Strange Bodies(9)
Author:Marcel Theroux


    Thirty minutes later, Harbottle arrived in my room, knock-kneed with agitation, and pressed on me a sheaf of handwritten verses. Reversing the usual pattern of hospitality, I had made us both cups of instant coffee. I handed Ron his and looked over the pages. I didn’t recognise the handwriting. They were love poems. The first one was titled ‘The Milkman of Love’; it described the eponymous milkman doing his rounds in fourteen ten-syllable lines that assonated ABAB …

    ‘Extraordinary,’ said Harbottle, shaking his head in bafflement. ‘Don’t you agree?’

    I had never seen him in this mood and it disconcerted me that Ron, my mentor, a man of such steady, such Johnsonian discernment, should be unhinged by a handful of sophomoric poems that would have been rejected by any self-respecting student magazine; it gave me the unpleasant sense that the world had wobbled on its axis.

    But worse was to come.

    ‘I never thought I’d say it,’ Harbottle said, ‘but, as sonnets, they’re more achieved, more vital, sounder in aspiration and execution, than anything I’ve seen since Shakespeare’s. They’ve got a simplicity that recalls the Lyrical Ballads. She’s stripped the language down to its pith. Even with Shakespeare, we think of the sonnets as his greatest achievements, but did he ever write anything better than “When icicles hang by the wall”?’ He sagged into one of a pair of battered armchairs that I used for supervisions – I had just begun to teach a little myself. ‘I’m going to take them round to Owen.’

    ‘Owen?’

    ‘Owen Whitchurch, of course. Who else?’

    I tried to dissuade him. Whitchurch – a friend to both of us – was emeritus professor of English Literature, and the most visible and public intellectual in the department. More importantly, he was undoubtedly sound asleep. But Ron was adamant. He swigged down his coffee and stood up.

    ‘Do you have to go this minute?’

    ‘Absolutely. This won’t wait.’

    I tried one last sally to make him reconsider. I directed my whole arsenal of critical weaponry – an arsenal that Harbottle himself had equipped me with – onto the poems and blasted them into smithereens. I pointed out the deficiencies in metre, the staleness of the imagery, the triteness of the rhymes – the spelling mistakes, for god’s sake!

    Harbottle’s face grew stiff and masklike. When he was quite sure I was finished, he moved closer to me. ‘The trouble with you, Nicholas, is that you’re too cold-blooded to ever understand real passion. These are the real thing.’ He spat the words with a contempt that I had never heard from him before, then snatched up the poems and left.

    The poems were the work of a first-year undergraduate called Tilda Swann, with whom Harbottle was having an affair. I, unlike most, was more able to forgive the grotesque conjunction of fifty-seven-year-old man and nineteen-year-old woman than Harbottle’s betrayal of his literary judgement. That finely calibrated instrument, trained to measure the lapses of genius in microns, had been usurped by an old man’s vanity.

    While the affair ended quickly, Harbottle continued to insist on the poems’ merit and, in the teeth of derision, proceeded to spend the credibility he’d husbanded over years on getting them into print. The Milkman of Love and Other Poems was published in 1993 by a small poetry press. Harbottle’s championship of the book gave it a celebrity it would have otherwise lacked. There were profiles of Swann, one in a tabloid paper under the pull-quote ‘Me better than Shakespeare? It’s all a bit much’. Harbottle gave a special lecture to the faculty on the merits of the poems. I couldn’t bring myself to go. The consensus was that Harbottle had lost his marbles. He continued to teach, and even included Swann’s poetry in classes he taught on practical criticism, while the undergraduates smirked and nudged each other. But as an academic, he was finished.

    More surprising, perhaps, was the effect it had on me. From the moment of our night-time encounter, something changed in me. I went for days without working. Having virtually lived in the University Library for the past four years, I didn’t go near it for weeks. I fell ill with a succession of mysterious ailments that kept me from studying or teaching. Each time I opened a book, I felt sick and dizzy. I tormented myself with fearful self-diagnoses: ME, leukaemia, depression. I went back to live at home at the end of term and got a job in the furniture department at Arding and Hobbs. I worked my way up from the loading bays to actual contact with the customers, and after a while, the manager gave me the heady responsibility of arranging the second-hand books with which we dressed the empty shelves of the mocked-up living rooms that were supposed to seduce our customers into paroxysms of spending. Among the duff and tired volumes – mostly Reader’s Digest condensed books – were now and again one or two of surprising quality. I date the remission of my nervous illness from the moment that I dug a copy of Her Privates We, Frederic Manning’s wartime novel, and a pristine first edition of The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold out of a consignment which had been sent in from a charity shop. I sold them both to a rare book dealer for a fiver. It wasn’t the money that motivated me to steal them. Perhaps I felt their predicament resembled mine – their redundancy on the veneered shelves. But I think it was more than that. The Word is alive. We have always known it. But it needs to be uttered, aloud or in the mind of a reader. Without a consciousness to tickle them into life, those books were dead.

    It was the stirrings of my recovery. I felt like a sickly patient recovering his appetite and gradually I formed the idea of returning to my academic ambition. I transferred to University College London. But my effortless gift for study had vanished for ever. In its place, there was only drudgery and the fear of failure.

    I was like one of those sporting naturals whose talent is instinctive and unrationalised. Having lost something that I had once done wholly by intuition, I had no idea how to regain it. Long before I completed my doctorate – it would take a further eight years – I was sated with Johnson’s work to the point of disgust. By then, I was the young father of two and scraping by on a junior lecturer’s salary. Those evenings in Founder’s Court seemed to belong to another life. I taught a module on the eighteenth century, dragging a class of indifferent students through The Rape of the Lock, Rasselas and Gulliver’s Travels. Books which had once been vessels of life-supplying ether, flasks of rare and intoxicating wines, seemed now a vinegary irrelevance. I consoled myself with the specious thought that even if I had retained my love for the subject, it would have made no difference. The currency of academic success has changed. Academic departments aren’t interested in scholarship any more. Desperate for sources of funding, they promote those men and women who bring large research projects into the faculty. Writing monographs is nowadays a less valued skill than filling out grant applications. Solitude, slowness, patience and exactitude are the opposite virtues to the ones wanted now.

    And yet – are there more!? – I hadn’t given up hope that something might turn up.

    In the last few weeks of his life, Johnson and his servant – a freed slave called Francis Barber – burned bundles of Johnson’s personal papers at his house in Bolt Court. It’s one of those terrible literary autos-da-fé which keep people like me awake at night. I’ve always secretly hoped that someone might have had the presence of mind to save or make copies of those precious documents.

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