I arrived in England shortly after the Brixton riots and in the midst of the Ashes, won largely through the heroics of Ian Botham. He was a legend then—a decade later, when he could neither bowl like a demon nor hit for six with the old careless, magisterial command, it was said that the legend had become a myth. Over the streets, nailed to hoardings, were large signs that advised take courage. Courage was a brand of ale. It was high summer, 1981.
Debora Greger and I had rented a modest terrace house in Cambridge on a back street near the river, an apple tree in the garden and a chiropractor next door. Up and down the Cam trailed the stately swans, dying of lead poisoning. Because we knew no one, I dropped notes to local poets and critics—I suppose that’s what Eliot did when he arrived in London almost seventy years before. The only poet in Cambridge, so far as I was concerned, was Geoffrey Hill. A note was returned, asking me to come on a certain afternoon to his rooms in Emmanuel College.
Hill was not quite fifty, slightly barrel-chested, with a dark scurf of beard. He lodged in a small set of rooms up one of the staircases in a modern wing of the college—the rooms were neither austere nor overdressed. Hill was courtly in his coolness, but he took boyish pleasure in showing off the knickknacks and arcana displayed on a coffee table. He was proudest of the small pistol his father had carried as a police constable in Bromsgrove. I mentioned that I had been reading a lot of Larkin. “Larkin!” he exclaimed from the little kitchen, where he had gone to fix us a drink. “That yobbo!”
For the two years we lived in Cambridge, we met Geoffrey for lunch every month or so, or invited him to dinner on Pretoria Road. He dressed in black, like some English Johnny Cash, except for a pair of lurid socks—fuchsia and acid yellow were favorite colors, the rakish touch in that monkish wardrobe. Each time it was as if we were meeting as strangers. He would be stiff, heavy with a formality that lasted a quarter hour or so; then at last, by infinitesimal degrees, he would warm to the company (or just give in to the burden of friendliness). Once he did a wicked imitation of a hedgehog.
Hill was breathtakingly shy, nearly as shy as a hedgehog—formality and bluster were his protections against the world. We attended three or four of his lectures, which were grave, learned, delivered as if composed of death notices—they were also ponderously slow. (By the end of a series of lectures, only a few true believers were left in the hall.) His method, which did not endear him to students, revealed the pressure of learning within, while tending to hide the grace. Indeed, that seemed part of the poet’s character—he was not an example of grace under pressure, but of pressure under grace.
There were also, I now recall, one or two Dinky toys on that table, additional relics of his childhood. (These perhaps make more important the references in poems to his toys.) “I am certain,” he once admitted, “that on a back street, in a cathedral town, there stands a shop, its windows coated in dust. Inside there are still shelves of old Dinky toys, pristine in their original boxes, and bearing their original prices.”
Toward the end of 1982, Hill loaned us the typescript of The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy. He mentioned that, where he had changed his mind, he had tried to find a word of the same number of letters, so the compositor wouldn’t be put to trouble. When I foolishly pointed out that different letters took up different amounts of space, he looked crestfallen, as if some terrible secret had been revealed.
Faced with the petty annoyances of life, Hill often adopted a rueful tone. Once, in the upper stacks of the university library, he came round a corner, having loudly pronounced his irritation at not being able to find some book crucial to a footnote. Seeing me with my head buried in a book, he stopped short. “You are always there,” he said, “to observe my inadequacies and misdemeanors.” I no longer recall what prior accident had elevated me to that status—but then the dryness was his way of being funny.
We both had a taste for rare books, acquired on the cheap. One day something went wrong with his car, and I offered to look at it. My competence as a mechanic may be dubious, but there was some complication in the fuses I was able to figure out—and soon the thing was running again. In celebration, he decided to drive us into the fens to a bookshop in the horse-racing village of Newmarket, a shop long heard of but never visited. Geoffrey’s fantasy was that we would discover there a pristine copy of Land of Unlikeness, probably for tuppence.
This was perhaps not as impossible as might appear. On the 50p table at a local bookseller’s, I had found the original edition of Typee, and on the shelves of another shop a signed copy of Bret Harte stories for £6. Indeed, there was a tale circulating in Cambridge of a man who, visiting a dusty bookshop in Prague or Budapest, no doubt on a back street, had spirited away a copy of the Second Folio for a couple hundred pounds. Our appetites had been whetted. We arrived at the shop. The door was locked. A hand-lettered sign on the glass read “Closed Due to Death of the Owner.” As we turned away, Geoffrey muttered, “The man knew we were coming...and died.” Then he smiled.
We left England late in the summer of 1983. As a farewell, Geoffrey invited us to lunch at Emmanuel, a departure from custom, as he preferred to meet in pubs. Having greeted us in his rooms, he led us down to the dining hall. Before we entered, he turned and said, with courtly gravity, “If I do not introduce you, it is only because I...have forgotten...your names.”
Those were about the last words spoken between us for a quarter-century. In time, somehow or other, I ended up with two copies of Land of Unlikeness.