Tuesday, 2 February 2010

A little more Cameron

Robert Graves's Introduction to the Collected Poems of his late friend, Norman Cameron, says:

We met first at Oxford in 1927; he had gone there from Fettes, and was then President of the Oxford English Club, reading English, playing shove-halfpenny at the Chequers, and occasionally turning out for an Oriel rugger team.... After coming down, he lived near me for a while in St. Peter's Square, Hammersmith; and next, not having done too well in his Finals, accepted a job as Education Officer in Southern Nigeria.

What strikes me about that - apart from Cameron having been an alumnus of Tony Blair's old school - is the easy step from failing one's Finals to accepting a job as Education Officer in Southern Nigeria. I mean the part about playing shove-halfpenny is rather nice, and - considering that Cameron was never very strong, the idea of him playing rugger is surprising (presumably scrum-half rather than in the pack, though he might just have been hooker) - but that almost natural-sounding step from Finals to Southern Nigeria has a heart stopping pathos to it. Maybe it was the way they did things back in the days of the Empire when the map of the world was mostly coloured red; maybe they said to themselves: That blighter who flunked his Finals, sounds just the sort of chap for Southern Nigeria, what? Drive the poetry out of the silly ass!

Then off goes slightly frail Cameron and writes things like this in his letters to Graves:

I certainly haven't met anybody lovable or likeable on this ship so I hope for good results when the voyage is over. The two young men who are going out to the same kind of job as me seem rather to think that I'm going to share a house with them. A jolly bloody little snuggery that would be...

This is a nice house, and all to myself, and I'm feeling much better than when I wrote to you last. A fellow came aboard and asked if he could be my cook. I also chose as steward a chap who had tattoo-marks or something all over his face, because he seemed to be rough stuff and independent...

The girls are most lovely. But I find that you can't look at them or you get let in. I had a sad experience when a girl I bought some bananas from (I shouldn't have done that - gents leave banana buying to their menials) made a gesture which I thought was a sort of technical blessing. So I said 'bless you' and smiled at her, and went upstairs to my house. But she followed me up and started to make a sexual demonstration. So I daren't smile at any Aftican girls any more...

It's all lovely stuff like that and you get ten pages of letters in the Introduction. I think another Cameron poem is appropriate:

In the Queen's Room

In smoky outhouses of the court of love
I chattered, a recalcitrant underling
Living on scraps. 'Below stairs or above,
All's one,' I said. 'We valets have our fling.'

Now I am come, by a chance beyond reach,
Into your room, my body smoky and soiled
And on my tongue the taint of chattering speech,
Tell me, Queen, am I irredeemably spoiled?

Now I recall, that is one of the poems Martin Bell first showed me in 1971 or so. I cannot express how grateful I am to the late Martin. It is the best thing that could happen to a young poet that an elder, much admired poet, puts a poem into your hands and says, Read this.


Poet in Residence said...

You write with such sensitive skill.

What can one's valet get for 75p today? A picture postcard of the church at Sandringham?

l.michael said...

Hello, George Szirtes: Happened upon this page when I googled a fragment of poetry scantly remembered from my youth of a quarter-century ago ("Tell me, Queen, am I irredeemably spoiled?")... I am a huge fan of Graves, with several of his lyrics committed to memory (and I am quite parsimonious as to what treasures I permit within that miniscule vault), yet never knew of his connection with Cameron... This is a fine tribute you have accorded the latter here.

Thank you for the sharing, sir.

...L.MichaelM [Feb. 24, 2010]