Don Paterson does not have a typical poet’s CV. He grew up on a council estate in Dundee and left school at 16, having failed most of his Scottish Highers. Poetry is indeed entirely absent from his memoir, which takes us through his first 20 years and some extraordinarily retentive memories of working-class life. Paterson likes being jokey and grim in equal measure. How tough was his Dundee secondary school? “On a regular day, chairs were hurled through windows, legs were ripped off pigeons and shites taken in teachers’ desk drawers. Discipline was enforced through corporal punishment: officially, the threat and practice of belting children insensible with an oven-baked Lochgelly, the fork-tongued, hand-tooled leather tawse.” Some poetic licence? It is difficult to know.
The book’s title is the name of a childhood game that the author found himself doomed to play. “Toy fights” were mass brawls, begun without any reason by one child’s announcement that fighting should start. This serves as a metaphor for Paterson’s boyhood – his main fights being with “God, drugs and insanity”. God came first, when, in his early teens, Paterson joined a fundamentalist Christian sect. Its zealots are vividly recalled. Here, as elsewhere in the book, you realise that the most striking poems in his 1993 debut, Nil Nil, were versified but unedited fragments of his youth.
The memoir is thickly populated with characters from his past. How many fellow pupils from school can you remember by name, character and physical peculiarity? Paterson, 59 years old, can recall scores, and gives them to us as capsule caricatures. Luke was “a charismatic firebrand and brutal bully of a boy. His eyes were a foot apart and he had a forehead so prominent I want to use the word ‘prehensile’”.
Paterson’s prose style is resolutely colloquial. He relishes hyperbole, vigorous cliches and swearing. He often departs from his memories for grumpy asides. In lengthy digressions he fulminates against middle-class “fake leftists” or everything to do with social media. Footnotes grumble about “young white BLM-ers” or tell us how Scottish education should be reformed.
Though the book is full of descriptions of the effects of poverty on those around him, his own family had their heads just above water. His father worked for the local publisher DC Thompson, colouring by hand the comic strips of the Beano and Dandy. Outside work hours, he was a country-and-western singer in local clubs, embarrassing his son yet serving as an unacknowledged role model. Paterson became an accomplished jazz guitarist and the book is, as he acknowledges, “music-obsessed”. There is a great deal about guitar playing and the idiosyncrasies of various Dundee musicians. He warns the reader that he is “geeky” when it comes to musical technique, and duly justifies his warning. But the effort to describe the music – folk and pop and jazz – that he loved as an adolescent leads him into the book’s most rapt and heartfelt passages.
And music saved him. In his late teens, there was “my breakdown”, “like the arrival of the bailiffs, the ego’s dismantling by a brutally efficient team of hired contractors”. It was diagnosed as an acute schizophrenic episode. Even recounting his four months on a psychiatric ward, alternately fizzing or stupefied from the drugs he was given, he remembers each of the other patients with whom he shared his bay and (vividly) Gary, the thoroughly nasty nurse. Recovery seems mainly to have come from membership of a band. Most of the last part of the book is devoted to the shifting shapes of one Dundee jazz/folk/pop group after another, until, aged 20, one leads him out of Dundee to London, on a one-way ticket.
• Toy Fights: A Boyhood by Don Patersonis published by Faber (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.