Diary

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.

Allon and I began to spend time together only in the last few months of his life. We started making trips to second-hand bookshops, in Eastbourne, Hastings, Tunbridge Wells. On a trip to Guildford he suddenly stopped outside a bag shop and offered to buy me a pigskin wallet. The book on transgression is fascinated by the unstable symbolic status of the pig, which it describes as the most useful of all animals to think with, and so I took Allon’s offer as an uncharacteristically elaborate way of introducing his latest thoughts about the relation of pigs and money. But the offer was genuine enough. He had noticed, he explained, that the smell of leather bindings produced in me an invariable conditioned reaction. He described how, on entering a bookshop, I would take down a calf-bound volume, no matter which, open it, and look at the price; then I would take out my wallet, open it, and pay the price, no matter what. The problem, he explained, was that my wallet was also calf, and somehow – he didn’t presume to know why – this had allowed it to get hopelessly hooked up in my head with antiquarian books. A pigskin wallet would break the circuit. I would clear my overdraft; my children would want for nothing. But my old wallet, I told him, was a treasured gift from a former lover. ‘Calf love,’ he said. ‘You’ll grow out of it.’

Allon was a big spender himself, as you’d expect from someone who left a large capital sum to his colleagues to feast his memory every year – ‘against the meanness of the times’, as he put it in his will. Just before our bookshop trips began, he had cashed in his superannuation and bought a Peugeot 205 GTI which he drove as fast as he talked. The first time he showed me what it could do was after a visit to Hall’s bookshop in Tunbridge Wells. We paid for the books we’d found, but might as well not have done for all the difference it made to Allon’s driving. He roared back to Brighton as if the GTI was our getaway car and the Kent Constabulary had crossed the county line in hot pursuit. He took the bends by throwing the steering-wheel from one hand to the other, playing frisbee with himself, and all the while talking nonstop, as if – well, as if he had a lifetime of things to say and only a few months or miles to say them in. As we lurched out of Tunbridge Wells he was explaining the operation of convection currents in oasthouses; at Poundgate it was early settlement patterns on the margins of Ashdown Forest; by Heron’s Ghyll he was on to the usefulness or otherwise of the terms ‘decorated’ and ‘perpendicular’. A sign to Maresfield set off an impromptu talk on Freud’s collection of antiquities, and as we approached the turning to Ringmer and braked and bumped into Lewes he was telling me what Bakhtin would certainly have had to say about allotments. He was a born teacher who loved to teach, but that wasn’t how he came across on this and the other terrifying drives he subjected me to. Like his superannuation, he’d saved all this knowledge for a rainy day, and now that day had come he was determined to enjoy it, to run over all he had in him and to share it with everyone he could get to listen.

As it became more and more likely that he would die, he began writing Too close to the bone – this must have been in March 1988. A few weeks later Jacqueline Rose and I went away with Jen White and Allon to spend a night in Wells and to look at the cathedral, which Allon knew by heart from photographs but had never seen. By now, a second bone-marrow transplant seemed to have failed; he was very weak, and had to spend long hours of the day in bed. But there was a new source of comfort in his frank belief that he was writing something wonderful, an autobiographical sketch in which he had managed at last to construct an archaeology of his own early life. He gave us the text to read while he rested, and I remember how apprehensive I was that I wouldn’t be able to share his enthusiasm for something so personal to him that it might mean very little to anyone else. When he got up and we said it was a masterpiece – I expect we used some more kosher word – he seemed full of energy to go on writing. But before he died he had the strength to add only a few more pages of the hundreds, almost already written, that he could see stretched out like a fast road in front of him.

Allon’s funeral was held in the small church at Berwick, near Lewes, decorated by Duncan Grant et al. He’d spoken about what he wanted from the occasion – ‘not a dry eye in the house’ – and the service was scripted as ruthlessly as the final scenes of Brief Encounter, with the one deliberate aim of reducing everyone in the huge congregation to tears. Allon himself had taken a perverse delight in asking for a performance of Dido’s Lament, the most tear-jerking aria he could think of. I was quite sure that none of this would touch me: in the previous few years I had stood stone-faced through two dry and spiritless funeral services for my parents. In the event, however, I was one of the first to break down, released by the skilful mise-enscène to mourn my mother and father for the first time, as well as Allon himself. It is what I am most grateful to him for. He is buried in Berwick churchyard, a few yards from Cyril Connolly, whose memorial stone, inscribed with a line from Virgil (‘There is fresh water within, and seats in the living rock’), is evidently intended to dispel any thought of the grave as unquiet.

Among Allon’s papers there was a two-page essay, probably written in 1984, called ‘Why am I a literary critic?’ It is the most unquiet thing he wrote, though of those who have read it – it will be included in the Oxford volume – I can honestly say that I was the last person to feel its power. I did not dare to. It is about the perils of writing, of being ‘a grown man’ who feels himself, however, in the act of writing, too close to childhood memories he will not, does not know how to, confront. He can hear them or the hysteria they threaten, dimly, in the distance, ‘the stamping of the beast upon the shore’. The distance they keep is the distance imposed by the writing of literary criticism, which offers the illusion, at least, of safety, or the safety of illusion. But to attempt to write yourself away from what you most fear is a risky business, for without knowing what it is you may write yourself right in it. ‘It comes to me now when I am with others, in the classroom teaching The Waves, or at dinnerparties when there is a sudden lull in the talk ... I know that it is there at the fingersends, lurking among the keys, waiting for the right combination of letters to release it howling out at me, free at last.’

At times the essay seems almost about to invite the beast to break in, if it were not still more anxious to lock it out. It accuses itself of refusing to look at what it also insists it could not possibly see – ‘I can conjure ... nothing’ – and yet all the time is on the edge of naming the thing it fears. For the phrases that describe this terror and its object – ‘the beast on the shore’, ‘this tide of fear and sadness’, ‘The Waves’, ‘I breathe so shallowly’ – seem finally to compel the essay to acknowledge as its own this amphibious thing of darkness which it cannot bear to know and cannot hope to keep much longer at bay. ‘Drowning. The fear is of drowning (now the tears come, now they come). I see water and the lilies and the reeds and the weeds and unless I can understand all that then I am as dead.’ For the moment, however, write away from it again. ‘I have come too close.’

Too close to the bone begins by describing a novel begun and abandoned by Allon in the late Seventies. It was to have had a double narrative: the story of a 17th-century mystic making his way to the reedy fens around Ely in the belief that it was a place of salvation, and the story of a hydraulics engineer who died in the Fifties while attempting to drain the malarial swamps of the Sardinian coast. It was not for another six years or so, the autobiography explains, that Allon began to understand this preoccupation, in his psychic life and in this attempt at fiction, with wetlands and with drowning. The village in Bedfordshire where he was brought up had been crisscrossed by moats, dykes, drainage-channels; in one of these his sister carol had drowned, when she was three and Allon was five. ‘I understood ... that a terrible crime had taken place ... before the body had been found something inside me had already decided that I was responsible for the crime, that I had a dreadful guilty secret that I would henceforth carry with me unknown to myself for thirty years.’ It is, or so Allon came to believe, this secret – whatever it stood for, whatever crouched behind it – that would have found a way, one day, of writing itself, in defiance of the distance that writing was meant to impose.

In the early summer of 1989 I started to take notes for a book which became The Infection of Thomas De Quincey and which was published in May this year. According to my notebook I began to do this a couple of weeks or so after the publication of ‘Too close to the bone’ in the London Review. The book takes off from De Quincey’s guilty sense of being somehow responsible for – of having failed to prevent – the death of his sister Elizabeth, when he was six and she was eight. The first passage I annotated from De Quincey’s autobiographical sketches is a memory of a fine day in June; Thomas is standing on the lawn beside the family house, at some distance from his brothers and sisters. There is a brook nearby, and beyond it a terrible danger. The memory is offered as part of the story of the last day Thomas spent with his elder brother William, to whom he attempted to pass the guilt for the death of Elizabeth. William is about to die of typhus fever, and if Thomas had not quite desired his death, he celebrated it when it came with a dark secret joy.

In Allon’s autobiography, he describes a screen memory which tells of his guilty failure to prevent Carol’s death. It is a fine day in July; Allon is playing on the back lawn of the family house, at some distance from his sister. She wanders off to the bottom of the garden, a place Allon knows to be a place of terrible danger. He could stop her, but says nothing; he wants her dead; she disappears. The next day her body was found in the pond beyond the garden hedge. Some time during the writing of my book I realised (or so I am told) that I was in some sense rewriting Too close to the bone. Then later I lost the connection, and when I found it again, a couple of months ago, reading the proofs of the LRB book, it was a most disturbing, uncanny surprise. Perhaps I should add (perhaps I should not) that I have not felt able to see my own sister Elizabeth – she is two years older than me – for nearly four years now, since together we scattered my mother’s ashes in Cambridge. Don’t ask what it means; if this column were a proper place to talk about these things I would not so much as mention them.

So what exactly do I think I learned from Allon? Bad things mostly, I suppose, I learned that it can be easier to face the imminent death of someone you know, if it is offered as the culmination of a benignant coping with a malignant disease, than to be too close to their anger. If I did not quite believe in the adequacy of Allon’s account of why he was, or I might be, a literary critic, I did come to understand how much more convenient it is to get off on the psychic work done by someone else than to dig up your own patch. But I also learned to acknowledge as mine these things and thoughts of darkness – to be aware at last of the beast stamping on the distant shore, if only so as to be better at not confronting it.

[*] 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.