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

Sunday 28 February 2016



The house was full of things
no one understood except him.

He gave them names
to make them real.

He said that was important.
Things should have names.

He asked me mine – and I lied.

12 September 1988

I heard a story once—which may or may not be true—that some famous pop star (who I’ve always thought was Freddie Mercury) was kicked out of art school for only drawing the creases in clothes. It probably wasn’t true and I’m afraid Google has let me down in that it has confirmed that Freddie left Isleworth Polytechnic College Ealing Art College in June 1969 with a diploma in graphic art and design, and a few commissions for adverts in local newspapers. David Bowie was a student at Croydon College's School of Art. Maybe it was him. Or someone out of Pink Floyd.

What has the above got to do with my little poem? Nothing really. It’s just this is one of those poems of mine where pretty much everything’s missing. We know there’s a man who has a house which has things in it and he gives those things names but we know nothing about the narrator other than he or she knows the man with the house with the things in it and is a liar. Stated, flatly, there’s not much there and yet I’ve always found this a creepy poem. What exactly happens when you tell someone your name? It gives them power. Maybe not much power but some.

This isn’t a Sweet William poem but it’s related. It has a similar tone. And, of course, William has a thing for names. It also reminds me of the first section of Henry Reed’s poem, ‘Lessons of the War’ called ‘Naming of Parts’.

Wednesday 24 February 2016


The Surgeon

One of my patients died today.

Strapped to a table
it was an inglorious death,
not that I've seen one that wasn't.

I've heard of them,
and I've heard of heroes,
and I've heard that how we die
is a measure of how we've lived.

Or do we just seem smaller lying down?

29 June 1988

I can’t imagine being a surgeon. Well, of course, I can imagine it. I have a good imagination. We watch doctor shows all the time—we’ve always got one on the go—but I don’t really like the operations. If you do and you haven’t seen it then check out CR:IT:IC:AL. It only lasted one season and the drama side of the show is a bit dreary and it’s very British but if you want to see how they de-impale a guy off crane spikes then this is your kind of show. Me, not so much. Give me Scrubs any day.

As for this poem, this is me trying to write ‘Mr Bleaney’ again, the last sentence of which goes:

But if he stood and watched the frigid wind
Tousling the clouds, lay on the fusty bed
Telling himself that this was home, and grinned,
And shivered, without shaking off the dread

That how we live measures our own nature,
And at his age having no more to show
Than one hired box should make him pretty sure
He warranted no better, I don't know.

I’ve no idea why this poem haunts me so. I’ve been reading it for over forty years and I’m happy to concede that it’s not Larkin’s finest but it’s a poem I’ve found impossible to shake. In 2010 I do finally get as close as I’m ever going to get to writing my own version. You can read it here. For the record it’s #1047.

Sunday 21 February 2016


The Lady Doctor

William spoke of his "scars" –
which I thought showed remarkable insight –
and he tried to look down my blouse.

I let him look
though I could see he didn't understand
but he believed.

He called me Honey
and when I asked he said I was sweet.
I don't think he was joking.

29 June 1988

I’d never spoken to a psychiatrist or even a psychologist in 1988. They held the same kind of fascination as prostitutes though. I always thought they’d be interesting people to talk to. I’ve since been treated by four and they were all women. I was given the choice the last time. I could’ve had a man but I asked for a woman. I like talking to women. I don’t hate talking to men—men can be interesting—but most men I’ve met in real life tend to be one or two steps removed from me. They’re into sport and drink and roughhousing. I’ve never been a man’s man. I’ve never liked being around men like that which is hard because in Scotland in the seventies there were a lot of men like that. No one wrote poetry. No one read books their teachers didn’t make them read and mostly they skimmed them.

I’ve always enjoyed talking to mental health professionals. I’ve never found them especially helpful but that’s neither here nor there. Where exactly William is at this point I keep vague. Remember we don’t even know what age he is. Maybe he’s a stray who’s been picked up by the police who’ve realised there was something not quite right about him and decided to get him checked out. It doesn’t matter. Somehow the white coats have got a hold on him.

Wednesday 17 February 2016


Hot Stuff

I never thought he might have been in pain.
No one told me there was pain in not understanding.
They said ignorance was bliss.

Once I let him touch me and then I saw it in his eyes.
And he ran off screaming as if I'd burned him.

29 June 1988

This is the third of The Drowning Man Poems. Like all the rest meaning is just out of arm’s reach. At least that’s how I feel about these poems and I wrote them. And, oddly enough, that appeals to me. It keeps me coming back.

The girl in this poem is Hot Stuff. I know that’s not clear from the title, especially when viewed as a standalone piece, but in the next poem William calls the doctor ‘Honey’ and so I feel it’s implied that the narrator here is Hot Stuff. I have no picture of her in my head. I have no picture of William or of most of the characters I write. I’ve always wondered about why this is. When my wife reads a book she often tells me who she’s cast in certain roles. She was reading an Ian Rankin novel a wee while back and said that she found herself picturing Rebus as Robbie Coltrane rather than John Hannah or Ken Stott. Of course he works but that’s not what would happen if I read the book. There are exceptions. Randal P. McMurphy is Jack Nicholson and I don’t care who else plays him—my daughter said Christian Slater did an excellent job when she saw him on stage—but I can’t move past Nicholson. That said his Joker has been surpassed but, of course, when I read the comics the Joker is just the Joker irrespective of who draws him.

Sunday 14 February 2016



Kay Sexton writes with loving clarity about the natural world, and is astute about the complexity and cost of our negotiations with it.... …absorbing and highly readable....Hilary Mantel, author of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies

In October 2013 an article appeared in The Guardian talking about a Scottish landowner’s plan to reintroduce wolves (and bears too) to the Scottish highlands but he faced opposition from farmers, walkers and legal experts. It might surprise some to learn that wolves no longer roam the British Isles—I was more stunned to discover that wolves had to be reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in the United States in 1995—but it’s true. Roman and Saxon writings suggest that wolves once were commonplace in Britain. Wolf hunts took place regularly and, inevitably, over time they were hunted to extinction. King Edward I, who reigned from 1272 to 1307, ordered the total extermination of all wolves in his kingdom and by the reign of Henry VII (1485–1509) they’d just about managed it. Official records indicate that the last Scottish wolf was killed by Sir Ewen Cameron in 1680 in Killiecrankie although there have been sightings north of the border as late as 1888. You can read a nice wee article about the history of wolves in Scotland here.

Nature copes. It’s what it does. We’ve got used to it coping. We expect it to cope. And as long as you don’t throw too much at it at once and give it a little time it can absorb and assimilate most things. You wouldn’t think that the eradication of an entire species from a small island in the North Atlantic would change things very much. After all we still have foxes and they’re kind of wolflike. Why would we want to bring such a dangerous predator back? Because Nature didn’t cope as well as we expected:

A report published in 2007 in the Proceedings of The Royal Society, entitled ‘Wolf reintroduction to Scotland: public attitudes and consequences for red deer management’, concludes that reintroduction of wolves to the Scottish Highlands would have significant ecological benefit by limiting numbers of red deer, reducing the need for costly deer culls and allowing natural regeneration of the Caledonian pine forest. – Why reintroduce wolves?

It’s a contentious subject and the debate rages on. The most recent article I could find was this one, in the BBC News Magazine, in October 2015.

But that’s the real world with all its red tape and public opinion. The great thing about fiction is it can bypass all the debate and shilly-shallying and just get on with it which is what Kay Sexton does in her novel Gatekeeper. The blurb then:

It was not simply the job of her life; it was her life…

Claire Benson has been wrongfully expelled from an Animal Activist Group and she is furious, until she discovers she’s been singled out for more significant work. A task that demands all her skill, training and nerve.

The Project aims to re-introduce wolves to their natural environment. If all goes to plan, a pack will be secretly released in the Scottish Highlands and Claire will be their Gatekeeper—safeguarding their transition from exiles to natives. The task is covert and perilous, requiring her to understand the land, its people and—above all—the true nature of these extraordinary beasts.

When we meet Claire she’s breaking into an illegal puppy farm along with Liam, Mick, Vidya, Vince and Ansel. They know what they’re there for, the smaller puppies (they have to be practical), but her cohorts are not all on the same page and Liam heads off on his own; he’s sure there’re mink there. Mink farming is banned in Britain and Liam is naturally incensed:

‘This is wrong. They’ve got to be freed.’

‘Don’t be stupid! They aren’t native, they’ll…’ But he’d stopped listening: he was pulling the bolt cutters from his belt, setting them against the small padlock holding the nearest closed cage.

Claire froze, breathing deeply, trying to work out her options. If the mink were freed they would destroy the local habitat—it was impossible Liam didn’t know that. The predators would kill every rodent and small bird for miles around, as well fish; even poultry from farms.

In 1998 the Animal Liberation Front released 6000 mink into the Hampshire countryside:

The RSPCA condemned the release and animal welfare groups said the ALF operation was a damaging own goal because many of the mink, which were bred in captivity for export to the United States, Scandinavia and Russia, would die of starvation. – The Times reprinted in

What’s the difference between a terrorist and an activist? This question is raised twice in Kay’s book. Claire’s answer:

If you know when to stop … then you’re not a terrorist.

The difference between mink and wolves is a simple one: wolves are supposed to be here.

Because of the incident with the mink Claire ends up leaving the animal rights group and is at a bit of a loose end until Ansel approaches her with a once-in-a-lifetime offer involving wolves. It’s fair to say that The Project is a shady organisation. The more I read through the book the more I was reminded of Rosemary’s Baby. We learn that Ansel is a member and someone called Blaine although that’s not his real name. Ansel becomes Claire’s handler—all very cloak and dagger—but he’s the only one she’s to have regular contact with; it’s not like they all get together for motivational talks every Monday morning. No. If she wants to join—if they’re willing to let her join (it’s a buyer’s market)—she has to play by their rules:

‘Let me get this right,’ she said. ‘I’m to give up an unspecified amount of my life, to probably not work with wolves, with no guarantee that what I’m training for will ever transpire. I’m in competition with another woman, whom I won’t know, for one chance to act like a combination PR schmoozer and ordinary member of the public. I’m not allowed to tell anyone what I’m doing, and if it comes to the crunch I’m on my own.’

So maybe a bit Mission Impossible too. “Your mission, Claire, should you choose to accept it…” She gets sent to Morocco—ostensibly as a temporary tallier for an ongoing migration project—and then to Italy—mainly in Rome where she sticks out like a sore thumb but there’s also a field visit to Anatolia—and, finally to Scotland where it looks like things have not gone according to what she believed the plan to be. In each place she has to guess why she’s there really and who might be affiliated with The Project. Who would go for such a deal? Well, someone like Claire. And this is where this book is a little misleading because the book is less about wolves and more about Claire finding out who she is.

My wife read this book before me—I was tied up editing and it had to wait its turn—so I knew she’d given it five stars on Goodreads (as I write this it’s sitting on 4.67) although she’d not got round to writing an actual review. I mention this because all my regular readers will know that my wife is not known for her expansive praise. About 100 pages into the book—and struggling to get into it—I asked her, “Why did you give it five stars?” She knows Kay—Kay was a regular contributor to Carrie’s literary journals—but even so she’s like me: if you get a five-star review from me you deserve each and every one of those stars. I forget her exact reasons—we talked about it for a while—but I do remember clearly her summation: “I’d have given it six stars if I could.”

My wife likes stories. She’s been reading a lot of late and the books she finds herself drawn to are those with strong storylines. She wants a book she can’t put down. Me, I don’t much care about stories. I’m into imaginative use of language. If there’s a tale to be told too then great but I’m particularly drawn to books that can tick the “character is plot” box. And this is the problem with every book ever written: you can’t please all of the people all of the time. You can do nothing about reader expectation.

So you’re saying you hated it, Jim? No. No, I didn’t. There’s hardly a character in the book that you’d describe as flat. Certainly many have… what shall I go with?... gaps in their CVs but that’s only to be expected as pretty much everyone is holding back a part of themselves. Apart from Claire. We get unfettered access to her although it is via an omniscient narrator. My problem was relating to Claire and Carrie was quick to point this out: “She’s not you.” That’s true but Holden Caulfield and Ivan Denisovich weren’t me either. But I could imagine being them. I couldn’t for the life of me imagine being Claire or wanting to be. I have nothing against wolves but I’m also not passionate about wolves. Stick a charity collection bucket under my nose and I’ll dig my hand in my pocket but that’s me.

Who, then, is Claire? Well, there’s a lot of Kay in her but if you don’t know Kay that’s not much help. Think of a younger Sigourney Weaver—circa Aliens—and you’re getting there.

Like most writers Kay writes a blog although like most writers it gets less attention these days than it once did. In it, however, she does have a fair bit to say about writing and so I thought I’d ask her a few questions about Gatekeeper based on what she’s written in her blog:

1. In a blog back in 2006 you wrote: “I encourage my students to write a sentence that states the intention of a story, novel, poem or flash and to keep it at the top of their work as a reminder of their intentions.” What would that sentence be for Gatekeeper?

The sentence for Gatekeeper would be ‘You can’t change the world without changing yourself’

2. In another blog you wrote: “Fiction is about telling a good story—if that happens to illuminate truth along the way it's a bonus, but it's not the purpose of the art.” What’s the story here?

Fiction is an art, and like all arts it is, or should be, interpretive. I see an awful lot of the ‘write what you know’ and ‘do you have the right to tell this story’ kind of narrative being thrown at, and by, creative writing students, particularly around MFA modules. Some of the world’s finest novels are failures – Moby-Dick for example has an appalling structure, Infinite Jest is not so much a cliffhanger ending as fall off a cliff ending etc. Verisimilitude is as best a requirement of journalism, a consideration for creative non-fiction and (in my view) nothing at all to do with fiction. I don’t want to know if an emotion or experience is accurately depicted, I want to feel as if I’m having that emotion or experience via the writer’s skill. Which is not to decry privilege and ownership. I recently reviewed a novel by Joyce Carol Oates where I think the issue of ownership (right to tell this story) became a hurdle for me as a reader. Privilege often encourages white writers to step into ‘the other’ which is okay imaginatively but not if it blocks writers categorised as ‘other’ from achieving publication with their own lived experiences. The balance between respect for other cultures, lives, ideologies and an artist’s natural desire to experiment can be difficult. It is a balance we best master by attempting it, not by pretending it doesn’t exist, nor by ghettoising writers into what they can write about, nor, in fact by self-censoring. But we must be prepared to take criticism if we don’t pull off that balancing act with real skill.

3. In yet another blog you wrote: “Before I write about a person or place, I walk through their life; feeling, seeing, smelling, tasting, touching every aspect of their reality.” How did you do this with Claire?

I met several wolves, in zoos, in privately owned parks, in the care of people with dangerous animal licences and in the (dubious) care of people who had no licence and no interest in getting one.

4. “There are things I wouldn't do, but sometimes the only way to get inside an experience is to try what it feels like to be, not to observe.” Did you do anything “interesting” whilst researching Gatekeeper?

The answer for 4 is the same as 3. Some of the wolf handlers I met were putting their careers on the line to talk about what happened to cubs in a captive pack. At least one person I met was keeping a wolf illegally and his lifestyle was frightening. A couple of times I wondered what would happen if he decided he didn’t like me, but I was lucky enough to get on his right side and stay there!

5. One reviewer (the poet and novelist Bunny Goodjohn) had this to say about Claire: “Claire Benson is not a pack animal. A loner and active member of an animal rights group, she works undercover to liberate animals from South Coast laboratory facilities, but even in that close-knit group, she is the outsider. No one gets close. And she prefers it this way.” Wolves on the other hand are pack animals; in fact you talk about solitary wolves going insane. Why would a loner be a prime candidate to look after a pack?

It’s not so much that Claire is a good candidate but that the extreme edge of animal rights activism creates an environment in which isolation is the norm. I wanted to look at what makes a person head ‘out there’ – I’ve known a few, professionally and most people know of others, Timothy Treadwell, for example. Such behaviour is quite alien to most of us but inside those groups it is seen as admirable and to be supported. In exploring what sends people into that behaviour I also wanted to look at what might bring them back.

6. The book was shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize and yet you ended up self-publishing it. I’m puzzled especially since you’ve had other books traditionally published. Why did you choose this route?

I was invited to submit Gatekeeper to the Amazon White Glove programme via my agent. We gave it a lot of thought and decided to go ahead for two reasons:

  1. I had nothing to lose. Gatekeeper had done the rounds and not been picked up for publication. Many people liked it but they expressed similar concerns – Claire was too violent and not appealing enough to succeed as a female protagonist. As I’m much keener on interesting characters than appealing ones, I didn’t feel much compulsion to change the novel to satisfy that kind of concern but that left me with ‘self' publication or no publication.
  2. my husband was in the middle of cancer treatment and it gave me something to focus on other than his health or lack of it.

7. What are you working on right now?

I’m working on some short stories and revising a novel about the 1920s that features rivers and pornography as key themes.

Rivers and porn, eh? Well, sex always sells at least that used to be the case. But, as well know, the public are a funny lot.

Bottom line then. Is Gatekeeper a good book? Yes, it is. No doubt about it. Like all books it will appeal to a certain demographic but that’s not a criticism; that’s just the way it is. Don’t let the fact various publishers turned the book down put you off. It’s a matter of taste, yes, but these companies exist to make money and the less they have to risk the better. We all know the stories of now famous books that were turned down time and time again. Next month I’ll be posting a review of a detective novel that got accepted by a publisher—they’d a cover designed and an entry on their website and everything—who then at the last minute decided not to go ahead leaving the author to scramble around looking for a new publisher which, amazingly, he found.


Kay Sexton proves that there’s hope for all of us. She left school with no discernible qualifications and has had a plethora of jobs ranging from glamour model, mortician’s assistant, dental receptionist, chambermaid and nudist camp agony aunt (there has to be a book in there somewhere). Eventually she had to enter the real world and spent more than a decade as Chief Executive for charitable and environmental organisations worldwide. She has also been a house writer for several environmental/social responsibility non-profits.

Her publication credits range from H&E International to France Today to the World Water Forum Annual Report. Kay’s fiction has been chosen for over forty anthologies and been broadcast on Radio 4. In addition to the Dundee International Book Prize Kay was also shortlisted for the Willesden Herald short story prize in 2008, a finalist for the Bridport Prize in 2009 and was long-listed for the Sunday Times EFG Short Story prize in 2010. You can follow her misadventures in literature on her blog which she does update from time to time.

Wednesday 10 February 2016



I don't know what William saw in us.
It's true, he used to undress us with his eyes
but they were so gentle
you couldn't be angry with him.

He had his name for all the girls.
He used to call me Looker –
because I looked back, he said.

No one's ever seen me naked
the way he saw me clothed.
Not even in a mirror.

29 June 1988

It’s been six months since my last poem. Funny, if you’d asked me about the past I’d’ve sworn I was writing poems constantly, well, one a month anyway and maybe it averages out to that but clearly I wasn’t in any rush to get my ideas finalised. On Boxing Day the Drowning Man returned. Now it’s Sweet William’s turn. This is his second. appearance The first was in 1981, ‘Common Denominator’ (#534). A long break. And then this, ostensibly out of the blue.

Looker is a prostitute as was Stiletto in ‘Common Denominator’ and Hot Stuff in the next poem in the sequence. What exactly his relationship is I never found words for. He is drawn to them. He sits on his wall and watches them but he’s different to the men who pay them, there’s an innocence to him.

Sunday 7 February 2016


The Return of the Drowning Man

I thought he'd gone
but I was wrong.

Weighed down by feelings
he'd sunken deeper inside me.

(Only the darkest passions
live this far down.)

And I could feel
the weight of the ocean over him.

26 December 1987

I have no idea what prompted this poem but the date might be significant, Boxing Day, the day after Christmas and always a bit of an anti-climax. An article in The Irish Times at the end of last year opened with the following statistics:

ONE-in-six people believe Christmas is the loneliest time of the year, according to a survey.

A quarter of people surveyed by the Samaritans said "everything feels worse" over the festive season.

The charity is expecting an upsurge in the number of calls it receives over the holiday period.

The survey also revealed that one in 15 often spent Christmas [alone] while one in 25 said they were with family and friends but actually were alone.

This is nothing new. For years we’ve been aware of the problem.

On the whole this poem feels like it’s missing something and I think this is because by now I was starting to think of The Drowning Man Poems as a set and even though I didn’t have a plan for the sequence I did realise this was just the next logical statement. Maybe when I get to the end I’ll repost the whole group and you can see what you think.

Wednesday 3 February 2016


Julia Please

I told her that I loved her
to fill the gaps between us.
But the gaps were too big
and my words were too small.

So with nothing more to cling to
she held herself and shivered,
then with neither word not gesture
she turned and walked away.

17 December 1987

Between leaving school in 1975 and 1999 I wrote only two short stories. Lots of poems—I was a poet after all—but prose didn’t have much of a pull on me. I don’t have exact dates for the stories but they were both written in the late seventies. The first was a most odd one—a priest has a conversation with a terrorist who, if I remember correctly, had planted a bomb in his church—the second, after much revision, became ‘Waiting’ in which an unfaithful husband comes home to find his wife has discovered the scarf he’d bought for his lover. In the story the following line appears:

Able to stand it no longer he spoke first, small words that couldn’t possibly bridge the gap between them.

The poem is a reduction of the short story, a distillation. I’m not sure it works but it was an interesting thing to attempt. I have no idea why I chose the name Julia by the way. I’ve never known a Julia—a couple of Julies—but something clearly appealed at the time.

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