Saturday 2 February 2013

Old Bob and Aldous Huxley

One sunny Thursday evening in June 2009 I found myself at the LRB bookshop in Bloomsbury celebrating the launch of Zachary Leader's book The Movement Reconsidered. This was a sprightly collection of essays about the pre-eminent group of post-war poets assembled in the  1956 New Lines anthology by Robert Conquest (who doubled as editor and contributor) along with Kingsley Amis, Thom Gunn, Philip Larkin and illustrious others.

As sole survivor of What-Was-Never-Really-a-Movement, Conquest was to be guest of honour at the launch. I had long admired his deadpan New Lines introduction in which he said that all the poets were linked by 'a negative determination to avoid bad principles', a shapely phrase that means a lot or nothing at all. I was excited at the prospect of seeing a literary and cultural hero who had, quite incredibly, first appeared in print over seventy years before, in 1937. I was also curious. What, I wondered, did a Thirties writer look like? What did a Thirties writer sound like? 

To complicate matters he was - and is - arguably our finest living historian on the strength of The Great Terror, his ground-breaking and harrowing account of Stalin's show trials, purges and all-round wickedness. Conquest's view, that Stalin's grim tyranny was not a ghastly and anomalous perversion of Lenin's political theories but their inevitable outcome, rattled a generation of Marxist intellectuals and provoked furious debate, although it is now a widely-accepted orthodoxy. He was also (and remains) a master of pungent and instantly memorable limericks, his two fields of expertise combining thus:

There was a great Marxist named Lenin
Who did two or three million men in.
That’s a lot to have done in,
But where he did one in
That grand Marxist Stalin did ten in.

So I found a seat and hung around for half an hour as the room quickly filled, mostly with celebrated (though not celebrity) poets. The famous writer Martin Amis arrived late, looking like a famous writer. This was, I realised, the only place to be. Conquest sat in a wheelchair, looking spry and quietly amused, or possibly aghast. It was hard to tell. He reminded me of George Smiley (as played by Alec Guinness), a bland cryptic everyman, hard to place, and watchful. He was dapper in a dark blue open-collar shirt and olive-green sports jacket, cool in the timeless way that very old people can sometimes appear to be. Things kicked off. After the usual launch flummery and speeches and readings (by a starry cohort of admirers I mentally labelled los Conquestadores), Leader wound things up by reciting Conquest's miraculous condensation of Jacques' speech in As You Like It:

  Seven ages, first puking and mewling
  Then very pissed off with one's schooling;
  Then fucks and then fights;
  Then judging chaps' rights;
  Then sitting in slippers; then drooling.

The author sat imperturbably throughout this impromptu tribute and the warm applause that followed. I remember thinking that in Shakespearean terms he had already been once around the block, so to speak, was now experiencing the third age for the second time, and therefore likely to be very pissed off. He had written The Great Terror. He knew Solzhenitsyn, for pity's sake. Would he, would anyone, choose to be remembered for an admittedly magnificent limerick? As the audience clustered around Leader and his readers, I made a bee-line for Conquest who, temporarily overlooked by the rest of the room, was now sitting quietly alone and apparently happy to be ignored.

Closing in on him with all the queasy assurance that comes from a second glass of publisher's plonk I blabbered some complimentary preamble and, prompted by his earlier recital of a very fine poem about a lamented basset hound named Bluebell, we chatted about dogs. Conquest likes dogs and writes very well about them. I don't, so I don't, but we hit it off just fine. He had by far the quietest voice of anyone I've ever met, little more than a murmur, compared with which his barely-audible reading had been delivered at a roar. Standing, I had to crane solicitously in his direction so as not to to miss a word.   

Our conversation turned to the once-notorious opening lines of an unfinished limerick by Aldous Huxley:

 There was a young man of East Anglia
 Whose loins were a tangle of ganglia

Huxley reportedly promised that all royalties from his 1923 novel Antic Hay would go to anybody who could polish off the next three lines, given that (in his view) no third rhyme was possible after 'ganglia'. It so happened that a few weeks earlier a friend of mine had risen to the challenge and after a moment's reflection come up with:

'When touched by a tart
He awoke with a start
And said: 'Do that again and I'll stranglia'.

Conquest smiled faintly. This, I immediately convinced myself, was not only a clear indication of his approval, but an overture to a profound and lasting friendship. He would leave the venue that evening buoyed by our encounter, his wavering faith in the cultural values of my generation agreeably and definitively boosted. 'There was one fellow over there,' he would murmur, back at home in Palo Alto, 'who seemed the right sort. I should be sorry not to hear from him again.' A mutually-enriching correspondence would ensue. He would read my poetry, I would read his and I might in time get to call him 'Old Bob', as Kingsley used to do.

Our first encounter had reached an end, and we shook hands. Not having a business card I scribbled my address on a bookstore flier so we could continue our burgeoning relationship, but Bob was now surrounded, hemmed in by his admirers. They were all craning solicitously so as not to miss a word.  It was getting late. I stuffed the flier in my pocket and left.

'Seven ages' limerick © Robert Conquest

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