For the first 37 of my 40 years, with occasional exceptions of a month or two, I lived in a caravan. The last 20 of those years I spent in the same caravan on a small site in rural Ayrshire. It had two main advantages. The rent, just £14 a week when I finally left, was cheap. And it was surrounded by countryside. The caravan had no running water, a result of a winter leak, which rotted half the chipboard floor and left me, Sir Impractical, paranoid about burst pipes. Though it was plumbed in, I took 14 years to get round to connecting up the pipes again. I recall a character in a Gavin Maxwell book asking the whereabouts of the toilet. ‘Why,’ came the reply, ‘the whole hillside is a toilet!’ I had a toilet block two hundred yards distant, but the adjacent hedge also served in moments of desperation. And the lack of running water was a good excuse to learn the constellations. There was little else to look at, while filling a bucket with water at an outside tap on a starry night.
The caravan. When I left it in 1997, to take up position as Writer-in-Residence in Hugh MacDiarmid’s cottage, Brownsbank, I had lived on the site at least a decade longer than my nearest rival in endurance. ‘Endurance’, perhaps, is an exaggeration. I often enjoyed living so near to the ground that if I fell over, speaking metaphorically, I hardly knew about it. I liked to open the kitchen door on a winter night to the Universe infinite beyond my small lit cell. I sometimes enjoyed being aware of the rain drumming on the roof, even as I was conscious that it would worsen the leak in the corner of the bedroom which grew steadily more extensive over my 20-year residence. It had been a mere drip at first. My attempt to fix it only resulted in a slow spreading seepage that buckled half of the ceiling in the bedroom. I have always distrusted the physical universe.
The caravan. 28 feet by 9 feet of aluminium, chipboard, and iron. I bought it secondhand, or ‘previously enjoyed’ as the rubric now has it, for £600 in 1977. I was eighteen, and temporarily solvent.
The caravan. A fridge in winter. An oven (turned on) in summer. On frosty nights, caravans produce condensation. The windows literally weep with it. This then freezes when the occupants go to bed, and forms a spectacular coating of ice ferns brash across the windows by morning. In the blue light of dawn, it looks as if the windows have all developed
cataracts. I remember a next-door neighbour unused to such vicissitudes. It was his first caravan winter. He had risen for work at 6am on one such morning. His gas had run out. He exclaimed, recounting the incident, with almost comic outrage, “Gettin up inside this caravan this mornin was like gettin up in the middle o an iceberg!” Conversely, in summer the temperatures could be high enough to turn butter to a yellow pool. I had no fridge. And, in winter, I didn’t need one.
‘And did you have books in this caravan?’ the gentle editor of this publication asked, in ascertaining my suitability to write this essay. Yes, I had books. I had so many books they probably prevented the structure being scattered across Ayrshire in the winter gales. I had so many that, shortly before I had to have the caravan scrapped, I didn’t just select my chosen book from a shelf, unless I was lucky. I had to go on an expedition to find my book. I had to excavate my book, aided by a vague memory of its being somewhere behind the fifth stack in the corner, stacks so perilously balanced that one wrong move would send a dozen stacks teetering, like dominoes. By the end, I didn’t ‘have’ a library. I lived in one. Actually, ‘library’ is an over-glamorous description. I lived in a dusty, chaotic, caravan warehouse of books, a cornucopia messy and shambling as the Internet. I took to worrying that my main bookcase would fall forward and kill my cat as she slept on the couch below, a worry rectified by attaching the bookcase by a metal bracket to a wooden partition dividing the living room from the kitchen. The bookcase’s shelves were so buckled and bowed by volumes that were it a sound it would have been a shriek. I reinforced its shelves with metal brackets, too.
In line with my policy of basic living, I possessed no TV. Quizzed on this by the TV licensing people, I wrote, with the pomposity of the 20 year-old caravan intellectual, that I preferred reading Wittgenstein’s Tractacus, a book I had only recently heard of at the time and thought sounded impressive. A dilatory autodidact, I have always aspired to scholarship.
My unofficial career as book collector/reader had begun long before I owned my own caravan, albeit with comics. When I was nine, living in Hampshire with my family, every Saturday morning I would cycle the mile into the village of Fawley to pick up my Marvel comic at the local newsagents. Captain America! Spider Man! Thor the Thunder God! The X-Men (and one token woman)! I was so taken with Thor and his continual battles with Loki, god of the underworld, that I had one of my uncles make me a mallet like his, but from wood. The real Thor was the only person who could lift his mallet. The real Thor’s mallet, when he threw it at something (which he did only at the bad guys such as Loki) always returned to him, like a boomerang. My mallet refused to obey similar laws. It could be lifted by anyone, even my younger sister. It never returned to me of its own accord. I had to go and get it. Further, unlike Thor’s, it never sped clean as an arrow to its target, but twirled over and over, chaotically, like a catherine wheel. An early lesson on the distance between fantasy and reality.
I also recall another character, Namor the Submariner, ‘Lord of Atlantis’, stunning of physique, and amphibious. He had little wings on his ankles and webs between his fingers. He was equally at home in the upper air or in the cold gloomy reaches of the sea. Then there was Dr. Strange, haunter of the gusty alleys, with his ‘amulet’, the first time I had encountered the word. When the TV flickered or misbehaved, I would narrow my eyes and concentrate on making it return to normal. That’s what Dr Strange would have done.
One day when I was 11 or 12, at Birtley in county Durham, I was introduced to birdnesting by the local boys. Egg-collecting became a brief passion. The first real book I spent my ‘own’ money on cost 50p. It was the little Observer’s Book of British Birds, published by Frederick Warne, printed on glossy paper in a pocket format, complete with colour and black and white plates, devoting two pages to each bird. I remember looking through it and being fascinated that all these creatures existed, out there around me, in the world. Which didn’t stop me stealing their eggs. But by the time I was 14 I had graduated to morality, where birds were concerned. My second major book was the AA Book of British Birds. It so enamoured me as a bird-obsessed fifteen year old that I wrote about it for my English ‘O’ level. Its Latin names were a litany I would recite silently to myself in the face of threatening females. My first book, then, was a key. My second book, let me face it, was a woman-substitute.
The books we buy, whether from Oxfam or from Thins, are an external guide to our admissible inner weathers. In my early twenties, photographing moths, or crabs in aquaria, or dragonflies in little sets on my kitchen table, I bought photographic books. When I was 24, writing hack journalism for Reader’s Digest and others, I began writing poetry. My shelves filled slowly with anthologies and volumes by individual poets. By 1997, these included the two limited editions of A.D. Hope, the Australian poet, sent me by his son after I wrote to the old poet, now bedridden, requesting a poem for my poetry magazine, The Dark Horse. They included books like the Penguin Selected Poems of Robert Frost edited by Ian Hamilton which I bought in Kilmarnock. I read it so often that the pages were falling out.
Books can also have a talismanic quality. I recall finding Edwin Morgan’s signed copy of X. J. Kennedy’s An Introduction to Poetry in Voltaire and Rousseau’s, years before I met either poet. One summer day, after being dragged out of a pub where England were playing Scotland, I discovered in a Shelter Shop in Glasgow’s Byres Road W.S. Graham’s hardback first volume of verse, Cage Without Grievance, published in Glasgow in 1942. It is signed and dated by the author in a beautiful, cursive, flamboyant script, and inscribed to Norman Thompson. The introduction to Graham’s Selected Letters adds an interesting detail:it was Norman Thompson who introduced Graham to Edwin Morgan, which led to an important friendship for both poets. I was recently informed by Michael Snow, the editor of Graham’s letters, that my copy of Cage Without Grievance is probably worth £200. It cost me 50p. I am not tempted to sell it. Graham lived in a caravan too, though only for three or four years.
I have a confession to make. I am trying to cure myself of my propensity for book collecting. When I left for Brownsbank, my library, that is, my caravan, had to be scrapped. Up into my parents’ loft most of my books went, in boxes and suitcases and black bags.
So many books went up there that, for a while, I worried about the safety of my parents sleeping in the bedroom below. I imagined them buried under a small mountain as they lay in their bed, only their feet left sticking out, giving new meaning to the phrase, ‘lost in books’. Someday, I am confident, I will retrieve them all. I think of them there in the darkness, packed in boxes; title on title, silent and rather mysterious, their purchase a forgotten map of days at Voltaire and Rousseau’s, or numerous Oxfams.
The book is dead? Long live the book, say I. Long live my parents, too.