I've made one or two sensible decisions in my life and the best was, perhaps, to switch to reading English Literature at University. I’d mistakenly given the subject up for A Level and it proved a struggle to get back on track. One of the advantages of my old Grammar School was the teaching staff, many who had returned from the War, were experienced, dedicated, able. A minority were hopeless. I had the misfortune to be taught by one of these – for English – in my O Level (GCSE) year. He inspired in me a dislike for ‘The Tempest’ and ‘Julius Caesar’ that I retain to this day, though found myself moved to tears recently by Vaughan Williams’ rendering of Prospero’s lines, ‘the cloud capped towers..’
As a result of a year with this buffoon I decided on the Modern Sixth Form (History, Geography, Economics) rather than the Arts (English, French, History). I didn’t consult – you didn’t then. And when the Head of English found out he stopped talking to me. I had been (I think) his favourite pupil. He was called Tommy Kershaw, a Sheffielder, fond of the Blades and County Cricket, and had taught me in my first year in the school, where he brought me on. He had got me debating and writing. I had been terrified of him to begin with: he started his questioning from the back of the class, where I sat, and I had got myself moved nearer the front on the excuse (part true like the best lies) that I couldn’t read the blackboard. In reality I wanted time to pick up on the line of questioning – I wasn’t smart at dealing with the unexpected queries about adjectival clauses. But Tommy saw something in me. English became my favourite subject. We read ‘Wind in the Willows’ (I played Badger), and what I now realise was a pretty up to date selection of English Poetry, ‘The Poet’s Tongue’, by W.H. Auden, which included D.H. Lawrence. Incidentally, I met Auden later at Cambridge where I interviewed him, he in slippers, smoking with a line of fag ash ready to topple onto his jumper. I never thought to ask him about that anthology, instead preferring pretentious questions about ‘seminal influences’ to which he gave the briefest of replies. In Cambridge ‘Varsity’ magazine my embarrassing questions go on for a paragraph, to be followed by his one line answer – or merely ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ It was what I deserved – I knew nothing about him really. The interview (sadly) exists somewhere in the far reaches of the internet.
Tommy, another fag smoker, was bronchitic, and smelled – not unpleasantly – of cigarettes. He wore a greenish checked sports jacket, over a round (not tubby) frame and had brylcreemed straight hair. He also carried a small black leather bag – his trademark - into lessons. Inside, along with his mark book, was a mysterious clear bottle of liquid which he took out onto the terrace/corridor outside our classroom when he began one of his coughing attacks. Ofsted might not have approved of him much. He was scathing about the school’s Combined Cadet Force: ‘playing war games,’ he called it, and introduced us to Wilfred Owen before he was fashionable. Thankfully, normal relations between us resumed after our estrangement in the Sixth Form, and he - in time - appointed me Editor of the School Magazine, and Secretary of the Poetry Society. He had a special locked cupboard in his room at Hurst House, an annexe of the school given over to the Arts and Modern Sixth, and I took out books on Ibsen and Chekhov, having realised by then where my interests lay - with literature. I got into Cambridge, largely on interview I now think (those were the days), to read History, and – that achieved – went to see him. I had a year before I went to Cambridge, had exhausted myself with A Levels (we took them a year early) but knew what I wanted by then: ‘I want to change to English.’ To his credit he was cautious: ‘You mustn’t jeopardise your place at Cambridge.’ But I began a year’s English A Level - ‘Hamlet’, ‘Mayor of Casterbridge’, ‘Wuthering Heights’ – bliss – with the aim of persuading my future supervisors at Cambridge that I could change. I got a B in a year, after a hiccup in the middle with some poor preliminary exam results (Tommy accused me of being ‘Cavalier’ which I had to look up to be sure what he meant). I went, hopefully, for interview in Cambridge to make my case for the change to Eng. Lit., and failed badly – what’s worse I knew I was bad. I managed not to tell them I had a B after only a year’s study, wet behind the ears as I often was in those days, and probably still terrified by the place. The English supervisor suggested I read History for Part One of the Tripos and then English ‘perhaps’ for Part Two. I complied for a term. I had some success as an actor at University those first three months; my ‘grades’ (as they say these days) were good in History – and I decided to press things. ‘They’re not going to chuck me out,’ I reasoned. It took a week. I read Thomas Mann’s ‘Buddenbrooks’ during the week that it took them to make up their mind in my favour, and I dropped the novel about twenty pages from the end (it’s still unread) when I got the go ahead.
Tommy died while I was at University, in 1967. I wrote to his widow, and she replied – a letter I retain, saying she had heard of me and I was one of his ‘special boys.’ I‘m writing this from Durham where I am Writer in Residence at St Cuthbert’s Society, in the part of town where the oldest colleges are. Tommy went to a College just up the road from here and – older than he was when he died and with a dicky heart which slows me – I never walk past Hatfield College without thanking him for changing my life.
A final snapshot. My last year at school I picked D.H. Lawrence’s ‘Sons and Lovers’ as a school prize - you were given a guinea for the prize, say, and then went into the local bookshop to choose the book you fancied. The Headmaster, a Methodist, was a bit doubtful about this choice and quizzed me about it – this was only a few years after the Lady Chatterley trial. Tommy drew me on one side the morning of Speech Day. ‘Don’t be surprised that you won’t be getting the D.H. Lawrence when you go up to collect your book from the Mayoress. It’ll be something else but you’ll get it finally.’ So I went up, received some anodyne book from the Mayoress’s fragrant hands, and descended off stage into the penumbra of the auditorium where Tommy, with a little smile, surreptitiously gave me my copy of ‘Sons and Lovers.’ Us (and let’s include Bert Lawrence in this) against the Philistines is the way I like to think about it.