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

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Dot Dash


Don’t be afraid to let the right brain off the leash. Don’t wait for inspiration to strike—start writing. And if all else fails, bring on a talking animal. – Jonathan Pinnock, ‘Anatomy of a Flash’

I’m not saying that Jonathan Pinnock’s as successful as he is because he’s not afraid of hard work but once you start to delve into this guy’s life the one thing that screams from the page is that he’s clearly not afraid of hard work or of being busy. Examples of his writing can be found all over the place online and he regularly wins prizes in short story competitions. His first novel, Mrs Darcy versus the Aliens, was published by Proxima Books in September 2011 and this was followed in 2012 by his Scott Prize-winning short story collection, Dot Dash, published by Salt. On top of that he writes music, draws cartoons, writes articles and poetry, maintains a blog and… oh, runs a software development company called Jonathan Pinnock and Associates which also involves a bit of writing. He somehow finds time to be married, be a dad and possibly sleep.


The Dots

This is the third short story collection I’ve read in a row. The first contained just stories, the second just flash fiction and now we have this where each story (the dashes of the title) is interspersed by a piece of flash fiction (the dots). I have to say I like this approach. I like flash fiction and I’ve read a few collections but, like poetry, I much prefer to run across one or two a day in my inbox or a news feed—a whole book of them feels like a bit much—whereas this way the piece of flash serves as a short respite; something light, a palette cleanser if you like.

There have been some very, very short stories published in the past, like this gem by Richard Brautigan:

The Scarlatti Tilt

"It's very hard to live in a studio apartment in San Jose with a man who's learning to play the violin." That's what she told the police when she handed them the empty revolver.

but there’s a danger that, because of the brevity of the piece, it can come across more like a joke than a proper story:

A screwdriver walks into a bar. The bartender says, "Hey, we have a drink named after you!"

The screwdriver responds, "You have a drink named Murray?"

I even wrote a whole blog about it: Is flash fiction a joke?

Jonathan’s tiniest tweet-sized flash pieces definitely veer towards the set-up/punch line format:


She was beautiful, sexy, made of antimatter. Best bang of my life.


Terry peered at the steaming heap of undifferentiated cells and sighed. “Teleport engineer’s arrived,” he announced.

Less Than Deadly

His attempt to commit all seven deadly sins in one week ended in failure. On reflection, it was probably a bad idea to start with sloth.

Great literature this is not but it’s not aspiring to be. Like jokes they make you pause and smile but after you’ve watched a comic crack one-liners like this for an hour how many do you remember? I watched a fellow about six months ago whose humour rested on the pun and I only remember one joke he told. I know I smiled all the way through and enjoyed myself but only one stuck:

“My dog has no dictionary.”

“How does he spell ‘terrible’?”

HemingwayI wouldn’t have been surprised to see a piece like that show its face in Jonathan’s collection. Not all are trite; most are clever and a couple actually thought-provoking. I enjoyed the short series: ‘Love Story, Day One’, ‘Love Story, Week One’, ‘Love Story, Month One’ and ‘Love Story, Year One’. They could easily have fitted on a single page (as is done here) but I liked the story split over four stories. These have more of a flavour of Hemingway’s famous

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

Jonathan’s not actually been writing flash fiction that long. In an interview with Rumjhum Biswas he had this to say:

RB: Can you tell us about your first flash fiction experience? Both, the one you read and the one you wrote?

JP: Both happened at the same time, in late 2007. I’d never come across the term before, but I was taking part in an event for charity where you had to write something new every hour based on e-mailed prompts and the very first flashes I wrote came out of that. Also, we had to critique each other’s work, so I also had to read everyone else’s flashes. It was quite a learning experience, both from the point of view of opening my eyes up to a new form and almost immediately having my attempts at that form subjected to fierce critique!

Five years on he’s obviously has time to hone his craft and there really isn’t a bad piece of flash in the book but because he’s opted to focus on the tiniest examples of his craft I don’t think he quite shines here as much as he might. In the same interview he talks about what he personally looks for in a piece of flash:

Someone once told me that the most important thing about a poem was that every word had to earn its place, and I think the same principle applies to flash. It doesn’t need to make perfect sense but it needs to make me think. Or laugh. Or cry. Ideally all three, although that doesn’t happen very often.


It would have to grab me from the first sentence and not let me go until the end. There’s no scope for flab. Also, it doesn’t have to be a twist or a punch line, but the ending has to deliver something. Sorry if that sounds a bit enigmatic. A good ending is very tricky to define, but you know it when you see it.

None of the really tiny pieces grabbed me in the way he describes here and they were over too quickly. A better example is this one:


One our first date, she said she was an animal lover, which sounded promising until I realised that “animal” was not an adjective. However, at least I now knew how to win her heart.

So I bought a small white mouse for her, called Benji. After a week with him, I became quite attached and I felt unbearably sad at the prospect of giving him away.

On our second date, I presented the gift to her as she opened the door to her flat. She hesitated briefly. Then smiling, she took Benji from me and fed him to her python.

This is better. It could’ve ended after the first sentence—that would’ve worked—but those extra seventy-seven words make all the difference.


The Dashes

O HenryBalancing everything out are the dashes. These are better still, much better. None are especially long—the longest looks to be about 3000 words—but these are well-rounded pieces, proper stories, although, to be fair, he still likes to lead up to a punch line of sorts and that’s fine; it certainly didn’t do O Henry any harm. Humour is still a big part of this collection. Granted it’s occasionally a bit on the dark side—just what might bored spacemen really get up to on a long flight?—but there are no really heavy stories. The problem I’m going to have now is how to talk about these without letting on where the stories are going because they’ll be very easy to spoil.

On the whole the stories are based firmly in the real world. In ‘rZr and Napoleon’, for example (shortlisted for last year's Bristol Short Story Prize), we have a Banksy-style character hiding behind his balaclava and demanding (and getting paid) ludicrous sums of money for his more corporate work but it looks like he has his own agenda; ‘The Amazing Arnolfini and His Wife’ (which was read on BBC radio) features a husband and wife tightrope walking team who travel across America wowing audiences with their daredevil acrobatics and in the delightful ‘Return to Cairo’ (3rd prize, City of Derby Short Story Competition) a girl goes to extraordinary lengths to please her grandmother.

Others have a slight science fiction edge, like ‘Convalescence’ (3rd prize, University of Hertfordshire Writing Award) where a man’s received a partial brain transplant and there are complications (think The Hands of Orlac); ‘The Problem with Pork’ (Supplementary prize, Bournemouth Short Story Competition) is set in a future where, following two Epidemics, meat has become a rarity and ‘Anniversary Feast’ takes place on-board that spaceship I mentioned before which is transporting colonists to a distant world. (See what I mean? Your mind’s working overtime. What could they possibly be doing with their hibernating crewmates?)

Some, are just plain fantastic, like ‘Advice re Elephants’ (Shortlisted, Seán Ó Faoláin Competition) in which a couple deal with the (literal) elephant in the room, ‘Canine Mathematics’—which incorporates talking dogs and a talking cat—and ‘Fisherman’s Tales’ (2nd prize, Milton Keynes Speakeasy Competition) where a man sets out to reel in a mermaid.

And then there are a couple of slightly-experimental ones too, like ‘Possible Side Effects’ (3rd prize, Calderdale Short Story Competition) which is told backwards (when I got to the… beginning I literally read it back to the end to see if it worked better that way and, yes, the punch line is in the first paragraph) or the self-consciously postmodern and metafictive ‘Somewhat Less Than Thirty Pieces’ (Longlisted, Cadenza Competition).

In an interview with Dan Purdue Jonathan talks about how he chose the fifty-eight:

I'm not a big fan of themed collections. I'm more interested in seeing what a writer can do in different genres and styles. So it was a case of picking the best stories I had.

I am actually a fan of themed collections or, if not themed, then toned. Jonathan may jump around subject matter and even genre but there is still an overall tone to this grouping of stories; they felt like they were written by the same person.

So, what is it about this guy’s stories that keeps getting him in to the finals of competitions? Not sure. On Facebook recently he had this to say (albeit about a poem):

Another day, another Highly Commended poem. This time it's ‘Seven Day Wonder’ at Newark. Would have been nice to make the winner's enclosure, but I guess I can't really complain. I have this feeling that the kind of stuff I do tends to be clever enough to make the shortlist but not really profound enough to go any further.

I think he’s hit the nail on the head here because the best of the stories in this book—and by ‘best’ I mean the ones I would want to read a second time—are the ones that exhibit an element of profundity. It’s an awful stodgy word I know so let’s try some synonyms: understanding, perceptiveness, insight, wisdom.

One of the ones that exceeds the sum of its parts is ‘Return to Cairo’. At the start of the book the publisher’s opted to include a ‘Praise for Dot Dash’ section and Tania Hershman includes a spoiler in her paragraph (although she doesn’t let on what the twist at the end is) so I don’t mind talking about this one.

I don’t know how we ended up with Nan living with us. It’s hard enough for Mum coping with Danny and me, but Nan’s getting more and more difficult all the time. Not that Mum notices. She’s so tired when she gets in, she’s in a little world of her own. It’s me who ends up dealing with Nan. And I’m the one she says it to.

“Want to go back to Cairo.”

“What? Can you lift your leg a bit more?” I’m trying to change her catheter bag. The district nurse explained to me how to do it, but I’m still getting the hang of it.

“I said I want to go back to Cairo. Liked it there.”

“Nan, you’ve never been to Cairo,” I say. “Have you?”

“Have. Nice place. Hot. Full of Arabs, y’know.”

“Nan, you’ve never been abroad. You haven’t even got a passport.”


“No you haven’t.”

“Want to go back to Cairo.”

As far as Jonathan’s writing style goes this is as good an example as any in the book. It’s clean, spare and captures the essence of the situation in as few words as possible. There’re no long and winding descriptions of Nan, her physical state or her living conditions. She’s a nan. Most of us have them. I like the fact the mother’s “in a little world of her own” as well as the grandmother and, of course, this is realistic and there must be a goodly number of schoolchildren out there—for that’s what she is—who have to take on the lion’s share of the care. She asks her mum:

“When was Nan in Cairo, Mum?” I say.


“Nan. In Cairo.”

“Dunno. Never mentioned it to me. Why?”

“Says she wants to go back there.”

Mum laughs. “Well I’m not paying for the air fare.”

Again, we get exactly what we need to understand what’s going on here. The dialogue is realistic and believable. The mother is clearly working all the hours God sends to support her family—no sign of a dad—and so that’s the first thing she would think about, money; even love has to cut its cloth.

The rest of the story then outlines what lengths this girl goes to, what favours she call in—like putting in a good word with Saffron Henderson for her older brother—to recreate Cairo in Nan’s room. Turning up the heating is a start but the old lady still has a few marbles left:

“It’s hot,” she says.

“Course it’s hot, Nan. You’re in a hot country.”

“Where am I?”

“In Cairo, of course.”

“Doesn’t look like Cairo.”

“That’s because you’re inside.”

“Doesn’t sound like Cairo.”

“That’s because—” Sod it. “You’re not quite there yet,” I say.

Arabian MoodsThe music helps—she goes down to the World Music section in the library and borrows a CD called Arabian Moods—then she nicks some incense from her brother’s room “that his last girlfriend, Moonbeam, left behind.” Street sounds pose a problem but a geeky Asian kid with thick glasses her friend Lorna knows helps out there, with the sand and—with the aid “of a dodgy Sky box … a free subscription to Al Jazeera [which is] basically Channel Al Qa’eda.” The effort they go to to recreate this environment is wonderful but what raises this story a level is the dialogue between the respective parties. It’s not completely in dialogue but it is dialogue-heavy; this is a wonderful way to compress a lot of action and detail into a small space. At the end of the story Great Aunt Mabel appears on the scene and the truth is revealed but I’m not letting on what it is. These are real people. These are believable people. I have a mother-in-law who could play Nan in her sleep.

When asked what his favourite story was Jonathan picked this one (in two separate interviews):

I’d probably go for ‘Return to Cairo’ because I think I managed to judge the emotional level about right without tipping over into mawkishness, and I’m quite proud of the central character.


[I]t combines humour and absurdity with pathos. But ask me again tomorrow, and I’ll almost certainly have changed my mind.

He’s right. This one could’ve gone badly in a few different ways but he manages to pull it off. Put it this way, I’d really like to read the stories that got first and second prizes in the City of Derby Short Story Competition that year; they must have been corkers.

In a third interview he picked ‘Mr Nathwani’s Haiku’ as his favourite, because, he says, “it’s intriguing and—in the end—an accurate description of where the story is leading to.” I prefer ‘Return to Cairo’ but this one has its charms too—and having a haiku as a punch line has to be a first. This one is also very different to ‘Return to Cairo’ in that there’s no dialogue in it at all. Despite that fact it presents an accurate character study, primarily of Mr Nathwani (who once owned the “most successful car dealership in Kampala” until his family is expelled from Uganda) but also his wife, Lakshmi, named, one must imagine, after the Hindu goddess of wealth and prosperity (both material and spiritual) and I’m sure that name wasn’t pulled out of a hat. The family wind up in England:

England was cold and wet, and Lakshmi suffered terribly from morning sickness. They lived with their relatives in Southall until they could find a place of their own. With what little money that they had managed to bring out with them, the put down a deposit on a corner shop. The man who sold it to them seemed relieved to have it taken off his hands, even if it was to one of “your lot”. Mr Nathwani said nothing. He was learning that to say nothing was often the right thing to do.

Selling groceries was not really like selling cars, but they had no choice. They hardly ever left the shop, except to stock up at the cash and carry. All they did was work and sleep. Lakshmi was stacking shelves in her final month.

Just as most of us have grandmothers most of his will have a corner shop at the end of the road run by Asians. We certainly have. Carrie and I have lived here for about ten years now and yet I don’t think I’ve ever done as much as pass the time of day with any of these men—there’re no women in our shop—and the same goes for every one I’ve ever shopped in. In Glasgow we call them Pakis—the shops, irrespective of the nationality of their proprietors—but then we can be an ignorant lot. Bradbury1This is why this story moved me because it’s really a portrait of a faceless man. And you don’t get much more profound than that unless you’re Ralph Ellison.

One I particularly enjoyed was ‘The Birdman of Farringdon Road’. This is a Bradbury-esque tale in the vein of Stephen King’s Needful Things and by that I mean that, had Bradbury got the idea for Needful Things he would’ve probably turned it into a short story rather than a novel. It begins:

I don’t usually give money to beggars. After all, they’ll only spend it on drink. So I’m really not sure what got into my head that July morning. Maybe it was the sunshine, maybe it was the girls in short dresses, maybe there was just something in the air. Whatever it was, I went over to the old tramp outside the station and threw a couple of pounds into his bucket. Instead of thanking me, however, he stood up, reached behind my ear and produced a single feather, as if by magic. Looking deep into my eyes, he pressed the feather into my hands, closing them over with his.

“You’re a bird,” he said to me. The voice was quiet, steady and educated, with no discernible accent. He held my gaze for several more seconds before nodding slightly and releasing me. I didn’t really know what to say, so I simply nodded back and moved away, putting the feather in the inside pocket of my jacket.

Far from being discomfited by the morning’s strange encounter, I felt elated for the rest of the day. A bird! Yes! That’s what I was! I was an eagle, soaring with wings outstretched above the mundane pettiness of everyday working life, just waiting for the moment to strike. At last my destiny had been revealed to me.

At the end of the week the man—whose week has just got better and better since their first encounter—runs into the beggar again and decides to take him for a drink where he learns about the man’s uncanny ability: all he has to do is look at a person and tell what animal they are and what traits they might display:

He spent the next quarter of an hour identifying a bizarre array of animals who were apparently sharing the bar with us. Finally, I drained my glass, and made to leave.

“Er … your round, I think?” he said.

“Well, I was just leaving.”

“I’m not. And whilst you’re at the bar, have another look at that dark one. Trust me, she’s red hot.”

“But what’s so special about her? I still like the look of that blonde.”

“Nah. She’s a rabbit.”

“Sorry? Excuse me, but isn’t that …”

He leaned in close, and whispered in my ear. “The one in the middle is an octopus.” He tapped his nose in a meaningful manner, nodding slightly.

The beggar is right. After an “exhausting weekend” with the ‘octopus’ a plan forms in his mind. He has to hire a new team and decides to pay the beggar to vet the candidates. He tells him what he’s looking for—a fox, a dog and a cat—explaining his reasoning and the man agrees—for a rather hefty fee—to do as he asks. Now, ask yourself, what could possibly go wrong here?



This is a fine collection of short stories and well-balanced. I’ve mentioned my reservations as regards the dots but I also have one regarding the dashes. It’s not a big one but I feel it needs mentioning even though life being as hectic as it is nowadays I doubt anyone would be too fussed about it. With one or two exceptions there weren’t many stories here that I felt I wanted to reread and relish. They weren’t hard reads—and by that I mean they were so well-written that I slipped seamlessly from one sentence to the next and never once had to reread a paragraph to see if I’d understood him right the first time (with the sole exception of the story written in reverse) although there was a dot that I stared at for longer than I really ought to have before I could see where he was going with it; my wife when I showed her also took an extra few seconds before she got it. Who, these days, has time to read a book more than once anyway? Because of the ease of reading it’s tempting to treat these works as lighter than what they are though. Granted there are some that are deliberately light and fluffy (like the appropriately-named ‘Hidden Shallows’) and, really, what’s the point rereading them once you’ve got the joke? The book’s not full of them so enjoy them for what they are. The bottom line is that this is an enjoyable read from beginning to end. This would have been perfect bus reading for me because having to get off and go to work would’ve stopped me devouring the book in one or two sessions; I actually managed to spread it over four sittings. This wasn’t a review copy by the way. I bought an electronic version for 77p off Amazon and all I can say is that’s a ridiculously-cheap price to pay for a work of this quality. I imagine though by the time this review gets posted—I’m actually writing this on New Year’s Day—the sale will be over.

Stories from Dot Dash available online and not linked to above:


j_pinnockJonathan Pinnock was born in Bedford, England. After reading Mathematics at Clare College, Cambridge, he drifted into the world of software and has remained there ever since. He has written one book on software development and co-authored a further dozen, most of which are now almost entirely obsolete.

He is married with two slightly grown-up children and a 1961 Ami Continental jukebox.

He’s currently finished his third book which he describes as “the story of an offbeat real-life quest I undertook recently” and is looking for a publisher at the moment.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Looking for Godot: Meaning in Jim Murdoch's 'Milligan and Murphy'

Murphy with border 1-6 ratio

Only things that have no value are free of charge; those things are worthless but nothing is meaningless. – Jim Murdoch, Milligan and Murphy

One man’s sunrise is another man’s sunset. It all depends on your point of view.

I have for a very long time been fascinated by words and their relation to meaning. I’m not the first to get caught up in this tangle and I have no doubt that I will not be the last. It never ceases to amaze me how as complex a society as we live in can function when so much of it is based on the vagaries of the communication process. I had never really considered that my novel Milligan and Murphy was a book about communication and yet, on closer examination, I find I do talk about it quite a bit:

Communication was a rudimentary craft when practiced here; there was no art in it. Words contained only their essential meanings and when they were emptied, someone filled them up again with exactly the same stuff.

“Say what you mean and mean what you say,” their mother had repeated ad nauseum throughout their childhood and so, if they were unsure what they were talking about which was much of the time, they tended to opt not to talk, at least around her. It was the course of least resistance; something they were practiced at. If they couldn’t call a spade, a spade they tended not to mention it at all.

If you've not read the book—which will be the case for a lot of you—let me give you a quick summary. John Milligan and John Murphy are half-brothers who have lived a secluded (and mostly idle) existence in a small, out of the way village in Ireland; physically they're grown men but with very little life experience. One day their mother sends them to a local farm on the outskirts of town to seek work but they never get there. At the road junction to the farm they meet an old tramp who gives them food for thought and they end up, for the first time in their lives, leaving town. Having left they have to decide where they're going and why but what they struggle with the most is understanding why they left in the first place. Throughout their journey they're helped by a variety of characters all of whom give more to think about as well as providing practical assistance.

Philosophers have long struggled to explain the correlation between words and meanings and it’s not surprising to find there is no easy answer. Let’s consider three points of view:

  • the meaning of a word is the denoted object
  • meaning is something in the speaker’s mind (idea, image, concept, intention)
  • meaning is a set of conditions of satisfaction

All three can be illustrated with a single quote from Milligan and Murphy:

“I wonder if Mary will be in the pub tonight,” wondered Murphy out loud as he towelled his face dry. He would have been rhetorical but it wasn’t his way; mountains were there to be climbed and questions were there to be answered.

“Just Mary or The Two Marys?”

“Mary. Just Mary.”

“You’d be meaning Mary Maguire then?”

His brother sighed, folded the towel in half and folded it again over the back of his chair; it was its place. It flopped off onto the floor but he didn’t see fit to retrieve it. One place is as good as another.

“Milligan, are we acquainted with any other Mary? I mean, apart from The Two Marys and what would they be doing in a pub anyway?”

In Murphy’s mind the term ‘Mary’ is transparent. It is not that he doesn’t know there are other people in the world called Mary, it is simply that he didn’t mean any of them when he asked the question assuming the context would make it abundantly clear who he’s talking about.

At the very beginning of Herbert Clark’s book, Using Language, the author states his thesis:

Using LanguageLanguage use is really a form of joint action [...] A joint action is one that is carried out by an ensemble of people acting in coordination with each other. [...] When Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers waltz, they each move around the ballroom in a special way. But waltzing is different from the sum of their individual actions. [...] Waltzing is the joint action that emerges as Astaire and Rogers do their individual steps in coordination, as a couple. Doing things with language is likewise different from the sum of a speaker speaking and a listener listening. It is the joint action that emerges when speakers and listeners – or writers and readers – perform their individual actions in coordination, as ensembles. – H.H. Clark, Using Language, p.3

Of course Astaire and Rogers were professionals, at the top of their game. Most of us can’t waltz to save ourselves but it always takes two to tango.

Meaning, of course, can apply to an action or a sequence of actions as well as a word and this is something the two brothers struggle with. When Milligan and Murphy want the priest they encounter to tell them if they did wrong abandoning their old mother he has this to say to them:

“Gentlemen,” [the priest] began and then thought to soften his message, “Boys … lads … not everything in this life is reasonable. It is easier when you’re talking about good things and bad things. You murder a man in cold blood, for example, and then you think to yourself, Self, did I do a good thing or a bad thing? And your self says to you, ‘Look up Exodus Chapter Twenty,’ and you do and there it is in black and white. It’s a lot harder when it comes to reasonable and unreasonable things.

“You’ll have heard it said that everything happens for a reason. Well, poppycock! Simply because someone makes a statement like that doesn’t make it any truer than my insisting that the moon is made out of green cheese which it may or may not be; I have no empirical evidence either way. Yes, God has His grand plan – I have to believe that (it’s more than my job’s worth not to) – but it will come to fruition despite what we do not because of it. Make no mistake, we are all spanners in God’s works, you and I and everyone else. That’s what free will is all about.

“People do unreasonable things all the time – and by that I mean things for no good reason at all – and when they start to look for reasons why they did what they did in the first place they find there aren’t any. That doesn’t mean that answers won’t ever exist for what they did, however, the answer comes at the end of the sum not before it. How would you feel Mr Murphy, Mr Milligan if your schoolteacher had asked you one day what equalled four?”

“Two and two equals four,” fired back Milligan.

“Which can be true,” said the priest, “but what about three plus one or seven minus three or the square root of sixteen?” He had lost them there. “Reasons, if they exist at all, are always to be found before we do things; answers, once we’ve worked them out (if we ever figure them out), always come into being after the fact.”

The emphases didn’t help.

“So did we sin or not, Father?” enquired a now more-confused-than-ever Milligan.

That … is for each of you to answer.”

Knowledge is one thing. Meaning is another. How often does someone say, “Oh, I know what you mean!” when the odds are they don’t really.

When people have to cope with difficult situations in their lives, they sometimes reassure themselves by saying that everything happens for a reason. For some people, thinking this way makes it easier to deal with relationship problems, financial crises, disease, death, and even natural disasters such as earthquakes. It can be distressing to think that bad things happen merely through chance or accident. But they do.

The saying that everything happens for a reason is the modern, New Age version of the old religious saying: “It’s God’s will.” – Paul Thagard, 'Does everything happen for a reason?' Hot Thought, 11 February 2010

Milligan and Murphy wonder about this. In fact as one point Milligan asks his brother if he thinks there's someone up there looking after them.

Don’t you feel as if someone’s looking after us?”

“Someone? You mean someone… up there?”


“I do not.”

“It stands to reason. God, or possibly one of the saints, maybe; if He’s too busy.”

PuckoonIn their case there is someone watching over them. We're never told for sure who he is—unlike Dan Milligan in Puckoon who gets to have exchanges with his writer—but there is a godlike individual watching over them. So they don't have free will. So their actions don't mean anything. Or at least the meaning is not of their choosing.

Knowledge consists of learned facts and figures, the raw data, e.g. I know that E=MC2 but I don’t understand it.

Understanding knows the meaning or reason of a thing. It is about knowing why something is, and how it is so. The more intelligent a person is the more they are capable of understanding but intelligence is not a guarantee of understanding; for starters I’m not interested in knowing why energy equals mass times the speed of light squared.

Wisdom is the ability to look past appearance into substance, to read between the lines, to know the truth of a matter. Not everyone draws the same conclusion from the evidence presented however. The apostle Paul proposes that the physical world provides sufficient proof of the existence of God (Romans 1:18-20) but, if that is the case, why do so many people choose not to draw that conclusion? Wise people know what to do with the things they understand. Clever people worked out how to split the atom but it wasn’t wise people who built the atomic bomb.

Actually Milligan and Murphy know quite a lot considering where they’ve been brought up courtesy of Arthur Mee's Children's Encyclopaedia. That said, they’re not very bright and they spend the best part of the book hoping that, by following things through to their natural conclusion (whatever that conclusion may be), they will end up understanding why they’ve done the things they have and can move on from there.

Murphy, in a burst of uncharacteristic eloquence towards the end of the novel does his best to sum up why they need to go on.

“People, Mr O’Fallon, rarely find the things they think they’re looking for. You could be searching for a missing button and find an old ha’penny. Most of us don’t know what we’re looking for out of life but we don’t look very far and so we don’t find much that might fit the bill; you can only find what’s there to be found so you marry the girl next door, you drink in the pub on the corner, you work in the farm down the road and get buried in the cemetery on the hill. There are no choices so you make none.

“Columbus wanted to find a new route to the Indies and he ran into America; De Soto hunted for gold and came to the Mississippi River, and Ponce de Leon wanted a fountain of youth, so that he might drink the waters and never die, and instead of youth and life he found Florida and death. I have no idea what my brother and I will discover about the world we’ve been born into or about ourselves, Mr O’Fallon, but we know this: there’s nothing to be found if you go nowhere or if we go back there to spend the evenings, when one hasn’t even the price of a pint to one’s name, thumbing through Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedia trying to locate photographs of half-naked Africans.”

“I see,” said the detective, “Seek and ye shall find.”

In their case the journey is the destination because, as Estragon—or the ghost of Estragon or the pooka masquerading as Estragon (I never say for sure)—puts it to them:

“… It’s more … proactive, looking for what you know you’ll never find rather than waiting for what will never arrive. Don’t you think?”

By that he means going looking for Godot rather than waiting for him.

The notion is not a new one. People spend their whole lives looking for something they don’t expect to find whether it be the Holy Grail, Mr Right, proof of extra-terrestrial life or the answer to that question they should have asked when they had the chance. Pragmatists insist that the meaning of an expression lies in its consequences. If that is true then the true meaning of the brothers’ actions probably cannot be assessed until many years later, possibly not until they die and there are no more variables to factor into the equation. That said, in some cases the significance of a person’s words or deeds carries on well after his death, e.g. the teachings of Buddha or the writings of Shakespeare.

There is also the danger that people come along and try to impose their own meanings on the words. The narrator of the book – who may or may not be God (or me playing God or a fictitious narrator playing God) – makes an important point about the search for meaning when he says:

There are coincidences in this life. Sometimes they make a difference, mostly not. What is this thing with humans? Why do they insist on trying to read meaning into everything? They can’t look at the stars at night or the clouds during the day and not make something out of them that’s not there. And just as there are optical illusions so there are mental illusions where the mind thinks it sees or understands something. Why did the chicken cross the road? Have you ever looked into the mind of a chicken? It has no idea why it’s crossing the road. It doesn’t even register that there’s a road there. What’s a road to a chicken? Chickens only know the here and now.

Ralph RichardsonBeckett told Sir Ralph Richardson that “if by Godot I had meant God I would [have] said God, and not Godot.” For years people have wondered who Godot was or what he symbolises but all the evidence we have is what's on the page. And there are those who still insist he is God. Again, as Beckett recalled that when Richardson "wanted the low-down on Pozzo, his home address and curriculum vitae, and seemed to make the forthcoming of this and similar information the condition of his condescending to illustrate the part of Vladimir ... I told him that all I knew about Pozzo was in the text, that if I had known more I would have put it in the text, and that was true also of the other characters." Is the narrator of my book Godot? Until two minutes ago I'd never considered that possibility but if he is then perhaps that's why he's manipulating the two brothers' lives to get them to where they need to be to take over from Didi and Gogo. Every generation needs two of its own to wait for its own Godot.

Meaning is often something we impose on an object or a situation. Take, for example, the penny they find on the way out of town:

“I saw it first.”

“But I recognised it first.”

“That you did,” he conceded. “Still, there’s not a lot of luck going around, Murphy. We should be careful.”

“In what way?”

“Well, is it the finding of the penny that brings the luck or the act picking it up?”

“Ah, I see.” Murphy retracted his hand, stood up and stroked his chin. He considered the matter for a moment or two, then a moment longer and then suggested that it might require both the discovery and the recovery of the coin for a portion of luck to be devolved upon the fortunate individual.

At the end of the book all they are left with is a single penny between the two of them:

Between the two of them they had nothing left bar one penny, as it happens, the very penny they had come across in the mud; not that it is of any consequence, but it will be of interest to those of you out there who like to read between the lines.

Is that significant? Or is it a coincidence? We're so desperate to attribute meaning to things that there's a danger of us fabricating meaning. As Freud is supposed to have said, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar" and sometimes a penny is just a penny. It's not luck that has got them from their home in Lissoy to the coast but sometimes it's easier to believe in luck than accept facts where they lead you.

All things said and done, I’m a writer not a philosopher. I’m interested in making people think, not in answering questions. I have no idea what happens to Milligan and Murphy and I have no interest in writing a sequel. What I set out to write was a book about where we see a pair of Beckettian characters at the start of their adventures rather than, with Vladimir and Estragon, at the end. I wanted to write Looking for Godot and Milligan and Murphy was the end result.

Milligan and Murphy is currently available as a paperback from FV Books or as an ebook from Smashwords.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

By All Means


Kathy Nightingale: What did you come here for anyway?
Sally Sparrow: I love old things. They make me feel sad.
Kathy Nightingale: What's good about sad?
Sally Sparrow: It's happy for deep people.
Steven Moffat, ‘Blink’, Doctor Who

In the 1970s the prevalent view among primary-care physicians and the public alike was that unhappiness, even in some cases everyday unhappiness, was the result of a chemical imbalance in the brain—which drugs could fix. Nowadays people are more willing to view sadness as simply a part of the human experience; a natural reaction to painful circumstances. All of us will experience sadness at some point in our lives. It’s a transient feeling that passes as a person comes to terms with his troubles. The general consensus, though, is that people should be happy and if they’re not happy they should still want to be happy and should be doing something about changing their circumstances so that they can be happy for as often as—and for as long as—possible. And, yet, here’s the thing: perfectly healthy (ergo presumably happy) people regularly go out of their way to listen to sad music or songs, watch sad films (boxes of Kleenex at the ready) and read sad books. Why?

Happiness, constant happiness, must get monotonous. The same could be said for never-ending sadness; that would be just depressing. Life is all about variety. We have a wide spectrum of emotions to pick from. Why stick with blinding white?

Glenn Schellenberg is a psychologist at Toronto University whose particular field of interest is music. Recently he analysed every Top 40 hit from 1965 to 2009 in terms of tempo and whether the song was in a major or minor key and the results were interesting: in 1965 every song in the Top 40 was in a major key but there was a radical shift in the eighties and nineties. By 2009 only 18 out of the Top 40 songs were written in a major key. He has some thoughts as to why the change:

I think that people like to think that they're smart. And unambiguously happy-sounding music has become, over time, to sound more like a cliché. If you think of children's music like 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star' or 'The Wheels on the Bus,' those are all fast and major, and so there's a sense in which unambiguously happy-sounding songs sound childish to contemporary ears. I think there's a sense in which something that sounds purely happy, in particular, has a connotation of naiveté.

People have come to appreciate sadness and ambiguity more. Life is more complicated, and they want the things that they consume as pleasure to be complex similarly.[1]

There’s a lot of talk online about the positive benefits of sadness. Sad people do better in tests;[2] they don’t jump to obvious answers. According to Dr Birgit Wolz, a psychotherapist, author and "cinema therapist" based in Oakland, the painful emotions released by sad movies are often helpful:

What makes sad movies so 'enjoyable' is this: They allow us to confront very real and deeply sad feelings in a safe and protected environment. They allow us to confront real issues by experiencing 'reality' in a safe distance on the screen because our emotional responses feel real.

Movies draw us into the viewing experience but, at the same time—often more easily than in real life—afford a unique opportunity to retain a perspective outside the experience, the observer's view.[3]

The simple answer is that “negative moods make people more thoughtful,”[4] they, in effect, prepare us to get more out of a thing, be it a piece of music, a film, a book or even a test.

Now, what the hell has thing to do with Tim Love’s new book of short stories?

After I’d finished my first read-through Tim’s book I dropped him an e-mail letting him know I’d finished it. I know Tim a wee bit; the online British writing community is not exactly huge and it’s only a matter of time before we run into most of our peers. I read his blog and he reads mine and occasionally we even make an odd comment. So we’re not exactly besties but we get on fine. In part this is what I wrote to him:

I’ve just finished my first read-through of your book, Tim. Enjoyed it very much. Not sure what the hell I’m going to say about it but it’ll be fine I’m sure once I get started. [...] I really have nothing negative to say but I’m not sure how to talk about what I enjoyed about it without it coming across as negative. You see I enjoy sad things. ‘Enjoy’ is completely the wrong word—who in their right mind enjoys being sad?—but sadness resonates with me and there are a lot of sad characters in this book and all shades of sad too. It didn’t reduce me to tears or anything—I’m always a bit perplexed when I hear that people cry over books even though I know my writing’s had that effect on people and I am flattered by the fact—but it did affect me.

His response?

Just see what comes out. Your apparent negativity might interest others. I've had 2 comments about the book so far – [one at Tony Williams’s Poetry Blog] and a verbal one saying how gloomy it was.

child-called-it-bookI actually don’t think the book is gloomy but it’s all semantics, isn’t it? One person’s sadness is another person’s gloom. I do think it is a sad book, though. It’s not sad like A Child Called “It”; it’s sad because it’s real. I’m not saying that A Child Called “It” is all made up because it’s not but it takes too much imagination for me to relate to its narrator (I had the same problem with Sybil); it might as well be science fiction. The characters in By All Means I got.

Even though my mother never left my father I found Tim Love’s story ‘The Big Climb’ something I could relate to completely. Like everything I read I looked for ways into the piece. My parents did take me on a caravan holiday when I was about three—two years younger than the boy in this story—but I’ve only the vaguest of memories of it; what I do remember better were the many, many walks I went on with my dad, sometimes just the two of us as in this story, often with the whole family. Of course I don’t remember much about any one specific walk—other than one where my daughter came along and struggled to understand the concept of going for a walk for the sake of walking, that we weren’t going anywhere—but the notion of going for a walk with my dad and talking about stuff is something I’ve no trouble relating to. And that’s all that really happens in this story: a dad takes his son away for a break and they walk up a hill. We learn that his wife’s left him but little about the whys and wherefores.

“We’ll have to go home soon you know Sam.”

“Can we have chips with Sid and Doris?”

“No, I mean our real home. We’ll go back on the train, and when we open our front door there’ll be a pile of letters. One of them will be from mummy saying she’ll come back.”

“How do you know?” Sam says.

“Because I know everything.”

“Do you know where she is, papa?”

“She’s having a holiday.”

“In a caravan like ours, with bunk beds?”

“Yes, but with her clothes scattered all over the place.”

“And cups of tea all over the place too?”

“Yes, and the shopping and washing not done.”

“And the telly on all the time?” said Sam, “and her crying all the time?”

“Is that what she did Sam?”

“Sometimes. And she forgot things. But I don’t forget. I eat up all my food.”

“What else did she say?


“Did she ever say anything about me?”

“No. Can we look for her caravan now papa?”

“We’ll try. What colour do you think her caravan is? What colour does she like?”

“Pink I think. Can we go there?”

Everybody wants to know the truth but what if our conduit to the truth is faulty or limited? What if the truth can only be accessed through a five-year-old boy? This is a simple story, more of a character study than a proper plotted story with a beginning, a middle, an end and a nice pithy moral slipped in there for good measure. We get to tag along with these two for a couple of days and listen in. And it works beautifully. But despite the humour—kids do say the funniest things and Sam has yet to grasp the concept of puns—the sadness refuses to go away. It made me sad reading it even though neither of these people exists. Somewhere though there will be a dad of a five- or six-year-old whose wife has walked out of their life. I went online and on the first page of my search found this:

I have been married 19 years and my wife walked out on the night of her 44th birthday. I was blindsided and am still in shock. We have 3 teenage girls and the younger two are still in the house their mother walked out of. Anger, confusion, resentment, guilt, pity, still in love.......She just said she wasn't happy anymore. What is this all about?[5]

Over on Goodreads one of the reviewers, Lucille, in answer to the question ‘Why do we read sad books?’ wrote: “I read sad books to feel. To check if I'm still human, that I'm not bitter or heartless.”[6] There’s a term that came into vogue in the early eighties, ‘compassion fatigue’, and it’s never gone away. I’m actually wondering if sadness is actually what I felt when reading this story. Perhaps what I was feeling was compassion and empathy masquerading as sadness. If I can feel something for two made-up characters then I guess I’m still okay? Right?

We have a similar situation in Tim’s story ‘Definitions’ (which is broken down into eight sections each with a definition as a subheading) in which we accompany Dave as he goes for his weekly swim:

dure[7] – to fill

During lunchtime each Tuesday Dave would make straight for the Holiday Inn and buy a ticket from the receptionist for the pool which was open to the public in the morning. He'd been going there for months – it was secluded, tasteful, and he knew the staff by name (he had studied their badges). He would change into his one-piece, swim 20 lengths, then shower in the only cubicle. He'd use a palmful of almond soap from the dispenser for each armpit, one for his groin, then wash the chlorine from his hair and let the suds clean the rest of him. After, he'd treat himself to a traditional meal in the hotel restaurant ready to face work again.

Today he completes his lengths, returns to his locker, collects his towel and t-shirt. But someone's in the cubicle. He waits.

johnny-cash-a-boy-named-sue-cbs-3Sounds banal. Is banal. Tim could’ve described Dave changing a tire on his car or picking a Xmas present for his nephew. The thing about Dave is that Dave used to be called Diane and not in a Johnny-Cash-Boy-Named-Sue kind of a way. I was never a girl called Jemima nor have I ever felt remotely inclined to become a girl and yet I do get the whole being different thing. He’s got problems to deal with and gets on with them; life doesn’t stop simply because you wake up one day and realise that you’re a man trapped in a woman’s body. And yet despite Tim’s best efforts to present what must be a normal lunchtime-in-the-life-of-Dave I found it impossible not to home in on the tragedy of the situation even though Dave’s determined not to a tragic or ridiculous character. It’s the situation that’s tragic.

In 1968 British Pathé released a short documentary entitled Prague – The Sad City. The voiceover—male, Received Pronunciation—tells us that, “[t]he Czechs have a sad character: they knows about revolution, invasion, occupation.” Even nowadays it has the reputation of being a rather dull, sad city, grey like the weather. The film is only repeating what the Rock Hill Evening Herald reported on September 18th, 1968 as thousands of Soviet guns formed a ring around the city:

The steel ring of Soviet artillery is evident to anyone travelling outside the now tranquil but sad city. Heavy cannon rockets and missiles point at Czechoslovakia’s capital from north, south, east and west.[8]

It’s no wonder Jonas’s aunt, Miss Kretchova, who his English friend Mike meets in Tim’s story ‘Prague ‘86’ comes across as a sad character.

"So you've seen the Old Town and heard how we cruel Czechs pull the plug out on the Christmas carps?"

"Yep. Jonas has told me all about that." As he gave me my cup he threw me a cautionary glance then retreated to a radio with fretwork of a palm-treed desert island over the speaker. He turned it down low then rushed on to another. The room was filling with soft music and mutterings. "I was looking out of your window while you were in the kitchen Miss Kretchova. The square down the road seems busy."

"October Square, yes, I often watch the people there, around the...oh Jonas, socha? English you know, it is not so good." She lowered herself painfully into a chair by the table. I saw how thin her white hair was.

"Statue", said Jonas distractedly.

"Ah yes, yes, around the Lenin statue. It is very sad, you know. I knew the artist who made it; Vladimir Stropoff." She reached for a photo beside her. "I'm sorry", she said, her voice trembling, "you must think me a silly old woman, but they were good times for me. It was in '68. You know what happened in '68 Mike? So often the foreigners they forget."

Once they’ve left Jonas explains to Mike that his aunt has been living in the past for the previous eighteen years. “It was her last assignment before the purge. […] No one employed her after that; she'd taken too much advantage of the freedom. She's never got over it.”

‘Olga, December '76’ sounds like it might be another Prague story. Actually it’s set in London and has a great opening line:

Not so much as a postcard for three years, then she phoned me at eight one morning to say that they'd tied a pig to Battersea Power Station and would I like to come down.

They’d been at university together but now are very different people:

I'd always been the quiet one, and in the years since I'd left for University I'd learnt more words and had become even quieter, but I'm sure I must have said something in the train, probably about needing a degree to do therapy. She was as unselfconscious as ever, a whirlwind giving me no time to think. You can't be like that nowadays without being diagnosed as on some kind of spectrum even if you're an artist. I wondered how many people had taken advantage of her openness.

What’s sad about this story is that all of us—all of us over a certain age that is—will have friends we’ve grown apart from. I certainly have and it’s impossible not to feel something about them. The biggest mistake any of us can make though is meeting up again and thinking it might be possible to recapture something of that past. That’s what goes wrong in ‘Late’ too. The narrator gets a phone call from an old mate telling him that their mutual friend—the third Bare (no I didn’t spell that wrong)—has died. This time it’s ten years since they’ve seen each other.

"Thought you'd better know", he said.

"We should visit, I suppose."

"His dad didn't say exactly where the grave was. It's a big place."

"Let's meet at 1pm on Saturday. It'll be like old times."

Needless to say it’s not. Alan arrives late and they end up wandering round a graveyard in the dark getting drunker and drunker on the cider Colin’s bought; they even manage to get themselves locked in. Like all the other stories there’s humour here but really I just felt embarrassed for these two. As one should.

Now, let’s see, there are nine stories in this collection, which ones haven’t I talked about yet? ‘Doors and Windows’, ‘Method of Loci’, ‘Dreams’ and ‘Fractals’. The first two involve gay men. The history of the word gay is a fascinating one—nowadays most kids think it means lame (I wonder what they calls gays then?)—but I’ve always thought of it ironically since so many in the past lived (and still continue to live depending on where they live in the world) sad and oppressed lives. I think about people like Frankie Howerd, Kenneth Williams and Charles Hawtrey—all of whom were actively gay whilst homosexuality was still illegal in the UK—and there isn’t one of them that isn’t more tragic than comic. As the narrator in ‘Doors and Windows’ says:

I had to learn from those around me, but my colleagues were inexperienced in love, my kind of love. I let myself be guided by cultural conventions, finding it useful to swot up on the arts and subscribe to mailing lists – that two men should go to the opera together or visit a gallery is nothing strange, I belatedly realised. Alas, I've never had much of a liking for the Arts.

Like Colin in ‘Late’ he ends up wandering around streets from his past and tries to look up an old friend, the man who’d introduced him to the gay scene and stopped him making a fool of himself. Predictably enough the man’s long gone but (conveniently from a storytelling point of view) the young man whose moved into his flat is gay and they make a date to visit and art gallery the next day, a date which our nostalgic narrator has no intention of keeping.

‘Dreams’ and ‘Fractals’ both focus on writers. It’s hard not to write about what you know and I doubt there are many of us who have resisted that pull. Tim writes:

Many writers had sad childhoods, or long periods of childhood illness. Those who write about childhood often do so to get out of depression. Tintin went to Tibet because Hergé was in therapy and wanted life to be simple, covered in eternal snow. The therapist said I had a good mind and should keep busy, so I'm doing this distance learning degree. Being childless helps with objectivity. That's the theory anyway.

fleetwood-mac-dreams-warner-bros-3‘Dreams’ finds another middle-aged man wallowing in his past—“My parents' loft is full of broken pieces of my childhood.”—and I have a story myself that says almost the same thing so this one felt like very familiar ground to me. I was also obsessed with origami for a time but I never got Rupert the Bear or Asterix the Gaul. I loved Blondie, Tangerine Dream, tried never to miss The Old Grey Whistle Test. Wasn’t that impressed with Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Dreams’ but I had a copy of Rumours although I far preferred Tusk. So this could be me with a bit of tweaking and being the sad git that I am there was no way this story wasn’t going to make me feel sad.

‘Fractals’ also covers familiar ground, the act of writing. I’ve written more about it in poems but I do have one short story set on a train where a writer is debating adding a sex scene to his latest novel. Tim also has a thing for trains; they crop up in several stories. Not sure what to read into that. This one reminds me of Amos Oz’s Rhyming Life and Death in which we watch an author weave the characters he interacts with into a work of fiction.

I'm not getting any younger. Nowadays all my drafts shrink to flash fiction. The lyrical ending remains in full while the rest rots away except for the plot-hinges and a sentence of description for each setting and person. It's not such a disaster though – delve a layer further down and each bit's ready to be expanded to fill the void – the broken-handled RNLI mug used to hold pens, bought in Torquay after their first night together; an overheard comment in the canteen that makes him realise he'll never get promotion; the row of sensible shoes by her door – little things that say so much, that say the deeper you go, the cheaper life gets. You see, I think the two states of existence aren't Life and Death but immortality (which for me lasted about twenty-five years, and for my aunt until she became a widow) followed by the knowledge that one's going to die. Really die. Nothing after. And not much before. Even those closest to you are chemicals. When I see people battling, fretting and laughing I play along. I don't have to believe in their hopes and dreams. She'd understand, the bus-stop woman. But writing's different. It's like watching a film – it's not pretending to be real so I find myself getting involved, easily moved. This year I've not written anywhere near enough.

Actually none of the pieces in this collection is short enough to get away with being called flash fiction. But I know exactly where he’s coming from. It’s literary impotence. We can’t get it up or if we can we can’t do much with it. Last year I wrote 11 poems, all within a seven week window, and a few hundred words of a novel I’m starting to think will never get off the ground. The pessimist in me—who is a majority shareholder of my psyche—is not optimistic.

One of my favourite quotes—regular readers of this blog will know where I’m going here—is by Aldous Huxley. It’s underlined in my copy of Brave New World:

Actual happiness always looks pretty squalid in comparison with the overcompensations for misery. And, of course, stability isn't nearly so spectacular as instability. And being contented has none of the glamour of a good fight against misfortune, none of the picturesqueness of a struggle with temptation, or a fatal overthrow by passion or doubt. Happiness is never grand.

I think happiness and sadness are far closer together than people realise. Most people assume they’re polar opposites—elation versus depression—and although such extremes exist (just ask anyone who suffers from Bipolar Disorder) the rest of us spend our time walking the tightrope of contentment, wobbling a bit to the sad side and then a bit to the happy but never staying in either for too long. Sadness is not regret. Sadness is not shame, guilt or embarrassment. Sadness is a counterweight; it keeps happiness in check.

Although written over a twenty-four years period (between 1987 and 2011) and, of course, never designed to be anything other than nine standalone pieces, some of which have already been in print, this collection works quite well as a unified whole. In a diagram on the companion blog site on which Tim is posting short essays talking about the writing on the stories he has uploaded a diagram showing in what ways the stories are interconnected but the other articles are interesting too. Like most—probably all—writers I’m always fascinated to hear about the genesis of a story. It always makes me feel better about myself when I realise just how much they’ve struggled and how unhappy they still are with what they’ve done.

Is this the quintessential short story collection? No, I think Borges, Joyce, Carver and… I dunno… Chekhov are safe there. But once you’ve read all of them and are looking for something else to accompany you on a plane or a bus or a train then I would recommend giving Tim Love’s wee collection a go especially if you enjoy the slice-of-life approach to the telling or stories and don’t mind the company of sad people. One last thought on sadness—I’ve already written more than I intended—sadness is like love, just as there are many kinds of love there are many kinds of sadness; there are at least nine kinds in this book, in fact that would’ve been a good title, Nine Kinds of Sadness (a bit like Eleven Kinds of Loneliness or Four Kinds of Rain). I have no idea why he called it By All Means.

Only one of the short stories in this collection appeared online but the site has now folded. There are one or two stories by him out there though if you want a taste of his style:


Tim Love lives in Cambridge, England, having lived in Portsmouth, Norwich, Bristol, Oxford, Nottingham and Liverpool. He works as a computer programmer and teacher, and is married with two bilingual (Italian) children. His prose has appeared in Panurge, Dream Catcher, Journal of Microliterature, etc., and has won prizes run by short Fiction and Varsity. His poetry pamphlet Moving Parts was published by HappenStance in 2010 and you can read my review of it here. He blogs at


[1] Alex Spigel, ‘Why We’re Happy Being Sad: Pop’s Emotional Evolution’, NPR, 4 September 2012

[2] ‘Sad People Do Better, Job Study Finds’, Daily News, 1996 (See also ‘Feeling grumpy “is good for you”’ on the BBC website)

[3] Michael Machosky, ‘Sad movies have therapeutic value, experts say’, TribLive, 25 June 2009

[4] Nick Nauert PHD, ‘Sad Movies Make Many People Happy’, PsychCentral, 28 March 2012

[5] ‘My wife of 19 years walked out.......’, Men’s Health, 23 June 2006

[6] Comment on the ‘The Fault in our Stars discussion: why do we read sad books?’, 5 April 2012

[7] 1. Hard; harsh; severe; rough; toilsome. 2. To last; to continue; to endure. – Webster’s Dictionary

[8] ‘Soviet big guns ring Prague’, Evening Herald, Rock Hill, 18 September 1968

Saturday, 5 January 2013

A Man's Hands

A Man's Hands Final

[T]the line between fiction and confession was so fine it didn’t exist – Andrew McCallum Crawford, ‘When Iron Turns To Rust’

Just over a year ago I reviewed Andrew McCallum Crawford’s first collection of short stories, The Next Stop is Croy and other stories. As in that collection the characters in A Man’s Hands often appear in more than one story and although these stories stand on their own (and, indeed, have been published as standalone pieces) they do form part of a larger story arc and are enhanced because of this. That said, the Jacks, Johns, Andys, Matts and Seans all feel a bit like they all ought to be Andrews. I asked him about this and he said he thought I’d hit the nail on the head here:

Perhaps they all are Andrews. More precisely, perhaps they are all Andrew. Perhaps. The title of the collection is A Man's Hands, not Men's Hands.

When I read this the first time—at 60 pages it’s not exactly a long read—I didn’t pay too much attention to who the protagonists were in each of the stories. There was ‘the man’ and ‘the woman’ and that was as much as I really needed to know and I did find myself mixing them up. This has been something I’ve complained about before where there has been a cast of thousands—okay, a dozen or so—but never where most of the stories only contain two players. The fact is the names really are pretty much irrelevant and only serve to remind the readers which stories are (officially) linked. I add the proviso because, as I will explain, I think all the stories here are thematically interlinked.

The first thing I had to do when I’d finished the book was to go back and get the story threads straight in my head. There are eleven stories broken down into six sections:


The Canny Cyclist




Edinburgh Arrivals

Arthur’s Seat

Edinburgh Departures


Sofitel Gatwick



Chicken Soup

Gentlemen, We Have A Winner

When Iron Turns To Rust


A Man’s Hands

The longest single story, taking up about a third of the book, is the first one. It reminded me of Harold Pinter, specifically his play The Homecoming. Writing in The New Yorker, the critic John Lahr had this to say about the play:

The Homecoming changed my life. Before the play, I thought words were just vessels of meaning; after it, I saw them as weapons of defence. Before, I thought theatre was about the spoken; after, I understood the eloquence of the unspoken. The position of a chair, the length of a pause, the choice of a gesture, I realized, could convey volumes. […] The Homecoming offered no explanations, no theory, no truths, no through line, no certainties of any kind.

The play explores the nature of family. In brief: after having lived in the United States for several years, Teddy brings his wife, Ruth, home for the first time to meet his working-class family in North London and, of course, she is in danger of being the outsider. That’s not how Pinter plays his hand but I’m not here to talk about Pinter other than to get you thinking about the mood he generates in his best-known work.

Pinter was not a conscious influence however. Andrew says:

I am aware of Pinter's work, although I am not an aficionado. I have only ever seen one of his plays—The Collection—in Thessaloniki way back in 1991. I remember being struck by the things you mention. Having said that, I wouldn't cite Pinter as an influence. The four greats for me are Malamud, Kelman, Donleavy and, of course, Carver. Of these four, I would say that it is Malamud and Carver who have influenced my writing (meaning the way I write) the most.

Conscious or not this was what I saw/brought to these stories.

In Sean’s story, after only a couple of dates (if you include their initial meeting at a party in Edinburgh) Sean takes the train down to York to be with his girlfriend, Rose, a Geordie whose father’s a Dundonian so goodness knows what they’re all doing in York; we learn that Sean’s an east-coaster which is to be expected since Andrew hails from Grangemouth and, as I’ve said, all the male protagonists in the book feel like his proxies. We learn very little about Rose: she has long eyelashes, is prone to pouting, isn’t embarrassed by public shows of affection, is a newly qualified teacher, can drive, drinks Earl Grey tea, likes chocolate éclairs (the cake, not the sweets) and toast but not sausages and hasn’t seen her family in a while. We learn even less about Sean: he likes public shows of affection, owns an overcoat, is the kind of guy who’d buy his girlfriend a red, family-sized toaster on their second proper date and can play a bit of piano. So, if, like me, you’re not a huge fan of description and exposition then Andrew’s the bloke for you.

After a day out sightseeing they go back to her flat where Rose gets a phone call. The phone’s in the hall and so Sean doesn’t overhear anything; besides he’s busy watching the telly.

She was gone a while. When she came back in, she sat in the armchair on the other side of the room. She had crumbs at the sides of her mouth. ‘Fancy a drive?’ she said.

‘Eh?’ said Sean. ‘Where?’

‘I need to go home,’ she said. ‘It’s been a while. I’ve been putting it off. You’re welcome to come with me if you want.’

This was a surprise. ‘Of course I’ll come with you,’ said Sean. ‘I’d like that.’

No explanation is offered nor is any sought. It’s a fair drive from York to Newcastle (about 75 miles) during which one might’ve imagined Sean would ask questions about her family (I certainly would) but, no, the only eventful thing about the car journey is the fact that the left—and shortly thereafter—both windscreen wipers give up the ghost. This may strike you as odd especially if you’re a writer because we tend to be nosey besoms, but there are people out there who, even if they are curious, hold themselves back from prying and this is a characteristic of many Scots and northerners. So Sean finds himself in her parents’ house very much the outsider.

After a while Kevin, the titular cyclist, appears and the two men do not hit it off. So who’s Kevin?

‘He’s an old friend,’ said Rose. ‘We were at school together. He’s a bit clingy.’ She examined her nails. ‘But he’s been...never mind. He’s not important.’ She smiled, but he could see it was forced. ‘You’re not jealous, are you?’

Words. All you could do was listen to them. ‘Should I be?’ he said.

lindisfarne-lady-eleanor-charismaSo, we missed out on the phone conversation, we miss out on whatever the ellipsis is hiding and later that evening when her drunken dad turns up and sticks a CD on repeat playing the same track over and over again (‘Lady Eleanor’ by Lindisfarne) Sean misses out on his lovemaking; she’s still up for it—‘It’s what [Dad] does. Don’t worry, he won’t come up here.’—but Sean’s too distracted to perform. The man’s drunk, blootered in fact—he looks like he might have been injured in a fall or a fight—and Rose gets him to bed before crawling into her own. Sean tries to talk to her but, predictably, she’s not up for it: ‘Just go,’ she said. ‘It’s would never understand.’

In the morning good ol’ Kevin’s there—seems he’s found the time to fix the window wipers—and the two men get a chance to face off:

Sean leaned against the sink. He had forgotten to switch on the kettle. What am I doing? he thought. I’m bigger than this. ‘When long’s her dad been...’

‘Didn’t she tell you?’ said Kevin.

‘No,’ said Sean.

‘No,’ said Kevin. ‘See, she’s like me. She’s canny. Come to think of it, she’s better than me. She knows not to talk to strangers.’

‘Okay,’ said Sean. ‘You broke it. Are you happy?’

‘Broke what?’ said Kevin. He bit into a crust and wiped crumbs from the corners of his mouth.

‘Don’t come it,’ said Sean. ‘You know what I’m talking about. I’ll be gone soon enough, don’t worry.’

‘That’s fine,’ said Kevin. ‘Champion.’ He got up and opened the door.

‘No, it’s not,’ said Sean. ‘It’s just the way it is.’ He heard him go into the living room, then their voices. He heard everything, but he was past caring.

Now, look at that scene as if it was a play and tell me you can’t see the Pinter in there:


When long’s her dad been...


Didn’t she tell you?




No. See, she’s like me. She’s canny. Come to think of it, she’s better than me. She knows not to talk to strangers.


Okay. You broke it. Are you happy?


Broke what?


Don’t come it. You know what I’m talking about. I’ll be gone soon enough, don’t worry.


That’s fine. Champion.


No, it’s not. It’s just the way it is.

By now you’re probably at screaming point, aren’t you? It’s like they’re talking in innuendoese. Why do these people have to say everything by not saying anything? Because that’s the way so many of these non-conversations go. By this time Sean’s sussed out a few things. He realises Rose’s mum’s dead which is why all her clothes are in the spare room. When was the funeral? That day? A week ago? A month? Presumably it was Kevin on the phone but just what’s the deal with him anyway and why did her dad, in his drunken stupor, assume he was Kevin? And how come Kevin painted everything white including the piano from all accounts? I can’t imagine. Don’t look at me for any answers because I don’t know much more than you and that’s all Andrew’s fault. Only I don’t see it as a fault.

Over on the Writer’s Digest site there are lots of friendly articles telling us what to do and not to do. In one of her articles Elizabeth Sims says, “resist the urge to over-explain … [your readers] can conjecture just fine” and in one of her articles Nancy Lamb writes, “allow [your readers] to intuit the meaning” of the text. There’s a great deal we never get to know about Rose and her family, even less than Sean because at least he got to hear her conversation with Kevin; we never do.

Jack’s story revolves around a slightly different male/female dynamic. In these three stories we have an older man and woman meeting up after many years apart. Really it’s hard to think of the first and last pieces as standalone pieces because they’re so short, a couple of bits of flash fiction really; they serve as effective bookends though. ‘Edinburgh Arrivals’ and ‘Edinburgh Departures’ are in the third person; ‘Arthur’s Seat’ is in the first person, Jack speaking. Although they’d like to think they know each other, after this many years—“half a lifetime”—they’re completely different people: “He had promised her the boy; she was confronted by a stranger.” So really the situation isn’t that dissimilar to ‘The Canny Cyclist’: there is an assumed familiarity that isn’t really there. Again there’s a difference—he’s a Scot, she’s now acquired a bit of an English twang. Non-Brits might not appreciate the significance of the UK’s north-south divide—we’re just one great big united kingdom after all—but the differences are many; to lose/give up ones accent is tantamount to losing one’s national identity. I don’t think Andrew’s making a political point here but I don’t think the decision to give Rose and Jill different accents can be considered as pure coincidence.


Touching is another issue these two men face, the desire to and the limitations of. When Sean is out with Rose at one point he squeezes her hand “but there was no response” and when Jill slips and Jack holds out his hand she chooses to grab his sleeve instead. The issue is one of control, i.e. power, another Pinteresque trope. Rather than visit the castle (just as Sean and Rose fail to visit the cathedral, the two biggest tourist attractions in Edinburgh and York) Jill suggests they walk up Arthur’s Seat which is an extinct volcano situated in the centre of the city of Edinburgh. Part way up, as I’ve said, she slips:

She grabs my sleeve. I feel the tug through the material. I want to touch her hand. I want to feel the skin of her hand in my hand. I want this woman, who was once my lover, to touch me. I want her to want to touch me. I want confirmation that I am still a man in her eyes, that I am still in the game. Back then, our relationship was defined by the word ‘control’. I couldn’t control her. I still can’t. I want something she won’t give, something she can’t give.

In Pinter's The Homecoming one of the important themes is power. Many of the characters try to exert power over others through various means such as sexuality and intelligence. You use the tools at hand. Information is power. Rose withholds it. Intimacy is power and although she’s open sexually their relationship still lacks intimacy; she refuses to confide in him. This is true of Jack and Jill and their hill and it was impossible to read this story without thinking of Scottish psychiatrist R D Laing’s book of poetry, Knots, which also feature Jack and Jill and their various power struggles.

In John’s story we have another similar encounter at an airport—this time it’s the Sofitel Hotel just by Gatwick Airport in London. There he meets an old lover and another power play ensues:

Slow down. You can control this. But these thoughts have a life.

She is standing in the space between the dressing table and the bed, looking for somewhere to sit. There is no need to sit down yet. He embraces her, but it is not supposed to be like this, embracing her ski jacket, embracing Gore-Tex and Velcro. It is her he wants to embrace, the essence of her. The smell of her perfume, but it is not her perfume.

A similar encounter takes place with Andy and his unnamed muse, another old lover. He has written a semiautobiographical work of fiction, a collection of short stories, one of which (which sounds exactly like the previous story in this collection, ‘Chicken Soup’) wins a major prize; a nice metafictive touch there. Much to his delight she turns up at the award ceremony in Plymouth sans husband and the opportunity—fuelled by nostalgia and alcohol—leads to the inevitable:

‘I want you to fuck me, Andy,’ she said. She sprang off the bed. The expression on her face. She wasn’t the girl he remembered. She was a woman. She pulled him upright by his belt. ‘Let’s see what you’ve got,’ she said.

Jump forward several months and into the next story. Andy’s dropped off the grid. In ‘When Iron Turns To Rust’ his muse turns up at his pathetic excuse for a flat a similar scene to the one involving John and Ailsa ensues:

He squared the sheet on the bed. He made it last longer than necessary, tucking the corners in just so. He could feel her standing behind him, next to the sink, taking in the state of the place.

The canister gave a final pop. The flame died.

‘I’d make you a coffee,’ he said. ‘But, eh...’

‘No, fine,’ she said. ‘I’m not...can I sit down?’ She wasn’t asking for permission. There were no chairs in the room. There was nothing in the room apart from the bed and the wardrobe.

Both could easily be stage sets.

Andy is a writer. But then so, it transpires, is John:

He wrote a book. It was a minor hit. Nothing major. It got a handful of good reviews. It dealt with a defining moment in his life. This defining moment had to do with things falling apart. It was a roman à clef [a novel about real life, overlaid with a façade of fiction], which was irrelevant in the great scheme of things, seeing as he was a nobody. A minor hit. The names, as they say, had been changed. He didn’t want to hurt anyone, he wasn’t that type of person. In any case, the names weren’t important, it was the facts, the event. He hadn’t written the book to examine other people’s motives. He had written it to understand the past, to understand how the past had affected the way his life had turned out

Unlike Andy, John doesn’t sleep with Ailsa in fact later on in the bar, in the next story ‘Player’, her husband, Michael, turns up and she leaves with him.

You can, perhaps, start to see how one could begin to get these characters mixed up.

The metaphor of tourism is a strong one and all the locations in the book—York, Newcastle, London, Edinburgh, Glasgow and London—are major tourist spots. In ‘Sofitel, Gatwick’ the woman looks out of the window and notes all the people. She projects sadness onto them. John suggests:

‘Maybe they’re tourists,’ he says. ‘People arriving somewhere. People at the start of something. Or on the verge of something. People like me.’

Mnemosyne_(color)_RossettiThis ties in with the book’s dedication To Memory – the mother of the Muses. (In Greek mythology Mnemosyne (from which we get the word mnemonic) was the mother of the nine Muses by Zeus and was herself the goddess of memory and remembrance and the inventress of language and words.) Tourists are always out of place. How could we feel out of place in our own lives? By trying to visit or recreate the past as most of these characters try to do; the stage is still there but the players have moved on. John goes back to the college (Jordanhill if I’m not mistaken although it’s never named) where he first met his muse and ends up being ejected from the place by two cops who should IMHO get their own book. Just saying, Andrew.

There are two other stories in the book, the second one, ‘Gimlet’ (a cocktail made of gin and I would imagine here in the UK Rose’s lime juice) where the protagonist is Matt and the titular story, ‘A Man’s Hands’ featuring the book’s only female protagonist, Clio. Matt shares a flat which is much like the one Andy ends up living in: “the only furniture was a mattress on the floor and a kitchen like a bombsite.” He doesn’t live alone. There’s Yanni (probably not the Greek pianist though) and Alan. She—whoever she is—has left him and he’s followed:

The facts didn’t need much working on. She came over here. You followed her. It didn’t work out. She left. You’re still here. What’s the point? There’s no point. What are you going to do? Stay here. You can’t go back there because you’ve been here too long. You’re a stranger here and a stranger there. In Limbo. You sleep most of the day and go out barring it every night. You drink. You drink. It’s got nothing to do with forgetting. Memories are sacred, no one can take them away from you.

Matt could be either Andy or John in that middle period, the bit Andrew doesn’t feel the need to tell us about, and, several years down the line if he’s ever bitten by the writing bug, he could easily turn into one of them. This is all conjecture on my part—I’m using my intuition—but that’s what I like about this book, I can do that; who’s to stop me?

Clio’s story felt, to my mind, out of place. At least on a first read. But it’s really not. Yes, Jack can play the piano as can Sean, and the man sitting across the table from Clio—the man with “the hands of a musician. A female pianist, perhaps. Not a man’s hands”—may well be one too; we never know for sure. Yes, we have a man and a woman across a table but this is a softer story. There’s not the same level of tension, no real conflict, no vying for control of the board. There is, however, a lot of hand holding. And a lot of trying to talk about the past. And then something odd happens:

Despite myself, I press into the soft flesh. Something happens. The part of your hands, the part of your hands that I am pressing, disappears. I look at your face, but all you do is talk. You continue to talk of the past, of things I don’t want to hear. I give all my attention to your hands. My fingers. I make small, circular movements which grow larger. Soon there is nothing left. Your hands have vanished.


I reach for your face. You continue to talk, you persist, even as I stroke your brow. Your forehead is gone. Then your eyes, that piercing blue is no more. I caress your cheeks and touch your neck.

I run a thumb across your mouth.

Silence at last.

You sit there, mute, faceless and handless. I think of the words tabula rasa, but this has nothing to do with the future. I have already forgotten what you look like, although I remember your hands, like a woman’s. Not a man’s hands.

This story is unlike any of the others. A man and a woman sit at a table and she literally erases him. No one notices this moment of magic realism. Who is she? His muse? His memories personified? (Clio was certainly the name of one of the nine Roman muses, the muse of history, and Mneme was one of the original three Boeotian muses, the muse of memory.) If a writer were to have a phobia which one do you think it might be? Atychiphobia: a fear of failure? Catagelophobia: a fear of being ridiculed. What about vacansopapurosophobia: the fear of the blank sheet of paper? Writing is cathartic. I have no doubt this book contains many biographical elements—Andrew went to Jordanhill College, he works in Greece, I’ll bet he can play a bit of piano (I never asked because it’s not important)—but, at the end, after all the words have been said (or written down) would it not be lovely if his muse would come along and wipe out everything he’s just freed himself from through the act of writing and left him with a clean, blank slate to begin again? It’s what happens. I’ve no doubt he’s written several stories since these and every one of them began with a lovely clean page or screen. That’s what I made of it. You might make something different.

This is a lovely collection. I enjoyed Andrew’s first book but this was, for me, a better read. These are spare, intelligent stories that don’t talk down to you; they demand you engage with them and complete them. When I was a wee boy my dad and I had a jigsaw puzzle of the Forth Road Bridge—I’m guessing five hundred pieces, my first proper jigsaw—which we built together. One morning I got up to find it finished and I was bitterly disappointed only it wasn’t finished. He’d left one piece to be slipped into place. It takes a lot of self-control to leave stuff out and to know what to leave out. I was lucky. Within me I seemed to have all the missing pieces to ‘finish’ this book. Others may struggle. That’s life not bad writing. I heartily recommend this book. At 17500 words it’s not a hard read but because it’s only sixty or seventy pages (depending on how you’ve got your e-reader set up) you might be more inclined to reread it. And you should. We don’t listen to songs only once and say, “What would I want to listen to that again for? I’ve heard it,” and the same logic applies every bit as much to writing; a measure of good writing is its capacity to be read more than once and continue to deliver.

Forth Bridge

The book is only available as an e-book from Amazon but for a couple of quid you really can’t complain. You can read the following short stories online:


AMcCCAndrew McCallum Crawford grew up in Grangemouth, an industrial town in East Central Scotland. He studied Biology and Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh and went on to take a teaching qualification at Jordanhill College, Glasgow. He started writing when he was twenty and has been hard at it for twenty-four years now. His poetry and short fiction can be found on numerous sites online. His first novel, Drive!, was published in 2010. He lives in Greece where he works as a teacher.

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