Friday, 17 August 2012
At college I had a wise, melancholy friend called Peter. Perhaps a little bit on the spectrum, he had a vast, kindly, and humane intellect, and I learned a great deal from him. We were one of three students reading for Classics and English in our college and had a cheerful rivalry, making topic choices for Finals that absolutely thumbnail us. Peter went for Satire and Victorian Receptions of Classical Literature, wading through The Unfortunate Traveller and Marius the Epicurean; I chose Pastoral and Medieval Welsh, struggling haltingly from Mantuan to the Mabinogi. We both did Ovid, for which were taught by a magnificent old dame who was as bald as an egg and who imparted in me a deep and abiding loathing of that clever-clever Roman lickspittle.
Peter once impressed me deeply by outlining his book of short stories, to be entitled Failures of Nerve, all of which were about doom-blasted self-thwartings in rainy Midlands towns, spun with wry despair. (The tone was Sophocles-reincarnates-as-Alan-Bennett.) I was in awe at the idea that anyone I knew might actually become a creative writer, having not an ounce of ability in that direction myself. Years earlier, at school, I'd been flung into an envious funk by a GCSE English classmate who announced smugly that he'd written a novel. Sheer native invidiousness has burned the title---No Drums, No Trumpets---into my mind, seventeen years later. I never read a word of it but (in the permanent state of elemental shame that characterized my teens) I was certain that I was falling behind, would never amount to anything, et relicta.
So I retreated into an involuted mental landscape of dodgy Celtic antiquarianism, mist-shrouded dolmens, and dangly druidical tat. I can still improvise a Carmen Gadelicum on the spot: 'I bathe your brows in the juice of the wild bee, in the milk of the rasps, in the fruit of the loom! Sea-cast of the seventh wave be to you, sea-fruit of the ploughed field be to you, sea-weed of the sea-like sea be to you! May the Encompasser encompass you about, from day until dark, from dark until day!'
Still, romanticism (as Natalie Barney said) is a disease of childhood: catch it young and you become robust.
Books and failing nerves are on my mind at the moment: absolutely shattered by the process of finishing the current chapter in Ireland's Immortals, currently standing at 20,000 words on 'Fiona Macleod', James Stephens, James Cousins (interesting man but a dreadful poet, by the way), W. Y. Evans-Wentz, and others. That's still only half the length of the previous chapter I wrote but it was almost more work: lots of secondary material in Scottish Gaelic (thank GOD I did that paper on the language in 2004), biographies for most of the major figures, much more theory. I've also been aspiring to a more polished writing style with less clunkiness to it. I've been waking in the pit of the night and wondering if I can actually pull the damn project off: 1500 years and hundreds of primary texts. Ronald Hutton does this sort of thing with marvellous, Zen-like ease---I've watched him working at the kitchen table and it verges on the uncanny---but I'm finding it more like a hair-raising bronco ride. Still, as Tom Paulin says, don't get it right, get it written.
Back to ‘Alasdair MacGilleMhìcheil agus Cultar Dùthchasach’...