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

Thursday 29 December 2016


The Lights of Zebulun

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

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

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

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

29 August 1989

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

Sunday 25 December 2016



There are people's worlds
collapsing all the time.

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

And they give us pills
to make themselves feel better:

an empty gesture
in the face of gods.

You can't see them either.

29 August 1989

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

Wednesday 21 December 2016


Now What Does this Do?

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

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

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

Sunday 18 December 2016

The Fan Man

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But first I must make a telephone call to Alaska.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fan Man Smoothie

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

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

Wednesday 14 December 2016


Frozen Moment

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

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

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

Sunday 11 December 2016


Lunch in Ayr

(For B.)

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

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

And anyhow, it was cozier.

The sad thing is,
it took half the time.

Still, you got to pay the full bill.

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

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

Wednesday 7 December 2016


Do You Get It?

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

But I felt better about it.

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

Sunday 4 December 2016


A Love

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

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

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

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