There’s a fascinating anthropological study to be written about Oxford undergraduates of the 1960s – or perhaps this book is it. Roger Garfitt in his daffodil-yellow pinstripe suit and silver-topped cane – mingling with the other ‘heads’, boiling up asthma drugs for a hit, talking of samsara and Kropotkin – seems a type as exotic as an Elizabethan dandy:
We would split an amp of methedrine between us, sliding the needle just under the skin in a procedure known as skinpopping … sometimes it seemed to me that the drugs were almost irrelevant and what mattered was the expeditionary instinct that had Bryn and me angling our shoulders into the existential wind or Paul and me reconstituting ourselves around the thin spills of Old Holborn we smoked in liquorice papers, the sweetness offsetting the dark tobacco and the two together anchoring us after the night of non-being.
They were dharma bums, mingling party life with a romantic attachment to the outdoors. Friends could doss in Garfitt’s room above a garage in Walton Street – mattresses on the floor, all the furniture pushed against the walls. ‘All the assumptions had been taken out of the room, all the small talk. The floorboards gleamed in the light from the windows as if we had recovered an earlier human space, an arena or a dance floor.’ At the heart of the place was a ‘Rolls-Royce of radiograms’, on which ‘you could stack no fewer than ten LPs’; Garfitt danced there ‘in my own space until the detail of the music moved me out into the room, my hands picking up one line, my feet another … arcing across it and half-spinning back, trying to paint the music into it.’ They called the room ‘the magic theatre’, out of Steppenwolf. They listened to bebop and avant-garde jazz; they were aspiring poets presented to Auden by Nevill Coghill, Merton Professor of English Literature.
Garfitt made love to a succession of girls on the mattresses, not many of whom seem to have been undergraduates after the first, Su, who we guess is doomed as soon as we’re told she’s reading chemistry. Young beauties blow through Oxford on adventures of their own, afloat on the tide of the new youth culture, easy pickings; they ask the way to a hostel and are invited back to the magic theatre – ‘long blonde hair, a slim figure in jeans’, or ‘tiny, pale and stick-thin, a waif, a gamine’, or ‘a face you would have gone into battle for … raven hair – gypsy blood’. (Poor Hannah, whose ‘nose made a clown of her’.) The boys talk and think and jostle for social and intellectual position, observing and imitating one another’s style, besotted with one another’s performance; the (good-looking) girls are enigmatic objects of desire, prizes for the lucky and the strong. Any academic females we hear of are as likely as not to be bringing up the babies of male graduates; on the fringes of this bohemia there are one or two women with children, ‘a wandering bluesman’s dream of home’, kitchens with spice jars and ‘a warm smell of baking … the alluvial sounds of the washing machine … a rich domestic harmony’. It’s all too easy to imagine that picture from the other side – the freewheeling brilliant boys dropping their condescending tribute, passing through.
This scene can only have been a couple of years old when Garfitt fell into it; yet even as they were busily fitting their lives into entirely new forms, they were adepts in their own traditions, the deep-worn grooves that didn’t exist yesterday, the inflexible new hierarchies of cool. In Oxford in 1964 it was the romance of the junkie (‘junkies were suicides, which gave them a certain glamour’), of anyone ‘on the road’, of anarchists, of working men (‘there was a scarf loosely tied in the neck of his open shirt, the look we all had of an Edwardian navvy’). New patterns can feel as inevitable as if they reach back into the ages. Novels bored him – ‘anything to lift me out of Daniel Deronda’ – and he restored himself by dipping into Agenda, George Barker.
Studying poetry spilled over naturally into writing it: Garfitt went to informal workshops with John Wain and Peter Levi, heard Ted Hughes read at the Poetry Society. Coghill read his poems, but wasn’t very enthusiastic; Peter Jay took a photo of him in a green silk smoking jacket looking ‘just like Rupert Brooke!’; he talked about jazz with Robert Graves and about Keith Douglas with Edmund Blunden, the new professor of poetry. Poetry was both companionship and competition: ‘My own poems sounded hit-and-miss beside those of John Birtwhistle, who came up in my third year and stunned everyone at the very first workshop.’ Depending on how mean-spiritedly you read all this, it was either a boys’ club passing on power, or a fertilising moment for English verse.
This isn’t a book to read in a mean spirit – it’s not offered in one, the writing’s too exuberant and unguarded, vividly conjuring the place and time; even the most ordinary memories are recouped with a poet’s specificity: ‘I remember … the electric kettle’s first, fugitive stir of sound, like a bush roused by the wind … waiting for the tea to steep … the colour would begin to rise, a lemon yellow darkening to gold. It held like a well-struck note.’ Its world isn’t fortified with protective ironies, but offered up disarmingly, complete with the strangest twist of that particular cultural moment – how comfortably all these bohemian excesses seemed to coexist with Oxford life. It’s not only the overlap between the academic and poetry worlds, and the way that mapped onto a whole sociology in which student excesses were part of a ritualised class initiation (a detective sergeant questioning Garfitt over dealing hash reproached him mildly: ‘We don’t like to see a young gentleman like yourself getting caught up in all this’). Late in the story – by which time Garfitt has spent months in a locked ward of a psychiatric hospital, been arrested by the Drug Squad, contemplated ‘life on the run’, and presumably left the quiet rhythms of undergraduate study far behind – Merton, his college, decreed that while he would be allowed to sit Finals, he would not be allowed to take his degree and his ‘name would be struck from the rolls of the college.’ It was this last that really appalled him: ‘to have my name struck from the rolls of the college! As freshmen we had been taken up to the Savile Room to inscribe our names into a massive leather-bound book that lay open on the table. That was the moment when I felt myself entering into a history that went back to 1264.’ He kept having a dream in which he walked the upper rooms of some collegiate space, and the dons looked up at him kindly ‘as if I were returning from a long exile’.
When he woke from the dream, he was ‘never sure whether to be amused or embarrassed’; he goes on to identify that dreaming conservative part of himself – rather resentfully – with his mother, who is a potent absence in much of this memoir. ‘In my subconscious I was still my mother’s son,’ he writes, in a twist on the classic formula in which the son has to struggle with his father in order to remake his identity (it feels strained, making his mother answerable for the male camaraderie of Oxford). Tracing a genealogy for his poetry, Garfitt looks with admiration and love beyond his poet mentors to his father the horse-breaker and his grandfather the shoe-repairer, admiring their precision and mastery, making it analogous to the process by which he brings a poem in from nothingness: ‘I began to drift purposefully, waiting for the pull of the next phrase.’
Yet his father earned a living as a barrister – what could be more establishment? – and the stables were only his hobby. We don’t learn much about Garfitt’s mother except that she was pale, tight-lipped, shy, anxious in the face of authority; he says at one point that he ‘needed a different mother’ (and temporarily attached himself to one or two). He found himself, when his father was in his mid-forties, ‘sharing the favours of one stable girl’ with him; the vocabulary is squire-ish and he is chiefly interested in what it means for them as men: ‘I just considered myself lucky to have won my share.’ ‘My father had come into his own, in a way that was hard on my mother, who was four years older,’ he comments. We pick up on her difficult experience of her son’s breakdown, and can’t but feel for her; Garfitt mentions railing at her while she drove him home from Oxford in a little blue van, ‘throwing myself back in the passenger seat and kicking against the dashboard’.
That business of passing on male power – mastery – between generations, the pain of the process, and its costs, are part of what this memoir is about. In ‘The Third Time’, a poem from this period, the struggle to write and the struggle to become oneself sound like the same thing:
To build an edifice
and the base is rotten
To build it again, honestly, gingerly
it gives way again
To rebuild now, the third time, slowly,
to place each brick in the fear
that somehow it cannot stand
is work for the damned.
During his time at Oxford, Garfitt lost himself spectacularly, and there’s a long account of his developing paranoia, reading signs where none is intended, imagining himself doing a screen test for a part as Willie Garvin (the tough guy in the Modesty Blaise comic strip), dancing in front of stony-faced bus drivers in Cornmarket. The publication of this book coincided with that of the poet and novelist Richard Gwyn’s The Vagabond’s Breakfast, another enthralling memoir of a young man going deeply and terribly astray, more or less a decade after Garfitt.Gwyn fell even further and harder, bumming his way round southern Europe for ten years, winding up alcoholic and destitute, contracting hepatitis C en route. Garfitt’s one inept expedition to the South of France in pursuit of a girlfriend he never tracked down – dancing to the Stones to entertain the locals, getting into fights – makes him sound an innocent abroad by contrast; it’s amazing what he got away with. A lot can change in ten years, and by the time Gwyn made his continental tour, the subculture circuit of adventurers and dropouts was a tougher proposition altogether.
Garfitt, in any case, didn’t come from a background that would make for smooth assimilation into Oxford: his uncles Billy and Peter worked on the steam trains, one grandfather had an oil shop in Battersea. It was Garfitt’s father who made the characteristic postwar breakthrough into relative prosperity and middle-class respectability (no room in his trajectory for dropping off the edge of anything); but his joy was in horses, and he never left behind his practical skills, bricklaying or pouring a cement floor. The first third of The Horseman’s Word isn’t about Oxford at all; it’s a celebration, richly eloquent in its detail (‘the water butt, its soaked wood black and speckled with green mould’), of Garfitt’s childhood experience of that universe of manual work. Its solidities operate as an imaginative anchor, grounding the later excesses; the language is full of Rilkean regret for a vanished past whose ordinarinesses were charged with significance. ‘In the morning all was warmth and benediction. We would be brought tea and biscuits, and the jug taken down to be filled. It returned with a steam fragrance, a vapour that seemed lighter and thinner and sweeter than came from the hot tap at home.’ Taken to visit the gentleman farmer Mr Trenowath, the boy Roger learns awe at an old order which makes his father tactful, careful not to trespass. ‘I perched myself in the window seat and fixed my gaze on the hall, on the stones’ armoured gleam that seemed to stretch back seven or eight hundred years.’ At the memoir’s end when, finished with Oxford, he is working in a canning factory, putting strawberries into the cold store to be shipped out to Australia for ice lollies, it’s made to feel less like failure, and more like a return to the place he started from, which will earth him and release him to write.