‘So Many Lives and All of Them Are Yours’, by Ron Butlin

I have long been a fan of Ron Butlin’s fiction and this novel has only furthered my particular love of his writing. It was only when delving further into interviews with the man himself that I realised this novel is a follow up to The Sound of My Voice (1987). Butlin admits he did not start out intending to write a sequel but after a week of work it was noted by his wife (the author Regi Claire) that there were parallels with his earlier novel and thus the idea was born. 

Meet Morris Magellan – misfit, musician, melancholic. At the grand old age of seventy he remains an alcoholic and is now realising that time maybe against him. Having spent his life escaping from his demons and tormenters, Morris has returned to his childhood home after being purportedly offered a chance for some temporary salvation via his musical talents: a call out of the blue leads to him being asked to compose a string quartet. I say ‘purportedly’ because his damaged and unreliable grasp on the realities around him – caused by lifelong alcoholism – causes the reader to persistently question his relationship with the truth. The novel moves between three settings and we see 1960s London, contemporary Edinburgh and the Scottish Borders through the eyes of a man who is down but not entirely out. Ron Butlin has commented that the reasons for these locations are that he spent time in London in the swinging sixties, spent his childhood in in a small village near Lockerbie and now lives in Edinburgh. 

The novel begins with a bleak and unyielding scene that emphasises Magellan’s current plight: ‘It is already midnight when Morris begins his descent into the village. With no moon and only a scattering of stars above, it feels like he’s about to land on a dark and unknown planet’ (p. 1). The direction in which he travels is symbolic of his existence to date – an endless cycle of lows pockmarked by the occasional high in lives both personal and professional. The reference to the planet is characteristic of his own isolation and the foreignness of where he grew up, his estrangement from the domestic home caused by running away to escape a demanding father whose aspirations he was unable to fulfil. His childhood is summarised bluntly as lasting ‘for two days only. Day One, which was when your father was at home; and Day Two, whenever he wasn’t. Of Day One you remember only the fear. Day Two came with a soundtrack – your mother playing her piano’ (p. 7). The polarised upbringing contributes to both a lifelong dependency on drink and Morris’s talents as a musician – he will drink anything he can lay his hands on, but still has the taste for a high-quality Cognac when funds or the generosity of friends allows him this pleasure. 

After days of not eating and wandering the streets, Morris is taken to a squat in Acton called Middle Earth. It is here he begins his journey into adulthood through a traumatic blend of work and relationships. The narrative moves through different periods of his life as he reflects, wistfully, shamefully but occasionally proudly, on his achievements and experiences during this time. Morris tells his story in a series of darkly humorous incidents and also switches between third person and second person narratives as he flits between the past and present day. 

The dilapidated cottage which he also shared with his musically talented mother is as shambolic as his own existence and, like his occasional achievements, you have to admire Morris’ determination that he can render it habitable again. His motivation – ‘he has several wasted lifetimes to put firmly behind him’ (p. 15) is a reference to his former career as a high-salaried business executive and his failed marriage, both through his succumbing to alcohol. Following his employment ending there is a stark choice with only one winner: ‘The days ceased to be a battleground where Drunk Morris and Sober Morris fought each other in your name. The winner had been well and truly declared.’ There is an inevitability when Morris leaves his wife on his sixtieth birthday – her realisation one of acceptance and resignation rather than laced with anger or vitriol. A simple text message wishing him ‘best of luck’ is all she can really say under the circumstances. 

The novel concludes with a contemporary reference which will ring true for many readers: ‘He lurches out into the darkness. Lockdown? He has been in lockdown for so long as he can remember. It is who he is.’ As Morris enters the official pandemic restrictions he realises that such a set of personal circumstances have characterised his life to date. Ultimately the reader knows that Magellan will embrace his circumstances with the blackly comic view of the world he has provided to date and, at the back of our minds, we desperately want him to emerge victorious and surviving.

So Many Lives and All of Them Are Yours is published by Birlinn

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