Caught by the River

The Caught by the River Book of the Month: January

Will Burns | 25th January 2023

Don Paterson’s ‘Toy Fights: A Boyhood’ — our January Book of the Month — is full of the stuff of living, writes Will Burns.

I am not me’. These first few pleasingly knotty words from the epigraph in Don Paterson’s boyhood memoir Toy Fights weigh perfectly against the book to follow, or perhaps more accurately pre-light it, preparing the way for the minor deception Paterson has in store for the unwary reader. For all that we seem to be in the presence of the constituent parts of a common-or-garden memoir — the original, eccentric even, slightly artistic upbringing, the struggle with an unwieldy adolescent body and its attendant, nascent, social groupings, the discovery of drugs, the opposite sex, music, the droll and erudite prose voice — what Paterson has written here, almost by stealth, is an extremely smart, often hilarious treatise on the true nature of the self, or selves, and of the ways in which those selves connect, or have those connections shattered, with one another across the various times of our lives, particularly those extremes of youth and late middle-age. That epigram, and its sense of the self somehow articulating a separate self, is mirrored again in the final scene of the book, where, finally leaving Scotland and childhood, Paterson ‘watches’ his own feet ‘walk me to the train; I watched them climb me aboard; I watched them find my carriage’. This disembodied sense has carried over in a powerful, poignant way from the chapters that precede it, folding the narrative in on its own ‘selves’.

Toy Fights reads fairly conventionally across the ‘boyhood’ of its subtitle — very early childhood and grandparental bedrock, parental influence, father’s musicianship, mother’s quiet aspiration, school, first jobs, early artistic forays, drugs and then the perhaps more unconventional climax of a harrowing psychotic episode and hospitalisation. All this very definitely and particularly located too — the Dundee, and the Scottish housing estates, of the 70s and 80s are wonderfully, and bleakly, joyously, stoically evoked. Throughout there is the subtle presence of the adult parsing the boy — the deployment of the adult’s wit, a deft psychoanalytical touch here, a self-deprecative flourish there — in such a fashion that raises the stakes, somehow, for the reader. While there are some satisfyingly Partridgian ‘needless to say, I had the last laugh’ moments — Paterson’s honesty brooks no quarter in either direction, his brilliantly even-handed take on his pool game runs thus: ‘I am almost certainly better than you, but still way worse than him, to whom I regularly lose money.’ — the whole amounts to something far, far deeper, far riskier than either compensatory platitudes or retrospective point-scoring. There are frequent, and hugely entertaining, footnote-asides that relay old music-making anecdotes, debunk myths or that take aim at everything from the current literary culture’s rather scatter-gun and hyper-developed tendency toward excising historical reputations based on ‘bad’ behaviour, to the contemporary political trend for fixing human beings to the ‘noun’ (or pronoun?) rather than the living ‘verb’. Or how about the nature and necessity of ‘between-numbers patter’ should you insist on playing guitar using multiple, time-consuming tunings? Or a deliciously acidic takedown of some record or band that Paterson is not simply of the opinion is terrible, but is telling you, categorically, is irredeemably terrible? The chatty, humorous aside is a near-constant companion to the reader throughout, and softens both the intellectual and emotional blows that Paterson is unafraid to land. The book is fundamentally a pleasure to read, full of sharp, catty one-liners — ‘The Cordovox is an ‘electronic accordion’, two words which sit together about as happily as ‘adult diaper’’, or on Eric Clapton’s recent Covid vaccination grumbles and fears he might not play again, ‘That the world might have suffered the permanent loss of those eight stolen Buddy Guy licks is almost too much to bear.’ — and even at its darkest, its most harrowing, Paterson reminds us all, writer and reader alike, that art can, perhaps even should, operate on that frequency at the very least.

Paterson is affectionate but unsentimental about the class aspect of his upbringing, clear-eyed on the short shrift the world has given to the kids at his school or the adults on his estate, and he is refreshingly — or to adapt his own phrase, ‘sharply unfashionably’ — straightforward about both the right and left wing’s exploitation of the intellectual notion of class yet ultimate disregard for its material conditions or their transformation. Indeed, Paterson proves an entertainingly grumpy political commentator throughout, a stylistic tic underpinned with astute analysis and his obviously highly developed psychological understanding — ‘Status is a completely hardwired and often class-based feature of childhood that accounts for much genuinely terrible suffering and life-altering insecurity amongst kids. But no, let’s ignore all that and talk to them about stuff that obsesses adults, like sex, gender and race.’ He is hugely empathic with children throughout, sensing exactly how and when parental absence, material or otherwise, does its irreparable damage, but he is perhaps most interesting on the psychological impact of narcissism. The figure of the ‘narc’, in various guises, crops up throughout the book — and Paterson lays bare his own seemingly life-long vulnerability to the mores of narcissistic personalities. Various charismatic, manipulative ringleaders entice and influence him across social groups as disparate as the church, bands, or his first group of childhood friends. There are hints, too, at a continued exposure in later life, and Paterson is forensic in describing the heady mix of attraction and eventual disquiet that these relationships engender. Addiction, or rather perhaps intense compulsion, is in fact another of the book’s through-currents — from a childhood addiction to sugar (and Paterson is brilliant here on sugar as the true working-class analgesic), through an all-consuming origami phase, an over-intense period of religious fervour, right up to the obsessive way in which he eventually grapples with the guitar — his father’s instrument — it’s clear that obsession, intensity of feeling, an almost tunnel vision of interest and with that interest the notion of subsequent technical mastery — have coloured Paterson’s life, and consequently a book which communicates exactly that same strange and in its own way rather addictive sensibility. It’s a book full of the stuff of living, not ‘a life’ — love, loss, shame, solace, music, books, sex — all under the operation of a supple, considerable (considerate?) intelligence which manages to meld the whole thing together while simultaneously exploring its capacity, its sometimes inevitable capacity, for splintering into its constituent parts.


‘Toy Fights: A Boyhood’ is out now and available here (£16.14), published by Faber.