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

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

#734


Grief at Parting



I let the moment go.
I left you lap and your breasts, my sister's breasts,
to rest my weary head on dreams and colder memories
not strong enough to be weak on honest enough to want
and afraid to ask as I wasn't sure.

What am I supposed to do with all these feelings?


4 August 1991
 
 
I only vaguely remember the event that triggered this poem but not what it’s about. I know it takes its title from a painting by Giorgio de Chirico, ‘The Melancholy of Departure’ but I’m not sure why. And I’m not even sure if it’s the 1914 painting (‘Gare Montparnasse (The Melancholy of Departure)’) or the 1916 painting (‘The Melancholy of Departure’); I suspect the former and that’s the image I’ve used. The date puzzles me too. I remember being with my sister but not in 1991.

I was upset. I don’t know why I was upset—so many things to choose from—but we were on the couch in her flat only it couldn’t have been the couch because the couch was against the wall. Had she rearranged the room? So how exactly did this work? Was my head in her lap? I was crying (I think I was crying) and she went to comfort me. Was my head on her shoulder or in her lap? The shoulder makes more sense. After a time she either lifted or lowered my head so that it rested on her right breast. It wasn’t her simply shifting because she was uncomfortable; it was a deliberate action. I never understood why she did that—there’s nothing remotely maternal about my sister—but it’s a gesture that’s always touched me. We’ve never talked about it but I doubt she’d have any answers. It clearly felt right at the time. It wasn’t sexual and it was an awkward position (she didn’t have much of a bust to rest anything on) which is probably why I moved. Is that how my head ended in her lap? You would think I’d remember something like this with crystal clarity but far from it.
 
This is the first original poem in over a year. I wrote one more on 16 August and then nothing—no poetry at least—for three years. This was the start of my second major depression.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

#733


The Insides of Words



I gave her some hollow words to fill and she asked what with.
I suggested the truth but the romantic in her wasn't too keen.
So she left them empty on a shelf.
She said they meant something to her.

One day a spider made a web in them to catch flies.


6 April 1991
 
 
Hollow words. Empty words. Beats me why so many people struggle with poetry. “Your words don’t ring true.” Words don’t ring. And yet we know exactly what that means. I’ve written poems for people for decades and yet few of the recipients have ever got them. I’m not talking about pearls before swine—I would never be that condescending—but most of them would’ve been just as happy (more so even) with a card from Clintons and a bar of Dairy Milk.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Suicide

Birth befalls me
Life occupies me
Death completes me
– Édouard Levé,
Suicide

 
 
‘The Death of the Author’ is a 1967 essay by the French literary critic and theorist Roland Barthes. It has nothing to say about dead authors or even suicidal authors. So why bring it up? Barthes’ essay argues against traditional literary criticism's practice of incorporating the intentions and biographical context of an author in an interpretation of a text, and instead argues that writing and creator are unrelated. He has a point up to a point and I couldn’t help thinking of him when I read these lines addressed to a man who has recently killed himself:
The way in which you quit it rewrote the story of your life in a negative form. Those who knew you reread each of your acts in the light of your last. Henceforth, the shadow of this tall black tree hides the forest that was your life. When you are spoken of, it begins with recounting your death, before going back to explain it. Isn’t it peculiar how this final gesture inverts your biography?
Silvia Plath, Richard Brautigan, Hunter S. Thompson, David Foster Wallace, Ernest Hemingway, Anne Sexton: the list is not short and yet it’s impossible once you realise the author of the book you have in your hands has killed himself not to look for clues. In 2013, for example, an article appeared in The Telegraph talking about how the notes for Plath’s last poem ‘Sheep in Fog’ “show the poet's increasing fragility as she approached the date she took her own life.” The LitHub article The Suicide Note as Literary Genre is also worth a read. Why the fascination? Because life’s precious and people go to extraordinary lengths to stay alive—e.g. Aron Ralston, who amputated his own right forearm with a dull pocketknife in order to extricate himself from a dislodged boulder—and yet others for no good reason—no good reason we can see—give it all up. Some we can understand—Arthur Koestler committed suicide when he was seventy-seven on discovering he had terminal leukaemia—but it’s the young, those who have, as the cliché goes, so much to live for that bemuse and confuse us.
 
I’ve never seriously contemplated suicide. I’ve thought about it because I’m a writer and writers—well this writer—thinks about all sort of shit but just because I’ve thought about something doesn’t mean I’m going to do it or even write about it. As it happens one of my characters is a suicide. The protagonist in my novella Exit Interview has killed himself and the book has him sitting down with Saint Peter who conducts a pretty bog standard exit interview with him. It was never intended to be a treatise on the meaningfulness and the wonderfulness of life but, obviously, a few pertinent questions get asked and the nice thing about it being a work of fiction is that I can have my suicide answer these as best he can. That doesn’t happen in the real world and it certainly doesn’t happen in Édouard Levé’s novel.
 
The book opens with the following paragraph:
One Saturday in the month of August, you leave your home wearing your tennis gear, accompanied by your wife. In the middle of the garden you point out to her that you’ve forgotten your racket in the house. You go back to look for it, but instead of making your way toward the cupboard in the entryway where you normally keep it, you head down into the basement. Your wife doesn’t notice this. She stays outside. The weather is fine. She’s making the most of the sun. A few moments later she hears a gunshot. She rushes into the house, cries out your name, notices that the door to the stairway leading to the basement is open, goes down, and finds you there. You’ve put a bullet in your head with the rifle you had carefully prepared. On the table, you left a comic book open to a double-page spread. In the heat of the moment, your wife leans on the table; the book falls closed before she understands that this was your final message.
We never learn the name of the man who’s taken his own life nor do we ever learn who’s telling us his story. No one’s named in the book apart from, oddly, the narrator’s brother. We only know the suicide as “you” and it takes a while to get used to the narration in the second person especially since we know he’s a) talking to a dead man and b) describing things he cannot possibly have been be privy to. There’s less dialogue than in an Anita Brookner novel but it works. There’s no suicide note or at least what was to pass for one is lost and so the only words we have that offer any clue are the handful of short poems discovered after his friend’s death that the narrator sees fit to include after he’s finished his story; almost every line ends with the word “me”. And this is where we need to remember Barthes and not read into the poems but how can you not?
 
Why did he do it? Let’s just say for a minute he could answer that question: what would he be able to say that would make us go, “Yeah, I get that. I’d have done the same”? Do you remember the scene in Educating Rita where Trish, Rita’s Mahler-loving flatmate, attempts suicide and when asked why all she can offer up is a weak, “Darling, why not?” No doubt after hours and hours of therapy—and thousands upon thousands of words—we might get something that makes some sort of sense out of her actions and that’s what this book is really attempting to do. The narrator puts himself in his friend’s place and explains his friend to his friend albeit in absentia. The odd thing is who’s decided to do this investigation. We don’t learn a great deal about the narrator but this is a start:
I haven’t seen your wife since. I hardly knew her. I met her four or five times. When the two of you got married, you and I stopped seeing each other. I see her face again now. It has remained unchanged for twenty years. I’ve retained a fixed image of her from the last time I saw her. Memory, like photographs, freezes recollections.
[…]  
The first time I saw you, you were in your bedroom. You were seventeen years old.
As the suicide is twenty-five when he dies this means our narrator has barely seen his friend over the last five—and presumably critical—years and only knew him for the three before that. He doesn’t seem especially qualified to start out on a task like this but who are we to deny him? When I learned that my first girlfriend had died I immediately sat down and wrote a poem for her even though we hadn’t spoken in over twenty years. You can’t help how you feel.
If you were still alive, would we be friends? I was more attached to other boys. But time has seen me drift apart from them without my even noticing. All that would be needed to renew the bond would be a telephone call, but none of us are willing to risk the disillusionment of a reunion. […] But you, who used to be so far-off, distant, mysterious, now seem quite close to me. When I am in doubt, I solicit your advice. Your responses satisfy me better than those the others could give me. You accompany me faithfully wherever I may be. It is they who have disappeared. You are the present.
You are a book that speaks to me whenever I need it. Your death has written your life.
 
Some of the things the narrator tells “you” are things the man would’ve been well aware of—they’re there for us in just the same way detectives in cop shows spell things out just a little too thoroughly—and mostly he dwells on the time his friend was alive but at the start of the book he does share some details concerning how people reacted to his death, like the young man’s father:
Your wife only remembered later that before falling from the table, the comic book you had left there was open. Your father bought dozens of copies, which he gave to everyone. He came to know the text and the images of this book by heart; this was not at all like him, but he ended up identifying with the comic. He is looking for the page, and on the page for the sentence, that you had chosen. He keeps a record of his reflections in a file, which is always on his desk and on which is written “Suicide Hypotheses.” If you open the cupboard to the left of his desk, you’ll find ten identical folders filled with handwritten pages bearing the same label. He cites the captions of the comic book as if they were prophecies.
I can see me doing that. Edwin Shneidman, “a father of contemporary suicidology”, wrote, “Suicide notes are cryptic maps of ill-advised journeys.” Where does the suicide think he’s going? Journeys feature quite a bit in Suicide. How many of them are accurate or even took place who can tell? At one point the narrator describes in detail his friend wandering round Bordeaux and then the next day…
You went back out, and set off at random into the town. But your steps spontaneously led you to the same locations that you had strolled through the day before. You paid less attention to what you were looking at; the places no longer had the attraction of novelty. You then decided to walk taking the first street on the right, the second street on the left, the first street on the right and so on, without deviating from this method, so as to not let yourself be guided by the appeal of whatever turned up. You passed the day in this way, looking on your map from time to time at where chance was leading you.
He stops to eat and then…
Rather than resuming your random walk, you returned by the shortest route to the city centre. When you got close to your hotel, it was still too early for dinner. You decided to take the same route as the day before, to verify if what you had seen was now anchored in your memory. You didn’t look at the map, you didn’t hesitate once over changes in direction.
Did any of this happen? Unlikely. Our narrator’s trying to imagine the kind of man his onetime friend was becoming:
When you travelled, it was to taste the pleasures of being a stranger in a strange town. You were a spectator and not an actor: mobile voyeur, silent listener, accidental tourist.
Is this how suicides feel, out of place? I found an article online with one of the usual ponderous titles that academics see fit to give their works but this one included the wonderful expression “thwarted belongingness;” I suspect its author was a frustrated poet. But it’s a good expression especially for the kind of person we find described within these pages. He doesn’t belong. Others are a struggle. We learn this right at the start when our narrator is granted access to his friend’s bedroom; no one was allowed in his room up until then.
A ruin is an accidental aesthetic object. If it becomes beautiful, this was certainly not the intention. A ruin is not constructed or maintained. The tendency of a ruin is to crumble down into a heap. The most beautiful parts remain standing despite their wear and tear. The memory of you is what stays up, your body what subsides. Your ghost remains upright in my memory, while your skeleton is decomposing in the earth.
The man we see described in this book is not the man he once was. He was never that man. The man we see described is part-ideal and part-enigma. His friend’s filled in the blanks imaginatively. He’s begun the task of mythologizing him. Sylvia Plath is now a myth according to The Herald several dozen other online sources and yet I found this sentence on the ironically short-lived site The Myth of Sylvia Plath interesting:
[H]er tabloid-worthy life and tragic end can not and should not define her: a deeper look into her work and those who read and study it show a constantly morphing poet who defies categorization.
They’re right. Her death shouldn’t define her and there will be a few lucky individuals who’ll encounter her poetry and not know anything about her but once they do it’ll be hard not to reassess what they’ve read; the need to look at it again with different eyes will be hard.
 
Which brings me to Édouard Levé. In the Afterword Jan Steyn, the book’s English translator, writes:
Édouard Levé committed suicide on October 15, 2007. Ten days earlier he had given a manuscript to his editor; it was a novel entitled Suicide, the same you hold in your hands.
Suicide’s reception in France has been deeply influenced by the circumstances of the author’s death. Although it is a fictional work, written in the second person about a friend of the narrator’s who had committed suicide twenty years earlier, its title and subject matter ensure that, despite reports that Levé did leave a suicide note, the present text is taken as a sort of literary explanation of his decision to die.
Levé was forty-two when he died and every line of Suicide makes us wonder why.
Your suicide has become the foundational act…Your final second changed your life in the eyes of others. You are like the actor who, at the end of the play, with a final word, reveals that he is a different character than the one he appeared to be playing.
I was lucky. I’d forgotten all about Levé’s suicide by the time I got round to reading the book. I never thought for a second that the author of the book I was reading might be dead due to anything other than misfortune or natural causes. Now I see it all in a very different light but rather than looking for a reason—which may or may not be there—I was struck by his awareness of how others would react to his death:
Your mother cried for you when she learned of your death. She cried for you every day until your burial. She cried for you alone, in her husband’s arms, in the arms of your brother and your sister, in the arms of her mother and your wife. She cried for you during the ceremony, following your coffin to the cemetery, and during your inhumation. When friends, many of them, came to present their condolences, she cried for you. With every hand that she shook, with every kiss she received, she again saw fragments of your past, of the days she believed you to be happy. Faced with your death, scenarios of what you could have lived or experienced with these people, gave them a feeling of immense loss: you had, by your suicide, saddened your past and abolished your future. Your mother cried for you in the days following your funeral, and she cried for you again, alone, whenever she thought of you. Years later, there are many, like her, whose tears flow whenever they think of you.
One of the things they say to potential suicides is, “Think of others.” That might be a spouse or a parent or a sibling or even work or classmates. Well, clearly, even if Suicide is not Levé’s actual suicide note it does show that he was aware of the potential—dare I say inevitable?—consequences of his actions. Another thing people say—although they don’t usually get to say it to the person they’d most like to—is that suicide is a selfish act. It is on one level but the real question is: Is selfishness necessarily a bad thing? That’s one I’ve struggled with my whole life. Here’s what the narrator thinks his friend’s thoughts might have been on the matter:
This selfishness of your suicide displeased you. But, all things considered, the lull of death won out over life’s painful commotion.
No one would suggest for a moment that suicide is an ideal solution to life’s problems. It’s a desperate measure. Here are twenty-seven thoughts culled from Reddit on a very divisive subject.
 
As far as books go Suicide doesn’t sound like it’d be much fun to read and it was never going to win Comedic Novel of the Year 2008 but it’s not all doom and gloom. It focuses mostly on a life lived and what it’s like to be different. And the extrapolated/imaginary “you” we get to know is most definitely different and interesting and puzzling. In The Rules of Attraction Bret Easton Ellis wrote: “What does that mean know me, know me, nobody ever knows anybody else, ever! You will never know me.” This is why we don’t get why most people kill themselves. Because we’re not in their heads. Because we could never be in their heads. There are no answers in Suicide. The real questions we should be asking are, perhaps, a little clearer though.
 
The Afterword is particularly helpful if you’ve not read anything else by Levé (which most of us won’t have although Autoportrait and Works have since been translated) because it helps us understand the kind of man he was and how all his prose works are interlinked—Autoportrait, for example, includes the opening scene of Suicide—and probably could/should be read as a single text. Not that I expect it would make things much clearer. To illustrate: Levé was also a photographer and might even be better known for that than for his writing. He produced a series called Pornography in which his models position themselves in the kinds of poses you’d expect from a work called Pornography with one exception—they’re all fully clothed. He did a similar thing with the series Rugby (a photo from which was used for the Folio edition of Suicide). Another series called Homonyms consists of neutral frontal portraits of “ordinary” people who happen to share a name with someone famous. Expectation thwarted seems to be a thing with Levé. Amérique, published in 2006, comprised of images of arbitrary parts of obscure American towns named after grander world cities like Florence, Berlin, Amsterdam or Paris.
 
For the record Levé didn’t shoot himself in a basement. He hung himself in his Paris apartment after receiving confirmation that Suicide was going to be published.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

#732



An Early Fall



My feelings are leaves and it's Autumn.
Why do you tear them down?
Why won't you let the winds of change do their job?
They do it well.

Why hasten the Winter when Spring is so long in coming?
 

On the whole I’d say I’m quite good at letting go. At first I wasn’t—none of us are at first—but I learned although not quickly. Life is cyclical and it’s best to enjoy the moment even though you know it’s going to end. This has a sort of anti-O.-Henry feel. In ‘The Last Leaf’ an old painter paints a leaf on an ivy vine to give a dying girl hope. In my version someone clambers up the stepladder and tears off the last few, in modern parlance ripping off the Band Aid. I’m not sure this poem’s about any specific event. I’m just watching something come to an end too quickly for my taste.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

#731


The Present



She made me a present of the past.
I had one already but it wasn't much of one.
The memories had got a bit dusty from lack of use.
One or two had even disappeared.
They're probably still boxed-up in the loft.
Or maybe they got given away when we moved.


6 April 1991
 
 
The only thing I have from B., the only thing she gifted me, is her copy of The Faber Book of Modern Verse. Everything else I took, mainly photographs. Taking’s not stealing, not exactly—it’s not as if I was lurking in the bushes—but taking’s not receiving. When you take something you don’t generally ask permission. Most of what I got from B. I took. She gave me her time, yes; she gave me hugs; she gave me trust; she gave me a reason to keep going… No. No, I took that.
 
I don’t have a loft. All my photos of her are in an Iron Mountain storage box in a cupboard in Carrie’s office. I had reason to go through the box about a year ago and, as you do, ended up looking at every picture in it. There are no photos of the two of us. That was remiss of me. I should’ve found a way to wangle that; it wouldn’t have been hard. My favourite was taken in Edinburgh, a posed photo and the image of her I hold in my head. I got a copy professionally framed and gave it to her mother.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

#730



A Return to Orwell's Café



There was very little on the board to play with
apart from love.
She'd used him before but never to any great effect.
He was always last to go.

The glasses were still empty.
There was no meaning left to it all
as I peered in the window.


6 April 1991
 

This is a follow-on to ‘Orwell’s Café’ (#592). When I wrote this I was thinking about the scene in the final chapter of Nineteen Eighty-Four:
The Chestnut Tree was almost empty. A ray of sunlight slanting through a window fell on dusty table-tops. It was the lonely hour of fifteen. A tinny music trickled from the telescreens. Winston sat in his usual corner, gazing into an empty glass. Now and again he glanced up at a vast face which eyed him from the opposite wall. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption said. Unbidden, a waiter came and filled his glass up with Victory Gin, shaking into it a few drops from another bottle with a quill through the cork. It was saccharine flavoured with cloves, the speciality of the café.
[…]
A waiter, again unbidden, brought the chessboard and the current issue of The Times, with the page turned down at the chess problem. Then, seeing that Winston's glass was empty, he brought the gin bottle and filled it. There was no need to give orders. They knew his habits. The chessboard was always waiting for him, his corner table was always reserved; even when the place was full he had it to himself, since nobody cared to be seen sitting too close to him.
This is where Michael Radford’s film adaptation (staring John Hurt), the extremely popular 1954 BBC version (staring Peter Cushing) and the 1956 adaptation (staring Edmond O'Brien) all differ from the novel. In the book as Winston’s sitting alone in the café he remembers his last meeting with Julia is in “the Park”:
He had seen her; he had even spoken to her. There was no danger in it. He knew as though instinctively that they now took almost no interest in his doings. He could have arranged to meet her a second time if either of them had wanted to. Actually it was by chance that they had met. It was in the Park, on a vile, biting day in March, when the earth was like iron and all the grass seemed dead and there was not a bud anywhere except a few crocuses which had pushed themselves up to be dismembered by the wind. He was hurrying along with frozen hands and watering eyes when he saw her not ten metres away from him. It struck him at once that she had changed in some ill-defined way. They almost passed one another without a sign, then he turned and followed her, not very eagerly. He knew that there was no danger, nobody would take any interest in him. She did not speak. She walked obliquely away across the grass as though trying to get rid of him, then seemed to resign herself to having him at her side. Presently they were in among a clump of ragged leafless shrubs, useless either for concealment or as protection from the wind. They halted. It was vilely cold. The wind whistled through the twigs and fretted the occasional, dirty-looking crocuses. He put his arm round her waist.
The 1956 film comes the closest but you’d hardly call the setting a park—just a few isolated trees and benches (more of a garden than a park)—although it is March and so you’d expect it to be bare. In this version Winston finds himself in the park and notices Julia sitting by a tree. So it’s very much an accidental encounter.  
 
 
The 1954 version is set in the café. Julia’s already seated when Winston arrives and is shown to her table as if he’s been expected but he's surprised to see her there. No chess set and the waiter’s a bit too chatty for my taste. In this version the couple both look as if they’ve been through the mill; Winston walks with a limp and Julia seems like she’s aged twenty years.
 
 
In the 1984 adaptation—what most people regard as the definitive version—it’s Winston who’s in the café with a chess set in front of him when Julia arrives. He thanks her for coming and so clearly he’s gone out of his way to make contact. That bothers me because although they talk about meeting again we know (and they know) they never will, not purposefully in any case, so the idea that he’s arranged a reunion doesn’t quite work.
 
 
I can understand why scriptwriters do what they do—their time’s limited—and so we shouldn’t be surprised when they try to do two things at once but what’s missing from them all films is Winston’s sudden and urgent need to get back to the café:
He was overwhelmed by a desire not so much to get away from Julia as to get back to the Chestnut Tree Cafe, which had never seemed so attractive as at this moment. He had a nostalgic vision of his corner table, with the newspaper and the chessboard and the everflowing gin. Above all, it would be warm in there. The next moment, not altogether by accident, he allowed himself to become separated from her by a small knot of people. He made a half-hearted attempt to catch up, then slowed down, turned, and made off in the opposite direction. When he had gone fifty metres he looked back. The street was not crowded, but already he could not distinguish her. Any one of a dozen hurrying figures might have been hers. Perhaps her thickened, stiffened body was no longer recognizable from behind.
I can imagine Hurt acting the above scene and I’m a little sad it was lost even if I do understand why.

Sunday, 30 April 2017

#729



Whispers



I invested all my feelings
in a poem for you.

And locked them carefully in the words
with time as the key.

This is not that poem but now you know it's there
be careful and do not force the lock.


6 April 1991
 

Why do we writers do it? We’re good with words and yet we insist on burying our meanings. You have no idea how much pleasure I got going through The More Things Change and grafting in in all those extra layers knowing full well the vast majority of them would be missed. Is it a test? I suppose it must be. It’s not enough that you read my book or even enjoy my book (and believe me there’s plenty there on the surface) you need to get me.
This poem wasn’t written for you. I didn’t know you when I wrote it. It was for her and she never read it. Even if she had she wouldn’t have got it. She never got any of my poems. She never saw herself in them. How could she not see herself in them? I wonder if she still has them. Probably not.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

#728



The Widow Time



The widow Time left her mark on me.
She slipped something in my tea
then got to work with her needle:
a tattooed scar of what she could have done.


6 April 1991
 

I’ve always been fascinated by grammatical gender. German computers are male; Spanish computers, female. Russians call their homeland ‘Mother Russia’ whilst Germans talk about the fatherland and the Portuguese somehow manage to combine both genders (Pátria Mãe).
 
In the UK we generally view time as male, Old Father Time, and I’ve no problems with that but I was thinking more of the Fates when I wrote this. The names of the three Parcae were Nona, Decima and Morta and they all deal with the thread of life in different ways: Nona spins the thread, Decima measures it and Morta cuts it. When people talk about time though it’s rarely in a passive way; time does things to us, it wears us down or it can heal us (it’s not all bad). Time always leaves its mark on us though: wrinkles, grey hairs, missing teeth, regrets, guilt, pain of all kinds, scars both literal and psychological. No one gets away unscathed.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

#727


Crag



He was a barren crag of a man
open to feelings and stripped bare by them
but unable to move out of the way.


6 April 1991
 
 
I have mixed feelings about feelings. I like to think of myself as an intellectual because I prize reason above emotion but the truth is I am a sensitive creature and rarely in control of those emotions. They dictate to me. Actually they bully me. I don’t trust them. There was a time when I did. Now I take what they offer under advisement. If you were to ask me how I’m feeling right now I’d say, “Crap,” and I do but that’s pretty much my default these days. Not sure if it counts as an emotion though but as I don’t think I’m crap what else could it be? What else is there? We think and we feel and that’s it. Maybe ‘crap’s’ a compound emotion, a bit of sadness, some despondency, a touch of ennui, a dash or two of unhappiness and a smattering of physical discomfort all vying for attention in front of the backdrop of mawkish sentimentality that always descends whenever I struggle to write about one of these old poems.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

#726


The Sands of Time



There is something I have to tell you
that you do not want to hear
and which will not help
but in a moment of weakness I loved you.

You never had to do anything.
Nor do you have to now.
Nothing has changed.
Not even the past.

But I know it won't be the same.


6 April 1991
 
 
What good does knowing the truth do? Especially if it’s to do with the past. The present, yes, I can see a case for asking someone to look again at the world around them but the past’s done and dusted. We survived it. Bully for us. If I ran into B. today and she didn’t snub me (which I expect she would) and I managed to talk her into going for a coffee for old times’ sake would I tell her the truth or some version of the truth or would I underline the lie I so carefully crafted? I don’t think she’d believe the truth. The last I heard she’d already reassessed our relationship and decided I was… I wonder what word she would’ve chosen?... obsessed with her, that I secretly lusted after her. I wonder who put that idea in her head. It’s not an unreasonable conclusion to reach but reason’s overrated. What I felt wasn’t reasonable and it can’t be measured with reason. Or maybe I’m misremembering

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Miss Christie Regrets

[L]et me try to define what it is that the readers of Sunday papers mean when they say fretfully that ‘you never seem to get a good murder nowadays’. – George Orwell, Decline of the English Murder
 
This is the fifth book by Guy Fraser-Sampson I’ve reviewed. The first three were his Mapp and Lucia novels Major Benjy, Lucia on Holiday and Au Reservoir. I enjoyed all of them and it was obvious Guy had read Benson’s original books with care because he mimicked Benson’s style perfectly although not slavishly. The fourth book was a detective novel, Death in Profile, which, while set in the present, was written in the style not of an individual author but a genre, the so-called Golden Age of detective fiction; so we’re talking of the likes of Agatha Christie (Poirot and Miss Marple), Ngaio Marsh (Roderick Alleyn), Dorothy L. Sayers (Lord Peter Wimsey) and Margery Allingham (Campion) to name the four Queens of Crime but there are plenty of others like, for example, Ronald Knox (creator of Miles Bredon) who argued that a detective story “must have as its main interest the unravelling of a mystery; a mystery whose elements are clearly presented to the reader at an early stage in the proceedings, and whose nature is such as to arouse curiosity, a curiosity which is gratified at the end.” [bold mine]
 
As I mentioned when I reviewed Death in Profile I really haven’t read much crime fiction at all but I have watched an awful lot of it on TV and still do. We’ve only just finished the last series of Father Brown (created by G. K. Chesterton) who predates the authors above but as Dale Ahlquist reminds us in his lecture ‘The Innocence of Father Brown’ “whenever you think of the great detectives of mystery fiction’s golden age—Hercule Poirot, Lord Peter Wimsey, Miss Marple, Ellery Queen, Philo Vance, or Nero Wolfe—remember their parentage. Remember that they had a father. His name was Father Brown.” Father Brown is not naïve but then neither is he cynical; he’s decent and thoughtful. Most importantly he’s observant. It’s what distinguishes detectives from readers of detective fiction because if the clues are “clearly presented” the reader should have every bit as much of a chance of solving the mystery as the detective even if we do mostly fail to put the pieces together. What’s irritating—and Christie’s particularly guilty of this—is holding back the vital clue right until the dénouement; that’s unfair. As Joan Acocella notes in an article in The New Yorker:
[I]n truth, the guessing that we are asked to do is almost fruitless, because the solution to the mystery typically involves a fantastic amount of background material that we’re not privy to until the end of the book, when the detective shares it with us. Christie’s novels crawl with impostors. Letty is not really Letty; she’s Lotty, the sister of Letty. And Hattie isn’t Hattie. She’s a piece of trash from Trieste, who, with her husband, Sir George, killed Hattie (who was also married to him) and assumed her identity. The investigator digs up this material but doesn’t tell anyone till the end.
Let me be clear then: everything you need to solve the first murder in Guy’s new novel is there on the page and if, like me, you can’t add two and two don’t gripe. The second murder is different in that the crime was committed in 1937. No one expects the murderer to even be alive. Or any witnesses. What keeps us interested in this second case is working out how it’s connected to the first and the link is tenuous: the first victim had been researching the building in which the corpse of the second victim is discovered. Surely though this is nothing more than a bizarre coincidence. As is pointed out in the novel, however, “[J]ust because there’s a coincidence doesn’t mean there’s a correlation […] Correlation is not causation.” That said, “Jung said that coincidence is all around us but … most of the time we don’t realise it.” Besides this is fiction. No one can sneeze in a novel without me thinking, Aha! Foreshadowing!
 
There’s no doubt that Agatha Christie is well-loved and if a new adaptation comes on the TV I always record it even when it’s one of popular ones and I can remember who did it. I’m always perfectly willing to suspend disbelief one more time and buy into her world view the same way as I do with Last of the Summer Wine or anything by PG Wodehouse. As John Banville notes in his contribution to a lengthy article on Christie in The Irish Times entitled ‘Agatha Christie: genius or hack?’:
Christie is certainly a kind of genius, but one cannot help feeling she would have been better off employed in Bletchley Park as a code-breaker, or working for a manufacturer of board games. Her plots, while highly ingenious, are also wildly improbable, if for no other reason than that the characters who drive them are not characters at all, but marionettes, jerking lifelessly on the ends of their all too visible strings. Her worst fault, however, is that we never feel the slightest twitch of sympathy for, or empathy with, the victim, lying there in the library in a neat puddle of blood. Who could possibly care?
In this respect Guy falls into line. The body in the library (actually it’s a museum) is never more than that, as is the body from 1937 which turns up in a suitcase. We learn bits and bobs about them, wee details necessary to keep us interested and also to misdirect us, but never for a second did I find myself caring about them. Neither is real. No one really died. They’re simply clues, a part of the puzzle.
 
The first murder is exactly the kind of thing you’d expect to see one of the detectives on Death in Paradise being tasked with solving. We never witness the actual murder; a body is discovered, maybe a little blood, nothing gruesome like we’ve got used to in the likes of Dexter. There are only a handful of suspects and all have watertight alibis. In the building when the body was discovered we have Karen Willis and her boyfriend Peter Collins (both of whom were introduced in Death in Profile) who’ve visited the museum to see an exhibition of works by Constable and then we have the buttery staff; the assistant manager, Jack Bailey; his wife Sue and Professor Hugh Raffen. Since Karen Willis is a detective sergeant she’s immediately ruled out and can confirm where her boyfriend and everyone else in the buttery was at the time of the murder so we’re left with three possibilities unless a stranger happened to wander in, a “passing tramp,” for example, “a regular device in Golden Age detective fiction.” The victim is one Peter Howse and his only living relative turns out to be a nephew who has a decent motive and isn’t the slightest bit upset when he learns of his uncle’s passing but, of course, denies any involvement and the police have no way to place him at the scene of the crime or thereabouts.
 
Howse had been preparing an exhibition on the Isokon building on Lawn Road, Hampstead, a concrete block of thirty-four flats designed by architect Wells Coates which opened on 9 July 1934 as an experiment in minimalist urban living and is now widely recognised as one of the finest achievements of Modern Movement architecture. The building’s list of illustrious former residents includes Marcel Breuer, Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus and, surprise, surprise, Dame Agatha Christie. On the surface this seems of as little relevance to the murder enquiry as the fact Professor Raffen has been working on a book about Britain’s vanishing railways until that is a body is discovered behind a wall that shouldn’t have been there in a basement at the Isokon.
 
What follows is a police enquiry that’s probably far closer to a real life investigation than anything penned by Miss Christie or her contemporaries. If anything it’s a little dull and by the numbers which is what, I imagine, most police work is like: suspects are interviewed, doors knocked on, phone calls made, superiors kept appraised, lines of inquiry followed and dots joined. What is interesting is the more we learn about the 1937 murder the more light is shed on the death of Howse until the identity of the murderer becomes blindingly obvious and we all know to be wary of the obvious culprit in any murder mystery. There’s always someone early on in an investigation that we can point the finger at and it’s never him just like it’s never the narrator (Ronald Knox’s First Commandment of Detective Fiction) except in the case of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd where it was.
 
The problem with rules is that they encourage predictability. If a Chinaman appeared in any of Father Knox’s stories you could immediately rule him out (Rule #5) and so why bother with one? Rules also encourage expectation. One thing I hate about so much detective fiction is its formulaic nature. I know on TV if a show’s in two parts at the end of the first part we’ll very likely be left with a second death. What I liked about Guy’s handling of these two deaths is how he uses our preconceptions of how a Golden Age novel should play out to put one over on us.
 
The second murder is not the kind you normally associate with the Golden Age of detective fiction although I do have to wonder if Guy wasn’t tipping his hat to John Dickson Carr’s 1948 novel The Skeleton in the Clock when he decided to include a body in a suitcase. (Cold Case fiction has only really taken off in recent years thanks to advances in forensic science but even in the 1940s a medical examiner would’ve be able to tell if a skeleton’s feet were too big.) But there’s another thread introduced here. Once the corpse has been identified suddenly a whole new can of worms is opened: espionage and although spy novels are generally considered a separate genre there is some overlap; Agatha Christie herself wrote three full length spy novels, N or M?, Murder In Mesopotamia and They Came To Baghdad. A few reviewers have mentioned John le Carré’s name and I can see why but if you’re coming to this hoping for another Smiley’s People you’ll be disappointed; it has more in common with A Murder of Quality.
 
As I noted at the start of this article most detective writers tend to get associated with one character (or in Christie’s case two) and one of my concerns when I reviewed Death in Profile was this: “[W]hat 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.” I did wonder if a shining star would come to the fore in the second novel but no one really stands out. I found myself lumping all the males into a single amorphous blob: the detective. It probably didn’t help that I could remember little or nothing of the first book although that’s nothing to do with Guy’s writing; I forget everything. There are numerous nods to the first novel and they did help jog my memory but not enough. At the start of the book the publisher has added this comment:
Miss Christie Regrets is the second volume of the Hampstead Mysteries. Readers are invited to sample the series in the correct order for maximum enjoyment.
I have to agree. Yes, the murder-solving stands alone but the relationships of the police officers have moved on and if you haven’t read the first book there’s room for confusion especially when it comes to the… let’s go with open love triangle… involving Karen Willis, Peter Collins and Bob Metcalfe. Romance subplots are common enough—and that is all this is—but it does serve to flesh out the characters a bit and it’s interesting to see them develop. Christ! They’re so British. I was somewhat sorry to see Guy was unable to utilise Peter Collins as much as he had in the first book. I’m a big fan of the oddball consultant—from Sherlock Holmes to Lucifer—but Collins really doesn’t get much chance to shine here. Maybe next time.
 
One thing I liked about Christie is that her characters age and so by the time we get to Curtain Poirot is an old man. In an interview in 2016 Guy talks a bit about his relationship with his characters:
One could get into a very arcane discussion about what is or is not a ‘series’. In my view it should be one long narrative spread across several books. Very few detective ‘series’ would qualify under this description, though Wallender might be an obvious one which does, mixing professional and personal issues. I can see the argument for writing stand-alone books featuring the same characters because then it doesn’t matter in which order people read them but again, I wanted to be different.
[…]
 I wanted to create a cast with whom the reader can empathise, and care about what happens to them as they go through life. In order to do this, you have to set them against a personal background. The more of the books you read, the more deeply you will understand, and hopefully like, the characters.
I do have to say that this book did feel as if it was a part of something bigger and not simply the second in an on-going series. I’m genuinely curious to see where these characters go. Several reviewers expressed regret at not having read Death in Profile first.
 
The book’s not perfect. I enjoyed all the nods to Golden Age authors although they felt a little strained at times as many had to be explained for the benefit of less-well-read colleagues. There’s nothing wrong with the book’s core mystery (ten out of ten there) but I think it could’ve done with one final run through before going to press. The Yorkshire Ripper case, for example, is mentioned four times and twice someone observes that people don’t usually crawl into suitcases to die. There are perhaps, too, too many adverbs for modern readers’ tastes. No one simply says anything. They say it “ruefully,” “savagely,” “mournfully,” “resignedly,” “diffidently” or even “jocularly.” The biggest problem I had though was with the copyediting. There were dozens—and I do not exaggerate—of errors: periods instead of commas, apostrophes the wrong way round, extra spaces, miscellaneous problems with quotes, times written without colons to separate hours and minutes and even three bona fide typos that I noticed. This was in the e-book and it’s always possible that an old version was uploaded but I found them terribly distracting.
 
The third book in the series, A Whiff of Cyanide, will be released on 2 June 2017 and I’m quite looking forward to it.
 
***
 
Guy Fraser-Sampson is an established writer, previously best known for his Mapp and Lucia novels, which have been featured on BBC Radio 4 and optioned by BBC television. His debut work of detective fiction, Death in Profile, the first in the Hampstead Murders series has drawn high praise from fellow crime writers as well as from readers on both sides of the Atlantic.
 
He currently works as a board adviser (and sometimes invests in) various entrepreneurial businesses, and has previously held various senior level investment positions, including a spell as Investment Controller with the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority and ran for several years the international operations of a leading US fund manager. For the past several years he has been designing and teaching a number of post-graduate modules at Cass Business School in the City of London.
 
Guy appears regularly on radio and television in the UK and is also in demand as a keynote and after dinner speaker.
 
He is married with two grown-up sons and divides his time between London (NW3 naturally) and East Sussex.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

#725


Façade



I hid from you behind the only words I had
saying just those things I knew you knew.
But not it all.

Just the things I knew you wouldn't question.


6 April 1991


Lying is wrong. That’s what I was taught growing up. Satan was the father of the lie. (Which, I guess, makes God the grandfather of the lie but no one talks about that.) The older I’ve got the more I’ve lost patience with truth and questioned its efficacy. It has its uses but mostly it hurts people unless diluted in some way. Do you love me? Yes, but not as much as you’d like. Why volunteer that last bit? My wife doesn’t know how much I love or in what way or how it compares to the other loves of my life and why do we need to go there anyway? What use is that kind of truth?
 
I loved F. I think I loved F., was in love with F. Now I’m not so sure. It felt like what I imagined love ought to feel like. But did I really love her? What does that even mean?

Sunday, 9 April 2017

#724


Mother



I sat and watched my mother cry, and said,
"These arms are mine. You gave them to me.
You cannot have them back."


6 April 1991
 
 
My mother cried a lot. I made her cry. My brother and sister made her cry. Her husband made her cry. And I’m not sure any one of us ever put our arms around her and said, “There, there.” We were not that kind of family. There’s a photo of me as a wee boy—I’m probably about three in it—and my mother’s hugging me and I look like a cat a small child’s got hold of and is squeezing to death. The expression on my face says it all: I don’t want to be here.
 
The last mental health professional I went to once asked me the classic (or is it clichéd?), “Tell me about your mother,” to which I replied, “I’ll tell you about my dad because you need to understand my dad and my relationship with my dad before you’ll understand me and my mum.” I don’t think she was very pleased; she didn’t like when I didn’t play ball. My dad was a bully. He never hit my mum, not once, but he belittled her and never worried about whether the kids were within earshot or not. So we took our cue from him and looked down on her. And it only got worse when I realised just how much cleverer than her I was.
 
This is one of only two poems I wrote about my mum. The other is ‘Making Do’ (#934) which you can read at the end of my post Richard Brautigan, my mum and I if you’re interested.

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

#723


Medusa



"I had to see,"
she said, by way of explanation.
"With my own eyes."
But this explained nothing.

"Sitting in a darkened room
peering through a two-way mirror.
It's not the same."

And I had to agree
but I didn't know why.


6 April 1991
 
 
So what’s going on here? It’s not very clear, is it? A woman is explaining to someone—the poem’s narrator—why she chose to leave the safety of a darkened room to see something or someone with her own eyes. Or maybe not “see” as in look at but “see” as in come to understand first-hand.
 
In Ovid’s reimagining of the story Medusa was a beautiful maiden whom Poseidon raped in Athena's temple. Enraged Athena transformed Medusa’s hair—the victim’s hair—into serpents and made her face so terrible to behold the mere sight of it would turn onlookers to stone. Perseus was only able to slay her whilst looking at the reflection from the mirrored shield he received, unsurprisingly, from Athena herself. So there’s the mirror.
 
Two-way mirrors we generally associate with interrogation rooms.
 
Let’s say it’s Medusa the woman has to see face to face. Why’s she still able to talk? Surely she would’ve been turned to stone. Well, metaphorically, perhaps she has. Learning the truth can have that effect on people. And we know it can. And yet we go out of our way to look it in the eye. Why? I have no idea.
 
Or perhaps the woman is Athena and this is before Medusa’s punishment. Perhaps Athena needed to look her in the eye before she knew for sure. Even if what she thought she saw was completely wrong.

Sunday, 2 April 2017

#722


Lean Pickings



Slowly and deliberately
she picked her way
through the husks of words
searching for a kernel of hidden meaning,
what she called "truth."

"Was that all that was worth saying?"
I asked, when she seemed to have found it,
and she said, "No,
but that was all I wanted to hear."


6 April 1991
 
 
Somewhere amongst my papers I have the first few pages of a dictionary. I don’t think I’d heard of The Devil’s Dictionary when I started it but it’s along the same lines, alternative definitions of words we thought we understood. The only definition I can remember is the one for ‘Apple’: Crunchy water. I gave up on it because I kept trying to make it funny but a part of me wishes I’d taken it a bit more seriously because at its core was a good idea.
 
I’ve always loved dictionaries—one of my earliest posts on this blog was Twenty-seven dictionaries—but here’s the thing: as much as I loved them I always felt they fell short. As did the one I started writing. An apple is no more crunchy water than it’s “the round fruit of a tree of the rose family, which typically has thin green or red skin and crisp flesh.” Neither really catches the appleness of an apple. Definition is not meaning. What does an apple mean?
 
Mostly in life we get by on crumbs. I wrote a long letter to B. after she moved to Ireland and she phoned me up afterwards—it was probably the last time we ever spoke—but all she wanted to talk about was the opening sentence in which I’d talked about how people viewed what she’d done and to be honest most people either didn’t get her or didn’t approve. That was all she wanted to talk about. There was so much truth in that letter but it was too long—far too long—and so she focused on the only thing that mattered to her. I clearly didn't. I’ve no idea if this poem’s about that but that’s what it reminded me of.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

#721



The Old Man



The old man looked out of his window
at the screeching gull as it wheeled away.
There is a value to ignorance, he thought.
If you lose it, it cannot be replaced.

And he looked again where the bird had been
and cursed his failing eyesight.
Was it still there or did he imagine it?

And he stood there alone.
Well, as alone as any of us ever are
or would wish to be.


6 April 1991
 

Over the years more than one person has commented on a certain naïveté, a kind of innocence that continues to dog me to this day. I say “kind of” because although I’m guilty of many things hanging on to such a useless notion as innocence is not one of them; I gave it up willingly and with few regrets. I think what people see in me is a readiness to give people the benefit of the doubt. And they’re right. I’ve never been able to shake that. Hell, for five minutes I even imagined that Trump would dial it back when he took office and everything that’d gone on in the months before had been a ploy to help him win votes; electioneering is after all a dirty business these day. Well, that never happened.
 
Ignorance is simply not knowing: I couldn’t list off more than maybe a dozen elements off the periodic table but that doesn’t make me a bad person. Innocence, on the other hand, is not understanding, which is why a concept such as the age of criminal responsibility exists. Thankfully there are still many things of which I remain blissfully ignorant. You don’t have to know everything. Far from being the first step to wisdom more often than not knowledge only leads to disappointment.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

#720


The Right Kind of Lies



The truth of it was visibly brittle
so we wrapped it up
in the right kind of lies
and took it with us
away from the past
where it should have stayed.


6 April 1991


Yet another truth poem and there’re more to come. You’d think I’d have said everything I had to say but it’s a subject I’m continually drawn to. These days I don’t tend to write them down, the ideas, because I really probably have said everything I have to say on the subject. And yet I can’t quite give up on beating on it.

I just had a look to see how many times I mention the word ‘truth’ in Left. Thirty-five times. I thought there might be more since so much of the book is about Jen trying to find out uncover the mystery of who her father was. At one point she notes: “Beliefs don’t need to be true. Truths don’t even need to be true these days.” I wrote that before all this fake truth malarkey kicked off and, yes, it’s truer now than it was then.

“The people have a right to the truth as they have a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” So said Epictetus but even if he’s right I think what we have nowadays is a “pound of flesh” situation. How does anyone get to the truth without making a bloody mess? Easier said than done.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

#719


Bones



I've been gnawing on the bones of the past for years.
I dig them up every now and then
but it's comforting just to know they're there.

It's an unmarked grave, the past,
but I know where it is.


6 April 1991
 
 
I’m a cat person. I don’t hate dogs and I’ll pet anything that’ll let me but I don’t get dogs. Loyal and obedient they may well be but there’s an underlying stupidity there I allow to annoy me. At least it comes across as stupidity. I think the main problem is dogs are so unabashedly enthusiastic they never think anything through; they plunge through life. And yet we have the simile: like a dog with a bone. I’ve seen dogs with bones. Not many but enough to get the point. Cats can be every bit as territorial. Hell my tiny cockatiel will face up to me if I try to interfere with a cardboard box he’s busy chewing holes in. “My box! Mine!”
 
I’m not sure when nostalgia befell me but it crept up on me in my fifties. One day I found myself looking up, needing to look up people online I’d not thought about in over thirty years. I’d had Internet access since 1996 but it took me until, say, 2010 to think to do this. I’d never been one for looking back not even to watch the bridges burn. As I said in Living with the Truth: “Nostalgia—sounds like an ailment, a sickness of the soul perhaps.” And later in Left: “I’m not prone to bouts of nostalgia or even retrospection, not normally (I’m making an exception for you here); introspection, yes, I like being inside my own head, I’m comfortable in my own skin…”
 
These poems I’ve been posting for the last while are bones I’ve buried. I know where they are, on the bottom shelf behind me in the office. They used to all fit in one big red binder but now they’re in two and ‘Bones’ is in the Garfield binder. I treat them like reference books. Christ knows the last time I sat down and just read any of them for my own enjoyment. I don’t need to read them. But I do need to have them.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

#718



The Voyeur



No, it's not enough to know.
It's never been enough.

It just all depends on your point of view
how much you can see
of Truth as she changes.

And how much that reveals
depends on what you're looking for.


6 April 1991
 

Voyeurism has always fascinated me. I’m not talking here about sexual voyeurism. That’s easy to understand. The two or three times I’ve happened to see a neighbour in a state of undress have stayed with me even though I can’t remember what any of the women looked like; the idea of nakedness is always more appealing than actual nakedness. What they looked like wasn’t important. What mattered was catching a moment of unfettered truth. As soon as we’re aware we’re not alone in a moment our behaviour changes. I’ve always been desperately interested to see what people do when no one’s watching or they think no one’s watching. So I suppose ‘spying’ would be a more appropriate word but even that’s not right because spies usually have malicious intent. I don’t. I’m simply fascinated by other people.
 
It’s like Jen says in Left:
I enjoy eating out. Especially alone. I amuse myself by watching the other customers or, if they’re a dreary lot, by peering out the window at passers-by. People interest me, their doings and their undoings. I don’t get them in the same way I don’t get meerkats but still like following their antics.
Jen’s not like other people. She’s not a poet but she knows she’s different. She notes at one point, “I often feel as if there’s a glass pane between me and everyone else.” Well that’s truer in 2017 than it’s ever been. In January 1997 I go on to write two poems both called ‘Screen’ and in both I refer to glass screens, TV screens, computer screens and how they only seem to let us in; we’re still separate, apart.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Dear Reflection: I Never Meant to be a Rebel

Autobiography is fiction, and fiction is autobiography. Factual truth is irrelevant to autobiography. – Robert Elbaz
 


Before we get into my article here’s a short blog post from Jessica from March 2010 to set the scene:
Many meaningful memories meander through my mind, but as I jot them down, I fear they will subconsciously mutate, malfunction, morph into fiction rather than fact. Especially when I retrace the times that made me miserable, I frantically fight off fate's fundamental message to me, in fear that I may feel its familiar unfathomable fiery force again. If only there was a way to write these memories down, and maintain a fictitious distance from them, my memoir wouldn't make me miserable, it would make me motivated to tell others my story.
As a fourteen-year-old Elizabeth Browning (as she was still known at the time) wrote in her second autobiographical essay, ‘Glimpses into My Own Life and Literary Character’, “To be one's own chronicler is a task generally dictated by extreme vanity…” and I guess that’s the first obstacle any prospective autobiographer has to overcome: “Why would anyone be interested in your life?” If there’s one question I would ask anybody contemplating starting a memoir or a full-blown autobiography that would be it because it doesn’t matter what we’ve been through there will be someone out there whose story will completely eclipse ours. That doesn’t invalidate what we’ve experienced but it should make us question its greater worth. Of course it’s natural—healthy, even—for us to examine own lives and to spend some time (although maybe not too much time) mulling over our choices and there’s nothing inherently wrong in committing our conclusions to paper (because we forget so quickly) but, seriously, who else bar a few close family members cares what we did when we were wee?
 
The dedication to Jessica Bell’s memoir is:
For everyone except myself.
This struck me as odd and intriguing. Most writers no matter what they say write for themselves first and foremost—writing is all about self-expression after all—and if others appreciate it and, even better, are willing to pay to read what you’ve written then you’ve won a watch. Like Will Self said in this 2012 Guardian article:
I don't really write for readers. I think that's the defining characteristic of being serious as a writer. I mean, I've said in the past I write for myself. That's probably some kind of insane egotism but I actually think that's the only way to proceed—to write what you think you have to write. I write desperately trying to keep myself amused or engaged in what I'm doing and in the world.
Having known Jessica Bell for several years and having read most of her books the one thing I can say about her is that’s she’s serious about her writing and (mostly) her writing is serious (without being sombre) so I don’t buy for a minute that this memoir is something others badgered her into writing or she’s dashed off to make a quick euro; this was something she needed to do and now she’s done with it maybe others will be able to get something from it. As she said in this interview:
I definitely write for myself, and THEN try to figure out how to market it to readers. I’m a strong believer in the notion that if you do not write for yourself, your work will not be your best. Any creative endeavour has to come from an honest place in order for people to be able to relate to it. That’s my opinion anyway.
The writing was for her; the finished book is for us. It’s clearly a project she’s been struggling with for years. As she told Zoe Courtman in 2010, “I’m having difficulty with my memoir at the moment … I just don’t want to be in it.”
 
All intentions selfish or unselfish aside there’s a problem with autobiography, several problems really. Can a writer be honest when he writes? Dostoyevsky thought not. In Notes from Underground he maintains that “a true autobiography is almost an impossibility, and that man is bound to lie about himself.” Even if an author doesn’t deliberately set out to misrepresent the facts does not the written text nevertheless become an interpretation of the past as opposed to faithful recollection? The person writing about their experiences is not the person who went through them. But even let’s say an author can be honest, ought he to be honest (and, if so, how honest) and does he even want to be honest? (Despite what we were taught as children honesty is not always the best policy.) Autobiography is never merely a recording of what we did and where; it invariably involves commenting on, explaining, justifying or trying to excuse our life choices. Confession is more than mere disclosure. It seeks absolution or at very least understanding.
 
I was looking at a WikiHow site a while back; a post entitled How to Write an Autobiography, where I was rather surprised to find this subheading under ‘Crafting a Narrative’: “Create an overarching plot.” Novels have plots. Lives have chronologies. Both leave a lot to be desired. In Jessica’s case she boils thirty-five years down to less than 300 pages. In condensing a breadth of experience confabulation must arise. But is that necessarily a bad thing? She concentrates on telling a specific story and leaves out what she thinks isn’t pertinent. She hasn’t gone as far as novelising her life but in her opening ‘Note from the Author’ she nevertheless admits:
While all the events in this book are true, on some occasions I have been creative with the way they play out due to my inability to recall specific details. I have instead filled these gaps in memory with what I assume would be the most logical and fitting details in relation to the era and circumstances. […] In some cases I have compressed or merged events; in others I have made two or three people into one.
This reminded me immediately of another Australian writer. Unreliable Memoirs by Clive James would’ve been the first book by an Australian I read and probably the first memoir I ever read, too. He, likewise, admitted up front that his book played lip service to the truth:
Most first novels are disguised autobiographies. This autobiography is a disguised novel. On the periphery, names and attributes of real people have been changed and shuffled so as to render identification impossible. Nearer the centre, important characters have been run through the scrambler or else left out completely. So really the whole affair is a figment got up to sound like truth. All you can be sure of is one thing: careful as I have been to spare other people’s feelings, I have been even more careful not to spare my own. Up, that is, of course, to a point. […] I am also well aware that all attempts to put oneself in a bad light are doomed to be frustrated. The ego arranges the bad light to its own satisfaction. But on that point it is only necessary to remember Santayana’s devastating comment on Rousseau’s Confessions [regarded by some as the starting point of modern autobiography], which he said demonstrated, in equal measure, candour and ignorance of self.
All I can say from a personal point of view is that I’ve never written a book I’ve intended to and I’m pretty sure that’ll be the case with most authors; we’re never as in control as we like to think we are. The real issue with life writing is truthfulness. Not truthiness. Can you be truthful without telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth? Well, of course you can. In her 1979 article ‘Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?’ Ursula Le Guin wrote, “[F]antasy is true, of course. It isn’t factual, but it is true.” Imagination and truth are not so incompatible. Far from it. In her memoir Jessica imagines (literally fantasises, from the Greek phantazesthai which means "picture to oneself") how things might’ve happened and she admits she may have got more than a few details wrong but her intent clearly was to head in the right direction; to be truthful. As Janina Bauman puts it in her essay ‘Memory and Imagination: Truth in Autobiography’: “[I]magination helped by a sense of probability: it could have been so.”
 
According to Denis Ledoux, who runs a website called The Memoir Network, “People read memoirs to learn to be better or happier or more contributory people.” It’s a thought. I’m not sure it’s as simple as that or maybe it’s simpler still; maybe it’s plain nosiness. What I do have to agree with is what Jennifer S. Wilkov had to say in her article for The Huffington Post, ‘No One Wants to Read Your Diary’:
        While your personal life story may be an unbelievable one, how you craft it, how you tell it, and how you share the development of the main character—meaning you—is of utmost importance.
         The reason why many memoirs don’t get picked up by major publishers is because they fall short of this important distinction: no one wants to read your diary; they want to read your story.
At first I wondered if this was the hurdle where Jessica’s book might fail because from the off she uses the classic ‘Dear Diary’ format. Okay she doesn’t say, “Dear Diary,” she goes with, “Dear Reflection,” and it’s hard to draw any distinction at first but there is one, a significant one because her reflection talks back. It’s a contrivance, a literary device; it never happened. It works though. Her reflection is often scathing, accusatory, rude, challenging and insulting but on occasion she provides the voice of reason.
 
Here’s another problem though. Readers, not authors, are the ones who supply meanings. I’ve lived a very different life to Jessica and her family and so the problem she faced—indeed the problem every author faces—was how to minimise the… let’s just go with ‘damage’… the damage a reader could do whilst struggling to relate to the characters and events on the page. In Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends, psychologists Michael White and David Epston maintain, “Since we cannot know objective reality, all knowing requires an act of interpretation.” What right do I have to validate a text when the experience was never mine to begin with? All I can possibly be left with is an idea of what Jessica went through. Let me give you an example. Both Jessica and I are depressives. In her book she mentions depression a few times assuming that’s all we need to understand. But if you’ve never been depressed-with-a-capital-d you really have no idea and her experiences of depression are markedly different to mine; for one I’ve never felt suicidal. In the mid-nineties she says she was plagued with “constant thoughts of suicide”—“[t]he only thing that prevented me from taking suicide one hundred per cent seriously was music,” she writes—although in this article from 2014, ‘But That’s Not “Real” Depression’, she opens with, “Sometimes I get told that I’m not ‘really’ depressed because I am not suicidal…” so one can only assume that her symptoms have changed over the years as did mine; people think about autism as a spectrum so why not depression? Either that or she remembers adolescence as being worse than it was. I suspect it’s the former because when describing a bout of separation anxiety in the 2000s she realises:
        It wasn’t my usual depression in which I felt worthless, and it definitely didn’t make me want to commit suicide.
        This sadness was manic.
        Like I was going through this torturous thing, can’t you see, can’t you see, and why isn’t anyone trying to help me find a solution? Why isn’t anyone trying to help me get back to him?
        Imagine giving a homeless person a house, a night to sleep in a warm bed, and shower, and then saying, “Sorry, man, just kidding, you’re stuck in the cold for life.” The world had betrayed me. It teased me into submission and then pulled the ground from under my feet. [bold mine]
In his essay ‘Graves Without Bodies: The Mnemonic Importance of Equiano's Autobiography’ the Ghanaian poet Kwadwo Opoku-Agyemang notes, “The successful autobiography is one that shows a mind reflecting upon, sifting and relating to events; it must display a person changing and being changed by life's experiences, and sometimes even by the very process of writing the autobiography.” [Italics mine.] This is something Jessica does. From time to time she’ll jump to the present—if you like out of the memoir—and sets herself side by side with the reader, asking herself to pass comment (and ultimately judgement) on her younger self. One reviewer compared Jessica’s memoir to the work of Maya Angelou. If that’s not setting a writer up for a fall I’m not sure what is but there is a case to be answered. What distinguishes I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings from what went before it is that Angelou records experience not as history, but as experience she recognizes as changing in time. In what way does Jessica do that? In that we’re presented with a portrait of someone called ‘Jessica Bell’ which is then worked on throughout the book. At the start it’s only a pencil sketch. The child we meet in the beginning is little more than an outline which gradually gets coloured it. At times the picture gets messy and needs painting over. At university she experimented with her look (and, she says, inadvertently her personality) so much so that sometimes other students failed to recognize her; later drink, bad relationship choices, mental health issues and loss distort the picture. A chapter ends; we get a breather and begin again. Eventually the Jessica we’ve come to know over the years—as much as any of us knows anyone we’ve only met online—starts to appear.
 
In the Smithsonian magazine I read that “Dickens began his autobiography in 1847, when he was [also] 35, but abandoned it and, overcome with memories of his deprivations, a few years later was inspired to write the autobiographical David Copperfield, fictionalizing his early miseries…” Jessica has already done this, ransacked her past to create her fictions. In her novella The Book, for example, she describes an incident where a five-year-old girl who’s soiled herself fears being trapped in the school toilets overnight. Reading that again and knowing that little girl was Jessica and not someone she dreamt up changes everything. And yet, to my mind, the novella’s version is more powerful because it’s written in the voice of a child and it’s not an adult remembering something that happened thirty years earlier. See what you think.
 
From the memoir:        
        Why did you run away? Why didn’t you just tell Mrs Wallace in the playground?
        Because I didn’t want the other kids to see!
        But now you’re stuck in here. That was stupid. What are you going to do?
        I don’t know. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do!
        You’re an idiot. You’re stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid!
        I wailed and wailed, holding my yellow-and-white striped Miki House Club dress away from my legs—my saturated knickers still hooked around my ankles. I was so afraid of stepping out of the cubicle in case another kid came in. I had to get cleaned up. But how? I couldn’t possibly go outside without a pair of knickers on. Everyone would see my chishy as my dress was short.
        Call for help.
        I don’t want to.
        There’s no other way.
        But they’ll see me, and they’ll laugh at me.
        Do you want to be locked in here all night?
        No.
        Then stop being such a wuss and call for help!
“Help!” I cried at the top of my lungs. Only once. But no-one came for what seemed like hours.
The italicised sections are her reflection and her squabbling. Now here’s how it plays out in the novella:
        I lift my Mickey Mouse skirt and pull down on the flicky-thread of my undies. But it squishes between my legs when I sit on the torlet seat.
        It smells like a baby accident and a hospital in here and my heart goes all bumpy in my chest. I can smell that stinky liquid stuff that my mummy uses to make clothes white, and it always makes her rub her head after, and I have to bring her some Tic Tacs.
        I can’t tell any bodies I did this. I can’t! They will all laugh at me and I don’t like it when bodies laugh at me. When bodies laugh my belly goes all feeling not nice and tears come out of my eyes. Mrs Haydon will come a-looking for me any minute, wondering why I’m not back to get my school bag off my hook. The home-time bell just runged. I’m going to be in so much trouble.
Both are honest accounts (honest enough) but which is the more truthful? I checked with Jessica assuming “Miki House Club” was a typo. Apparently not. That's what the real shirt said. So why change it in the novella? And does it matter if it was a dress or a skirt? We get the idea.
 
According to Blake Morrison, writing in The Guardian, “The confessional memoir is disreputable. Critics tend to dismiss it as the equivalent of a selfie, a look-at-me snapshot, a glorified ego trip. Narcissism, they say, is inscribed in the very word ‘memoir’: me-moi.” In the article he proposes seven reasons why people confess on paper: spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings, confession as an apology or self-justification, confession as a desire to shock, confession as the desire to redefine what’s shocking, confession as performance and showmanship, an effort to set the record straight or, finally, as catharsis, cleansing, or purgation. That last one comes closest to what I think Jessica intended here but if the book truly is, as she says, for everyone except herself is it meant to be a teaching aid? Learn from me. Don’t make the same mistakes as me. If you have made mistakes or are in the process of making mistakes that doesn’t have to be the end of the world.
 
Life is all about choices. So they say. It’s not entirely true. Maya Angelou didn’t choose to be black. Anne Frank didn’t choose to be Jewish. Jessica Bell didn’t choose to be raised by rock musicians. They could’ve been fundamentalist Christians like my parents. Or wolves. Normal is what you’re used to. It doesn’t really exist except as a good idea. As the cliché goes: When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. But what if life hands you shit? Shit has its uses too If only for throwing at fans or decorating your cell with.
 
Jessica did not always make the wisest of choices. She turned to drink, was promiscuous and experimented sexually; she refused to learn from past mistakes. She wasn’t born black in the Deep South in the 1920s or Jewish in Nazi Germany but then most of us weren’t. There are some things in life we can’t control and there’re others we lose control of. Depression is not a life choice, alcoholism is an illness and bullying might not quite be up there with racism but when you realise half our kids get bullied at some time and one in five gets bullied every day you start to appreciate how serious it is.
 
Does Jessica provide any answers? Not really. The closest she gets to a Rosa Parks moment is snogging another girl in the middle of the dancefloor during the End of Year 10 Formal and all that does is solidify the negative impression most people had of her. The girls did not get nominated for homecoming queens. This was the Australia in the 1990s, not the set of Faking It. I was interested to read this in a 2011 interview:
Not every woman in this world lives without regret, knows exactly what they want, and has the courage to put every essence of their being into achieving their dreams. Not every woman is inspirational to others. Not every woman can leave their comfort zone to better their future. But, so what? Does that mean a less strong-minded woman doesn't have an interesting story to tell? Definitely not.
What Jessica does do is survive. She could just as easily have died under anaesthetic in 2001 or stepped off a cliff in 2002. She has her scars (and her battle scars) but she’s still here to tell her tale to the best of her ability. Not without some luck. But here’s the thing about luck: you need to make the most of it, the good kind anyway, and it rarely waves a flag yelling, “This way! This way! Here’s where you go right and not left.” Jessica had to hang on until 2005 for her moment and, oddly, this is where the book starts to peter out and she doesn’t go on to explain how successful (it’s a relative term, I know) she’s become but then most of the people who’ll be attracted to this book will have some knowledge of her and we know for all her failings the one thing Jessica has never been afraid of is hard work. I asked her about why the ending doesn't focus on her writing career and this is what she came back with:
It's an entirely different story, unrelated to my childhood and teenhood and love life and music, and would be the length of an entirely new book. I intend to write about it. I have two other memoir project ideas at the moment: 
  1. The building of my career as a writer and entrepreneur beginning 2005.
  2. The (rather humorous and quite devastating) story of running the café-bar in Ithaca.
I did start to go into more detail about these things as I was writing Dear Reflection, but I soon realized that, not only would it completely destroy the thematic thread and focus of the book, but the texts focussing on these areas would have ended up longer than the current book. These stories didn't belong in Dear Reflection. They are not related to my psychological struggle. They are related to the side of my personality that is highly confident, ambitious, and has an overactive drive to succeed. And because that side of me is completely different to the side I write about in Dear Reflection, it needs its own book.
Think of it this way: Why do horoscopes separate career and love predictions? Because there is no way to predict the future of one path in tandem with the other. They are separate elements of one's life, and though they can co-exist, and influence each other, the narrative and outcome of each element is always going to differ, and therefore trigger different human responses.
She makes a good point and to that end it might’ve been better had she ended this memoir in 2005 with her standing at the door to a new life. Just a thought. I suppose one could think of the last section as a teaser trailer.

If you want to know what Jessica’s achieved in recent year check out her bio here. If you want to know why you might want to read her memoir you should look at this blog post, again from 2010.
 
I’ll leave you with the book trailer.

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