Chapter 23 Poor Harry
I joined the rank of city commuters from Woking in November 1957 after my parents moved from East Molesey to Woking - my father had become chief administrator of the North West Surrey Divisional NHS office. I lived at home because university hostel places were so few (171 male student places for an estimated 3,000 students) and Surrey County Council found it more economical to pay £33 for my annual rail season ticket to Waterloo and underground to Warren Street, with an allowance for my parental keep, than to pay for lodgings in London. In any case, I found it pleasant to live at home once again after five years at boarding school.
My railway interest was satisfied too by the necessity of a daily return journey on which I could freely indulge my whim to travel to Waterloo by steam train rather than electric - I think the average time difference on non-stop trains was two minutes. I never got a seat if I travelled in the rush hour. On the 7.51 for a 9 o’clock lecture or the 8.47 for the more usual 10 o’clock leisurely start to the day, I would unfold my little beach stool in the corridor of the rear coach and watch the white exhaust from the locomotive lay a gentle smokescreen over Surrey suburbia. In winter on the 7.51 in particular we often seemed to have insufficient steam to heat the carriages as well as run the train to time, and sometimes we would be scraping ice off the insides of the windows to see out. It was always amusing to see the bowler-hat brigade trying to keep warm in their immaculate uniforms - an occasional undignified wrapping of the Financial Times round one’s calves and under the pin-striped trouser leg was to be observed and enjoyed on particularly frosty days.
I was very fortunate in my choice of Department at University College, for I drew by chance a group of eccentrics who were real enthusiasts for their subjects and had a strong ethos of encouraging research and originality among their students. They flummoxed us at the beginning by warning us against plagiarism in our essays by quoting too extensively from relevant library books, as they had probably written them and would recognise the arguments. This was in strong contrast to my subsidiary subject studies in French, most carried out at Kings College, where my lecturers were much more traditional and were an evolving of Sixth Form studies rather than revolutionaries like our German Department.
In the first year someone had had a brainwave that modern language students would find a basic knowledge of Latin helpful, so our nineteen students (nine male and ten female) crowded into a little domed box in the forecourt of UCL on Gower Street and were taken through the rudimentaries by a similarly shaped elderly female tutor. At the end of the first term, we had a straightforward examination and I came third with 6%. Top mark was 32%, followed by 18%. All the rest obtained ‘minus’ marks, the bottom achieving a staggering minus 162%. I’m not sure how he managed this, he must have tried really hard. Apparently the three of us with positive marks had at least some knowledge of Latin (I’d achieved 84% at ‘O’ level, though forgotten most of it in the intervening period). After this fiasco, the college decided it was a waste of time and we reverted to a heavy diet of linguistic history and Middle High German poetry as well as modern prose and grammar.
Our course was heavily biased on German literature and buying the requisite number of texts was outside most of our budgets. Someone discovered that thin paperback editions of the German classics - at 1/3 each - were sold in a bookshop specialising in foreign literature near Embankment tube station, and if you could obtain the East German version on bad quality paper and minute print, you could get them for 9d each. Foyles lost our trade and we nearly lost our eyesight!
Quite early in my university career I discovered one student who enjoyed a game of table tennis - a skill I’d acquired at Charterhouse - and he was one of those privileged to find a hostel place close by. And it had several good quality table tennis tables, so Gordon and I would spend many free periods when we were meant to be reading texts to discuss at our next day’s tutorials, playing the game at a furious pace as we got to know each other’s game so well. The result of this was that we were both selected for the college’s 3rd table tennis team (out of five) and about every fortnight during the winter period we’d be playing in a league made up of teams from other London colleges. Some establishments like LSE had a high number of foreign students - especially Eastern Europeans and Chinese - who seemed particularly strong at the game and exerted ferocious spins on the tiny ball which meant we’d usually lost the first set before we’d fathomed how to counteract it. However, we did well enough to be promoted to the 2nd Division of the league in our final year only to find that our college 2nd team had been relegated to the league we’d just won. We therefore insisted on remaining in the 3rd college team that final year to enjoy our new status and not be promoted as individuals only to languish in the league we thought we’d just left. I hope you have understood this. It took the league and team organisers some time to work it out and grant us our rightful wish.
After table tennis and Meth Soc nights I usually graced the last steam train home - the 11.15 from Waterloo. The Nine Elms drivers (the local depot near Waterloo) got used to seeing me and one night a driver bade me to join him in a very illegal run on the footplate. Not only this, but approaching Clapham Junction he invited me to take over the driving of the locomotive, an old ‘King Arthur’ class called ‘Sir Nerovens’, but I regret I made a bit of a mess of it, finding the regulator very stiff, and after heaving with all my might, speed dropped to 25 mph after the Clapham curve, as I tried to put speed on up the gradient to Earlsfield and Wimbledon. As a result we made a very sluggish acceleration. But we only had four coaches on and recovered after that to regain the time I’d lost.
One night I’d been in London with our church youth club at a party mainly for the benefit of foreign students at Methodist International House. About a dozen of us joined the 10.35 mail and news train to Weymouth and settled down to doze on a very foggy night. Suddenly, around Esher Common, we were shaken awake by an almighty bang, and the rather buxom lass sitting opposite me shot out of her seat and flattened me as our hand luggage rained down on top of her from the rack. When we’d picked ourselves up, dusted ourselves down and found we’d not broken any bones, we discovered that our train had run past a danger red light in the pea soup of a fog and collided - luckily at relatively low speed - with the rear of a freight train standing in front of us. I now have to admit that this young lady had been rumoured to be ‘chasing’ me (according to the club gossips) so far unsuccessfully, and this late night forced embrace was treated with some hilarity, especially as we were all stuck all night in that carriage until 4am when the debris in front of us had been cleared.
In our second year we were required to choose a specialist subject to form a substantial part of our Finals. I really had no strong feelings and opted for a fairly safe choice of 19th century German drama. Unfortunately most of the Department and students from other colleges had done the same - these specialist studies were conducted across all London colleges. Our professor for this subject was at Bedford College and I found myself squashed into a room with standing room only for late-comers. A couple of weeks running I was balanced precariously on a window sill which did not make for good concentration.
Gordon, my table tennis friend, appealed to me for help after about three weeks of our special studies programme. He had chosen stylistic analysis of German poetry and prose as his focus and was alarmed to discover he was the only student in the whole of London University doing this and he had to attend two weekly 2 hour sessions with a full blown professor and another senior tutor. He said his powers of concentration were not equal to this and appealed to me to leave my group and join him. I was not averse to departing from the crush at Bedford College, but I had no inkling of what stylistic analysis was. However, to satisfy my friend, I put in for the transfer and found myself explaining to our Departmental Head that I was fed up with sitting on the classroom window sill each week.
Surprisingly this excuse passed muster and I joined Gordon each week at the London flat of Professor Elizabeth Wilkinson and a tutor colleague sharing glasses of sherry while I tried to fathom the mysterious techniques I’d volunteered to study. It took me about three weeks before the penny dropped and I suddenly received a marked piece of work where I’d analysed a simple Goethe poem, with many double ticks in the margin, Professor Wilkinson’s highest accolade. We then moved on to twelfth century Middle High German epic poetry and I got lost again until the scales fell from my eyes there too. Eventually I began to enjoy the works of Hartmann von Aue, Walter von der Vogelweide and Wolfram von Eschenbach - names to conjure with - and to my delight discovered many were developments of the Arthurian legends as written initially by the French poet, Chrétien de Troyes. These poems were humorous, sometimes downright bawdy in the same tradition perhaps as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. I learned that they had some interesting insights - many of the Arthurian legends tell the stories of outsiders who break into Arthur’s court and achieve progress or change - a metaphor for the struggles of the outsider today bringing change to a closed society, be it church or school or company.
The two I got to know best for different reasons were non Arthurian tales by Hartmann. The first was an epic poem about Pope Gregorius, who started life in a reed basket, Moses-like, after his teenage mother and father were found guilty of incest. He returns after many adventures to marry the Queen who turns out to be his mother, only to spend seventeen years in penance on a tiny uninhabited island as a hermit. We were asked by our tutor to write a Freudian analysis of the work and I was lucky enough to alight upon the most useful book in the library, and described the development of Gregorius as a metaphor for the childhood development of a boy from birth through the latency period to full fatherhood. My tutor was so delighted with my effort that he asked to use my essay as part of his ongoing research, duly acknowledged of course. I can’t help thinking this has not really enhanced my fame.
The other work was known for generations of students (well, a few anyway in the UCL German Department) as ‘Poor Harry’ (its correct title, ‘Der arme Heinrich’). It was well known because it formed the set text for the Finals exam and one stanza of ten lines or so was virtually guaranteed us as the passage to be studied - so many hints were dropped. Hartmann had a key symbol of ‘seeing’ which indicated to those inducted into his mysteries the critical time when his hero realised a significant truth that led to a development, even transformation of his character. One of Hartmann’s Arthurian poems was about the knight Erec, son of King Lake, who married his lady love, took her to bed for six months and only got up when his new wife reported that the gossips were talking. He promptly left court in a huff dragging his poor wife with him, and charged off in high dudgeon against any foe, blinded by the visor which he’d clamped so tightly over his face that he was unable to lift it. He relied on his wife to point him in the right direction, when he’d demolish his opponent. After one victory in which he’d been badly wounded, his wife insisted on removing his helmet to bathe his wound and then he ‘saw’, that is he realised his foolishness, his treatment of his wife and he was duly grateful and went home a chastened man to live as a proper and honoured knight of the Round Table.
The critical passage of ‘Poor Harry’ was when he spied his sacrificial victim through a hole in the wall (shades of Pyramus and Thisbe) about to be knifed to provide healing blood for his fatal disease. For this count had developed a blood disease which only the sacrificial blood of a willing virgin could cure. One of his serf’s young daughters - an eight year old apparently - was so sorry for her master that she offered herself. There is a lovely passage when she hears the news of her lord’s illness and cries herself to sleep flooding the feet of her parents (she clearly slept at the bottom of the family bed). Her apparent motive is that by sacrificing herself now she will go straight to heaven without the bother of living a saintly life on earth or having to endure purgatory. Harry hears the surgeon sharpening the knife to cut her heart out and peers through the wall at her bound and naked body and promptly ‘sees’ and can’t go through with it.
The girl then throws a tantrum, done out of her short cut to paradise, but is reconciled when the count marries her instead and they live happily ever after - well, that’s how the poem finishes. Apparently the trick was that the count only needed a virgin ‘willing’ to sacrifice herself for him - he was cured without her having to go through with it as the requirement had been met. The key passage of hearing and seeing the imminent sacrifice is denoted by a sudden change of rhythm and a density of language where every word counts, and an essay is expected in Finals that pores over the interpretation of each word. As hinted strongly, this passage duly appeared in the exam and neither Gordon nor I were unready. Our tutor seemed to find this poem inordinately funny, especially the tantrum of the little girl and her frustration at being denied her easy reward which is spelt out in wonderfully staccato doggerel. Of course, the count would have been had up for child abuse in the twenty first century.
I used to read this and other Middle High German poems on the trains to and from Woking and if I was not careful I got into the rhythm of the rail joints - the ‘diddly-dum’ bits’ - and if the train went too fast, I’d arrive at my destination realising that I’d read a long passage and hardly understood a word. So I’d have to choose a slow train next time. The 7.51 was an ideal candidate for that!