Books: May Week was in June — Fantasy Island |
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May Week was in June — Fantasy Island


Thus my first year as a PhD student took shape. The academic year was short anyway, but there was no gainsaying the fact that I was working on my thesis for an average of one hour per month or perhaps less. No gainsaying it by anyone except me. As usual I told myself that everything would change tomorrow. Tomorrow never came, because it couldn’t. I just had too many commitments. Alarmed by their number, I distracted myself from them by adding others. In Footlights my new styleless style of performing made enough progress to attract the attention of student producers in other branches of the theatre. It struck someone who shall remain nameless that I would make an ideal Jourdain in the Cambridge Opera Society’s forthcoming presentation of the original version of Ariadne auf Naxos. I wouldn’t have to sing: in the original version Jourdain is the leading role of a play which is eventually, although not soon enough, displaced by the opera. It should have been obvious that if I didn’t have to sing I would have to act, but somehow I convinced myself that I wouldn’t have to act either. At that time I was enslaved to the music of Richard Strauss. I knew Der Rosenkavalier note for note, could do a traffic-stopping imitation of Ljuba Welitsch in the final scene from Salome, and would contentedly croon both parts of the long two-girl duet from Arabella while sitting in the Whim writing a nit-picking review of Accident. Considering that I couldn’t sing the National Anthem in a way that made it sound significantly different from ‘Rock Around the Clock’, this incantatory Strauss-worship must have sounded pretty strange from the outside, but inside my head it had the full, drenching beauty of that reprehensible old opportunist at his most sumptuous: the shimmering swirl of strings that drapes the soprano like a Fortuny gown, the passing phrase, the orgasmic crescendo, the sudden silence. Not too much, in my version, of the sudden silence. In particular I loved the last pages of Ariadne auf Naxos where Bacchus got the lion’s share of the duet with the eponymous goddess. To all intents and purposes he had a grandstand aria, of which I knew every phrase. Yes, if destiny had denied me the wherewithal to sing Bacchus, at least I could play Jourdain. So what I said to the producer was yes, when what I should have said was no. And if he didn’t understand it when I said it in English, I should have sung it in German. Nein!

It wasn’t his fault. Always in the theatre, as in all the arts, it is dangerous to go against one’s instincts, but this doesn’t mean that it is always safe to go with them. You can take on a project from the depth of your heart and it will still end up stuck all over your face, like egg. I already knew that, but there aren’t many operas with a starring role for a non-singer, and I wanted to be an opera star. So I ignored the law of probability, which declared that no student producer, unless he was Max Reinhardt reborn, would be able to hire the opera singers, organise the orchestra, supervise the designs, stage the main action, and also prevent the play-within-the-opera from sabotaging the opera in a manner less decisive than that which had persuaded Strauss and Hofmannstahl to abandon the original version in the first place. This particular student producer’s utter innocence — although a brilliant scholar, he had never produced anything except a weekly essay — helped to persuade me for the first half-hour of rehearsal that he might get everything right by sheer purity, like Parsifal. When he turned out not to be completely certain about the difference between stage left and stage right I started to worry. I should have worried more. For years afterwards, to my shame, I vocally blamed him. The fault was mine for not taking drastic action. Either I should have demanded an experienced producer or else bailed out, if necessary without a parachute. The idea of a non-singing Australian Jourdain was a good one. The idea of a non-singing non-acting Australian Jourdain was a possible one, as long as he learned his lines, hit the marks, and kept his good humour when the set collapsed around him. But with everything else going wrong, I worried about that instead of about getting my bit right. Instead of providing a still centre, I was part of the chaos. The play-within-the-opera was a mess. Ariadne auf Naxos was scheduled to go on at the Arts Theatre for four nights running, come what might. Luckily the opera-without-the-play was going reasonably well. Professional opera singers are usually able to produce themselves. Alberto Remedios, appearing in the role of Bacchus, was at that time still on his way up as one of the best Wagnerian tenors in Europe, but he had already had plenty of practice at getting on and off a strange stage at short notice. Despite his exotic name, Alberto was a Scouse plug-ugly with a delightfully foul tongue who knew a potential catastrophe when he saw one. It rapidly became clear that he was unimpressed by the visual aspect of the conditions in which he was being asked to work, ‘Shit,’ he said when he saw the set. ‘Who shat?’ And indeed Naxos did look very brown. For an island, it was remarkably short of greenery. The designer had sketched some rocks, which had been faithfully reproduced by the Arts Theatre paint shop. On a large scale the rocks looked like the petrified turds of a mastodon. Ariadne was to be sung by Margaret Roberts, a trouper. It was the other kind of trooper that she swore like when she saw the costume which had been provided for her. Diaphanous in all the wrong places, it looked like Eva Peron’s negligée, an impression abetted by the platform mules with pink pom-poms and the sequined cloche flying helmet. A down-to-earth sort of girl, Margaret was prepared to act the temptress, but not in a comedy. Nor was she any more tolerant than Alberto of bright young people dabbling in the arts. She handed back the dress. ‘You can burn that,’ she said, ‘and don’t forget to bury the ashes. It might grow again.’ From her travelling wardrobe she produced a complete Ariadne costume of her own. Previous experience of semi-professional productions had told her to be prepared.

Alas, not only was I part of the semi-professional production, I exemplified it. For me, Ariadne auf Naxos was a personal disaster. I could have called it wounding, but only if I had lived. I died, ten times a night for four nights on the trot. Though the general lousiness of my performance improved toward the merely inadequate as the short run went on, if the show had stayed in repertory for ever I still wouldn’t have been able to haul my contribution out of the fire. Romaine Rand, writing a notice for The Cambridge Review, said that watching my performance was a strange exercise in compassion, like seeing a man who deserved punishment being beaten up more thoroughly than his crime warranted. She was uncharacteristically kind to the production as a whole, contenting herself with the suggestion that it be sealed in lead-lined containers and buried down a disused coal mine. Looking back on the catastrophe — and even today I look back on it through a veil of tears — I like to think that if I was placed in the same circumstances now I would be able to look after myself, if only by the cheap method of making a virtue of everything going wrong around me. Because everything did go wrong, every night. In the play-within-the-opera, a banquet has to be served on stage. On the first night, the banquet was brought in by a single liveried flunkey. There were supposed to be two liveried flunkeys. One of them had gone missing. The remaining liveried flunkey, before he went off to get the banquet, had already entertained the audience by the way his buckled shoes were so obviously a pair of buckles loosely attached to a pair of down-at-heel Chelsea boots. While he was off, we all had a lot of lines about how lavish a banquet it was going to be. When the liveried flunkey reappeared, he was carrying a single tureen. He pretended to stagger under its weight. This merely encouraged the putatively silver cover of the tureen to bounce slightly, as if to prove what the dullest eye already suspected, that it was made of papier mâché thinly caked with silver paint. The audience was thus well prepared to absorb the possibility that the silver cover of the tureen might not conceal anything very wonderful. When the cover was lifted to reveal nothing but a heaped plate of pineapple chunks, however, there were people in the audience who could take no more.

Little could they know how much more they would have to take. When I shut an allegedly heavy ornamental door behind me, it drifted open again to reveal a crouching stagehand in blue jeans. The audience saw him long before I did, so why was he still there then I turned around? It was because he was trying to stop the purportedly. massive solid marble fireplace from falling over. He didn’t and it did. It floated to the floor and lay there like an extra stage cloth while the cast assembled around it to discuss the unexampled luxury of Jourdain’s surroundings. I got exactly one intended laugh. When Jourdain proclaimed his delight at having discovered that he had been speaking prose all his life, the line worked, but that was because it had worked for Molière. The bourgeois gentilhomme, however must have more than one line. He must have character. To be a fool, he must first have his dignity, or he is just ridiculous. My only consolation was that the revival of the original version of Ariadne auf Naxos, though worse than a failure on every other level, was a triumph in the musical department — which was, after all, the only thing that mattered. On the last night, the last act sounded lovely beyond description. Conducted by David Atherton, then at the beginning of a glittering career, the orchestra played those marvellous climactic pages in a long, creamy legato line that held Jourdain — watching from a spotlit box but at last released from his terrible obligation to be amusing — spellbound even in the aftermath of his humiliation. Alone on stage among the mastodon droppings, Margaret sent out a languorous invitation to Bacchus that made Sieglinde’s song of longing in Die Waiküre sound like a jingle. The beauty of the music was a sacred rite, but the gremlins had not departed. Alberto’s reputed opinion of the set had finally sensitised the student producer to the point where that helpless’ young man was ready to do. anything to put things right. If Alberto couldn’t stand the way the set looked, the producer had the solution. As Bacchus, draped in cloth of gold and carrying a priapic stave wreathed with laurels, sang his first heroic phrase and strode masterfully on to the stage, the lights went out. Almost invisible, Bacchus and Ariadne could both still see the conductor, so the sublime duet proceeded on schedule. Indeed it had never sounded better, because now it looked so much better. Alberto, however, was not pleased. He controlled his feelings until after the curtain fell. When the curtain went back up again for the first call, the applause for Ariadne and Bacchus was like thunder. You could see the god’s mouth moving. It was assumed he was congratulating the goddess. The applause for Ariadne’s first individual call was even more cataclysmic, but this time Bacchus, although he was invisible somewhere in the wings, was clearly audible to the whole audience. ‘WHICH PRICK TURNED OUT THE FUCKING LIGHTS?’ He got a laugh that I walked into, and I was hypocritical enough to bow as if it were mine.

After a cock-up on that scale, Cambridge wasn’t big enough to hide in. For Easter I was back in Florence, where the extent and intensity of the destruction caused by the floods put my personal misery into perspective. Though the water had gone down again, the thick tide mark left by the thousands of gallons of spilled oil was still there on the walls, at an impossible height. Everything up to that sinister Plimsoll line had been either washed away or else ruined where it stood. In the quartiere between the back of the Palazzo Vecchio and Santa Croce, the fatal black stripe was half-way up the second storey of the buildings. Anita and her family had all survived, but the trattoria was gone, gutted as if by a flamethrower. You would have sworn that fire instead of water had done the work: the walls looked scorched. The whole low-lying little principality of the popolo minuto had been soaked with poisons. Sections of the historic centre which lay a few feet higher had suffered less, but more than enough. The cost to the art works and the books was devastating. The human cost was worse than that — it got into my dreams. The underground walkway at the railway station had been full of people when the first big wave had come boiling down the river. People trapped in the walkway had drowned against the roof. None of my friends had been killed, but Florence was my city, so I took the loss of strangers personally. The stricken commune had made it clear that only professionally qualified helpers were welcome. Otherwise, I tried to convince myself, I would have been in there with the first army of saviours. Being useless made the sense of loss more bitter. All over the world, people were horrified by the damage to the patrimony, which they correctly pointed out belonged to all mankind. Would-be realists among them said that the dead people could be replaced but that the works of art should never again be left to chance. They were right. Yet up close it was harder to separate the eternal patrimony from the evanescent human beings who lived and died amongst it. Like everyone else who has ever lived in Florence for however short a time, I had been marked by the city and wanted to feel that I had left my mark on it, even if the mark was only in my memory. In the bar near the Badia, though I hadn’t carved my name on the table where I had read and written by the hour, I had been careful to print the table in my recollection. The bar was open again but all the furniture was new. The Biblioteca Nazionale was also, miraculously, open for business, but the desk where I had sat was different and the books I had read were all rebound and their pages were wrinkled from the drying rooms. Somehow the effacement of personal memories was even harder to take than the damage to the Cimabue crucifix in Santa Croce. There was a chance that the Cimabue might be saved. In the Trattoria Anita the decor would never be quite so self-confidently scruffy again. Tat needs to be time-honoured. The level of the Arno had sunk again to the status of a puddle, so we could look over the wall at where the Summer Firefly should have been. It was gone. It has never been put back. With prompt and generous help from America, every shop on the Ponte Vecchio was fully restored, but nobody would bet on the likelihood of people sitting there in the dry river bed to watch Quel treno per Yuma. Obviously it was assumed that they would always be listening for another noise in the distance: the roar of water rolling down the valley like a moving wall at the end of an episode of an adventure serial, except that this time, at the start of the next episode, there would be no escape.

At that time I was in one of my beardless periods, so I found it especially noticeable that some of the young male Florentines among our acquaintances had acquired intentional-looking outcrops of facial hair. Beppe and Sergio both looked like preliminary studies for Titian’s portrait of Ariosto. These were the first beards seen on native Italians since the time of Verdi. The floods were the reason. Student life in Florence had been distracted, and had restarted at a broken rhythm, with a new seriousness. The pappagalli disappeared overnight, never to return. There had been one notorious occasion when a bus bearing a touring party of French schoolgirls had turned around in front of Santa Maria Novella and gone back to Paris: the teachers in charge had taken one look at the assembled young Italian male pests and decided not to let the girls get off. Now it was different. Foreign girls were no longer followed in the street. In such women’s magazines as Grazia, which had previously been exclusively concerned with the mysteries of the trousseau, there was new talk of equality. By the following year, the whole of young Italy had become more serious, to the extent that everyone had forgotten where the mood started. But I was there, and I remember. It was in Florence after the flood. The tragedy had worked like a one-day war. Its sheer arbitrariness had concentrated the minds of those who had taken life as it came. They were still subject to intellectual fashion, just as they were still subject to every other kind of fashion. Suddenly all the young men had beards to trim and all the young ladies had blue jeans to bleach. Women in trousers! It was too daring to be true. Yet the surface froth had a deep and potentially violent undertow. There was a demand for justice which the university system was not best placed to supply. You didn’t have to be a seer to sense trouble.

Flattering myself that I might do some good, I wrote an article about the aftermath of the Florence floods which I published in Granta when I got back. In my capacity as arts editor I allocated to myself three pages of the magazine, with another page for some impressive photographs taken by Françoise. The photographs were rather better judged than my prose, if the truth be told, but the impresario could scarcely be expected to give himself less than star billing. This time I saw the whole thing through the press myself. The viewpoint of the article was perhaps needlessly egocentric — even for myself, I would have done better to leave myself out of it — but there was no chance of muffing the evocation. I could still smell the mud and oil. This article is worth mentioning because it was to have long-term effects on what I have since had to get used to calling my career, so in fairness to an earlier self I should record here that I wrote it out of no great calculation beyond the usual urge to burst into print. At the New Statesman, Nicholas Tomalin had just taken over as literary editor, in circumstances which dictated that he find some new book reviewers, and find them in a tearing hurry, because most of the old ones were boycotting him. Tomalin was a feature writer of originality and courage, whose pieces from Vietnam had done a lot to convince Britain — and-the Americans in Cambridge — that the United States was in a jungle over its head. The modern determination of the British intelligentsia to keep itself specialised being already far advanced, Tomalin’s obvious qualifications as a journalist were held to be disqualifications in a literary editor. Those of the ambitious young who were lit on by his roving eye thought otherwise. Abramovitz, President of the Union in his final term, invited Tomalin to debate some such footling topic as ‘This House Would Rather Be Amused’. Abramovitz invited me to be on Tomalin’s team. It was billed as a Funny Debate. I had still not learned never to go near anything labelled as Funny. People who tell jokes don’t make me laugh. My experience as a guest speaker in Funny Debates at both Cambridge and Oxford eventually helped to convince me that the only place to be amusing is in a serious context. But at that stage I had not yet formulated this important principle, so I agreed to appear in the debate. After the usual interminably facetious opening diatribes by the student politicians, Tomalin rose to speak sensibly about the necessity of writing in an entertaining manner if one wished to convey a serious message. The United States, by bombing Haiphong, had started something which the North Vietnamese army would probably finish. Getting this likelihood across to young Americans before they themselves were drawn into the mud and flames would require all those whose job was to tell the truth to tell it in an arresting manner. There was no use pretending that the story would be a million laughs. Finally what counted was to be serious, a different thing from sentimentality. The Strauss waltzes that had been played in the concentration camps were not only a glaring instance of inappropriate gaiety, they were noxious in themselves. Der Leichtsinn was dangerous. Like the official language meant to conceal evil, it really embodied it. Flummery was lethal. Thank you and good night.

Abramovitz understood Tomalin’s speech and I could tell from the appreciative laughter that there were some American graduate students in the audience who got it too. For the student politicians it might as well have been a lecture on quantum theory. Why the Oxford and Cambridge Unions should attract recruits of such fatuity is a question that I have never been able to answer. Then as now, they bounced to their feet to make foolish interruptions, gave way, refused to give way, were ruled out of order, and begged the indulgence of the house. Peregrine Sourbutts-Protheroe was there, as usual wearing plimsolls with his evening dress. You could tell he was wearing plimsolls because he was sitting backwards with his legs over the back of a bench. There was a character calling himself Abelard Lakenheath-Bagpuize who shouted at random while eating a raw egg out of his bare hands. It was a madhouse. The libretto was by Tristan Tzara, the choreography by Hieronymus Bosch. When my turn came to speak I let anger rob me of whatever mirth I might have been able to summon. No doubt I deserved to be interrupted by Sourbutts-Protheroe but I refused to give way to him. Nevertheless he unleashed a stream of rip-snorting jokes about the Antipodes, kangaroos, aborigines, and the necessity of walking around upside down in the outback. The audience thought he was hilarious. Even Abramovitz, who was no fool, had been so caught up in the Union’s idea of badinage that he felt compelled to laugh. You could tell he felt compelled to laugh because he shook his shoulders in a way currently made famous by Edward Heath. Real laughter never looks like that. I was desolate. Tomalin, sensibly, had gone to sleep. Hours afterwards, when the thing was finally over — there were more student speeches to end with that made the opening ones sound like Plato’s Symposium — Tomalin took me aside before he climbed into his car to go back to London. ‘I liked that thing you wrote about the floods,’ he said, looking past me. ‘You could do some pieces for me if you’ve got the time.’ With an effortful affectation of off-handedness, I told him that I was busy until May Week but after that I would have some time in hand. Later on I learned he always looked past people. He had a stiff neck. Luckily for me it was only real, and not metaphorical.

My piece about the floods had counted in my own mind as serious writing. It was encouraging to hear that a professional literary journalist concurred in the opinion. Suddenly all my other work in student journalism counted, in my own mind, as serious writing too. I was a serious writer. Whoopee! This was something to set against the nagging fact that I was not doing much serious writing on my thesis. The further fact that I was not doing much serious reading for it either was harder to gainsay. Somehow, along with everything else, I had managed to read a lot, but as usual none of it was immediately relevant to the task in hand. Not having yet accepted that my whole life would be like that, I convicted myself of dereliction. Guilt drove me between the pages of a book — always, since my earliest childhood, my favourite place to hide. In English I read anything at all unless it stemmed from the early part of the nineteenth century, in which case it might have been germane to my subject and thus felt like work. For the only time in my adult life, I became incapable of reading Keats. On the other hand, I could not put Yeats down. The majestic later poems committed themselves to my memory. Where previously I had admired but kept my distance, now I submitted. The long process of growing old enough to appreciate his late achievement was well begun. I tried not to become a Yeats bore. The indomitable Irishry remained an opaque sphere of interest, like the mysticism. But then, as indeed now, I could imagine nothing better than the way Yeats conducted a prose argument through a poetic stanza, compressing syntax as if it were imagery, dislocating rhythm locally so as to intensify it in the aggregate, raising plain statement to the level of the oracular. In my dusty room with the cardboard suitcase open on the curried floor, he was my luxury.

There was now the additional pleasure of being able to read with fair fluency in Italian. I reinforced this nascent ability by raiding the Modern Languages Faculty library, which occupied a floor of the unlovely Sidgwick Avenue site and had a room for each language. I found it hard to keep out of the other rooms as well. The sight of books in languages I couldn’t read was a potent stimulus to set about repairing the deficiency. The means of repairing it were near to hand, in an air-conditioned basement under the site. The Language Laboratory looked like the NASA Mission Control Centre in Houston, although — since the space missions had not then yet attained their full glory and coverage — I have always thought of the mission control rooms, whether in Houston or Kaliningrad, as looking like the Sidgwick Avenue language laboratory. The bulky tape decks and discus-sized reels of 1/4-inch tape would have looked, to any child of the cassette age who came back from the future, as if they were props from a silent movie about a training camp for mad scientists, but they worked. Picking my way through Proust was a slow way of Improving my ability to read French. Studying French in the language laboratory was a faster way. The intention of the course was to teach the student to speak. Leaving that aside until later — decades later, as It turned out — I cashed in on the unintended effect of a language laboratory course, which was to teach the student to read. It was a painless way of absorbing grammar. Over the next year or two I used the laboratory to recapture and improve my primitive German. I also made a good start with Russian. If there had been a Latin course available I would have devoured it. As it was, I picked up a useful if scrappy knowledge of the Latin classics by using parallel texts as portable dictionaries, until finally I could get quite a long way by covering up the page in English and construing the page in Latin from context. But I missed hearing the voices. If Cicero had been on tape I would have memorised the speeches against Catiline and got my quantities right. For me, the language laboratory was the brightly-lit basement shopping mall of the Tower of Babel. I couldn’t stay out of it. It was a roundabout and belated way of getting an education. Perhaps it wasn’t an education at all. People who knew what I was up to thought I was nuts. They might have been right. There was something pathological about my evasiveness. I hid from my thesis in the pages of books, hid from my native language in a sub-world of smatterings, and hid from myself in the theatre — the place where those who know themselves just well enough to want to get away go to be together.