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

Sunday, 23 April 2017



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


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



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



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



"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


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


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


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



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


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?
        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.

Sunday, 12 March 2017


Forever is Just Another Word

I don't know where all the words have gone.

Perhaps they've all been used on someone else.
Perhaps there's nothing left but me
to hold you in the dark.

But we don't need them anymore.
We only thought we did but we never knew.

There is so much time.

20 May 1990
I don’t know when exactly B. left for Ireland but I do know that before she left I was showing signs of depression. Although I’ve been through four major depressions in my life I’ve always been reluctant to admit to being depressed. It’s so much easier to blame other things like overwork and, of course, in my case, overwork to the point of burnout has without a doubt been a major contributory factor. This was the start of my second breakdown. Maybe not here exactly but hereabouts. I’d just turned thirty-one so it’d been about eight years since my first breakdown. About eight years after this I’ll have my third and eight years after that my fourth. By my count my fifth is overdue or maybe I’m in the middle of it and haven’t noticed.
I’ve read this poem over and over again. Can’t for the life of me figure out who the “you” might be. It’s not B. or F. or anyone else. Maybe it’s that other part of me who’d run out of words, the “me” I’m constantly waiting on to say something clever or witty. Suffice to say I was suffering being unable to write and there’s definitely something unnatural about this one. I’ve been here before, needing to write but struggling to and so I force one out before its time. This poem definitely needed more time but my need to write got the better of me.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017



“I thought you'd be pleased,” she said
when she presented me
with the typescript of our conversation.

Well I was, in a way, flattered at least,
but I'd never intended
what I'd said to have such permanence.

Better such things to be viewed
through the veil of memory.

29 October 1989

Odd that the last of my poems for B. doesn’t include a dedication. Of course I didn’t realise it was going to be the last or why it turned out to be the last. All I can say is that I didn’t write a poem for months after this and it isn’t a very good poem and the next batch are all based on scraps I had lying around. The next original poem didn’t come until August 1991. I can’t complain really. This was the most prolific I’ve ever been and it was both wonderful and horrible at the same time.
When I showed B. this poem the first question she asked was had I been secretly recording our conversations. I hadn’t. The thought hadn’t even occurred to me but now I wish I had. Now I struggle to remember her voice. Whereas with the original Salome the veils came off with my Salome they’re going on.

Sunday, 5 March 2017


Fallen Waters

(for B.)

Falling waters have a
twisted and accelerated life.

They swirl through gullies formed
by heavy rains and tear at their banks

carrying such thought and
dark desires with them
until they burst forth at the mouth like words.

It has a strange beauty
from a distance but
beneath these awesome falls we stand entranced

before such a power
which we cannot control, but we know

that we are made of the
same but still waters – till the thaw comes.

19 October 1989

We went on a car trip once up the Dalry Hills. I’d never been there before but it was, apparently, a spot B. and her mother loved and so we all piled in the car and off we headed. At Glen Burn there was a waterfall they wanted us to see. As I recall it was nowhere near as pretty as the one in the photo (the photographer must’ve caught it on a good day). The one we encountered was more of a dribble and about as far from “awesome” as you could imagine plus it was overcast which didn’t help. But I got to spend the day with B. and that was all that mattered.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017


Body Language

(for B.)

I've been going through the motions
for years: miming life
to an unappreciative audience
used only to words
and what use are they?

I can see all of them but
they can't see beyond charades.
They can't not translate into words.
They won't let the movements speak
for themselves.

18 October 1989

The idea that the vast majority of communication occurs nonverbally is quoted everywhere: 53% face, 38% voice, 7% words. The figures come from two studies conducted by Albert Mehrabian in the mid-1960s. A bit like Pavlov with his dogs I’d never really thought about the practicalities of how one goes about measuring nonverbal communication; I blindly accepted the “facts” and got on with my poems. My reasoning was that because there were only the words on the page then 100% of the communication had to be verbal. I’ve always had issues with reciting poems.
In reality Mehrabian’s tests were very basic indeed. As he says on his website:
My findings on this topic have received considerable attention in the literature and in the popular media.
Please note that this and other equations regarding relative importance of verbal and nonverbal messages were derived from experiments dealing with communications of feelings and attitudes (i.e., like-dislike). Unless a communicator is talking about their feelings or attitudes, these equations are not applicable
I’ve no idea what B. saw in my face when I spoke to her. Probably what she expected to see, a friend. And when I spoke she’ll have heard a friend. We see what we want to see and hear what we want to hear. Like most scientists Mehrabian never thought to factor in observer bias; from a scientific point at least we are not all equal. Would Mehrabian’s results have been different if the speaker was that pretty girl from the coffee shop on the corner or some Japanese holidaymaker they’d coaxed in off the street?

Sunday, 26 February 2017


The Linguist

(for B.)

Though she could converse in French
and German
you could see she was not a native:

She couldn't think in French
or feel it,
nor could she understand me:

O, she knew all about the language
of love
but so much is lost in its translation.
18 October 1989   
I’ve always had an uneasy relationship with languages other than English. I’m not a snob. I don’t think English is the perfect language, partly because language itself is inherently imperfect but more importantly because English is a fusion language co-opting shamelessly from everyone it encounters. I can understand completely why Beckett would’ve chosen to begin writing in French. He said it was because he wanted to get away from his mother tongue; writing in English somehow made it come too easy. The French language offered greater clarity and forced him to think more fundamentally, to write with greater economy.
I asked my dad once what language God spoke. Without batting an eye he said, “Hebrew,” reasoning that when God confused the languages at Babel he would’ve kept the original for his people. I don’t suppose it’s an unreasonable argument not that he had any way of proving it although following his reasoning it would probably have been Aramaic rather than Hebrew. (Interestingly the Quran thinks differently: “These verses are part of the clear book of guidance I sent you. I sent it in Arabic so its meaning would be preserved and understood by you.”— Sura Yusuf 12:1,2.)
B. knew French well enough to hold her own in conversation. I only witnessed it once with a Frenchman we met in the street and never saw again but it was wonderful to hear. I felt the same the one and only time I heard her sing even if it was in a duet. I’d written lyrics for our friend E. and the two girls recorded two of the songs. I stole the tape. Not sure I could lay my hand on it right this minute but I know I haven’t thrown it out.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017


The Empath

(for B.)

I took sick this morning
but I was not surprised.

When I saw you there so ill
I knew then I was helpless
and there being no one to punish
I turned on myself in frustration
dragging my love with me
screaming, “This is not the way!
This is not constructive.”

And I said, “No,
but it is something.”

17 October 1989
B. suffered from severe migraines, migraines so bad that as soon as she felt an inkling of one she’d drop everything and head home. This approach was only rarely successful and she often spent days in her bed. Because of this she ended up having to quit university and could never hold down a job for long. And yet she was surprising positive and kept herself busy. But occasionally it got too much and one evening her mother called me because she was at a loss. Why me and not a doctor? Because the doctors had done all they could. They had no answers bar pills and they knew the drill: pop the pill, lie in the dark and wait it out. I don’t know what M. expected me to do but I dutifully—and, if I’m being brutally honest here, joyfully—threw on my coat and drove over. I’d never been in her bedroom before but it was very much as I would’ve imagined as best I could see in the gloom because the light wasn’t on. B. was slumped in a chair in the corner of the room which my mind has decided was an old-fashioned rocker but it probably wasn’t. She was in tears and in pain and very much in despair. I sat on the floor in front of her and held her hands in her lap and that’s all I can remember. I’ve no idea what I said although I expect the distraction helped if nothing else and then I left after probably no more than a half hour. I’m not sure if this poem is about that night although I can’t imagine it being about any other. It’s terrible being helpless when someone your care about is suffering.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Homo Conscius

The potential to make yourself a better man... that is what it is to be Human... to make yourself more than you are. – Jean-Luc Picard (Star Trek Nemesis)

As I was falling asleep last night I found myself thinking about Timothy Balding’s novel, specifically what I was going to say when I began writing this review. Typically for me I woke up after an hour and a half—one sleep cycle—and found myself still thinking about his book. Atypically for me I got up, made myself a coffee and then went back to bed where I lay working through my opening paragraph until I dozed off. An hour and a half later like clockwork I awoke still thinking about Homo Conscius. It’s not unreasonable to assume that while I was asleep—while I was unconscius (forgive me for being pedantic)—I was also thinking about the book, perhaps even dreaming about it. Hold that thought because I’ll come back to it. This is the opening paragraph that forced me to get out of bed at 3:30 in the morning:
A common trope in science fiction is wondering what the next stage of human evolution might look like. The obvious example that jumps to my mind is The Tomorrow People (I’m thinking of the original British TV series from the 1970s) where we watch the adventures of a group of Homo superiors. (In early episodes they used the term Homo novis.) Then my mind drifted back to 1963 when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created a comic called Uncanny X-Men in which the five heroes (Angel, Beast, Cyclops, Iceman, and Marvel Girl) are mutants, “metahumans” being the preferred term these days. As Professor Xavier, the founder and leader of the X-Men, explains in the voiceover at the start of the 2000 film adaptation:
Mutation. It is the key to our evolution. It has enabled us to evolve from a single-celled organism into the dominant species on the planet. This process is slow and normally taking thousands and thousands of years, but every few hundred millennia, evolution leaps forward.
And then going back even further there’s Theodore Sturgeon’s 1954 novel More Than Human which describes the birth of Homo gestalt, a hive mind; a similar scenario is also presented in the recent TV series Sense8.
Glad to get that all down on paper.

New evidence suggests that both Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) and modern humans coexisted in Europe for thousands of years. So why did the Neanderthals die out? The most popular theory is that Homo sapiens played a critical role in their demise; we can only guess at the specifics. This, however, reminded me of the TV series Prey from 1998 which revolved around the rise of Homo dominant, a new species of aggressive humans who look set to wipe out Homo sapiens.

Timothy Balding’s novel is not science fiction, not in the same way as all of the above, but it is speculative fiction:
Victor had met so many happy and accomplished people who were bereft of any insight into themselves or others that he had often thought that this blindness might even be desirable. At other times, he became convinced that a high degree of, and perhaps even absolute, self-consciousness was a necessary and unstoppable development in the human species, another evolutionary threshold. That there was actually no return from this path, even though, in the case of both peoples and individuals, the human clock had been broken, smashed, and evolution thrown completely out of control, moving at a thousand different speeds and thus impossible to measure. Only one thing was sure: the tracks which led back to the caves had now been completely covered over and forever lost.
Someone, of course, has to be the first, like John in The Tomorrow People, the first to “break out” as they refer to it. And an obvious question raises its head:
Why me though? Victor repeatedly asked himself. What is it that compels me to take myself to pieces, word by word, thought by thought, emotion by emotion, belief by belief? I’m not especially intelligent; my education was poor; I have never been intellectually challenged by anyone I knew personally; there have been no shattering events, no great revelations in my life; nothing really ever happened to me, actually. Except this.
Couldn’t help but think of the “Why me? Why me?” scene from Damien: Omen II when I read that and I remember when I first saw the film I wondered if this was a demonic version of “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me…” which is interesting because in an early e-mail Timothy said to me:
I have consumed so much literature about bad men, or men who have dark penchants and 'evil' in them, that I tried very hard to write about a man who, by pure chance, is actually good. I have not, obviously, written Dostoevsky's 'Idiot' (but then we must all start somewhere), but it's true that any interest I ever had about dubious people has waned to the point of virtual extinction. I warn you, Jim, my characters will only get more Christ-like as I continue…
IF Victor Andrews is the next stage of human evolution I kind of like the idea that he would be a decent bloke but that brings its own problems which makes me think of Star Trek: The Next Generation where everyone’s so damn civilised. “Roddenberry was very insistent … that these are evolved human beings, so they didn’t have conflict with each other, they have conflict outside,” so said Bryan Fuller in an issue of Star Trek Magazine. Which is all well and good until you want to construct a story with these characters:
Conflict is the essence of drama and all literary fiction requires drama to please the reader and to succeed as a story. At the story core, conflict is the momentum of happening and change and is crucial on all levels for delivering information and building characterization. Conflict is the source of change that engages a reader, and in a story, conflict and action does what description and telling of feelings and situations do not. – William H. Coles, Conflict in Literary Fiction
When we first meet Victor he’s in at a clinic about to undergo an angioplasty and he’s having his privates shaved. It’s a good way to cut a character down to size and if there’s one thing that’s clear about Victor from those first few pages is that he’s very human; he steels himself with whisky prior to his appointment and struggles to control an erection as the nurse is shaving him. We discover little else about him and that state continues throughout the book. We learn he’s fifty and his mother has recently passed away leaving him enough of an inheritance he can afford to take early retirement; we find out he used to work as a diplomat, used to be a Lieutenant-Colonel in the army (although he might've been joking about that), has a girlfriend, a best friend and—in the second chapter of the book—becomes the proud owner of a seven-month-old African Grey, a parrot. He has lunch and/or drinks with his girlfriend (who’s called Helen) or his best friend (who’s called Harry), reads the paper faithfully and wrestles with himself over what phrase to teach his parrot (who he calls Yorick) next; he beings with “God is dead.”
Victor had no idea why this name had instantly popped up in his mind, without the slightest thought on his part. But it was incontrovertible, just right. What else could you call a parrot?
Yes, good question. Where do these things come from? All my life I’ve been aware of the duality of human nature. I’m far from being alone. There have been many attempts to define these aspects—some see them as complementary, others as conflicted—and it used to trouble me that there was an aspect of me who threw out ideas at me every now and then and often at the most inopportune of times. Some talk about our unconscious, the subconscious and the conscious; some talk about the Id, the Ego and the Superego; some talk about the physical and the spiritual. Victor’s having none of it:
     Victor simply didn’t dare tell her his evolving theories about the demise of the unconscious mind; about the possibility of absolute consciousness and of objectivity. If she refused to accept even the blindingly obvious fact of the radical division in man between those who possessed consciousness and those who did not, he couldn’t possibly take her through the other steps in his argument.
     “It will make you laugh,” said Victor, deciding that he would simply skip his reasons and give her his wild conclusion. “My strong suspicion is that mankind is undergoing, in our age, before our very eyes, a new mutation; that we are seeing the emergence of a new species, or at least sub-species.”
     “Have you been smoking illegal substances?” Helen joked.
     “No, no. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. It’s the only explanation, in my mind, and with due respect for your remarks about education and environment, for this extraordinary crevice that has opened up between those who are fully conscious, of themselves and of the ‘world’, for want of a better word, and those who continue to live within the confines of their single and undifferentiated perspectives, however broad they may be.”
And in a later conversation:
     “In his fully conscious state, our new man sees at any and all times, because of his savage lucidity and truthfulness with himself …”
     “Savage lucidity,” interrupted Helen, “I like that.”
     “Because of this lucidity and honesty, he is fully capable of making a distinction between those of his thoughts he knows to be the product of his past, his feelings, his tastes, his prejudices, his instincts, his personality, or what-have-you, and those of his thoughts which are free of any of these factors and emerge solely from pure—objective—reasoning, ‘untainted’, if you like, by his individual characteristics.
     “Thus, for me, this man is capable of making of himself an absolute abstraction as he forms his judgements on ideas, people and events. He is aware, on the one hand, of that which everything in his life and his personality has led him, leads him to feel, and that which is fully free from such ‘baggage’, for want of a better word.”
So who or what suggested ‘Yorick’ as a name for his parrot? At one point he says to Helen, “But I haven’t got an unconscious mind!”

Is Victor a Homo conscius? Hard to say. He aspires to be better than he was, to shrug off subjectivity which he has little time for. That’s commendable but it’s not evolution:
[E]verything about myself seems to have become transparent, where once I was more or less opaque. I do also feel that I am now incomparably freer than I was, than I have ever been. Why is this? he asked himself. From what exactly have I now been freed, completely unchained, let loose? I’ve got it! Myself, of course! Idiot. How could I have not seen it before? The struggle of my life has been to detach and emancipate myself from my subjective being, to leave him to lead his life as he will, but only to the extent that I allow it!  
I’m getting close to something, thought Victor. Something fundamental about myself and, thus, fundamental about human life, for what is true about me is necessarily also true about men in general, because I am no more and no less than absolutely every one of them.
The book consists almost entirely of dialogues and internal monologues. The more interesting ones are with Helen. The sections where we get to stroll with him through his brain can drag a little because the only foil is himself and for the most part he’s pretty sure of himself. Helen at least challenges him and on one occasion even walks out on him. The only real conflict in the book is Victor struggling to articulate his thoughts and it might be the man he becomes by the end of the book would never have thought twice about where the idea to call his bird ‘Yorick’ came from.

In 2004 Christopher Booker published a Jungian-influenced analysis of stories and their psychological meaning in a book entitled The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. It’s not definitive—others have suggested as few as two, three, twenty, others as many as thirty-six—but none of my own novels fit neatly into any one category and I find the same with Timothy’s book. I suppose Rebirth is the closest fit; it’s the closest to evolve. And yet I struggle with that. Going back to Coles’s essay:
In life everything seems to move toward inertia. Throw a rock into the air, it falls to the ground and lies motionless. Pour water into a glass, it flows and settles and becomes motionless. We are born, we are active, but we are always moving toward the solitude and inaction of motionless death. In fiction, writers succumb to this natural tendency to write stories that seek a state of inertia, a state where nothing happens
Nothing really happens in this book. There are plenty of books out there where little or nothing happens but not every reader’s going to jump at them. Remember Vivian Mercier’s memorable description of Waiting for Godot as “a play in which nothing happens, twice”? Well, yes, he did say that but you have to look at the quote in context:
Beckett... has achieved a theoretical impossibility—a play in which nothing happens, that yet keeps audiences glued to their seats. What's more, since the second act is a subtly different reprise of the first, he has written a play in which nothing happens, twice. – The Irish Times, 18 February 1956
Waiting for Godot is a character-driven play. Homo Conscius is a character-driven book. There is a journey but it’s a cerebral one and although he might find fulfilment in that, watching and listening to him isn’t always as captivating as it could be. We all philosophise, we sit and think or just sit, but if you’ve ever tried to read Kierkegaard or Nietzsche you’ll realise it’s not for the faint-hearted and yet all you have to do is look at the works of Lars Iyer to see how philosophy can be fun—funny even—if not always accessible or intelligible. At least when Victor went off on one I could follow where he was going even if I didn’t necessarily agree with him.

The introduction of the parrot was inspired. My wife read the book after me and she said at one point she kept looking forward to the parrot reappearing. Having a cockatiel ourselves—basically a toy parrot—we both found Yorick a little too well-behaved. Carrie, for example, said to me when she was about halfway through, “Does he ever get out the cage?” He does but I can’t reveal how. Victor does give the bird amusing things to remember but more could’ve been done with him. The same goes for the Czech madwoman who paces outside his window; she was woefully underused. If Timothy ever writes a sequel we need her back.

In an interview published in La Isla de San Borondón Timothy was asked: What would you say is the main—or most important—thought or insight of Homo Conscius? to which he replies in part:
The driving force of Homo Conscius is the conviction that we lie to ourselves (and thus the others) with such frequency, ease and complacency that as a species we are condemned to eternal misery and violence if we do not seriously change our ways. That truth and honesty are possible, whatever the enormous confusion that reigns in these matters in our time, and that change in the human intellect is indeed, as it must be, already well underway. That this change is vitally necessary and our only hope for our species to survive and prosper in peace and happiness.
Evolution isn’t a right. Species die out all the time and it would be nice if we Homo sapiens manage to pull ourselves back from the brink we’re edging towards; it would be nice if one day everyone woke up, looked in the mirror and saw themselves clearly for the first time but that’s not going to happen. There will be the odd Victor and over time there might be enough Victors to attempt something—I’m sure Timothy didn’t pick the name ‘Victor’ out of a hat—or they may die out when the idiot uprising takes place, that is if the robots or the zombies don’t get them first.

The book isn’t out until April but other reviews have appeared in New London Writers and Kirkus Reviews.


Born in 1954 in London, Timothy Balding grew up on a British military base in Germany. He left school and his family at the age of sixteen to return alone to the United Kingdom, where he was hired as a reporter on local newspapers in Reading in the county of Berkshire. For the ensuing decade, he worked on local and regional titles and then at Press Association, the national news agency. He exiled himself to Paris, France, in 1980, and spent the next thirty years working for international, non-governmental organizations. For twenty-five of these, he was the CEO of the World Association of Newspapers. A Knight (First Class) in the Order of the White Rose of Finland, He currently lives between France and Spain and devotes himself to writing. Homo Conscius is his first novel.
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