Friday, 28 November 2008
Cambridge, St John's College - the candle lit room
Driving to Cambridge takes about 75 minutes. Driving through Cambridge takes another 50. Dark, jammed, faint drizzle and the engine overheating.
When we lived in Hertfordshire Cambridge was where I'd go for half my books and we'd amble round some of the colleges like tourists, calling in on King's College Chapel, having coffee, wandering round the market, picking up a few paperbacks there, dropping in at Heffer's big bookshop. Some time in the eighties I was on the board of the Eastern region's literature panel, which would meet just up the road from St John's, but somehow I never once ambled into St John's. I read at various Cambridge venues, in colleges, in bookshops, but not St John's.
I hadn't realised how extensive it was. It is, I now confirm, extensive. We arrived at Patrick's flat at the back of the college, had a whisky, then dropped our bags in one of the splendid guest rooms, walking through building works, and a seeming endless set of courtyards to get there. We settled, washed and I worked out some kind of programme - I was to read for half an hour at Patrick's flat to whoever turned up - then Patrick returned to take us to dinner in the hall. Dinner was all gowned and suited. C was in sparkly, I in open necked shirt and leather jacket. It was the high table opposite a large portrait, beside the Master and opposite the ninety-five year old Maurice Wilkes, who had worked at the Cavendish and was the co-author of the first book on computer programming. He had gone up to Cambridge close on eighteen years before I was born. Sixty was nothing. Conversation about Palladio and Palladianism, about open air concerts. C in conversation with one of the female dons.
Straight after the meal we followed the Master to the long gallery, a very long long gallery, wood panelled and lit entirely by candles. It was like walking into Venice at night.
Or De La Tour?
In any case it was ravishing, as was the Bridge of Sighs (find pics anywhere). Night glitter.
Then to Patrick's room. Some fifteen young people and scholars - from China, from India, from Germany, from Croatia, from Spain, literary scholars, an astrophysicist, a mathematician-concert pianist, linguists. It was a matter of sitting in an armchair and reading and talking. Another form of glittering.
If at night I should wake in a long candle-lit room with shadowy figures gathered in huddles before an ornate fireplace (rescued from a pub complete with renaissance marquetry) I will know I have been translated into another life, a life in which I don't belong except as a kind of ghost, passing through one wall then through the next. Together with Venice, the Place des Vosges in Paris, the Pazzi Chapel in Florence, my terminal courtyard in inner city Budapest and some very few other places, the long gallery has now become one of the sumptuous places of the world. One does not belong in sumptuous places - that is to say, I don't. I pass through them. They are not a possible dwelling.
I think of Martin Bell in his last Leeds room, of William Diaper "in a nasty garret". I hold the smell of them in my imagination before the sumptuous passages.