Saturday, 9 May 2009
They don't like you
Last night in Oxford to talk translation to OUPS at Christ Church. Very nice session as you'd expect in a room stuffed full of intelligence. It is interesting that of the young school-age poets that Colette Bryce and I chose blind for the Foyle's Young Poets of the Year four years ago, all but two have gone on to either Oxford or Cambridge. Interesting, I say, because I am not sure what to make of it. It could mean that Oxford and Cambridge, being the elite universities they have traditionally been, had the good sense to see what Colette and I saw in the young poets. Or it might mean that the qualities we were looking for were coded in some way according to education, class and so on. Hard to know. We just picked what seemed to us the best work. In terms of class I know now that it was a various group, not all from what are normally called advantaged backgrounds. But it still intrigues. I suppose if they had chosen to go elsewhere they'd have got in there.
Students don't have much money generally and the OUPS has little so there is no fee, just travel, a bed for the night and, as it turns out, a nice modest meal. It needs overnight as it is four hours plus either way.
I arrive at the guest house overlooking some sports fields in Abingdon Road. It doesn't look much but considerably better than the Liverpool flophouse I once spent a night in after a reading. The man at the desk who turns out to be the owner is bald and beaky with a sad wisp of a pony tail. He asks me if I know anything about the room.
No, I say, it was reserved for me by students.
Ah, he smiles. I'm afraid it's not en suite. Toilet down the corridor, past the firedoor, down some stairs. It seems, he adds, your students don't like you.
He explains about breakfast to some others who are checking in.
There are fifty-four people in here tonight, he says, and we can only lay breakfast for twenty-six. Please be prepared to wait. Breakfast is served between 8 and 9.30.
My return ticket is for 9.30, the station about twenty-five minutes walk away. I don't intend charging the students a taxi fare too.
He takes me to the room. It is very tiny. If I really didn't like someone I might in fact consider making them stay there. The room is smaller than the average cell. It is Van Gogh's room at Arles without the colour. There is just room enough to stand next to the narrow single bed. There is a very tiny basin in the corner and a TV on one of those swivelling wall-mounted stands. No room for a desk or table of course though there is one chair at the end of the bed, pressed against the radiator. It is scrupulously clean.
I imagine myself in self-mocking fashion, as William Butler Yeats, a sixty-year old smiling public man, only a lot less public. The doomed part of me - the Beckett part - smiles, wryly muttering to itself: Come off it. This is no more than you deserve.
So I say: OK, and settle in for the forty minutes or so I have to wait to meet the student who has invited me.
Because there is no room to sit anywhere there is nothing to do except lie on the bed by the open window that looks out over the busy Abingdon Road with its traffic. I turn on the TV if only to drown out the noise. It is The Weakest Link. But the remote control doesn't work. It's getting a little dispiriting. I take the remote control down. The owner is full of apologies while he replaces it.
I am so sorry, he says. I shouldn't have said the students didn't like you.
That's all right, I reply. They don't know me. They haven't had a chance to like or dislike me. I took your remark as a reflection on the hotel.
Of course, he smiles in embarassment. But I shouldn't have said anything like that.
Don't worry, I reassure him.
We chat a little. He is Greek but was born and brought up in South Africa. Then England. His family tried to live in Corfu but their daughter's education was suffering so they came back to England. He is full of praise for her current school. I would like to like him but I can't quite manage it.
He replaces the remote control.
The session is an hour and half. In the first part we talk ideas about translation, in the second I set them a Hungarian poem with a vocabulary and background. They do very well. Two of the Foyles group are at the session (one being the organiser), as well as four people who are not at the university. There are three part-Hungarians. Then we go off hunting for a place that sells drinks and food and is not full of Friday night students whooping it up in evening dress. It isn't easy but eventually we succeed.
When I come back, a little after eleven, I find one of the lights in the room doesn't work and that the hanger falls apart when I try to hang my jacket on it. The cupboard itself is unsteady.
I wake very early, wash and get dressed then hurry down to breakfast just before 8pm. In luck. There is only one person sitting there. I take a place at a small table, helping myself to fruit juice and cereal. The owner comes along.
Coffee or tea? he asks.
I ask for coffee.
I go for poached egg and bacon. He brings me four half slices of toast, two white, two brown. He goes off to the kitchen that I can see into straight ahead of me. It is very clean. Other early breakfasters are arriving. They make their order.
I wait and wait. The coffee tastes bad, there is no milk on the table, the toast has gone cold. Others are being served.
I wait longer. No, it seems he doesn't like me either. I eat the cold toast.
After twenty minutes, I walk over to the kitchen and tell him not to bother. I pick up my stuff and leave the key on his desk with a note. I feel a slight twitch of pity for him and an equally slight twinge of guilt in myself for being a touch - well - inwardly petulant. Silently, politely petulant, yet petulant.
I walk the twenty-five minutes to the station and have a quick bacon butty there. On the train I fall into a conversation which I will save for next posting. If I get the chance. Tomorrow morning Basle.