Books: The Dreaming Swimmer — For Terence Kilmartin |
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For Terence Kilmartin

(An address read at his memorial service in the Stationers’ Hall on October 28th, 1991)

For how but in custom and in ceremony are innocence and beauty born? That idea always seemed right to me even when I thought I disagreed with it, and now, tonight, at this ceremony, the thing is proved. If there is an afterlife then this is it. The only immortality most of us can realistically hope for is to live on in the minds of our friends, and those of us with less expectation of a crowded graveside have already had good cause to be envious this evening, seeing how many people have come from so far to bring their memories of you together. You’re here if you’re anywhere, and on behalf of all the awkward beginners you once helped to shepherd I say my piece straight to you, knowing that in your life, in my case, it was the wholehearted blunder, the truly clueless bêtise, that you relished.

On the surface you were a keeper of secrets, a Richelieu or a Mazarin, a pillar of the cultural Establishment. Underneath you were an Irish hell-raiser, the kind of rapscallion you fondly characterised as the ‘desperate chancer’, the only London literary editor of modern times to have done time in a French gaol. You liked nothing more than to see a bull run loose in the china shop, partly because you realised better than anyone that Grub Street, if it was to live at all, had to be something less specialised, less delicate, than a china shop. Your justly celebrated integrity was far beyond being just a taste for decorum. You enjoyed seeing the thing that was not done done, unless you thought it was wrong. If you thought it was wrong you objected on principle. Everyone courted your delighted smile. Nobody wanted your disapproval. I don’t want it now, and still don’t write a line without imagining you reading it, either with the barely detectable snort that meant amusement, or the sideways look across the top of the half-glasses which meant that something had to come out.

Everyone who ever had his copy edited by you has a story like mine and probably better, but here and now, for them, is my chance to tell you what it was actually like to have written a book review for you and to have described what was really quite a good novel as ‘hugely impressive’. Holding the offending page of foolscap, you looked sideways across the top of your half-glasses and said ‘Do you really want to say that?’ I’m leaving out your ums and ahs, which I’m certain were a way of putting your interlocutor on the spot: they were your version of a pub-fighter’s pre-emptive head-butt to leave his opponent stunned. ‘Do you really,’ you went on, ‘do you really want to say hugely impressive? What’s wrong with just impressive? I said I thought the book was better than just impressive. You said ‘How about very impressive, then?’ I said that didn’t sound impressive enough — it sounded like a cliché. You said ‘But surely if you qualify the word ‘impressive’ you make it sound like a cliché, don’t you? I mean, good God, either the word ‘impressive’ on its own means you’re impressed, or you need another word instead. But I should have thought the last thing you need is another word as well.’ I said OK, take out the hugely. You said ‘I think we’re doing the right thing, don’t you?’ I said ‘Take it out, take it out!’ Finally persuaded, you lifted your pencil and softly struck.

I rarely thought you overdid it with my copy. I did think you sometimes overdid it with other people’s, especially when they were praising my books. My first book, pompously entitled The Metropolitan Critic, was extravagantly praised by your then chief reviewer Philip Toynbee. As the Observer’s new TV columnist I had access to your office and managed to see Toynbee’s piece before you did. It was full of superlatives which I thought well judged and objective. That night in the pub I told my friends and several strangers that my first book was about to be warmly received in my own newspaper. When the piece was published all the superlatives were gone. I got the impression that there was nothing left except a few prepositions and a brief physical description of the book’s size and weight. I blamed you for a long time. I could see why Caesar’s wife had to be above suspicion but I couldn’t see why Caesar’s son had to be beyond praise. I thought myself hard done by.

Actually you had taught me the lesson that you went on teaching to anyone who showed signs of needing to learn it: no favours, or even the appearance of them. The generation of writers you taught are nowadays often accused by the next generation coming up of rolling logs for each other and taking in each other’s washing. The truth is that they hardly ever do; not just because each is properly jealous of his reputation for independence but because they all remember what your anger was like at any hint of collusion. It was a variation on the low-pressure snort, but without the smile. When a well-connected first-time novelist once started phoning around to engineer an easy ride for her fledgling creation, it was the only time I ever saw you angry with a woman.

Your office was a university but you were an even better teacher out of school. One evening at your house in Chelsea I was banging on about how the newly rediscovered Les Troyens of Berlioz would never be popular because the good bits were even further apart than in Wagner and, let’s face it, Berlioz wrote terrific memoirs but he couldn’t finish a tune. While I was talking you changed the music on the stereo and we were gently assaulted by a melody of such beauty that even I drew breath. ‘What the Hell is that? I asked, dead on cue as always in my role in your life as the man whose foot had gone soft from the amount of time it spent in his mouth. ‘Régine Crespin,’ you said. ‘Singing what?’ I said. ‘Les Nuits d’été’, you said. ‘But who wrote it?’ I said. ‘Um, ah, Berlioz.’

You pulled the same trick with Raymond Aron, whose books I had discovered after realising that anyone so consistently disparaged by Sartre must be all right. Incidentally, there’s a book just come out in France which convincingly demonstrates that the heroic Resistance activities of Sartre and de Beauvoir were entirely imaginary (Gilbert Joseph, Une si douce occupation, Paris, 1991). I think you’d enjoy it, although as a man who really did risk his life for a free France you were always slow to condemn those who only pretended to. Perhaps there was another lesson there. Anyway, I had discovered Raymond Aron and read all his major works, even the heavy, multivolume stuff like the treatise on nuclear war. French is a language I find it hard to speak but love to read. Even though you spoke it perfectly you always encouraged me to go on reading. You were absolutely without intellectual snobbery but I thought you were being a bit too much of the anti-Establishment rebel when you warned me against Aron’s conservatism. I cited chapter and verse from L’opium des intellectuels to prove that Aron was merely a sound social democrat. You said that you were a bit out of touch with all that by now and I might well be right. Months later I saw in a second-hand bookshop an English translation of the very book I had quoted at you. It looked as if it dated from about twenty years back. I thought it would make a good crib if the translator had been up to reproducing the transparency of Aron’s French. I opened the book to see who the translator was. The Opium of the Intellectuals, by Raymond Aron. Translated by Terence Kilmartin.

Any other man would have won the argument at the time, by pulling rank. Most of us need to prove ourselves from day to day. You had done it before most of us met you. It was the reason why so quiet a man could have such authority. Every man’s admiration for you had an edge of soul-searching, and Joanna won’t mind my saying that no woman who laid eyes on you ever doubted that you were the Truly Strong Man. The phrase was coined by Auden and it was meant to make us think of some bare-chested Horst model in a pilot’s helmet climbing F-6 with a pickaxe, but it makes a lot of us think of you: as heterosexual as they come yet still the perfect go-between for Proust. You were masculine without assertion, sympathetic without intrusion, modest without subservience, charming without limit. Your pride in your profession was fierce and in your status non-existent. You had stature instead, and must have known it, but that didn’t show either. Your good looks never spoiled you for the cruel reality of the rolling dice and when pain came you were a Stoic. We who remain would like to think that we are stoic too but would prefer a version that didn’t hurt. We would prefer a life from which you were not gone. But your influence is alive and will last for a long time, passed on to the young ones as an example and a name: the name of a hugely impressive — all right, an impressive — man we once met, and who is all ours now.