Monday, October 1, 2012

My First Literary Love by Nigel Bird

My first literary love.  Isn’t that a beautiful title?

When Sabrina asked me if I’d like to take part in this, I was very  excited.  My thoughts bubbled like a pan of boiling water.  I had so much to offer on this one.  Or so I imagined.

My first literary loves as a reader arrived when I left home for London to study at Middlesex Polytechnic. 

For those of you who don’t know, a Polytechnic was like a University for those who couldn’t make the grades.

I was at the college for 4 years.  In that time I made precisely no new friends.  The weekly conversation, unless I hooked up with one of my home-town buddies in the city, was with the ladies at the supermarket checkout (and they were always ladies, then).

I’m not sure exactly why I didn’t make friends, but I think there were 3 main reasons.  The first was shyness.  I was crippled by it. 

The second was that I thought I had enough mates already.  I didn’t feel the need to move on.  Like I said, I wasn’t bright enough for university.

The third.  By the age of 18, I’d already given up alcohol (I was to make up for it in a big way, but that’s who I was then). I had no way of overcoming my serious inhibitions. 

Oh, how I’d like to give that young man a shake.

I was lonely as hell for the first year.

After that, I loved things. London was full of opportunities to experience my passions – music, film and people-watching. 

It also meant I had lots of time to read books.

So, like I said, my mind was full of bubbles when Sabrina asked me, bubbles catching the light and painting rainbows in the sky.

And then I wondered what I would write.

 ‘To The Lighthouse’ by Virginia Woolf.  I loved it.  Can remember the joy of each page.  Sadly, that’s about all I do remember.  A lady in a long dress, a remote husband and a lighthouse.  Not enough to write a blog about there.

‘The Plague’ by Sartre, tense and gripping.  A man is surrounded by dying people, pustules under their armpits.  Not much I could share on that one.

‘The Outsider’, Camus.  I could talk about Camus being in the French Resistance or an international goalkeeper.  Or mention that the song by the Cure, ‘Killing An Arab’ finally made sense (though I’d loved it even before it made sense).

‘The Great Gatsby’ by F Scott Fitzgerald.  I could mention the desire with which I wanted to be there.  Wanted with a real hunger to change the decade of my birth and my social standing.  I wanted to be Gatsby. And cocktail drinking.

‘The Catcher In The Rye’.  I can tell you about that because unlike the others, I’ve reread it several times.  My memory hasn’t let me down quite so badly.  But that’s even more obvious than the others.

‘Metamorphosis’ by Kafka.  I loved the picture of Kafka on the back of my Collected Works.  He’s such a frail and odd looking man.  A real outsider.  A genius.  Made me feel better about my own isolation and the way I felt so outside of any loops.  Like he’d been there before.  Understood me.  Was me.  I woke up many times after that as a beetle.  Many times my legs kicked at air.  What struck me was the way he managed to get me to buy into him being metamorphosed simply by stating it as fact.  What also struck me about Kafka was the way everything he said created a real physical response in me.  How repulsive that beetle was to the human.

‘Germinal’.  Emile Zola.  This was the first of a number of Zola novels.  He’s a master (I remember that much).  I read this at the time of the miners’ strike in the UK in what felt like a war between capitalism and the working class.  How beautifully Zola told the tale of the mines and the miners and the owners and managers.  How he made everyone human. Sticking in my mind, the reflection of the manager’s jealously at the free love-making of the working class, free from hang-ups and middle-class guilt – as you can imagine, having no mates meant having no girlfriends either, so I guess the weight of such ideas struck a chord.  Powerful in every way.

‘Junky’.  Oh the lengths a user will go to for a fix. And what romance associated with self-destruction when I read back then.

‘Crime And Punishment’.  Guilt.  More guilt. 

‘The Man Who Watched Trains Go By’.  Simenon’s Maigret is brilliant.  This is an entirely darker flavour.

‘The Grapes Of Wrath’.  How poor could people get?  And how much better could writing get?
‘Hard Times’.

Raymond Carver.  Richard Ford. Pushkin.  Jack Kerouac.  Hemingway.  Brautigan. Vonnegut.  A male dominated list indeed. 

‘New York Trilogy’.  Paul Auster.  This one made me sit up and take notice.  It was a contemporary novel. Imagine reading work by someone who still lived.  My brother got me into Paul Auster.  Many of my journeys I owe thanks to him and to my friends – not because they told me what I should be, just because they set such fine models to try and follow.  Geoff was studying literature.  He’d moved on to do a Masters. Wrote to Paul Auster and asked for an interview.  Paul Auster said yes.  So, when we went to see him in a Hampstead Waterstones, it was with full hearts. He was so broodingly handsome and with such a deep, alluring voice.  Dark hair, black clothes, pure literature. When he was done, and having utterly fallen in love with the man (not a sexual love, I’ll add for clarity), we hung around till the end.  I had my book signed and sat and waited.  While Geoff chatted and I fizzed with admiration and jealousy, I started to read the Auster’s next.  To my eternal shame, I slipped it under my funeral coat.  Kept it there until we left and got ready to sprint away in case the enormous loops at the door filled the air with screams when I went by.  It was the first and only book I stole (I think).  Waterstones, if you need me to, I’ll happily send you some cash now I’m grown up. Paypal? Which might be when I knew for sure that I wanted more than anything else to be a writer. And here I am, a man who writes.  No Paul Auster, but there can only one of those.  There can only be one of each.

My memory has let me down. 25 years is a very long time and the truth is that I couldn’t do much better with books I read 5 years ago. 

It means I can’t share detail, but not that I can’t remember the path.

My first literary love?  Was with literature itself.  The words.  The authors.  The lives and times.  The way they allowed me to grow without leaving my bedsit. The way they were my friends in parks, on buses, whilst drawing out cups of coffee to way beyond cold.  We may not be in touch the way I’d like to be, but they’re in my thoughts and always on my Christmas Card list.

Bio – Nigel Bird would like to have been so many of the authors mentioned above.  Instead, he has come up with his own ideas.  You can find them in his collection Dirty Old Town (And Other Stories) or his soon to be re-released novella Smoke.  He is also very proud to be able to call himself a novelist since the release of ‘In Loco Parentis’. You can learn more about Nigel at his website at


Nigel Bird said...

many thanks for having me.

i was thinking i should re-read some of these olf favourites - maybe a couple a year - just to get the sensations back.


Fiona Johnson said...

Nigel - that's just so good... You are always so honest and so generously allow 'us' a glimpse of your soul. Thank you for that.
I share your love for To the Lighthouse and Gatsby...special memories.

Elizabeth said...

"My first literary love? Was with literature itself." How beautifully put.

Nigel Bird said...

Fiona and Elizabeth, thanks for coming.

I have to say that my memory was severely shown up when it was pointed out to me that The Plague is also by Camus (still a great book), which means I've misremembered that for a lifetime. It also means I must prefer Camus to Sartre - or at least I must have when I was reading them.

It was fun dredging through the empty spaces to fill them up again.