It can’t be much fun sharing your name with a famous dead rock star, but Nick Drake came to Goldsmiths’ College and he did not disappoint.
The poet, playwright and novelist turned up at short notice to replace author Jackie Kay who was sick with back trouble. You can generally tell within a minute or two if you’ll like a speaker or not and when our eyes met briefly and he smiled and nodded, I thought, I like you.
Such quick judgements made within the blink of an eye are rarely trustworthy but there in his gaze was still the spark of nervous excitement and the undying joy of a playful child. When I returned his friendly gesture I had no idea who he was, but as he stood up to address a roomful of writers, his easy smile and honesty had us all captivated for two hours.
Born in 1961 of Czech hertitage, Nick Drake lives and works in London.
As the first of a series of visiting writers on this year’s Creative and Life Writing MA at Goldsmtihs, it wasn’t so much that Drake was an electrifying speaker; shaking hands and a sometimes wandering train of thought revealed his nervousness and was, in fact, endearing. His impact was in his search for “truth” in the writing process and the pains he expressed as part of a journey to finding an “authentic voice”.
Often taking upwards of four years to write just one poem, his ode to the “other” Nick Drake, that famous 1970s singer, was pared down from four ages of an overtly self-conscious epic into a haunting one-pager filled with extraordinary pathos and dramatic tensions. The finished poem (below), Live Air, and the story on which it hangs came out of a chance visit to a record shop in Notting Hill Gate. Blake tells an amusing story about stumbling on to ‘A Customer’ review on Amazon of the book in which it appears under the title ‘Not what was expected’;
“I made the unfortunate mistake of thinking this was some newly found material from the 70s singer-songwriter Nick Drake. Needless to say I was dissapointed.” [sic]
It is perhaps this ability to laugh at himself, and connect with “the other” – being the other – that I think I saw in Nick Drake’s eyes. His poetry is often sensitive, at times romantic, funny, sad, honest, and always elegantly constructed. The diversity of his interests and subject matter is probably another thing that connected me with the author: Romania and Eastern Europe; love lost and found; society and politics; a poignant funeral in London.
Similarly, in his first novel, a royal whodunnit, Nick Drake sets his “Nubian” dectective, Rahotep, on the trail of a missing Queen Nefertiti among the Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt. Revealing a deeply held childhood fascination with Egypt and Egyptology, Drake has set himself the task of painstakingly constructing a grand work of histo-fiction in three volumes. By all accounts, it is so far an intriguing tale that entwines the histories and cultures of Africa, Europe and Greece to create an exotic bunch of fictionalised characters and situations based upon real events and people who actually lived. “I wanted to bash my head on the desk and watch my blood drip on to the floor,” he says, when describing the challenge of writing the first book.
“The third section was the hardest. Bringing all the pieces together was very difficult. I didn’t know what I was doing. With the second book, I wanted to map out the journey from start to finish much more carefully.” Did it work? “No! It was even more difficult than the first. But at least I had done my research. I knew exactly what objects were important; who the central characters were; and that this was a book about a family; a Dynasty, and the things that people will do to stay in power.”
Nick Drake’s Tutankhamun is available to pre-order from Amazon. Order it now and it will be delivered to you when it arrives.
Live Air by author Nick Drake
The deserted second hand record exchange;
Just a bald guy and his ponytail
Guarding the memory palace of dead vinyl;
Multiple copies of Rumours and Blue
And the Carpenters’ Greatest Hits in brown and gold;
Pink Moon’s playing on the sound system,
Nick Drake’s last LP; soon he would die
On the night Lord Lucan disappeared, Miss World
Lost her crown as an unmarried mother,
And the sun’s November mercury slipped
Off the indigo horizon at 4.04 pm…
I browse the bins, and luckily I find
Fruit Tree, the deleted posthumous box set –
Five Leaves Left, Bryter Layter, Pink Moon;
Three big black discs, acetate ammonites
Coded for ancient technology.
I offer Bela Lugosi my credit card;
He stares at the name, my face, then up
To the shivering strip light and the obscure ceiling
Where sound waves collide with dust to conjure
Nick’s sad ghost in the live air, whispering:
Know that I love you, know that I care,
Know that I see you, know I’m not there
Then the song fades to recorded silence –
The hushed acoustic of his after-life –
Before the static, the perpetual heart-beat trip
Round the record’s inevitable zero…
Lugosi looks from the dark vacancy,
The tangled wires, the drifting motes
In the creaky auditorium of dust
Where the ghost had sung and disappeared; he grins;
“Oh man, oh man, I thought you were dead…”