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Travels in the Drifting Dawn

Edinburgh and London, Mainstream Publishing, 1989.

Publisher’s presentation

     The beginning of Kenneth White’s career as an “intellectual nomad”, Travels in the Drifting Dawn starts off in the London of the early sixties, when White – along with William Burroughs, Alex Trocchi and others – participated in Project Sigma of which White became non-secret agent in Glasgow. Follows then a series of colourful scenes and wide-flung wanderings that go from Ireland to North Africa, and from Amsterdam to Barcelona.

     They say it rains four days out of three in Brittany, which doesn’t leave a lot of time for anything else. Well, maybe I’m just lucky at the moment, but it’s the middle of January, and the sky is gloriously blue. The sky’s blue, my coat’s blue, my shirt’s blue, my franciscan blue-jeans are blue, and there’s a blue flame glowing brightly in my idot’s brain. I’m a blue devil – and the sun is perched on my shoulder, laughing like hell.
     Travelling this way, where am I going ? – Nowhere. I pass through many places of the mind – to get nowhere. Nowhere is difficult, but I’ll get there some day… Nowhere is anywhere, is my where.

Extract from the chapter “The Blue Gates of January”.

     Harouk talks  through the wine of flush times at La Goulette, and of high-jinks when he was a randy youngster among the Italian girls, and about later flush times at Marseilles. Then he goes on to his favourite author, Alexandre Dumas, all of whose novels are behind him on the bookshelves. Then back to the Thousand and One Nights of La Goulette. If I told you it all, you could write a book about it, he says : “Tu pourrais écrire un bouquin.” And it strikes me that I might at that. A picaresque and picturesque recital of adventures – yes, The Thousand and One Nights of La Goulette. I’d turn Harouk the hâbleur and bon vivant into a culture-hero, a Gargantua, a Haroun al Rashid all in one. What he’s saying now, “tu pourrais écrire un bouquin”, is exactly what an old acquaintance of mine, up in the Gorbals of Glasgow, told me one night he’d invited me over to The Rising Sun for a “refreshment” : “All y’ need’s a tape-recorder, boy, and it’ll put y’right on top.” Right on top of what, I asked him. But up there in Glasgow I did actually start in on a book of this kind, or at least started noting down incidents and anecdotes around a character called Mungo Reilly, a kind of incarnation of the spirit of Glasgow. But it got lost along the way. Now, however, the ideas’s fleetingly back, with Harouk here and the port of Tunis, and the red Mornag. Maybe some day. Some day in the evening. But no. The time for such books is past, I tell myself. It’s now a new drifting dawn, and there are other, more radical, things to be done. Yes, no drama, no romance, but the truth of the drifting – the free mind’s arabesque.
     I’m back in bliblical country. I’m moving with my feet through the pages of a book, and it’s the illustrated Bible I possessed as a child (in fact there was more than one of them, in the country I was born in, you can end up with a whole library of Old and New Testaments before you reach puberty).
     That old shepherd, and his flock of sheep and goats spreading slowly over the sunburned landscape… That young veiled girl passing :
     “Thine eyes are like the fish pools of Heshbon, by the gate of Bath-Rabbim.”
     The feeling that I’m starting from the beginning again.

Extract fom the chapter “The Book of the Golden Root”.

White’s Travels in the Drifting Dawn start in “alternative London” 1963, then to Dublin, Galway, over to the loch at Arrochar (“…a dark-blue drift in the night sky. Ice everywhere – hanging tusks, moulded jellyfish. A satin lustre on the rocks”), then Edinburgh. […] White’s Scotland is evocative and entertaining in modes close to Dylan Thomas’s South Wales, Donleavy’s Ireland, Kerouac’s America, the prose supple, energetic, questing in ways too little taken since Lawrence, Miller, Durrell and, like these (like most writers worth reading more than twice) he’s his own man and highly accessible. […] In the depths of nature the language gets refined by something few of the writers I’ve mentioned develop so well – a faculty of precise observation he must have learned at least in part from oriental art and literature.
     Michael Horovitz, The Spectator

Travels in the Drifting Dawn is an itinerary of the mind, an itinerarium mentis, as much as or more than a travel book or diary. Kenneth White finds an unending variety of people, places and things and names them, like a new Adam. […] He talks to other wayfarers but also to the great dead, to other writers, walkers like himself and equally extravagant, in the literal sense of “wandering beyond”. […] He sounds a typical Scottish polymath and polyglot, but he is no pedant. His learning is filled with laughter, it is the Nietzschean Fröhliche Wissenschaft, the French gai savoir, knowledge dissolved in its own joyfulness, and his mind darts like a kingfisher through the mental and physical world.
     Douglas Sealy, The Irish Times