Books: May Week was in June — Wanting and Found Tested |
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May Week was in June — Wanting and Found Tested


Sexual starvation was the undergraduate’s prescribed fate. I considered myself hard done by, having to share it. After all, I was a man of experience: perhaps not precisely a boulevardier, but withal no sprig. I had experimented, and intended to experiment further. In my opinion I was still at a formative stage. I did not yet consider myself responsible enough to settle down. How could I be, when I was scarcely responsible enough to settle a bill? Without wishing to emulate Prince Aly Khan or Porfirio Rubirosa, I yet believed that there was a certain amount of adventuring which a man should regard as his duty; that I had at least made a start; and that if allowed a fair chance I might well make my mark. Consider the evidence. There was my chequered past. There was my long-term liaison in Italy. There was, to make me feel interestingly treacherous, my intermittent imbroglio with Robin in London. But in Cambridge there was, resoundingly, nothing. At the time the number of male undergraduates known to be cohabiting with females could be counted, with difficulty, on the fingers of one hand — with difficulty because the hand would be trembling with envy. A detached Observer might have felt that I was already getting my share. As far as I am able to assess the truth by looking back, however, my sense of deprivation was genuine, even though it arose from a compulsively, and possibly psychopathically, inadequate capacity to realise that out of sight should not mean out of mind. People loyal to me I was loyal to only when I was with them. This went double for women. I have learned better since, but very slowly, and the fact that I had to learn it, instead of having the instinct conferred on me by nature, has been a grief to me, although never so much as it has been a grief to others, who always had to grieve first before I noticed that grief might be appropriate.

There was also the consideration that I was very energetic, a condition which time has since gone a long way towards curing completely. Whatever my psychological compulsion towards putting it aimlessly about, sheer physical randiness was a powerful potentiating agent. If the result was priapism, Cambridge might have been specifically designed to put a stop to it. Men of that age, in that epoch, wanted their women attractive or not at all. There being, in the first place, few women in statu pupillari, the number of them who might arouse desire by their appearance was few indeed, and these received a volume and concentration of male attention which in some cases ruined them for life. The actresses were the worst. After a season with the ADC and a single appearance with the Marlowe, girls who started off with the self-effacing temperament of voluntary aid workers ended up carrying on like Catherine the Great. Being cast in a play was the merest interlude between bouts of theatrical behaviour extending deep into everyday life. They made entrances. They stormed out. They had the vapours. They did all these things going in and out of the University Library. There were exceptions, but the one I had to go and fall for wasn’t among them.

From the wooded slopes of Highgate by way of Golders Green and Tel Aviv, Consuela Schleppkis, though rather younger than I, was at the triumphant end of a university career during which she had taken the starring role, and most of the notices, in every major ADC and college production. A prima donna on stage, she was even more so off it, and after the drama critic of the Cambridge Evening News named her as Actress of the Year she went over the top like a regiment. Previously, though she had been unable to cycle up Castle Hill towards Girton without making innocent passersby suspect that she might be Lady Macbeth, she had been subject to brief bouts of normal behaviour. Now she would take notes in a Sidgwick Avenue lecture theatre with such an air of commitment that the lecturer would break off to ask her if anything was wrong. Actually commitment, was what she needed and later on she duly got it, but in the meantime her histrionic intensity was no excuse for my stupidity, whose only mitigating factor was her personal appearance, Consuela would have been a personable girl in any circumstances. In the Cambridge context she was like Marilyn Monroe in Korea. She was slim and dark rather than plump and blonde, but the effect was roughly the same. Blessed with a clear-skinned oval face dreamed by Modigliani in his last fever, she moved well when she was not self-conscious. She rarely wasn’t, but moved well enough even so. As the spring of my second year approached, Consuela was rehearsing an open air production of As You Like It in the gardens of Clare. Leaning on a hedge, her forehead in her hands, concentrating on her lines, she was so graceful that she made you — or me, at any rate — forget that no one can really lean on a hedge without falling through it. I besieged her with poems. Some of them still seem to me to be pretty good even today. Others were trash. She took them all as her due. They were burning in the fire when she finally invited me to an early tea at her digs near Fenner’s. The weather was already warm, but she said we would need a fire if we were going to take our clothes off. Already unnerved by the knowledge that she had asked everyone in Cambridge theatrical society whether it would be wise to sleep with me, I was reduced by the inspiring spectacle of her silky body to incurable impotence. Unaware then, and for some time to come, that what a gentleman should do in such circumstances is to forget himself and think of a few things the lady might like — which is, come to think of it, pretty well what a gentleman should do in any circumstances - I tried everything except ringing up the Fire Brigade. An immediate, frank confession of inadequacy might have enlisted her sympathy to the extent of getting her to drop the play-acting, which would have been a help.

Finally I tried to bluff it out, if that’s the appropriate expression. At first Consuela lay back with a show of drowsy, patient sensuality, as if Madame Récamier were receiving Châteaubriand in her boudoir and his dotage. This was not a bad number but unfortunately she must have read somewhere about the possibility of a smouldering simper. She unleashed several of these in succession, decorating them with a flare of the nostrils which would have made the Dalai Lama’s robe strobe, but which reminded me of a wild horse I had seen in Taronga Park zoo when very young — when I was very young, that is, the horse being obviously mature, not to say virile. I think it was one of those zebras that have no stripes, but do have a very long and large penis, which, when ready for use, extends so far from the lower abdomen that it will hit the ground unless its owner is standing over a hole. This recollection made me feel even more inadequate than I was feeling already. Desperately I tried to think of stimulating things. Again, here is a technique to which, reputedly, men in that situation often have recourse, but which has little to recommend it. If one is already in the presence of an actual incitement to desire, trying to think of an alternative incitement to desire can only emphasise the discrepancy between one’s psychological quandary and the fierce simplicity of one’s real-life position. To the part of the mind that watches the mind at work, the disjointure reveals itself as fundamentally absurd. Nothing is sillier to one’s superego than to observe one’s ego grinding away at the sweaty task of trying to flog one’s recalcitrant id into action. I was already far gone in the interior turmoil of this metaphysical confrontation when Consuela put the lid on it by shifting to a new role. She became solicitous, as if I had some rare disease. I got the impression that I had only days to live. Her large and lovely eyes were full of horror and wonder at how God’s behest had worked itself out by striking me down, thus depriving her of a great earthly love, but perhaps - who knew? — compensating her with a lasting memory of spiritual grace. If she had left the room, put on a nurse’s uniform and reappeared at the foot of the bed holding a hurricane lamp, she could not have done a better impersonation of Jennifer Jones. By now I was ready for the hospital anyway, and would have been glad if she could have left it at that. Unfortunately she saw a further possibility in the scene: a direction in which she might, in actor’s parlance, stretch herself, since it had long ago become clear that there was no chance of stretching me. She became scornful, as if Lupe Velez, on her famous first tempestuous visit to Errol Flynn, had thrown herself naked on the floor only to find her passion rewarded with a lecture on stamp-collecting. Tossing her head, Consuela made a sudden exit to the bathroom. A bathroom was already a very impressive accoutrement for an undergraduate to have, but the spectacle of Consuela exiting into it was awe-inspiring. She then made an entrance out of it, apparently without having done very much in there except pause for breath and learn her lines. ‘It doesn’t matter’ she snapped, tossing her head again and gazing fixedly out of the window. ‘Let’s just say it doesn’t matter.’What had she seen out of the window? Lohengrin arriving on a swan? It scarcely seemed possible, since the curtains were still drawn. But a certain amount of light was coming through them. Consuela liked looking at light. She liked standing in it. She looked very beautiful there: longhaired, small-bottomed, heroic in her tragedy. My clothes were all over the room. Getting into various bits of them, I couldn’t help noticing that I was always looking at her back. ‘Look,’ she said at last. It just doesn’t bloody matter, OK?’

There was still quite a lot of the afternoon left. Too miserable even to go to the movies, I spent it at the Whim, the Trinity Street coffee bar in whose back room the aesthetes gathered. Except for the Footlights, who were only there in the afternoon when the clubroom closed, everybody in the university’s artistic world would use the Whim all day as a headquarters, clearing house, comfort station, watering hole and gossip exchange. The Whim worked on the French café system: you could sit for a long time over a single cup of coffee as long as you didn’t mind paying too much for it in the first place. I enjoyed writing there because there was a good chance of being interrupted. This time I worked steadily on a poem - it was one of those threnodies which claim that to say goodbye is inevitable because the ecstasy is too intense to last — without encouraging anyone to join me in conversation. Indeed, I made a point of not lifting my head. A couple of hours went by like that. The place was jammed with its late afternoon regulars when Consuela made an entrance. In full drag as a tempestuous gypsy princess, she was pretty enough to stop a speeding train. A whole room full of aesthetes ceased talking about themselves and looked at her. Meanwhile she was looking at me. She shook her head. She threw it slowly back, raised her clenched fists to her forehead, and rocked as if her body was in the throes of rejecting a brain implant. Then she lowered her arms, looked at me again, shook her head slowly, and made an exit. Everyone looked at me. If she had left it at that, they all might have at least remained in doubt, but over the next few days she told everyone the details individually.

In retrospect I must concede that I was in no position to fault her on that point, because until much later in my life I was terribly indiscreet. Telling myself that to spill beans was a necessary component of a wonderful, warm, openly Antipodean personality, I exchanged gossip with the best of them, which necessarily meant that I also exchanged it with the worst of them. If people asked me intimate questions I would tell them the answers. I told people all about myself. Less forgivably, I told people all about other people too. I can’t even say that the concept of privacy eventually crept up on me. It was forced on me, by other people’s pain — or, to be less complacent and more accurate, by my pain at earning other people’s justified disapproval. In this regard I have become a different person: infinitely more guarded, unforthcoming to the point of paranoia. To embarrass someone by revealing his secret to someone who might damage him with it seems to me, in my later incarnation, a crime worse than breaking wind at an investiture. Having learned something of what malice can do, and of how candour plays into its hands, I am now a clam. In those days I simply blabbed. But I still thought that Consuela was impermissibly revelatory about our unproductive tryst. She did everything but hire a skywriter. Everyone in town knew. The women who sold cream cakes in Fitzbillie’s knew all about it. More than twenty years later I was still meeting perfect strangers who sympathised with me over my fiasco with Consuela Schleppkis. Let me take this opportunity to set the record straight. The truth is that my failed affair with Consuela rankled for a while, but nowadays, far from being still sensitive on the subject, I try to show that I enjoy a good joke against myself, before I go quietly away somewhere to be sick.

There was ample excuse for being unmanned. The Tripos examinations were imminent, and I was scarcely prepared to answer the essay paper, let alone the specialised papers on Swift, on tragedy and on God knew what else. On Jane Austen I had done just enough background reading to convince myself that I knew less about the foreground than I had thought. The mandatory foreign language paper was at least possible now that I had learned some Italian, which enabled me to avoid the French option. Emboldened by having started to get somewhere with Italian, I made renewed efforts to teach myself French, but I was at an early stage, possibly having overtaxed myself by choosing A la recherche du temps perdu as a primary reader. After six months I was about half-way through Du coté de chez Swann and still looking up every second word in an old Larousse. If I had known then that I would turn bald before I got through the whole thing I would probably have given up. A lack of sense of proportion is one of the big advantages of being young: when we grow out of it, we leave possibilities behind along with the absurdity. Proust remains my idol of idols to this day - and I could not, or at any rate would not, have written that last sentence without his influence. His willingness to generalise about life enthralled me even when I myself knew little about life worth knowing. His specific, concrete observations I admired but thought I understood how he did them. It was the aperçus, the aphoristic insights driving deeper than observation, which continually surprised me. His every sententious formulation I underlined in ballpoint, until the tattered, coffee-stained Livre de poche was fat with dog-ears and looked blue when it fell open. It was one of the books I carried everywhere in those spring days when I was theoretically gripped by examination fever. Examination lassitude would have been a more accurate expression. It was as though I had been bitten by a tsetse fly. As time grew shorter, I moved slower. Having kept well away from the Footlights May Week revue — I had neither auditioned for it nor volunteered any ancillary services beyond handing over a few scripts — theoretically I was unencumbered with extracurricular commitments. Thus free to plan my time constructively, I did little except make plans. I constructed elaborate flow charts of what I needed to do, when what I really needed to do was do something. Quietly getting crocked in his college room, my supervisor, nicknamed the Baby Don because his name was Ron Maybey, greeted me with only partly feigned admiration on the one occasion I could bring myself to turn up. ‘Remarkable track record,’ he said. ‘Far as I can tell, you haven’t actually completed a weekly essay in two years. Fancy a sherry?’ It was gallows humour. I should have been in a blue funk.

But the sun was out, the girls were out with it, the punts were on the river and I was lying casually on its far bank, opposite the back lawn of King’s, on the edge of the meadow. The pampered cows and expense-account sheep of King’s were behind me, grazing plumply among the buttercups. Before me was the prettiest stretch of waterway in the world, bounded on the far side by the austerely satisfying façade of Gibbs’s Fellows Building, with whose central arch I would always position myself in line so that I could see through it to the dry fountain in the middle of the front lawn. Wearing nothing but a pair of shorts, I could lie there working on my flow charts. When I broke into a sweat from all that effort I could roll into the river and swim lazily about, just quickly enough to dodge the punts. Of the young men who propelled the punts — of their honking voices, their self-satisfied features and their clothes purchased for a touring production of Charley’s Aunt — I felt no more tolerant than I had the previous year, but all anger subsided at the sight of their precious cargo. Elegant fingertips of first and second year undergraduettes would trail past at eye level as I lay limp, submerged to the nostrils. The third year undergraduettes, needless to say, were all in their rooms studying for the examinations which, it periodically occurred to me, I would, at this rate, plough like a plane crashing. So I hauled myself out of the water, temporarily put aside the latest master plan for concentrated study, and tried to sketch out a few thoughts relating to the set books.

One of the special papers was on Swift, and there I thought I had the glimmering of an idea. Swift’s prose appealed to me so strongly that my enthusiasm had survived a crushingly boring lecture from the current American academic expert on the subject. On a brief visit paid for by some memorial lecture fund, this worthy had packed one of the Sidgwick Avenue lecture theatres with an audience of dons, graduate students and final year undergraduates all eager to hear him on the subject of Swift’s sense of humour. By the time the visitor — I recall him as being the Hale Professor of Raillery at Yale, but I must have got that wrong - had finished isolating, exemplifying and analysing what he took to be Swift’s techniques of comic invention, anyone present with even a vestige of a sense of humour was, or should have been, praying for death. The professor was a bore on a Guggenheim, a long-range drone, an international ballistic fossil I spent the whole hour drawing little pictures of hanged men. I was kept from falling unconscious, however, by constantly renewed surprise at the gales of laughter which greeted the professor’s every creaking sally. When he quoted something by Swift that he said was meant to be funny, they laughed. Sometimes it was funny, although not after he got through reading it out, because he always added a bit of explanatory acting - including, especially, a shrewd, quizzical twinkle which he evidently assumed to be the facial expression Swift might have adopted when regaling fellow members of the Scriblerus Club with a passage of improvised invective. When the professor said something on his own account that was clearly meant to be funny also - you could tell it was a joke because he did everything except lay his index finger alongside his nose — they laughed even louder. It occurred to me that an academic audience — not necessarily individually, but in the aggregate - is like the audience for serious music when faced with the challenge of reacting to A Musical Joke. They kill themselves laughing because the only other possible response would be to ask for their money back. They roll in the aisles because they lack the nerve to take to their heels. This was a very depressing conclusion to reach and for a while I blamed Swift himself. Swift himself would have been quick to blame mankind. His misogyny I found off-putting until I read the journals to Stella and Vanessa. The professor was convinced that there could not have been anything between Swift and the girls except a rich exchange of good jokes. This was enough to persuade me that the truth might be different, and I soon turned up enough textual evidence to be certain that the sly old boy had been screwing both of them. Apparently there was still much learned discussion about whether Swift’s use of the phrase ‘a cup of coffee’ was, or was not, a veiled reference to sexual intercourse. Whole academic careers were devoted to this supposed conundrum. To me it looked like the most easily penetrated code since Pig Latin. ‘Can’t get over that last cup of coffee we had on the floor,’ Swift would write, or words to that effect, ‘Get ready for three cups of coffee in a row tomorrow night.’ Vanessa and Stella were equally scrutable in their replies. ‘Must have at least six cups of coffee with you as soon as possible. Love and kisses.’ To my mind, the Hale Professor of Raillery at Tale and all his academic kind were wilfully missing the obvious.

It could be said that my mind was not in a very objective state, but whatever the accuracy of its judgments, affection for Swift was fully restored, and I actually got around to reading extensively not just in his major works but in the poems, pamphlets and correspondence. I even read some of the relevant scholarship and criticism. This was the first time in my life that I had ever studied an author against his background at the time I was supposed to, and I was disturbed to find that although I achieved growing intimacy with the author I couldn’t make any sense at all of the background. Of the many experts on Swift beside the Hale Professor of Raillery — who had long ago departed by PanAm Boeing 707 to spread his message of cheery bathos to a helpless world — the big cheese was Professor Irvin Ehrenpreis, whose lumbering two-volume work on Swift was mind-bending in the completeness of its scholarship. Professor Ehrenpreis knew about every philosophical concept and rhetorical convention current in that part of the eighteenth century. He knew about animism, dualism, Deism, dynamism, Platonism, pleonasm, Whiggery and buggery, Though Professor Ehrenpreis didn’t write badly, it was evident to me, in my cocksureness, that he had soaked his brain in the period to the point of its falling apart like dead meat left too long in tap water. According to Ehrenpreis, Book IV of Gulliver’s Travels, the book about the Houyhnhnms, reflected Swift’s attitude to the current Platonic, or was it neo-Platonic, concepts of man, God, society and whatever. According to me, Gulliver felt about the Houyhnhnms the way Swift felt about Sir William Temple and all the other English aristocrats whose high civilisation he admired but on whom it shamed him to dance attendance. The Yahoos were Swift’s people, the Irish. He couldn’t live with them, but he found little solace, and much more humiliation, in his position of court wit to the English gentry. I had it all worked out. I even drew a little chart.

Actually, after all these years, I still have an inkling that I might have been on the right track. Certainly the scholars and critics were on the wrong track when they suggested that Swift’s great writings had been dictated by some sort of synthesis of current thought. That works of art can be inspired only by individual passion is something I am even more sure of now than I was then. Gulliver’s love for the Houyhnhnms is made painful to him by their contempt for the Yahoos. His divided feelings are real feelings — Swift’s feelings. If I had the time, the qualifications and the academic ambitions I think I could defend that case now. On the eve of the Tripos examinations I was sure I could. I was a man with an idea, and I was angry. Burning in my brain was the memory of the range of gesture and facial expression employed by the Hale Professor of Raillery when he was being amusing about Swift’s imitating a horse’s whinny and transcribing the sound as the word Houyhnhnm. No doubt that was how it happened, but I knew in my blood and bones that Swift had dedicated his adult life to never being in the same coffee house with a man like the Hale Professor. I was Swift’s champion. In my examination paper his great, tormented spirit would rage, laugh, despair and exult.

Unfortunately it happened exactly like that. Casting my eye down the front page of the examination paper, I noted the request to interpret Book IV of Gulliver’s Travels. Instantly my pen was flying. In a fine frenzy, pausing only to call for another quire of writing paper, I spent the whole three hours answering that one question. We had, however, been instructed to answer four questions. I had left the examination schools, and was standing outside in a pool of summer light trapped by blonde stone buildings, before I quite realised that I had condemned myself to scoring a maximum of twenty-five per cent on that paper even if, which was unlikely, they liked what I said. Instead of cramming for the next day’s paper, I spent half the night composing a letter to the examiners begging them to believe that I had failed to read the instructions. The idea that the ability to read instructions was one of the things we were being examined on didn’t occur to me at the time.

Ballsing up the Swift paper set the tone for my whole effort in the examinations. The novel paper went only just better. With some ingenuity I answered the questions on the Russian novel by making references to nobody except Jane Austen, but there is a limit to how much you can say about D. H. Lawrence when you have read only Pride and Prejudice. As for the English moralists, I was still ignorant as to who they might be, let alone about what they had said. Today it surprises me when I recall how incapable I was of getting interested in anything that smacked of distilled wisdom. If it wasn’t Proust, I didn’t want to hear it. I valued spontaneity above all else, as if concentration could not be spontaneous too. On my shelves now, collections of aphorisms sit like containers of radioactive material. Just to mention the French, there are Montaigne, Pascal, La Rochefoucauld, Vauvenargues, La Bruyère. Of the Germans and Austrians, there are Goethe, Lichtenberg, Schnitzler, Kraus, Altenberg, Polgar. The pregnant sentence affects me like a lovely woman in the same condition. When Sainte-Beuve said that Montaigne sounded like one long epigram, it was high praise. Thomas Mann’s great son Golo is my favourite modern historian because he sounds so like Tacitus, packing a loosely troubled world into a tense neatness. Envious in my youth of what seemed easy, in later years I find nothing more thrilling than the formulation so loaded with meaning that it burns the mind. Only last year, catching Raymond Aron’s enthusiasm for Montesquieu, I devoured the Lois as if it were The Lady in the Lake. My memory is not especially good and as a linguist I am doomed to remain a mere dabbler, but by now I am so drenched in that type of writing that I can quote it off the cuff more easily than I can spit. If only I had had such a facility to draw upon when I sat those examinations! My ignorance of the British moralists might not have been so glaring if I could have imported a few names from the continent. Hobbes, Hume, Locke: how to sum them up, when they had needed Such large volumes to sum themselves? I sucked my pen. On the other side of the room, Consuela Schleppkis wrote like a woman possessed. She called for more paper as if she wanted to start her own magazine. I doodled. The clock ticked like a bomb.

On the Italian paper, on the other hand, I lavished a fatal fluency. If Montesquieu had been in my mind to aid me, I might have said something sensible about Machiavelli. I could read The Prince in the original, but I had nothing original to say about it, because I had found Garrett Mattingly’s theory — that the book was a satirical parody — too attractive not to adopt. An acquaintance with the other masterpiece, The Discourses on Livy, would have told me that Machiavelli, far from doing a roguish cabaret number, was founding a tradition of political realism for the modern age. Only in my prose translation of Dante did I really know what I was doing. Françoise had taken me line by line through every dramatic passage in The Divine Comedy, so when one of those passages came up it was a cinch. To that extent my satisfaction with the paper was justified, but I should have realised that I would be lucky to get half marks for the whole thing. Allowing myself a measure of elation, however, was the only alternative to despair. I pretended, in the Whim and on the river bank, that I had everything under control. On the day before the last paper, the essay, I lounged at apparent ease under a cloudless sky whose chalky light blue matched the sun dials of Caius. The cows and sheep masticated bucolically behind me. King’s College chapel waited for its choir, which duly crossed the stone bridge to my right, the top hats of the smallest boys barely clearing the parapet as they all marched en croc for a date with Bach, Was Cambridge getting to me? I had a strange feeling of not wanting to leave — doubly strange because I had approached the examination like someone setting out to be expelled. The prospects of being asked to stay on to do research were dim. I rolled impressively into the water, sank like a hippo under a passing punt full of girls, and damned near killed myself ramming my head against a bicycle stuck in the muddy bottom. It must have been one of the pedals that gashed my scalp. There wasn’t much pain but there was quite a lot of blood. It was cowardly not to get it stitched.

Marenko, who knew about first aid, stuck a field dressing on my wound, so it was with my head in a sling that I faced the essay paper next day. I should not have been so surprised to find that I could do it. Who couldn’t? The choice of set topics was so wide that even an examinee who had been compelled to silence by all the other papers would have been able to find something to say this time. The only way of stuffing it up completely would have been to get in a dither about which topic to choose. Luckily one of my pet subjects was right there on the paper. I had read Hannah Arendt’s book Eichmann in Jerusalem when it had been serialised in the New Yorker; I had followed both sides of the subsequent controversy; and I had reached my own conclusions on the validity of the catchphrase ‘the banality of evil’. One of the set topics was exactly that: The banality of evil. My pen fizzed for the full three hours. The invigilators brought me some more paper like coal-heavers feeding a ship’s furnace. My pen overheated. On the only occasion when I paused to look around, Brian C. Adams was staring at me as if I was his nemesis. My own fond opinion of what I had written was that I could have published it as a piece in a weekly. More importantly, I got the thing finished before the bell rang. Unfortunately this fact only served to remind me that on scarcely any of the other papers had I actually managed to answer the prescribed number of questions within the allotted time. Elation induced depression. If only I had been prepared for the whole examination, instead of for just one paper!

Outright failure had probably been warded off, but a low 2:2. was the most I could expect and a third was on the cards. As I left the hall, my gown felt like a shroud. Suddenly I didn’t want to give all this up.

All this included May Week in its full splendour. Examinations out of the way, the lawn parties flowered. The June sun shone on them as if intent to prove that once in a way it could co-operate. As a minor luminary in the areas of theatre, literature and related arts, I had a fair sheaf of invitation cards - their timings mutually arranged by the hosts so as not to clash — but anyone with half a brain could figure out where the next party was and just walk in uninvited. The basic layout was the trestle table set up on a college lawn. In the men’s colleges, mostly the table was bedecked with nothing more grand than a bowl of fruit punch, the bowl borrowed from the college kitchen and the punch concocted according to loudly touted formulae promising instant oblivion to all who drank. Though for some imbibers this proved to be the case, if you kept your head you could move from one party to another and never reach the point at any of them when the ladle scraped the bottom of the bowl and came up with nothing in it except apple skins and orange pips.

If the girls were throwing the party, there was often something to eat and usually something better than punch to drink. I went to a white wine effort in Newnham which not even the presence of Consuela could ruin. She had such a triumph in As You Like It that she even forgot to cut me. I watched the production in Clare Gardens and had to admit that as well as looking maddeningly pretty she was actually pretty good. As a rule undergraduates don’t act as well as actors and she was no exception: but quite often they speak better, through being less inclined to make the lines their own instead of the author’s. Shakespeare, especially, rewards good speakers who are indifferent actors, whereas bravura actors who speak badly can only do him an injury. Consuela spoke surprisingly well for someone so histrionic. She took a long time to come on. There was an ornamental pool in the middle of the Clare Gardens acting area. Consuela held her head so proudly high that I thought she might walk into the water, but the lines fell like pearls.

Ros. But why did he swear he would come this morning, and comes not?

I could feel the eyes of a hundred of her friends on the back of my neck. No doubt I was being self-conscious. Why not? Everybody else was. It was the right place and the right time. Around the pool, among the flower-beds and between the hedges, the young, would-be, not-for-long actors deployed their hired costumes as they had been taught by some preposterously solemn young director who wanted to be Peter Hall or Trevor Nunn. In their element, the theatrical dons at the back of the natural auditorium threw decrepit fond looks at Orlando. They thought him charming. In that weather I thought them charming. They had their place in this enchanted forest. Absurdly I was sorry that I must soon lose mine.

Buddy threw a party in his back garden. Among the guests were what he described as one or two people from London. The champagne was endless. Under its influence I was able to predict that the young man with the huge mouth would never make it as a popular singer. Susannah York was there. She was so beautiful that I burst into tears. Luckily I was lying down by then, so nobody noticed. Karula dipped a napkin in the iced water of a champagne bucket and spread it over my face. I could see the sun through it. That should have been the most lavish May Week party. It was topped for opulence by Delmer Dynamo, who took over the whole back lawn of Pembroke and slew the fatted calf. Befitting his position as President and sole member of the Aubrey Attwater Society, Delmer had outfitted himself for the occasion in cream ducks, cricket boots, candy-striped blazer, straw boater and a monocle. The ensemble would have been suitable for receiving the Prince of Wales on board the deck of a steam yacht, somewhere around the turn of the century. Delmer could keep his monocle in place only by tilting his head so far back that he was shouting upwards, as if at a passing Zeppelin. Marenko, Strad and some other Americans wore rented white tuxedos with carnation boutonnières. As a barbershop quartet they stood in the rock garden and sang ‘The Whiffenpoof Song’. The Master and all the college dons were there. The Dean, somehow managing to keep his champagne glass empty without removing the pipe from his mouth, gazed upon Delmer with transparent fondness. Obviously the college would be sad to see him go. Equally obviously the college did not feel quite the same in my case. Finding myself trapped with the Dean, I was further unsettled to detect in his eyes a look which suggested that he considered himself trapped with me. He sought refuge in the past. ‘Brilliant boy, Oppenheimer. Jew, of course, but a real gentleman. Rutherford didn’t want to let him into the Cavendish, you know. Said he was too weak on the experimental side. But Thomson believed in him. Young Oppenheimer was really, really interested in my minerals. You should have heard him talk about birefringence. Brilliant, brilliant boy. You don’t get many like that now. There’s Dynamo, of course, but on the whole they’re a poor lot now.’ The Dean was making it plain that my very existence was an insult to his dream. His whole speech, the longest I had ever heard him give, was an exhalation: one long sigh.

I sighed myself when Delmer shyly confessed that his college had offered him an extra year just so that he could read in preparation for his graduate course at Columbia. ‘Hot shit, man,’ he crowed. ‘They coughed up.’ His monocle gleamed in the sunlight. He had done quite a lot of work and deserved his good fortune. I would have found it easier to be warm with fellow-feeling if it were not for the chill wind which I could feel blowing even in the fragrant, stationary air. Where else in the world would I ever fit in except here, where I had never felt the least urge to fit in? And truly I had no social ambitions in Cambridge beyond the tattered pink velvet jacket of the Footlights presidency. The Footlights committee had decided that if I could stay on for a year the jacket was mine for the asking, but the only way for me to remain a member of the university would be to enrol as a PhD student. For that I didn’t have the finance, and without at least a 2:1 result in the Tripos I wouldn’t be accepted for registration even if I had the money. So it was all over. In the grad pad, Brian C. Adams commiserated with me. ‘You hit the books at least a year too late,’ he said sympathetically. ‘Still, all that Footlights nonsense should come in handy if you apply for the BBC. Let me buy you another glass of sherry. The Amontillado’s really rather surprisingly fine.’ Brian C Adams was taking it for granted that he would get a first. So was everyone else taking it for granted that Brian C. Adams would get a first. There was a rumour that the College was considering taking him straight into Fellowship, so that he could sit up there eating venison where he belonged. Belonging must be a good feeling. Usually it was a feeling I got in or near Footlights, but the May Week revue, when I went to see it on the first nighty only made me feel left out. Romaine was in it. She did the ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ routine with predictable results. There were people rolling about in the aisles like eels. Andy Mayer did his holy roller commercial. ‘Write away right away ... ’ I tried to be elated when my own material went well. It didn’t always and it mocked my physical absence even when it did. As far as I was concerned — which on this evidence wasn’t far — Footlights was unfinished business. In the Whim I sat anonymously, writing the kind of valedictory ode which treats personal disappointment as if it were the heat death of the universe.

Packed and all set to go, I turned up at Senate House to read the examination results with an air of fatalism which would have done credit to Sydney Carton, the only Dickens character I had managed to mention in the novel paper. (I had read the Classics Illustrated comic of A Tale of Two Cities when still a pupil of Kogarah Infants’ School.) When I saw that I had got a 2:1 I thought it was a misprint. When Brian C. Adams saw that he had got a 2:1 he thought the same. Eventually his fellow members of the Gray Society calmed him down by pointing out the truth: that he was simply too good for the Tripos and should have been doing a PhD all along, like Romaine Rand. For the first few days after he came out of shock, however, nothing except Nembutal would keep Brian C. Adams from throwing himself from his casement window into the courtyard. Exactly balancing his despair was my euphoria. I couldn’t see how I had done it, until Ron Maybey the Baby Don, breaking all the rules, told me. ‘Never seen such a spread of marks,’ he said, with evident disapproval. ‘Very good score on the essay paper. Nothing at all on the Swift paper. Should be impossible. Ought to get something for writing your name. Think that worked for you in the end. They decided that you’d gone mad that day. No excuse at all for the novel paper. One of the examiners wanted to have you sent down for it. You be staying on?’ He was the only don, whether infant or adult, who had ever been sincerely interested in what I was writing, so I told him that I hoped to snare a research grant and be President of the Footlights simultaneously. ‘Don’t see why not,’ he said. ‘But I shouldn’t actually tell them that when you apply. Stress the academic side. Sherry?’

Suddenly it was all at least possible. I applied for a research grant on the basis of a burning desire to evaluate Shelley’s reading of the major Italian poets. The university wouldn’t actually decide whether or not it was going to finance this scheme until September. Meanwhile I told the retiring Footlights committee, who were about to leave on tour with the revue, that my research grant was in the bag. They handed over the pink jacket, which I stored with the rest of my stuff in the Pembroke linen room. My conscience was reasonably clear, as far as I could tell without actually examining it. If I didn’t get the grant, I could always give the jacket back. In the interim it seemed appropriate to go where Shelley had gone, at least up to the point where he drowned himself. Françoise was in Florence. To get there would be expensive. Luckily Robin was still in London. After hitting her for a small loan, I booked myself on the student charter flight which I have already described in my book Flying Visits. The reader will permit me the indulgence of making cross-references to my own work when I confess that the journey was never one I have been keen to repeat even in written form. I was exaggerating only when I said the plane swerved to avoid the Matterhorn. It didn’t swerve except when it was taking off. Most of the students really were seventy-year-old Calabrian peasant. women wearing black clothes and carrying string bags full of onions, and I really did have a nun sitting beside me who clutched my sweating palm as we came crabbing in to land. It was the way cheap flying was in those days. Today, the nightmare is in the crowded airport. When you get airborne you’re relatively OK. Then, the flight was in the lap of the gods. One of David Hockney’s early paintings had such a strong appeal for me that I kept a reproduction of it pinned to my wall wherever I moved. I liked its bright colours and cunningly innocent outlines, but most of all I liked its title: ‘The Flight into Italy’. Knowing that there was a chance I might have something to come back to made the letting-go all the sweeter, of course. If you can manage it, safe danger is always the best kind.