Friday, May 05, 2017

The Forgettory

(I'm using the current period of research leave to, among other projects, work with a research assistant to sort through my 'archive' of old files, texts, memorabilia, and - in one case so far - sandwiches of antiquity. The site, then, might prove to be a fitting place to post up any 'lost' texts which we recover by these means.

The following is not exactly in any of these categories. I had wanted to link to it from a blog post, and was convinced - given the title of this short piece from the series of texts about the Wee Man, provisionally called In the Name of the Wee Man - that I had already posted it somewhere on this site. But when I tried actually looking, I couldn't track it down. 

I imagine that's because it's somewhere on my Tumblr site, the search engine for which is never able to find anything, necessitating lengthy scrolling sessions. In order to obviate that, and because this site is so obviously its natural home, here is 'The Forgettory'.)

The wee man’s loft had been converted into a single large filing area known (at least by the sign on the door) as “The Forgettory”. It was to here he came in order to combat his extraordinary fascination with verbal minutiae of all kinds. 

About once a month he would carry up bags full of newspaper clippings, tickets and labels from various products ­­- anything where a verbal tag or a gimmick of lettering or an arresting phrase had caught his eye and sunk inexorably into his brain. He also brought sheaves of papers and several notebooks, all scribbled on and over, half-full or brimming. 

These contained phrases he had overheard in the street or on a train or in a cafe or bar, fragments from television or film or the radio, mishearings of all of these (which he found especially hard to shake off), plus the floods of fragments of images, characters, titles and half-glimpsed sentences and speeches which poured incessantly from the back of his brain. Everything, printed or scribbled, borrowed or his own, was heaped in a stove he had had installed up there, and burned to ashes. 

These would then be ceremonially scooped out and placed in a grey cardboard box about the size of a shoebox. This would then be taped shut and the dates between which all the material thus collated had been collected would be written neatly on one end panel. The box would then be stacked on top of its immediate predecessor (a new stack was inaugurated each January) on the shelves which lined the entire room in two massive ranks. 

Then he would slump in an armchair placed before the oven and, stretching his feet to a more conventional blaze, he would contemplate the remaining empty shelves, awaiting words still to be forgotten. Thus it was he carried out his heroic campaign against all the books that clamoured constantly to him to be written.

Monday, April 09, 2012

The Great Unwritten

Alongside those marvellous things we wrote but subsequently lost, and those things which, being not yet written, shall be among the wonders and the terrors of the word, we must also include those things we really meant to write, which we were indeed commissioned to write, which it would have done us a power of good in the actual factual world to have written, but which, for reasons we'd rather not go into (but will anyway, for that is the, um, scoopy nature of this blog), we did not manage to so much as draft out beyond the first few broken phrases. These, too, we must rank among the lost.

I've got four examples from a chequered career of inactivity which seem especially relevant, not only to this site, but to its companion category over on Press of Blll. It's generally considered a good thing in the great empty hall of the Herbert head when a few of its scattered thoughts come together and are prepared to acknowledge each other without fisticuffs or over-hearty feasting (psychically the same thing), so I will rehearse those here in the first instance, since this blog is a type of holding area for all such prodigals, exiles and otherwise estranged ones.

Two of the miscreations are reviews, the others are essays. Both reviews were for Poetry Review: one in the mid-90s under Peter Forbes' editorship, the other more recently under Fiona Sampson's. In each case I was sent a packet of books which might have been thought highly congenial in one way or another to my own literary enterprise. Perhaps that was the problem. I should say I apologise here yet again to those editors who placed their trust in me - in some cases I hope I've been able to regain it, in others my penance continues.

Those books for review were, firstly, Selected Poems of William Neill: 1969-1992 (Canongate, 1994); Collected Poems of Alexander Scott, ed. David Robb (Mercat, 1994); and A Keen New Air, by Raymond Vettese (the Saltire Society, 1995). And, secondly, Petr Borkovec, From the Interior: Poems 1995-2005, translated by Justin Quinn (Seren); The Golden Boat: Selected Poems, Srecko Kosovel, translated by Bert Ribac and David Brooks (Salt); and Stephen Rodefer, Call It Thought: Selected Poems (Carcanet) - all published in 2008.

The essays were, firstly, on MacDiarmid and Bunting for Jim McGonigal and Richard Price's book (published in 2000), The Star You Steer By; and, secondly, on Auden's light verse for Tony Sharpe's forthcoming W.H.Auden in Context.

What interests me here is, not just these lost opportunities, but the psychology of losing an opportunity. Am I just congenitally unreliable? Probably, but the record of all the other reviews and essays I more or less unproblematically completed would suggest not. So what specifically went wrong?

I think in each case I was encountering a type of creative block which led me to repress rather than surmount, to 'lose' the problem. In each case the full nature of the block will probably only be recovered by completing the task - and it is of course the duty of this blog to recover just such lost things. Therefore the completion of these four tasks (plus a couple I'm still processing, as it were) is heretofore added to my compendious lists of the great unwritten. But I'd like to include a few incipient sentences here.

With that selection of books by Scottish writers, I think the issue is clear: these are mostly strongly Nationalist writers in Scots, poets for whom the choice of language is a matter of principle as well as of aesthetics. They are identifiable or at least associable with the second wave of the Scottish Renaissance: those writers who, from around the 1940s onward, displayed the direct influence of Hugh MacDiarmid. Writers like Maurice Lindsay, Sydney Goodsir Smith and Douglas Young all adopted 'Synthetic Scots' as it was known, tended to favour traditional form such as ballad, followed MacDiarmid politically at least as far as Nationalism, and even seemed to favour MacDiarmidean 'datchies and sesames' when it came to vocabulary.

In other words they were old-fashioned writers even by the 70s, when Tom Leonard's work heralded the next significant step in writing in Scots: the move away from a literary language and prosody toward an urban late-modernist free verse, and then Liz Lochhead grounded this in strongly performance-focused writing. The writing of later poets working in Scots like Robert Crawford, David Kinloch and myself tended to try and synthesise these two elements, and part of my difficulties with this review were clearly those of the inheritor.

When I think about that second set of review copies, my main focus is on Rodefer, a writer who followed the initial generation of the New York School, carrying their main stylistic innovations on into what we would tend to characterise as Language Poetry. Here again, I can see that my hesitancy is to do with inheritance. Frank O'Hara, Ashbery, Koch, Schuyler and Ted Berrigan all exerted differing degrees of influence over me at different times in my own writing, and I had issues with both Rodefer's rehearsing and his development of their tropes and tactics. But something about Kosovel helps me to put those difficulties into context.

Kosovel, a Slovenian poet who died aged only 21 in 1926, wrote in two distinct styles: put very crudely, the earlier work is 'impressionist' and late Romantic, much focussed on the landscape of his native Karst; the later is 'expressionist', filled with early Modernism's enthusiastic critique of language and sensibility. The tensions between these two styles made me aware of the issues at stake when I was reading Rodefer.

With the Scottish poets I was clearly reluctant to make a decisively negative judgement about their relative conservatism; with Rodefer's Call It Thought I was equally clearly resisting too negative a critique of his mannerist development of the New York School. In each case I was hedging my bets not because of what any potential review said about its subjects, but because of what it told me about myself. Both the step away from sentiments about writing in Scots to which I was to some degree sympathetic, and the distancing from a movement in US writing by which I was strongly engaged, obviously marked a movement into a middle period of my own writing which I needed to think through. Not that I realised this at the time.

It is traditional, almost inevitable, to lose one's way in the middle of the journey, but what I lost, what I am attempting to recover here as in my other blogs, is both the moment and the significance of the change I therefore underwent.

Further Lost Inventions That Would Have Made Further Millions

Discovering that my invention of the Question Comma was actually a delusion, and this useful punctuation device, to be used when you wish to drop an interrogative note (like this, right?) right in the middle of a sentence, was already out there, has led me to review my other stupid inventions in the hope of finding something vaguely original. (At least I still have the cardiostrophe - the deadly opponent of the snark...)

I see that the idea for Olympic Peace, which I discussed several years ago with Tom Shakespeare, is also currently 'out there' and not, as I had supposed, snug and secure in this here cranium, so I suppose that the exercise bike video plan is also being marketed aggressively by some Apprentice reject even as I mope.

This, in case you were still interested, was a set of DVDs of bicycle journeys in exotic locales to be played as you struggled toward your 15-30 minute goal of mild sweatiness and inflexible calves: you could have urban or rural as you wished, gentle or near-suicidal speeds, terrains and musical soundtracks, depending on your fitness or fright level - in fact, if you wrote to us ('us' being another delusion of mine), we'd send someone to cycle wherever you wanted, film it, then send it to you. Anywhere in the world - that's how practical this one was.

Then there were sun farms - I remember going on about those a little too loudly one summer in Crete, when we were climbing up sun-scorched slopes shunned by even the mentalist Kri-kri (an indigenous goat) and the lammergeier (a vulture-y thing). It was my opinion the near-equatorial deserts should all be covered in cheap solar panels, and that the planet would thereby be saved - and now apparently, they are. But it isn't. Something to do with the corrosive filtration system called Capitalism getting in the way there...

Then of course there were Chocolate Ears, to be fashioned (of course) by swish Chocolatiers, and arranged in tiers according to species - rabbit, Vulcan, human. The boxes would be a compromise between plush satin and ransom note chic. Along the same lines was the anatomically correct chocolate heart with a small mechanism inside along the line of that thing they put in cans of beer so that, once the box was opened by your beloved, the realistic arteries would spurt a little raspberry coulis, while another device in the lid played that bit at the start of Dark Side of the Moon.

(A little more downmarket was the cruncheon - a Crunchy in the shape of a policeman's truncheon. But those in receipt of the heart might want to get and use it as a form of 'thank you' confectionery.)

Of course the need to be original is not really focussed on inventing anything practical, otherwise I'd be copyrighting like an idiot, as opposed to idiotically posting here. It is always and only focussed on the need to distinguish your own thought from the opinions of others, to determine whether or not there is something - anything - that you 'really' think. Our thought processes come to us as communal activities, what is 'mine' is already lost in the forest of 'ours', although we prefer not to distinguish the two.

All invention in this sense is self-invention, or rather conscious connivance in the unconscious creation of something we like to call both 'conscious' and a 'self' - literally a self-fulfilling prophecy. In this as in so much we in general resemble the Scots in particular, whose greatest invention remains the idea that they invented everything.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Lost Inventions That Would Have Made Millions

(Before embarking on this post, I should just like to announce that I am of course perfectly aware of the irony of starting up a blog called 'The Lost Notebook', dedicated to the lostness of all kinds of opportunities and hopes, then forgetting to maintain it. In a sense it seems a necessary step in this blog's development that it fails to mark long arid stretches of time in which anyone who had ever visited it to satisfy a (rapidly-passing) curiosity can get on with forgetting all about it.)

One of the side-effects of possessing no perspective whatever on practical reality other than 'That seems to be what those other, more successful, people inhabit' is the occasional hatching of schemes THAT WILL MAKE MILLIONS. These are always announced in capital letters to a prematurely-wearied partner, parent or friend, who is somehow responsible for making the scheme a reality, then sorting out the book-keeping so I can make feature-length cartoons about something I found in the gutter. Then, naturally, nothing at all happens next.

But every now and then I am reminded of one such scheme (hare-brained? Well, as the March Hare remarked, 'they were the best hare brains of my generation'), and visit accusation and guilt upon the long-suffering other. The most recent example, which is reminding me of this whole pointless cycle of imaginary innovation followed by sloth and unjust recrimination, is the sudden interest of my family in possessing a Kindle. My partner wanted one for Christmas, which logically meant, according to my mother, that my father should want one too. Except he showed the same lack of interest in the device as he had when I invented it.

That's right, back in the late eighties or early nineties (I am, as a side-effect of being an idiot, a little hazy on the detail), when he first became MD of a PCB (printed circuit board) company, I suggested that he should branch out into making an actual product, and that product should be an electronic book. You plugged everything into its memory, then read it on a screen. That's a Kindle, right? Both he and (and herein arrives a further shit-load of irony) my partner pooh-poohed the project, stating that no-one would ever be interested in such a device which wouldn't work anyway.

They're both quite happy to admit to this, and were continuing to claim it would never take off even when I showed them examples of it not only levitating, but circumnavigating the globe, commercially-speaking. Then my partner asked for one for Christmas - because her sister had got one, and I, overlooking an opportunity for hours of unrealistic recrimination, just bought her it. Thus taking imaginary bread from the mouth of our own child, who should have had her own animatronic elephant by now - because I would have invested our profits wisely, of that you need have no fears.

This is of course typical, as demonstrated in numerous other cases, some of which I can't remember because no-one has actually made the thing/developed the idea I had first although I nonetheless definitely had it first. Like the stamp-collecting T-Shirts.

This was a clothing company scheme based on the premiss that most men have absolutely no idea what to wear but like collecting things in a completist/obsessive manner. So you sell them T-Shirts. You sell them T-Shirts in boxed sets where the images are themed so they have to get all of them. The boxed sets appear regularly, like the Post Office's issuing of commemorative stamps - in fact they're seasonal, so they sort of fit in with the fashion world's calendar, and women actually notice them. Because women have no idea what to buy men - or to qualify that, women know exactly what to buy men but are puzzled by the inability of men to like/wear/appreciate the good taste/practicality/sheer style of the objects purchased for them. They have no idea what to buy men that men might like.

(Some of you may already be copying this down, it's such hot shit. Two points: I expect a cut in a plain brown envelope to be left in a series of drop sites so I can act out a Spooks fantasy; and I haven't got round to the killer punch of what is the actual design yet.)

Stamps. You print stamps on them good and big and colourful and accurate, because you're appealing to the collector gene in men who haven't grown up and will instantly revert to their 12 year-old philatelic selves, and because you will never run out of stamps. The sheer diversity of ways you can package them into nostalgia-stimulating groups of strange countries, ex-colonies or themed imagery (birds, spaceships, sports personalities) beggars belief especially when you think how much you can charge per set of 3-to-6 T-Shirts. (Numbers are very important here - men dote on patterns. I'd also make them unbleached Fairtrade organic cotton - remember, women must notice them first. And I'd sell them in T-shirt-shaped boxes - brilliant!)

Once you'd done stamps - though you'd never be done with stamps - I'd advise going on to those football cards they used to and probably still do sell with bubblegum, and those cards you used to get in packets of tea. Men'll buy those, and a significant pathetic subset of men will buy all of those, just to keep them in their original T-shirt-shaped box.

You can see why I got very excited and used A LOT OF CAPITAL LETTERS with this one, but, strangely, not a peep of enthusiasm was shown in response. Hardly a pip of supportive vim disturbed the usual indifference. They'll see the error of their ways when someone (perhaps even you, dear reader), rips this idea off and makes an absolute bloody fortune. But even this pales into nothing compared with my other brilliant wheeze...

Clockwork floors. Yes, clockwork floors: you are already amazed. I was thinking about the wind-up radio/torch man and wondering if there was some other way the necessary clicks of his cogs could be accumulated, when it struck me. If you arrange the clicky devices under a section of flooring that large numbers of people walk upon all the time in such a way as, subtly and safely, to depress panels within the whole area at a given pressure, then it would be clicking all day long, and you could harvest the resultant electricity. You may say that people would trip and fall over and sue you, but you would be wrong: if people can go down steps, they can walk across a surface that 'gives' slightly as they go. These areas, if correctly-designed, only need to be placed in the entrances of busy buildings or junctions in concourses, and they would power the buildings!

The usual deafening lack of applause meant I took this to an engineering friend who explained the correct technology (not a cog) already existed, but the base price was still too dear for this one to fly. But that's this year: if you invest now in the idea, as the tech catches up, you'll be raking or rather clicking it in. (My idea for similarly self-powering footware, the KogKlog for joggers, is still stranded at the prototype stage.)

There's more, much more, which I'll try to assemble into a subsequent post. But remember, if you'd like to develop any of these ideas, that the Kindle one's already been done and so may involve you in litigation.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Things You Already Know You Are Going To Lose

(I wrote a version of the first part of this as a reply to an entry in Kona McPhee's excellent blog, then realised I hadn't chronicled a couple of important stages in the saga of the loss of bunnets. Here's an attempt at remedy.)

The Encyclopaedia of Lost Things has an entry for Things You Already Know You Are Going To Lose: its metaphoric trees are dark, for instance, with flocks of gloves. (The trees themselves have a distinctly umbrella-iferous air, useful for obfuscatory shade.) I have a single woollen glove at the moment I simply swop from hand to hand as each gets cold, popping the exposed hand casually into a pocket. Its twin lives with that grey scarf I still don’t know how I lost, but a friend’s scarf hangs unworn on the back of my office door awaiting reunion with its forgetful master. My proper gloves, bought in the cold snap before Xmas, were lost on Xmas Eve on the Metro while I tried to catch up with present-buying.

But beneath certain roots in the Forest of Lost Trees are the truffles of lost black bunnets. My current black bunnet was temporarily lost earlier; in fact two bunnets went missing in a row: a brown one apparently speeding from a car like a spare wheel as Yang Lian and I alighted at Ustinov College to give a reading. But its black companion turned up, placed perkily on a bollard opposite our house by a helpful passerby. Once it had dried out it was fine, albeit slightly misshapen. As we speak, it and, oh the irony, my memory stick are both currently back in the limbo that isn’t quite the house or the car or the office but from which they will probably/hopefully turn up.

But it is the black bunnet’s predecessor, the Moscow bunnet, which I wish formally to lament here. This was left on a train to Oxford in the following circumstances: I placed it on the overhead shelf while intoning ‘You will forget that.’ Then I forgot that.

I phoned train companies and lost property offices immediately on leaving the train, but nothing. This last item wasn’t actually lost for a short period of time, just increasingly out of reach. Perhaps that’s it: our physical relation to our possessions is simply expanding, just not evenly, and, thankfully, not at the same rate as the expansion of the universe.

I happened to have been wearing exactly this bunnet when, at Andy Croft's suggestion, I went to see Ian McMillan launch Talking Myself Home at Newcastle's Live Theatre, and, after the event, went up to get my book signed. Now, Ian and I know each other from quite a few Verbs and other programmes, but I could see the bunnet was having an anonymising effect, so removed it, and was recognised. This phenomenon, You Are Not As You Were So Who Are You, I used to get a lot when people who'd known a curly-headed version of me met the later, grey, depleted model. So I'd written a piece to the tune of Mystery Train about the Bunnet Effect, and now, attending the Brasenose College Poetry Festival (at the poet Richard O'Brien's invitation), I was able to rapidly revise the last line as follows.

- Before it follows, I must just remark that the way my choice of tune matched the future circumstances would suggest that the poor Moscow bunnet was indeed a Thing I Already Knew (At Some Level) I Was Going To Lose. Ah, the mysteries of brain...

Mystery Brain

(for Ian McMillan)

Book-queue signin, sixteen readers long,
Book-queue signin, sixteen readers long –
well, this new black bunnet makes my face feel wrong.

Moscow bunnet, sittin on, on my head,
Moscow bunnet, sittin on, on my head –
well, it took my name away from my friend with the pen.
(What happened then?)

Moscow bunnet, lookin cool, cool as toast,
Moscow bunnet, like a black ole slice of toast,
please be bringin my name back, cause I’m like a g-ghost
(like a g-ghost).

Moscow bunnet, coverin up, up my brain (up my brain),
Moscow bunnet, coverin up, up my brain (up my brain) –
well I left it on a train so it never will again
(will again).

Do svidanija!

Sunday, December 05, 2010

A Flock of Sparlings

(It is an unfortunate truth that I am so disorganised and xenochronicitous I have actually lost or failed to assemble or bring to a final edit several more or less complete books. By 'lost' I mean to so completely misplace some manuscript or other among the boxes and boxes of papers stacked in several rooms in several locations that I no longer know whether a copy exists or not.

One of these books, less lost than under-finished, is the collection of near- and non-short stories, Virtual Scotland, which failed to capture the imaginations of a couple of publishers in the late 90s and so went back to sulk in the aforementioned boxes. Some of it was no doubt not well served by my lack of interest in makie-up people. But other parts were what I would like to think of as a happier blend of fact and fable, like this little piece on a little fish.)

The recent discovery that the rare fish known as the sparling has again been caught in the waters of the Forth bodes well for the Scottish fishing industry. A distant cousin of the salmon, this little fish has for many years been caught by the tonne in the Tay, where it is considered a great delicacy because of its scent.

The sparling is also known as the 'cucumber smelt' for the simple reason that it smells strongly of that large oblong fruit. Fishermen in the Carse of Gowrie are able to detect a shoal of sparling from the river bank, simply by dilating an experienced nostril. Dundonians have long had their own piscine version of that English dainty, the cucumber sandwich.

Now geneticists, spurred on by ancient documents in archives in Dundee and Perth, are striving to reintroduce the sparling’s full range of subspecies. A cryptic note in the accounts of a Perth merchant for the year 1538 refers to 'thae puir soules wha depend sa on the Orient tae gust thair mowes, given hou hereawa is sic a fouth o spice fish.'

A Dundee chronicler in the late 1570s refers to 'the sparline, that is baith benigne and breme.' Scientists conjecture that there were once several types of sparling, and are experimenting with two new strains.

The first of these, the garlic smelt, looks like it may prove more popular for its eggs than for its flesh. The unfortunate fish smelt so strongly of garlic that the population of Newburgh were recently advised to stay indoors with windows shut while river police 'herded' the guilty shoal downstream.

The eggs, however, are odourless and may be eaten like caviar. Their beneficent qualities have already aroused the jealousy of producers of garlic capsules. River police have been alerted that industrial sabotage is possible, and spawning areas are being guarded round the clock.

The chilli smelt has proved slightly less successful as the fish have displayed a marked tendency toward spontaneous combustion. When one sparling explodes this sets off a chain reaction amongst the others. One fisherman, displaying a learned bent, has described the effect as resembling 'Greek fire': 'Ye can see the haill shoal burnin awa ablow the waater like a fire through a windie.'

Compensation comes for the sparling at least in the form of jet propelled excreta. Marine scientists observing the chilli smelt have established that the small fish can employ the considerable power generated by their unstable constitutions both to thrust themselves through the water at high speeds, and to repel attackers with a focussed squirt of shit. As one young diver put it, 'When the lot of them turn their backs on you it’s quite a daunting experience.'

It is hoped to eventually be able to produce varieties of sparling for each of the major spices employed in preparing fish. Those fishing communities which happen to occupy the estuaries of Scotland’s major rivers may be able to look forward to a decidedly less hazardous future.

Plans are already afoot to relaunch boats from Broughty Ferry on the Firth of Tay, for the first time since the 1930s. The commercial possibilities seem limitless. The hot-tempered little chilli smelt may yet become Britain’s ultimate fast food.

Friday, December 03, 2010

(Here’s a little lost thing, recovered from the snows of Facebook.

I posted a link to this fine summation of Bruno Schulz’s work. Then I thought I’d just praise Schulz, but it began turning into a defence of the fabular. Then, despite that moment’s misgiving in which you think ‘Should I copy this just in case?’ -- I posted. Only to find the word-limit of the comment box had dispensed with half of my posting: the quote from the wonderful William Boyd about his adaptation of Any Human Heart, and my niggling reaction.

So I’ve attempted to recreate this just-lost portion, making a strange, self-enfolding, self-aware structure of this posting, only possible because of the net – but in itself relevant to the point I was trying to make.)

How dearly I love Bruno Schulz. His stories -- along with along with Bulgakov, Pamuk, Murakami, Kadare, Pavic -- made me understand that Borges and Kafka weren't just isolated counter-eddies in the great tide of makie-uppie.

He never succumbs to the slippage William Boyd (someone whose work I admire) implies (and I did get this from the Radio Times!) when he says (and he was comparing the medium of the novel to that of film): '...the novel is effortlessly subjective. Getting inside someone's head, discovering his or her most intimate thoughts, is the easiest operation in the world.'

Despite my provisos, what troubles me here is that this is a version of realism's fable about fiction, that somehow it's (really) just like reality.

Whereas Schulz is always aware that the head you get inside is a construct, in which the author has created intimate thought-like things for a purpose which is both structural and swayed (I might even have said 'skewed') by desire. And that this is the hardest thing to do.

I then concluded that Schulz's fables, by contrast, are not only compelling, but are a more direct engagement with why we are compelled to make things up.

(In summation: convention shields us from desire, and realism and fable offer two ways of responding to that very human crisis: one positions the desired thing, here interiority, at a conceptual arm’s length, so that it can be examined more fully; the other makes a structure which is itself explicitly shaped by the effort to become fully aware of one’s desires.

Realism relies on the suspension of our disbelief, our investment in its fable, and risks losing or at least overlooking the author’s complex intensity. Fable relies on the manner in which that intensity reconfigures representation in the story -- makes birds of fathers, for instance -- and risks the person of the author himself or herself becoming lost in obscurity.)

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Three Lost Books

I’m not a generous giver-away of books. Something about the physical presence and psychological resource of a book as a piece of technology brings out the miser in me, the indiscriminate collector. My first copy of Auden or Keats fills me with greedy nostalgia as well as being the readiest resource – I know where the poems are in a way I don’t with other volumes.

But I’m just as avaricious with these feelings by proxy – the coverless copy of Phantom Lobster I may have ‘borrowed’ from David Craig’s office in Lancaster is almost as exciting for me because I can sense or imagine his relation with the book, and, almost as good as that, the lonely edition of James Liu’s Art of Chinese Poetry that Bernhard Widder picked up in that marvellous second-hand shop in Novy Sad, which I somehow persuaded him to make a gift of to me, fascinates not just because it is a fine book, but because I can conjecture about the journey which brought it to that shelf in Voivodina at that time.

So when a volume is renounced, ‘lost’ in the terms of this blog, I’ve come to realise it is almost always a gesture of some significance – a significance I was usually only partially aware of at the time. There are, as ever, three such instances I can recall in any detail.

The first is a How To: the teach yourself classical guitar book which, as far as my reconstituting memory can distinguish fact from desire, took you through the major issues of harmony and composition as well as the minor ones of technique and -- I don’t know -- how to actually play. I received this when sixteen from a dear friend, Debbie, while I was going out with the first love of my life, Diane. I had barely begun to read it (hence the marvellous gauze drawn over its actual contents) when Diane and I found ourselves in yet another of our interminable squabbling rows.

I’ve since learned that all such rows – which recur through the few major love affairs of my life – are invariably my fault. They tend to originate in some emotional issue I can barely articulate, which the other party only discovers in the process that they have very strong opinions about. In other words, I stir up stuff best left alone, then don’t know how to back down. In the early days I hadn’t even gathered that I should back down: I could suddenly see, through gabbling on, both issue and argument in a magnificent clear light and couldn’t bear to go back to the darkness. But the darkness is where happiness lives.

Most of our arguments, because we were teenagers, lived in the cold. We were forever pacing the streets of Broughty Ferry, standing out of the grim wind off the Tay if possible, or sitting on red wooden benches in the full blast if not, or sitting, as on this occasion, in the park on the Monifieth Road, tearing goosebumpy strips off each other.

Diane, having had enough of my exasperating refusal to ever cede any point however minute on whatever matter however trivial, decided that she might as well give up and stomped off home. I, perhaps because the subject had related in some way to our undying devotion to each other and how there could be no others ever, decided to stage a counter-stomp and, as a gesture visible to seagulls and angels alone, left the book.

Presumably I meant something along the lines of: another woman gave me this. But she is a friend: you are my love. Yes, it is a valuable book, but I only have (admittedly bookish) eyes for you. But she had, I should reiterate, already gone.

I doubt she ever had the slightest awareness of the symbolism I was committing to the gaze of eternity, but it had a couple of far-reaching repercussions. One was I gradually understood the deeply reprehensible solipsism of my emotional world; the other was I never really got anywhere with playing the guitar. Although other books were bought, and half-hearted self-teaching recurred on and off over the years, it was never going to be the love of my life.

The second book also involved Debbie at a slightly earlier point. Through one of those mysteries of the commodity which can no longer be reproduced in the world of universal internet access, I happened to be standing in a bookshop prior to departing on (perhaps) a package holiday. I was (maybe) thirteen. I noticed a set of Spike Milligan books which seemed marvellously cheap and intriguing. These, The Little Pot-Boiler, etc, slotted exactly onto the end of my humour spoon, extending it from the parodies of the Moc Gonagall, of which more elsewhere, to just out of reach of the slightly-used realm of Python.

In those days it was obligatory to have one member of your teenage circle who could recite reams of Monty Python sketches verbatim doing all the voices. It was also obligatory for this person to be unable to stop mid-sketch, and to have no neck. I tired of his pauseless, neckless litany, and warmed to the gibberish and scribbles of cut-price Milligan. I therefore bought the full-strength Complete Goon Show Scripts from a school book club, a large squareish yellow-backed book that blew my tiny mind.

Soon I and best pals Neil and Ian were prattling in silly voices into a tape recorder at Neil’s house (where I would later complete my first mural – a reproduction of the cover of Disraeli Gears), and I was planning a 16th birthday celebration with Debbie and our pal Alison, whose parents were having some work done in the extensive basement of their large but modern house also just off the Monifieth Road, in which I would swing a sock filled with custard against a currently-unused wall. This, as with many other things around the age of 16, was more fun in the anticipation than the execution – but still pretty exciting in a manner than doesn’t bear Freudian analysis.

Naturally, I wrote to Mr Milligan to inform him about this, naturally expecting a gleeful endorsement by return post. Two years later, while in my first year at university, while trying to explain my deepest convictions to my new bestest friend, James, for some reason I gave him my copy of the scripts.

Now, when I look back on this donation, I realise that there were a number of intervening moments of significance. At school my interest in absurd nonsense had developed in parallel with a growing involvement in drama. No-one now remembers my Lear of Albion Crescent, though there may still exist somewhere a grainy video of Ernie’s Incredible Illucinations.

But somewhere at the bottom of an unhappy cardboard box there will be the scripts (the first by me, the rest in collaboration) of a one-act farce, a pantomime, and the sketch show An Evening with the Drastic Party, written within the first year of Thatcher’s accession and performed one year later in Edinburgh’s world-famous Bedlam Theatre. It was not during the Festival. Perhaps ten people came all week.

By that point there was a select company of us, including another James, the novelist known as Meek. But sometime in the midst of this I gave away my copy of the Scripts. Why?

The best stab at this I can make is that it was round about the same time that I started going to the Oxford Poetry Workshop, and it was certainly true that by then, though several of my friends were actors (though not James), I had decided not to audition for anything. In other words, as with the guitar, I was renouncing some part of the complex composite that makes up the early psyche. Dear Fry, I was saying (James was, I suppose, a lot posher than my friends from the Ferry), I won’t be playing Laurie.

The third book is in some ways the most intriguing. As part of that unconscious choice to fix on poetry, I attended first the OPW, then added to that the Old Fire Station Workshop (started by Anne Stevenson, and then under Tom Rawling’s acerbic but benign tutelage), then, mid-eighties, we (the unit of writers thus built up) inherited the University Poetry Society and started running a weekly sheet of news and poems the details of which, as with many of my activities by that point, evade me.

Somehow, I seemed to be President of OUPS (a most appropriate-sounding acronym), and we began inviting the most interesting writers we could think of. These were often linguistically-innovative figures from the previous decade or so – Eric Mottram, Tom Raworth, Robert Creeley. And it must have been around this time that I gave my old copy of Norman MacCaig’s selected poems, New Maps and Old, to Keith Jebb, my old pal of the preceding five years.

Now this was not, apparently, a radical gesture, as I had a good number of MacCaig’s individual collections, and simply meant to buy up the rest in due course, so filling in the gaps, as it were. I was, again, informing someone about myself and my background by indirect means. I’d been very lucky to be taught MacCaig’s work at school at the same time as I was renouncing classical guitar and banging custard-filled socks off walls, and MacCaig had a big influence on my first poems – I moved from a metrically-clogged style to what I thought of as stripped-down work.

But round about the mid-eighties, the triple influences of MacDiarmid, W.S.Graham and Frank O’Hara were working in me, and Keith and I embarked on a long series of collaborations, poems in dialogue with each other and others – Nietszche, Ted Berrigan, and the mad Victorian artist Richard Dadd pop to mind – in which MacCaig-like clarity seemed to be the last ingredient in the mix.

Gradually I built up a style in English that incorporated Language Poetry, misheard song lyrics, druggy states and a generally dislocated messthetics that I called Unglish. My Poems in Unglish remains a lost vol: ungathered, incomplete and unpublishable.

But watching the carefully elusive, witty subtlety of the man himself in ‘None A Stranger,’ the programme that celebrated his eightieth back in 1990, I could see that handing that copy of MacCaig over to Keith was equivalent to putting a side of myself away, hopefully for safekeeping.