Don Paterson is one of the most decorated and influential poets writing in the UK today. He is also an accomplished guitarist who founded and toured with a jazz ensemble throughout the 90s. Early in his new memoir Toy Fights, which covers the first twenty years of his life, Paterson explains that he quit playing music for about a dozen years in the early 2000s, and that he expected the memoir to help him remember how important music had been to him. He was surprised, he writes, when the project unlocked all sorts of other memories he didn’t know he had, resulting in a book about “schizophrenia, hell, money, narcissists, debt and the working class, anger, swearing, drugs, books, football, love, origami, the peculiar insanity of Dundee, sugar, religious mania, the sexual excesses of the Scottish club band scene, and, more generally, the lengths we go to not be bored.”
This list represents Toy Fights well. Several chapters focus on working-class life in Paterson’s hometown of Dundee, Scotland. Paterson has positive memories of many of the people and places in Dundee, but he avoids what he calls “Kailyard 2.0,” i.e., sentimental Scottish literature for the export market. Instead, his reflections highlight the long-term damage and simmering anger produced by class-based inequality.
As a teenager, Paterson spent four months in a psychiatric hospital after being diagnosed with a schizophrenic episode. His writing on this experience stands out for its sobering illustration of a psychotic break, or what it means to “lose touch with reality,” and for avoiding a triumphant narrative of overcoming difficulty. He ends this part of the narrative by writing that it was several years before the experience “ceased to define me,” suggesting that the presence of the breakdown hasn’t been eliminated, merely minimized.
Like Paterson’s poetry, Toy Fights constantly doubles back on itself and questions its ability to produce meaning. It opens with a clear declaration of Paterson’s unreliability: “I am wont to confuse memory and photographs, other folks’ memories with my own, and things I saw on television with things that happened to me.” He begins another chapter by listing a few of his early memories and then admitting that he can’t make them cohere in any meaningful way. The phrase “toy fights” refers to a childhood game that “was basically twenty minutes of extreme violence without pretext.” As the book’s title, it suggests that the first twenty years of Paterson’s life were merely senseless violence.
Toy Fights deals with these threats by embracing them. Paterson writes as though he’s simply placing sentences next to each other, rather than blending them into a smooth narrative. Here, for example, is his description of how he prepared for his first school dance: “I had never been to a disco, but was determined not to let that show. I had correctly divined that an androgynous look was currently de rigueur amongst the painfully cool, but not what it actually was. […] I had also registered the fashion for male jewelry, and insisted that I wore a chain of some kind, despite my mother’s skepticism. I ended up borrowing a huge, oblong silver locket of hers; in the hall mirror it looked pretty dang impressive.” The prose isn’t choppy, exactly; but the repetitive structure produces a sense of discontinuity—as though every sentence needs to start from scratch—rather than an even flow or a feeling of building momentum.
Paterson also refuses to smooth over the seams in his research, particularly when it comes to internet searching. Sometimes, he simply writes his searches into the text, such as the following report on a middle school classmate: “Kay Jack now works as a consultant obstetrician in a hospital in Manchester. I just looked her up on Facebook.” Sometimes, searches provide new information that contradicts what he’s written in the text, in which case the original, incorrect information remains beside the new findings. Moments like these resemble Robert Wyatt’s album Rock Bottom, which Paterson appreciates because it includes mistakes. “A little audible failure,” he writes, “is a sign, a guarantee even, that an artist is consumed by something greater than merely the desire to impress us.”
Paterson even embraces the random violence of “toy fights” as an alternative to a tidy narrative of progress. He first mentions the game early in the book as part of an explanation for his identity. “The explanation seems to live in the years one spent in rehearsal for real life,” he writes, “but those rehearsals often turned out to be more real than the thing we were rehearsing for, to the point that I sometimes wonder if we get it all the wrong way around.” For Paterson, “real life” means being a poet, and as he explains in the chapter detailing his hospitalization, poetry requires recognizing the nothingness at the core of human existence. In other words, twenty minutes of violence without pretext might be as real as it gets precisely because it explodes the idea that one progresses neatly from childhood to real life.
Closing the first chapter of his book, Paterson writes that since he can’t assume that readers will already be interested in him, he plans to “deploy the usual sympathetic magic, and try not to bore me in the telling, in the hope that I won’t bore you.” I hope it’s clear from what I’ve written, but just to be sure: I was never bored while reading Toy Fights. I was amazed at the range of emotion Paterson evoked with his writing style, I loved learning about Dundee, and I laughed out loud a lot. (Since humor varies so much between readers, I’ll add that Patricia Lockwood’s Priestdaddy was a good comparison for me in terms of how funny it was, even though Paterson’s humor is more deadpan.) Part of the reason that Paterson’s “sympathetic magic” worked for me, I think, is that Toy Fights has no expectations and makes no demands. It knows there’s no guarantee that it will connect with readers, and that it has flaws and blind spots. As I’ve tried to suggest, it doesn’t just say these things—it embraces them and makes them core principles.
This reminded me of Paterson’s approach in his earlier book, Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets, where he offers direct, personal responses to Shakespeare instead of filtering his thoughts through secondary sources or overwhelming the poetry with his own interpretations. It also reminded me of Shakespeare himself, particularly The Winter’s Tale with its jokes and its self-consciously artificial plot. Like Shakespeare’s play, Toy Fights embraces its partial, ungrounded imagination as proof of its humanity. It has a ton of good jokes. And it asserts its value as no more than—but also no less than—a good way to pass time on a cold winter’s night.
Toy Fights: A Boyhood
by Don Paterson
Published August 15th, 2023
I teach English composition and literature at the University of Pittsburgh. I also review books for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Boston Globe, among others.