I was drawn to this book for a number of reasons. The first is that Richard Gwyn and I crossed paths briefly many years ago, in the council estates of East London, and – if I’m not confusing him with someone else, which is quite possible – he still owes me a tenner. But I’ll let that pass. The second reason for reading it, and one that does us both more credit, is that the book’s been very highly recommended by Scott Pack, who describes it as “utterly terrifying, funny, thought provoking and seemingly without an ounce of self-pity. A masterpiece”. As someone who’s also basked in Scott’s praise in the past, I can hardly doubt his judgement when he high fives someone else’s work. The third reason is that it gives me a chance to mention one of my favourite Joni Mitchell songs, The Last Time I Saw Richard, not because I want to talk about the last time I saw this particular Richard – my memory of the occasion is understandably vague given the excesses of that period – but because the text of that song oddly illuminates Richard Gwyn’s extraordinary book. It’s a song that explicitly condemns romanticism while implicitly rendering it homage. If it’s true that ‘all romantics meet the same fate someday, cynical and drunk and boring someone in some dark café’, it’s equally true – as the song admits – that the accuser’s eyes are also still ‘full of moon’, and that no one, finally, is immune from ‘pretty lies’. I suspect that Gwyn might play down the latter truth, and understandably so, but look at this:
We picked up the caritas blankets she had stashed behind the bar, went out into the square, grabbed an armload of cardboard from a skip, walked down a few streets and climbed a crumbling wall and through an archway without a streetlight nearby; this place is good, said Charo, this place is safe. We wrapped ourselves under the blankets and onto the card, she smelled like a warm animal, we burrowed deep into each other’s warmth, deep into the soft haven of each other’s sorrow, we lay under the canopy of night and listened to the wind tearing down the narrow streets of the city, listened to the howling of the wind in our warm and destitute embrace, until the drugs and sleep took us hostage, until sleep weighed down on us like mercury.
It’s no surprise to the reader, after passages like this, that a friend tells Gwyn he is a ‘prisoner of duality [...] addicted to the notion of the epic quest’. It’s as though his life has been lived to fulfil a need for sublimity, inverted, in acts and in language, to become a ‘singer prince [...] consigned to the kingdom of the gutter.’ A singer prince who is also ‘a person in the very process of disintegration.’ What marks him out from others who have trod this same hobo-ish track, though, can be seen in these last few words. If ‘singer prince’ belongs to the lexis of romanticism at its most sublime, ’process of disintegration’ forms part of an entirely different register.
Because The Vagabond’s Breakfast belongs in a strangely hybrid way to two distinct genres: the literature of, for want of a better term, tramping and the literature of illness. On the one hand we have Kerouac, Genet, George Orwell; on the other Dermot Welch, Nerval, Dostoyevsky. What’s interesting about both groups of writers is the extent to which, with the exception of Orwell, they’re romantics; there’s a sense in all of them that hardship, pain, degradation bestow their own rewards and that to receive them is to be marked out in more than a merely negative way. It’s not just nostalgie de la boue – for many of these writers, it’s the boue itself. Gwyn, in this book, straddles the genres by sandwiching two memoirs – the story of his dissolute past on the other hand and, on the other, as consequence and antithesis, that of his current battle with illness. The illness is the result of the dissolution, but it’s also its mirror image – it’s a defining business, one that takes over the life of its host to the exclusion of almost everything else. This makes for some bare, and harrowing, writing. For example:
One night, I climb to the loft of the house, where my study is located, in search of a cigarette lighter. When I step into the room, swaying under the dual onslaught of sleep deprivation and brain fog, I am on a mission. I have a cheap lighter in my hand, but it will not suffice, since according to the demented logic of some fleeting obsession, the lighter I am searching for has to be white, and the one in my hand is blue, an aberration. I spot the power lead that connects my laptop to the mains, and it terminates in a rectangular white fixture, which I remove, thinking it might also function as a lighter, and I attempt to light it with the blue one, convinced that the only way to ignite a lighter is with another lighter. I can smell burning plastic, but because of the defect in my cognitive wiring am not immediately able to connect the smell with my own activity, until I realise that the melting fixture is burning my fingers. I am, at that moment, aware of myself as an alien presence, an utter anomaly, a man standing alone in his study having attempted, unsuccessfully, to set fire to a computer, or – which is the same thing – to his memory. The next day I find the blackened remains of the fixture hanging from my desk.
The absence of metaphor in this passage, the writerly curiosity and search for exactitude are in sharp contrast to the romanticising sublimity of ‘warm and destitute embrace’ in the extract above, and Gwyn is fully aware of this. Indeed, The Vagabond’s Breakfast is nothing if not self-aware, which is the opposite of self-pitying. Towards the end of this extraordinary book, in what stands as both an admission and a statement of intent, he writes:
It is something that I never seem able to escape, this constant interweaving and interplay between the two domains of experience that constitute my life, this life which is not enough for everything.