The unusual life of Vincent Poklewski Koziell demands an unusual telling. The author insists that this book is not a memoir. But then what exactly is it? The title suggests merely 'a cocktail of reminiscences'; a series of spirit-wine-beer sodden anecdotes, loosely (hazily) adumbrating the author’s heady, convivial existence. Whilst he narrates the major events of his life – marriage, children, death, gains, losses, change – he does so reticently. The details which usually take main stage in a memoir are, in this book of reminiscences, parenthetical to the dizzying parade of extraordinary incidents. This is certainly not an exhaustive history of one man’s life. But it is an autobiography, of sorts.
Through the prism of anecdote, something of the man emerges. First, his voice. Vincent (first name terms seem fitting) talks directly to his reader. You don’t so much read him as you do listen, his mellifluousness transporting you to the seat next to him, positioning you as his guest and audience at the lubricated though not yet debauched stage of one of his decadent dinner parties. Evidently, Vincent is a seasoned raconteur. Whilst we’re hearing them for the first time, you get a sense that these polished, witty fragments are the product of years of retelling, and the book: a result of friends imploring him to commit these memories to page. Stories of stag-dos and schooldays, maturity and youth are told with the same boyish combination of careful articulation and mischief; the errant schoolboy lingers in the book and no doubt the man.
With its conversational tone and smattering of well-worded, well-timed punch lines, it’s tempting to think of this book as the sum of little more than it’s frivolity and humour, a source of (albeit wonderful) light-hearted, not-too-profound entertainment. But don’t consign this volume to the downstairs-loo library just yet. Vincent has lived through extraordinary times, known extraordinary people, and mercurially, seamlessly flowed into a wild spectrum of careers, classes, and drinking establishments. ‘[I] have always felt sorry for people who have spent their entire lives in only one milieu’, he reflects. ‘Variety is after all one of the most important spices of life.’ He’s been a butcher in the Bronx; he’s attended parties with the British royals. Vincent’s vision is positively kaleidoscopic, offering snapshots into some of the most disparate and interesting aspects of the twentieth century social-historical fabric. As a child in Katowice, he receives his first ‘political lesson’; mistaken for a Jew by an anti-Semitic German mob, he is knocked off his bike by a barrage of stone throwing. He offers an insight into an exclusive world that has – during his own lifetime – replaced ‘private lady’s maids and hairdressers’ with ‘private jets’. And narrates the Irish Troubles through the chilling lens of ‘episodes’ as he calls them: briefcases mistaken for bombs; neighbours and friends, husbands and wives, shot dead in their own homes. Were this a memoir, these historically significant episodes would be imbued and coloured with the author’s emotional experience. But Vincent’s lack of sentimental annotation makes the reader’s experience of them all the more profound; he leaves room for us to respond to the losses, tragedies, and shifts of the twentieth century in our own way.
‘I have always been a “sort of” in all my many careers’, Vincent confesses. And, true to form, he has produced here a “sort of” memoir. It is a book of glances and digressions, a patchwork of anecdote and reminiscence. But from this fragmented myriad of wit and experience, we do, occasionally, glimpse something of the author, and the innumerable worlds that have welcomed him.
RIP 30/6/29 – 1/9/17