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.