For quite a while now, it’s been my habit to begin the year – my reading year – with either Katherine Mansfield or Virginia Woolf, occasionally both: one of Woolf’s novels, most often To the Lighthouse or Mrs Dalloway; two or three of Mansfield’s short stories – ‘The Garden Party’, say, or ‘Prelude’; ‘Daughters of the Late Colonel’ or ‘At the Bay’. This time around, everything else being different, I felt like a change. Though nothing radical. Something from roughly the same period, the early 20th century.
England, My England, a collection of ten short stories by D. H. Lawrence, was first published in 1922; the copy that I have – one of Penguin’s uniform edition with tastefully rural photographs by Harri Peccinootti – I bought at Hatchard’s in Piccadilly in 1974. Still a long way from Oradea, which, if you were uncertain, is a university town in the north west of Romania, close to the Hungarian border. But I urge patience. No sooner had I finished reading the second story – ‘Tickets, Please’, which begins with a bravura description of the journey made by a Midlands tram into the industrial countryside and back again: two jostling, skittering 11-line sentences with a pair of shorter sentences applying the brake in between – than I thought the perfect companion for my reprise of Lawrence would be Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage, in which he does everything possible not to follow his alleged purpose of writing about Lawrence and ends up writing about him with perception and a great deal of humour. A quote from Lawrence himself, at the beginning of the book, gives us the idea …
“Out of sheer rage I’ve begun my book on Thomas Hardy. It will be about anything but Thomas Hardy I am afraid – queer stuff – but not bad.”
D. H. Lawrence, 5 September, 1914
The title page of my copy was signed by Geoff – in green ink – matching the cover – with a sprawling dedication which refers to the “many memories … of our Romanian quest … especially of your drumming.” Drumming? Okay, take a step or so back. Try to explain.
In the spring of 1997, I was one of a group of writers setting out on a British Council sponsored visit to the University of Oradea to take part in a three day seminar, an exchange of work and views with Romanian (and, as it turned out, Moldovan) colleagues. Myself and Geoff Dyer aside, our group included the poet George Szirtes, the short story writer, Helen Simpson, and the academic and critic, Valentine Cunningham, who had recently written a very positive review of one of the Resnick novels for the Times Literary Supplement and, I suspect, was behind my inclusion. It was Cunningham, also, who had the trumpet. Have horn, will travel. In this case, aboard BA2894 from Gatwick to Bucharest and hence by well-appointed coach across country to Oradea. If he had known there would be a band on hand at our welcoming dinner, I don’t know – perhaps he took his trumpet with him everywhere on the off chance – but once he had discovered that George Szirtes could play the piano – admittedly only 12 bar blues in the key of, I think, C – and that way back in the early 60s I had played drums in a ‘trad’ jazz band at Goldsmiths College, he had no hesitation in leading us up onto the stage the moment the band announced the interval. What occurred for the next thirty minutes or so is something of a blur – much as it was at the time. All I know is that I performed my basic function of keeping time, with only the occasional cymbal flourish or snare drum paradiddle, and Valentine played some decidedly tasty trumpet.
Could our visit get any better? It could, and did, and one of the highlights was listening to Geoff Dyer read from Out of Sheer Rage, which had me – at the appropriate moments – helpless with laughter.
Amongst the writers whose work I enjoyed discovering were the Romanian poet, Romulus Bucur, and a young Moldovan poet, Julian Fruntasu, and thanks to some financial help from the British Council, I was able, through Slow Dancer Press, to publish their poetry in Britain for the first time. Typeset, of course, in Romanian Bookman Light.
The following year, together with a different group of writers, including the poet and novelist, John Burnside, I was pleased to return to Oradea with copies of the two pamphlets, present them to the poets, and listen to their inaugural reading. My only small sadness on this occasion, no welcoming band, no trumpet, no last chance behind the drums.