Canongate £20

The Last Holiday: A Memoir, By Gil Scott-Heron

The better half of a poet's life

In the latter half of his life, Gil Scott-Heron was in bad shape.

This once prolific, articulate and highly politicised writer and musician, best known for "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised", had entered a creative cul-de-sac. He was engaged in an epic struggle with drug addiction, resulting in spells in prison, and his live performances were erratic. In the early Nineties I went to three of his gigs; he only showed up for one.

All of which makes the publication of The Last Holiday, an elegantly composed and largely clear-headed memoir, seem a colossal achievement. How could a man who failed to make it to his own gigs get it together to write his autobiography?

The answer lies in the publisher's note written by Jamie Byng, the director of Canongate and a close friend of Heron's. He reveals that The Last Holiday, completed a year before Heron's death last May, was nearly 20 years in the writing, a process that caused its author no end of angst and entailed some dramatic re-writes, including the scrapping of several chapters told in the third person by a narrator named The Artist. Only one of these remains, inserted as an "Interlude". It's occasionally poignant but mostly confusing, demonstrating that Byng was right to steer Scott-Heron towards a more straightforward narrative.

The Last Holiday – the title of which refers to his friend Stevie Wonder's campaign to establish Martin Luther King's birthday as a national holiday – reflects upon Scott-Heron's childhood, his education and his path to success in the Seventies, coming to a halt in 1981 at the end of his and Wonder's Hotter Than July tour.

Much like his poetry, Scott-Heron's style is spare and effective, offering up jagged observations on fame, friendship and political and racial injustice. The women in his family loom large: there's his grandmother, who raised him until he was 11 and persuaded the junk man to give him an abandoned piano; and his mother, who took him to New York after the interstate highway paved over his neighbourhood in Tennessee, and taught him about dignity and the value of hard work. A teacher at his high school clocked his skills as a writer and helped him earn a scholarship to Fieldston, a predominantly white upper-class private school. From there he went to Lincoln University to get his masters degree, chosen because his hero, Langston Hughes, had studied there.

Scott-Heron doesn't discuss his crack addiction, which began well after the Hotter Than July tour, though there are warning signs in his feverish marijuana smoking. Other personal details – lovers, marriage, children – are disclosed reluctantly, cajoled out of Scott-Heron by Byng in the final chapters where he also briefly and movingly opens up about the death of his mother and his failures as a father. The Last Holiday may be disjointed and incomplete, but is also engaging and immensely human. And it is made all the more affecting with the knowledge of the calamities that were yet to come.

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