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

Wednesday, 7 October 2015


Burns Monument After Dark

Here we are again,
and your grey eyes and mine

avoid the distant lights –
still an afterglow remains.

I can deny reality
but what of my fears?

Secrets are just lies
by process of omission:

shadows amongst shadows
and tonight the dark scares me.

20 November 1984

rabbie-burnsIn 1976, when I was seventeen, I wrote a poem called ‘Burns Statue After Dark’ (#376), my version of Hugh MacDiarmid’s ‘A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle’. It was a good idea but I don’t really pull it off. There are twenty memorials to Robert Burns in Scotland (at least according to Wikipedia) and it doesn’t really matter which one’s mine but I’ll still keep it to myself. Suffice to say it was the one I passed on the way home from F.’s in the early hours of the morning drained and yet still filled with guilt.

Burns died when he was thirty-seven. I was thirty-five when I wrote this poem. Burns was a womaniser. I wasn’t, although I’ve always preferred the company of women. And yet when I think about my poetry it’s in blocks based on the women in my life. I wrote my first poem for Carrie on 1 December 1996 and, by far, this has been the longest and most productive period of my life even if the poems do appear to be tailing off at the moment. I’ve thought that before.

The romantic in me has always wanted a muse, a Nora Barnacle or Nora Batty perhaps, a battery I could tap into. Or a place I could go to clear my head. Sadly, no. I just have this hellhole in my head that occasionally spits out a good idea but most just spits flames.

Sunday, 4 October 2015



It was a strange feeling:
standing naked for him,
frozen in that state of change,
the distance and the silence
breached only
by a desire to please.

(For F.)

4 July 1984

degasThis is the last of the poems for F. The first was ‘Shells’ (#551) written on 26 July 1983 and so what I have here is a record for that first year. It’s an odd record because it only dwells in the holes where we used to hide. There’s no record of the public me or what was going on at home with my parents, with my wife and daughter, with work and with my studies. None of that existed. Only desire existed. It was a strange year. It was an intoxicating year. It was a frustrating year.

On Friday Carrie and I watched the recent BBC adaptation of The Go Between and although F. and me didn’t have a wee boy passing notes between us—thank you Alexander Graham Bell—the situation wasn’t that different. Looking back now I’m frankly embarrassed by our desperation. I didn’t post ‘From a Distance’ (#561) but it’s a record of the day F. caught the train with one of her sisters and I stood on top of the multi-storey car park watching for them so I could drive by the station as she was going in hoping she might glimpse me which, as it happens, she didn’t.

In four and a half years the first poem for B. will appear.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015


A Divorce

They cut off my right leg last month.
It was gangrenous –
but it was still my leg.

And there's something wrong
with the left one now.

I don't believe in fate
but I do in déjà vu.

27 March 1984

divorceGood as new. Good as new. It’s a marketing thing, a positive spin. A divorced person is not a single person. We say some’s “single again” but they’re not. Single people can marry. Divorced people remarry. When I came back home after my first marriage fell apart I told people I used to be a whole person but when I married I gave up half of myself and I never got it back in the divorce. And that was true. Solitude became loneliness—I even write a poem about that in 1989—and I didn’t like being lonely. There’s another expression kicking around for an ex-married person: “damaged goods”. Well, that was me. What was left of me wasn’t right.

I don’t often write commemorative poetry—it’s never my best stuff—but this was a poem I made myself write and, of course, the end result isn’t my best work but my poems were for the longest time my diary. That seems to have fallen off in recent years.

In 1996 I wrote a poem called ‘Shadowplay’. The last stanza is:

No, I don't believe in destiny
but I do in inevitability.

I hadn’t realised until now that I’d used a similar expression before and, inevitably (sorry), the thought gets developed a little further in my new book:

JIM: So there’s no such thing as destiny.
JOE: If by destiny you mean predestination, no, but there is probability, predictability and inevitability.

History repeats itself. People forget and, oh, so quickly. When I was a kid one of the books I was devoted to was The Public Speaker’s Treasure Chest. I pawed through it for years but only one quote sticks in my mind: “The one thing man learns from history is that man learns nothing from history.” I have no idea who they attributed that to but George Bernard Shaw said, “Hegel was right when he said that we learn from history that man can never learn anything from history.” George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” and André Gide said, “Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again.” We all think if we got a second chance we’d do things differently. I wonder how many of us actually do. The title of my new book is The More Things Change and I’ll leave you with this quote:

The more things change the more we go out of our way to stay the same, to stare the future straight in the face even if it is through rose-tinted glasses. It’s nothing to do with an extant Destiny. It’s all to do with the irresistibility of the self, that we get to be who we should be and woe betide all who willingly stand in our way.

Sunday, 27 September 2015


After David

I have heard there is a god
who looks for men of crushed spirits.

I don't know where to look for him,

but if he wants to find me
I will not hide.

23 March 1984

The Lord is near to the broken-hearted and saves the crushed in spirit. – Psalm 34:18.

The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. – Psalm 51:17.

On the surface my poem does seem to be in tune with King David’s thoughts but I actually have it back to front. God was never looking for me. He knew where I was all the time. I, on the other hand, wasn’t looking for him either. Not really. Not sincerely. I studied his Word and enjoyed showing off how knowledgeable I was but although I imply in the poem my spirit had been crushed that really wasn’t the case. Certainly not in 1984. Maybe my spirit was scuffed when I wrote the poem but I had nowhere near hit rock bottom. And even when I did I know I only went through the motions of contrition. It was artificial. But then that covers my whole approach to religion. I expected that by going through the motions I would become… what? Holy? A cat can spend its whole life learning to bark like a dog and wag its tail at all the wrong times but it’ll never become a dog. It’s not enough to do what some religion tells you is right and not to do the things they say are wrong. You need to believe those things are right and wrong.


Years after all this I made a friend online, a woman, who was having an extramarital affair. She was also religious and I was just about to pack it all in. I forget which church she attended but I don’t know any major religion that condones adultery. She had her reasons—my husband doesn’t understand me (I forget the specifics)—but as far as she was concerned God would understand. I said to her, “God might well understand but that doesn’t mean he condones what you’re doing.” She couldn’t handle that. She’d decided what God was like and her God understood, had forgiven her and would continue to forgive her every time she climbed into bed with this guy. Talk about delusional.

I was never that. I just kept practicing my bark and wagging that tail.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015


Arachnophobia II

He's there!
in the shadows of your past
hiding in my name –
visible only in outline.

I can't see his eyes.

Spider-shadowIrresistibly, like a dream,
he moves, somnambulant,
into the light.

Please don't let him touch me.

(For F.)

20 February 1984

As with ‘Arachnophobia’ (#570) this is not a poem about spiders. I have no real problem with spiders. At least not the dinky things we get in this country. But they do serve as a useful metaphor at times. I mentioned they crop up in my new book. I actually found three references:

There are so many things in this world to be afraid of: spiders (arachnophobia); clowns (coulrophobia); crowds (enochlophobia); going insane (maniaphobia); the blank page (vacansopapurosophobia); long waits (macrophobia); being alone (monophobia); being forgotten (athazagoraphobia); being ridiculed (katagelophobia); all of these and most others can be attended to by family or friend, therapist or priest (it all amounts to much the same in the end) but the one thing no one can evade and, as such, is pointless being afraid of, is the realisation that one day you will perish; you will cease being, you will fade away and those too who knew you and those who knew of you.


Getting back inside the park was easier than he’d expected. He tried the main gates first on the off chance they might not have been locked. They were. He sighed and stared at the padlock. Inconsiderately Life had neglected to equip him with heat vision so at this precise point in time all he could do was stare at it. There was a spider crawling slowly over the thing. A shaft of pearly moonlight caught it and he was so utterly transfixed by the beauty of the moment he completely forgot why he was there. It didn’t last and he felt awkward and conspicuous standing there once it ended.


My wife handed me a snapshot once, a picture of me sitting on my bench from the time before. “See?” she said. “See?” See what? I looked like I suppose a thirty-odd-year-old Magritte might have looked but I didn’t see myself in the photo. I still have it somewhere, probably where she put it since I would never have been able to think of the right place for it. I brought a hoard of boxes with me when I moved. No, I remember! I tore them up. Yes, in a fit of… I don’t know… self-righteousness. Who would have believed me still capable of such passion? Ripped to shreds. All of them. Swept under the bed with the dust and spiders. It’s likely there unless she took it with her when she left and it wasn’t one I destroyed. Unless I flushed them down the plughole or the toilet bowl. That is a distinct possibility.

In case you’re interested I’ve just finished my ninth read-through of the book. I am now working through the 250 notes I made and once I’ve done that I’ll send the amended file to my tablet and begin the tenth read-through. The goal, it took some seventeen read-throughs with the short story collection, is to be able to read the thing from beginning to end without stumbling once. There is no guarantee that any of the above will stay the way it is—the beta readers still have to have their say and then my wife will get her blue pencil out—but I’m reasonably satisfied with it. Haven’t found a typo or a spelling mistake in ages! Punctuation’s another matter; it’s not an exact science but we do our best and try to be consistent.

Sunday, 20 September 2015


Depth of Feeling

I uncovered a feeling inside
and gave it a name – Love
and somehow it came to be.

Try to efface it
and you'll find, behind the mask,
pheromonal and naked,
a deeper expression
and another name...

(For F.)

2 February 1984 

masksLove has, for a long time, been my whipping boy. It’s a word I loathe. I have no problems with the emotion—I’ve felt in many times and in many ways—but that’s really the problem. The Greeks are supposed to have a word for everything. In the case of love most of us know four: agápe (love of humanity), éros (erotic love although, oddly enough, the term incorporates Platonic love), philia (shared experience, or brotherly love) and storgē (love of family). There’s a fifth, epithumia, the Greek word for strong desire, which can have either a positive or negative connotation; the positive connotation is usually translated ‘strong desire’ while the negative connotation is usually translated ‘lust’. There’s also philautia, self-love or self-respect. Again it comes in two flavours: the unhealthy variety is associated with narcissism—you became self-obsessed and focused on personal fame and fortune—whereas the healthier version enhances your wider capacity to love.

In 1973 John Alan Lee identified six basic love styles—also known as “colours” of love—that people use in their interpersonal relationships. According to Wikipedia:

Eros – is a passionate physical and emotional love of wanting to satisfy, create sexual contentment, security and aesthetic enjoyment for each other, it also includes creating sexual security for the other by striving to forsake options of sharing one's intimate and sexual self with outsiders.

Ludus – This style is used by those who see love as a desiring to want to have fun with each other, to do activities indoor and outdoor, tease indulge and play harmless pranks on each other. The acquisition of love and attention itself may be part of the game.

Storge – This style of love grows slowly out of friendship and is based more on similar interests and a commitment to one another rather than on passion.

Pragma – This love style is based on the perceptions of practicality. People who prefer this style approach their relationship in a "business-like" fashion and look for partners with whom they can share common goals.

Mania – This style usually flows out of a desire to hold one's partner in high esteem and wanting to love and be loved in this way seeing specialness in the interaction.

Agape – In this style of love one derives one's definition of love in being altruistic towards one's partner and feeling love in the acts of doing so. The person is willing to endure difficulty that arises from the partner's circumstance. It is based on an unbreakable commitment and an unconditional, selfless love.

Where does puppy love fit into all this? Maybe limerence, a term coined by the psychologist Dorothy Tennov and defined as a state of mind which results from a romantic attraction to another person typically including compulsive thoughts and fantasies and a desire to form or maintain a relationship and have one's feelings reciprocated.

In my poem I don’t name the name. To this day I couldn’t tell you how I loved F. It wasn’t a simple love. I was attached to her. I still am. Which brings us neatly to attachment theory. And that opens up a whole other can of worms. In my first novel, Living with the Truth, Truth explains to Jonathan how he’s loved:

        Truth touched his fingertips together one at a time before answering: “Well, falling in love is easy. It takes no effort at all. You’ve done that.”
         “I feel a ‘but’ coming.”
         “But... true love, which is what you’re on about, is volitional, not emotional.”
         “I don’t get you.” This was going to be difficult.
         “Love—even the word—is a soft cushion to rest your feelings on, fancy wrapping paper, sugar coated good ol’ fashioned desire half the time; lust made respectable. You see there’s real love and there’s cathexis.”
         “Which is...?”
         “Well it’s love, too, but it’s more a what-can-you-do-for-me kind of love rather than a what-can-I-do-for you sort.” [Cathexis is the investment of emotional significance in an activity.]
         “You’re telling me I’ve never known real love?”
         “I’m telling you you’ve never known real love.”

Did I really love F.? I wrote the above a few months after we’d separated. How applicable to me that is I honestly couldn’t say. It’s all foggy now.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015



Shared dreams in the Morris –
snowbound and silent.

I saw you in silhouette
and I loved what I saw.

Illuminated briefly
I saw still further
and loved still more.

(For F.)

22 January 1984

La Scala GlasgowBy 1984 F. and I were a thing. No one knew what kind of a thing—not sure we did—but it was impossible to hide there was something between us. She, as I’ve said already, was still technically married and, at least at the start, I might’ve been too; I’d have to check the dates. Either way we shouldn’t have been anything. But that’s the trouble with things. They just want to be and there’s not much you can do to stop them.

We decided to go to the pictures in Glasgow, out of the sight or prying eyes. I have no idea where I got my hands on a Morris and I couldn’t even tell you what model it was but none of the images on Google look right. Suffice to say we drove to Glasgow—the La Scala on Sauchiehall Street (long gone)—and as we left it began to snow and heavily. About five miles from home it was obvious we weren’t going to make it and so I put the car in a spin (I must’ve been mad to attempt that) and headed back to the nearest settlement. So, technically (that word again), I’m not sure we were ever snowbound. We found a pub where it was obvious a lot of others had had the same idea and we waited on the snowploughs.

People write poetry for many different reasons and one is certainly to commemorate significant events. The events of that Saturday night weren’t the most memorable—we didn’t cross the Rubicon or the Delaware or anything—but they form a part of the fabric of my life. Most of the poems written about this time were never really written for public consumption; I, although I never realised it at the time of writing, was only ever going to be their ideal reader. I wonder if F. still has her copies.

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