Graham Caveney is an author who, up until now, has written books about other people. He wrote the biographies of two great writers, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs. But having put time, effort and research into the lives of others, he finally got round to writing his memoir…
The Boy With The Perpetual Nervousness is a memoir like no other, and is a true testament to not only Graham’s adolescence, but his ability to turn his life around and produce something to be proud of.
The book explores Graham’s early life growing up in a catholic household in Accrington during the early eighties. The book is packed full of endearment for the working class society he lived in, his trips to Blackpool, and his parents. The events of his early years are described with a steady balance of nostalgia and wit. Yet, casting a shadow over his memories of growing up is the abuse he suffered from his head teacher and priest, who, with an affinity for culture, theatre and literature, at first seems like a friendly, literal father figure in the book. Graham has done well to present ‘Rev Kev’, as he is called, in a way that lets readers make their own mind up about him, rather than lacing his words with resentment or retrospective suffering. Graham takes us back to that time, and puts us exactly where a young, teenage boy stood.
The memoir almost doubles as an exploration in the memory process. There are a few layers to it, although it remains uncomplicated and surprisingly easy (and addictive) to read. Graham’s memory works more like a film, but he acknowledges that his past relationship with drug and alcohol abuse affects this, as he writes: “You cannot live the life of a drug addict and/or alcoholic and still expect to trust your memory.” This is where the chapter titles come in. Each chapter starts simply with ‘Next’, ‘Next’, ‘Next’…which, he tells me, wasn’t the original intention for the book.
“It was a way for me to remember where the chapters were, and when I finished it I thought ‘I’m gonna keep that’”. He adds: “I was trying to get the weird way memory works. There’s no linear cause and effect ‘abc’ structure, they have a life of their own, they’re all over the place and that temporal shift is what I wanted to get at.”
It’s clear that Graham is a book-lover, both from meeting him in person and reading his book. On the day of the interview, Graham had been reading Ongoingness: The End of a Diary by Sarah Manguso. This is a fitting choice for the man himself, as another feature of his book is that every chapter begins with a quote, whether from a book, song, or film, each quote holds meaning for Graham.
“They’re all quotes I wrote in my journal,” he reveals. “I used to keep a journal, and still do.” At this point he points out that after writing his memoir, he burnt the journals from his teenage years. His reason? “I’d got what I needed to get out of them, it was time for them to go.”
Graham moved to Nottingham in 1999 to begin teaching American Literature at the University of Nottingham, but sooner after his mum died, and drink took over. Living in Beeston during his time with alcoholism, his life used to consist of journeys to and from Sainsbury’s. He describes himself at the time as having “a deathwish, but with cowardice about doing it” and that it was self-harm on a scale he will never return to. He acknowledges the kindness of local ‘Dutch friends’ who came to his rescue, “They were kind to me and helped me out in ways I will never be able to repay.”
During this period, he still read books, particularly those by Anita Brookner. He read poets, listened to music, but he’d stopped writing altogether. In 2009, he finally went into rehab, and the next few years were taken up with having therapy and attending AA meetings which he did for two years.
Sobriety came in early 2010, at which point he was unemployed, which fed into the reasons for him writing the book. He also volunteered for a short time at Oxfam Books and Music in Beeston, a place which allowed him to “learn what it’s like to be in the world again, at an age when you are too old to learn.”
But it was while he was working at Five Leaves Bookshop in Nottingham (the first place to give him a job) that he began writing his memoir. Previously, he’s written three books: Shopping in Space: Essays on American ‘Blank Generation’ Fiction (with Elizabeth Young); The “Priest”, They Called Him: The Life and Legacy of William S. Burroughs and Screaming with Joy: The Life of Allen Ginsberg.
It was being surrounded by books, objects which he is ‘in awe of’ that provided him with the boost he needed to begin writing again. Originally, The Boy with the Perpetual Nervousness was going to be a semi-autobiographical novel called ‘Meta-Metamorphosis’ taking the opening lines of Kafka’s Metamorphosis for inspiration. However, this idea was scrapped, and he began putting together scraps of memories which would form the early process for his completed memoir.
He then shared these scraps with close friends, “a way of introducing them to a bit of me”, and it was Julie Hesmondhalgh, known for her role as Hayley Cropper in Coronation Street, who read some of these scraps and offered encouragement, which was greeted by him with reluctance. She sent some of these to Jonathan Coe, who Graham says he has “never been out of touch” with and this was the springboard for him getting the memoir published by Picador. “All my heroes were published by Picador,” he says. “They were my dream publisher.”
The Boy with the Perpetual Nervousness is out now