Books: May Week was in June — Yanks on the Cam |
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May Week was in June — Yanks on the Cam


You can make a good case for even the weirdest don if he stimulates the young to anything, if only anger. At my age I didn’t need the goad. Though I was still too idle a student to put much time into the business of seeking out a sound teacher and listening to what he had to say, at least I recognised such a one when I heard him. Theodore Redpath, for example, was an old man by then and his lectures on tragedy didn’t sparkle. You had to strain to listen. But when he talked about Sophocles he was responding to the Greek text. His little book on Tolstoy took in all the Russian scholarship. He was unspectacular, but I had come just far enough to know that he was worth listening to, and precisely because he had no big ideas. He talked nothing except sense. Younger undergraduates couldn’t be blamed for wanting stronger stuff. In Pembroke, the star students in English were nearly all Americans. Some of them went to hear George Steiner, recently installed at Churchill College, talk eloquently about how the crisis of Western civilisation had reached a point where it would be better if everybody stopped talking. Others went to hear Leavis talk about how the crisis of western civilisation had been made worse by Steiner. Some of them went to hear both, took verbatim notes from each, intercalated the results and served up the synthesis in their weekly essays. Sharing practical criticism seminars or group supervisions with the Americans, I would marvel at the seriousness with which they took it all. But there would be ample time for them to become less gullible later, and for the time being their all-fired keenness was probably more fruitful, and certainly more attractive, than my indolence. They had a hard enough time fathoming the English, so my own transitional persona must have seemed as out of focus as a chameleon crossing a kilt.

They, to me, looked perfect. Whether Ivy League WASPS, New York Jews or third generation Polacks and Bohunks with names full of ‘c’s and ‘z’s, they were fully in character and inexhaustibly supplied with authentic all-American dialogue, They were all very bright, of course, which helped. Fulbright scholars and Phi Beta Kappa almost to a man, they were reading the second part of the English Tripos, like me. Unlike me they had degrees which had been won by hard work against deadly competition at Yale, Princeton, Harvard, Columbia and Amherst, Of the Ivy League types, the outstanding example was Stradlington Westwood Blantyre III, called Strad for short, like an expensive violin. And indeed he was a finely tuned instrument, though built like an upper East Side brownstone. Six feet four in his triple-welted brogues, he had grown a moustache out of shyness and looked apologetic that it had hidden no more than his upper lip. The expression ‘modest to a fault’ had been invented for him. President of Triangle when at Princeton, he had a fine line of songs and monologues, but could be forced on to the Footlights stage only at gunpoint. The only male graduate who could cycle past Newnham and make its inhabitants appear at the windows spontaneously — the rest of us could not have obtained the same results had we thrown tear gas — he never noticed the sensation he caused. Every day he was invited to tea at Girton, more than once by the dons themselves, He.was actually invited to that heavily defended castle full of unattainable females. The rest of us would have been picked up by the searchlights and fixed, machine guns before we had even cut our way through the barbed wire and reached the moat full of alligators. But what did he do when he got there? He discussed Thackeray. As the inmates passed him cucumber sandwiches with trembling hands, he quietly made clear that there was a fiancée waiting for him at home. Pending his graduation and marriage — the two events were apparently scheduled to take place simultaneously — energies left- over from study were expended on rowing. He rowed for the college and would probably have done the same for the university if he had not been so intelligent. In the grad pad after Hall, when the affiliated students would stand around drinking port or coffee in a vain attempt to quell memories of what they had eaten for dinner, I would accuse Strad of wanting to do all the right things. ‘No,’ he said, after thinking it over, ‘I just want to do things right.’

He thought himself conventional but made an art of the conventions. I admired his good manners and perhaps he relished my lack of them. At any rate he took me some way into his secret life. One afternoon, in his rooms, he poured me another inch of Bourbon and put an LP on his record-player. ‘It is important to be cool,’ he said, with characteristic terseness. ‘These three women are called the Supremes. Notice how cool they are.’ While the sublime riffs and harmonies of ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’ came lilting into my life for the first time, Strad was rolling a peculiar-looking cigarette. ‘Now let’s hear that again while we take a drag on this object, which we call a joint.’ I would like to say that the experience was transformative, but like most first-time pot-smokers I missed the point through not taking a sufficient quota of air. The Supremes were enough to get me high all by themselves, however. Strad was like that: he played it dead square, but there was always another side to him. His façade had facets.

Of Delmer Dynamo I have already given a preliminary description, but he, too, was many-sided, if someone so bulb-shaped could be that. In his second year he had put out shoots and tendrils. He had not relinquished his sardonic commentary on the college and its facilities. (Famously he had said ‘blow it out your ass’ within earshot of the Dean, but had got away with it because the Dean, misled by the American pronunciation of the word, had thought that Delmer was making some arcane reference to a biblical animal.) Delmer had, however, embraced English cultural values with the determination of a Greek ship-owner angling for election to White’s. He was a college man yet more than a college man. He was practically a college building. His large supply of money from home was poured into first editions of George Eliot and the novels of Dickens in the original monthly parts. In his rooms there was a matched pair of Purdey shot-guns, one of which had not been fired, and the other of which, by Delmer’s own account, had been aimed at a partridge and accounted for a beater. There was fly-fishing equipment. Where once there had been a rack of Savile Row suits and tweed hacking jackets, there were now two racks, while on the appropriate pegs and shelves, specially installed, there were Burberry overcoats with detachable linings, oiled Barbours, opera capes, deerstalker hats and green wellingtons. Late night discussions in front of Delmer’s fireplace were fortified with a hamper from Fortnum and Mason’s. Most impressive of all, kept in a small car-park off Trumpington Street, was Delmer’s car. It was a Bentley with a very rare H. J. Mulliner double-shell body of aluminium. A measure of Delmer’s Englishness was that he did not call aluminium ‘aloominum’. Delmer’s newly anglicised diction, seemingly acquired from manuscripts which P. G. Wodehouse had rejected as too characteristic, shed any last overtones of self-mockery where his car was concerned. ‘Care for a spin, old bean?’

Strad, who adored Delmer, warned me to play along. ‘He’s serious. Don’t call him on it or he’ll crash the goddam thing.’ The big drawback was that Delmer couldn’t drive. He had an international licence but he must have bought it off a crooked cop in Atlantic City. In the car-park, Strad and I had to wait a long time while Delmer tried to turn the key. Not in the ignition: in the door. When we got into the car there was another long wait while he got it to start. ‘Tally ho!’ he cried, when the flooded carburettor at last coughed life into the engine. ‘Wizard prang! Now let’s toodle off into the landscape.’ Then he couldn’t get out of the car-park. With too much pride to let anyone else try instead, he crabbed toward the exit, backed up, twisted the wheel, lurched forward again, but couldn’t line the front wheels up with the way out. Part of the trouble was the driving position. With his feet on the pedals he had to tilt his head back in order to see over the walnut dashboard. Eventually it was time for Strad to go rowing, so he got out.. That left me. After a while I got out too and tried to guide Delmer between the posts. It didn’t work. Though the engine of the Bentley wasn’t very loud even when revved in desperation, there was a terrific silence after Delmer switched it off. He climbed out, shut the door, and looked for a long time at his most expensive acquisition. His hands were in his pockets. I got the impression that if they hadn’t been he would have punched a dent in the front door. The lustrous toes of his ox-blood shoes, which had been handmade in St James’s, were twitching. But the revenge he took on his recalcitrant purchase was not physical. Recrimination had gone beyond that. With his hands still in his pockets he threw back his head and cried out to Heaven. ‘BLOW IT OUT YOUR ASS!’

Strad and Delmer both slaved over their books like gladiators in training, but always with a sense of their limitations. Strad would one day go to work in the family publishing firm, Delmer in the faculty of English at Columbia. They would serve literature, not create it. JFK, their best hope and only President, was dead; the Vietnam war, though still rated officially only as a police action, already beckoned with an evil welcome for contemporaries who had been less lucky; they were troubled for their country and grateful for small mercies. But Bob Marenko was Captain America. An Amherst Phi Bete who as a high school tight end had already been scouted by every team in the newly-formed National Football League, he had turned his massive shoulders on sport in order to put his head down and charge at literature, fourth down and goal to go. In his rooms he had two copies of Yeats’s collected poems, one to be kept sacred and the other to be marked up. In the marked copy every line was underlined and annotated in the margin. ‘Elision of “the” and “indifferent” conveys casualness of swan after consummation, while abruptness of terminal word “drop” mimics action. Develop.’ Unsurprisingly for one so young and keen, Marenko’s own poems aped those of his idol, yet you couldn’t fail to be impressed by the sheer number of them. He never sent them out for publication in the university newspapers and magazines, Instead he passed them around the college, listening attentively to criticism before going back to his rooms and writing far into the night. It was clear that if he did not become a great poet he would become a great critic. The latest books and articles by Harold Bloom, Northrop Frye, Yvor Winters and Stephen Marcus were all collected and cross-referenced by Marenko as if they were jazz records. He felt the same way about jazz records, but they had to be modern. Thelonious Monk was about as far back as Marenko’s tastes went, and he really started to feel comfortable only with John Coltrane, whose interminable solos could be listened to and argued about until dawn broke. Marenko wanted to discuss things. Above all, he wanted to discuss Vietnam. He was serious about it: much more serious than the anti-war agitation which was by now building up throughout the Western lands. If Marenko thought it was a just war, he would put his head down and run at the Viet Cong. If he thought it was unjust, he would put his head down and run at his own government. Hence the necessity to talk things over. The debates lasted half the night every night, except when there was live jazz to be heard. Every Wednesday night there was a guest soloist at the Red Lion in Lion Yard, usually a good, solid British sax player such as Ronnie Ross, Art Themen, Don Rendell or Kathy Stobart. Colin Edwards, a townsman, was the resident drummer, and Mike Payne, a retired Vampire pilot, played the bass. For a few shillings it was a feast of danceable mainstream music. On top of that, once in a great while an American legend came to town. Duke Ellington came to Great St Mary’s and gave his Sacred Music concert, which proved to be a bit too sacred for my taste, while Marenko merely found it antediluvian. I tried to explain that Ellington’s great period had been in the early 1940s, when every three-minute recording was like a miniature symphony. Marenko’s eyes were suffused with pity. But when Thelonious Monk played at the Union, even Marenko got excited. We went with Delmer. Monk-mad myself, I did my best to understand as the mighty man - backed by a susurrating post-bop rhythm section in which the drummer seemed to hit nothing except the cymbals and the bass player did everything he could to avoid the beat - punched clusters of notes apparently at random and climaxed a half-hour rendition of ‘Monk’s Dream’ by jabbing all his fingers into the lid of the key-board. ‘Jesus H. Christ on a crutch,’ said Delmer at interval, ‘this guy is stoned.’ Marenko tried to set Delmer straight, ‘I can relate to how you might feel that, Delmer,’ said the star student compassionately, ‘but the aleatory component was always implicit in Monk’s music. He’s merely taking that element to its logical conclusion.’

‘Blow it out your ass,’ Delmer replied. ‘I’m going home.’ Marenko and I stayed for the second half, during which Monk twice missed the piano altogether. But over cocoa late that night Marenko was persuasive about our having witnessed an important step in modern music. Marenko’s passionate erudition was hard to resist. He knew so much, and cared so much more. Long before dawn, he had me convinced that every move of Monk’s hands had been a miracle of controlled self-expression. Late next morning we were waiting outside the Blue Boar Hotel in Trinity Street to pay homage when Monk checked out. When he appeared, he wasn’t precisely being carried by the drummer and the bass player, merely supported by them, but his feet were only vaguely in contact with the ground and his eyes looked like blood-capsules. ‘Where we at, man?’ I heard him enquire softly. ‘Still in England,’ muttered the bass player. ‘Stay cool till we’re in the car.’ Monk’s toes, were touching the pavement but they were dragging behind his heels. His puce eyeballs rolled upwards to look at the narrow brim of his black felt hat while his lips, between his toothbrush moustache and his vestigial goatee, imitated a little doughnut. ‘Where we at?’ he moaned.

Marenko took this setback philosophically, the way he took everything. Dutifully he would enlarge his world view to fit the world. In college I spent more time with the Americans than with the British because the Americans were more interested in everything, including Britain, They certainly made better Europeans. They worked hard at their languages and got across to the continent in every vacation. They looked on self-improvement as a sacerdotal obligation. Democratic without being philistine, studious without feeling superior, the Americans were my solace inside the college. Outside the college, I necessarily spent much of my time with the natives. By that stage, I was publishing poems and articles in every issue of Varsity, Granta and The Cambridge Review, with the overspill going into the aforesaid gaggle of evanescent literary magazines unread by anybody except the committed literati. These latter life-forms were now becoming easier for me to classify into their various weights and types. There were flashbacks called Algernon who dressed and sounded as if they were auditioning for a tea party thrown by Harold Acton or Maurice Bowra. There were ultra-grey ex-grammar school types who wrote something called Concrete Poetry and were called Ken. Both groups, had I but known it, were on their way up in the world. The Algernons were all from minor public schools. In the new mood of classlessness they could plausibly carry on as if they came from major ones. (As the cachet enjoyed by the editorial staff of Private Eye had already demonstrated, the principal effect of the Sixties social revolution was to make young men who had been to Shrewsbury feel less miserable about not having been to Eton.) The Kens were amassing points for their future careers: a BBC general traineeship would fall most easily to the curriculum vitae which showed evidence of artistic endeavour, if not actual achievement. Over the secret desires and lurking ambitions of both Algernon and Ken I rode rough-shod. Algernon wrote crepuscular sonnets and Ken assembled, probably with tweezers, microscopic unpunctuated stanzas from which the ghosts of ideas gestured feebly, like lice in raindrops. There was a lot of white space left over, which I filled. My verse was still a long way from the clarity which I was eventually to realise should be my aim - I would rather my work were thought prosaic than poetic, and there are some who would say that I have been granted my wish — but compared with the eye-dropper out-squeezings of my undergraduate rivals it was a torrent of candour. Also, after a year’s practice, I had become almost impossible to turn down. Having grown another beard even more farouche than its predecessor, when I fronted up at an undergraduate editor’s door I must have looked less like an aspiring contributor than someone who had been hired to collect a debt. I was only about five years older than the average final-year literatus but in your twenties a lustrum is like a canyon. Most of these young scribblers, I guessed, would one day give up, whereas I had already diagnosed myself, correctly, as having the disease in its chronic form. I was a lifer. Being that, perhaps I should have sent my work out to the professional magazines, but if these amateurs resented my crabbing their act they didn’t show it. Not that I would have noticed if they had, because I spent as little time socialising with them as possible. If, to them, I was just too insensitive, to me they were just too callow. Except for the Algernons, who were living in Echo Park, all that concerned them was Experimental Writing, and I had come far enough to know that there is no such thing as experimental writing. There is only writing. The arts do not advance through technique, they accumulate through quality. One evening I went to a literary tea in Newnham. The editor of a magazine called something like Samphire had invited me as guest of honour. If the editor had been male, I need hardly state, I would have found the invitation much easier to refuse. All the Cambridge poets were there, the Algernons in their velvet jackets and the Kens in their anoraks. During the muffled course of a desultory conversation in which tea-cake crumbs were carefully retained in the cupped hand, Anselm Hollo was proposed as a touchstone contemporary poet. My contention that they would all be better off learning MacNeice’s Autumn Journal by heart was greeted with tolerant smiles by the Kens. The Algernons were more ready to entertain the notion but they were outnumbered. The balance was shifting. Revolution was in the air. An aerosol can of crazy foam was passed around. We were supposed to close our eyes and shape the foam between our hands while improvising on the theme of primal creation. One of the Kens squirted the crazy foam into his long hair. I left, not because I didn’t like them but because what they had on their hands, under the crazy foam, was time, and time was what I was already running out of.

At such moments I wondered whether I had any legitimate business being in a university, which is, after all, a place where young people discover themselves. Those who have already done so should clear out. These misgivings were reinforced by what went on in the Union debating chamber. Abramovitz was elected Secretary of the Union in the first term of his second year: the fastest climb to power on record. I attended his inaugural debate with some vague intention of speaking from the floor. I was ready to lie down on it and go to sleep before the paper speeches were half over. Though Abramovitz himself conducted the proceedings suavely enough, the frolicsome puns and points of order from the resident wits would have tried the patience of a saint. A moustached madman called Peregrine Sourbutts-Protheroe kept jumping to his feet and proposing that the motion be put, or that the point of order be promulgated, or whatever. Since the motion was some balls-aching foolery along the lines of ‘That this House would rather rock than roll’, I was all in favour of its being got out of the way as soon as possible, but apparently Sourbutts-Protheroe was out of order. He certainly looked it. Instead of the black tie favoured by the committee he wore full white-tie evening dress, except that he also wore plimsolls. Abramovitz informed me that Sourbutts-Protheroe was tolerated for the amusement he provided. The humourless, keen to be thought otherwise, love to laugh but need to be told when, so they are always glad if a clown dresses the part. With my eyes closed I listened in despair as the evening wore on. It was just possible that something serious could be said in such a context of bad jokes and braying laughter. But something funny never could. I vowed never to speak in a university union debate. In later years I was to rescind that vow several times each in Cambridge and Oxford, but always with subsequent regret for a largely wasted evening. If only they would cut the malarkey and get on with the oratory. Nothing speeds up your heart like speaking on your feet.

There was plenty of opportunity for that in the Footlights, where I continued to meet young British people who were to influence my life deeply. Some of them have become well-known since. I will try not to single them out merely on that basis. Stylistic gymnastics ensue when one tries to drop a name softly, while simultaneously indicating that one was present at the birth of, and perhaps even helped breathe life into, the future star. (‘The name Marlon Brando didn’t mean much then, but when he watched you act you knew that someone very special was analysing your every move, your every vocal inflection,’ etc) Besides, some of those who impressed me most have never become stars, but have lived normal lives instead; a destiny to be preferred, in my opinion, unless the strength of inner compulsion leaves no choice.

Eric Idle had gone down to begin a professional career as a performer on stage and screen. Since the road to Monty Python was longer and harder than most of the journalists who write about the subject are capable of taking in, he won’t thank me for saying that he had future stardom written all over him. He was a consummate performer. He was, however, still somewhat short of material at that time, having not yet found his true comic vision, which was within him, but needed a context to bring it out. His successor as President of Footlights was Andy Mayer, whose originality was already fully established, and probably had been when he was still in the cradle. Mayer must have lacked the neurotic requirement for the limelight, because nowadays he is happy to work behind the camera. At the time his precocity floored me. He went on stage with his own stuff, and it was unique. So was his style of delivering it. A smallish young man with a huge Beatles-style helmet of dead straight dark hair whose fringe was cut square across the eyes so that he had to tilt his head back to look at the audience, he had a weird sort of negative timing which made pauses go on longer than they should, except when, as he often did, he got a big laugh, which he would try to talk straight through, as if he couldn’t hear it. Staccato and legato at the same time, his monologues were short and apparently incoherent collages of verbal fragments. A routine in which he pretended to be an American evangelist had me simultaneously roaring with laughter and breathless with admiration, wondering how he packed so much in. ‘Jesus Christ! Remember the name. Said. (Long pause) Or is said to have said. (Longer pause) God! (Inconceivably long pause) I put it to you that he noo! I dunno. (Looks at watch, nods into wings.) So! (Extends forefinger, finds it fascinating, becomes transfixed, shakes head.) Write away! Write away right away to the following address ... ’ There were only about a hundred words in the piece but it took him five minutes to get through it, so panic-stricken was the audience. They would hold on to each other and howl.

Pronounced by so young a man, these comic ramblings, when I stopped laughing to reflect, stung like a reproach. My own monologues were still running at about ten minutes minimum and Mayer was taking half the time to say twice as much, with four times the effect. When it was announced that President Johnson’s daughter, Lucy Baines Johnson, was engaged to be married, I presaged the nuptials with a monologue which was my first really big hit in the Footlights. But the emphasis was on ‘big’. Cast in the form of a running commentary, as if the wedding ceremony were a football match, the piece went on and on like a novel by Thomas Wolfe before Maxwell Perkins had persuaded him to cut it down to merely mammoth proportions. The foreign policy of the United States was starting to worry me almost as much as it was starting to worry my American friends. I had a lot to say on the subject. Partly because my American friends were present in the audience, my ‘Lucy Gets Married’ monologue went down a storm in the Falcon Yard clubroom, but it was a long storm, with several lulls included. Chastened by Andy Mayer’s gift for brevity, I trimmed my masterpiece by several minutes before going public with it in the Pembroke smoker. At the cost of sacrificing some of the more obviously political content, the laugh lines were brought closer together. What I was then engaged in, I realised much later, was the first stage in a laborious process of learning to remove the connecting tissue so that the argument could be unified by tone rather than logic. In the long run this painfully acquired discipline would enable me to write a thousand-word article which sounded as if I was just saying it (detractors who called my television column in the Observer a cabaret turn were exactly right) but at the time it was painful to go on and die, and even when I had a hit, like ‘Lucy Gets Married’, the hit could be alarmingly hit and miss. A laugh that I got on Thursday night wouldn’t be there on Friday night. What had I done wrong? I had produced the show successfully enough - the wine had once again done its work on the audience - but I was less adept at producing myself. This was to remain a pattern. When it came to criticising and arranging the work of others, the shaping spirit operated in good order. When it came to my own work, the enthusiasm of invention made me deaf to my own better judgment. Always I had to go into hiding and lick ray wounds before I found the wherewithal to improve...When I did improve, it was often in the wrong direction, towards a more polished performance, when what ! needed, to do was to perform less: the deader my pan, the better my words worked. An anti-talent, I needed a non-style.

Romaine Rand: now there was a performer. After her striptease nun routine the previous year, I was well aware that her absence from the Pembroke smoker would not be tolerated. The Hearties would dismantle the place if she did not show up. By now I was in digs on the Newnham side of the river, having got out of my room in the Eagle only just in time to avoid being consumed by the killer mould. My new room was rented from a nice young couple of graduate scientists who needed the money. Apart from my habit of smoking in bed while drunk, from their viewpoint I must have been the ideal tenant, because I was busy in Footlights almost all the time. They seldom saw me, and my memory of them is hazy. I changed my sheets about once a term, but never slept in them long enough on any given night to turn them any very deep shade of grey, A pot of jam that I left with its lid off for two or three months was mysteriously removed. Apart from that there was no interference with my freedom. Rather better organised as usual, Romaine lived in a Newnham hostel not far away. Her sitting room had a diamond-leaded casement, through which, from outside the building, I debonairly inserted my upper body before launching on an eloquent appeal for her participation in the Pembroke smoker. Walled in by stacks of books about Elizabethan rhetoric, she tried to stave me off by pleading pressure of work. I had the answer to that. Since, as I have related, she had managed to persuade the university authorities that she should be allowed to forget the Tripos and register for a PhD, it was my year for sitting examinations, not hers. Then she tried to stall me by saying that she didn’t have a number ready. I countered by telling her that it would be enough for her just to show up and go on. It didn’t matter what she did, but if she wasn’t there then I was a gone goose. This appeal to her compassion was unavailing, because although Romaine’s emotions were powerful, they came and went, and this was a Tuesday, whereas her day for compassion was Wednesday. Tuesday was her day for patriotism. When I pointed out that if the Pembroke smoker flopped it would be bad news for Australia, she began to melt, and when I wound up by suggesting, in broad terms, that no essay in the art of cabaret and intimate revue could be fully alive without the galvanising influence of her genius for improvisation, it became clear that I had finally touched her heart. Her day for self-obsession was every day. Since the same went for me, it had taken time for me to switch the centre of attention from me to her, but having once got around to it I could congratulate myself on my cunning. ‘Don’t get your hopes up,’ she said dismissively, already engrossed again in the exquisite scholastic filigree of Love’s Labours Lost. ‘I’m fucked if I’ll work my tits off for a pack of dick-heads who row boats.’ She promised, however, to put in an appearance of some kind. Romaine had her drawbacks but her word was her bond. She had said she would be there, so I was saved. It was with an inexpressible sense of relief, then, that I backed down the gardener’s ladder up which I had climbed to her window. Although elated, I was careful not to hurry. Her sitting room was only on the second floor, but the gravel driveway looked as hard as a proctor’s heart.

Though Romaine did indeed turn up on the first night of the Pembroke smoker, she terrified me by announcing that she intended to do nothing except sing ‘Land of Hope and Glory’. She had brought the sheet music for this, so that our piano player could accompany her. She was also carrying a dark blue straw hat with a stuffed bird on it. She put in a request to go on last, so that she would have time to practise her piece out in the corridor. My own view was that it was her look-out. The standard of numbers was quite high that year. We had a jazz quartet powered by the compulsive mainstream drumming of Colin Edwards, who was moonlighting from his regular gig at the Red Lion. Under the low ceiling of the Old Library, with the audience far gone into the rapture of the deep, that band sounded like a destroyer passing close overhead. All the Footlights who had aspirations towards being included in the May Week revue were parading their audition pieces in highly polished form. I’m bound to say that I held my own with them. In my capacity as producer, I chose to place my ‘Lucy Gets Married’ monologue as the second last number. By that time the Hearties at the back of the packed room were sitting on each other’s shoulders and swinging playfully at each other with empty wine bottles. Down at the front, flanked by two Girton girls in taffeta, the ruffles on the expensive dress shirt of Delmer Dynamo were hanging limply wet, like cabbage bleached by steam. The audience were all so tight that Sir Alec Douglas-Home could have read out the university bye-laws and gone over like Max Miller. At the end of my monologue, I was swept off the stage by a tidal wave of applause. As Romaine went past me in the dark, I tacitly challenged her to top that. For a long while nothing much happened, I peeked around the door. The preliminary cheering had died down to a provisional rhubarb. Some of the Hearties were laughing at Romaine’s hat, but all the rest of the audience were refilling one another’s wine glasses while she handed her sheet music to the piano player, gave him whispered instructions, stood back, folded her hands, cleared her throat, and nodded for him to begin the accompaniment.

The result was chaos. She sang ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ with her lips out of synchronisation with the words. When she sang the word ‘hope’, her mouth was pronouncing the word ‘land’, and so on. The effect was uncannily funny, as if the world had come loose from its pivot. I saw the normally staid Strad Blantyre pass out from laughter. He was out of his chair and on the floor as if the room was being sprayed with bullets. People were holding on to one another and crying. Delmer Dynamo was removing his clothes by tearing at them, like a sea-lion strangling in its own skin. When Romaine finished the song they made her sing it again. This time she added illustrative gestures, but they were out of synchronisation too. She marched on the spot when she should have looked maternal, smiled winsomely when she should have looked martial, laughed when she should have wept. The audience rocked back and forth as if lashed by the gale of their own laughter. When I led the rest of the cast on for the closing number it was like setting up a Punch and Judy show after the battle of El Alamein. I did my best to look proprietorial, as if the whole idea had been mine. This strategy must have worked at least partly, because from that day forward I was able to run up debts on my college bills, and an exeat was always easy to obtain. When I said I had important business in London, I was believed. I had become a tolerated eccentric. This had been, was, and probably still is, one of the undeclared side-benefits of the Cambridge system. Within broad limits you can make as big a fool of yourself as you like, and still be put up with. In that respect, on the day when the ancient universities become efficient they will cease to be productive. Misfits and failures should have room to flourish. The proposition is made no less valid by the haste with which the misfits and failures spring forward to agree with it.