Jonathan Cape, £18.99, 352pp £17.09 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

The Horseman's Word: A Memoir by Roger Garfitt

Fancy and folly of the man who fell to earth

Confession is a dangerous game. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the originator of the modern genre, received a fierce reception from which his serious political work never recovered. These days, we tend to praise Rousseau's sort of revelatory and self-reflexive openness. The bare-faced truths, pubescent fumblings for sexual and literary identities, dreadful poetry, humdrum drug-taking and the selfish vanities of youthful ambition make this endlessly fascinating literary mode still significant, and in some ways quite dominant. Yet the autobiographer still takes great risks in closing the space between a text and him- or herself. A negative reception might be received as a judgement of the teller rather than the tale. Unsurprisingly, Rousseau was paranoid even in his Confessions; lauded in some circles, Thomas De Quincey was demonised in others. Confessional narrators are brave people indeed.

The poet Roger Garfitt owes the likes of Rousseau and De Quincey a good deal. But his gentle, coaxing tour across the fervid climbs, lonely sloughs and frustrating plateaus of his early English years has a poetic delicacy of expression that neither of his progenitors could muster. His tour is guided by a sensitivity to natural history and a nostalgic grasp of a retreating, half-resentful post-war England. In moments of Wordsworthian contemplation, the prose lifts into a crisp and delicate conviction, and philosophical depth.

Garfitt is directionless, in the good sense that his self-mapping seems to have no manipulative intention. That this lack of direction is also a characteristic of Garfitt junior – the protagonist here – means that overall, the project of this book becomes unified. This is a study of a talented youth's desire for meaning, and is flighty and fickle as a result.

Garfitt maps his narrative of the first couple decades of his life through the regions that made him: Norfolk (with grandparents), Surrey (with parents and horses), Oxford and travels (as a student), and a brief coda taking him back to Norfolk. His development is written through the recovery of particular places, times of day or season, or shifts in the light or weather. The life story is threaded through visceral memories of self, and subsequent dislocations and alienations. This is a populous book too: a parade of characters sharpen scenes of intensity with the often enervating Garfitt.

Enervating, because for acres of this book, our hero is a picaresque fool: an idealistic 1960s student of alarming apolitical pretentiousness. He chases sex and poets and music like a long-haired jazz-dancing rabbit who has believed too much Keats and Kerouac. Our narrator, Garfitt senior, pretty much says as much of his younger self. Garfitt is crushed – though possibly not enough to listen – when he hears that a bitchy tutor at Oxford thought him "the most narcissistic person he had ever met". It is hard to disagree.

This autobiography presents a juvenile poet of jolting, angular earnestness. French children on the beach think Garfitt is a pop star. People spit at him for his hair, his hats, his colourfulness. In a memorable scene, David Bowie, dressed in recessive black, meets Garfitt, dressed in a daffodil yellow suit with blue pinstripe. Garfitt is a courageous confessor: "I should have had a card printed: Mistakes Made for You – Every Embarrassment Catered for".

But this fool is never comic, and is headed for something darker than laughter. Oddly enough, it is a strength that the longer the chain of febrile intensities stretches out, the less we can tolerate Garfitt's silliness and self-regard. As his drugged mind wanders, again and again, we become increasingly remote from him, worn out by his pointlessness, and his hormonal ordinariness. Until, that is, a huge mental crisis occurs, and the whole purpose and purport of this sad story changes.

What seemed like a desperate desire for attention from anyone suddenly becomes a garish and hopeless dance for an audience of one. In its final quarter, this book becomes deeply affecting as we watch a young man unable to cope with the sheer fluidity the 1960s entailed, at least for those willing to experiment with their own lives. Overall, The Horseman's Word is a searing act of personal confession.

Simon Kövesi is head of English at Oxford Brookes University

Arts and Entertainment
Loading individual letters on to an original Heidelberg printing press
Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

    Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

    Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

    Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
    Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

    Crisp sales are in decline

    As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

    Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

    Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
    Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'