Strange Bodies(8)
Author:Marcel Theroux


    All my life, I seem to have been trying to recreate some primal ideal of bookishness. While my peers at primary school were playing football, I declared myself the custodian of the tiny school library, embossed my name on a badge with the teacher’s label-maker, and spent break time memorising the numbers of the Dewey Decimal System. I was nine. The lid of my school desk was unshuttable because of the books I’d tucked away inside it. And it wasn’t just the books. Anything with a sense of ceremony and formality attracted me. My school had an optional uniform that was worn by only one family – Jehovah’s Witnesses from Guyana – and me. The fashion of the 1970s meant that my peer group grew their hair long and wore polyester trousers and monkey boots. If a gown and mortar board had been available, I’d probably have worn them too. I insisted on a short back and sides every time I went to the barber. My appetite for books ruined my eyesight and I was delighted when I got my first pair of NHS spectacles at eight.

    I sometimes look back at the eccentric figure I cut at school and wonder why I wasn’t teased mercilessly. Partly, I suppose, it was because another boy, called Frederick, was the official class oddball. Frederick was being raised by a single mother who was German and who insisted on sending him to school in lederhosen. But even at my next school, a roughish comprehensive, I could count the unpleasant incidents on the fingers of one hand – dinner money stolen once; thumped on the ear and called a gay-boy; a treasured copy of The Happy Prince nicked at break time and kicked around the yard until its fluttering pages broke apart and flew upwards in a pathetic parody of escape.

    Aged thirteen, I won an assisted place to a fee-paying school with a distinguished history. My baffled music-teacher parents were proud beyond imagining. The school was six hundred years old and maintained a unique pronunciation of Latin and an annual ceremony where boys fought over a giant pancake to win Maundy money. It should have been my Avalon; but I struggled. My wayward education in state schools meant I was behind everyone in languages and maths. I found it hard to make friends. The school boasted of its traditions and the achievements of its ancient alumni, but its ethos was worldly, knowing and fashionable. I was as out of step here as I had been at Spencer Park. I wasn’t even particularly clever any more, the realisation of which eroded what had been until then the most reliable component of my identity. To make matters worse, I had terrible acne and yet a voice that stubbornly refused to drop out of its boyish treble until I was seventeen. English lessons, which I’d always looked forward to, I now dreaded in case I was called on to read. At school, my natural peers were the other misfits with whom I played Dungeons and Dragons, and Runequest. At home, I spent most weekends with Frederick, my old lightning conductor from primary school.

    All this time, I felt I was in pursuit of something, something that I could not express exactly in words but that I knew was real because I felt it keenly in the stippled drawings of Robin Jacques that illustrated my favourite books of fairy tales; in graveyards and wintertime and the garden of my maternal grandparents’ home in Winterswijk; in Tolkien and carols and the lead figures of paladins and clerics that I assiduously painted for the sessions of D and D; it was on Wandsworth Common in a summer evening, and in the overgrown back garden of Frederick’s house in winter; the chalk paths of Box Hill were full of it when we went bum-sliding in filthy clothes on our birthdays.

    The faint traces of this scent seemed to be linked to a knowledge of life and of the past that was rooted in books and yet, beyond those, it shaded on its furthest side into some inkling of a spiritual life, something that a monk might feel as he warmed his hand over a candle and prayed for his pen to be steady as he copied the holy book. It wasn’t until I reached university that this ineffable vibration was finally incarnated in a human being, and I experienced a sense of arrival, of paddling my armoured belly up the sand of a long-remembered beach.

    Ronald Harbottle was then fifty-three; his big pompadour greying, but still thick. He had a bearish build and a rumbling bass voice. His cramped room in the corner of Founders’ Court was infused with the smells of instant coffee, old book bindings and the honey-centred cough sweets that he ate incessantly. Here, amid a relaxed disorder – stacks of essays spilling off the low table, a life-mask of Keats, invitations weighted onto the mantelpiece with fives gloves, a candle stub stuck on a clay head from Sumatra, uncorrected proofs for a journal article underfoot – Harbottle conducted his supervisions in an atmosphere of reassuring certainty: governments could change and fall, fashions ebb and shift, but this was the centre of the world; the eternal knowledge remained the same – Piers Plowman, the works of the Gawain poet, Chaucer, Shakespeare, the Jacobeans, the Metaphysicals, Milton, Pope, Fielding, Austen, Keats and, of course, Johnson. Ah Johnson! If there was a model for Harbottle’s wry humanism, a clear and laughing eye fixed on the cold facts of life, scorning cant, embracing truth, refuting sophistry with the toe-punt of the self-evidently real, a vast appetite for food and conversation – Johnson was it. Ron Harbottle’s life was shambolic, inefficient, totally lacking in any conception of career, and yet illuminated by his omnivalent curiosity, his spirit of humane endeavour and his generosity to those he taught.

    It was Ron who encouraged my habit of keeping a diary in the very words that Johnson uses in the Life: ‘He recommended to me to keep a journal of my life, full and unreserved. He said it would be a very good exercise, and would yield me great satisfaction when the particulars were faded from my remembrance.’ It was a daily commitment I never wavered from, even in the darkest years to come.

    My time at university passed in a dream of bliss. The deceits of memory are sometimes more instructive than the truth: every one of my recollected supervisions seems to have taken place at 5 p.m. on a Friday in late October, the gas fire sighing, Founder’s Court outside the window slipping into a purple twilight, Harbottle scrutinising my essay through half-moon glasses, then casting it aside and calling on me to unpack my more sweeping statements, go further with my assertions, elucidate my vaguer points. Harbottle would pour us both sherry and keep me beyond the allotted hour to talk further. Flushed with alcohol and approbation, I would keep writing in my hardbound notebook, my handwriting growing more looping and intoxicated, noting down new directions of enquiry, suggested reading. Sometimes Harbottle would go to the shelves, pull off books and throw them at me – books from his personal library, for me to pore over later, trying to decipher the faded pencilled annotations of the master. I learned that he used alchemical symbols as a kind of shorthand and adopted them myself; for instance, marking a turning point in a narrative with the horned squiggle of Mercury in the margin beside it.

    I studied to the exclusion of everything else. I was a pale, happy ghost haunting the libraries. I won an outstanding degree and went to the United States for a year. On my return, Harbottle supervised my MLitt and agreed to be my thesis adviser for my doctorate – Johnson and Judgement: Literary Aesthetics in the Augustan Age. We collaborated on the articles for the Quarterly. I seemed set fair for a glittering academic career at the university. Then disaster.

    At three o’clock one morning of the Lent term, the clunky rotary phone which I, as a postgraduate, was now entitled to have in my room began to ring. It was Harbottle. He had made an extraordinary discovery. He needed to see me without delay.

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