"The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact"
The Horseman's Word
by Roger Garfitt
Publicists are there to be enthusiastic about books that they are, let's be honest, trying to sell. That means presumably they have to turn it on even with books they aren't that crazy about (and hey, sometimes I have to do a show when quite frankly I'd rather curl up in a ball and hide, but them's the breaks) so how do you know when a publicist is genuinely in raptures about a book of theirs? It turns out to be quite easy to spot. Speech slows down a touch, the tone of voice becomes reverential, the eyes widen and if you happen to be face to face the book is handed over like a precious artefact. Such was the case with this memoir, which is just as well as I'd probably never have heard of it let alone read it if that hadn't been the case (strike one to the publicist!). Also, contrary to popular conception, my involvement in War Horse is far more likely to send me running from a book that involves horses or war than towards it, but the title and rather literal cover of this book are a slightly bum steer. Roger Garfitt is a poet, editor, writer, critic and musician and this memoir focuses on his childhood and young adulthood, the experiences that helped form those varied interests (although form is far too ordered a word to apply to the chaos within these pages).
Whilst there are horses, which we'll come to later, this is a book steeped in nostalgia for summers spent at his grandparent's house in Norfolk through the post-war years and the farm bought by his father at the beginning of the 1960's. The opening pages are intoxicating, the language rich, detailed and completely absorbing so that you are immediately there with the young boy in the slightly alien environment of his holiday retreat. Here for instance is the opening paragraph.
The long path round the back was a cinder path starred with cockleshells. Chalk stones, little flat moons of an unassailable whiteness, dust-dry and spotless as freshly blanco'd plimsolls, edged the path to the front door. The front garden was a beach garden of fine orange gravel. This was land that had once belonged to the sea, a danger removed just far enough to become a source of pride and ornament. The garden made a small, human ceremony of what happened unceremoniously with every flood tide at Titchwell, when skate's eggs and razor shells washed into the mouths of rabbit burrows.I hope you don't mind the odd extract from a book because it's going to be hard to resist the temptation to quote great chunks of this one, so delicious is the prose. In his descriptions of that house in Norfolk and the bygone world of a rural community after the Second World War there is barely a paragraph that doesn't contain an arresting image, a perfect simile, something to chime with even your own childhood however far removed it might be from the one being described. He might find that just about anywhere, in the construction of a barn's roof or even in something as mundane as a water butt.
...its soaked wood black and speckled with green mould. Rainwater was always used for the wash because it was softer and saved on soap powder, an economy of which I knew nothing. To me the water butt was a presence. The shadow's core, it grew colder as you approached. A wet battery, a condenser, you could almost hear it hum. To lift the tin bowl off the plank, splaying your fingers around its thick wooden handle, and dip into the water was like dipping into a second universe, held in reserve. Specks hung there in slowly revolving constellations. Insects tracked like comets across the surface. We brought the bowl up a third full, just enough water to to mix a similar bowl of chicken meal. But it seemed more than water: it was universal concentrate, a galactic tonic we were feeding the hens on.
Garfitt's great skill in this memoir is to suit his writing to the experience. I'll come back to significance of that later but in the early sections this means that he remembers 'through a child's eyes.' He remembers a very specific era shaped by the war that ended in the first year of his life. One where 'It was not just that clothes were rationed. People rationed themselves. They knew their place. They did not get above themselves. If someone tried to cut a dash, the verdict was swift and unanimous: 'Who does she think she is?' Nostalgia doesn't mean that the world has to be seen through a golden haze, this isn't an evocation of the charm of the village for as Garfitt learns through his family history 'the charm rather depended where you stood in the social scale.' His own grandfather was the village cobbler, 'Painstaking at his craft, he took pains to the point where they impoverished him, putting more time into a boot's reparation than he could possibly charge for.' That kind of description tells you everything you need to know about the man and even the time he lived in. This is an era on the cusp of great social change of course, something felt even in this seemingly isolated rural idyll with the advent of day-trippers. We might imagine that the drunken antics of holidaying Britons are a modern phenomenon brought about by cheap package deals, alcohol and loosening morals but even in the Norfolk of the 1950's 'Cafes had signs saying No Day Trippers. On Sunday evenings the porters worked in teams of six, lifting the drunks off the platform and throwing them back on the train through the open windows.'
As I said, I could happily regurgitate sentence after sentence from this first section but let us move on to the farm his father bought near Esher in Surrey. Not even that far from London and sandwiched between a major road and a housing estate this is not a rural farm as such but a place where Garfitt's father, a barrister, could work once again with the horses that had played a part in his own childhood. Here Garfitt starts once again from basics and learns to ride under the tutelage of the hereditary riding master to the Kings of Portugal, a fiery aristocrat who puts him first on the lunge line and then on to mastering jumps with no saddle, reins or stirrups, hands on head and using just balance and the movement of the horse. Here we see a real development of the book's major theme: control. Through the discipline of riding and the breaking of horses (which begins not with 'strapping a saddle on their backs. It began with a look of recognition, with them coming over to feed from your hand and allowing you to brush the mud from their coats.') we learn a lot about the maturation of a young man, his education both academically and socially and his awareness of his own shortcomings ('I had to move into my own body, to become fingertips, hands and shoulders, rather than this headlong reader of the world').
Control is something he learns about when it comes to writing his own poetry, especially when he compares his own process of writing, by which the poems tend to arrive fully-formed after much thought, to that of his university contemporaries who seem to work and re-work their poems, filling page after page until they are able to distill it down to those few lines that are the finished product. Control is in evidence too in his other great passion: jazz music. Far from being free-form and loose it is during a live performance that he sees the control 'in the stance, in the working of the shoulders as much as the pressure of the fingertips.' Jazz and poetry do have an association I suppose but there is something lovely about the way Garfitt can just as easily quote the lines of a poem like 'sketch maps of where I was' as rhapsodise his appreciation of several classic jazz records.
It is at university that he strikes up his friendship with Redmond O'Hanlon (Red) with whom he shares his forays into that third part, after poetry and jazz, of the 1960's university unholy trinity: cannabis smoking. His initiation is almost comically over-prepared.
I might almost have been in Morocco, so completely had Red transformed his college room, the curtains drawn, one lamp lit and a thickness of rugs and cushions undulation over the floor. There was not a hard surface anywhere, only this cushioning, several layers deep, and it struck me that this was both incredibly thoughtful and oddly like a seduction scene.
It isn't long of course before we start to see a loss of control but it takes a while for us to notice just how far this goes because of that skill I mentioned earlier of suiting the writing to the experience. His slightly eccentric dress-sense, his extravagant behaviour with girlfriends and a general tendency to take things quite far and at an odd tangent all seem relatively reasonable, for so they seemed to him, and it is a while before you realise that he is struggling to retain a grip on reality. Most of this is centred on women, coming from that same well-spring as poetry and passion; who hasn't gone over the top occasionally in the name of love? Garfitt finds himself travelling around Europe after one girl, encountering all sorts of diverse characters along the way and working himself into such a state, a state that I can only liken to creating a character (as he himself acknowledges at one point 'I have to stay in character, even if I'm no longer sure who that character is.') that he will eventually find himself committed to a mental hospital where the doctor's diagnosis on admission is remarkably insightful - 'I think he's a poet who's in love.'
Garfitt's early life is certainly not short of incident. I haven't even mentioned his self-inflicted dabbling with hellfire religion. That doesn't mean that it is irreverent in its telling, far from it, this is a slow read filled with detail and an avoidance of the sensational. I slightly lost my way in the middle somewhere, right about the time he did, this probably absolutely the desired effect, but it did mean that I struggled at times. When I began to emerge the other side however, as he suffers the ignominy of his name being struck from the university rolls after a charge of drug-dealing, I began to appreciate the achievement of this memoir. In John Self's recent interview of Greg Baxter he claimed that he considered the straight memoir 'to be below the grocery list, so far as literature is concerned.' He also admitted not having read any, and to not knowing anything about contemporary memoirs, which he presumed were 'like interviews on daytime television,' so I don't know how seriously we're supposed to take the provocative statement (this experience itself wearily familiar from reading Baxter's A Preparation For Death). He may be right but I suspect that if he read Garfitt's book he would have to accept that a fine memoir isn't just a 'diaristic and largely fabricated narrative', it can be brutally honest even as it invents, and in this book's slow dissociation from absolute reality describe most truthfully why Shakespeare so rightly combined lunatic, lover and poet.