Selected Reviews of Augustus
Young, Light Years (2002)
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What they said About Light Years ...
‘Augustus Young, poet, has written a volume of memoirs like none other that I have read before. Augustus Young is a highly sophisticated writer and a very funny one. If there is any justice in the world, this book ought to become a classic.’ (David McLaurin, The Tablet)
‘Young is like Orwell’s Henry Miller, getting on with his own life while momentous events surge on beyond his control. I shall treasure Young’s book for the reminiscences of his father and various Welwyn widows, and its subtle debunking of an era when it was widely believed that once everybody learned to stand naked holding hands all the problems in the world would go away’. (Crispin Jackson, The Literary Review.)
‘If you have read Beckett’s Murphy and Burgess’s Enderby this is somewhere in between. Young is a restrained memoirist: there is no cloying ego, not much solipsism considering the subject is pretty m uch himself and his poetry. but there is nothing rhetorical or shabbily embarrassing.’ (Kevin Kiely, Books Ireland [infra].)
‘Funny, self-aware and beady-eyed, Augustus Young is a chronicler of rare originality and wit. his meeting with Basil Bunting is a comic masterpiece, essential to any future collection of literary anecdotes.’ (Jeremy Lewis.)
‘Like Montague, Augustus Young manages to interweave his memories through time, but his stance is a bit funnier, more quirky and self-deprecating. These two accounts of the formative years of two in teresting literary Ersemen contain much entertaining reading.’ (Peter Reading, Times Literary Supplement [infra].)
Peter Reading, ‘Travels and travails’, review of John Montague, Company: A Chosen Life, and Augustus Young, Light Years, in Times Literary Supplement (12 April 2002).
At first glance, John Montague’s Company, and Augustus Young’s Light Years, ‘a masterly re-enactment of the author’s literary development’, seem to be not dissimilar. Both books are by Irish poets (Montague, though born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1929, returned when he was four years old to his family’s farm in County Tyrone; Young hails from Cork); both reflect the travels, travails and vicissitudes of a couple of lively Hibernian minds; both take as their nuclei the 1960s; and both finish with some expression of relief at the notion of an end to exile and voyaging. But the stylistic approach that each writer takes to his material is conspicuously different.
Montague ‘weaves in and out of chronology’, as he phrases it, but he does so in a conventional and convivial gossipy manner, portraying, inter alios, various eminent literary personae. Famous names dropped include Mrs Yeats, Brendan Behan and Samuel Beckett: of Yeats’s wife, the author informs us that ‘she loved her Willy, and revered his genius’; of Behan, he notes interestingly that ‘timidity, probably related to his sexual ambiguity, was also part of his problem’, and that ‘his stammer betrayed his double nature, not only his sexual conflict, but the basic gentleness beneath the public bluster’; of Beckett, who was Montague’s neighbour in Paris for a decade, we are told what many readers of the Nobel Prizewinner’s works may have already suspected, that ‘while Beckett could be great company, and gravely humorous, there was no doubt that his view of the universe was gloomy’.
Company canters through the years and the locations – Dublin, Paris, San Antonio Tuxtala, Berkeley – with engaging felicity, and is peopled with celebrities, less-famed friends, and a lover or two. The memoir comes with a swatch of fascinating snaps: there is a diverting photo of a rather loopy-looking couple, Yeats and his spouse (‘Sheba and Solomon’); a beauty of Brendan Behan in the boozer; Beckett in the café; there is a mug-shot of Norman MacCaig (‘A Sombre Scot’), and a frankly fearsome Hugh MacDiarmid.
Like Montague, Augustus Young manages to interweave his memories through time, but his stance is a bit funnier, more quirky and self-deprecating. In 1967, Young departed his home, with some trepidation, to fly from Cork to Heathrow: ‘At Mass the previous Sunday the epistle from Ecclesiastes was discouraging. ‘The labour of the foolish wearieth everyone because he knoweth not how to go to the city.’’ This droll opening sets the tone for the rest of the book. The reason for the writer’s migration to London was to set himself up with the dubious credential of being ‘a published poet’ (although he also had a science degree – he is an epidemiologist). Three sections follow: the anecdotal chapters about living in England, ‘Tales from the Sixties’; ‘The Bohemian Life’ in the big city; and a final return to the Ireland of family and childhood reminiscences, ‘Requiescat in Pace’.
Young had touched down with twenty quid bulging comfortably in his new tartan wallet, and he got a lift from the airport with his only contact in this terra incognita, the brother of a former classsmate, who had agreed to put up the callow adventurer until more permanent lodgings could be found. His host soon introduced him to the dangerous delights of a pub called The Queen’s Arms:
In a limited way I could think clearly. For instance, I counted the knots on Knucklenose’s string tie. Noting his scarce white hair and burning eyes, I remembered from school Virgil’s description of Charon, Hell’s ferryman. He would ferry me out of this…
A new landlord, and ham philosopher, one McFee, heralds ‘The Bohemian Life’ where Young’s poetry thrives (in quantity if not quality). The aspirant bard meets Alma, who works for a publisher and has a ‘Tale of Woe’; and he visits Putney, on which he delivers a witty, Waugh-like tirade:
Putney’s shady terraces, I decided, harboured embezzlers, wife-beaters, child molesters, bigamists, poisoners, respectable madames specialising in whippings and nannying nasty clergymen in rubber knickers and frilly bonnets, and ordinary people taking murderous fantasies out on hedge clipping.
While Company ends with Montague’s return to Paris, after a sojourn of academic and amatory diversion in California, to rejoin his ‘Madeleine’s eager face’ (‘It seemed to me the plane leaped forward every time I farted’), Light Years rambles in a quasi-experimental manner (at times Young recalls a diluted Flann O’Brien) towards its retrospective conclusion – early friendships, family lore, first loves, recollections of a dead father (‘Halcyon days waiting in the estuary inlet for the appearance of a kingfisher’). These two accounts of the formative years of two interesting literary Ersemen contain much entertaining reading.
Kevin Kiely, ‘Slippery Slopes of Parnassus’, review of Augustus Young, Light Years, in Books Ireland (September 2002)
If you have read Beckett’s Murphy and Burgess’s Enderby this is somewhere in between but strictly a memoir and easier to place with the latter title, since the hero is a poet-drudge who finds some solace in the science laboratory. James Hogan, twenty-something son of a history professor from UCC, reflects on his past while flying out from Cork on a Viscount. He is London bound for a spell in a purgatorial bohemia and scoops of childhood pour from his memory as he sips his drink high in the clouds.
His passive resistance renders him a shadowman armed with fifteen English pounds, at first sponging off the Kennys as he invites himself into their household. This anxious unwelcome guest is well sent up with bursting luggage on arrival and finds everything in London as baffling as the tube map. Independence is asserted when he slots into the digs system with the Beveridges for five pounds all in, including the gut-wrenching suet pudding, Mr and Mrs B, and the daughter sulking inside the serving hatch. Life is portrayed as quirky and eccentric. The array and manner of his fellow lodgers are denigrated for the fun of it. The attic room in Romford is all very fine for jotting down his neat little verses and reading Pascal, Camus and Sartre but he is situated in the homeland of his idols and soon yearns to meet them.
The drudgery for him of being a poet is balanced by work in Romford hospital, in the lab, where his unrequited passion for Elizabeth makes him her confidant and money-lender – she eventually leaves her boyfriend, a married man, and returns to New Zealand. He changes lodgings in the pursuit of the muse. All an aspiring poet can do is tramp out to poetry readings in search of like-minded spirits. A visit to Ayot St Lawrence and Shaw’s habitat inspires a leap into the unknown and total devotion to his art as eventually he becomes runner-up in the Cork Gin Poetry Prize. Ah, the slopes of Parnassus in sight at last!
Hogan took his name, Augustus Young, from Dryden’s MacFlecknoe, King of Fools. He sends himself up as a self-conscious poet deliberately basing his own efforts on the greats – if you must steal, steal from the best such as Holub and Popa – ‘Flattery sustains vanity in a literary youth’.
At a party in Putney wearing his French beret, he meets Alma who works for Hutchinsons. She provides a curious history and half likes his work. Tickets for Hair the musical seal their bizarre unromantic romance. There is neither kiss nor tell about any of it. Slowly he meets the members of the living pantheon, starting with the egomaniacal George Barker. ‘Who are you to reduce my work to two poems?’ inquires the elder on being praised by the aspirant. John Heath-Stubbs is less bruising on the ego than Barker’s bark and bite. Only with the arrival of his landlord and confidant, McFee, does he find a fitting confrere. There are no more London patrons, only the rather odd but kind landlord.
Young mocks himself for trying to feel like Dante in exile having written a review in a small Irish poetry magazine, ‘Seamus Heaney’s spawn have hatched into tadpoles’. Jeff Squires is portrayed in a decent light – the text is peppered with poets but he pours plenty of salt on their tales usually, except for David Marcus, and Basil Bunting who explains Yeats’s obsessional friendship with Pound, ‘He needed an injection of Ezra’s energy’ in order to knock out the Last Poems. Even Kierkegaard cannot keep London pure for him so he abandons it for Dundee. Celtic longings, perhaps.
The last section almost sinks but if you have got that far you may well see it through. Ancestry and family loom large and top billing must go to Aunt Hanna. Her antidote to the nightly rosary was a few pages read out loud from Les Miserables. The suggested light years of youth of the title can be seen in terms of the light years of cosmology if not eternity and mortality as the elegiac strain enters the tableaux when he recalls people who drowned during his youth, a school friend who died, and lastly ‘I was twenty-one and my father was dying’ – the year 1963 and what a father, revered in an unsentimental and model account. There is a terrific swipe at Dev attending the father’s funeral: ‘Started a civil war because of a symbolic oath.’
Young is a restrained memoirist: there is no cloying ego, not much solipsism considering the subject is pretty much himself and his poetry; there are even lengthy quotes but there is nothing rhetorical or shabbily embarrassing. ‘Is the past falsified or fossilised?’ ‘My memories of my father’s memories, my father’s memories of my grandfather’s memories.’ No false flourishes at all hardly.