Back when I visited primary schools and saw my role, as a poet, to exemplify a robust, colourful, eccentric creativity, I would introduce myself with a few snippets: ‘I’m so old my beard alone is at least five times the age of anyone in this class’; or, ‘Until I was 37, I had never lived in a house.’ I would wait ten seconds. ‘So where had I lived then?’
A sudden forest of eager arms.
‘In the street?’ A ripple of gaiety would run through the youngsters.
For twenty years from my late teens on, I lived, mainly alone, in a caravan. (With my family I had been brought up in one.) Cunninghamhead was a small country caravan site in Ayrshire. It was set in what had once been the walled garden of a great estate bought by Virginian tobacco money in the 18th century. It even had a long driveway up to it. Retrospectively, this combination of old privilege and rudimentary caravan living seems bizarre.
Number 19, Cunninghamhead Estate, by Kilmarnock, was an aluminium oblong twenty-eight feet in length and ten feet across. I bought it for £600 – saved from a labouring job at Inverkip Power Station – in 1977. I was eighteen. My parents and sisters lived at number 20. For a few years, till they moved away, 19 functioned for me as a sort of large, detached bedroom. I recall my amazement at being able to go to bed, undisturbed, as early as I wanted without the risk of my father waking me. He had a penchant for late night fry-ups on the cooker just through the wall right beside my bedroom at number 20. Silence, like space, was a privilege.
For the first ten years number 19 had no running water. It was plumbed in, but my first task before occupying it had been, with my uncle, repairing the two-yard square of chipboard floor rotted to mulch by a pipe leak after a frost. Severely impractical, even then resenting the attention to ‘lower’ things this represented, I didn’t care to go through that again. So I didn’t turn the water on: like Bartleby in Melville’s eponymous story, ‘I preferred not to.’ Late at night, I got water at an outside tap. The site stood on a small hill. It gave a good vantage, if the skies were clear, from which to learn the stars.
I enjoyed for a long time the modesty of caravan living. I have always had, alongside the complications of aspirant hedonism, an inclination to austerity. I associate it with discipline, a simplified engagement with ‘bigger’, more important things and with a laudatory creativity. (I blame it all on a Catholic upbringing.)
So, no running water. But there was electric, and a small fire and cooker fed by a Propane gas cylinder outside the kitchen window. No TV, but there was a small radio. No telephone, for the first seven or eight years, but there was the postman. And there were books, of course. I did much of my formative reading there. Playing on the assumption I’d been higher-educated, if someone asked me at what institution, I’d say, ‘oh, the University of Cunninghamhead.’
It is not just the texts of those readings I remember, but the circumstances of my encountering them. The chill weather descriptions in David Jones’ astonishing, grievous First World War poem In Parenthesis, echoed by the November dank squalliness outside the caravan window; the frost-fresh or gusty descriptions of climate in the poems of the great medieval Scots makars, William Dunbar, Robert Henrysoun and Gavin Douglas, full of stars, gales, ice, and foreboding at the approach of winter darkness. I read these late on freezing nights in front of the gas fire while my then girlfriend – my tendency to monkishness had limits – was snugly asleep in the bedroom ten feet away.When Robert Frost wrote, ‘But no, I was out for stars,’ in his poem ‘Come In’ I knew exactly what he meant. I only had to open the caravan door for a last look before bed at the winter constellations, scintillating frostily, to be reminded.
Living, as I was, ‘close to nature’ – strips of aluminium and plywood separated me from it – wasn’t all romantic, of course. Ayrshire winters could be brutal. Gales would stampede in out of the west. Horizontal in darkness in a bedroom which abutted onto the prevailing winds, you would hear out in the night the far-off rumour unsettling a stand of trees a quarter of a mile away, like a shark lazily considering before accelerating for a strike. There’d be silence — then the walls would ripple and bulge as the squall hit, and you feared that the roof might be unrolled like the lid of a sardine tin, leaving you face to face, instantly, with the fright of stars overhead in the cloud gaps between downpours. On such nights I often slept in front of the gas fire in the ‘living room’. I thought, illogically, that being away from the worst buffetings in the bedroom might reduce the chances of the caravan being blown, in scraps of aluminium, across the Ayrshire fields.
Cold was another factor. I remember my new neighbour, a man called Billy Norquoy, displaying an unexpected gift for simile at the first cold snap of winter: ‘Gettin up inside this bloody caravan this mornin,’ he said, outraged, ‘was like gettin up inside the middle o’ an iceberg!’ An inspired description: ice would inlay the inside panes with lavish ferns and scrollwork, thick from the sleep-breath of the inhabitants, and occlude whatever view there was. The effect was nothing new to me, of course. Indeed, I felt then a weird gaiety in such (relative) extremity. The coldest weather I ever experienced there was for a week during December, 1995. An outside thermometer recorded a low of minus 19.8 C. I came back early from two days away, being worried about my cat — a half-wild, scrawny spirit. Sure enough, her cat food had hardened to concrete. The water in the toilet cistern – by then I had conceded to modernity – was fifteen inches of clear brick, like a giant Fox’s glacier mint.
I survived in those years, materially, by various means. Sometimes I did seasonal jobs; sometimes I was unemployed. But I always had plans: I had no intention of staying unemployed. And for many years I sold nature photographs and articles and travelogues to the likes of Reader’s Digest — at that time possibly the highest paying freelance market in the country. By a mix of youthful persistence, brashness and luck I had so worn down one of their senior editors, George Pollock, after several unsolicited submissions with titles like ‘Meet the Humble Hedgehog’, that he gave me an assignment to write about bats. The magazine flew me down to London. There was only one small blip, when Michael Randolph, the Editor-in-Chief, asked me where I lived.
‘In a caravan,’ I said.
‘I think,’ George Pollock interjected quickly, ‘he means a mobile home, Michael.’
This visit led to numerous other assignments, for which they paid £1,000 a time. That was 1985. My caravan rent was £8 or £9 a week. Even in winter, my monthly electric and gas bill combined was seldom more than £30 a month. I could eke out one article fee for close to half a year while I concentrated on what was becoming, as a writerly freedom denied me by the strictures of magazine journalism, my real interest: poetry.
‘People in Scotland have a queer idea of the arts,’ the great Scottish artist and writer Alasdair Gray wrote in his novel Lanark (1981). ‘They think you can be an artist in your spare time, though nobody expects you to be a spare-time dustman, engineer, lawyer or brain surgeon’. (How true that was then of elsewhere in Britain I have no idea, but it certainly seemed so in Scotland.) I think of my caravan years as my attempt at full-time poetry. Towards the end, the dream was becoming threadbare. It stopped when, just in time, I got a job for two years. Paradoxically, this was as a poet-in-residence in Hugh MacDiarmid’s former cottage in Biggar, Lanarkshire.
In three hours, on the day I left Ayrshire, my caravan was dismantled by the site owner for scrap. The frail but definite demarcation between inner and outer that had been my home for two decades was suddenly, and quite literally, unwalled air.
I still think fondly, even romantically, of those caravan days in memory. They still provide a source for poems. You can take the man out of the caravan; I’m not sure you can take the caravan out of the man. It was not just its simplicity, of course. It represented a close connection to an entire landscape, intimately known, with its memories, associations and experiences; a way of being that marks me to this day and will, as far as I know, for life.