Transit, cont’d
17 May 2012

A room with a view it ain’t. If we were one floor higher, we would clear the western wall of the St Pancras Station shed wall — for a fine view of the shed roof, I don’t doubt. Why stay at home, alone in your room?

Until last night, I was a fairly good traveler, but a chain of confidence-draining events steadily reduced me to blubbering helplessness. I’ll skip straight to the last one, which was, in all my years of travel, a first: it took half an hour to get our bags up into the room, and two phone calls were required, including a request to identify them. As we had checked in at 11:10, and Reception was not exactly humming, this lapse was much worse than perplexing. Eventually the young night porter showed up at the door, and we were free to go downstairs for a glass of wine.

Knowing what I know of London topography (I’m cutting back to the penultimate nightmare), I expected a smooth trip along the M4 right onto the Marylebone/Euston Road: voilà! What I did not expect was a meter that climbed and climbed and climbed, soaring straight to a figure equalling the cash in pounds that we were carrying. I also did not expect a detour in the dark, and, knowing what I know of London topography, but no more, I was immediately suspicious of the genial driver — who indeed presently returned us to Westway. I felt foolish for not having taken a train, tired though I was; it’s certainly what I would have done if I’d been alone, somehow. But Kathleen would not have taken a train in any but emergency circumstances, so that cleared my conscience. But I still felt foolish for not having looked into typical taxi fares from Heathrow. This simply wasn’t the time to count on Kathleen to do so.

I’ll save for later any attempt at descriptions of this amazing old place (built as the Midland Grand Hotel, and opened for business c 1873). I’ve seen only two of the sparkling, refreshed halls. The part of the hotel in which we’re lodged is an annexe constructed at some later date, 30s or 40s I should say, although it’s conceivable that it’s altogetheer new. (It’s the deep but narrow lifts that suggests earlier times — to me.)

It’s odd to be doubly in London. I’m so deeply involved with The Swimming Pool Library that it’s shocking to look up and realize that I’m sitting in the city in which it is set. I am slowly learning that to re-read a novel while traveling is to open up its full store of wisdom, however great or small that might be. There are bits here and there in the novel about public-school hazing, and they led, de fil en anguille, to a “realization” (which can’t be altogether as novel as that word suggests, although it certainly feels so) that my father had no interest in teaching me how the world worked. This disinclination did not reflect dislike, I don’t think, but there was a sense in which only “naturals” interested him; he was very helpful to young men who displayed aptitudes for his lines of life (work, golf, and so on). He would have been more personally helpful to me (he was always instrumentally helpful, certainly) had I shown some inclination to figure things out for myself. But that’s just what I wouldn’t and won’t do, if exposing myself as a rube be a risk. I won’t, in short, be hazed. I believe that I would have had to kill any clot of amiable young men who put me through some mild torture in order to make me one of them.

I never did board a tram in Amsterdam. If I’d stayed another day, I think that I’d have made an outing of doing so, and just climbed on board with a pocket full of euros, relying on the kindness of strangers. Where we were staying, it was not easy to connect to Line 2, as in Nescio’s “alles echt lijn 2, Museumkwartier.” That would be me. But I learned that the 24 will take you to the Muntplein, which is close enough (to the Spui, of course — the center of Amsterdam for me).  

Anyway, I obliged myself to get out of bed in the gloom this morning, even though Kathleen sighed “room service” as she turned over and cuddled deeper into the bedding. I had heard the clerk mention that “breakfast was included,” and this gave a finish of virtue to a stronger desire to be up and about and out of the room. A fine continental breakfast, offering ham and cheese and just about everything except eggs, was laid along the bar in the Booking Hall, where we sat last night with our glasses of wine and talked about Gothic Revivial.

Oh! I did learn one thing in Amsterdam that I had hoped to establish: it’s Nieuw, not Nieuwe, Amsterdam. Where I live, I mean. I don’t know how the server at the hotel restaurant knew this, but she was pretty certain. She was quite wistful about the idea of the city’s still being in Dutch hands. Stand in line, sweetheart! Ik woon in Nieuw Amsterdam.


It’s not immediately apparent that Nescio and Alan Hollinghurst share anything in the way of subject matter, but from the distance of my viewpoint they do seem to have something in common, an ostensible self-disgust that in reality masks a tragic disappointment with the fit, or lack of it, between erotic life and civil conventions. It is not, to use Nicholson Baker’s great phrase, part of my carnal circuitry. In Dichtertje (Little Poet), the title character reflects on the “knowing eyes” of modern young ladies (c 1914).

Because he knew perfectly well that they didn’t know a thing, that they burst out in stupid giggles whenever he doffed his hat to them, or just stared at him, stinking of bourgeois-young-lady conceitedness. And still he couldn’t leave them alone. Then he had to flee somewhere where there were no women, and he raged against God and the devil too, and he said that he’d end up as a lunatic at this rate and sit slobbering for years with his mouth hanging open wearing a leather bib without even realizing it. But the next day he would look again, and think: “Mon âme prend son élan vers l’infini.

In the passage that I want to quote from The Swimming Pool Library, the erotico-bourgeois plexus might seem more obscure, but I’ll venture it anyway. The young Charles Nantwich has arrived in Port Said, in 1923, and is being kitted out for darker Africa.

I came to a sort of dead end, a tall, stuffy place like an airing cupboard, a store-room perhaps, with a young boy barefoot, climbing up & down the shelves, checking stock, a pressure-lamp in his raised hand, his black face concentrating, dazzling in the plane of light that he swung about him. I stayed & watched, mesmerised, feeling that nothing else mattered. Down he clambered, his supple child’s body comically bursting out of his khaki cotton uniform. When he saw me he smiled. I smiled back — though I was at the very edge of the field of light, & perhaps he cd not really see me. He kept on smiling — an immense, gentle, jolly smile — not yet a vendor’s smile, nothing calculating in it. He was a pure Negro, from far south evidently, like the people we we are going to, quite different from the crossbred scamps who haunt the quays. I turned & went back, & as I did so he called out, ‘Welcome Port Said, m’sieur’ — in a heartbreaking voice, its boy’s clarity just cracking into manhood.
I was inordinately, unaccountly moved by this — except that I knew it for what it was, a profound call of my nature, answered first at school by Webster, muffled, followed obscurely but inexorably since. Was it merely lust? Was it only baffled tdesire? I knew again, as I had known when a child myself, confronting a man for the first time, that paradox of admiration, or loss of self, of dedication … call it what you like.

When I was in my twenties and thirties, I used to wonder if there was something wrong with me, because I had never admired anyone, ever. The impulse to admire took long to develop in me, but I certainly never felt it as a child. I thought that some people were very lucky; I knew, in my scapegrace way, that I’d been very lucky. There were certainly many times when I’d have been happy to trade my good fortune for someone else’s. But admiration? When I read the Hollinghurst passage, I wondered for a moment if Nantwich were describing an emotion that only fledgling aristocrats feel. But only for a moment.

I remember long, long ago complaining about the pride that John Fowles’s characters seem to take in their disaffection from everyday life. My good manners are hardly invariable, but I’ve always thought that it was an act of rudeness in itself to disdain them, as if one were somehow too intelligent or sensitive or whatnot to observe them, or at least to try. It struck me, twenty-odd years ago, when The Swimming Pool Library was new and I read it the first time, that Will Beckwith, Hollinghurst’s hero, was uncivil in just this way (beneath the gloss of fine manners indeed), and I disliked him for it. Now I’m not so bothered. I suppose that that’s a sign that I’ve stopped growing up, stopped looking to other people to figure out to live — and fuming when the example set by the more attractive ones among them suggests that I’m heading in the wrong direction. With old age comes a certain calm.

As long as you don’t have to go through Heathrow.