A lower middle-class childhood, first in a large but rundown village (Martock), then a small seaside town (Minehead), in Somerset, in the South-West of England. A bookish childhood – a quasi-transitional object was "The Measles Book", which got me through a particularly debilitating early childhood attack of the disease. I think it was one of those wonderful heterogeneous cheap children's annuals, full of different puzzles and comicstrips etc.
Both of my parents were great readers, indeed were grammar school educated (my mother had attended the same school as Kathleen Raine), though my father had only a job selling for the Gas Board. We had a lot of books, and writing was not a disparaged activity. The culture of Martock generally was resolutely anti-literacy – people would boast on having no books in the house: men went to the pub (despite the strong non-conformist religious environment), women stayed at home doing gloving.
So I read, with ferocity and omnivorousness all that was offered by the house: Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles, Kingsley's Hereward the Wake, Left Book Club histories of the Paris Commune and the Irish Revolution have all deeply affected me. There was a one-room branch library – I'd go every Friday evening, and stop in at the fish-and-chip shop on the way back for my supper. I produced a little dinosaur book when about five, loved writing sentences and stories at school (though physically always have had problems with the process of writing). Specific poems struck me: I can remember the power of Tennyson's "The Eagle" and Shelley's "Ozymandias", and the pleasure of reading Chesterton's "The Battle of Lepanto" out to my mother.
I must confess I was bowled over by Tolkien. Another boy at school (this was the Second Year at the local grammar school) did a little presentation on The Lord of the Rings. It sounded fascinating; when I read it, it was even more so. I possessed it furiously in my imagination, by sketching out a Fourth Age sequel (the Appendices were the best bit of the original!). I'm afraid its kitsch poetry affected me as well.
Another poet I was reading early was Robert Graves. My father approved of him because of his First World War record. I read The White Goddess avidly – another supreme monument of speculative fiction! It added women and sex to the fantasy mix. I was generally fascinated by mythology, particularly by the Norse tales (which I can remember my primary School teacher reading out from the Gresham edition – Teutonic Myths and Legends).
I didn't move on to specialise in English at school though. We were continually pressed for money – the house was in my early childhood literally falling down around our heads. The thatched roof, too expensive to repair, leaked: the beams rotted, and the whole roof slowly collapsed. I listened in bed to the deathwatch beetle, and the scurryings of rats above, watched the slow spread of fungus on the ceiling, climbed over fallen beams at the top of the stairs, and put out pans to collect the drips on the ground floor.
Science looked a better way to make sure I earned a living. (How right I was!) I loved chemistry – read up on it, got my parents to buy me a chemistry set. This I used as a site of fantasy, rather than to perfect a rigorous scientific practice.
So I specialised in science at grammar school, and missed out on any pre-University course in English. My writing therefore came from a personal trajectory at its origins, rather than following prescribed canonical models.
As you will have predicted, I, of course, wrote fantasy, and created my own world. Gondalism it has been called. I read a book about this too, ie about the Bronte children (– it took me years before I actually read their novels). At about thirteen I started work on the great epic to rival Tolkien. I created a universe with its geography, an ethnography, religions, holy books (I hadn't picked up on the implied Catholicism in LoR) and languages, moving on to an attempt at both an ecology and an economy. Its name was first Eila, then Emain.
The initial narrative, sparked off by the realisation of the banality of some would-be fantasy I had been reading, had the "stranger in a strange land" narrative pattern, and began, obviously, to set up this world, with acts of creation and bricolage. It was not coherent, and was never finished. In the meantime, we had moved to Minehead in 1963, and the vivid geography of West Somerset provided a precise local stimulus. There was a brief second attempt. I completed the third version in my last year at school (1967). There was a range of viewpoints, including from a female character, and a move a little beyond the dumb manichaeanism that is built in to the fantasy genre. It centred on a quest narrative taking place during the fall (and implied revolutionary rebirth) of a great kingdom in my world. I had even played out its battles with toy soldiers. The variety of viewpoints may have been influenced by Ulysses, which I also read at this time – oh to be that capable again of openness to such a variety of influences!
I junked it all after University, when I had been reproved for not being practical enough in my orientation to life. So all my writing went out. But I began a fourth version in the 1990s (which remains incomplete), in which at last I consciously abandoned manichaeanism for programmatic heteroglossia.
Writing poetry came as a response to the strain of my O-level exams in the summer of 1965. I was, I must confess, heavily imitative of Tolkien at first. I wrote a fragmented epic about a knight and a princess. The English teacher I showed it too was understandably rather puzzled. Faber & Faber was not interested in it either.
Now, this was the mid 1960s, even in West Somerset. I picked up on pop music (though my mother was a Radio 3 listener, with an excellent singing voice). The pirate radio stations didn't reach Minehead after dark, so I then listened to the French stations. I avidly followed Top of the Pops, and for some alarmingly aspergerish reason graphed the progress of the Top 20 by genre and nationality. I actually bought records quite late, in 1966-7: Sergeant Pepper, the first Mothers of Invention, the first Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, a Stones collection.
I also picked up on contemporary(ish) writing. Publishing and bookselling were less stereotyped in those days. The crucial book, that I probably bought in Minehead, either at WH Smith's or The Avenue Post Office, was Donald Allen and Robert Creeley's Penguin The New Writing in the USA. This book changed my life. It gave me the beats, plus New York, San Francisco and Black Mountain. It was manna for the soul! This was it – particularly the beats – fresh, expressive, verbally creative. Ginsberg and McClure, these were the guys.
I was moved to write rhapsodic or dionysiac prose pieces – some taking off from fantasy themes and dreams, others, with more verbal invention, from a wider range of stimuli. I remember TV images of a French war cemetery as a starting point for one. This was probably the best writing, the most verbally compelling and creative I have ever done, and the freest from any pre-existing models. (All thrown out later too.)