Books: May Week was in June — Sleeping Tiger |
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May Week was in June — Sleeping Tiger


Preparing for Part Two of the English Tripos was supposed to take me two academic years, and the first was already gone in a drunken haze. As usual, I had done quite a lot of reading. Again as usual, little of it was on the course. I had started teaching myself French by construing Proust a sentence at a time — the complete job was to take only slightly less than fifteen years — but to satisfy the examination requirements I would have done better to teach myself a bit more English from the English Moralists, some of whom I could not recognise even by name, let alone by their opinions. The unspoken policy in Cambridge was to give affiliated students like myself a long rein in their first year, although a certain proportion — mainly Americans, strangely enough — persisted in regarding the long rein as enough rope, and hanging themselves with it. Suicide from loneliness was unnervingly common. One of the many hazardous prospects of a bedder’s job was to enter a young gentleman’s oak-panelled sitting room in the morning and find him suspended from the central light-fitting. This possibility was rendered less likely in my case by the news that I too, like Abramovitz, might have to spend the following academic year lodged in the town, where oak panelling was less lavishly supplied. I was also officially advised that during the long vacation it might be profitable to attain at least nodding acquaintance with the curriculum, and thus stave off the already likely possibility that I would receive a degree classified so low it would be tantamount to a certificate of mental disability. But all these admonitions were easy to take lightly now that it was May Week in Cambridge.

May Week, one need hardly point out, took place in June. Only if it had been called April Week would it have taken place in May. Your first academic year in Cambridge is so arranged that you must learn to appreciate your surroundings in winter, when the trees are waterlogged traceries and the buildings are doomy silhouettes between sky and fen. Captain Cousteau diving without lights saw more colour under a continental shelf than you will see in Cambridge between November and March. Also he kept relatively dry. So you either hang yourself from despair inside one of the venerable edifices or else learn to love them for their shape alone. The perfect little lidless cube of Clare College unpacks its form most reluctantly, but eventually most completely, when the grass of its courtyard is covered with a tablecloth of snow. In Garret Hostel Lane, the dark chimneys of Trinity’s south wing are already cut out clearly against the sodden clouds. The trick is to see the brilliance of the set design before the spotlights are switched on. After that, not even the blind could miss it. When spring pumps the water out of the panorama, the lawns of King’s light up and throw their radiance into walls that suddenly look as edible as wafers. The blue sun-dials in the courts of Caius reveal what they have been mimicking: a clear sky. The Wren library in Trinity fills up with sunlight underneath, a baroque hovercraft on fire. The backs of the colleges are like Dresden reborn in a garden, like an Ideal Chateau Exhibition on a toytown Loire. The whole undergraduate population takes to the punts. Released from their examinations, the girls whose very existence you had begun to doubt reveal their delicious corporeality in thin cotton frocks vaporised by sunlight. Horrible young men in blazers and straw boaters momentarily attain the fluent beauty of a river party by Renoir, before their neighing voices — ‘I say Simon! Simon! Don’t let those oiks nab that punt!’ — shatter the illusion. The illusion forms again. Everyone is outdoors. Everyone except those concerned with the Footlights May Week Revue. They are inside the Arts Theatre, facing the horrendous prospect of not being loved.

That first year I calamitously failed the audition to join the cast, but got the job of assistant stage manager. Being a bit older than anyone else involved, I was in a potentially humiliating position, but felt, with the flop of The Charge of the Light Fandango still reverberating in my dreams, that a stretch of being humble couldn’t hurt. It could be argued that Cambridge was already eroding my spirit of protest. A more likely explanation, however, was that I had temporarily suspended my self-assertiveness in order to submit myself to a new discipline. I was falling back in order to jump better. The French, I had just learned from Proust, had a phrase for it: reculer pour mieux sauter. I couldn’t pronounce it very well, but it sounded like the right idea.

As a Footlights May Week revue assistant stage manager, I was diligence personified. The previous year’s revue had apparently been only one step up from a fiasco. It had tried to ape its successful predecessor Cambridge Circus without the wherewithal in either personnel or material. This year’s had improved the position to the point of being merely something of a dud. Romaine had been coaxed out of the library to join Eric Idle at the head of an accomplished cast, but good material was at a premium, and most numbers were little better than workmanlike. But being little better than that, they were never worse than that either. The music, in particular, seemed astonishingly inventive and accomplished to anyone who, like myself, had spent several years arduously fitting lyrics on to ready-made melodies because he didn’t know anyone who could write new ones. In the Footlights there were young men who could read and write music. In the depths of my conceit I didn’t really believe that any of these youngsters could write words better than I could, but when it came to putting black dots between staves — or between keys or whatever it was that they did — there was no question that they had me whipped. Nearly everybody could sing. Even those who could only speak could speak in tongues. They could do accents, for example, which I couldn’t, and indeed still can’t. So there was an air of professionalism about the whole business, to which I contributed with some ruthlessly efficient assistant stage management. When the show was touring the provincial towns, the set had to be secured to the stage with sixty-four separate screws, I had them all colour-coded. With one of those pump-action screwdrivers I could do the whole job in the dark. When Idle sprinted on stage as the Olympic torch-bearer, his flaming torch had been primed by me with exactly the right amount of inflammable fluid. When Idle came sprinting off again, barely had the lights snapped out before I had propelled Romaine, dressed as a Russian peasant woman and sitting in an old armchair on top of a wheeled platform, smoothly into position for her appearance as Tolstoy’s widow. The whole lexicon of backstage terminology — tabs, flats, spots, dimmers — was easy on my lips. On the entire tour I made no mistakes at all. It turned out that I was saving them all up for the opening night in London.

Perhaps the venue spooked me. Once again, by the cruellest coincidence, it was the Lyric, Hammersmith. The memory still haunted me of how the audience, during the early stages of The Charge of the Light Fandango, had fought among themselves at the crowded exits. That night at the wake, I had poured Spencer’s bereaved father-in-law a full glass of whisky because he had been still too stunned to say ‘when’. This night I must have been reliving that night, because when the time came to prime Idle’s Olympic torch with inflammable fluid I overdid it by a pint. As he ran on, his torch was already sending flames almost to the proscenium arch, and before he was half-way through his monologue there were fireballs falling all around him. Trouper that he was, he kept going to the end, but the audience found it harder to laugh as it became more likely that his incipient demise would entail theirs. Shortly before the end of the number the torch, as if disappointed at having failed to burn down the theatre, sputtered out, just in time to ruin Idle’s punch-line, which depended on its still being alight. When he came running off into the wings he cursed me with admirable restraint, but by now I was rattled, and I pushed Romaine’s trolley into the blackout with too much force, so that it rolled several feet past the marked position. When the fixed spotlight which should have illuminated her was switched on, it illuminated a circular area of empty stage instead. She delivered the first part of her monologue in total darkness, during which time, it transpired, she had got out of her chair and begun the job of pushing the trolley back towards the right position. When the lighting operator at last figured out what had gone wrong, he killed the fixed light and picked her up with a follow-spot, thereby revealing her toiling away like Mother Courage at the exact moment when she was describing what it was like to be paralysed on her death bed. The audience was either sophisticated enough to be wondering politely how Brecht had got into the act, or else had correctly judged that something was amiss.

The show would probably have been no great smash hit anyway, but I had helped scotch what chance it had. The notices were death threats. David Frost, acting as a guest critic in Punch, was generously kind, bet a turkey, once cremated, declines to be a phoenix. Though the revue ran for the scheduled two weeks, it was full only from Thursday to Saturday, with hellish matinées during which the cast ran some of the sketches backwards to see whether the old age pensioners would notice I got some valuable training in how to keep slogging away at a show after it had been pronounced dead. Also, I was getting paid: the first real money I had ever made in show business. Though the stipend wasn’t very large, it was larger than the one I earned next. When the show folded, there was still a lot of the Long Vacation stretching ahead, and before I could get to Italy I would need to earn the fare. One of the regular staff at the Lyric told me that the circus at Olympia had an opening for a roustabout. I applied for the job and got it before I found out that the opening was at the back of a tiger.

My job was to clean out the tiger’s cage. In later years, when telling this story, I didn’t always remember to mention that the tiger was removed from the cage before I got in there with my bucket and short shovel. Actually there wouldn’t have been much danger if the tiger had stayed put. He had probably thrown the occasional scare into Clive of India, but to Clive James he posed no threat. So old that only his stripes were holding him together, he had teeth that couldn’t dent the tennis ball with which he had been provided. Already safer than if he had been stuffed, he was rendered definitively innocuous by drugs. Some form of tranquilliser was fed to him in his morning hunk of raw meat, zonking him to the point where he couldn’t suck his tennis ball without dribbling. The trainer plus three assistants removed the savage beast from its cage by rolling two long poles under the dozing corpse and lifting it out like a litter full of rag and bone. Then in I would go, a man in control of his fear, showing the ice-cool nerve of those who work close to the big cats. In I would go and scoop up those sadly depleted droppings. The poor shagged-out old moggie could scarcely shit a pretzel. The stuff was a sort of dark green, if you’re wondering. Or perhaps, in that mysterious part of the brain which Baudelaire conquered like a new country, one of my memories has taken colour from another.


When I was about twelve years old in Sydney I was allowed for the first time to attend the Royal Easter Show on my own, carrying two whole pounds with which to buy sample bags. I bought the Minties sample bag so that I could assemble the Minties cardboard gun, which was meant to fire cardboard discs but could fire lead slugs if you doubled the rubber band. Having assembled the gun, I ate all the Minties. I bought the Jaffas sample bag and ate all the Jaffas. So my stomach already had a lot to deal with before I bought not just one Giant Licorice sample bag, but two. My plan was to take one of the Giant Licorice sample bags home to my friend, Graham Gilbert, who was bedridden with German measles. Before I had finished eating the contents of my own Giant Licorice sample bag, this plan was already starting to fade, and during the long wait for the Doll’s Point bus that was to take me home I ate the contents of the second bag as well. There was an incredible amount of licorice in a Giant Licorice sample bag, and all of it was black. There were logs of black licorice, straps of black licorice, coils of black licorice, cables of black licorice. By the time the bus came I had eaten everything and could make my way only with caution up the stairs to the top deck. Just past Brighton-le-Sands the road along the beach met President Avenue. From the junction it was an easy walk to Kogarah, so that was where I usually got off. It was where I got off this time, too, but not as usual. I pressed the upstairs bell to halt the bus at the next stop, but I couldn’t move without feeling strange. The conductor appeared on the down-stairs rear platform and looked up the staircase to see who had pressed the bell in an irresponsible manner, a misdemeanour to which a statutory penalty was attached. As I swayed at the top of the stairs I could see him in the stair-well mirror, so he must have seen what I did next. I vomited. I did the big spit. In the resulting avalanche, large fragments of Minties and Jaffas appeared merely as reinforcement, like gravel in liquid concrete. The basic thrust of the whole thing, the burden as it were, was an unspeakable tide of half-digested licorice. Yet what struck me with most force, even as the first wave of the descending onslaught struck the conductor, was how strange it was that what had gone in black had come out green. It was a dark green, admittedly: a green deeper than bottle green, thicker than heavy jade, But still it was green. From where I crouched heaving at the head of the stairs, it all went bouncing down like a baroque cascade of duckweed nougat. When, void and light-headed, I started walking home, the bus was still there: all the passengers had been ordered off because the conductor had refused to continue.

But that was to digress. I like to think that in adulthood I have acquired a certain polish, and that if I were now offered two sample bags full of Giant Licorice I would have the will-power to turn one of them down. There is no use pretending, however, that my sensibilities were either refined or usefully mortified by squeegeeing the effluent of a senile feline whose only contribution to the big cat act was a slow hop on to a stool and another slow hop down again, the two manoeuvres being separated by a growl in response to a crack of the trainer’s whip. The growl sounded like a long yawn from the audience, a comparison which could readily be verified. It wasn’t much of a circus, yet I rarely failed to watch the performance. The show didn’t run to a trapeze act but there was a good-looking and sumptuously shapely girl in a silver-spangled scarlet leotard who climbed up a rope into the roof, hung on by her teeth to a short silver bar, and then spun rapidly round. It’s an old act — Degas and Lautrec both did a picture of it — but it never fails if the girl has the right equipment, and Pearl had. She was billed as Pearl the Girl in a Whirl and in addition to her athletic attainments she demonstrated an excellent understanding of my poems for someone whose usual reading matter was the novels of Barbara Cartland. Pearl was all strength. When she flashed her teeth you tended to cross your legs involuntarily. But underneath the finely tuned muscles there was something tender. Unfortunately the ringmaster thought so too. Pearl was his mistress. When the circus broke up they left for Benidorm together. I left for Florence, this time able to pay for my own ticket, with only a small subsidy from Robin so that I could buy two cartons of duty-free Rothmans filters — which in Italy were as good as gold, because the Nazionale cigarettes produced by the state tobacco monopoly tasted like burning polystyrene.

Another wise precaution was to remove my beard. This transformed my reception in Florence almost as much as it transformed my face, which emerged pale, small and pointed at the bottom, like a talking turnip. Some of the things it said were in the local language, which with Françoise’s encouragement I had mastered to the point of being able to speak platitudinously on the subject currently under discussion, instead of the subject that had been changed five minutes before. In those last few beautiful summers before the floods, the young university people of Florence had an open air party every evening as the sun went down behind the cypresses lining the informal garden of some villa on the other side of the Arno, usually on the slope leading up between the Gardens of Boboli and the Piazzale Michelangelo. Sunset left the horizon rimmed with a light like crème de menthe. Young men wore cravats, allegedly of English origin, thus adding extra casualness to their tan lightweight suits, the jackets of which were hooked on one shoulder in the warm air. Young women wore silk and sandals. To indicate nonconformity they smoked like old trains. Feminism had not yet arrived but the girls were already feeling, if not their power, certainly the need for it. They could all talk a streak. One of them, called Adriana, was so witty she literally took away your breath: you were scared to respire in case you missed a wisecrack. Incorrectly judging her eyes to be too small, she drew circles of mascara around them, which made her look like a pangolin. At dinner in Gabriella’s apartment across from the façade of the Pitti Palace, Adriana would palpitate on the spot with the fecund splendour of her own verbal invention, her cigarette waving around her head like a magic wand, ashing gaily into the ice-cream pudding. ‘The sweet is my ashtray,’ she would cry in her own language: ‘it sounds like my autobiography.’ Gabriella ate the affected area, as a gesture of apology for her money and titles. Larger gestures would be demanded later, but this was before the young Italian intellectuals had taken their rebellion much beyond a daring thesis reinterpreting Gramsci, or an interest in the poetry of Pier Paolo Pasolini. When crocked on chianti they sang the old songs of the partisans. With the hangover came the eternal question of who would be appointed whose research assistant when and where. ‘Bella ciao,’ they sang rebelliously, ‘bella ciao bella ciao bella ciao ciao ciao.’But the system was hard to buck. If music could have changed the antiquated Italian university system it would have had to be the kind of music that changed Jericho. Even Gabriella must have been concerned about how and where she would fit in. If she was worried, though, it was hard to tell. In addition to the apartment opposite the Pitti Palace, Gabriella owned a villa in the country. She was an aristocrat. Her hospitality was extended not only to her friends, but to the friends of her friends, such as myself. She had nobility. There is nobility in every class but if an aristocrat has it she finds it easier to exercise it. My beliefs, at the time, being dead set against privilege in all its forms, I found it disturbing to like her style. Though not beautiful, she had the grace that brought beauty towards her. Everyone was at his best near Gabriella. Françoise’s fine intelligence burst into flower, and Adriana became a semantic fountain. Keeping, or trying to keep, up with what Adriana said was the best possible training, a linguistic advanced motorist’s course. A supplement to the course was La Lucciola Estiva, the Summer Firefly, an open air cinema in the dry pebbled bed of the Arno which showed the comedies of Ugo Tognazzi and Nino Manfredi on a continuous basis. L’Immorale, a comedy directed by Pietro Germi and starring Tognazzi, was the first Italian film whose dialogue I was able to follow. Tognazzi played a soft-hearted amoroso who kept two wives and a mistress ecstatically happy by lying to all of them while he ran from one to the other on a split-second timetable. He never missed a trick. Remembering every birthday and anniversary, he always bought the correct flowers, turned up on time for the intimate little dinner by candlelight, knocked himself out being wonderful with the children. Finally, in a post office, while mailing three separate sets of letters and postcards, he expired quietly from a heart attack. The audience laughed helplessly at his demise, so perfectly was the film paced. I saw it three times and enrolled it among the all-time film masterpieces. Perhaps it wasn’t, but the thrill was authentic: the state of grace when we break through into understanding a new language is, after all, only the recurrence, this time fully conscious, of the long euphoria in which we first attained comprehension of the tongue to which we were born. For those of us who work with words, a periodic return to that initial urgency is essential. Don’t listen to the pedant who says that because you have not mastered the whole speech of another language there is no point learning to read it. Smatterings are well worth having. They help strip the world bare again of its cloaking vocabulary. Dante’s few lines about how paper burns took me back to the first principles of evocation in a way all of Shakespeare’s plays could not, because with Shakespeare I had forgotten that the word and the thing are different things. Florence was my unofficial university. In my few weeks there I read more than in the whole of the previous year. My whitewashed room in the Antica Cervia, an obscure locanda behind the Palazzo Vecchio, was like a warehouse of sand-coloured BUR paperbacks. Two streets further down towards Piazza Santa Croce was the Trattoria Anita, a cheap restaurant favoured by whores, pimps and cigarette-smugglers. There I read and ate, spattering the pages of Cesare Pavese with spots of meat sauce. In the Biblioteca Nazionale I was part of the furniture, taking short lunches so that I could wolf down Sapegno’s history of pre-Renaissance literature, the note-books of Leopardi and the major works of Benedetto Croce. Very little of this would come in handy when I sat the Italian paper in Part Two of the Cambridge English Tripos, but my guardian angel was still working overtime to protect me from utilitarian values. His representative on Earth was Françoise, who seemed duty-bound to push the right books in front of me so that I could devour them. What satisfaction she got out of my single-mindedness I didn’t bother to ask. The question never occurred to me, any more than it occurred to me to wonder why she didn’t choose between her several other suitors, all of them serious and one with a very large Mercedes. Perhaps that was my secret. Having left ordinary self-absorption behind, I was a self trying to absorb all creation, and must have been as hard to ignore as a vacuum cleaner.

Michaelmas term was already a week old when I caught a crowded train north to Milan. Reading Eugenio Montale’s first book of essays, I scarcely noticed that I spent the whole journey on my feet. The plane was delayed by a day. The airline paid for a night in a cheap hotel but such necessary extras as cigarettes ate up my remaining cash and when asked for the airport tax I was once again embarrassingly not able to produce it. The last time that had happened to me, a nice man from Calcutta had taken pity and offered assistance, no strings attached. This time there was no Indian Samaritan on hand to overhear my entreaties and fork out the money. All the Indians were back in India. The airport tax official, noting the book I was carrying, must have independently decided that a foreigner’s incipient love of the world’s most lovely language should be encouraged by subsidy. Dumb luck. Don’t think it doesn’t bother me now, how my falling bread always landed with the buttered side up. It even bothered me then. But there was a mass of compensatory trouble waiting for me in the chill air of the fens. In my Junior Common Room pigeon-hole was a series of progressively more curt notes from the Dean requiring my presence at once. Either he was digging a mine-shaft down into the linen room and needed help, or I was in deep shit.