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The Warp

A week before


A week before I was due to leave to begin my studies at the University of Oxford, before driving me up in his now ancient Jaguar for my first term, my father had given me a copy of Zuleika Dobson and of Brideshead Revisited. As an introduction to Oxford, they inspired me with respect for the exotic side of academic life, rather than its disciplines; ‘Oxford. Sitting by John’s gas fire, in front of which gourds are piled high,’ I wrote in my journal, ‘I look across the room to where Georgian windows outline the tattered edges of the boscaged college tree clump. John is playing the virginals, one of the sonatas of Scarlatti, and as he plays I am trying to write something that might reflect its glory and splendour;

‘Come, said my soul on a misty morning, to the banks of the Nile. You will say perhaps that you can see nothing but eddies, the curling of the silver water as it turns beneath you. Yet look there, yes there, and you perhaps will see the gleam of poops shine through the darkness, the tender gold of a distant glory coming closer, closer, closer, and the clang of cymbal and triangle, here is the poop, here the castle in the stern, here is the pomp and glory, yes, and see now how they come with torches blazing and the braying of hautbois, see! The remembered glory of a distant dream.’

John Ricketts’ rooms looked out over the college gardens at New College, at which we were undergraduates. His panelled walls were hung with coloured engravings of flowers from Thornton’s ‘Temple of Flora’. On the floor before the gas fire, which even on warm nights was lit for their benefit, a group of yellow and orange varnished gourds languished on oval plates. John, a huge man, sat on a creaking chair to strum tunes that were voluptuous and intoxicating, the virginals seeming very delicate beneath his huge fingers. Sometimes he would break into the song of a counter-tenor. The gentle notes of his counterpoint and the tap of the virginal jacks mixed with another sound: the constant staccato clicking of a typewriter upstairs. This belonged to an American postgraduate who, over here on a scholarship, was at work on a thesis. We believed that his world was more prosaic than ours. Then I thought him only foolish. Now I concede that in some respects at least he was not only more foolish than us, but also more wise.

During much of my first long summer term, John was preparing musicians for a performance of Purcell’s ‘Dido and Aeneas’. They met to play in his rooms and the music floated out over the garden, so that sometimes tourists would assemble outside, wondering at the rich texture of counter-tenor, virginals, and other ancient instruments, that floated out through the windows.

I think it was partly because of what I read in Zuleika Dobson and Brideshead that I felt it was important to give breakfast parties; ‘Breakfast in my rooms. I give Christopher and Mark milk and a mixture of egg and ham, and tutti-frutti. The gramophone sounds the passion of Salome and Christopher reads to us from Mrs Radcliffe.’

The eggs and ham had been cooked with some difficulty on a ring attached to my gas heater. Gas at that time was provided abundantly and free throughout the college. The gramophone was driven by clockwork and had to be cranked after every few minutes of music.

‘Leaning on the window seat I regard the garden outside from which tourists are trying to photograph me. Beresford Parlett, a volatile, comes in and introduces himself thus; “Good morning, I am Beresford Parlett, the anagram of my name, so I believe, is ‘prattle’.” Christopher Johnson reads us part of “L’Apres Midi d’un Faun”. Slightly Dada, his thin inhuman body draped in a purple duffel, he wanders about, talks in a low, growling voice. He discusses Dali and putrefaction. He describes how, once when having a bath in a damp apartment, he was surprised to find an ‘amorphous, calliginous vapour’ rising from the water.’

Christopher was important to me then. Later, as a result of marriage, a job in a bank and the demands of ordinary living, it seemed to me that he had become a more conventional person. At that time he was extraordinary, tall and willowy with a swarthy complexion and pebble spectacles. His tastes went far beyond Mallarmé and he had a collection of unusual and sometimes perverse French literature.

‘I wander on with him to visit his rooms at Magdalen, and we sit on a window-seat looking out through the Georgian window over a park where deer cluster and run among the mist-laden trees. On the table lies a melon, half-cut, and ‘Les Chants de Maldoror’.

‘I sometimes long,’ says Christopher, ‘to stand, as Lautreamont did, in a darkened doorway in a deserted alleyway, and splutter fulminations against all who pass’.

In his rooms there was usually someone sitting at the grand piano. There was much gossip from friends who formed the staff of a newspaper which, that term, was concerned only with metaphysics. Its circulation was small although, so the editorial staff maintained, of much above average intelligence. Later, Christopher lived in a room in Wellington Square, where the brass band of the Salvation Army played on Sunday morning to empty streets.

Later again, he was to live with me in The Folly, a brick building on the side of the river. ‘Here,’ says my journal for the third year of my time at university, ‘something of the melancholy of Oxford entered into him.’ Now I think that what I mistook for melancholy was that I was no longer so welcome in his apartment for he was studying for his finals. Alternatively, what I picked up on as melancholy may have actually been something more prosaic - damp. The Folly, that strange house to which Christopher, myself and various other friends later moved was the dampest house I’ve ever lived in. This dark building that rose, a strange excrescence, sheer out of the murky waters of the Thames, had on its summit ferocious battlements. Beneath these, the walls were relieved with round-topped niches in which stood statues of Atlas, Ceres, Eros. These had been painted black at one time, but now the black paint was peeling off, revealing the basic grey lead of which they were made. I wrote; ‘The water that ran beneath the foundations of the Folly and seeped through the roof imparted to each of us perhaps something of its penetrating rot.’


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