I was born in Derby, the cradle of the Industrial Revolution and therefore the unlikely birthplace of the modern world itself. Originally a market town, I have always had trouble regarding it as a city, despite its cathedral. My childhood years spanned the 1980s. It was the time of Thatcherite England and, while never regarding myself ultimately in political terms, even as a young boy there was no escape from politics. We lived in the shadow of the Iron Curtain and there seemed a very real threat of Soviet nuclear invasion that might, so we were told, terminate the entire species. The threat of AIDS meant that the very act which created us could now also destroy us. In England it was also the time of Arthur Scargill, pit closures and the miners’ strikes. I remember too the Gulf War breaking out on my fifteenth birthday.
By far my strongest sense of culture came from my immediate locality, from my home and family. When I was small I was entranced by the books Life Before Man, Where the Wild Things Are and Wind in the Willows. I became familiar with the illustrations of Arthur Rackham, Eric Gill, Eric Fraser, Jim Fitzpatrick and others. Thomas Bewick and Charles Tunnicliffe provided excellent introductions to the natural world, especially of birds. My earliest sense of rhythm and rhyme perhaps came from Other Men’s Flowers, This Way Delight, Palgrave’s Golden Treasury and other anthologies on the bookshelves. Reproductions of Breughel, Botticelli, Samuel Palmer and Robert Campin adorned the walls. At the age of nine I started getting 2000AD, Britain’s best comic, and began writing and drawing my own stories.
Paradoxically, one of the most pivotal things that happened in my life happened before I was born. Being younger than my siblings, I was still in the womb when my sister died at the age of nine. I would later come to regard this potent memento mori as a determinant of my entire psychology. I have had an almost medieval sense of mortality ever since. Unlike my two older brothers I went to a Catholic senior school, but the only teacher to affect me positively there played truant even more frequently than I did. A renegade Catholic now, it is true that when leaving Catholicism it never quite left me: the imagery and the liturgy feel like they are genetically part of me.
As a teenager I wrote and sang my own songs with other musicians, yet soon began to regard popular music as essentially an adolescent mode expressive in the main part of banal yet emotive incoherence. Catholic hymns and Irish folk songs from my childhood still move me far more deeply. If taste in music is in any way revealing, perhaps the piece of music which has meant the most to me throughout life is Spem in Alium by Thomas Tallis, which I first heard while drifting into sleep at the age of fourteen on makeshift bedding on the living room floor of my father’s garret. The choral harmonies made it seem as if the gates of heaven, now closed, had swung wide open.
At the age of sixteen I became interested in ergot of rye alkaloids and the condition known as “bewitchment” in England. I slept in fields, on roofs and in graveyards when my adventures led me far from home. Despite making excellent and lasting friendships in these crucible years, there remained a solitariness about me. While others were sensibly doing their homework, I was out by some sublunary lake capturing minnows by torchlight in my cupped palms.
I read widely. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam were two of my favourite poems, and much of my adult life has been a subconscious elaboration of Khayyam’s lines, in Edward Fitzgerald’s recasting of them: “In some corner of the Hubbub coucht, Make Game of that which makes as much of Thee.”
By the age of twenty I knew the poetry of William Blake, WB Yeats and John Donne by heart, and a little later would marinade myself in the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Emily Dickinson and Wallace Stevens, all the while acquainting myself with the entire tradition of poetry written in English. I matriculated, but was too busy reading books to take university seriously, soon taking Carl Jung and Friedrich Nietzsche as my idols. My mother worked as a librarian and was able to furnish me with books that were not always easily obtainable. I was not so much reading for pleasure as for revelation.
Of the fifty or so films I have great affection for, I note that the ones which are the most important to me are the ones which have most harrowed me: William Wyler’s Wuthering Heights, John Huston’s The Dead, Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso, Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, Claude Berri’s Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources. I would have to know myself better than I do to know why this should be the case, but I suspect it is something to do with a vestigial need for some kind of Aristotelian catharsis. My favourite comedy since boyhood, when a long season of it was repeated on television, is Laurel and Hardy.
Coming from a generation that had four TV channels, before the advent of mobile phones and the internet, before society took to dating apps and taking selfies and drinking bottled water, I lived the bacchic life of a bachelor who knew nightly for countless years the Rabelaisian life of the English pubs.
My relationships with women have been, alas, gloriously erratic. They seem perturbed that no notion or pursuit of happiness has any place in what I might loosely term my philosophy. I wouldn’t have so much fun if I was happy. All I know is that the goddess of poetry is not well pleased when I show interest in other women. On such occasions she wreaks havoc in my life and uses me as a witless puppet for her lawless whims.
While always making and sustaining good friendships, some of my most vivid memories are of solitary excursions, of wandering by streams and listening to birdsong in the sunlit undergrowth. I still distinctly recall observing and identifying the likes of red shanks, sedge warblers and golden plovers for the first time, as if those experiences were somehow sealed off from time as fragments of a luminous landscape.
Having waded a little deeper into time, or at least my own time, I should perhaps absolve myself for any smack of egoism in this brief and briskly written autobiographical summation. It’s difficult to write knowledgeably of oneself, since we ourselves are the riddle through which the details sift and in which the details are sustained. Extrinsic and extraneous details matter little. Writing now at the age of forty, I am yet to experience boredom. I eat and sleep solely because I would die if I didn’t. What matters is not life’s length but its intensity.
Since I am dust in the making, part of the essence and effort of my life has been to marshal the chaos of my personal existence, and of existence as I perceive it, into some kind of ethic and aesthetic cohesion, either in the sensual deployment of exploratory language or else in the linear patterns of rendering images in dark ink. Both abilities strike me now as being like those of one singing in solitude to ward off monsters composed of smoke and incense, when what I originally intended was more like a burst of birdsong to the rising sun. Perhaps, granted time, I will remedy that.
Jim Newcombe, London, October 2016