1 March, 2003Issue 2.2Fiction

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Bankable Bickering

Gillian Dow

Mil Millington
Things my Girlfriend and I have Argued About
Hodder and Stoughton, 2002
338 pages

In the autumn of 1998, I followed an Internet link inviting me to ‘read a huge list of things an English guy finds annoying about his German girlfriend’. This led me to Mil Millington’s homepage, where there is indeed a huge list. Disagreements on subjects as diverse as the correct way to cut kiwi fruit and eat Kit-Kats, or what colour to decorate the living room, are described in loving detail. I spent a happy few hours there, and I return occasionally to look through new postings.

www.thingsmygirlfriendandihavearguedabout.com is a cult, and remains a gem in a cyber-world that seems to consist primarily of porn and get-rich/thin/happy/healthy-quick sites. Millington’s column for The Guardian Weekend magazine is based on his website, but, unfortunately, the transfer between Internet and newspaper publication has not been successful. Millington’s flippancy, endearing on the web, is tediously trivial on newsprint. Still, I was eager to see how well Millington’s brand of humour would translate to a full-length work of fiction.

Despite the fact that the book shares its title with the website and the column, the main characters’ names have been changed. Mil becomes Pel, and his German girlfriend Margret becomes Ursula. The plot is entirely ‘character-driven’: Pel, a thirty-something man, works in the fictional University of North-Eastern England, as an IT manager for the university library. He has a German girlfriend, two young sons, a couple of friends he meets for lunch, and assorted coworkers, each more manic than the last. And that’s basically it. The fact that one of his colleagues goes missing and thus facilitates Pel’s own promotion, that Pel has to arrange covert meetings with the Triads to give them ‘fees’ for recruiting overseas students, and that the university biology department is stashing nerve gas in the foundations of the new library extension are mere sidelines. Explaining that this work is High Fidelity meets Man and Boy meets Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, with perhaps just the slightest sprinkling of Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason thrown in for good measure, gives a much better idea of what to expect.

This is not to say that Millington merely jumps on the back of Nineties publishing fads. Millington capitalizes on all the quirks of trans-European romance and all the hilarity that emerges from the ethnic differences and miscommunications involved in an intercultural relationship. Ursula and Pel arguing about their house being burgled is one example among many:

‘This is just typical of England. People don’t get burgled in Germany.’

‘Er.… I think that might not be true.’

‘It is. I was never burgled there, neither was anyone I knew. It’s just something that doesn’t happen.’

‘Oh, sorry—I didn’t realise you had the figures to back it up.’

‘You’re going to the estate agents tomorrow.’

Yes.

‘Because, we’re moving—point.’

‘You mean “We’re moving—full stop”.’

‘I’m going to hit you in the face.’

At the end of the novel, faced with the discovery that her boyfriend has become entangled with the shady dealings of the university and is potentially going to be used as their scapegoat, Ursula’s reaction is ‘Aw, bollocks to it—let’s go to bed’. The moral of the story, then, is ‘those who argue about the trivial have stronger relationships than the smug who claim they share everything, including opinions’. But don’t worry too much about the moral: Millington’s work is light entertainment, an ideal companion for those untroubled by laughing out loud on crowded trains.

Gillian Dow is researching a DPhil at Balliol College, Oxford, on the contemporary reception of the works of the best-selling eighteenth century writer Madame de Genlis. She likes to read twentieth century bestsellers too.