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’...
Thursday, 9 August 2012
I found a mixtape (remember those?) which my friend Ian had made for me c. 1998. Ian changed, and indeed made, my musical taste more than anyone else, introducing me to Dead Can Dance, the Cocteau Twins, and a whole series of bands and singers who have long since become touchstones of my identity. Listening to the tracks on YouTube was a wonderful trip down memory lane, back to a more innocent time when Ian, suave in a velvet smoking jacket and eyeliner, used to cart moony, morose old me around Oxford in a Citroen 2CV with moss growing out of the roof.