Books: May Week was in June — Unquiet Flow the Dons |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

May Week was in June — Unquiet Flow the Dons


I nearly got thrown out. Squatting gnome-like in his rocky grotto, the Dean examined the bowl of his pipe as if he had not yet given up hope of discovering small but valuable mineral deposits within its charred circumference. Mature students of a certain theatrical réclame, he informed me, could get away with a lot, but to come up late for term, without a previous written application, was to invite rustication at the very least. Also it was just plain bad manners. To one in statu pupillari such as myself, he explained, the college was in loco parentis. Gazing at the Dean as he sat framed among feldspar, I found it hard not to reflect that he was about as loco as any parent could well get, but this unworthy thought was chased away by my uncomfortable realisation that he had a point. Offering my apology on the spot, I pleaded, with some truth, that the educational stimulus of Tuscany had distracted me from my normal loyalties. The Dean accepted these protestations with a Christian heart, though it was clear that Italy for him meant either the presence of the Scarlet Woman or an absence of suitable rocks. Perhaps the customs officers had once opened his bags in the Brenner Pass and found them full of Carrara marble. This year, he told me, I would not be offered a set in college. He understood that there was a room going at the Eagle, in the centre of town. The Eagle being a pub, it scarcely counted as approved lodgings, but it would do until I found something better. He made it sound as if I had better find something better pretty quickly, or else die of privation. He did not, on the other hand, offer the alternative of staying on in college until something classier than a room at the Eagle should become available. ‘Trot along’ he insisted, ‘and rent it straight away.’ My packed suitcase, he added, was in the care of the housekeeper. Naturally I could eat in Hall as usual, but perhaps it would be an advantage both to myself and the college if I no longer had to scale the walls after dark. There was such a thing as dignity, and too many nights spent in the incinerator skip could entail its loss. ‘One can only advise,’ he puffed.

He left me to find out for myself that the incinerator skip knocked spots off the Eagle as a place of abode. The Eagle was the most romantic pub in Cambridge, if not the whole of England. During the war, bomber crews from all over East Anglia had come to the Eagle to spend, in hilarious conviviality, what was statistically likely to be one of their last evenings alive. Riding on each other’s shoulders, into the deep red linoleum ceiling of the saloon they burned the numbers and nicknames of their squadrons with naked candle flames: a portent, doubly hideous for its innocence, of their own fate, and a grim token of the fiery nemesis they were bringing every night to the cities of Germany. To this day I can’t enter that room without hearing their laughter, which becomes steadily more unmanning as I grow older. All my sons. Twenty years ago I was not all that much older than they had been when they were snuffed out. It was a hall of fame, a temple of the sacred flame, a trophy room for heroes. Unfortunately my room was somewhere above it, and not quite so grand. The door to my room opened off the first floor gallery which ran around the courtyard where the coaches had once stopped. When I opened the door and stepped into the darkened room, I fell across the bed and smacked my forehead smartly on the opposite wall. Luckily the wall, under many geological layers of plaster and paint, was sufficiently resilient to absorb most of the impact. It was also quite moist. When I found the light switch, a twenty-watt bulb dispelled just enough of the gloom to reveal that the moisture was not my blood. It was rising damp. It was also descending damp, with a good deal of transverse damp mixed in. The smell of mould was tropical. The temperature of the air, on the other hand, was arctic. There was a two-bar electric fire, one of whose bars worked reasonably well for half its length, I had lived like this in London. I had no wish, and no capacity, to live like this again. Squeezing my cardboard suitcase into the space not occupied by the bed, I lay down in the half-light and tried to decide whether I was near tears or had simply begun, like my new surroundings, to deliquesce. There was a pillowcase on the pillow but there was something on the pillowcase. It was wet dust.

I had not really been punished. Nobody ever was. The ancient universities looked after their own. When a currently famous poet lived on my stair at Pembroke, he not only invited women friends to stay the night and the next night as well, he advertised the fact by encouraging them to dry their stockings out of his window, which overlooked the old court, called Old Court. After about a year of indecision, the Senior Tutor for Junior Supervisors finally grasped the nettle. He knocked timidly on the poet’s seemingly permanently sported oak. Nothing happened. The Tutor went away. The next day he went back and knocked again. Still nothing. The day after that, he knocked again. At last the oak rumbled open to reveal the poet, stark naked with his arms thrown apart, shouting ‘Crucify me!’ Within seconds the Senior Tutor was having tea with the Dean. Together they decided that nothing had occurred, even though blasphemy, as the celebrated case of Mark Boxer had recently demonstrated, was the only reason why anyone ever was sent down. The Tutor went on to become the Master, the poet went on to become Poet Laureate —I name no names — and the Dean went on. Continuity was the keynote. Any amount of eccentricity was tolerable as long as not publicised. If my friend Boxer, rather than publishing a mildly secular poem in Granta, had practised voodoo in his rooms, he would have gone on to get his Gentleman’s Third, instead of being carried symbolically out of Cambridge in an open coffin. But merely to state his case is to show the truth. To be thrown out was to be kept in. Oxbridge had you even when it let you go. Oxford threw Shelley out but kept his name. You can get sprung only on probation. It drives some alumni bananas, so that they write whole cycles of plays and novels about how they don’t really care about not having become dons. One of the several candidates for the dubious title of Cleverest Man in England always tells his interviewers that the one real failure of his life was his not being elected a Fellow of All Souls. Can you imagine, say, Leonardo da Vinci, who had a reasonable claim to the title of Cleverest Man in Italy, confessing his disappointment at being refused membership of any institution at all, no matter how exalted? Though I had reason to be grateful to Cambridge, I was already thanking God that it hadn’t caught me young, before the world had given me some measure by which to get its insidious cosiness into proportion. As things stood, I had the memory of how Masaccio’s frescoes looked on the wall of the Church of the Carmine in Florence to remind me of what intellectual distinction was really like. The dons could impress me with what they knew, but it took more than their port and walnuts to impress me with what they were.

And some of them were as crazy as loons. To give a star student free board and lodging for life might well protect his future productivity from quotidian distraction but it is rarely good for the personality and can lead to behaviour patterns indistinguishable from those that get people in other walks of life locked up. Either Trinity or Trinity Hall, I forget which, elected a History Fellow in the 1930s who seemed set fair to be the next Edward Gibbon. From that day forward he never did anything except walk the streets with a bundle of old newspapers under his arm. If they had always been the same newspapers he might have retained some historical interest. You could have stopped him and found out what the Daily Express had said about Ribbentrop. But he changed the newspapers at random, just as he never took the same route twice on his endless walks to nowhere.

A don didn’t need to be carrying a bundle of newspapers in order to manifest an unhinged walk. It was a Fellow’s privilege, when crossing a courtyard, to walk diagonally across the grass instead of, like everyone else, keeping to the flagstones around the edge. Dons whose behaviour was near normal in all other respects would exercise this grass-treading privilege even when it would have been more convenient to everybody, including themselves, if they had not. In summer they would amble across the grass and then wonder loudly why they had been followed by a large party of tourists from Osaka. The answer was obvious: the tourists from Osaka had not been able to judge from the Fellow’s gowned appearance that he was any more uniquely privileged than a bad imitation of Batman. But the Fellow’s training had equipped him to deal only with the abstruse. Though he could deliver a learned paper about Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff’s refutation of A. B. Drachmann’s theories about Antigone, or preferably compose a scathing review of somebody else’s learned paper on that subject, he couldn’t deal with the proposition that the really smart way to preserve the grass would be to deny access not just to most people, but to everybody. One don, in a college I had better not name, walked diagonally across the grass even in winter. This would have made sense if he had worn Wellingtons. He invariably wore the patent leather dancing pumps which had been bequeathed to him by Ivor Novello. The snow could be three feet deep and you would see his tracks going through it like the wake of a caribou. The short cut would have made some sense if he had been saving mileage at the beginning of a route march to Land’s End. He was only going as far as the Porter’s Lodge to see if there was any news of the Jamaican steel band he invited over every year to play calypsos to him in his rooms. Blessed with a large inheritance, he had a healthy bank balance which the gift of a suite of rooms, all found, did nothing to diminish, but his emotional propensities were more questionable, although rumour had it that not all the members of the steel band were asked to remove their clothes, only some. The rest just took off their overcoats and galoshes.

In Cambridge there was a good deal of High Table homosexuality, some of it still struggling in the closet but a lot of it out in the open and dancing around on tiptoe. Recently the full story has been told of how the homosexual mathematician, Alan Turing, most gifted of all the many Queens of King’s, saved Britain’s life in World War II. With a then unusual combination of mathematical and engineering genius — two departments which the English educational system had always worked hard to keep separate — Turing devised the mechanism by which radio signals encoded through the German Enigma machine could be read in time to produce the stream of useful, often vital, secret intelligence known as Ultra. It was the society outside Cambridge which hounded Turing to an early grave. Cambridge itself, even if it did not precisely cherish him, at least offered him its tolerance and protection. Even more than Keynes’s or Wittgenstein’s, Turing’s case, it seems to me, is decisive. Though it could be said that Cambridge was equally tolerant and protective of a whole succession of Foreign Office and MI5 prodigies who subsequently turned out to have been drawing an extra salary from the Soviet Union, nothing can alter the fact that Hitler, who threatened the whole of civilisation, owed his defeat in a large part to a high-voiced but not very predatory invert who threatened nobody, and that the dons of King’s, who knew all about Turing’s proclivities, did nothing to sabotage this desirable outcome. Where victimless crimes are concerned, tolerance is an absolute good. Cambridge will probably never get round to formally approving homosexuality, but the type of homosexual involved perhaps prefers a blind eye to public acknowledgment, and meanwhile a tacit understanding seems to provide liberty enough. In my time as an undergraduate, however, I sometimes had to concentrate very hard on how horrible most of the boat-rowing heterosexuals were if I was to offset my distaste for some of the more epicene dons, of which Footlights had a full quota among its senior membership. Dating from the long era when every May Week revue had been a big-budget exercise in make-up and drag, they would turn up at term-time smokers and form a swooping group at the back of the room, muttering archly at the pretty pass to which things had come. One of them was among the nicest men I had ever met, but I didn’t go for his pals. They obviously thought I was too butch to be plausible, and I was constantly afraid of being knocked fiat by their flailing wrists. I bottled it up, though. Human nature is various, and I have never been pleased enough about my own nature to be fully contemptuous about anybody else’s, provided he isn’t homicidal. These weren’t that: they were just a bit high-pitched. The kind of undergraduates who swarmed around them certainly weren’t being misled, unless sugar misleads ants.

In order to be weird, however, a don didn’t have to carry bundles of old newspapers, cross snow-filled courtyards diagonally with only his head showing, or make up his eyelids with the very lightest touch of blue shadow. Some of them could maintain an unbroken rectitude of deportment while still going comprehensively haywire, especially if they were involved in the humanities. Cambridge science having done such earth-shattering things, it was sometimes suggested that non-scientists were suffering from an inferiority complex. If so they kept it well hidden. A more likely explanation concerns the relative difficulty of keeping work separate from life. A physicist can’t live his physics. A humanist can live his humanism and after too much Madeira might find it impossible not to. One of the young Cambridge philosophy dons specialised in aesthetics and made sure you knew it. He dressed the part, wearing a black leather jacket, tight trousers and high boots. He had not, at that stage, produced any of the substantial writings in which he has since expounded his viewpoint, but such was the level of personal invective he maintained in conversation that you always knew where he stood. He stood on his opponent’s throat. He was a Leavisite, junior model. He had taken his master’s principles of literary criticism and applied them to the other arts as well. Thus it came to light that in each field of artistic endeavour there were only three or four master practitioners, all the others being enemies of civilisation. In music the three or four were reduced to one: Wagner. I once heard this terrifying young man say that one of the many great things about Wagner was that when you realised his true greatness it obviated the necessity of listening to pipsqueaks like Puccini. I searched his face for a sign of humour but could see nothing except certainty. It was Leavis that had made him certain. On the rare occasions when the black-leather Wagnerian could be tempted into print, it was usually an encomium in The Cambridge Review for some collection of addle-pated late essays by Leavis, or else it was a passionate attack on a book, any book, by someone who, at some point in the past, no matter how distant, had disagreed with Leavis or merely failed to endorse his every opinion. Even Wagner came second to Leavis.

Leavis himself, though nearing the end of his career, was, as I have mentioned, still active around Cambridge and more irascible than ever, particularly against his disciples. To do him credit, he could never be depended upon to go on lapping up the hosannahs of his sycophants indefinitely. At some unpredictable moment he would turn on his arselickers and deliver a series of stunning kicks to their pursed lips. Later on, almost with his dying breath, he publicly repudiated the Wagnerian for having ‘misrepresented my views’. Far from having misrepresented Leavis’s views, the Wagnerian had endorsed them even at their most fatuous. When Leavis wrote his last-gasp, break-through essay in which Tolstoy was discovered to be a great novelist, the Wagnerian, either having forgotten about the existence of Matthew Arnold or else never having heard of him, announced that nobody had dared to proclaim Tolstoy’s eminence so courageously before. With his tongue thus applied to the heel of his master’s boot, the acolyte was ill-prepared to receive its toe in his teeth, The Wagnerian never fully recovered. He took to wearing a Harris tweed jacket and ordinary shoes, and not long ago, at a dinner party in a private home, I caught him red-handed listening to other people instead of just laying down the law as of old.

Really he shouldn’t have taken it so hard, Leavis’s views were almost impossible not to misrepresent, because they were designed so that only he could hold them. This was partly true even in the early, fruitful part of his career, and became completely true later on, when dogma took over from doctrine. Those who opposed him he merely insulted, but to support him invited vilification, and anyone who arrived at one of his conclusions before he did suffered treatment that differed from character assassination only in being prolonged like torture. When he gave his famous Dickens lectures the hall was jammed. I was there along with the worshippers, the admirers and the merely gullible. Brian C. Adams was sitting in the front row, with two fountain pens ready in case one of them ran out. He was doing his best to appear critically detached but there was no mistaking his look of exaltation when Leavis came trotting briskly in. Leavis was Seriousness personified. He even had a serious way of being bald. Though I had, and for some years to come retained, respect for the intensity of his commitment, I suppose I was the only person present who actively disapproved of him. There were plenty who detested him, but they had stayed at home. I wanted to see at least the vestiges of the mental force he must once have had in order to cause those decades of fuss and bother. I hadn’t tried to enroll in his seminars because I had passed the age of being caught up in his rhetoric. This will sound like light-mindedness to all those Cambridge graduates — many of them now prominently placed in the theatre, radio, television and journalism as well as the academic world — who think that Leavis made them serious about literature. But literature would have made them serious about literature. They met him at an impressionable age, and they have matured since only to the extent that his influence has been ameliorated by the thing he preached of but saw with such distorting strictness - life. It depends not just on who your mentor is, but on when you meet him, and I no longer needed Leavis to tell me that Shakespeare was a greater poet than Shelley. If Leavis had had something to say about the kind of poet Shelley would have been had he lived to middle-age, I might have listened. But the good Doctor dealt in absolutes. Nevertheless I was prepared, as that bald-eagle head bent over its pile of notes and cleared the gaunt throat in its open collar, to admit that he had something, if he had.

What he had, alas, was a long series of attacks on all those critics who had made the unpardonable mistake of calling Dickens a genius before he did. Humphry House came in for an avalanche of abuse, clearly because Humphry House had given half his life to Dickens while Leavis had still been proclaiming that only Hard Times merited serious attention. The names Graham Hough and John Holloway also kept cropping up, although their connection with Dickens was not clear. ‘We know what to think of Dr Hough’, sneered Leavis, as though no further explanation were necessary. ‘We know what to expect from Dr Holloway.’ Perhaps Hough and Holloway had not only been prematurely pro-Dickens, they had also been anti-Leavis, or, even worse, pro-Leavis without permission, Then a strange thing began to happen. The names Hough and Holloway went on cropping up, but they cropped up mixed up. ‘This is the kind of misrepresentation, I need hardly point out, which we have learned to associate with the name of Dr Houghoway.’ Not long afterwards there was a reference to Professor Hollohough. Some of Dr Leavis’s pages seemed to be in the wrong order. He shuffled them, apparently at random, and read on. This should have been a touching, if not exactly comic, grace-note to the performance, but the outpouring of venom forbade sympathy. As the hour neared its end, there was a peroration against Edmund Wilson, who had pioneered the movement which, long before Leavis got around to joining it, had brought the critical appraisal of Dickens into line with public appreciation. ‘We doubt Edmund Wilson’s qualifications to discuss Dickens,’ said Leavis, and although I am quoting from memory the memory is so indecently vivid I would swear by its accuracy. ‘We doubt Edmund Wilson’s qualifications,’ he wound up triumphantly, ‘to discuss any literature.’ Beside me, an Indian girl student in a sari noted it down: ‘doubt E. Wilson quals. discuss any lit.’ In a blessed life, that moment was as close as I have so far come to witnessing clerical treason in its pure form, dogma distilled into a pathogen. One day I might write a book about how I think cultural memory is transmitted, and perhaps I had better put off discussing this sad business until then, but for now I should say, in order to stave off charges of frivolity, that I thought any amount of frivolity preferable to the Leavisite parade of seriousness. Better Lord David Cecil at his most fruitily fluting than Leavis’s Vyshinskyite tirade, his inquisitorial denunciations. The hall was full of students who would have profited immensely from reading Edmund Wilson’s literary criticism, which was, and is, full of discovery and judgment. Wilson’s appreciation of Dickens was just what they should have been encouraged to read. Instead they had been given an excuse to do something for which students need no encouragement: not to read.

Not much of a reader on the course myself, I was in no fit state to climb on a high horse. Helping me to contain my rage was the suspicion that this event was more parody than reality. The Leavisite brand of odium theologicum had all the characteristics of totalitarian argument, right down to the special hatred reserved for heretics. But the patterns of thought which had filled the concentration camps of Europe proper had arrived in England in the mercifully diluted form of university politics. The ruckus surrounding Leavis, though too nasty to be a farce, was not toxic enough to be a tragedy. You could always have gone somewhere else. Leavis himself could have gone somewhere else, but fought to stay on in Cambridge. It couldn’t be said while he was alive, and is still considered bad taste when said now, but the reason he was shut out of university preferment had little to do with his supposedly challenging originality. It was personal. People will submit to having their opinions contradicted, but not to having their characters attacked at the same time. They can’t watch their fronts and their backs. They would rather shut the door. So Leavis, as he put it, became part of the real Cambridge: the Cambridge in spite of Cambridge. He was part of the landscape. You became accustomed to seeing him walk briskly along Trinity Street, gown blown out horizontal in his slipstream. He looked as if walking briskly had been something he had practised in a wind tunnel. Not long before he died I was in Deighton Bell’s second-hand bookshop looking over the rain-ruined books of the literary booze-artist John Davenport, who must have left the library doors open on the stormy night of his suicide. Suddenly Leavis’s wife, Queenie, appeared at my shoulder. ‘Nasty piece of work, Davenport,’ she muttered, having no reason to know me from Adam. ‘While he was up here he was the leader of a particularly odious set.’ Seeing me buy Davenport’s cracked and stained Pléiade edition of Rimbaud, she nodded approval. Almost any teacher, no matter how intransigent his or her views, can be moved to tears by the sight of a student voluntarily purchasing a book, but the light in Queenie’s eye was one of reminiscence. ‘With Frank it was Laforgue. He nearly broke us, buying up those Frenchmen. On to it quite independently of Eliot. In France you couldn’t get him past a bookshop. We were there a lot when we were young.’ She sniffed for a while at a row of damaged books which Davenport had failed to return to the London Library. Then she left. In later years I have remembered that chance encounter as part evidence that in matters of the spirit the truly dangerous poisons are refined from flowers. In her husband’s youth she must have found him as easy to love as in his last days I found him easy to loathe. I tried not to hate him, though. Of all the moral lessons he had to teach, the one that stuck was the one he taught inadvertently. In his later books he libelled his literary opponents so scandalously that when he tried to condemn Stalin he had no harsh words left over. If he had been asked to give his opinion of Hitler and Himmler, he would not have been able to summon up any terms of disapprobation that he had not already lavished on Houghaway and Hollohough. He had given up his sense of reality, and all in pursuit of the very study which, he went on insisting, was the only thing that could give you a sense of reality. He was a self-saboteur.