I do not know if anyone will ever go to Cambridge in search of the imprints which the teat-cleats on my soccer-boots have left in the black mud before a gaping goal or follow the shadow of my cap across the quadrangle to my tutor’s stairs; but I know that I thought of Milton, and Marvell, and Marlowe, with more than a tourist’s thrill as I passed beside the reverend walls.
— Vladimir Nabokov, Speak Memory
Cambridge was a town of chilly lung-corrupting drizzle for eleven twelfths of the year and swarms of nimble black mosquitoes in August. It is associated in my mind with The Morning Star, doomed love and failed shopping expeditions for shoes.
In the early days, I had two fellow travellers—whose identities I shall keep discreetly veiled behind the unlikely soubriquets Ball and Cannon—with whom I had spent my last few months at university (a leafy sun-dappled institution situated, for obscure theological reasons, in the middle of Wales), and whose refreshingly millenarian certitudes had encouraged me to abandon any thoughts of becoming a good man in Africa and follow them to the city of Cambridge instead, where Ball knew all sorts of really dangerous people. I have selected these two names very carefully. ‘Ball and Cannon’ have the advantage over all other pseudonyms in anticipating, by homonymy if nothing else, an object which will terminate this narrative with thudding apodeictic conclusiveness. The pairing, to my mind, also has a hollow Beckettian ring to it, and it is to Samuel Beckett’s melancholy double acts that my thoughts must turn, rather than English panto’s aggressively chirpy duo (Cannon & Ball), when I remember them, hunched over their pints of Greene King in the snug at the Rattle and Hum or waiting with immobilising indecision in the biting winds of January at the railway station for a companion who never arrived.
Both nose-tapping members of the Communist Party of Great Britain, Ball and Cannon shared an obsessive frequently-aired loathing for what Stalin had done to the Third International. I say ‘nose-tapping’ because this was a time when being a member of the CP—or the Thee Pay, as it emerged from the thickets of Cannon’s pipe-smoke on sprained aspirates—could earn one the cachet of edgy street-cred as well as a heroic working class honorific. (Ah, happy days, when revolutionary politics could still make you think of Joseph Conrad’s Secret Agent and men in shabby blue suits and fedoras bearing brown paper packages along the swaying corridors of railway carriages!) Cannon had flowing black locks, of which he was justifiably vain, a genuine Northern accent and a succession of ever-more unwieldy meerschaums, the latest of which he would pluck from his mouth after intervals of strained silence and bated breath, so that he could intimidate the bar with his lisp and dark incomprehensible denunciations of Bukharin, Molotov and Harold Wilson. Ball had a gigantic Roman nose, from which perfectly formed droplets dripped, in unhurried syncopation. The nose showed through the oily drapes of his own Ozzy Osbourne- or Cher-type hairstyle, like a triangle of freshly cut Swiss cheese. Ball and Cannon were both deathly pale, mesmerisingly lanky and fanatically, if unwittingly, attentive to the proverbial Arab wisdom that one must cut one’s cloth to the length of one’s shins. They wore identical greatcoats of suggestively Eastern European drabness, baggy black trousers, thick brown leather belts (which they strapped around their waists, culotte-style) and stout hob-nailed boots. I felt puny and ill equipped in their company. I was not sure I much enjoyed pattering through the Kite’s wintry slums between them.
For a while, before I found a place of my own, I slept on Ball’s lumpy horsehair sofa, his posh comrades having secured him a tenancy in one of the plum railway worker’s tenements in Romsey Terrace. Cannon took up austere occupancy of the boot room, where he shared his thoughts with a broken stone sink, several clay-encrusted gardening tools and the complete works of Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and Muammar Gaddafi. (My irreverent imagination also unearths a secret store of Marvel comics from under his rickety camp-bed.) Rarely emerging from his meditations, except to dine on lentils and rice pudding or to lead us with an inexorable single-mindedness and an inscrutable expression to the Rattle and Hum, he soon acquired the charisma and serenity of an Indian swami. Ball had more eclectic middle-class tastes, surrounding the living room hearth with string-bound piles of The Morning Star and The Spectator, a scattering of thick hardback books by E. P. Thompson and Dietrich Bonhoffer, Raymond Williams and Miguel de Unamuno, Oscar Wilde and Louis Althusser. On the coffee-table, you might at come across a book of chess brilliancies left open at the Anderrsen ‘Immortal’, The Peasant Cookbook, the Reverend Courtland Myers’, Would Christ Belong to a Labour Union?, a French edition of Raymond Queneau’s Pierrot Mon Ami, H. M. Stanley’s In Darkest Africa, G. K. Chesterton’s The Napoleon of Notting Hill or Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs. There were shelves of Penguin paperbacks (the old ones with the red and white or green and white covers), of which I remember Edmund Crispin’s The Moving Toyshop and Margery Allingham’s Tiger in the Smoke with a pang of recovered longing, and the entire twenty-four volume set of the 1948 edition of the Railway Workers’ Guide to Culverts, Couplers and Crossovers from Croydon to Caith Ness.
I also recall, this time with a properly Christian mixture of piety and guilt, the whispered confidences of Ball’s wife who liked to stay up into the early hours enumerating his shortcomings (which seemed to me to be of a distinctly actionable kind, of the sort Havelock-Ellis might have composed a monograph over) and planning ways to return to her Gloucestershire roots with minimal fuss and cost.
The shoe expeditions date from a later time, when I had acquired size and punctuality, and no longer much cared for Stalin.
Besides the Kite, the areas I knew best were a hazy weaving walk, my very own rolling English road, from the Baker’s Arms to Zorba’s Kebab takeaway, where one could enjoy juicy donner kebabs with raw onions and lettuce in an envelope of pita bread for fifty pee after closing-time to the musical accompaniment of Zorba’s bawled English which consisted mostly of the coinage ‘fack’ and cognomens (as in ‘Pour da facking sowce, yow’self, yow ingleez facker!’). Blinco Grove off Cherry Hinton Road was where I rented a sort of Look Back in Anger flat from an Anglican vicar of quite astonishing avarice, and where I set about subtracting myself from my own responsibilities (if she ever reads this parenthesis, I hope she will consider it some recompense for being so comprehensively misled by the vanity of my inhuman wishes), with minimal fuss and cost. There was also a series of contradictory zigzags across the city, encompassing, at each turn, an arts cinema (which specialised in gloomy German films), a second-hand clothes market selling fashionable Party accessories (collarless shirts, paisley cravats and shapeless parson’s summer jackets), the Department of Health and Social Security, the dole queue at the Post Office in Lion Yard, a grim little roundabout with a painfully hard steel bolus at its centre, a view of the Backs (frost-silvered grass stalks and willows so leafless and pollarded they looked like spent matches in the eyelid chafing dawn), and row after row of English suburban homes (mock Tudor frontages, leering garden gnomes and rusting Morris Minors balanced on bricks), on Barton Road.
I don’t recall ever bumping into Ben Cross or Stephen Hawking or even the by now more commonplace ink-bespattered bat-winged Hollywood images on wobbling bikes. The university was where the despicably rich and well connected went to tone their rugger thighs, write unreadable poetry in Spenserian stanzas, and learn their forbears’ larcenous habits and easy-going sprezzatura. One should never under-estimate the attractions of the slave owning class, of which the ability to levitate effortlessly above the clouds is by far the most alluring. (Who amongst us, oh my brothers, has not had his head, or coat, turned by the wingstrokes of the great?) I shall never forget Barrel, another escapee from the religious Welsh hills, whom I had previously associated with gritty existentialist silences, profoundly involved manipulations of Rizzla cigarette papers, and gloriously scornful grunts, tumbling out of his new Christ College digs in a Norfolk jacket and gusts of high-pitched laughter. His eyes had acquired a circus pony’s glassy panic.
Over the years, all this has begun to sink away, submerging beneath Norman Foster’s contributions to late capitalism’s high-maintenance habit: onion-shaped shopping centres, Lego-block retail clothing outlets, multi-level car parks patterned after the Dolomites, soft-soled multiplexes, yellow and red fast-food joints and airport department lounge-sized pharmaceutical stores—of which Boots the Chemists in the Petty Cury, with its aisles of hairspray, travel gadgets, gingko and ginseng and white-coated assistants homing in on solitaries with the affable menace of nurses in a mental hospital, will always be my favourite. The horrifying intimacy and endogamous sociality of English pre-postmodernity, with its fortresses of virtue, the family pub (oh God, Buck, those quizzes and darts tournaments, that pork crackling and beery breath) and the cricket pavilion (gouged wooden planks, spilt boot-whiting and linseed oil, buttered scones and scalding tea, shared boxes and brisk non-partisan cries of ‘Shot!’), the hair-dressers’ with their unctuous Brylcreemed barbers and discreet gentleman’s services (‘Anything for the weekend, sir?’) and the bus queue with its swiftly struck up and as swiftly ended friendships, have made way for something Stalin could only imagine in posters. (‘We zapped the past, Buck, didn’t we?’) For me, old England hand that I am, Cambridge— and, now, England itself—has become little more than a place of expensive realty and people with maps who are either fellow tourists or refugees from Middle Eastern wars of liberation.
There was an interval when I taught English to a few sultry Iranian royalists and scores of speechless Japanese at the John Lennox Cook School of English (I used to assert to Ball that the latter had misread the ‘Lennox’ in the name when making their applications), but that’s the nearest I ever got to the collegiate scenery which Vladimir Nabokov helpfully typifies as ‘venerable elms, blazoned windows, loquacious clock towers’. The school returns to me now as the setting for my first uncertain steps in stichomythia and for one or two crippling bouts of love.
Nabokov was at Cambridge University from 1919 to 1922. He stayed in Trinity College lodgings. In the early 1980s, that college was a Bastille-like edifice overlooking a dingy street—Trinity Lane—which was only fleetingly, in my memory at least, brought into the light of day by wheeling car head-lamps. With its hissing cats and blood-red leaves, flash-frozen in the lights, it made me think of villainous sixteenth-century activities, body-snatching, say, or assassination by stiletto, when we walked there, as we did when heading home from an art-house flick, swapping cautiously incomplete thoughts on, for example, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Despair. Nabokov’s dressing-gowned and sponge-bag carrying shade was not yet a feature of the place; his memoir Speak, Memory came to me much later in life, two years ago today in fact. Today (April 1st, 2005), I see that he had to pass along Trinity Lane each morning on his way to the Baths (there were no bathrooms in his digs), eschewing woolly underwear and unmanly overcoats. Nearly thirty years after the event, his bones, he insists, have not forgotten the bleakness of that walk, nor its English fatuity.
While at Trinity, Nabokov was distracted by memories of his lost homeland, its blue snow-freighted firs and humid lepidopteral summers, its entertainingly freakish tutors and blurred and creased monochrome parents, and so could not appreciate the claims Cambridge would make on his life in the artful reconstructions of his retrospective. (That sentence, by the way, is how I see him writing his prose, a linear text arcing through space like the line that is said to link the light of one star to another, finally turning back on itself, ending not in its beginning but in some tropic verisimilitude of a pig’s tail. Himself, he likened the trick, or treat, to a spiral.) In his final year, his father died, murdered by two ‘Russian Fascists’ in Berlin, which perhaps accounts both for the druggy wistfulness of his memories of punting on the Cam (‘Now and then, shed by a blossoming tree, a petal would come down, down, down, and with the odd feeling of seeing something neither worshiper nor casual spectator ought to see, one would manage to glimpse its reflection which swiftly—more swiftly than the petal fell—rose to meet it; and, for a fraction of a second, one feared the trick would not work, that the blessed oil would not catch fire, that the reflection might miss and the petal float away alone, but every time the delicate union did take place, with the magic precision of a poet’s word meeting halfway his, or his reader’s, recollection’) and the tetchiness of his encounters with a recently Leninised ur-Cannon & ur-Ball, cunningly pseudonomised and palindromised, in his narrative, as ‘Nisbet’ and ‘Ibsen’.
Nisbet or Ibsen was an English socialist. He thought that Lenin was a sophisticated patron of the arts, gentling its nervous curiosities with a horse-whisperer’s hand and promoting its latest trends. Nabokov felt that this was overstating things somewhat, and blamed Nisbet’s or Ibsen’s credulity on his English ignorance and lack of discrimination. This is perhaps fair comment, but then Nisbet or Ibsen was only into the first stages of his English condition while Nabokov was well on the road to recovery from his Russian one. In any case, why cavil? At least, they understood one another. My own encounters with Ball and Cannon’s thought on art, which was as Leninist as Nisbet’s or Ibsen’s, left me wholly in the dark. Our exchanges would have been recognised by the makers of the Life of Brian, but perhaps not by the author of The Threepenny Opera.
Ball: Art should be for the people.
Cannon: Yeth, but it should not be impothed on them.
Cannon: It should only therve the maththeth interethtth, shouldn’t it?
[Cannon blows a stream of Balkan Sobranie-scented smoke into Ball’s hair.]
Ball: Good point.
Cannon: Trotthky’th contention that revolutionary art cannot be created by the revolutionary workerth and that it can only come from the literati ith either naïve or polluted with revanchithm, right?
[Cannon blows more smoke.]
Cannon: Trotthky’th belief that art could find itth own way, in the workerth thtate, regardleth of Party thupervision, and that artithtth could be unthelftherving ith thimply dithguithed Menshevithm. Hithtory, I think, proveth my point, doethn’t it?
Me: What point?
Ball: [Thumps table, disordering beer-mats] Art must arise from the proletariate, or not at all.
Ball: The literati are by definition opposed to the class interests of the proletariate.
Ball: Which means that you’re building castles in the air, if you think they’d be able to paint or dramatise working-class interests without contaminating them with their own.
Cannon: Good point.
Ball: [Gripping his glass, thoroughly] Aesthetics is not ethics. [Swallows, Adam’s apple jumping between the stringy tendons.]
Me: But I thought you, I mean didn’t Trotsky say something about watchful revolutionary censorship, in cases of class conflict? The guardianship of the wise?
[Cannon, speechless, grabs the sturdy arms of his pew. His eyes bulge, embers leaping and fizzing in the bowl of his meerschaum. Ball, spitting beer, half-rises.]
Ball: That leads to—.
Me: But you just said—.
Nabokov’s favourite spot appears to have been the goal-mouth on the football field at St John’s or Christ. Here, he could indulge his love of goal-keeping, or enjoy the reflection of its attendant glamour—for goal-keepers, he states periphrastically, were celebrities in the non-Anglophone world, heroic as matadors and flying aces and much-adulated by small boys. At the same time, he could nurse in neuralgic solitude the nostalgia that came with late-night Russian versifying and insomnia. Here, while the game went on at the other end of the pitch, in peaked cap and knee-guards, arms folded, eyes closed, drizzle on his face, rooks croaking tenderly in the elms, he could think of himself, not so much as a precursor of the great Lev Yashin, but as ‘a fabulous exotic being in an English footballer’s disguise, composing verse in a tongue nobody understood about a remote country nobody knew’.
I went with Ball and Cannon to watch Cambridge United take on Walsall one frozen December afternoon. The stadium was a small open-air venue, with little in the way of stands or shelter. The crowd was sparse but thunderously vocal at intervals, their nostrils sending out twin jets of steaming breath at each surging run by the lone centre forward at the Walsall end. The more animated yelled ‘Belt it!’ or ‘Foul, ref! Foul!’ whenever the man took too long over the ball or collapsed with dramatically thrown back arms. Even Cannon became inspired, actually losing his lisp, shaking his fist in the air, and yelling ‘Trample the bastard! Kick him in the pills!’ when the Walsall left back, a hulking lout with no teeth or neck and, as far I could tell, only one eye, scythed the legs out from under the fleet-footed Cambridge winger. In fact, Cannon’s unqualified support for the Walsall left back drew a number of ugly looks from our neighbours, three blue-skulled skinheads in army fatigues, each escorted by a heavily booted and kilted orange-haired woman draped in a Doctor Who-length Cambridge United scarf. The match ended in a draw, I think, nil-nil or something. As the crowd began squeezing out through the turnstiles Ball and I lost touch with Cannon, who appeared to have become involved in political dispute with one of the orange-haired women. When he reappeared later that day, he was limping between a policeman and an ambulance driver. ‘All for the cauthe’, he told us grimly, as they lowered him into an armchair and took down details while Ball’s spouse bathed his swollen jaw. ‘Fathitht thwine’, he murmured lugubriously and ambiguously, when the two instruments of state had finished with their forms and fatherly advice and closed the door on our affronted Vermeer-lit interior.
Nabokov returned only once to Cambridge, seventeen years later. He was looking for a job and had decided to meet up with Nisbet or Ibsen who might prove helpful. Not so. Everything was wrong, out-of-kilter. The February weather was scaldingly cold, Nisbet or Ibsen was distracted, and the ‘little place’ they’d arranged to meet in had changed.
I’ve returned to Cambridge several times, always in search of shoes. Ball and Cannon have long moved on, and there is no one else there to detain me. I did try once to find a little place I used to have lunch in with Ball (I remember two floors, wooden panelling, skylights, waiters in white aprons, cramped tables, women modelling for pre-Raphaelite paintings on stools, spicy glazed hot-cross buns and syrupy flapjacks, and an ambience, largely imagined, I suppose, of witty sociological comment and enticing anthropological discussion). The expedition drew a blank. So, rather like Nabokov, who went for a rainy walk along the Backs, casting doleful glances at the rooks in the elms and the crocuses in ‘the mist-beaded turf’, I went off in the drizzle to examine, with very little interest, a new range of pimple creams and the prophylactics in Boots.
Nabokov has a way with words. His prose, with its ability to bring the world, in all its subtle clunkiness, up against your nose, is all that you could wish for (or, of course, not, if of too delicate a disposition). Another example, this time from the piece ‘Mademoiselle O’: Nabokov describes his Swiss governess’s room as ‘reeking, among other effluvia, of the brown smell of oxidised apple peel’. For me, the trick lies not so much in the crisp synaesthesic image, or the oddly satisfying pinch of chemical knowledge Nabokov stirs into it, or even in the suppressed bourgeois history (Mademoiselle first peeling her apple, rather than biting directly through the skin) he flirts with; it lies in the artless-seeming placement of the adverbial phrase that precedes it. Amongst other effluvia. Everybody says something like that (though, of course, not everybody says ‘effluvia’). This is what grounds the image in the rest of the world, and then releases each into the ether on tenuous cords. Through Nabokov’s closely worked verbal sensuousness, language finally fulfils Wittgenstein’s logical prescriptiveness: it not only reveals the world, it is happy to show itself doing it; and it is that sinuously doubled unfolding that can elude prescription altogether, hinting at the troublesome perversity of great art. Other examples might be the evocations of the nymphet’s knee hairs (fine and golden as watch-springs) in Lolita and what Kinbote thinks of Gradus in Pale Fire.
A story that currently drifts on the scummy surface of memory’s gradually accelerating millpond is ‘Torpid Smoke’ in which the narrator observes: ‘it dawned upon me that exactly as I recalled such images of the past as the way my dead mother had of making a weepy face and clutching her temples when mealtime squabbles became too loud, so one day I would recall, with merciless, irreparable sharpness, the hurt look of my father’s shoulders as he leaned over that torn map, morose, wearing his warm indoor jacket powdered with ashes and dandruff; and all this mingled creatively with the recent vision of blue smoke clinging to dead leaves on a wet roof’. Mingled creatively, brothers. I have already alluded to Despair and a game of chess.
I can’t let this go without one last citation: the description of reviving a dying fire in his Trinity digs. Nabokov would spread a sheet of the London Times over the jaws of the fireplace, making sure no air could enter from the room. This technique was supposed to ensure a powerful up draught, which would suck air through the embers, setting the coals alight, and so restoring vigour to a dying fire. But that is a dull—an offensively dull—evocation. This is what Nabokov writes: ‘A humming noise would start behind the taut paper, which would acquire the smoothness of drumskin and the beauty of luminous parchment’. Exactly. I have seen this too, in Wales, in Blinco Grove, in other areas of my troubled northern transit. Nabokov watches an orange spot form in the middle of the paper and sees how the print that happens to be there take on ‘ominous clarity’. Then, suddenly, the spot bursts into flame and the sheet whirrs up the chimney like ‘a liberated phoenix’. In my Blinco Grove flat, it was the grasping vicar’s back-copies of the Churchman’s Times, which I sent, shedding fiery black plumes, howling into the stars.
How does such art work? Why is it that a single image can occupy the heart and mind more completely than a lover or an army? And why is it that, when done, when the plunder has been accomplished, and all the riches of response have been exhausted, it can as completely decamp, leaving an immense bewildered panic? What will I do? Where will I go?
Nabokov went to Berlin, then to Paris, then to New York. I went to London, then to Paris, then to Mexico. In Pale Fire, Kinbote, in the midst of interpolating into Shade’s epic poem another autobiographical monstrosity imagines his own shadow and would-be nemesis Gradus, arch-incompetent and slouching botcher of assassinations, setting out on a transatlantic journey in search of a crowning kill. At the book’s end, Gradus makes it to Kinbote’s Arcadian North American fastness but only succeeds in shooting, with his customary ineptitude, the wrong man. In the same way, let me conclude by imagining a missile, this time fired by an older version of myself from another remote country, or its semblance, which then falls invisibly from the dull grey heavens, to burst through and demolish, accompanied by a shower of dust and mouse-droppings, the roof-tiles of this, my own house of cards.