finally, Steven opens the box and I'm looking at this rubber geek and I'm shaking his hands. It was a rare moment. I'm thinking to myself, “One of us is nuts.” – Brenda Eady, ‘From Any Angle, E.T.'s Biographer William Kotzwinkle Is Not An Alien to Success’, People, Vol. 23 No. 21

Why Kotzwinkle? Quite simply because Spielberg was a huge fan of his 1974 novel The Fan Man. At the time Eady’s article was published Kotzwinkle had written twenty-two books, fifteen of which were for children. The Fan Man is an adult novel but it retains a childish quality in that its protagonist, the wonderfully-named, Horse Badorties is a hippy who spends the entire novel either high or anticipating his next high. Jumping forward to the present his Wikipedia entry shows Kotzwinkle to have been a busy boy since then although it’s been 2007 since his last book came out. Not sure where People magazine got the fifteen children’s books because all Wikipedia lists as kids’ books are The World is Big and I’m So Small and five of the Walter the Farting Dog books which sound fun. Looking at his back catalogue though it’s clear he doesn’t like to be pigeonholed. He received the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel for Doctor Rat in 1977 and in 1988 co-wrote the original story that formed the basis for A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, the most financially successful film of the franchise apparently. Odds are, however, the book history will see fit to remember above all his others will be The Fan Man. It’s not a masterpiece but it is a wee gem. It is also a book very much of its time so if political correctness is your thing then this one probably isn’t for you.

The novel follows Horse Badorties over several days leading up to a concert he’s been organising. He wanders around handing out sheet music to street musicians and anyone he feels might contribute to the success of the project (but especially fifteen-year-old-girls):

Man, I’ve got groups all over the country, but especially I have got a group rehearsing tonight at St. Nancy’s Church around the corner, man, and you come there at eight o’clock we will smoke oatmeal in the choir loft and sing some fantastically beautiful wonderments, man.

He has a plan. He’s going to get a bus to transport everyone and arrange for the media to be there and all the choristers are going to have a handheld fan each. It’s going to be incredible:

These fans, man, are little gods, man, and they make the sound, man, in which all other sounds are contained–they make the whirring sound of AUUUUUUUUUMMMMMMMMMMMMNNNNNNNN, man, and I am depending on that sound, man, to make the Love Concert the most incredibly perfect musical event in the history of the earth.

The question is: In his current and continuing state how is he going to manage all this when he’s perpetually being distracted by his own thoughts:

But first I must make a telephone call to Alaska.

But first I had better stop in the drugstore, man, and buy an astrology book for this month…

But first, man, I must buy a HOT DOG from this hot dog wagon on the street.

But first, man, I must buy the hot dog seller’s gigantic umbrella.

But first, man, I must sit down on this isolated park bench, man, flung up here in the bushes by some thoughtful juvenile delinquent.

[B]ut first let’s smoke a little of this…

You get the idea. Oooh, a shiny thing. Oooh, another shiny thing. Oooh, look at all them shiny things. It sounds like he’s got ADD and if he wasn’t out of his head that would not be an unreasonable diagnosis. There’s also a case for kleptomania and/or maybe disposophobia (that would be hoarders disorder). The book opens:

I am all alone in my pad, man, my piled-up-to-the-ceiling-with-junk pad. Piled with sheet music, with piles of garbage bags bursting with rubbish and encrusted frying pans piled on the floor, embedded with unnameable flecks of putrefied wretchedness in grease. My pad, man, my own little Lower East Side Horse Badorties pad.

This is Horse Badorties’ Number One Pad. By the end of the book he’s acquired another four and no sooner does he move in than the mess miraculously follows him.

        The door swings open, man, to the Buddhist monk’s previous pad, man, which he kept perfectly neat and tidy. I have made only a few small additions of Horse Badorties homey touches.
         “Sure is a lot of junk in here.”
         “Art materials, baby, serving as camouflage for a secret passageway, which you will see momentarily. Follow me through that pile of trash cans and old rags, step over that mound of dirt and broken dishes crawling with roaches and come over here and help me move this tremendous wardrobe chest stuffed with bottles and rags. That’s it, shove it out from the wall, and what, baby, do you see before you?”
         “A hole in the wall.”
         “That is correct, baby, a hole in the wall, which I took the precaution of chopping out yesterday. If the landlord should by any chance discover that I am living in this number two pad, it won’t matter, because we will now slip through this secret passage–go ahead, baby, through those broken slats and falling plaster–through this hole in the wall to my Horse Badorties number three pad.”
         “Gee, there’s a lot of junk in here too.”

How can he afford all of this? Well, he has a little cash but the bigger items he buys with rubber cheques:

        Barney’s Men’s Shop, man, here I am, looking through the suits. I’d better find one that’s marked down, man, as I used my last rubber cheque on that motherfucking school bus. Here is a beautiful suit, man, for $185. It’s my size, too, man. The only thing that is necessary now, man, is to remove from my satchel my special four-pointed, four-colour ball-point pen and select the ink which matches this price tag. Then, man, by simply moving the decimal point over one place, and adding a zero to the end of the figure, I have found a suit that is marked down to


         “Yes sir, may I help you?”
         “I’ll take this suit, man.”
         “Yes sir, cash or charge?”
         “Cash, man, I only came in for a pair of socks, but I couldn’t resist the cut of this suit. It will fit perfectly, man, and I am going to wear it out of the store.”

His satchel deserves a paragraph to itself. An incredible item this proves to be. Positively bottomless. During the course of the novel it provides him with the aforementioned four-colour pen; endless sheet music; numerous fans; two tape recorders; his Commander Schmuck Korean (or possible Red Chinese) earflap cap; his “special Montgomery Ward mail-order glass-enclosed water-filled wire-screened rubber-hosed lung-preserving mother-fucking hookah”; two containers of rice; some chopsticks; “a handy ball-peen hammer”; antiseptic gargle; “Doctor Badorties’ huge Ann Page Blue Cheese Dressing bottle, which is filled with clear spring water”; a tuning fork; a stethoscope; a piece of chalk; a battery-powered back-scratcher; a moon-lute; a pair of walkie-talkies; a can opener; a broken clock; an unforgettable pimento jar; a music box and a pair of sunglasses. Magic satchels are too numerous to mention in comics and manga. Similarly, they’re widespread in fantasy and science fiction novels and stories. Suffice to say Mary Poppins would’ve been jealous.

Over the course of the novel we follow him through the Village, the Lower East Side, The Bowery and Chinatown; he travels to New Jersey to buy—I use the term loosely—his bus (the dog, air-raid siren, minesweeper and the braking mechanism from an old subway car are unexpected bonuses) and spends time in Tompkins Square Park, Central Park and Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. Sometimes he heads off with intent. Other times he’s blown hither and thither by events seemingly beyond his control. All that’s important is the plan. If he can just keep his hunger, his curiosity and his libido under control.

I’m sure Kotzwinkle would struggle to get this book published in today’s be-careful-who-you-might-offend world. There’s a rape mentioned in the book, for example, that’s just shrugged off and Horse’s ephebophilia (sexual interest in mid-to-late adolescents) would also be frowned on. This is assuming that the fifteen-year-old girls in the book are even fifteen. I doubt they are. I think in Horse’s head all girls are fifteen and homeless and just desperate to sing in his Love Chorus and make out with him after. Horse doesn’t take anything seriously. He’s a caricature of the archetypal hippy and the world he inhabits is there to meet his needs at the time and if he needs to resort to a little light criminality to further his purpose then so be it.

In Horses’s head the Love Concert is going to be “the most incredibly perfect musical event in the history of the earth” but why he’s as invested as he is in it and why it all seems to be coming together despite the state he’s perpetually in is another thing entirely. We don’t get much of Horse’s backstory and what little we do we probably shouldn’t trust.

As I said the book’s not perfect—compare it to, say, Withnail and I, and you can start to see where it falls down—the plot is thin and the characters lack depth but never stops being fun and I did like the ending. Usually I root for the little guy but from the very start of the book, once I realised what he was up to, I was convinced he was going to fail big time. Don’t go assuming he succeeds though. He just doesn’t fail big time. There a bit of Spike Milligan here and some Brautigan too but Brautigan’s better; Brautigan can be fun and silly and there’s still a depth to his writing which this book could’ve done with; Milligan was not big on depth either. It would’ve been nice if Life had grabbed ol’ Horse by the lapels and given him a good shake even all Horse did was shake the shaking off.

I’ve only read the one book by him. Maybe one day I’ll read another. Nothing will ever be like Horse though. Irrespective of what you think of his treatment at the hands of his creator the one thing you cannot deny is that Horse Badorties is a fantastic creation and it puzzles the hell out of me that no one’s ever thought to turn the book into a film. A younger Robin Williams could’ve had a whale of a time playing him.

If you want to know a bit more about Kotzwinkle I suggest you read Stephen Romano’s article ‘William Kotzwinkle: Mastery in Disguise’.

Let me leave you with not an excerpt exactly but rather a couple of short pieces of fiction from Kotzwinkle’s blog from 2013:

The Fan Man Smoothie

On the Rooftop With Horse Badorties – from Return Of The Fan Man

Is he coming back? I can think of worse books that’ve spawned sequels.

Wednesday 14 December 2016


Frozen Moment

They crossed in front of me
with their eyes
and that walk
and they know.

It is Autumn
and too late now
for skirts like that
and I'm cold just looking.

29 August 1989
The last poem was about Ayr. This one I wrote sitting in a car outside a primary school in Larkhall. As I was waiting there two girls who were clearly not from the primary school walked across my line on vision and caught my eye. I'm not sure if they noticed me looking but they were clearly dressed to be looked at. This poem is all that remains of that moment. You can make them thirteen if you like or eighteen. I can't help you out. I'm not even sure why I was there. I imagine it was to see the headmaster of my daughter's school but I'm guessing.
I revisited this theme years later in 'Advice to Young Women' (#820). It's a subject that fascinates me. Looking. Writers look. They watch. They observe. No one's safe. There're rules to looking. I can see straight into my neighbour's flat across the road. But one's not supposed to spy. I notice. It's impossible not to notice especially when she's doing her exercises and they're bound to catch the eye but I'm not supposed to watch. And I'm certainly not supposed to record. But what if I wrote a poem about her? A record of the moment. Like the one above. Where's the harm in that?

Sunday 11 December 2016


Lunch in Ayr

(For B.)

I met you
just this side of love
in a safe place
where we could talk.

And we shared a memory
because we didn't have enough
for two.

And anyhow, it was cozier.

The sad thing is,
it took half the time.

Still, you got to pay the full bill.

28 August 1989
Ayr's a seaside resort on the west coast of Scotland although nowhere near as commercial (ergo tacky) as the likes of Blackpool or Morecambe. It's been a long time since I've been to any of the three so much could've changed. In 1989 Ayr was still a nice place to visit. I've even worked there a couple of times over the years so I know the place well and I've many fond memories going back to the sixties.

Who is a poem for? This one isn't for you I can tell you that. You can have a look at it, see what you can make of it but it won't open up to you because it is what my wife likes to call "a decoder ring poem." Unless you have the key its true meaning will refuse to reveal itself. This was a poem for B. and not simply a poem dedicated to B. but one for and about her. We met in Ayr, had lunch and went for a walk down the beach where I showed her my notebook and I don't recall ever showing anyone my notebook before. How I managed to arrange it I have no idea. It's deliberately cryptic in the same way as 'The Summer of '89' (#670)—another poem for and about B.—is cryptic, as so many of the poems from this time say one thing and mean something else completely. Make of this one what you will. I'm telling you no more than this.

Wednesday 7 December 2016


Do You Get It?

She asked me where the point was
so I stabbed her in the back with it
but she still complained
that she couldn't see it
which this time was true.

But I felt better about it.

28 August 1989
I expect I'm preaching to the choir here but I doubt there's a poet reading this who hasn't been faced with a But I don't get it! at some point and, like me, you've probably wanted to take that point, as I do here, and stab them with it. Just as well it's only a metaphorical point and not a literal one, eh? For a poet the Do you get it? question is analogous to the lover's Was it good for you too? I don't get it when people don't get my poems. I understand what they mean when they say they don't get them but I don't understand why they don't get them. What's not to get? Most of them are (to me at least) statements of the bleeding obvious. Like this one. Seriously, what's not to get?

Sunday 4 December 2016


A Love

I don't know why I picked it.
It wasn't my usual kind:
it just seemed the thing to do
(maybe I felt sorry for it).

But it fitted in place
and it worked
when I tried it with you.

So, I think I'll keep it.
But I don't know what to call it.

28 August 1989
There’re certain words (at least for me) that jump out at you. The two most significant in my life have been ‘truth’ and ‘love’. Some would say they’re connected, related even; people do talk about being honest about their feelings. I find that very hard because words are not designed with honesty in mind; numbers, yes—mostly. This is all stuff I’ve talked about many times before. Not that talking’s helped. I’m still no closer to understanding love. I think possibly I’m just not very good at it. Or maybe it’s simply harder than it looks. (See what I mean about words! How can something be simple and hard at the same time?) Did I love B.? I loved being with her. But that’s not ‘love love’ is it? I loved F. but she clearly wasn’t enough. Or had stopped being enough; needs change. There’re lots of loves, we know that, which is why I use ‘a’ here rather than ‘the’ but I’m not convinced I’ve ever felt the same love for any two individuals. And maybe that’s the way it is for everyone and the books lied to us. Well, of course they did.

Wednesday 30 November 2016


Coitus Interruptus

We made love
to make up

for the poem
in my head,

the one with the
punch line missing.

28 August 1989
Poems are not jokes I know but there’s nothing like writing one where that last line kicks the feet from under your reader. I really don’t feel as if the thing works without that. All that’s missing is the rimshot: Buh Buh CHEE. This poem I have to say is pure fantasy. I never talk about a work in progress. My last two books I just handed to my wife when they were done. She didn’t even know I was writing them! I’m not superstitious—far from it—but I really don’t like talking about things I’m writing because they can change so much along the way. A perfect example of that is my novel Left. I wrote 10,000 words taking the book in one direction and then scrapped the whole lot and began again and wrote a very different book. What I ended up with was not the book I set out to write but what I produced was the book I needed to write. 

Just a word on the title: for the record, I have stopped having sex to go and write a poem. Man can only concentrate on one thing at a time.

Sunday 27 November 2016



I had worn the Great Man's mantle
for some time
before I thought to check the pockets,
and they were empty.

In fact, they had been torn out!

28 August 1989
Do mantles even have pockets? I never thought about that before but they’re basically cloaks and cloaks don’t generally have pockets. Either way I can use poetic license to excuse myself. We all love that get out of jail free card. 

This is actually a sequel although I can’t imagine anyone other than me picking up on it. In my previous poem, ‘The Apeman Cometh’ (#689), we see the poet looking in the mirror and not recognizing the creature gawping back at him (or, more correctly, not being recognized by the thing in the mirror). This harks back to ‘The Drowning Man’ (#600) where the young poet recognizes something in his hero’s eyes he’d only seen before in a mirror. Years have passed and so has the great man and now the young poet is wondering just how ‘great’ he actually is. 

How do you define greatness? Per the dictionary: “the quality of being great; eminence or distinction.” Eminence? “Fame or acknowledged superiority within a particular sphere.” Distinction? “Excellence that sets someone or something apart from others.” As a teenager I honestly believed I was destined for greatness. I didn’t just have a chip on my shoulder I had a whole fish supper! [Fish supper is a Scotticism for fish and chips.] I thought that everything I wrote was gold. I really did. Now, when pressed, I’ll admit to a certain facility with words. That I can’t deny; the evidence is overwhelming. But greatness? I actually wonder how many great men (and, of course, women) felt comfortable with that label. Very few I would imagine.

Thursday 24 November 2016


The Apeman Cometh

I remember his eyes,
his little sunken red eyes,
peering out of the cavern
of a grey simian skull.

They looked as if they were
staring from the depths
of my past.

Wondering what had become of me.

And not quite able to focus.

28 August 1989
Adrian Mitchell (1932-2008) has been described as “a prolific and popular British poet/dramatists known for works with a strong social conscience.” I mention him because the title of my poem is also the title of a collection by Mitchell from 1975. I don’t own a copy. I’ve never owned a copy. I may have handled a copy at some time—the cover looks familiar—but I couldn't have said with any certainty that I’d read the book or even any poem by Mitchell before I looked him up about an hour ago. I couldn’t find the title poem but I did find some others from the collection: ‘Ancestors’, ‘Ten Ways to Avoid Lending Your Wheelbarrow to Anybody’ and the very sweet ‘Beatrix is Three’. The first one does have a familiar ring to it but I couldn’t find any individual poem called ‘The Apeman Cometh’. The closest was this:
The Apeman's Hairy Body Song

Happy to be hairy
Happy to be hairy
When the breezes tickle
The hairs of my body

Happy to be hairy
Happy to be hairy
Next best thing
To having feathers
I say I don’t recall ever reading a poem by Mitchell which is true but I do remember hearing him read a poem (probably on the BBC), the rather wonderful ‘To Whom It May Concern’ which he periodically updated to take account of the changing times. (Nalaka Gunawardene’s blog post is worth checking out.)

When I sat down to write this in my head I’d taken the title from Eugene O'Neill’s play, The Iceman Cometh (which I’ve never seen), but who knows now?

The poem reminds me of ‘The Drowning Man’ (#600). I don’t suppose I’m the first writer who’s looked in the mirror and wondered who was looking back at him be it a madman or an apeman.

Sunday 20 November 2016


My Favourite Axe

She said it was a nervous habit
and I said that was all right
we were entitled to nervous habits
and I took her to meet Eugene.

28 August 1989

I knew a guy once who told me Pink Floyd was the most popular band amongst prisoners, all prisoners and not only axe murderers. I’ve been unable to confirm that (Google, I am disappointed) but let’s just say it’s true; I can see it being true. The first time I remember hearing Pink Floyd was with my friend George in the early seventies. He had a job delivering milk I believe and every Friday evening went round the houses to collect the money. He took me out with him one Christmastime and happened to be playing Meddle and I remember being particularly impressed by the track ‘Echoes’. It was the start of a long love affair. God alone knows when I first heard ‘Careful with That Axe, Eugene’. Presumably on Ummagumma or maybe Relics.

In 1987 they released A Momentary Lapse of Reason which I played constantly and is the only album I’ve ever worn out although I came close in 1994 with The Division Bell. Over the years I’ve gone through phases and I’ll be honest I don’t listen to anything with lyrics these days—too hard to work over although I used to be able to—but if pressed I’d have to say Pink Floyd is still my favourite band. As for my favourite track? Well… Here’s one which was included in the film The Wall but wasn’t on the album. It finally appeared on the 2004 rerelease of The Final Cut and I always get shivers when I listen to it.

Wednesday 16 November 2016

The Next Big Thing

I have come to believe that there can be no adequate preparation for the sadness that comes at the end, the sheer regret that one's life is finished, that one's failures remain indelible and one's successes illusory. – Anita Brookner, The Rules of Engagement


The Next Big Thing, published in 2002, was Anita Brookner’s twenty-first novel. She, famously, began writing novels in 1981 at the age of fifty-three and, with the exception of 2000, had produced one a year like clockwork up until this point. The title of the American edition was changed to Making Things Better but I’m not sure that either title does the book justice. Had I been her publisher I might have suggested Dignity as an alternative; the word (or one of its derivatives) appears some thirty times in the book and that’s not counting any synonyms. It’s a word that doesn’t get used much these days. It’s not a word that slips easily into conversation although, perhaps, its antonyms do.

Julius Herz, the central character in The Next Big Thing, is seventy-three. He’s lived in London since, at the age of fourteen, he and his family were forced to flee Germany. They had little say in where they ended up and it was left to a friend of his father’s brother-in-law, a fellow exile named Ostrovski who took “on something of a god-fatherly role,” to provide them with both accommodation and employment and he continued as the family’s landlord and employer until there was only Julius left still running the business. Now Ostrovski’s eighty-one and has decided enough is enough; without warning he sells the record store and the flat that goes with it leaving Julius homeless and unemployed:

“I'm getting out,” he said bleakly. “I've had enough. All these years I've been wheeling and dealing I've never been happy. I always wondered why. And now I know. I'm not well, Julius.” He laid a tentative hand below his rib cage. “Tried to overlook it, as one does, but there's no doubt about it now. I'm looking at the end. The next big thing. […] I've got a place in Spain, as you know. Marbella. Might as well spend my days in the sun as in this perishing climate. I'm getting out, liquidating my assets. So you'll be on your own, dear boy, free, for the first time in your life. You've been a good son, I've never doubted that, too good, perhaps. Sorry your marriage broke down, but that was all part of it, wasn't it? Now you've got a chance to be your own man. I've seen to that.” [bold mine]

By “seen to that” he means he’s left Julius with enough money—“a sum that sounded unreal,” as Julius puts it—so he can buy a wee place of his own and enjoy his overdue retirement.

Hertz or Herz is a Jewish name meaning heart, at least in German—or gazelle if you go down the Yiddish route—and so a fairly obvious name for our hero. As Orwell points out in his Theory of Language during the Third Reich the name Einstein could not be used in physics lectures and the unit of measurement ‘Hertz’ could not be described by this Jewish name. When I reviewed Friends and Family I wrote a bit about the fact Brookner never mentions that the family she’s writing about are Jews and, similarly, there are only two minor nods in The Next Big Thing, a reference to a dark-eyed girl “whose looks were so suspect in the Germany of that time” and the fact their benefactor had changed his name from Abramsky—you don’t get much more Jewish than that—to the Russian Ostrovski. Brookner’s own parents were originally called Bruckner (the same as the composer) which isn’t at all Jewish but German surnames as you can imagine weren’t very popular in Britain after 1914. Brookner’s maternal grandfather immigrated to England at the end of the nineteenth century.

The American title is also taken from the book: “Making things better seemed to have been assigned to him as his life’s work.” Perhaps I can revise that sentence to make it more accurate: “Making things better for others seemed to have been assigned to him as his life’s work.” Ostrovski hits the nail on the head when he says, “You've been a good son,” but that doesn’t say it all. He’s been a good brother and a good husband; no, not merely “good”—devoted, so much an attribute of Brookner’s protagonists. In all his dealings he’s behaved impeccably and always in a dignified manner. He pays his bills on time and in full, tips well, looks out for others; were he a character in a novel by Dickens—one of Brookner’s favourite authors—he’d be described as “a proper gent”—civil, polite and responsible to a fault. He reminds me of the butler in The Remains of the Day a little; he’s subsumed his own needs and now, suddenly and unwelcomely, he finds himself free—freed—to do whatever he wants. But at seventy-three is it too late? The problem is, as Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith notes in an article in of all place the Catholic Herald:

Freedom, in the world of Anita Brookner, is a largely sterile concept. Perhaps future generations will wonder about us, and ask: having won their freedom, why did they do so little with it?

Herz has no friends bar his ex-wife. The couple parted on good terms after a couple of years—her idea—but have kept in touch meeting for lunch three or four times a year. During the course of the novel he develops something of a friendship with his solicitor—a man who also benefitted from Ostrovski’s generosity—but, again, they only meet occasionally for lunch and if business is discussed then Herz insists he be charged for the man’s time. This is how one such lunch ends:

They parted on the usual good terms, Herz waiting on the pavement until Simmonds's car drove off. Then he walked to the bus stop, remembering, in spite of himself, Bijou Frank [a friend of his mother’s] and his first experience of servitude. He smiled. How had she lived, poor Bijou? And when had she died? There had been no notice in the Deaths column of The Times, although there was no reason why there should have been. It had been an obscure life, dignified by a sort of loyalty. That was what he missed, the sort of loyalty observed by people who had little in common but their origins, but who understood each other in a more rooted way than the rootless young could ever understand. He understood it now, almost wished those lost connections back again. He was not trained for freedom, that was the problem, had not been brought up for it. He had done nothing more than glimpse it. The irony was that he now possessed freedom in abundance, but did not quite know how to accommodate it. And it was, it seemed, too late for him to learn.

Finding a new flat proves far easier than he expected—he says yes to the first one he’s shown even though the lease is only for eight years (he’s not sure he’ll need longer)—and the transition is seamless:

By the end of the week Ostrovski's mother's table and two chairs looked well against the sunlit wall of the sitting-room. Flushed with success, he went to John Lewis and bought two more chairs, a television, a bedside cabinet, and three lamps. At home, as he now thought of it, he made up the bed which he had bullied the shop into removing from the window, and hung his clothes in the small cupboard. As far as he could see he needed nothing more. He was almost disappointed that the process had been so speedily accomplished.

Now what? Julius finds his days hard to fill:

Though he did not exactly miss his former routine, he regretted that he had so little to do. His days were composed of artificial outings: a newspaper and the supermarket in the morning, and in the afternoon a bookshop or a gallery. He told himself that many were in the same boat, but pitied them, thought wistfully of families, of ideal families, with gardens to occupy them and grandchildren to cherish.

For several chapters we follow his dreary life and bit by bit we build up a picture of how he got to this stage. We learn about his family and especially his big brother, Freddy, a musical genius doted on by his parents while his talents were flourishing but neglected following a mental breakdown and left to Julius to attend to. We lean of his cousin, the self-centred Fanny, Julius’s first and one true love, about whom he dreams even as an old man. We learn of Julius’s short-lived marriage to Josie who, although not quite as bad as Fanny, had always been careful to keep her interests to the fore. In the following extract where Julius describes their current relationship you get a better picture of him than you do of her:

Late in the afternoon Herz telephoned the garden centre where his former wife now worked and asked for Mrs Burns. Josie had reverted to her maiden name after the divorce but had kept the married style. He found this perfectly acceptable; he could appreciate that marriage, even a defunct marriage, conferred a certain dignity on a woman, and women nowadays were, or seemed to be, rather anxious to define their status. Besides, she was to all intents and purposes a married woman, comfortable with her condition, perhaps even more so than she had ever been as a wife. And she was of an age when dignity counted: the single state, despite all propaganda to the contrary, still had something sad about it. Widows were in a different category. He suspected that Josie would have been quite contented as a widow, but was still sufficiently attached to him to have alighted on what she saw as an ideal definition.

But even what he has with Josie isn’t going to last. Her mother has fallen ill and so she’s decided to move in with her—the old woman lives in Maidstone in Kent—and the best Julius can hope for from now on will be the odd phone call. Josie, it turns out, is also strapped for cash and so Julius being Julius makes arrangements for her to get a regular sum for as long as she might need it. Oddly, or maybe not so oddly knowing that his author is lurking within him, he doesn’t feel sorry for himself. As Brooker said in her last interview in 2009:

Do you feel that life has been unfair to you? “Not at all.” She reflects a moment. “I think I've made a hash of it. But that's my responsibility.”

What next? Two things. The first is the arrival of an attractive and young—young enough to be his granddaughter—neighbour called Sophie Clay who becomes the focus of his attention and who—unwittingly—leads him down some undignified paths:

The presence of a young creature, so nearly under his roof, kept his thoughts chaste, yet when he went out into the street he was amused to find himself entertaining notions that were almost lubricious. These were not confined to the person of Sophie Clay: he saw women everywhere who offered some almost forgotten possibility of pleasure.

The second is a letter out of the blue from Fanny and, again, his dignity—more specifically his self-respect—is under fire. He had last seen her thirty years earlier in Nyon in Switzerland which is where her family fled to from Germany. He’d sought her out after his divorce and her first husband’s death with every intention of asking her to marry him even though she was no longer the girl he had first desired but it didn’t matter; his proposal was swiftly—although not unkindly—rejected. Now her second marriage has ended, her controlling mother has passed and Fanny finds herself in a similar position to Julius… only—predictably (why else is she making contact now?)—nowhere as well off and without her looks to use as a bargaining chip; she’s a year older than him.

What’s a man to do? Second chances are rarely handed out to Brookner’s protagonists.

Loneliness is a terrible thing for most people. Is it worse for someone whose life has been, as Julius puts it, “unlived”? “I feel I could get into The Guinness Book of Records as the world's loneliest, most miserable woman,” Brookner remarked in the year she won the Booker for Hotel du Lac. That was in 1984. In the 2009 interview she has adjusted that view slightly:

She is lonely, she says, for “ideal company” – which is not quite the same as being lonely. “I'm very good on my own. And I manage, I think, pretty well. But it takes courage.”

If, like me, you’ve read a few books by Brookner you’ll be familiar with her themes and that is what keeps us coming back for more; she’s predictable but in a good way. That said she can repeat herself. This is how Emma Hagestadt, writing for The Independent, described her 2009 novel, Strangers:

Now aged 73, and living alone in a neat South Kensington flat, he dreams of coming home. Within the space of a couple of months, two women arrive on the scene: Vicky, a pretty fifty-year-old divorcée, whom he quickly decides he doesn't actually like, and Sarah, the love of his life who walked out on him years earlier for being "too nice." To which brand of humiliation will Sturgis surrender himself? Brookner at her forensic best.

I reviewed the book on Goodreads here and there are definite similarities. Perhaps Brookner thought she didn’t quite get it right with Julius. The title’s better, that’s for sure. Everyone in this book is a stranger, at least one step removed from everyone else. This is also true to a great extent with The Next Big Thing. But Dignity would’ve been a better title and I submit as evidence this passage:

     “What is it, Josie?” he asked quietly.
She smiled sadly. “It never goes away, does it?”
     “I'm sorry.”
“That longing to be with another person.”
     “Not with me, I take it.”
     “No, no, not with you. Not even with Tom. There's a man who comes into the office. We have a drink from time to time. Married of course. Yet we get on so well...” She broke off. “You don't want to hear this.”
     “Why not stand your ground? See what comes of it?”
     “Look at me, Julius. I'm old. I might as well accept it. What surprises me is that I could still feel hope, look forward to seeing him, perhaps no more than that. I couldn't undress for any man now. As I say, I accept it. Mother's illness may have been the jolt I needed. Once the decision was made I realized that it had saved me from a lot of uncertainty. Humiliation, perhaps. I still have my dignity.”
     “I admire you for it. I know how unwelcome one's dignity can be.”
     “So you think I'm right?”
     “Probably. I also know what you mean. Keeping one's dignity is a lonely business. And how one longs to let it go.”

This chimes with something Cheryl Alexander Malcolm says in her book Understanding Anita Brookner. Published in 2002 it obviously doesn’t include any references to The Next Big Thing but had she known about it it would only underline the following comment:

Without exception, Brookner’s novels chronicle her protagonists’ realization that life is not what they expected it to be and, in her later novels particularly, how they maintain their dignity in spite of their disappointments.

She specifically highlights Visitors and Altered States of which she says, “How they travel to this end with dignity is very much the subject of these novels.”

The only real problem I had with this book is with the ending. In his review Thomas Hogglestock called it, “a little high school” and I have to agree with him. Like him I saw it coming about halfway through the novel but in her defence it was probably the right ending; sometimes things do turn out the way you expect them to. One odd thing to finish with: in a review on Amazon Ralph Blumenau happens to mention that the dustjacket of his copy promotes this is her “funniest novel to date”. Like him I think this is a very strange thing for a publisher to do. Yes, the book has its humorous moments but Tom Shape she is not.

You can read an extract from the book here.

Sunday 13 November 2016


Finding Out the Hard Way

So, you got inside me finally?
Well, it's where you thought
you wanted to be
but did you ever think
there might be no way out?

Why else do you think
I've stayed here so long?

28 August 1989
I love etymological dictionaries. The thing with them is, however, most of them stop with Latin as if once you’ve got to the Latin root you’ve found the real meaning of a word. For example:
penetrate (v.)
1520s, from Latin penetratus, past participle of penetrare "to put or get into, enter into," related to penitus "within, inmost," penus "innermost part of a temple, store of food," penates "household gods."
Penus, eh? Remind you of anything?
penis (n.)
1670s, perhaps from French pénis or directly from Latin penis "penis," earlier "tail," from PIE pes- "penis" (source also of Sanskrit pasas-, Greek peos, posthe "penis," probably also Old English fæsl "progeny, offspring," Old Norse fösull, German Fasel "young of animals, brood").
So how come ‘penis’ and ‘penus’ aren’t related? Surely a penis is a thing designed to penetrate be it a vagina, a melon or an apple pie. (For other options see

Penetration can be a contentious subject. It never used to be. In the old days sex amounted to penetration. If it didn’t you weren’t doing it right. Then again in the old days a poem was a thing that rhymed. Everything used to be so much simpler back then; you knew where you were.

There’s a line in Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape where Krapp is listening to himself as a young man describing a boat trip with a young woman, presumably his one true love or the one he imagined might have been:
--upper lake, with the punt, bathed off the bank, then pushed out into the stream and drifted. She lay stretched out on the floorboards with her hands under her head and her eyes closed. Sun blazing down, bit of a breeze, water nice and lively. I noticed a scratch on her thigh and asked her how she came by it. Picking gooseberries, she said. I said again I thought it was hopeless and no good going on, and she agreed, without opening her eyes. (Pause.) I asked her to look at me and after a few moments—(pause) —after a few moments she did, but the eyes just slits, because of the glare. I bent over her to get them in the shadow and they opened. (Pause. Low.) Let me in. (Pause.) We drifted in among the flags and stuck. The way they went down, sighing, before the stem! (Pause.) I lay down across her with my face in her breasts and my hand on her. We lay there without moving. But under us all moved, and moved us, gently, up and down, and from side to side. [bold mine]
The need to get inside someone else isn’t just a physical thing. It’s something I’ve been very guilty of over the years, probing. More. Tell me more. Give me details. And they did. I was good at interrogation and there’s no other word for it.

I’ve forgotten most of the sex I’ve ever had. Much of it was eminently forgettable I’m sorry to say. But the things women revealed to me whilst fully clothed—and occasionally not even in the same building—have stayed with me.

Thursday 10 November 2016


The Pun

I don't know why I phoned.

I wasn't in the mood for talking
but it was there.

It's said that's why
men scale mountains.

And there's something
anticlimatical about that too.

28 August 1989
I forgot to post this yesterday. I’d other things on my mind. I imagine a few people weren’t quite sure if they were coming or going yesterday. 

A pun is a form of word play that suggests two or more meanings, by exploiting multiple meanings of words, or of similar-sounding words. I’m very fond of puns as it happens. But the pun here isn’t a very obvious one. Scale, in this context, is a synonym of climb: we climb mountains. But what do you do when you get to the top? You have to go back down and it’s probably not a good idea to waste too much time slapping each other’s backs at the summit. Why do men climb mountains? The facetious answer is: Because they’re there. It does seem like a rather weak reason for doing anything when you think about it. That’s the thing about climaxes. There’s nowhere to go afterwards but down or back. 

Q: What’s the laziest mountain in the world?
A: Mount Everest.
—joke from an old British Fantastic Four Annual

Sunday 6 November 2016


The Bypass

There being no time
and having no place else
I hid what I had to say
in the words,
just out of sight –
unless you were looking.

28 August 1989
Had I been writing these poems now I would’ve probably scrapped ‘What I Never Meant to Say’ (#682) and ‘Dressed Apology’ (#684) and just kept this one. Back in 1989, however, I wasn’t thinking clearly. I was writing poems—one a day on average (I completed 29 in August)—and I was on a high. I had a note book that was brimming with ideas and half-finished poems. It was (at least from that perspective) wonderful. I’ve never been that creative and I don’t ever expect to be as creative again. Prior to this I used to sit on poems for a long time never quite willing to let go of them but in 1989 I couldn’t give them a number and type them up quickly enough which is why so many not-great poems slipped by. Now I have quite a different problem. I still get ideas but I can’t seem to be able to finish anything. Everything dissatisfies me. The last poem I stuck in the big red folder was ‘There is Nothing New Under the Sun’ (#1088) dated 15 January 2015 although I can tell you here and now it was written at the end of 2014. So nearly two years and nothing. I’ve gone longer—between August 1991 and June 1994 I didn’t write a single poem—but at least in 1994 I had the drafts of my first two novels to comfort me. Now I just wait to see what comes, what else I’ve left unsaid or might find a better way to say. I’m not overly worried. My oeuvre as it stands is not something to be ashamed of. Some people when they get on lose their hearing or their eyesight. Or even their minds. Maybe I’ve lost my mojo. We’ll see. 

For the record the bypass in the poem was an actual road. I offered to drive B. to an appointment and to get there we drove down one of the new bypasses that had started to spring up. Nice to have her to myself with no chance of anyone interrupting us if only for half an hour.

Wednesday 2 November 2016


Dressed Apology

I've exposed myself too much
and embarrassed you.
I'm sorry:
I thought we were that close.

Can you pretend
it never happened?

And you only imagined
my weaknesses?

28 August 1989
Another poem about nearly slipping up. At this point in my life I hadn’t read much writing that could be classified as stream-of-consciousness but I knew about it and I liked the idea of it. What happens when your internal editor takes a tea break? B. and I talked a lot. It really was all there was between us apart from hello and goodbye hugs which were lovely but I wasn’t exactly short of pretty women to embrace in 1989 and I grabbed hold of Opportunity every time she came within cuddling distance and squeezed the life out of her. I’ll tell you F. unleased quite the monster when she introduced me to the joys of hugging. That said any body will satisfy a hug but there were very people I could really talk to so I can see why I became addicted to being around B.

Sunday 30 October 2016


William's Cage

“You're full of holes,” he said.

I thought he was trying to shock
so I asked if that was bad.

He closed his eyes
and covered his ears,
and he said.

“They can get at you
through the holes
but if you block them up
‘the real you’ can't get out.

“And if you poke your finger in –
I'll bite!”

19 August 1989
The last ‘Sweet William’ poem was Cinders’ (#634). I don’t specify who he’s talking to here but in my head it’s the lady doctor who we first met in #620. I can see it would be easy to assume a sexual undercurrent here and, of course, that’s what the psychiatrist (assuming that’s what she is) thinks. Although it’s true that we all have holes in our bodies that can be penetrated I really was thinking in a broader sense—the eyes see, the ears hear, the nose smells, the mouth tastes—and it really is impossible to switch all of this stimuli off. My mother towards the end of her life became very fond of the expression ‘You are what you eat’ and it’s a good expression. We are, however, not simply what we ingest. All day long and every day we absorb stuff from daylight to germs. We’re never the same from one moment to the next. We’re perpetually in flux and so it’s impossible to pin down the ‘real’ us. Is ‘the real me’ writing this? Did ‘the real me’ write that poem?

Wednesday 26 October 2016


What I Never Meant to Say

No, I really love you:
it's gone beyond words.
I just use them
because they're all I have.
They don't say anything anymore.

There was never really anything to say.

19 August 1989
This is an odd poem to write at a time when I was at my most prolific. I was on a poetic high most days and when that dipped my next fix wasn’t hard to find. And I loved that side of it. If you’ll pardon my crudity: the shit was flowing.

I’ve spent a long time looking at this poem. What’s interesting to me is how I chose to open it. With a ‘no.’ The whole poem is therefore a response. What I never meant to say was said someplace else, before the poem. I never recorded (and can’t remember) what I said or to whom. Perhaps I slipped up with B., mumbled something I shouldn’t have. I could get away with saying I loved her easily enough because she knew I loved her and she loved me. Everyone loved everyone. Hallelujah! Praise the Lord. That was how I could get so close to her because I was shielded by brotherly love. What I did and how I felt behind that shield was another matter. Mostly wrote poems and felt like crap.

Sunday 23 October 2016



There was no hole in my youth
for "the real me" to crawl out,
only flaws to put pressure on
and finally rip apart.

I sometimes still sleep
in the empty shell at night.

19 August 1989

Getting to know the real you, being in touch with your true self, just be yourself, be the best you you can be—God, I hate expressions like that. If I’m not me who am I? Good question. Identity’s a complex thing. Here’s a new word for you—if it’s not take a gold star and stop looking so smug—eudaimonia. It’s a word that would love to be itself but people keep redefining it. According to one source eudaimonia refers to a state of well-being and full functioning that derives from a sense of living in accordance with one's deeply held values—in other words, from a sense of authenticity. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anyone described as authentic. Real, yes: he was the realest person I’ve ever met; get real, man. 

Am I, to use Maslow’s expression, a self-actualised individual? What does that even mean? The Wikipedia article on ‘Self-actualisation’ contains the following sentence: “Self-actualisation can be seen as similar to words and concepts such as self-discovery, self-reflection, self-realisation and self-exploration.” Every one of them’s a can of worms. When did I realise who I was? Not in 1989 I can tell you that. Or does it mean realise as in fulfil? Well I wasn’t that either. 

Actually in later years Maslow explored a further dimension of needs, while criticizing his own vision on self-actualisation and added another level to his famous Hierarchy of Needs: self-transcendence. The only expression I can think of to go with that is: this is bigger than you or me. I’m a fixed container 5' 7" tall and a little over 13st. That is the totality of my parts. I am what I eat—one of my mother’s favourite expressions—or at least I’ve become what I’ve eaten. I don’t want to make too much of myself but I’d also like to think that I’m more than the sum of my constituent parts. Something was yet to emerge, something was going to crawl from the wreckage that my life was about to become (well, we’re still a few years off and a good few poems bridge the gap) but I’m not sure if he was any more real than the guy who wrote this poem. He was different though.

Wednesday 19 October 2016


Life Course

No, I couldn't say
how my life's
got into this mess.

All I know is that
there's no reverse gear on this thing,
and the steering’s off too.

And they took my licence away years ago
so don't ask who's doing the driving.

19 August 1989
The soundtrack to my life’s been an interesting one. In the seventies I used to religiously listen to the pop charts and write down the top twenty records and I honestly remember thinking at the time what a great time it was for new music. But then I started to notice that after two or three hits people started vanishing.
Very few seemed to have any staying power or so it seemed but then I was judging everyone by the singles charts and that’s a very poor measure or a man or a woman. 

The seventies ended in a blaze of glory or went up in flames depending on your point of view and it was all change come 1980. But it wasn’t all bad. Far from it. David Bowie released ‘Ashes to Ashes’, The Jam brought out ‘Going Underground’ and who could forget the masterpiece that was ‘There's No One Quite Like Grandma’ by St Winifred's School Choir? The one that sticks in my mind, however, is the second single release from the Metamatic album by John Foxx, ‘No-One Driving’. It wasn’t much of a hit—the record entered the UK Singles Chart at no. 32, remained at the same position for a further week before dropping down—and we never heard anything more from him. I’d kind of hoped he was going to be another Gary Numan but, sadly, no. Of course if you look at Foxx’s Wikipedia page you can see he’s still on the go. 

I’ve never really understood how that thing we call for convenience ‘inspiration’ works. I do remember how much ‘No-One Driving’ struck me at the time but here’s the thing: he’s saying nothing new, nothing I hadn’t heard before and yet the song buzzed around in my head for years and I have little doubt that it had something to do with this poem. There’s not much new in art but what it does is present it anew; maybe that’s Nature’s answer to the cliché.

Sunday 16 October 2016

His Current Woman

I don’t drive a car; I don’t own a boat; I don’t use a computer and the only complex device I’m familiar with is a woman – Jerzy Pilch, His Current Woman


Although it’s often frustrating how long we Anglophones have to wait for books by our favourite (or at least new and interesting) authors to appear in English translations—and not all do—it’s still a good time to be reading if you’re at all interested in something other than an Anglo-American take on the world. The problem is that, although the world is in many ways shrinking, our understanding of it has not expanded to meet it halfway. Subtleties often fly over our heads or scurry between our feet. Case in point: the protagonist in Jerzy Pilch’s novel His Current Woman, Paweł Kohoutek. Kohoutek means “little rooster” in Czech and once you realise he’s a lothario it’s not hard to see why the name’s appropriate—little cock, or as we Scots would put it (and it’s an expression rarely voiced without being laced with anything from disdain to out and out contempt): wee prick. And he is. He’s a wee prick. Of course if you’re not Scottish you won’t know how we use the expression—it can even be a term of affection—and so none of this is especially helpful other than underlining my initial point: you’re not always going to get the joke. I didn’t. And it wasn’t’ until I read Joanna Diane Caytas’s article Strong and Weak Forces of Otherness in Struggles for Social Control as Reflected in Jerzy Pilch’s Inne rozkosze (His Current Woman) I started to see there was more to this book than I’d first realised. Even the title. Inne rozkosze doesn’t mean “his current woman”; it translates as Other Pleasures. I can see why they would change it—Kohoutek’s love interest is only once referred to by her real name (Justyna Kotkowska); the rest of the time she’s simply his “current woman”—but there was a reason why Pilch chose that original title. It is, I assume, either a paraphrase of Ecclesiastes 2:8—

I also accumulated silver, gold, and the wealth of kings and their kingdoms. I gathered around me both male and female singers, along with what delights a man—all sorts of mistresses. (International Standard Version)

—or a direct translation from one of the numerous Czech Bibles out there. It doesn’t really matter. In the book the verse is rendered as, “You have got your men singers and women singers … and other pleasures of the sons of men…” Actually it says “gat you” which I’m assuming is a typo.

Young's Literal Translation is worth a mention here because it doesn’t use the word “mistresses” or “concubines”: it says “a wife and wives”. My wife and I have recently started watching a show called Hand of God. Brief summary: A morally-corrupt judge suffers a breakdown and believes God is compelling him onto a path of vigilante justice. Following his epiphany he finds he can no longer have sex with the hooker who calls on him once a week and yet he can’t give her up, so, at the end of the last episode we watched, he persuades his minister—who also has issues—to “marry” him and the hooker so he can have sex with her with a clean conscience. Yeah, I know. In His Current Mistress Kohoutek, who is not a well-read man, similarly deludes himself. He explains his reasoning to his mentor Dr Oyerma:

“I accept that I’m just a common philanderer, the most ordinary kind of adulterer. A low grade Casanova, a second-rate Don Juan. Fine, so be it: That’s all that interests me; it’s all I think about; I accept it, though that’s an oversimplified and ugly way of stating the truth, because after all it’s not the case that I bring myself down to my own genitalia, that I reduce my current women to their erogenous zones; quite the opposite, it’s precisely at such times that infinity opens up before me; at such times God is close, for in the Gospel according to Matthew the Lord Jesus saith,‘Where two come together, I am between them....’”

The doctor, after giving the matter some thought, responds thusly:

“There’s just one thing I have to make clear to you right away, since as you know I’m fond of precision. Though reading books tires you and bores you, Kohoutek, when you do it, at least do it attentively, especially when you’re reading the book entitled the Holy Scriptures. In the Gospel according to Matthew, the Lord Jesus does not say, ‘Where two come together, I am between them’; He says, ‘For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them,’ and that means something rather different.”

For years Kohoutek has been chasing women. He’s now forty but showing no signs of slowing down. How, exactly, he’s been as successful as he has is something of a wonder. He’s not exactly what you’d call a catch. He’s a vet. And I don’t mean war veteran. I mean horse doctor. But he clearly has the gift of the gab or whatever the Polish equivalent is. And that’s what’s got him into his current predicament. Let me explain:

When it came to seduction, Kohoutek was a natural. He thoroughly believed what he was saying. At the time of the telling, he really did want to spend the rest of his life with the woman he was talking to. He really did imagine to himself all those details and episodes. This was the source of his credibility and his narrative proficiency. […] He would wake up in the morning at the side of a woman with whom the previous evening he had been planning a life together, and he would say to himself, Good grief, what a load of nonsense I came out with yesterday, and he would flee in absolute panic.

And, up until now, he’s got away with it. Up until now. But that wouldn’t make much of a story, would it? The book opens as follows:

When in the year of our Lord 1990 Paweł Kohoutek, Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, looked out of the window and beheld his current woman crossing the lawn, with his usual conceited fatalism he imagined that an adventure had befallen him which ought to serve as a warning for all. Kohoutek’s current woman was wearing a navy blue overcoat; her divine skull was covered with a funky little hat, while the colossal suitcase she was dragging behind her left a dark trail of final defeat in the pale November grass.

This is clearly going to be a problem. Actually, no. The following group of eccentrics is going to be the problem:

Kohoutek’s current woman might have been spotted by Kohoutek’s mother. She might have been spotted by Kohoutek’s father. She might have been spotted by the pastor’s wife or by the pastor. She might have been spotted by Miss Wandzia or by Miss Wandzia’s mother. She might have been spotted by Oma, Kohoutek’s grandmother. The postmaster, Kohoutek’s grandfather, as he took some fresh air, might also have come to the conclusion that someone closely associated with Kohoutek was on the lawn. Kohoutek’s current woman might also have been seen by Kohoutek’s child, and she might have been noticed by Kohoutek’s wife. Anyone might have spotted her

Apart from living in the same house together—it’s a very big house—the collective have one other thing in common: they’re all Lutherans. Some 87% of Poles are deemed to be Roman Catholics but the number of Protestants is not exactly small. The Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession in Poland has—depending on which Wikipedia article you trust—between 60 and 80,000 members. Pilch was brought up as a Lutheran in Wisła in the Beskid region in Cieszyn Silesia, Southern Poland and close to the border with the Czech Republic and this is where the action takes place; it’s the only town in Poland with a majority Protestant population. The characters in the novel come across as isolationists, more than keen to protect and preserve their way of life. Think Amish or Mennonite and you have the right idea. Of the 81,000 German-speaking immigrants to colonial Pennsylvania almost all were affiliated with Lutheran or German Reformed churches. To this day they speak Pennsylvania Dutch which is a form of German (the “Dutch” being probably a mistranslation of Deutch). Likewise in Wisła German language use is part of cherished local tradition going back centuries. The distinct local dialect is based on the Polish language, but major German and Czech influences have remained strong, and the vernacular differs markedly from the Silesian dialect spoken in Upper Silesia.

The point is they’re old-fashioned, God-fearing people who tend to frown on things like lying and adultery. So when Kohoutek’s current woman abandons life in Kraków and appears out the blue—“[s]he may have been brought here by a mad feminine love, or perhaps feminine cruelty”—expecting him to make good on his promises the scene is set for a jolly good farce. Kohoutek secretes his madwoman in the attic of the old slaughterhouse (fairly obvious nod to Jane Eyre) but that’s understandably only going to buy him so much time. She would be found sooner rather than later especially since the family was busy hunting down a “a two-litre jar of beef meatballs that Oma, Kohoutek’s grandmother, had hidden somewhere” and it was only a matter of time before one of them climbed the stairs to see; obviously because of Oma’s age and the difficulty she has walking this would not be their first choice but that doesn’t mean it was off the list completely.

Over the next nineteen chapters—and a chapter-long epilogue—we watch Kohoutek struggle not only with the practicalities of having his mistress so close to hand but also himself; things have come to a head and certain truths have to be faced and dealt with. What adds a nice touch is who Pilch has as his omniscient narrators, the ghosts of old Lutherans who come out with things like:

We old Lutherans, who are at the same time the real narrators of this story, cannot refrain from mentioning that in the Cieszyn region of Silesia spring has all the abruptness of a reformation—sudden heat waves sweep the length and breadth of the land like heretical fires.


We old libertines, laughing as we observe this scene, yet filled with dread from a peculiar kind of sympathy, might add that Kohoutek’s anger and desperation were undergirded by a rational cunning.

It’s a nice touch.

Where this book rises above farce is in its presentation of Kohoutek. There’s an innocence to him and an ignorance; despite years of experience he really doesn’t understand women. He certainly doesn’t understand his wife although she understands him far better than he ever could understand himself. (So often the case.) Or his mother. Or his grandmother if it comes to that. And he certainly doesn’t understand his current lover. On one level, certainly at the start, this looks like a light read—how is he going to get out of the current mess he’s in and how soon before another crisis arises?—but, as Caytas puts it, “it also raises essential questions of identity, tolerance, and personal integrity.”

The whole “madwoman in the attic” trope is worth dwelling on for a moment because it’s a little too easy to reduce Justyna to “the other woman”—and there have been plenty of bunny boilers, stalkers, jilted lovers and the like—simply because of the way the text insists on always referring to her in relation to her lover. (If you wish to wallow then Anna Szawara’s paper Jerzy Pilch’s Madwoman in the Attic: An Inquiry into the Modern Woman In Pilch’s Inne Rozkosze (His Current Woman), and the Significance of Her Sexual and Textual Influence is worth a read.) In the same episode of Hand of God I talked about earlier there is a scene where Crystal is asked how much she hates always being defined by Pernell, her husband. Her response:

I love my husband, but... [chuckles] I did not get my ass into Stanford and build my business from scratch so I could be called “the judge's wife.”

The wife in His Current Woman is a lot like Crystal. She’s intelligent and perceptive and Justyna is painted like a young her. In Szawara’s essay she notes:

I argue that although this woman was written by a man, her function in the plot is parallel and perhaps supreme to the function of the protagonist within the novel. She is leading the action from the first line of the novel, a constant presence and concern of the protagonist throughout…

There’s truth there but not only her. I would argue that all the major female characters in the book are the ones with the real power. Justyna isn’t mad when she arrives. As Dr Oyermah suggests rather than being led to Kohoutek by a demon she might simply have decided to pay him a visit because she’s “just an ordinary unpredictable young lady.” That doesn’t mean she doesn’t become mad—in the broadest sense and including angry—because of the way she’s manhandled and mishandled. And the culmination of that is her face appearing at the window during Oma’s birthday resulting in a chapter that PG Wodehouse would not have been ashamed at writing.

This is a delightful book. What may dissatisfy some is that most of the characters are pencil sketches rather than oil paintings. To be fair most everyone gets their five minutes in the spotlight but it’s hard not to want to know just a wee bit more. Things are tied up at the end but a part of me would’ve like a twentieth chapter rather than jumping straight to the epilogue but I can’t gripe; I’ve done the same myself, skipped all the stuff I couldn’t be bothered writing about and given the readers just enough dots to join. We do get to find out what happens to Paweł and Justyna—or at least where they’re heading—but I guess it’s up to each reader to decide how happy the ending is.

You can read an excerpt from the book here.


Only four books by Jerzy Pilch are available in English at the moment:

  • His Current Woman trans. Bill Johnston: Hydra Books/Northwestern Univ. Press, 2002
  • The Mighty Angel trans. Bill Johnston: Open Letter (University of Rochester) 2009
  • A Thousand Peaceful Cities trans. by David Frick: Open Letter (University of Rochester) 2010
  • My First Suicide trans. David Frick: Open Letter (University of Rochester) 2012

I would be keen to read more by him. This bio certainly makes me curious to read more.

Ping services