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Wednesday 28 June 2017


A Voice to Need

(for J.)

I lay on my bed last night,
grafted your face
on a past we could never have

and filled it with memories –
only good ones –
where all the rows ended in love.

But the images were stills,
just photographs
of a dream waiting to happen.

I miss you so much.

10 July 1994
How did we get here? I could’ve asked that question more than once over the years. Mostly I wouldn’t have been able to answer it though. I don’t think you can put it down to not paying attention. I don’t think that’s it. I just think it’s hard to isolate the key moments that lead up to whatever “here” we’re on about. I have no idea how J. became so important to me. She was always… well, not “always” but for a long time… there in the background, on the periphery of my life but when did she take centre stage? When I can answer. It was 1994. How’s not so easy. Even with the gift of hindsight it’s hard to answer. We were just suddenly there for each other. When I think about who she was to me prior to 1994 “stills” is as good an expression as any to describe it. She didn’t have an active part in my life. I can picture her there—“picture” as in “photograph”—but that’s it. 

I find the choice of tense in the third line interesting. I don’t write of a past we never had but of a past we could never have suggesting that the present we were experiencing would never turn into that kind of past and, in truth, it never did.

Sunday 25 June 2017



(for J.)

Words can be filled
with all sorts of things:
meanings and feelings
and secrets and lies.

I found some of yours
in a sentence today
hiding in a letter
packed full of truths.

I wasn't sure what
they meant at first;
it scared me,
but I want you too.

26 June 1994

“‘I want’ doesn’t get.” My parents never said that to me. It’s the kind of thing they would’ve said had the expression been one they were familiar with. Instead I was told not to be covetous. I’ve always thought that an odd word to come out of my parents’ mouths—they both used it but I can only hear my mother saying it—because they were plain speakers the rest of the time. I don’t think I was an especially greedy child—except when it came to chocolate biscuits—and they did tell me my eyes were bigger than my belly on more than one occasion but they reserved ‘covetous’ for the times I took something off my little brother simply because I wanted it. It is the tenth commandment after all: “Thou shalt not covet.” I was never told growing up that wanting was bad per se but it wasn’t encouraged. Didn’t all the world’s problems begin with Eve wanting something that wasn’t hers? Which led to covetousness. Which led to theft. Which led to enticement. Which led to death. 

I had a dream a couple of nights ago. I don’t normally remember my dreams for long after waking and am seriously jealous of those who do but because I grabbed pencil and paper as soon as I woke up I have a clear record of one particular scene. I was in a car with Sean and two girls and we were each trying to tell the girls something. By “girls” I mean young women. I agreed to relocate and the next thing I know I’m out of the car and in bed—fully clothed—with my girl (who turned out to be B. but I don’t think that’s especially important; think of her more as a place-holder) and I was trying to explain how I felt about her. This is what I wrote down on waking: 
I need to clarify how I feel about you. It's not enough that I love you or want you—it's not enough that I possess you or dote on you—I want to be with you; I want to expand my notion of existence to encompass you so that when I think about going home at night I'm going home to you and when I think of getting up in the morning I'm getting up with you. I know this is probably the least romantic declaration of affection you'll ever hear but it will be the most honest. 
There was more but the above was all I got down. 

Had I written ‘Messages’ a few years earlier I would’ve written ‘love’ and not ‘want’ and not batted an eye but I wasn’t convinced what I felt for J. was love, at least not romantic love; I was on the rebound and didn’t trust my own feelings and this was all happening so quickly. The reason I chose ‘want’ rather than ‘love’ in the end—I do remember swithering—was because of the Bob Dylan song; the guy who ran off with my first wife was a big Dylan fan and one night explained to me why ‘want’ was more powerful than ‘love’.

Wednesday 21 June 2017



(for J.)

Excuse me, I don't know this place;
we're not where we were.
I'm sure we've moved on.
Mind if I join you?

Guess I must've dozed off.

Where're you headed friend?
No; don't tell me.
Just let me sit awhile:
we don't have to talk much.

Could sure use the company.

All journeys end
or so they say –
I read a poem once –
but I'm not convinced.

Suppose we'll know if we get there.

20 June 1994

The idea for this one came from reading a poem although I don’t remember reading much poetry around this time. The only books I can recall definitely finishing were Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality, John le Carré’s first two novels. I also reread Catcher in the Rye and wasn’t nearly as impressed the second time round. In my head the poem was by a Canadian. Why that stuck I’ve no idea. So I thought I’d try and track it down. 

Cohen was the obvious first choice but I can’t find anything. Margaret Atwood wrote, “He'll find out somehow, because journeys end in lovers meeting,” but that’s from The Blind Assassin, so not a poem. Just a quick scan of the rest of the list was enough to make me think I was on a hiding to nothing. So I expanded my search parameters. 

It’s a popular phrase “all journeys end” and it wasn’t hard to come up with a few contenders:
As in interims all journeys end
in three steps
with a mirrored door, beyond it a closet
and a closet wall. 
So wrote the poet Jim Harrison in his poem ‘In Interims: Outlyer’ but I don’t think he’s the poet being referenced here.
A trellis rose-like souls can climb and grow –
And a pledge that one day all journeys end
As mind has now I stand in sun, and know
That was Nicholas Hagger in his poem ‘Among Laughton's Sacred Houses’ but it’s not that one either. Nor is it “Long ago, didn’t we read how all journeys end?” from Richard Hugo’s ‘Bay of Resolve’.
                The hillside wind

turbines were bleached oars
sunk to mark all journeys’ end. 
In his fist was a bolus of twine. 
That excerpt is from ‘Nausicaa’ by Tim MacGabhann but it doesn’t feel right.
All journeys end upon her lips and hair;
All roads lead to her eyes; all joys and pain
Up to her breast; all paths to where she sleeps;
Just why, he doesn't know and doesn't care. 
From ‘The Future – If We Win’ by Edwin Curran. It doesn’t ring any bells. It’s not from ‘Dream Poem – at fifty’ by Peter Boyle either.

The poem it turns out I’m referencing is by Rod McKuen and if you’d asked me this morning if I’d read anything by him I would’ve sworn blind I hadn’t. I would’ve been wrong. It’s called ‘Passengers for J. S. A.’ in which he writes: 
Passengers we are
traveling these same tracks
carried along by this same ribbon
                     of boardwalk.
All journeys end
or so we are told they should.  
The destination looms,
is nearly in our sights.
Can you see it, feel it? 
And for the record McKuen was born in a Salvation Army hostel in Oakland, California in 1933. Christ knows why I was so convinced the poet was from Canada.

Sunday 18 June 2017

The Strange Recital

I went to a short story reading at the weekend. It’s not something I do very often, go out, but I made the effort because I knew two of the guys reading and wanted to be supportive. I’d no expectations but the event went pretty much the way these things usually go for me; I’m not the world’s best socialiser, far from it, but the readings themselves were interesting. I didn’t regret not being up there with them, not for a second. I do understand why people arrange events like this but just because you write readable stories doesn’t mean you should read them yourself. And this is especially true if your story is in the first person. People would laugh if I got up on a stage and started to read ‘Disintegration’ or ‘Monsters’. Despite having lived all my life in Scotland I do a lousy Scottish accent and an even worse New York one. So I was wary when my friend Brent Robison dropped me an e-mail a few months back asking permission to include my story ‘Tomorrowscape’ in his podcast, The Strange Recital. I’d no problems with him using it—hell, we writers pounce on any opportunity to promote our writing—I just didn’t think I could do the story justice. Not a problem as it happens. Brent had access to a stable of actors. “So, yes, fine, knock yourself out,” I said, or words to that effect. I told him a bit about the voice I heard in my head when I read the story but other than that I left him to interpret the thing as he saw fit. After a while he wrote back. “I’ve had an idea. Why don’t we have a woman read the story?” Now I’ve got nothing about women—love ’em to bits actually—but although nowhere in the story is the sex of the narrator mentioned in my head it was definitely a male born in 1924 in Syracuse, New York, to a Jewish family. Just saying. But why not a woman? I wrote back: 
I think this is an interesting proposition, Brent. I’m just sitting here waiting to see who gets cast as the next Doctor Who and will it be a woman (they’ve hinted as much) or, if they’re going to be super politically-correct, a black lesbian? Beckett had strong opinions on the subject and refused, for example, to sanction an all-female version of Waiting for Godot. When asked why not by Linda Ben-Zvi his answer was simply, “Women don’t have prostrates” and it’s a fair point but that only cancels out Vladimir; they also don’t get erections and that would excuse both men. I’ve never seen women play Didi and Gogo but I did see a female Lucky once and wasn’t impressed. Not so much because she was female but because she was a bad Lucky. Of course there’s nothing in my story to suggest the narrator’s a male although to be fair I’d never thought about it before. I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t work and I’d be interested to see what it might add if the actress gets the tone right. To that end you have my blessing. If I was directing her my main concern would be that her delivery doesn’t suggest any sympathy for the wife or antipathy for the husband. The narrator is reporting the facts as if they’d already happened. 
And so it came to pass. Brent sent me a short demo which I approved and the full version—with appropriate sound effects—went live about a week ago. And I have to say I was impressed. It’s not the way I would’ve read it but I only see that as a good thing and all credit to Erin Stanley for her understated performance. 

You can listen to the whole show here. There’s also a Q+A afterwards. The answers are mine but the voice isn’t.

Wednesday 14 June 2017

The Meursault Investigation

[T]he absurdity of my condition … consisted in pushing a corpse to the top of a hill before it rolled back down, endlessly. – Kamel Daoud, The Meursault Investigation

I was probably eighteen the first time I read The Outsider. Knowing me I picked it up because it was a slim volume—that and I related to the title (could never quite get used to Americans calling it The Stranger but if you’ve ever wondered why the difference you might want to check out this Guardian article). I’ve read it since—twice, I think—and unlike some of the books I relished in my teens, like Catcher in the Rye, it’s a book I found I grew into rather than away from, but even on a first read I knew this one was a bit special and so dashed out and bought The Myth of Sisyphus, The Plague, The Fall and Exile and the Kingdom (books were a lot cheaper back then)—they’ve all got something but I can see why for most people The Outsider stands out although I do have a soft spot for The Plague.
As soon as I heard about The Meursault Investigation I knew I wanted to read it but expected to be disappointed. I’m delighted to report I wasn’t; far from it in fact. Of course it’s been done before—to my mind most notably in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead but also in Wild Sargasso Sea, Mary Reilly and Gregory Maguire's Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West—minor characters are given a voice but few authors have had as little to work with as Kamel Daoud. His novel focuses on “the Arab”, the man Meursault shoots on the beach in The Outsider. What do we know about him for sure? That he wore blue dungarees; that he had a friend who played “a reed,” that he owned a knife and on at least one occasion in his life lounged on a beach. Not much. Even calling him “the Arab” isn’t especially helpful. It would be like a soldier in the British Raj talking about “the Indian” because at the time of the shooting this was French Algeria, one of France's longest-held overseas territories, and it continued as such until 1962. As Daoud points out:
Arab-ness is like Negro-ness, which only exists in the white man’s eyes. In our neighbourhood, in our world, we were Muslims, we had given names, faces, and habits. Period.
In even the poorest crime novel we generally find out something about the victim. Who he or she was matters. It goes to motive. Detectives do like to arrest criminals but I suspect solving a crime involves more than identifying the guilty party. It’s not enough to know who and how but in Meursault’s case the why ends up focusing on his character and in particular his relationship—or lack thereof—with his recently-deceased mother. It almost feels as if that is why he ends up being condemned to death and the murder of the Arab is evidence of that. Much has been written about this and I’m not going to add to the screeds out there.
When I first read about Daoud’s book I assumed we were going to go back in time and get the Arab’s story up to the point where he gets shot. Not so. The narrator is his brother who was seven at the time; now he’s in his eighties. An investigator—or reporter or student (it’s never quite clear)—tracks him down in Oran where he lives and over the course of several days (and many glasses of wine) listens to his story. At first I was ready to be disappointed until I could see where Daoud was going with this. Our narrator—who we learn is called Harun (Aaron)—has in many respects taken on the mantle of his dead brother, Musa (Moses), or at least become custodian of the dead man’s memory. (In the Bible Aaron acts as spokesman for his brother.) No, ‘taken on’ is too weak. He’s been forced by his grief-stricken mother to become his brother for all intents and purposes—“my mother imposed on me a strict duty of reincarnation”—although the more we get to know him, the ‘him’ Harun describes for us—the more we realise he actually comes to have in common with Meursault:
I was looking for traces of my brother in the book, and what I found there instead was my own reflection, I discovered I was practically the murderer’s double.
The book he’s referring to is a novel entitled The Other although who exactly the author is is unclear. At one point it seems to be Meursault who must’ve been either pardoned or jailed because the brother says, “When the murderer leaves prison, he writes a book that becomes famous, in which he recounts how he stood up to God, a priest, and the absurd” but that contradicts what he says elsewhere: “Why the murderer was so relaxed after being sentenced to death and even after his execution…” [italics mine] Maybe ‘Meursault’ is a non de plume.
Clearly, though, Harun is an unreliable narrator and concedes as much when he talks about his relationship with the student Meriem (the girl from Constantine who, in 1963, first introduces him to the book), which he admits to elaborating—“[I]t’s a big fib. From beginning to end. The scene’s too perfect; I made it all up,” later adding:
Do you find my story suitable? It’s all I can offer you. It’s my word. I’m Musa’s brother or nobody’s. Just a compulsive liar you met with so you could fill up your notebooks … It’s your choice, my friend.
That’s the problem with eyewitness testimony. It’s so easy to cast doubt on it. And the more you think about it the less you can trust the “facts” but, of course, neither he nor his mother were eyewitnesses and so all they’re left with are their imaginings. “As a child, I was allowed to hear only one story at night,” he recounts, “one deceptively wonderful tale. It was the story of Musa, my murdered brother, who took a different form every time, according to my mother’s mood.” His mother keeps newspaper clippings “religiously folded in her bosom” and, once her son has learned to read French, insists he read and reread them to her:
“Here, take another look, see if they don’t say something else, something you didn’t understand before.” That went on for almost ten years, that routine.
With two paragraphs, I had to find a body, some alibis, and some accusations. It was a way of continuing Mama’s investigations, her search for Zujj [Zoudj is Algerian Arabic for two], my twin. That led to a strange book—which I perhaps should have written out, as a matter of fact, if I’d had your hero’s gift—a counter-investigation. I crammed everything I could between the lines of those two brief newspaper items, I swelled their volume until I made them a cosmos. And so Mama got a complete imaginary reconstruction of the crime, including the colour of the sky, the circumstances, the words exchanged between the victim and his murderer, the atmosphere in the courtroom, the policemen’s theories, the cunning of the pimp and the other witnesses, the lawyers’ pleas … Well, I can talk about it like that now, but at the time it was an incredibly disordered jumble, a kind of Thousand and One Nights of lies and infamy. Sometimes I felt guilty about it, but most often I was proud. I was giving my mother what she’d searched for in vain in the cemeteries and European neighbourhoods of Algiers. That production — an imaginary book for an old woman who had no words—lasted a long time.
So this is where the confabulation begins. Needless to say when he learns of the existence of the novel Harun says nothing to his mother. By then she’s quit pestering him with the clippings. She may even have finally thrown them away. Why stir her up needlessly? Because it’s only a novel. Yes, only a novel. Not the truth. At least not the whole truth.
And here, we come to an interesting twist in literary reception of both The Stranger and The Meursault Investigation: it’s important to note that, when the Algerian audience discusses The Stranger, Meursault and Camus are often seen as one and the same. As noted at the recent Contemporary French Civilization at 40 conference, in Algeria, The Stranger is understood to be a roman à clef if not outright confessional memoir. – Jennifer Solheim, ‘The Art of Making Ghosts Live: on The Meursault Investigation, Fiction Writer’s Review
Memoirs passed off as novels are not unknown and semiautobiographical novels are downright commonplace. Is it possible, is it just possible, that Camus shot a man on a beach in Algiers and got away with it? Imagine if that were true and you were the victim’s brother. Wouldn’t you want to understand how he could’ve done it? And what would be the best way to do that? To do the same? Surely no one would go out of his way to gun down a total stranger simply to get some kind of closure:
These days, I’m so old that I often tell myself, on nights when multitudes of stars are sparkling in the sky, there must necessarily be something to be discovered from living so long. Living, what an effort! At the end, there must necessarily be, there has to be, some sort of essential revelation. It shocks me, this disproportion between my insignificance and the vastness of the cosmos. I often think there must be something all the same, something in the middle between my triviality and the universe!
But often enough I backslide, I start roaming the beach with a pistol in my fist, scouting around for the first Arab who looks like me so I can kill him.
Well that’s not what happens; something else does; one day, the very next day after the Algerian War of Independence ends, he gets his chance to fill Meursault’s shoes. What would you do? This book may well have started off as one thing but it soon becomes its own thing and it doesn’t matter if you’ve never read The Outsider or seen the 1967 film version (which I recall being quite good) or even heard of Camus; it stands on its own feet. Granted its fragmented and sometimes repetitive approach to storytelling may not be to everyone’s tastes but it’s appropriate to the subject matter.
One of the major themes in The Outsider is Meursault’s take on God. These days we accept atheism as a norm—I’m always a bit sceptical when I read that two-thirds of the UK population identifies as Christian and wonder where they’re all hiding—but in 1942 things were quite different. In The Outsider Meursault is interrogated by the examining magistrate in his office:
[B]efore I could get the words out, he had drawn himself up to his full height and was asking me very earnestly if I believed in God. When I said, “No,” he plumped down into his chair indignantly.
That was unthinkable, he said; all men believe in God, even those who reject Him. Of this he was absolutely sure; if ever he came to doubt it, his life would lose all meaning. “Do you wish,” he asked indignantly, “my life to have no meaning?” Really I couldn't see how my wishes came into it, and I told him as much.
You can’t really imagine a conversation like that taking place nowadays. But what if these were Muslims? In The Meursault Investigation we discover that Harun has also come to question the faith into which he was born:
Sometimes I’m tempted to climb up that prayer tower, reach the level where the loudspeakers are hung, lock myself in, and belt out my widest assortment of invective and sacrilege. I long to list my impieties in detail. To bellow that I don’t pray, I don’t do my ablutions, I don’t fast, I will never go on any pilgrimage, and I drink wine—and what’s more, the air that makes it better. To cry out that I’m free, and that God is a question, not an answer, and that I want to meet him alone, at my death as at my birth.
As you might appreciate lines like that did not sit well with some and a Facebook fatwa (issued by Abdelfatah Hamadache, a radical Islamist preacher in Algeria who leads an obscure Salafist group known as the Islamic Awakening Front) resulted. After filing a criminal complaint against the imam the man backed down but, as you can well imagine, the kerfuffle did nothing to harm the book’s sales. Hamadache was eventually sentenced to six months imprisonment by a court in Oran and fined 50,000 dinars ($460).
Some have suggested that The Meursault Investigation will become essential reading for students studying The Outsider. I can see that. It goes a long way to making Camus relevant in today’s increasingly absurd world and, of course, it continues Algeria’s story into the present giving not only “the Arab” but all “Arabs” a voice.
You can read an extract from the book here.
Kamel Daoud is an Algerian journalist based in Oran, where he writes for the Quotidien d’Oran—the third largest French-language Algerian newspaper. His articles have appeared in Libération, Le Monde and Courrier International and are regularly reprinted around the world.

A finalist for the prix Goncourt, The Meursault Investigation won the prix François Mauriac and the prix des cinq-continents de la Francophonie. International rights to the novel have been sold in twenty countries and a film adaptation is supposedly slated for release later this year but I can find no details online.

Sunday 11 June 2017


The Power of Love

(for J.)

Love is a straight line –
it gets right to the heart of things.

Love squared is expansive –
it covers a multitude of sins.

Love to the power of three is deep –
it takes time to explore.

Give me your hand
and don't be afraid.

12 June 1994
The geometry of love. That would’ve made a decent title too. A one-dimensional straight line grows to become a two-dimensional flat plane which expands to become a three-dimensional cube. This is a love poem but what kind of love I can’t say. Not a simple love; that much is true. Interestingly I don’t use the ‘in’ word in this poem. I don’t talk about diving into the deep. I do think of it as a dark place and darkness can be scary. Yet what does it take to reduce that fear to a tolerable level? a spark? a reassuring voice? or maybe a hand to hold? By this time in my life I’d been infatuated with, had crushes on, lusted after, doted on, adored, loved and been in love with more than a few women. And now here was one more desperately needing to be cared for. The last thing in the world I was looking for was another woman. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t wary.

Wednesday 7 June 2017


"Behind the Wood"

(for J.)

How did love find its way in here?
What's it doing in a place like this?

It knows it'll die –
there's nothing to keep it alive –
and yet it came.

Somehow I knew it would
but I was still unprepared.

How do you prepare to lose something
before you've really found it?

10 June 1994
Why do people meet behind the wood and not in the wood? Surely the trees would provide cover? Don’t you have to pass through the wood to get behind it? Maybe that’s the point. Maybe this kind of meeting warrants effort. For months J. and I had kept our distance. The only time I made any effort was once when we ran into each other in the bank and I asked her if she’d like to go for a coffee but she declined and it was probably for the best. What if we’d been seen? People talk even when there’s nothing to talk about and there was nothing to talk about. 

My dad asked me if J. and I were in a relationship. It’s an annoying little preposition. It’s not enough for us to love someone, we have to be in love with them. Both J. and I were going through our respective somethings in 1994. We were both very much in our individual woods. So I think I’m being presumptuous here in assuming either one of us had made it to the clearing beyond it. I don’t know. I don’t know what I was thinking. 

Why the title’s in quotes I couldn’t tell you. I can find several people who’ve used the expression—Shakespeare, Tennyson, Turgenev—but none of them ring a bell.

Sunday 4 June 2017


The Spark

(for J.)

She didn't see it at first
because the world was full of lights.

Then the lights went out
and the sky was filled with stars.

But when the stars fell down
and all was dark and cold
then she noticed it,
alone and unsure,
in a universe of darkness.

And it was for her.

7 June 1994

Every now and then someone turns up in our life and we can’t quite remember a) when they arrived and b) how they became important to us. That’s how it was with J. I don’t recall meeting her for the first time. I do know there was a time when she wasn’t a part of my life but the window in which she appeared is a wide one, anywhere between 1983 and 1988 at a rough guess. One day she wasn’t there, the next she was. She became a friend of the family but she wasn’t part of our inner circle and I can only remember her being at our house once only I’m not sure she came in the house; I remember her in the back garden (I think she was dropping something off) but that’s it. I was never inside her house and only once knocked on her door to drop off a book but she was out so I gave it to her eldest son. And yet after the disastrous years that led up to 1994 she was the only person from my past—apart from my parents (and by that I mean mainly my dad)—whom I kept in touch with. I wrote to her, she replied and we corresponded and talked occasionally on the phone for a few months. In the years to come I met her in person only twice; the last time was at my mother’s funeral.

When my dad learned about J. he asked if I had a relationship with her and I remember being confused by the question because I honestly hadn’t thought about it. For a man who prides himself on his knowledge of words my misunderstanding is a surprising one. We were friends and I loved her but that was all I could be sure about. To this day I couldn’t tell you if I fell in love with her but we did cling to each other for a while and that can muddy the waters. She was also going through a bad time—she’d come home to find her husband had hung himself leaving her with three boys to raise on her own—and was also very much alone having been abandoned by almost everyone. (Not as a direct consequence of the suicide but I don’t want to elaborate.)

I didn’t have much to give her but somehow a bond developed between us—even before I moved away—and it helped a little. I am the spark in the poem. And she became my spark too. Not bright enough to see anything bar and certainly not hot enough to warm us but enough to know we weren’t completely alone.
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