The Horseman’s Word, Roger Garfitt, Jonathan Cape, 378pp, £18.99 (hardback)

Carl Sandburg once described the past as ‘a bucket of ashes’. Poet and critic Roger Garfitt ignites the ashes of his childhood and adolescence into burning embers in a compelling memoir. It is at once insightful about the rural past and rueful about the price we pay for our often erratic human journeying. The Horseman’s Word finds the former poetry critic of The London Magazine detailing an early existence lived on the hoof, often sustained by much less than a wing and a prayer. We follow the ragged arc of a life ruled by passions of the heart and mind. Garfitt is unafraid to reveal his earlier self as a vain, self-obsessed and rather absurd figure, with only a fragile hold on reality. Moving chronologically from an idyllic childhood with grandparents in Norfolk to an adolescent life with an exotic horseman in Surrey, to his drug-addled days as a student at Oxford, the often vertiginous narrative explores the growth of a young poet’s mind and heart. It is set against the heady backdrop of the sixties counterculture and the sexual revolution. Peopled along the way by walk-on roles from everyone from David Bowie to W. H. Auden, Ted Hughes and even Sue Lyon (the young star of the controversial film version of Lolita), Garfitt’s memoir is also a no-holds-barred study of what happens when a growing and often fragile sense of selfhood – fuelled by illegal substances – spills over into madness.

Despite the recklessness of his youth, Garfitt’s poetic methods have been marked by a lifelong devotion to the disciplines of his craft. Never one to rush a poem or review, Garfitt’s memoir was first conceived more than twenty years ago. At the time, the poet and former editor of Poetry Review was living in Colombia and sending contemporary dispatches about thattroubled country to the London Review of Books and Granta. The book’s earliest incarnation was as a light-hearted study of place names, called Journeys into England, but Garfitt had misgivings about its structure, fearing he was creating ‘another version of pastoral’ and ‘leaving out the engine of difficulty that drives the work’. Thankfully for the poet and reader, The Horseman’s Word became a more complex and darker exploration of inchoate literary selfhood and wayward sensuality, plus an absurdist, picaresque 1960s version of The Pilgrim’s Progress.

Although a child of the London suburbs, the poet’s earliest years were spent at his grandparents’ home in rural Norfolk, where the sense of the past and the countryside’s class distinctions suggest an England largely unchanged from Victorian times. The pin-sharp accuracy of Garfitt’s earliest memories recalls Jack Common’s Tyneside classic of childhood remembrance, Kiddar’s Luck. His grandparents, in particular, are lovingly evoked. The poet – early on dubbed by his family ‘all ears and eyes’ – brings them back to life with great warmth and tenderness, but also with an almost Keatsian eroticism. We find Garfitt, the child noted for ‘taking it all in’, savouring his grandmother: ‘I watched her arms as she moved about the room, almost in love with their colour.’ His grandparents were twin poles of security in a life which was soon marked by an absence of geographical, emotional or intellectual fixity. However, the fondly recalled intimacies of his rural idyll are also undercut by humour and bath-time bathos; the young Garfitt was ‘awed by the extraordinary thought that Grandma was naked in the next room’. His first poetic instincts were being unwittingly nurtured in the humble domestic framework, with the sensual patterning of his grandparents’ home. A beaded pin cushion, a clasp knife or the rolling machine he inherited from his grandfather became talismans. Adapting a line from Yeats, Garfitt considered his grandparents’ abode ‘a house where all’s accustomed, ceremonious.’

There is also an evocative description of the sense of kinship engendered by rural hard graft as the poet joins his father and fellow farm workers bringing in the hay. Their exhaustion was eventually made worthwhile by the consolatory, pleasurable litany of ‘Tea. Mugs of hot tea. Plates of eggs and bacon and sausages. Rounds of bread to mop up the last smears of HP Sauce. And then a wordless well-being, a moment when we just sat round the long table, listening to the brimming of the teapot as it was refilled…’

Garfitt’s early life provides other poetic metaphors and mentors. Antonio, the former Riding Master to the Kings of Portugal, is the inspiration for the book’s title. The aristocratic Antonio was the focal point of the Surrey riding school launched by the poet’s father in the early 1960s. The riding master’s equestrian brilliance and disciplinarian methods echoed the poetic skills which the future writer would have to harness. Teaching Garfitt to ride without stirrups, Antonio also supplied his young student with an early taste of spiritual uplift – without the aid of hallucinogens. This inspired one of the descriptive highlights of The Horseman’s Word, marked by a Lawrentian intensity:

‘Once the high wooden doors were dragged shut and Antonio pronounced his distinctive Ta-rrrot! you were caught up in the movement, the changing paces, the increasing tempo as Antonio built from exercise to exercise, dispensing with the stirrups, which you crossed over the front of the saddle, and then with the reins, which you knotted into a loop. The horses started to move as one flowing line, taking their stride from the lead horse. You brought your leg over the back of the saddle and leaned on the front, hands gripping the saddle- bow and legs together. Secure in the rhythm of the canter, you swung your feet forward as the horse’s shoulders dipped into the next stride, touched ground, and let the surge of the stride pull you back into the saddle.’

The Horseman’s Word charts several rites of passage – including the erotic and poetic – before Garfitt attempted to cleanse the doors of perception with drug-inspired adventures at Oxford University. There was an odd adolescent phase as a priggish Christian zealot. Garfitt describes having attempted to preach fire and damnation to all and sundry, including the unimpressed customers at a barber shop. Before the dreaming spires, however, there is the young poet’s initial adventures in the skin trade via the comely au pair Anna, who took his virginity. Following the classic first-date grapple in the back row of the local cinema, Anna took the sexual initiative in a picnic area off the A3. This encounter proved the first of many at Oxford, where the young poet’s sexual adventures coincided with his literary and chemical experiments. There are significant walk-on roles by Ted Hughes (who was told by a forthright Craig Raine that he did not read his poems very well), W. H. Auden, who asked Garfitt how much he spent annually on his long hair, and some comic moments at poetry workshops run by Peter Levi, C. A. Trypanis and John Wain. The latter exploded in uncontrolled laughter when an earnest Garfitt read out a poem about his beloved’s ‘pixie lips’.

Garfitt’s passion for the women he encountered at Oxford is often viewed through a literary lens. He refers to a Latin poem about the earth quickened by desire and describes his erotic fixations using Blake: ‘breaking the mind-forg’d manacles, unbinding the briars from my joys and desires.’ Never afraid to recall his days at Merton College in all their ridiculous and pretentious splendour, we encounter Garfitt the dandy, resplendent in a daffodil-yellow suit at the height of flower power, escorting a bus through the centre of Oxford. He had the same kind of loud attire when he bumped into a young David Bowie at a party (the future Ziggy Stardust was more soberly dressed – in black).

There is a serious undercurrent, however, that runs through the zigzagging narrative of a young poet’s immersion in the rich countercultural stew of the 1960s. Garfitt may have been dubbed by an Oxford tutor ‘the most narcissistic person he had ever met’, but here he manages to capture the risk-taking innocence of the times – drug overdoses included. He and his wide-eyed contemporaries were attempting to trample over age-old social and sexual conventions. A line in a classic song of the time – Dylan’s My Back Pages – could have been written with our young poetic adventurer in mind: ‘Girls’ faces formed the forward path.’ The twenty year old undergraduate let libido lead the way when he spotted Anke at the main crossroads in Oxford. Almost symbolically, she was studying a map when her future lover offered his timely assistance. Anke, like several of Garfitt’s often idealised dream women, triggered several epiphanies. These see the poet charting his early life via a series of almost Wordsworthian spots of time. Crossing the road to an Underground station in London, Anke is recalled as a numinous blur of feminine perfection, navigating the station barrier with a ‘hurdler’s rock of the hips’. The poet recalls ‘the long blonde hair breaking over her shoulders, burnished by the dirt of London and almost green-gold’.

It is Anke whom Garfitt pursued to a village in France, responding to un amour de folie. Seeking his love during what reads like an erratic, Beat- like Zen pilgrimage, he slept under the stars and experienced a series of foreign adventures. Included are moments of extreme exultation and black depression, but he is acutely aware that he may look like a character out of Kerouac’s Desolation Angels: ‘I’ve only just turned on. My psyche ought to be wearing L-plates.’

Back in England, Garfitt’s frenetic, romantically-charged existence – fuelled by copious amounts of drugs – culminated in a complete mental and emotional breakdown. He was arrested after taking a ride on a van roof and was taken to a psychiatric unit in London. The reader views the nature of paranoia from the inside out, as Garfitt describes external reality as the ‘magic theatre’. An escape from captivity was followed by the intervention of his parents, who are characterised as rather unwelcome players in his illusory existential drama. Confinement was hellish during his long recuperation: ‘To be back on the locked ward was like being back in a play by Samuel Beckett after being caught up in a drawing- room comedy.’ Back in Oxford, his romance with Anke apparently over, Garfitt even contemplated the most extreme finale to his deranged passion play. ‘All I wanted was the needle of death,’ he explains, but he pulled back from the brink. His life continued to unravel. At one point he even considered kidnapping fellow poet Frances Horovitz, who would eventually become his wife years later, before an early death from cancer. His life took another turn for the worse when he was busted for running what the newspapers called ‘a mail order service for dangerous drugs’. Instructed to leave Oxford, his name was ordered to be struck from the rolls of Merton College after taking his degree.

The Horseman’s Word is uniquely illuminating about both a fading rural England and the heady social and sexual cocktail that was the Swinging Sixties. It contains memorable pen portraits of the lovers, famous faces, poets and fellow drug users threading in and out of a young writer’s life. But there is often a lack of empathy when it comes to the effects his actions

had on others – particularly his parents, who remain shadowy, rather unsympathetic figures. It is only late in the memoir, when he discovered that his recently deceased grandmother had borne children out of wedlock, that Garfitt’s solipsistic mask slips: ‘Perhaps I only felt her close to me now because I had met with difficulty myself. And could see in her eyes an impetus I had yet to harness.’ For all its picaresque qualities, The Horseman’s Word is ultimately an elegiac study of the often dangerous nature of self-discovery.

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