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

Wednesday 31 August 2016


Exhuming Truth

It was there.
She knew it would be
if she dug deep enough.
But she seemed disappointed.

What did she expect to find?
Nothing smells very sweet
this far down.

28 July 1989
My old whipping boy. I was brought up literally IN the truth. It was the most important concept in my life. So I was told. It didn’t matter what, you told the truth. And I always did… when asked. But I didn’t always volunteer the truth unless asked. At least not the whole truth. I’d let slip some version of it. “Did you see who did that?” No. I knew. I’d heard. They’d confirmed it but I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. And that was the God’s honest truth. 

In 1989 I was living a lie. I’d been living a lie for a long time but it was a lie wrapped up, buried in fact, in acceptable truths. It makes me sound like such a terrible person but I wasn’t. I was decent, kind, hard-working, understanding, loving etc. etc. And I truly was all those things. Most people are. In my experience. It’s not until you get to know them you start to see that other side peek through. A slip here. A slip there. It’s hard to keep up appearances. You want to be decent, kind, hard-working, understanding, loving etc. etc. but deep down you know even at your most altruistic you’re being altruistic because it makes you feel good about yourself. And that’s pure selfishness. 

It took me a long time to stop probing. Nowadays I know I can come across as a little incurious, plain disinterested even. That’s not true. I just don’t want to be disappointed again. And I will be. As sure as eggs are eggs.

Sunday 28 August 2016


These Days

It was almost as good as the truth.
Almost, but there was an aftertaste
that lingered.

In time, though, he became used to it
after all, the truth's so hard to come by
these days.

28 July 1989
I drink a lot of decaffeinated coffee. I used to drink a lot of what we call “real coffee” these days—six cups a day was nothing—but I was told it wasn’t good for me and so I weaned myself off. Nowadays I have maybe one cup a day when I get up or two if I’m feeling self-indulgent. I call the black stuff I drink the rest of the time “coffee” but it’s not really coffee, is it? There’s something missing. Some might say its most important component, the thing that makes it coffee in fact. But I say to the wife, “Do you want a coffee?” and she’ll say, “Yes,” and I’ll bring her a cup of the black stuff and we pretend; we go through the motions. 

Living the lie. How many of us do that or have done that at some point in our lives? We step through the routine of a normal life, a happy life. Often we don’t know we’re even doing it because we’ve not been paying attention. We say words and think that’s talking. One day F. was the most important person in my life and then one day—maybe it was in July 1989, who knows?—she wasn’t. When did that happen? How did that happen? But we cope, we make do, we offer up excuses and get on with it because getting out of it would be so much harder and who’s to say what we got into next time wouldn’t go sour every bit as easily?

Wednesday 24 August 2016


It Works

I had such a perfect love for you:
you didn't have to break it open
to see what was inside.

Can you fix it?

27 July 1989
I think the last poem I wrote for Carrie, although not necessarily the last one I wrote about her (or at least us), was ‘Broken Things’ (#963) in December 2007. It is I have to say a far superior poem to the one above and yet both tackle the issue of love as an imperfect thing. Love is such a huge topic in literature and yet the more I read about it the less clear I find my definition of what love is—let alone what true love is—has become. The subtext in the above poem is trust. Trust seems like an essential ingredient when it comes to defining romantic love and yet even when a partner lies to and/or cheats on their mate it is possible for a relationship to hobble on and even to heal itself but fixed or not it’s never the same. 

When one of my aunts came over from Canada in the mid-to-late sixties she gifted each of her nephews and her niece a silver dollar. My brother and sister both mercenarily exchanged theirs for sterling but I hung onto mine until not too long after I wrote this poem when F.’s son stole it. Whilst visiting America with Carrie we visited a flea market and ran across a stall where, amongst other coins, the vendor had a whole tray of Canadian silver dollars including one from 1965 which would’ve been indistinguishable from the one I’d lost and yet I didn’t buy one because it wasn’t the one which was idiotic because it would’ve been identical and I regretted it afterwards. 

I think one of the stupidest questions we can ask anyone is: Why do you love me? and expect a serious answer. I’ve genuinely loved several women in my life—and been besotted by numerous others—but once I found myself in love with my second woman, although she was only a girl at the time, and compared my love for her to my first love I started to realise even back then I’d got it all wrong. Nowadays I’m simply grateful what Carrie and I have works without feeling any pressing need to question, analyse or understand it because I really don’t understand it. Understanding’s overrated.

Sunday 21 August 2016


The Actress

I have to "die" tomorrow.
I've never "died" before.
Well there's always got to be a first time.

The script doesn't call for much:
just a death – in long shot.

I bet I'll have to do it a dozen times:
but that's life.

25 July 1989
I’m not sure about this one. Feels forced. It’s structured a bit like a joke and there’s a punch line only it’s not very funny or pithy. Still, I’ve written worse.

When I wrote my poem ‘The Poetess’ (#835) Carrie objected to the title at first. Why not ‘The Poet’? And it’s something a lot of people take issue with these days. For a while I’ve noticed certain thespians of the female persuasion being referred to as “actors” and, of course, they’re perfectly within their rights but it’s always felt a bit unnecessary to me, a step too far. I’m all for equality—it’s a lovely idea, an ideal to strive for—but diversity’s not a bad thing either. Why did I call my poems ‘The Actress’ and ‘The Poetess’? Quite simply because how would you know the narrator’s female otherwise? Could a male say those lines? Absolutely. But in my head it was a female. No particular female. Simply not a man.

When the Observer and the Guardian published their new joint style guide in 2010 this clause appeared: "Use for both male and female actors; do not use actress except when in name of award, e.g. Oscar for best actress" but added:
As always, use common sense: a piece about the late film director Carlo Ponti was edited to say that in his early career he was ‘already a man with a good eye for pretty actors...’ As the Guardian's readers' editor pointed out in the subsequent clarification: ‘This was one of those occasions when the word “actresses” might have been used.’

Wednesday 17 August 2016



I know.
I know that!
I know that she is.
I know that she is there.
I know that she is there for me
and I am coming.

25 July 1989
I’ve never really understood why darkness is a good thing. Marketers and reviewers use it all the time:
  • Dark Matter (season 2): This season of Dark Matter is darker. – Mike’s Film Talk, 6 August 2016
  • Game of Thrones (season 5): Season 5 was in many ways our darkest. – producer/writer Bryan Cogman talking to Entertainment Weekly, 20 April 2016
  • Mr. Robot (season 2): Mr. Robot Season 2 will go darker, if that’s even possible. – zap2it, 7 July 2016 referring to comments made by the show’s creator Sam Esmail to Rolling Stone
  • Orange is the New Black (Season 4): Orange Is the New Black returns, darker and more relevant than ever – tagline to an article in The Washington Post, 16 June 2016
  • Bloodline (season 2): The "binge-worthy" season gets "darker and darker", says Deadline Hollywood’s Dominic Patten. Quoted in The Week, 27 May 2016
I could go on and on and on. Black Mirror, Stranger Things, Gotham, Daredevil, The Last Man on Earth, Star Wars Rebels, Angie Tribeca, The Fosters, Louie, BoJack Horseman, Samurai Jack, Doctor Who, Happy Valley, True Detective, The Walking Dead, Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll, The Vampire Diaries, Downton Abbey, Community, Grimm, The Leftovers, American Horror Story, Teen Wolf, The Americans, The 100, Da Vinci's Demons, Catfish, Arrested Development, Covert Affairs, Bones, Sherlock, The Musketeers, In the Club, Wolf Hall… The list just goes on and on. Back in the day you’d never catch John Noakes saying, “Well this season’s going to be so dark we’re thinking of changing the name to Black Peter.” Seriously what is the fascination with whatever “dark” in this context is supposed to mean? and clearly it means many things to many people.

I don’t consider myself a dark writer. Serious, yes, indubitably, but I’ve never written anything you might classify as “horror.” I don’t have it in me. The list of horror films I’ve seen is embarrassingly short and it’s not a subject I can speak on with any authority or interest and yet all you have to do is look at the new releases to see how popular it is and I do have to ask why. Is it a sign of the times? Things are bad now but they’ve been bad before. Just look at America during the thirties:
From gangster films to musicals to screwball comedies, Depression films took on the responsibility of reinstating the mythical American values of individualism, classlessness, and progress. Americans might have come to these films in search of escape from their arduous and hopeless lives but that isn't to say the themes and motifs of these films appeared out of reach. Hollywood, while upholding American institutions such as government and family, also created characters and plot lines that stayed within the realm of possibilities. Had Americans not believed in and related to the drama, music, comedy, heartache, and successes displayed on screen they surely would find entertainment elsewhere. Film industries recognized this consumer power and carefully evaluated the types of films people responded to. – Hollywood in the Depression
We only had a Great Recession at the start of this century but, still, where were all the musicals and screwball comedies?

Not sure why the title to this poem was in lower case—as was the case with ‘another darkpoem’ (#796) in July 1996. I think I was aiming to distinguish it from my usual form of writing but looking back now it doesn’t seem that different or even that dark.

Sunday 14 August 2016

The Room

By indirections find directions out – Polonius in Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 1

In 1962 Harold Pinter gave a speech before the National Student Drama Festival in Bristol. He began as follows:
I’m not a theorist. I’m not an authoritative or reliable commentator on the dramatic scene, the social scene, any scene. I write plays, when I can manage it, and that’s all. That’s the sum of it. So I’m speaking with some reluctance, knowing that there are at least twenty-four possible aspects of any single statement, depending on where you’re standing at the time or on what the weather’s like. A categorical statement, I find, will never stay where it is and be finite. It will immediately be subject to modification by the other twenty-three possibilities of it. No statement I make, therefore, should be interpreted as final and definitive. One or two of them may sound final and definitive, they may even be almost final and definitive, but I won’t regard them as such tomorrow, and I wouldn’t like you to do so today.
Meaning, he’s saying (at least I think he’s saying (it’s certainly one of the things he’s saying)), doesn’t like to get pinned down. He’s not wrong but he’s not right either. Some things do mean what they say and have no aspirations to be—or delusions of being—anything else. When, in his very next sentence, he says, “I’ve had two full-length plays produced in London,” that was certainly true in 1962—the plays were The Birthday Party and The Caretaker (probably his best known works)—but, of course, that’s no longer the case and I would hate to even hazard a guess at how many times his full-length plays have been produced in London. Although his statement is clear enough the fact was, by the time he gave his speech, he’d actually had six plays produced in London. His first, The Room, was presented at the Hampstead Theatre Club on 21st January 1960 in a double bill which included The Dumb Waiter. A Slight Ache was first presented on stage by Michael Codron at the Arts Theatre on 18th January 1961, A Night Out was first broadcast on the BBC’s Third Programme in March 1960 so, technically, it was also produced in London but as The Collection, although written in 1961, was not presented on stage at the Aldwych Theatre until June 1962—three months after Pinter delivered the above speech to the festival goers in Bristol—that doesn’t count.

The problem with catch-all expressions like Kafkaesque and Pinteresque—there is some overlap—is they cast long shadows; it’s very hard to look at any work by Pinter without trying to impose on it who he eventually became. In 1956, when The Room, was written, there was only Pinter, a twenty-seven-year-old jobbing actor who dashed off poems, sketches and short stories in his spare time. I mention this because I can see a problem in putting on The Room nowadays; there’s a danger of sprinkling on some extra Pinter just to be sure. Sure The Room has all the elements that he took and perfected over the next few years in the likes of The Birthday Party and The Homecoming but I was also struck by how ordinary for the time most of the speech is and there’s a danger of reading more into some of the lines than there actually is there. It’s a problem for sure. You expect that with Shakespeare but not with a modern playwright until you factor in that The Room was written in the fifties. I know I’ve already said that play was written in the fifties but “the fifties” is a thing unto itself and, of course, a British fifties and an American fifties conjure up very different worlds, one of austerity, one of plenty. (Trivia: the average age of people worldwide is thirty. That means most of the people alive don’t remember the eighties, let alone the fifties.)

The first version of The Room was written over four afternoons and late nights while Pinter was playing in Rattigan's Separate Tables at the Pavilion Theatre, Torquay, in November 1956; he reworked it in November 1957. Rattigan, like Noël Coward, believed in understated emotions and craftsmanship, a style of theatre which was deemed passé and “pre-war” after the overnight success of Look Back in Anger in May 1956. Unlikely, then, that Pinter would’ve seen it but when the curtain goes up and we see Rose and Bert’s room for the first time the first thing anyone in the audience back then would’ve thought of would’ve been kitchen sink drama although few would’ve been familiar with the expression.

From the off people have struggled with the need to classify Pinter. John Osborne, along with the likes of John Braine and Alan Sillitoe, was one of a group of writers who came to be known collectively as Angry Young Men and it’s no surprise to see Pinter getting lumped in with them. You can certainly see why him more than some of the others—never ever saw Kingsley Amis as angry, mildly irked, possibly—but I don’t think I’ve ever seen Pinter when I didn’t think he could explode any minute; he had a reputation for being short-tempered and angry and so was a good fit but it was a label others attached to him. In talking about the politics of such drama with Harry Thompson in 1961, Pinter rejected its dramatic viability but that’s as much of a statement one way or another as I can find from him and more recent criticism has generally separated Pinter from this group. (The discussion on The Harold Pinter Forum regarding this is worth a read.) If he’s not an Angry Young Man, then what? Pinter—along with Beckett, Ionesco, Genet and others—is listed among the Absurdists, an exponent of the so-called “theatre of the absurd”. He never joined—it’s not that kind of movement—but, like “Pinteresque”, it’s a term that’s dogged him his whole career. The term was coined by critic Martin Esslin in 1960 and so, whether he was or wasn’t, Pinter certainly wouldn’t have been aware he was one when he wrote The Room. Another label sometimes associated with Pinter is “comedy of menace”, an obvious play on comedy of manners. It was coined by drama critic Irving Wardle in 1958 and “rashly applied … to Pinter's writing.” Two years later he posted a retraction in an article in Encore entitled ‘There’s Music in that Room’. “I now take it back,” he said. The problem is it’s out there now and is still being bandied about.

Another shadow Pinter has had to struggle to get out from under was Beckett’s although, to be fair, I’ve never ever heard him referred to as Beckettian. In 1956 the two had yet to become friends; he first wrote to Beckett in 1960 by which time people were beginning to talk about him as Beckett’s disciple and successor. They met in Paris in 1961—Roger Blin made the introductions—and immediately hit it off; the hour Beckett had said he could spare lasted until dawn the next day. By this time Pinter had read everything of Beckett’s he could lay his hands on after first discovering an excerpt from Watt in Irish Writing in 1951; shortly after he famously liberated a copy of Murphy from Bermondsey Public Reserve Library where it had been languishing since 1938. His friend Mick Goldstein had seen the first English production of Waiting for Godot in 1955 and wrote to Pinter about it—Pinter’s reply ends with him hoping for a copy of the script—but as far as I’m aware he had to wait until 1956 to see the play for himself. How much Beckett there is in The Room it’s impossible to say—probably as much Beckett as there is Chekhov—and who’s to say it wasn’t a two-way street?—there’s a lot of Rose and Bert in Winnie and Willie in Happy Days—but it’s worth noting that in the same review where Wardle retracted his comment about “theatre of menace” he also said, admittedly of The Caretaker, “I see no point in invoking the name of Beckett or of any other supposed influence—the play is quintessentially the work of a very considerable artist.” As Pinter told Richard Findlater in 1961, “I don't carry any banners. Ultimately I distrust definitive labels.”

When asked how he came to write his plays Pinter consistently talked about seeing an image first and finding himself wondering about the people he’s just seen. Mostly he describes these in fairly abstracts terms—
The germ of my plays? I’ll be as accurate as I can about that. I went into a room and saw one person standing up and one person sitting down, and a few weeks later I wrote The Room. I went into another room and saw two people sitting down, and a few years later I wrote The Birthday Party. I looked through a door into a third room, and saw two people standing up and I wrote The Caretaker. – ‘Writing for Myself’. Based on a conversation with Richard Findlater published in The Twentieth Century, February 1961.
—but in the case of The Room his source can be pinned down to a fortuitous encounter in the summer of 1955. He was in rep at the time in Colchester and had been invited to a Sunday-night party in a boarding house located at 129 Beaufort Street, Chelsea. During the evening Veronica Nugent, who was living there at the time (and, presumably, the hostess), invited him to meet the man upstairs:
She knocked on the door and it was opened by a little man with the most extraordinary colour hair, bare feet and extremely fluid clothes … He welcomed us in, gave us a cup of tea, discussed philosophy and metaphysics, literature, the weather, crockery, fabrics. And all the while sat an enormous man with a cap on reading a comic. [The man was George Taylor whom the little man called Barndoor because of his size.] The little man was dancing about cutting bread and butter, pouring tea and making bacon and eggs for this man who remained quite silent throughout the whole encounter … We left after about half an hour and I asked the woman what the little chap’s name was and she said Quentin Crisp. – Michael Billington, Harold Pinter, p.113
I’ve seen two versions of The Room. The first was a film adaptation directed by no less than Robert Altman (the Robert Altman who gave us M*A*S*H). The second was a film by Charles Alexander of a performance by students of The American Repertory Theatre/Moscow Art Theatre (ART/МХАТ) Institute for Advanced Theatre Training at Harvard University. So, two very different productions. And neither definitive. The Altman version was broadcast in 1987 as part of a double bill along with The Dumb Waiter under the title Basements. Two commendable casting choices need mentioning: The Dumb Waiter featured John Travolta as a bad guy long before we ever saw what he was capable of in Pulp Fiction. What detracts from an otherwise decent performance is Travolta’s attempt at a Cockney accent; his partner in crime, the estimable Tom Conti, similarly, murders an Irish accent; that gripe aside the play is the better of the two adaptations although, granted, there’s less that could go wrong. The Room features the first acting credit for singer Annie Lennox. Her accent, too, leaves a lot to be desired but she’s actually an inspired choice as the wife of Mr Sands played, as it happens, by Julian Sands.

So what’s The Room about? It’s about Rose. I’ve read many articles and chapters from books discussing the play but I’m not sure that anyone actually has said that in so many words. She’s the only one onstage for the total duration of the play. It’s her we watch. It’s her we’re interested in. In dramatic terms she’s the leading lady but I’m not sure who you’d call the male lead. Her husband says nothing and does little until the final moments of the play and the landlord, Mr Kidd, is more of an antagonist than anything else although, to be fair, everyone antagonises Rose in one way or another. She lives in a bedsit with her husband who drives a van for a living although it appears he’s be “laid up” for a bit so, presumably, he’s been unwell in fact she’d mentioned this to the landlord only that morning. She said he “hadn’t been too grand”, something underlined when Rose is talking about the damp basement: “Those walls would have finished you off.” For some reason the basement preoccupies her. She has been down there, “once, a long time ago” so it’s not as if she doesn’t know what it looks like. It seems the two of them had been given the chance to rent the room when they first arrived: “[T]hey offered us the basement here,” recalls Rose. “I said no straight off. I knew that’d be no good.” It’s practically the first thing she says as the play opens and she’s watching Bert tuck into his bacon and eggs, “That’s right. You eat that. You’ll need it. You can feel it in here. Still, the room keeps warm. It’s better than the basement, anyway.”

All the script tells us about Rose is that she’s a woman of sixty; her husband, Bert Hudd, is fifty and wears a cap, as did George Taylor you’ll remember. In Altman’s version Rose is played by Linda Hunt who’s received two Obie awards and a Tony Award nomination for her theatre work, not discounting her Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress so you’d expect good stuff from her but as my wife and I recently witnessed whilst watching the first two episodes of CSI: Cyber, even an Oscar-winning actress (Patricia Arquette won an Academy Award for her performance in Boyhood) can’t work miracles if she receives poor direction. The ART/МХАТ version directed by Roman Kozak, an acclaimed Russian theatre actor and director of the Moscow Pushkin Drama Theatre (if you want to know more about him here’s his obituary from The Moscow Times). He cast a young actress called Megan Hill as Rose. Needless to say there’s not a huge amount online about her but she does have the bones of a website, an IMDB page and you can read an interview with her here. In 2014 she was named Spotlight Actor Fellow with the NY based organization [the claque] which is awarded to “a New York stage actor of exceptional promise who is determined to be on the cusp of ‘breaking out’”. So not a Tony but everyone has to start somewhere. Obviously, of the two, she has the harder task, portraying a sixty-year-old-woman but it’s worth mentioning that Vivian Merchant (who was married to Pinter at the time) would’ve been not yet thirty when she first played Rose.

For the first few minutes of the play Rose is the only one to speak. She fixes what we assume is her husband’s breakfast although as the play progresses it seems more likely it’s his dinner, makes his tea—milk in first, an important distinction (posh people put the milk in last)—cuts his bread for him and prattles away to herself effectively because although, like Winnie in Happy Days, she addresses all her remarks to her husband it’s clear from the start she might as well be talking to the wall. The yakkity wife and her taciturn husband with his head buried in his newspaper is a bit of a cliché if we’re being honest, sitcom setting #23. There’s nothing menacing or untoward in this opening at all. She’s like any other nosey woman, interested in things that’re of no concern to her, like, for example, who’s living in the basement now. It’s actually quite funny and the only thing that stops it being laugh-out-loud funny is that Bert never even tries to get a word in edgewise. The problem is that it’s a Pinter play and so even if we’ve never seen it before we expect there to be a sense of menace and foreboding; we imagine it even before we see it. Winnie has her bag, Rose her room. Their existence anchors them. And both have their routines, their secular rituals. The important thing is that nothing should change. Winnie says, “If you don't know where you are currently standing, you're dead.” Rose says, “No, this room’s all right for me. I mean, you know where you are. When it’s cold, for instance.” Knowing where you are is the first step to knowing who you are, one might suppose.

I’ve heart Altman’s direction described in numerous ways—“phenomenal”, “sympathetic”, “skilled”, “brilliant”—but never “heavy-handed”—“wayward”, yes, and “spotty” too (Popeye was not his best work)—and yet, despite the obvious reverence that comes through in both his adaptations, I couldn’t help but feel as if he was laying it on a bit thick. The opening of The Room, for example, has all the ambiance of a seventies horror film and the music such as it is (more of an eerie soundscape) doesn’t help. Pinter and Altman got to know each other after the former expressed his admiration for Secret Honour although it would be stretching a point to say they were friends. Pinter wrote both screenplays but he resisted the urge to rewrite. Mostly a few exterior shots have been added to pad out the running time. The only significant changes are to the endings. In The Dumb Waiter we see the clean-up crew arrive—which answers one question raised during the play—and isn’t really necessary but in The Room Rose’s last line is cut and so it’s not made clear what’s happened to her and certainly on my initial viewing I missed it completely; this is assuming Altman didn’t make his own tweaks. As for what Pinter thought about the finished products, Altman, in one account, reported that Pinter was “fine” other than hating Bill Conti’s accent in The Dumb Waiter because both men were supposed to be Cockneys—“that pissed Harold off”—and in another he said, what prompted Pinter’s “angry reactions” was the fact Altman changed the room number from 7 to 73. I couldn’t find any comment from Pinter himself but I do get the feeling there was probably a lot more for Pinter to gripe about based on a footnote I nearly missed in Martin Regal’s A Question of Timing:
Robert Altman, who produced a television version of The Room, clearly felt that the stillness and the silence were untenable, so he has Bert painstakingly concentrate on fixing a ship in a bottle. This surely misses the point that Bert's silence ought to remain inexplicable. See Robert Altman (dir.), The Room, A Sandcastle 5 Production, 1987. – Martin S. Regal, A Question of Timing, p.141
Visually the bottle is great, especially the fact the Bert seems to be assembling not a ship but a room identical to the one he and Rose live in, but in adding this we also lose the fact that even though Bert doesn’t talk at the start of the play he has his own wall of words that he hides behind.

The first interruption comes when someone knocks on the door. Of course, as people do, Rose says to her husband, “Who is it?” but neither makes any effort to find out. After knocking a second time the landlord, Mr Kidd, just lets himself in. In Altman’s version he’s played to perfection by veteran actor Donald Pleasence. From all accounts he’s been checking the pipes. It sounds like an excuse and it patently is. That’s not why he’s there. He has a message for Rose but can’t deliver it as her husband’s still about. Why he didn’t wait until Bert had driven off is the puzzler because Rose made mentioned to Bert that she’d spoken to Kidd that morning and told him that her husband was “doing a run” that day. Perhaps he just wants to make sure. He has a distracted air about him and is hard of hearing which doesn’t help. Some think he’s evasive and at least passive aggressive and it’s easy to see why but I just see him as a doddery old man and, like all of the characters in the play, wrapped up in his own wee world:
ROSE: How many floors you got in this house?
MR KIDD: Floors. (He laughs.) Ah, we had a good few of them in the old days.
ROSE: How many have you got now?
MR KIDD: Well, to tell you the truth, I don’t count them now.
MR KIDD: No, not now.
ROSE: It must be a bit of a job.
MR KIDD: Oh, I used to count them, once. Never got tired of it. I used to keep a tack on everything in this house. I had a lot to keep my eye on, then. I was able for it too. That was when my sister was alive. But I lost track a bit, after she died. She’s been dead some time now, my sister. It was a good house then. She was a capable woman. Yes. Fine size of a woman too. I think she took after my mum. Yes, I think she took after my old mum, from what I can recollect. I think my mum was a Jewess. Yes, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that she was a Jewess. She didn’t have many babies.
ROSE: What about your sister, Mr Kidd?
MR KIDD: What about her?
ROSE: Did she have any babies?
MR KIDD: Yes, she had a resemblance to my old mum, I think. Taller, of course.
ROSE: When did she die then, your sister?
MR KIDD: Yes, that’s right, it was after she died that I must have stopped counting.
It’s as if he’s not really paying attention to her. The same is true really of all the characters Rose encounters. The JustTalk Theatre Company in Manchester recently reworked the play based around the assumption Rose has Alzheimer’s. It’s not as ridiculous as it sounds. Sufferers in the early stages often know there’s something wrong with them but as time wears on and the disease wears away at them more and more they start to see many of the things around them as wrong. They no longer recognise spouses or children, for example. That’s not, of course, what Pinter intended but the jump isn’t a big one. Rose is trying—more and more desperately as the play progresses—to make sense out of her world and is not getting the answers she needs. It must be very frustrating for her.

Bert, with Rose’s help, puts on his jersey; then she fetches his muffler. Three times before he leaves she promises Jim she’ll have cocoa ready for him when he returns. Once he’s gone she’s at a loss and after picking up this and that she decides to empty the bin. She opens the door only to find two strangers standing there, or, as the script puts it:
MR and MRS SANDS are disclosed on the landing.
All we know about them is that they’re a young couple. Rose, hospitable as ever (people were far more welcoming back in the fifties), invites them in for a warm. The two sets of couples could not be more different. In the TV version The Sandses are threatening from the start. Although they say they’re husband and wife they look more like brother and sister, sallow and serious. Mrs Sands at least makes some effort to be friendly but there’s a nastiness under the surface when it comes to him. In the 1960 run the role went to a young Michael Caine and I can’t imagine a better casting because he can flick from charming, genuinely charming, to menacing and back again without batting an eye. But this is what we expect of Pinter, isn’t it? Sands strides around the room picking up things and going out of his way to make Rose feel uncomfortable. If only he realised he didn’t need to put a fraction of the effort in. Yes, she invited them in. She would rather have not but it would’ve been rude not to. In the stage version the young couple are much friendlier. They still deliver the same lines but without the attitude. Here’s a typical exchange:
He perches on the table.
MRS SANDS. You’re sitting down!
MR SANDS (jumping up). Who is?
MRS SANDS. You were.
MR SANDS Don’t be silly. I perched.
MRS SANDS. I saw you sit down.
MR SANDS You did not see me sit down because I did not sit bloody well down. I perched!
MRS SANDS. Do you think I can’t perceive when someone’s sitting down?
MR SANDS Perceive! That’s all you do. Perceive.
Of course it has the parrying we’ve come to expect from Pinter. On the surface this might come across as the kind of play-fighting young couples do. The husband comes across, however, as the kind of person who’s awkward for awkwardness’s sake as my mother would’ve put it. He won’t sit down when he’s offered a seat but later lies down on the bed uninvited (another addition to the screenplay). There’s the suggestion too he might have criminal tendencies. Straight after the above Mrs Sands says, “You could do with a bit more of that instead of all that tripe you get up to,” to which he responds, “You don’t mind some of that tripe!” At one point Altman allows the camera to dwell on Mrs Sands’ jewellery. Maybe he’s a thief. Maybe worse. Maybe he’s her pimp. (Several commenters have wondered if Rose was once a prostitute.) We only have the Sandses’ word that they’re married. At one point he calls her Clarissa and when Rose comments she replies, “Yes, it is nice, isn’t it? My father and mother gave it to me.” Will she, perhaps, one day use another name? Winnie and Willie were once Edward and Mildred.

While they’re there Rose does have one of her questions from earlier answered. It seems there is someone in the basement.
MRS SANDS: [W]hen we got here we walked in the front door and it was very dark in the hall and there wasn’t anyone about. So we went down to the basement. Well, we got down there only due to Toddy having such good eyesight really. Between you and me, I didn’t like the look of it much, I mean the feel, we couldn’t make much out, it smelt damp to me. Anyway, we went through a kind of partition, then there was another partition, and we couldn’t see where we were going, well, it seemed to me it got darker the more we went, the further we went in, I thought we must have come to the wrong house. So I stopped. And Toddy stopped. And then this voice said, this voice came – it said – well, it gave me a bit of a fright, I don’t know about Tod, but someone asked if he could do anything for us. So Tod said we were looking for the landlord and this man said the landlord would be upstairs. Then Tod asked was there a room vacant. And this man, this voice really, I think he was behind the partition, said yes there was a room vacant. He was very polite, I thought, but we never saw him, I don’t know why they never put a light on. Anyway, we got out then and we came up and we went to the top of the house. I don’t know whether it was the top. There was a door locked on the stairs, so there might have been another floor, but we didn’t see anyone, and it was dark, and we were just coming down again when you opened your door.
The room that’s supposedly vacant turns out to be number 7, Rose and Bert’s room. Only it’s not empty.

Having stirred Rose up the two leave and shortly thereafter Mr Kidd returns with his message. Rose, of course, has questions for him:
ROSE. Mr Kidd, what did they mean about this room?
MR KIDD. What room?
ROSE. Is this room vacant?
MR KIDD. Vacant?
ROSE. They were looking for the landlord.
MR KIDD. Who were?
ROSE. Listen, Mr Kidd, you are the landlord, aren’t you? There isn’t any other landlord?
MR KIDD. What? What’s that got to do with it? I don’t know what you’re talking about.
Again it’s easy to see him as being evasive but the simple matter is he only has one thing on his mind and needs to discharge his duty. Nothing else is of any interest or importance. So what is this message?
MR KIDD. The man. He’s been waiting to see you. He wants to see you. I can’t get rid of him. I’m not a young man, Mrs Hudd, that’s apparent. It’s apparent. You’ve got to see him.
ROSE: See who?
MR KIDD. The man. He’s downstairs now. He’s been there the whole week-end. He said that when Mr Hudd went out I was to tell him. That’s why I came up before.
Rose insists she doesn’t know him without Kidd providing any description. But earlier when Sands insinuated that Rose knows Mr Kidd she responded with:
ROSE: No, I wouldn’t say that. As a matter of fact, I don’t know him at all. We’re very quiet. We keep ourselves to ourselves. I never interfere. I mean, why should I? We’ve got our room. We don’t bother anyone else. That’s the way it should be.
Of course when she says she doesn’t know him at all she doesn’t mean she’s never heard of him and they’ve never met. She means she’s not privy to any personal details. It’s a different thing, a defence mechanism. Kids do it all the time, a kneejerk “I wasn’t there. It wasn’t me. I didn’t do anything. I don’t know nothing.” When Rose says she doesn’t know the man in the basement—three times in fact echoing Peter’s denial of Christ—what she’s really saying is she doesn’t want to know him and, if she once did know him, she now wishes she’d never known him and has no desire to get to know him again. Still, she agrees to see him when Mr Kidd says if she doesn’t see the man directly he’ll likely appear when her husband is there and she wouldn’t like that.

The man, who eventually identifies himself as Riley, is described in the script as “a blind Negro” and it’s important for a number of reasons that a black man be cast in this part even if having a black man named Riley (an Irish name) is odd, especially in the mid-fifties and so doubly distancing him. In many respects he’s the least menacing of all the characters Rose encounters and yet succeeds in menacing her the most. This is where the screenplay and the stage play diverged. In Altman’s version the man enters the room, touches a chair with his stick and, on Rose’s insistence, sits in it and stays there until Bert comes home. In the stage version he ends up stalking round the room after her—at one point Rose ends up cowering behind the door of the fridge—and I was a bit disappointed in that. The simple fact is he doesn’t need to move out of his chair to get to her; his words are enough; his message is enough:
RILEY. Your father wants you to come home.

ROSE: Home?
ROSE: Home? Go now. Come on. It’s late. It’s late.
RILEY. To come home.
ROSE: Stop it. I can’t take it. What do you want? What do you want?
RILEY. Come home, Sal.

ROSE: What did you call me?
Bear in mind that Rose is sixty so what age would that make her dad? And Sal? She doesn’t say, “That’s not my name.” She says, “Don’t call me that.” So it looks like she’s changed her name? But why? (Denis Pratt changed his name to Quentin Crisp in his twenties. I wonder if Pinter knew that.) Why do most people change their names? Surely Rose/Sal’s father hasn’t been looking for her all this time. Three times (suspiciously symbolic) he repeats the request. In her article ‘Variation in death metaphors in the last statements by Texas death row inmates’ Helena Halmari notes that very often death is referred to as “home”. So when her father is calling her home does this mean it’s time for her to die? Perhaps she already is dead and this is a room, like the room in Sartre’s No Exit where she’s been reliving the same day over and over for God knows how long. There is another possibility here. We can’t forget that Pinter was Jewish. Sally in a nickname for Sarah and the Nazis forced all Jewish women to carry the second name Sara. According to William Baker in Harold Pinter “[t]he name Rose itself has East End Jewish reverberations.” Is she, perhaps, a Jewess hiding with a Gentile? If there’s one thing Jews in the forties and fifties were always wary about it would be the unexpected (and unwelcome) knock on the door.

Bert returns, however, before anything gets resolved and delivers the strangest of monologues about driving his van; “To be, or not to be” it is not. He talks as if it were a woman and the speech in riddled with sexual innuendo. In part:
BERT: I caned her along. She was good. Then I got back. I could see the road all right. There was no cars. One there was. He wouldn’t move. I bumped him. I got my road. I had all my way. There again and back. They shoved out of it. I kept on the straight. There was no mixing it. Not with her. She was good. She went with me. She don’t mix it with me. I use my hand. Like that. I get hold of her. I go where I go. She took me there. She brought me back.
Bear in mind this is the fifties and all stage plays had to go before the Lord Chamberlain who had the power to censor any play wishing to be licensed for public performance so writers had to choose their words carefully. Beckett had, for example, to remove the word “erection” from Waiting for Godot before it got rubber-stamped. When Bert enters the room he finds Rose and Riley in a compromising position. They’re not having sex but she is showing him some affection, touching his face, and some commentators have suggested this is indicative of sexual feelings for her father which she can only now express towards his proxy. Perhaps Rose, like Mrs Sands, is actually the more domineering of the two and has, at some point, cut Bert off so that now he has to get his kicks driving a van. Maybe this is the true Rose buried under all the mothering. It’s all guesswork.

It appears at first as if Bert’s not seen Riley but when he’s finished what he has to say he closes the curtains, moves a chair over beside him, regards him for some moments then tips the man’s chair over with his foot, utters one word, “Lice!” (why the plural?), and attacks the man as he lies helpless on the floor most likely killing him, after which he just “walks away”. He’s clearly defending what’s his and yet he himself as shown no outward affection for and barely any interest in Rose. He acts more like her pimp than her husband. At this point, in the original script, Rose is supposed to stand up, clutch her eyes and say, “Can’t see. I can’t see. I can’t see.” Blackout. Curtain. In Altman’s version this final line is omitted and it’s only by paying close attention to Hunt’s face we realise Rose has suddenly lost her sight—or, perhaps, had Riley’s blindness transferred to her. She’s been standing by the door and we watch her feel for the chains and locks. It’s an odd ending either way and much debated.

In his essay ‘Writing for Myself’ Pinter wrote:
I'm convinced that what happens in my plays could happen anywhere, at any time, in any place, although the events may seem unfamiliar at first glance. If you press me for a definition, I'd say that what goes on in my plays is realistic, but what I'm doing is not realism.
He’s right. Rose could have gone blind there are then and there could be a perfectly reasonable explanation. Hysterical blindness is a thing. Also it’s worth noting two things in the text of the play: 1) Rose covers her eyes before she speaks, 2) she doesn’t say she’s blind, she says she can’t see which is not the same thing. This doesn’t need to be a symbol. But it probably is. Pinter doesn’t eschew symbolism which has resulted, as with Beckett, in varied interpretations of his work. In Pinter Problem Austin E. Quigley writes:
What is to be avoided … is not the use of symbols in making general statements about Pinter’s work, but the tendency (certainly rife in Pinter criticism) to move too readily toward simplistic symbolic interpretations, which account for too little of the text. It is this erroneous procedure that has prompted Pinter’s anger, and it is also this procedure that [Ruby] Cohn has in mind when she stresses that symbols in Pinter’s work should be regarded as cumulative rather than instantaneous in their operation.
As I understand this it means as you view the play the goalposts keep moving. We start off on the set of a sitcom but this is no sitcom. That doesn’t mean it’s without humour and you can see why people cling to expressions like “comedy of menace”. Indeed in the very first production the director emphasised the play’s humour. Here’s the thing about all situation comedies: like Pinter’s plays they present a realistic version of usually family life but it’s not real and we accept its unreality. So why not with Pinter? In an article in The Times following Pinter’s death in 2008 Dominic Maxwell wrote:
If you come at Pinter from the classroom, you may be ready for his weirdness, but not always his humour. His dark, claustrophobic battles of wills can also be incredibly funny. Because […] he’s showing us the way men jostle and fight for space in every exchange, in every detail, and he’s showing us life. We’re pecking-order animals.
In Altman’s version Rose plays the coquette with Riley once it’s clear he’s aware of her past; in Kozak’s she’s terrified of him. Neither is really satisfying. Both feel like too big a leap. The simple fact is that Riley is a puzzle and the one character Pinter has had most to say about:
My plays are not political discussions. They are living things. They are certainly not debates. They are violent. Violence has always been in my plays, from the very beginning. The Room ends with a sudden, totally gratuitous act of violence on the part of a man who kicks a negro to death. I was quite young at the time, but looking back it doesn’t seem to me to be a wild or bizarre thing. We are brought up every day of our lives in this world of violence. – Various Voices 
I’ve always seen Riley as a messenger, a potential saviour who is trying to release Rose from the imprisonment of the room and the restrictions of her life with Bert. He’s inviting her to come back to her spiritual home; which is why he gets beaten up when Bert returns. But, to me, Riley has always been a redemptive figure and that was how I staged it when I later came to direct it with Vivian and a fine black actor called Thomas Baptiste … – Billington, Harold Pinter, p.118 
[W]hen I got to that point in the play the man from the basement had to be introduced, and he just was a blind negro. I don't think there's anything radically wrong with the character in himself, but he behaves too differently from the other characters: if I were writing the play now I'd have him sit down, have a cup of tea. 
Messenger, saviour, redeemer—hard not to see Riley as nothing more than a blind black man. In ‘Writing for Myself’ Pinter insists, “I wouldn’t know a symbol if I saw one.” And on Newsweek, “You can make symbolic meat out of anything.” I’m not so sure. The playwright doth protest too much.

I find Pinter’s use of the verb “imprisonment” an interesting one and I might not have picked up on it had I not only recently read Hubert Selby Jr’s novel The Room in which a man in a prison cell comes to think of it as more of a place of safety than anything else. If Riley is a redeemer then all those who see him as a Christ-figure who dies for Rose or as a symbol of Death whom we reluctantly admit across the threshold might be on to something. But they should bear in mind something Pinter said in response to various hermeneutical and exegical approaches to his work:
I’ve never started a play from any kind of abstract idea or theory and never envisaged my own characters as messengers of death, doom, heaven or the milky way or, in other words, as allegorical representations of any particular force, whatever that may mean. When a character cannot be comfortably defined or understood in terms of the familiar, the tendency is to perch him on a symbolic shelf, out of harm’s way. Once there, he can be talked about but need not be lived with. In this way, it is easy to put up a pretty efficient smoke screen, on the part of the critics or the audience, against recognition, against an active and willing participation.
We don’t carry labels on our chests, and even though they are continually fixed to us by others, they convince nobody – ‘Writing for the Theatre’
I can see where Pinter’s coming from here but just because he doesn’t start with something figurative in mind doesn’t mean he doesn’t end up there. It’s the word “symbolic” that’s the problem. Ordinary people don’t talk about symbols or metaphors or figures; they say, “that reminds me of” and the simple fact is that all the characters in The Room remind us of things we’ve had experience of in our pasts even if it’s just cartoons—of which there are many—showing a husband buried in his newspaper at the breakfast table. It’s impossible not to look for associations, for ways in to the text.

This brings us back to what Quigley and Cohn had to say about cumulative meaning and that’s when I realised that there’s something actually quite Dickensian about this play. I’m thinking specifically of A Christmas Carol and the four visitors, the three ghosts of Christmas plus Jacob Marley in the role of the harbinger. I see the three visitors—I’m counting the couple as one by the way—as representing the Past, the Distant Past and the Present. Let me explain.

Kidd, obviously, plays the role of the harbinger. Admittedly he doesn’t announce the arrival of the couple but were it not for him (despite the fact they’re not sure he is the landlord they’re looking for) they wouldn’t be there. They’re like a young Rose and Bert. Rose said she’d been to the basement once before they moved into Room 7 and then the room had been vacant so perhaps what’s she’s witnessing are proxies standing in for her and Bert at a time when he still communicated even if all he communicated was his irritation with her bossiness. They’re Rose’s past. Riley isn’t looking for an old woman and it’s unlikely her father would still be alive in his eighties; life expectancy for males in the UK still hasn’t reached eighty; in 1956 it was under seventy. I think that Riley has come to talk to Rose—Sal as she was then—shortly after she’s left the family home and fallen in with Bert. He represents her distant past. The present comes crashing through the door, metaphorically speaking, when Bert arrives home to find his wife dwelling on the past. Is this Bert any more real than the others? Perhaps not. There’s been a lot of foreshadowing about the icy conditions and how fast Bert drives. Either way he’s not letting the past have her. To be with Bert something clearly had to be sacrificed and it’s in our memories that sacrifice can be made again and again. Riley becomes the scapegoat (or, perhaps, more properly the pharmakos) who dies for the father’s sins. Did a young Bert kill a young Riley some time in her past? Is she reliving it in just the same was as she “relives” her and Bert’s arrival at the house? I don’t know. I would love to know why the number 7 was so important to Pinter.

Place can be a good thing—having your own place—but it can also have negative connotations—being put in one’s place-and to some extent that’s what happens at the end of this play when Bert asserts (reasserts?) himself. In Butter’s Going Up (odd title, I know; it’s a line Pinter dropped when he revised The Dwarfs) Steven Gale defines The Room as a play about the “disintegration of Rose’s character” and I would concur. But why have her go blind? It smacks of Greek tragedy a bit and Oedipal interpretations of not just The Room but other plays by Pinter are not unusual. Seems too obvious and then again, where does that leave all the other characters? People can be blinded to the truth. Perhaps that what Rose did years before by burying her past.

One interpretation which covers all the bases is a surreal one. It’s a work that’s used too often these days where “unreal” would work just fine but if everything we see presented on stage is a dream then it can get away with being realistic and still feel nonsensical. Most of my dreams of recent years take place in offices and everything that happens could have happened in some version of the real world with the main difference being the cast in my dreams are plucked from my entire life. There have been whole books written on the subject—I spent several hours reading the section on The Room in Lucina Paquet Gabbard’s The Dream Structure of Pinter's Plays: A Psychoanalytic Approach and it makes fascinating reading although like most Freudian texts it can get a little silly at times with all these anal, oral and urethral stages. Seriously, sometimes a rocking chair is just a rocking chair. I think Walter Sokel hit it on the nail when he said: Pinter’s texts are fictions which “resemble ... a dream in that [they] compel interpretation, but, again like a dream, [they] seem to resist interpretative effort.”

The Room begins as a comedy and ends as a tragedy. To this end something Pinter said to Hallam Tennyson suddenly seems to make a bit more sense to me than when I read it the first time:
Everything is funny; the greatest earnestness is funny. Even tragedy is funny. And I think what I try to do in my plays is to get to this recognisable reality of the absurdity of what we do and how we behave and how we speak. The point about tragedy is that it is no longer funny. It is funny, and then it becomes no longer funny.
I found that quote by the way in a surprising long entry for Harold Pinter in the Encyclopaedia of British Humourists.

I was very interested to learn that Joe Orton deliberately rewrote a number of Pinterian triangles, supplying the missing plot and character motivations. In ‘The sacred joke: comedy and politics in Pinter’s early plays’ Francesca Coppa writes:
The first work Orton ever sold, the radio play The Ruffian on the Stair, is a rewrite of The Room. In both plays a woman who is trapped in a room fears a threat from the outside world: in both cases that threat is embodied in a male character who is not her husband. Pinter’s Rose, Bert and Riley become Orton’s Joyce, Mike and Wilson (the eponymous threatening ruffian). The haunting subtexts in Pinter’s work become shocking certainties in Orton’s: Mike is a hitman who drives a van, Joyce an ex-prostitute who has been known by many ‘professional’ names. In Orton’s play, Mike’s van is at the heart of the matter. Mike has killed Wilson’s brother by running him down with the van. It turns out that Wilson and his brother were lovers, and Wilson, who is grief-stricken, has been terrorising Joyce with the specific purpose of provoking Mike into killing him. Wilson wants to commit suicide, and wants Mike to be exposed as the killer he is. Mike finally shoots Wilson dead, but unlike Rose, Joyce throws her lot in with the killer. Joyce will lie to the police by claiming that Wilson was about to rape her, and thus Mike will get away with murder once again.
It’s an interesting interpretation and something I’d never considered. I went back to Altman’s films to see if it was the same truck but it’s not—it’s a van in The Dumb Waiter—but it would’ve made me smile if it’d been the same actor driving both.

At the end of the day The Room is not Pinter’s best play. It is not, however, one he is ashamed of because he directed it in a double with along with his last play, Celebration, in 2000; an odd coupling, perhaps, but it seems to have been well-received. Its weakness is all down to the ending. Up until the arrival of Riley the play is comfortable in its naturalness. The simple fact is even Pinter himself has been forced to acknowledge that a symbolic—maybe we should use the word “metaphorical”—interpretation of those final few minutes is inevitable.

I opened with a quote from ‘Writing for the Theatre’. We may as well end with another:
Between my lack of biographical data about them and the ambiguity of what they say there lies a territory which is not only worthy of exploration but which it is compulsory to explore. You and I, the characters which grow on a page, most of the time we're inexpressive, giving little away, unreliable, elusive, evasive, obstructive, unwilling. But it's out of these attributes that a language arises. A language, I repeat, where, underneath what is said, another thing is being said.

The Room Directed by Roman Kozak

The Room, directed by Robert Altman

Further Reading


Wednesday 10 August 2016


In Another Sense

We shall not talk of feelings again.
This is our pact.

We will not talk
but we will know.

You can close your eyes if you like
but we will still know.

25 July 1989
I always felt for Gunther. The barista from Friends. We watched him suffer throughout 157 episodes and finally, finally he got up the courage in ‘The Last One’:
Gunther: Rachel?

Rachel: Yeah?

Gunther: I... I know you're leaving tonight, but I just have to tell you. I love you.

(Ross is shocked.)

Gunther: I... I don't know if that changes your plans at all, but I thought you should know.

Rachel: (touched) Gunther... Oh... I love you too. Probably not in the same way, but I do. And, and when I'm in a café, having coffee, or I see a man with hair brighter than the sun, I'll think of you. Aw.

(She kisses him on the cheek and looks over at the others.)
I don’t remember many of my conversations with B. and none in any detail but I do know that there was a subtext to most of them. I never said what I felt but I talked about it; it was in the air. And a number of the poems from that time are that way. There’s one called ‘The Bypass (#685) which I wrote after I’d driven her down a bypass in which I say (although not in so many words), “Hey, remember what we were talking about that day? Well that was me talking about you.” I don’t think she ever took the hint. Maybe later, after, when she’d had time to think but she’d probably have dismissed the thought. No, not Jimmy. We’re talking about Jimmy here. Jimmy wasn’t like that.

Sunday 7 August 2016

Rocks and Hills

Something different today. A couple of days ago I was rummaging around on my desktop in a folder called ‘Left’ which has nothing to do with my novel. It just happens to be on the left side of the screen. Inside it I found a Word document called ‘Rocks and Hills’ which I apparently created last December. I read it and I remember nothing—I mean ab-so-lutely nothing about the piece. I don’t remember writing it and even after reading it I’ve no idea what might’ve inspired it. I did once work with a guy called Kevin—he drops me an e-mail every few years—but he’s nothing like the bloke in the story. 

I had a friend once called Kevin. Since we never fell out I suppose technically we're still friends but it doesn't feel like it; I've not seem him for years. I don't believe in luck but if anyone wanted to state the case for luck then I wouldn't be surprised if they cited Kevin as an example. Of bad luck, I mean. I don't think I've known anyone for whom so many things went wrong. He went through cars and wives and jobs and friends like I go through paper hankies and yet he's the least bitter or disillusioned person I think I've ever met. We were in this pub once downing our sorrows after his most recent disaster and I said to him (this was while our friendship was still active), "Kevin, do you know what?" and he said, "What?" I said, "Kevin, I seriously think you're the unluckiest bloke I have ever met. No sooner do you get on your feet than something or someone comes along and knocks you down." He had, you will not be too surprised to learn, been involved in a number of… let's just call them vehicular contretemps but I was being metaphorical at the time or at least trying to be. "You think so?" he said, and took a long thoughtful pull on his pint. After a suitable pause I said, "Yeah. I do. It's positively…" and here I got stuck and it's not like me not to have an adjective or two to hand for moments like that. "Positively what?" he asked and then it struck me: "Sisyphean," I said. "It's positively Sisyphean." Of course I had to explain who Sisyphus was since Kevin had missed more than his fair share of schooling growing up due to a whatever the collective noun for childhood illnesses is. Now there I truly was stumped. Plague? Epidemic? Kevin nodded when I said that. It seemed to make sense to him. "But do you know what," I finally interjected into the silence, "at least you've always stayed chipper." With that he stopped nodding and said, "You're right, Jim. Different rocks and different hills I guess. Another pint?"

Wednesday 3 August 2016



(in memoriam F.K.)

We learned to live with it.
For the most it stayed in its room.
We heard it move from time to time
(usually when we had guests).

At night it would come out hungry
and suck us dry of our fear.

25 July 1989

People do stuff when it’s dark they’d never think about doing during the day. The darkness frees them, it covers for them. I like the idea of darkness as a thing. In 2008 Ella Burfoot wrote a children’s picture book called Darkness Slipped In in which Darkness is presented as a character that slips in through the window at night and plays with a little girl called Daisy. It’s a good way to tackle a child’s fear of the dark I think. Personally I was never afraid of the dark as a child but I didn’t like open doors. I still don’t but I’m not as bad as I used to be. That said if I notice my wardrobe door is open as I’m leaving my room I will go back and close it. 

The F.K. is, of course, Franz Kafka.
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