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The Warp

Cambridge Balls

‘Arkadi and I are leaning against the veranda of Folly Bridge and watching as the evening grows dark around us. He describes why he gave up seeking to become a professional pianist, ‘because the hard, physical labour needed to become and remain a professional is uncivilised. Civilisation is based on the uncivilisation of the artist-class, who exist to delight the dilletante.’

‘In my Frazer Nash I am travelling to pick up Lucy, to take her to some Cambridge balls. I meet her in the narrow lane outside her parents’ house, leading a prancing horse. We set off and arrive at Cambridge three hours later and at once go into Trinity College where a party is seething in the court.

‘We steal a punt from its moorings and a pole from another punt in which two people are embraced. We splash through the luminous reflecting water, strangely lit from the light overhead on the bridges, while I play my recorder. At length we leap from the punt onto the brightly lit lawns.

‘Lucy and I dance the length of the long room and then, when dawn has come, go on to another dance in Clare College, where we dance alone in a panelled room surrounded by sleeping people and look out onto the quad, its whole space filled with the top of a tent striped blue.

‘We go to Grantchester for breakfast. The place is wonderful with deep shades of green beneath the trees. Then we return to Cambridge to dance again at a tango and champagne party in the morning sunlight.’

An unusual way to write an address which, despite a certain charm, I do find fairly embarrassing.

‘Along the rustic ill frequented way

And undulating tower-besprinkled road

Which leads to LUCY ROTHENSTEIN’s abode!

Postman! This letter bear as best you may.

‘BEAUFOREST HOUSE there muses by its river

And WARBOROUGH church with ivy fringed tower

Past where THAME’s sweet waters flow for ever

The road runs on to NEWINGTON and then

The way is clear to OXFORD’s prickly spires.

‘A visit to Bert Crowther’s yard at Stow House, Islehampton, followed by a visit to London airport. Fantastic melange of old porticos and garden statues, one wonderful room made all of corrugated iron, a huge shed with ivy creeping in over the impeccable shapes of chandeliers and Adam fireplaces. Then to the airport and the friend of Lucy’s we’d come to meet wasn’t on the plane so we had a chicken salad and Lucy was talking about her life in America.

‘We’d parked the car in the airport car park and explained to passers-by, ‘We won’t be long, we’re just leaving it here while we elope.’ Then a rather pointless series of journeys from London Airport to Northolt Airport and back, and in the end discovering that of course her friend was really coming by train.

‘Our bad luck accelerated. We lost Lucy’s coat and parked the car in the wrong place and were asked to move it over the tannoy. We drove back to Oxford and found ourselves having supper in the company of Vincent, an austere Benedictine monk who lived with Lucy’s parents. We embraced when Vincent’s back was turned.

‘”Jeremy’s queer friends have been writing to him again,” I distantly heard my parents discussing. The letter was actually from Caroline Cavendish. Its red typewritten words were enhanced with splashes of lipstick.

‘I spent the night on a sofa in David Galbraith’s studio, an octagonal room leading into a garden, with a gallery at first floor level and off it tiny bedrooms, carpets on the walls and curtains on the ceiling and many old vases and saddle-bags.

‘At breakfast time we listened to Wagner on the radiogram, and David played da Falla’s ‘In a Spanish Garden’.

‘Rather too late we started for Glyndebourne. I had borrowed evening dress clothes from a number of different people and had to take my borrowed shoes off as they were too uncomfortable. We arrived late for the first act and were not allowed in, so we went to the end of Newhaven Pier for dinner. In our evening dress we wandered among the bathers explaining, ‘They told us the party was at the end of the pier’.

‘David was wearing a red smoking jacket and we could hear people asking each other, ‘Who are they?’

‘Back at Glyndebourne in time for the second act we explained, ‘We didn’t bother to come to the first act. We’ve always thought it boring.’

‘Where pensive cattle chew the cud

And churn the reedy Thame to mud

See! Where Lucia now doth lead

Across the ford her prancing steed

Bare-footed – grasses as she goes

Entwine her feet – the water flows

The bank with flowers decked

Yields in allegiance its spongy sod

And all the blossoms pray to God

‘Evil or sorrow never befall

This fairest of fair, most beautious of all!’

Meanwhile the humble watercress

Stretches its leaves to touch her dress.’

We had been dancing the night before in London and went down the river in a punt. It was a sultry afternoon. Lucy propelled us with the dripping punt pole and I fell asleep. A voice from a passing punt said, ‘If I had a fucking lovely bint with me in a boat like that I wouldn’t waste my time having a bloody kip.’

Later, a storm began to rise. As we went up by the college barges, white and exquisite beside the river, the sky became dark. As we arrived beneath the exterior of Folly Bridge rain began to fall. We made fast the punt and climbed in to my home. Soon the candles were lit around the walls and we sat on the sofa and ate chicken and salad and smoked salmon and pineapple, drank sweet white wine and climbed onto the balcony to look down on the swans.

We climbed again into the punt and went down through the darkness. As I punted up the narrow little channel Lucy, very white in the darkness, said, ‘Come and join me’.

We were lying together in the stern, marooned among the sedges, while strange water-birds flew startled overhead, and the white mist surrounded us.

A letter from Lucy. ‘I can remember lots of things like that idyllic dinner party you gave before the drag dance at Folly Bridge, when we danced to your record of ‘I Won’t Dance’ between every course.

‘And then that delightful afternoon spent in Corpus garden with Julian and Caroline, when we left an Arcadian looking wine bottle on the Greek emperor’s head.

‘Also I remember Folly Bridge, how we used to sit on the windowseat and look at the silent and silvery Isis at night reflecting the street lamps on the bridge, and watch the swans gliding asleep below the bridge. How Sartresque it all seems to me now.

‘Can you not see it all and feel the atmosphere? It perhaps is raining slightly and the pavements glisten and every now and again the window rattles and you can hear the rain on the glass. But inside all is red gold, warm and glowing with candlelight. How strange such a memory is, when now I am sitting in the brilliant sunlight of my room.’

Often of an evening we went to the public dance-floor out of bounds to undergraduates, lit by purple lights with the throb or a huge band in one corner. ‘All round stand the toughs in their close-fitting shirts, arms folded. Every now and again there is a fight. A woman follows a man out, clinging to his arm, calling, “Please, please ...” Only here did we feel completely alone, swaying among the lesbians dancing breast to breast in the corners. Then the lights would go low and a spotlight lit up a huge glittering ball hung from the roof which slowly turned and made reflections run along the walls.’

‘Back at Eye. I awake in my little bed and the sun is steaming in, the cherubs on the ceiling a revelation, rounded with the pomegranite and the passion fruit, so rich a contour are they given by the scarlet wallpaper on my walls. And here I lay wishing to have someone with me. The only difference is that now I know who it should be. The indigenous, enigmatic and lustrous creature of my imagination has resolved itself. The cherub has flown from the ceiling and it is Lucy with her beauty and her warmth into whom he has metamorphosed.

‘From one of the attic rooms I look down on the churchyard. The tombs are scattered there, boxy and urned. The church tower, with its clock caught among the branches of the dark yew tree, and the clerestory windows are lit from within. From within, too, comes the rude music of the choir practice. Lord Cawley is in his grave, and they are practising for his memorial service. The organ plays slower and slower. The tenors are finding difficulty with their part. Incompetent though it is, this is the divinity that rests in ancient customs, in ancient parts of the earth where people have always lived.

‘The grass is richer for the bodies that lie beneath, for the remains of other families, other communities. The church is decked with flowers blood red, and we sit as the old men of the county file in.

‘Here they come, the stout and the bent, looking out between bushy eyebrows. There are representatives of the Pigeon Fanciers’ Society and the Ryeland Sheep Club, both of which Lord Cawley was a member.

‘In comes the vicar, nervous in scarlet, and behind him the bishop, old, erect, and beautiful, his shoulders back and his eyes piercing the congregation. The organist plays tremulo, the same voluntary again and again.

‘Par les soirées bleues d’ête, j’irai dans les sentiers ...’ I will go along the streets. I will go where warm air gushes into the road down the steps of the cinemas. In plush seats I’ll munch sweets and gaze at cowboy films from twenty years ago. I’ll talk to the scented shop-girls, drink Horlicks in snack canteens, eat chips from greasy bags. I’ll wait outside the beer-cellars, the public bars, the Jug and Bottles and the Saloons, and I’ll gaze through the frosted glass panes with their Victorian writing. I will hover in the glassed over entrances to the wedding shops where adolescents fight and in the niches of the Cathedral where sweethearts kiss.’

After a visit by Lucy, I wrote to her, ‘What heaven your visit was! I shall always remember the duskily beautiful view from the tower at Middleton-on-the-Hill and our first embrace at the bottom of that tower. Middleton-on-the-Hill which is not on a hill and to which no road leads, whose tower is crowned with faded stone pinnacles and which looks across to the misty distance of Clee Hill beneath which huddle a few little cottages alone, among their pear trees.

‘Going up the tower, on each floor separated by their thin ladders, we embrace again. And remember the wonderful ride back across the hills, and you as you lay beside the haystack with the blue sky above and the golden hay and the green trees throwing shadows across your face and your body.

‘You were wearing corduroy trousers and a white aertex shirt and a light pink jersey, the bottom half of your body rustic and practical, the upper half feminine and voluptuous.

‘Here you lay like Ceres against a background of straw, or “on a half-reaped furrow sound asleep, drugged with the fume of poppies”, and the swallows wheeled in the clear sky above as I kissed your naked mouth.

‘How wonderful you were as the mist rose beside the water of the Teme and the castle rose among the trees, dark above us, dark against dark.’

‘Again I am in my room at Eye sitting on my windowseat above the porch, looking across the lawn where Daddy leaves stripes with the motor mower and the air is full of the sound of its engine and the smell of cut grass. I look across to the elm, lofty and vast that holds the blue of sky and the white of clouds entangled in its branches.

‘The tall window is shrouded by narrow long blue curtains. Beside it is the golden mystery of my boule cabinet. On the windowseat, cushioned with a faded trellis of blue and gold, tassels, guitar, mandolin, a bass recorder, a large Georgian candlestick, are scattered. I write at my oval marketry table inlaid with wooden leaves and roses.

The door is open into the next room, a different world with its white panels and grey curtains.

‘I am thinking of how I said goodbye to you in those back streets by the Tate, you as if made of white snow and pink confectionery, alone in the wide street where dustbins stood uncompromisingly and then how I drove down through the dawn, past Windsor, past Maidenhead, with the memory of the dance, of the music’s intoxication and of the gold of the ballroom.

‘Now, along the path that bounds the drive, two women, one old and bent at a right angle, the other young, preceding an oblong dog, a dachshund, have gone into the churchyard where the bosky six round yews rise from among the tombs.’


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