My first reader was a man called Fergus. A friend of a flatmate at university, I never got to know him well. But it’s possible he changed my life. I have no idea where he is now. Perhaps he is an investment banker. Or a spy. (I have at least three close friends who are spies.) I liked Fergus immediately. Unlike nobody else I knew at the time, he seemed to have arrived on the planet with a fully-formed sense of who he was and what his purpose was going to be. This expressed itself in that he listened to a lot of Messiaen and looked about 64, shuffling round his basement flat off the Edgware Road in brogues and a navy blue Guernsey jumper which he never seemed to take off. Sometimes, to complete the old fogey look, he would add a Barbour coat. And, years before it was trendy, he cycled. Everywhere.
I’m not really sure how we got around to talking about poetry. I suspect my loquacious flatmate introduced me as a poet before I could open my mouth to protest. Nevertheless, this was enough for Fergus. He took the idea seriously. Somewhere in the margins of a chaotic dinner party at his flat (the first time I had eaten snails) he took me aside and asked to see some of my poems. ‘And maybe you could look over some of mine?’ he said.
I sent him a bundle of handwritten poems in the post, as you did in those days. I found the exercise terrifying but useful. Copying them out for another human’s eyes made me pay attention to my previously-overlooked verboseness. Of course, I heard nothing back from him.
What felt like several months later we found ourselves on a cliff-top in Cornwall, the guests of another friend of a flatmate. It was the run up to Christmas, very much out of season. Seagulls mewed unenthusiastically in the mizzle. A cable of red and green light bulbs wavered over the high street. It was furiously dark.
After walking for what felt like three hours, Fergus finally spoke. ‘You like to pack them all in,’ he said.
‘Fergus, I’m sorry: what are you talking about?’
‘They’re very dense.’
‘Your poems. Brilliant. All packed in. I wonder if you . . .’
‘If you might . . .’
‘You know . . . if you could . . .’
He stopped and turned to me. ‘You have to keep writing. That’s the main thing.’ He set off again, and said over his shoulder ‘That’s it.’
And that was it. I never did find out what he thought I could do to my poems. But the main point had been made. That he liked them, that I might consider doing something with them, and that I should keep going. Not much, you might think. But it was enough. Enough to go on writing my rubbish, allusion-packed dense little poems, that definitely needed something to be done with them.
Since that moment on that Cornish cliff-top I have been lucky to have had many brilliant and insightful readers: Peter Carpenter, Naomi Jaffa, Michael Laskey, Joanna Cutts, Ann and Peter Sansom, Jean Sprackland, Andy Brown, and Christopher Southgate. Most of all they are kind, that most underrated currency in any writer’s life. But I always go back to Fergus. I honestly don’t know what would have happened if I had not met him. The chances are I would have carried on anyway. But in his rather inchoate way, he did what no one else had done before, and affirmed that the project was worth bothering with.
Inconclusive though the experience was, and faltering though his words were, his words and the kindness behind them managed to be both healing and expansive. As Billy Collins said in ‘Marginalia’, his great poem of finding oneself in the writing (about reading) of people you will never meet: ‘I cannot tell you/ how vastly my loneliness was deepened,/ how poignant and amplified the world before me seemed’. We all need to find a Fergus.