It’s an old chestnut quoted to death and back but the saying ‘History is written by the victors’, attributed to Churchill, is here to stay, so much so it seems to have sculpted our national outlook. I’ve just finished reading Peter Main’s fine and scrupulous biography of the Scottish poet and man of letters Ruthven Todd – A Fervent Mind (Lomax Press, 2018) – and while Todd lived an itinerant and almost wholly indigent life, I see it as something of a triumph against the odds. He was never taken entirely seriously as a poet, perhaps because he also resorted to a lot of hack work to keep himself alive, churning out detective potboilers in the 1940s at the speed of one every two weeks! And yes, history is written by the victors, but my there are some fascinating figures we might unfairly describe as ‘failures’ peppering the footnotes and margins.
The annals of literary Fitzrovia and Soho are littered with them – there’s Paul Potts, Nina Hamnett and Jeffrey Bernard who actually made his persistent failure into a success. There’s also the poet John Gawsworth, best described as a ‘revolutionary reactionary’ – a man who championed the writers of the 1890s when they had totally fallen out of favour and a man who set out his Georgian wares in direct resistance to the fashionable ‘pylon school’ of MacSpAunDay. There is a riveting-cum-harrowing short documentary of Gawsworth filmed in the last few months of his life, when he is completely homeless and permanently drunk. At some point in the documentary a wealthy antiquarian talking about Gawsworth in a pub says that his downfall was his belief in his calling as a poet. Lawrence Durrell, also in the pub and a friend of Gawsworth’s, turns on this person and claims that he is very wrong, that ‘the poets are always right about themselves, much righter than we shall ever know….’
In the UK we love failure stories as long as they end with a volta of redemption – there needs to be a road to Damascus epiphany. That’s why the bookshelves of the airports are filled with tales of addicts who turned their lives around, self-made millionaires who are going to tell you how to lose weight and get rich too. But surely the greatest taboo is failure without any salvation – that is beyond the pale. We are told by Nobel laureates such as Samuel Beckett to ‘fail better’ – but that doesn’t seem like much help to me, considering the source. One of our great problems as a society is that we make a direct connection between success and material trappings. People who drive a BMW think that they have made it in life but any quick glance at any road at any time will show that ‘prestige’ cars like BMWs make up the majority of cars on the road. It is not a question of succeeding to stand out, but succeeding to fit in. How many times do you watch the naff game shows on TV and when the contestants introduce themselves they are never ‘struggling poet’ but ‘chief executive president’ – in fact there are so many managers out there I wonder where the people they are supposed to be managing are! If my neighbours are to be believed, then all of their offspring are nuclear physicists, F1 drivers and astronauts. And how many times have you heard people discuss the sky-rocketing value of their house, only to quickly suffix what they say with this refrain: ‘Oh, we were just very lucky to buy when we did’. It’s English false modesty trying to disguise cold hard Capitalist boastfulness – like that chap off the Fast Show: ‘I found a first edition Bible in the attic, signed by Jesus, which was nice…’
I recall once putting a cheque into my account at the bank for some reviews I’d written – very low three figures. The bank teller asked me what I’d done to get money out of this certain magazine. I said ‘I wrote some reviews’ to which he replied ‘Oh, a labour of love then’. Yes, of course my engagement with poetry is a labour of love, but behind what he said was this gloating edge which implied: ‘I see you, you creative type – well just know that you’ll never get rich off this, it’s sheer folly’. Maybe it is, but I won’t be dissuaded. Who are we trying to please – do we think some omnipresent Creator is looking down on us like a proud parent? Surely we just need to satisfy ourselves – even if that leads us to ruin, it’s a price worth paying.