The Ipswich Institute’s very own Dave Stainer began the evening with a surprise performance of Syd Barrett’s 1970 song ‘Terrapin’. After that, we hardly knew what to expect. We got, in the event, a reading and a meditation on an unlikely imaginary conversation between two people whom Haydn Middleton admires deeply. He pictures it taking place in 1968 between E. M. Forster, then living in indolent retirement in King’s, Cambridge, and an abruptly intruding Syd Barrett, who’d been so famously dumped by Pink Floyd. Well, Forster would hardly have objected to being intruded on by such a pretty
young man as Barrett, and it’s true that both men were living in Cambridge
at the time. And Haydn Middleton studied each diligently enough to concoct a conversation as the heart of his novel The Ballad of Syd and Morgan (Propolis 2018). So maybe it’s not wholly impossible to suspend disbelief.
What these two discuss, in Haydn’s novel, is the problem of being creative. Syd complains of his inability to produce more songs. The venerable novelist has produced no published fiction since 1924, so might be presumed to understand the predicament. Syd will later become silent for just as long. For the successful act of creation, whether in psychedelic pop or the novel, involves a mystery. You can have all the sheer skill in the world, but if you do not succeed in letting down your bucket into the depth of experience and there receiving the inspiration of the god Pan, you will wait in vain. That reference to Pan comes from Kenneth Graham’s The Wind in the Willows, which they discuss in the novel. It is the central theme of the novel.
Quite why E. M. Forster stopped writing novels so early in his life, and why Syd Barrett became a silent recluse for so long, is matter in each case for speculation. Haydn related the problem to himself, for having gained a high reputation as a historian, a biographer and as an author for young people (the Mordred Cycle for example) he confessed to having stalled since 1999 on his novel which he calls ‘The White Island’. Now, however, he senses a way forward. Perhaps The Ballad of Syd and Morgan helped to fill his own bucket with the right blend of personal experience and mysterious genius.
Tantalisingly, Haydn remarked that we would not want to know more about the genesis of his other works. I for one longed to relate this quixotic book with the impressive body of work by which he has delighted so many. His ability to convey the mystery in things, the hidden
messages behind the muddle of the world, the perennial delight we all have in fantasy: these gifts are not far from this, his latest novel. Perhaps there is a clue here to why Forster, and why Syd Barrett, are so pleasing to so many.
[Haydn Middleton appeared on July 11 2019]
Written by Keith Jones
Haydn Middleton’s recommended reads
Like most people, I’m in awe of books that get me to look differently at the world, but I find very little contemporary fiction has this effect on me (though from the literary industry’s wearisome hype and over-praise, you’d imagine almost every book pulls it off!), so I tend to look more to historical works for my wake-up calls.
Promise Me You’ll Shoot Yourself
by Florian Huber
Subtitled The Downfall of Ordinary Germans in 1945, this is a new and staggering account of a ‘suicide epidemic’ which I for one had previously been unfamiliar with.
The Eleanor Crosses
by Decca Warrington
Subtitled The Story of Edward I’s Lost Queen and her Architectural Legacy, my partner’s book came out last year and tells the highly-accessible and emotionally- charged tale of this set of monuments, effectively serving up England’s history in microcosm over a period of seven centuries.
Reality Is Not What It Seems (The Journey Into Quantum Gravity)
By Carlo Rovelli
Physicist Carlo Rovelli’s superbly persuasive book from 2016 made me realise once and for all that any formal distinction between ‘the arts’ and ‘the sciences’ is a nonsense.
Never Let Me Go
By Kazuo Ishiguro
One novelist for whom in my opinion the hype and over-praise are justified is Kazuo Ishiguro, whose Never Let Me Go I recently re-read. The way he writes about something unthinkable in deliberately everyday language moved me all over again.
Arrival and Exhalation
By Ted Chiang
A newer, possibly less well-known author of fiction, Ted Chiang, pushes imaginative boundaries in different ways in these two short story collections, the latter of which I’m currently reading. Very little of what he writes could ever meaningfully be given the big-screen treatment, which I happen to regard as a plus!