Conal Condren - Author, Philosopher and Historian

Non-academic Writing

Fictional and other writing - Introduction

It had never been my intention to spend so much time on academic writing; but I found it so difficult and demanding of creativity that it has become a central preoccupation. Nevertheless, I have always tried to find time for what I had thought would be my main form of work. I had a contract for a volume of poetry as an undergraduate. This I declined as too restrictive for my future writing, and nothing has been done with the poems since (mainly written when at school and in my first two years of university). Only in recent years have I found time, or the courage to turn back to non-academic work, my first novel Scrundle (Texas, SBPR, 2012) has been written under the pseudonym Alison Lynde, for reasons explained below.


SCRUNDLE: A HISTORICAL NOVEL (ISBN: 978-1-62212-343-8) is available at:

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"[An] extraordinary novel….for those prepared to tackle a text of considerable complexity, for those with a love of language, this is a vastly rewarding read.” Roger Coombs, The Australian Review, 27. X. 2012


The Scrundle is a musical instrument, of sorts: a huge dangerous piece of machinery so incessant and damagingly loud that it has to be put to the torch, its players killed. A single manuscript account of its fate survives from the 14th century. This is discovered on the eve of the Restoration of Charles II in the library of a small Cambridge College by a young scholar who becomes so obsessed with the story and what he takes to be its allegorical meaning, that he too will murder, and burn his College to escape with the manuscript, go back to his family home and recreate the monstrous contraption. As he fears, he is pursued and so further desperate measures are taken.

Then, three hundred years later, after the College has been re-founded, an unscrupulous academic rediscovers the manuscript in the Country House Library in which it had been since its theft in the seventeenth century. He steals the manuscript and tries to persuade a young mathematician to see if, perhaps, the original instrument can be rebuilt. But his plans are also complicated by a bibliographer who has been hired to catalogue the Library properly.

At the same time, the re-founded College in desperate need of money and publicity, invites a television archaeological program to come and dig the foundations to discover the cause of the fire that destroyed it. The stories are interlaced by a narrator who has his own ideas on what should happen, and who is in some tension with the author. She knows exactly how an historical novel should be written but is too snobbish to do the work herself. Scrundle is an absurdist story about music, murder, fire, fraud, theft, the meaning of history, the instability of identity, the importance of naming, and how to eat toast.
I had been carrying the genesis of this around with me since about 1971.
What I wanted to do was write a serious novel from a totally absurd premise.
I also wanted to experiment with time shifts. I had been much impressed with the way Jean Paul Sartre blended contiguous narratives in Iron in the Soul. I wanted to push the matter further and write three intersecting narratives, of different times and in different styles, bringing them into such close alignment that all three might be advanced in a single sentence. Although I was dealing with three different plots, I wanted also to write a novel that was driven more by ideas, patterns of imagery and symbolic analogy than by character. I wanted finally to emphasise something of the artificiality of the novel reading process that jars with the realistic novel. Hence another level of challenge for a serio-absurd book. This was the point of separating the narrative from the authorial presence (thus the need for my pseudonym). The result whether successful or not is to give different levels of voice from which the reader is distant. The idea for this was suggested by Spike Milligan’s Puckoon, in which the main character loses an argument with the author about his knees. Scrundle was called in a rather empty phrase, a ‘post-modernist’ novel. But its main inspirations have come from the satires of Lucian (somewhat pre-modern) Tristram Shandy and the narrative style of Tom Jones.

Once I started to write, a draft was produced very quickly, in a matter of a couple of months, but for a large part of that time I was laid up, rather down on the floor with sciatica, so could do little else than distract myself with a lap-top on my knees. The first draft was hated by all who read it, and it was extensively revised.

It was published in the form it is because I could not afford more time to find an agent willing even to look at it. Most I contacted were unable to take on anyone new. In contrast to the academic world, very few publishers, it seems, will consider a direct approach. I wanted to get on with other novels, and had pressing academic work to deal with. Here are the opening paragraphs.

At last, a reader! I’ve been waiting long enough to take someone into the tumbled strata of this story, through the confusions of time, place, plot and personality. Keep going and between us we will dig a hole so deep you won’t reach the bottom. When you think you have, leaning, so to speak, upon your shovel, you’ll turn a page and find I’ve long since left you to help some other poor sod into the pit. Nothing personal, I’m a professional, narrated heaps of stuff. That’s why she hired me. I won’t let you down, but take you down to rummage in the detritus of more brutal times, now simplified to a pile of books and bones.

Mind you, and strictly entre nous, we could have gone back to where it all began, to the sound of the grey sea, old even at the dawn as it paws and pushes the luscious black hull of a tiny boat towards the shore. The rheumy water sucks a race of pebbles, mumbling sibilant hisses to seductive sounds, the music of dire action. Yet, with one last muted roar, it spits the craft, like some indigestible insect, onto the salt-foamed shingle. The vessel dips, lurches and grinds to a halt, awkwardly angled, catatonic, a carapace glistening in the first light beneath the screech of the wafting gull. I would, in short, have started with the primal glow of that fateful day and the arrival of our innocent band of musicians, damp but diligent, on the East Anglian coast. As they crunch over the steep strand of beach, pulling the parts and para- phernalia of their instrument behind them, they leave a ribble of lines and footprints, like some indecipherable, evanescent score. They pause for breath and look for welcome over empty undulations of land, but only the invisible tide of the Black Death runs up fast from London to greet them. The year is 1348.

Then again, perhaps that is all a little florid. There is a sound case for starting in 1660, with the fine-boned and sensitive young man translating the story of those players and their fandangled artifice of noise. He is the scholar who flees in fire from a terrible fate, who kills with ire and fakes his estate and . . . . Well, you get the gist. Indifferent to murder he may be, but that earlier story survives only through his words and because of his determination to unearth its secret meaning. So why not start with minstrels filtered through a membrane of misdeed? Why not, indeed? But where are we? We’re stuck where she put me as your guide, precariously on the top stratum of narrative, as the twentieth century crumbles into the twenty-first, and I’m not even given a proper year for you. So participate. Think of a number around 2000 and make the most of me while you can. The sooner I set the scene, the sooner we can get going.

A second novel, now almost finished, comprises a set of interconnecting short stories most set in the present. It is designed to be read as a single, if fragmented narrative, but each story is also complete in itself. A third, half started novel is just the narrative voice of Scrundle and his failure to sustain his existence in the modern world as a professional narrator for other people’s novels. Having started off ghosting for Shakespeare, he has ended up writing voice-overs for porn films and narrating for Miss Lynde. Desperate for money to fuel his need for hamburgers and bourbon, he is offering to sell his collected memorabilia at auction. The motif of time travel is lifted from Virginia Wolfe’s Orlando.

Will and the Ghost, co-written with Aoise Stratford.
This is a one act play written with my elder daughter, academic and professional playwright. The basic idea came to me one sleepless night after we had been talking much about Shakespeare. I suggested, that if she wanted an idea for a play she might think about it. She suggested, that I draft something and we’d do it together. So we did. As she lives in the USA the collaboration was much by email with the occasional telephone conversation. She decided when it was ready to go, and I witnessed it, for the only time at a play-reading in San Francisco, where it was followed by an extremely perceptive and constructive discussion. Further revisions followed. Aoise decided when enough revision was enough has been responsible for its success since.


In this inter-textual black comedy for two or three actors on one simple set. It would be suitable for radio. Will Shakespeare is mugged after drinking at a tavern one night, and is rescued by a stranger who takes him home. The man claims to be an out of work actor specialising in playing ghosts. He is dismissive of Will’s performed work, but sees in him potential, if he will write a decent part for a ghost. Will refuses as a matter of intellectual and artistic integrity, but is blackmailed into a sort of compliance when the ‘Ghost’ discovers among the papers on Will’s table plagiarised passages from the work of the recently murdered Kit Marlowe. The play, freely using quotations from Shakespeare, shifts to lifting lines from Dr.Faustus. Is the ‘Ghost’ what he says he is? Does Will’s final compliance amount to a pact with a dubious spirit? Or is the ‘Ghost’ a creature of concussed and drunken imagination? The options are open, but in any case Will begins to write Hamlet.

2000, October: first staged reading by The Three Wise Monkeys theatre group, Eureka Theatre in San Francisco.
2001, May: winner Pennsylvania Playhouse Premiere One-Act Competition.
2001, June: winner New Britain Repertory Theatre Company one act festival
2001, September: finalist in the South Western Theatre Association National New Play Contest.
2002, July: off-Broadway premiere with the Tobacco Bar Theatre Company’s production at the Midtown International Theatre Festival.
2005: performed by the Play Café, On the Terrace Café, Seattle, Washington.
2008, November: performed by The Brussels Shakespeare Society.
2012, August 13-25:  performed by The Bakehouse Theatre Company, Adelaide.
Further details:


An Odd Upbringing: myth and memory in South-East London.
Below is an extract that speaks for itself and for which I am about to seek a publisher or agent.


There are several origins for what follows and they explain its mixed character. Some years back my daughter Allegra asked me about a slim Edwardian oak bookcase that stands in the hallway of our house in Sydney. It was filled, as it still is with a clutter of books no one looks at: the complete works of Sir Walter Scott, small studies on the topography of Kent, a set of volumes on English birds, some pious effusions from the nineteenth century in nice bindings. I explained how we got the bookcase. I had been walking with my father down a backstreet near Greenwich market in London, when I had a nasty fall outside a small antique shop. The shop owner rushed out to pick me up, and sat me down in the shop while he cleaned the grazes, checked for serious damage and gave me a comforting drink of water. In gratitude and relief, my father said he’d have the book-case near the chair on which I was being tended. The shop keeper remonstrated-it was unnecessary. I don’t recall any price being mentioned or anything said about delivery. I do recall, at least I think I do, it was a characteristic gesture, my father whipping out an old wallet stuffed  with money  from the back pocket of his shabby trousers, peeling off some notes, and insisting on a sale. He often looked down at heel, it was deceptive.

Allegra said I should write the story down, and those behind all the antiques and curios I had inherited: everything has a story; everything is lost if the stories are not told. My father had told them, the details, the circumstances, the prices of most of what I had grown up to take for granted. How could I be so careless of good fortune? How could someone who has spent so much time writing about the past just fritter it away? So I started to write an inventory for her: item, one long case clock, by Michael Wilde of Wakefield, 1776, thereby hangs a tale. Item: one pair of bronzes by Ferdinand Barbadienne . Item: one marriage portrait in oils c.1830, found covered in soot in the attic of my parents’ London home. Here is one story already lost. When my mother first saw the painting again, so many years after it had been cast into the stygian gloom at the top of the house, she could no longer speak. She could only cry when she saw the canvass, shake her head, point and swear in stroke-ravaged frustration.

Gradually the inventory changed shape, as I recalled how so many things were bones of contention, in campaigns of intermittent hostilities between my parents. Item: one mid- eighteenth-century marble-topped French cabinet, damaged at the front right corner where my mother would surreptitiously hit it with a broom under pretext of cleaning, when my father was there to see. A skeletal bare list fleshed itself into a memoir of what it was like to be brought up by my decidedly eccentric and ill-matched parents; my father, born at the end of the nineteenth century, my mother at the beginning of the twentieth, what they did to each other and with me, born an only child at the end of the Second World War.

Shortly after my wife and I had come to Australia, both parents came out for an extended holiday, my father, for once having sold one of his precious antiques for a great deal of money at a London auction, and deciding that he’d spend what he did not give to us on world cruise and a visit. He loved Australia, my mother was determined to hate it. Her fear was that he would up sticks and move to the sun and informality he liked. On her would rest all the burdens of any move.

On her second visit, now as a widow, her attitude had changed. She arrived spry and willing to try anything, involve herself with everything (after about a week she was out delivering protest pamphlets about proposed road changes). At last she agreed with my father about something. Australia was wonderful, and she hated the thought of returning to England and leaving a large federation house a short bus ride from the sea she loved, with three cats on which she doted and food she did not have to cook herself unless she wanted to help in the kitchen.  Shortly before she was due to leave, she fell and broke her arm and then as it was nearly healed, suffered a massive right-side stroke. It was apparent that if she survived, she could never return. So my  wife and I went back to clear out and sell her house. It was a harrowing and constantly surprising experience: combustible and unstable chemicals; stolen property; packets of money; mice and creeping things and that painting in the attic.

Buried at the back of a wardrobe, behind a disintegrating fur coat and unworn old clothing some still in its original wrappings, was the following: Item: one cardboard box with miscellaneous paper souvenirs and packed with letters.  Alone in the house they were neatly stored, some 300 of them to my mother; they were still in their original stamped envelopes, and with them was a long draft letter from her to my father in pencil. It may never have been sent. The earliest letter written in  1916 gives an account of a bombing raid on London, the last, from 1947 is a lecture from my father on how to bring me up in his absence. We had no time to look at them when they were discovered, but we knew we’d have to. Only in the last year or so have we found the time, cataloguing, preserving where necessary in acid-free paper, and reading. This attention to documentation, quite post-dates the original plan of the simple inventory that had grown into a memoir, and perforce must change it again. Memories often seem straightforward enough, sometimes recalling them can conjure from some hidden recess others unexpectedly, clarifying in the brightest of hues; but when written evidence confounds them or the spoken word, and sometimes confirms an unlikely story, everything is altered, and we start afresh.

This remains a memoir, but corrected or augmented by evidence and occasionally a different perspective, and where it seems necessary, supplemented by something that has happened since. Discrepancies need to be explained, a broader significance intimated, and so what results is a case-study of wider changes in English society during the twentieth century, and of family myth-making and self-deception. Delusion, I hope, stops with me. Although my presence is inescapable, for the most part, this is not about me; but as that presence is itself a matter of studied recollection, the hope that self-delusion does end here may be fanciful.

And it will be if too much weight is given to memory. For a memoir, however reliable the memories and however dispassionate their recording, is never a whole truth. The random erosion of recollection, the selection of what remains to be dredged and organized and the compression that creates of memory a narrative, constitute a severely distorting glass on what may really have happened in all its fugitive plenitude. This is clear to me through the structural balance of what follows. In the early sections, memories are subordinate and are threaded through background and contextual material concerning my parents’ lives before my birth and the time when I was too young to have any memories at all. Gradually, however, the balance is reversed and recollection comes to dominate the whole. If the reader were to stop at about the time of my birth, the background would predict a bleak up-bringing for any child my parents had. Their relationship was the collision of an egregiously independent and insensitive woman with a possessive, insecure and depressive man. Hardly a marriage made in Heaven. Yet my memories are predominantly of selfless and loving parents. Having read the hard evidence surviving of their lives, having thought about it all as an historian, I live with the dissonance memory has created.