A review of Ian Clayton’s Bringing It All Back Home by Gary McMahon
Bringing It All Back Home, by Ian Clayton (Route publishing), is a beautiful lark that becomes profound so naturally that you’ll probably get the bigger picture in the middle of a belly laugh. Buddha had much the same experience, so it’s said, but Buddha didn’t have Dylan and the Stones and the Pistols and Johnny Cash and Scott Walker and Elmore James and Buddy Bolden and Billie Holiday for travelling companions. Or George Formby. Music informs every page of this book, every outing and every route back home. Anecdotes come thick and fast — the one about composing ‘Homeward Bound’ is priceless, even if you don’t believe a word of it — and the character sketches are rich. The prose goes a-roving the world over with music as its guide but touches base, in the language and wit and earthy honesty, in Featherstone, Pontefract, where Ian Clayton was born and still lives, fifty years on. There’s a Yorkshireman’s memoir at the heart of this but it’s inseparable from Ian Clayton’s sense of community and heritage and his kinship with cultures far from home. I’m reminded of Geoff Dyer. Now there’s a compliment. And here’s another: I’m reminded of the early days of Channel 4 Television, when that station was honest and happening.
What this book does, it seems to me, is mind-map paths from locals to legends, so we wind up with Jimi Hendrix in a chip shop that is, locally, as legendary as he is, and a quiet student of Clayton’s local creative writing class turns out to be cousin and regular Castleford correspondent of — c/o Harvard University — Seamus Heaney! And all of this makes the high end of talent and the deep end of character accessible to anyone with any soul…because it turns out legends are locals, too: they all come from someplace local, even on the other side of the world. Which means you can transcend your background and the future mapped out by your career’s officer when you were 15, you can put an ocean between you and someone else’s idea of your capabilities and reinvent yourself according to your talent and the sheer neck to say fuck this…but look back and you’ll see Wakefield in your wake, say, because roots will always have their say in your future and a stake in your community.
And so one week a chap called Fasker is tyre-fitting in Featherstone and playing bass in his spare time, and the next week he’s picked up to record with Saxon in Holland in a studio next to Elton John’s, and the day after that Fasker is jamming with Elton John instead of tyre-fitting. And when Elton John has a Bentley and an Aston Martin parked outside because he can’t decide which one to go back to the hotel in, it all comes down to this, from Fasker’s point of view:
“By fucking hell. Tyres on them’ll be five hundred pound apiece.”
The sentences are shuffled and cut like an honest game of cards — you don’t know what hand you’ll be playing next. Time and place rendezvous by free association and any piece of music — “I met a gin-soaked bar room queen in Memphis” — might trip a detour down the scenic route — from the South Wales Striking Miners Choir to Beatles to The Indestructible Beat of Soweto. A series of candid sentences like snapshots in a bar in New Orleans might follow a sepia flashback to Featherstone, followed by, oh, a visit to the grave of Old Mother Riley.
There are no political messages to parade on a flag. Politics is merely subtext — and yet a left-wing ethos rooted in mining communities is the spine of this book.
“My gran had four uncles who were all killed in the First World War before they were twenty-five. She had two brothers who left the mines for the second war and never came home. During the miners’ strike, Margaret Thatcher called miners and their families ‘the enemy within.’ My grandad swung his boot at the television and refused to ever watch the news again.”
BBC Radio 4 should broadcast this book. All of it. Not abridged. Serialised. It reads beautifully on paper, but it’s also a book that should be read aloud. It’s anecdotal enough and the chapters are self-contained enough to make this feasible, and this book has a long shelf-life.
There is a heartbreaking coda which was never part of the original design of the book. Like Lennon said, life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans, and while reader and author both are thinking Bringing It All Back Home is done, we must deal with one more powerful scene, which I don’t have words to talk about. It leads into Ian Clayton’s follow-up book, Our Billie, just published by Penguin.
“You’ve no choice, it’s not a matter of trying to, you have to!” That earthy wisdom, straight from the coal face, won’t mean much to you now, but by the time you’ve finished Bringing It All Back Home it’s indispensable advice to deal with anything.