Don Paterson has flourished prize-winning poetry from his angst

From punch-ups and psychosis to stunning poetry! As a boy, Don Paterson endured violence, unrequited love and a terrifying drug-induced madness — but out of the angst flourished prize-winning poetry

  • Don Paterson’s new memoir is an honest account of his boyhood
  • The book is about family, money and music but also about schizophrenia
  • READ MORE: Boris Johnson lands £500k advance for his eagerly-awaited memoir covering his time as Prime Minister 


Toy Fights: A Boyhood 

by Don Paterson (Faber £16.99, 384pp) 

Should you find a better memoir all year than this wonderful book, you’ll be very lucky. True confessions first: I wasn’t familiar with Don Paterson’s work, and more fool me. 

He is one of the country’s most acclaimed poets with a shelf-full of poetry prizes (Whitbread, Costa, two T.S. Eliot awards, the Queen’s Gold Medal and countless more) as well as being Professor of Poetry at St Andrews. Oh, and he is also a noted jazz musician. 

So why should we be interested in the first 20 years of a man most of us don’t really know? Because it is the funniest, most truthful, moving and honest account of a boyhood I have read: witty and dry, profane and brutally hilarious in a laugh-out-loud way, it is full of wincing moments of recognition. 

Fisticuffs: Two boys street fighting. Don Paterson’s new memoir is an honest account of his boyhood

Whether you’re a working-class boy from Dundee like Paterson or a middleclass lad from the Home Counties, or any point in between, growing up is, I guess, roughly the same pain-in-the-butt experience, wherever and whoever you are. 

We all have problems with our parents; have a terrible uncle; get into fights and scrapes; fall in love with the wrong people; are raddled with insecurities; have trouble at school; drink too much or take too many drugs; eat too many sweets and become obsessed with music. 

As a prize-winning poet, Paterson certainly knows his way around the language, and this is as brilliantly written a book as you will find anywhere. 

He was born in 1963, a harsh time in Scotland. His mother was obsessed with the tenor Mario Lanza and was desperately upset when he died early — of over-eating, as it happens. 

Paterson’s father was a part-time musician, who worked for the publisher DC Thomson, colouring the comic strips for Beano and The Dandy. 

The book’s title refers to a horrible childhood game in Dundee, known as Toy Fights. ‘It was basically 20 minutes of extreme violence without pretext’ — something you feel Dennis the Menace would have enjoyed in his stripy jumper. 

In the evenings Paterson’s father also worked as a country and western singer, and was an undoubted role model for his son, whose growing abilities and passions as a musician dominate the later sections of the book. 

Don Paterson (pictured as a child) was born in 1963, a harsh time in Scotland. In line with Scottish educational policy at the time, discipline was enforced through corporal punishment, officially the threat and practice of beating children insensible

The young Don becomes obsessed with origami (a brilliant and wholly surprising passage), God, The Osmonds, the Boys’ Brigade and, of course, sex and girls. 

A glimpse of Debbie O’Hanlon’s knickers would send him into ‘delirium’, although the truth, of course, is that ‘our interaction with the female population was confined to the agonies of long-­distance yearning and the odd brief contact — a borrowed pencil, a whispered test answer, fingers touching over a retrieved shuttlecock — where one’s existence was briefly acknowledged’. School is tough. He goes to Baldragon Academy, a bracing sort of institution: ‘On a regular day chairs were hurled through windows, legs were ripped off pigeons and sh***s taken in teachers’ desk drawers.’ 

In line with Scottish educational policy at the time, discipline was enforced through corporal punishment, officially the threat and practice of beating children insensible. 

Paterson is very willing to give the school its due: ‘One should make it clear that . . . amidst all the carnage, a Scottish education was doggedly pursued and indeed regularly delivered. 

‘You might emerge from Baldragon with a heroin habit, tears tattooed on your face, pregnant, dead or all of the above, but you might have added to that a Higher Latin, an opinion on the South Sea Bubble and some basic facility on the clarinet.’ 

The most harrowing section of the book is an account of Paterson’s descent into madness. He sets off one day to buy some hash, of which he is by now consuming an epic amount, from one of the many doss houses around which his and his friends’ social life revolved. 

Someone rolls a vast joint of strong dope mixed with brown heroin. 

On the way back he is hit by the first of many savage panic attacks, so bad he’s hospitalised. The diagnosis is an ‘acute adolescent schizophrenic episode’.

When Paterson reacts badly to one particular drug he’s given by doctors, the results are horrific. 

‘I had started the long walk back to the ward and was looking ahead to the vanishing point of the corridor, when it started to slowly tilt downwards. It moved through 90 degrees until I was staring into a mineshaft. The floor was sinking… the descent accelerated and I separated from myself again. Oh no no no no.’ 

He stays in the ward for three and a half months. It is only when he gets better that he can throw himself properly into his music. 

My only reservation here is that, for such a clever and insightful person, he fails to make a real connection, unless I missed it, between the stupefying amounts of dope he was consuming as an adolescent and his bout of schizophrenia. Heaven knows if there is one, but it can’t stretch the bounds of probability too much.

Paterson can dish it out with the best of them, though, and does so in a very even-handed way in some superbly acid asides on the state of the modern world. 

He’s not a fan of social media (‘a disaster for the species’), and as for virtue-signalling, it would be hard to find a better approach to it than this: ‘Unless I find myself in a football team, and supporting black team mates, no I won’t take the knee because a) some of us from the working class find all genuflection demeaning; b) this isn’t America; and c) I am not going to be coerced by white elites into signalling, in the prescribed manner, my endorsement of a cause so many of them love to champion but do precious little to advance.’ 

As for his politics, ‘I can’t stand the Right, I can’t stand the Left and I really can’t stand the appeasing, quietist, weedy, status quo “liberal” centre’. And never forget, he says, the ‘staggering indifference of both Right and Left elites towards the poor I grew up among’. 

At the end, after a trawl through the Dundee club scene and its spectacular sexual shenanigans, he boards a train and sets off for London, guitar in hand. I just hope he is working on his second volume of memoirs. 

Life in our 20s and 30s may be different from childhood, but if anyone can make his experience universal, it is Don Paterson, the poet who has brought us this instant classic. 

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