Books: May Week was in June — Gentlemen, Sport Your Oaks! |
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May Week was in June — Gentlemen, Sport Your Oaks!


Arriving in Cambridge on my first day as an undergraduate, I could see nothing except a cold white October mist. At the age of twenty-four I was a complete failure, with nothing to show for my life except a few poems nobody wanted to publish in book form. Three years of hand-to-mouth existence in London had led me nowhere but here. For all I knew, Cambridge was receiving me with open arms. They could have had flags out. There could have been a band playing. It was impossible to tell. The white opacity came all the way to my eyeballs. Outside the railway station I stood holding my cardboard suitcase. I couldn’t see the station and I could barely see the suitcase. Having been in Cambridge only once before, for a short drunken visit that started well but ended in a haze not unlike, in its texture, the one through which I now groped, I had only the dimmest memories to go on of how to get to town.

Luckily I remembered, when I reached the war memorial, that the statue on top of it was pointing roughly in the right direction. I had to climb the memorial to find out what the direction was. After that I was on the right track to the city centre, where there was enough light to distinguish people from letter boxes. The letter boxes, in my perhaps embittered view, had warmer personalities than the people, but the people, although not notably less taciturn, at least knew how to give directions if they felt like it. I asked a nice little old lady the way to Pembroke, which was to be my college if I ever found it. At first she snarled at me, perhaps because I had located her partly by touch. It took only about a quarter of an hour to calm her fears, however, after which she pointed the way down Pembroke Street and told me to turn left at Trumpington Street. I turned left too early — probably into Tennis Court Road — and ended up at the Fitzwilliam Museum, which I mistook for Pembroke until put right by the man at the desk inside. Before I could get myself and my suitcase back out through the revolving doors he managed to regale me with his entire repertoire of jokes about kangaroos, koalas, dunnies, and walking upside down in the outback, ha ha. As an Australian expatriate I had grown used to the fabled English sense of humour but preferred to steer clear of it when possible, for fear of laughing too hard.

On the far side of the street I found, by stepping into it, a gutter the size of a small canal. This I slowly followed to the left, occasionally crossing the footpath to check the texture of the buildings with my carefully extended right hand. The ashlared front wall of a college crustily identified itself to my fingertips. When stone became wood, I guessed it must be the front gate of Pembroke and turned towards an egg-yolk halo which materialised in the form of the Porter’s Lodge. The porter, called Keeps if not Waits, knew an Aussie (which he mispronounced Ossie) when he heard one and was fully informed about kangaroos, koalas and the necessity of walking around upside down when down under, ha ha. Having exhausted the subject and me along with it, he directed me to my set of rooms, D6 in the old court, known as Old Court, above the dining hall, known as Hall. Having asked for ‘the smallest possible set of rooms consonant with my playing the clarinet’, I found that I had been given an oak-panelled suite which would have been large enough to accommodate Benny Goodman, and his big band along with him. It scarcely needs saying that I couldn’t play the clarinet at all, but on the day I made the written application I must have been toying with the idea of taking up that instrument. As I stood beside my suitcase in the middle of the sitting room, a handsome young man in a silk brocade dressing-gown appeared suddenly beside me with a silence made possible by monogrammed leather slippers. ‘Abramovitz,’ he said, holding out a pampered hand. I knew that this wasn’t my name so I guessed that it must be his. ‘I live across the corridor. Love that beard. Don’t worry, I’m not bent or anything. Just philanthropic. Let me show you the form.’

At least five years younger than I, Abramovitz carried on as if he were fifty years older. He was reading law and naturally assumed that the only reason I was reading English for a second undergraduate degree was in order to give myself time for plenty of extracurricular activities. He advised me to step around to the Societies Fair in the Corn Exchange before I decided finally on trying out for the Footlights. He himself believed the Union to be the only thing that counted if one had one’s eye on high government office. I asked him if he was going to be Prime Minister. ‘No, Disraeli was the last of our boys they’ll ever let in there. Chancellor of the Exchequer: that’s the spot.’ He explained to me what to do about laundry, of which, as usual, I had more needing to be done than done. He also showed me how to sport my oak. A heavy rolling outer door, the oak was meant to signal that the occupant was at home to nobody, although it was left unclear whether this applied to Abramovitz.

His advice turned out to be good, however. The Societies Fair was indeed a cornucopia of activities, like Orientation Week at Sydney University but on the scale of the Earls Court motor show. Here was my chance to get interested in heraldry, beagling and riding to hounds. Each activity had a booth attended by undergraduates in the appropriate costume. The dramatic societies stood out through having a more abundant, although scarcely lavish, presence of undergraduetes. Careful not to squander my whole grant at once, I did not actually join these dramatic societies there and then, but spent a lot of time standing around being told why I should. Some of the girls from the ADC I thought especially persuasive. But the dramatic society whose booth most impressed me was the Footlights. It consisted of one bare trestle table. Behind it sat a solitary, fine-drawn, bored-looking individual in a tan cashmere jacket. ‘How do I join?’ I asked. ‘You don’t,’ he said through a barely controlled yawn. ‘You audition.’ Informing me that his name was Idle, he handed me a roneoed set of instructions saying where, when and how. The auditions were some time off and the chances of selection seemed very slim.

My theatrical urges were further stimulated by the purchase of a gown. Throwing my bearded chin upright and drawing the gown’s black drapes around my shoulders, I looked like a Wittelsbach crown prince going mildly ga-ga or a close friend of Count Dracula in search of a meal. When I appeared that evening in Hall there was a hush on the benches and some of the freshmen seemed to feel vulnerable in the area of the neck. Actually I would have done better to dine off them than off the food. This latter proved useful only as a discussion point. The entrée wasn’t tender enough to be a paving stone and the gravy couldn’t have been primordial soup because morphogenesis was already taking place. ‘How about this shit?’ said a rotund American whose name turned out to be Delmer Dynamo. ‘You can bet they’re eating something else up there.’ He angled his pear-shaped head towards High Table, where, surveyed by a plaster bust of William Pitt the Younger, the dons were Dining in Fellowship. They weren’t exactly joined together with cobwebs but you couldn’t have called them vibrant. It wasn’t their age, so much as their well-being, that impressed. Even at a distance you could tell that the dark wine was helping the venison go down to their profound satisfaction. I wondered which of them was the Senior Tutor of Supervisors, whom I was due to meet next day. Or was he called the Senior Supervisor of Tutors?

When I turned up next day to, meet him, all the other freshmen in the college turned up too. The Senior Tutor, whose full title turned out to be the Senior Tutor of Junior Supervisors, was obviously shy, but equally obviously he had overcome this disability by a meticulous attention to social punctilio. He made small talk and expected everybody else to do the same. Five minutes after shaking hands with him I found myself left alone with an Iranian biochemist whose name sounded like a fly trapped against a window. This sudden conjunction was blessed with our mentor’s assurance that we would have a lot in common. What we had in common was a small glass of sherry and a large measure of awkwardness. I cursed the Tutor for this instead of doing the sensible thing and asking a few questions about biochemistry, a field in which my interlocutor was later to become eminent. If I had asked a few questions about the Senior Tutor I would have found out that he was the world’s leading authority on Propertius. Surrounded by distinction, both actual and potential, I was exclusively occupied with not dribbling sherry into my beard. With that, and with the inexplicable presence of Abramovitz. ‘What are you doing here?’ I asked when I had manoeuvred my way to his side through the crowd: ‘I thought this was for freshmen.’ ‘But I am a freshman,’ said Abramovitz happily. ‘I came up the day before you did.’ It struck me on the spot that if the English had spent their lives preparing to fit into one of these places, then the only smart thing to do was not to bother about fitting in at all, and I can honestly say that from that moment on I never wasted any time trying. I wasted time doing other things, but not doing that.

Drinks next day with the Master once again featured the full cast, and once again the tipple was warm sherry. The Master was a retired pure mathematician who had no pretensions towards social ease. Wearing a full-length gown, he stood glumly in the centre of the room while we milled around him in our short gowns. Throwing a glass of sherry down my throat and plucking another from a passing silver platter, I assessed him as a nonentity and was duly rewarded for my acumen by finding out, twenty years later, that he had been on the committee which approved the funds for the first Manchester computer just after World War II. Being in possession of that information at the time might have induced enough awe to offset the aggrieved loneliness with which I drank. Apart from the biochemist with the buzzer for a name and the omnipresent Abramovitz, the only face I found familiar was that of Delmer Dynamo. His pear-shaped head, I could now see, was situated on top of a pear-shaped body, which his black gown caused to resemble a piece of fruit going to a funeral. ‘How about this for a wing-ding?’ he shouted conspiratorially. ‘You can blow it out your ass. Have you met the Dean yet?’ I replied that I was due to meet the Dean the next day. ‘You’re gonna dig it,’ averred Delmer. ‘Mind you, he hasn’t got this bozo’s carefree verve.’

Delmer was only almost right. The Dean, whose name was the Reverend Meredith Dewey, was indeed a picture of inactivity as he sat back in a winged leather armchair and expended just enough energy to keep his pipe alight. But unlike the Master he had overt characteristics. For one thing, his room was full of rocks. The Dean was an amateur geologist who picked up souvenir rocks every time he travelled abroad in order to attend some less-than-crucial ecumenical drone-in. Indeed there were irreverent suggestions that he would accept the occasional invitation — like the one from the Pan-African Convocation of Pastoral Curators in Accra — just so that, between papers and seminars, he could go forth unto the hills and root around for chunks of granite. Doubtless these imputations arose from envy, but only a historian of mining engineering would have been envious: the Dean’s rooms were on the first floor and for many years had been arousing concern among the female staff in the linen room below. As they toiled over the ironing of our sheets and pillowcases, they had to live with the mental picture of the creaking ceiling finally bursting open and the Dean’s massive collection descending on them like the temple of the Philistines after Samson gave it the push. When you sat facing the Dean you were surrounded by about thirty million years of the Earth’s petrified history. While he dutifully enquired after your spiritual welfare you could fill the time by wondering how he got the stuff through customs. There was no problem about how he carried it. Though of only medium height, he had shoulders like Charles Atlas and could obviously lug a tote-bag full of pitchblende for miles. But when those decolonised douaniers opened up his luggage and found it crammed with unrefined ore, why didn’t they suspect him of stealing their uranium?

The sleepy holiness of his appearance was the only explanation. I told him about my atheism and socialism. His eyelids grew as heavy as sandstone, a large piece of which was poised on a sideboard for purposes of comparison. ‘Convinced about that beard, are you?’ he enquired tentatively, then lapsed into silence while I explained about radical socialism. I interpreted his apparent torpor as a sherry-fuelled sloth. It was only later on, when I found out how sharp he was, that I realised he was politely but immovably bored rigid at meeting his ten thousandth young saviour of the world. With his direct line to an earlier and better qualified envoy sent on the same task, the Dean was in the position of a senior manager who is required, for form’s sake, to go on interviewing candidates after the job has been filled. He released supplicatory puffs of smoke heavenward, tapped his fingertips together, and snuck lazy, longing sideways looks at an inviting lump of lignite.

Overseeing my studies in English was Dr Stewart Frears. Professor Frears, as he later became, was, although the senior English don in the college, only a lecturer at that stage, but he was already an authority on the Metaphysical poets, to which his learned and common-sensical approach had already been more than enough to attract regular vilification from Dr Leavis. In life as in death — between which two states he was currently hovering — Leavis was the most contentious name in Cambridge. Like an old volcano that goes dead in its central crater but unpredictably blows hot holes through its own sides and obliterates villages which thought themselves safe, Leavis was dormant yet still bubbling. Frears caught more than his fair share of the lava and perhaps this accounted at least partly for a pronounced nervous tic. He would periodically click his teeth and twitch his head sideways almost to one shoulder, like a violinist trying to smash his instrument no hands. He won’t mind my recalling this trivial affliction because later on it disappeared. (All the many recipients of routine libels from Leavis got a bit flak-happy in one way or another but in almost every case the trouble cleared up after the old warrior passed on to that great Organic Community, which, despite his vehement assurances that it once existed on Earth, has its foundations only in the cloudy soil of the Empyrean.) While it was still happening, however, Dr Frears’s flicking tic inevitably attracted some of the attention I was supposed to be directing towards the post-Elizabethans. Actually, to do myself the discredit I had coming, I was having a hard time getting interested again in the Metaphysicals. I had passed through my first Donne period in Sydney and was not to go crazy about him again for another decade or so. In short, I had done Donne. Currently, I was much more under the sway of the Cavaliers, the Romantics and any other historical group except the one I was supposed to be studying. Reading off the course was my temperamental habit. Nowadays I devour whole literatures in sequential order, making notes and writing essays all the way. It’s because I don’t have to. When I did have to, I couldn’t do it.

So it wasn’t just my supervisor’s neck-snapping twitch that put me off George Herbert. But even had I been as respectful of Herbert as I am now — anyone who tells you that Herbert is negligible beside Donne doesn’t understand Donne either — I would have had trouble articulating a clear analysis of The Temple if my interlocutor were continually threatening to catch a fly between his cheek and shoulder. I got increasingly nervous about turning up for my weekly supervision. As usual, I lied my way out of trouble, inventing various ailments. Shoving a piece of cotton wool behind my lower lip and pretending to have an abscess was perhaps the silliest trick. Even my better wheezes were schoolboy stuff and the man in charge wasn’t fooled. He could have had me rusticated. It sounded like being castrated with a rusty knife and it hurt even worse, because it meant being thrown back into the harsh world where you had to earn a living. Instead, very generously, he passed me further down the line, to those junior dons who were still, as he put it, ‘in the first fury of their supervisions’. It sounded too much like work but at least I was still along for the ride.

And the ride meant Footlights. The club held two smoking concerts (called smokers) each term. The first smoker of the first term was the chief audition smoker for new members. The club room was above MacFisheries fish shop in Falcon Yard, off Petty Cury. Required dress was a dinner jacket, which for purposes of the audition I hired. There was no point in buying one outright at that stage, because if I had not got in, there would have been no occasion for wearing it until I graduated. I played Noel Coward in an old Noel-Gertie routine written long ago in Sydney by my three-piece thoroughly Anglicised Australian friend, who had first invited me to Cambridge two years before and was now on the point of graduating. He was a member of Footlights but for some reason had never used the sketch himself. Perhaps he never found a suitable co-star. I was luckier. Though I made Noel Coward sound like Chips Rafferty, I was spurred on by a Gertrude who, although an Australian like me, could act well enough to be believable as anything. Her name was Romaine Rand.

Slightly older than I and already equipped with a degree from Melbourne, Romaine had descended on Sydney University while I was still a second year student. Tall, striking and already famous for her brilliantly foul tongue, she had pursued graduate studies, libertarian polemics, and, for a brief period, me. At the risk of sounding even more conceited than usual, it is important that I record this fact, for a reason which will shortly emerge. At the time I was having published, in the literary pages of the Sydney University student newspaper honi soit, a lot of articles, poems and short stories conveying omniscience, poise and worldly wisdom. Publication was not difficult to arrange, because I edited those pages. Correctly intuiting at a glance that I was grass-green in all matters and emerald-green in the matter of sex, Romaine, at her table in the Royal George Hotel, took bets with the Downtown Push that she could seduce me within twenty-four hours. Next day the news reached me before she did. When she appeared, striding like a Homeric goddess, at the door of the cafeteria in Manning House, I cravenly escaped through the side entrance and hid behind the large adjacent gum tree. The rumour that I hid up the tree was false but slow to die.

The following year I was a senior and had developed some real confidence, or at any rate had become convinced by my own swagger. This time it was I who pursued Romaine. When the old Union Hall of beloved memory was pulled down and replaced by a new theatre of unparalleled hideousness, I found Romaine sitting behind me at a matinée performance of one of the inaugural plays: some frail, panting comedy by Anouilh which was now receiving the coup de grâce from a hunting pack of Australian accents. I held hands with her in the dark: quite a trick when the woman is sitting in the row behind you. It was easy, I told myself, to detect the shy vulnerability which lay beneath this woman’s strident show of independence. Consolingly I stroked her palm with my fingertips. They were a bit sweaty, but she didn’t object. Later on I walked her home along Parramatta Road. I did my most accomplished heart-winning athletic feat: the one where I grabbed a lamp-post with both hands and stood straight out sideways into the passing traffic. She looked impressed. Running with sweat from these exertions, at her flat I invited myself to take a shower, and did not lose the opportunity to show off the muscular development of my torso, which in those days was arranged with most of the wide bits at the top. Again she looked impressed. Guess what? I didn’t get her into bed.

The reason I am telling you all this is that Romaine herself blew the whole story long ago. After she became, deservedly, world famous, she seized the first chance to get back to Australia and tell the most chaotic journalist in the country — whose prose, when he had worked as my assistant on honi soit, I had always felt honour-bound to rewrite — the full story of my crummy seduction technique. She evoked my lamp-post lateral extensions and shower-booth biceps-flexing in such hilarious detail that not even the journalist’s slovenly verbosity could dull the comic effect. As a champion of truth, a leading light in the struggle against male chauvinism and sexist hypocrisy, Romaine had a right to say all this. I was more appalled by what she didn’t say. She didn’t say that she had chased me up that tree. All right, behind that tree. She didn’t say anything about betting the Downtown Push that she could deflower me in twenty-four hours from a standing start. Nothing. Not a word.

But all this was before and later. For the moment, I was standing back to back with Romaine on the tiny Footlights stage, she with her notable bust strapped down under an old A-line satin frock suitably modified — Romaine was always a dab hand at the household tasks against which she later rebelled on behalf of womankind — and I resplendent in watered-down hair and made-up velvet bow tie holding together the collar of one of my old off-white drip-dries. The rented DJ with its stove-pipe pants descended into a brand new pair of black bootees with zips up the inner ankle. Romaine had a cigarette holder the length of a billiard cue and I held my cigarette from underneath, like a Russian spy. With our nostrils given an extra arch of fastidiousness by the smell of halibut rising through the floorboards from the marble display tables of MacFisheries below, we mouthed brittle dialogue. I was awful, she was great, so we both got in. Romaine thus became one of the very first female members of the Footlights, because that was the smoker at which Eric Idle — the slim, dapper and unnervingly deep young President — finally managed to realise his long-laid plan of extending the franchise to the other half of the human race. Up until then, women could appear in Footlights revues only as guests, and most of the dons who congregated around the club’s small but thriving bar made it piercingly clear that they had preferred the era of good, straightforward transvestism, with properly shaved legs and no nonsense about it. Keeping her gratitude well under control, Romaine eyed some of the assembled senior members with manifest disdain. ‘This place is jumping with freckle-punchers,’ she told me confidentially, so that only about thirty of them choked on their drinks. ‘You can have it on your own.’

So we immediately split up again. Companionship between Romaine and myself had never been easy, because each of us suspected the other of the desire to conduct a perpetual monologue and neither was inclined to act as the feed-man, or feed-person. In my view she argued exclusively from the emotions and in her view I must have epitomised the kind of arrogant male who would hold such an assumption. Apart from and below all that, however, was a deeper reason: in those days ambitious young Australians left their country in order to discover themselves as individuals. Clinging together when abroad was the last thing they wanted to do. The idea that the Australians in England roll logs for each other has always been exactly wrong. Most of them wouldn’t roll a twig. I could barely name two of them who would roll me into an open grave.

Romaine took one look at the English Tripos requirements, declared them infantile, and by force of argument got herself registered as a PhD student. The University Library, in keeping with the vaguely pre-Columbian threat of its appearance, swallowed her up like a tomb. Perhaps it had absorbed all the other women in Cambridge too. There seemed to be very few of them, and fewer still who were available. From the two women’s colleges, Newnham and Girton, only a handful of girls took enough time off from their studies to appear in the vicinity of the dramatic societies. These brave rebels would attend Footlights smokers but otherwise they were to be observed only near Sidgwick Avenue on their way to and from lectures. On ordinary nights in the club there was scarcely a woman to be seen, except the occasional up-and-coming, or more likely down-and-going, actress from a touring company who would take a late-night snort after the evening performance in the Arts Theatre. The relative absence of a civilising female influence made it all the easier to get disgustingly drunk. One was allowed to run up a bar bill. Mine became a bar booklet. The door of the Footlights closed at night long after the front door of my college, so after navigating my way from Petty Cury to the street behind Pembroke I had to climb over the back wall. Climbing in (called Climbing In) was an experience that varied from college to college. Though frowned on, it was an accepted practice. Undergraduates couldn’t walk through town after dark without their gowns or else the Beadles would challenge them and, if necessary, give chase. The Beadles wore bowler hats and most of them had RAF moustaches. Wind resistance, however, did nothing to slow them down. But once you had reached the walls of your college there were no patrols to stop you climbing in. The occasional drunken undergraduate who impaled himself on a railing spike received no punishment beyond the scar. When King’s had a physically handicapped undergraduate it installed a small hand-rail on one of the walls near the river so that he could climb in without drowning. It was all very English: a rule made to be broken, as long as you didn’t kick up a fuss. Within the first two weeks I became adept at scaling the back wall whatever my state of inebriation, crossing the roof of the bike shed and dropping to the ground beside a huge cylindrical metal skip in which rubbish was placed for incineration. In the third week, however, I was so drunk one night that I dropped in the wrong spot, with a noise like a huge gong being softly struck. I woke up inside the skip several hours later, a bleak dawn sky overhead.