An email from one of the editors at the New Statesman. (I imagine them, with ultimate power over my life and fate, as grave and puissant as the High Council of Time Lords in Doctor Who.) Craig Raine has asked for my email address and the editor, seeing this as an innocent request, has passed it on.
This discomforts me, for I infer the intent behind the request: Raine has noticed that in a recent piece for the Guardian I have described his novel/poem History: the Home Movie as "balls-aching". (I so rarely get the chance to be mean about books that when the most fleeting opportunity to do so arises, I let rip.)
There is nothing like being stood up to to make the bully nervous and I am duly unnerved. I reply to Raine with a kind of grovel, adding the text of my original review (which is much less nasty). Raine graciously replies that he perfectly understands the need to "enliven" one's journalism. I then say that as I am going to Oxford for the weekend with the Significant Other (hereinafter referred to as the Divine H- or the Best Girlfriend Ever), why don't we meet up for a drink? He can have one free hit, but not the face, ha ha.
I must say, I am looking forward to seeing Oxford again. I used to go there at least once a term 30 years ago, from 1980 to 1983, visiting my friends Andy and Matthew and PJ and Nick and others at Balliol; as splendid a bunch of people as you could hope to meet, fine upstanding lefties the lot of them, connoisseurs of tea, Twiglets, beer and speed, and indulgent to an impecunious young pup like me. I went there so often and so regularly that I was plausibly co-opted into the Balliol pool team when one of its players was unable to make his match. Unfortunately, as I never drew a sober breath there except on the walk from the station to the college bar, my memories of the place, while gilded with unalloyed pleasure, are hazy in the extreme and they need to be resubstantiated. "What's that college?" I ask the Divine H-. "Balliol," she replies. (Later, when approaching the place from another angle, I ask, "And what's that college?" "Balliol, you fool." "Oh, ah.")
It is beginning to snow, which makes us both rather excited. We begin to hope strongly that it snows hard enough for our return to London to
be delayed indefinitely; we are staying in guests rooms in Christ Church ("what an adorable little court," I say on seeing Tom Quad, in order to tease her), in a room with a balcony overlooking the Meadow, and it has become very clear that we are going to have a terrific time.
But the impending encounter with Raine is beginning to weigh on me. We go into Blackwell's (which seems to have moved to the other side of the street since my day) and I go to the poetry section to buy Geoffrey Hill's A Treatise of Civil Power and Clavics. The latter was recently described by Lachlan Mackinnon as "sheerest twaddle", which I consider - thinking what I think about Mackinnon - the highest recommendation. I then recall a conversation at a TLS party when, in conversation with Raine and the poet Hugo Williams, I brought up Hill's name and there was a sharp intake of breath, as if I had said a Bad Word. I wonder, mischievously, if I should leave the books out on the table in the pub.
Over the Hill
We are meeting at the King's Arms. On the outside, it looks like an ordinarily pleasant provincial Georgian hotel; inside, it is paradise, like so many Oxford pubs.
A curved wooden settle at the back of one of the bars gives us a commanding view, and the Young's London Porter has survived the trip down the M4 and is heaven, in a pint. We are early and I nip out for a fag. Should Mr Raine arrive early, I attempt a description. As he is now looming large in my fears, my mind's eye exaggerates him. He is about six foot six, with flowing locks and a majestic beard that would, were he unclothed, cover both his nipples. I might as well add that he will be arriving on a green horse with an enormous axe with which he will invite me to behead him, after which he will pick it up, tell me to meet him at his castle in a year and ride off.
Outside, in the snow, I see a mild-looking gentleman with a neat, trimmed beard locking up his bike. Ah. I dash in before any damage is done. "Hide the Hill!" I say. "Hide the Hill!"
And then we all have a very affable chat. Strangely enough, though, he is the one to bring Hill up first, after about five minutes.