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Black Lamb


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The censor

You can't be too careful with the wrong sort of book

June 1st, 2016


In the endless search for someone else to blame for my own mistakes, I have only recently hit on the idea of blaming the novels I was encouraged to read when I was young. I realize now that at high school when I should have been reading hard-headed realists like Borges, Kafka and Genet — healthy reading for any teenager, I reckon, especially Genet — I was wasting my time on the sentimental twaddle of the likes of Evelyn Waugh or E.M. Forster, and among the youngreadercontemporaries, Iris Murdoch or early Angus Wilson. These degenerate hangers-on around Bloomsbury just reinforced in me so many of the silly and self-harming attitudes that were already widespread enough in the England of the Sixties and Seventies. Their prudery, snobbery and arrogance led me to waste, absolutely waste, at least four years of my youth — and it’s all their fault, and none of it mine.

Because of them, it never even crossed my mind to study anything useful at university. It wasn’t that I ruled out the possibility of doing law or economics, subjects that would really have suited my cast of mind: the notion just never entered my head. The careers advisory woman at school at some point, I think, mentioned the words “accountancy studies” in my presence, and I must have laughed rudely in her face. Instead, I read Music — which means history of music, listening to the stuff, not playing it — selected as a subject for reasons I had pondered carefully, as I thought.

In the first place, in common with history and literature, music is an essential element of civilized life, without the narrowness of literature studies — and I was a very civilized young man. Then, for the practical purposes of getting a job later, what did it matter what precisely I studied, when it came down to it? A degree was always a degree, and I might as well do something that was fun. And most importantly of all, all the authorities agree that at university, the only useful things you learn come to you outside the lecture theatres and seminar rooms. Friendships, that was the important thing, and wild parties, and staying up all night, and talking. Going to lectures and writing essays was for soulless swots.

So I already knew exactly how to behave when I got to university. Lectures before eleven a.m. got regularly skipped, and classes after lunch, I either forgot or turned up to half-cut. In my second year we had lectures on German opera at nine a.m. every Wednesday of the second term. I didn’t attend any of them, because nobody with any sensibility could contemplate Wagner at nine in the morning. (I was particularly proud of that bit of reasoning.) Instead of revising for finals, I read Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. At the end of the three years, they gave me a degree, and not an especially bad one either, in terms of grade, but I didn’t deserve it.

Fortunately, from a worldly point of view, most of my lecturers were idle, lecherous, self-absorbed sots, and once they had let me get as far as the end of the third year without noticing that I had not handed in even half the essays I should have, they couldn’t really fail me without looking bad themselves.

Many years later, when the thought of university no longer caused me to blush hot with shame, I went back to do a further degree. This degree was to some extent forced on me by my employers at the time, and was supposed to be of practical use. I thought that doing applied linguistics in the USA, in my early forties, would be a very different experience, and that I would be able to approach studying in a more workmanlike manner — and I was right. I handed in every assignment on time, and where I didn’t get A’s for classes it was because, as a foreigner, it took me a while to work out what the professors were really after from me. I was helped of course by the fact I had done inadequate research before enrolling, so found myself in a university which had no campus to speak of, no bar, almost no social life, virtually no university societies. O brave new world, I thought to myself as I explored the place in the first week. What joy to be studying in a university that has no Winnie the Pooh Appreciation Society!

With nobody much to get drunk with and stay up all night talking to, I became absorbed in my studies: not the so-called applied linguistics, of course, which is all bollocks, but the pure. I would sit for hours in the back of the library, apparently staring out of the window at the boys practicing football in the field below, but in reality pondering markedness, and marveling at the richness of the concept and the breadth of its applicability. I needed to share my discoveries, and so would delight my housemates of the time by describing to them over dinner what I had learned by accident that day from a footnote in a learned article about frication in early modern Spanish. How vexing that out of imbecile wrong-headedness made worse by the pernicious influence of dodgy English literature, I had never experienced any of this intensity, any of the intoxication of study when I was a real student in my early twenties.

Any middle-aged man, I hope, worries about the next generation, and wants to try to warn it against some, at least, of the folly he was guilty of in youth. Now that I help out occasionally in a bookshop, I am especially conscious of the harm improper reading can do to young minds. We don’t, I have to admit, get asked very much for English novels of the first two-thirds of the last century, but whenever I do — with exceptions made of course for Anthony Powell and Barbara Pym — I think what it did to me, and flat refuse to sell any to anyone under the age of fifty. •

From the August 2005 issue.

Posted by: The Editors
Category: Black Lamb Review of Books, Books and Authors, Darrel | Link to this Entry


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