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.

1 comment:

Dr Angela Beese said...

Thank you for this thoughtful piece. I was one of the women in Vernon's life and lived with him for 6 years and he was my very good friend for another 22 years. I lived 5 minutes away and saw him frequently. The violence that I experienced from him was a very small part of my long relationship with him. I knew that the man who lashed out in his drunkenness was not the man I knew, respected and loved when he was sober. He was kind, generous to a fault, sensitive, wise, witty, loving and just plain funny. He also freely gave of his time and knowledge to give me and many others a thoroughly good education in poetry.

I went on in my life to become a psychologist and psychotherapist and part of the reason for this was to search for understanding of what I now know to have been psychotic episodes triggered by traumatic flashbacks. Vernon never claimed to be a hero but he wrote, as John Carey said, poems 'drenched in humanity'. I know he couldn't have done that if he was the 'shit' you believe him to be. As you said, he told the truth about experience in his poems. I have no difficulty in believing that it was a privilege to have known him.