I was lucky enough to have the chance to do postgraduate work at Oxford, with funding from the university – a personal grant in my first year. I was determined to live up to this, and I think did so, as my results proved. The letters in my first term however suggest that the sybaritic socializing of my undergraduate days continued, and this is not entirely inaccurate. But as also indicated I did work hard and my tutors were generally impressed.
Sharing a flat with Pat (sitting fifth from the left in the Vile Bodies picture), who later went on to a senior position in the Civil Service (which proved most useful when I was dealing with the Overseas Development Administration while in the British Council), also I think helped, because we had different interests, which meant that I could concentrate on work when I wanted to. And the flat was perfectly situated in that, while it was easy enough to walk into town, it was far enough away for me not to make that effort unless essential – which meant I got through the vast amounts of reading the course demanded. And I hugely enjoyed this, the Victorian literature, including the non-fiction, that I still see as the greatest flowering of prose in any language in any era.
En route to England I stayed over in Russia, with the ambassador but cared for by my father’s old peon in the Attorney General’s Department. He was extremely hospitable to many students and of course did wonders for me even though his wife was in hospital, her baby having been two months premature (and being wonderfully looked after by the Soviet medical system). He had booked me a train to Georgia, for I was determined to travel through the Urals, though I had to fly back given time constraints.
The saddest event of this term, and perhaps my whole time in England, was the death of Manoji, the daughter of my cousin Clara who had been so kind to me when I first got to England. Manoji, just a year younger than me, was a lovely girl, and was just in her second year at Manchester studying medicine when she suffered an aneurism. Oddly, she had found a boyfriend who had been in charge of the bridge club at Oxford and gone on to Manchester as a postgraduate. Clara was I think heartened that I knew him and liked him, she and Manoji having come to see me at Oxford the previous year in part to talk about it.
9th October, 1975
Just a very quick note to say I’ve arrived safely, after a splendid time in Russia. Had vast chats with Piyadasa and conveyed all messages, and a super lunch on the 3rd before moving on to Tbilisi by train. I had a 4 berth compartment with two large Georgian ladies, who insisted on feeding me – with appalling effects on my stomach – and showing me pictures of their offspring, and an old man who snored but got off at Rode, and then a young man who kept buying me beer and wine. It was all very pleasant, though communication was non-existent or rather monosyllabic, and most of those trite. In addition a Muslim from Azerbaijan rushed into our compartment at frequent intervals and embraced me, crying ‘Mussulman’ to the horror of the rest of the compartment who insisted that I was a Christian (Cries of ‘Nyet, Nyet Mussulman’).
The landscape itself was spectacular, though regrettably we missed, if we did pass them, the highest peaks as they must have been at night. However, I saw them on my return, ridges of thickly packed snow. Tiflis itself wasn’t particularly exciting, and I left in a day, but it was fun walking round for a bit, the local population being very friendly, summoning a car once when I asked directions, putting me on the right buses and even buying my opera ticket – I went to ‘La Traviata’ by the Georgian State Opera in the evening. Friendliness here reached an unfortunate depth when a rather slimy man attempted to place his hand on my knee (‘I didn’t know they had those in Russia,’ said Leslie). It was in the 2nd Act as well, which was unforgivable. I still regret only changing my seat and not screaming and upstaging Violetta who, one must admit, did a good job despite having to sing in Russian, which has more syllables than Verdi had music, and suffered from changes of scenery that took longer than the acts themselves. Indeed, at one stage the conductor failed to appear for 10 minutes after the lights had gone down. It was still good fun though, and a pity the theatre was just 1/3 full.
Far otherwise was the Bolshoi (such a comedown, sitting in the stalls after the splendours of the Royal Box) with ‘Giselle’, which I saw on the 7th, in the course of 2 very nice days with the Weeratunges. Soma himself knows quite a bit about art and we had an interesting morning at the Pushkin Gallery where I wanted to see the Impressionists again. Regrettably, they were busy on the 7th and couldn’t come to ‘Giselle’, but I had a romantic wander around Red Square by myself, and consumed caviare and ice-cream and waited for 6 curtain calls. There was no trouble with the flights and I was back here – alas the difference between East and West, not met – by tea yesterday and am still searching for digs though most optimistic.
31, Rectory Road
28th October 1975
As you can see from the above, I have at last found a flat – it was a hard task, and cost me much in tears and sweat, to say nothing of 2 penny bits for the phone. But it’s all been worth it. There’s an enormous front room which I have taken for myself, an inner room, a fairly spacious kitchen, bath & toilet and also a cellar which, if done up, presents splendid possibilities. The one drawback is that the entrance is into the 2nd bedroom and everything leads off that – and that, despite my efforts – Sharya will vouch for that since she was here during the climax of the search – I am sharing with the female Mum described as neurotic. She hasn’t moved in yet, though, so No.31 isn’t quite yet the brothel someone – other than my good mother – suggested the cellar clearly implies it should be. Seriously, though I grant the proprieties might have been better observed, Pat and I know each other far too well to take each other seriously, in the romantic sphere if not in everything.
I had my first class yesterday, which was quite fun – the French Revolution as seen from England – though the other 3 people doing the BPhil in the same period are not such as to cure me at once of my intellectual arrogance. Possibly the paper I have to prepare for next week will do that – it’s on the expansion of the franchise in England during the 19th century. I can’t complain, since I jumped at it when we were offered 4 topics in general, my less selfish compeers being left to write about Trades Unions and other such trivialities. My ego was, however, shattered last week when I wasn’t chosen for the College University Challenge Team – I hasten to add not because I didn’t know enough – I got the 2nd highest in the Test – but because I couldn’t press buzzers quick enough at the final selection to indicate I knew. This indicates that I am slow on the uptake – oh, horror!
Sharya was here last Tuesday to Friday and I entertained her very thoroughly – I shall let her describe it, but do let me know whether she enjoyed it, particularly meeting people who may not have been as thoughtful as they should have been about including her in the conversation.
Apart from that and contracting a thundering cold at my guest-house in Eynsham (where poor Paul still is, St Cat’s – to whom my flat belongs – not having been able to accommodate his step-brother), I have been working very hard – 6 hours a day for the last 3 days – and intend to keep it up at least till my paper is written, since I am looking forward to giving dinner parties after that – mght finally ruin my tutor’s good opinion of me when he develops food poisoning.
18th November 1975
Since you should have had time to write, after returning from India, by now but haven’t, I assume you’re waiting to reply – which is very irritating, as I look forward to your news, the last local letter merely containing a great deal of irrelevant and pompous advice from Anila.
I hope you are not as upset as Ano sounded about my sharing the flat with Pat. Indeed, even Aach should be happy since I’ve told her that, while she’s quite welcome to entertain her boyfriend, I will not give guarantees of after what time I’d come back when I was out – and he, who’s actually very nice, told her he didn’t think he’d like to spend the night here as he couldn’t face a lecture on morals over breakfast. This is unfair – I’m not at all illiberal. But I would object to things going bump in the night. It would be very sordid and, being nervous, I might think it was ghosts.
Seriously, I hope no one’s upset. It’s tempestuous enough, since we both enjoy scenes – as when I fed two hungry friends with her chicken stock – but it’s also very good fun. I/we entertain quite a bit, usually successfully – I had the Junior Dean + wife + baby + 2 friends to lunch last Sunday and the food turned out excellently – but with the occasional disaster as yesterday, when I had some people for bridge and the bread pudding was very stale (at least, the bread had been). This may have been because we cooked between rubbers; and things weren’t helped by Robert – the Australian ex-Union President who goes back this week – spilling sherry on Pat’s bed and not daring to tell her. All very silly.
I have succeeded in sticking to 60 hrs a week so far, though farewells to Robert this week might defeat me. On Saturday, Andrew and Christine had a small dinner party for him – a reunion of the Toulouse party with just one other – which was most enjoyable – so much so that I was very late at getting to a drinks party of an ex-tutor, and not entirely sober either. The Dons here were thrilled with the things I brought as is everyone by Bernard’s tunic which is a great sensation. I shall try to send the new Vile Bodies photograph for which I wore it – it’s the best and most eccentric yet !
5th December 1975
Sorry for the delay in writing – I was about to, last week, when I was called away to Clara’s due to Manoji’s death, which you’ve already heard about. I thought you or Thatha might phone and got quite worried when there was no communication there, but having found nothing here either on my return, assume you were just very busy? Clara too wanted to know if there was any news, there being in fact very few messages from Ceylon at first. They were just beginning to come in on the Thursday when I left, after the dhane. In the end, there was very little one could say, and the best thing for Clara turned out to be the fact that she didn’t want to let the two boys down. I think it was a good thing I was there to take them a little bit at least off her hands, and Amal was much less tense by the Thursday. Rohan was very good and responsible all week, but needed distractions – luckily, in addition to the relations in London, they’ve got very good neighbours. They’ll take a very long time to get over the shock though – I could hardly believe it myself for some time, she was such a very vital person.
I hope you got my birthday telegram, it wasn’t mentioned in your last letter. You may stay calm for the next 6 weeks, Pat’s gone to America on the Shakespeare Company tour and I have the flat to myself. I shall wait for a more reasonable letter from you before commenting further, though I don’t suppose I can blame you for reacting without realizing the facts of the case, or how very lucky it was for me that Pat could take up the flat when no one else could. Paul – the one who couldn’t move in because of his step-brother – has now discovered a house for 3, 10 miles out, which he’s trying to get me to move to. Even if I could cope with my work at that distance, it would be extremely mean to use your outburst as an excuse for abandoning Pat when she’d altered her arrangements as much for my convenience as for hers.
Obviously my work suffered last week, but I was quite pleased to have kept to my schedule the previous week despite the exigencies of saying good bye to Robert, which included a pudding party I’d organized so badly that we were twice pursued by porters out of New College (regrettably, no one burst into the bathroom in which eight dinner jacketed individuals were cowering while the owner of the room and I attempted to convince the porter there was no one there) and a drive down to Southampton, to say nothing of an attempt to teach him to play bridge for the voyage. His absence leaves a gap.
I also persevered, though with less success, after a dinner party given in my flat by a friend which lasted from 9pm to 9am, including a visit to the pub in addition to 12 courses, the highlight of which was steaks flambéd in a great deal of brandy and butter, and culminated in a great deal of washing up in the course of which 2 of Pat’s glasses and 2 of her plates were broken (she was away for the weekend but was quite sensible about it all). I’m afraid I failed to serve as scheduled in the Cathedral next morning. However I’ve been offered another chance.