PUBLISHERS OF LITERARY FICTION SINCE 1983
Cover design: Marie Lane
'Procul hinc, procul este, severae!'
'Stay far hence, far hence, forbidding ones!'
Although Lancelyn owed (if 'owed' was the right verb) his first experience of the apparently supernatural to a tin of alphabet spaghetti, his introduction to the theory and literature of hauntings had come a couple of years earlier. It was an evening in the eighth week of Michaelmas Term 1960. It must have been in early December then. Their tutor Mr Edward Raven had set them both an essay on the Victorian ghost story. Bernard was as annoyed as Lancelyn was, since time was running out and in May they would be sitting finals and the chances of an essay question on how spectres managed to comport themselves in Victorian literature was negligible. They ought to have been doing something on somebody major, Browning, Thackeray or Gaskell. But Raven never paid much attention to the syllabus and he set little stock on the apparent need of undergraduates to get good degrees, for Oxford was not to be thought of as a kind of sausage machine for producing degree-bearing students.
Lancelyn had arrived first, a bit breathless, having finished his essay five minutes earlier and he accepted the ritual glass of sherry. Bernard arrived ten minutes later and Raven’s eyebrows rose, but only for an instant. He was used to Bernard’s lateness and to his coloured waistcoats. But the spats! This was something new. Lancelyn wondered what on earth spats were for. He had read about them in books, but literature gave no guidance on the subject. There were so many subjects on which English literature could give no guidance. The short term ad hominem answer was that they, like the coloured waistcoats, were part of the image Bernard had been madly cultivating ever since his first year. Right at the start he put it about that now he was at Oxford he had no other aim than to be elected to the Bullingdon Club. Hence the waistcoats and the preposterous speech mannerisms. This was absurd. Bernard was a grammar schoolboy and God knows how he could have afforded the waistcoats and when his talk was reported to the Bullingdon, some of its members, quite reasonably suspecting that he was taking the mickey, turned up at Merton and trashed his room, but Bernard had emerged from the room seemingly proud of even that much recognition.
Lancelyn read first. His essay was the product of a diligent trawl through the obvious texts by Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Bulwer-Lytton and Le Fanu. He drew attention to the moralising messages that such stories delivered and in his conclusion (of which he was quite proud) he suggested that the growth in popularity of the ghost story in the nineteenth century was a reaction to the age's rationalism, utilitarianism and industrialisation. Shortly afterwards the antiquarian ghost fictions of M.R. James would usher in a new era of horror.
Raven did not comment, but gestured for Bernard to read his essay.
The essay that Bernard read covered some of the same ground, though 'read' was not strictly the right word since what Bernard 'read' from (and Raven, sitting where he was, could not see this) were several blank sheets of paper. Though Bernard stumbled a couple of times, he apologised and claimed that this was due to an inability to read his own handwriting and, talking fluently as ever, he picked up on several points that Lancelyn had missed. He pointed out the childishness of so many of the ghostly fictions in which goodness was invariably rewarded and wickedness punished, just as in the stories of Enid Blyton. Mostly though he focussed on the importance of ambiguity and uncertainty in some of the writings of Sheridan Le Fanu and in Henry James' The Turn of the Screw. He too concluded with Monty James and the way he set so many of his tales in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries rather than in 'the age of steam and cant'.
Raven did not respond immediately to the essays. Instead, and this was something new, he poured them each a second glass of sherry, before speaking,
'Did you know that our college has a ghost?'
They did not.
‘It would be strange if after so many centuries Merton had not acquired a ghost. He has been seen in the upstairs part of the library, where the chained books are, as well as just outside the College walls in Dead Man’s Walk. We know who he is - or rather was. He was Colonel Francis Windebank, the son of Charles I's Secretary of State. In 1645 the King put him in charge of Bletchingdon Park. This great house was well fortified and Windebank had a garrison of two hundred men under him. Since he was newly married, he thought to mark the occasion and impress his bride by holding a ball in the place. There were many guests, but before the ball could get under way, Cromwell arrived on one of his raiding parties into Oxfordshire and began to make preparations for a siege of the house. But Windebank, anxious for the lives of his bride and their guests, promptly surrendered to terms. Then he and his bride made their way back to Oxford. There he was promptly arrested and, after a three-hour court martial, he was sentenced to death for cowardice and taken out to Dead Man's Walk to be shot. It was reported that before the firing squad was quite ready, he bared his chest and shouted 'Long live the King!' And so now his apparition occasionally manifests itself along the wall just below Merton’s garden and more frequently in the library. It is odd, the affinity that ghosts seem to have for libraries. Why am I telling you all this?... I don’t know... yes, I do.'
Raven drained his sherry before continuing, 'You have not been visualising your stories in the way that I taught you and you are both missing something. To start with, people who have seen the ghost of Windebank merely report that they have seen the ghost. They are not gibbering or crazed out of their wits by terror. They have no sense that the ghost has been sent to them to deliver a message or to punish them for curiosity or some unspeakable personal sin. Nor is there any Jamesian ambiguity. (Here I mean Henry James, not M.R.) They have just seen the damn thing. The ghost story, on the other hand, aims to induce fear in the reader. That is almost always the main purpose of a ghost story and yet the word 'fear' never appeared in either of your essays. But I suppose you are too young to have experienced real fear... you will... you will. Anyway, in your essays you needed to address the ways in which prose technique and narrative structure can be controlled in such a way as to induce fear. Then, of course, you should have considered the readership and the desire of so many readers to experience fear. Why this need on their part?’
They had no ideas. But soon Raven moved on to other matters and, in particular he queried Lancelyn's argument that the ghost story was a reaction against Victorian rationalism, for surely it was the Victorians’ scientific approach to everything that led to the founding of the Society for Psychical Research in 1881 and this had to be seen as evidence of the Victorians’ rational drive to understand the mysteries of the unseen.
Afterwards, 'What do you think he meant by saying that we would know fear?'
'Hmm, a bit of a poser that one. Perhaps he was talking about finals. Fancy a drink? Or perhaps he was just trying to put the heebie-jeebies on us.'
'Why should he do that?'
Bernard shrugged, 'A strange man. Fancy a drink?' he asked again.
They went to The Chequers on the High Street and Lancelyn bought the beers.
They talked about Raven’s many prejudices, including his hatred of doctorates and research, his contempt for publication (which was rather odd in someone who taught literature) and above all his detestation of Professor Tolkien and his 'bloody elves'. 'If a novelist is ever stuck for what happens next in a plot, all he needs to do is just have another bloody elf come in.' Tolkien thought that English literature came to an end with Chaucer, whereas Raven was certain that true literature only started to appear in the early eighteenth century. But Tolkien was now Emeritus, having retired from the Merton Professorship of Language and Literature in the previous year and nowadays he was only rarely glimpsed making his way across Mob Quad and heading for the library.
The pub was not crowded. There was a young woman in a dark blue sheath dress at the next table along from them, busy writing with her glass of white wine untouched. Though she looked like a student, it was pretty much taboo for female undergraduates to drink alone in pubs.
Bernard and Lancelyn drifted on to talk about life after finals. Was there life after finals? Lancelyn thought that he might become a librarian. Bernard was incredulous.
'A librarian! My hat! Are you sure that you will be safe from real life in a library?'
‘It is all my third-class degree will be good for.’
'Don’t play the giddy ass! You must know that Raven thinks that we are both brilliant. He just doesn't say so, but that is why we are in the same tutorial. We are both certain to get firsts.' Then, 'How about another drink?'
Lancelyn bought this round too and Bernard made his ritual remark about expecting a postal order any day now from his aunt in India. Lancelyn knew almost nothing about Bernard's real family, but a great deal about the clan of fantasy aunts, one or two of whom were always threatening a visit to Oxford.
Their talk became more general about the future. Bernard was sure he could find a way of not working for a living. Life would be one long lark in which barmaids were kissed, policemen's helmets were stolen and ten pound notes were burned. Lancelyn, on the other hand, did not want the future to happen. He had read Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and had been appalled by its prospectus of sex and drugs on demand - on demand and all but compulsory.
Sex was almost as certain as death. He could easily imagine that sexual love would prove to be a far more testing exam than the Oxford finals. But there were so many other uncertainties. Friendships made and lost, emotional and physical pain and, between all that desire and anguish, so very many hours of pure boredom. And there were so many things he would have to tackle for the first time in his life and he had as yet so little experience to draw on with which to tackle them. The prospect of finding his way in a world which did not yet exist terrified him. And finally he would have to learn how to say goodbye to so much beauty. Did it all have to happen? Yes, the future had to be filled somehow.
Bernard was talking about how he would end up comfortably in an old folk's home in one of the domed cities of Mars, when suddenly, and still talking, he leapt from his chair and seated himself opposite the young woman, who, alarmed, stopped writing.
'You have been eavesdropping on us and writing down everything we say. What’s going on? Are you by any chance a spy for Mr Raven? How much is he paying you?'
The woman looked uncomfortable and shook her head.
'I am writing a novel,' she said.
'Neither are we,' said Bernard dismissively and gestured for Lancelyn to join them. Lancelyn brought the beers over.
'No, I really am,' she insisted. 'I take my notebook with me and go about on buses and sit in cafes and pubs trying to get it right how people talk and think. I want to write from real life and not copy other people's books.'
Her hair was luxuriant, her face a little plump and her breasts heavy. She was flushed and angry. Also beautiful and she knew it.
Bernard nodded impatiently. Then, 'Eeeh, look! A man in a gorilla suit has just walked in.'
She turned to look and as she did so he snatched her notebook from her. He riffled through the pages until he got to the last two with writing on.
'Yes,' he said. 'She has got most of it down. God! Are we not brilliant? You do not often hear conversations like this on buses. And what's this?’ He read out, 'Tall, ash-blonde, brilliant blue eyes, strong chin. That is you, Lancelyn. What about me? There is nothing about me. Oh yes, there is. Just one word. "Spats".'
Disappointed, he pushed the notebook back to her.
'Are you an undergraduate?'
'And your name?'
'Molly. Molly Ransom.'
'We will wait for your novel, for years, for decades if necessary. I am Bernard. And this is Lancelyn. We are both at Merton.' He drained his beer. 'And now, Miss Ransom, we must be going. Toodle pip!'
As he rose, he made as if to tip his non-existent hat. Lancelyn, looking apologetic, followed him out.
Outside, Bernard turned to Lancelyn, 'Of course if we had realised that what we were saying was being written down, we might have managed to talk even more brilliantly yet. I am really cheesed off, since anybody can write a novel and anybodies do. But I have always wanted to be a character in a novel. That would really be something - like Leigh Hunt got into Dickens' Bleak House as Harold Skimpole and William Henley made it as Long John Silver in Treasure Island. That would really be something, to be immortalised in fiction. But that girl is never going to write her novel, and, even if she did, you, not me, would be its hero. You see me downcast and chopfallen. So I could do with another drink.'
That meant repairing to Lancelyn's rooms where he had a bottle of vodka. Just inside the porter's lodge they picked up Marcus, an amiable second-year historian. Then on the way to the room they met Sam Garner, the scout on their staircase, lurking at its foot. He was good at lurking. Bernard paused to ask him, 'Garner, have you ever seen this ghost of a cavalier, Sir Francis Somebody?'
Sam nodded, 'Yes sir, two years ago I saw a man in very old-fashioned costume coming out of the library. Then suddenly he was not there.'
'And you were not frightened?'
'There was no nothing to be frightened of. As I say, he was not there.' And Sam went off to lurk somewhere else.
Once they were inside Lancelyn's room, Bernard commented, 'Real life ghosts are wasted on someone like Sam.'
'Ghosts seem pretty pointless anyway,' said Lancelyn. 'Besides how do we know it is Windebank's ghost? It might be some other cavalier, or the ghost of someone who was up in the 1920s and who went to a fancy dress party.'
'Yes, I Iike that. A fancy dress party in which identities were mistaken and which ended in a lethal tragedy...' Bernard continued to fantasise in this vein.
Meanwhile Marcus was gazing with wonder at Lancelyn's books. A bookcase covered a whole wall and it was tightly packed and some of the books were bound in leather. There were no paperbacks, but there were many early books on conjuring and other magic, including Thomas Hill's A Briefe and Pleasaunt Treatise, Intituled Naturall and Artificiall Conclusions, Reginald Scot's The Discoverie of Witchcraft, S.R.'s The Art of Jugling or Legerdemaine and the anonymous Mathematical Recreations. If Marcus had been invited to Bernard's room, he would have found no books at all except for stuff borrowed from libraries, and no alcohol either.
Lancelyn passed round cigarettes. They were the Black Russian cigarettes that he and Bernard affected.
'That girl we met was quite a popsy-wopsy, wasn't she Lancelyn?'
Lancelyn reflected, Yes, judging the matter objectively, he could see that she had been beautiful. Perhaps a woman out of a Titian painting. No, not Titian. Her hair was too dark and luxuriant and the eyes so large. More Alphonse Mucha. Yes, she would have been perfect for a poster by Mucha. Intimidatingly beautiful then. But Lancelyn said nothing and merely nodded.
'An absolute corker!' Bernard insisted. 'I really think we must pay Somerville a visit, don't you?'
Again Lancelyn said nothing and this time he did not nod. He was damned if he was ever going to set foot in Somerville.
The glasses had been taken away by Sam to be washed and had not yet been returned. So they drank the vodka out of coronation mugs.
Marcus could not see why English literature was a degree. Surely anybody could just read all those novels and poetry in the bath? There was no need to teach one how to read books in the bath. But, if the stuff really was so obscure that it needed to be taught, then it was almost certainly not worth reading. But then perhaps, after all, he too should have read literature. As it was, he was depressed, 'The whole history syllabus is devoted to training us up to be professional historians, but I don't want to be an academic. None of us does. I want to do something in the real world.'
Then looking over to the shelf, 'I envy you your books.'
'But you have lots of books. I have seen them all over the place in your rooms.'
Marcus sighed, 'There are a few history textbooks but most of the rest are about coal mining.'
'We had no idea that you were a bit of a coal buff,' said Bernard, who was excited to learn this.
Marcus sighed again. (He was rather prone to sighing.)
'I am not, but second-hand books on coal are so very cheap that they are just irresistible. It is very easy to build up a big collection of books on coal. So cheap, it is like stealing sweets from a baby.’
Previously Lancelyn had entertained the notion that historians were more sensible than Eng. Lit. students. He now dropped this idea.
A second round of vodka emptied the bottle.
'And I am sad to find that I am nothing in Molly Ransom's eyes,’ said Bernard. 'But hey! We shall all look back on our time at Oxford as the best years of our lives. You will see if I am not right. I now propose a toast.'
What should the toast be to?
Bernard thought for a minute. Then, 'To Professor Tolkien and his bloody elves.'
'Professor Tolkien and his bloody elves!'
‘Professor Tolkien and his bloody elves!’
Having swiftly drained his mug, Bernard hurled it back against the wall behind him on which it smashed. Marcus followed suit and his mug did the same. Then Lancelyn threw his mug back. He fleetingly had the sensation of something passing over the bookshelf opposite, perhaps like a hand, but perhaps more like nothing. The next thing he was aware of was Bernard, looking concerned and leaning over him and sprinkling water over his face. Apparently Lancelyn’s heavy mug, instead of smashing, had bounced back and hit him on the back of the head and had briefly knocked him out.
Bernard and Marcus, after checking that his head was not bleeding and that he really was alright, left Lancelyn to his groggy reflections. 'The best years of our lives?' Certainly not. The best years of his life had already passed and they had been at Eton. There was the rowing on the river; the voices of the Eton College Chapel Choir; the Greek dramas performed in their original language; the Eton versus Harrow cricket match; the long walks with handsome and clever youths. 'Are we not men?' Well, not quite. Lancelyn had been a colleger, a fagmaster, a rower and a member of Pop, in short, one of the Lords of Creation. He had come close to crying on his last day at Eton. Nothing would ever be so good again. Thenceforth the Gates of Paradise were guarded with a fiery sword by the Angel of the Past. Oxford was only tolerable as an inferior substitute for Eton. In the same way and soon real life would surely turn out to be an inferior substitute for Oxford.
No. of pages: 249
Publication date: 30.11.2021
Re-print date: 30.11.2021
978 1 912868 53 7
978 1 912868 54 4