The Vagabond's Breakfast by Richard Gwyn
|Deep hanging out in Greece|
and the Med.
There were preliminary echoes of Orwell and W.H. Davies in the title, and a wine glass on the cover, and it was published by a Welsh publisher*. For these reasons, and others**, I was ambivalent about reading this his latest book, more so when I found out it was a biography***.
But read it I did, and whilst on holiday no less. Having met Richard a few times in the past, pre- and post-transplant, it was easy to imagine his calm, languorous tone reading aloud from the pages. The prose doesn't jolt, bolt or otherwise upset the reader by doing anything unexpected, and the twin narrative, mixing memories of his illness and anxieties over the impending operation to transplant a new liver, and stories from his past from which he attempts, ostensibly, sometimes listlessly, to pinpoint the moment when he may have contracted the virus that left him with a cirrhosed organ, despite some of the content, is comforting, like listening to an avuncular elder wandering about his nostalgia, half chuffed with himself for having had a life well-lived yet trying to tell a cautionary tale for his audience. And failing.
For all of the rather dismaying stories, of insomnia, mania, befuddlement, sickness and symptoms of dementia, the rather more numerous and often repetitive stories of the time he spent impoverished and inebriated on the coasts of the Mediterranean and Aegean have an air of smug satisfaction about them. He seems proud to have drank and smoked and fucked his way through nine years of his life, parts blanked out by chemical abuse, others filled with hallucinations of strange shamans (or should that be shamen?) and frankly, I would have to believe that he must have the most marvellously tolerant and supportive wife and family at home, because if I wrote this about my past, despite her amazing qualities, my wife would in all probability push my new liver out of my mouth through the anus with a 2X4 wrapped in barbed wire. To be fair, at least he went out and did something which was not expected, had a life worth telling someone about. Someone once told me the best way to write was from experience, and that if I had to describe someone being punched in the face I should get into a bar fight****. He was right in that respect, although I prefer less damaging inspiration. I am quietly impressed that the person whom I had met on several occasions and who told me about writers like Roberto Bolaño was the man from these tales. I'm less surprised at the tone of the telling...
For all my prejudices and ambivalence, I did certainly enjoy reading it, at the same time as drinking several litres of strong, malty beer (which later caused some night-time unpleasantness and an unscheduled shower) and making notes in my own fashion on the nature of memory and story-telling. Good books tend to inspire in me the desire to launch my own literary career, and by that criterion alone I can only judge this book to be a good one.
*Nothing against Welsh publishers, but it sometimes smacks of the peculiar parochialism of Wales that either the author, editor or agent thinks the appeal will be localised so will sell it to local publishers and then the depressed circle is complete.
**It would be tiresome to relate, again, the anxieties aroused by reading and then feeling pressures to review books by people I know, even vicariously, so I won't.
***I was curious about his formative experiences but often feel that a record of a life with living left to go is a judgement without hearing all the evidence.