Much as writers complain about the amount of spirit and shoe leather they expend doing the literary festival circuit, the majority also find it exhilarating: the crowds, the flattery, the prawn sandwiches, all those hidden-away libraries and theatres they wouldn’t otherwise get to see, let alone perform in.
Last week, in Henley-on-Thames (I will go almost Anywhere-on-Thames), I did the Kenton Theatre, a charming, and some say haunted, little playhouse dating from 1805, which makes it the fourth or fifth oldest theatre in the country. Because it holds only 230 people and has a tiny stage, the Kenton Theatre is blessedly unsuited to putting on musicals about the French Revolution. It is ideal, though, for a panto, an evening of magic, or a reading from a novel. Small is beautiful.
A gathering of 230 is sufficient to make everyone feel it’s an occasion, but not too many to inhibit intimacy. I did my bit, they did theirs. We attended to one another, exchanged compliments, and then came a question, put to me from as far back and as high up as the little theatre allowed, beginning with the words: “Do you remember... ?”
Any speaker prepared to take questions in public dreads this one above all others. In the split second between the verb “remember” and its object – remember what, for Christ’s sake, remember what? – you run through the infinite number of omissions and betrayals, disloyalties and broken promises, failures and ignominies, which over the years you have tried to forget.
Did I remember what? The time I asked 200 kids to my birthday party, picking them up off the street and leading them to my house like a diminutive Pied Piper only to be told by my mother that there was room for just three? Was the questioner one of those sent packing, or one of those let in to witness my humiliation? Was she the little girl I’d clobbered with a spade on bonfire night circa 1951 in a fit of temper because my Roman candles twitched twice before expiring on the ground while hers soared high into the night sky? Had I sat next to her at primary school and written an obscene poem to her beauty in the style of Lord Rochester? Had I fathered a child on her during my stay at Butlins in Skegness where I was competing in a junior table tennis competition sponsored by The Eagle? Was she the child I’d fathered?
Do I remember? My God, what don’t I remember and wish I didn’t ?
And the question was asked, not in a hushed voice in a locked and sightless cupboard, but loudly, by means of hand-held microphone in front of 230 people on whom the house lights were no longer dimmed.
My fears were groundless. The question turned out to be benign. More than benign – beneficent. Did I remember a particular English teacher, the questioner wanted to know – and no sooner did I hear his name – Mr Frith – than I saw him, felt his presence, recalled how he would stand behind me and look over at what I was writing, his hands on my desk, his fingers very long and white, his nails manicured, or so it seemed to me, the cuticles better tended, anyway, than any I had ever seen, an atmosphere of precise, near sacerdotal fleshly calm coming off him, as though he’d been called to teaching by some higher being in whose name he was calling me.
Not God. This was a sixth-form English literature class, not divinity. Or at least not God as he is normally conceived. In fact, he was a Leavis man, this impeccable, softly spoken teacher I’d been asked if I’d remembered, and it was on account of his influence that I went home and read The Great Tradition every night while watching Gunsmoke and Hancock’s Half Hour, and eventually became Leavis’s pupil. That this was a decisive choice I have never doubted and only occasionally regretted. And now here was someone – Mr Frith’s daughter, no less – asking me if I remembered the person who’d urged me almost wordlessly into it? Had she been nearer, I’d have kissed her.
But she wasn’t finished. “Did I also remember ...?” Oh, no, here it came at last, the drunken fumble on Magdalene Bridge after the May Ball, with Leavis riding by on his bicycle. Wrong again. There was another teacher she wondered if I remembered, this one her uncle, and before I could ask her how many more relatives she had who’d taught me, she told me his name – Mr Hunter – and I was once more at my schooldesk, not in a quasi-divine trance this time, but again enamoured, in the way you can be, or could be, of a teacher’s devotion to his subject, the conscientiousness of his preparation, and the care he had for you. Mr Hunter taught us history. The French Revolution without the songs. He was the kindest teacher at the school, kind in the consideration he showed every one of us, kind in the encouragement he gave, lending us his own books and his teaching notes, wanting us to understand because understanding was precious to him. Kind because he wanted us to have what he had.
He would sweep in and out of class in his gown, ever so slightly amused by himself and by us. No other teacher wore a gown as he did. It hung carelessly from his shoulders as though, in his dedication to the altruism of knowledge, he had half-forgotten to put it on. I understand he is living quietly today in Scotland. I salute him.
They gave you life, these schoolmasters of another time, almost as your parents gave you life. And, as though feeling what I felt, the audience spontaneously applauded them. It was like clapping a ghost – not the ghost said to haunt the theatre, but the ghost of an idea. Once was education. Once were teachers.