Books: May Week was in June — The Dear Old College |
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May Week was in June — The Dear Old College


College life had its attractions. Had I been a few years younger, I might have fallen for them headlong. For undergraduates coming up from public schools, the colleges were no doubt too familiar in their accoutrements to be especially impressive. By public schools, of course, I mean private schools. A boy from Eton might have found even King’s or Trinity the same old thing on an only slightly larger scale: the same turrets, crenellations, lodges, fenestrations, cloisters, clerestories, porticos and porters. Those freshmen who came from State schools, however, now met with a concentration of custom and ceremony which had the wherewithal to overwhelm them. It didn’t have to hurry. It had all the time in the world. Since I was still a radical socialist, I had no trouble analysing how the system worked. The idea was to tame the intelligent upstart by getting him addicted to privilege. The beautiful architecture had a political function. In Paris, Haussmann’s great boulevards were only incidentally grandiloquent: their real purpose was to provide the widest field of fire for the artillery and the quickest access for the cavalry to anywhere the workers might stage a rebellion. In Cambridge, the lovely façades, the sweeping lawns, the intricate crannies opening on distant vistas, were meant not just to lull but to disarm: nobody who had once lived in these emollient surroundings would ever again feel sufficiently alienated from society to be anything more troublesome than a reformist. Gradualism was implicit in every carefully repainted coat of arms and battered refectory table. To remain a revolutionary in such a context you would have had to have treason in the blood, like Kim Philby. Such, at any rate, was the theory, or what I took the theory to be. My college, as I tried my best not to call it, was hardly prodigal with the creature comforts but it knew how to make life convenient. To get my laundry done, all I had to do was put it in a box and leave the box at the head of the staircase. In the course of time, a box of fresh laundry would magically appear in the same place. There are men in British public life to whom this has gone on happening into old age. They are under the impression that their laundry is taken care of by a force of nature. Such coveted hidey-holes for gentlefolk as the Albany in Piccadilly aren’t selling the luxury of the Savoy: they are selling the invisible services of the dear old college. The oak-panelled walls are there to remind the inhabitants of school and university. The laundry box is there to reassure them that there is still a linen room somewhere which they will die without ever having to visit.

All this I could anatomise with the piercing insight of Marx and Engels. But I put my laundry into the box just the same. It was too handy to pass up. Similarly the bedder was an institution which could not be defended but was impossible to forego. The bedder was a woman who made your bed. Many of us were ashamed that a woman who might otherwise have been employed doing useful work for society, not to mention fulfilling herself spiritually, was earning a pittance by squaring up our crapulous sheets and blankets. Not many of us ever met her, however. I met mine just once, and just long enough to learn that she valued the work without necessarily valuing me, whose standards of hygiene she found questionable. ‘I have to speak frankly, Mr James,’ she quacked unprompted. ‘Frankly, the best thing to be said for you is that Mr Abramovitz is even worse, frankly.’ Her name was Mrs Blades and she looked tough enough to need no defending. So I decided to put off the moment of going to the barricades on her behalf. Very soon I left my bed unmade without giving it a thought, and came back in the afternoon to find it made without giving that a thought either. After all, the same thing had happened at home for the first eighteen years of my life.

Similarly, my initial impressions of the food served in Hall were soon modified. At first I had thought the food was terrible and that I would never be able to eat it. After a few weeks I had come round to the opinion that the food was terrible but that I could eat it. Here again, the arrangements were just too convenient to pass up. Breakfast was there for the taking. I rarely took it. Usually I got up just in time for lunch. It didn’t taste of anything, but that could have been the fault of my mouth, fur-lined after a heavy evening. For dinner, you had your choice of first or second sitting, as on board ship. The advantage of the first sitting was that the High Table was empty. At the second sitting, if you looked up from your plate of burnt offerings and denatured vegetable matter, you were faced with the spectacle of the dons Dining in Fellowship off a haunch of venison while they circulated the claret with the speed of happy children playing pass-the-parcel. On the other hand the second sitting enabled you to linger over an extra half pint of acceptable bitter before gravitating to the graduates’ parlour for a noggin of port or three. Either way, I could get from my rooms to dinner simply by dragging on a gown and falling downstairs. Falling off a log would have been harder, and I wouldn’t have got fed.

This cosy, effortless taking-on of sustenance had an irresistible appeal, especially considering that I was under no compulsion to fraternise with my fellow undergraduates beyond rubbing gowned elbows with them at the long low table. I entered the Junior Common Room only, if ever, to read the newspapers. My in-college hangout was the graduates’ parlour, where one could sign for one’s drinks and comport oneself almost as a don. Another Australian affiliate, Brian C. Adams, overdid this to the point of not even hanging up his gown. He stood around pontifically in full drag, his accent, during the course of one term, losing all trace of antipodean colouring, and acquiring, during the course of a second term, an affinity with that of Princess Margaret. ‘Eigh-ow,’ he would neigh, ‘rarely?’ He meant ‘Oh really?’ but the expression emerged like a chicken which had been strangled in a letter box and then pushed out through the slit. Not that Adams was stupid. He was merely quicker than most to go native. He was arrogant, but at least he was honest. Reading English like me, he was after first class honours, and said so. His unprompted disquisitions on critical theory made me wonder if I would be able to get a third even if I worked. He had already read everything, and was now reading it again. He talked learnedly about the Spirit of the College, I suppose with some justification, because he never left its front gate except to attend lectures in Sidgwick Avenue, visit the University Library, or sit at the feet of F. R. Leavis in Downing. In Pembroke, the Gray Society was a literary organisation which met monthly to hear a paper. Brian C. Adams became secretary of the Gray Society before I had even heard that it existed. In Australia, while still an undergraduate, he had published a slim but substantial critical work, Johnson’s Boswell: the Man-made Self. Two copies of this booklet promptly appeared in Pembroke College Library, with the signature of Brian C. Adams on the donor’s bookplate. Brian C. Adams was a College Man.

If, however, you had gagged him, stripped the gown off him, and viewed him from a suitable distance, Brian C. Adams might just conceivably have been mistaken for an ordinary human being. The true embodiment of the College Spirit was Delmer Dynamo. Though his satirical verbal assaults on the college food and facilities never ceased, it was clear that Delmer had found his promised land. His tailoring becoming more gentlemanly by the week, he would manoeuvre his low-slung posterior into position against the open fire of the graduates’ parlour, part the rear wings of his Savile Row tweed jacket, and toast himself like a marshmallow while lovingly discussing the Dean’s proclivities, real and imagined. ‘The question isn’t how he gets his rocks in,’ Delmer would announce loudly. The question is how he gets his rocks off.’ Delmer called the graduates’ parlour the grad pad, a designation which eventually all its habitués, even the English, took up. There could be no doubt that the grad pad’s cosiest amenity was Delmer himself. He was in there like the furniture. Similarly he was as prominent in Hall as Spenser’s portrait or Pitt’s bust. Every graduate was invited once a year to dine at High Table. Delmer wangled it three times in his first term. Dining on offal down in the pit, we would look up at him while he sat there being waited on. He would be attacking the venison while the stringy beef was attacking us. At assimilating himself to the English establishment, Delmer Dynamo left Disraeli looking like Guy Fawkes. It was because he was so interested. He knew all the college gossip. Few dons could resist the way he talked about their colleagues. The college was a microcosm which he took at its own estimation, as a macrocosm. Not even the Dean could do without Delmer, who had mugged up the whole history of Pembroke’s most precious architectural possession, the Wren chapel. ‘Sometimes I can’t believe that boy’s Jewish,’ the Dean was heard to say. ‘He really does know an awful lot about stained glass.’ The Dean would invite Delmer to sherry and show him geological treasures kept in thin glass-topped drawers in locked cabinets: slivers of silver, chips of chalcedony, amulets of anthracite, lollipops of lapis lazuli. Delmer feigned interest far into the night, plugging his yawns with a fat Havana cigar. The Dean liked Delmer’s cigars, of which Delmer’s father, once a term, sent him a dove-tailed box the size of a small suitcase.

The Master and his wife asked Delmer to dinner in the Lodge, where Delmer, maddened by the Madeira, announced his intention of willing his personal library to the college. He was lucky that the Master laughed the offer off. Delmer’s book-buying already represented a large, if indiscriminate, investment. In receipt of all the rare book catalogues, he chose from them almost at random, and within a seemingly unlimited budget. If he purchased a set of, say, Maria Edgeworth better than the one he already had, he gave the old one to the college library, where the bookplate marked ‘From the collection of Delmer Dynamo’ was soon familiar. Delmer’s declared aim was to rival the learning, taste and munificence of the legendary Aubrey Attwater, who, at the turn of the century, had been the college humanist par excellence, a byword for fine wine, fine bindings and fine manners. Delmer founded the Aubrey Attwater society, electing himself both president and secretary. When it turned out that he was also the entire membership, he prorogued the next meeting sine die, but without giving up on his ambition to emulate Attwater’s luxurious indolence. For Delmer, college was more than a context. It was a niche, a cradle. It was an egg-cup.

I saw the point but wanted something else. Perhaps my brain just wasn’t subtle enough for me to sit around until all hours amidst the softly lit oak panelling while discussing why Selwyn was an obscure college, Sidney Sussex was more obscure, and Fitzwilliam was even more obscure than either. In my view, the differences between colleges were impossible to detect. I had, and still have today, enough trouble telling the difference between Cambridge and Oxford, too many of whose products flatter themselves that they have been stamped by the one with some indelible hallmark which informs the discerning that they did not go to the other. No doubt Pembroke had enjoyed more than its fair share of poetic talent — as well as the aforesaid Spenser and Gray, Christopher Smart and Ted Hughes had both been there — but the fund of creativity wouldn’t be added to by feeling smug about it while warming one’s behind at the fireplace of the grad pad. Without feeling disloyal to my college, I felt under no compulsion to make it my sole stamping ground. A wider stage beckoned: fairly begged, in fact, to be occupied.

Like Oxford, Cambridge was, as it still is, an aggregate of colleges. The university as a whole existed only in two ways: one, as a means to examine the undergraduates, and two, as a display case for their extracurricular activities. Into these latter I purposefully entered. Actually, I did not have much of a plan, but since I was four or five years older than most of my fellow undergraduates — a big gap at that age — I was, although unusually immature, a bit less unsure of myself than they were, and in my principal activity, writing, I had the immense advantage of having been at it a while longer. Cambridge was full of aspiring writers. To publish their works, there was a whole range of periodicals: the weekly newspaper Varsity and the irregularly appearing but dauntingly historic Granta were only the two most prominent. There were Poetry Magazines with names like Pawn, Solstice, Inverse, and — a token of seriousness, this — Poetry Magazine. There was a stapled, cyclostyled weekly called Broadsheet which reviewed everything: the penniless prototype of the listings magazines which ten years later were to strike it rich. The Cambridge Review, for which William Empson had once written and in whose letter columns the Leavisites would still occasionally immolate a colleague, was put out by graduates, but otherwise the whole immense publishing effort was produced by a few young men, and fewer young women, all in statu pupillari. They were in constant search of publishable material. They were about to meet the right man. They had the demand and I had the supply. In prose even more than in verse, I was still trying to bring my style under control, but in comparison to all the other hungry young geniuses I had the odd scrap of solid information to offer along with the strained metaphors and the overloaded syntax. When I reviewed a film, for example, I could quite often refer to other films by the same director. All those tickets to the National Film Theatre, paid for by my dear lost love Lilith Talbot, were now to have their effect. The great age of the undergraduate film buff had not yet arrived. Nowadays every university in the country boasts a dozen young aspiring film critics who know everything about their subject, even if, because they have seen so many films so fast, they know nothing about anything else. In my day, such a range of reference was less common. I was a harbinger. For Varsity, reviewing Muriel, I launched into a survey of Resnais’s entire oeuvre, including the rarely seen Nuit et Brouillard. For Broadsheet, reviewing Cuba Si!, I questioned whether Chris Marker in a state of certainty could ever be as interesting as he was in Letter from Siberia, when he was in a state of doubt. Other undergraduate would-be cultural journalists might have been cleverer than I was — as I was later to discover, several of them were — but they hadn’t been alive long enough to have that kind of scope. Beyond that, I had the virtue of my chief drawback. My childish imagination was still vivid with the gaudy bric-a-brac which had helped to form it. I wrote about Tarzan and Jane as if they were still real to me. They were, so I sounded convinced, and to sound convinced is the first and longest step towards sounding convincing. My prose pieces gave the effect, strained for though it might be, of a sort of panoptic pop. For the undergraduate editors, always too short of publishable contributions, I was a gift horse who ran off at the mouth.

Soon I was appearing in every publication. The Poetry Magazines I supplied from the dog-eared back catalogue of finished masterpieces that lined my cardboard suitcase. Here again, there were other undergraduate aspirants more talented. But they were in the first phase of their development and I was in the second of mine. I had got to the point where I would keep working on a poem until it sounded, to my ears at least, like a finished product, not just a promise. It hardly needs saying that my judgment was often faulty: no amount of finishing touches will compensate for a bad design. Much of what I then published seemed to me so immature in retrospect — and retrospect began only a few years later — that at one recent stage I seriously planned to buy up all surviving copies of the relevant magazines and burn them. But at the time it must have seemed, and not just to me, that my work had an authority lacking in the average undergraduate’s contribution. It would have been surprising if this had not been so. The poets and editors — all the editors were poets and most of the poets were editors — were admirably poised in their reserved demeanour but they were terribly young. They wore tweeds and corduroys. One of them smoked a pipe and ate seed cake with his sweet tea. Another hid his acne with his hand. The occasional poet-editor was a classless arriviste, called something like Steve Bumption, who wore a white leather jacket and talked about Graphics, but at that point trendiness had barely impinged. ‘Graphics,’ he would say, ‘is where it’s all happening.’ But he was saying it into a void. It was all happening in Carnaby Street, not in Cambridge. Mostly the young people who ran the university literary scene looked and sounded as if they belonged in a wartime BBC radio studio along with C. Day Lewis and Louis MacNeice. They crouched beside the gas fire in their rooms pasting up the layout of the next issue on the threadbare carpet while they drank Nescafé from chipped mugs. Doubtless they had ambitions of their own but this failed to occur to me when I burst in and brow-beat them into running a two-page layout of what I cheerfully assured them was my best stuff.

Since I never took ‘no’ for an answer, their only way to reject my work was to accept it and then try to forget it. I wouldn’t let them forget it. Even in that first year, about two-thirds of everything I submitted got published, which, since I submitted a lot, was a lot. My self-assurance must have been a bit tough on the nerves of some of the young poets who had been around for two years already and might have hoped to shine unrivalled during their third year. None of them sought to make me aware of this, or even, in my hearing at any rate, objected to a colonial taking over. There might, of course, have been the odd snide comment I missed. There probably wasn’t much I didn’t miss, come to think of it. I had never been much of a one for the hidden message. Nor did it occur to me that a lack of editorial resistance might not necessarily be a good thing. What I really needed was discouragement.

Fate decreed that in the theatrical field, if in no other, I would soon get what was coming to me. At the second Footlights smoker in the first term I was on stage in half a dozen different sketches. The Footlights club room, while it had a curtained stage, had no deep wings or any other means of concealment while you waited your turn to go on. Under the windows on the Falcon Yard side of the clubroom there was a wooden bench where you had to wait. It was de rigueur to look up at the stage and pretend to enjoy the act preceding yours. As I write, I can feel the curve of that wooden bench under my buttocks: it grew so familiar. Like the oiled stench coming up through the floor from MacFisheries below, and the thump of the dancing feet coming down from the Yacht Club through the ceiling above, the pinch of the bench evoked a cocktail of fear and triumph. You couldn’t have the triumph without feeling the fear first. Thus the basic structure of any theatrical experience was laid out cold. Without having in any way begun to refine my sketches — it still hadn’t crossed my mind that they would have to be constructed at least as carefully as poems — I went out to the little stage often enough to make an impact. Also I had an angle. My stuff was literary. With the aid of an unsuspecting Canadian who played Alice B. Toklas, I performed a sketch I had written about Gertrude Stein. Nobody really understood it — I’m sure of that because I didn’t either — but at least the number had a tone of its own. At that time, the Footlights was going through one of its recurring periods of looking for a new style. A few years before, Cambridge Circus, essentially a Footlights May Week revue with a bigger budget, had conquered London and eventually the world. The Footlights, which had recovered from the success of supplying half the cast of Beyond the Fringe, was once again plunged into the necessity of not repeating itself. In London, the satire boom was already commercialised to the point where joining it would have looked slavish. The challenge, as always, was to find your own voice, and the problem, as always, was to find out where that had been mislaid. The club was full of precociously accomplished young performers but as yet they had little to say. I had a lot to say, even if I was not accomplished. This put me in the dangerous position of playing uncle: my worst role. Like most people who organise their lives badly, I just love giving advice.

The Footlights committee were advised by their new recruit to climb on a train and go up to London to see the opening night of The Charge of the Light Fandango. The revue I had written with my erstwhile Svengali and long-term collaborator Spencer had found a backer: Spencer’s father-in-law. My share of the writing had largely been completed before I came up to Cambridge. Employing the odd weekend exeat, I had attended a few rehearsals and helped Spencer to rewrite those of our songs and sketches which threatened to be insufficiently obscure. The cast were all Australian expatriates with high hopes. Some of them had been abroad long enough to be wondering if the big break would ever come. Spencer himself had high hopes, strangely enough. His dedication to obliquity was unimpaired but somehow he expected that his efforts to alienate the audience would meet with rapturous applause. Less forgivably, I expected the same result. I not only should have known better, I did know better: but I had been caught up. Any theatrical event has a momentum of its own: any theatrical event except The Charge of the Light Fandango. The Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, had been hired at colossal expense. The Footlights committee were sitting with me in a box. To say that the disaster unfolded would be to exaggerate its pace. The disaster developed at the speed of stale cheese growing blue hair. It was all low points, but perhaps the lowest was a song about a jewel robbery which Spencer and I, greatly pleased with our own ingenuity, had written to the tune of Ravel’s Bolero. Six of the cast were meant to sing it while tip-toeing in intricate patterns around the stage. If they had merely forgotten the words it would have been a mercy. Pummelled by the waves of indifference from the auditorium, however, they remembered the words, but in the wrong order. Since the choreography was cued by the lyrics, the actors were soon out of sequence. Eventually two of them were out of sight, having taken craven advantage of their proximity to the wings. It was hard to blame them. The song was a tour de force and nothing else.

The whole show was like that. It was all technique. Even at that time I half-realised it: a pretty drastic self-appraisal after more than a year’s work. The Lord Chamberlain, who at that time still exercised his baleful influence on the British theatre, had insisted that my best sketch be left out. It was an all-purpose Queen’s speech, in which the sovereign assured some foreign country that her best wishes, warm blankets or aircraft carriers were on their way towards it. The idea was that she could cross out what did not apply. When the Lord Chamberlain crossed out the whole thing, I tried to convince myself that censorship had wrecked our chances. The dutiful chuckles of the Footlights committee should have told me the truth, They stayed to the end, in sharp contrast to the majority of the audience, which drained away steadily throughout the first half, leaving the second half to be watched only by friends and relatives. The party afterwards was a wake in all respects except the failure of Spencer’s father-in-law to realise that he was the corpse. Either he enjoyed losing money or else he was simply relieved about not having been on stage. It would have been disloyal to renounce my expatriate colleagues, who had all tried hard. Also I honestly felt (self-deception always feels particularly honest) that we had done something new and challenging. Privately, however, far back, in a dark part of my mind which admitted light but was slow to reflect it, I was getting ready to begin again. In Sydney, though I had found Spencer’s influence overwhelming, I had always harboured secret desires to establish a contact with the audience. In Cambridge, the undergraduate thespians, however green, shared the same impulse. The polite young men I was with wanted to be entertainers and so did I. On the train back up to Cambridge we talked about something else. They were so kind and tactful that they frightened me. Where had they got it, this sensitivity to the pain of others? School must have been Hell, like the trenches in World War One, which could have been the subject of the reviews that The Charge of the Light Fandango got next day. I read them in the Junior Common Room and resisted the temptation to rip them out of the newspapers so that nobody else would see them. This forbearance might have been, had it been conscious, a correct guess about the tactical advisability of not reacting to criticism. In reality, however, I was so drained of energy that the effort of tearing a sheet of newspaper would have left me breathless.

Luckily a chance to work off my embarrassment offered itself straight away. Footlights was not the only institution to stage smokers. Some of the colleges had an annual smoker of their own. These college smokers were staffed almost exclusively by Footlights members who were not necessarily members of the college concerned. In other words, the Footlights were pulling a fast one. The relevant university bye-law, fiercely enforced by the proctors, allowed the Footlights only two smokers per term plus the annual May Week revue. In order to work up the best material from the twice-a-term Footlights smokers into a form which might possibly make it into the May Week revue, the Footlights infiltrated the college smokers. Any Footlights member who wasn’t enrolled at the college concerned was invited in as a guest. A sufficiently fanatical Footlights performer could thus tread the boards in the club room, in his own college and as a guest in every other college, so that he was in a constant rhythm of rehearsing and performing for as long as the academic year lasted. In a college smoker, especially, he would get plenty of practice at playing to a wider audience, because a college smoker could be attended by anybody from that college or any other college, since the tickets were on the open market.

Of all the college smokers, the most reliably successful was the Pembroke smoker. When Peter Cook had been up, agents from London would attend the Pembroke smoker and try to purchase the material. On one occasion Cook sold the whole show to the West End. The effect of his professionalism, though not necessarily of his originality, had lingered on. It was a hard act to follow, and when the Footlights committee suggested that I might like to direct the next Pembroke smoker I was not hasty in saying yes. Without question I was the natural choice. The only other Footlights member from my college was some kind of scientist who had been elected to the club by accident after giving what the audience had taken to be a brilliant impersonation of a man who had forgotten a terrible script. When the fact finally percolated that the script had really been terrible and that he had, indeed, forgotten it, he settled down for three years of enjoying the bar facilities and left the field clear for me. But although I had no doubts about the desirability of going back to basics and learning to please an audience, I had several doubts about whether this was the right time to do it. First of all, there was the question of my studies, which so far were non-existent. Also my confidence was not at its highest. The quality of the silence with which the audience had greeted The Charge of the Light Fandango was still ringing in my ears like a blow to the side of the head with the flat of the hand. I could still hear every cough, every wild, bitter laugh of disbelief, every bang of the safety exit double-doors as the steel bar across them was hit loudly by the uncaring fist of another customer baling out like a test pilot from a prototype spinning to its doom. Finally, the doors had been held open by the usherettes. They had nodded knowingly. I didn’t want to see that knowing nod again.

I was talked out of my gloom and into the job. Actually, the show couldn’t lose. Eric Idle was in it and he knew all the ropes. Above all, he knew that what really mattered was the wine. Into Pembroke’s old library, called Old Library, were carried many boxes of a cheap but acceptably smooth Beau-jolais from Peter Dominic, who also supplied the glasses. Many of these were broken on the first night by the Hearties. The show ran for four nights and everybody came. The Hearties were merely the noisiest element. Large, boat-rowing types with low foreheads, thick necks and annoyingly pretty female companions imported from London, they laughed at everything, including the love songs. Everyone else enjoyed the show too, although most of them would have been hard put to give a clear account of it afterwards. All the men were in black tie and all the women in evening gowns. Some of the male dons would have liked to have been in evening gowns also, but they confined themselves to lipstick and rouge. The stage, constructed from beer-crates for the occasion, was only about six feet square and stood uncurtained in one corner of the room, so that you could make an entrance through the door leading to the book-stack. The rest of the room was packed with small low tables tightly surrounded by increasingly happy people. The oxygen was quickly used up. So was the wine, except that our waiters kept replacing it. The heat was terrific. Breathing neat nitrogen, with only an unlimited supply of plonk to stave off dehydration, the entire audience was already drunk before the lights went down on the first act. Even the dons were shouting. But the level of physical behaviour remained decorous if you didn’t count the periodic attempts by the Hearties to smash their table by dancing on it.

The show, I am bound to say, merited an enthusiastic response. A cast of all the best Footlights guest artists did their stuff, topped off by Romaine Rand’s fabled strip-tease nun routine, making its first appearance since the Sydney University revue several years before. For its reincarnation in the Pembroke smoker, she had hand-sewn a whole new Carmelite nun’s habit. She wore a particularly daring bikini underneath. Luckily, the Dean didn’t see the show until the last night, when he bit through the stem of his pipe. Though Romaine pulled the walls in, really there was nothing in the show which did not go down a storm, mainly because the audience was clinically intoxicated, but partly because, in my role as producer, I had arranged the running order with some care, making sure that the up-beat songs came at the end of the half and stuff like that. I even got away with my own monologue. A whimsical little number about two railway locomotives in love, it went on for so long that the Hearties, from a sitting start, managed to reduce their table to matchwood before I was half-way through. But the show had built up too much impetus to be easily stopped. Since the whole of the university’s theatrical establishment turned up over the course of the four nights, this small success could be counted as my first tangible impact on the broader Cambridge scene. For anyone with the right set of personal inadequacies, an applauding audience is a wine far more heady than anything that you can buy in a bottle. I was especially pleased to see the women putting their hands together admiringly. The wine having flowed freely for the cast as well as the audience, it was with a fond eye made foolish that I peeped low around the corner of the book-stack door while some other act was on stage and checked out those pretty faces looking up, lit as if they were spectators at a ballet by Degas. I felt love. I felt grief. I felt sick. Where had they been?

Wherever they had been, they were gone again when the fifth day dawned and there was no more Pembroke smoker to draw them out of their hiding-places. A life without women made it hard to be temperate. Theoretically, I was undeviatingly loyal to my near-fiancée, Françoise. Having left Australia the year after I did, she was now studying in Florence. Italy was a long way away. My close Catholic acquaintance, Robin, was still in London, but even London needed an exeat and Robin was going through one of her recurring phases of being reconciled with the Church. Questions of fidelity aside, to know a girl in Cambridge would have been the answer, but where were they? The few that I clapped eyes on seemed capable of transferring themselves from the Sidgwick Avenue site to the safety of their Newnham sitting rooms within a matter of seconds, or else cycling back up Castle Hill to Girton as if competing successfully in the Tour de France. Perhaps I should have paid more attention to my personal appearance. Many a young man has worn himself to a frazzle practising verbal approaches when what he should have done was wash his hair. But even supposing I had squeaked with cleanliness, who would have seen the shine? Sitting through lectures at Sidgwick Avenue was too high a price to pay, and if the undergraduettes weren’t working there, they were working in the University Library, the faculty libraries or their rooms, Study was all they ever did. Abramovitz had the answer but it took his kind of unembarrassable self-confidence. He toured the schools in Station Road where the foreign girls came to learn English, picked himself a strapping German with paradigmatically chiselled Aryan features, brought her back to his rooms and gave her English lessons. The fee was not in cash but in kind. Through Abramovitz’s frequently sported oak, the squeals of his guest penetrated with ease. What was he doing to her in there? When I met him in the gyp room while brewing tea he would explain, trembling with repletion, that he was doing his bit for historic justice. ‘I’ve enslaved her, dear boy. It’s the guilt. She’s putty in my hands.’ I think he taunted her during the throes of need. Anyway, there was a big scandal when his ancient bedder — the same Mrs Blades who was my bedder too — tottered into his bedroom one morning and found half a dozen loosely knotted, awesomely heavy condoms festooned all over the decor. The one draped over the lampshade had started to fry. Presumably Mrs Blades had seen one or two of those things before, back around the time of the Battle of Jutland, because when she eyeballed six of them at once the shock of recognition drove her backwards all the way down the stairs and across the court into the Dean’s office, where she had hysterics among the haematite. Convulsions amid the chrysoprase. She passed out into the porphyry. The Dean proclaimed the matter out of his spiritual jurisdiction and got in touch with the Chief Rabbi, who happened to be Abramovitz’s uncle. Abramovitz should have had another year of living in college but he was told that next year he would have to take digs in town. He was lucky not to get sent down. He had luck running out of his ears so maybe the reprieve was just normal. Abramovitz was among the blessed. Some of the English he taught Helga apparently got her into a lot of trouble back in Stuttgart, ‘Wasn’t it remarkable,’ he asked me years later, ‘how much she looked like Heydrich?’