Thursday, 15 May 2014

Reveries of libraries, the fourth : PERSONAL INTERVIEWS

Philip Harvey

Pembroke College Library, University of Cambridge

Photograph thank you Jordan Gordon

He is the writer of scripts from the psychedelic age to the selfie age. He is the author of unreliable memoirs more accurate than most of his contemporaries, and he promises to be even more unreliable in future. He would open night time interview shows with lines like those, introducing everyone short of royalty to the comfy chairs of a BBC studio. How comfy is comfy? None of his subjects went into throes of terror, “No, not the comfy chair!” They couldn’t wait to be seated in the comfy chair. They were princes for a day. His audience was nearly always live.

He is the writer of more Audenesque and Audenish poetry than anyone of his generation. He is the author of so many literary reviews that Google can’t keep up. His magnum opus is a hotchpotch of brilliance and point-scoring that reveals an underlying interest in what Germany did to the culture of the 20th century. Not Britain, or America, or France, or Russia, or Australia, but the country they divided up at the end of the 1940s. He is the translator, late in time, of a foursquare version of Dante’s triangular Comedy of the then, the now, and the to come. Ladies and gentleman …

He sits in the brown shade of an English university old library, answering questions himself this time of an interviewer. He has put to him first “So this is where it all began, in here.” “Yeah, a long time ago now, more years than I care to count.” The brainy books with luminous spine labels line up behind him like the actors of some distant performance at The Globe. TV men have arranged lights to pick up effects of shadow across the books. As aisles of works recede behind his receded hairline, we see in the distance the faint light of outside, the perfect point of perspective. Not a starlet in sight. His own perspective is somewhat different, reminiscing in craggy Sydney accents on undergraduate days when he grappled with Italian medieval vocabulary, whose effect was not unlike a grappa first thing in the morning.

Is this really where it all began though? And not the wild surf beaches of the Pacific Ocean where he read the existentialists to his heart’s content and imagined Paris as it never was. Or cast a glance at the rowdy beery debates in Newtown where liberation was round every corner and the rest of the world was just a ludicrous but tantalising plaything of the mind, when it wasn’t the name of a combined international cricket team the Australians beat anyway. Or people and places we are yet to meet in his own Comedy of life: its pitfalls, purgations and surpassing glories.

This library of centuries of excited ideas, its books ready to knock us awake with their lived experience, is apparently where it all began. But not altogether where it began, if it is always beginning as a new page turns, or someone comes into the frame who makes you see things like you’ve never seen them before, or you suddenly get it … what someone you love is saying for real to you right now. Not that he would do without the library were he doing his time again, like someone he meets by surprise in his own private hell, his own lesson in reform, his own way into complete acceptance of how everything else is, without aid of psychedelics or selfie-reference.

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