Note that the following is from fallible memory. This is not a review – more an attempt to capture what happened as much for my benefit as anyone else’s. If you were there and remember it all quite differently, feel free to tell me. I’ve doubtless missed a lot of detail and jumbled the sequence. I also don’t know James’ own poetry so I’ve only quoted one of his. There were more.
8.30pm, Friday 14th November 2014. The Cambridge Union Chamber.
There was much affectionate applause as he shuffled in. As he silenced the crowd, he recalled the bass Boris Christoff, who basked in audiences’ applause to a famously nauseating degree, physically gathering the adulation to himself with great sweeping arm gestures from the edge of the stage. (Christoff once apparently enjoyed an audience’s ovation so much that, in the middle of a performance of Boris Godunov, he sang the same aria twice, causing many to miss their trains, James said. Much laughter
and applause followed, James beckoning like Christoff as it came.) The point was that, like Christoff, he always needed his ego feeding; he was privileged still to be able to get that kick, he said.
Mentally, his acuity was as evident as ever. Physically, he seemed on the ropes. He was slow of movement, sounded hoarse, and was clearly fighting the urge to cough, but it must be stressed that he didn’t actually seem too bad given the state of his health – something that, knowing how much it interested people, he spent a while outlining: he has emphysema (now known as COPD, a name that reminded him of a TV show) and leukaemia (currently in remission). He reflected too on the – to him – inexplicable media interest in his decline. When you talk of expiring by Saturday, he said, it’s slightly embarrassing when Sunday comes around and you’re still here. In fact, he said, he was now in the habit of making final appearances. Much applause at this.
He was happy that his leukaemia mercifully has one redeeming feature: it’s of the non-painful sort. And when it eventually comes to get him – whenever that might be – he won’t know much about it. The emphysema is reward for a lifetime’s enthusiastic smoking (if I remember rightly from his Unreliable Memoirs he used a hubcap as an ashtray and filled it daily), and the doctors at Addenbrooke’s are working immuno-globular marvels. He goes there every three weeks to be treated with his fellow sufferers. “It’s an exclusive club. We sit in silence, reading. When the tea lady comes around it’s a real event.”
There are two ways, he said, to deal with terminal illnesses: you sit and wait to die, or you keep working as if you have all the time in the world. Having always written, he continues to write, although he notes that he writes of death more and more.
Asking that no one took photos (unless he dropped dead on stage, in which case we were more than welcome – he would try to fall in a suitably photogenic attitude), he noted that, in the age of Twitter, pictures could be around the world in seconds, and he regretted not being able to write his own captions. “I want to say I’m having a wonderful time and am perfectly happy.”
Despite his mistrust of modern technology (I remember him once saying on Radio 4 that the computer’s insistence on committing the ephemeral to eternity made it an instrument of the devil), he’s gratified that Twitter has afforded him widespread global recognition for his poetry: a poem about the Japanese maple tree in his garden, recently published in the New Yorker, went viral. He recited it.
Your death, near now, is of an easy sort.
So slow a fading out brings no real pain.
Breath growing short
Is just uncomfortable. You feel the drain
Of energy, but thought and sight remain:
Enhanced, in fact. When did you ever see
So much sweet beauty as when fine rain falls
On that small tree
And saturates your brick back garden walls,
So many Amber Rooms and mirror halls?
Ever more lavish as the dusk descends
This glistening illuminates the air.
It never ends.
Whenever the rain comes it will be there,
Beyond my time, but now I take my share.
My daughter’s choice, the maple tree is new.
Come autumn and its leaves will turn to flame.
What I must do
Is live to see that. That will end the game
For me, though life continues all the same:
Filling the double doors to bathe my eyes,
A final flood of colours will live on
As my mind dies,
Burned by my vision of a world that shone
So brightly at the last, and then was gone.
[Assume applause after all recitations.]
He explained how the state of his health meant he’d never see Australia again, but that it didn’t matter to him because his family were all here and his recollection of his Australian childhood grew more vivid to him every day. He couldn’t remember what happened the day before, but…
Flashback… At school he’d been made to learn poems by rote. “We had to recite four lines at the end of every day or else we wouldn’t be allowed home. Some of my classmates are still there.”
It wasn’t till he was at university in Sydney, however, that he decided he wanted to be a poet. He therefore took the important first step of dressing like one, in open-necked shirt, khaki drills and desert boots. He would then hide in the bushes by the science block and surprise girls by jumping out and declaiming ee cummings:
you shall above all things be glad and young
you shall above all things be glad and young
For if you’re young, whatever life you wear
It will become you; and if you are glad
whatever’s living will yourself become.
Girlboys may nothing more than boygirls need:
i can entirely her only love
whose any mystery makes every man’s
flesh put space on; and his mind take off time
that you should ever think, may god forbid
and (in his mercy) your true lover spare:
for that way knowledge lies, the foetal grave
called progress, and negation’s dead undoom.
I’d rather learn from one bird how to sing
than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance
This method of flirtation was universally unsuccessful. Poetry doesn’t work that way, he noted, advising current undergraduates to choose shorter poems with which to woo girls so that the poor saps would be less humiliated when the targets of their affections walked away. “Painters have the advantage over poets as they can say, ‘In order to truly see your soul I need to see you with your clothes off.’ No poet gets away with that. Lucian Freud was a case in point…”
cummings was wrong in that poem anyway, he said. The greatest of love poets he identified as Auden and Marvell. Recalling Alan Bennett’s famous comment about the lines on Wystan’s face (‘if that’s his face, whatever must his scrotum look like?’) to the delight of the audience, he then recited ‘Lullaby‘:
Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.
Soul and body have no bounds:
To lovers as they lie upon
Her tolerant enchanted slope
In their ordinary swoon,
Grave the vision Venus sends
Of supernatural sympathy,
Universal love and hope;
While an abstract insight wakes
Among the glaciers and the rocks
The hermit’s carnal ecstasy.
On the stroke of midnight pass
Like vibrations of a bell,
And fashionable madmen raise
Their pedantic boring cry:
Every farthing of the cost,
All the dreaded cards foretell,
Shall be paid, but from this night
Not a whisper, not a thought,
Not a kiss nor look be lost.
Beauty, midnight, vision dies:
Let the winds of dawn that blow
Softly round your dreaming head
Such a day of welcome show
Eye and knocking heart may bless,
Find the mortal world enough;
Noons of dryness find you fed
By the involuntary powers,
Nights of insult let you pass
Watched by every human love.
Magnificent old bugger indeed. It was some time before James found out Auden was gay and that the poem was probably addressed to a trucker or similar bit of rough. Or maybe even MacNeice or Isherwood. (James is fond of MacNeice, thinking him criminally underrated because of his lyricism.) “I wasn’t shocked,” he said of Auden’s homosexuality. “It broadened my mind – and my mind at the time needed broadening.” He later came to meet the poet at Cambridge. Auden’s famously slovenly personal habits were much in evidence: what appeared to be a tie depicting a Jackson Pollock turned out to be a plain, knitted number that bore the accretions of a hundred breakfasts.
The other great love poet? The marvellous Marvell, of course. He recited The Definition of Love, prefacing his performance with the comment that if he stumbled over any lines he might as well drop dead then and there. He stumbled. Happily, he didn’t drop.
My love is of a birth as rare
As ’tis, for object, strange and high ;
It was begotten by Despair,
Magnanimous Despair alone
Could show me so divine a thing,
Where feeble hope could ne’er have flown,
But vainly flapped its tinsel wing.
And yet I quickly might arrive
Where my extended soul is fixed ;
But Fate does iron wedges drive,
And always crowds itself betwixt.
For Fate with jealous eye does see
Two perfect loves, nor lets them close ;
Their union would her ruin be,
And her tyrannic power depose.
And therefore her decrees of steel
Us as the distant poles have placed,
(Though Love’s whole world on us doth wheel),
Not by themselves to be embraced,
Unless the giddy heaven fall,
And earth some new convulsion tear.
And, us to join, the world should all
Be cramp’d into a planisphere.
As lines… as lines…
[Here, James lost his way and had to skip to the next line.]
But ours, so truly parallel,
Though infinite, can never meet.
Therefore the love which us doth bind,
But Fate so enviously debars,
Is the conjunction of the mind,
And opposition of the stars.
[Applause, and on to the Q&A.]
Someone asked what he’d choose to recite now if he were to jump from the bushes. (“One of mine!”) Someone asked his favourite place in Cambridge. (Hugh’s bookstall in the market; King’s chapel.) A woman spent five minutes telling everyone about her dyslexia and saying how clever she was. James suggested she read his new book. Then he got up and shuffled out and that was that.
One final flourish that came his way is worth recording. In the middle of one answer he suddenly had a flash of memory and triumphantly recited the lines he’d forgotten earlier:
As lines, so love’s oblique, may well
Themselves in every angle greet :
But ours, so truly parallel,
Though infinite, can never meet.
There followed more Christoff-esque applause-grabbing. He looked like he meant it this time.