A TV programme on Amy Winehouse’s death
re-animates his ghost, in the depths of my mind,
where it has slumbered, undead, over forty years.
I Google him now, he is not there;
vanished in the ether, into thin air.
It seems the universe does not care
that he lived, he wrote, he promised
to be a writer of some celebrity.
Cambridge, 1976, city of dreams:
fitting stage for his brief life of extremes.
Rumours of drugs, drink, depravity;
his squalid surroundings, his verbal dexterity.
At times, he gorged on cream cakes;
at times, he starved. At times he was
pudgy; days later, he was thin.
His eyes always sparkled, behind
delicate frames. Invariably,
there was the impish grin.
I only met him three times;
spoke to him twice. Can’t recall
exactly what was said. I remember
he admired that line of Pink Floyd:
“shine on, you crazy diamond.”
He lived a 1970’s version of
starving in a garret. Became another
Cambridge casualty, like Syd Barrett.
Time churns on; the clunk, the clatter.
Time grinds on; the spray, the spatter.
Does anyone count? Does anyone matter?
The last time I saw him was in
the Public Toilets, in Lion’s Yard.
In his brown Attendant uniform
he sat at a desk in the corner,
reading Rilke’s “Sonnets to Orpheus”.
A well-thumbed copy of Rimbaud’s
“Illuminations” lay on the desk.
His speech was slurred, but he spoke
of enjoying the job, and of how much
time it gave him to read. The next time
I heard about him, he was dead.
He will never enter the realms
of myth. He took on all the trappings,
but none of the pith. Perhaps it was
all bluster; perhaps it was all show.
The ultimate sadness: we’ll never know.
I had the best three years of my life – up to now – as a student at Cambridge from 1976 to 1979. Whenever I tell people about getting my degree at Cambridge, they always look quite impressed. I don’t usually go on to inform them that the degree course (in “Humanities”) was at Cambridgeshire College of Arts and Technology (now Anglia Ruskin University), and that I did it as a “Mature Student”, aged 26. Anyway, the main point is that the course was wonderful, as far as I was concerned (European Thought and Literature, and Art History – exactly the subjects I loved and was fascinated by), and Cambridge was a wonderful place to be a student. We actually got paid to be students, in those days; just imagine!
Alan McConville was one of my fellow-students, specialising in English Literature. He was a small, rather pudgy individual, with spectacles, a mop of unruly hair, and the countenance of a cheeky cherub. As I record in the poem, I never got to know him all that well, and only heard rumours of his literary talents; but I was shocked to hear of his death at the age of twenty two.