Saturday, 8 April 2017

A snippet of autobiography

I don’t know why I write. My parents weren’t what you’d call ‘arty’. My mother loved the theatre and painting flowers, but aside from the Desert Island Discs pairing of The Bible and Shakespeare, the books in the living room were mostly by Alistair Maclean and Hammond Innes. My father once bought an anthology of “story poems”, but this, it turned out, was because he wanted to learn a stretch of narrative verse to perform at one of the village amateur dramatic society’s music hall evenings. That said, my mother was descended from a family of art dealers and occasionally mentioned a book – a catalogue raisonnĂ© of Dutch and Flemish painters – which one of her forebears had published in the nineteenth century. It was simply known as “the book” and every time it was mentioned she’d wonder who had written it or whether any copies remained extant. My father – who was a flight engineer with what was then BOAC and travelled a lot – also began bringing home paintings by an artist in Tehran. Our living room was slightly unusual in having a portrait of an imam over the fireplace and a winter scene from rural Iran in the hall. When my mother felt like it, we would sometimes take out the complete works of Shakespeare and read plays together, she and I alternating lines. For some reason, she also asked me to write a poem to read out at one of the Christmas parties that they held – largely because everyone else in our street held Christmas parties – and that must have been the first poem I ever wrote. Its rather conventional – and presumably borrowed – gist is that Christmas has lost its meaning and become an orgy of materialism – although reading it now, I can’t help but detect the origins of a much later poem about suburban life, ‘Portishead’.
Whatever its satirical intent, the poem seemed to go down well enough and I wrote another, rather similar one about package holidays for one of my parents’ summer parties – also held because everyone else in our street held summer parties. This would have been when I was around 14 or 15 and writing a novel called ‘It could happen here’ in which my secondary school had become a prison camp. I bashed that out on an old manual typewriter that my father picked up at an auction in Leighton Buzzard. Large sections of the manuscript are in red ink because I never fully mastered how to change the ribbon and had to resort to using the red ribbon when the black one ran out. At some point, I also wrote a poem – plagiarised almost entirely from D.H. Lawrence and T.S. Eliot – called ‘Look, weed entwines in the tide’. My aunt – who worked in a pharmacy in Richmond that was frequented by rock stars on methadone scripts – showed it to someone who was the nephew of someone who was possibly quite important in a major publishing house. Whoever it was detected the DHL and TSE traces immediately, but suggested that, with a bit of practice, I might get the odd poem published somewhere (although not by his major publishing house).
Now eighteen, I went to Australia. I didn’t write anything much while I was there – aside from long, overly detailed letters to my father (so over-detailed that he insisted on several occasions that I fly home immediately) – but once I was back in England, the sparse landscapes around Dubbo in New South Wales and the end-of-the-road atmosphere in Cairns in Queensland (not then a go-to holiday destination) started making demands. Somehow I had to make sense of those places and writing about them seemed to be the only way to do it. I’m sure that I didn’t do them justice, but those flat horizons with intermittent trees, the smouldering tail-ends of bush fires and the St Andrew’s Cross spiders clacking their legs like knitting needles above us on a terrace in northern Queensland were probably what started this whole business of thinking that it’s possible to make small corners of sense in the world.

Tom Phillips