Today sees the publication of a book of memoirs about King’s to which I was asked to contribute and I was happy to remember my friends Tony Tanner and Peter Avery. Writing the essay did not bring King’s closer, however but made it recede further into the distance.
H Staircase Gibbs
I think of Tony Tanner often. In fact I’m not sure that I don’t think about Tony whenever I’m reading. Cancel that. I don’t think about him when I’m reading pulp fiction or newspapers for he had no time for one and little for the other. But whenever I am reading the greatest writing, whenever I am trying to follow form and meaning with real intensity then Tony is there if only as a perpetual encouragement and a perpetual model. He was quite simply the best close reader I ever encountered.
I first heard his name in Trinity where I was an undergraduate studying philosophy. My friends Piers Gray and Adrian Poole were standing in front of me in the lunch queue; high on a lecture that they had just come from by a junior lecturer called Tony Tanner. I fear that both my young friends were then prone to that lugubrious Leavisite mood which had so limited undergraduate reading for decades and which favoured the frown and the smirk, and above all, the self satisfied scowl. Frown, smirk and scowl were banished. They were laughing and exclaiming; energised by the preposterous meanings that Tanner had teased out of Madame Bovary.
To think of Tony is to think of King’s. He loved King’s so much that he couldn’t leave it. A fact he proved to himself the hard way. It would be difficult to place Tony directly in King’s most public intellectual tradition: he had no interest in Keynes or economics. Keynes’s Deputy Bursar, however, was Dadie Rylands and it is not impossible to understand Tony as Dadie’s academic heir. Rylands is of course justly famous for his extraordinary role in the history of English theatre in the twentieth century. The whole of the early history of the Royal Shakespeare Company could through the figures of Peter Hall, John Barton and Trevor Nunn be traced back to Dadie and his Marlowe Society productions and this lineage has received due acknowledgment although it is my own personal surmise that the full history, if it is ever written, will make Dadie’s role ever more central. But there are very few indeed who think of Dadie as a major academic figure. He was of an age where one wrote a book only if one had made some earth shaking discovery. What Dadie did was to teach, to direct plays, to talk but above all to read. It was in Cambridge, and Richards and Empson are the key theoretical figures, that close reading was developed as a central academic practice. Leavis was to try to arrogate the practice to himself but in fact it was what defined the whole of the Cambridge English School.
Tony himself was trained at Jesus by Rossiter, one of Richards’s most reflective disciples, and by Brockbank, who went on to become a leading Shakespearean scholar. From there he went on a Harkness to America in the late fifties and discovered the extraordinary range of post was American fiction from Kerouac to Bellow, from Mailer to Burroughs and he came back bearing the good news to Cambridge. It was at this moment that he became a Fellow of King’s. Of course by coming to King’s as he did in 1960, he was for the Leavisites going into the very belly of the beast. King’s was always the enemy for Leavis – full of people too concerned with the social whirl of London, an outpost of upper-class Bloomsbury in the Fens. Not serious enough, not moral enough and, though this was not the language used, full of screaming faggots.
The very great period of King’s came of course at the turn of the nineteenth century when the college was opened to non-Etonians and the names of Forster and Keynes stand as the exemplars of that moment. Dadie was a direct link to that period and served for Tony as his ideal of life and scholarship. The college that Tony entered as a Fellow was in the full tide of what might be called its second wave. Noel Annan as Provost combined administrative skill of an unusual order with the very highest of academic ambitions. In this atmosphere Tony and King’s English thrived but always at his back he heard the whisper of America. I suspect from the minute he returned to England, certainly from when I first met him in 1970, he agonised about whether to leave Cambridge and his beloved King’s for the endless promise of the United States. Finally the decision was made and at the beginning of the academic year 1976 he set off for Johns Hopkins. Scarcely there and he was plunged into the deepest of depressions and when two months later his job in the Cambridge English Faculty was advertised he applied immediately. In a very uncharacteristic moment of generosity, the English Faculty did not hesitate to re-appoint him. But for Tony a job in the English Faculty was only the necessary condition for his real desire – to rejoin the Fellowship of King’s. This was a little more difficult because on Tony’s departure the College had appointed no fewer than three people to fill his place- myself, Norman Bryson and David Simpson. To argue for yet another English Fellow was more than difficult but King’s, in a characteristic moment of generosity, welcomed him back. And so there we all were with John Barrell as our chief. Difficult to imagine such a carnival of criticism but it happened.
And so he returned. As Dadie waspishly put it “ Ah yes Tony – went to America the first time came back with a beautiful American wife and wrote a book called The Reign of Wonder, went off a second time, came back without the wife and wrote a book called Adultery and the Novel.” Indeed the Tony who returned was in many ways a depleted figure. His loss of balance which rendered him an increasing invalid and the trauma of this second American sojourn deepened in the early eighties as his second marriage failed and many of his closest friends left both Cambridge and King’s. His savage drinking, which almost certainly was the major factor in his loss of balance, now developed into debilitating alcoholism and his case seemed hopeless.
I remember sitting with him in the Octagon on one of my rare visits to Cambridge. Tony was hopelessly drunk, in floods of tears and incontinent. For the only time in my life to date, I wished for a friend an early death. There was, however, a miracle. Tony stopped drinking and re-invented himself as a bachelor college don, resumed his incredible productivity as writer, teacher and lecturer and entered on what was perhaps the happiest phase of his life. He even, after a few years, began to drink again without lapsing into chronic alcoholism. His rooms were a centre of talk and laughter, of work and writing, of teaching and learning.
Tony was of that generation of Cambridge English when to be a teacher of English was to teach the whole period of English literature. If American literature was his speciality, he was as happy writing about Pope as William Burroughs, about Jane Austen as Henry James. And in his final years hour and man were matched as he wrote for the Everyman library prefaces to every one of Shakespeare’s plays. It has taken more than a decade to gather them together into a single volume but this year Harvard University Press will bring out the collected prefaces. They will make a companion volume to Dadie Rylands celebrated Shakespeare anthology The Ages of Man. Together they perhaps define King’s English in the twentieth century.
When I became a Fellow of King’s in 1976, I moved into Tony’s old rooms in Gibbs buildings (H4), which were positioned just above Peter Avery’s. Peter I have to say had been a legendary figure when I was a student, an openly homosexual don sometime before anybody had talked of ‘coming out”. Indeed there were always young men in Peter’s rooms, some aiding him with the transcription of a Persian medieval text, some making tea and carrying drinks, and some just there. Peter, who presented a very grand front, simply introduced them and then continued with whatever conversational topic seemed most appropriate. He was a chain smoker and a heavy drinker but above all he was a great talker. We talked often of English literature about which, particularly modern poetry, he was very knowledgeable and we also talked a great deal about Persian literature. But in the period when I was his neighbour we talked most of Iranian politics. I surmised, and the obituaries seemed to bear this out, that Peter had been a spook in Iran and Iraq in the post-war era. What is certain is that he was extremely knowledgeable, extremely well-connected and extremely astute. The result was that I received the highest level briefings on the coming Khomeini revolution long before news of it began to appear in the newspapers. I remember in particular Peter, in considerable distress, telling me of some Iranian provincial governor who has telephoned him desperate to know how to prepare the Western food that the Shah had demanded for a forthcoming visit. For Peter this contempt for his own culture meant that the Shah was doomed, as indeed he was. Even more presciently Peter told me that the first result of the Khomeini revolution would be a war between Iran and Iraq, as Saddam Hussein would attempt to annex Khuzestan. Whenever I visited Cambridge after I left in 1981 my first port of call was H2 Gibbs and the first topic of conversation would be the current state of politics in Iraq and Iran. He undoubtedly maintained contacts in the Foreign Office and possibly with the Secret Service and I know that he exercised whatever influence he had in order to forestall the absolutely disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003 whose effects he foresaw fully and in detail.
But truth to tell in later years we talked less and less about politics (too depressing) and more and more about literature and history. In his retirement he produced his major translation of Omar Khayyam and then finally his magnum opus on his much loved Hafiz. Peter was both a Tory and an Anglican but he was the most open and tolerant of men. Perhaps this was due to his sexuality rather than his religion (he once told Tony Tanner “ What between my religion and my sexuality I seem to spend a lot of my time on my knees”) or perhaps his time in the Middle East, or perhaps it was part of King’s best traditions. Whatever the cause, I could bring any visitor to King’s of any age, of whatever education, from any part of the world to Peter’s rooms and they would be listened to, entertained and attended to. He was the most hospitable of men.
When I was asked to write this contribution I immediately thought of both Tony and Peter, and of the H staircase in Gibbs. If I had thought of the Hall and the Senior Combination Room and my life in King’s for the five years I was a Fellow then there would have been other names and other conversations Bob Rowthorn and Bernard Williams, Geoffrey Lloyd and Caroline Humphrey, Martin Rees and Ken Moody, Frank Kermode and Stephen Hugh-Jones. There was also Dadie Rylands himself but to do justice to Dadie one would need both the length of a book and more knowledge of the theatre than I possess. But in the thirty years since I left it was to Peter and Tony that I always returned when I visited to King’s and with their deaths the King’s that I knew has receded into history.
Were they typical of King’s? It is certain that in any other college they would probably have found their life more difficult, there is in King’s a tradition of tolerance which may have pre-dated Keynes and Foster but which any intellectual historian would link both to their names and to the Bloomsbury group which was so important to both King’s first and second waves. They both smoked and drank to excess, but that was not typical, certainly of the King’s of my day, and my guess would be that it is even less typical now. They were both men who took enormous risks with their lives and in that also they were unusual.
Perhaps more typically of the King’s fellowship, they were both convivial men who talked as well if not better than they wrote and conviviality and conversation were values of the college that I was proud to join in 1976. I hope such virtues still endure. Above all, however, they were men of immense learning and here I think I can find something that links them both and links them to a tradition that is identifiably that of the college of Keynes and Rylands, of Annan and Williams. For both Tony and Peter’s learning was exercised in the world. Neither had much time or inclination for the groves of academe. It was John Milton in his famous address to the Parliament of 1643 who wrote that he could not praise “ a fugitive and cloistered virtue” that “never sallied out.’ Both Tony and Peter lived in cloisters but they sallied out with their learning both in print and in person and when they returned to the cloisters they brought the world with them to better teach and educate their students. In this they represented that aspect of King’s that I most valued.