“You boy,” said the Vamp, sticking his pointer into Brian’s sternum, like a bayonet. “What book are you reading just now?”
I knew Brian would tell the truth, and it would be his downfall. I sent him a telepathic message. Just make something up! The White Company, Henry Esmond, anything!
He was the deputy headmaster. He took very few classes. You would see him swooping around in his gown along the outside corridors above the playground (designed thus so we wouldn’t all succumb to tuberculosis), hamming it up, a camp Count Dracula. Sometimes he would come on the blower at morning break. “This is the deputy head-maahsta speaking” and we would start giggling in a terrified, hysterical way. One day we congregated after lunch in Miss Watson’s maths class and found, to our amusement, that somebody during the lunch break had written a legend in Anglo-Saxon on her blackboard commencing, “Some girls need…” None of us volunteered to rub it off with the duster for fear of being implicated. Miss Watson arrived unexpectedly early, impassively pushed up the blackboard’s moveable surface until the legend was out of sight, and then went and got the Vamp. They stood on the floor in front of us and had a protracted conversation in an undertone. We sat in dead silence thinking, this is the end of the world as we know it. Then the Vamp sloped off and Miss Watson went back to y = mx + c as if nothing had happened.
“And you boy.” Now the bayonet was upon my own breast. I could feel a surge of precocity sweeping over me. It sometimes happened. I would blurt, and later be doubled up with the embarrassment of reminiscence.
“I don’t so much read books, as plunder them.”
There was a pause. The bayonet was withdrawn. “Indeed? And to what purpose, such an act of plunder?”
He looked at me, thoughtfully. “Do you write?”
“Try to.” Now I felt myself going red. Sometimes I hated my own destiny. Why couldn’t I have been a centre forward? I should have done a Brian. Kept mum.
“And upon which work are you currently wreaking your act of rapacity?”
The Vamp frowned. Another thought had occurred to him. “Are you a plagiary?”
“But is not this act of piracy you allude to, a plagiary act?”
I shrugged and said coldly, “You can’t write in a vacuum. Read Eliot. Tradition and the Individual Talent.” I thought, leave it at that for God’s sake. I could feel the rest of the class growing restless. I said to myself, next time, keep your mouth shut.
The Vamp was still gazing fixedly at me, wondering whether to reward me for chucking my hat in the ring, or castigate me for impertinence.
“Do you have a publisher?”
“Mm. Always remember the words of Dr Johnson. ‘No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.’” He subjected me to the chilly vampire grin.
“Coconut or a cigar?”
It was true, though. I did plunder. I was a very indiscriminate reader. I read the way an idiot savant reads the telephone directory. Right at break of day, there I’d be, Yesterday in Parliament on the Home Service, reading the Kellogg’s Cornflake wrapper. Or the blurb on the HP sauce bottle:
Cette sauce de haute est un qualité mélange des fruits, épices, et vinaigre de malt…
When you are young your enthusiasms are completely anarchic. They are almost entirely random. You turned on the radio and happened to hear a piece of music; you idly picked up a volume as you passed a book shelf. My mentors told me to read Charles Dickens and listen to Mozart. I read Aldous Huxley and listened to Ralph Vaughan Williams. And they didn’t know. Consequently I was incomprehensible to them. And to myself. Why should an urban Scottish waif born into a landscape of dilapidated tenements, of bomb sites full of nothing but nettles and docks, parched, be slaked by an evocation of the gentle green leas of Down Ampney? Why should I have been in the least bothered by the foppish fantasies of an oversized, oversexed Oxon galoot inhabiting such improbable hamlets as Bole, Tritton, Spavin Delawarr, Knipswich for Timpany, West Bowlby, Camlet-on-the-Water? Yet I gobbled them up, the Collected Works, in the beautiful Chatto and Windus editions in their cellophane-wrapped russet covers. But I hated myself for it. I thought, I am effete. I am turning myself into a refined and precious artistic buffoon of the sort John Buchan parodied in Mr Standfast with his depiction of the artistic community of Biggleswick. I am Biggleswicked. A galoot at moot. I could turn out reams of pseudo-Huxley, the smart-arse post-prandial rantings of smug intellectuals with queer names, saturated in gin and Art, stuffed like a Strasbourg goose with indiscriminately acquired knowledge, the A-Z of Encyclopaedia Britannica.
The Count said to me, “This is good stuff! It’s nearly publishable!” (Ah – the curse of the writer manqué, slain by the morganatic compliment.) “I don’t know where you get it from.”
I shrugged. A strange look, part rueful smile and part irritation came over his face. “You don’t seem to care. Why are you so sad?”
“It’s nothing.” I remembered Clifford’s body of work in Lady C, smart, intellectual, up-and-coming, sought after, and on the brink of success. Yet it was nothing. I knew mine was the same. It was nothing. Definitely dead from the waist down.
No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money. I just thought it was a cynical throwaway remark. Now I feel it conceals a profound truth. You absolutely must get out of your garret and go and experience the heat and dust of the arena.
There are crossroads in your life. You pause at them for a moment and take in the view, hardly aware that questions are being asked of you, that you are required to give an answer, to make a decision. You are at a meeting of ways outside Thebes. Mark this. It is only in retrospect that you realise you might have taken an alternative path.
The Count was a wonderful man. A born teacher. Tall, urbane, cultured, and sophisticated. He was steeped in Art. Literature, opera, theatre, film. He opened the partition at the back of room 17 and expanded his empire into the next classroom and turned his domain into the school library, there for us all. He formed a Film Club. We watched Citizen Kane. He took us to The Close Theatre to see Ibsen and Strindberg. He taught us Shakespeare and Shaw, Greene, Pinter. He taught us literary theory. He taught us fantastic concepts such as The Fallacy of Imitative Form, the Objective Correlative, F. R. Leavis’ notions of concreteness, the mind-boggling idea that the meaning of a work might be independent of the author’s intention. He might have been my mentor. I might have said to him, there and then, “Thank you for your kindness and encouragement. But I need more. I need your help. The fact is, while it reads well enough and is at least, as they say, ‘prose-competent’, it’s empty. Doris Lessing once said that the difficulty for the writer is not in writing, but in leading a life. Teach me how to live.”
But I didn’t. Instead I shrugged and shut him out, with all the callousness and brutality of youth, and said, “It’s nothing.” I cut him dead, with a device of patient lacklustre.