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The Comedy of Errors

Derrick Buttress: My Life as a Minor Character

28 February 17 words: James Walker

Our Literature Editor James Walker talks the literary legend...

Derrick and our James back in the day

Derrick Buttress (1932 – 2016) was a poet, memoirist, and script writer who had his first short story collection published at the tender age of eighty. He lived and worked in Nottingham all of his life. His work is characterised by loving vignettes of local characters and unassuming observations of the side streets he grew up in. He appeared on the front cover of LeftLion in June 2012 (issue 47). His poetry, and a short story about Charles Dickens, would fill these pages over the following years. He told me that he was very proud to be featured in LeftLion, because his grandchildren read it and they’d ring him up and OMG at him down the phone.

Derrick was the first person I commissioned for the Sillitoe Trail, which was published by digital arts platform The Space. For this, I asked him to write four essays sharing his childhood memories of Market Square, back when it was full of GIs, communists, and hosted the largest ever conga in the city during the VE celebrations. Due to the success of Alan Sillitoe, Nottingham writers like Derrick never stood a chance. He said himself that he felt as if he was always in his shadow. I was determined to try to rectify this, and was proud to make an eighty-year-old man the first published writer on a digital platform being billed as the future of the arts for the BBC/Arts Council. You can hear Derrick reading his work by downloading the Sillitoe Trail from the Apple App Store.

During the commission, I regularly visited Derrick at his home in Clifton. His wife Joan would inform me that “He spends all day long tapping on his computer”. Derrick would then take me upstairs and inform me that Joan was “watching Casablanca for the seventeenth time”. I never asked if he meant that day, week, or the duration of their sixty years of marriage.

Derrick was a kind, witty and humble man. His email address confusingly included one ‘r’ in his forename because a friend set it up for him and spelled his name wrong. When I took him a cheque for £500, for his essays, it took many cups of tea and pleading before he would accept the money. He thought it was ludicrous to be paid so much just for “tapping on a keyboard”. He probably meant it when he called one of his poetry collections My Life as a Minor Character, but he was a major character in my life. Someone I looked up to and admired.

My favourite work by Derrick is Broxtowe Boy (2004), his memoir of life growing up on a council estate between the wars. Part of the reason I commissioned him for the Sillitoe Trail is I hoped it would generate interest in his work and put pressure on his publisher, Shoestring Press, to do another print run of this minor classic.

A celebration of the work of Derrick Buttress, Thursday 2 March (7 - 8.30pm), Five Leaves Bookshop, 14a Long Row. Free, but reserve a place online.

Five Leaves Bookshop website

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