[This is a different version of the first chapter of the book – currently up on the Galley Beggar website.]
The story of my great-great-great grandfather’s life is the best true story I know. It has everything – a strong, handsome, charismatic, tragic lead man (William Litt). It involves crime, disloyalty, poetry, love. It’s a mystery story. It even has some epic fight scenes. I’d known for a couple of decades that I’d have to write it, but – until now – I’d always resisted.
Why, if it was such a gift? Well, to explain that has taken the whole book. But let’s start with this photograph of my father, David Litt, standing in Cleator Moor, Cumbria, in Litt Place – named after my great-great-great grandfather.
I took the photo in 2009, when we went together to Cumbria to seek the traces of our ancestor. But I went reluctantly. It wasn’t the right time. Yet.
When I was a boy, my Dad passed on the story of who William Litt was and what he achieved – as a Champion Wrestler and a renowned writer. He also told me about William’s later failures, his smuggling adventures, his loss of £3000, and how he had to run away to Canada ‘to escape the local Lord’. How he died in 1850, without ever returning to Cumbria.
When I grew up and became a writer, my Dad told me, ‘It’s a great story – you should write it.’
But I didn’t – God, no! – because, for me, writing has always been about getting away from my father, heading fast and far in the opposite direction. Writing was an act of disobedience, truancy. It was about telling the stories I wanted to tell, which were about the world I lived in and the time I knew. My father was an antique dealer. The past belonged to him.
So, I began with Adventures in Capitalism. I wrote about people who live in a very shallow, technological present moment. I wrote about quick lives going violent and perverse and weird and sometimes haunted. Because that’s how I saw things. That’s how things are, isn’t it?
It’s a common enough trajectory. You want to be different, to be original. You start out thinking that you come from nowhere and owe nothing to anyone. And that this is all good and necessary. Idiosyncrasy, self-reliance – yes.
Then, as years pass, you realize just how dependent on others you’ve always been, and how similar to them you now are.
And rather than hating this (although sometimes it’s still oppressive and daunting), you come to welcome it. You’re not alone.
Finally, you arrive at a point when you realize, you have to go back and take a good hard look at what really made you who you are. You have to acknowledge your debts. You have to measure yourself against your forbears.
For me, about two and a half years ago, this time had come. It had come from looking up and looking down – looking up at my father, who is becoming frail and forgetful and has never asked me to write anything, except the story of William; looking down at my sons, who are desperately looking up at me for clues about how to grow up, how to be a man.
There are things I’d wanted to write about, ever since I began writing, but had never found a way to approach: growing up in the Cold War and taking its geopolitical violence very seriously, internalizing it; being badly bullied at boarding school, and deciding the best I could do was never pass any violence on; going from being sporty (Public Schools Relays and First Fifteen) to being anti- sport; spending most of my life – like so many of us do – sitting looking at words on a computer screen.
At the end of 2014, I sat down and read William Litt’s book Wrestliana for the first time – and I suddenly saw a way in: through William.
Here was a man who was both a wrestler and a writer – who was both immensely physical and intensely intellectual.
Even during his lifetime, a friend referred to him as ‘a kind of anomaly in nature’ – an unprecedented combination of athletic superiority and literary talent, ‘for, while he shines in the arena, and was, at no distant date, the undisputed champion of Cumberland for a series of years, in all those exercises which require superior strength, courage, skill, and dexterity, his mind is so exquisitely delicate, that many of his effusions in poetry will continue to be read so long as genuine taste and feeling are cultivated… ’
It seems this – balanced – is something we’re not able to be. Perhaps because the two tribes, Jocks and Nerds, are so culturally separate; or perhaps because we have to specialize so intensely in order to become good at any skill. If you’re an athlete, you train so many hours of the day that you never have time to read a book; if you’re a writer, you spend so many years at the desk that your muscles go slack and your spine gets crocked. If you’re well-balanced, you’re a well-balanced failure.
But because William, somehow, was able – if only for a few years – to exist successfully in both world, he seems to me a fascinating, mysterious figure.
Luckily, William left plenty of clues behind. He was famous, his name familiar in every household in the north, his doings retailed in the local press. And, aside from Wrestliana, he left behind many poems as well as his novel Henry and Mary, a supernatural adventure story set among smugglers. He confessed in novel’s introduction that ‘there is in reality more truth than fiction’ in it.
I wanted to write another book called Wrestliana – to take William on, on his home ground. Because all of this man-stuff was something I needed to wrestle with.
Could I, by investigating his life, find out what William’s secret was? Can I understand more about both him and myself?
Could I put us into the arena with one another, to see who won – as a wrestler, as a writer, as a man?
And, by wrestling with the past, could I say something worthwhile about our unbalanced present?
Wrestliana will be published by Galley Beggar in May 2018.