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The Vagabond's Breakfast by Richard Gwyn

Deep hanging out in Greece
and the Med.
I enjoyed The Colour Of A Dog Running Away, Richard Gwyn's first published novel. This was partly because the city in which sections of it are set, Barcelona, is one of my favourite cities in the world - an outsider city, forging its own path despite a murky and unsavoury history, full of life and energy, invigorated by the Olympics but gradually settling back into its grime and soot under which one can glimpse flashes of coloured tiles and murals with enigmatic messages in Catalan, plus home to my favourite and now sadly deceased captive albino primate - and partly because I felt I owned a little bit of the novel, having arranged its launch event on behalf of a chain bookstore with his publishers Parthian Books. In fact, this event is mentioned in the pages of this meandering memoir as an example of his state of derangement due to his illness (some of the writing is collected from pieces written as he was waiting for a liver transplant, in a mental fog from the various accompanying disorders), an episode in which his phone goes off mid-reading and he struggles to understand that it belongs to him. His second novel, Deep Hanging Out,was read out of a degree of lingering loyalty and anticipation, but I did enjoy it in parts, and a foray into his poetry via Sad Giraffe Café was curtailed when I gave it to my wife as a present, but not before reading two curious prose poems (as they all are if memory serves) about kings and earth - one where a man finds a king's head in the earth in his basement which comes to life the next day at breakfast, and one where a monarch goes missing only to be found buried, by himself, in the ground.

There were preliminary echoes of Orwell and W.H. Davies in the title, and a wine glass on the cover, and it was published by a Welsh publisher*. For these reasons, and others**, I was ambivalent about reading this his latest book, more so when I found out it was a biography***.

But read it I did, and whilst on holiday no less. Having met Richard a few times in the past, pre- and post-transplant, it was easy to imagine his calm, languorous tone reading aloud from the pages. The prose doesn't jolt, bolt or otherwise upset the reader by doing anything unexpected, and the twin narrative, mixing memories of his illness and anxieties over the impending operation to transplant a new liver, and stories from his past from which he attempts, ostensibly, sometimes listlessly, to pinpoint the moment when he may have contracted the virus that left him with a cirrhosed organ, despite some of the content, is comforting, like listening to an avuncular elder wandering about his nostalgia, half chuffed with himself for having had a life well-lived yet trying to tell a cautionary tale for his audience. And failing.

For all of the rather dismaying stories, of insomnia, mania, befuddlement, sickness and symptoms of dementia, the rather more numerous and often repetitive stories of the time he spent impoverished and inebriated on the coasts of the Mediterranean and Aegean have an air of smug satisfaction about them. He seems proud to have drank and smoked and fucked his way through nine years of his life, parts blanked out by chemical abuse, others filled with hallucinations of strange shamans (or should that be shamen?) and frankly, I would have to believe that he must have the most marvellously tolerant and supportive wife and family at home, because if I wrote this about my past, despite her amazing qualities, my wife would in all probability push my new liver out of my mouth through the anus with a 2X4 wrapped in barbed wire. To be fair, at least he went out and did something which was not expected, had a life worth telling someone about. Someone once told me the best way to write was from experience, and that if I had to describe someone being punched in the face I should get into a bar fight****. He was right in that respect, although I prefer less damaging inspiration. I am quietly impressed that the person whom I had met on several occasions and who told me about writers like Roberto Bolaño was the man from these tales. I'm less surprised at the tone of the telling...

For all my prejudices and ambivalence, I did certainly enjoy reading it, at the same time as drinking several litres of strong, malty beer (which later caused some night-time unpleasantness and an unscheduled shower) and making notes in my own fashion on the nature of memory and story-telling. Good books tend to inspire in me the desire to launch my own literary career, and by that criterion alone I can only judge this book to be a good one. 

*Nothing against Welsh publishers, but it sometimes smacks of the peculiar parochialism of Wales that either the author, editor or agent thinks the appeal will be localised so will sell it to local publishers and then the depressed circle is complete. 

**It would be tiresome to relate, again, the anxieties aroused by reading and then feeling pressures to review books by people I know, even vicariously, so I won't.

***I was curious about his formative experiences but often feel that a record of a life with living left to go is a judgement without hearing all the evidence.

****Friends and acquaintances may be expecting my drunken 'Fight Club' story in this footnote, the one where I was drunk and homeward bound with the assistance of two young, female friends, when the tall, blonde, moronic fella from Dirty Sanchez yelled something offensive at us outside the Student Union bar on Park Place, and I told my friends I'd seen Fight Club and knew what to do in a situation like this, only to sashay over, call him a cunt, and then proceed to run about trying to avoid capture before one of his friends punched me in the mouth and I escaped, giggling, to the awed embrace of both ladies, but of course I wouldn't want to stoop to that sort of self-aggrandising nonsense.

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