One word says to its mate

Claire Harman

  • The Nightfisherman: Selected Letters of W.S. Graham edited by Michael Snow and Margaret Snow
    Carcanet, 401 pp, £12.95, November 1999, ISBN 1 85754 445 5

In the Tate Gallery St Ives exhibition catalogue for 1995 there is a comical photograph of the painter Bryan Wynter and some friends at Zennor in themid-1950s. They are seated round a bottle-strewn table. Wynter is smiling absently, Karl Weschke is looking down at his hands or the tablecloth, a woman lies slumped in an armchair and a young man holds his head in an attitude of total weariness. At the other side of the table, the poet W.S. Graham is holding forth. He sits bolt upright, stabbing the air with the fingers of one hand; it looks as though an electric shock is passing through his body. It seems as if no one in the room apart from Graham has said anything for some time.

The picture illustrates Graham’s ardent, aggressive manner and also his isolation. ‘A kind of Jock agin the world’ is how he described himself, only half-jokingly, in a letter written at a low ebb in 1949. His career began auspiciously in the early 1940s with the enthusiastic support of his hero Dylan Thomas, but the surrealism of his early collections, such as Cage without Grievance and 2ND Poems, seemed to mark him out as an oddity who could easily be ignored. The White Threshold in 1949 and The Nightfishing in 1955 made a conscious break with his earliest work, but just at the point at which he began to win recognition, he appeared to give up writing. Though he continued to publish in little magazines throughout the 1960s, there was a 15-year silence between The Nightfishing and Malcolm Mooney’s Land, during which, it is said, his publisher, Faber, assumed (possibly hoped) the poet had died.

Even within the brotherhood of the St Ives group, Graham’s poetry was little read or appreciated. The links between Graham and the painters Roger Hilton, Peter Lanyon, Bryan Wynter, Karl Weschke and Sven Berlin were forged by his understanding of their work: it was his dedication to art, rather than his own art, that impressed them. Hilton said he found Graham’s poems ‘too obscure’, provoking a remarkably restrained reply: ‘I thought I was making some headway in uniting you with another medium viz poetry . . . Allow yourself to encounter the mystery occasionally and don’t ask the thing from an object which it is not.’ The failure of his painter friends to ‘encounter the mystery’ did not sour relations between them, however easily offended Graham could be over much more trivial matters. It demonstrated what his work was about, as he defined it in 1970: ‘The poet only speaks one way. He hears nothing back. His words as he utters them are not conditioned by a real ear replying from the other side.’ Graham’s later poems are full of images of imprisonment, from the ice-bound narrator of ‘Malcolm Mooney’s Land’ to the solitary confinement of ‘Clusters Travelling Out’ and the visored knight in ‘Imagine a Forest’, vainly struggling to speak. Ironically, it was these later poems dramatising his predicament (including his powerful elegies to Wynter, Hilton and Lanyon) which at last brought him a sizable audience.

The Nightfisherman, a selection of Graham’s letters by his friends Michael and Margaret Snow, with 19 poems, photographs, drawings and his essay ‘Notes on a Poetry of Release’, is the most useful and revealing book on the poet yet published and sets out the clearest record of his life. Graham was born into a blue-collar family in Greenock in 1918, and brought up in a flat which overlooked a shipyard, with a view of the Clyde and the mountains of the Trossachs. He followed his father’s profession and was apprenticed to an engineer in his early teens, but by the end of his training had begun to write poems and attend evening classes in art and literature, later enrolling at a WEA college outside Edinburgh to study literature and philosophy. The course included afternoons of gardening and lessons in country dancing, and probably did little more than introduce Graham to his subjects and fuel his anxieties about being an ill-educated ‘peasant’. Nevertheless he seized on Heraclitus, Hopkins and James Joyce in particular in his one year as a student and developed demanding tastes in music, literature and art.

Graham became a farm-labourer in Galway, travelled with a fair and worked on the docks in Dublin to avoid conscription in 1939, but failed his Army medical anyway and was sent to work in a Clydeside torpedo factory. He wrote The Seven Journeys at this time (it wasn’t published until 1944) and made friends with David Archer, the publisher and bookseller whose Scott Street Arts Centre in Glasgow was a venue for the avant-garde of the interwar years. Graham met Dylan Thomas there, who was sufficiently impressed to include a Graham poem at the end of one of his own readings. Thomas was respectful, friendly and offered ‘help about reviewers etc’, as Graham lets slip with pride in a letter to the poet and editor William Montgomerie. Even mild patronage from Thomas was enough to encourage Graham to dedicate himself, romantically, impractically and single-mindedly, to writing poetry. With the exception of a short period of teaching in 1942-43 and a disastrous spell as an advertising copywriter in 1950, he never attempted full-time work again.

Graham’s first book, Cage without Grievance, was published in 1942 by Archer’s Parton Press, the first to publish Thomas, George Barker and David Gascoyne. The poems were exotic and deliberately obscure, with no explicit themes but a mesmerising vigour and urgency: ‘I, no more real than evil in my roof/Speak at the bliss I pass I can endure/Crowding the glen my lintel marks’. There was a pastoral feel to the book, and some deliberately arty elements such as the use of Old English alliterative patterns (‘Children cartwheel from prison in procession’, ‘Who cough their stories in the curving siding’). Occasionally a line appears to confound expectations (the first stanza of ‘I, no more real . . .’ ends with the lyrical iambic pentameter, ‘I feel the glass collide with light and day’), but it is impossible to judge what effect was intended. Dylan Thomas may have been happy to intone the poems at his reading (they are remarkably sonorous), but their difficulty prompted unenthusiastic reviews, including Hugh MacDiarmid’s dismissive description of Graham as ‘an adolescent playing with the materials of great poetry’.

2ND Poems, published in 1945, continued in much the same non-representative, non-functional vein. Graham was preoccupied with encouraging the reader to read differently. The title of ‘Allow Silk Birds that See’ is made up of the first words of the poem’s first five lines, a trick which (if you happen to spot it) sets you off looking for further acrostics and perhaps a key with which to unlock the poem. It’s a wild goose chase: the ‘puzzle’ means nothing in particular.

The title of 2ND Poems was itself cryptic, containing a dedication ‘To N.D.’ – Agnes (Nessie) Dunsmuir, a girl Graham had met at college. Nessie went to live in Cornwall with Graham in 1944 in a pair of caravans belonging to Graham’s previous girlfriend, Mary Harris. Harris and Graham had briefly been colleagues at Kilquhanity progressive school in Galloway and, even more briefly, cohabitants in Cornwall. They separated while Harris was pregnant and she moved back to Scotland to bring up their daughter, Rosalind, on her own. Graham’s few enquiries about his only child, which include ‘What age exactly is Rosalind?’ when she was four, indicate that this was a wise decision on Harris’s part. Graham was obsessively focused on poetry (mostly his own); it was his ‘sustaining occupation’ and he deliberately avoided anything that might distract him from it, such as ordinary work, family commitments or the acquisition of material goods.

The fact that Nessie Dunsmuir was prepared to tolerate his uncomfortable way of life and to subsidise it by years of poorly paid part-time work in local hotels cemented Graham’s dependence on her. His own periods of casual work, as a labourer, an auxiliary coastguard and fisherman, never lasted long and most of the time he and Nessie lived like Gypsies, stealing turnips from a neighbouring field, picking violets to sell for a few pence to passers-by, scouring the beach for driftwood and booty (he writes with glee of having acquired a lemon this way). Graham was often stuck in the caravans with only his own singing or declaiming voice for recreation and something unpalatable like a sheep’s head boiling on the primus: ‘The wind blows and the caravan wheels refuse to go round and the brain springs out N, S, E and West but Jock Graham stays here as put as anything was ever put.’

The sense of stasis lasted throughout his life. The caravans were replaced by a cottage in Mevagissey and later by very modest homes at Gurnard’s Head and in Madron (the latter given to him and Nessie rent-free for life by the painter Nancy Wynne-Jones), as Graham became less and less inclined to move about. Though he craved new experiences and foreign travel, he couldn’t cope with either, however much he savoured his memories of travel. His trips to Iceland in 1961 and to Crete three years later (more gifts from Wynne-Jones) and his reading tours to the US and Canada were marked by depression and drunken bad behaviour.

Graham’s asceticism and what Donald Davie called ‘the hieratic solemnity’ with which he took his own poetic vocation could be both romantic and manipulative. The editors of these letters tell us that when Graham moved from Gurnard’s Head in 1962, he simply walked out of the house, leaving his belongings behind and the door open. This sounds exciting, but only for Graham: did Nessie not feel obliged to salvage some or all of their meagre belongings later? Graham specialised in disingenuousness: ‘Remember this is not a funny half-blackmail-lone,’ he wrote to Bryan Wynter in one of the many expert begging letters contained in this collection. Like heck it wasn’t. Graham’s forthrightness was almost always a means of evasion. ‘Am I being very cunning?’ he wrote to Michael Snow with a bold-faced request for some free writing paper. ‘I don’t mean to be although I am very cunning by nature of course I am not such a sweet man am I. I am the merry ploughboy travelled into skitzoid.’

Even Graham’s jokes had an edge to them. He once made everyone in his local pub simulate the noise of a storm so that he could re-enter the building more dramatically: he left them whooshing and didn’t come back. His social manner ranged from difficult to impossible, especially among strangers, whom he couldn’t face at all unless he was drunk. He seems to have suffered from (or rather, inflicted on others) a kind of neurotic misanthropy. Graham ‘in some way contrived to promote unpleasantness around him’, Julian Maclaren-Ross wrote in Memoirs of the Forties:

His expression was that of one stolidly bearing up under constant injustice or undeserved misfortune, and an atmosphere of brooding perpetually surrounded him. He sat over his beer as if reviewing every insult he had ever received with the purpose of devising effectual retorts for the future. In fact nobody insulted him at all and most people had a great respect for his poetry.

This was in the late 1940s, when Graham was separated from Nessie and moved about restlessly between the borrowed cottage in Mevagissey and various friends’ flats in London. When he had money, he took amphetamines or drank (often dangerously much: he once fell off a roof in St Ives), and when he didn’t have money he faced a creative and social void. In London, he relied on his Fitzrovia friends, memorably evoked in a letter to Bryan Wynter: ‘AH AH and the ghosts, the weeping whisky-reeking wraith of MacBryde, the hunched overcoated sliding-down form of Colquhoun, big fat almost-solid ascending Davenport, Coughing Kavenagh, and dear old gracefully shrieking Johnnie of the thin brittle Mintons, and maybe even old high on a stool crosslegged in life-battered stockings, Nina.’

It was during this period that Eliot accepted The White Threshold for publication. Graham knew that Faber’s ‘snob stamp’ would help him. Though most of the poems were as obscurely constructed as before (‘Strike deadly through my piling justices,/ Roof of my grave, sky of my histories’), there was some conventional syntax, partial rhyme and thematic coherence – a result of Graham’s increasing preoccupation with marine images. ‘The poems are, generally speaking, easier,’ Graham admitted to William Montgomerie. ‘The critics with no real measurements of their own will be helped a wee bit. And a wee so-slight poem like Gigha will let people see “he really can write poetry” (I hope). It is a pity and sad that it really works this way.’

Graham’s next book, The Nightfishing (1955), was demanding in a new way; the title poem was some five hundred lines long. But at the same time, Graham had loosened the texture of his poetry and introduced a literal, not to say documentary, element: ‘The Nightfishing’ is as much about herring fishing as about language, writing and identity. It is a kind of sea eclogue in which poet and working man are one and the same:

Now better white I can say what’s better sighted,

The white net flashing under the watched water,

The near net dragging back with the full belly

Of a good take certain, so drifted easy

Slow down on us or us hauled up upon it

Curved in a garment down to thicker fathoms.

The hauling nets come in sawing the gunwale

With herring scales.

The early poems were in flux, linguistically and syntactically discontinuous; ‘The Nightfishing’ makes flux an explicit theme as the narrator tries to identify the ‘ghostly constant’ of the self. It is deliberately ambitious in ways that weren’t readily perceived; critics seemed relieved that Graham had at last ‘found his voice’, though the poet was always more interested in evicting himself from each new position gained. ‘What do I write to say? I don’t know,’ he complained to Edwin Morgan in an undated letter (probably from the early 1950s). ‘The kind of poem I want to write is very far away from even TNF’ – ‘The Nightfishing’ – ‘I know more about poetry than I’ve ever done before. Maybe that is what is wrong but I don’t believe that . . . If I could write more poems of the intellectual and language texture of the White Threshold poems I wouldn’t. It’s an ironic business.’ The idea of ‘success’ was ludicrous to him, as he wrote to Robin Skelton: ‘There is the silence before one just as difficult to disturb significantly as before. What one has learned is inadequate against the new silence presented. WOW!’

It followed that Graham was a harsh critic, impatient of ‘the temptation of the weak moment . . . to say the easier more attractive thing’. His remarks to David Wright about Wright’s ‘Walking to Dedham’ would seem quelling had they not been made in the context of a flatteringly close reading:

the first phrase which weakens is – ‘the wisdom of the year’. ‘Year’ in itself is not a very physical or visual word but ‘flowers of the year’ or ‘colours of the year’ though not very exciting could hold a position in a poem which would fusify them. But ‘wisdom’ is so difficult a word . . . For me, David, ‘the wisdom of the year’ is a let-down after the first five lines. Other parts of the poem where this same abstract, false-profound, quality occurs – ‘the world be coming real’ – ‘central folds of peace’.

To Edwin Morgan, the recipient of Graham’s most revealing letters about poetic practice, he vents his loathing of archaisms, formulaic phrases and ‘fitted-in’ elements: ‘“stiff” so weakens the fine “starlike” applied to feet of the birds. Sometimes withstanding the temptation to govern the object to a greater exactness results in it being left more fresh and vivid.’ Most of his objection to the ‘Scottish Renaissance’, in which he wanted no part, was that it was insufficiently demanding: ‘I would like to see more disturbance in the language,’ he wrote to Morgan, on receipt of the supposedly ground-breaking Scottish International of 1969. Synthetic Scots irritated him and he scorned what he saw as the posturings of ‘The Bard’ MacDiarmid, rightly identifying a more authentic tradition in his own work: ‘although I don’t write in the Lallans, my verse has a Northern hardness and texture which is Scots.’

Graham devoted minute attention to the analysis of his own writing and there is a particularly interesting letter to Norman Macleod about reading ‘The Nightfishing’ in a radio studio in 1960:

good real verse (which is a reflection of the very starts and stops, grimaces and serenities, gestures of the ideas of the mind) should always have its almost hesitation for a moment between one line and the next. That is why we make our ‘say’ in lines. Speaking between somehow the spaces which occur between the tyranny of the metronomic in a strange way enables us to say something which we could never elsewhere have said with all the complete silence of the times at our disposal.

This matter of where, when and how words fall in a poem and the strangeness of the way they change in context fascinated Graham. As early as 1943, he had written to Morgan: ‘I am always so first to say love the words the single words that have a heart and a world in them which beats and changes to a new rhythm in every new position of context’ (a view which became even more explicit three years later, when he stated ‘the meaning of a word in a poem is never more than its position’). He draws Morgan’s attention to the word ‘ephemeral’, recurrent in Cage without Grievance, but each book has its own obsessional words and chiming rhyme-words, puns and distortions on a theme. Graham liked to ‘disturb’ words in order to make them say more – ‘His writing battle’ in ‘Of the Resonant Rumour of Sun, Impulse of Summer’ suggests ‘writing table’; ‘arse-versa’ in ‘Approaches to How They Behave’ ‘vice-versa’; and so on. As late as 1977 Graham was still having to explain these effects to the poetry editor at the BBC, puzzled by some possible misprints in ‘Johann Joachim Quantz’s Five Lessons’: ‘Of course I mean “arpeggios”. That’s why I said “archipelagos”’; ‘“transverse” is more logically acceptable but “traverse” in the poem goes with its surrounding language.’

‘A word is exciting because of its surroundings,’ he wrote to David Wright in 1945. By the mid-1950s Graham’s habitual mode of composition was to pin dozens of bits of paper with words or phrases in his bold black handwriting to the wall of his room. These would get shuffled around, removed or added to, and he delighted in the accidents of sense that emerged. In the later poems the independence of words on paper becomes a slightly menacing thing. In ‘Approaches to How They Behave’, the words converse with each other on the page; in ‘Clusters Travelling Out’ the ‘tempered mesh’ dividing the imprisoned speaker from the outside world suggests the paper in the poet’s typewriter, through which, in ‘Untidy Dreadful Table’, he ‘hammers’ himself at the reader: ‘Of course I see you backwards covered/With words backwards from the other side.’

Graham’s interest in the possibilities of abstraction set him far apart from his contemporaries on the postwar British poetry scene. In ‘Notes on a Poetry of Release’, an article for Poetry Scotland in 1946 which is republished in the same volume as Graham’s letters, he made a remarkable statement about what poems might be thought to ‘do’ and where they take place: ‘The poem itself is dumb but has the power of release . . . The poem is not a handing-out of the same packet to everyone, as it is not a thrown-down heap of words for us to choose the bonniest. The poem is the replying chord to the reader. It is the reader’s involuntary reply.’ He was prepared to share the creative act between poet and reader – or, alternatively, to deny that there was anything ‘creative’ going on at all. ‘It is no help to think of the purpose as being to “transfuse recollected emotion” or to “report significantly” or indeed to think of it as a putting-across of anything,’ he wrote in the same article. Art was never to be a test, either of taste or intellect. It had no pure meaning, and whatever it began by meaning would always be distorted en route from writer to reader. These conditions excited him intensely and kept him barricaded inside his ‘always personal world’ in order to ‘make an addition to other people’s worlds’: ‘That very abstract dimension in the poem,’ he wrote wisely to Wynter in 1958, ‘is what creates the reader’s release into the human world of another.’

Writing to Edwin Morgan in 1949, Graham imagined the kind of attention his work might receive at best:

I know that if I become well-known and at all ‘famous’ in my lifetime it will not be at all important but will mean just that that larger public, who draw a certain self-conscious and nostalgic excitement from running their eyes along the words in my poems, believe I am a poet of some magnitude because ‘the few’ believe so.

When Malcolm Mooney’s Land was published in 1970, this sardonic prophecy seemed in danger of coming true. The style of the new book was ostentatiously clear, the tone sly and playful: it was so different from his earlier poetry, according to the critic Tony Lopez, ‘as to appear written by someone else’:

One word says to its mate O

I do not think we go together

Are we doing any good here

Why do we find ourselves put down?

(‘Approaches to How They Behave’)

The collection was a Poetry Book Society choice and in the same year Graham won a Scottish Arts Council Award and shared a Penguin Modern Poets anthology with David Gascoyne and Kathleen Raine. He was suddenly in demand for broadcasts and readings, where audiences murmured appreciatively at his jokes. He was interviewed for the Observer colour supplement and kissed by Edna O’Brien, but privately, as the letters reveal, he was disturbed by recognition. Kathleen Raine’s admiration made him uneasy – ‘it must surely be (for what I would think) the wrong reason’ – and of his poetry in general he wondered: ‘Who will it reach? Only the kind of people I wouldn’t like anyhow. What a prospect.’

Graham’s sense of betrayal anticipated the way his work has been represented posthumously, as only really beginning with Malcolm Mooney’s Land. All his critics other than Lopez have concluded that Graham ‘came late to his true voice’; typically, they praise ‘the honed spareness’ of the ‘mature’ work by stressing its difference from the earlier poetry, which even Graham’s loyal supporter Ronnie Duncan has dismissed as the ‘overblown, windy, Thomas-esque rhetoric of the apprentice’. None of these commentators notes that the reviled style of the earlier work persisted pretty much intact in individual poems (such as ‘Dear Who I Mean’) or that Malcolm Mooney’s Land was as much a gloss on Graham’s previous work as any kind of ‘solution’ to it. The Nightfisherman overturns the idea of Graham ‘progressing’ from one manner to another; the vehemence and persistence with which he champions his entire output in these letters spanning 47 years will undoubtedly affect the way he is read in future.

One of his most significant letters was written in September 1943 to Morgan, in response to his severe judgment of Cage without Grievance as ‘unreal, without meaning, severed from true and naked emotion and shy of true thought’. Graham’s reply is a brilliant indictment of what is conventionally expected from poetry:

People write and write so sweating that it should say something worthy and valuable to humanity that some comparative wisdom is tortured into the world, recognisable and able to be valued on its plane of the world’s philosophy, so that the poet is assured and a bit certain that it is good (for does it not measure favourable with the things we know) and the public are a bit certain that they are not being hoaxed (for here is something we understand) and another bad poem is made, a nice rivetted up wagon whose wheels all go silently round over the tested and known-to-be-good rails with its cargo of 100 tons Thought which is known to be a good weight.

Graham struggled to prove that this didn’t have to be so. The poet should not have to write in ‘recognisable’ ways in order to be trusted. ‘The poet does not write what he knows but what he doesn’t know,’ he continues. ‘Please Morgan . . . be patient with the poems they are great poems only to me but they should not be so bad for you.’

Graham’s strong feelings about the unity of his work show most clearly in the story behind the publication of his 1979 Collected Poems, revealed here for the first time. The book was made up of the later collections reprinted whole and the early ones in part, which led Ronnie Duncan to conclude (in a 1994 Festschrift) that it was ‘rigorously edited’ by the poet to suppress youthful mistakes and ought to be ‘downgraded to the status of Selected’ by default. The letters show the opposite to be true. What Graham’s publisher, Charles Monteith of Faber, first suggested in 1978 was a 48-page Selected Poems which would not include any of the early work. Graham wrote back tetchily: ‘My dear Charles, do you not see those early books are coming into “use”? Be a not too patient publisher and fight . . . to get those books into another edition.’ Monteith backed down fairly quickly, knowing from experience how forceful Graham could be (Graham’s 1977 letter demanding the withdrawal of the typographical ornaments from Implements in Their Places is a superb example of this ‘forcefulness’). The result was a Collected Poems five times longer than the planned Selected, including a large selection from the early books and everything from The Nightfishing onwards complete.

The letters are strikingly consistent – almost continuous at times in language and tone – with the late poems that were thought to have sprung from nowhere in 1970. ‘Lend me your painting I (eye) for a mo,’ from a 1966 letter to Roger Hilton, recalls (or anticipates) ‘Uneasy, lovable man, give me your painting/Hand’ from ‘The Thermal Stair’ (addressed to Lanyon), as ‘You and I have had some times of valuable Hell together’ does ‘we had/Terrible times together’ from ‘Lines on Roger Hilton’s Watch’. ‘The Beast in the Space’ begins ‘Shut up. Shut up. There’s nobody here’ and a letter to Duncan (accompanying a draft of the poem) contains the aside: ‘Shut up. Shut up. Give him your love.’ Graham builds up a fondness for certain words and phrases in his letters which then pass into the poetry (the couplet that appears twice in ‘Implements in Their Places’ – ‘Somewhere our belonging particles/Believe in us. If we could only find them’ – seems to have started life as a motto repeated to friends); the letters are as revealing in this way as any of the poet’s published drafts and notebooks.

Some of the letters in The Nightfisherman look like poems, notably one to Moncrieff Williamson in the summer of 1950, written during Graham’s brief attempt at an office job (‘friday dear crieff hows things for here i am/working away and writing great and enduring/copy about soap furcoats airoengines chanelle/et cetera’), but the results are never poems, nor meant to be, as he wrote to Hilton:

The funny thing is that the point of

putting the words down in a seeming

verse form is real. It is not for

fun or to make it mysterious. Fuck


Conversely, many of Graham’s poems are written as letters, often with deliberate irony about the degree of intimacy he can achieve – ‘How are the Children Robin’, ‘Private Poem to Norman Macleod’ or ‘Sgurr na Gillean Macleod’, which begins ‘Dear Makar Norman, here’s a letter’, and his elegies ‘The Thermal Stair’ and ‘Dear Bryan Wynter’, both addressed familiarly to friends who are beyond answering (but actually, of course, addressed to us strangers): ‘Speaking to you and not/Knowing if you are there/Is not too difficult./My words are used to that.’

Belligerent and defensive in life, Graham often seems to be aiming the literary equivalent of a knock-out blow at his reader: ‘What is there to say back to that eh? Eh eh eh eh?’ he crowed to John Minton in 1945 after a remarkable display of punning and crudity, and, more slyly, to Michael Snow in 1980, after a (seemingly) confidential account of his loneliness and rising panic on the first day of one of Nessie’s absences, ‘Do you think it is too early to try to go to sleep?’ In the poems, these manoeuvres underline the artifice – for example, the last section of ‘Enter a Cloud’, in which the poet gives a vote of thanks to the constituent parts of the poem – but it is rather a shock to see Graham using similar tricks privately. Many of the letters seem to have been composed as demonstrations of his own oddity. A transitional passage made up of tags and mottoes from a letter to Karl Weschke is typical: ‘To understand is far from being able to speak. Sympathy is an impediment. Ho Ho says the boy. Then let us steer our impediments. Good Boy. Come the boy now.’ How did Weschke answer that?

The literariness of Graham’s letters now works in their favour. The Nightfisherman is a fascinating book, full of headlong drunken punning, lonely rantings, bleak jokes and glimpses into intense and often troubled friendships, especially with Hilton, the ‘coal-black’ genius of St Ives. The pain of Graham’s life is dissipated, leaving the marks of a penetrating, devious mind, half-wanting to draw you in to his ‘always personal world’:

The thing is to find or create (in this case the same thing) a language, a timbre of thought or voice, which I will live in. It will never be adequate except for its moment but it will be the nearest to my soul speaking and as I change so it shall. A way of speaking, if it is any good, as it persists creates its understanders. Its early idiosyncracies become solid currency. It is alive, changing and organic. And at last works.