By Mark Hyatt
Peninsula Press. 175 pages. £10.99. ISBN 978-1-91351-221-7
Reviewed by Jim Burns
I never met Mark Hyatt, though we were in some of the same magazines of the 1960s and early- 1970s. And the 1969 Penguin anthology, Children of Albion : Poetry of the Underground in Britain. The names of the magazines mostly escape me. They’re in boxes with dozens of others from the same period. It seemed as if everyone and his brother started a magazine, most of them short-lived, and poetry readings flourished, along with “alternative bookshops” which provided outlets for the publications. It was a lively time, much decried by members of the literary establishment who, I suspect, feared that they were in danger of losing control of what was published and praised.
Those comments may provide something of a context when looking at Hyatt’s unpublished (until now) semi-autobiographical novel of life in London in the mid-Sixties. It isn’t that it talks about the so-called “underground” poetry scene, or really gives any impression that the narrator is at that stage involved with writing. But it does suggest that he’s living a kind of bohemian existence which was then often in the news for one reason or another. But he refers disparagingly to people in a “beat” coffee bar who, he says, are there in a desperate attempt to be “with it”. He comes across as a little more sympathetic when he mentions another similar location full of “out of work actors, chess players and young socialists, each in his own right trying to find the ideal life”. It all sounds very much of its time and place.
So, who was Mark Hyatt? He was born in London in 1940 and grew up in poverty with very little formal education. He “only gained literacy as an adult”. This might explain the direct style of the novel. The writing is clear and to the point. It could have gone the other way, of course, with a late-immersion into literary waters prompting attempts to impress with displays of technique or an over-indulgence with words. Luke Roberts, in a useful note at the end of the book, does suggest that Hyatt “tended to write with a dictionary in hand” and sometimes used “unusual” words, but from the evidence of Love, Leda it would seem that his prose style was, on the whole, fairly conventional and straightforward.
I honestly can’t recollect much, if anything, about his poetry, and the only easily-available examples I have are in the Children of Albion anthology. The poems there employ a form of personal expression that can seem to amount to a series of loose phrases written down as they occurred to the writer and without an obvious sense of continuity. The term “semi-surreal” was usually applied to work of this nature in the 1960s, but I have a feeling that Hyatt went beyond the whimsicality that was often its hallmark. There was a poem, “True Homosexual Love”, published posthumously in a magazine called The Curiously Strong in 1975, which is better constructed and has a clearer narrative flow. A collection of Hyatt’s poetry is due to be published later this year and it will be interesting to see what is in it.
He began frequenting Soho, Notting Hill, and other areas of London where he met, among others, the novelist Cressida Lindsay, with whom he had a relationship that resulted in a child. It was during this period that, thanks to Lindsay and her friends, he was taught to read and write. Luke Roberts says that Hyatt appears in fictional form in her novel, Lovers & Fathers (1969). He was also portrayed in Laura Del Rivo’s Daffodil on the Pavement (1967).
The affair with Lindsay, and references in Love, Leda to sexual encounters with other women, can’t hide the fact that the book is essentially about a young, working-class gay man on the prowl in London for some sort of satisfaction. There may be various reasons why the novel was never published in the 1960s when it was written, but among them was surely the fact that the homosexual element would not have been acceptable to many publishers at the time. It’s difficult to know for sure, because books like John Rechy’s City of Night (1963) and Hubert Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964) were in circulation and contained fairly graphic gay sex scenes. Hyatt’s book was perhaps just not ready for publication, or didn’t get to the right people. He wasn’t a widely-known writer and had only a few poems in little magazines to his credit. A small press might have taken a chance with a book about a controversial subject by an unknown writer, but printing facilities were not as easily accessible as they are now, nor was there an Internet to use for publicity and sales.
Leda, the name he gives himself, moves around London, venturing into coffee bars and pubs, visiting friends who provide him with money or allow him to stay for the night, and clashing with his family when he decides to call on them. He also has several gay sex encounters, one of which ends in a violent way. His great love, though it’s unrequited, is for a straight married man.
Leda does pick up some occasional work, and it’s notable that when describing the routines involved in functioning as a sheet metal worker in a small, back-street engineering works, or a dishwasher in a restaurant, Hyatt has a good eye for detail. The same can be said for his account of taking a friend’s two small boys to the seaside for the day while she goes for an interview. The picture of packed beaches, holidaymakers out to enjoy themselves, and the effort required to keep mischievous children entertained, is accurate. It might not seem all that interesting on the surface, but Hyatt’s clean prose somehow holds the reader’s attention. There’s a suggestion that something might go really wrong – one of the children getting lost or hurt which makes for a degree of tension in the writing – but it doesn’t.
Is it a major novel? Of course not, and it never make any claims to be one. But as an account of an alienated young man adrift in an unsympathetic world, it does have some conviction. And, like minor works of art often do, it has value as a social record of a specific period. In other words, it’s believable.
What happened to Hyatt? According to Luke Roberts, there was a spell in Brixton prison, an arrest when re-entering the UK from Europe, supposedly on suspicion of currency smuggling though he may actually have been bringing in LSD, and some psychiatric treatment which possibly involved Electro- convulsive Therapy (ECT). He may also have been treated for heroin addiction. He wrote, particularly when he formed a fairly steady relationship with Donald Haworth. The pair moved to Belthorn, near Blackburn in Lancashire. But when they split up Hyatt switched to living in a bedsit in Manchester for a time. There was a suicide attempt and there’s a reference to the poets Jeremy Prynne and Barry MacSweeney driving North to try to talk Hyatt out of making any further attempts to kill himself. But he did eventually succeed in 1972 and his body was found in a cave near the Entwistle reservoir in Lancashire. He’d taken an overdose of aspirin and Mandrax sleeping tablets.
I’m glad that Love, Leda has finally found a publisher. It deserves to be in print not only because, as I suggested earlier, it has documentary value as a picture of a certain kind of life at a certain time in history. Cultural historians may find it useful when writing about the 1960s. That apart, I think it’s a novel with some perception and much sadness about the state of the world, and the lives that people are often forced to lead, and is well worth reading for its own sake.