"Murray is the best kind of literary biographer" – The Financial Times.
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Winner of the 2015 Basil Bunting Award for poetry

Monday, 2 March 2009

Thinking About Malcolm Lowry

This year is the centenary of the birth of the writer Malcolm Lowry, one of a host of Liverpool (well, New Brighton if you are a pedantic Scouser) writers who featured in my book about the city last year So Spirited A Town: Visions and Versions of Liverpool. In the book I relate the well-known story of Lowry's going away to sea at the age of 17 and being delivered to the Liverpool dock in his father's Rolls Royce.  Lowry senior was a wealthy Liverpool cotton-broker who paid his reprobate son an allowance all his life so that he never had to put up with that tiresome inconvenience that hampers the rest of us scribblers, a proper job.  According to Lowry's brothers this Roller was one of his tall tales – he liked nothing better to play the role of an old sea dog even though this was his sole professional voyage – and in fact it was a more humble vehicle that pulled up at the dock gates.

I have been commissioned to contribute a chapter to a new book of centenary essays on Lowry edited by Bryan Biggs and published by Liverpool University Press (more on this later in the year) and so I have been gathering my thoughts. Arthur Calder-Marshall who knew him once wrote:  "He was incapable of inventing anything. He couldn't take a character and/or a situation and elaborate it into a story...I think Lowry's deficiencies as a novelist were precisely the same as his virtues as a writer. I think he hadn't got any of the equipment that the ordinary secondary novelist has. I think telling a simple story, handling a situation, handling time – they provided problems for him which were absolutely insoluble unless he invented this peculiar form that he did..."   Discuss, as they used to say on exam papers.

Actually, reading even some of Lowry's lesser known prose pieces in Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place (the words of an old Manx fisherman's hymn) one feels this is nonsense. Yes, he endlessly re-cycled and re-worked his own experiences, rather than making up fresh plots, but his prose is capacious, beautifully descriptive, rich.  Who needs the whodunnit element when one can have writing like this?  There is something haunting and compelling in particular about his writing from British Columbia where he and his wife lived on the beach in a squatter's shack from 1940 to 1954 in a threatened Eden.  As Aldous Huxley once remarked, there are no rules for the novel, it only has to be interesting.

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