‘At 19, I wanted to wake up famous like Lord Byron’
This week I lay before you the start of something I have been working on for many years, a block of marble I have been chiselling this way and that in the hope it may reveal something of itself – and of me. In short, an extract from my forthcoming autobiography.
Admittedly, I didn’t have much in common with Byron
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Why was I such a pain in the rear aged 19?
On finishing a book about Lord Byron while sitting in the living room of my in-laws’ bungalow that winter I wondered, as I read the last page, ‘how could I rise in the world?’ How could I be more than simply who I was then? How could I be a new Lord Byron for the 1960s, over 100 years since Byron’s time?
I was 19, working as a printer’s devil in a small printing house in the centre of the Old Town in Edinburgh and expecting to be a father in a few months’ time. It was 1965 and I had recently been an art student, but abandoned it all in pursuit of the girl who would become my wife. I gave up, and no longer felt in the running to destroy the primacy of Francis Bacon in British art. I was now weak and lost and trying to recover from a failure of direction.
My job as a printer’s devil involved running the gauntlet of Scottish working men who loathed the fact that I was English, and it was only when I knocked down the office bully that they began to treat me with some respect.
Like Lord Byron, I would fight and was daring. So in that way I was possibly a good replacement, a modern version of Lord Byron. But in what other way did I have anything in common with Byron? Well, the old way of spelling my name Bird was ‘Byrd’, which contains the first three letters of Byron.
There the similarities ended. I was not a great poet, I was not a great womaniser; I had no money or even a great way of getting credit. Admittedly I had managed to not pay my rent when living in London, and had not returned the wedding dress and morning suit that we had hired to get married in; so in some sense I might have been like those aristocrats from Regency times who left a trail of debt behind them.
This did not, of course, add up to anything bordering on aristocratic behaviour. Yet I had, like Byron, a desire to be noted and praised and adulated for some great skill. But where would I get the skill from? I had tried my hand at poetry, but there was no big market where thousands of copies of a collection of poems could be sold. And most poetry seemed to be depressing, about people who could not get love or contentment.
Byron woke up famous one day, having written a riposte to a poor review of his first book of poems. How could that happen now? English Bards and Scotch Reviewers had made Byron the toast of the town. The town, though, was smaller then and there was no television and no pop music and no radio and no Beatles.
To suddenly wake up famous one day you would have had to kiss a Beatle, or as a famous pop star get caught sniffing or smoking some drug.
No one was more famous than people who wrote songs and sang them. And British society was not going to make me famous overnight even if I had a collection of poems that were considered brilliant. I would still not have Byron’s fame. There were too many obstacles for me to overcome if I wanted to be Byron-famous.
So was there another way? Be dated by Julie Christie or Cilla Black? But I was married and an expectant father living in a Scottish suburb in Edinburgh, and never likely to meet the women who would make me famous by association.
My father-in-law Harry looked upset on most occasions, but he was kinder than he pretended to be. He would drive me to work and drop me at the factory gate on the Cowgate because he said he was not sure I would get out of bed. But he loved talking to me about all manner of things to do with Scottish history and his love of the city that he was born into just before the start of the First World War.
When I told him I wanted to be famous he looked at me as we drove through Edinburgh’s Tollcross and said “why not?” And he, almost on cue, pointed to the house of a man who had had similar ambitions. “There lived Tommy Connery, a common milkman. He changed his name to Sean and became an actor. Yes, James Bond.” My father-in-law then told a few stories about the now-famous man, possibly one of the most famous men in the world who came out of narrow working-class circumstances.
“You’ve got to put your back into everything if you want it. You’ve got a tendency to laziness. That’s your first challenge.”
We passed under the shadow of the castle, and into the Grassmarket with the Cowgate at the end. And there before us was the big black door into the printworks. Some of the lads were waiting around outside. As I walked over, one or two patted me on the back, I was now almost accepted because I had floored the nasty office bully.
Harry watched me go in, half expecting me to run off towards the Grassmarket and go and sit in a cafe for the day. I waved to him and he waved back as I stepped in through the big door with a few of the others. I had to rise out of this life. I could never be a Lord Byron. I would have to carve prominence out of the world by doing something different. Or give up and slip into maturity and antiquity having been nothing and done nothing. I had to change, had to become a hero in my own time; else why did I live?
(To be continued, on an occasional basis.)
John Bird is the founder and Editor in Chief of The Big Issue. Read more of his words here.
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