In October 1958, I became a student of F.R. Leavis at Downing College, Cambridge. I had taken the entrance exams the previous December, including the ‘dating paper’, which involved matching passages of English poetry and prose as closely as possible with their dates of composition. This was Leavis’s special creation, for which I had been coached pretty intensively by teachers at my grammar school in Purley. His hand was also detectable elsewhere, for example in this question: ‘“Keats stands up to close reading, whereas Shelley simply does not.” Consider with reference to either Keats or Shelley or both.’ There was also an interview, though not with Leavis himself.
What did we look like, the incoming cohort of 1958, the first mostly not to have National Service? We were mainly middle class – Downing wasn’t a posh college – with many from Northern England, especially from Manchester Grammar School. The college, though quite lovely in its neoclassical way, lacked the grandeur of the older foundations, and seemed to me disappointingly plain. (I had a hankering for the Tudor splendours of Queens’.)
Not long after my arrival, I went to confession at the huge Victorian gothic Catholic church at the corner of Lensfield Road, which was visible from all points of the Downing quad and seemed almost a part of the college itself. In the confessional box I admitted, for the first time: ‘I have committed fornication.’ That was the required term. It had happened in late September on the floor of the living room of Linda’s cramped terraced house in Carshalton, with her mother asleep upstairs. On a trip to Switzerland I had bought her a very cheap blouse which I persuaded her to try on, thus inducing her to remove the one she was wearing. One thing led to another. I achieved about as minimal a consummation as could fairly be included under the heading ‘fornication’, and promptly fell into a post-coital melancholy deep enough for us both. And then I went off to Cambridge, leaving her to complete her final year in the sixth form at St Theresa’s. Confessing it now, after some weeks in the company of young men who had, it seemed, done it quite a lot, without any apparent remorse, I already felt unsure about contrition and uncertain in my firm purpose of amendment – the two preconditions of absolution. Having been away from Linda long enough for yearning and desire to reassert themselves, I was beginning to feel that, far from being a miserable temptation, desire might be the promise of a delight to be embraced. Linda, I suspected, was probably willing to take this view.
To decorate my college room I’d bought a set of four plaster ducks which I fixed to the wall in an elegant flight pattern. I was appalled to learn that they were the epitome of suburban kitsch. Fortunately I was able to return them to the shop, and with the refunded ten-and-six replaced them, on the same nails, with four small reproductions of Post-Impressionist paintings, bordering on kitsch themselves. Intellectually, too, the first few weeks proved humbling. I hadn’t read Dostoevsky, didn’t know how to pronounce Proust or spell Nietzsche, and had nothing to contribute to a debate about Existentialism. And then there was my awful first encounter with Morris Shapira, one of the Downing English dons. He was extremely sophisticated, wore sandals and a sort of kimono, and displayed a few Chinese objets d’art in his almost empty white room. He served Chinese tea, which didn’t taste like tea at all. The interview ended with my inadvertently addressing him as ‘Father’, from a lifetime of habit as a Catholic schoolboy. Morris was Jewish, one of the first Jews I had ever met, making it even more embarrassing.
Leavis, at this time, acknowledged Cambridge customs and proprieties by defying them. He wore a gown when the situation required it, but with shirt open, collar up, and no tie, and with the gown most of the time bundled over his arm. When he turned up in his not quite matching brown corduroy suit to the matriculation tea in hall, some took him to be a gardener who had wandered in to pick up a sandwich or two. We, his students, also wore our shirts open, with collars turned up. I sometimes still do.
Twice a week I attended seminars which he delivered in his very imitable sardonic drawl to about twenty young men in a high-ceilinged, ground-floor room on F staircase, with his delivery-boy bike parked outside. He began with the Metaphysical poets, drilling into us the attitudes and criteria and explicatory methods necessary to do battle with those who valued Tennyson and Swinburne and Walter de la Mare. He was amusing and frequently defamatory about his antagonists. ‘Eustace Mandeville Wetenhall Tillyard, gentlemen. The master of Jesus. He goes in for Morris dancing, you know. I’ve seen him with bells on his legs.’ ‘William Empson, gentlemen. Seldom seen out of pubs.’ ‘There is not a single living man of letters with less moral courage than Thomas Stearns Eliot.’ He was theatrical, with bushy raised eyebrows, a fondness for dramatic pauses and a way of literally dropping his jaw at some critical misjudgment. To us, the presumed faithful, he was courteous and solicitous, but it was rare for anyone to challenge him, or even ask a question. When Bernie Harrison, from Leeds, one day offered a mildly dissenting view on something to do with Henry James, Leavis declared: ‘Well Harrison, if you think that, you must be totally insensitive to the whole of English literature!’ ‘I hope I didn’t hurt poor Harrison,’ he said at the end of the seminar.
We never had one-on-one tutorials with Leavis but instead with a number of ‘supervisors’. These men, graduate students in their twenties, seemed a rather sad lot, living in seedy digs, a couple of them married with young children. With the advice of their supervisors, students selected topics or writers to ‘get up’ for the exams in the June of each of our three years. And it was here, especially when preparing in third year for Part II of the Tripos, that we faced a dilemma: stick with Leavis-endorsed authors, and Leavis-sanctioned views of them, thus risking a poor reception from examiners of the anti-Leavis party; or explore authors and evaluations that Leavis disparaged, and become, in effect, a traitor to the cause. I took the latter path, pursuing eccentric interests in Arthur Hugh Clough and George Gissing, and developing a critique of fiction based on a very superficial reading of what I took to be Existentialist ethics, mauvaise foi and all that.
For Leavis the study of English was intended to foster the critical discrimination that would distinguish the truly worthwhile from the spurious and the meretricious. It was implicitly a moral pursuit and entailed an assertion that literary style was a moral matter too. Language and perception and the complexity of moral thinking were inextricable. In the criticism of poetry, especially, one had to be on one’s guard against the artificial, the decorative, the vapid, the technically ostentatious, the hollowly conventional, the verbally lazy. The pitfalls were endless; few poets managed to avoid them, and then only rarely. When it came to fiction, all roads led to D.H. Lawrence, in whose major novels Leavis found a sustained effort to imagine and give dramatic life to the question of How to Live.
In retrospect there is something almost poignant, or, less generously, ludicrous, about the idea that the intake of the reading public could be monitored and directed by a cadre of Leavisite critics. Especially because Leavis seemed to have little or nothing to say about the generation of novelists who were presumably in the process of shaping the collective sensibility. He didn’t seem to think much of Waugh or Greene or Powell or Murdoch; he seemed to have no interest in the new kitchen sink drama. Come to that, he had little time for performances of Shakespeare, promoting a view of the plays as ‘dramatic poems’.
My first term went by extremely quickly. I went home at the beginning of December – and immediately took a train into London to meet Linda. She had come straight from school, but had changed out of her uniform into a white blouse and black skirt. With her jet-black hair and hectic red lipstick, she looked very desirable. We had some kind of meal, and went to the theatre – it may have been Measure for Measure at the Old Vic, a play Leavis regarded as a parable of repentance and forgiveness. Later, we got the train back to Carshalton and walked to her house. We made love again in the living room, rather more deliberately this time, though not much more competently. In the silence that followed, Linda said: ‘I don’t think you heard what I said.’ I had to admit that I hadn’t. And so she was obliged to say again what she must have been rehearsing for weeks: ‘I think I’m pregnant.’
Well, of course. It was just the sort of thing God would do, wasn’t it? And with every right: rules are rules. Some time later, as I cycled home, the lamps started going out ahead of me all along Foresters’ Drive. ‘If the next streetlight doesn’t go out before I get to it,’ I said to myself, ‘she isn’t.’ It did.