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Rags, Bones, and Magic

Evidence of a literary life

Old suitcase

One teatime in autumn 2022, on impulse and increasingly mindful of my mother’s ninety-two years, I retrieved via rickety stepladder from her crepuscular, snugly insulated council-house loft, two small suitcases, a cardboard box, and a stuffed-full carrier bag. One suitcase was tatty and old. I phoned a taxi. The driver was a lively comedian, curious about the contents of his cargo.

‘You a magician? That’s wan ae the oldest suitcases ah’ve ever seen!’

‘Maybe an aspiring magician,’ I said. ‘But not the sort you’re thinking of.’ I parried further questions, unwilling to get into the complicated business of what he was transporting.

Lifting the ‘magician’s’ suitcase out of the boot at the end of the journey, he took its deadweight alarmingly by the handle, startled.

‘Oh my God! What a weight! Ye’ve no got yer wife’s deid body in that, huv ye? Ah doan’t want tae be an accomplice tae a crime!’

The following week I was back in the loft, poking around in its airless hush, squinting in the beam of my iPhone’s torch. Multiple black binbags lay here and there, many of them, when I untied their yellow drawstrings to look, further packed with stuffed carrier bags; brimful supermarket boxes lay scattered across the joists, dimly and enticingly visible in the loft’s recesses.

This time I’d thought ahead. An obliging sister had offered me a lift. She barely raised an eyebrow at the fourteen binbags at the stair-foot, plus cardboard boxes and carrier bags which, at the other end, I stacked in a storage cupboard with the old suitcase and its youthfuller companion.

The contents of that old suitcase, like the rest, was heavy in more than the physical sense. In my country caravan in Ayrshire, from around 1983 I’d begun to think of myself as a writer. Here was the record of those years — letters, diaries, drafts of poems, scrappy attempts at fiction. I’d not thrown anything significant out since I was seventeen. And this was pre-digital, almost hard to imagine now. Everything was paper.

Writers can be obsessive about such matters. I’m fascinated by literary manuscripts — they are from ‘the foul rag and bone shop of the heart’, as W. B. Yeats said, far from the perfected finished items in print we are used to. But not merely ‘foul’. They are where, if anywhere, the magic happens.

I was initially intimidated. This stuff had lain, undisturbed, up in my parents’ loft for quarter of a century. All that evidence of lived life! — while from the street outside, over years, with glorious everydayness, the clear voices of children and mothers coming from local schools sounded and bounced around up in the loft’s gloom, and white clouds and sunlight were magnificent out in the autumn afternoons.

I’d little idea what was there. I wrote in my journal:

Pondering it starts to feel oppressive, the oppressiveness of my own consciousness. Rather than all that life dissolving irretrievably (and therefore unblameably, unshameably) into light, air and the vicissitudes of memory, it's stacked accusatorily in typewritten texts and scrawled attempts at poems, like a brain that hasn't forgot, and couldn't forget, anything. The weight of the past.

I attempted to deal with that ‘weight’. A good friend visited me on several days to help with a preliminary sifting. But the close reading, of course, could only be done by me.

I settled into a pattern, reading stacked piles of manuscripts under a lamp through the autumn evenings. I soon noticed various strands to all these texts. Many had been, usefully, typed, with a variety of consecutive typewriters, each machine’s late-night clackings on the platen muffled by placing it on a folded towel on my caravan’s kitchen table. Others were typed but with handwritten emendations. Poems were usually scribbled in a febrile, high-speed script, as if to catch the falcon of thought before it flickered over the hill. There were thousands of single-spaced, A4, typewritten journal pages. Then, I had a novelist’s ambitions; I thought of the journals as good practice. There were botched attempts at two novels; short stories and other prose vignettes, one a short story involving a wise old heron called ‘Kronk’ and a facially disfigured mouse, ‘Snout’; many pieces, like this one, I had no memory of having written. There were copies of my letters to others I’d kept, doubtless considering them good writing; hundreds of letters from other poets; and poems — scrawled; discarded; intriguing experiments abandoned. Reading many of these I thought: Why did I never try to publish this?

But in those days publication wasn’t my primary motive. I had been extensively published by Reader’s Digest with its then 1.5 million monthly circulation. No, what I wanted was to occupy the writing, to live through it, to obsessively prove – this working-class chancer – my dedication. For some of the time I was unemployed. It was Thatcher’s Britain — punishing on Scotland’s west coast. I was part of the generation of writers the government unwittingly subsidised to write. This was just as well: there was little chance of finding a local job.

Initial trepidation as I gazed up from the foot of this small paper mountain, once I began seeing some sort of pattern in it, turned to intrigue — a sort of panning for gold. It was the same anticipatory sense my schoolboy self had felt on Saturday mornings before going birdwatching, not knowing what I might see. A lyric description of Ayrshire clouds over a silent country road would be followed, a paragraph later, by a hair-raising encounter with a former friend I’d not seen for a few years.

‘How’ve you been?’ I said.

‘Was in Peterheid.’

‘Working?’

‘Naw. In jail. Attempted murder.’

‘[…!] Were you drunk?’

‘Sober as a judge.’

A poem in ballad stanza detailed an incident after a blue-skied day on the isle of Arran. I had strode impulsively down the bus aisle and paid for the ticket of a stranger I recognised from my local village, who hadn’t enough money for his fare and wasn’t allowed to board. He then insisted on sitting beside me, after triumphantly berating the driver and the other head-shaking, muttering passengers – he was, as I had not realised, drunk – and for the slow, ten-mile ordeal loudly declared me his new, sworn-lifelong, friend.

The young man all these writings revealed was at times excruciatingly honest. Truculent, often over-cerebral, noticing of minutiae, socially isolated often, a sort of romantic nature mystic; not always likeable to my sixty-four-year-old self, but indisputably genuine. I had been, then, on a journey into myself. I’d had no eye for, or sense of, how I would appear to an uninvolved reader or even my future self. But retrospectively impressed, at least by my industriousness, I wrote in my journal on 4 August 2022:

That whole struggle for authentic utterance! The mystery and the (potential) astonishment of coming into one's own life & subject matter in writing. No one could say, looking at all this, I didn't work for it. My attitude was certainly not, as [Seamus] Heaney's to his own poetry in his Lannan Foundation interview with Dennis O'Driscoll, one of grace and giftedness, though he implied he wished he had been more deliberated about the whole thing. I was all deliberation.

Now I handwrite early poem drafts, then type them up on a laptop and revise by hand the printed pages; or I leave them in the notebook untranscribed. I have a distincter idea – experience, and nearly thirty years of editing The Dark Horse – of what’s, poetically, worthwhile. But perhaps I’m also unlikelier to surprise myself. In the mid-80s, I’d no idea what I was doing. Profoundly ignorant, I thought at times the only way to improve a poem was to type it out again, sometimes obsessively, as if that mechanical process would reveal its faults: a dunderheaded way of proceeding, but apparently necessary. More gratifying were pieces I’d dismissed but which seem, in their sheer aesthetic naiveté, innocent in a way unavailable to me now:

Spring's light returned today
Pours in at my eyes,
Silver and dove-grey
The omnilucent sky's 
Clouds at the world's edge
Startle the lucky sight,
Field and hedge
Capture the gifted light,
Flourish their freshest green,
And the eternal birds
In their eternal now, mean
More by their song than words.

A modest fragment, certainly, but winningly (to me) uninfluenced by contemporary poetry’s mores on ‘how to write’.

The great Orkney poet-critic Edwin Muir considered his bucolic youth on the island of Wyre in Orkney, with complications, his ‘Eden’. I’d not go that far, but my caravan years are my writing touchstone. They represent a discrete, hermetically sealed era: the foundation of my ‘artistic life’. I have always been attracted to literary eccentrics, hermits, outsiders, mavericks, and those years and their paper evidence feel like the source for that predilection, a source I have used to gauge everything since. They shine in memory like honey stored in dark jars for a long winter. They have even given me a new project. Self-published, it will be utterly uncommercial, which pleases my thrawn, contrary side. It will be called – and the pun is heartily intended – Caravan Drafts.

Gerry Cambridge now lives again near where he was brought up, on the North Ayrshire coast. The most recent of his six books of poems is The Light Acknowledgers (HappenStance Press, 2019). His writing is informed by a lifelong interest in British natural history.

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