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

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

#497


Time II



Time is a dog which haunts you –
         is a wolf which stalks you –
         hangs, like guilt, round your neck
         dragging you down to the grave.

Like Light it allows you
         to perceive only a little –
         lays bare Man's mortality.


16 October 1978
 
 

This poem has never been published before. Light appears in many of my poems, thirty of my adult poems (i.e. the poems from #453 on), and I suspect will appear in a lot of the juvenilia too. Light is, at least in my head, synonymous with truth and in my early poems both are often capitalised. Not sure where I picked up that habit from. It wasn’t from Emily Dickinson because I’ve only read her recently. Clearly I’m doing it to give additional emphasis to the words so I’m a little surprised I didn’t capitalise ‘guilt’ here too. The dog is the same one from ‘Stray’ and he appears in other poems too. For a cat person there are a surprising number of dogs in my poems. I would guess too this is the first time I use outdents to signify the beginnings of sentences. Not really needed here though as the separate stanzas do that quite nicely.

Tenement-Dog-Marc-PoKempner

Marc PoKempner, "Tenement Dog," 1974,
Chicago Photography Collective, Chicago

Sunday, 22 February 2015

A Killer in Profile


HampsteadMurders

“Good old-fashioned police work, Bob,” Collison said with heavily overdone enthusiasm. “Nothing like it.” – Ash Larton, A Killer in Profile




I’ve read virtually no crime fiction apart from William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw trilogy and then only because McIlvanney wrote them; had he written a spy novel and an office romance I’d’ve read them, too. I have, however, watched (depending on how you think about these things) a laudable or lamentable amount of crime shows on television from Dixon of Dock Green on: shows featuring grizzled detectives; novices; cowboys and buddies; DS’s, DCI.’s, DI’s, DC’s and plain ol’ Policemen Plods; FBI’s; CSI’s; CIA’s; CID’s; Flying Squads and cold case squads; hardboiled PI’s; quirky consultants; judges and lawyers who don’t know their place; medical examiners, forensic pathologists and anthropologists; profilers; criminal psychologists; dead detectives (Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) in case you couldn’t think of one); old-fashioned coppers; olde time coppers; good cops and bad cops; timecops, Psi Cops, future cops and android cops; dark knight detectives and amateur sleuths of every ilk; I’ve watched programmes from the UK, the States, Canada and any other country I could lay my hands on—Sweden (Wallander, Sebastian Bergman and Crimes of Passion), Belgium (Salamander), Denmark (The Killing), Norway (Varg Veum), France (Spiral and Braquo), Australia (Underbelly and Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries), New Zealand (Harry), Italy (Inspector Montalbano) and that’s just what I can remember off the top of my head—so, frankly, it takes a lot, an AWFUL LOT, to impress me these days. I really don’t watch programmes like Castle and Vera to see them solve crimes; I’m far more entertained by the interactions of the characters. The shows I enjoy the most are those with the more interesting casts, shows like The Bridge, Cracker, Wire in the Blood and the lamentably short-lived Jeff Goldbum vehicle Raines. So when I was asked to review Ash Larton’s debut crime novel A Killer in Profile (bit of an old-fashioned title there) you can just imagine how I felt. I was prepared not to like it. Frankly, I expected to hate it. I imagined it’d be littered with all of my favourite (I’m being sarcastic here) tropes. How could he possibly avoid them?

Charlie Brooker—who created the spoof crime show A Touch of Cloth—has this to say about his source material: “There are weird things that happen in any programme that don't happen in real life. They all have to do certain things. They're genre pieces: you accept when you watch that they're going to have that format.” And Larton says something similar in his novel: “Storylines from fiction always seem inherently improbable to occur in real life, yet when we read them we are happy to suspend our disbelief, which may simply suggest that in our everyday lives we have an irrational craving for certainty and probability.” His novel isn’t a parody or even a pastiche but it is clearly self-aware. Question: After decades of books, magazines, comics, films and television series covering every aspect of crime investigation is it possible nowadays to commit any crime that doesn’t have its fictional antecedent? At one point in A Killer in Profile one of the characters notes, “You’re working on the assumption that there’s nothing new in crime and thus at one time or other, someone must have written about exactly such a situation.” And that is what proves to be the case. Only if it was as simple as that then there’d be classes in Ruth Rendell, P.D. James and Colin Dexter at the Police Academy and Quantico.

A Killer in Profile opens with the discovery of a body. It’s a classic opener so why mess with the classics? The only thing that’s slightly quirky is that the corpse is discovered by Boyo, a border collie, whose owner is lying in a drunken stupor in the next street. The woman appears to be the fifth victim of a criminal the police (at least among themselves) have dubbed “the condom killer”:

“Morning, Bob,” [Tom Allen] said as Detective Inspector Metcalfe saw him coming, and walked towards him. “What have we got?”

It was a private joke between them that they often resorted to clichés from old police films and television shows. A couple of years previously, a drug dealer whom they had pursued through the streets of Brixton had been surprised, as he lay prone on the pavement being cuffed, to hear Allen say, “Book him, Danno”, at which Metcalfe had lent over him and said, in a passable imitation of John Thaw in The Sweeney, “Right, sunshine, you’re nicked.”

SOCO thinks it’s the same guy,” Metcalfe replied, “but of course they won’t commit to anything until they get the body back to the lab and do their stuff. Single head wound, no knickers, and he’s pretty sure there are chloroform burns around the mouth.”

So what kind of crime novel is A Killer in Profile? Most fall into two categories: whodunits and howcatchems. Occasionally, whydunits like the first Laidlaw. Agatha Christie wrote classic whodunits ending in a dénouement in a drawing room if Death in Paradiseavailable; the format’s certainly not dead, that’s how most Death in Paradise episodes end. We always knew who the criminal was when watching Columbo and we enjoyed watching him toy with his prey. This book treads a fine line between the two although the revelation at the end is different; I’ll grant Larton that. It certainly feels like your bog standard police procedural at the start and for the most part it remains on course. Until the detective in charge is persuaded to bring in a profiler. The DS is well aware that a “profile is not evidence, just a guideline which may make our task a little easier” and “[g]ood old fashioned police work” is what’s going to solve the case but eventually is forced to admit: once “[w]e had our nice new shiny profile … it seduced us into not looking too far outside it.” In shows like Criminal Minds the profile is everything and in some cases (e.g. Sam Waters in Profiler and Frank Black in Millennium) profilers are presented as virtual mystics. The reality—which is what I believe Larton is trying to get us to acknowledge—is nowhere near as clean-cut or as trustworthy. I say this because after about a third of the book a man who fits the profile to a tee is identified, arrested, charged, convicted and imprisoned and you just know they’ve got it wrong. Well, of course they’ve got it wrong. But who’s to say when they look at the evidence with fresh eyes that they’ll get it right a second time?

And the same goes for forensic evidence. From the book:

“They have identified the yellow powder that was found at our last crime scene.” He stopped for effect and looked at the piece of paper in his hand. “It’s fish food. But not just any old fish food like they sell in supermarkets or pet shops. This is very special food for tropical fish, and it’s only sold by a few specialist outlets. The only one around here is in Hendon Central.

Not just any old fish food, eh? How many times does this happen in a TV show? TV Tropes refer to this as GPS Evidence:

So your investigation seems to have hit a dead end. Either you have no prints, or you stumbled across a Red Herring, either way the situation seems hopeless...

But wait! The guys at the lab have found the clue you were looking for! Turns out some of the trace in the crime scene is a rare plant that can only be found in a certain part of your town! Or sand that comes from a specific island where one of the suspects have visited recently! Either way, now you're certain where to go. The Lab Rats have stumbled across GPS Evidence.

GPS Evidence is able to pinpoint a certain geographical location with amazing accuracy. It points straight to either the location the heroes are trying to find, or the person they are seeking (if said person was the only person who visited the place that the evidence pinpoints).

flakesI groaned when I read about the fish food. And I was meant to. Too easy! I did exactly what the cops did. I made an assumption. And we all know what happens when you assume: it makes an ass out of you and me. Do you imagine criminals don’t watch TV shows too? I’m not going to explain. That would spoil it. But just as a dog not barking is both proof and not proof (depending on what the question is) so is the existence of a few grains of fish food. This is scene from the book:

“Oh, yes,” said Williams with a positive twinkle in his eye. “There is indeed. Take a look at this.” He held up a sealed plastic laboratory packet, which at first glance seemed to be empty. “If you look very carefully, you will observe a few grains of fine, sandy-coloured powder. I found them while rummaging through our victim’s pubic hair.”

“From the killer?” Metcalfe’s eyes lit up.

“I would think it’s highly likely, wouldn’t you?”

If the culprit can get a few grains of sandy-coloured powder into his underpants what’s to stop the victim getting a few grains of sandy-coloured powder into her knickers? No one asks that question. They assume. And they’re wrong. But because the guy they arrest, the guy who ticks all (okay, most) of the boxes listed down the side of their profile has a fish tank then he’s got to be the killer. Makes perfect sense.

Here’s the scene in the book where we get to hear Dr Collins begin to present his profile of “the condom killer”. I’ve edited out all the cross-chatter:

“First and foremost, our killer is most probably a loner. He either lives alone, or has a job which involves him spending a lot of time on his own, possibly travelling.

“I’m having problems categorising him. The serial killer’s motivation usually falls into one of two broad groups: punishment or fantasy friendship. In the first case, the killer believes that women are evil and deserve to be punished. Sometimes this feeling is limited to prostitutes, but in more extreme cases it can extend to all women. Killers of this type can exhibit religious mania, even to the point of claiming to hear God telling them what to do. Yet in everyday life they can behave quite normally.

“Killers in the second category often kill almost for company, literally so if they live alone and keep the body for an extended period, as though it were a sort of houseguest. In this case we may be talking about having sex with the body after death, and constructing some sort of fantasy relationship with it. This element of fantasy may play itself out in the rest of their lives too, perhaps pretending to have had some sort of dramatic and impressive past, or knowing famous people, or having fantasy friends and sexual partners.

“[T]o a certain extent we have elements of both types. The killings appear to be the result of random sightings, which argues for the first type, as does the fact that they were all young women on their own, who either were or could be taken by a disturbed personality to be prostitutes. But that’s about as far as it goes. In particular, these killings are quite clinical. Punishment killers usually indulge in frenzied attacks with multiple injuries, and often mutilation of the body as well. There’s none of that here.

“The two things which exercised me a good deal were the manner of killing and the use of a condom. It seems to me, on reflection, that taken together they may tell us quite a lot.

“First, the victims have all been struck over the head by a heavy instrument, which may be a hammer. He either rapes them first and then kills them, or the other way round, we’re not sure which. An initial hammer attack argues for a desire to make absolutely sure that the victim is incapacitated straightaway with a single blow. Whether before or after, it shows a desire to get things over with quickly and cleanly.

“What can we make of the hammer blow? Our man is uncertain of his ability to overpower a woman quickly and effectively. Therefore he is likely to be of slight build and below average height. He certainly will not have any background of hard physical work, nor come from the armed services (though he may well brag about some fantasy military background) nor be proficient in any physical activity which involves in some way imposing yourself on someone else—rugby, say, or martial arts. In short, our man is a bit of a weed.”

All perfectly reasonable. Only after having finished the book and heard a detailed explanation by the murderer of how the crimes were committed; where and why, do you realise how wrong he gets everything. And, to my reading, it all stems from a single initial assumption. But, of course, I’m not going to tell you what it was.

RebusWhen you pick up one of Ian Rankin’s early novels with their Rolling Stones inspired titles you know you’re going to get the less than immaculate John Rebus with his fondness for whisky and a tendency to make up the rules as he goes along and if you pick up a Ngaio Marsh you expect to see an Oxford-educated gentleman detective with a fondness for actresses (at least in the early novels). The point is you know what you’re getting. What might you expect when you pick up an Ash Larton? Well, that’s the problem. We begin with Detective Chief Inspector Tom Allen, “a good old-fashioned copper who believes in gut instincts”. He’s been on the case for eighteen months and made little progress because there’ve simply been no viable leads. Surprisingly he’s replaced within the first few pages by Simon Collison who’s best described in this interchange with the assistant chief constable:

“You’re an intelligent man, Simon,” the ACC said slowly. “Your academic record shows that. But have you ever considered that perhaps you may be approaching this too intelligently?”

“I’m not sure I understand you, sir. How can a police officer, or indeed anyone, be too intelligent?”

“Perhaps I’m expressing myself badly,” the ACC said, fiddling with his reading glasses. “‘Intelligent’ may be the wrong word. ‘Rational’ might be better.” He broke off and put the glasses down on his desk on top of the report. “The best detectives I’ve worked with in my career were bright, too, even though they didn’t have your sort of formal education. But they had something else; they had instinct, some sort of subjective awareness that came to them, apparently from nowhere.”

“Copper’s nose, sir?”

“Yes,” the ACC said flatly.

So like Inspector Lynley or even more like DI Joseph Chandler from Whitechapel but without the OCD. Allen in the meantime determines to carry on his own investigation. And we’ve seen that plenty of times too: the rogue cop (shades of Rebus there). So who’s going to be the focus now? Well for a while I actually thought it was going to be Detective Inspector Metcalfe, Allen’s second who is caught between his loyalty for his former boss (and friend) and the new guvnor, plus we have the budding office romance between Metcalf and the leggy Karen Willis to distract us:

The picture was only a head and shoulders shot and had not prepared the doctor for the effect of Karen Willis’ legs, which not only temporarily deprived him of the power of intelligible speech but also brought the bright chatter inside the café to a halt as male customers stared unashamedly and female customers glared at their male companions.

Then we have the consultant and many of the more watchable TV shows are based around an oddball character like Daniel Pierce (in Perception) or Charlie Eppes (in Numb3rs). And this seemed especially likely when Peter Collins goes… let’s just go with off the rails… after his profile results in a huge cockup and he takes on the persona of a famous fictional detective. (No, not Sherlock Holmes. And not Poirot. And absolutely not Precious Ramotswe. Don’t press me.) But then he fades into the background too. So what we have here is an ensemble cast with no charismatic lead but that’s not really an issue because the story drifts from one character to the next seamlessly and efficiently like handing over a baton in a relay.

At its heart this novel has more in common with the writers from the Golden Age of detective fiction. Everybody’s so jolly decent I don’t think they even swear. A far cry from the grisly work of, say, Val McDermid or Karin Slaughter. The publisher’s website says, “A Killer In Profile is also reminiscent of popular television detective Inspector Morsedramas such as Midsomer Murders and Inspector Morse” and they’re right except for the fact that Morse and Barnaby are stronger characters than Collison but as this is to be the first of an ongoing series of “Hampstead Murders” perhaps he’ll develop into a bigger and more interesting character over time. It’s a minor criticism though.

The novel’s overall tone is a little uneven as if it can’t quite decide what it wants to be but I suspect that’s a deliberate attempt to keep the readers’ guessing; at least he doesn’t change direction halfway through and fill the Freemason’s Arms with a small army of vampires. That said the chapters where Dr Collins starts playacting although delightful are unexpected because up until then we’ve been reading what we thought was a by-the-numbers murder mystery with not a lot of humour and then this. There’s also the question of the next books. Could Larton pull this off a second time? I have my doubts but would be happy to be proved wrong. Edward Buchan, in Whitechapel, was introduced originally as a ripperologist but his role was expanded and his character fleshed out in later series.

The reveal was a bit of a disappointment because even though the killer appears, as they tend to do, early on in the book and is dismissed as a suspect, I’m not sure many (if any) will deduce the killer’s true identity because, and this is something Christie was very guilty of, a key piece of information—usually someone is not who we thought they were—is withheld until the last moment. I wasn’t disappointed for long because then we got to learn the hows, the wheres and the whys and just how easy it could be to take the evidence the police had at the start and misinterpret it so; although there’s a lot of good solid policing done, the team’s surprisingly incompetent at times too:

“Whatever the case,” Collison said ruefully, “there’s not a lot we can do about it. It’s not as though he’s a suspect, after all.”

“Excuse me, guv,” Priya Desai said suddenly, “but why not?”

There was total silence as everyone in the room turned to look at her. She looked embarrassed, but determined.

“Explain,” Collison asked simply.

“Look at the board, sir.” She walked to the front of the room and pointed. “You wrote these words yourself. We think our killer is an opportunist who has a vehicle in which he can carry his murder kit. Well, a taxi is a vehicle. A taxi driver meets a lot of lone women, especially at night, and we know that a taxi driver was the last person to see our fifth victim alive.”

Collison stared at her. So did Metcalfe. So did everybody.

“God in heaven, why am I such an idiot?” Collison cried.

Just because you see something in a TV crime show doesn’t mean it’s accurate. People get shot, stabbed and knocked over the head and they literally just lie down and die; they don’t writhe in pain for ten minutes unless there’s a need for an ongoing dialogue. I watched a guy get smothered on The Blacklist a while back. It took about twenty seconds whereas the reality is you’d probably need to keep pressing on that pillow for a good five minutes to be sure. I mention this because, again, one of the assumptions everyone makes is really based on what they’ve seen on TV and it’s only when it’s pointed out to them—which seems to be the role of Priya Desai on the team—that they take a step back and go, “Oh!”

These reservations and observations aside, what do I think? It kept my interest and that in itself is an achievement. Its strength lies in the fact it knows its audience. No one will pick this book up without having watched more cop shows than they probably realise and they’ll expect (unconsciously perhaps) the book to be formulaic (which it is for the most part) and it uses that to its advantage. For a first crack at the whip, what can I say? Well done.

***

Mystery ManA while ago there was a bit of a kerfuffle in the press over a debut crime novel by a certain Robert Galbraith who turned out to be no other than a certain J.K. Rowling. I can’t tell you much about Ash Larton other than the fact that’s not his real name and he is also an award-winning and best-selling author of both fictional and factual works. I’ve read (and enjoyed) three of his previous novels and once you know a bit about him and his reading habits it’s easy to see him in this book; it’s not quite the radical departure I’d been expecting and I’m rather glad of that because he’s played to his strengths.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

#511


Driver



Driver shifts into top and accelerates
as if time were dying on a fast fuse.

The lights
of the approaching cars are
blurs in the night.

Blurs passing blurs in the night.

Worlds of horizons
pass under their wheels.


30 April 1979
 
 

I’ve never regarded myself as much of a nature poet. Whereas I was inspired by the poems of Larkin and Owen we studied at school those by Ted Hughes that were included in the syllabus did little for me. The poems we ended up covering were, I have since discovered, all from Lupercal bar one, ‘The Jaguar’ which is from his first collection, The Hawk in the Rain. The much-anthologised later poems—‘Pike’, ‘Hawk Roosting’, ‘View of a Pig’—have never excited me and I’m not sure I’ve read anything by him after 1960; maybe one or two from Crow: From the Life and the Songs of the Crow but definitely nothing after 1970.

‘The Jaguar’ was the exception. It impressed me although not as much as like Larkin’s ‘Mr Bleaney’. Perhaps because both are about being trapped and I got that. The poem is five stanzas long and describes a visit to a zoo. The apes, the parrots and snakes are glossed over; that’s not why we’re here. We’ve come to see the jaguar:

On a short fierce fuse. Not in boredom—
The eye satisfied to be blind in fire,
By the bang of blood in the brain deaf the ear—
He spins from the bars, but there’s no cage to him

More than to the visionary his cell:
His stride is wildernesses of freedom:
The world rolls under the long thrust of his heel.
Over the cage floor the horizons come.

In 1954 Ted Hughes worked in the kitchens at Regent’s Park Zoo. Out of his window, in one of the transit cages, lived a jaguar and so he had time to observe him. The following year Larkin moved from Belfast to Hull to take up the position of librarian at Hull University; at first he stayed in a boarding house exactly as described in ‘Mr Bleaney’. They may have been contemporaries but they were very Ludd's Milldifferent men. Larkin, in a private letter (in pubic they were cordial enough), referred to Hughes as a ‘boring old monolith, no good at all—not a single solitary bit of good’. Hughes, at first at least, genuinely admired Larkin; later he complained that various newspapers “have prostrated themselves and finally deified” him. As different as chalk and cheese they were, nevertheless, quintessentially English poets: Larkin inspired by England’s “dark Satanic mills”, Hughes by its “green and pleasant land”. The narrator in ‘Mr Bleaney’ lies in what is, in effect, his coffin. The jaguar, on the other hand, paces his cell. I could relate to both.

You can see where I’ve pinched from Hughes in ‘Driver’. I actually thought I’d been more obvious—if you’d asked me I would’ve sworn I’d borrowed a complete line—but it seems not and that pleases me. Suffice to say it was a poem that stayed with me because here I am several years after leaving school still affected by it.

In 1979 I would’ve had my driving licence. Ironically by this time I no longer needed to drive because I’d moved away from home and lived literally across the road from my office but I did miss the car. Like most young lads I had lead boots and I have to be honest, I was lucky to reach eighteen. But I did love the impression of freedom that came with a set of car keys.

‘Driver’ first appeared in Ludd’s Mill No.18.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

#517


W.C.



After entering the cubicle
the door is bolted.
Unbuckling my jeans
I lower them past my knees.

There was no curtain or grill –
somehow I thought there might be.

In silence I sit
doling out dispensations and penances
to the shaky biro on the wall.


24 July 1979
 
 

I wasn’t raised a Catholic and so I’ve never sat in a confessional and yet I can’t pretend that it’s not something that fascinates me. As usual my memory fails me but it will’ve been about this time that I first read Robert Silverberg’s 1971 novel A Time of Changes set on an alien planet where the use of the first person singular is forbidden, and words such as I or me are treated as obscenities. The protagonist writes:

In our idiom a selfbarer is one who exposes himself to others, by which is meant that he exposes his soul, not his flesh. It is deemed a coarse act and is punished by social ostracism, or worse. Selfbarers use the censured pronouns of the gutter vocabulary, as I have done throughout what you now read. Although one is allowed to bare one’s self to one’s bond-kin, one is not a selfbarer unless one does it in tawdry blurtings of “I” and “me.”

The solution this society has come up with is draining. “We may speak our hearts freely to our drainers, who are religious functionaries and mere hirelings,” he explains. His friend, Noim, refers to this process as “soul-pissing”. The concepts effie7discussed in this book have stayed with me for years.

I don’t regard myself as a confessional poet. You should be wary of any poem of mine that uses the first person singular. The ‘I’ is not always me and even where it is me it’s not necessarily a faithful representation of me; I edit; I distort; I don’t tell the whole truth.

I’ve never been one for latrinalia. Defacing school desks, yes, but I don’t think there’s a posh word for that. The question before the class today though is: Why do people write on bathroom walls? You might find this article Behind the Writing on the Stalls of some interest. There’s also the 1965 study Here I Sit – A Study of American Latrinalia available as a PDF which takes the whole thing a bit too seriously and was probably written by a Freudian. Actually there’s no probably about it. Alan Dundes described himself as “a Freudian folklorist”.

‘W.C.’ first appeared in Effie 7.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

#474


Street Games III



I
We are their past;
an ashen menagerie
smouldering in side streets
and time-worn tenements,
whose doorways gape like open wounds:–
burnt offerings to the City.

II
We call them children,
but that only outlines their form;
little primitives in a
jungle of streets;
rancid shadows of
what once we should have been.

III
We are the ashes and bones
they are borne from.
Sad; their faces melt
ascending from out fire.


24 August 1977
 
 

Down and OutThis is the final poem in the ‘Street Games’ series, this time focusing on street kids. I can see echoes here of the first poem and also ‘Stray’ and ‘The Venereologist’ and I’ve little doubt I had Lord of the Flies in mind in the second section. There’s definitely a tone here. I wonder why I felt the need to return to this subject a third time.

In 1980 Nationwide reporter Tony Wilkinson spent a month living rough in London on a budget of £4 a day. The planning for his role was meticulous and it made disturbing—but also compelling—viewing. He found things had changed little from when George Orwell had written Down and Out in Paris and London in 1933. Wilkinson subsequently wrote his own book about his experiences called simply Down and Out. My wife had a copy but when she left me in 1982 I deliberately held onto it although to this day I’ve never read it and probably never will.

As far as I can see this poem’s never appeared in print before.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

#467


Street Games II



I
asleep
in the corner of a lavatory

standing in wretchedness,
hat in hand;
sagging like ancient flesh
adjoining the body.

II
an army of refugees
whose wounds are
their own weaknesses;

parasites
who look like
humans

III
they can’t understand
why Christ died for them.


24 May 1977
 
 

This one first appeared in Sepia #10 along with ‘Street Games’ and ‘The Venereologist’ in October 1979. I’ve no special memories attached to it but since it follows ‘England Expects…’ and ‘Yesterday’ I can see a melding of influences here. And, again, the odd punctuation which I’m going to attribute to E.E. Cummings burlak-with-the-cap-in-his-hand-1866.jpg!Blogsince he was another American I’d recently become familiar with. Eleven months separate ‘Street Games’ and ‘Street Games (Part II)’ as I originally entitled it. I’ve changed it here because it’s not really a continuation, more of a second look at like Larkin’s ‘Toad’s Revisited’.

I’d originally shown the first ‘Street Games’ to my dad. I only remember one thing he said about it—poetry really wasn’t his thing—and that was, “Life’s not a game.” I knew what he meant but I also felt he’d missed the point. I didn’t show him this poem. I’m not actually sure I showed him any poems again.

When I think of the man asleep in the Gents an image comes to mind but not one I can locate online probably because it doesn’t exist, a sculpture by George Segal—the artist, not the actor. I don’t see the man as have chosen that spot to beg. What I imagined was his having used the facilities like anyone else and then dozed off leaning against a wall still holding his cap in his hand as if it’s intended purpose, to keep his head warm, had been lost to him. Had I been crueller—and braver—I might’ve had him fall asleep at the urinal with his dick in one hand and his cap in the other. Perhaps that’s still implied.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

#414


Street Games



I
Don’t look at them.
Don’t look at their faces.
Because you’ll see there
What you’re really like.

Don’t feel sorry for them:
They don’t deserve it.
Don’t touch them:
Just leave them alone.

II
Germs in a body
Huddled in a doorway:
Germs are bodies
Hiding in the backstreets.

III
Cringing in depressing isolation:
An old man bent double over
        dustbin lids…
For what are we searching here
        in the ashes?

IV
Shadows of men playing a game
        called reality.


Glasgow, just outside Central Station, 18 June 1976

 

 

Technically it wasn’t just outside Central Station. It was on Mitchell Street which runs parallel to Gordon Street which runs down the side of the station. In my head it was in a side street—more of an alley than anything else—and there are plenty of those in the centre of Glasgow in the middle of blocks allowing access to delivery vehicles and bin men. But, no, Mitchell Street turns out to be a proper street with traffic lights and everything.

I left school in June 1976 when I was sixteen. So, nearly forty years ago. This was my first time in Glasgow alone. I was working in an architect’s office at the time. It was my ideal job and the only thing I’d wanted to do from the day I discovered techie drawing. As it happens despite being top of the year—I got 98% in my final exam—I was no good in a work setting but that’s another story. I’d been told to meet one of the architects in Glasgow and, typical me, I was there an hour early. So I went for a wander. And on Mitchell Street I encountered my first down and out.

There’s some cool street art there now but in the early hours of 18th June 1976 it was cold and miserable. And there he was. Asleep or passed out sprawled on the pavement or maybe in a doorway—the specifics are a bit vague now—but I had never seen anything like him in my life. I didn’t know what to do. I thought I ought to do something, buy him a pie or something—seriously, that was my first thought—but I was also scared. And I let my fear get the better of me and I walked away. My dad said I did the right thing and I probably did but for years I used to take a particular interest in the tramps around Central Station especially one with wild ginger hair who I imagined could be me before I hit thirty.

‘Street Games’ first appeared in Street Games and Other Poems.

mitchell-street-11

Ping services