Mister Timeless Blyth

Alan Spence

Tuttle Publishing, £18.99


Review by Rosemary Goring

Alan Spence’s depiction of Glasgow in his first book, the short story collection Its Colours They Are Fine (1977), was vivid and unflattering. Here was a city riven by sectarian hatred and prejudice, a place by turns welcoming  and frightening, where religion was more a rock to be hurled than a spiritual quest and solace. In the years since, Spence has combined the role of novelist, poet, playwright, bookseller and Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Aberdeen with running the Sri Chinmoy Meditation Centre in Edinburgh.

His Eastern philosophical convictions are the bedrock on which all his works are based, but with Mister Timeless Blyth he has returned to the roots of his spiritual enlightenment with a fictional autobiography of the man who introduced Zen philosophy to the West.

Blyth is Reginald Horace Blyth, a bookish young man born in London at the end of the 19th century who became a convert to the Eastern way of life and thinking. As he reflects towards the end of this clear-eyed and intriguing story, “I have been credited with the creation of an entirely new form of poetry, English language haiku”. It is a form that Spence also has mastered, with several collections to his name, most famously Glasgow Zen. “On the oneness of self and the universe: ITS AW WAN/TAE ME.”

Spence’s humour spills out of this novel, punctuating Blyth’s tendency to pomposity, and illuminating the world of meditative enlightenment. Unlikely as it sounds, since literary and spiritual exploration are not always riveting, it is the stuff of movies. As a conscientious objector, Blyth spent the first world war in Wormwood Scrubs. Spence’s spare evocation of that experience brings to mind A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch: “Breakfast was a thin porridge, no more than a gruel, like diluted wallpaper paste, doused with sour milk.” When in the second world war Blyth is interned in a Japanese camp as an enemy alien, conditions are better than in this filthy London jail.

One of Spence’s defining qualities is the ability to conjure the here and now with such sensory detail you feel you could step into the scene. From the squalor of Wormwood Scrubs and the disdain for “conchies” Blyth must endure on his release, he recreates the dismal, narrow-minded England from which eventually Blyth decided to escape. By this time he was a teacher, and married. Attending a talk by a Japanese lecturer hoping to recruit teachers for Korea, he first hears the word Zen. It is a defining moment, and on a whim, he and Annie head off. From the start he is smitten by this new country - “I found that otherness intoxicating” - and while Annie never settles, growing increasingly disenchanted, he throws himself into learning Korean, Japanese, and the world of Zen and haiku.

Adopting an orphaned Korean boy seems fleetingly to make Annie more contented, but eventually she leaves, taking him with her back to London.  That story does not end well. For Blyth, after moving to Japan as a teacher and marrying a much younger woman, he must endure being imprisoned for many years among Americans and others who see his love of Japan as a form of treachery. Spence does not gloss over the atrocities committed by the Japanese during the war, but nor does he glorify the British and Americans. Of his beloved Japan, Blyth wonders: “How could this civilisation have allowed itself to be so degraded?” Spence’s depictions of what ordinary Japanese people suffer after the dropping of atomic bombs and Japan’s surrender are heart-rending. After the war Blyth takes on a pivotal role as mediator between the Imperial Household and the occupying American forces.

Blyth’s understanding of Zen philosophy and literature and his desire to show the West what it is about leads to his landmark work, Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics. This and other books bring him to the attention of western writers, among them J D Salinger, who quotes him in Franny and Zooey. Others, such as Henry Miller, Allen Ginsburg, Jack Kerouac and Richard Wright, were also admirers. Blyth’s own literary tastes were wide-ranging – Dickens, Wordsworth, Blake, Keats, Thoreau, Emerson, George Bernard Shaw – in some of whom he caught glimpses of Zen. One author, however, is frequently in his thoughts: Robert Louis Stevenson, whose books he had loved since he was a child.   

Spence’s Blyth recounts his life story from a hospital bed in Japan, where he is counting down his last days. “I have been writing this after the fashion of some of the modern novelists, in the first person, meandering here and there as the fancy takes me, as memory dictates.”

The result is a winningly three-dimensional portrait of a man dedicated to understanding the essence of being alive, and wrestling with how to express that in words. Even so, he is blind to the effect his all-consuming passion has on those he lives with. Both his wives could be seen as collateral damage in a career focussed on attaining and articulating a higher level of perception.

Mister Timeless Blyth is remarkable for being both a conventional and compelling novel and a work of philosophy and literature. Studded with examples of haiku, and with elliptical conversations discussing the sometimes infuriatingly paradoxical and unfathomable nature of Zen, it dances between two worlds with beguiling assurance. Blyth’s habit of darting backwards and forwards comes into its own in the final pages. Here, as he draws close to death, he distils the moments and the people on which his life has turned into a moving awareness of time running out. It feels appropriate, given that in the early days of his spiritual awakening  Blyth recognised that: “If Zen could be said to be about anything, it was about … a going beyond suffering and death, but a return to this, the reality of suffering and death. It was a coming to terms with that reality. This and that. And the next thing.”