Indirections: A Memoir 1909-1947
Chapter Six — Oxford
we reached Waterloo on a wet warm Saturday of August 1927, to be met by all five de Beers, and by Aunt Agnes, Aunt Emily's youngest sister, and two Australian cousins. After lunch at the commonplace expensive hotel in Northumberland Avenue where the de Beers had taken rooms for us (did they think it would be to my father's taste?), the elders remained to talk while Mary, Dora and Esmond took Lel and me for our first view of London. We walked in the damp mild grey air through Trafalgar Square, down Whitehall, into Westminster Abbey; then through Westminster School, past the Houses of Parliament, and back across St James's Park.
Much of this was half familiar, from photographs, but the reality was to tally different. My response, I think, was too breathless, too greedy, to be more than naïve. There was, first, too much to talk about; it was two years since Mary and Dora had left Dunedin; Esmond was virtually a new acquaintance. A brimming past, an impending future, and this overwhelming present, met together in a flood which I could not take in; most of what I saw and heard touched me for a moment and was gone.
Of that afternoon's walk one sight alone moved me and remained. It was not the Abbey itself, nor its great cloisters, but the small cloister towards the river, with its eighteenth-century arcades, plain trickling fountain, and tall plane tree that cast a tender green light and graceful melancholy on the quiet and austerity of the place. There was a haven I could love, to which memory could return for solace. It was pure London, plane tree and fountain humanized its cloistral reserve, it wore anonymity which set it outside particular ages and customs, page 130freeing it for anyone to consider his own. There was my first foothold and point of rest in England, in the old world.
Later that afternoon my father took us on what was, for him, our chief pilgrimage — to visit two old aunts, his mother's sisters. They lived in a small late-Victorian villa of sallow brick in the wilderness of West Hampstead, decent, comfortable, ugly, with a dull hedge in front and a narrow strip of green garden behind. Aunt Bessie Singer had married in Vienna, but, childless and long since widowed, had lived for many years with her younger unmarried sister Aunt Loulou Hart and their grey drooping companion Miss Worthington. Aunt Bess was very small, bent, with grey curls and a touch of apple brightness still in her cheeks, twinkling, be-ringed, and wore lacy frilly dresses of an ancient fashion; her talk was gay, sparrow-like, in an old, cracked voice, with the surprising slight roughness of speech often affected by ladies late last century; but hers may have been natural. She made me think, obscurely, of a forgetmenot from a Victorian nosegay. She was the head of the house, she always presided and carved at table, and I seem to remember that she ate well. After the death of her sister, my father's mother, she and Aunt Loulou had adopted respectively the third and fourth of their nephews; Uncle Reg, who lived in Sydney, had taken her name, and Uncle Archie, who lived in Sussex, Aunt Loulou's.
All three were fervent Christian Scientists. They did not read; they had no interests; talk with them was always about persons. They adopted us as our father's children, and were fond of us for family reasons, without knowing us as we were. Adopting them in turn, out of mixed duty and sympathy, Lel and I continued to visit them for the rest of their lives, whenever we were in London.
That evening we dined with the de Beers in the house which they were renting in Well Walk, Hampstead. It was at the corner scarcely fifty yards away, by a seat on Hampstead Heath, that Coleridge had pressed Keats's hand and felt death in it. The talk after dinner turned to Picasso and modern art; most of it was over my head, but it would not be so for long; that was the world I was seeking; I recognized it at once, but did not know how unready for it I was.page 131
We spent much of our time with relatives, chiefly with the de Beers. We saw a good deal of the tourist's London, the obvious sights, the hotels, the restaurants and tea-rooms, the shops and the tailors, the musical comedies and popular plays. We visited Australian cousins who were staying at the Ritz, and other relations at the Savoy and the Royal Palace in Kensington High Street. There was a big family party one night at the Berkeley; my father and I were taken to businessmen's lunching places in the city by cousins who ran the London offices of Michaelis, Hallenstein and Co. and the d.i.c. Lel and I took all this high living, and the note of Would-be grandeur that went with it in some cases, quite as a matter of course. It meant nothing to us, but my father liked it, although he too smiled at the Australian cousins who declared it was so economical to stay at the Ritz, because from there a penny bus would take you anywhere.
I was seldom on my own, and then only between engagements. My father had brought us, the whole expedition was his, and he decided what we should do from day to day; I do not think either of us questioned this. Our likes and dislikes showed themselves gradually and tentatively. My private forays were mostly to discover bookshops and buy books. One day at the end of September I found the Poetry Bookshop near the British Museum. It was run by the poet Harold Monro, whom I remember there either that day or on later visits; although I knew who he was I was far too shy to speak to him. His black hair lay close upon his head fitting it like a cap; he wore a black moustache that seemed to accentuate a broodingly sardonic expression. One book I bought on that first visit was Katherine Mansfield's Journal, recently published. I don't know whether I had heard of K.M. in New Zealand, or only when the Journal appeared, in London; I had certainly read none of her work at that time.
The best habit I formed was that of going to the National Gallery almost every day, an easy habit, since our hotel was just across the square. We went together time and again, often with one or more of the de Beers, sometimes only for half-an-hour, sometimes for much longer. That was the beginning of my absorption in pictures. My reactions were immediate and strong, page 132but Esmond questioned my naïve opinions and by his comments began to teach me what to look for and see. A few of my lifelong devotions started then — to Piero, above all to his Baptism; to the Bellinis, with Giovanni's Agony in the Garden and Madonna of the Meadow and Gentile's St Dominic; and, partly for Keats's sake, to Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne. The Italians captivated me at once and held me; it was some years before any other painter, Cezanne first, and then Rembrandt, was to challenge their almost exclusive hold on my affection.
One Sunday evening Aunt Emily took me to hear Mrs Besant speak at the Queen's Hall. Mary and Dora were with us, and May Barden and Dal Michaelis, and Enid Hallenstein with her Italian husband Alfredo Cianchi. The interest which all of these felt in what Mrs Besant stood for, although her subject that night was 'The Future of Europe', distinguished if it did not separate them from other members of the family. Esmond was probably in Oxford, where he was living, but I doubt if Mrs Besant would have attracted him.
I do not remember what Mrs Besant said, but her eloquence was as irresistible as her full white robe reaching to the ground. Beside her on the dais sat a beautiful young Indian, Krishnamurti, whom I had heard the de Beers talk about; Mrs Besant was training him to be her successor as leader of the Theosophical Society, and as a prophet or even a saviour of the world. He did not speak that night, but his great dignity and beauty and reserve were as persuasive, for me, as any words could have been. They spoke silently of India and all I had read about it, of the Buddha and the life that he enjoined. It needed only the sight of this young man, and at different times later of Rabindranath Tagore and Dr Radhakrishnan, both of whom I heard speak, to waken and keep alive in my mind an image which was one of the most powerful I knew.
Of the many people I met for the first time in those weeks, three were to become close to me: Aunt Agnes, and Enid and Alfredo Cianchi. Did I choose them? or were we chosen for each other? From being simply relatives, all three very soon became friends.page 133
Aunt Agnes, the youngest of my great-grandfather's four daughters, was born in Queenstown, grew up in Dunedin, was among the first women graduates of the University of Otago, married in Hamburg, and did not return to New Zealand. I knew from photographs and from family talk that she had been a very lovely, wide-eyed, rather wayward girl of great intelligence. Her husband, Siegfried Barden, was a connoisseur. He and Aunt Agnes travelled a good deal in Europe and made a modest collection of fine paintings and etchings and other works of art. He died during the first world war; when it ended, Aunt Agnes came to live in London and recovered her British nationality.
In her flat in South Kensington she had one or two seventeenth-century Dutch sea-scapes of ships with wide bright sails against clouds glowing above still water, a beautiful head of a girl, jewel-like on a dark background, German or Dutch of the same period, good examples of prints by Dürer and Rembrandt and others, and a cabinet with small mediaeval and Renaissance figures in wood and stone, china, netsukes and the like. All these were pieces that she had helped choose and that she knew and loved. (Some of them went to the British Museum when she died, a few came to the Otago Museum.) She had a good knowledge of European art and of architecture, art galleries and museums throughout Europe. She spoke and read German almost as well as English and habitually read French and Italian too. I very soon learned that she and the de Beers took it for granted that one read in all three languages and knew their literatures; this was accepted without question, and did not need stating; it was obvious and ordinary among educated people. For them there were no frontiers in literature any more than in music, painting, sculpture and architecture.
Aunt Agnes was very small, slight, agile, and walked fast and well, as she continued to do for at least another ten years; until into her seventies. She leaned forward in walking, and when hurried broke easily into a run. She dressed with quiet and good taste, usually in black, often with a narrow band of black velvet or silk round her throat; when she wore a long light summer dress or a light shawl the lines of her face almost disappeared and she looked ageless, lyrical. She never lost her bright, eager page 134look; her talk had a quick high laughing note of delight and discovery. Aunt Agnes shared with many of the Hallensteins the noticeably deep-set eyes, grey-blue, which was their strongest common feature; her sister Emily, Grandfather, who was her first cousin, Ernest Halsted, another first cousin (he managed the London office of Michaelis Hallenstein), my mother, I myself and one or two others, all bore this mark of resemblance.
In Enid and Alfredo Cianchi I met my first rebels. They were individualists, who rebelled only to maintain their identity, when rebellion was forced on them, so that they came to seem more extreme than they were. The forms which their rebellion took were outwardly quiet and harmless, Enid's impulse being instinctive, Alfredo's more intellectual and so possibly more radical in the long run. Enid inherited the strong will of the Michaelises in a body whose weaknesses she fought with unfailing courage. She was born with a deformed hip, which made her limp, she was small and thin and suffered illness after illness all her life. Wanting to be a painter, she had the greatest difficulty in persuading her parents to allow her to travel, with a companion, and to live in Italy. They feared for her health; even more, they feared for her morals, and her safety; Italians being adventurers, and she young, innocent and helpless, she was bound to be duped and caught by some unscrupulous dago who wanted her family's money. When she met Alfredo and married him for all their opposition they knew that their worst fears had come true.
Alfredo was a spontaneously friendly good-looking young Italian, then twenty-seven, with a broad face and short nose, clear complexion, large brown eyes, and well-shaped broad practical hands; entirely unselfconscious, and an extreme idealist. He had a copious flow of language and gesture and his eloquence surged over all obstacles; his command of English was remarkable, or became so before long, because he read constantly, but he spoke it grotesquely badly and his speech never improved. He was a gifted scientist and inventor who believed that science could save the world and bring peace to the nations, if only its power were held in the right hands; and to this he dedicated his life. He had no ambition for himself, no interest in power or money or even fame; he wanted to be left alone in his laboratory to work, and to live quietly.page 135
The message and the way of life sounded as irresistible to me as they had to Enid. After his marriage he tried to carry them into practice in Italy, but again and again he met the restrictions, the dogmatism, the overbearing authority and the suspicions of fascism. He had grown up or had become a liberal free-thinker and anti-clerical (his sister became a nun and later a prioress in a teaching order, but they were always close to each other) to whom Mussolini's dictatorship was repugnant; he hated its bragging and showmanship, its brutality and militarism. Instead of being restrained and patient he was impulsively outspoken, which got him into such danger that he had to leave Italy; he and Enid and their small daughter had reached London not long ahead of us. I had read romantic stories about Italian exiles in England before the Risorgimento, and first saw Enid and Alfredo in that light; but I understood too that they had really been in danger of their lives. That was my introduction to the reality of politics, which I had not been brought close to before.
i went up to St John's in the second week of October to read Modern History. The preliminary course of two terms took in an outline of European history from 800 to 1789, with some additional subjects. My tutors were Austin Lane Poole and W. C. Costin. Poole was also my moral tutor: as such he had to keep an eye on my welfare, watching my battels (my accounts, what I spent in college on food and drink), and the general progress of my work. The Lane Pooles were a well-known family of historians; Austin was the third of them to be distinguished in recent times. He became a learned mediaevalist who wrote, much later, a volume on the thirteenth century in the Oxford History of England. He was a big man with a big head, sallow skin, lank hair, who walked stooping a little in his gown; his long face of yellowed parchment and dog-brown eyes always looked tired and sad. He had been badly gassed in the war, and suffered from it for the rest of his life. He took two men together for tutorials in mediaeval history. A born scholar, he was wasted on freshmen like me; but being too withdrawn to make himself at home with undergraduates, he was not a good tutor; he could page 136never put himself in their position; none of the eight of us in my year who were reading Modern History found that we got much from him. But he was a likeable and kindly man, thoughtful for those in his care; concluding once from my battels that I must be hard up, he asked, to my astonishment, whether the college could help me.
Costin might have been chosen as his opposite: an outgoing, sociable bachelor, earnest and yet comfortable, an unimaginative philistine who could appreciate old churches, liked quiet good living and easy tweed clothes. He too was large, but growing heavy, quite unselfconscious as he looked at you down his nose. He loved the company of undergraduates, and frequently took reading parties to Scotland or the continent for a fortnight of vacation. He was a good tutor because he knew how to catch one's interest and hold it. In my time he always lived in the Canterbury Quad, the handsome inner quadrangle built when Laud was Archbishop of Canterbury with its statue of Charles I over the passage from the front quadrangle and of Henrietta Maria over the opposite passage leading to the garden. His rooms, impregnated with tobacco smoke and seeming to invite talk, were so impersonal they might have belonged to any don. With him I studied the eighteenth century, the origins of cabinet government, constitutional history.
The President of the college was a short square venerable old man bearded like a prophet, stern and slow, who had been headmaster of Rugby, the Rev. Dr James, the Bodger. He lived in the President's lodgings in the front quadrangle, next to the east end of the chapel, with a housekeeper who presided over his table when he entertained undergraduates in small groups to breakfast — or was it luncheon? or Sunday afternoon tea? We saw very little of him. But when he preached in chapel on Sunday morning his sermon was not to be missed; he was direct, simple, vehement; I have forgotten what he said, but his thoughtfulness and evident deep feeling were unmistakable — and having heard many sermons I was not impressed easily.
I was thrown together from the start with the seven other men (men and undergraduates were the terms then in use) reading Modern History. The other people whom I gravitated towards page 137at first, partly by chance, were undemonstrative souls with quiet interests of their own, who sought no limelight. One devoutly conventional well-brought-up fresh-faced youth took an unaccountable liking to me, and kept inviting me for a few weeks to drink sherry decorously before dinner (a habit quite new to me) in his room hung with hunting prints. I got to know two or three musical men of modest ambitions, one of whom was, or became, college organist. But already in that first term — the short crowded Oxford term of eight weeks — I met and began to attach myself to the half-dozen fellow freshers who became my lasting college friends, one especially a friend for life.
St John's was a college of medium size for the sober middle classes. It took about two hundred undergraduates, most of whom lived in for two years and then went into digs; Scholars were allowed to remain in college for a third and sometimes a fourth year. The college was founded in 1555 by an Elizabethan merchant, Sir Thomas White, together with Merchant Taylors' School, with which it kept close ties. Its founder endowed it well; it owned much land in what had now become North Oxford, as well as farms in other parts of the country; income from these made it one of the wealthier colleges. Among the other schools it drew upon were Christ's Hospital, Tonbridge (E. M. Forster's Sawston), Rugby, Sherborne; not, usually, the grander public schools. Only one Etonian and one Harrovian came up in my year, both, as it happened, implausibly smooth; both vanished within the year, sent down, I fancy, for failure to work or for some misdemeanour.
Already in 1927 two-thirds of all undergraduates came up to Oxford on scholarships or bursaries, and St John's took a great many from grammar schools and others; I remember a scientist with rooms on my staircase whose home town in the Midlands I had barely heard of. The college took as well its quota of Rhodes Scholars and other men from abroad. Several American and Canadian Rhodes Scholars were among my contemporaries; later I met or heard of two or three from Bermuda who preceded me by only a little; and one New Zealand Rhodes Scholar, Andrew Sharp, came up in my second year. There were a number of large loud hearties about too, who rowed, some of them, and page 138spent a good deal of money, and were often drunk. They seemed to be survivors from worse days; when they went down, after my first year, the college grew noticeably quieter.
The particular friends I made were all English and middle-class, from Merchant Taylors', Tonbridge, Christ's Hospital, and Bristol Grammar. The first I got to know was Reggie (Rex) Howlett, whom I met in the first week of term — strangely enough, at afternoon tea with W. P. Morrell, son of the Rector of Otago Boys' High School, whose family I knew in Dunedin. He was a Scholar, from Tonbridge School, reading Mods and Greats — that is, Honour Moderations, which meant Latin and Greek, followed by Literae Humaniores or Greek and Latin literature, history and philosophy. This was the great traditional Oxford school, the ideal training — it was held — for poets, philosophers, scholars and teachers, civil servants and politicians, statesmen, servants of empire. It was of its nature and by tradition the most rigorous school of the humanities.
Reggie had a good, orderly mind, which thrived on this discipline. He was plump and comfortable but active, with a high colour, a little sceptical, and thought well of the world and his place in it; seldom discontented for long, but bursting out now and then in fits of exuberance, shouting and singing and threshing his arms and refusing to pipe down. He was usually smiling or frowning, often both together, or he looked quizzical, or judicial, but he never wore an impassive air or cared to seem other than his temperate, genial, likeable self, youthful and mature at the same time and entirely dependable always. He spoke with natural, emphatic, even dramatic, precision, well and often wittily; we liked each other from the start and laughed a great deal together. Our chief outward bond was our love of music. But while I was uneducated in that as in everything else, he had knowledge as well as feeling; he played the piano, and was accustomed to follow scores when listening. We soon joined the University Music Society and went regularly for all my three years to its concerts in the old Music Room in Holywell, every second Tuesday of term.
It may have been through Reggie that I first met Colin page 139Roberts, who was also reading Mods. As Senior Scholar of our year Colin was a public figure already familiar by sight; he read grace before dinner in hall; a tall spare straight figure who carried about with him a touch of English austerity, conspicuous in his long full Scholar's gown which was so unlike the short square decidedly undress gowns of the same black which commoners wore. He was much admired for his intellectual gifts, his uprightness, his evident goodness, the delicate, already scholarly beauty of his face; hearties and cynics who despised him for a puritan and a prig yet had to give him grudging respect. As Senior Scholar, he was the first undergraduate of his year, very conscious of it and a little uneasy; even that purely nominal authority of his position did not come naturally to him. He had no false pride, only great reserve. I think he had still to force himself, when meeting anyone and everyone; undoubtedly he grew easier as time went on. To him I was an ordinary commoner reading the largest and least distinguished of schools, a colonial of no education (I could not disguise it altogether) wholly ignorant of England and English life and Oxford ways. It was unlikely that we should become friends. But tastes and temperament drew us together in that small society in which we were, it seemed, a little singular. He became for me, as James had been, an elder brother, deeply loved and looked up to, of firm convictions and settled habits, and plainly bound already — if one looked ahead — for a life of learning and distinction.
I did not look ahead, and Colin was only what I saw and knew in the present moment — an eager and beautiful fellow being of my own age, who shared my interests and love of poetry and painting, and held religious convictions which I respected and was open to but did not share. Colin's enjoyment of poetry was founded, I think, on his admiration for Virgil and Lucretius, Aeschylus and Sophocles and some of the Greek lyric poets; in English, on Shakespeare, Milton, the seventeenth-century religous poets, Wordsworth, and in our time on Housman and de la Mare especially. It was, in English at least, a partly romantic and markedly nostalgic love. I shared his feeling fully but that was not the whole extent of my enjoyment: for me — implicitly, because I had not yet defined it — poetry was also exploratory, a vehicle of knowledge, a principal means of discovering and page 140interpreting reality. That was why new poetry was always more important to me than to Colin. None of our other friends in St John's felt any keen interest in poetry at all.
Oxford is a hazy damp low-lying town set between two rivers with their branching arms and canals among slight hills, a town of the waters, an ancient ford. No wind ever clears it for long of the faint miasma of river mist that is its familiar ghostly presence, that mellows and crumbles its stone, nourishes its lawns and trees and ivies and mosses. Colin and Reggie and other friends led me to explore it, usually between lunch and tea, which was the time for strolling, shopping, browsing in bookshops and print-shops, punting and canoeing, swimming and lying in the sun at Parsons' Pleasure, a secluded pool of the Cherwell where one wore nothing, and walking in the nearer country. I got to know the better college chapels, and very slowly, to find my way about Norman, English Gothic and later styles and to give my fixed, loving allegiance to a few special buildings - first to St Mary's, the university church, whose spire breaks from the rich wreath of pinnacles that cling about its base to soar up pure and free; from the High and farther south it is all grace; it shows its great strength only from Radcliffe Square, where you see it springing firmly from its supporting tower. And to New College ante-chapel, with its slender soaring columns and the exquisite colours of its stained glass; to the cloisters of dark stone outside, a pool of untroubled solitude, broad, deeply shaded, with their single ilex on the green silent lawn overlooked by an austere bell-tower.
A settled maze of colleges and gardens, streets and lanes, a changing host of faces, voices, gestures, at lectures, at concerts, in the street, that was the background against which a few friends, a few buildings, gardens and trees detached themselves. St John's garden has a magnificent lawn long enough for archery practice, a celebrated rock-garden containing a number of New Zealand plants, banks where bluebells grow and those lovelier drooping bells of fritillaries, pure white, deep brown, and a third kind pale and speckled like Dante's leopard; and it grows an unusual plant called dittany — the name comes from page 141Mt Dicte in Crete — to whose flowers you set a lighted match on still summer nights to see them flare for a moment with a puff of gaseous vapour that they secrete. I often sat in the garden to work or at least read on still afternoons, but watched and daydreamed more than I read.
My eyes were caught especially by swallows darting and veering overhead, shooting up and diving down with a flash of wings and forked tail opening and shutting, swallows that are unknown in New Zealand but that I was to see everywhere in Europe and the Mediterranean and that seemed to embody a distinct way of life; while across the lawn, close to Trinity wall, grew a young poplar, not big or old enough yet to have grown noticeable branches and taken on its own character, but with a gracefully curving stem clad lightly in pale leaves always yellowish-green that were never quite still even when one felt no breath of air; leaves more tremulously alive than any other living thing except the tireless swallows. Poplar rooted in one plot of earth, swallow free of the air and yet true, it also, to a single home and nest: must one range the skies for one's proper food, or will everything come to him who remains fixed in one place, alert to every least stir of life? I tried for years to put questions such as these into poems, and did not speak of them.
Reggie and I started walking and bicycling on Sundays to see the countryside and its villages and churches. Colin joined us and on many Sundays for all my three years two or three of us, sometimes with one or two others as well, explored the neighbourhood for fifteen to twenty miles in every direction. We planned our walks by map; the one-inch-to-a-mile Ordnance Survey maps were our invaluable guides. The English country is densely populated, not by people so much as by what they have made over many settled centuries: villages, hamlets, churches, crosses, manor houses, almshouses, stables, inns and inn signs, gardens and commons, ponds, streams with cress-beds, mills, fields defined by lanes and roads, hills rounded by grazing, walking, and by the plough; rich trees, particularly elms, that seem cornucopias freighted, laden with their swelling branches and clouds of downy or flashing or softly swaying leaves, and thronged page 142with birds; each tree an individual with no less character than a human being, so that one came to recognize them almost like friends. There were meadows coming down to the Thames, presided over on three sides by trees of such magnificence that they caught my breath and held my eyes every time I passed in the train to or from London, between Pangbourne and Cholsey, where the Chilterns and the Berkshire Downs, like prehistoric men risen from their long barrows and shapeless mounds, come quietly down to the river to drink.
Green, the colour of England, countless greens, turning to blue in the distance, to cloudy blue of haze and warmth, to pale sky blue, deep blue of the sea; turning to the pale yellows of stubble and thatch, to grey, to soft brown, to drab, to dust; to the innumerable weathered greys of stone and slate, to the reds of brick and tile; to the smoke and grime and soot, the choking air, the prison streets, the factories mills warehouses railway yards power stations of London and the Midland and North Country towns.
It was green mainly that we plunged into and soaked ourselves in around Oxford. New country to us all, but new in kind only to me; deeply leafy country like a green underwater world from Marston to Elsfield and Wood Eaton and Islip; the drier airier beech greens of those richly folded ribs and hollows of the Chilterns; from Ibstone down to Turville and Fingest and up again to Fawley or up and over to Stonor and Pishill and on to Nettlebed; to Dorchester for its Abbey Church with the Jesse window, and to Ewelme, one of our chosen villages, where in the stone and flint church beside the red brick almshouses lie on their tombs the alabaster figures of an Earl of Suffolk and his wife who was Chaucer's daughter. West and north we reached the Cotswolds, as far as Great Tew, village and manor house of that Lord Falkland who longed to reconcile cavalier and roundhead; to the Rollright Stones, a circle of pre-historic standing stones, neglected and forlorn in a field on a ridge of the Cotswolds above the West Midland plains; to the Wychwoods, three villages marking the extent of what was formerly the royal forest of Wychwood, now shrunken small, between the Evenlode and the Windrush, and the two Barringtons beyond Burford on the Windrush, streams that bring northern Cotswold waters to the page 143Thames a little west of Oxford; to Lechlade and Fairford to see the famous stained glass in their churches built in the flourishing years of the mediaeval wool trade. We followed Roman roads for many miles, especially one that bears south from the summit of the great arc which Akeman Street flings across the counties from Aylesbury to Cirencester; leaving the Roman station of Alchester, near Bicester, it crosses the strangely hushed sunken ground of Otmoor, through marsh and bramble, where no bird sings; passes Beckley with its Roman villa, skirts the western slope of Shotover Hill, and strikes the Thames at Dorchester. We sought out more ancient tracks and boundaries too, such as Grim's Ditch, a prehistoric earthwork of forgotten origin and purpose, which crosses the southern ridge of the Chilterns below Nettlebed to run down to the Thames at Mongewell. And again and again we went south to the Berkshire Downs, walking them at different times almost from end to end, as far as the White Horse on Hackpen Hill, if not to Avebury.
Our walks were not only through the ripe, leafy summer country; we walked all the year round. One afternoon of early winter Colin and I crossed Cumnor Hill and were making our way down to the Thames at Bablock Hythe and along to Filchampstead by field paths and through woods, searching desultorily among the thick fallen leaves as we walked for the mediaeval Physic Well which the map noted and which we had read of in a guide book. We came out of the trees into irregular fields of short cropped grass, bramble thickets, dead bracken, and further bare trees beyond. It was quite still, still and damp under the low grey haze that hung only just above the trees, and into which they faded no distance off. Time was suspended; the earth did not seem either to be drawing breath, or holding its breath, or sleeping; it lay still; dank air, brown and grey and mauve woods, sodden fields, haze. A black dead bird, rook or crow, hung from a bare hawthorn branch close by our path, swaying a little, wherever we looked the only thing that moved. All that country, all its history, the long centuries of England whose lives, whose work, spoke to us silently on every hand, lay folded and brooding in this stillness and suspension in which the days of countless winters drifted past unrecorded. It was page 144like no stillness I had ever known; dense, brimming, yet without tension; at any moment a dead voice might have spoken to us, some man out of the far past might have been walking alongside and neither of us would have been surprised. We passed through the silent landscape which was England and history as if we alone were living and it was dead, yet we knew that while we both must die its life would be incalculably longer than ours, so long in comparison that it must seem immortality. It was as if the dead bird had spoken to us; we talked of it afterwards as of a portent, more than it seemed to be.
Oxford life was extremely social. One was alone in one's rooms — except for the intrusions of the scout, the college manservant, who cleaned, made up the fire, made the bed, fetched breakfast and lunch; one worked alone. For the rest, I spent a great deal of time in company, although less than at school; chiefly with the few friends I have mentioned. In my second year I moved into a set of small attic rooms (bedroom, study) entered from the front quad; the study looked on to the elm trees of St Giles, with seats in the embrasure of the rather high window, the bedroom on to the roofs above the quad. These rooms, which were not considered good ones, had great advantages. Being at the top of a rather steep staircase which led to one or two other similar sets of rooms inhabited by quiet people, they were more private than most; they were snug and easy to keep warm; and the high window delighted me with its view of elm-trees and sky. Whatever I did, I could not be heard from the quad, nor from the street if I kept my window shut. It was forbidden to play gramophones (and pianos) after 9 o'clock, but I could play mine all night so long as it did not disturb my neighbours; I played it constantly until very late, for myself and for friends, caused no complaint, and was never discovered. I breakfasted and lunched in my rooms when alone, and dined in hall; but it was common to lunch and sometimes breakfast with friends, in one's own rooms or theirs.
I joined the Union and listened to its debates from time to time but felt no inclination to speak myself, knowing that I was not a politician and that I was entirely lacking in the confidence, aplomb and quick-wittedness needed to be an acceptable speaker. But I used its reading rooms and good general library (far better page 145stocked with recent work of all kinds than the college library), took tea there, and sat in summer in its quiet garden.
One of my few social engagements which became regular was at the Hongi Club, an informal group of New Zealanders in Oxford. We met every second Tuesday (I think) for afternoon tea in one another's rooms, to talk about New Zealand and its problems, not too solemnly. I went first early in my first term, to John Harvie's rooms at University; I cannot recall the talk then or on any later occasion, but our afternoon tea menu became fixed — hot-buttered anchovy toast followed by chocolate eclairs, which every civilized college supplied. Others whom I met at the Hongi Club were Alec Haslam, a gangling raw Rhodes Scholar who seemed all elbows and had had a great name at Waitaki just before my time, and was to become a judge; Willie Morrell, who was at Balliol (later professor of history at the University of Otago); Ormond Wilson who was at Lincoln; several Rhodes Scholars who were reading medicine and various sciences. All seemed to be far more politicallyminded than I was.
Otherwise, I met few people from other colleges, being too timid and unsure to stray outside the small niche I was finding for myself. After my German cousin Erik Hallenstein came up to Wadham at the beginning of my second year, I got to know two or three of his friends. I had not the courage to approach the poets whom I knew by sight and admired — I admired them personally more than their poems. Stephen Spender went to some of the same lectures as I, he spoke from the platform at literary meetings, very tall, with eager, finely moulded face, untidy hair and large eyes that roved about while he talked to someone — the 'Eye, gazelle, delicate wanderer' that he wrote about must be his own. Clere Parsons by contrast seemed all intellect, very contained rather correct in dress and manner, elegantly brushed fair hair, pale horn-rimmed glasses; introducing T. S. Eliot one night he quoted with what seemed affected precision some words of 'Blaise Pascal', so putting firmly in their places those (myself) who had not read that philosopher. His poems were thought to show great promise but he died only a few years later having written little.
Another figure whom I saw often, but only in the street, was page 146Louis MacNeice, who would notice one with a glance as he passed, elegant and supercilious with his long upper lip and well-combed gleaming black hair, an umbrella on one arm and sometimes a girl on the other, the mask complete to hide the man, although I did not then recognize it.* All these contributed to the literary magazines, to which I kept sending poems nearly always without success, and to the annual Oxford Poetry, which finally printed a couple of slight pieces of mine just after I went down. The one poet I ever met properly was E. J. (Joy) Scovell, who appeared at meetings occasionally with Spender and other luminaries; Colin had her to tea a few times with one or two friends. She was as reserved as she was lovely; and she was as lovely as the poems she was then writing and publishing — complete, finished poems, more traditional in form and expression than those she was to write a few years later.
For years after, one of the very few things I could remember of my first term was lying on my sofa through long damp grey days and reading Katherine Mansfield's Journal, which seemed (in recollection) to set the mood of the whole term. In fact I devoured the Journal in two days, sleeping on my sofa after the first (can that have been due to its influence?). I returned to it, and it haunted me for a long time; I dwelt on what seemed traditionally 'romantic' and Bohemian in it; but it also made me aware that writers work alone and must expect to live much alone. None of Katherine Mansfield's stories, when I came to read them, struck me as hard as the Journal — I was at my most impressionable, and the stories, 'At the Bay', 'The Voyage', 'Prelude', won their way into my mind more quietly.
In that same term, I think, I began to read Plato, thanks to Colin. No one I knew before read Plato, or spoke of reading him. Colin was a devotee, and I had to follow him, and share with him if I could. Since I remained, and remain, uninstructed in philosophy, as in music, I read Plato as a layman and the technicalities of the theory of knowledge, not to mention the mathematics and astronomy, passed over my head; but in the next few years I must have read a dozen of the dialogues, and with the Symposium, the Phaedo, the Republic, even the Timaeus (which I read with A. E. Taylor's big commentary a little later), page 147I came to have a more than nodding acquaintance, and allowed Platonic ideas to colour my mind henceforth. Not to the exclusion of other and contradictory ones, but Plato's were powerful, especially when Shelley reinforced them, and I soon began to soak myself in Shelley and to give him my strongest devotion among poets.
It was under the combined influence of Plato and Shelley, Krishnamurti and Buddhism, Alfredo and Enid (who were vegetarians), memories of my grandmother, and no doubt other writers and persons, that notions of purity obsessed me and by fits and starts I made several ineffectual bids towards purity. The purity I believed I longed for failed to distinguish properly between what goes in at the mouth and what comes out of the heart. Fortunately my will was weak and my senses strong, so that I did not fall into puritanism, but continued in a cloud of contradictions, not knowing what I wanted except that I wanted to write poetry. Of these inner cross-currents I spoke to no one.
All this time Esmond de Beer was living in Oxford and continued to live there, except during the Michaelmas term of 1929. His university life had been interrupted by the war, which he had spent chiefly in India; afterwards he completed it at New College, and he was now working as an assistant to the historian Sir Charles Firth, lately Regius Professor of Modern History. Firth's interest centred in the seventeenth century, especially the Civil War; Esmond's settled on the same century. Only a few years later he was invited by the Delegates of the Clarendon Press to edit the complete manuscript of Evelyn's diary, which had come into their hands; this was to occupy him for more than twenty years, and his edition, published in six volumes in 1955, is one of the great scholarly editions of our time. He was already a scholar by inclination and habit; he had been named by his mother after Thackeray's Esmond. He wished to understand fully all that interested him, and a great many things interested him, quite outside those belonging to his chosen field. I was surprised once at his knowledge of the details of cutting and sewing a suit of clothes; he seemed thoroughly conversant with any mat-page 148ter that had to do with the arts and history and literature - the techniques of tempera painting and of print-making; the lives and works of Milton and Marvell and Butler and Dryden, and of the politicians of the Restoration — he once thought of writing a book on the reign of Charles II; and Italian art of almost any period. He walked about with his eyes open, always observant; his memory was excellent; once he grasped a subject he made it his own for life. Like Mary and Dora and their mother (but not their father) he was extremely active; a very fast walker, with far greater stamina than I had, who walked constantly in town and country, in England, Scotland, Italy, New Zealand; when nearly seventy, he walked the Milford track in abominable weather — sleet and snow and heavy persistent rain — and was as strong and untiring as any of us in a party of twenty relatives and friends of all ages.
He Was of medium height - my height - with broad shoulders that disguised his thinness and a large powerful head set close upon them; short rather thick nose and strong forehead, and not very good skin; he always wore a moustache — at that time it was a short dark square under his nose — and usually pince-nez, held by a black cord round his neck; he favoured double-breasted suits (with white handkerchief in the breast pocket), a correct brown hat, a signet ring on his right-hand little finger. He was very correct and very polite, in part to disguise his shyness, which showed as he smiled and drew his head back or turned it obliquely and wrinkled up the skin round his eyes. He spoke very slowly, pausing between words and phrases, emphasizing a point by taking off his pince-nez and gesturing with them, and taking a long time to complete a sentence. His speech was drawling but quite unaffected, his voice thick and a little throaty, as if his tongue got in its own way, or was too big in his mouth, which he opened wide, moving his lips to ensure his pronouncing vowels and consonants clearly. With his slight stiffness, of both movement and manner, and his formality, he seemed middleaged, or of no age, but not young, although he was only thirtytwo when I went up to St John's.
Esmond was living in Norham Gardens, five minutes' walk from St John's, in a flat on the first floor of a converted house; one of those strongly built ugly Oxford houses of sallow brick page 149with pointed windows and a few details of Gothic ornamentation domesticated in the late nineteenth century. A black-haired apple-cheeked young Irish widow with a strong brogue came in every day to keep the flat and to cook for him, very quiet and respectful; Esmond treated her with great politeness and consideration. She was a good plain cook; he lived well in a quiet way. Food was important to him, as to his father. He used as much deliberation in eating as in speaking, seeming to give his whole attention to his food, bending forward and fixing his eyes upon it, masticating purposefully, methodically, with an occasional small grunt as if to mark progress. Conversation during meals was often extremely protracted, since Esmond commonly managed only one word at a time while eating, each word being followed by a silence for prolonged mastication; the habit grew on him, and was perhaps less marked at the time I am writing of; but he brought the same concentration and thoroughness to everything he did.
I visited him constantly at Norham Gardens, at all hours of day and night, and must have interrupted him a great deal, although he worked chiefly at Sir Charles Firth's house and in the Bodleian. He never complained of my irruptions, nor showed signs of wearying of my naïvetés, which were perhaps redeemed in his eyes by the intensity of my interest in subjects of interest to him, in poetry and painting above all. He also made himself in effect my private tutor. Thanks to bad teaching, my Latin was so ill-founded and shaky that I had difficulty even with the very simplified mediaeval chroniclers' Latin of the Gesta Francorum; and greater difficulty with Latin unseens. Esmond helped me with these during my first two terms; without his coaching I might have failed the whole preliminary examination.
I did not benefit much from reading History; I was and remained too immature intellectually to profit from what I read, and heard in lectures, and learned in discussion with Poole and Costin. Parts of the course I could not take in at all. Reading Adam Smith was as painful to me as eating chaff or dust; political economy simply did not make sense; I followed the words, but failed to grasp what they were telling me. My formal education proved no education at all. If it had not been for Esmond, and page 150for Colin, I should have gone down from Oxford as ignorant and untutored as I went up. They were my real teachers.
Esmond took me to repertory plays at the Oxford Playhouse and once at least in my first term to hear music, Monteverdi's The Coronation of Poppaea, presented by the University Opera Club in the Town Hall, one of the earliest revivals of his operas; although it disappeared from my ear and eye, it lingered on shadowily in my mind as a rich and strange feast, but when I saw it again a generation later (again with Esmond, at Glynde-bourne), its sumptuous grandeur burst on me as an entirely new world. Esmond loved opera, but did not go to concerts; he had a good knowledge of plays old and new and went often to the Playhouse. He had started reading Shakespeare even before he went to secondary school and continued to read him steadily — to my surprise, who did not read steadily at all. He knew Molière well, and Ibsen, and Congreve, and I think Shaw; Ibsen he admired especially; a photograph of the white-bearded old man in high stiff collar and steel-rimmed glasses hung in his flat. As he came to know my friends (he seemed to have few of his own in Oxford; only colleagues perhaps) he proposed that we should read plays together, meeting in his flat; which we did more or less regularly for two or three terms, reading Shakespeare, Webster, Marlowe, Ben Jonson, and Love for Love, and The Cenci; nothing later than the last. We read for our own pleasure; we had no audience except the summer night outside the open windows.
It was poetry that engrossed me; I wrote most of the time, if seldom even to my own satisfaction, and almost never at length. My notions of poetry were extremely limited: it meant above all Shelley, Keats, some of Wordsworth, early Yeats, Brooke and Flecker and de la Mare, Housman, and a few later Georgian poems. I wanted to work in a manner as close to theirs as possible - but I scarcely defined what I wanted; if I had had to, I should have been obliged to say rather that I wanted to be a poet, and Shelley and Keats were the ideal poets. It was the short and seemingly easy way to poetry that I was trying, because then I knew no other. It surprises me now that I was bold enough to show my poems to Esmond and ask his opinion of them; it may have been my own uncertainty about them that page 151prompted me; whatever the reason, I continued to ask friends (James later and almost regularly, as a matter of course; later still, Ruth Dallas) for an opinion of poems before I ventured to publish them. Esmond read seriously and attentively all the pieces I brought him. He never (I think) offered a general opinion, which if honest might have made me retreat and shut up like a clam, and even put a stop to my writing; instead, he fixed acutely on points of syntax and meaning and in the kindest way asked such questions as 'What does this mean exactly?', 'What is the subject of your sentence here?'
These were questions I had to try to answer, and they led me to consider my poems more closely than any general criticism could have done; because a more general criticism could only have concluded that I was a woolly-minded scribbler of the feeblest sort of worthless Georgian-romantic verse with nothing of my own to say, and no style of my own to say it in. Esmond must have been dismayed — dismayed and bored. But he wonderfully concealed his feelings and judgement and continued to appear interested and encouraging. If he was unable to alter the prevailing cloudiness of my ideas and aspirations, the vagueness of my similes and metaphors (Shelley and water, Keats and water, sometimes Yeats and water, but mostly water), he did succeed in persuading me to pay more attention to grammar, and to make sure just what I was saying. This was my first essential lesson as a poet. I continue to ask his questions of the poems I write.
Although I succeeded in getting so few pieces published in periodicals, I wanted to publish a book, which Esmond and Colin did not veto, whatever their reservations. In my third year I offered a collection to the publisher Basil Blackwell, and took Colin with me for aid and comfort when I went trembling and tongue-tied to see him. Experienced and not unkind, Mr Blackwell advised me to try publishing more poems in periodicals first, so that my work would become known and would interest readers, who would then be readier to buy and read a collection. It was sound advice, for which I cannot be too grateful. I should never have lived down the derision that book must have brought me, if it had been published. But I tried at least one other publisher immediately afterwards, again without result.page 152
At the end of my second term, Colin took me home to meet his family. They lived beyond Highgate on the Great North Road, in a two-storied house of drab brick in a garden with a tennis lawn behind. The Robertses seemed to me from that day the most alive and exciting family I had ever met, parents and children at one in their intense interest in all that was going on in the world, in politics society education religion the arts and learning, and in their quick-witted fast-moving talk about all of these.
Mr Roberts's parents had moved from Wales to London late last century, when he was a boy, and Colin for one was very conscious of the family's Welsh roots. Mr Roberts was a builder, independent, his own master, but under increasing pressure from the big firms. He was an alert highly intelligent man as upright as he was humane and kindly, with keen appreciation of human foibles, and indignant at meanness, cruelty, fraud and the varieties of sharp practice which he met with in the course of his work. He was active in social work in London, particularly in the education of apprentices and other young people; he gave his time for many years to the work of the London Polytechnic. One of his brothers was rector of St George's, Bloomsbury, and was married to the poet Susan Miles; another was the literary critic Ellis Roberts, who at various times was literary editor of Time and Tide, the New Statesman, and other journals — he and his American wife Harriet were specially devoted to Colin, having no children of their own, and also most hospitable to me — it was with them I met the Chestertons, and Rose Macaulay.
Mrs Roberts came of a Scottish family, among her ancestors may have been the poet Robert Henryson. She was a very loving, tender, solicitous wife and mother who delighted in the high spirits of her husband and children and shared their interests — it never occurred to me to think just where her own lay; she was still lovely, with the softened, subdued beauty of middle age, an English loveliness as of watered silk and woven flowers; she was also a capable housewife, and to me always most welcoming and generous, so that she soon overcame my shyness; but she continued to call me Mr Brasch all my undergraduate years. Her only daughter Rosemary, then a schoolgirl of about fourteen, was to take after her; as an undergraduate at Lady Margaret Hall a few years later she fell in love with a fellow undergraduate at Trinity, the poet Hal Summers, and married him page 153soon after; she and Hal too became my friends for life. She had four brothers. Brian was two years our senior at St John's, very conscious of it and not a little condescending, but tolerant too; small and dark, he was the lone Celt of a fair-headed largely-built family. After Colin came Roger, the only one I never knew well, very able in a traditional English way and — his family declared — doomed to bishophood (a fate he escaped only — I understood — because he spoke his mind too freely); then Rosemary; and lastly Pat, a small boy whom I saw grow into a tall blond rustic-Gothic angel radiant in his first youth — he might have been carved on the wooden vault of a village church or chiselled in the stone of a cathedral capital.
In their house, talk swept across the tea table or the dinner table in gusts and waves. They all spoke fast and lived in a rapid exhilarating cross-fire of opinions, arguments, witticisms, banter and laughter. They were too quick for me; sometimes before I could grasp even the subject of an exchange it had gone back and forth several times and been resolved in a gale of laughter which led them at once to some other topic. Parents and children were equal in these exchanges; Mr Roberts laughed with and sometimes at his children, but treated them with respect and never talked down; he was as free with them as Tommy had been with me, and they reciprocated.
I continued to see the Robertses, individually and collectively, after we went down. One year I spent a summer holiday with them all at Robin Hood's Bay, near Whitby, swimming, walking on the moors and the coast, exploring all the great abbeys we could reach, talking, arguing, reading; I remember it was with them I read Geoffrey Faber's Oxford Apostles. When their children grew up and married, Mr and Mrs Roberts moved to a smaller house not far from their old one, but in a larger, quieter garden. There one summer evening we played Comus out of doors in the long mellow dusk, Rosemary as the Lady, Hal Comus, two friends of his the brothers, another friend Sabrina, and I the attendant spirit. I think I then knew the whole masque by heart. It was one of the poems we loved best, although we may have brought it too close to de la Mare and Housman; I loved declaiming its eloquently subtle cadences, so lovely they brought tears to my eyes; this was the only kind of acting I aspired to.
* See poem 'Discord for Louis MacNeice' in Not Far Off