Books: May Week was in June — Full Velvet Jacket |
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May Week was in June — Full Velvet Jacket


It should have been an heroic return. After a mentally improving sojourn beyond the Alps, I was coming back to Cambridge in triumph, at the university’s invitation and expense. The reality was less exalted. With my trusty cardboard suitcase full of dirty washing I scaled the outer wall of Robin’s ground-floor flatlet in Pimlico. It was after midnight. Safely hidden in the tiny area, I tapped at her door-length window very quietly, so as not to wake the neighbours. I tapped for an hour without waking her either. Finally the window swung open and I was greeted by the glistening point of a carving knife. It was Robin’s flat-mate, an English drama student called Alison. Though her terror was not feigned, it was, I thought, excessive. Robin, I was informed, was staying the night at her boyfriend’s place in Notting Hill. What boyfriend? Peeved, I set up camp on the floor of the kitchenette. There was plenty of room if I kept my legs folded. When that became impossible, I opened the cupboard under the sink and put my feet in there. Not kicking over the cans of Ajax was harder when I slept. I had to stay awake and concentrate. For three weeks it wouldn’t be so bad.

Turning up for work on the set of Keith Visconti’s film, I found that there had indeed been developments. Dave Dalziel assured me that the key scene where the girl must decide whether or not she wants milk in her coffee was now in the can. Unfortunately the young actor playing the waiter had temporarily ceased to be available. A childhood friend of Keith’s, he was being questioned by the police in relation to an incident at New Cross in which the contents of a van full of the new Japanese portable TV sets had gone missing. He was being questioned, that is, during the previous several months of filming. Now that he had finished being questioned, he had vanished. Apparently some of his friends were looking for him. Not childhood friends like Keith. Other friends. Nelia knew all about it, but she wasn’t saying much — not, I think, out of secrecy, but because she couldn’t raise the energy. She had started reading a magazine and the effort was wearing her down. It was called Woman’s Realm. She could just about get an issue finished before the next one came out. Besides, Keith was making her work all the time.

With Dalziel’s constant advice, Keith had been using Nelia to get all the close-up reaction shots he could while the search went on for either the original waiter or someone who looked like him. By now it had become apparent that the waiter’s scenes would have to be shot again with a different actor. Keith had offered to produce another of his lifelong friends but Dalziel had vetoed this. A proper actor had been hired: one of the Australian expatriates who had been left swallowing engine oil in the burning water after The Charge of the Light Fandango had pointed its propellers at the sky and gone roaring down to the bottom. Keith objected that the actor did not look English. Dalziel overruled him. ‘I don’t think this guy looks especially Australian, do you?’ Dalziel asked me this in tones that compelled agreement. The actor, on top of the body of the Man from Snowy River, had the face of Lew Hoad, but I concurred in the judgment that his national origin was impossible to guess. The actor was unimpressed by what I had done for him. All he could remember was The Charge of the Light Fandango. Understandably there was a certain froideur when he found that my daily presence was part of this deal too. So I did my best to stay out of the way. After doing my bit to shift lights and carry silver boxes I would go outside and sit waiting at the kayf across the road. The studio was in a back street behind Olympia, so it was not a very salubrious kayf. I was writing poems about Florence. They were full of Medici pomp and Machiavellian circumstance, of tasselled banners and blazing trumpets, the sweet waistlines of Paolo Uccello handmaidens and the crackling flames of Savonarola’s pyre. All this I wrote about while sitting under a chalked menu announcing that spam fritters with two veg could be followed by spotted dick with custard. Outside the dirty window, rain that for some reason would only make it dirtier fell thinly but persistently, like a small annoyance. The yawning discrepancy between the place I was writing about and the place I was writing about it in, however, seemed to help. I told myself that it was always best to be physically elsewhere from one’s spiritual concern: thus recollection was left free to focus. How, for example, would I have come to value the stylish, precisely calibrated density of a tiny Italian espresso basso if it were not for the contrast provided by this giant mug of English tea? Tea leaves floated limply on its vast surface. Under the surface there were more tea leaves. A mug of tea of that size and consistency took a minimum of ten minutes to drink, even when cold. If I sipped carefully, opening my pursed lips to the width of a vein, I swallowed only about half a pound of tea leaves, leaving a mulch three inches deep in the bottom of the mug. Yes, this was the real England that Richard Hoggart had talked about in The Uses of Literacy. When Raymond Williams complained in Culture and Society of the healthy working class traditions that were being lost, this was what he meant.

Dalziel didn’t really have enough for me to do during the week. On the weekends it was a different story. His sister was in town. Beryl Dalziel was a sculptress. Like her brother’s, her career lay in the future. Unlike him, she did not travel well. Dave Dalziel was famously capable of getting organised. He had a filing system for his correspondence. Some of the clothes he bought off market stalls would have looked incongruous on any man less personable, and the Jaguar he had so proudly bought for a song showed increasing signs of having been overhauled at some stage of its career by someone who might have been a childhood friend of Keith Visconti, but on the whole Dave Dalziel was a scrupulous realist. He did not cause trouble to others. He could get himself from country to country with all his belongings, get the telephone connected, hire a plumber. Beryl Dalziel could do none of these things. She needed help.

Above all, she needed help moving. During the three weeks I was involved with her peregrinations, she changed flats four times, twice on the one weekend. These moves would have been complicated enough if her innumerable suitcases and steamer trunks had been full of air. She claimed to have put her sample sculptures in storage on arrival, but I was convinced they were in her luggage. They were the heaviest bags I have ever carried. In fact there was no question of carrying most of them, even with Dalziel on one end and me on the other. They had to be dragged. Moving her out of the upstairs flat in Maida Vale which we had moved her into on the previous weekend, Dalziel and I began by taking each end of one of the smaller suitcases. I remembered that a week before I had thought it contained nothing except machine tools. This time it must have been packed with uranium. Luckily it was I who was holding the bottom end, or it might have been Dalziel who bore the brunt, with incalculable consequences for the future of the Australian film industry. The thing accelerated down the thinly carpeted stairs. Ignoring Dalzie’s exhortations to stop it with my body, I stepped smartly aside while the case boomed past and slammed into the window seat on the landing, staving in its plywood-panelled front. We rearranged the cushions so that the damage hardly showed. The next case we took a step at a time, positioning it vertically and edging it out until it dropped on to the next step down with a thump that shook the house. The landlady was out. Landladies were always out when Beryl took off. She timed it that way. How she managed it when there weren’t at least two grown men around was another question, or yet another question. It was already another question how the cases we were taking down had grown even heavier since we took them up. It took an hour and a half to move all twelve cases. We saved the biggest of Beryl’s bulk carriers until last. A metal steamer trunk bound about with clasps and hasps, it looked as if it was waiting for a cargo ship. On each side, B. DALZIEL was painted in yellow letters two feet high. I remembered this object vividly from former journeys, but there had been a change. Previously merely backbreaking, it was now immovable. Dalziel and I both got behind it and shoved with all our strength. The trunk reacted like the Albert Memorial. We tried again, this time applying the pressure more gradually, on the theory that a steady build-up would break the air seal holding the bottom of the trunk to the threadbare carpet. We had our eyes closed with the strain, so it wasn’t until we had given up that we noticed Beryl had lain down on the bed with her thumb in her mouth.

From long experience, Dalziel recognised this behaviour as a sign of guilt. He demanded that the trunk be unpacked and the contents manhandled separately. His sister sulked. The clock ticked. Not for the first time, I wondered how different my personality — and therefore, presumably, my life — might have been had I grown up with siblings to contend with. Dalziel still had flashes of the old insanity but essentially he was a reasonable man. His sister was essentially unreasonable. Was he like that because of her? Was she like that because of him? It was getting dark. At last she gave in. She unlocked the trunk. It was full of house bricks. ‘For my kiln,’ she explained. ‘Want to do porcelain.’ All the other bags proved to have their share of bricks too. Eventually we got everything into the hired Dormobile and set off for Beryl’s next address. On the way, at Dalziel’s insistence, the bricks were dumped into a builder’s skip.

After three weekends of intense body building, my cardboard suitcase was like a feather draped over my crooked index finger when I turned up in Cambridge to claim my inheritance. The place was infested with a new intake of undergraduates, all self-consciously parading in their new gowns, which, had they but known it, were due to be replaced in short order by old gowns whose more experienced owners had seen an opportunity to update their kit. Cambridge was a bit like being in the army: you had to know the lurks. By now I was a lurk man, like Sergeant Bilko. This was nothing to be proud of, so I tried not to be proud of it. As a graduate student I was less of an anomaly than I had been as an undergraduate, but I was still a pretty weatherbeaten customer to have hanging around an institution dedicated to forming the characters of young people and furnishing their minds with knowledge. All I can say now is how I felt at the time: that somehow the fact that I was a few years older than my fellow clerks was cancelled out by my feeling a few years younger than they would have felt had they been a few years older. One day I would catch up with myself and then everything would come out even. Meanwhile, I had been granted the immense privilege of being allowed to live in unapproved lodgings. To put it another way, the college didn’t want me making life miserable for any of its registered landladies. With the first instalment of my study grant safely in the bank, I paid back the college what I owed in loans. This left nothing like enough to pay back Footlights what I owed in bar bills, but since I was now President of the Footlights I calculated that I could sway the committee to excuse me my debts until such time as I could pay them back with inflated currency. Retrieving the pink jacket and the rest of my junk from the Pembroke linen room, I staggered along King’s Parade, turned right into Benet Street, and moved into the Friar’s House, just across from the Eagle.

The Friar’s House looked like the best address in Cambridge. It was a half-timbered edifice which had no doubt been built by the eponymous friars. You could tell it went back a long way by all the angles it leaned at. My room was on the first floor. I hadn’t been in it thirty seconds before I found out why the rent was so cheap. In those days the ground floor of the Friar’s House was occupied by the most popular Pakistani restaurant in Cambridge. I like the smell of curry — rather better than I like the taste of it, in fact — but the fabric of the Friar’s House, being so old, was porous. Without going downstairs, I could recite the menu. Another shock was the hitherto unannounced presence of Romaine Rand, who had already taken another room on the same floor as mine. Indeed it was the room next to mine. It was the big front room facing on to the street. In something less than a week, Romaine, who in another time and place might have run the sort of salon that Goethe and the boys would have swarmed around like blowflies, had already transformed her room into a dream from the Arabian nights. Drawing on her incongruous but irrepressible skills as a housewife, she had tatted lengths of batik, draped bolts of brocade, swathed silk, swagged satin, niched, ruffed, hemmed and hawed. There were oriental carpets and occidental screens, ornamental plants and incidental music. The effect was stunning. Aristotle Onassis had married Jackie Kennedy in vain hopes of getting his yacht to look like that. Romaine, however, once she had got her life of luxury up and running, did not luxuriate. She had a typewriter the size of a printing press. Instantly she was at it, ten hours a day. Through the lath-and-plaster wall I could hear her attacking the typewriter as if she had a contract, with penalty clauses, for testing it to destruction. As well as finalising her thesis, apparently, she was working on a book. She definitely would not be available for Footlights, so I could forget it. ‘Only a few of them are funny,’ she announced, ‘and none of them can fuck.’ I slunk back to my bare room. There was, or were, the flat metal frame of a single bed, a stained mattress, the curried floorboards, a bulb without a shade, and my suitcase. I resolved that I, too, would transmogrify my environment. Picking out a section of the wall where a shelf might go, I tapped it with a testing forefinger. About a square foot of plaster fell off and brained a cockroach.

Making large plans to decorate my eyrie on a scale that would put Romaine to shame, I set off next morning for the Do It Yourself Hire and Supply shop in Hills Road. Somehow I never found it. At the cinema, the DIY Hire and Supply advertisement had always been the one I had most trouble identifying with. It featured an old man with a Ringo Starr haircut who smiled at you while boring holes with a Black and Decker drill. I was well aware of what would happen if I tried to smile at anybody while boring holes. Searching with decreasing urgency for the DIY centre, I happened on a second-hand bookshop and went in there instead. It wasn’t a very good second-hand bookshop — mostly its stock consisted of the sort of unsellable item which people nowadays palm off on Oxfam in order to feel charitable — but I had already cleaned all the other second-hand bookshops out. It was a mystery how I managed, on less than no income, to go on building an impressive personal library. From my habit of writing the date when I purchased a book under my name on the front flyleaf, I can now tell that I bought several volumes of Rilke’s letters at about that time. Since I would have been able to read no German more difficult than the extracts from Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks which had been included in my elementary German textbook at Sydney Technical High School, I must have bought those volumes in the expectation that I would learn the language later on. By that criterion, no purchase was beyond my reach. I brought my trophies home to the Friar’s House and lined them up along the edge of the floor where the bookcase would go once I had bored the holes in the lengths of wood that I would be buying in the near future. Until then, late at night when I came home from the Footlights, I lay reading under the dozen blankets I had obtained on a loan from the ladies in the Pembroke linen room. A cold autumn would have made sleep difficult even if there had been a functioning power point for the electric fire I had bought before finding out why it was so cheap. Making sleep impossible, however, was the noise of Romaine’s typewriter. Through the trembling partition dividing our two rooms came the frenzied uproar of a belt-fed Mauser MG42 firing long bursts from a concrete pillbox.

She was getting somewhere and I wasn’t. Footlights was only one of the distractions that kept me from attending to my principal business, which was meant to be Shelley and his readings of the Italian poets. The luckless man chosen to supervise my PhD thesis was Professor Graham Hough, of whose distinction I was uneasily aware. I went to see him in Darwin. From the time it took me to get there, he might as well have been in Darwin, Australia. Actually Darwin College was only just across the Cam. A hundred yards along Trumpington Street towards Pembroke, turn right down Silver Street, cross the bridge, and I should have been there in five minutes. It took ten times that because I was thinking. When I got to the bridge I looked downriver and thought for a long while. The wooden lattice of Queen’s Bridge spanned the river like a quietly exultant reproach. Isaac Newton had designed it, the cocky prick. He hadn’t only known what he was doing, he had been mad keen that everybody else should be appropriately cowed, the asshole. During the long vacation I should have got enough of a grip on my subject to make it sound worthwhile for my supervisor to find out about it himself so that he would be able to check up on me as the work advanced. Unfortunately, what seemed a good idea had remained merely a good idea. I had a few citations to suggest that the influence of Dante and Petrarch had been not just thematic, as Shelley himself proudly admitted, but technical, at the level of imagery and rhythmic strategy. Hough wanted to know how this last item differed from the metrical patterns which it was already known that Shelley had taken over wholesale from his Italian models. Sure I was right, but being short of information — always a dangerous state for anyone who is trying to sell someone else on an idea — I struggled to adduce chapter and verse. Hough was patient. As a prisoner of the Japanese in Malaya, he had been through more trying times than this. Younger students than myself might be torn between the brimstone of Leavis and the fireworks of Steiner, but Hough’s realistic solidity was what I valued most in a teacher of English. As much for the theoretical dabbling it eschewed as for the pure reason it espoused, I thoroughly approved of his little book Essay on Criticism. A poet himself, he wrote the civilised verse of a man who had been far enough into the pit to admire the scenery on the way back out. I didn’t want to muck him around. With sherry-fuelled eloquence I conjured visions of the deep studies I would pursue. If not convinced, he was at least lulled. I got the impression that he might be on the verge of nodding off. It was my suggestion, not his, that I should come back when I had something on paper. Instantly he was on his feet with his hand out. I went to shake it, but it was going past me to the door handle.

On the way back to college to pick up my mail, I took the long way around past the pond and over the meadow. At the Mill I stood communicating with the ducks. The river was already closed down for the winter. Raindrops prickled on the dark water just above where it filled with cold light as it curved out to leap through the sluice. It was the kind of thing Leonardo da Vinci liked to draw. Leonardo hadn’t been here, of course, but nearly everybody else had. Not only Rupert Brooke had been down at the Mill, Rutherford had sat here on the wall and watched the atoms pursue their unbroken curve. John Maynard Keynes had looked into that clear declension and seen the economic consequences of the Versailles Treaty. Wittgenstein had seen the silence of what cannot be expressed, Alan Turing the soul of a machine. Apparently there was now some crippled young man at King’s who was working on a unified field theory that would explain absolutely everything. Surrounded by these exemplars of mental effort, I couldn’t even be sure that I would do the work I had cut out for myself. Worse, I was sure I wouldn’t. Somehow I would be drawn aside, into something else. All the ducks knew enough to stay well upstream of where the surface of the water moved faster and lost its comforting darkness. I couldn’t stay out of the light. If I had been a duck I would have been down the sluice. I wouldn’t even make it as a web-footed water-fowl. Those ducks got on my nerves so much that I wrote a poem belittling their pretensions.

My duck poem took two days of undeflected concentration. If something was irrelevant, I could do it. While I was supposed to be studying the poems of Shelley, I was writing mine. By this time Granta was practically my private newsletter. I still contributed, with grand condescension, to Varsity, but I was growing sick of its inability to set up my carefully finished copy without including all the same misprints which disfigured the news stories sent in dramatically from the telephone booth around the corner by would-be Fleet Street pie-eating hacks who were all cheap excitement and no sentence structure. The snapping point came when I reviewed Joseph Losey’s desperately unfunny comic film Modesty Blaise. I compared the undraped Monica Vitti to the Rokeby Venus. It came out as the Rokesby Venue. I might have stood for this if anybody concerned had been ashamed, but student journalists don’t learn to take pains until they have to, and perhaps that’s the way things should be. It’s hard enough crawling out of your shell, without being driven back in by sneers and quibbles. Uncomfortably aware that I had been hanging around too long, I left the junior reporters to get on with it and switched my feature-writing efforts to Granta on the semi-fulltime basis necessitated by my having accepted a post as its new arts editor. Taking on this task was sheer folly but I was sick of being at the mercy of undergraduate newspaper editors. Those who edited the magazines had a greater sense of responsibility than the Varsity tribe. They also had a bad habit of leaving the printer to get on with it while they toasted muffins in each other’s rooms, but at least, as one of them, I would be able to accept my own stuff without demur and make sure that it got laid out with appropriate prominence: nothing too strident, mind, just plenty of white space to set off the body copy, the occasional full-page photograph to remind the readers of who they were dealing with, and a caption prominent enough to make sure that they didn’t get my photograph mixed up with anybody else’s. Like all previous and subsequent literary editors of Granta, I began with confident hopes of securing contributions from world-famous literary figures. If my letters were answered at all, it was in the negative. Jean-Paul Sartre said ‘Non.’ The fact that he had said the same to the Nobel Prize committee was small comfort. Dalziel gave me a good piece on the films of John Ford. It needed a lot of subbing, because he had written it in spare time he didn’t have, now that the BFI Production Board was pressing him hard to finish Expresso Drongo even if Keith Visconti had to be fired.

The one advantage of being Granta’s literary editor turned out to be intangible when it really mattered. At the invitation of the Italian department, the great poet Eugenio Montale came to town and sat in the Senior Common Room of Magdalene to be interviewed by the head of the department, Professor Limentani. The room was jammed with members and students of the Italian department plus a couple of hundred others who had all forced their way in to pay homage. Starved of oxygen, Montale sat there under his distinguished cap of silver hair being asked several questions by Professor Limentani. The Prof spoke in a voice that might have just been audible to anyone with an ear-trumpet who had been sitting in his lap. Tired after a long journey, Montale must have thought that to whisper at great length to a huge room full of strangers was an English national custom, like riding to hounds. He whispered too. About two hundred and fifty people all dying of nitrogen narcosis were in there for an hour struggling silently for position so that they could watch two Italian men of advanced years moving their lips. Not for the first time, the extent to which an academic organisation could bungle a big event made me wonder if undergraduates got sufficient credit for the extracurricular things they accomplished. I wrote an article about the occasion for Granta, subbed it myself, laid it out and left it for the editor to see through the press. When the issue came out, my article was there pretty much as I had written it, except that almost every detail was in the wrong place. All the paragraphs were out of order, so that Montale — now known as Montela, although sometimes as Mantabe — left Cambridge in the middle of the article before arriving at the end. My critical remarks concerning his famous poem about the lemon trees were attached to a quotation from his equally famous poem about the sunflower. My name was the only item which appeared correctly, thereby ensuring that the blame for the mess would be entirely mine.

At about this time, Florence was hit by a flood that killed a lot of people, played havoc with the artistic patrimony, and transformed the city’s way of life. I felt guilty about not being there to help, but not as guilty as I felt about setting out to spread enlightenment and ending up adding to the confusion. There wasn’t much I could do about bringing people with lungs full of mud back to life. I felt ashamed of my powerlessness, but the shame was abstract. To have my name on a page of nonsense felt as shameful as having run someone over. Françoise was in Oxford, to start a Bachelor of Philosophy course. After having taken her doctorate with the maximum possible marks — a feat unheard-of for a foreigner, and rare even for a native — she had providentially left Florence before the catastrophe. I was relieved that she was safe. But that, as Gatsby says of Daisy’s love for Tom, was only personal. Those columns of pied type were hard to get over. I sent a copy of the magazine to Françoise at Somerville and by return of post she was kind enough to commiserate, although her suggestion that nobody would notice the difference did not have the soothing effect that she intended. No doubt things would have gone better if I had been at the press. I couldn’t be everywhere. Certainly I couldn’t be at my desk. Shelley would have to wait for a bit.

As usual the thing that demanded most of my attention was Footlights, only now more than ever. In my capacity as President I was in constant attendance. There were more committee meetings than usual because I was intent on delegating every task of day-to-day administration. To delegate successfully, I had to call a meeting, so that everybody could be told what to do. The secretary looked after the finances, the cabaret director looked after the cabaret bookings, the Falconer looked after the clubroom. This left me free to sit in the bar until late at night looking after general policy. My first big policy decision had to do with Prince Charles, who had arrived at Trinity with the whole of Fleet Street just behind him in a succession of hired coaches. It was evident that Footlights concerts and revues, unless an embargo was imposed on his name, would consist of nothing but sketches about Prince Charles. The press was already a gruesome warning of what to expect. Traditionally nuts on the subject of the heir to the throne, they had now gone berserk. Student journalists who had dreamed of joining the World of Paul Slickey were now given good reason to think again. Their heroes, in the flesh, turned out to possess not even the inverted glamour of sleazy corruption. Nothing more complicated was going on than the usual behaviour of a pack of sharks in a feeding frenzy. Determined not to be a prisoner of his fate, their quarry took part in a smoking concert in Trinity. Fleet Street, for which any Cambridge theatrical event is always a Footlights revue — usually misspelled ‘review’ — ran headlines about his appearance with Footlights, (FOOTLIGHTS CHARLES — PICTURES). Sensibly he didn’t come near Footlights. The roof would have fallen in. Thus he solved half the problem himself. The other half was for us to solve. Informing the committee that they would have to agree in advance to pass the motion nem. con. — otherwise the mere fact of there having been a discussion would have become a story too — unilaterally I imposed the embargo. This was the right thing to do, but while doing it I felt the sinister thrill of unchallenged power. Luckily I managed to remind myself in time that as President of Footlights I was not the Shah of Persia, just primus inter pares. At. very most, as the Dean of Pembroke might have put it, I was in loco parentis to those in statu pupillari.

Helping to remind me on this point were the club smoking concerts. There was a new bunch of multi-talented performers coming up who had me beaten to the wide, especially when it came to music. Reading for the Classics Tripos at St John’s, Pete Atkin was a shy young man with rimless glasses who had an unfair amount of natural authority on stage, as if being in the limelight saved him from self-consciousness. He wrote shapely melodies which, while being completely original, partook of every musical tradition from Buddy Holly back to Palestrina. Footlights had always had a strong musical element. There was always someone who knew all about jazz and someone else who knew all about pop. John Cameron could score for a big band before he got to Cambridge, so it was no surprise that he led one after he left. Daryl Runswick was a music scholar in Corpus Christi who could put away the bow and pluck his bass like Ray Brown: later on he was to accompany Frank Sinatra at the Festival Hall. Robin Nelson could write a parody of a Bach cantata that sounded like a Bach cantata. But Atkin knew everything. He was particularly erudite on the subject of Tin Pan Alley. He knew Rodgers and Hart note for note and word for word. The same Mercer and Arlen songs that were my touchstones he could play and sing straight through from memory. Though he wrote excellent lyrics for his own tunes, I was ruthless in planting the notion that he might perhaps consider setting one or two of my own efforts. Cuckoos laying eggs give more subtle hints than I did. Believing then, as I still believe, that a song lyric should be at least as disciplined as a published poem, I produced, in that first flush of collaboration, intricately symmetrical stanza forms which Atkin could inject with music only at the cost of making it evident that he had been required to use a syringe. It was easier to loosen up the syntax when we worked the other way around, with me concocting a lyric to fit a tune he had already written. After a while we met somewhere in the middle, roughing out both melody and story at a preliminary session around the piano. The piano was on the Footlights stage. Late nights in the Footlights grew later. If Atkin had known that we would write hundreds of songs over the next eight years, he might have struck for regular hours. I had a way of catching people up in my enthusiasms. But I don’t think he would protest, looking back, that I turned him aside from his studies. Talent will out. It has a mind of its own.

Some people have so many talents that their idea of being normal is to have only one. Russell Davies was also from St John’s. He had already taken a double first in the Modern Language Tripos without realising that he had sat the examinations. He thought they were application forms. It didn’t occur to him to ask what he was applying for. When people asked him to do things, he said yes. He could do everything except say no. The only reason he was so late getting to Footlights was that he had been asked to play by every jazz band in the area. He played a different instrument in each band. He could play the tuba, the trombone, the trumpet, the saxophone and the piano. When he got to us, it turned out that he could write, draw, sing, dance and act, all better than anyone else. He hadn’t quite realised that he could do these things. There hadn’t been time.

With Atkin and Davies both around, things were already looking promising for the next May Week revue, of which I intended to be the producer. I had already ruled myself out as a performer. In this company I would be outclassed. As the year developed, St John’s proved to be a bottomless cornucopia of gifted new recruits. Atkin and Davies had a friend unromantically named Barry Brown, who wrote and performed surreal monologues. Together they all put on the St John’s Smoker. There was an interloper from Emmanuel called Jonathan James-Moore who looked and sounded like a retired colonel invented by Saki. They all seemed to have the kind of stage presence that many professional actors spend a lifetime acquiring, but today they would be unanimous in admitting that they paled into the decor when the spotlight came up on Julie Covington. The decor was in the St John’s bike shed, annual home of the St John’s Smoker. Atkin and Brown had discovered Covington at Homerton Teacher’s College. Spotlit against inaccurately draped black curtains in the smoky, crowded depths of the bike shed, her prettiness was sufficient on its own to induce a reverent hush. The reverent hush deepened to religious awe when she began to sing. Student singers who could hold a note were rare. Student singers who could hold an audience were radium. Talent-shopping from the back of the mesmerised crowd, I foresaw a whole new era of student revue opening up, in which the lyrical element, formerly an occasional by-product of make-up and drag, would be fundamental.

Inspired to a minimum of half a dozen new song lyrics per week, laboriously I commuted to Oxford by train so that I might read them aloud to Françoise. Her room in the Somerville graduate house had the rare luxury of central heating, but I made a practice of reciting all my new lyrics on arrival, before removing my duffel coat. Unaccompanied by music, they were perhaps harder to appreciate than I surmised. The Oxford and Cambridge Ski Club had booked a hotel in Zürs am Alberg for an off-season week in early December. Françoise was going and she suggested that if I wanted to write and recite lyrics without being interrupted by a long train trip via Bletchley, I should come to Austria. Picturing what the officers of the Oxford and Cambridge Ski Club would undoubtedly look like — RAF moustaches and white roll-necked pullovers with Olympic rings on them — I scornfully declined. What would a radical socialist be doing mixed up in an upper-crust activity like skiing? On my return to Cambridge, Marenko told me that he was going to Zürs. Blantyre was going too. Even Delmer Dynamo was going. I told them I couldn’t ski. ‘Blow it out your ass’ said Delmer. ‘Anyone can ski. You just point the things down the hill, for Christ’s sake.’