This time last year my best friend died. Scott Taylor, Canadian, dramatist, artist, pianist, cultural commentator, polymath, survivor of an abusive childhood, collector of Susuki vases, author of a 700 page as yet unpublished tome ‘Dismantling Mouths’, and, in his own words, ‘a neurotic’s neurotic’.
In January this year, I attended, virtually, a seven hour celebratory gathering in a Toronto Theatre for his friends, family and colleagues. I read out the following piece on Zoom. And, of course, it was written – ‘fashioned’ – for people who knew and loved him.
But I thought it might be a good thing to put out on Advantages of Age as a paean to a different kind of friendship. Scott was my pen pal. I was lucky enough to be able to travel to see him a couple of months before he died. And I spent a week lying beside him on his bed, talking, talking, laughing, crying. He approached his death (from Motor Neurone Disease) with the utmost courage and humour and that is a whole other story. This story is about the fact that in 44 years we were only actually in each other’s physical presence a handful of times. And yet he knew me better than anyone else has ever known me.
‘Only connect’, said E M Forster. There are so many different ways to do it.
In the summer of 1979, I went to a performance at the Edinburgh Festival with my mother. In a grubby little backroom theatre space, with a handful of chairs and yellow paint hanging off the ceiling, we watched a one woman show, three monologues, called LadiesSpeak, by one F. Scott Taylor, about whom I knew nothing.
The actress was Nancy Cole, one time friend and colleague of Samuel Beckett, and after the performance she held a little salon in the venue. I asked her, breathlessly, who was this author with such a piercing insight into the female psyche? He was a young Canadian writer, she said, and she could give me his address if I wanted.
I wrote Scott a two page fan letter. I had been ‘transfixed’, I told him, ‘my hands were shaking for about an hour afterwards. Really, it’s true’. And it was. I can honestly say that I had not – have not – experienced anything comparable before or since.
In his reply Scott told me that on the same day my letter arrived, he had also received a letter from the University of Toronto terminating his PHD candidacy. He had been in despair. ‘But’, he said, ‘despite those who would discredit the universe and suggest that it is expanding toward an indeterminate termination, nothing ever seems to happen in a vacuum, and I also received your letter. You, whoever you are, are a deus ex machina, and the machine must be Laughter Himself’.
Scott and I wrote to each other for 44 years. I have six large box files full of the correspondence and that’s not all of it. Thousands of words, thousands of emails.
At first, we used to send off packages of 20 or more pages by snail-mail every couple of months. The general tone was of a hysterical but lofty stream of consciousness (with breaks to ‘go and change the ribbon’ on our typewriters). We wrote about Art with a capital A, The Death of the Novel, my work, his work. ‘I doubt if anyone will fully understand it, ‘ he wrote in 1991, ‘but other people’s ignorance has never stopped me from fully exploring my own’.
In the early days we were showing off. I was in awe of Scott’s erudition, the sheer range of his mind, and I looked up to him as a mentor and teacher. And we were practising our craft. ‘Letter writing for me,’ he wrote in 1995, ‘is like a musician practicing scales on a piano, and sometimes, moving into a composition, improvised, spontaneous, true’.
We wrote for decades, we had met in person a handful of times, in Canada and Europe, and we knew each other’s life stories backwards, self-pity and all. And then email came along.
Email revolutionised our patterns of communication. We wrote almost daily sometimes; what we’d cooked and eaten, bought and thought, parties, friends; ‘here is my guest list’, he wrote once, preparing for a party, ‘my need to accommodate them in all ways possible (socially, intellectually, personally), is equal to the height of my ego and the depth of my paranoia… I do not deserve them as friends. OMG, all I want is to make my friends and family feel important and loved for my sake. Isn’t that sad? All I can do is take sanctuary in my diary, dear diary’. It was indeed like keeping a diary that talked back.
By the third decade, we had calmed down a bit. Tales of doctors and dentistry muscled in. Our subject matter became more prosaic; the guinea pigs, Chris’s victories, Catherine’s garden, his annual lavish decorative plan for the Christmas tree. He had become more like a sibling and I teased him royally (which of course he hated). But nothing was ever out of bounds between us. We were completely open about our flaws, neuroses, diagnoses, addictions, feelings of failure or regret. The whole Blatherpalaver, as he called it.
It is not always comfortable to have a soul twin. We both liked to ‘control the narrative’, were touchy about criticism, self-absorbed. We joked about who’s turn it was to talk about Me Me Me. But it strikes me now that our fascination with ourselves and each other was equally part of an intense curiosity we shared about what it means to be a member of the human species – particularly those who might now be deemed neurodivergent with rejection sensitive dysphoria rising.
And it also strikes me that the epistolary form was the perfect vehicle for our personalities to communicate. We couldn’t talk over each other or interrupt. It was a verbal dance with enough physical distance not to be too frightening in its intimacy. We had the time and space to hone our perfect laser-like responses to each other’s barbs and goads. And we could be our best selves on paper in a way that would have been impossible otherwise.
Scott was the most complex, contradictory character I have ever known. If I tried to define him now, we’d be here all night. But narrowing it down to what he meant to me is easy. He had my back. ‘Gillian,’ he wrote, ‘I believe in you. The best you can do for me is to believe in yourself’. This was his gift to me, as it was, I’m sure to others, including his tarot clients. He was my chief advocate, cheerleader, priest confessor, wise counsel, best friend.
In one of our letters, some years ago, Scott wrote ‘Dear Gillian, what shall happen to our correspondence? First of course, it shall not die. Second it must be bequeathed to me for if you go before me, I shall need all the rest to sustain me into my dotage’.
Well, he went first. And I’m so grateful to have the whole Blatherpalaver to sustain me in my dotage. It seems truly miraculous to me now, that, before we’d even met, we recognised each other as kindred spirits. His voice sings out of every page he wrote to me. And I sing back: Mirror, mirror on the page, YOU were the dearest seer and sage.