Sunday 16 November 2008

London, November

Dining room, Savile Cub

Friday morning talking with a young, very gifted Ugandan poet, Nick Makoha, to whom I am now officially mentor. That process having now begun I will not be referring to it again for professional reasons. It was a long four hour conversation in the cafe part of the RFH but it flew by. From there to the National Gallery Cafe to meet C and H, thence a quick walk down to Bush House for the interview, before making my way over to the Savile Club in Brook Street.

My room - a double room for C and I - was ready. I caught the old lift to the appropriate floor moving past columns, panelling, portraits and mythological scenes. There was time to relax for about twenty minutes relaxed. At 6.30 C arrived with bags and books. Jon C, who had organised the occasion and was going to be MC, also appeared. Back into my suit and downstairs. People enter. Old friend DL from schooldays, whom I haven't seen for several years. We stop and stare, not quite recognising each other. Old friends E and V, then relatives, and university people, and the writers, Linda Grant, Eva Hofmann, Ruth Fainlight, Alan Sillitoe, Jonty Driver, Erin Soros. More friends: via the Hungarian connection: scientists, doctors, psychoanalysts, architects. Ex-students. A number of people I do not know. It's a good turn out.

All this is a little nerve-racking partly because of the magnificent ceremonial surroundings (the soup kitchen of the ruling class...), but also because of the nature of the occasion and the audience. I always find it easier to read to people I have never met. We drink in the bar. A portrait of a tousled Charles James Fox (Spencer Tracy with a white quiff) looks down. I perform a few brief introductions. Then into the room where I am to read. Jon introduces, I read for half an hour, more or less chronologically, from earliest to new, then face a few questions, apropos of which see the post below.

Then we file into dinner in the glittering hall shown above, some thirty five of us. Dinner is served, light and delicious. Conversation, then the bar. People start to leave. Daughter H remains along with E and V who order a bottle of champagne. The five of us down it, laughing and joking, then eventually C and I are left, both a touch light headed. To room and shower.

How to thank Jon and Martin and the university for putting this on? How to thank anyone for anything? This place costs £900 a year to join. There are paintings and drawings everywhere. Luxury. I feel very spoiled. I would not describe it as a bad experience. It is, of course Prince Charles's birthday. Perhaps he and I have swapped places for an evening and he is in Norfolk translating or scribbling or marking.


The next day we walk along the South Bank from Waterloo towards London Bridge. I start to feel a touch overwhelmed. It has been a very concentrated week or so - Liverpool, Aldeburgh, Newcastle and the two London occasions. I am almost sixty. When I was twenty-five I thought nothing could be better and more impossible than having a book of poems published. It seemed desperately unlikely, given the circumstances: the transplantation, the second language, the lack of education, the necessity of making a living and supporting a family, the indifference of the literary world, not to mention my doubts about my talent. And all those years and years of luck it would take: the luck conspicuously missing from my parents' lives. I don't think all this consciously but I know it is there as a kind of shape inside my chest.

The Thames is choppy, the sun is coming out. Kids are skateboarding and trick-cycling as we pass, others are running up trees and turning back-flips. There is a rising and falling gust. Crowds drift and rest, stare out at the water, take photos of each other, hold hands, browse books, chat in various foreign languages. People come out of the space in front of me like a choir of souls and I think: this is all there is. It is extraordinary that this should be all there is, and marvellous. Luck is simply being here. Luck is that any of this should exist. I stop by a seagull who watches me without too much concern. The river is high. I could easily stop and just cry, for no particular reason except whatever I have already noted in this paragraph. I think I am tired and sentimental. But it's something in the chest and I am glad it's there. We stop in a pub for a pub meal. How easily I could fall asleep.


In the evening to Eva's for dinner with writers and critics, Elaine Showalter and her husband, English; Elaine Feinstein, Maxine.. I remember meeting Lyndall Gordon here and Gabriel Josipovici and marvel at Eva's circle. Elaine S tells a long and extraordinary family story, Elaine F reminiscences about London Yiddish Theatre, Maxine about life in South America and India, Eva about her experience as a visitor to a London Muslim school. We talk about the new post-1989 Europe...

We leave about midnight, get home about 2 am. Tomorrow to listen to Sebastian Barry at the UEA. Teach Monday and Tuesday. Wednesday and Thursday in Warwick, Saturday in Cambridge at the Cambridge University Library where bits of my correspondence and books are on show. Life continues like this until the middle of December.


Gwil W said...

The sumptuous table in the photo outdoes the recent G20 'save the banks, save the world' get-together.
If one's monarch reads the Szirtes blog (and you never know! 'Er indoors recently composed a 4-line ditty re a nosebag bash at one's relatives) you my dear George will be whined and deigned to become the next royal rhymster. Next year innit?

George S said...

And that was an averagely magnificent table. The magnificence of the most magnificent was, well, magnificenter.

It's a bit Cinderella. You keep thinking some prince (or princess in this case) is going to come up to you and say, 'Your feet look practically edible in those wonderful glass Clarks. Marry me and we can live in the Chateau des Chandeliers for ever."

Meanwhile, the pumpkin is waiting at the door with six shivering white mice.