:: Article


By David Collard.

Toby Litt, Patience (Galley Beggar, 2019)

Please be patient with me.

Thirty years ago, in October 1989, I came across a dazzling short essay in the fourth issue of The W. H. Auden Society Newsletter. The title was “From ‘Acedia’ to ‘Zeitgeist’: Auden in the 2nd Edition of the OED”. The author was Toby Litt. I didn’t know who he was but assumed he was a distinguished Auden scholar with access to a good library (it was a pre-internet era).

I learned that Auden’s impressive tally of 766 citations includes twenty-eight for which he is credited as the first writer to use the word in print and included the first pejorative use of ‘queer’, the first printed use of ‘ponce’ to designate an effeminate homosexual, of ‘toilet-humour’, of ‘agent’ in the sense of a secret agent or spy, of ‘dedicated’ to mean a person ‘single-minded in loyalty to his beliefs or in his artistic or personal integrity’, of ‘shagged’ meaning ‘weary, exhausted’, and of ‘stud’ for a person ‘displaying masculine sexual characteristics’. Further curiosities were the first printed appearance in English of the surrealist term ‘objet trouvé’ and the first printed use of ‘What’s yours?’ as an invitation given by the person buying the next round of drinks.

(Not included in the Litt list but noted by Edward Mendelson in his introduction to the reprint of Auden’s The Prolific and the Devourer (1939) is the poet’s use of the term ‘apolitical’, another appearance in print. Other Auden-sourced coinages include ‘Mosleyite’, ‘Disneyesque’ and (from 1941) ‘butch’, in the sense of aggressively masculine. Where would we be without him?)

I now know that Toby Litt must have been no more than 20 when he wrote the Newsletter piece, and presumably still an undergraduate. But he struck me as somebody to look out for and a few years later I read and admired his first book Adventures in Capitalism (1996), a collection of bright and zeitgeisty short stories. Among many pleasures therein was the Arcimboldian image of a London taxi-driver with a face like a full English breakfast. This made a big impression at the time and has — obviously — stayed with me.

He’s published many books since then* and I have to confess I haven’t read all of them (one can’t read everything, alas). Last year his excellent memoir Wrestliana snagged my interest and, as a bonus, was published by Galley Beggar Press, home to many of my favourite writers. So when an advance copy of Patience arrived in the post I took the phone off the hook (as we used to say) and settled down to read.

As I expect you’ll all know by now Patience is the story of two boys in an austere Catholic orphanage in 1979. Elliott spends his days in a wheelchair gazing out of a window or staring at a white wall. Jim is blind and cannot speak. Together the two boys plan their escape from the confines of the institution. From the very first pages — Elliott’s Melvillean meditation on the whiteness of the wall — I was hooked by Litt’s clear and eloquent articulation of a unique intelligence. To say more would require a spoiler alert, so I shall stop here.

And thank you for your patience.

Patience is published on 19th September 2019 by Galley Beggar Press. It is the Republic of Consciousness Book of the Month for August, and will be the subject of the first Republic of Consciousness Reading Group, which will be held at London Review Bookshop on Sunday 22nd September, and is open to all.

Toby Litt attending a 3:AM Magazine event at London’s Aquarium Gallery, 30th December 2003 (Pic: Andrew Gallix)


* According to his website, Toby Litt’s books include the following although, as he points out, ‘Not all of them are available. Some of them are unwritten’. This chronological list also happens to be alphabetical — he’s clearly playing a long game. Not included here are Mutants (selected essays) and the aforementioned memoir Wrestliana.

Adventures in Capitalism
Finding Myself
Ghost Story
I play the drums in a band called okay
Journey into Space
King Death
Modern Witchcraft
(novel – exists)
Notes for a Young Gentleman
Organisms for Suffering and Survival
(short stories – exists)

David Collard writes regularly for the Times Literary Supplement, Literary Review and other journals. He is the author of About a Girl (CB Editions, 2016). He lives and works in London, where he divides his time.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, August 31st, 2019.