I’ve just realised that we are on the edge of Lowry’s centenary year (he was born on July 28th, 1909, a birthday which might have alarmed him, since he was obsessed with numerology, and thought the number seven was very bad news – 28 being a multiple of 7, and July being the seventh month). The same teacher (Tim Tosswill) whom I described last week was also a colossal Lowry buff, at a time when Lowry’s reputation had faded (it has since restored itself). In fact, he was such a Lowry buff that he’d been to the Lowry archive at the University of British Columbia, and to the shack in the hamlet of Dollarton near Vancouver where Lowry wrote his masterpiece, ‘Under The Volcano’. Tim had also written a ‘topography of Cuernavaca’, an unpublished monograph on the way Lowry used the Mexican town in which he lived to stage his novel. I’ve got it somewhere.
So I was pushed in Lowry’s direction when I was 17. He is one of those writers whose work is sometimes so good that it almost puts you off writing. However, although I wouldn’t have admitted this even a decade ago, most of the rest of his work is hopelessly inferior. Having constructed his masterpiece, he became obsessed with it (as he wrote in a poem, ‘Success is like some horrible disaster’ – it was for him), and started to write a novel about a man who had written a novel about a man in Mexico, and even a short story about a man who had written a novel about a man who… you get the picture.
The reason I wouldn’t have admitted it is that I think we (‘we’ is probably code for ‘I’) like to have one hero who can do no wrong. Lowry was my choice. Having said which, he is the kind of man you wouldn’t have wanted to have sat next to on a bus (always the acid test). He was a mean and terrible drunk, and bullied people in the way that paranoid people often do.
Still here is a silly story about having a hero. Lowry died, probably by suicide, although modern theories suggest it was an accidental excess of alcohol and pills about which his wife was a bit too pleased to have done nothing, in a place called Ripe, not far from Lewes in Sussex. The first time I went to Brighton, in 1986, I was determined to conduct a literary pilgrimage. I wasn’t actually carrying my collection of Lowry facts and figures anywhere but in my head, but I did remember that he had had his last drink in a pub called The White House, and had lived in Yew Tree cottage. So I drove to Ripe, for a bit of grave-worship. The grave itself (a pitifully small affair, as his funeral had been, in 1957) was easy to find in Ripe’s church-yard. I didn’t have a bottle of pale ale to pour on it (as happened at the actual event) so I just took a few pictures of it.
His house, Yew Tree Cottage, was easy to find. I jammed on the brakes, and jumped out, and took a whole roll of film. You could see that the occupants were a bit surprised at the interest being taken in the house, but I was too quick for them. I then wasted a lot of time looking for The White House pub, which I knew was about a mile away. I gave up looking. When I got home, and had the pictures developed, I felt pleased: proof positive that I had paid a little pilgrimage.
You know that vaguely sinking feeling when something horribly obvious hits you? As I was gazing at my pack of snaps, a dull, unwanted light began to dawn. His house had been called The White Cottage, and the pub had been called The Yew Tree. No wonder the occupants of Yew Tree Cottage had looked a bit confused. I had taken twenty pictures of a nondescript house which had nothing to do with Lowry whatsoever.