Feud for Thought

With the passing of the Augustan figure and intellectual bruiser Gore Vidal, I’ve had cause to think about literary rivalry.

It’s well known to each and every keyboard hitter about the hostility between Vidal and Norman Mailer(youtube.com/watch?v=C8m9vDRe8fw).  The Titans of Swing really had it in for each other in both the intellectual and literary ring. In some sense, their acerbic brawls overshadowed their literary outpouring — well almost. For me, they both seem marked, I think, by the immortality of posture that Milan Kundera wrote about.

As a young writer even I had my own bouts with writers. And it began with Hemingway. I never got what all the fuss over him was about. Yes, I got his use of economical language (but is writing solely about balancing the books?) and his great macho persona where each of his heavy testicles were raised high on the bookshelf of every poor male writer who seemed to have catkins between his legs in comparison. I never could bring myself to drink at Papa’s Hem’s animalistic trough of masculine greatness. I wanted to follow in the footsteps of a writer like Mervyn Peake, strolling around the Island of Sark in his cape and poet’s hat like he’d just stepped out from a Harry Clarke painting and was infused with the light of a pansexual being.

Oh, the spats I had with dead writers! You should have seen me, hidden away in my room, stomping the floorboards, shaking whatever writer’s book was du jour that day in my hand and railing against his or her departed spirit who I imagined took a break from the great library in the sky and popped down to have an argy-bargy with me. And I always lost the argument, callow writer that I was. Or maybe I made myself lose, cause who really could best the likes of Camus, Henry Miller, DH Lawrence, Tolkien, Peake, Ursula Le Guin, Simone de Beauvoir, Anais Nin, Satre, Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Lloyd Alexander, Knut Hamsun, Hesse, Dylan Thomas, Angela Carter, Jeanette Winterson, Tove Jansson, Kundera, Joyce, Blake, Byron, Shelley, Arthur Machen, Tennessee Williams, Ted Hughes, Black Adder, Del Boy, Basil Fawlty, Judge Dredd, Fungus the Bogeyman, Morrissey, Ian McCulloch, Mick Jones, Paul Weller… and the list runs ever on, and on, and on.

Writers are always going on about the importance of reading, and, yes, it is important if you want to write. But I would add it’s also important to get into intellectual scraps with the writers you love, even if you never ever meet them. And it’s especially important to rattle the bones of dead ones — if for no other reason than it keeps their work alive.

In fact, I have a secret rivalry of my very own, too. A bit of an Edwardian, gentleman’s feud with a writer that’s all imaginary cricket bats and cravats and smoking rooms and letter openers and spats and tops hats and stuffy libraries and port. But neither of us have ever admitted to the other that there’s anything between us but a book — if even that. It’s more a rivalry that’s all in my head with us two pygmies of the intellectual void wrestling and wrangling in muck like pagan fools both destined for a ritual killing. Writing about it now, the whole thing sounds petty, stupid, and enormously entertaining. Every writer needs distraction and the impulse to create. And god knows what we’d even spat about if we ever squared off with our six-shooter mouths and our saddlebags of favourite writers strapped to our hips. It would probably be over what flavour ice cream we prefer and insults that would probably go something like this:

Me: “Your book’s crap.

Him: “You haven’t even finished yours.”

Me: “I hate your hair. It’s like liver and onions.”

Him: “Shorn boy and sheep shagger!” (*)

Me: “And what’s with those testosterone tanks strapped between your legs? Do they give you a squirt?”

Him: “It’s better than your bottle of dandelion wine.”

Me: “Yeah, well, for all your hot oven of masculinity, why is it you turn out cupcakes.”

Him: “Pigeon breath.”

Me: “Hog anus.”

Him: “You write like a lobotomized squid.”

Me: “Is that the amount of your intellectual fireworks, a pathetic squid? You know what, I don’t even know why I have a rivalry with you. You’re a lousy writer who can only string together sentences that have been around the block so many times they’ve actually built a necropolis. Plus as a person, you register on the humanity scale as a single-celled organism. Go try another phylum or else pack up your DNA and take a holiday by the genetic deficiency gene pool. And one last thing: I just realized you’re not even worth the effort.”

Shit, I maybe on to something here.

*Author’s Note: For the record, I have never shagged a sheep. But I have eaten Sunday mutton.


Back to the Unknowable

The old man of sci-fi has died! A candle has gone out in the house of literature. And, yes, there are more candles getting lit daily, but there are candles, and then there are candles.

Yes, death is a lonely business, Mr. Bradbury, but I know you shall RIP.

With Bradbury’s passing, I feel a disturbance in the force; I feel like the young man I was who read his work has also departed, his particles scattered to dark matter that I can make no sense of. All I am left with is impressions. Not of my life, but my life as a story within Bradbury’s books or his fiction as a narrative within my known reality. I really can’t tell which is which.

He’s out there now, the way I like to see it, adding his indelible atoms to the cosmos, relaxing in the constellation Libra and sipping his dandelion wine in peace. It’s odd, but there’s a part of me that believes that when writers die, the material world is momentarily unbalanced and it will take a while for the creative equilibrium in life to come back. A single death, but especially one of such creative force, needs numerous lives to fill the gap. I wonder if the birth of creativity also needs an equal number of deaths to allow it the life it needs?

It’s a silly notion I have, but sometimes I think about the idea of meeting writers I love, maybe a few of them even reading a novel I will eventually publish. And although there are a slew of fantastic contemporary writers I’d love to chinwag with, I find that when I think about it, all the writers I would really love to confab with are the dead ones: Dylan Thomas, Angela Carter, Mervyn Peake, Rabelais, Oscar Wilde, Charles Dickens, Hermann Hesse, Henry Miller, Tove Jansson, Ted Hughes, Fritz Leiber, Bruno Schultz, Keith Roberts, Arthur Rimbaud, Rilke, Arthur Machen, Caradog Prichard, John Kennedy Toole, and more.

I’m not even sure why I entertain such thoughts. It’s not like it’s going to happen. But I can’t let go of the possibility that it might even though I know it to be a fucked-up desire. There is something in the total absurdity of this thought that keeps me sane and keeps me writing.

“If you just present the events to the reader, then the complexity of human motive will spin off that. If you try too hard to determine the way the reader sees character and motivation, you will actually restrict the reader’s interpretive opportunities. By limiting the amount of guidance you give, you automatically get the depth and complexity of interpretation you want. Because that’s what we readers do in real life — we interpret people’s actions and thus assign them ‘motive’ and ‘character.’” M John Harrison

The Queen and I

The Queen and I wouldn’t get along. To begin with, I’m Welsh. And I don’t like corgis. And I like my tea in a mug. But if she did invite me over to the palace for High Tea, I’d go. Although I’m sure the conversation would go something like this:

Queen: Would you care for sugar?

Me: Yes, especially in my bowl.

Duke of Edinburgh: I believe that’s a Nina Simone song.

Queen: Shut up Philip.

Queen: Your lovely wife says you write.

Me: Yes.

Queen: Have I read anything by you?

Me: Don’t think so.

Duke of Edinburgh: Is it tawdry? Is is raunchy?

Queen: Philip, do shut up, there’s a good boy.

Queen: Please don’t slurp from the saucer.

Me: Sorry.

Corgi (peeing on my polished brothel creepers): Stupid git!

Queen: I hope that was one of my dogs and not Philip. I do apologize.

Me: Oh, it’s ok, I can’t afford another pair, but the tea was nice.

Duke of Edinburgh: Here’s a tenner. Get yourself some lovely new brogues.

Me: Thanks.

Queen: Thank you for visiting.

Me: Sure.

Queen: We shall never do this again. Unless you get knighted, which is about as possible as Philip getting a royal stiffy. Goodbye.

So, another Jubilee descends on Britain like a plague of locust on a desperate crop of people. Why must my fellow countrymen and women drag out the Old Lady and jolt her back to life? It’s amazing what a bit of bringing the dead to life can do for a nation. A cadaver has never had it so lucky. Though I’ve seen more attractive ones.

And the tourists, a handful of Brits, and the One Million Moms (who are probably five guys and a stray ostrich) will grin themselves to death. And flags will wave like the dead applause of a Greek Chorus with debt issues. And the ostentatious ritual will fill the chasm of life not with gold and diamonds, but chalk and cheese.

And why are Americans so enamored with the fusty and antediluvian Corgi? How easily they forget their Pilgrim forebears, their revolution for a Republic free of the madness of king and country. Makes you wonder if the wrong ones got on the boat.

Oh, the spectacle. For a nations’ eyes only, we get bunting and bulldog and beef, while all the time we’re having our jewels swapped for fake precious memories and a handful of memorabilia that gathers dust on mantlepieces. If this is patriotism, I’d rather die for a real emotion, a real feeling, than live as the bastard native son gone native in America.

Why do the rich, the powerful, never have any taste but fluted champagne glasses full of ostentatious crap?

What makes me shocked and ashamed if I was ever to discover that I’m actually the eighteenth pale descendent of some old queen or other, is that this blatant celebration is all in honour of an emasculated monarchy. The pomp and glamour is just an empty thing, a sham, since there’s no substance, because the Queen has no real power in any sense, besides granting holidays and drawing hordes of tourists. She wields nothing but sentimentality and nostalgia through the eons-old plumbing of tradition that’s in a desperate need of a flush.

The Queen is just some fake porcelain doll given a throne of power simply because way back in the mists of time when men were brutal and women made babies, her brutish relative clobbered some other wannabe on the head, stole his wife, dog, steak and kidney pie, and jewels, and set up a castle and moat and proclaimed himself lord, which fell on deaf ears. And so he went out and killed and stole even more. Oh, and threw a few lavish parades of pomp and pageantry, which really gets the attention of the peasants, especially since they will never ever get a sniff at this kind of life.

I wonder why I don’t see the need to celebrate that kind of history, which the Queen represents, even though Dear Old Liz II is a truckload of genetic material away from that, but she still got dumped with it.

I’d rather have a nation that celebrates and has pomp and spectacle and glamour for literary rogues and swashbuckling anti-heroes. God, imagine a Jubilee to celebrate Oscar Wilde or Dylan Thomas or Angela Carter or Mervyn Peake? Now that would be a celebration of  flamboyance and excess and spectacle and splendor.

Wait, I celebrate this every day when I sit down to write.

Last of the Gang to Realize

In my twenties, I got this crazy notion. I suppose all of us get those at some time. Mine was that I wanted to be a writer. But I had no idea where to begin — besides reading.

So I read. Anything, anywhere, everywhere, and then some more. I think a lot of people I knew thought I was either crazy or delusional or else depressed.

I was ecstatic — an electric light with no off switch and alone with myself.

At some point I tried writing my own stuff, imitations of the masters and, as is expected, it was lousy crap that now I wince at but at the time I thought was something — the way you think death is something that always happens to others.

Then something odd happened. I stopped writing. But I didn’t stop reading. This wasn’t the odd thing. It was that I started to believe that emulating the crazy lives of the writers I loved (like Henry Miller, Dylan Thomas, DH Lawrence, Oscar Wilde, Ted Hughes, Jack Kerouac, Knut Hamsun, James Joyce, Tolstoy, Dickens, Steinbeck, Joseph Conrad, Blake, Shelley, Byron, Rimbaud, Thomas Hardy, Herman Hesse, Baudelaire, etc, etc) would make me a writer. That adventure was more important than writing. All I needed to do was jot things down in a fancy notebook and recite poetry or shock people with irreverent and diabolical ideas and thoughts all stolen from the writers I loved. It was my homage to them, proof that I was their blood brother in waiting and in writing.

The problem was, I was too timid to be like my heroes. Their lives were such a huge undertaking and too big of a call to life for me. I just didn’t have that kind of spirit in me, at least not physically, although I now realize it was beginning to emerge creatively, even spiritually.

But the biggest problem of all was that I didn’t write!

I just created a fictional me who had aimlessly stepped out from a novel. And still nobody recognized me. Did nobody read Miller or Thomas or Wilde or Hamsun, I kept shouting to the stars? How could they not recognize the writer in me? Blind fools!

It was a sort of mystical time period when I look back at it. I wasn’t writing a damn thing, just jotting ideas and quotes down and living an itinerant sort of life, not keeping a job for long, and reading lots, and trying to create this real, tangible persona of a writer without doing a bit of writing.

I blame the writers I admired. They always seemed to be off having adventures in Paris or London or Laugharne, leading wild lives, and then having a brief moment of frenzied writing that was immediately published to great acclaim and fanfare. They all made it look so damn easy! And I wanted that.

Which is a shame really, since twenty years later, I’m still struggling to free myself from that myth. Although now I look at it with a good dose of humour. Now I know the writing life isn’t anything like that. I only wish someone had told me instead of ridiculing or ignoring or worse telling me to give it up and that only a certain breed of gifted individuals become writers. Or I wish I could have woken up and smelled the book spines. Or do I?

My apprentice years have been longer, I think, because I had to work myself out of two writers: the real and the imagined. Although now I look back fondly on that imagined one. I think without that callow youth who thought he knew what it took to be a writer was simply having joie de vivre and elan and moxie and passion and irreverence and balls and attitude and despair and misery and poverty and magnetism and personality and a reckless heart and a joyful soul, I don’t think I would have found the real writer in me.

And in truth, I was already training my mind to be more imaginative. By seeing myself like a character out of a book,  I was helping the writer along by always reaching for something witty to say or practising some idea out on a stranger to see how they reacted. It was all training, the way I look at it.

In a way, I’m thankful for that young man. Grateful that he made a fool of himself then so I don’t have to make a bigger fool of myself now.

And as the writer Jeanette Winterson has said, what is the “I” but a fiction, or Rimbaud with his “I is someone else.” We tell stories every day to others and ourselves.

The only difference now is that I’m much more serious about jotting those stories down. I’m becoming that writer I always wanted to be. Which is what I set out to do in my twenties, it’s just taken me a bit longer to arrive.

But arrive I will, one way or another.

Remembering That First Love

In the beginning was a book. This is a tale every writer knows. It seems almost foolish to utter it.

But I’m a fool.

After my wife and I got married, we decided it was time for a tectonic shift. We had both embraced a scary and invigorating and wonderful new life together. But it somehow didn’t seem real enough to us until we had decided on a madcap adventure; our own little spot of time where we could be more in the world but not eaten by it.

So we sold our belongings and moved from Maine to Ireland.

This is the brief backstory. Now to the heart of the matter.

We lived in a small leaky thatched cottage in Corrandulla, just outside of Galway. At dusk we listened to a blackbird sing in the tourlough. Sometimes we would sit and watch the sheep graze. Or the wild horses race. There was little to do in the country. And we were unemployed, living very thriftily off money we’d saved from a summer of racking blueberries. Sometimes we listened to the radio, especially a show by Donal Dineen, “Into the Night.”

We left buckets out when it rained. And it rained — this is Ireland after all.

One night, my wife finished the book she was reading and set it aside. I didn’t know the author. She was a contemporary English writer. Up until this point, I had been reading Henry Miller, DH Lawrence, Tolstoy, Hesse, Dylan Thomas, Tolkien, Hardy, Knut Hamsun.

I loved the cover. It drew me to peer closer.

But I had a nightly chore to take care of first. I was in charge of starting the fire. So I piled on the peat and ignited the paper and sticks we had gathered earlier from the tourlough like medieval peasants. And then I made a cup of tea. Made sure the buckets were not overflowing with rainwater.

I ensconced in my favourite seat. Stoked the fire. Picked up the book: The Passion by Jeanette Winterson.

I didn’t put it down until I was done. Along the way I spat orange seeds into the fire.

When I was done, I sat and watched the fire’s dying embers. I listened to rain, wind, a car speeding down the dark country lane.

I made a decision that night, as I spat the orange seeds into the fire, that I wanted to be a writer just like Winterson.

Kith & Kin

Today I answered a burning literary question: Who, if I could, would I choose to be my literary parents. You know, the ones who would really fuck you up like Larkin intended.

And the answer is: Dylan Thomas and Angela Carter. Yes, I’d be more than happy to be the scion of these two progenitors of fantastical language.

But will they have me? Maybe they have enough offspring?

If I wasn’t such a pagan, I might be be persuaded to turn these two into my gods, with me sitting on their knees as the chosen son, but no the dutiful one.

And who would I pick as siblings? Or would I be the lone child crying in the dark for Carter’s dark nipple and Dylan’s sozzled finger to suck.

And what I’d give to fall asleep listening to old Captain Cat’s sweet and confusing lyrical voice. Or Fevvers with her Thames-soaked argot, a common angel with a gigantic heart.

Imagine supper time with them! Dylan admonishing: “Do not go gentle with that liver and onions, boyo.” Angela more sinister with: “Eat it up, or I’ll eat you up!”

And what fabulous morning we’d have, lying in late, Dylan snoring after another night of women, writing, and Wales. Angela snuggled up in her wolf pelt, scribbling with a claw soaked  in blood.

And summer outings! The stuff of legends and myths. Dylan buried in the Llareggub sands, spitting out bits of fern hill, singing lewd songs to Myfanwy Price, and riding a donkey with the host of the French Symbolists riding behind him as he charged the waves like a Celtic bard. Angela would be lounging under her huge gothic umbrella, chewing on a unicorn leg,  sipping her bloody Virgin Mary,  her bucket and spade deep in the ribcage of an old Lothario with a hunger for virgin flesh, and gently pulling the nails from Christ and placing them at the feet of the new Eve, her red cape like a pool of blood around her.

The Fissiparous Celt

So I’m reading Jan Morris’ Matter of Wales. Morris is a great writer. She captures the landscape of Wales so well, with all the stunted sessile oaks; the rivers with their ancient names; the skimble-skamble sheep sheltering in wet, dark caves; cobs and ponies and the dark pit frames lowering cage-loads of miners into the unforgiving earth; the hard, grey, bare and stony hills where stones wreak havoc; the smell of turf, bracken, water, and wind; the picaresque Owain Glyndwr and his wild and romantic resentment of the English who wanted to take away his land while he was a simple farmer and that made him a national hero; and those skeptical Saxon eyes half amused, half annoyed.

I’m tempted to write my own book about Wales. Go back and travel its 130 miles from tip to tip on a Welsh cob, following in the footsteps of Glyndwr, Dylan Thomas, and Myrddin. Create some kind of historical suggestion and modern disillusionment and contemporary fable. Reenact history with fiction and myth with living stories and legend with a contemporary voice. I can see myself doing this as an older man. My last journey, perhaps, before I settle down, or my last book before the great ending.

Truth is, I’m slowly trying to build up my connection to Wales again. It was severed when I left and the only way I know how to connect it again is through imagination and stories. That’s the bridge for me.

It’s because I feel like an outsider that I force myself to re-imagine my home, make it speak to me in new ways while listening to the old forked tongue of nostalgia.

But the connection is there, at least. Just needs weeding. The longing that I feel for Wales is transformed into a story I want to tell about it. Reinvent the past, I guess. But it does help me that I have this strong relationship to the landscape of Wales, to its trees and rivers and rain and bracken and ponies and mines and literature and song, that land of milk and salmon (some of the best salmon fishing is known to be had in Wales).

And it all infused me as a boy just wandering the small green copse behind my house. I didn’t need to go far. The epic quality of Wales with all its legends and myths was right out my back door and a heartbeat away. I stayed there as long as I could until my mum would call me in and even then I’d prolong it and eventually succumb to her call and wander in under the threading silence of bats and the coming of night up out of the ground as if Lord of Annwn had arisen.

America is just too big. One of the things Morris talks about in the book is the immediacy of connection that Wales offers because it is so small a country, nothing is too big or too far, all its history, myth, and folklore, and literature are contained in this small landscape and yet they can produce this epic Wales, too, this country of a dragon with forked tongue and raised claw. And the Welsh flag is considered the oldest flag there is since it can claim to be related to the Roman’s purple griffon.

Wales really is an old country, that’s why I feel like I have to work to keep my connection to it — there’s so much to fathom and be aware of. Living here in a relatively young country, I don’t feel the need to work so hard because its history dogs you still, it’s too close almost that it needs to rest, stay silent until it builds up more secrets.

I love to hear about people who harbor a connection to a country that is not the one they were born to.  I don’t think anyone needs to have a patriotism for the place of their birth, shackles like that cripple you and I believe all people long for the might-have-been.

We should be free to love what we will, whether it’s a place or a person or a leek.

I’m just lucky that the land where I was born is the land I have a deep feeling for. It does it for me, but I do need to keep the flame alight, though, so it’s not just a simple nostalgia or easy patriotism, I guess I’d call it a creative force, which is more to my liking and character.

And I do feel a connection to Maine because it’s the closest place I’ve found that reminds me of Wales and Ireland. It’s old, too, the land that is, looks it with its stones and gnarled trees and wildflowers and mist and bogs. And it’s been a refuge in many ways for me.