Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Smalltown Boys

In the summer of 1968, my Mother put me on a train and sent me to Chapel Hill, North Carolina. 

There had been strain in our family following my Father's unexpected death in December the previous year, and as I was adrift somewhat both emotionally and mentally, I believe she thought that I would neglect my further education. 

Although it was inevitable in hindsight that I would attend the university local to our home, she and one of my teachers, Reva Chrisman, with whom I had developed an affinity through poetry and creative writing, agreed that a trip to the University of North Carolina might provide an incentive for me to become more involved in my own life once more, which is another way of saying, conversely, that I had become too self-absorbed.

Of the journey itself, all I recall is that it was a "sleeper" train, and that I was awoken the next morning by the noise of the station and a smartly-uniformed black conductor. Other images came back to me years later and were used in the opening lines of an unrelated poem.

Others waved goodbye.

Slow-motion, shoeshine station
a freeze frame of the '40s,
I doze in the sidings - dog-latin phantom
riding high to Dixie.

The sole purpose of my journey was to imbibe the atmosphere of the university attended by American novelist Thomas Wolfe. His first novel, Look Homeward, Angel, thinly disguised local residents of his hometown of nearby Asheville, with the result that when the novel was published the resulting uproar required him to prudently remain absent from the town for the next eight years. 

In his short life - he died just before his thirty-eighth birthday - he wrote four mammoth novels, and in the process redefined American fiction. The Web and the Rock, You Can't Go Home Again, and my personal favourite, Of Time and the River, provided autobiographical insights into my own life and writing at the time.

The visit was a failure. I think I met briefly with someone from Admissions, but nothing came of it. My overriding impression, at the fine old age of seventeen, was that the place was somehow fixed in time, rigid with Wolfe's memory, and without vitality. I found a local bar frequented by students (I think the legal age to consume alcohol must have been eighteen in North Carolina, and, well, I was 'near enough'.), and spent the rest of the day there, drinking bottles of German lager.

I can't recall reading any of Wolfe's work since my first experiences of them between the ages of sixteen and eighteen, but their "atmosphere" remains with me even now. There is, as might be expected, an academic industry around the works, treatises and tomes in support of tenured posts, orbiting around the dark star of Chapel Hill.

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