Saving Dead Birds

I see certain people on Social Media and they are always fighting the good fight. Every day, it seems, they are out there doing battle with awful individuals who say terrible things. 

I can totally see why. The world is in a bad state in many ways and every idiot and horrible person has a soapbox and a voice which is respectively as high and as loud as anybody else’s. The poison and horror they broadcast simply cannot be left unchallenged. 

It would be wrong to ever let their terrible sentiments stand. So long as we have a voice with which to shout back and a keyboard upon which to type a challenge. The fight must go on…

I get that…

Except… I suppose, I don’t. Not really.

I’m all for fighting the bad guys but I tend to think that one-on-one battles with evident trolls on social media are both self-destructive and ultimately pointless. This is tricky because anything I say about the futility of arguing with fools on Twitter is so easily refuted by expressing some heartfelt, genuine and true sentiments. Thoughts along the lines of those things I’ve started to say in that first paragraph. If we don’t fight every hater and shout down every dangerous fool, what will become of us? Will we simply be overrun by the mob?

I think I’ve been subconsciously casting around for a metaphor for some time. Some kind of simile that might help me try to illustrate this point. I think that because, when one came crashing into my car this week, I recognised it almost straight away.

This week, I killed a small bird. With my car. It wasn’t intentional. I was driving along, just outside of town, when it happened. It unfolded with a certain inevitability, as these things often do. The little bird seemed to come from a million miles away, always and inevitably heading straight for my front bumper. One moment wheeling breathlessly through the summer air, the next a tiny inert bundle in a ditch. There was just the faintest of thuds and a glance at the startled face of the person driving behind in my rear view mirror to mark the moment. That was it. It was unavoidable and there was nothing to be done about it. 

I was sorry. I don’t like to kill things. I’m one of those people who tends to move snails if they are in a dry place or let flies escape out the window whenever they are willing to go. So, yeah, it was a bummer but there was nothing I could do.

Nothing at all.

And then my mind went about its work, as it often does. 

What if..?

What if I felt I absolutely had to do something about the death of this little bird. What if I felt it was my own microcosm of all the ill that I see in the wide world and for me to not take action would be a terrible, terrible mistake. What if I imagined that the little bird had flown out to find grubs for its collective of tiny nestlings and that, now, those shrill voices calling for food would never be answered and even more deaths would soon result from my inaction. What if I parked my car and searched every tree in the neighbourhood and eventually, against all odds, found those little chicks and brought them home and fed them and tried to sustain them until, one day-

It’s all impossible, of course. A pipe dream. An illusion of effectiveness. 

A little bird is dead. It is sad but there is nothing I can directly do to help or change that. 

The word ‘directly’ is relevant here. This whole train of thought led me to the next piece of silliness. Something I’ve never done before but may do again. Later, when I was in the shop, I stuck a couple of coins in the ‘poor box’. I did it for the bird. I couldn’t do anything directly but I could do something indirectly. To mark the moment, to redress the balance. Call it what you will. To do something useful.

This, for me, is how it is on Social Media. The trolls and the fuckwits are like the dead bird. They are an ill, a wrongness in the world, but I cannot beat all the trees and knock them out. If I try, I am only bloodying my hands and endangering my mind to absolutely no avail. If I want to really achieve any moral victory against them, I must walk away and leave them to their ditch. I must find something else. Something small and positive to do in order to counter them. It may not be direct action but it is, at least, action and something good may come of it. Scouring the sycamores for imaginary orphan birds will serve nobody and will do no good. 

There is something almost Quixotic about the way people do battle on Social Media. Valiant and almost-alone, they ride out on their exhausted nag into the dusty plain to wage war on the evil giants.

“Do you see over yonder, friend Sancho, thirty or forty hulking giants? I intend to do battle with them and slay them… for this is a righteous war and the removal of so foul a brood from off the face of the earth is a service God will bless.”

On Social Media, we can come to see ourselves as our own ‘Man of La Mancha’, our missions equally noble and equally misguided. The main difference is that the trolls there are not imaginary. They are all too real and their windmills are built specifically to draw us into their fight.

I remain open to be convinced of everything I say. Those who righteously disagree with this may quote, “He who saves a single life, saves the world entire,” and I would not argue with that. I would only suggest that most of these online battles will not save a single life or even necessarily do any good at all. I would go so far as to say that some of these vicious virtual battles may end up costing a life, for no gain.

Don’t misunderstand me. I fight. I stand my ground. But the modern world is full of false, time-wasting things that only give the illusion of being righteous battles. I need to find where I can do the most good. I need to do my best work there, and leave the windmills to do their own work. 

This one’s for that little bird, still laying dead in the ditch. I’m really sorry I put you there but this, I think, is as much as I can usefully do. 

Jetson Injuries and Fast Forwarding Plaudits

When I was little, I watched that cartoon ‘The Jetsons’ on our telly. It wasn’t my absolute cartoon of choice. From memory, my great faves of the time included things like ‘Hong Kong Phooey’ and ‘The Hair Bear Bunch’. So, no, ‘The Jetsons’ was by no means on top of my list but, still, it’s ‘The Jetsons’ I’m thinking about today. 

Because I don’t have a ‘Hong Kong Phooey’ wound or even a ‘Hair Bear Bunch’ malady (I shudder to imagine what such a thing might even constitute). 

I have a Jetson injury.

Do you remember ‘The Jetsons’ at all? In the quite likely event that you don’t, George Jetson lived in a technology-ridden future with his futuristic family. His life was populated with flying cars and sundry domestic time saving devices. For his job, he pressed a button. That was it. And therein lies the rub, the button-pressing job. How impossible it seemed, back in the sixties, that some future man could have a job that consisted largely of pressing buttons. How very silly.

And yet here I am, the button-pressing man. Well, not quite but almost. I spend many hours a day on one of my computers, doing either one thing or another, clicking and pressing, pressing and clicking. The Jetsons future est arrivé, albeit sans la voiture volante.

The most ludicrous thing about George’s button pressing job was the injury he would suffer as a result of it. His poor finger would swell and throb. Oh, how we laughed at George and his silly sore finger. 

Yup, you’ve guessed it. 

After a very intense period, which involved many weeks of continuous computer work, especially mouse-clicking, I have developed my very own version of George Jetson’s dreaded ‘Button Finger’. My version is, apparently, sometimes called ‘trigger finger’. My right index finger is constantly sore, especially if I try to bend it. Most fun of all though is that, when the finger is dormant, like when I’m asleep, it closes up into a trigger-pulling posture and locks there. The only way to unlock it is to grab the finger with my left hand and tug it back into shape. Whenever I’m doing this, I remind myself of Inspector Kemp from ‘Young Frankenstein’ with his errant wooden arm which also required constant forceful rearrangement to keep it in check. 

Technology is bad. But, hey, technology can be good too. 

One of my current favourite things is my Sky TV remote control. (Nope, 'not being sponsored by anyone, I swear). I simply adore buzzing through the adverts on any given programme. It’s come to the point where I hardly ever see TV adverts anymore, except as a rapid frame blur as I race to the next part of my show. (Somebody should devise a super-slow visual advert that plays to the fast forwarding generation… there’s an idea!). These days, if I’m keen to watch something on commercial telly that, say, starts at nine, I will set it to record and start watching at 9.15, buzz through the adverts and finish just as the live programme is finishing. I bloody love it!

In this house, we tend to race through the ads at 30x speed and are required to come back to the programme at the exact moment that the adverts or over. It calls for no small measure of skill. On our couch, we compliment each other on our fast forwarding skills. “Oh, nicely done,” we’ll say or, “check out the Maestro,” as the remote control commander of the hour steers us safely and at high speed to the other side of another commercial chasm. My own secret is that I bring the speed back to 12x as I approach the end of the ad break, to give myself a better chance of landing neatly. To overrun is to bring down gentle derision or, ever worse, stony silence upon one’s head. 

We may not have a flying car and we may have the injury but, by golly, we can sure buzz the adverts and that’s a wonderful thing. So shall it always be with technology. The joy coupled with the pain. The laughter married with with the occasional tear...

The remote control giveth and the mouse pad taketh away. 

The More Things Change - A Novel by Jim Murdoch


Jim Valentine is a relatively ordinary man in a relatively ordinary rut. Solitary and unfulfilled, he moves though his life without hardly making a ripple. Then, one day, he meets an interesting old man in the park and everything changes… or maybe it all just stays the same.

I wanted to give over some special time to reading Jim Murdoch’s novel ‘The More Things Change’ so I read it as I walked to and from work every day. People I passed regularly remarked on how I did this without running into lamp posts or falling down manholes. It’s all about peripheral vision, I think. 

It made for a heightened experience, I think, reading the book while moving through streets and parks, passing business people, dogs, and children as I went. The book concerns itself with questions of life and existence and interaction and it was an added dimension to be out in the world and moving through it as these question were addressed. 

Jim Murdoch is a consummate writer. He knows exactly what he is doing and he does it with great insight, wit, and skill. The corollary is also true. He knows exactly what he is not doing. He is not writing a bodice-ripper nor a page-turner nor a thriller nor a mass audience satisfier. He is a writer with a poetic and an intellectual heart and he has themes which he wishes to probe and to agitate. His book has characters and story and development and resolution – all those things one looks for in a book – but they are not the priority. The priority is exploration, thought and the development of ideas.

At first glance, then, the book may present as a weighty tone. Not in actual bulk but rather in a certain delay in story development while thoughts and theme are being explored. First glances can be misleading though because Jim is a writer with a colossal inner database of cultural references, all the way from the sublime to the ridiculous, and this makes for a journey between the covers that is both a funny and constantly enlightening one.

Jim and I have things in common. We are both writers who will never stop no matter how little feedback the world chooses to give us. We have writing in our blood and we must do it, in some form or another, to keep that blood flowing.

We are also quite different animals too, in our way. In trying to think of a comparison, I came up with a pond. If the world was a pond, then Jim might  be a Pike in that world. Strong and imposing, digging deep into the bottom mud and poking hard among the bullrushes to find its fodder. As for me, I think I would be a pond skimmer, fast and precariously-balanced, never stopping to inspect anything too hard for fear of slipping though that surface tension on which I so depend so heavily. 

The pond skimmer is probably not the best creature to interrogate the ways of the pike. Jim digs deeper than I dig and his tendency to borrow deeply into the mud sometimes makes me a bit nervous and tempted to skim quickly on to the next available water lily. And the water lilies in Jim’s novel are sometimes more widely spaced than the poor pond skimmer can comfortably handle. 

To be less obtuse, the novel takes its time from development to development and this can require some acclimatisation in this world of never-ending sound bites and gifs. But, after one realises that getting there is much more than half the fun, only then can one start to more fully appreciate what Jim is doing here. He is actually much more like a cat than a pike, a Cat-Pike. He toys with his reader – his dinner – in a most mischievous and calculating way. He pulls himself out of the narrative then pulls himself back in, then he acknowledges that he has done this, then he does it again. Jim knits a deep pile rug for us then gleefully pulls it out from under our feet.

What I’m trying to say is that Jim’s writing is not always entirely easy but it is always entirely worth it. 

Do not think that he pursues a thought as far as he does because he is self-indulgent or in need of editing. One need only look to Jim’s amazing body of poetry work to see that he could literally write the book on being concise and succinct. There are no mistakes here. Jim writes as he chooses to write and he knows exactly what he is about. 

The book left me sad. I think that is a personal reaction from someone who seems to spend an inordinate amount of time concerning himself with other people. I am someone who sometimes seems to find my own self vanishing in my outward-gazing habits. I know this is not a good thing but, through conditioning and life-experience, it is just how I roll and it is difficult to change. This book seems to be more about the ‘self’. The ‘other people’ in the book seems to me to be quite peripheral and even disposable in the most literal sense of the world. Jim’s closest companion seems lovely and quite perfect but that person comes and goes and hardly ever seems to exist in that person’s own right. The most powerful character in the book seems kind and understanding and benevolent and yet also seems capable of acts of wanton destruction on a whim. To say more would be to spoil the twists and turns of the story.

Again, I know that all of this is no accident. Jim is a student of Beckett and, here, he almost seems to ‘out-Beckett Beckett’ in terms of casting a cold eye on life and death. (Yes, I know who that is). The overall result, for me, was not uplifting, nor was it meant to be.

Jesus,’ the reader of this review might say, ‘you’re not going to sell too many books for him, are you?’ and no, I’m not. But Jim and I know better than that. We know, all too well, that I could write here that Jim’s novel is a hot bed of sexual intrigue, murder, car chases and political chicanery and I still wouldn’t sell a single book for him. This blog of mine will never persuade anyone to buy anything and Jim and I both know that. All that I can do here is to react to the work I have read and to pay it the compliment of exercising my brain around what I have seen and heard and felt there. 

I learned from the book that I don’t have to be made happy to be satisfied and I realise that a writing work must contain some considerable power to make me feel as down about things as it did. The book wrought in me a passing but quite real feeling of general hopelessness and despair and, although a review like that on the back cover won’t make you pick it up at the airport and take it on the plane with you, it might make you feel that here is a writer who looks deeply at the world and who can skilfully evoke some of the pain he sometimes sees there. 

You can get hold of this book and much more of Jim's writing at: 
http://www.jimmurdoch.co.uk/books.html#change and, for a full flavour of Jim and the work he does, please do visit his blog at http://jim-murdoch.blogspot.ie  It is a monumental work of commitment to writing which I believe may come to be recognised as such in times to come.

That was the end of what I wrote (apart from this). Jim's reply was so in-depth and good that I asked his permission to include it in the body of the post. So, if you want to know more (ie. something) about Jim's novel, read on...

This book took a long time to write, Ken, almost twenty years. It began as another ‘Truth’ novel, or at least one set in the same universe and I’d every intention of having him appear. In the end only Destiny gets the tiniest of cameos. Although published fourth The More Things Change was actually written before Milligan and Murphy which, as I recall, you called my “love letter to Beckett.” It wasn’t. It was me dealing with the residua following this book which really is a love letter to Beckett. Why do you think the protagonist’s named Valentine? It was a long time before the Randolph-and-Mortimer-type characters appeared—remember the $1 bet? from Trading Places—and I suppose that’s where I got the idea of casting Jim as Job. When Joe calls Lucien a “wild rover” what I’m referencing is Job 1:7 where Satan, when asked, says he’s been “roving about on the earth” but here’s the thing with Job, he starts the book as “the greatest of all the Orientals” and ends up right back on top: nothing changes. Jim starts off alone and with illusions and ends up alone with delusions. We never actually learn who wins the bet between Joe (Jehovah) Hoover and Lucien but it doesn’t really matter. So I can see perhaps why it might make you sad. It’s the whole “giving birth astride the grave” scenario “the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more.”

After I got to the end of the opening section I hit a brick wall. Although I’d started out with one thing in mind I found I didn’t like the idea of repeating myself. And the book lay in a drawer, well, on a hard drive, for a good two years before I got the idea to jump twenty years into the future and ignore his rise to success and the subsequent collapse of his marriage; none of that interested me. Changing to a first person narration was what made all the difference and that’s where writing all those short stories—which is what I’d ended up doing in the interim—helped.

The structure’s meant to echo Beckett’s life. His early novels were written in the third person. In the trilogy he moved to a first person narrator and then it was on to the plays which is why the last section’s written the way it is. I didn’t set out to “out-Beckett Beckett” as you put it or even to imitate him especially (except in the funeral urn section which was based on the sucking stones text in Molloy) but I wanted a sense of Beckett to be there. Jim’s universe is built on what was important to him. In an early bio I once referred to myself as “the character Beckett never got round to writing” and that is what Jim is. Most people assume that Act II of Waiting for Godot takes place the next day and it probably does but they also get that if the acts went on forty years later the two of them would still be standing there waiting for Godot.

You’re quite right when you called the other people in the book “peripheral and even disposable” because they are. Jim’s dad only exists as and when needed. Only Abby is granted any depth. He can’t even remember his kids’ names in the end and two or three times in the book Jim struggles with names and that’s something Beckett did; the May/Amy thing is straight out of Footfalls, for example. Most of the characters in the novel take their names from Beckett but not Abby. She’s named after a character in Swamp Thing and there’re many nods in the chapter in which she first appears mostly notable the book The Anatomy Lesson which references the first storyline Alan Moore wrote, the one where he reinvented the character. When Len Wein (one of the names on Abby’s keyring) created the character he was a man who’d been turned into a monster. Moore turned all that on its head. He proposed that Swamp Thing only thought he was a man; in reality Alec Holland had died and Swampy only housed his consciousness. No one will make the connection but it’s an important clue for those who do. Londahl, by the way, is an anagram of Holland.

I could go on. I want to go on. I will go on! I wanted to write a treasure trove of a novel, a novel you could read over and over again and still discover new things. Christ knows how many times I’ve seen Airplane! and every time I’d catch something I missed on previous viewings. My copy has almost 1500 footnotes because there’s no way I was going to remember all the clever stuff. But the clever stuff came later. I wrote the novel from start to finish and nothing changed from the first draft to the last, nothing essential. It was only once the story was done that I started tweaking it, grafting in interesting things and the more I did that the more I realised there was a whole other level to the book that I’d not seen before, other levels in fact. They were there; they just needed highlighting.

I had a religious upbringing as you know but one thing I wasn’t taught was everything’s predestined. In that respect there is no Grand Plan. From a fictional point of view, however, it’s far more interesting if there is a grand plan. And now science is suggesting free will is an illusion and we’re all living in a computer simulation controlled by an evil genius. I love all that stuff and even though I gave up Science at school as quickly as I could it does keep worming its way into my writing. I’m not sure I reference The Matrix anywhere in the novel—it came out in 1999 when I was busy writing short stories—but its spirit is there although Jim is no Neo; Christlike he’s not be but he is godlike and as soon as I realised his initials J.H.Va. were similar to Joe then there was another strand to develop. All writers are gods even fictional ones.

It’s odd the book made you miserable when it has a happy ending. Jim’s dream’s fulfilled and I don’t mean the wife or the success—those were red herrings—I mean his real dream. Writers are by their very nature outsiders, watchers (unless you’re Jessica Fletcher) and how many of us yearn to be in the story. Well, that’s what Jim gets. Whether that was something the original Jim wanted we’ll never know for sure.

You’re right though any summary of this book will just put readers off. And yet here’s the thing: books like this do sell; there is a market for them. The most recent example I can think of is Satantango by László Krasznahorkai. It’s a miserable book full of miserable characters and yet it’s absolutely compelling. Who’s buying these books? It can’t just be me. One has to wonder how Beckett would fare if he tried to find an agent with The Unnamable today. Would they see it as the work of genius it truly is or would they give up reading the manuscript by the second page? That is assuming they didn’t give up after reading the summary.

So I’m not sure what I’m going to do with this. I know it’s good. I’m pretty damn sure it’s the best thing I’ll ever write but no one’s going to read it in its current format. When I first published Living with the Truth back in 2008 I had intended to use the reviews I got as evidence to present to an agent: see, SEE, I can write. But that never happened. Almost ten years on the publishing world’s changed and it’s even harder now but clearly not impossible. As evidenced by A Girl is a Half-formed Thing. I did toy with the idea of sending the book to Galley Beggar Press but I imagine every literary novelist out there’s been banging on their door so maybe wait until the fuss’s died down.

In the meantime I just wanted to say thanks for reading the book and for writing this. It does make a difference. I don’t care how sure any one of us is of our own worth/talent/genius it doesn’t hurt to get the odd pat on the back.


You're welcome, mate.