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A Series of Meetings

 


A Series of Meetings

- Peter Robinson (U.K.)

When, out of the blue, the telephone rang on that fine spring morning towards the end of term, you had set yourself to address some paperwork—planning to ignore your inbox so as to meet the deadlines slipping by in the deluge of daily distractions which is your working life. As the distant trill reached you, with an audible sigh, you got up and went into the hallway where the landline, still nostalgically attached to the wall by a cable, is located on the shelf in a mirror-front piece of furniture.

     The young woman’s voice at the end of the line was unfamiliar, but she immediately introduced herself as a producer’s assistant for the local branch of the BBC. They were planning to have a bit of a discussion, you heard her say, and would you like to take part? What they had in mind was something about the difference between pop-music lyrics and poetry. It would take place between records on the lunchtime show.

    ‘Might you be able to come on and give us the benefit of your expertise?’ the producer’s assistant asked down the line, and, as she did, you caught a glimpse of your latest face, its profile and back-of-head multiplying and dispersing in every direction within the doubled reflections of a large wall-glass and those open mirrored doors of the hallway cupboard.

     ‘My pleasure,’ you replied, having reflected on what your office desk diary would allow by way of fitting it in before the series of meetings scheduled for that afternoon, and, as it turned out, this was exactly when the show would be on air—for the little interview would go out live.

     ‘No,’ she added, ‘there’s nothing you need to bring or prepare. Just announce yourself at reception, and I’ll come and get you.’

     Your black cab arrived only a minute or two after it was phoned for, and there was no surprise as regards the driver at the wheel. All the taxis in this town are driven by men, and men from South Asian countries. There appears to be a cartel of some kind—that must be the explanation for it. And if you want to be driven by a woman, well, you’ll have to take the bus.

     Getting into his front seat next to the henna-bearded driver with his bead-braided cap, you sensed he was one of those who doesn’t mind talking, so while we bumped over the sleeping policemen that slow traffic down before the shops, you began, as we do in this country, with the weather. It was mild with a clear sky flecked by wisps of white cloud.

     Taking you up to the studio, for the first part of the ride, he took the exact route of your one-time daily constitutionals, past the doctor’s surgery, the school with its mock-gothic pinnacles, the local hospital, then down and across the canal, around the outer perimeter of the prison’s blank brick walls, then on under a railway embankment and up towards the bridges across the Thames.

     To get to the local radio station that day your taxi driver chose the further bridge, then climbed up towards where Prince Rupert’s cannons had been positioned during the English Civil War, and all the time, as his car-phone interrupted you with jobs and requests for locations, we talked of nothing in particular, of life in this town, the usual travails of taxi drivers, of working nights, and the trouble he could have with the inebriated and worse once the bars and clubs started emptying in the small hours.

     When we finally reached the lodge of the listening station in its country park, there was a red-and-white-striped barrier with a complicated intercom system for access, which you embarrassedly managed to get right only at the third attempt. But he waved away your apology and said he knew only too well how difficult it could be to get in. Then by the steps up to the entrance of that much-repurposed mansion he left you standing with the faint odour of his exhaust in your nostrils.

     At reception you were directed to the seats arranged outside the barrier to await the young woman from the phone-call who would take you through to the studio.

     Like I say, the building which houses the secret service listening post, the local radio, and the script archive has been many things in its long history and, as a result, unlike so much of the other architectural heritage hereabouts, it has managed to survive into its present incarnation. The great, white-painted pile has been a country house—this Victorian mock-Greek temple constructed in 1850—a private school, and, finally, still, an outpost of the BBC.

The young assistant, whose idea it had been to do something about poetry and pop lyrics between the playing of a couple of records, led you through the central corridors of the building into the place where it would happen, introduced you, and left her team to get on with it.

     Stepping into the studio, you were once again surprised at how small and cramped they tend to be. There was the famous DJ, who had worked on Radio Caroline, one of those enchanters of your youth, with his strangely grey and wrinkled skin, the oddly blank look in his eyes, and, of course, the populism of his patter, headphones pulled around his neck while the music was playing, in front of the mike, with, on the other side of the screen, his producer. And it didn’t take long for you to realize what you were up against.

     ‘I have to tell you,’ he said, without the least flicker of shame or apology, ‘that I don’t like poetry.’

     ‘Thank you for the music,’ ABBA were singing, ‘for giving it to me.’

      ‘Well,’ you said, ‘what about the writers of pop lyrics? Aren’t they a kind of poet too? And the name of the group that’s playing at the moment, doesn’t it come from a rhyme-scheme?’

      ‘No, actually,’ he returned, ‘it’s from their first names: Agnetha, Björn, Benny, and Anni-Frid … I thought everyone knew that.’

     ‘I do, I do,’ you came back, ‘I do, but they wouldn’t have thought of it as a name if it hadn’t been for Björn being a lyric writer with a knowledge of poetry. And he’s an unusual user of colloquial English too. I love the bit in this song when they go “in all honesty” … Just listen now.’

     And there, right on cue, Agnetha sang: ‘I ask you in all honesty, what would life be, without a song to sing …’

     ‘Right,’ he said, the track coming to a close, the faders taking it down, and him turning to the mike: ‘Thank you, ABBA, and thank you for the music! Now: I have a professor of poetry with me here in the studio, and we’ve got a spoken word poet on the line …’

     It was the usual story. The DJ began with the spoken word poet who was touring his album. You could hear his familiar, insinuating voice and the streetwise replies through the headphones you’d been handed. They were discussing the communicativeness of rap-style rhythms, the reiterative charm of pop music lullabies, ear worms, as the Germans call them, and the memorizing of choruses through intensive repetition …

     Then he turned to you, asking how you justified an interest in all that hard stuff, and you made your familiar and practised plea that if it weren’t for the inventiveness of the dead poets’ society, Keats and Yeats on our side too, lyric writers such as Morrison and Morrissey would be bereft of both language and theme. But that only made you sound like the elitist you were anyway supposed to play, something the DJ didn’t mind underlining with his questions and remarks, which, needless to say, you resented for all the reasons that could not be explained in those minutes between two songs.

     Still, it was over soon enough, another record playing, and the man whose voice had haunted your teenage-bedroom years, he shook your hand at the exact moment his young assistant returned and ushered you off the premises.

 

Now you were sitting in the lobby by the reception desk, waiting for the arrival of the taxi that would take you back to work. The man on security was as burly as you could expect, with letters tattooed on each of his fingers that looked like they spelt the word LOVE. He was suffering from the usual problem with such a job and seemed glad of a chance to talk.

     This substantial security guard—it turned out—had been in the armed forces, which he’d left in the 1980s. He had got into difficulties with the Poll Tax and the cost of housing, even then, in the Thames Valley, because while in the army he had been able to live in one of those blankly fenced-off suburbs of semi-detached housing, married quarters for low-ranking military personnel and their families.

     Then there he was, he said, with his wife and four children, without the funds to put down a deposit, at an age where no one, it seemed, would employ him again.

     ‘Difficult times,’ he said, ‘very difficult times.’

     Still, you couldn’t help musing, he appeared to look back on them from what appeared a plateau of relative assurance. Back in the last decades of the century, he said, he’d accept anything just to keep the wolf from the door, and managed to find work at a security firm, patrolling a factory perimeter in the dead of night.

     Naturally you sympathized, having had to leave the country for lack of secure employment at about the same time he left the military. You’d been exiled from a place where we were loudly assured that there was no such thing as society, only families and individuals.

      ‘I felt so empty,’ he said, ‘after all my years of service, to be unable to support my family, or even to give them a roof above their heads.’

But as if on cue my taxi arrived, and I bid farewell to the chatty security man, exited the building, and settled into a black Mercedes passenger seat once more for a second drive across town, this time to the university for my series of meetings. Now the clean-shaven young man dressed in a white shirt and grey suit at the wheel was asking what you had been doing at the listening station, where he knew the local radio and script archive are also housed. Were you perhaps a spy?

     ‘Funny thing, really,’ you replied, and explained it had been to provide a brief sound bite between discs on the lunchtime show. And when he asked why they had wanted you to provide those few minutes of words, you could only explain that one of the things you did at the university was to encourage creative writing.

     ‘How interesting,’ said the driver, ‘because I am myself a writer—not of poetry, though—of short stories … and I’ve published some of them.’

     ‘Really,’ you said. ‘Where would I be able to read them?’

     ‘I’m afraid you wouldn’t understand them,’ he replied. ‘They’re written in Urdu.’

     ‘Oh,’ you came back, ‘what a pity.’

     ‘But I must write in my native language,’ he said, ‘otherwise how would I be able to speak to my people or to express my innermost thoughts?’

     ‘Right,’ you said, ‘I couldn’t agree more. That’s exactly what I say to the students when they try to imitate accents or set their stories in places where they have no first-hand knowledge.’

     ‘Writing in Urdu is very difficult,’ he said. ‘I have to make many revisions, because I need to achieve a language of simplicity, one that will reach an audience.’

     Once again, you couldn’t but agree with his good sense, and as we were approaching the campus, you asked him if he liked living here.

     ‘Yes,’ he said, and not merely to flatter his passenger, ‘it is a very friendly town in which people from all over the world are accepted and allowed to live in peace.’

     It was not the answer you had expected. But now it was time to pay your fare and round the sum up with an appropriate tip.

Hurrying into the Arts Building, you apologized your way into the meeting with its fifteen sets of eyes distracted towards the door by your entrance, a gathering that must have started only a few minutes earlier in its  gothic tower room.

     Despite the temptation to drift off offered by the pinnacles beyond the window grazed by that early spring sunshine, a few grey, flat-bellied clouds now perceptibly moving on in winds that shook the woodland firs, it quickly became clear, as you tuned into the management-speak, its acronyms, euphemisms, its circumlocutions—that your institution’s most senior tier had found themselves in an embarrassing predicament.

     ‘And we’ve gathered you here, thank you all for coming at such short notice, to share with you the difficulty that our investigations have revealed, and to put to you what may be a possible solution.’

     There we sat, all eyes and ears, those heads of two schools with their department teams sitting around a teaching-room table.

     ‘We are, in short, to revisit a problem that has already failed of one solution, for, as you well know, art history, taught as a separate degree programme, is no longer viable. The number of students applying has reached a point at which we will have to discontinue it, the staff-student ratio has dropped below our acceptable limit, and we are no longer able, in the current climate, to cover staff and other costs required to keep it open.’

     What we well knew was that they had already tried to incorporate the rump of the department in their thriving school of art, but, as can be imagined, its experimentally driven practitioners had little time for the pedants of pentimenti. The arrangement had foundered in acrimony, incomprehension, and, as a result, a damaging amount of student dissatisfaction with its impact on league tables.

     Management was fortunate, it was explained, in that some of the university’s most distinguished art historical scholars were on the point of retiring, and would, it seemed, be glad to go. However, they were also unlucky, because there were three or four junior members of staff whose careers could not be so conveniently taken care of—which is why we had been gathered together in that place.

     ‘We are looking into the viability of retaining some representation for art history as a discipline either as part of history, where it can contribute to general courses and offer optional modules, or of combining it with our literature and language provision, adding similarly to cultural survey courses, for instance, and to joint modules on overlaps between the literary and visual arts.’

     Of course, you understood their predicament, the arched eyebrows and bared smiles, understood the relationship between supply and demand, between value for money and the popularity of courses, between the need for impactful research and the utility of our altruism.

     When eventually they turned to you and asked did you think it feasible to introduce modules linking the two disciplines—naturally, being only there to be oblige, you said there was no doubt about it, you were sure we could if required, not least because for many years we had co-taught modules with those soon-to-be-retired staff on poets who were also painters—on William Blake and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, as you said, to name but two—offering to give shelter to those peripatetic young art historians.

     ‘Thank you, that’s most helpful,’ said one of the senior managers. ‘We’ll bear that in mind.’

     But, as it turned out, they would in the end have other ideas.

 

Your next-to-last meeting of the day was to attend the launch of the annual creative writing anthology, this year’s publication wittily entitled Taking the Biscuit. Happily, you didn’t need to host it. Edited by students, it would be introduced by them and they would invite to the stage contributors from those local writers and their friends who had crowded into a little lecture theatre for the occasion. 

    Indeed, so popular was it, and so enthusiastic had that year’s editors been in spreading the word, that the room was packed to the rafters, and many of their friends were unable to get in—were at that very moment passing plastic beakers of red wine out to those huddled in groups along the corridor outside. 

     Then the pointy-bearded student, chief editor and cyberpunk enthusiast, stepped up onto the stage and, in a style reminiscent of an Oscar-acceptance speech, thanked all and sundry who had made that year’s anthology possible. Then, getting eventually to the point, he invited his series of readers to disentangle themselves from that overcrowded crush and perform their works for those gathered to support the virgin or vintage writers anthologized.

     Pressed against the wall, next to a red fire extinguisher on the wall by the exit, you stood as they launched their time-bound creations off towards futurity, your heart going out to each one, hands clapping them along their way—those words of retired schoolteachers, young people coming of age, one or two departmental colleagues and friends, all of them writers, all of them variously reflective word-wielders in our imaginative-imaginary guild, a guild of who knows how many, many millions.

Now when the last poem reached its thrown-away ending, you clapped a moment longer than anyone, then squeezed out of the room, and, heading back along the corridor had, for the first time that day, been able to revisit your office at the far end on the right. But no sooner had you surveyed the chaos in need of filing than there came a knock on the door and, waiting expectantly before you, were the two further strangers who would make up you very last meeting for that day.

     It was those two academics from Galicia in north-western Spain, two women professors, one young, the other middle-aged, one red-haired, the other dark, whom you had managed to fit in before you’d be able to home. Sitting them down with the usual ceremonies, you had asked how their visit to this country had been going. But they had quickly turned the talk to identity and self-esteem. 

     ‘Galicia is a rainy, green region more Celtic than Castilian,’ the elder professor was reporting, ‘more Galles, as it were, more Wales than England.’

     Then the younger explained how they were making a tour of selected universities scoping out possible Erasmus links, for both student and staff mobility, hoping to benefit from the lingua franca of money, the Euro zone, and its outlying currencies in those halcyon days before the 23rd of June in 2016.

      Yet even then on that spring afternoon an air of fatality had befallen me at the thought of the complications involved in setting up such an arrangement, the toing and froing, the paperwork for signed off … But I held my breath and smiled upon our potential collaboration to the extent that my position in the lower cadres of the management pyramid allowed. Then, as that last meeting drew to its close, for they too had to hurry away, being due back in London for an event at the Instituto Cervantes that evening, they drew out of their travelling luggage a number of memento gifts related to the life and work of Rosalía de Castro (1837-1885), the most famous poet in more recent times from their region of Spain, and the voice of morriña—the passionate and sombre longing for loved and lost things.

     ‘Rosalía,’ the younger professor explained, ‘wrote much of her best work in Galician, and would surely be better known if she had written in Castilian Spanish.’

      ‘She lived a very sorrowful life,’ said the other, the two taking it in turns to offer a profile of their native poet. ‘After a fairly idyllic childhood on our beautiful seacoast, she lived a life of great suffering. Her marriage was not a happy one, her husband unsympathetic, though she bore him six children, and she spent many years in Castile, longing to return to the landscape of her birth …’

     ‘Yes,’ you said, ‘I must have read one or two of her poems in anthologies.’

     ‘They are very beautiful,’ confirmed the younger of the two professors for you.

     ‘If you would like to come to the University of Compostella at any time, please know you are always invited,’ the elder added—and you couldn’t help thinking of the scallop shells on your own town’s crest, and how its church of St James would once, before the reformation, bless the pilgrims setting out from here on their way south to St Iago’s shrine in Spain.

     ‘Thank you,’ you replied. ‘I would love to visit you. No, I’ve never been on any sort of pilgrimage to that part of Spain. It would be a very great pleasure.’

     ‘Let us keep in touch,’ said the elder, as the two of them waved farewell in the department corridor and you stepped back into your office to gather your papers for the following morning’s marking.

    Home, the very word, and no sooner had you shut the office door than it came back again, that pressing urge to be anywhere else but here, a pilgrim with scallop-shell and staff of faith, escaping to the continent, the continent of Europe, that is, to be lost and found once more in the endless possibilities of other lives and fates.