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

Thursday, 26 November 2015


Silent Witness

She did not offer me any
nor did I expect her to
knowing it was her last.

Quickly I became aware
of my mouth filling with
clichés and platitudes
till I felt sick.

But I forced myself to swallow
and the truth nearly choked me.

28 September 1986

nielsen - martini rossi bottleI don’t drink. It’s an odd expression that. Of course I drink. I’d die if I didn’t take in fluids on a regular basis. But when someone says, “I don’t drink,” we know what they mean. Scotland drinks. I can’t think of another nation where alcohol is such a part of the national character apart from Australia and since about two million of them claim Scottish ancestry I rest my case.

When I say I don’t drink I’m not saying I’ll never take a drink—I’m not a sober alcoholic or anything—and whenever my wife (who does drink) has some new concoction I’m happy enough to take a sip and tell her how horrible I think it is especially if it’s wine because all wines pretty much taste the same to me and I really don’t understand all the fuss. Carrie prefers red wine to white. I’ve had some white wines which were tolerable but I’ve never tasted a red wine that wasn’t warm, sour and flat. As I just said, I don’t understand all the fuss.

My parents didn’t drink much when we were growing up. Occasionally a bottle of Martini would appear on the Cornish—their word for mantelpiece—and that’s the first alcoholic beverage I ever tasted. Why would my parents want to drink such a thing? It was vile. I never liked it when the drink appeared. I have no bad memories associated with it but it wasn’t them. My parents didn’t drink. Not drinking was the norm. But that did not continue.

By 1986 my father had developed quite the drink problem and the worst thing about it was he didn’t see it. He’d been working constant nights for about fifteen years by then and at the start he’d found sleeping during the day difficult so he’d taken to having a wee whisky before bed. Eventually he couldn’t sleep without it and it was no longer a wee whisky. My brother and sister too—they’d be 24 and 21 respectively at this time (I was 27)—both drank to excess and it’s my sister who’s the “she” in the above poem but it really could be anyone.

The dipsomaniacal writer is popular cliché. I’ve never got it. Alcohol has never helped me write although I do have a few poems which arose because of the drink and maybe I’ll post an old one next if I can find one that’s not too embarrassing.

Sunday, 22 November 2015


A Familiar Pain

We were broken but found each other.
Our cuts healed over and
our bones knitted together.
I thought we were one.

But it seems I was wrong:
you need your freedom back
and in trying to pull away
old wounds are re-opened
and memories re-kindled.

27 April 1986

AttractionThe laws of attraction. Not quite sure what they are. And no one can seem to agree what they are. There are laws of affinity and if you look up the Wikipedia entry you’ll even find formulas but the laws of attraction are a bit murkier. Does, for example, like attract like (as Plato proposed in his first law of affinity) or, as sociologist Robert F. Winch proposed in the fifties, do opposites attract? It’s pretty much a moot point. Quantum physics has seen to that. We now have something called field particle exchange which, as with most things quantum physicy, doesn’t listen to reason if it doesn’t feel like it.

I never took science at school except when it was compulsory. Once we got to pick our own subjects I dropped all that and never looked back. What is odd is how often science crops up in my new novel and not just any ol’ science but cutting edge stuff. I don’t watch many science programmes on TV but I can enjoy the odd one. I especially love the ones that tell us time doesn’t exist or reality is only real when we look at it.

In 1 Samuel 18:1 we get the phrase “the soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David” and the metaphor of a body being made up of more than one individual is a common biblical one: “From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Ephesians 4:16). We two are one. You don’t have to be religious to think that—it’s sweet on one level—but what if we were an alien race where marriage involved physical conjoinment? That would make divorce another thing completely, wouldn’t it? There’s a scene in my new novel where I describe a disjoined twin standing next to a full length mirror so he can feel whole again. There’s also one where Chang hands Eng a fiver and tells him to sod off to the pub.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015


A Reprieve

Suddenly tranquillity –
floating after drowning –
caught between realities
in the bitter waters of
unrealized dreams and private fears,
fighting the urge to panic.

Panting with fear –
now you're there –
where you thought you wanted to be.

But in the dark you give up hope
and let the waters take you.

27 April 1986

Alban-Grosdidier-Graine-de-PhotographeThis is the fourth of the Drowning Man Poems. I have no memories concerning this poem. I couldn’t tell you when it was started or where or what prompted it. I wasn’t depressed when I wrote this although I may well have been down, scunnered as we Scots say which is probably closer to pissed off than anything else but it’s a wonderful word. I have been depressed and for years but even in my worst depressions there will be these moments when the fog clears and you wonder what you did right so you can maybe do it again the nest time things start to get extra bad. Of course you did nothing. There are no magic words or gestures. Sometimes the fog lifts and the best advice I can give anyone when it does is to make the most of it because it won’t last (until one day it does last and you realise the depression is over).

For weeks I’d been struggling with a single question: What do I feel? I can say that now. Now it seems to be obvious what the question was but not then. All I knew was that I was drowning in emotions, downing but not dying. Being lost in the fog would’ve been a better metaphor—no one dies from contact with fog itself—but you write what you write and try to make sense out of it later.

Don’t like that I used ‘fear’ twice in quick succession. Should’ve caught that.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Tzili: The Story of a Life


Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers – Voltaire

Odd title since the book ends when its protagonist is fifteen and really only concentrates on the last two of those years in which, frankly, little happens other than—through luck mostly as she’s not the brightest of girls—she survives the Second World War as a Jew in eastern Europe (most likely Transnistria) without being sent to one of the territory’s two concentration camps or several ghettos. The book opens:

Perhaps it would be better to leave the story of Tzili Kraus's life untold. Her fate was a cruel and inglorious one, and but for the fact that it actually happened we would never have been able to tell her story. We will tell it in all simplicity.

Why this tale? Because it happened. If it is indeed true that everyone has at least one book within them then every Jew—and, of course, not only the Jews—who lived through (or partway through) World War II has a story to tell but not all are capable of telling theirs. Tzili Kraus certainly isn’t in fact if this book were indeed written in the first person it would be far shorter than the short book it already is and certainly less insightful. Tzili has been laconic to a fault from infancy:

Her father was an invalid and her mother busy all day long in their little shop. In the evening, sometimes without even thinking, one of her brothers or sisters would pick her out of the dirt and take her into the house. She was a quiet creature, devoid of charm and almost mute. Tzili would get up early in the morning and go to bed at night like a squirrel, without complaints or tears.

In conversation with Philip Roth Appelfeld told him that Tzili was written at a time when he had become fascinated by what he calls naïveté:

When I wrote Tzili, I was about forty. At that time I was interested in the possibilities of naïveness in art. Can there be a naïve modern art? It seemed to me without naïveté still found among children and old people, and, to some extent, in ourselves, the work of art would be flawed. [In Tzili] I tried to correct that flaw.

Few could be more innocent that Tzili—Rochelle Furstenberg in a commentary on Tzili: A Story of a Life, describes the girl as “a brilliant agent, a tabula rasa for recording this primal world to which man is returned as a consequence of the Nazi evil”—but she’s not entirely without common sense. Her first encounter once abandoned by her family—“They thought nobody would harm a feeble-minded little girl, and until the storm had spent itself, she could take care of their property for them”—is with a blind man who, when she is silent when he asks, “Who do you belong to?” makes a fortuitous assumption:

        “You’re Maria’s daughter, aren’t you?” he said and chuckled.
         “Yes,” said Tzili, lowering her voice.
         “So we’re not strangers.”
        Maria’s name was a household word throughout the district. She had many daughters, all bastards. Because they were all good-looking, like their mother, nobody harmed them. Young and old alike availed themselves of their favours. Even the Jews who came for the summer holidays. In Tzili’s house Maria’s name was never spoken directly.

From then on whenever asked she tells people she is one of Maria’s daughters and it seems everyone knows Maria and not for her charitable work. Most importantly Maria was not a Jew and as Tzili doesn’t look especially Jewish herself no one thinks twice about it. That doesn’t mean she doesn’t encounter bigotry and abuse but better to be beaten for being the daughter of a whore than a Jewess. The abuse she undergoes would leave most people flabbergasted nowadays but it was a different time then. There were no carrots to induce good behaviour. Obedience was something imposed upon a child—“Spare the rod and spoil the child”—as if they were animals whose wills were to be broken. When an old woman whose home she’s forced into during bad weather beats her it’s not out of badness:

        The bastard had to be beaten so that she would know who she was and what she had to do to mend her ways. The woman would beat her fervently, as if she were performing some secret religious duty.


         “What have I done wrong?” Tzili once asked incautiously.
         “You were born in sin,” said the old woman. “A woman born in sin has to be cleansed, she has to be purified.”
         “How is that done?” asked Tzili meekly.
         “I’ll help you,” said the old woman.

She, of course, believes that the girl will grow up to be like her mother and finding her husband trying to crawl into Tzili’s bed does nothing to help the situation:

It was from her that you learned your wicked ways. Why are you silent? You can tell us. We know your mother only too well. Her and all her scandals.

Eventually the girl can take no more and flees. Just as she’d fled from the first home she’d found protection in, just as she’d fled the blind man when he tried to take bloomsdarknessadvantage of her. She’s treated like a piece of meat, an animal. In a third house where she’s sought shelter and ended up being beaten “as if she were a rebellious animal, in a passion of rage and fury” she finally snatches the rope from the woman but that doesn’t stop the woman who simply uses her fists on her instead.

Eventually Tzili finds herself alone in the swampland. There she encounters Mark, a fellow Jew, and for the first time since her parents left she experiences some genuine human kindness. This is where she spends the rest of the war and this section reminded me somewhat of Blooms of Darkness the only other book by Appelfeld I’ve read.

Having recently read J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello I couldn’t help but be struck by the number of references to animals in this book, the section in Coetzee’s book where Abraham Stern writes a letter objecting to Costello’s lecture in which she compares Jews to cattle in particular:

You took over for your own purposes the familiar comparison between the murdered Jews of Europe and slaughtered cattle. The Jews died like cattle, therefore cattle die like Jews, you say. That is a trick with words which I will not accept.

Tzili on more than one occasion is compared to some kind of animal or insect. When, for example, she flees the old peasant woman who beats her we’re told that “she was content, like a lost animal whose neck has been freed from its yoke at last.” Mark’s often uses the expression, “A man is not an insect” (he also says that “man is not a mole” referring to the underground bunker he and Tzili spend much of their time in), and yet when Tzili eventually joins the Jews returning from the camps that’s exactly how she sees them and is drawn to them as one of them:

At that time the great battlefronts were collapsing, and the first refugees were groping their way across the broad fields of snow. Against the vast whiteness they looked like swarms of insects. Tzili was drawn toward them as if she realized that her fate was no different from theirs.

The central theme of Appelfeld’s book really concerns itself with this question: What is a man? He’s not as in your face about it as, say, Primo Levi

Consider whether this is a man,
Who labours in the mud
Who knows no peace
Who fights for a crust of bread
Who dies at a yes or a no.
Consider whether this is a woman,
Without hair or name
With no more strength to remember
Eyes empty and womb cold
As a frog in winter.

from 'Shemá'

…but that is what he’s asking. And as soon as you start talking about men as insects only one other text could possibly jump to mind, Kafka’s short story ‘The Metamorphosis’:

“The Metamorphosis” nicely illuminates the shared territories of these two writers. Equally important, the Kafka text shadows forth the radical differences between them, placing Appelfeld more firmly in the tradition of Agnon than Kafka. For if Kafka’s story opens up the unadulterated devastation of the world it figures forth, Appelfeld’s lifts up off the grid of the naturalistic and the grotesque in order to provide a very different site for the interpretation of the human. – Emily Miller Budick, Aharon Appelfeld’s Fiction: Acknowledging the Holocaust, p.113

Appelfeld is often enough compared to Kafka, at least that’s what I’ve read. They seem miles apart to me. But his influence is there:

Like others of my generation at the University, I read Kafka and Camus with a thirst. These were the founding prophets from whom I sought to learn. And like all primary education of the young, so mine tended towards extremes.


Russian literature saved me from the pitfalls of the mist and the symbol. From Russian literature I learned that there is no need of either one: reality, if correctly described, by itself produces the evocatively symbolic. Indeed, every specifically contextualised object is itself a symbol. – Aharon Appelfeld, The Story of a Life, p.150

the story of a lifeInteresting that the memoir is entitled The Story of a Life and the novel, at least in English, is subtitled A Story of a Life. In Hebrew the book’s original title was Haketonet Ve'hapassim which translates as The Shirt and the Stripes, a play on the Bible's coat of many colours. So what’s the story of Joseph got to do with this book?

The disjunction of construct nouns indicates an inversion of the story of Joseph. Joseph is hated by his brothers because of his cunning and beauty; Tzili is despised because of her dull and homely appearance. Joseph rises to the pinnacle of society because of his genius; Tzili survives on the margin of society because of her simplicity. Joseph is the paradigm of the Jew who successfully assimilates into high society; Tzili is the failed human being who lives in a society into which it is not worth assimilating. – Norbert Weinberg, TZILI: The Story of a Life

In Tzili’s case the stripes, of course, are literal:

Toward the end of winter the old woman lost control of herself. She beat Tzili indiscriminately. “If I don’t make her mend her ways, who will?” She beat her devoutly with a wet rope so that the strokes would leave their mark on her back.

What’s really interesting about this book is the fact that it never deals directly with the war or the Holocaust. This is as much as we get:

That same night the soldiers invaded the town and destroyed it. A terrible wailing rose into the air. But Tzili, for some reason, escaped unharmed. Perhaps they didn’t see her. She lay in the yard, among the barrels in the shed, covered with sacking.

As I said in my article on Blooms of Darkness :

Why this book is so powerful is because it deals with the consequences of war without the horrors of war. It’s like a Shakespearian play in that respect; the battles all take place offstage. Appelfeld similarly uses elision to great effect. Also he reminds us that life goes on even during wartime. Anne Frank became romantically entangled with the shy and awkward Peter van Pels because he was there and Hugo does the same. So, in some ways the same, but also very different. Whereas Anne writes compulsively, Hugo struggles to write and allows lethargy to overwhelm him.

Tzili, too, as I’ve suggested, needs someone to tell her story. Even when she finally does engage with survivors of the camps they don’t want to talk about their experiences. When she (unusually for her) asks a young man, Max Engelbaum, “Where were you during the war?” This is how he replies:

“Why do you ask? With everyone else, of course. Can’t you see?” he said and stretched out his arm. There was a number there, tattooed in dark blue on his skin. “But I don’t want to talk about it. If I start talking about it, I’ll never stop. I’ve made up my mind that from now on I’m starting my life again. And for me that means studying. Completing my studies, to be precise.”

All he wants is to get back home, finish his exams and get on with his life:

I have no intention of spending my time sleeping. And in general, if you understand me, I don’t want to spend any more time in the company of these people.

He leaves and she drifts on. In that respect at least she is very much the archetypal wandering Jew.

But why The Story of a Life? Again, in his conversation with Philip Roth, the author explains:

        I have never written about things as they happened. All my works are indeed chapters from my most personal experience, but nevertheless they are not “the story of my life.” The things that happened to me in my life have already happened, they are already formed, and time has kneaded them and given them shape. To write things as they happened means to enslave oneself to memory, which is only a minor element in the creative process…
        I tried several times to write “the story of my life” in the woods after I ran away from the camp. But all my efforts were in vain…
        …[T]he moment I chose a girl, a little older than I was at the time, I removed “the story of my life” from the mighty grip of memory and gave it over to the creative laboratory.

In 1941 the Romanian Army retook his hometown after a year of Soviet occupation and his mother was murdered; he was nine-and-a-half at the time. Appelfeld was deported with his father first to a ghetto and then to a Nazi concentration camp in Romanian-controlled Transnistria. He escaped and hid for three years before joining the Soviet army as a cook. It’s interesting to hear how he describes his escape from the camp in The Paris Review:

INTERVIEWER: You escaped by yourself?

APPELFELD: By myself, yes.

INTERVIEWER: But you were a little boy—elegant, not particularly courageous. What happened? How did you transform yourself into a child capable of escape?

APPELFELD: It was a kind of transformation—I became a small animal. It was the wish for life, the wish to survive. [bold mine]

Aharon AppelfeldAt first this feels like a slight and slightly deadpan book. But it’s hard not to empathise with Tzili. She becomes what she needs to to survive. That it happens to be set during the Second World War is academic really. The action could be transferred to any part of the globe and any of the many conflicts that’ve plagued the world since then. Someone on Goodreads described this as a “short and easy read” and it is. It would be so easy to read this on a rainy Saturday afternoon and then make your tea and watch Strictly and in a day or two you’ve moved onto something else. If you do decide to give this one a go try not to do that. Questions are always shorter and easier to express than their answers. What is a man? It’s not a hard question to ask. Not hard at all.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015


Orwell's Café

Sitting with The Drowning Man
over empty glasses
his concomitant friend
finally spoke
though, when they came,
he never recognized
the words he had been
waiting on those years.

He simply stared at her breasts,
and remembered:
a line from Beckett
and a scene by Warhol
and a photo he'd kept
of a woman he'd never met.

She offered him sanctuary
and he fumbled for money.

27 April 1986

chestnut tree cafeThis is the third of The Drowning Man Poems. It’s set in the Chestnut Tree Café from Nineteen Eighty-Four. I was thinking about the end of the book and imagining the scene where Winston meets Julia after they’ve both betrayed each other only now I check I find they actually met in “the Park, on a vile, biting day in March” and, after a few minutes with her, all Winston wants to do is get back to the café where he sits alone and drinks Victory Gin sweetened with cloves.

The line from Beckett is from his short story ‘Heard in the Dark 2’: “Your gaze moves down to the breasts. You do not remember them so big.” I don’t remember which film of Warhol’s I’m referencing. No doubt I’d seen a clip in a documentary, probably one of his Screen Tests. The mention of the photo is odd because years later I did find a photo of a woman and it’s still in my wallet alongside photos of my wife and daughter.

A lot of the material from this poem has crept into the new book:

Only you, my concomitant friend, know what I am trying to say and only you can assess its true worth.

As she stretched the covers fell from her breasts; they were quite magnificent actually. He couldn’t help but stare at them.

Once, in the middle of the pavement, he’d stumbled on a passport photograph of a young woman and had nearly been ploughed into the ground as he bent to pick it up by a harassed nanny with a pram before her and an irascible three-year-old anarchist in tow. He still kept the picture tucked away in his wallet

There are nods too to Nineteen Eighty-Four:

Two and two can make five. Orwell knew that full well. So why did Winston find it so hard to grasp? Every day we reject the logical in favour of the illogical. Every day. Ten times a day. Fifty. Five is more than four. Why would we settle for four?

and Andy Warhol:

I got served up my fifteen minutes early and piping hot simply because no one was writing any catchy songs that week, or skiing down any precipitous mountain slopes or baring any parts of their anatomy that were bigger, better or weirder than the general public had seen before.

In 1991 I wrote a follow-up, ‘A Return to Orwell’s Café’ (#730) but we’ll get to it in time, probably about March 2017 at this rate which also means I’ve enough poems to keep going until August 2020 if I’ve done my sums right and assuming I write nothing else for the next five years which is unlikely.

Sunday, 8 November 2015


The Bedroom

Returning to an unmade bed
during the sixth hour

there seemed to me
a shifting calm

flowing through those places
where our bodies met.

Between thin shadows
cast by white shutters

echoes of bells and
familiar sounds

like merging rivers.

16 April 1986

bedroom lightThis is an odd poem in many ways. It has always felt a little out of place in my canon as if I was writing in someone else’s voice. It has a calm, paced tone, deliberately and appropriately so. It is also not remotely autobiographical and somehow rises above the misery that undercuts so much of my poetry at this time. I know I worked on it for a long time—I kept changing the third line from “there seemed to me” to “there seemed to be” and back again—and if ever a poem of mine was, in the well-known words of Paul Valery, “abandoned” it was this one. Every time I read it I want to do something with it, fix it and yet I think that is the quality that works here; there is something not quite right here, something uncomfortable.

What is happening in the poem? Not much. Someone, a man or a woman, has gone back to bed for a siesta. The word comes from the Latin word sexta which means "the sixth hour". Siestas are not a part of British life and neither are window shutters except for decoration. Had I known the word at the time I might’ve tried to incorporate volets into the poem and probably never got the damn thing finished. Suffice to say the setting (for me) has always been the Continent, somewhere I’ve never been. It’s never mattered to me whether the person going back to bed is male or female and at this point in my life I never went back to bed. Now I do. Now I could happily sleep the rest of my life away. But in my mid-twenties I had all the energy in the world.

The poem’s narrator has gone back to a bed where some time before he or she has not been alone. Are they trying to relive the moment? Perhaps. Oddly enough smells are not mentioned. Only sounds or not exactly sounds, echoes of sounds. Can you hear an echo without first hearing the sound that caused it? Are these true echoes or a memory of bells? And what of the “familiar sounds”? Are they sounds or also echoes of sounds? You could read it that way. I think of the poem as an attempt to capture one of those moments when the past and the present collide. It’s a poem where every word was sweated over. But it’s not right and it will never be right. Like the bed in the poem it’s a bit of a mess but every now and then I crawl back into it and try to remember.

The bells come, I think, from Betjeman. He’s not a poet I have any great love for but he does write a lot about bells: “Into nine–o’clock Camberly, heavy with bells”, “The bells of waiting Advent ring”, “Bask beneath the Abbey bells”, “Bells are booming down the bohreens”, “The Easter bells enlarge the sky”, “A single bell with plaintive strokes”. I’ve tried to find the poem that I read at the time—I’m positive there was one because I recall a sense of guilt at pinching two or three words from it—but Google has failed me. Of course it could be Larkin:

Between long houses, under travelling skies,
Heard in contending bells —
An air lambent with adult enterprise,

And on another day will be the past,

(from ‘Triple Time’)

but now I’m stretching. Over time, and much to my surprise, I wrote another three bedroom poems. You can read the whole sequence here.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015



Both nudity and honesty
can be almost frightening
when you're not prepared
for them.

12 July 1985

There are two words in this short poem that jumped out at me, ‘almost’ and ‘prepared’. How can you be almost frightened and how do you prepare for either honesty or nudity? I was reminded of a couple of panels from The Thessaliad #2. Thessaly is a character who first appeared in Sandman: A Game of You. The last surviving Thessalian witch she has hidden herself on Earth in the guise of a meek college student. I won’t bore you with more of her story but the following panels are interesting:



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