Saturday, July 22, 2006


The Madcap Writes

When I arrived in London last week, the talk there was not about the Folio: it was about the death of Syd Barrett. There was an extraordinary outpouring in the newspapers, all more or less repeating the same tropes -- crazy diamond, acid casualty, the lost muse of Pink Floyd who hid in his Mum's house, etc etc etc.

The problem was that none of these accounts quite added up. For one thing, pictures of him showed a rather smartly dressed old fellow, apparently content to bike to Cambridge shops for the groceries and for wood for his DIY projects:

So what exactly was going on here? Lost amid all the fuss was this astounding late-appearing article in the Times by Barrett's biographer, Tim Willis. In it, a much less sensational and more nuanced portrait emerges from an interview with his sister Rosemary:

Barrett lived in the semi with his mother until her death in 1991 and then remained there alone. “So much of his life was boringly normal,” said Rosemary. “He looked after himself and the house and garden. He went shopping for basics on his bike — always passing the time of day with the local shopkeepers — and he went to DIY stores like B&Q for wood, which he brought home to make things for the house and garden.

“Actually, he was a hopeless handyman, he was always laughing at his attempts, but he enjoyed it. Then there was his cooking. Like everyone who lives on their own, he sometimes found that boring but he became good at curries.... He took up photography, and sometimes we went to the seaside together. Quite often he took the train on his own to London to look at the major art collections — and he loved flowers. He made regular trips to the Botanic Gardens and to the dahlias at Anglesey Abbey, near Lode. But of course, his passion was his painting."
Rather fits better with that photo than the crazy diamond acid casualty stuff, doesn't it?

In fact, Willis's article has not one but two surprising revelations. The first -- also mentioned in passing in this Independent obituary -- is the suspicion among those who knew him that Barrett had Asperger's Syndrome. Consider that, and his eccentric withdrawal into art -- and his utter lack of interest in fans or the press -- starts to make a lot more sense.

The second, even more astounding bit of news-- buried deep within Willis's article -- is that Syd Barrett authored an as-yet unpublished manuscript. Here's his sister again:

"It’s not that he couldn’t apply his mind. He read very deeply about the history of art and actually wrote an unpublished book about it, which I’m too sad to read at the moment."

So if there's one that we already know of, it's only sensible to wonder: is there a cupboard full of unpublished Syd Barrett manuscripts in that Cambridge semi-detached?

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