Books: May Week was in June — Well Interrupted, Pembroke |
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May Week was in June — Well Interrupted, Pembroke

Let me not convey an impression of time completely wasted. If I had been enrolled to read a science subject and had dodged work in such a fashion, I would have been cheating. But in retrospect it seems possible that I only felt fraudulent. Eschewing the set books with unequalled diligence, I read everything else. From the conversations that lasted until dawn, I remembered what I heard in the rare intervals when I wasn’t talking. The awkward truth, when it comes to the humanities, is that knowledge, taste and judgment get into us by uncharted routes. Late one night in Footlights, alone with the sputtering black-and-white TV set, I saw and heard Jacqueline du Pré playing the Elgar cello concerto. I saw her before I heard her, and went mad for her smile as I never did for Elgar, but another barrier between me and classical music softly crumbled. Until then I had been convinced, wrongly, that the main stream of great music was in the symphonies and the operas. After that, I started looking for it in the right place, in the concertos and the chamber music. It was her passion that did it. We live more by example than we think. Strong evidence for this view was provided by the disconcerting fact that I was a bit of a role model myself. Undergraduates who were shy about their intellectual or artistic ambitions looked up to me because I was blatant about mine. They believed that I knew a thing or two and I’m bound to say that I agreed with them. When the JCR of my college was invited to send a three-man team to compete in the television programme University Challenge, that I should be included seemed natural not just to me but to everyone. The rank of captain being offered, I made no demur. My second-in-command was an American called Chuck Beaurepaire, who was a walking, shouting encyclopaedia. Delmer Dynamo and the other Americans avoided him because of his knack for making his interlocutor redundant. He talked all the time and nothing he said was refutable, because all of it was facts, A formidable practitioner along those lines myself, I had been known to go toe-to-toe with him for a full half-hour before pausing to draw breath, whereupon he swept inexorably into the gap. Beaurepaire talked the way Alexander gave battle. He went straight at you. ‘Watch out for Chuck,’ whispered Delmer loudly one night in Hall. ‘He’s got another hole to eat with. The mouth never gets tired.’ Beaurepaire was sitting only about three places away and should have heard, but he was talking. ‘Johnson has the legislative record. Viewpoint of social benefits, Great Society biggest thing since New Deal. Just has a dumb name. Should’ve called it something else. Fair shake. Free lunch. Whatever. Know what Johnson said about J. Edgar Hoover? You don’t? Teil you. Listen, this is great. They asked him why he didn’t fire Hoover, right? Johnson said he’d rather have Hoover inside the tent pissing out than outside pissing in. My father was there when he said that. Johnson was on the Hill when Jack Kennedy ...’ Beaurepaire delivered all this in a sustained bellow that made all around him look into their stew as if a tunnel might open through it and lead them to salvation. But from the viewpoint of Pembroke’s team for University Challenge, to have Beaurepaire on tap was like being offered the assistance of Otto Skorzeny to pull a bank-raid. The third member of our team was a nice young man whose name I have forgotten. He had been chosen because he knew something about science. Beaurepaire knew all about that too, so the young man never needed to open his mouth, and, being shy, didn’t try. Let us call him Christopher, because if his name wasn’t that then it was Nicholas. His family had a nice house outside Manchester, where we all stayed the night before we recorded the show next day. In those days, Granada Television ruled the ionosphere with Coronation Street and an unrivalled array of classic small formats like University Challenge, All Our Yesterdays, What the Papers Say and Cinema, which was to be the first programme I ever regularly presented when, some years later, I tentatively essayed what has turned out to be my principal means of earning a living. At that time, however, I had been on television precisely once. It had happened in Sydney. Television itself had been new to Australia. I was one of a team of Sydney University students ranged against a team of journalists in a game of bluff. We had scored precisely no points. I forget the rules, but I never got over sitting there for half an hour without saying a word. This time, I resolved, would be different. In one of Christopher’s guest rooms, I lay awake looking at the hammered beams and white plaster of the low ceiling. Outside in the grounds, the moon shone on the lake. I didn’t want Christopher’s inheritance. I didn’t even want, or not very much, Christopher’s mother, which was quite mature of me, because she was exactly the stamp of unassuming but self-assured gentlewoman most calculated to arouse greed and resentment. Her husband, I had guessed, must have been that object covered with coats and hats that we passed in the hall. Anyway, he hadn’t joined us for dinner, which, excusing herself, she did not change for, merely adding tiny pearl earrings to her ensemble of cable-stitch roll-neck sweater, corduroy trousers and penny loafers. Quality unencumbered by finery, her soignée allure was the unfussiest possible interplay of form and content. Serene. What a word. There was nothing ruffled about her image until it reached my eyes. ‘You will look after Christopher tomorrow, won’t you?’ I nodded conspiratorially while Beaurepaire told her about the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Next day we were up against an all-girl team from St Hilda’s, Oxford. I’m sorry to say that we creamed them. Christopher just sat there and I almost did the same. Beaurepaire was magnificent, Bamber Gascoigne, moderating the programme, could barely begin a question before Beaurepaire answered it. ‘It was unhistorical of Keats ...’ Gascoigne began. ‘Balboa!’ shouted Beaurepaire over the zap of his buzzer. He had instantaneously figured out, not only that the question must concern Keats’s mistake in putting Cortez on a peak in Darien, but that the question would be about whom he should have put there instead. Bitterly reflecting that ‘Silent, upon a peak in Darien’ neatly summarised the condition and location to which everyone who knew Beaurepaire would like to see him translated, I was nevertheless pleased that we were cleaning up, and the last bonus question was a personal triumph for myself. The right answer depended on knowing that Leonardo’s ‘Last Supper’ had been painted on a wet wall. Having seen it helped, A man of the world, I struggled not to look too pleased as we swept to victory. The camera probably saw the straggle. Personality is the thing it catches. Everything else it lets go.

You have to realise that in those days the whole country watched every episode of University Challenge. They watched it in working men’s clubs. The Queen Mother watched it, knuckles white, running to the telephone to place bets. At the time of writing, television in Britain is still, by the skin of its teeth, a communal event - the best reason for being involved in it — but twenty years ago there was no question about it. If you were on television in prime time, the whole population of the country was looking through the same small window right into your face. That night we, the winning team from Pembroke, were given dinner by Bamber and the programme’s producer at the Midland Hotel. The losing team was nowhere to be seen. The producer’s beautiful researcher had a nice, fresh, land-girl sort of smile which bore up pluckily under a verbal onslaught from Beaurepaire that left Bamber looking thoughtful, as if wondering whether it was all worth it. Somehow I knew that he really thought it was, even if it cost him this, a bad evening out with the cocky youngsters. It wasn’t just the money. It was the thing itself. The millions watching. The show. I vowed to myself that they would never get me. Never, never would I succumb to the lure of television. Its mereness I found offensive. Television didn’t transform you. You just sat there. Look at Bamber Gascoigne, just sitting there while two pretty girls from the next table leaned over his shoulder — leaned on his shoulder — to get his autograph. Four pretty girls. It was a moment of truth. Even Beaurepaire stopped talking. Silent, upon a peak in Manchester.

The following week we came back for the next round, against another Oxford college, Balliol. Once again we stayed at Christopher’s house the night before the big day. Christopher’s father was still nowhere in the picture. Christopher’s mother either changed for dinner or else had been wearing that black jersey silk bias-cut scooped-neck top all day, along with the straight plum velvet skirt and the ankle-strap sandals. While Beaurepaire blew a gale I drowned in her eyes. I resolved that when we returned victorious the next evening, I would dare. I had been reading a biography of H. G. Wells which said that when a guest at a country house party he already had a map of the sleeping arrangements in his pocket before he got off the train, with the distances all worked out so that he could get the mother and the daughter before dawn: a brace with one barrel. Along the corridor at dead of night, knock softly on her door, and begin with a discussion of her son’s personality problems, currently being exacerbated by unshielded exposure to the overweening self-confidence of Beaurepaire. As she leaned elegantly sideways in the tempest emanating from the latter’s tireless lungs, I essayed a small sympathetic smile and was rewarded with a soft lowering of eyelashes like two black moths making a deck landing on stretched silk. I went into battle against Balliol as if her handkerchief was tucked into my tunic, or was fluttering, as it were, from the point of my couched lance.

Boy, did we lose. And it was all my fault. The Balliol blokes knew more than the St Hilda’s women and were a lot quicker at hitting the buzzer. Their captain was practically a psychic. He guessed the question before Bamber’s mouth was fully open and his reflex speed on the buzzer was like one of those small Australian boys who can bring down a dragonfly by spitting at it. But Beaurepaire was magnificent. He kept us in there, matching the Balliol top gun volley for volley as the afternoon blazed to a climax. The two teams were dead even when it came to the last question, which was about music. I heard two bars and knew it was Verdi. I heard four bars and knew it was Otello. I hit the button while the Balliol captain’s overdeveloped thumb was still in the air. Beaurepaire hit the button too but the answer was already out of my mouth. ‘Otello!’ I shouted. ‘It’s Don Carlo!’ shouted Beaurepaire, louder. Louder but too late, Bamber wrapped it up. ‘It was Don Carlo, as Chuck Beaurepaire said. Clive James should have waited. Congratulations, though, Pembroke, on being such close losers ... ’ I think I bore up reasonably well I was told subsequently - I am still told today by anyone I meet over the age of forty — that the tears which I thought were jetting from my eyes merely made them shine, and that if it had not been for my mouth, which went all square like a baby ready to howl, nobody would have known that my world had collapsed.

As we discovered the previous week, losers, no matter how close, did not get invited to the Midland Hotel. All the way back to Christopher’s house I explained that the bit of Don Carlo they had played was almost identical to the bit in Otello just before the whole cast sings at once. Beaurepaire was sulking. Keats would have mistaken him for stout Cortez. Christopher’s mother opened the door to us. She looked wonderful. So did her husband. It transpired during supper that he had just got back from Canberra, where he went regularly in order to talk about investments in minerals. ‘You’re making a mistake, I think,’ he told me, ‘in selling us the stuff outright. It would be wiser to impose conditions so that nobody could buy anything without processing it out there. That way you’d get a bigger industrial base. At the moment you’re just giving it away. The Japanese can’t believe their luck.’ This was an opportunity for Beaurepaire. His mouth was off and running. I looked at Christopher’s mother. I looked at those lashes. They were spread wide while the eyes they protected looked adoringly at her husband. He certainly was quite impressive, if you don’t mind them modest as well as handsome, intelligent and rich. ‘It must be a bore for you,’ I managed to choke out, ‘changing planes in Sydney. Must be a hell of a long flight.’ He nodded. ‘It would be if we didn’t have our own. Gives me a chance to keep my hours up.’ It turned out that he had flown Meteors in Malaya. I felt terrible. It should have been Otello. That bit just before he kills himself, where the strings well up and weep, would have been just right.