Dylan Thomas country
It’s strange what lodges in the mind. One of the happiest periods in my life is encapsulated in just four things: a flat in Uplands with the window open, a sunny day, Joni Mitchell’s Blue album, and me lying on the bed reading W. H. Ainsworth’s ‘Rookwood’. It helped that there was a pub nearby, an Indian restaurant, and the café where I played chess with Sally Percival.
The road to this glimpse of Nirvana had some twists and turns. I’d wanted to go for an MA but failed to get a grant. In a fit of madness I applied to McGill University in Montreal, and in an equal fit of madness they offered me a place with a full grant. It was, unfortunately, a door too far. We were too poor as a family to afford the plane-fare along with other sundry expenses. I remember talking on the phone to an earnest and very friendly Canadian voice, exhorting me to come, but we were flat stony broke and so I said no. It’s perverse to feel regret because I’ve acquired what makes me happy on a different path, but part of me feels regret, the greedy part that would like to open every door simultaneously.
The problem was what to do? I’d never expected to get to University in the first place, never mind get a degree, but what to do with it? I pondered two options: University librarianship or teaching. The former appealed to the scholar in me…the latter, well it didn’t really appeal at all except in one respect. I’m a solitary animal with the social skills of a bear in hibernation. Skulking in the stacks of a University library posed the danger of reinforcing those traits. Teaching on the other hand offered the possibility of developing what I didn’t naturally possess, an extrovert nature.
I was pondering such things on a train to Swansea after an interview at Liverpool University library. It was then that God or the Devil intervened. A materialist would say it was momentary madness and a low afternoon sun.
An elderly man sat in the seat opposite. Passing Shrewsbury he began talking to me in a strong Welsh accent, and I confided my dilemma, teaching or librarianship. He became as one possessed. Perhaps he was. Leaning over, he positioned his face close to mine. At that precise moment the sun came out from a cloud. It shone fiercely on his gold-framed spectacles so that his eyes seemed to catch fire.
“Teaching my boy. Teaching. It’s God’s own profession.”
I felt strangely weak – like Isaiah after a visitation and three pints of beer. And so my fate was sealed. No McGill, no cool academic library. Teaching it was.
Only Swansea’s Teaching Department rejected me, confusing my Liverpool accent with a speech defect.
But the old man had spoken.
I tried Aberystwyth and toned down the accent. The good news was they accepted me; the better news was Swansea unexpectedly offered me the chance to study for an MA with a full grant. The bad news was their ‘suggested’ topic. ‘Anthony Trollope and English Landed Society.’ His mother, Fanny Trollope – bless her – had made pots of money by being rude to Americans.
In her Domestic Manners of the Americans, She criticised the mistreatment of Indians, corruption, the banality of American women, the hypocrisy of American men, “…one hand hoisting the cap of liberty, and with the other flogging their slaves…their loathsome spitting…the frightful manner of feeding with their knives till the whole blade seemed to enter their mouths, and the still more frightful manner of cleaning the teeth with a pocket knife.” She hadn't seen Swansea University's refectory.
Written in 1836 just fifty years after Britain had lost her colony, the book was a guaranteed best seller, and helped finance her son’s education. She was a smart woman, knew what she was doing, but what about Anthony and his seventy or more books/stories/articles. Would he be near as interesting?
What can I say? He grows on you.
I spent a year in the basement of Swansea University library. In front of me was Peter Traves, studying the sermons of Lancelot Andrews, and in an adjacent desk was a Raphaelite brunette called Jane, who I lusted quietly after in between books.
Yes, there would be teaching…eventually. Aberystwyth was holding my place. But in the meantime Nirvana, Blue, Rookwood, and sunny days in Uplands.
My flat was somewhere top left in the picture