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

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

#691



Coitus Interruptus



We made love
to make up

for the poem
in my head,

the one with the
punch line missing.


28 August 1989
 
 
Poems are not jokes I know but there’s nothing like writing one where that last line kicks the feet from under your reader. I really don’t feel as if the thing works without that. All that’s missing is the rimshot: Buh Buh CHEE. This poem I have to say is pure fantasy. I never talk about a work in progress. My last two books I just handed to my wife when they were done. She didn’t even know I was writing them! I’m not superstitious—far from it—but I really don’t like talking about things I’m writing because they can change so much along the way. A perfect example of that is my novel Left. I wrote 10,000 words taking the book in one direction and then scrapped the whole lot and began again and wrote a very different book. What I ended up with was not the book I set out to write but what I produced was the book I needed to write. 

Just a word on the title: for the record, I have stopped having sex to go and write a poem. Man can only concentrate on one thing at a time.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

#690



Secondhand



I had worn the Great Man's mantle
for some time
before I thought to check the pockets,
and they were empty.

In fact, they had been torn out!


28 August 1989
 
 
Do mantles even have pockets? I never thought about that before but they’re basically cloaks and cloaks don’t generally have pockets. Either way I can use poetic license to excuse myself. We all love that get out of jail free card. 

This is actually a sequel although I can’t imagine anyone other than me picking up on it. In my previous poem, ‘The Apeman Cometh’ (#689), we see the poet looking in the mirror and not recognizing the creature gawping back at him (or, more correctly, not being recognized by the thing in the mirror). This harks back to ‘The Drowning Man’ (#600) where the young poet recognizes something in his hero’s eyes he’d only seen before in a mirror. Years have passed and so has the great man and now the young poet is wondering just how ‘great’ he actually is. 

How do you define greatness? Per the dictionary: “the quality of being great; eminence or distinction.” Eminence? “Fame or acknowledged superiority within a particular sphere.” Distinction? “Excellence that sets someone or something apart from others.” As a teenager I honestly believed I was destined for greatness. I didn’t just have a chip on my shoulder I had a whole fish supper! [Fish supper is a Scotticism for fish and chips.] I thought that everything I wrote was gold. I really did. Now, when pressed, I’ll admit to a certain facility with words. That I can’t deny; the evidence is overwhelming. But greatness? I actually wonder how many great men (and, of course, women) felt comfortable with that label. Very few I would imagine.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

#689


The Apeman Cometh



I remember his eyes,
his little sunken red eyes,
peering out of the cavern
of a grey simian skull.

They looked as if they were
staring from the depths
of my past.

Wondering what had become of me.

And not quite able to focus.


28 August 1989
  
 
Adrian Mitchell (1932-2008) has been described as “a prolific and popular British poet/dramatists known for works with a strong social conscience.” I mention him because the title of my poem is also the title of a collection by Mitchell from 1975. I don’t own a copy. I’ve never owned a copy. I may have handled a copy at some time—the cover looks familiar—but I couldn't have said with any certainty that I’d read the book or even any poem by Mitchell before I looked him up about an hour ago. I couldn’t find the title poem but I did find some others from the collection: ‘Ancestors’, ‘Ten Ways to Avoid Lending Your Wheelbarrow to Anybody’ and the very sweet ‘Beatrix is Three’. The first one does have a familiar ring to it but I couldn’t find any individual poem called ‘The Apeman Cometh’. The closest was this:
The Apeman's Hairy Body Song

Happy to be hairy
Happy to be hairy
When the breezes tickle
The hairs of my body

Happy to be hairy
Happy to be hairy
Next best thing
To having feathers
I say I don’t recall ever reading a poem by Mitchell which is true but I do remember hearing him read a poem (probably on the BBC), the rather wonderful ‘To Whom It May Concern’ which he periodically updated to take account of the changing times. (Nalaka Gunawardene’s blog post is worth checking out.)

When I sat down to write this in my head I’d taken the title from Eugene O'Neill’s play, The Iceman Cometh (which I’ve never seen), but who knows now?

The poem reminds me of ‘The Drowning Man’ (#600). I don’t suppose I’m the first writer who’s looked in the mirror and wondered who was looking back at him be it a madman or an apeman.


Sunday, 20 November 2016

#688



My Favourite Axe



She said it was a nervous habit
and I said that was all right
we were entitled to nervous habits
and I took her to meet Eugene.


28 August 1989
 

I knew a guy once who told me Pink Floyd was the most popular band amongst prisoners, all prisoners and not only axe murderers. I’ve been unable to confirm that (Google, I am disappointed) but let’s just say it’s true; I can see it being true. The first time I remember hearing Pink Floyd was with my friend George in the early seventies. He had a job delivering milk I believe and every Friday evening went round the houses to collect the money. He took me out with him one Christmastime and happened to be playing Meddle and I remember being particularly impressed by the track ‘Echoes’. It was the start of a long love affair. God alone knows when I first heard ‘Careful with That Axe, Eugene’. Presumably on Ummagumma or maybe Relics.

In 1987 they released A Momentary Lapse of Reason which I played constantly and is the only album I’ve ever worn out although I came close in 1994 with The Division Bell. Over the years I’ve gone through phases and I’ll be honest I don’t listen to anything with lyrics these days—too hard to work over although I used to be able to—but if pressed I’d have to say Pink Floyd is still my favourite band. As for my favourite track? Well… Here’s one which was included in the film The Wall but wasn’t on the album. It finally appeared on the 2004 rerelease of The Final Cut and I always get shivers when I listen to it.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

The Next Big Thing

I have come to believe that there can be no adequate preparation for the sadness that comes at the end, the sheer regret that one's life is finished, that one's failures remain indelible and one's successes illusory. – Anita Brookner, The Rules of Engagement


 
 

The Next Big Thing, published in 2002, was Anita Brookner’s twenty-first novel. She, famously, began writing novels in 1981 at the age of fifty-three and, with the exception of 2000, had produced one a year like clockwork up until this point. The title of the American edition was changed to Making Things Better but I’m not sure that either title does the book justice. Had I been her publisher I might have suggested Dignity as an alternative; the word (or one of its derivatives) appears some thirty times in the book and that’s not counting any synonyms. It’s a word that doesn’t get used much these days. It’s not a word that slips easily into conversation although, perhaps, its antonyms do.

Julius Herz, the central character in The Next Big Thing, is seventy-three. He’s lived in London since, at the age of fourteen, he and his family were forced to flee Germany. They had little say in where they ended up and it was left to a friend of his father’s brother-in-law, a fellow exile named Ostrovski who took “on something of a god-fatherly role,” to provide them with both accommodation and employment and he continued as the family’s landlord and employer until there was only Julius left still running the business. Now Ostrovski’s eighty-one and has decided enough is enough; without warning he sells the record store and the flat that goes with it leaving Julius homeless and unemployed:

“I'm getting out,” he said bleakly. “I've had enough. All these years I've been wheeling and dealing I've never been happy. I always wondered why. And now I know. I'm not well, Julius.” He laid a tentative hand below his rib cage. “Tried to overlook it, as one does, but there's no doubt about it now. I'm looking at the end. The next big thing. […] I've got a place in Spain, as you know. Marbella. Might as well spend my days in the sun as in this perishing climate. I'm getting out, liquidating my assets. So you'll be on your own, dear boy, free, for the first time in your life. You've been a good son, I've never doubted that, too good, perhaps. Sorry your marriage broke down, but that was all part of it, wasn't it? Now you've got a chance to be your own man. I've seen to that.” [bold mine]

By “seen to that” he means he’s left Julius with enough money—“a sum that sounded unreal,” as Julius puts it—so he can buy a wee place of his own and enjoy his overdue retirement.

Hertz or Herz is a Jewish name meaning heart, at least in German—or gazelle if you go down the Yiddish route—and so a fairly obvious name for our hero. As Orwell points out in his Theory of Language during the Third Reich the name Einstein could not be used in physics lectures and the unit of measurement ‘Hertz’ could not be described by this Jewish name. When I reviewed Friends and Family I wrote a bit about the fact Brookner never mentions that the family she’s writing about are Jews and, similarly, there are only two minor nods in The Next Big Thing, a reference to a dark-eyed girl “whose looks were so suspect in the Germany of that time” and the fact their benefactor had changed his name from Abramsky—you don’t get much more Jewish than that—to the Russian Ostrovski. Brookner’s own parents were originally called Bruckner (the same as the composer) which isn’t at all Jewish but German surnames as you can imagine weren’t very popular in Britain after 1914. Brookner’s maternal grandfather immigrated to England at the end of the nineteenth century.

The American title is also taken from the book: “Making things better seemed to have been assigned to him as his life’s work.” Perhaps I can revise that sentence to make it more accurate: “Making things better for others seemed to have been assigned to him as his life’s work.” Ostrovski hits the nail on the head when he says, “You've been a good son,” but that doesn’t say it all. He’s been a good brother and a good husband; no, not merely “good”—devoted, so much an attribute of Brookner’s protagonists. In all his dealings he’s behaved impeccably and always in a dignified manner. He pays his bills on time and in full, tips well, looks out for others; were he a character in a novel by Dickens—one of Brookner’s favourite authors—he’d be described as “a proper gent”—civil, polite and responsible to a fault. He reminds me of the butler in The Remains of the Day a little; he’s subsumed his own needs and now, suddenly and unwelcomely, he finds himself free—freed—to do whatever he wants. But at seventy-three is it too late? The problem is, as Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith notes in an article in of all place the Catholic Herald:

Freedom, in the world of Anita Brookner, is a largely sterile concept. Perhaps future generations will wonder about us, and ask: having won their freedom, why did they do so little with it?

Herz has no friends bar his ex-wife. The couple parted on good terms after a couple of years—her idea—but have kept in touch meeting for lunch three or four times a year. During the course of the novel he develops something of a friendship with his solicitor—a man who also benefitted from Ostrovski’s generosity—but, again, they only meet occasionally for lunch and if business is discussed then Herz insists he be charged for the man’s time. This is how one such lunch ends:

They parted on the usual good terms, Herz waiting on the pavement until Simmonds's car drove off. Then he walked to the bus stop, remembering, in spite of himself, Bijou Frank [a friend of his mother’s] and his first experience of servitude. He smiled. How had she lived, poor Bijou? And when had she died? There had been no notice in the Deaths column of The Times, although there was no reason why there should have been. It had been an obscure life, dignified by a sort of loyalty. That was what he missed, the sort of loyalty observed by people who had little in common but their origins, but who understood each other in a more rooted way than the rootless young could ever understand. He understood it now, almost wished those lost connections back again. He was not trained for freedom, that was the problem, had not been brought up for it. He had done nothing more than glimpse it. The irony was that he now possessed freedom in abundance, but did not quite know how to accommodate it. And it was, it seemed, too late for him to learn.

Finding a new flat proves far easier than he expected—he says yes to the first one he’s shown even though the lease is only for eight years (he’s not sure he’ll need longer)—and the transition is seamless:

By the end of the week Ostrovski's mother's table and two chairs looked well against the sunlit wall of the sitting-room. Flushed with success, he went to John Lewis and bought two more chairs, a television, a bedside cabinet, and three lamps. At home, as he now thought of it, he made up the bed which he had bullied the shop into removing from the window, and hung his clothes in the small cupboard. As far as he could see he needed nothing more. He was almost disappointed that the process had been so speedily accomplished.

Now what? Julius finds his days hard to fill:

Though he did not exactly miss his former routine, he regretted that he had so little to do. His days were composed of artificial outings: a newspaper and the supermarket in the morning, and in the afternoon a bookshop or a gallery. He told himself that many were in the same boat, but pitied them, thought wistfully of families, of ideal families, with gardens to occupy them and grandchildren to cherish.

For several chapters we follow his dreary life and bit by bit we build up a picture of how he got to this stage. We learn about his family and especially his big brother, Freddy, a musical genius doted on by his parents while his talents were flourishing but neglected following a mental breakdown and left to Julius to attend to. We lean of his cousin, the self-centred Fanny, Julius’s first and one true love, about whom he dreams even as an old man. We learn of Julius’s short-lived marriage to Josie who, although not quite as bad as Fanny, had always been careful to keep her interests to the fore. In the following extract where Julius describes their current relationship you get a better picture of him than you do of her:

Late in the afternoon Herz telephoned the garden centre where his former wife now worked and asked for Mrs Burns. Josie had reverted to her maiden name after the divorce but had kept the married style. He found this perfectly acceptable; he could appreciate that marriage, even a defunct marriage, conferred a certain dignity on a woman, and women nowadays were, or seemed to be, rather anxious to define their status. Besides, she was to all intents and purposes a married woman, comfortable with her condition, perhaps even more so than she had ever been as a wife. And she was of an age when dignity counted: the single state, despite all propaganda to the contrary, still had something sad about it. Widows were in a different category. He suspected that Josie would have been quite contented as a widow, but was still sufficiently attached to him to have alighted on what she saw as an ideal definition.

But even what he has with Josie isn’t going to last. Her mother has fallen ill and so she’s decided to move in with her—the old woman lives in Maidstone in Kent—and the best Julius can hope for from now on will be the odd phone call. Josie, it turns out, is also strapped for cash and so Julius being Julius makes arrangements for her to get a regular sum for as long as she might need it. Oddly, or maybe not so oddly knowing that his author is lurking within him, he doesn’t feel sorry for himself. As Brooker said in her last interview in 2009:

Do you feel that life has been unfair to you? “Not at all.” She reflects a moment. “I think I've made a hash of it. But that's my responsibility.”

What next? Two things. The first is the arrival of an attractive and young—young enough to be his granddaughter—neighbour called Sophie Clay who becomes the focus of his attention and who—unwittingly—leads him down some undignified paths:

The presence of a young creature, so nearly under his roof, kept his thoughts chaste, yet when he went out into the street he was amused to find himself entertaining notions that were almost lubricious. These were not confined to the person of Sophie Clay: he saw women everywhere who offered some almost forgotten possibility of pleasure.

The second is a letter out of the blue from Fanny and, again, his dignity—more specifically his self-respect—is under fire. He had last seen her thirty years earlier in Nyon in Switzerland which is where her family fled to from Germany. He’d sought her out after his divorce and her first husband’s death with every intention of asking her to marry him even though she was no longer the girl he had first desired but it didn’t matter; his proposal was swiftly—although not unkindly—rejected. Now her second marriage has ended, her controlling mother has passed and Fanny finds herself in a similar position to Julius… only—predictably (why else is she making contact now?)—nowhere as well off and without her looks to use as a bargaining chip; she’s a year older than him.

What’s a man to do? Second chances are rarely handed out to Brookner’s protagonists.

Loneliness is a terrible thing for most people. Is it worse for someone whose life has been, as Julius puts it, “unlived”? “I feel I could get into The Guinness Book of Records as the world's loneliest, most miserable woman,” Brookner remarked in the year she won the Booker for Hotel du Lac. That was in 1984. In the 2009 interview she has adjusted that view slightly:

She is lonely, she says, for “ideal company” – which is not quite the same as being lonely. “I'm very good on my own. And I manage, I think, pretty well. But it takes courage.”

If, like me, you’ve read a few books by Brookner you’ll be familiar with her themes and that is what keeps us coming back for more; she’s predictable but in a good way. That said she can repeat herself. This is how Emma Hagestadt, writing for The Independent, described her 2009 novel, Strangers:

Now aged 73, and living alone in a neat South Kensington flat, he dreams of coming home. Within the space of a couple of months, two women arrive on the scene: Vicky, a pretty fifty-year-old divorcée, whom he quickly decides he doesn't actually like, and Sarah, the love of his life who walked out on him years earlier for being "too nice." To which brand of humiliation will Sturgis surrender himself? Brookner at her forensic best.

I reviewed the book on Goodreads here and there are definite similarities. Perhaps Brookner thought she didn’t quite get it right with Julius. The title’s better, that’s for sure. Everyone in this book is a stranger, at least one step removed from everyone else. This is also true to a great extent with The Next Big Thing. But Dignity would’ve been a better title and I submit as evidence this passage:

     “What is it, Josie?” he asked quietly.
She smiled sadly. “It never goes away, does it?”
     “I'm sorry.”
“That longing to be with another person.”
     “Not with me, I take it.”
     “No, no, not with you. Not even with Tom. There's a man who comes into the office. We have a drink from time to time. Married of course. Yet we get on so well...” She broke off. “You don't want to hear this.”
     “Why not stand your ground? See what comes of it?”
     “Look at me, Julius. I'm old. I might as well accept it. What surprises me is that I could still feel hope, look forward to seeing him, perhaps no more than that. I couldn't undress for any man now. As I say, I accept it. Mother's illness may have been the jolt I needed. Once the decision was made I realized that it had saved me from a lot of uncertainty. Humiliation, perhaps. I still have my dignity.”
     “I admire you for it. I know how unwelcome one's dignity can be.”
     “So you think I'm right?”
     “Probably. I also know what you mean. Keeping one's dignity is a lonely business. And how one longs to let it go.”

This chimes with something Cheryl Alexander Malcolm says in her book Understanding Anita Brookner. Published in 2002 it obviously doesn’t include any references to The Next Big Thing but had she known about it it would only underline the following comment:

Without exception, Brookner’s novels chronicle her protagonists’ realization that life is not what they expected it to be and, in her later novels particularly, how they maintain their dignity in spite of their disappointments.

She specifically highlights Visitors and Altered States of which she says, “How they travel to this end with dignity is very much the subject of these novels.”

The only real problem I had with this book is with the ending. In his review Thomas Hogglestock called it, “a little high school” and I have to agree with him. Like him I saw it coming about halfway through the novel but in her defence it was probably the right ending; sometimes things do turn out the way you expect them to. One odd thing to finish with: in a review on Amazon Ralph Blumenau happens to mention that the dustjacket of his copy promotes this is her “funniest novel to date”. Like him I think this is a very strange thing for a publisher to do. Yes, the book has its humorous moments but Tom Shape she is not.

You can read an extract from the book here.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

#687



Finding Out the Hard Way


So, you got inside me finally?
Well, it's where you thought
you wanted to be
but did you ever think
there might be no way out?

Why else do you think
I've stayed here so long?


28 August 1989
 
 
I love etymological dictionaries. The thing with them is, however, most of them stop with Latin as if once you’ve got to the Latin root you’ve found the real meaning of a word. For example:
penetrate (v.)
1520s, from Latin penetratus, past participle of penetrare "to put or get into, enter into," related to penitus "within, inmost," penus "innermost part of a temple, store of food," penates "household gods."
Penus, eh? Remind you of anything?
penis (n.)
1670s, perhaps from French pénis or directly from Latin penis "penis," earlier "tail," from PIE pes- "penis" (source also of Sanskrit pasas-, Greek peos, posthe "penis," probably also Old English fæsl "progeny, offspring," Old Norse fösull, German Fasel "young of animals, brood").
So how come ‘penis’ and ‘penus’ aren’t related? Surely a penis is a thing designed to penetrate be it a vagina, a melon or an apple pie. (For other options see http://buildavagina.com/.)

Penetration can be a contentious subject. It never used to be. In the old days sex amounted to penetration. If it didn’t you weren’t doing it right. Then again in the old days a poem was a thing that rhymed. Everything used to be so much simpler back then; you knew where you were.

There’s a line in Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape where Krapp is listening to himself as a young man describing a boat trip with a young woman, presumably his one true love or the one he imagined might have been:
--upper lake, with the punt, bathed off the bank, then pushed out into the stream and drifted. She lay stretched out on the floorboards with her hands under her head and her eyes closed. Sun blazing down, bit of a breeze, water nice and lively. I noticed a scratch on her thigh and asked her how she came by it. Picking gooseberries, she said. I said again I thought it was hopeless and no good going on, and she agreed, without opening her eyes. (Pause.) I asked her to look at me and after a few moments—(pause) —after a few moments she did, but the eyes just slits, because of the glare. I bent over her to get them in the shadow and they opened. (Pause. Low.) Let me in. (Pause.) We drifted in among the flags and stuck. The way they went down, sighing, before the stem! (Pause.) I lay down across her with my face in her breasts and my hand on her. We lay there without moving. But under us all moved, and moved us, gently, up and down, and from side to side. [bold mine]
The need to get inside someone else isn’t just a physical thing. It’s something I’ve been very guilty of over the years, probing. More. Tell me more. Give me details. And they did. I was good at interrogation and there’s no other word for it.

I’ve forgotten most of the sex I’ve ever had. Much of it was eminently forgettable I’m sorry to say. But the things women revealed to me whilst fully clothed—and occasionally not even in the same building—have stayed with me.





Thursday, 10 November 2016

#686



The Pun



I don't know why I phoned.

I wasn't in the mood for talking
but it was there.

It's said that's why
men scale mountains.

And there's something
anticlimatical about that too.


28 August 1989
 
 
I forgot to post this yesterday. I’d other things on my mind. I imagine a few people weren’t quite sure if they were coming or going yesterday. 

A pun is a form of word play that suggests two or more meanings, by exploiting multiple meanings of words, or of similar-sounding words. I’m very fond of puns as it happens. But the pun here isn’t a very obvious one. Scale, in this context, is a synonym of climb: we climb mountains. But what do you do when you get to the top? You have to go back down and it’s probably not a good idea to waste too much time slapping each other’s backs at the summit. Why do men climb mountains? The facetious answer is: Because they’re there. It does seem like a rather weak reason for doing anything when you think about it. That’s the thing about climaxes. There’s nowhere to go afterwards but down or back. 

Q: What’s the laziest mountain in the world?
A: Mount Everest.
—joke from an old British Fantastic Four Annual
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