Friday, 28 October 2016

The Horseman's Word, by Roger Garfitt

I found this in a secondhand bookshop for a couple of quid, and was intrigued enough to buy it. I'd come across Roger Garfitt's poetry once or twice previously – I remember enjoying a relatively recent sequence called (I think) Border Songs – but I really didn't know too much about him, so pretty much everything in this memoir was new to me.

The sections recounting his childhood, first in Heacham, Norfolk (an are I know well), and later in Surrey, where his father had opened a stables and riding school, are beautifully written, full of arresting but unshowy turns of phrase. He's particularly good at drawing characters in detail, especially his own grandparents, and he also takes careful note of the subtle and often deeply damaging stratification of rural society.

When he gets to Oxford, the book got a little less engaging, for me, as Garfitt's story seemed to be a fairly unremarkable one (for the 60s) of relatively mild drug experimentation and a succession of romantic complications. But in fact that just sets you up, as a reader, for the most startling part of the book, as he suffers several breakdowns. The passages in which he descends into madness, while roaming London, are both terrifying and enervating. Even though you know it's coming (because of the blurbs, among other things), it's a surprise, as you realise that what initially seemed like merely eccentric youthful behaviour tips over into something more frightening.

One criticism is that the book does fizzle out a little towards the end, and it might have been interesting to know more about what caused Garfitt's mental health problems, and how they were resolved, or contained. But perhaps that's the point – the way the book is written, you get more of a sense of how mental illness can strike without any obvious warning.

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