Books: May Week was in June — The Kid’s Last Fight |
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May Week was in June — The Kid’s Last Fight


May week was not only in June, it was two weeks long. Did I remember to say that? In the second week Françoise and I got married. My sole but sensational contribution to the organising of the event was to schedule the reception so that it took place before the ceremony. In the garden of New Hall’s Storey’s Way annexe the Footlights gathered, along with all the editors and leading contributors from the university magazines I had burdened with my contributions. Françoise’s friends, some of them from Italy, looked on with apprehension as the theatricals and the literati tanked up on white wine. It was a bright day and the heat helped. Just in time, the whole party headed off down Castle Hill towards the register office. Françoise and I were in the lead, she looking stunning in a white silk two-piece ensemble, I looking stunned in a grey Carnaby Street suit which had already started to fall apart. Stomping along at the rear came a jazz band featuring Atkin, Sizer, Buckman and Davies. They had played better in their lives, but not when as drunk as that. When the registrar recited my full name there was spluttering in the congregation. Clive Vivian Leopold James wasn’t feeling very solemn either. Or perhaps he was, and was covering up. It would have been characteristic. I always was the kind of Bohemian who had to work hard to keep the bourgeois within himself from breaking out. For how but in custom and in ceremony/ Are innocence and beauty born? I wasn’t innocent and I wasn’t beautiful, but she was both. I swayed while she stood still. Then we all went up the hill again to continue the party. The lawn was so crowded that the jazz hand had to stand in the flower-bed. Strad Blantyre had flown in, on the way through to Germany for one last grand tour before he left for Africa. He had news of Marenko. After long thought, Marenko had burned his draft card. This should have given me pause, but there was no pause to be had. Delmer Dynamo arrived. His tour of Britain had ended in Scotland, when the Bentley got stuck on a narrow stone bridge high over a little river. ‘I was actually in a phone booth calling the AA,’ shouted Delmer happily, ‘when I saw the motherfucker start to roll. She swerved off the end of the bridge, she nosed through this ridiculous little wall, she bounced down into the river and she ended up on her back in about three inches of water. I sold her to the guy who owned the pub for a hundred quid and came down by train. Let ‘em have it. You can blow it out your ass.’

As happens with all empires, the moment of fruition marked the beginning of decline. My academic career was to linger for another six months before I packed it in, but effectively it was all over. My time at the university was almost up. Later that year I directed the Footlights for the Edinburgh Fringe and had the biggest success I was ever to experience in the theatre. If the show had come to London it would have run for a year and my life might have taken a different course. Equity wouldn’t let the show transfer. At the time I thought it was a personal tragedy on a Sophoclean scale. I fought a long delaying action in a doomed attempt to regain the lost momentum. Probably it would have made no difference in the long run. Theatre didn’t really suit me. It didn’t occur to me that this was because the audience was too small. I thought it was because the audience was too large. My picture of myself was as a lonely writer. On a trip to London I met Ian Hamilton at a pub called The Pillars of Hercules in Soho. He had asked me, by post, to write for his influential little magazine The Review. I was already working on my first article, a long piece about E. E. Cummings. Other poets and critics from whom Hamilton had commissioned or was about to commission articles dropped into the pub on the strict understanding that they were staying for only one drink or perhaps two. Ten rounds later they were all still there. Almost instantly I felt about Soho the way I had once felt about Cambridge. Over the umpteenth combination of a pint of bitter with a straight scotch for a chaser, I explained to Hamilton that I had reached another decisive point in my life. ‘You’re a very complicated character,’ Hamilton observed sardonically. I wasn’t, but I resolved to become one as soon as possible. Literary London! I could already see myself in that setting: shy, self-effacing, trembling on the edge, but there. The metropolitan critic.

That story, if I tell it at all, belongs in another book, which will have to be a collection of fragments. It might be a more reliable account than the one I have written up to now, but of necessity it will be less complete. My unreliable memoirs, in which I have tried to tell the full story even if only in edited form, must now come to an end. I could give up my own privacy as I chose. Where other people are concerned there is no choice. Nor should there be. Beyond the point when it ceased to be my own, my life gets harder to write about, and not just because I must tread carefully. There is so much more to say. In a multiplicity of nuance, only fiction can catch the essence. To rearrange the facts is no longer enough. A young man on the make is a comparatively simple mechanism.

Let us take a last look at him, in Cambridge, in that lovely late spring of 1968. The poetry magazine Carcanet has brought out a special issue with a lot of his poetry in it and not much of anybody else’s, which is not necessarily the way he likes things, but if that’s the way they feel, well, let them be happy. A finely burnished piece called ‘Cambridge Diary’ has just appeared in the New Statesman. In the Arts Theatre, actors are saying his words. His songs are being sung. He has married a don. He is on top of his little world. Against a willow tree across the river from the Wren Library, he sits writing in his journal. He has just told it that he is reasonably satisfied. The insistent suspicion that he has not yet begun, and has nothing to show, is too frightening to record. For someone who has good reason to believe that he doesn’t exist apart from what he does, to doubt that he has done anything worthwhile is to gaze into the abyss. On the surface of the water, a midge vanishes into a hungry ripple. I’m not ready yet. He wonders why, at his age and having come so far, he still feels that. The culmination of his luck is that he doesn’t yet realise he will never feel any other way.