After the reading, we strolled down Brownlow Hill
for a Guinness and a chaser at The Vines
next to The Adelphi on Lime Street –
a Walker’s pub in Edwardian baroque.
The westering sun lit the stained glass windows.
We were both young men then. He had been married
the year before. I would be married
later that year. His first book had been published
by Faber and Karl Miller’s prescient review
seemed genuinely to bemuse and amuse him.
We talked of the city’s sectarian split –
the Orange annual march, with drums and fifes,
to Newsham Park, their annual outing
by train to Southport past the Scotland Road flats
festooned with green – curtains, tablecloths.
The University was generous
with expenses and paid for a taxi
to Speke. He had a flight booked to Le Touquet
and a hire car there he would drive through the night
into Italy to join his wife.
He was so unostentatious, so
matter-of-fact, that such travel plans
seemed perfectly ordinary to someone
who had no licence and had only
been abroad on a school trip to San Malo!
As he got in the cab and we shook hands,
I knew I had met a particularly
memorable person – modest, kind
and witty – who happened also to be
especially, exceptionally talented.
When I opened The Door Into The Dark
some three years later and read ‘Night Drive’ –
The smells of ordinariness
Were new on the night drive through France;
Rain and hay and woods on the air
Made warm draughts in the open car.
Signposts whitened relentlessly.
Montrueil, Abbeville, Beauvais
Were promised, promised, came and went,
Each place granting its name’s fulfilment.
A combine groaning its way late
Bled seeds across its work-light.
A forest fire smouldered out.
One by one small cafés shut.
I thought of you continuously
A thousand miles south where Italy
Laid its loin to France on the darkened sphere.
Your ordinariness was renewed there.
– I knew I had been privileged and lucky
that summer evening to shake hands with
a compassionate genius, romantic,
urbane: a maker of exquisite art
out of the everyday.