ACH Smith may just be the best British writer you’ve never heard of. He’s the author of a dozen novels and novelizations, writer of 20 professionally produced plays, a widely published poet, a journalist for The Times, and a screenwriter. His output is uniformly superb. And now he’s a brilliant memoirist.
If you want to judge a writer by the company he keeps, Smith is world class. Now an octogenarian, Smith hung out with Hemingway and Hughes (Ted), bantered with Betjeman and Beckett, and stayed pals with Tom Stoppard for over 50 years. The memoir is replete with hilarious and revealing anecdotes about such literary figures. And it’s so beautifully written, you feel as if you’re sitting next to Mr Smith in some bucolic Bristol pub listening to his tales while he sups on a lager and rolls a ciggie with the other hand.
He mixed with many who had yet to make their names. Besides befriending Stoppard when both were journalists in their twenties, Smith writes a glowing review of a young folk singer called Bobby Dillon; works with an up-and-coming director called John Boorman; and meets a promising actor called Pete Postlethwaite.
While the anecdotes add flavour, the real theme of the book is how the work of writing gets done. In this, Smith is a wise old bird – erudite, perceptive, and modest. He has seen some commercial success and had some critical acclaim, but he has always struggled to make a living from writing. Although he seems perpetually broke, he is helped by generous and loyal friends and by the fact that he clearly doesn’t give a fig about material things. His other passions, besides writing, are his family, cricket, and his adopted city, Bristol. He writes warmly about all three.
The memoir is shot through with Smith’s characteristic humour and self-deprecation. He is a klutz and a scruff. He locks himself out of rented accommodation, breaks the door down and finds he’s taken half the rotting wall with it. He borrows a car for a holiday and locks himself out of that, too; he gets back in by using a hacksaw. He interviews legendary actress Dame Joan Plowright and discovers afterwards that the tape recorder was unplugged. Too intimidated to ask her to re-do the interview, he reconstructs everything from memory and gets away with it.
The whole book is so full of bon mots and funny tales that I found myself scribbling notes every few pages. I particularly liked his assertion that “Most of us would go on writing in solitary confinement. In friendless times, there is always the sound of posterity clapping.”
But the best anecdote of all concerns his visit to Samuel Beckett’s Paris apartment. Smith was to write the program notes to one of Beckett’s plays. He asked the future Nobel Laureate “What do you want in the notes?” To which Beckett replied: “Nothing at all. The title of the play and the actors’ names if you insist. Nothing else.” It’s hard to think of a more Beckettian response than that.
And it’s hard to think of a more engaging memoir than WordSmith. From me, a standing ovation and a loud and sustained “bravo”. Wonderful.