I went to Dalmuir library yesterday and got three books. Two by Des Dillon and one by Jeff Torrington. Ewan had mentioned Torrington in one of his posts. Although I know I’ve read his book, Swing Hammer Swing, like most books I read I can’t remember anything about it. Nothing. Well, the bit about it being set in Glasgow. Since hearing Des Dillon speak at Dalmuir library I thought he’s one of us and I better read something he wrote. When I got his books home I realised I had read something he’d written, Six Black Candles. I suspect this was Des Dillon’s first book. Don’t ask me what it’s about. But I’m not daft. I can read the blurb at the back of the book. I read it years ago. Vaguely remember there was a drama on the telly. Not impressed by either. But I read My Epileptic Lurcher between the three matches of the Euros and enjoyed it.
Write what you know. That’s what they tell you. That’s right up there with advice about murdering your darlings. That’s why you get so many books about middle-class writers giving up journalism or leaving a cushy job to write and, horrors of horrors, finding they have a mental block. Think the smary Karl Ove Knausgaar, My Struggle, and the subtext I never thought I was going to make it as a writer, because people didn’t really understand me. I proved you doubters all wrong. Fuck right off I say to that. But in Manny Riley the protagonist and narrator we have a guy that’s trying to write screenplays. He has a mental block because he’s mental, with anger issues, -‘I was so angry I was going to fling myself under a bus, or jump through a plate glass window’ – stymied not by his inability to produce ideas and finished projects but the real possibility nobody wants to read them. From the little I’ve picked up about Des Dillon he’s Manny right down to a tee. The gallus walk he could mimic, the working-class swagger, the anger issues and him telling us he’d turned BBC down for a £100 000 project because they had fucked up the independence debate. Integrity, that’s what it’s all about, integrity, he, and Donny the West Dunbartonshire Reading Champion (yes there is such a thing, such a person that exists outside comic books) told us that’s what being a writer means. I remember thinking, fuck that, I’d have took the money. Here Manny Riley does take the money. It allows him to buy a house for the knockdown price of £20 000 and set up home in Dumfries with the love of his life Connie and their two dogs and a cat, in the supporting role. In the blurb on the front page Dillon writes, ‘Dogs love you…end of story’. But that’s just the beginning of the story.
-Mummy, Mummy, I say and they go to Connie.
-Daddy, Daddy, she says, — Yum yum. Daddy’s got the biscuits, and they back they came.
There’s quite a lot of doggy talk. Some of that so bad you’ve got to look away. For example, a bit-sized morsel from the point of view of Bailey, the eponymous, epileptic lurcher:
Me flakken the Daddy he comes in from the alkies. Flakkens me flakkens me shouting he. The Daddy go on the cou and me go oof oof an flakken him. Big long paws on he chest an lickty lick his fay an bite his noy with teethy teethy no no. Nages Blongo goes like that for and Connooroo and gets toy an give toy to Daddy.
Connor is the name of another dog Manny and Connie have rescued. Blongo, you have probably guessed, is another pet name for Bailey, so called because of the colouring of the lurcher. But after reading that description of doggy love, if you are a bit callous like me, you’re probably thinking it would be best for all humanity and for literature if both dogs (and the cat) had a bolt through their head. But there you’d be wrong. For take out all the shite and this is an entertaining book about a working class bloke trying and failing to make a life as a writer, but perhaps succeeding after all.
Anger is a big part of his life, as if resentment. Manny has spent ten years in prison. The chapters follow him picking up life and learning how to love someone else and something else and learning to love himself. It’s Odysseus in the bottom of a wine bottle. ‘Thanks to my ex-cellmate Paddy I’d not stopped drinking and I was living on my own in the pink cloud of early sobriety’. Paddy knows the score. He’s Manny’s AA sponsor and a gambling addict. He talks Manny into going to a casino with him because there’s a girl that works there that’s that bit special. It’s Connie. For Manny it’s love at first sight, but the odds of them getting together he figures in the thousands to one.
When they marry within four weeks and move to a flat away from the schemes and hassle to an unnamed Scottish island that had me thinking Rothesay, there life’s sorted. Only it isn’t. Neither of them drink and the dole pays the rent, so they’ve enough to get by, but rejection after rejection letters leave Manny full of resentment, which leads to anger, which leads to violence. After reading this I don’t think it was such a good idea to send those poor refugees to Rothesay. First there’s the resentment. People there hate outsiders. And they hate poor people. They hate people that don’t work and that falls into a zeitgeist need to hate others for the sake of social cohesion. Manny is not going to be anybody’s fucking scapegoat for fuckin anybody and neither is his fuckin dogs. Manny swears too much. He can’t help it. That’s the way he thinks. I like the way he thinks I like the way Dillon captures that animosity, the low level snipping of dog walkers getting up earlier and earlier to get their dogs out first and…fuck right off. It’s wearing, very wearing. But that gives Manny his first screenplay success. He’s commissioned by the BBC, well, not commissioned, commissioned, but his first draft is paid for, he’d given £40 000 to produce a shooting script for a series about a guy walking his dog in some out of the way place full of know-it-all arseholes that are quick to express an opinion, not just about dogs, but about life.
But there’s tension, the kind of tension needed for any good story, in that Manny needs to go to London to network and do all the kind of wanky things to make himself a big shot and have a real chance of being a writing success and just at that point he needs to do that Blongo has his first epileptic fit and it seems like the dog is going to die. Manny has a choice: stay in London or fly home. He does the latter, which leads to resentment with Connie. Blongo’s fits escalate. Manny starts to resent losing sleep. Resnts losing Connie and having to pander and revolve their life around a dog that refuses to get better. This is familiar territory with anyone with someone chronically sick in their family. There’s no answer. That’s the way of life. But the beauty is in the telling. Dillon makes that work. He shows integrity.