14 January 2009

Trust your Genius! Follow your Gut!: An appreciation of Gabriel Duffy

by Adam Daly

My friendship with Gabriel has been an unusual one, in just one very obvious respect: I never actually met him. Though I knew him, in the sense of corresponding with him, speaking with him on the telephone, sending and receiving books and manuscripts for comment, for over eight years. And in that long period of time we often said we must meet - and yet we never did. He lived in Brighton and I lived in London, which didn’t make things all that easy I guess - though a daytrip to Brighton is scarcely an ordeal – and now that he has died in such very sad circumstances I perhaps inevitably feel a bit guilty for not having made more of an effort to drive down to Brighton to meet him. I last spoke to him in November, and he seemed as full of high spirits as ever: his debts dealt with, his web-site up and running, numerous writing projects in progress or near to completion, and a very positive belief in his, and my, publishing prospects in 2009. His praise for my work was so effusive, it was embarrassing - ‘You are the Supreme Genius!’ was one of many OTT compliments he paid me - as I’ve often had profound doubts about the merits of what I’ve written. But at least he never, ever, damned with faint praise - unlike so many mealy-mouthed, so-called critics of today. He could still be critical, and with unfailing honesty, but if he saw real quality in a writer’s work he was never less than generous in his praise. I came to regard him not just as a literary, but as a personal friend - fully in spite of our constant long distance communication - for all sorts of reasons, his generosity of spirit being the main one I suppose. But his infectious love of life and laughter, his indefatigable - if exasperating - loquacity, his humorous play on his own Irishness, his vast, quirky erudition and prodigious poetic memory, and even the beguiling stream of Celtic melancholy revealing the fault-line that ran through his psyche, at any time either erupting into manic exuberance or else plunging him into deep chthonic depression, were also immensely hypnotic qualities. After a time I found we were so strikingly similar in our ways of thinking in so many areas, that I was almost slipping into the habit of writing my books with his response in mind - and usually he would be the first person I’d send manuscripts to. And now that he’s been so suddenly and prematurely taken from us, I’ve been weirdly thrown into disarray in my efforts to tie up the final loose threads in my long-faltering book, The Resurrection Men, as well as obviously being very deeply saddened on a purely personal level. I so much wanted him to read this book, and was so looking forward to his comments on it I almost feel there’s no point in my even bothering to finish it now -though this feeling will doubtless pass, and I may well end up dedicating it in part to his memory. So, I’ll have to damn well finish the bloody thing after all! And when it came to swearing he was no prude, the f- and c-words liberally littering his conversation, and even his introduction to mybook, The Minotaurs of Terror, when he wrote ‘How the fuck do I review this? Husserl is Harry Potter comparatively, on a density scale.’ He then on reflection, with characteristic sensitivity, said the ‘fuck’ could be removed if I wished - but I kept it in, as a true expression of the man. Also I alluded above to his exasperating loquacity, which took the form sometimes of his literally keeping me on the phone for anything up to two hours, even in the evenings when I was about to eat. And occasionally he’d ring me back a few minutes after we had finished speaking, because he had had a further thought which he wanted to add to the previous one, or else he was worried that he’d upset me or caused a misunderstanding, whereupon another long conversation ensued - my food getting stone cold! And once he rang up when I was out, and kept my girlfriend on the phone for an hour talking to her about quantum physics - a subject she knows next to nothing about and has even less interest in! But she was too polite to point this out - assuming she could have got a word in edgeways in any case. And afterwards, she always referred to him as Gabriel Quantum Duffy. But whereas I would have slammed the receiver down on virtually anyone else of my acquaintance who behaved in that way, Gabriel was such a loveable character I couldn’t have brought myself to do that to him. He was always totally well-meaning - and of course lonely, since he spent a lot of his time in his flat with only his books for company in the last few years, and so was obviously at times desperate for the reassuring presence of another human being, albeit only at the other end of a phone-line, and somebody he couldn’t have recognized had he passed me in the street, for he never saw a photograph of me. Though I should have recognized him, as I’d seen his photograph on his blog and more recent web-site - an avuncular-looking face, with a kindly, Cherubic beam masking a hint of Gravitas. (Not that I’d follow suit with my promotion, for I share the same approach to celebrity-culture as the writer David Britton, who has only ever permitted just one of his photographs to be released: of his face as a two-year-old baby!) But of all the memories of Gabriel I shall retain and treasure, a few stand out. His autobiography, Sham to Rock, was a wonderful evocation of a childhood and adolescence spent in post-war Dublin, more in the line of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man than Angela’s Ashes. He had I think finished a second volume, as well as his novel, Inga, and essays on subjects as diverse as the Concept of Infinity and Humour, all of which I hope will see the light of publishing day, as I am sure they eminently deserve to. His tireless championing of the Four Musketeers of twentieth century Thought, Husserl, Buckminster Fuller, Maslow and Colin Wilson[*], finally won me over to the cause. As a student I gave up Husserl’s Logical Investigations after a hundred pages, and settled wrong-headedly I now think for Wittgensteinian pieties emphasizing arid coherence at all costs. But Gabriel recommended The Crisis instead, Husserl’s last, and he claimed, best book. Thus I saw wisdom in Wittgensteinian nonsense! Though literature and poetry were Gabriel’s first loves. And his tastes seemed close to my own, inclining strongly to a very dark, rich vein of Romanticism and Gothicism, that can only have a resonance surviving mockery today by dredging up more diabolism than the likes of Lovecraft and Poe could ever have fathomed. Otherwise it’s just risible, a sop to post-modernists. He exhorted me to continue furrowing this lonely literary path. And I aim to do so now, with a renewed self-conviction - even though I shall miss my conversations with him and his stirring encouragement greatly. Odd remarks stay with me: ‘Never let the bastards get you down!’ or ‘Don’t let anybody put you down!’ evinced ribald laughter and triumphal affirmation in equal measure. He even said to me once that if we ever met and he found me totally bizarre, it wouldn’t bother him in the slightest. What more could a burdened outcast metamorphosing into a terrible Minotaur wish for from another soul passing like a proverbial ship in the night? But his best tribute was when I discussed with him the difficulties I was having with the last part of The Resurrection Men, and I asked him if I ought to alter my approach altogether or else further my researches in some particular direction. But he simply cut across me with the words ‘Trust your genius! Follow your gut!’ And so I’ve endeavoured to do just that, and I hope that somewhere in the Paradisical Ether he divines the results with a mile of ultimate acknowledgement. So long, old friend - and if wherever you are, you can still reach for the brown stuff, at least you'll know you can drink it with immortal impunity!


[*] This article expresses personal views: Dr Tony Shaw, the owner of this blog, wishes to make it very clear that he is definitely not a supporter of Colin Wilson, and that he considers the idea of Wilson as an important thinker to be wholly incomprehensible. Of importance here (among other things) is Wilson's cavalier approach to detail: for example, his most well known book, The Outsider, is remarkably sloppily written and abounds in (often significant) errors that Wilson never bothered to correct – not, that is, that this ragbag of juvenilia was worth correcting. This sloppiness is just one reason why Colin Wilson has never been – and never will be – taken seriously by the academic world. (For a scholarly account of The Outsider fiasco, see Stefan Collini's Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain (2006), pp. 415-422.). For Harry Ritchie on Colin Wilson, read here; for Lynn Barber on Colin Wilson, read here; and for Colin Wilson taking very seriously an article by holocaust denier Richard Verrall posing as an academic (the non-existent Richard E. Harwood), read here, from p.119.

I've not mentioned Wilson's hare-brained notion (and I apologise to hares) of devising a 'non-pessimistic existentialism': existentialism is by no means a pessimistic philosophy anyway, as Sartre underlined, but of course Wilson couldn't understand that.

Oh, and Colin Wilson also described the Nobel-prize-winning author Samuel Beckett as 'half-witted' and Beckett's brilliant Waiting for Godot as 'fucking shit': and this from Wilson, a man who manufactured the substance. That says an awful lot about Colin Wilson (and that's without mentioning anything about his really right-wing views, his regularly writing for the, er, Daily Mail, etc) : let's just draw a permanent curtain over the disaster area that is Colin Wilson, because he's absolutely not worth bothering with.

NEVERTHELESS, AN ADDENDUM: This 15 February 2017 review in the Times Literary Supplement (TLS) by Phil Baker, as opposed to Colin Wilson's worthless efforts, is priceless: the reviewI have to add that Baker is extremely kind in simply considering Colin Wilson as a mere eccentric though.

Robert Hughes Delves Further into His Past

Robert Hughes, great-nephew of Lionel Britton, reports:

'This is a very welcome record. It shows the old lady, Elizabeth Harding herself; in the last month or so of her life.

'With her is Catherine Erskine Nimmo, the older sister after whom Elizabeth Smith named her daughter Catherine Erskine, (my great-great-grandmother); and a whole bunch of Nicholsons including (almost certainly) Robert Nimmo Nicholson who later married Elizabeth Mary Smith, and died even before she did.

'Apart from the fact that this is the first great-great-great-great-grandparent I have found on any of the census forms, (and I'll be lucky if it isn't the last!), it's also the first record from Ann St that has come up in that year, and believe me I've looked for lots of them, to the point where I was beginning to suspect that some stuff was missing.

'Also bizarre is that I wasn't searching on Nimmo, (it wouldn't have come up: the Ancestry database suffers from what seems like a pretty crude search system and won't allow wild cards in a surname until after 3 characters, so you couldn't simply search on N***o).

'It was actually Nicholson which did come up: I was hoping to locate the records for Auchenblain itself, as it's still not clear what happened to the property after Thomas Nimmo died, and his heir Dr Robert died in Messina, Sicily two years later. Scrolling through the results I noticed the one for Greenock and had a look at it. It turned out to be right even though I was under the impression that Ann St was in the Middle parish, so that's something else to be looked into, as all the Thomas Nimmo/Elizabeth Harding children were born in the Middle Parish.

'Taking this at face value, Elizabeth Nimmo née Harding was born in Scotland rather than anywhere else, somewhere between June 7th 1756 and June 6th 1761.

'This is very much what we might have expected, but it tends to rule out other theories, e.g.: she was a rather older, previously married woman; she was a teenage bride; she was born in India, Ireland or England, (or even...Wales!). Notably, it almost certainly rules out that she was a Greenock girl and that the reason Thomas Nimmo came to Greenock was on account of her being a native of that town.

'In the last couple of days I've also found two separate wills for brothers of Thomas Nimmo. John, whose birth is on record, (1773-1819), and William for whom we only have the evidence in his will: he died in 1814. In each will there is copious evidence of the relationship between them and Robert Nimmo of Auchenblain, their father, and Jean Nimmo, their mother, as well as sisters Agnes and Charlotte.

'Perhaps there are missing parish records for Kirkoswald, and it is even possible that the elusive marriage record for Thomas Nimmo and Elizabeth Harding is among them. There may be sixteen childen of Robert and Jean, and it is not totally impossible that one unrecorded daughter married into the Erskines and provided the link to the Earls of Mar and Kellie which Uncle Lionel claimed.

'If not there, the only other conceivable link which would match his claim exactly would be through Elizabeth Harding...

'So we'll have to go on trying to find out who she was!'