On the Look-Out: A Partial Autobiography by C H Sisson - review by Michael De-La-Noy

Michael De-La-Noy

What is It All About?

On the Look-Out: A Partial Autobiography


Carcanet 234pp £14.95 order from our bookshop

This is rather an odd book, diffuse as well as discursive, deliberately non-chronological for reasons I cannot fathom, and with different sections written not only at different times but in distinctly different styles. At one point, again for reasons I fail to understand, Sisson becomes a soldier called Pearce. But it needs to be accepted very much as a ‘writer’s biography’, or more exactly, as a poet’s view of life, and while at times it seemed to me a bit of a plod (but others may not find it so) it was more than redeemed by some splendidly sardonic humour and of course the kind of sharp observations one would expect from a healthily cynical Christian of exceptional intelligence.

There is no question that the prose befits the poet, for the jacket is adorned with a fine photograph of Sisson, and on every page one can easily match the sentiments expressed on paper with those etched over the years upon his enquiring and slightly disbelieving face. He begins provocatively enough, by saying he has the greatest difficulty in believing in the existence of human personality, ‘and I hardly know what sort of thing it would be, if it did exist.’ He finds it easier, he says, to believe in God than in the existence of personality. And that, he admits, ‘puts some” difficulties in the way of an autobiography.’ He claims to know very little about this world ‘except that the motor car plays an important part in it,’ but he knows how to describe his entry into an office where he worked as under secretary at the Ministry of Labour; it was ‘rather like that of a garment into a spin dryer.’

I enjoyed this early sequence best. Reverting to the heyday of Soho, he recalls meeting Patrick Kavanagh brooding in a pub, and writes: ‘I would be instructed in the proper way of approaching the master – which is with a large whisky in one’s outstretched hand.’ And how can one

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

RLF - March

A Mirror - Westend

Follow Literary Review on Twitter