Ian Sansom

Don Paterson is frank, fearless and furious about everything

Leaving poetry aside, his memoir covers insanity, debt, drugs, narcissism, religious mania and, more generally, the lengths we go to not to be bored

Don Paterson. Alamy

Memoirs by poets – the Top Ten? It’s an admittedly niche category, and since no one would ask this in normal conversation, or even in a pub quiz, here is the chart. It is based not on official sales or downloads but rather on my own tastes, prejudices and relatively recent reading: Last Night’s Fun, Ciaran Carson; It Goes With the Territory, Elaine Feinstein; A Fly in the Soup, Charles Simic; The U.S.A. School of Writing, Elizabeth Bishop; Efforts of Affection, Elizabeth Bishop; Tesserae, Denise Levertov; The Woman Who Thought Too Much, Joanne Limburg; The Photographer at Sixteen, George Szirtes; The Astonished Man, Blaise Cendrars; and straight to the top spot this week, Toy Fights, by Don Paterson, former poetry editor at Cape, a professor at the University of St Andrews, a musician, anthologist and, it turns out, much more besides.

It is a great memoir by a poet, partly because Paterson has little or nothing to say about poetry. In fairness, he’s already written more than enough on the stuff. His book about his fellow poet Michael Donaghy, Smith, published in 2014, is the sort you wish every poet would and could write about another poet. The Poem: Lyric, Sign, Metre, published in 2018, is essential reading for aspiring technicians. And last year’s collection, The Arctic, was as outstanding as any volume of poetry he’s published since his debut, Nil Nil in 1993. ‘Since I make little mention of poetry in this tale,’ Paterson writes in his preface, ‘which ends before I started writing the stuff, let me mention it now and then park it.’

With the poetry duly parked, there is, thankfully, plenty of mileage remaining.  So we have Paterson’s childhood, growing up as a ‘schemie’ on a housing estate in Scotland in the 1970s; his ill-fated spell working as an editor on comics at DC Thomson; his nervous breakdown; and his early career as a professional musician – he’s a composer and jazz guitarist.

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