Stride Magazine -


32pp, £5.00, the eidolen press,
34 Nightingale Square, London, SW12 8QN

HOW DO YOU SPELL BL…GH? and other stories by Ian Robinson
92pp, £7.95, Redbeck Press, 24, Aireville Road, Frizinghall, Bradford, BD9 4LQ

Many years ago – about half-way from its original publication in 1934 and the present, I’d guess – I read a book called An Experiment With Time, by J.W. Dunne. He had the idea that dreams were a kind of time-shifted reality: a reality spawned in the future as well as in the past. To gather evidence for this theory he kept a notepad by his bedside and jotted down a record of his dreams before they evaporated into thin air, as most dreams are wont to do. I was impressed by this, and decided to replicate the simple task. At least I thought it was simple enough in concept: in practice my head found itself deciding that the warmth of the pillow was preferable to this temporal shifting game. I had only a few garbled fragments written down before I quietly abandoned this venture for the bliss of wakening more naturally from sleep.

So I was intrigued to see from the introduction to A World Elsewhere that Ian makes a habit of keeping, and regularly using, a notebook by his bedside. Indeed, he goes so far as to tell us that ‘the following pieces are accurate accounts of dreams’. His motivations are literary rather than investigatory as was the case with Dunne all those years ago (or was my own dismal failure 30 or so years later). In this little book he has turned some of his notes into proper sentences, added a few sentences here and there to make the episodes read better, and otherwise refined the language. Nevertheless, these are substantially the records of actual dreams.

What are we to make of them? Well, for myself Ian’s dreams are much more coherent and rather less lurid than my own of 30 or so years ago (or of the present, come to that). I don’t think, though, that I’ll be repeating the experiment. Still less will I be likely to donate my head to medical science or to send out for the teams of psychoanalysts that I so obviously need. I’d rather keep my dreams. As I suspect is the case for most writers, I do use fragments of my dreams in my own writing. Along with experiences and feelings and all the other things of which life is made, they provide the raw material of the written word. But although I’ve got a fairly good memory, I’d be hard put now to tell you from where the various elements of any particular piece of writing came. It is surely one of the jobs of the writer to blend these ingredients into a piece of fiction (or poetry, or any other form of writing).

Ian Robinson, though, deliberately seeks to isolate this one source of the written word, and presents it to us in book form. Your first reaction when reading it might be, as mine was, to question why it should be that one of the most intensely personal of experiences should be committed to the public page in this unrefined form. Some parts of the accounts do in fact make interesting reading on any terms. I am thinking in particular of his father’s quotation in ‘Memory’: ‘A Marxist intelligence with devastating bursts of speed’, for example. Or the exploration of the mysterious building in ‘Quonum’. Or the abstruse conversations in ‘The Evacuation’ and elsewhere. And a number of other sequences are well worth reading.

Still, I am not sure that I could recommend the book as if it were some kind of literary curate’s egg. I often found myself wishing that the writer had not been so conscientious about his recording and taken the additional steps necessary to create genuine fiction. That, I know, would be contrary to his intention, so I feel that I have to look at the book as it is presented to us.

Would I recommend it? I probably would, just. Although many readers will see it as something that should have stayed in a private notebook - as self-indulgent, even - there is no denying that the basic idea is thought provoking and absorbing. Though perhaps you could just read the 1934 book. It’s still in print.

How Do You Spell Bl…gh? and other stories sees Ian Robinson in a more traditional mood. ‘Traditional’ in this case may be something of a comparative term because there is no doubt that he writes after his own fashion and on his own terms. His style of writing is in fact an odd combination of mainly spare, utilitarian prose and a way with the narrative line that has ‘no compromises with the reader’ written all over it. Sometimes you might feel, too, that the dream notebook is not as firmly closed as it should have been - but I accept that this may be a factor my reading these books one after the other.

Ian Robinson is anything but a ‘new’ writer. He founded the Oasis imprint in 1969, has been published in a number of countries, and has a number of prose and poetry books to his credit and (the most praiseworthy to me) was editor of the PALPI magazine (Poetry and Little Presses Information) from 1992 to 1996. None of this means that his writing will appeal to everybody. It won’t. It’s too individual for that. And to be honest, although I have seen some of his work before, I cannot pretend that very much of it appeals to me personally.

It is unfortunate that this collection begins with ‘Waiting’. The reader seems to be doing just that as the story unfolds. We seem to be taken just a bit too close to the author’s thought processes, when nothing in particular seems to be happening. But there are some brighter spots. The one that has most appeal for me is ‘Hands’, a slight but engaging story exploring the relationships of four people via the device of their hands and stones on a beach. Another I liked was the title story, where the author uses slightly more complex prose than elsewhere to focus on a number of things beside the sound of the Bl…gh of the title, though this provides a pleasing centrepiece for the story. Then there are memorable passages at various places in the book. The start to ‘Echoes’ for instance is one that stayed with me: ‘ “Once you start to say something,” Henry said, “you always seem to end up saying more than you meant. Or coming out with something completely different. Don’t you find that?” ’

Whether these were the books that Ian Robinson intended to write, I cannot say. One thing that I am sure of is his integrity and honesty as a writer. This is a genuine attempt to speak as he feels. But overall, I have to say that Ian Robinson didn’t say enough to me. I have the feeling, though, that he will speak more clearly to a number of other readers.

          © Raymond Humphreys