Richard Gwyn, The Vagabond’s Breakfast

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.

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14 Responses to Richard Gwyn, The Vagabond’s Breakfast

  1. Hey Charles, You must be psychic, I was just looking down my blog sidebar over Easter, thinking Charles hasn’t updated for a while and hey presto! you wrote a review. 🙂

    Interesting that you (may have) met Richard Gwyn.

    I too read The Vagabond’s Breakfast (last summer) after Scott had recommended, I thoroughly enjoyed it, especially the parts that are not about illness, though he describes his (terrifying) illness movingly and without self-pity (essential, in my eyes, for any illness memoir to succeed. When you are chronically ill, narratives of illness do not hold as much ‘exoticism’, if that is the right word, though you gorge on such memoirs in the early days, so afraid are you at having been thrust into the camp of the ill, you strive to understand and to be comforted).

    As you say, and I echo in my own much shorter review, this book is about other things, not just illness, and I was forever jotting down extracts just for the sheer joy of Gwyn’s words. If you wish a peep, you can read my wee review here, which links to a longer post on narratives of illness:

    I also loved the actual physical book, the gorgeous cover, in these days of Kindle (I am only half converted), such details are precious.

    • Thanks for commenting, Nasim, and yes, I’ve been a shamefully long time away from this blog, but I hope to make up a little for lost time in the next few weeks – there’s a new post tomorrow, with Vanessa Gebbie, which I hope you’ll read. And I’ll certainly be reading your wee review and the longer post it’s part of. One of the reasons it took me so long to post this review was that I’d intended to do a lot more reading around the issue of illness, but found myself myself not doing this for a variety of reasons – principally, lack of time – and thought it would be better to post a shorter review than nothing at all. Which is what I did.

      Hmm, the physical book thing. I’m torn as well. So many books are neither well-designed nor well-made, and very often the more attractive they are the harder they are to find, not to speak of the cost involved in buying them. And then they take up space, and need dusting… I find myself loading up my Kindle with books I might never otherwise buy, or old favourites I already own, or have owned – I just finished The Lost World, a boyhood crush, and loved it all over again – my paper copy is in a state beyond reading. I can’t see myself stopping buying ‘real’ books, in the near future anyway. But it’s good to know that I don’t need to fill my hand luggage with three or four books when I go away for a few days…

  2. richardgwyn says:

    Nice to see you are blogging again Charles, and on such elevated themes. Yes, it was me, all those years ago, on a rare visit to Hackney. Did I only tap you for a tenner? And only once? No doubt we’ll meet again – Rome? London? – and I’ll happily cover lunch.

  3. Sounds good. Please do!

  4. John Wilkinson says:

    Charles – I was at school with Richard Gwyn, although he has changed his name subsequently, and he was a good friend of Lawrence Pedersen. We’ve exchanged a few e-mails about this. There are several collection of poetry (as Richard Gwyn).

    • Yes, I remembered this, John, and of course Richard talks about Sherborne in the book, and about his departure from the place, which also rings a bell or two. I’m not sure if we met up in Hackney through Charlie or in the context of other affections. I didn’t know that he was close to Lawrence, either. Maybe Mr Pedersen will read this and contribute a memory or two!

    • PS Good to see you here!

  5. nmj says:

    Hey Charles, I’ve tried hard to embrace the ‘both’ concept rather than ‘either or’ (I was so anti-ebook to begin with!). Am comforted that both ebooks and pbook s are available, that paper is not banished quite yet. But there is definitely a sterility to reading ebooks, everything seems the same – you also miss out on where you were, time and place – a Kindle doesn’t quite evoke the memory of reading a certain book in the same way. Also, I find I am less likely to go back to an ebook, I am really flibberty the way I read, picking up and putting down, and an ebook simply doesn’t have the same power to seduce you back. But I love the way you can download samples on KIndle, it’s like a constant sweet shop, with no limits, all those lovely jars. And of course it’s great when readers can access your own ebook, although I still feel unless they read the paper book they are not reading the real book! Silly really. But I am getting there.

  6. richardgwyn says:

    Hi there, John. The ironies pile up, quicktime. Today’s Independent features an obituary of Derek Bridge, the bane of my teenage years, who features briefly in the VB. Says what a good chap he was and all that, what a fabulous English teacher (he was crap) and popular with the boys (a sadistic git). My daughters, who went to a local state school, find it extraordinary that a public school teacher should be honoured by an obit in a leading national newspaper, let alone one of leftist inclinations. So reassuring to see class system thriving in 21st century Britain.

    • John Wilkinson says:

      Glad to say Bridge never crossed my radar, but your comment led me to look up Boissier, my housemaster at Sherborne, to find a lengthy obituary in the Daily Telegraph focused on his ‘moral certainty’ and ‘muscular Christianity’. Could have been worse apparently, since according to the DT Boissier’s predecessor would not allow boys to study English or History on the grounds these were communist subjects. But my Sherborne experiences were not so grim as my experience boarding at St Gorran School in Cornwall from the age of 6. Doubting some of my memories and with the death of my sister who was there with me at the age of 4, I joined Friends Reunited and discovered a catalogue of memories of sadistic abuse and exploitation, and regrets that no action had been taken against the monster who ran the place before she was called by Jesus from her loving family. The record of child torture was unrelieved.

  7. richardgwyn says:

    Well, since we’re heading in this direction, someone sent me this account of the little place I attended from the age of seven to twelve. It’s called ‘The paedophile headmaster, his sadistic wife and the schooldays that scarred me forever’. The offending headmaster left the term before I arrived, in a hurry, but was in post during my brother’s sentence.
    Read more:

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