Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Do Writers Have to Be Shits?

Ever since Lady Caroline Lamb declared that Lord Byron was "mad, bad and dangerous to know", poets have had a lot to live down to.

Either by temperament or vocation they must booze, brawl and fornicate to excess, occasionally spouting verses by heart. They must fall in and out of love, break up homes, not care a damn about money or possessions, be vain, touchy and proud. What they must not do is be ordinary or grandly heroic.

Unacknowledged legislators of the world? I've never cared for Shelley's assertion. I would not care to be a citizen of a country ruled by any of the poets I have met or known. And the best ones I have read had no interest in running anything other than guns, a betting book or a gauntlet of disapproving bourgeois types.

The passionate fondness I had for Arthur Rimbaud and Charles Bukowski had nothing to do with bad or inconsiderate behaviour that I wished to emulate - at least not beyond the age of 30. I have never been a drug addict or a violent drunk. There is a passage from Yeats's poem The Circus Animals' Desertion I once had the facility to quote that sums up my literary passion:-

Players and painted stage took all my love/ And not those things that they were emblems of...

I once asked Alan Bennett if all writers, especially famous ones, were shits. Actually, the epithet I probably used was "bastards" as I was interviewing him for a family newspaper in which bastards were occasionally permitted, but shits never. In fact I've just found the article and this is what was reported:-

"Why do so many writers turn out to be four letter words as human beings?"
"It's not true of Chekhov, who was good in his life. Not true to Kafka either. But to put words on paper is a presumptuous thing to do; you are shouldering people aside to do it. To be a writer at all seems to be a defect because it's an immodest act. I suppose if writers were more or less at one with their work it would be less interesting."

In the afterword of James Andrew Taylor's warts and all biography of the late poet, novelist and broadcaster Vernon Scannell, Walking Wounded: The Life & Poetry of Vernon Scannell, there is another quote from Bennett which stems from Philip Larkin's line, They fuck you up, your mum and dad. Bennett says:-

"If your parents do fuck you up and you're going to write, that's fine because then you've got something to write about. But if they don't fuck you up, then you've got nothing to write about, so then they've fucked you up good and proper."

Taylor says Scannell's parents and the "exquisite miseries of his time in the army" gave Scannell an "inexhaustible wellspring of emotional experience on which his poetry could draw." I'll say. Between 1948, when he was 26, and his death in 2007, he had 51 books of poetry and prose to his adopted name (his real one was John Bain) and countless broadcasts and readings.

From the early 1960s through to the mid-1970s he was a literary star whose appearances at poetry and jazz evenings all over the country sold out venues, including London's Queen Elizabeth Hall. The BBC and various magazines always seemed to be offering him opportunities to broadcast or publish for payment. Lucky four letter word.

Yet there was a side to Scannell's character that I did not know about until this week when I read through Taylor's eye-opening book. In 1992, in a review I wrote of his fourth and final volume of memoirs Drums of Morning I said:-

Behind the mask I sense a man of little or no faith; one who is grateful and sometimes ashamed to have endured.

In one of his last poems Scannell wrote We are betrayed by what is false within, a perceptive line that sums up his own Jekyll and Hyde conflict out of which he made poetry.

I met him at the 1984 Ilkley Literature Festival and over the next six years or so had a periodic acquaintance that included a couple of visits to his small terraced house of Millstone grit in North Street, Otley. He was willing to talk literature with anyone who had a feeling for it and to me at least, for a while, was disposed to be a kindly encourager, though I did not push it. I took an interest in several of his books and reviewed them.

One of them was Argument of Kings, his third volume of memoirs in 1987. In it, apparently for the first time, he admitted to deserting from his regiment in North Africa during the war and being imprisoned in Alexandria, and then doing it again after the Normandy D-Day landings.

He made this public seven or eight years after Mrs Thatcher's Government awarded him a Civil List pension of £700 a year for services to English Literature. Oh what a lucky man he was, you might think.

And yet Vernon Scannell, the man with the refined middle-class, quietly spoken, voice, was a lifelong alcoholic subject to mood swings that turned him from a genial companion into a fist-swinging maniac. In pubs he fought men, at home he punched out women, just as his father had occasionally punched out his young son.  Although he repined his behaviour in his diaries and sometimes in his poems, he didn't make a sustained effort to change it.

I wasn't aware of this when I talked to him because he didn't let on. Neither did I know until I read Taylor's book that he was a bigamist, a jailbird and a serial deserter from situations he didn't like or found onerous. He walked away from his family just like he walked away from the Army, although in the end his various lovers appear to have forgiven him - because he was a poet, a man of letters.

Had he been a humble brickie or a milkman it might have been different. Andrew Taylor's researches allowed him to chroncile the discrepancies between Scannell's version of events in his fiction and autobiography and recorded fact. From a fairly early age Scannell had persuaded himself that imagination was every bit as valid as authentic experience or the memory of it.

"The poet's only allegiance is to the truth, not to a formal dogma, but the truth as he sees and feels it. To speak the truth is style," he wrote.

Speaking the truth in his poetry but living a lie in his life became a sub-text in his stories. He reacted to the insecurity of his self-doubts and shame by getting pissed and lashing out, and later blacking out all memory of it. I don't know if he struggled to reconcile his principled attitude to poetry and the unprincipled opportunism of his life; it gave him something to write about, if nothing else.

Vernon Scannell was the sum of his own contradictions. He hated sentimentality in literature, yet his diaries are full of it; he is forever lamenting his minor literary status or seeking to assure himself of love for his latest flame, even into his sixties. In the way he talked about literature he did his best to embody generosity and largeness of spirt - which is why so many women seem to have fallen for him - yet he could be jealous and petulant about his peers if he felt over-shadowed by their fame or good fortune.

In spite of all the negatives, though, Scannell's life could be seen as the triumph of hope over experience. He had a goal - to be a poet - and, as Alan Bennett put it, shouldered people aside to achieve it. In his own terms he made something of his life. Towards the end, in 2007, propped up in bed at home in North Street, sustained by Schubert and chilled Guinness, he defied cancer to write by hand his last poems.

I once wrote of shouldering people aside because I thought that was probably necessary; but, as the song goes, I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now. I don't think it's a necessary part of the job description to be a four letter word to write something worthwhile. Especially not in this age.

Friday, 11 October 2013

I Just Don't Have the Energy...Again

Hoping for the Government to do something about the price hikes in the cost of energy is like a man in jail hoping that those who banged him up will do something to get him out.

Bad as those hikes are, worse is yet to come...and is set to keep on coming for many years, as good old Britain borrows more billions to comply with the European Union's carbon capture directives.

Ed Miliband signed up to these in 2008 when, as Gordon Brown's Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, he put through Parliament the Climate Change Act. According to Christopher Booker and Richard North, who know their EU from their elbow, this piece of folly commits this country to forking out £18 billion a year for 37 years until 2050 on measures to reduce carbon emissions in the belief that this will prevent polar bears from wandering down the high street in Great Yarmouth.

Gentle skimmer, 37 times £18 billion comes to, er, £666 billion, a devilishly large number of billions for a country more than a trillion quid in debt.

Why hasn't David Cameron challenged the Labour leader to own up to his role in this nightmare in the House of Commons? For there is a direct correlation between the cost of climate change policies and the escalating costs of gas and electricity. The eight major energy suppliers are simply passing on their costs to the consumer to boost profitability.

More to the point, why hasn't any politician made this point? The reason isn't hard to fathom. All the major political parties signed up to the Climate Change Act. Until a few years ago they were vying with one another to be greener than green lest the righteous brothers and sisters of the eco movement, biting their nails over the future of the planet - Prince Charles famously declared humanity had but seven years to do it - won the support of voters.

Happily all that has gone grey about the gills in spite of the best endeavours of the Intergovernmental Panel Climate Change and its network of fervant believers in academia and the media. Climate change has been a fact of nature since the world began, millennia before the ancestors of Ed Miliband, David Cameron and Nick Clegg built bonfires to roast a leg of raptor for supper.

In happier times, before the Conservatives thought up the wheeze of flogging off public assets, you could bob along to a properly designated shop and pay your gas or electricity bill. More, you could talk to somebody face to face if you had a problem. Energy prices, like the rates, used to fluctuate. Not any more.

Until such time as Britain has the sense to begin divorce proceedings against the EU and find a way out of the sinking ship, the price of power is going to keep on rising annually. We are being covertly coerced into using less electricity by people whose index-linked incomes paid from the public purse mean they will never have to choose between heating and eating.

Meanwhile, forget about switching power suppliers, they're all part of a cabal playing follow-my-leader. Instead, think of ways of generating your own power. Nikola Tesla, the man who popularised Alternating Current against Edison's more expensive and limited Direct Current, maintained that electricity could be provided free of charge by tapping into the energy generated by nature. Evidently, his idea was not well received.

Hence that devilish sum of £666 billion.

A less charitable spark might conclude that the current media fright about the darkness that awaits when the power runs out is just another media scare - like salmonella, mad cow disease, manmade global warming. If it has an ulterior purpose can it be to make us pay the inflated price hikes coming with a feeling of almost gratitude for having power at all?

I wouldn't be surprised if we were being worked on in this way. It's like boxing: make your opponent worry about your jab, then hit him with an unxpected uppercut.

In the words of T S Eliot...

O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark,
The vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant,
The captains, merchant bankers, eminent men of letters.
The generous patrons of art, the statesmen and the rulers,
Distinguished civil servants, chairmen of many committees,
Industrial lords and petty contractors, all go into the dark,
And dark the Sun and Moon, and the Almanach de Gotha
And the Stock Exchange Gazette, the Directory of Directors,
And we all go with them, into the silent funeral,
Nobody's funeral, for there is no one to bury...

So begins East Coker (hah!), the third section of Eliot's Four Quartets. When I was a boy coke was something that only arty people snorted. For everybody else it was an alternative domestic fuel to coal. In those days you could be poor but warm in winter. Now you can be relatively well off and cold, as the statesmen and rulers, chairmen of many committees and distinguished civil servants, burn your money.