Leonard Irving: Poet, Writer, Raconteur, Working-Class guy

by Art Edelstein
September 1997

Len Irving’s life would make a good book. This self-confessed "vagabond" has worked on tramp steamers, been a British marine, hitched across America "seven or eight times;’ and chosen to ‘live in one of the seamiest parts of a big American city.

In his 73 years he’s cavorted with Greenwich Village artists, sidled up to east coast Communists, and found solace and trouble in "good sipping whiskey." While his life isn’t what a parent might want their child to emulate, they might, on the other hand, hope that their child could write as well as Irving.

Irving’s short. autobiography, "Beyond Hadrian’s. Wall;’ tells the story of his early years, before he was 13, growing up in his native Scotland. This obscure autobiography resonates with evocative prose. His literary voice is deep—a fine-tuned Scot’s burr of delicately descriptive language and empathetic longing for past times—all wrapped in the simple perceptions of a child growing up in the 1930s in rural Scotland.

The book, published by Irving’s own Stone Circle Press, tomes from the literary mold popularized by James Herriot, the English veterinarian whose home is not far from Irving’s beginnings in the Scottish border country; This is not a deeply intellectual story—but there are universal insights and humor all from a child’s perspective.

Irving writes of growing up with an oft-unemployed, leaning-to-alcoholic father, in a family thick with gossipy aunts and henpecked uncles. It was a childhood spent moving from small village to small village as his father sought out work as an itinerant gardener and church bell-ringer.

Irving’s young voice wants always to know "why?" while the adults around him seem reluctant to reveal life’s secrets.

While life is viewed from a child’s perspective it was written when Irving was well into his 40s. This 110-page volume engrosses the reader in a warm sepia of memories, a small window into life lived in a culture on the cusp of change.

* * *

"I like language, I’m not the philosophical type," said Irving recently. During the warm months he can be found writing and doing farm chores at Mountain View Farm on Maple Hill Road in Plainfield. He shares the time with artist and graphic illustrator Elinor "Randi" Randall. Together they have forged both a life and business relationship around writing and publishing.

While in Vermont the two share the ramshackle house which has post card views west into the Woodbury Mountains. They raise chickens, geese and Connamara ponies. When chillier winds blow, Irving heads west for his other home at the Elk Hotel on Eddy Street in San Francisco’s notorious Tenderloin District. "I consider myself largely a storyteller," he said. "I like the writing of Dylan Thomas and William Butler Yeats."

Irving is the kind of person who needed to live "some of life’s adventures before he could write about them. Schooled only until age 14, he said he never wrote until he was in his 30s and living in New York. "I always read voraciously but didn’t even write letters," he said.

Before writing became his occupation he did a lot of other things. After finishing school in Somerset, England, in 1938 he worked for a baker. But he had long felt a wanderlust for the sea, so be beaded for Bristol where he intended to enlist in the British navy. "But the office was closed so I enlisted m the Marines," he said with a smile. "I guess I didn’t have a real plan."

Irving was part of the D-Day landing force in Normandy. "It’s almost like it never happened to me. It’s like another life and person," he said of the war. The postwar years found him working as a deck hand on English ships plying the Atlantic between Europe and Brazil and Argentina. "1 picked up the alcoholism along the way," he remembered. "In many ways I’m like my father, but he didn’t have the money to pursue an alcoholic habit," he admitted. Irving arrived in New York in 1952.

* * *

"I’m wildly romantic," said Irving over strong coffee. "I’m a rover. I’ve hitched across America many times."

True to the hobo-in-all-of-us spirit, Irving has never learned to drive a car.
The writing bug hit during the early 1950s in New York. He began pounding the typewriter by night and worked at a succession of manual labor jobs by day. He has at various times worked in a brewery. been a longshoreman, hung hardware for an interior decorator. and done carpentry.

He said once he got the first piece of paper into the typewriter writing became "voracious." When he discovered writing Irving said he discovered both a joyous and drudging experience. "A first draft is magical," he explained.

"The writing is not even conscious thought, it’s not boring or tedious." he noted. "Getting it into shape after the first draft is tedious, You need a certain indefatigability to continue."

During his New York years, Irving received helpful criticism and literary support from the Communist literati. "I was basically a working- class guy," he said of the left-wing interest in his literary pursuit.

While’ he had an’ agent who thought he had a lot of talent, Irving said he did not get to his full writing potential in those years. "I was impatient and wanted to vagabond around. As a result I didn’t get published much."

Several novels and an autobiography called "A Once Fine Booster of Barleydom And True Adventures of a Two Gallon Spring Water Jug Carrier" never got published.

If Irving’s life during the 1950s sounds like the Scot’s version of a Jack Kerouac novel there are parallels. But, he said in noting the similarities, "I never wanted to hang out with the Beat poets." In San Francisco, where he moved in the late 1970s, he said he much preferred the boozy Tenderloin District to the coffee-sipping, dope-smoking North Beach area.

"San Francisco was destined for a guy like me," quipped Irving. "It was wild, colorful... drew me like a magnet."

He said his new home was more conducive to allowing him to write. Also, he was able to read his poetry at coffee houses and other literary venues. He became a fairly popular reader in the Bay City and today "can fill a coffee house."

Irving and Randall met during the mid-980s. Together their interests in writing, art, and Celtic studies led them to start the Stone Circle Press. That small press, now shut down, has published all three of Irving’s books. Besides his autobiography there are two volumes of poetry, "The Bird Poems" and "Farewell Dundrennan." Randall has illustrated each book with drawings and done all the graphic arts work. Irving, has also recorded a cassette album of stories he has written, entitled "Len Irving Reads."

With his books, Irving said, "I have found something to satiate the creative part of me." Today his writing energies lie in poetry. "I like the short form, it suits me," he said.

While he has not lived in Scotland since 1937, Irving said he goes back to his homeland on occasion. "I love to hear the patter and lingo ...but I have a love/hate feeling with Scotland."

Art Edelstein published this article in the September 12, 1997 issue of the Country Courier, a Vermont weekly. Art lives in East Calais, Vermont.