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

Wednesday 29 June 2016



The flowers must have died by now
but you have not called.

I counted so slowly
but you never came.

Now they will be gone
and you can forget in peace.

21 July 1989
It wasn’t a wreath, it was bouquet. At least I think it was a bouquet but the more I think about it the more I can’t figure out what reason I could’ve concocted for sending B. flowers. If I had I also can’t imagine her not picking up her phone immediately to either thank me or to ask why. Maybe it was something else and I’m using flowers as a metaphor. Or maybe this one has nothing to do with B. even though it reminds me of her. Now it’s its own thing.

Sunday 26 June 2016


Sign of the Times

They cast their shadows in bronze
at the end of their days:
tall and thin like Giacometti's men.

We stood erect but the sun was against us.

21 July 1989

In 1961, Beckett turned to the Italian sculptor Alberto Giacometti, his Left Bank drinking companion, for help in the run-up to a forthcoming Paris revival of “Godot.” Designing the tree confounded them both. “We spent the whole night in the studio with that plaster tree,” Giacometti said, “trying to make it sparser, smaller, the branches thinner. It never looked any good, and neither he nor I liked it. And we kept saying to each other, Perhaps like this ….” - Siobhan Bohnacker, 'Is that O.K., Mr Beckett?', The New Yorker, 4 December 2013.
The poet and artist met in 1937 and became renowned drinking partners in Montparnasse. Beckett said of the artist: “things were insolvable [for him], but that kept him going.” According to those who knew the pair their meetings consisted of mostly “pleasant silences”. - The Telegraph, 11 January 2016

I've never been the biggest fan of Giacometti's work. Too ... knobbly. Give me a Henry Moore any day of the week. But as a visual metaphor it's perfect here. I, in my prime, the sun beating down on me, casting no shadow or not much of one imagine the greats standing before a setting sun. It's a simple image but I like it.

Wednesday 22 June 2016


Poem to be Read in the Dark

(in memoriam S.B.B.)

That is how it is.

but for the clouds
and my breath.

for the footfalls.

for the angels of darkness.

Bright at last –
at the end.

23 July 1989

This poem was assembled from bits and bobs from Beckett’s writings: ‘Enough’, a short story; How It Is, a novella; Stirrings Still, his final prose piece; ...but the clouds..., a television play; Breath, dramaticule; Waiting for Godot, play; Footfalls, play; “Bright at last”, the first three words of Fizzle 7, ‘Still’; The End, novella.

I’m not sure about the angels of darkness though. He mentions “grey angels” in Dream of Fair to Middling Women but the only reference to “angels of darkness” I can find is the title of a book by Colin Duckworth, Angels of Darkness: Dramatic Effect in Samuel Beckett with special reference to Eugène Ionesco but Google Books won’t let me look inside to see where he’s quoting from and Google itself hasn’t been much help either.

Sunday 19 June 2016


Poem for a Rainy Day

I dropped another pill in the bottle today –
the brown one with the owl on it.

All in all that's forty now
(one for every day and night).

I found it in a junk shop
and I knew then what it was for.

When it is time
I hope I will have the strength to lift it.

23 July 1989
In Egyptian, Celtic, and Hindu cultures the symbolic meaning of the owl revolved around its role as guardian of the underworlds and a protector of the dead. In Athens, the silver four-drachma coin bore the image of the owl on the obverse side as a symbol of the city's patron, Athena Pronaia, the Greek goddess of wisdom. To the Gnostics the owl is associated with Lilith, the first wife of Adam, who apparently refused his advances. In Japan, owl pictures and figurines have been placed in homes to ward off famine or epidemics. You get where I’m coming from. And yet here’s something not in the poem: F. collected owls. She never had a bottle with an owl on it but if I’d seen one I’d certainly have bought her it. Even now I see cute owls and regret I she’s no longer a part of my life.

The number forty also has symbolic significance if you want it too. Heck, anything can become a symbol if you so choose. There’re loads of suggestions for what the colour brown might suggest. I don’t know why I picked it. Probably simply because pill bottles tend to be brown or amber to minimise the risk of photodegradation.

I’ve never seriously contemplated suicide and I’ve certainly never stocked up on pills for a rainy day but as I’ve said before I did get some comfort from the knowledge that not being there was always an option.

Wednesday 15 June 2016

The Room

[T]here were just the forceps and his mother, the two primordial motifs in his life. – Andreas Maier, The Room


“Idiot” is an odd word. Unlike terms like “spastic” or “retard” it hasn’t really fallen out of use. It’s still common enough to say to someone, “Don’t be an idiot,” or to say of oneself, “Oh, I’m such an idiot,” and there’re no gasps. An idiot used to be a person who had an IQ between 0 and 25. It would’ve been better to be classified as an imbecile (IQs between 26 and 50) or a moron (IQs between 51 and 70). These terms were popular in psychology until around the 1960s. Now it would be deemed politically incorrect for any doctor to refer to his or her patient as an idiot even if, technically, that were correct. In Andreas Maier’s novel/memoir The Room the narrator calls his Uncle J an idiot without any malice attached. Technically he’s not although he is mildly-to-borderline retarded (can we still say ‘retarded’?); he can drive a car and hold down a job albeit a menial one. The novel, written some years after his uncle’s death (and in what used to be his uncle’s room), tracks a single, imaginary day in J’s life sometime in 1969, significantly the same year a man first walked on the moon. The book only uses J as its starting point however; it has broader concerns.

Towards the end of the book—and therefore the end of J’s day—he’s given a list of chores to do and one of these is to drive to the family firm to collect his sister. Into this account the author slips in a simple and yet noteworthy sentence:

This building, which had not dated in four hundred years, would age quickly in the years following the moon landing, and then soon fall apart.

If the future began any time it was around about then. That was when things started to change and it’s debatable whether all subsequent changes have been for the better. A few pages on, after picking up his sister from outside the above building which then housed the office of the Karl Boll stonemasonry (his sister has now taken over the day to day running of following the death of their father in 1967), J brings his car, the Nazi-brown VW Type 3 Variant, to a halt at a set of lights and we get a brief glimpse of what that future might be like:

[T]he cars are queuing thirty metres from the crossing, something which is unheard of, there are eight or ten cars ahead of him! He’s never experienced this before. […] They sit there in the traffic and can’t go any further, but why? This is completely new to them. To my mother, being held up at the church for even thirty seconds while trying to reach Kaiserstrasse by car is unheard of.

It was a very different world in 1969. You could call people idiots and no one batted an eye and yet if you saw more than two cars on a street at the same time it was something to talk about with the family over dinner that evening.

I remember that time well and with a similar fondness; I think only one other family in our street had a vehicle back then apart from us, the O’Neills owned a mobile grocery van, although we weren’t the first to get a phone installed. I would’ve been ten then but I only vaguely remember watching the moon landing. J’s nephew was two so although he occasionally writes himself into the narrative he really doesn’t have much to do and no insights; his real-life memories of Uncle J and the titular room come later and he’s worked back from there:

My uncle, the only human being without guilt I have ever known. On his way into the real world, but with one foot still in paradise.

It wasn’t obvious straight away that my uncle had a disability (he had been delivered by forceps). He could speak without any difficulty, for example. Admittedly only in simple sentences, but then that could be said of everyone in the Wetterau.

The Wetterau is a fertile undulating tract, watered by the Wetter, a tributary of the Nidda River, in the western German state of Hesse. I suspect for Germans it means something else, that it’s a name with certain connotations, like Essex in England. It is, as you might expect, one of the most productive agrarian regions in Germany; half of it’s used by agriculture, a third of it consists of forests and for a long time small family concerns like butchers, bakers, locksmiths and other rural businesses prospered but, like everywhere at the end of the sixties, large conglomerates are about to eat up the place:

Only when his sister gets married does the future begin in earnest (in just five years’ time [1974] the [family] business won’t even exist anymore, and today there are rows of white houses with red-tiled roofs there, like in the model railway catalogue, and now almost all of the Wetterau looks like that).


Wetterau residents now lay to rest beneath imported gravestones. It started with stones from the Far East. Our cemetery was globalised before the term globalised even existed, and we became Friedberg’s first victims of globalisation, just twenty-eight years after the last war.

What happened in Germany happened here and in many other countries. Walking down a high street in Newcastle nowadays is no different to walking down a high street in Glasgow or Leeds. It’s all chains.

This is not a new story but what makes Maier’s telling of it compelling is his choice of hero, Uncle J. One can only imagine what J’s life would be like had he been born in Germany now. I doubt he would have his driver’s licence for starters; it wouldn’t be safe for him. He would cope though. Trains haven’t changed that much since the sixties besides it was only after the death of his father that he got the car; before that he walked everywhere. One thing is true: the modern world would have thrilled him. In 1969 J is almost forty and he lives into his late sixties but for all intents and purposes he’s just a little boy fascinated by machines and uniforms and with a special respect for people he sees as holding positions of authority; J knows his place:

[H]e was full of respect for any form of power, in awe of it; power was natural authority, and to subordinate oneself to it was as a matter of order, discipline, a way of fulfilling one’s role, as a lower-ranking member of society, as it were, a position he always assumed.

As a child this gets him in no end of bother because he’s drawn to bullies who know no better than to bully him. The forceps mercifully provided a way of coping, two actually: J has the rare condition congenital analgesia—he can’t feel pain—plus he forgets any slight, injury or disagreement almost instantaneously which is why after a beating he would be found the very next day “trotting along behind them like a dog.” The only solution was to remove him from the local school and cart him off to the Rhineland in an attempt to save him from his peers.

As a grown man J gets taken advantage of in other ways:

My uncle was a great frequenter of inns, and whenever he went someone or other would suss him out. My uncle, mentally impaired at birth, was constantly boasting about his existence, or rather about his Boll existence, his existence as a Boll. He sat there in the inns and told stories about his father, the big company boss with a chauffeur and a dog.


From time to time, he ran into Gerd Bornträger at the station in the mornings. I imagine that they met in the Köpi, a Königspilsner inn in Bad Nauheim. Bornträger was, of course, completely drunk when he made my uncle’s acquaintance and immediately managed to get a few beers out of him, followed by a few schnapps to wash them down. That’s how my uncle always met people.

It’s hard, however, to label J as a tragic figure. So much in life delights and distracts him be it old Luis Trenker mountain rescue films, Wehrmacht tanks (any tanks really) or wandering “along … forest path in sturdy shoes with a forest-appropriate jacket, almost like the hunters.” He’s an innocent but because he’s technically an adult he does sometimes stumble into adult situations and his nephew has fun imagining how, for example, J would’ve coped if he ended up after work in the Kaiserstrasse district, the red light area, spoiled for choice and confused by the choice:

[T]his time he hesitates in the street, until someone smacks him on the shoulder from behind, a work colleague with the remains of an onion sandwich in his hand, a man who’s on his way to somewhere that is home, the sandwich in one hand and a cigarette in the other, the sandwich from his wife at home, the cigarette from Marlboro. A brief exchange of words, a glance back at the clock, and the switch is flipped once more. Uncle J’s nature jumps back to the other side, and J the Wetterau man paces swiftly back to the train station. Everything is good and in order, the world is still in one piece. And so it should be, for nothing has happened.

Nothing much happens in this imaginary day but then it seems nothing much happens to J most days:

He was always waiting. His life consisted of waiting. If no one was around it was like he was switched off, except in the cellar, except in the forest, except in the inn (although there was always someone there) and except in paradise (there was someone there, too, or at least in theory).

It would’ve been unrealistic to concoct any more of an adventure than J has. He spends the day looking forward to going to Forsthaus Winterstein to talk to the hunters and although things look as if they might conspire against him that’s where the book ends. A perfect day.

This, I can tell you here and now, will not be a book for everyone. People over a certain age will be able to relate to it even if the culture is one or two steps removed from what we remember our sixties being like. Nostalgia only works if you were there and this is definitely a walk down memory lane for Maier and a way for him to come to terms with conflicting memories of his uncle. If Clive James is right when he writes in the preface to Unreliable Memoirs, his autobiography disguised as a novel and the only book similar to The Room that I can think of, “that books like this are written to satisfy a confessional urge; that the mainspring of a confessional urge is guilt [and] that somewhere underneath the guilt there must be a crime” then the scene where the author remembers him and his older brother tormenting J as he watched TV probably meets that criterion but there’s also guilt by association, he clearly feels guilty for—or at least embarrassed about—the way his grandfather, J’s father, mistreated him not even allowing him to travel in the car with him to work. To his credit he humanises J without idolising or caricaturing him. We never forget that he’s… cognitively disabled—rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?—but it ceases to be all he is quite early in the book. It doesn’t matter either that we don’t know his family. Families are families. History is history. Life is life.

When we look at our own past we see ourselves and although we don’t learn as much about J as we might like—there’s a lot less of “the room” in the book than you’d imagine for a book called The Room and we probably learn more about the Wetterau than we’ll ever need to know. We also learn quite a bit about the author. It’s spread throughout the book admittedly but he’s there along with the pop philosophy and the mostly useless trivia: Did you know Elvis Presley lived in Bad Nauheim for a year and a half? Why’s it called Bad Nauheim? Because it has a spa. The ‘bad’ can be either a prefix or a suffix (Marienbad, Wiesbaden). It will be interesting to see where Maier goes from here. The Room marks the beginning of a proposed series of eleven memoir/novels exploring small town life in post war Germany. The next three instalments, The House, The Street and The Town have been completed. Goodness knows how long we’ll have to wait for translations though. For me where this book works—and I’m really not sure how he can do this in the volumes to come—is with the semi-fictionalised malodourous uncle (did I not mention he smells?) at its centre. Everyone else is rendered in two dimensions. Without him the book would only be of interest to locals.

Onkel J. was also the focus of a column which Maier wrote for Volltext and these were later reprinted in book form.

You can read an excerpt from the book here.


Andreas Maier was born in Bad Nauheim in 1967. He studied classical philology, German and philosophy in Frankfurt and is a doctor of philosophy in the field of German Studies. In addition to winning the Ernst Willner Prize at the Ingeborg Bachmann Literary Competition in 2000, he received the Jürgen Ponto Foundation’s Literary Support Prize and the Aspekte Literary Prize for his first novel Wäldchestag. The Room was Long-listed for the German Book Prize 2010. Maier currently lives in Hamburg.

Sunday 12 June 2016


An Empty Frame

I remembered
at least I thought I did

It felt like memory

It had that familiar pain
and there was a comfort in it

There have been emptinesses
in the past as in the present

Perhaps I remembered one of them

I'm not sure

Perhaps that's best

3 July 1989
I watched the documentary Return to Larkinland a couple of days ago. I’d seen it before but I’d saved a copy and I felt like reminding myself why I appreciate his writing so much. Writers are like doctors—we tend to specialise. Larkin worked on a fairly small canvas and so you know what you’re going to get when you read something by him even if you can feel Hardy or Yates or Auden lurking somewhere in the background. In my case Larkin is the lurker even though few of my poems could be classed as Larkinesque. He’s not alone. Beckett’s there too and William Carlos Williams to a lesser extent.

The brain has always fascinated me, the processes of cogitation, imagination and recollection, and how they bleed together. It seems that neuroscientists have pinpointed where imagination hides in the brain and found it to be functionally distinct from related processes such as memory; for the longest time they were thought to be aspects of the same cognitive task. I’m sure they can work separately just as a left hand and a right hand can function independently but you need two hands to juggle and maybe each hand is working independently but the illusion of communion is compelling. Memories are full of holes and so our imagination fills in the blanks and we don’t even notice it’s happening until we take a moment to watch carefully what’s happening. Then the truth is revealed.

Do you ever remember being sad? We’ve all been sad and many times but when you think about sadness what’re you remembering? Not a specific moment of sadness. Even when you remember an event that saddened you my guess is that you aren’t remembering the specific feeling of sadness you experienced at the time. Your brain pastes in a generic feeling of sadness and you can’t tell the difference. I used to fret more about the inauthenticity of my memories but not so much these days; I’m used to the fuzziness.

Larkin’s poetry is infused with a sadness but whose sadness is it? His? Does it really matter? I’ve no idea what the thirty-year-old me was thinking when he wrote this poem. It’s become an empty frame now even to me. And how much does one emptiness vary from another? The one I’m feeling now will do just fine.

Wednesday 8 June 2016


Facing Walls

I do not like myself
very much

I do not have the guts

I cannot do it

I am a weak man
and no
it takes no strength to say that

It takes strength to let go
and it takes time to grow strong

My time is not yet

3 July 1989

It’s a miserable wee poem this. In fact looking ahead there’re a few miserable wee poems coming up so I apologise in advance. As I’ve said before I’ve never seriously considered suicide but I have wallowed in not-being-here fantasies. In many respects I didn’t have a lot to complain about in 1989 but I could’ve been happier with my lot. Most of my life I’ve been trying to attain something. I like having goals. And being with F. was something I wanted. But after you’re attained then you have to maintain. And that’s not something I’d much experience with. I’d just turned thirty but few things in my life had lasted more than a few years before I’d moved on. Now I’d arrived if you like and this was it. This was going to be it for years and years and then we die.

Turning ones face to the wall is regarded as a last gesture of acquiescence indicating that one’s about to give up the ghost. It comes from Isaiah 38:2. Isaiah’s sent to King Hezekiah to tell him to put his affairs in order because he’s going to die at which point the king turns his face to the wall but not to give up. Instead he prays to God to remember all the good he’s done in his life at which point Isaiah gets sent back with a message telling him he’s been granted fifteen more years. It’s an odd expression, facing the wall, because no matter where you are in a room you’re facing one wall or another. The title of the poem refers to multiple walls so I’m thinking more about ‘walled in’ than ‘turning to face the wall’—i.e. no escape.

The first thing I noticed about this poem was no punctuation. Odd. Not like me. Wonder why I did that.

Sunday 5 June 2016



Solitude used to be so special
till you came between us.

I think of you when I'm with her
and she knows that I do.

And it's not the same any more.
Nor can it ever be.

28 May 1989
My wife’s in America again. So it’s just me and the bird for the next three weeks. And he’s not much company. The first week’s fine. I don’t mind the first week so much. The second sometimes drags but by the third I’ve usually had enough. I’ve always taken it for granted that most writers prefer their own company—this has certainly been true of me my whole life—and although I’m sure I’d cope better than most if I was left alone I’m not sure I’d cope as well as I would’ve done when I was a kid. People really annoyed me when I was a kid and all I wanted to be was on my own. You could get stuff done on your own. The real problem was when I got married. I got used to being a part of a couple and I could never quite get the old me back. Which is what this poem’s about. You can’t go back to being single again. You’re not single; you’re divorced or bereaved. I’ll never be single again. And a part of me’s fine with that. A big part. Most of me. But there’s this wee niggly bit…

Wednesday 1 June 2016



(in memoriam W.C.W.)

There are plums
in the fridge:

will be
a night

for writing

17 July 1989
I left school with a fair idea of what poetry was. Poetry was all about form. It was how you could tell it from prose. Prose was messier, its structure harder to pin down. Poems broke things down to the smallest parts of speech. They were more like mathematical formulas and, oddly for someone so obsessed with words, I’ve always loved maths, especially algebra. I suspect that’s why for the longest time I wrote such concise poems, something I learned from the American poet William Carlos Williams. This is the third poem I’ve written which tips its hat to him. The first two were ‘England Expects…’ and ‘Yesterday’ which were both inspired by his poem ‘The Locust Tree in Flower’, the first poem of Williams’s I ever read. This one harks back to one of his more famous poems, ‘This Is Just To Say’, his apology to his wife, Florence, for eating plums he found in their fridge. I’m not sure at this point in my life I’d ever eaten a plum. They were certainly not a part of my childhood diet.

‘Premeditation’ was the first poem I had published in the United States. It appeared in Bogg #62. ‘Coming Out’ (#635) appeared in the following issue.
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