Books: May Week was in June — With a Human Face |
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May Week was in June — With a Human Face


Winter wore on and the very idea of my PhD thesis slipped further back into the past. Spring was in the air again but my heart was heavy with undeclared anguish. Fooled by an early mild spell, the crocuses came up along the barbered edges of the backs, were duly filled with snow, survived for a few hours like candy baskets of sorbet, and so died. Reality had intruded. A similar crisis was being played out in my soul. My nagging conscience was partly stilled by Stakhanovite devotion to whatever work I was doing instead of the work I was being given a grant for. Everything the New Statesman asked me to do, I did, even if it was beyond me. In Prague, Dubcek’s life was on the line. Now was the time to come to the aid of Socialism with a Human Face. Socialism with an inhuman face had already impressed me as the salient moral fact of the twentieth century, a disaster outstripping even Nazism, which has at least worn its true colours on its sleeve. Weighed down by the evidence of history, my erstwhile radicalism had modulated into a version of social democracy which, while still hospitable to the idea of universal popular enfranchisement, was concerned about the milk being delivered on time to the doorstep. In short, I was no longer a revolutionary. No doubt the Zeitgeist would have been relieved to hear this news. I did my best to let it know. Nicholas Tomalin sent me books to review that were hard to make relevant to the temper of the times. I developed a technique for turning any subject into an occasion for an anti-totalitarian essay. I tried to write as if George Orwell were looking over my shoulder. When Eric Bentley’s excellent short biography of George Bernard Shaw was reissued, I identified, surely correctly, Shaw’s failure of imagination with regard to Stalin as clear evidence that the creative mentality should guard itself against its own inevitable pretensions to omniscience, Less correctly, and ignoring my own homily, I signed off by lamenting that Bentley, presumably through ignorance, had paid so little attention to Shaw’s music criticism — a body of work with which, I made it plain, I was intimately familiar. When the piece appeared in the magazine it struck as having the effortless auctoritas of holy writ. This mood was punctured when the New Statesman forwarded me another book by Eric Bentley, sent, not for review but for my information, by Bentley himself. It was a reprint of Shaw on Music, edited, with a long introduction, by Eric Bentley. He could have humiliated me much more thoroughly by writing a letter of protest to the magazine. Thankful that he had taken such a generous course, I resolved never to fudge again. The intellectual community is self-policing. Nobody who tries to pull a fast one will get away with it for long. Also the memory plays such cruel tricks that you will make enough embarrassing mistakes just writing about what you are sure of.

Shamed into flight by the unremitting uproar of Romaine Rand’s supercharged typewriter, I had left the Friar’s House and gone into exile in digs across the river. My new nest was a front room with a bow window on Alpha Road. The light bulb had a shade. There were shelves for some of my books.I was half way to respectability already. New Hall was only a few hundred yards up the hill. Françoise lived there in a set of rooms whose austere white walls and plain wooden appointments did not preclude an air of luxury verging on decadence. There was so much shelving that even after all her books had been installed there was room for the rest of mine. I also installed my ashtray: a hubcap off a Bedford van, it could hold the stubs of eighty cigarettes, so I only had to empty it once a day. Life was beginning to seem settled, apart from the nagging disjunction between my nominal role and my actual practice. Even the saintly Professor Hough was showing disturbing signs of having at last remembered that I was supposed to be writing a thesis. I promised to show him the finished article soon. It was easier than telling him I hadn’t started. The only finished articles I was turning out were for The Cambridge Review and the New Statesman. Then The Times Literary Supplement — in the person of its assistant literary editor, Ian Hamilton — asked me to review some poetry books. Contributions to the TLS were still anonymous in those days. This policy didn’t suit my lust for glory but it had the merit of not tipping off the dons that my whole attention had turned towards London. It would have been a false conclusion anyway. The university remained, in my mind and feelings, the one place where I could be everything I wanted to be all at once. To a certain extent I feel that even today. Certain kinds of people belong only in universities. Later on they make more or less, usually less, successful attempts to convert the rest of their lives into yet another university. Although nowadays I have to get up early in the morning, on the whole I have been lucky enough to arrange my working life along university lines. Mentally I am still in statu pupillari, still pursuing extracurricular activities, still torn between all the attractions of the stalls at the Societies’ Fair.

The difference is that nowadays I am not so worried about living out an anomaly: let the public judge. In the spring of 1968 I was less confident, and, being that, more strident. If Cambridge thought of itself as the centre of the world, I was determined to take it at its own estimation. With the universities in turmoil throughout the free world, the Cambridge undergraduates regarded their own activities as being of planetary importance. Apart from Delmer Dynamo, who was engaged in an extensive tour of Britain at the wheel of the Bentley which he had at last coaxed out of the car-park, most of my Americans were gone. It didn’t need the débâcle of Tet to tell them that the war in Vietnam was a national catastrophe. They had a real moral decision to make. Some of them went into the Peace Corps to do good in Africa, some into the American universities to avoid the draft, some into battle against Mayor Daley’s police, some into a long, cold exile. As fast as they left Cambridge, however, more Americans arrived: a new, more vocal bunch who preached direct action. Rome university closed in March. Danny Cohn-Bendit became famous at Nanterre. The new Cambridge Americans wanted to be noticed too. King’s College, with a typically canny diplomatic stroke, provided facilities for a Free University. Essentially the facilities were a large room with unlimited supplies of instant coffee, but they were sufficient to supply what the student revolution really wanted — the opportunity for a perpetual meeting. Elsewhere, the world shook. LBJ called it quits on a new term. Bobby Kennedy ran for President and died in the attempt. Martin Luther King was murdered. In the Free University at King’s, the rhetoric reached a pitch of ecstasy. A list of Demands was drawn up. A Demand for the complete restructuring of Western civilisation was high on the list. Imported simulacra of Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin called for an assault on the university’s property, whereupon, it was promised, the repressive nature of the institution would reveal itself. Called upon to speak by a chairman who was later universally upbraided for truckling to bourgeois elements, I argued against the notion of making demands that could not be met, and thereby provoking a confrontation. There were legitimate demands that could be met. The whole apparatus of in loco parentis, for example, could be dismantled, with no loss of jobs among the townspeople employed in the colleges and a clear gain in freedom for the undergraduates. This part of my address was listened to in a silence which I construed to be respectful, but when I got to the point of casting doubts on the efficacy, or even die feasibility, of direct action there were snorts of derision from the radical young academics standing at the back, which were soon accompanied by pitying smiles from the undergraduates sitting at the front. I argued against the proposed defacement of King’s College Chapel, on the grounds that it would dramatise nothing except propensities towards vandalism; that it would alienate the proletariat, who, if they didn’t care for great architecture, cared for militant undergraduates still less and that there were students in Prague ready to die for the freedoms which in Cambridge were being condemned as illusory.

I was more proud of this impromptu speech than the occasion warranted, because it changed nothing. Speeches rarely do. What changed things in Cambridge was the demonstration outside the Garden House Hotel, staged for a reason now lost in history. Either the hotel had been too hospitable to some representative of the US government, or it had not been hospitable enough to Rudi Dutschke, or perhaps both. Anyway, the students besieged the place. During the siege, a few of them picked up stones and threw them at the windows. All the rest suddenly realised that they liked the talking and shouting part of the revolution but didn’t like the part where things got broken and people got hurt. The student revolution in general, not just in Cambridge but in Britain as a whole, was over as from that moment. Effectively the same thing happened in Paris, where, although many more and much bigger stones were thrown, the rhythm of events was dictated by the clubs of the CRS, which descended with a precisely calculated force so as to induce headaches that felt like death but were not it. May of 1968 was theatre. I was glad to be in the cast, if only in a bit part, but like almost everyone else involved I had no intention of relying for long on the unrestrained instincts of my fellow man. The perpetual meeting of the Free University should have proved conclusively to all those in regular attendance that they didn’t even know how to conduct a meeting, let alone run a society. In Cambridge the real May, as always, was in June. Well before exam time, indeed well before the time for final revision, the Free University had dissolved, leaving nothing but a rump of misfits who had declared their intention of existing on a single bowl of rice a day so as to dramatise their solidarity with the great, continuing social experiment of the Chinese People’s Republic. China was their dreamland. Critical, with some justification, of institutionalised power in the democracies, they managed to believe, because they wanted to, that the centralised, perpetuated and unlimited power of a totalitarian nation was somehow more open to argument, more compassionate, more democratic. Impatient for the millennium but oddly prepared to remain stationary until it arrived, they sat on crossed legs and regaled each other with the prospect of what Cambridge would be like when Mao’s vision finally prevailed. Whether King’s supplied them with their daily bowl of rice I can’t be sure, because by then I had gone too, back to Footlights with a new faith in the validity of the purely frivolous. The impurely frivolous had been on display for a month, and I hadn’t liked its inhuman face. The undergraduates could be forgiven their ideals. Experience and knowledge are required before one can accept that an ideal can be murderous, and perhaps they should not come too early. The young dons who had urged the students on, however, were in a different case. Preaching cold-eyed against Repressive Tolerance, safe in their own jobs while urging their pupils to opt out, they were hypocrites and pleased about it: with the taste of cynicism in their tight-lipped mouths they reminded themselves of Lenin, a name they often invoked. Still working out where I stood, I knew where I didn’t stand — with men like them. Not just as a displacement activity, but in a kind of wordless affirmation, I directed, for the last Footlights smoker of the year, a sketch baldly entitled ‘Slow Motion Wrestling’. Russell Davies was the referee. Robert Buckman, who was very agile, and Alan Sizer, who was large and very strong, very slowly wrestled each other. Russell Davies very slowly tried to stop them cheating. The whole thing happened very slowly indeed. At one point Sizer very slowly punched Buckman in the stomach while equally slowly lifting him bodily into the air with his other hand. Buckman was airborne for an age, mouthing his agony with agonising slowness, while Davies moved like a glacier to intervene. The audience rioted. I felt cleansed. This was worthwhile. Sartre hailing the Chinese Cultural Revolution as an act of liberation: that was a waste of time.

A far bigger success than Supernatural Gas, the May Week revue that year was directed by Kerry Crabbe, who generously included ‘Slow Motion Wrestling’ unmodified as the second-half pre-closer. The audience rioted again. I had other material in the show, including several songs written with Atkin and sung by Maggie and Julie, but ‘Slow Motion Wrestling’ was my apotheosis in the Footlights, Though all three participants in the sketch contributed to its inventiveness, I was its editor. I took out what didn’t work and packed the rest up tight. For hours we shaped the piece until nothing was superfluous and everything flowed. It was a piece of sculpture extended into time, an elastic Laocoön, a brawl by Balanchine. Nothing could justify so much effort and that was its justification. Some of the upcoming Footlights disapproved of us who were now the ancien régime. David Hare, a brilliant talent with a capacity for organisation almost unheard-of among undergraduates, had a look on his handsome face that plainly suggested one or two of us, and especially one of us, had been around too long. He had a case. From the viewpoint of a politically committed young dramatist with big plans for a new British theatre of Brechtian social analysis, there was something irredeemably insignificant about Footlights. But when I stood at the back of the Arts Theatre and watched hundreds of ordinary members of the public rocking with laughter at the antics of my three inspired clowns, I couldn’t persuade myself that such a moment of communal joy was reprehensible, even if it was socially irrelevant. No society worth living in is without the irrelevant.

I wasn’t at the back door of the Arts Theatre every night. Only every second night. Twice with Buffery and once as a solo act I went through the gruelling experience of a May Ball cabaret. There was applause to be garnered but you had not to mind that it was mixed with the popping of champagne corks, the braying of imported Hooray Henriettas, and the splintering sound of furniture being reduced to toothpicks by a scrum of Hearties. The Pembroke May Ball was the occasion of my solo appearance. Somewhere at the back, the Hearties were duelling with empty bottles of Bollinger. Broken glass fell like rain. On the river that year, Pembroke won the Bumps, or the Lumps, or whatever it was called. The runners-up consoled themselves by burning their boat and throwing the college cat on the fire. David Hare and his admirers would have plenty to react against. They would never forgive themselves for having been at Cambridge. I, on the other hand, had always known that I was just passing through. I took the place for what it had to give, gave back what I had in me, and kept the soul-searching to a minimum, protected by a natural capacity for putting off the moment of reckoning. Everything was a prelude.