One must always have something sensational to read…

…which is of course a reference to “The Importance of Being Earnest”, and refers to a young woman’s diary.  Re-reading my first novel, “Seven Days” and thinking that the whole thing was a mess because I wanted to do far too many things with it.  This is I think at the heart of my failure to write “anything” – that I can’t pin it down, I want to do too many things.  But I can’t help it.  This is about all of us – all of my selves must come with me.

Anniversary of my Mum’s death today.

A Christmas Tale

(this is the blindest part of an utterly blind novel I wrote when I was in my early thirties. I was compelled to write it, but I have no idea what it means. Perhaps you can tell me.)

(Scene: winter. A barren snowscape.)

Characters: Jack, Jill (late twenties), Father Christmas, traditionally dressed.

Jack and Jill are sitting on a bench, Father Christmas is standing a little way off.

JACK: I spy with my little eye

JILL: What?

JACK : I spy with my little eye, something beginning with…

Jill: With what?

Jack (looks around) With T!

Jill: Idiot!

Jack: What?

Jill: Idiot!

Jack: Who?

Jill: What do you mean, who? You!

(Jack looks down and begins to brush imaginary specks of dirt off his trousers. He whistles a few notes of something unrecognisable, then stops. Jill looks at him briefly, then looks away. Her gaze settles on the middle distance. After a moment, she closes her eyes wearily.)

Father Christmas (approaching): A tree!

Jack: What?

FC: A tree! It’s a tree!

Jill: Where?

FC What he spied with his little eye.

Jack: How did you know?

FC: I didn’t know. I guessed.

Jack: Oh. (pause) Isn’t it lovely?

FC: What?

Jack: The tree

FC: Hmm.

Jack (in a false tone) Look at the pattern the branches make against the sky

FC The what?

Jack: The sky

FC: Oh. Hmm.

Jack: Of course, it’s cloudy now…

Jill (snorts. jack ignores her)

Jack: If it was sunny

FC: Hmmm?

Jack: It would be… (he searches for a word and brings it out without mucn conviction) lovely!


Jack: Don’t you think?

FC: Hmm.

(another pause, during which Jack again tries to whistle a tune and fails. Jill stares straight ahead, and Father Christmas, seeming to come to life a little, comes nearer and stands by the bench)

FC: But don’t you think?

Jack: Hmmm?

FC Dont’ you think we’re forgetting something?

Jill: (Snorts)

Jack: What?

FC: Well – we’re forgetting – something important.

Jill: What kind of something?

FC: Well – it’s time for – (he attempts a dramatic build-up in his voice but fails, and makes a half-hearted gesture instead as he opens the sack) presents!

Jack and Jill: (groan) We had presents yesterday!

FC (looks in the sack) Oh yes, so we did. (He takes off his outfit to reveal a convict suit complete with arrows pointing upwards.) Well, that’s that then.

Jack: I didn’t know you were a convict.

FC: (only half-listening, putting the Father Christmas costume in the sack) Didn’t you?

Jack: No. What did you do?

FC: (reddens) Oh, nothing much.

Jack: But what?

FC: Just – a small thing, really. I’ll tell you all about it later. Now – what did I give you both for Christmas?

Jack: Snow.

Jill: And ice. And it melted.

Jack: We weren’t very satisfied.

FC: People never are, these days. Too materialistic. Now, in my day, people were grateful for anything at all: snow, ice, icicles, windstorms – anything really. I remember I once gave someone an avalanche – that was in a good year, of course. There haven’t been so many of those.

(Jill is looking at him curiously, but says nothing)

Jack: (sarcastically) So – if you were so good to people, what did they put you away for?

FC: (gives a bitter laugh). They? That’s a laugh. “They” put me up to it. (Looks hard at them both). That shook you, didn’t it? Oh, yes – they put me up to it. But who takes the rap? Yours truly – that’s who. Not that there’s any of them left – still, you never know – they might have go away in time. Thy might all be down there somewhere. Isn’t that a horrible thought?  All down there, sipping their sherry, waiting. (Jack is thunderstruck, unable to speak, gazing at the convict in fury).

Jill: But who did you talk to? Who hired you?

FC: Ah, well that’s just it, isn’t it? You never know. Some faceless bureaucrat, some pen-pusher. Probably wasn’t even the one in charge. Probably doesn’t even know who’s in charge.

(Jack is gazing from one to the other, unable to believe his ears.)

FC: Anyway, they tell me it’s just a little job, no manual work involved – well hardly any, only pressing a button, and you could hardly call that “manual work”, can you?

Jill: Hardly.

FC: No questions asked, and then the pay-off. Then transportation to (he looks around him) safe quarters.

Jill: I see.

Jack: (He has just recovered his voice) But – didn’t you – I mean, what were you, what did you… (he falls silent as, looking at the convict, the possiblility occurs to him that he knew all along what he was doing. Finally, he finds his tongue again, and does something which seems at the time the wittiest thing he has ever done. He gos up to the convict, stares at him and says:

Ho, ho ho!

(well that’s it. When I wrote that possibly not even god knew what it meant.)

Something for the rest of your life, sir?

The last couple of days, I’ve been working in the library, hence no blogging.  I have reached a firm decision, which is to write my novel and get it published.  Enough messing around!  Yesterday I imagined what I would do if I had only 4 months to live.  Of course, it is impossible to “live as though” you are going to die soon, but it is essential to make the most of your time, since we don’t know how much of it is left.  I fondly imagine I may have 40 years if I’m lucky (51 now) – but even if that’s so, those 40 years will disappear more and more quickly and seem like 10 in my childhood.  So I’d better get a move-on.

I have also decided to read Proust in French.  This may well take me the rest of my life, hence the title.  This was originally a joke:

Mark – I think barber’s ought to do operations, like they used to.

Me- what sort of operations?

Mark – well, they could offer vasectomies

Me – so after the haircut, they could say, “Something for the rest of your life, sir?”

PS in case you don’t get this, barbers always used to sell condoms, swinging from tree to tree (sorry, a different sketch got in there by mistake) and they would ask, “something for the weekend, sir?”

PPS Maybe I’ll enter the All-England Summarise Proust Contest next year

Poem for Today








(no more hoboes any more)

On Demons

(Some Proustian thoughts)

When we moved into our chalet, my little hut in the woods, I experienced a total freedom from my demons.  But then one by one they arrived – and it was as if they had woken up belatedly to the fact that I was gone, smelled out my whereabouts (like Jack’s giant) and taken a series of later trains to find me.  I see them hanging out of the train in the attitude of a cowboy riding shotgun, looking a little like Blake’s Ghost of a Flea

or an evil spirit from “Spirited Away”,

intent on hunting me down.  I barricade myself in, but to no avail.  All I can do is try to pick them off one by one.

This experience does at least have the advantage of allowing you to recognise what demons you have, and seeing them as separate from yourself.

Now I am thinking that when I move on my demons must come with me.  Because this is about all of us.

Some Vague Book Reviews

The Botswana novels of Alexander McCall Smith ie “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency”.  I woudl review those I have read, as the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy reviewed planet earth,  in two words: “Slightly Charming.”  I was disappointed to find from a reading of the biographical notes, that the author seemed to have no connection with Botswana: I had had him down as an ex-civil servant perhaps.  But it seemed he was merely looking for a different location.  Anything wrong with that?  Umm – no, I guess not.  But it seems less authentic.

John Berger, The Foot of Clive.

In an L-shaped ward named after Clive of India, some men are convalescing and the novel tracks their consciousness.  This was not my favourite Berger novel:

first came across him when teacher training, and realised that if anyone looked over at the page I was reading in the staff room they would see a fairly explicit diagram of male genitalia.  It shocked me at that moment to realise that this might be a problem: I ought to have left then and there.  That novel was called “G” and I don’t remember much else about it.  Berger also wrote “Ways of Seeing” about looking at art and about how much of it is to do with people showing off their possessions.

He also wrote (with Jean Mohr) “A Seventh Man” which was about migrant workers in (mainland) Europe which at the time numbered one in seven: it was a study of dispossession in words and photographs.  Then in the nineties he went to live in rural France and wrote a series of novels called “Pig Earth”.  I like Berger not because I think he’s a great novelist but because he is a one-off: he has no time for the zeitgeist and follows his own voice.  As readers of my C****n-related nightmares will know, this is a quality I value in a writer, perhaps above all others.

On Obscurity

This was my thought at 4.30 am this morning:

In medias race. In the middle of life’s race I am in darkness. But it is only in darkness that I can write. Let but one person switch on a light, look at me attentively, I am lost. I start to look back at that person, think what they would like to read, write for them – and then my own voice os lost. Utterly uttered. Mutterly muttered. So it is when I try to write “a story” or “a novel”. I can just about write a poem because nobody knows what a poem is. I mean, it can be anything. Anything at all: the drip-drop of two tiny words like a presage of rain; a stately or lovely sonnet, a drill of rhyming couplets marching up and down; a wild wind of longing. It could be anything.

So, there is a reluctance to be known.

I have been reading “The Time Traveller’s Wife” by Audrey Niffenegger.’s_Wife

Two thoughts immediately – I may be treading on some kind of political correctness here but if my name was Niffenegger I would probably change it for the purposes of publication. No offence, but it’s a little unwieldy. The second thought is that I Anglicised (or perhaps Briticised) the spelling of Traveller. Single “l”s upset me unreasonably like a loss – I am wedded to our diphthongs, our excessive Greek vowel clusters, our double consonants and I feel their simplification as a loss.

Anyway, the Time Traveller’s Wife is about someone who travels in time and can’t control it, and his relationship with his wife, whom he meets at various stages of their lives, as well as in “real time”. It has a difficult, because dislocated beginning, but then I got into it and couldn’t put it down. The thought that struck me today was this: that the time travel is the perfect metaphor for creative thought. You can’t control it; it makes ordinary life practically impossible, and, whilst interesting, seems to give you nothing in return. You certainly can’t hold down a proper job.

This has been my experience. It is certainly impossible for me to work full-time and now that I’m being very creative, “work” has dwindled to a minimum. And yet it still seems impossible to derive any “benefit” (in the worldly sense ie money, recognition) from writing. Well, duh! Given my comments above, that’s obvious. What’s not obvious is what to do about it.

I will have to save this for another post.

On time travel

It seemed to me that this was my life; and that from the age of eight I had to keep constant watch on myself or else I would disappear, my consciousness would simply disappear from that time and place and go walkabout – and this would get me in a lot of trouble, particularly at school.

And now look!  I’ve gotten (see?  I’m not against all Americanisms) myself into a situation.  I have a family, I have responsibilities.  How can I be a time traveller now?

And it seems to me that life is like this: just as Proust had to tell all his separate selves that Albertine was dead, so I have to gather up all my separate selves and somehow get them, like an unruly crowd, together in the same space (this is hell – there are so many of them and they keep wandering off) and then we can all move on together.  Not to mention my family.  As they say in “Chicken Run”, “this is about all of us”.

And I’m experiencing my life as a chicken run at the moment – the things that I used to enjoy, to find nourishing, now seem to me like chicken feed: this broad highway with so mny avenues to explore now seems like a chicken run, and the avenues have all turned out to be stalls where chickens sleep and lay their eggs, waiting for death.  I see traps everywhere.

I guess I’m lucky I don’t have some kind of multiple personality disorder.

Mmm.  I feel another post coming on.

Have sent a couple of limericks off…

to a magazine which someone emailed me, called Pentatette (  They were two from this blog, one about Edna St Vincent Millay, the other called Frankly My Dear, I don’t Give a Damn.

Hi Doug, thanks for sending the mag

It’s great if 5 lines are your bag:

I found inspiration

from your publication

if that don’t suit some, that’s a drag

(OK that last line was a bit lame.  That’s the problem with trying to finish something quickly – I usually let things marinate for a few days and then the last line will present itself beautifully.  Or not.  Anyway, I liked your limericks, especially the one about Schroedinger’s cat.  Can I reprint it here?  I thought it very clever.

It took me eight years to read Proust…

Tried to post a comment on Reading Proust in Foxborough but got embroiled in password difficulties.   Life is just too complicated and some time I shall post some thoughts on the insanity of trying to keep up with the many passwords and pin numbers that we are now supposed to keep in our heads.  Anyway, this person seemed t think I was trying to read Proust in 3 weeks and that if I succeedd I would put her to shame.


I don’t really know where to start.  Perhaps it’s just as well my comment didn’t get through as it was a bit of a rant and I don’t really want to rant at anyone who thinks Proust is worth reading.  But oh god why

WHY WHY WHY WHY WHY WHY WHY (I could go on but won’t)

would anyone wish to rush such a sublime experience?  Why, when we are living longer than ever before, do we insist on getting through everything in the shortest possible time?  Proust took me eight years to read – not only to read, but much more important, to think about and digest.  what is the point of reading if you don’t digest?  It would be my eternal shame if I were able to read Proust in 3 weeks (even if that were physically possible) because I wouldn’t have understood or taken in a single word, except on a superficial level.  TS Eliot (I think it was he) said that Dante is a writer you have to live with: read him in your youth and let him seep into every pore (I’m paraphrasing here) then come back and understand him in a more mature way – keep coming back.

Som dear “Reading Proust in Foxborough” – please don’t take my comments as directed against you personally.  I know I’ve been somewhat forthright in my opinions, but it really does drive me crazy that in our society we value speed so much.  So my suggestion would be, take as much time as you need and be proud of taking time.  Don’t berate yourself for not “achieving your goals” – after all

The tick inside

A goal

is a box

with a tick inside

it burrows into your brain

and sucks


If I can do anything about this overwhelming culture of speed and achievement – and speedy achievement – I will.  If not, I will just carry on in my own sweet way.

Thanks for linking here.  Enjoy Proust.  Oh, and there’s a really interesting book called “The Year Fo Reading Proust ” by Phyllis Rose.  She gives up almost everything else for a year to read him, for she has discovered that he is a “voracious writer”.(my phrase, of which I was quite proud).

Incidentally, another relevant thought I had this morning was about how many features modern gadgets have – all except one – longevity.  So that I thought they had many dimensions but barely existed in the fourth.

I am alos reading and enjoying very much “The Time Traveller’s Wife”.  It is not particularly intellectual but surprising (so far at least).  Mark was very grumpy about how ideas that have been current in Science Fiction for decades are now achieving prominence “as though they’re something new” in teh mainstream.  If I were him I would take it as a compliment.

Mark is very keen on SF and has written some stories in the genre.  Sadly he refuses to read Proust.  But like Marcel himself, this is such a momentous thought that I must save it for another post.

Pip pip!

Here’s one I prepared earlier…

This is a short story I wrote about 14 years ago, about abortion. I think it has some good phrases in it but overall it lacks the punch I wanted it to have – partly because of the third person and past tense, partly because I think I was not totally engaged with the subject-matter. See what you think.

The Red Dress

When it came to it, she couldn’t go. The red dress lay on the chair, ready-washed; the towel was in her bag, the alarm clock dribbled off at the appropriate hour. But she lay on her bed doing nothing, only seeming to watch a moth which had become trapped in a spider’s web. Half an hour passed, hearing the sounds of toast downstairs, imagining her mother wrapped in dressing-gown and looking at the clock. She could not move. The room seemed to encompass her, not to let her go. Its very familiarity held her; the chest of drawers her father made when she was too small to notice, though she remembered the painting of it years later, a white which was now a dull cream colour: the old wardrobe which stood in three parts, containing… she could never be sure what clothes she had without checking. She had a vague feeling that as of now, as of today, they were all out of date. Obsolete.

Half an hour passed, and another. The phone rang and her mother’s muffled voice sounded. Then silence, then a shout stumbling up the stairs, over the carpet.

(I am not here.)

Another shout, quavering a little at the end. Then the ting! of the phone. Silence, then the flick-flock of dusters among the guiltless furniture.

(She’ll have to know now.)

The red dress. There it was. No – I hadn’t bought it specially – had I? I couldn’t have known, back then – could I? These things happen by accident. That’s why they’re called accidents. Still it’s odd that I should buy a red dress. Not my usual colour.

She falls asleep. Thinking of tea, how much she would like tea. And some eggs – like when they used to have cod roe on toast when they were children. Sleep… now when the door closes and time sleeps still in the creepy aftermath, an ambulance crosses the road ringing, ringing, when the afterbirth lies down and all organs work together – eject! eject! and alarms ringing sirens going and walls contracting: eject! eject! and after the afterbirth lies down and sleeps criss-crossed with blood vessels that stand out in her brain and two nurses in white come and smooth the pillows leaving sheets of blood behind…

She wakes. TIme? Eleven thirty. Half an hour ago – the appointment was for half an hour ago. Like her mother sucking up the dust downstairs – gloop! and it’s gone like that precious ring we lost one time and reckoned the hoover had taken it. Just one gloop! and it’s gone; sucked away to eternity.

Lucky we don’t believe in damnation any more.

Isn’t it?

She feels sick. Goes to the bathroom and vomits, in all that Victorian tiling. Vomits and vomits; looks for something to come up. But it won’t come that way. You can’t get rid of it that way.

I must get dressed. I choose something normal. Jeans and a sweater. I go downstairs. She is there, the kettle boiled. Propitious.

Mother dear, I have something to tell you. Let’s have a biscuit with our tea. The tea comes out in a dark liquid stream, swirling around inside the cup. The little black grains collect and swarm in the tea strainer. I take a biscuit. A bourbon: I remember.

All in one go it has to be: spew it all out in one sentence, right there on the table. The words seemed to come out of my mouth unbidden – I don’t remember what they were: just their effect. For a moment, nothing. She holds her cup so tightly it seems she will crack it in two. But then the words settle and it is her face that cracks: one half collapses, is quite folded up like a guttered candle with drips rippling down. It reminds me of something in Dante, I can’t think what. The other side of her face struggles for control. I think of Picasso’s Woman Crying. I have indeed shattered her world.

Well! I detach myself a little from the situation. It’s a smack in the eye for him, anyway. I shall walk down the street defiant, like a sail before the wind, wearing the red dress like a drum over my belly.

(Yesterday I dreamed there was a staircase, an iron staircase, and hundreds of nurses were carrying the babies down, all the way down. I couldn’t see the bottom.)

– What are you going to do? she says, breaking the silence.

I remember when I told him. We were on the canal bank, walking, and out of earshot of the fishermen I told him and he said,

– Oh

Just one “oh” echoing across the water. He didn’t walk away just then – not just then. But I could feel his retreat like a coldness wrapping me around.

– Oh.

Then later, of course, “What are you going to do?” (Note: “you”). The question seemed to conjure up a vastness of space around us; a huge, cold womb of space.

– I don’t know, I said. Then, after a minute: I’ll get rid of it.

All I remember after that as we walked back in silence, were the squirming maggots in the fishermens’ boxes, the water folding in on itself as they were scattered like seed over the water.


It’s a sunny day; the first of October: not yet chilly. She has her booking; a firm date, an actual time, held in her hand. The doctor didn’t raise problems, merely asked why and had-she-considered-all-the-options.

Yes. Oh yes. I have considered more things than you can imagine. Everything shocks me into considering. Women with babies are everywhere: it’s a conpiracy. they are going to fill up the whole town with babies, women and babies, prams, jingly toys, huge women about to give birth, so big you expect them to do it right there on the pavement. Conflicting emotions swarm in her blood like armies, like platelets towards an injury… At times she can feel instinctively something growing inside, a silent mushroom in the dark. A thousand times a day she touches her belly – it seems impossible. The whole thing – just impossible.

So when it came to it, she couldn’t go. She said nothing to anyone – just didn’t go.

The week before Christmas, there she is, in a pastel-coloured waiting room papered with good intentions, sipping weak tea from a polystyrene cup. She is the only one waiting alone. Nurses buzz back and forth. the tea trickles through her, the time leaks by, half an hour, then three-quarters, past the time of her appointment. Urination is not allowed. Round, pink-faced babies smile at her in rows on the magazine rack.

First baby? the doctor asks, passing the camera over her belly as though reading the bar code at a checkout. Then, like giving her the total, he points out two white blobs on the screen. Two white blobs in a black sea. That’s all you were back then. So easily drowned. But here you are. I remember thinking, “I am the ocean that surrounds you”.

Going back on the bus, I held the tiny photo like a negative – the negative of your life. There were clusters here and there which were your bones.

PS I know! It’s too short. Everything I write is too short. I can’t help it.