I was staying with George Cawkwell, Emeritus Fellow and former Praelector in Ancient History at University College. When I was organising my research trip George, as a younger contemporary of the eminent Roman historian Ronald Syme’s, was suggested as someone I might write to. (It was the Syme papers, in the Bodleian Library, that I was going to examine during my week in Oxford.) Why he offered to put me up, as he phrased it, is another question. He didn’t know me and I didn’t know him. It might save you a bit of money, he said. I thought he couldn’t possibly be serious. Then I looked at hotel prices. B & Bs. Air B & B. Colleges which rent out rooms during holidays or other breaks in term. These options were either inordinately expensive, far from the centre of town, highly inconvenient, or merely grotesque. I wrote back to George and accepted his kind offer. Now I was on my way to meet him.
George was then 95 years old. Born 1919, a year before my father, in Auckland. He went to Kings College, where he was Head Boy, and to Auckland University College. During the war, again like my father, he served in the Pacific. My Dad was in the air force, while George joined the Fijian Infantry and fought with them, under American command, in the Solomon Islands. Nevertheless, they might have met—either in Fiji or the Solomons. Dad was at Guadalcanal too, but only once the worst of the fighting was over. After the war, George married his sweetheart, Pat Clarke; and took up a Rhodes Scholarship. He was a rugby player; he had represented Scotland in a test against the French in 1947 and was at the time of writing the oldest surviving Scottish international, even though that game in Paris was the only one he played. He was a lock forward but they picked him out of position, he said, at prop.
He met me at the door. A big man, slightly stooped, with a quizzical expression and kindly eyes, wearing a jacket and a tie. In the hallway was a picture of him robed as Xenophon, the Greek historian: a special study of his. Come in, come in, he said and ushered me through to the kitchen, where the interrogation took place. Where was I from? Who were my parents? Where did I go to school? University? Once these facts were ascertained, he didn’t ask anything else. Instead, after remarking that a spell in the army was a good preparation for the teaching of Classics, he rose and intoned: Let us go then, you and I . . . and took me up to his study for a whisky. He kept a stick at either end of the stairs and hauled himself along using the banister rail. Lines of poetry, not necessarily by T S Eliot, were a feature of his conversation.
As we sipped our Scotch—he behind his desk, I, like a dutiful student, sitting opposite—George outlined my itinerary for the week. He had, with exemplary generosity and careful forethought, set up a series of meetings with people he thought I should see. Ronald Syme’s literary executor, for instance. The archivist at Wolfson College, where Syme lived out his years. A scholar who’d recently delivered the annual Syme lecture, which fortunately I had already read. And so forth. I took notes on what I was to do. That, and the whisky, accomplished, we went down for dinner: macaroni cheese which George had heating in the oven. He favoured a high-end range of pre-cooked meals; and served them as the main course with, invariably, a soup for starters and a dessert afterwards. And then, fruit and cheese. We drank a bottle of wine, an elegant light red. Before beginning to eat, George clipped a linen napkin to his jacket lapel, using a clothes peg, and made his apologies. I’m old, you see, he said. I can’t always be sure of getting the food properly to my mouth. I don’t have all my teeth, either. The way he managed his dental plates was an elaborate ritual I won’t attempt to describe.
After dinner, in a small downstairs sitting room—Pat’s study—we watched a DVD. It was not what I expected: Midnight in Paris, the 2011 Woody Allen film. It’s a time travel movie in which the lead character, a troubled writer, each night accepts a mysterious ride and is transported: first to the 1920s, later to La Belle Époque; the private eye who tracks him ends up even further back, at Versailles before the Revolution. Marvellous film, said George, absolutely marvellous; and fell asleep. He woke and dozed and woke again throughout. I can’t help it. It’s my age, you see. I think what he liked about the movie was the way various figures from the past appeared before us: Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Josephine Baker; Man Ray, Picasso, Bunuel; Gauguin, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec.
My room was upstairs at the back of the house, overlooking the garden; with a double bed, an ensuite bathroom with a bidet, and an exquisite Persian miniature of a warrior riding a blue horse on the wall. It was not a print. There was a full bottle of whisky, of the same kind we had enjoyed earlier, plus Evian water, on a tray on the dresser. I thought you’d be younger, George grumbled as he showed me the way. Still, you’re a New Zealander, aren’t you? We’re a race apart you know. Have to look after each other. He said he would see me in the morning; and not to be alarmed if I heard voices. He had a woman, Judy, who came in each day to do the housework. She would be knocking on the door at seven o’clock sharp; and he would expect me down to breakfast half an hour after that. That is if I wake up tomorrow. I hope to God I don’t. He snorted, whether from amusement or something darker I could not tell; then went back down the hall to his own bedroom: which he had not altered one jot, he said, since his wife died, suddenly, eight years before.
I woke to the sound of laughter. A low bass rumble and a lighter tinkling fall. Two people, a man and a woman. I lay there listening. There would be murmurs of conversation, the words of which I could not make out, then a renewed gust of laughter. Must be George and Judy, I thought. How lovely. But when I went down to breakfast, there was only George at the table, already kitted out in his jacket and tie. He explained that his earliest memory, when he was about four years old, was of standing on a stool in the family kitchen in Auckland having a tie knotted around his young neck. I wear a tie every day of my life, you know. Breakfast was another ritual. Tea, juice, cereal and nuts, followed by toast and marmalade or jam, then fruit and coffee. My preferences were duly noted and I was offered the same things again each morning thereafter. Judy joined us near the end of the meal, for coffee. She was a bluff working class woman about the same age as I am, the wife of a policeman. As fond of George as he was of her, and inclined to tease him; but if she went too far he would admonish her. I know my place, she said after one rebuke; but what place was that? She was both his servant and his salvation.
The morning laughter, which, like everything else in that household, recurred, arose during George’s daily ablutions. Because of a skin condition, he wasn’t able to bath or shower so each week day morning—she didn’t come in on weekends—Judy would rub him down with some kind of oil. I was curious as to the composition of this unguent but didn’t like to ask what it was. It seemed the daily anointing was both an intimate moment and a shared pleasure—of which neither of them was in the least bit ashamed. Judy was otherwise brisk and efficient and inclined to boss George round, which he liked, but only up to a point. Later he told me that his great fear was of losing her. I don’t think I could go on without her, he said. He was, as I have already indicated, still mourning his wife. One day when they were going out for lunch, Pat realised she’d forgotten her gloves and went upstairs to retrieve them; she did not come down again. A stroke, I think.
George was one of those lucky men whom women love. Over the week, I saw him in various public situations and also met and spoke at length with people who knew him well; if they were women, without exception, they adored him. It was his innate sweetness of nature; his habit of self-deprecation, allied with a weather eye for the little absurdities that make up any life; the ability to make light of what might otherwise appear desperate or dark. He was a kind man, empathetic too; who would not willingly hurt another soul; except, perhaps, in the stern correction of a classroom error. After I got to know him a little better, I asked him if he had actually liked Ronald Syme? It was the only time I saw him lost for words. Well, he expostulated. Well. He was a fellow New Zealander, wasn’t he! He was one of us!
. . .
I’d agreed to cook dinner for George. And so, after a day spent in the library, split in two by an enjoyable lunch at Brasenose College with Ronald Syme’s literary executor, Fergus Millar—who gave me a handsomely bound copy of a thesis on Syme written by a Spanish scholar living in the Canary Islands—I made my way down to the Tesco on Magdalen Street to do the shopping. I bought bacon, onion, garlic, capsicum, zucchini, tomato, basil and a few other things as well. A block of Parmesan cheese and a packet of pasta. I was concerned about quantity: George had an aversion to leftovers and instructed me, more than once, that I must cook the meal in such a way that there weren’t going to be any. I remembered the sardonic summary of an Australian friend: You Kiwis and your leftovers—put them in the fridge then throw them out later.
I wasn’t too worried about the sauce itself: it is a simple recipe and I have cooked it often enough now that I can do it anywhere, in any kitchen, with any collection of pots, pans and other implements. Or even round a campfire. We had, as always, a soup for starters and then I served the pasta, al dente, in the sauce I had made. George put his teeth back in, took a mouthful and smacked his lips. Good. George liked food, ate well and did most of the shopping himself. He was in the habit of taking his stick and his bag and walking over to Summertown most days to buy the necessaries. He hated those occasions when rainy weather or icy pavements made this difficult for his 95 year old body to do.
So my meal passed the taste test. Now we had somehow to eat it all; and still find room for dessert. When we’d both finished what was on our plates, there was a small serving of the pasta languishing, like a rebuke, between us. I looked doubtfully at it: prepared to consume if necessary but not really wanting to. Then George said Do you mind? reached over and helped himself. I filled our wine glasses. Delicious, he pronounced as he finished the last mouthful; and, leftover free, we moved on to dessert which, this night, was poached pears served in a yellow custard, with ground nutmeg sprinkled upon it.
I think it must have been over the pears that George told me about a young American Rhodes Scholar he taught at University College back in 1968 or 69, whom he advised to study Classics as well as Politics as a way of broadening his grasp upon things. This was William Jefferson Clinton, from Hot Springs, Arkansas via Georgetown University in Washington DC, later to be the 42nd President of the United States. What was he like? I asked. He was a nice enough fellow, George said. Not that I knew him very well. A decent rugby player, too. That was perhaps the ultimate accolade.
. . .
One night I went out to East Oxford to have dinner with Janet Wilson. I didn’t stay late. I was travelling on public transport and George had said that he wouldn’t be able to get to sleep until he knew I was safely back under his roof again. I caught two buses, one down Cowley Road to town, the other up Banbury Road to North Oxford; when I let myself into the house the lights were blazing, upstairs and down, but there was no sign of George anywhere. I looked in the kitchen, in the downstairs study where he watched television, in the sitting room and the dining room, then went upstairs and looked in the study there. The door to his bedroom was open but he didn’t seem to be in there either. I went into my own room and took off my jacket and my shoes. I was trying not to feel alarmed: George often joked, half longingly, about his imminent mortality and I wondered if the fatal moment had come at last?
If so, what should I do? Who should I call? George and Pat had three children, two boys and a girl, all of whom were in close touch with their father, calling often on the telephone: but I didn’t know how to contact any of them. What about the emergency services? What number do you ring for help in England? 999? I did another circuit of the house, upstairs and down. Then, as I came up the stairs for the third time, George walked out of his bathroom wearing magnificent red striped pyjamas with the jacket tucked into the trousers, looking like—I don’t actually know what he looked like, something out of a Boy’s Own Annual perhaps, or from a subtle satire upon Englishness. I was so relieved I could have hugged him but of course I didn’t. We merely exchanged polite small talk then said goodnight and went to our respective bedrooms to sleep.
. . .
I tried to articulate my Ashmolean intuitions over lunch on Sunday. Well, said George, noncommittal, after hearing me out, that is what we historians do. Try to find out from whence we came. He had guests that afternoon, a troubled young man he was mentoring and his girlfriend, wife, or wife-to-be. I stayed in my room, broaching the whisky bottle and spending the time reading Jan Morris’ book Oxford, a paperback of which I’d bought at Blackwells that morning. The hardback, published in 1965 under the name of James Morris, was on George’s bookshelves and I’d been dipping into it all week. At that time James was already transitioning into Jan but the voice—civilized, humorous, witty, wise and perceptive—didn’t change as the sexual designation did. Later, after George’s guests had gone and I rejoined him, he rebuked me: not for tippling on his whisky but because I had not bothered to come down to meet them. I did not know how to say I thought he would not have wanted me to do that. It was the only uneasy moment I recall between us.
George had a head full of verse and was inclined to declaim at odd moments. Now, perhaps because of the incipient awkwardness, he broke into: For the field is full of shades as I near a shadowy coast, / And a ghostly batsman plays to the bowling of a ghost, / And I look through my tears on a soundless-clapping host / As the run stealers flicker to and fro, / To and fro: / O my Hornby and my Barlow long ago! Francis Thompson, a few months before his death in 1907, had a ticket to go to Lords to watch his team, Lancashire, play Middlesex; but instead he wrote the poem, called At Lords, of which this is the refrain—remembering a time in 1878 when he had seen Lancs. play Gloucestershire at Old Trafford. I didn’t know the poem and thought George might have been foreshadowing his own death. He wasn’t, not exactly. He was taking me up to his study to show me a video of a speech he had made on the occasion of his 95th birthday, and 65th anniversary as a Fellow at University College. It was, I suppose, a valedictory of a kind.
We were going to Univ that night, to Evensong in the Chapel then dinner at the High Table in the Hall. Perhaps that was why he broke into verse again: The sable presbyters approach / The avenue of penitence; / The young are red and pustular / Clutching piaculative pence. // Under the penitential gates / Sustained by staring Seraphim / Where the souls of the devout / Burn invisible and dim. I knew it was T S Eliot but didn’t know which poem; I memorised a phrase and looked it up later. It is from the last stanza, in which Sweeney, after all that high-toned speech, shifts on his hams in the bathtub. George quoted the second half of Mr Eliot’s Sunday Morning Sermon. Then he set about finding me a tie to wear. It is blue and has small golden tyrannosaurs, each holding a book, upon it; I have it still, because he insisted I keep it, along with the broken comb he gave me so I could tidy up my hair, which was long and curly then, and of which he disapproved.
Sunday night at Univ was a ritual; he went every week. And, like so many rituals, it had its irritations. George always called a taxi van because, using the sliding door on the side, he was able to get in and out of the back of the vehicle more easily. They sent a car. He was furious, not least because this had happened before. Well, we got there eventually and then there was the ritual of disembarking: down Logic Lane to an obscure gateway where the ground was level and ingress easy. We were meant to be met there by the porter, who would open the gate, but the porter wasn’t there; it was only when some random students exited that I was able to catch and keep it open. The porter was in his lodge, playing with his hound, a red setter. There was a tortoise in a terrarium, too, mumbling over a piece of lettuce. We had to stop again, so George could pee. I idled outside waiting. It was night, the lights were on and an unearthly glow was coming from an unseen room along the corridor.
A statue, in white marble, of a drowned youth, lay naked on a slab; surrounded by water as if floating upon an invisible sea. It was supported by two bronze lions, rampant, and between them sat, head-down, weeping, a bronze sea-nymph; the whole upon a stepped pink marble plinth. There was a blue dome above, pricked out with silver stars; and on the pale magenta-coloured walls, lines from a poem were inscribed: Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass, / Stains the white radiance of Eternity, / Until Death tramples it to fragments. I knew them. My sister had in her school days written them upon her pencil case; and would often quote them out loud in her poetry voice. Shelley’s Adonais.
In the Chapel, the choir was more numerous than the congregation; the singing, unearthlily beautiful. The chaplain, a gingery Belfast man, preached a sermon about St Valentine, whose day it was, and the place of love in our hearts. George, exempt from kneeling at prayer, was given a printed copy of the sermon, in case he couldn’t hear it. He dozed, off and on. Afterwards we took a glass of the palest, most astringent sherry I have ever tasted before going in to eat at the High Table. During Grace, spoken in Latin by a young woman down the other end of the table, George seemed to have nodded off again; but when the long oration ended, he raised his ancient head and pronounced: No mistakes!
I wish now I could remember what we ate. Or talked about. I was sitting on the left of the Master, an excessively formal American named William, whom George treated with exaggerated respect. Taking a taxi back to North Oxford afterwards was only a little less complex than going there had been. George sighed when we were finally back inside the house. I’m getting too old for this kind of thing, he said. I may not go again. And then, unexpectedly: Golden lads and girls all must / As chimney sweepers come to dust. He twinkled at me. Ghosts unlaid forbear thee! / Nothing ill come near thee! he intoned and went up to bed. He was a lovely man.