Don Javier Marías Franco

Easter 1980: having been awarded the lucrative De Osma Studentship, I was obliged to spend at least six weeks in Madrid on a study trip. Not that I was complaining.

Another of my fellow sufferers in the Florey Building was Jan, a geology postgrad from Germany who’d done his national service in the Gebirgsjäger (look it up) and drove a khaki Volkswagen camper van. (His father, he told me, had been a Panzer commander whose greatest victory had been to manage to be captured by Monty, rather than the Russians.) Jan suggested that we drive to Madrid, via Plymouth-Santander; the van was on its last legs, but it chugged over the snow-clad sierras from Cantabria to Castile.

I pounded the streets of old Madrid until I found an inexpensive and agreeable-looking pension in Calle del León (where the great Cervantes was born), not far from the Biblioteca Nacional, the Hemeroteca Municipal and other academic institutions of possible use for the study of Emilia Pardo Bazán’s cuentos, the subject of my thesis. The next day I presented myself at the Instituto Valencia de Don Juan, where I was required to spend six weeks in quiet and profitable study. The librarian treated me to a nugatory welcome speech, after which we nipped to the bar across the road for a bracing mid-morning drink. I never understood the catalogue, or discovered if anything in it was likely to be of help to me.

I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Madrid, eating bueno y barato and making many friends. I took short trips to Toledo, Segovia, Ávila and Salamanca, and visited all the major museums. I acquired, as if I didn’t have enough problems, another lover.

Taking advantage of an introduction from Félix de Azúa, a Spanish novelist whom I’d worked with at Oxford, I interviewed a young man called Javier Marías, who had written several novels and translated Tristram Shandy into Spanish (he was still under 30), and was now having a crack at Conrad.

This man was obviously going places

Javier suggested some short passages I might translate into English from his latest novel, El monarca del tiempo (The Monarch of Time) for an article I was planning. He generously wrote, in Spanish, on the flyleaf: “To Colin Wight, after a long and interesting chat, with the confidence that it will be repeated”. A few days later I took the train home.

As soon as I got back to the Florey I set to work on the translation, which was far from straightforward (not that I was expecting it to be otherwise). Señor Marías is a master of the interminable convoluted sentence, packed with subordinate clauses which lead up and away like the branches of a genealogical tree. I sent him my initial effort to which he courteously replied, suggesting a few “minor improvements”; in a second draft I managed to achieve something the author was apparently satisfied with. (I am not sure that I was, but in those pre-word-processor days typing up drafts was laborious and time-consuming.)

The three excerpts were published a year later in an Edinburgh-based magazine called Cencrastus. I am sure that this is the first example of Javier Marías’s work to be published in English. But I don’t imagine it attracted a great deal of attention, because Marías was then unknown in the UK – almost as anonymous as me, in fact.

A few years later Javier Marías arrived at Oxford (I was still a resident member of the University) as the latest in a long line of eminent lectores. He was obliged, as was I, to take part in the dreadful Spanish seminars in St Giles, which were attended by some “real characters” – not least them, the extraordinary, charismatic Professor Sir Peter Russell. On one occasion an American postgrad was dithering on about Lorca, and how difficult it must have been to be a homosexual in the 1930s, etc. Prof Russell waited for a few seconds then said, “I believe I am correct in saying that I am the only person in this room who knew Lorca, and I can assure you that being a homosexual in Spain in the 1930s was not a problem”. I don’t recall if Marías was present, but he would have loved it.

It was a devastating, unforgettable moment

If I may generalise, one of the things I’ve noticed about Spanish intellectuals is that they tend to be interested in the same things that your average Spaniard is interested in, whatever his level of education or status in life. It is taken for granted that everyone is a football fan, chases pretty girls (or boys), drinks too much, sings folk songs and spends the summer at the seaside – where they undertake the aforementioned activities ad lib. It doesn’t mean that Spanish writers don’t suffer from angst, ennui or malaise like the rest of us. They just have more fun when they’re not suffering.

Javier Marías was/is an aficionado of Real Madrid (the Real=Royal bit is significant, as we shall see). Knowing that, I invited him to my flat in Bullingdon Road to watch Liverpool play and, eventually, defeat, A.S. Roma in the Final of the European Cup on 30 May 1984. Liverpool’s fourth competition victory, as Javier noted, edged them dangerously close to Madrid’s sixth. (Following the exclusion of English clubs from European competition, he needn’t have worried.) That was probably the last time I saw Javier, because I was soon on my way to London to work for Methuen.

Javier Marías’s 1988 novel Todas las almas (All Souls) is set in Oxford, and has as its principal characters certain members of that Spanish seminar group; you could call them “thinly disguised”. As far as I can tell, I don’t feature, which is both a relief and a little disappointing. Subsequently, Javier has published many further novels, now available in English (thanks to the clever and fecund Margaret Jull Costa) as Penguin Modern Classics.

For reasons that are ludicrous and too complex to explain in a few words, Javier Marías , as well as being a member of the Real Academia Española, is the ruler of a micronation in the Leeward Islands called Redonda.

He has taken the title King Xavier I

Thus he may, from time to time, confer honours upon writers and other persons he approves of, such as Phillip Pullman, George Steiner and A.S. Byatt.

Is it too fanciful to suppose that if I’d continued translating the novels of Javier Marías Franco, rather than settling for a proper job with a salary, I might have become a duke by now? I have not given up all hope.


Now I’m 64

“What popular song includes the following in its lyric: losing my hair, Valentine, birthday greetings, bottle of wine, 64 and Wight?” If you don’t know the answer, there’s really no hope for you. Would you Adam and Eve it? That day, for me, has finally arrived.

Once you’re the far side of 25 it’s difficult to distinguish one birthday from the next unless they have a “special” status. My 20th (14 February 1975) was one I do remember. I was scheduled to have a Portuguese tutorial at King’s College in London, Prof Tom Earle having taken a sabbatical. I would take the 190 bus to Victoria in the morning, read out my essay, see a few people I knew, then get the bus back to Oxford.

I’d written a decent enough essay. My tutorial ended with a birthday glass of sherry, courtesy of Prof Luís de Sousa Rebelo. We agreed the date of my next tutorial, which turned out to be the date of the Moorgate Tube Disaster. Then I met a couple of old friends from the Wirral who were studying Medicine at King’s, and we had a pint or two.

One theory (and the one I prefer) is that Valentine’s Day is celebrated on 14 February because it was believed to be the day on which the birds start to sing (i.e. the first day of spring), which might indeed be the case south of Rome. In Britain, of course, it’s the middle of winter, though any sort of weather is possible. As I write, it is indeed springlike in Herne Hill.

But it was dark, cold and beginning to snow when the 190 pulled into Gloucester Green. Alison was supposed to be coming down from Durham that evening, so it was my intention not to “overdo” it, although I’d planned to lead my mates on a pub crawl through East Oxford. The weather was worsening, and I was going down with a cold and feeling a bit rough. But the show must go on.

We set off up the Iffley and down the Cowley before docking, four hours later, at the Kashmir for the inevitable Chicken Vindaloo. Somewhere on this Ulyssian itinerary I cut my hand (the details are conveniently hazy). Leaving the others to deal with the bill, and with most of a toilet roll wrapped round my hand as a bandage, I ran all the way to the Radcliffe Infirmary where, after a long wait, I was stitched up by a doctor who looked younger than me. It didn’t look as picturesque as this at 10pm on a February night.

At about 11:30pm, now sober, I made it back to my rooms in Back Quad to find the rest of the crew throwing darts and polishing off my Queen’s College Ruby Port. There was no sign of Aly. But there was a message at the Porter’s Lodge saying she’d arrive at 1pm (i.e. the following afternoon). How disappointing. I fell into bed… after what seemed like a couple of hours there was a knock on the door. I turned the knob with my left hand, half-asleep, wiping my nose on the bandage. There stood someone who had sent me a billet doux, only a year before, saying, “I did not believe such happiness were possible!”.

So where were you?

“I spent all night at St Aldate’s police station as the college door was locked.” My brain struggled to compute. 
“But I thought you were coming at 1pm?” 
“No, 1am. Five hours ago!” The idiot porter Pickavance had taken down her message wrong. I showed her the note.
“Anyway I’m going back to Durham as soon as I’ve had a couple of hours sleep.” And despite my pleas to stay until Sunday, that’s what she did.

That evening, with a streaming nose, a bandaged and throbbing right hand, the remains of a hangover, and thoroughly depressed, I tried to put it all right with a gallon of Hook Norton at Balliol’s Lindsay Bar. The barmen, Dick and Horace, thought it was the funniest thing they’d ever heard. I staggered back to Queen’s Beer Cellar, bouncing off the walls of New College Lane, but I was too far gone to be served. It is hard to imagine how drunk a student has to get to be refused service at his own college bar. My darts mentor, Mike Tracy, had to put me to bed. 

I couldn’t stop crying

A week or so later the penny dropped: my true love and I were finished. Indeed she wrote a letter to make sure I’d understood (at least she had the kindness to wait until Valentine’s Day was over); but we were to remain good friends. Of course we would! There were to be no more “my darling” communications. But I got over it, eventually, and – amazingly – we have remained friends until this day.

Here’s a One For The Wall recording from a few weeks ago. We’re rehearsing a new song of Bernard’s called “Guiding Hand”.

Moscow in the Dark

October 1979: I was still, or again, (depending on which way you looked at it) studying at The Queen’s College Oxford. The college offered me the exalted and ridiculous-sounding position of Vir Probatus (Junior Dean) if I abandoned the slum that was 41 Bullingdon Road and moved into James Stirling’s (in)famous Florey Building on St Clement’s. As I’d have the biggest room in the building, rent-free and with a free phone line to boot, it was a no-brainer. And the underfloor heating and huge windows offered an excellent environment for cultivating aromatic, jagged-leafed plants. I’d lived there as an undergraduate, so the building itself did not come as a shock. Much has been written about its shortcomings so I’ll move on…

One of the mature students at the Florey was Denis, who was writing a DPhil on Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina manuscripts. He was amusing, kind and very urbane, and became like an uncle to me. There wasn’t much he did not know, in particular about human nature. He had two teenage children by his first wife and a little boy by his second wife, who taught History of Art at the University of Essex. (Later they created an author called Natalya Lowndes and wrote a series of novels together.) Denis and I spent many an hour in the poky-cosy Half Moon in St Clement’s, at that time managed, if that is the right word, by the Leaves brothers. Regular patrons included Steve, owner of Winston’s, the night club next door, and Pat, manager of the Private (i.e. dirty mags and videos) Shop in Cowley Road. It had real ale, no fruit machine or jukebox, and hosted live music on Sunday afternoons.

October 1982: I’d moved on to a flat in Temple Cowley but Denis, my regular drinking partner, was still at the Florey. He needed to do a week’s research in Moscow libraries, and the cheapest and easiest way of doing it was to book an Intourist package, which meant sharing a room. Never having been to Russia, I was happy to tag along. A couple of years earlier the BBC had launched a series called Russian Language and People. It boasted a fantastically beautiful brunette presenter called Tanya Feifer and a fantastically beautiful blonde interviewer called Tatyana Vedeneyeva. (By one of life’s strange coincidences, another presenter, Edward Ochagavia, is a near neighbour of mine in Herne Hill.) Into each episode was inserted a snippet of the tacky love story До свидания, лето with Victor the ordinary-looking taxi driver and a fantastically beautiful student, Olga.

It was early November, and snowing in a picturesque way, when we cleared passport control. My visa was numbered 007, but I didn’t think it was a good idea to make a joke of it. Just grimly stare ahead. At last we arrived at our shabby hotel, a few minutes’ walk from Red Square. The next evening I went on my own to the Bolshoi Ballet: something most Muscovites could never afford to do. The plan was to meet Denis afterwards at his friends’ flat. I hailed a taxi at the Palace of Congresses, indicating the address Denis had written out neatly in Russian. Victor grunted and I got in, trying to make small talk in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish …  to no avail. There didn’t seem much point trying Portuguese, Latin or Greek. I stuck with the few words of Russian I’d learned. He didn’t want my roubles and I had no dollars, so I paid with a BiC pen. 

Хорошо, спасибо, До свидания!

I found myself in an ill-lit street of run-down tenements, like the half-remembered Glasgow of my childhood. I climbed the staircase in trepidation; what would happen when someone opened the door? What if Denis wasn’t there or I’d come to the wrong place? But Denis did come to the door. In the little flat were a middle-aged couple and a girl of about 20. She was slim with long dark hair like Tanya and, I couldn’t help but notice, very pretty. Everyone was smoking black Georgian cigarettes. I took a chair, and a large Столи́чная was poured for me. So began an interminable evening of music, “conversation” and toasting. Their favourite record was “The Sideboard Song” by Chas and Dave, which Denis had brought with him on his last trip. Perhaps the A-side, “Rabbit”, was played out. I contributed “Things We Said Today” by The Beatles, on a very bad, untunable guitar. More beer and vodka and picked cucumbers. More songs.

Luckily for me the pretty girl, Katya, was fluent in Spanish. Uncle Yuri would tell a joke and everyone would laugh; so did I, out of politeness. Denis would explain it to me in English and I’d laugh again. Katya would then ask me in Spanish what he’d said. I would explain it to her and she’d translate for her mother. She’d tell Denis, in Russian, who would then tell me, in English, that he’d said something quite different. One joke could keep us going for 20 minutes. When they did get through, the Russian jokes were good: they exhibited a bitter sarcasm that we Britons found familiar.

What we didn’t know was that more or less as we’d touched down at Sheremetyovo airport, Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev was giving up the ghost. Soon the city-centre was in lock-down. It was snowing hard; the Kremlin was shut, the national museums were shut, and taxis could not get across town. The USSR was in mourning and all you got on the radio and TV was Chopin and Beethoven. We were moved out of our characterful old hotel with its tea-ladies and into a soulless one near the VDNH exhibition centre. Every available room in central Moscow would be needed for the dignitaries coming to pay their respects. We were on a full board deal, but most evenings Denis and I took the metro to the flat, bringing food we’d bought for hard currency at the Beriozka. The two grateful women cooked for us. In the afternoons Katya showed me the sights, and we trudged through the snow, rain and gloom for hours on end. She really was very attractive, if a bit skinny — probably because she wasn’t getting much to eat. I kissed her once, in Spanish.

Obviously Katya and I would never meet again

Except that a couple of years later Katya managed to get a job in Riga as a translator, then met and married a solid Englishman called Smith, and made her escape to London. News of her arrival filtered through to me. One evening they joined us for dinner round the kitchen table in Brixton. Then she lost her aura of mystery and I lost her address.

Cold War: best film of 2018?

In 1983, as previously confessed, I was living in east Oxford grinding away slowly at my thesis. One of the other post-grads I got to know was Paul (a Pole with a German passport), who was studying at Wolfson and rumoured to be writing a thesis on Hölderlin. We became good friends. He had a finely-tuned sense of irony (something I’d previously seen at work in Russia) and saw that in every tragedy there is usually an element of farce and vice versa. I tickled him with my one-liner, “Life is like a school dinner: it’s vile, it’s disgusting and there isn’t enough of it”.

We both appreciated black humour. He joked that going to Tesco’s at 6pm on a Saturday (back in those days supermarkets shut on Sundays) reminded him of home: all those empty shelves. He observed that the expression “to sweep something under the carpet” could never have caught on in Poland, because not only did few Polish people have carpets, but if they had, they’d think that their primary purpose was for covering up dirt. He was keen, too, on the corniest of puns. Once we “Polished off” a bottle of bison grass vodka. On another occasion it was Finlandia: “It said Finnish on the label, so we did.” That sort of thing.

I had too many girlfriends whereas Paul didn’t seem to have one – not that he wasn’t interested in girls (quite the reverse), but none seemed to have really taken his fancy. It was odd, because he was tall, slim and handsome, as well as multi-lingual and multi-talented. His principal love was the cinema, and he spent a lot of time with like-minded people. Eventually he packed in his thesis, like so many before and since, and ran off to Italy to teach English. It amused him that none of his students seemed to notice, or perhaps care, that he had a Polish name. His letters suggested that he found Italian women, and the way Italian society just about held together, interesting.

Italy is a country of experts…

In June 1984 the peripatetic Pole returned to Oxford from Turin. We drank vodka into the wee hours. A little later his mother, almost crippled by her early career as a ballerina, came for a brief visit. She seemed a lovely and dignified lady.

A few weeks later I got my first job in London and I went on my way full of misplaced hope and excitement. Paul was also heading for The Smoke. He found a house in “Befnall” Green belonging to a film director called Tomasz Pobóg Malinowski; we could lodge there while Tomasz was away for six months in Poland (or somewhere). That September we duly moved into Beck Road, London E8, which was to set us back all of £100 a month.

Most of the street had been annexed by an artists’ housing association. (It was “Bohemian”, not to say pretentious. The Miners’ Strike was in full swing and everyone seemed to support working-class hero Arthur Scargill.) I’m grateful that I met some interesting and talented people, like Rachel Portman and Mikey Cuddihy and Helen Chadwick, but I never really fitted in. Mikey sent me this lovely Christmas card: Paul’s on the right.

Autumn 1984 had been fine and warm but the following winter was the coldest in London since 1963; we were frozen stiff and reliant upon a single portable gas heater. Disconcertingly, Paul turned up at 3am on 3 January from Wuppertal, where he’d been visiting his mother in hospital. I thought we were being burgled. I found living with Paul a mixed blessing. He was a lovely bloke: funny, warm and generous, but untidy and forgetful. (Mind you, I was not without fault. On one occasion I came home late and grabbed a glass of water that happened to be sitting invitingly on the kitchen table; in the morning I discovered I had drunk Paul’s contact lenses). To be fair, he had a lot on his mind and he was highly creative; whereas I got bogged down in menial tasks like putting out the bins and remembering to buy food and gas for the heater. (I become obsessed with physical neatness whenever my emotional life is a shambles, which it certainly was.) We were both quite intense and worked long hours but, intellectuals or not, we used to relax by giggling at Minder and Only Fools and Horses. We fantasised about casting Nicholas Lyndhurst in a film – surely he could not have commanded a huge fee. When funds allowed, we would go to Daquise in South Kensington and splurge for not much money, or head to the Cat and Mutton round the corner and enjoyed a traditional East End lock-in. Today it is a noted gastropub in super-trendy London Fields.

While we were shivering in Beck Road, Paul was writing for an excellent (and now defunct) cinema magazine called Stills, edited by Nicolas Kent who, like me, had been at Queen’s. I contributed the occasional short film review, whilst Paul was despatched overseas to interview Miloš Forman or Federico Fellini or Krzysztof Zanussi. His breakthrough came in February 1985 when he landed a General Traineeship with the BBC. By one of “those coincidences” he was soon working with Paul Campbell, virtuoso drummer in an Oxford band I’d played in a few years before, called One For The Wall. In due course the BBC (somehow) let him make documentaries and he began to get noticed.

The following incident gives an insight into an aspect of Paul’s character. One fine evening in May 1985 we were at my new flat in Clapham in front of the TV to watch Liverpool vs Juventus in the Final of the European Cup. The match was being played, for some reason, at the run-down Heysel Stadium in Brussels. However, kick-off was delayed, and it soon became clear why… The death toll eventually reached 39. Everyone watching was shocked but it affected Paul to the extent that he had to rush off to the toilet to be sick. He could see that real people, albeit people that he didn’t know, were dying.

Paul is fiercely intelligent and articulate, but also a kind and gentle person

Some years later, after marrying Irina, Paul and his family moved from north London to Boars Hill, Oxford (an opportunity for more punning) so we saw very little of each other, although I followed his career with great interest. His BBC documentaries continued to get screened on TV. Then he won a BAFTA in 2000 for his first feature, Last Resort.

In 2004 I went to a pre-release screening of My Summer of Love (the film that launched the career of Emily Blunt), and finally had the chance to see Paul and congratulate him on his huge achievement. Another BAFTA followed. Then he moved to France.

In 2013 he moved back to Poland and made Ida, which won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.

With Cold War (2018) – inspired by his parents’ passionate and self-destructive relationship – his reputation is established as one of the most talented auteur directors (along with Alfonso Cuarón) at work today. The awards are piling up and he has another Oscar nomination. I had the pleasure of seeing him again this week (for the first time in 15 years) at a Q&A session at the Curzon Bloomsbury. I had to remember that he’s no longer the German/English/French “Paul” we used to know him by, but Paweł Pawlikowski, as his parents intended. It suits him and it sounds better too.

Right Time, Right Place?

It was Valencia, summer 1972: my first time in Spain (it now seems odd that I had already sat my Spanish A Level). I was on a three-week language course organised by Liverpool Poly, as it then was, and there were school students from all across the UK. One was at Eton, another was from Ilford; they were both equally exotic to me. Spain was a very different country back in the day: patrolled by armed police and rather poor and backward in my eyes. Despite Valencia being a major city you had the impression you were the first foreigner they’d ever come across. Exciting but scary.

I’d been there all of two days before I fell for a Northern Irish girl. I noticed a pretty blonde during our morning breaks at the university, but couldn’t think up an excuse to start a conservation. One night at a fiesta, I and the other lads I was with ran into a bevy of girls we recognised as fellow students on the course and, under the pressure of the moment, I came out with “Would you like to join our group?” It was excruciating, even at the time, but I had learned from experience that if you didn’t ask, you didn’t get. The Irish girls came over to say hello, and I started talking to Jan before anyone else could get in.

Audentes fortuna iuvat

A couple of days later we invited them over to the university residence we boys were billeted in. Jan and I saw each other every day (since we were in the same class) and in the evenings we talked about our different lives, which made me realise that I probably knew more about what was going on in Spain than in Ireland.

All too soon we were on the plane back to Blighty. When we arrived at Heathrow her boyfriend Ronnie (who had long hair and a moustache, and was obviously older than me) was waiting to collect her, and off they went on holiday. I knew I would never go to see her. I couldn’t afford it, and in any case my parents would not have let me. Belfast was on the news every night, and what was happening was invariably frightening.

Jan and I corresponded for about 18 months. I went to Oxford and she went to Trinity College Dublin to study French and English. Her letters were very articulate and entertaining, and she was mature for her age – unlike me. She struck me as being tough and resilient; above all, she was a realist. She was from a Catholic family – in the course of writing one letter she heard that an acquaintance had been shot dead: “There will certainly be reprisals. It’s obviously not safe to go out any more.” What a thing for a 17-year-old girl to put in a letter. Yet for many young people all over the world (including parts of our own country even today) that is reality. Sadly, I now think, we lost touch… because I stopped writing. I can’t even remember her surname or address, apart from the fact that she lived in Holywood, Co. Down. I have one very bad photo of her, taken at Valencia Airport. Stylish, but note the stubbed out fag-end.

***

As a middle-aged Cambodian gentleman said to Anne and me exactly a year ago, “You were born at the right time in the right place, but for me it was just the opposite”. That he survived the Khmer Rouge is almost miraculous. Jan was unlucky to grow up at the height of the Troubles, but on the plus side she attended a good school and had two loving parents who were obviously well off. I had it much easier; as long as you avoided being beaten senseless by a gang of skinheads from the Woodchurch Estate, nothing terrible was going to happen to you in Birkenhead. Almost everybody from my school went on to university, and that was in the early 70s when less than 6% of school-leavers did! Life was set out before me on a plate.

With all the teen stabbings going on in London and elsewhere, I’ve been thinking about how fortunate I was as child. It’s easy to congratulate yourself on your achievements or – even worse – look down on those who haven’t done so well in life, as if it were all their fault. A little bit of humility is no bad thing but here, as so often, I rarely practise what I preach.

The Lost Thesis

A couple of months ago I was introduced to the new Chair of the Camberwell Society, who also teaches Modern Languages at a local school. It turned out he had studied Spanish at Exeter University; we talked about the former professor, Maurice Hemingway, who had examined my MLitt thesis many years ago. A few days later I found myself reading an email in which I was described as “Colin Wight, who has done much work on Pardo Bazán”. Had I really?

Last week I found my thesis on Emilia Pardo Bazán. It wasn’t actually lost; I knew it was knocking around the house somewhere. For the first time in three decades I read the whole thing, expecting it to be deadly boring. In fact it was about as lively as the subject-matter could allow. As for the scholarship, it sounded convincing but I can’t say for sure.

It was another life in another world

I had been living and working in Essex, and not really enjoying it. I had no burning desire to do postgraduate research, but for personal reasons I wanted to return to Oxford. My former Spanish tutor at Queen’s suggested a research subject and I said OK, as long as I can get a grant. In October 1978 I left my job in Upminster and moved back to Oxford.

***

I felt a bit of a charlatan since I was surrounded by extremely intelligent people who were (or appeared to be) more motivated and productive than I was. The years rolled on and the finishing line was still not in sight. The more I found out the harder it got. It may well be different for science post-grads but I saw a lot of humanities students pack it in. They had lost interest in their subject and faith in academia, with its cliques and bitchiness; their grants ran out and they needed a job; they became neurotic, depressed or plain bored. It wasn’t just me who’d lost his way… but I was never totally committed in the first place. But I refuse to give up on something once I’ve started on it so I carried on, like an actor in a play he already knows is a turkey. I was now 28 years old.

By hook or by crook I had to finish the damned thing and get away

By early 1983 I was, at long last, working flat out. At night I wrote; at noon I delivered a sheaf to my typist, Stephanie, and she handed a sheaf back to me; in the afternoon I corrected it; at night I wrote some more. I hardly had time to eat and I was running hither and thither like a lunatic. By the time I’d handed in my thesis and managed to get a couple of job interviews I was pushing 30 and pretty well skint. Then came my viva: a gruesome meeting of minds with my two distinguished examiners, conducted in academic dress: one of them had never examined a thesis while the other had never passed one. The inquisitors decided to “refer” mine over a few minor infractions. My supervisor was furious and made a complaint. But I had to rewrite two paragraphs (I can’t remember what they were about) and have it retyped, photocopied and rebound, and then resubmitted. I could ill afford the expense at the time, and it took me six months to get round to it. I felt very sorry for myself. But whatever.

Post-graduate study may be the hardest thing I have ever done, although that is not saying a lot. It’s not the thousands of hours of research and the laborious writing process; it’s the fact that you have to do it on your own. The people who are doing what you’re doing aren’t part of your team. If anything, they are in competition with you. Some people may love it, but I wasn’t one of them.

Was it worth it? Financially… no, not at all. It did little to help my subsequent career, but I suppose it all worked out OK in the end. And, to be honest, it wasn’t all bad at the time either. I spent a lot of time in Spain and I was able to indulge my passion for film, books, music and girls. But the worry about how and when I was finally going to earn a living cast a shadow over everything.

When I finally moved to London to begin work on the bottom rung of the publishing ladder (starting salary: £6,000 per annum), it was with an enormous sense of relief. My colleagues were sociable, normal human beings; I was learning new things, and I even got paid at the end of every month. I never stopped being grateful for that.

So there it sits, back on its shelf: unloved and unread… but maybe of some use to someone, somewhere!

Ageing Rocker

I’d had enough of working for a living so I moved back to Oxford to be with my girlfriend. I joined Bernard’s band, together with my old schoolmate Andrew and our fellow housemate Wiff and a young drummer from New College called Paul. Then we added a female singer, a posh-sounding blonde called Jo, with a wonderful soprano voice. One For The Wall practised three of Bern’s songs and entered the Melody Maker Folk/Rock Contest in Oxford. Every other act was a parody of the Sex Pistols. We did not excel. The sound system was so basic, with no monitors, that I wrote to complain and we got a re-run at London’s City Polytechnic. (Jo later told me that one of the judges was Howard Goodall.) And we won! I remember driving back that night in Andy’s Mini up the M40 in the fog. It’s always a great feeling to win something.

Those silly love song lines have filled my head and turned my mind

One For The Wall progressed to the Melody Maker final in July at the Marquee Club. It was a filthy, sweaty dive in Wardour Street… but a legendary and iconic dive. The competition was won by Splodgenessabounds, who presently had a Top Ten hit with the epoch-defining “Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps Please”. Bern’s finely crafted, dramatic songs never stood much chance. But then again, maybe we just weren’t much good. Nevertheless, for the first and only time in my life, I briefly considered a career as a professional musician. Why not? It wasn’t that I had anything else to do, apart from chugging away at my thesis. And though I couldn’t read music or even play an instrument very well, the required standard didn’t seem to be very high. But I didn’t take that route after all. I went back to my boring thesis.

I have been rambling on about 1979. It’s now 40 years since we first got together and the band is still going (though we did take a 33-year break). Three members are now grandparents. Andy lives in Exeter, Jo and I are (by chance) near each other in south London and Bern’s still in Oxford. Life has certainly changed. So why bother driving hundreds of miles every month or so to spend two days cooped up in a studio?

The music is the obvious reason – Bernard has not lost his touch as a composer – and even though I am never going to find fame or fortune as a musician it is still a lot of fun. But for me, at any rate, it is as much about being part of a team. There is something special about that, and now I’ve “retired” it is something I would very much miss. Maybe other people are happy to be always working on their own. I can do that too, but the team ethos is something different. Here’s a studio rehearsal of “Planet of Our Dreams”. Jo: vocal; Bernard: piano and vocal; Andrew: bass; Colin: guitar.

The Joy of Essex, 1978

One night, at about half past 10, Hilary rang. Mrs H had already gone to bed. I kept my voice down but the damage had been done. The following day my landlady announced that she hadn’t had a wink of sleep all night and she was going to put a lock on the phone. I pointed out that this wasn’t really going to help, as I’d been answering a call, not making one. Anyway, I was sorry and I’d make sure it didn’t happen again. The old bag went ahead anyway and fitted the stupid lock. Over the next couple of weeks I was told, more than once, that I was the most selfish, inconsiderate person she knew. On one occasion I put tap water, rather than de-ionised water, in her iron, thus risking a major environmental incident. I’m surprised Panorama didn’t run a special on it. Not that she’d ever mentioned it before; I was just expected to know.

capri

The penny dropped: I’d overstayed my welcome. I ventured into Romford the first chance I got to look for a flat to rent, and found one I could just afford. For good measure I treated myself to a leather jacket at the market. I duly moved into a maisonette in Gidea Park, which I shared with another young man called Doug. He was a chemistry graduate who worked for Berger Paints and drove a Ford Capri. We had a bedroom each, and a spare, a kitchenette, bathroom and a decent-sized living room with a swirly carpet. My work colleague and new best mate Barry – a cheeky chappie with a moustache, a perm and (yes) a Ford Capri – drove me back to Elmhurst Drive so I could collect my post. There wasn’t any, apparently. I knew Hil had written at least once and I was sure the old bag was lying. I could forgive her almost anything but that. I gave her a hard stare and walked back to the car.

* * *

In February my boss sent me on a short educational trip to the Algarve. It was a treat to get a free winter holiday, even if I would be going on my own. The company had a resident rep who bore the aristocratic name of Manuel de Castro. Previously, he had been a milkman in Leeds. He referred to every Algarvian businessman as “a bloody peasant” – and not in a nice way. His demure and pretty wife worked at the Hotel Alvor, a magnificent establishment. Manuel was what used to be called “a ladies’ man”. He boasted of having squired every stewardess on TAP’s books… except for one whose photo appeared in our winter brochure. She had a small mole on her left cheek. Yorkshire’s Don Juan had sworn a solemn oath to track her down and add her to his conquests. After two years of meeting 707s flying in and out of Faro and taking at least one speculative flight to Funchal, the mystery woman continued to elude him, and it was becoming an obsession. 

Manuel took his educational duties seriously, trying – and failing – to set me up with a busty middle-aged housewife from a Mancunian hen party. However he failed to warn me about the manager of the Sol e Mar, a confirmed bachelor, who had worked for some years at the Adelphi in Liverpool. We chatted for an hour or two about the old country. After treating me to an excellent dinner he invited me to stay the night, as he had a few empty rooms. I’d put away far too much Dão and bagaceira – suddenly I thought I could see his game and panicked. I said até logo and staggered off into the night to look for my Mini. Somehow I found my way from Albufeira back to my apartment at Praia d’Oura. I needed a mind-clearing dip in the freezing Atlantic.

Back at Travel Club HQ in Upminster, my birthday had come round yet again. Barry sent me a witty card, which he had personalised with some verses of his own. They began thus:

Bloody Nora! He’s 23
Fresh from university
His mind is full of birds and ale
It’s enough to make a xxxxxx black man pale

Mere doggerel, dashed off at his busy desk? Not so! A close textual analysis reveals multiple layers of rich semanticity.

With his opening words the poet calls upon his muse for inspiration, thus “setting out his stall”, as he might put it, in the epic mode. But here the Classical convention is given fresh life. Who is the dread Nora he apostrophises? No gentle nymph, she. A Celtic warrior queen? A Hindu demiurge, decorated by the skulls of her victims, like Kali? (I scoured The Golden Bough, but without success.) 

After the caesura, we come to the subject of the work. Arma virumque cano: but of whom does he sing? Was not Alexander but 23 when he conquered the world? The hero is in the prime of life. He is not just aged 23; he is 23. Here the poet evokes the Pythagoreans. We have arrived at the crucial moment in this young man’s life. In the third line his profile is filled out, as it were. He is “fresh”, original, vibrant, vigorous: a man of action. But a man of learning notwithstanding. “University” is a typically brilliant play on words. He is universal: an Everyman.

We now proceed to the essence of the hero. “Birds and ale”: what bathos! And yet… “birds” – the fair sex, obviously, in the vernacular of our age, but also his winged thoughts, like eagles, soaring high above us. As for “ale”: a clue that this Sindbad, this Vasco, this Aeneas, this Ulysses de nos jours, is a no  Mediterranean hero but, rather, an Anglo-Saxon, the heir to Beowulf. Then again, will “birds and ale” find him out: his hamartia? Is the seer warning of premature decline and extinction?

Finally we come to the fourth line: a mere cliché, casual racism? Something far more subtle! This awkward phrase with its ludic pentimento challenges our taboos but also invites us to consider the transformational powers of our scholar-warrior-king-magus. As the lame shall walk, so shall men change the colour of their skin. A firm nod to the Messianic tradition.

Not since T.S. Eliot has such talent lit up the literary world. With admirable economy, this new Earl of Essex – or shall we call him the Duke of Capri? – claims his throne in the most exalted company: Dante, Spenser, Ariosto, Góngora, Camões and (dare I utter his name?) the divine Virgil himself. Ars est celare artem. Neither Carol Ann Duffy nor Andrew Motion has equalled the Parnassian ambition of this opening stanza. Moreover, it both scans and rhymes. If only he’d had a crack at Poet Laureate! What could Barry have done with such material as the Royal Menopause?

In Tudor Ave, the purpose of our unallocated third bedroom became apparent when the landlord (never before seen) rolled up in the small hours with a floozy. It transpired that it was his midweek love nest. The flat reeked of Aramis. I doubt that his missus was aware of how their investment property was being employed. During the working week Barry, who was in his thirties, used to take me to see our fellow office-worker Sue, a teenage blonde with pointy tits, perform in local pubs. Nothing like that! She was a talented singer who was trying to break into show business.

Love ageless and evergreen… 

Barry used to complain about Sue’s unreasonable sexual demands — ironically or not, I wasn’t sure.

Doug was often working late or staying at his equally shy girlfriend’s flat, so I had the place to myself most evenings. We didn’t have a telly. I wasn’t much of a cook, although I thought I was fairly enterprising. I got by on a diet of grilled sausages with tinned tomatoes, cheese on toast with tinned tomatoes, and chicken casserole (inc. tinned tomatoes) with overcooked rice. Dessert might be digestive biscuits with chopped stem ginger, or ice cream with tinned pineapple. It was still a lot better than I’d got at school. There was the occasional “Ruby Murray” in Upminster or Romford. Delia Smith was waiting in the wings.