John Barrell

The autobiographical fragment by Allon White entitled ‘Too close to the bone’, which was published in 1989 in the London Review of Books, has just been republished by the LRB, this time in book form.[*] Allon taught at the University of Sussex until he died in 1988 at the age of 37. He was the author of The Uses of Obscurity and (with Peter Stallybrass) The Politics and Poetics of Transgression. A collection of fugitive pieces, Carnival, Hysteria and Writing, will be published by Oxford next year with an introduction by Stuart Hall, with whom Allon studied at the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies.

It seems appropriate, on the reappearance of Allon’s brief autobiography, to memorialise him in this column, though it may not be quite appropriate for me to do so. I came to know him only when he was already ill. One evening early in 1986, shortly after I arrived at Sussex, I found myself sitting next to him in a Brighton restaurant; on his other side was Alan Sinfield, and they were discussing the latest betrayal of socialism (I can’t now remember what form it had taken) by the Labour Party. Regular readers of the Letters page in this journal will know how genial, and also how unflagging, Sinfield is in argument: but on this occasion at least, the tenacity of Allon was on a higher plane altogether. The conversation went much too fast for me to be able to climb aboard, and I had no choice but to watch and listen. Allon was as intimidating as his reputation. He would concede nothing, he could let nothing go, he could leave nothing unsaid. I felt uncomfortable and too close to the anger I sensed in him. He kept shivering and sometimes broke into a sweat. He thought he had flu, but it was leukaemia.

When I saw him again, nearly a year later, he was undergoing a course of chemotherapy. He was bald and utterly benign. Even to those who knew him best of all he seemed to be entirely transformed, by his illness of course, but most of all by what he had made of it. His smile immediately dissolved the wariness (should we be grave or gay? do we talk about it, or about everything but?) with which we always approach those with a fatal illness. He came to describe the two years he lived between his diagnosis and his death as the two happiest years of his life and it was patently true. He repaired and nurtured his relationships. He found out just how much he had left unsaid after all, and said almost all of it with an openness that sometimes made it hard to remember why it should ever be difficult to say what we think we feel.

He could still be as angry as ever, not with others and not with himself, but with nature, or what one bit of it could do to another. ‘Allon’ means oak, apparently, in Hebrew, and this became the basis of a tart comparison between what cancer was doing to his body and what the hurricane of 1987 had done to the Sussex landscape. He described waiting on Box Hill one day for the results of some tests at the Royal Marsden Hospital – staring in fear across to the South Downs and seeing, even at that distance, how the symmetry of the great ring of trees at Chanctonbury had been shattered. He used his illness and death as occasions to raise money for new trees and for new treatments for leukaemia.

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[*] Too close to the bone (47 pp., £4.95, 1 873092 02 4) was published in August. So was Stephen Sackur’s On the Basra Road (78 pp., £4.95, 1 873 092 01 6), a collection of reports from the Middle East some of which first appeared in this paper.