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

Sunday 29 May 2016


The Drowned Man

He is undead.
He comes from within
and his name is Hunger.

I bring him women
to help feed him
because their feelings are the strongest.

They give him guilt
and fear
and pain –
now there's a feeling
to sink your teeth into.

25 June 1989
This is the last of The Drowning Man Poems. The panic is over. The drowning is over. The transformation is complete. This is as confessional as I get. I look in the mirror and see myself for what I’ve become: an emotional vampire. B. often hurt. I got to act as comforter and confidante. I got to feed off her. Call it inspiration if you like. I think that’s too pretty a word.

I’d noticed this detachment before, the way a side of me (the writer within) would step to the side and observe events dispassionately, taking notes; everyone’s fodder. If someone died he’d get excited. He’d get to watch all the lost and grief-stricken friends and relatives for something he could turn into poetry as if only poetry mattered.

The best I can compare it to would be the delight a resident might feel on learning that someone had come into the ER with some ghastly condition or injury because they get to a) witness it first hand and maybe b) wangle a way on the team that gets to treat it. I imagine journalists must feel much the same when they learn of some natural or human disaster.

Wednesday 25 May 2016


Titanic Days

Who can raise great men when they fall
or dare stand to catch them as they do?

25 June 1989
RMS Titanic was a British passenger liner that sank in the North Atlantic Ocean in the early morning of 15 April 1912, after colliding with an iceberg during her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York City. It’s probably the first thing you thought of when you read this poem unless, like me, your favourite artist is the Belgian René Magritte. In 1928 he produced a painting which became known as Les Jours Gigantesques. In English this is generally translated as Titanic Days. Of course The Gigantic Days would work too and that’s exactly what Google Translate suggested but type in ‘gigantesques’ on its own and the following alternative are offered: immense, oversized, outsized, monstrous and mountainous. When you see the painting you might agree that Monstrous Days might be a better title but that’s the problem with translation.
The original title Magritte gave to the painting was La peur de l'amour (Fear of love) but, as he wrote to his friend and Belgian Surrealist colleague Paul Nougé, he was dissatisfied with this and asked for Nougé's assistance in finding a better one. Nougé suggested L'aube désarmé (Dawn disarmed) which Magritte has inscribed on the back of the work only to later delete it in favour of the definitive title which was thought up by another of his Belgian Surrealist friends and colleagues, Louis Scutenaire.

This is a poem about my dad. It was written at a time when my father, whom as a child I had idolised, was tottering. His fall was imminent or maybe by this time he’d already fallen; I forget. No, the fall took place years before and only its revelation was to come only the world never got to find out; his reputation was allowed to remain intact because what good would come from telling the truth? At least that was the prevalent reasoning at the time and I went along with it.

In Titanic Days only part of the picture is revealed. The image of the man could almost be a tattoo on the woman’s body. Like a tattoo a true picture of my father formed in my head over many years and I know for a fact it’s unfinished but I’ve seen enough. Enough’s enough.

Sunday 22 May 2016



Don't say that you love me.
From you it's just a made-up phrase,
words waiting to be defined
and not ready for use:
you've not earned the right to use them.

You tried to force the key and
it's broken the lock
and where are we going to get a locksmith
at this time of night?

25 June 1989
The danger with reading poems chronologically as we have been doing for the last eighteen months is that it’s tempting to read into the poems. Sometimes a line will jump out at me while I’m watching TV and the next thing I know I’ve a poem dangling from it that follows on naturally from that first line but really has nothing to do with what’s going on in my life. I loved F. and I still do. It doesn’t matter that I’ve not seen her in over twenty years and we’ve both remarried. Of course I love Carrie who I’ve been with for nineteen years and you’re not supposed to be able to be in love with more than one person at a time but I’ve always had a problem with that. None of the other loves impose that restriction on you. Hate certainly doesn’t or envy so what’s so special about in-love-ness?

Wednesday 18 May 2016


The "Thank You" Girl

(for M.)

Yes, I love you
but I will not touch you:
that would make it more real
than we can cope with.

Yes, I love you,
I just don't say it too often
in case the words lose their flavour
and I might want to kiss you.

20 May 1989
M. is B.’s mother. I got the idea for this poem when F. was on holiday with E., the same E. that S. (whom B. was in love with) left to marry a Canadian whose initial I can’t remember. All clear?

I liked M. It was she who phoned me when my mum fell ill and she was the first person I phoned when Mum died. I’ve no idea why F. went on holiday with E. but I was left to my own devices and simply couldn’t stay away from B. Any excuse to make even the most fleeting of contacts was fine but on this particular day—it must’ve been a Saturday because I had my daughter with me—B. was not at home and we ended up spending the afternoon with M. She took us to see her mother as I recall and we talked. We’d had conversations before but we’d never talked. I didn’t know her story and suddenly here was a completely different woman before me. This sounds like it ought to be a poem about her daughter but it’s not.

Almost thirty years later I can’t remember anything of what she told me other than she swore me to secrecy. It was like the time I learned that Elizabeth Gray (see poem #554) had been a concert pianist as a young woman. All I’d ever known was a carnaptious old woman. I’d no idea about who she might’ve been fifty or sixty years earlier. Just the fact she’d been born in the 1890s was enough to make my mind boggle as a kid.

Sunday 15 May 2016

The Room

It was a fairly small room. A desk in the middle. A computer, files on a shelf. Pens and other office equipment. Nothing remarkable. But all of it in perfect order.

Neat and tidy.

Against one wall stood a large, shiny filing cabinet with a desk fan on top of it. A dark-green carpet covered the floor. Clean. Free from dust. Everything neatly lined up. It looked slightly studied. Prepared. As if the room were waiting for someone.


If I were to describe my perfect office it would look very much like this. In fact my office at home does or at least did when it was first set up. The carpet’s not green but I would prefer it if it was; green’s my favourite colour in almost all its shades. I don’t have a filing cabinet per se but I have two sets of drawers and two cupboards fixed together, one of which serves as a wardrobe. It was important that I have a space to call my own, which was mine exclusively, a sanctum sanctorum, a den. When my wife was house hunting—it was she that found this flat; I was too busy working—I placed only two conditions on her: 1) no garden (hate gardens) and 2) enough rooms so we could each have our own office and both were, happily, met. Virginia Woolf's believed that, “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction” and if a woman needs her own room it stands to reason that a man should too.

Of course Björn, in Jonas Karlsson’s novella The Room, is not a writer but the principle applies. For most of my working life I’ve been a bureaucrat of one kind of another and that includes two stints working for the government. It’s a job that I discovered suited me down to the ground and one I was good at. I like putting things in order. There is comfort in order. Only once, however, have I had an office of my own, one with a door, and I loved it. In job interviews it’s common to ask the prospective employee if they work better on their own or as part of a group. It’s a trick question and one I’ve never answered truthfully. I work much better on my own, much, much better.

I mention the above just to underline how much I found myself bonding with Björn from the very start and it was with some disappointment that I started to go off him. A lot of you will find him irritating from the jump but he’ll get away with it for a few pages because you’ll assume he’s a tad OCD or autistic and by that I mean he’s a bit at odds with the rest of the world and “normal” people confuse him when they’re not actually irritating him:

Håkan sat on the other side of my desk. We worked opposite one another. At any moment we might happen to look up and meet each other’s gaze. I tried never to look straight ahead whenever I looked up from my work. Håkan carried out his duties with the same lightness of touch as everyone else in the department. He used the phone more or less as he liked, took breaks whenever he felt like it. He would spend ages gazing off into the distance without it apparently having anything to do with work. Now and then he would try to talk to me as well. I would rebuff him gently but firmly. Usually with a simple gesture of the hand. Arm out, palm raised towards him. It worked.

Björn is the newest member of staff in this department—there are twenty-three people in total—and he struggles to fit in. From the above you can see why. He really doesn’t know how to deal with people. He makes a half-hearted effort to get on with Ann whom he recognises as “the social queen of the department” but either he’s picked the wrong time and she’s too busy to chat or she snubs him on general principles but he finds himself standing dumbly beside her looking at a child’s drawing:

She had a framed child’s drawing near her computer. It showed a sun sinking into the sea. But the drawing was wrong, because on the horizon there were landmasses sticking up on both sides of the sun, which of course is impossible. Presumably it had some sort of sentimental value to her, even if it wasn’t particularly pleasant for the rest of us to have to look at.


I stood there for a while, looking at the badly drawn child’s picture of a sunset, and wondered if she was aware of its flagrant inaccuracy. Maybe she was blinded by her emotional involvement? No matter what the circumstances, the child, or grandchild, deserved to be made aware of its mistake so that the error could be avoided next time. If things like that weren’t pointed out, its marks for drawing would certainly be negatively impacted.

Eventually he sidles off.

It’s hard not to feel a little sorry for Björn. It’s tough being the new guy but we’ve all been there. And there’s usually nowhere to hide bar the loo and how long in all seriousness can one spend on the loo and expect people not to wonder what you’re up do in there? Björn is a practical sort though and buries himself in his new job:

I worked out a personal strategic framework. I arrived half an hour early each morning and followed my own timetable for the day: fifty-five minutes of concentrated work, then a five-minute break. Including toilet breaks. I avoided any unnecessary socialising along the way. I requested and took home files documenting previous policy decisions so as to be able to study which phrases recurred, and formed the basic vocabulary, so to speak. I spent evenings and weekends studying various structures and investigating the informal communication networks that existed within the department.

All this so that I could quickly and efficiently catch up and create a small but decisive advantage over my colleagues, who were already familiar with our workplace and the pervading conditions.

Once we’ve ruled out the OCD and the autism you might start to wonder if he’s suffering from a superiority complex. He’s not. As far as he’s concerned he is superior and he has his eyes on his boss’s ergonomic chair from the first time he gets called into his office. So he’s ambitious. I was too. Since my teens I’ve always arrived early for work and taken work home. I never wanted anyone to be able to suggest I’d not earned any promotion that came my way. Somehow I managed to do all this and get on with my colleagues. Mostly. Not always. But I never had my own room. For the bulk of my time in offices I’ve found myself in a bank of four desks and for a short while I was in a group where all four of us were called Jim. That was fun.

But back to Björn. He’s got this new job with “the Authority” although it’s never made very clear what the organisation stands for or even what Björn’s duties are:

Uneventful days. Days without any particular character. Days which at first glance didn’t appear to have led to much. Days that no one pays any attention to. Every day there came more and more documents from the investigators on the sixth and seventh floors, all of them waiting to be turned into framework decisions.


On the fourth floor we worked exclusively with three- and four-figure documents. The framework decisions from one to ten were almost never changed now, and those in double-figures were dealt with by considerably more senior administrators on the floors above. No one in my department had ever worked with a single- or double-digit decision.

Framework decisions are similar to directives in that they require people to achieve particular results without dictating the means of achieving that result.

Bored already? Yeah, it takes a certain kind of individual to work in a place like this and not go off his trolley. Back in the seventies I had one of those little figures on my desk. You know the one: “You don’t have to be crazy to work here but it helps.” It’s a joke. We all get it. Ha Ha! But maybe there’s just a smidgen of truth there. And, on one level, this is what this book is about.

We all live in our own world. My reality is not your reality. Brain research is proving this without a doubt. Each of us experiences the world uniquely. In Björn’s reality there is a room between the toilets and recycling bin. He discovers it on his first day there looking for the toilets.

Oh, I thought. A room.

I opened the door, then shut it. No more than that.

The second time he’s looking for photocopy paper. This time he takes a moment to look around and he likes the feel of the place. So much so that he finds himself thinking about the room more and more. The third time he goes there just to be in the room:

I raised my elbow and rested it on the shiny metal filing cabinet that stood against one wall. I felt a sense of calm in my body that seemed to cleanse my whole system. An intoxicating feeling of relaxation. A bit like a headache pill.

We all get where he’s coming from. Even if we don’t have a physical room to escape to we all do have a quiet place, a place we can be alone with our own thoughts if only on the bus on the way home from work. There’s even one online. I used to know a teacher at school who would go into her cupboard periodically clearly just to get a break from us, little shits that we were. But here's the twist: no one else can see the room apart from Björn. And this is where things get interesting.

The blurb says:

The Room is a short, sharp and fiendish fable in the tradition of Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett and Charlie Kauffman. If you have ever toiled in an office, felt like the world was against you or questioned the nature of reality then this is the novel for you.

The Kafka I get—although, to be fair, the term Kafkaesque is bandied about by marketers far too much—the Kauffman too, but as a guy who’s read, seen and listened to every scrap of fiction Beckett ever wrote I can’t really see the connection. The only bureaucrats that I can think of are in the play Rough for Theatre II and although some of Beckett’s rooms can be very tidy—Eh Joe jumps to mind—it’s not really what you think of when you think of Beckett plus every one of his rooms ends up a place of torments and not salvation. The main office perhaps owes a little to Pinter but even there I’m stretching it. To be honest The Room probably has more in common with Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End, which is a satire of the American workplace, than anything else. The tone also reminded me a little of Naïve. Super.

In Blair Rose’s review she suggests The Room is open to a number of interpretations—a satire of office culture, a psychological drama, a mystery and/or a comment on workplace bullying and the way we respond to mental illness—and they’re all valid—alternatively, Ian Sansom in his review for The Guardian, goes with "File under Comedy, Tragedy, Quirky, Profound, Sad, Slight, Silly, Urban Myth, and Unclassifiable”—and that, to my mind, is what makes this book stand out; if it has anything in common with Beckett that’s it.

This was the first book I read after Satantango and it’s hard to imagine two books as different. Having read several reviews I can tell you one thing: this is a book you’ll be itching to talk about when you’ve finished it. But, of course, I can’t here.

You can read an excerpt from the book here.


Jonas Karlsson was born in Salem in 1971. One of Sweden’s most prominent actors, Karlsson has performed on Sweden’s premier stage and in several acclaimed feature films and television series. He won a Guldbagge Award for Best Actor in 2004 for the film Details. In 2005, Karlsson made his debut as a playwright, earning rave reviews from audience and critics alike. Spurred by the joy of writing for the stage, Karlsson began writing fiction and in 2007 his first collection of short stories came out. The Room, which first appeared in Swedish in his second collection Den perfekte vännen (The Perfect Friend), is the first of his work to be translated into English. The second, The Invoice, was published in January 2016.

Wednesday 11 May 2016


The Magician

I showed her my soft side
and she took it in her arms
and turned it to stone
and broke it over my head.

19 April 1989
This has a lot in common with ‘Quality Goods’ (#625). I’ve always liked concretisation. One of the problems with poetry is that it’s often too fluid; it slips through your fingers. It’s a real puzzle why poetry’s not more popular than it is because our everyday prose is peppered with metaphors and similes and all sorts of clever figures of speech that we never think about twice about like the synecdoche. If someone said there’d been a message from Downing Street we’d never think for a second that a street in central London had acquired sentience and decided to communicate; we’d assume it was an announcement from the Prime Minister or a member of his staff.

It’s tempting to assume this is a poem about F. but I really can’t remember. An obvious reading is that this is me showing her a poem which she doesn’t get but I could be way off the mark.

Sunday 8 May 2016


Painting with Dots

(for B.)

I'm sorry –
I hadn't learned to look
when I first met you.

I thought all great art
was Rembrandt or Picasso.

You are lovely –
but all I saw before was
the outline of a woman.

I never saw the colours
but then I wasn't looking.

6 April 89
Beauty’s a difficult thing to define, one of the harder ones in fact. I know some people go after the same type over and over again but when I look at the women I’ve been drawn to over the years literally the only thing they’re had in common is their gender. One of my favourite films of all time is The Man Who Loved Women by François Truffaut (don’t get me started on the remake by Blake Edwards) because it made so much sense to me. On the surface it’s about a man who wants to make love to women but that’s not it; it’s not about sex; it’s about being able to see what’s loveable about people; it’s about learning to look. None of the women I’ve found myself attracted to have been stunners. Even the film stars I enjoy watching are not what you’d call conventional beauties. Personality plays a huge part in who I find myself attracted to. Give me Judy Dench over Keira Knightley (who I’m sure is very nice once you get to know her) any day of the week.

Wednesday 4 May 2016




The poem came back today.

"Why won't you write me?"
it asked.

"What use am I in your head?

"They won't start to like you
even if you hide me, besides,
I'll glare out of your eyes
at them.

"And what'll you do then?

"I will be born.
One way or another.
And you will love me."


Finally I gave in
and wrote the poem too soon
and it lay on the page
twisted and malformed.

"Dad – help me," it cried
and I went to tear it up.

But I couldn't do it.


"What sex am I?"
the poem asked.

"You are a boy."

"Then there is life in me.
I shall go and sleep
with a virgin mind."


My poem came home today.

"Dad – nobody understands me.
I don't think they even like me."

"Don't worry, son –
they don't understand me either."

30 March 1989

Most people like me once they get to know me. I remember a guy called Stephen or Steven (hell, it might’ve been Bert for all I can remember) approaching F. to see if she could introduce us which I’d no problems with but when I asked her why he hadn’t just come up to me she said, “You intimidate him.” He was not the first. But once we sat down and talked we got on like a house on fire and he couldn’t imagine why he’d hesitated. In 1989 I had a lot of friends and with a few I’d take a risk and bring out the poems. The response was almost always the same. I’d give them a wee collection which they’d take away and the subject would never raise its ugly head again. Which genuinely puzzled me because the last thing I’d call my poetry would be intimidating but what can you do? Online you’d think it’d be different but not as much as you’d expect and that has disappointed me but I suspect the problem there’s me. What do you expect people to say when they’ve read a poem? The poem, if it’s any good, should’ve said it all and left little room for anything else. I suppose the best I could hope for with the above piece is, “I know where you’re coming from” but it would be nice if they could then add, “In fact let me tell you about the time…”

Sunday 1 May 2016



(for B.)

It's always harder
when it's somebody else's cross
you're carrying.

I told you you were beautiful
and I did not lie
but I questioned my motives.

I need to show I love you
because I fear he doesn't
but what can I give you:

There is no light under my door:
I am at home,
but not to callers.

What will you take
to take the pain away?

25 March 1989
In geometric terms, the eternal triangle can be represented as comprising three points—a jealous male (A) in a relationship with an unfaithful partner (B) who has a lover (C). To use a mnemonic device, A feels abandoned, B is between two mates, and C is a catalyst for crisis in union A–B. Leigh (1985) preferred a nomenclature describing the principles as “victim,” “cheater,” and “cheatee,” whereas Pittman (1987) utilised “cuckold,” “infidel,” and “affairee,” but such terminology strikes us as judgemental to all parties. – Alvin Pam, Judith Pearson, ‘The Geometry of the Eternal Triangle’, Splitting Up: Enmeshment and Estrangement in the Process of Divorce, pp.148.149
F. observed once than every time B. visited we had sex that night. She wondered if it was more than a coincidence. I denied it—I really had no strong desires that way—but, at the same time, I couldn’t deny that B. made me feel… I’m going to use the word ‘good’ here because she did but she also made me feel bad as well; in my experience most things in this life that make us feel good come with a rider. I never thought about having sex with B. when I was in bed with F. and especially not whilst having sex with F. but I did think about B. constantly; that I can’t deny.

I’ve had a work wife before. I’ve even had a work daughter. I understand these relationships. But how exactly do you describe the relationship between an artist and his muse?
A secretive model for realist painter Andrew Wyeth, the Prussian-born Helga Testorf became the captivating subject of her Maine neighbour’s studies for 15 years without the knowledge of her husband or his wife. Obsessively portrayed in 247 brooding portraits where she is with and without clothing, Helga became an American icon when one of Wyeth portraits of his muse made the cover of Time magazine on August 18, 1986. – The 10 Most Influential Artist’s Muses, Flavorwire
Did they ever have sex? It’s not beyond the realms of possibility but his wife thought not: “If there is this sexual thing,” she told The New York Times, “if he went over the bounds it wouldn't be a painting. He would lose the magic. It would go.” Sex isn’t everything. You get a rush with sex—endorphins are released by your brain—but you can get a rush when you exercise—endorphins first, adrenalin if you push yourself—but there are other chemicals our bodies use to reward us like serotonin and especially dopamine. Whenever we do something that our brain/body thinks is ‘positive’ (winning the lottery, eating a cake, finishing a poem) we’ll experience a rush of dopamine which serves to reinforce that behaviour/stimulus. Do you see where I’m coming from?

Dorothy Parker famously said, “I hate writing, I love having written.” Why? Because you don’t get your reward until the job’s done. For a novelist that can mean long waits but when you write poems with a couple of dozen words in them then getting a semi-regular fix isn’t so hard which is why over the next few months I rattled off so many poems that weren’t that great. But we’re not there yet.

The “he” in the poem (and the reason the title is in the plural) is a chap called S. by the way. B. was in love with him so even if I had been in love with or lusting after her she wouldn’t have seen it. In the end he chose E. and then dumped her for the most androgynous-looking woman I’ve ever met and moved to Canada but that’s another story.

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