Friday, 23 January 2015

john






















A blisteringly cold morning. Minus eight over by Benson and minus five or six in Bampton and Oxford. One good thing to come of this was that the canal towpath was frozen and I could walk it happily for the first time since October, I think. Once the towpath gets too muddy, I have to stop walking the northern part from Wolvercote to Aristotle Lane, because otherwise my shoes pick up too much of the stuff and I inadvertently scatter trails of it throughout the library. The cold makes the usual walk much more tiring though.

This week, I was very, very sad to hear of the death of John Bayley, to whom I owe so much.

I first met John in 1984 – and almost blew my chances of getting into Oxford to study English.

Before then I'd contacted about half-a-dozen admissions tutors at various colleges, who all said the same thing. I was by then in my mid-twenties and a land agent. The tutors explained that because of the cuts being imposed by Mrs Thatcher's government they were not minded to give undergraduate places to mature students, only school leavers. I began to lose hope.

At the pub in Steeple Aston, the north Oxfordshire village where I was living, a friend suggested I get in touch with an Oxford don called John Bayley who lived locally. I wrote a letter and heard nothing for six weeks. Then a card arrived, suggesting I came to his house in the village and we could talk about what I was trying to do. He apologised for not having written before but he had been in America on, I believe, a book tour with his wife, the novelist Iris Murdoch.

When I arrived at the house it looked deserted, a sort rural Sunset Boulevard house, overgrown and in places badly in need of repair. When I knocked nothing happened. Not a sound. Just when I thought there was no one in, the door was pulled open and Iris stared at me almost angrily. She was dishevelled and suspicious, asking me over and over what I wanted, ignoring my explanation (which I must confess was bound to have been long-winded, as is my way), until she evidently concluded that I was one of John's students and said she would fetch him. I was somewhat shocked by her appearance and manner – a stone-age woman at the mouth of her cave.

When John appeared, all I could see were legs and a huge jumper which covered his head and looked like a bag in which something was fighting. An arm shot through one of the many holes in the jumper only to be withdrawn. There was muttering before all of a sudden his arms found the sleeves and his head popped up. Straightening his glasses he said stutteringly, 'A bit déshabillé.'

Though in my mid-twenties, I was not past the age of getting the giggles and it was all I could do to stop collapsing in front of him. Even more so when we started talking. His way of talking was circuitous and curiously diffuse. He used a lot of 'so to speaks' and 'frightfullys' and at first it was as though he was talking nonsense. The words were like bubbles being blown over my head and off across the drive. But he had a direct way of looking at you and his scrutiny was intent and kindly. It became clear that he had a very incisive idea of how we would proceed and he brought things to a close with an encouraging outline of his plan. He wanted me to meet a colleague of his at St Catherine's College, Michael Gearin-Tosh (who sadly died many years ago now), and I would explain to him what I knew about English literature.

I wrote two essays for Michael, who said that he would discuss what I had put with John. John then told me that while Michael didn't think that I was right for St Catz, there were in Oxford, in fact, colleges that might consider applications from mature students. (As an aside, although I always got on well with Michael, he told me a year or so later that he had recently been approached by another mature student. He went on to list the many things the person didn't know and the problems he was having trying to study English literature. Michael finished by saying, 'But I think he's better than you were.')

John explained that if I was to have any hope of getting a place, I would have to agree to sit Oxbridge in open competition with school leavers rather than go through the mature student application process, which was supposed to put less pressure on the prospective student and take into account skills learnt in other walks of life. The only hope of doing well in the Oxbridge exams was to study full time with a tutor. I gave up my job and enrolled with someone who had been with Green's Tutorial College but had recently gone freelance.

I approached the five colleges John suggested and three said they would consider an application. At the end of the year I got a place at Keble. My practical criticism paper attracted the attention of the marker, Frank Cottrell Boyce.

I realised then and more so now how much time John gave me. He didn't pull strings but established what I knew and what I was like as a person and then gave me really sound advice about not just the colleges who might consider my application but where I might fit in if I was lucky enough to get a place. John's generosity – and Michael's – was a wonderful gift to me and I cannot thank them enough. That they took an interest and took my aspirations seriously was a tremendous boost to my confidence.

When at Oxford, I attended some rather ad hoc lectures on Shakespeare given by John and chatted from time-to-time. After I left I told him I was going to try and write fiction. Over the coming years he read six or seven novels of mine that won't see the light of day but which he gave feedback on. He introduced me to Iris and for a couple of years, J and I got to know them as friends. We visited their house in Oxford (they had moved from Steeple Aston by then) and they came to supper in our tiny flat. I have memories of going to the launch of Angela Huth's Invitation to the Married Life with them, of seeing a play at the Old Fire Station with them and Peter Shaffer. There was the launch of John's novel Alice. He and Iris came to the Waterman's Arms on Osney for our wedding party after we were married at Binsey. It was at the Waterman's that we realised something was wrong.

I remember how close John seemed to a breakdown himself during Iris' illness, though I only saw him a little during that time. I remember speaking to him after a talk he gave about Alzheimer's and his books at Blackwell bookshop. Not that it was easy to get to him because there were so many people in middle-age and old-age who wanted to talk to him about their own experiences. It was very clear how they valued reading what he had put into words about what it was like to look after someone they loved who had the disease.

I remember going to supper with John and his second wife Audi at the Cherwell Boathouse. There were a lot of us there that evening, including Peter J Conradi, Iris' biographer. John and Peter were due to speak at the Oxford Union that night.

John looked remarkably well. Gone were the threadbare charity shop clothes. Now Audi had him in things that were still unusual – and completely John – but which must have come from a much more discerning charity shop. That evening I gave him a copy of my first published novel The Lock, which had a quote from him on the cover: '"Original, illuminating and absorbing." John Bayley, author of Iris: A Memoir of Iris Murdoch'.

Thank you, John. Thank you so very much.


1 comment:

  1. Thank you Frank, so interesting - and what determination and commitment you had!

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