Room To Live: Dave Haslam On Sylvia Plath & Ian Curtis

They took their own lives, and each have had posthumous fame and now inhabit a significant place in our culture. But Dave Haslam suggests the manner of their deaths distorted our perception of Sylvia Plath and Ian Curtis

I first visited Sylvia Plath’s grave in 1988 with a film crew. Tony Wilson had asked me to pick and present features on his Granada TV show The Other Side of Midnight. Wilson introduced me as the show’s “critic at large”, and there I was, in a cheap anorak like something one of the Pastels might wear, standing in the churchyard in Heptonstall, West Yorkshire, while the wind and rain blew through me.

Ten years before that, in my teens, many things made a big impact on me: Catcher in the Rye, the Tarkowsky film Stalker, the first Black Sabbath album, the autobiography of Angela Davis, Mean Streets, Sylvia Plath, Ian Curtis and Joy Division.

Bernard Sumner of Joy Division once told me the band wanted to “lift the lid” on the world and do anything but airbrush reality. Just after Plath died, she was lauded in a literary magazine for challenging “the tranquillized Fifties”. Ian Curtis and Sylvia Plath – especially in poems near the end of her life – both stripped away artifice, illusion and denial to vocalise their suffering.

In an essay in a collection edited by Jennifer Otter Bickerdike called Joy Devotion: The Importance of Ian Curtis and Fan Culture, Plath academic Gail Crowther discussing the pilgrimages made to Plath grave and Ian Curtis’s memorial stone in Macclesfield cemetery, quotes one Plath reader’s response to a visit to Heptonstall church, “I was disappointed that the grave was in a row with others, feeling it should be set apart like Marx’s grave in Highgate cemetery. It should be making a statement. She was not like other people.”

At her death in 1963, Plath was far from famous. The Bell Jar had been published only a few weeks before her death (under a pseudonym), and her breakthrough collection, Ariel, would be published two years later. Like the unassuming memorial stone in Macclesfield cemetery, Plath’s grave reflects her relative obscurity at her death – certainly compared to the significant presence she now has in our world.

I’m intrigued by the thought of Plath being unlike “other people”. Don’t we respond to someone’s art if they’ve articulated something deep within us too? We see, and seize and feed upon our connection with the writer. The words of James Baldwin capture this, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.”

There’s a heartbreaking irony here; two individuals beaten down by feelings of isolation create work that connects them to a huge constituency of devotees deeply and forever.

Heather Clark has just written a big new 1,152-page biography of Plath entitled Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath. She told a Radio 3 interviewer that she fears Plath has been pathologised in newspapers, documentaries and biographies. Dr Clark said that she “has become almost a cliché and it doesn’t do her justice”.

Sylvia Plath and Ian Curtis had life-numbing depression, and chaos in their heads. And, at the time they left us, they were each in the midst of a collapsing marriage. During the later part of his life, the cocktail of drugs Ian was prescribed for his epilepsy mangled his mind. In death, Ian Curtis has been Plathologised; portrayed as a tormented, doomed artist, who occasions some ghoulish interest (his memorial stone has twice been stolen).

Back in 1988 I told the story of how Plath came to be buried in Hepstonstall, through her marriage to Ted Hughes, who grew up close by. In the report for Tony’s Granada show, one of the points I made was that Plath was a tragic figure, but also so much more than that.

Over thirty years on, I’ve taken an opportunity to write a short format limited edition book about Plath, specifically about her visits to Paris. In October 1955, she’d arrived from America to study in Cambridge. At the end of 1956 she described Paris as “my second home”. She’d visited the city three times in the previous fifty-two weeks.

Christmas 1955 she’d gone there to see her boyfriend, Richard Sassoon, who lived in the city, but the trip ended with him asking to break up. Two months later she met Ted Hughes, in an encounter which made a big impact on them both. Her Paris visit at Easter 1956 turned out to be transformational; she’d gone hoping to rekindle the affair with Richard but before she left there she’d resolved to commit herself to Ted Hughes on her return.

The shadow of what’s to come falls over Plath’s early life, just as it does in Joy Division’s recorded work, but the end of her story is not the whole story. When I researched the book, I was struck by Plath’s enthusiasm for Paris and her moments of elation. At the end of her first trip to the city she wrote to her mother, “Oh, it is all so amazing here, and so lovely. I’ve seen all the tourists want to see and so much more, because I’ve had room to live”.

Ian Curtis had always wanted to visit Berlin. When Joy Division played there in January 1980, he walked the streets, went into the GDR, and loved the experience (even though it was freezing cold). Joy Division drummer Stephen Morris once told me, “The Ian I remember was a much happier soul than Joy Division photographs suggest”.

Ian enjoyed so much in life: family events, office parties, browsing cult bookshops, smoking Marlboro cigarettes, working in a record shop listening to music all day, eating cha siu bao and vermicelli at the Yang Sing in Manchester’s Chinatown. He’d go see films at the Aaben cinema in Hulme or make sure he was around to watch a late film on BBC2. He enjoyed being in a band – from filling notebooks with lyrics, and recording and performing, to messing about backstage.

His work was essential to him, just as it was for Plath (“The articulation of experience is so necessary to me,” she said). The realisation that his epilepsy was likely to preclude him from taking his music career forward was a huge blow.

In My Second Home: Sylvia Plath in Paris, 1956, without minimising the extent of Plath’s distress, I have loved being able to document her moments of bliss as she walked down to the river Seine, the narrow streets of Saint-Germain emerging into the big horizons of what Plath called the “gracious, spacious city”.

She describes several moments in Paris when self-doubt, her traumas, her history, her fears, all fell away. She glories in the food, the bookstalls along the river, and the chances to sit in the Jardin des Tuileries and sketch, or to admire the diamonds and shoes window-shopping along the Rue de la Paix.

Also in my book, I explain what happened at the beginning of her Easter holiday in Paris. She discovered Richard Sassoon was out of the city, probably intentionally. And that, as result, she would be alone for most of her stay. The news shook her, she was overcome and cried. Then, outside a café close by, Sylvia takes a seat, accompanied only by a favourite book, and orders a plate of cold meats and a coffee. Later, in her journal, she recalled that drinking and eating and reading “I felt downright happy”.

It’s a beautiful moment, Plath’s realisation of liberation and belonging; “I had as much right to take my time eating, to look around; to wander & sit in the sun in Paris as anyone”, she wrote.

My Second Home: Sylvia Plath in Paris, 1956 by Dave Haslam is available from Confingo Publishing

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