Our English teacher in form five was a nice, ineffectual guy. He stuttered, so in typically compassionate boys’ school style, we called him “Static”. His discipline was pretty tenuous; some of the second-year fifth formers (this was the 1950s: score less than 200 in School Certificate, and you had to repeat the entire year, in the company of kids younger than you) used to goad him by yawning with bovine sound effects each time he read poetry aloud to us. He read a lot – to us, to himself. The former was a way of keeping control, as well as an attempt at intellectual door-opening. And on the occasions when I stopped trying to be the class smart-arse and actually listened to him, a weird understanding began to crawl over me. An understanding that it was possible, even desirable, to read outside the square.
That square, in 1950s form five, was The Set Text. Silas Marner and Tennyson and King Lear – yes, fifth formers read them, almost half a century back – were corpses from which you gouged the bones (plot); heart and lungs (characterisation); brains (style); bowels (themes); learned them off by heart, then regurgitated them in three-hour exams. As for whether you’d actually enjoyed the novel/play/poem, or had been motivated to read something else by the author…. What are ya?
But our English teacher evidently read and enjoyed. When we did (great verb) Silas Marner, he talked about Adam Bede and Mill on the Floss. When we came to Lear, he quoted other, comparable Shakespearean plays. The second-years yawned more bovinely than ever. I did my best to emulate them. Then one day, he gave us a potted outline of Titus Andronicus. Like Lear, this early Shakespearean gore-fest had a protagonist led into tragic error by anger and inflexibility. It had clashes between father and child, a principal female who lusted after a villain, and physical mutilations. The mutilations silenced even the second-years. A girl is raped, and then her tongue is cut out and her hands cut off so she can’t name her violators. A father skewers his son, has his own hand chopped off for a ransom, kills his daughter’s attackers and serves them up in a pie. But wait, there’s more! For our English teacher, it must have been a unique 10 minutes. A class of male adolescents sat silent and listened. Even the word “rape” brought only a token snigger.
At lunchtime, I headed for the school library. Three other guys had got there ahead of me. What was it like? I asked them next day. Crap, they told me – poetry crap. So I forgot about Titus Andronicus.
Three years later, I went to Victoria University. Well, I wasn’t fit for anything else. Halfway through my first year, when by coincidence we were doing King Lear again, I went out and bought a Penguin Shakespeare (one shilling and sixpence, b & w Droeshout engraving of the author on the cover) of Titus. I was 18 years old, and I’d never bought a book for myself before. You may pause here and try to comprehend. I won’t go into it, except to say that my maternal aunts and uncles had doubts about my appetite for reading. It wasn’t altogether healthy; it certainly wasn’t manly. They kept telling my mother that I should be out in the fresh air. Indeed, it’s the sort of narrative that fills 10 bad novels annually.
Anyway, I took my Penguin Titus back to my dark, dank, gas-smelling Sydney Street West boarding house, now underneath several metres of motorway, and through a July Saturday afternoon, I lay on my bed and read it. My main impression? It was bloody awful. (Later, I was to find that T S Eliot had called it “a farce”. Dover Wilson likened it to “some broken-down cart, laden with bleeding corpses from an Elizabethan scaffold, and driven by an executioner from Bedlam”. I wish I could have written that.)
The plot was lurid, lachrymose, lunatic. The characters were posturing gargoyles, who said things like “Oft have I digg’d up dead men from their graves,/And set them upright at their dear friends’ door/Even when their sorrows almost was forgot”. Or else they went “O! O! O!” The style was flatulent. The best bits were the stage directions: “Enter a Messenger with two heads and a hand”; “Enter Lavinia, ravish’d”. Decades later, I saw the Anthony Hopkins movie, which played it as a Restoration burlesque of pox, patches, and balletic violence. They got it bang on.
I loved Titus. I think I read it four times during the following week. While my mates declaimed phrases from The Goon Show, I went around going, “But I have done a thousand dreadful things/As willingly as one would kill a fly,/And nothing grieves me heartily indeed/But that I cannot do ten thousand more.” They all wanted to know where the words came from. I told them, in tones of mild surprise at their lack of acquaintance with the work. So Titus Andronicus gave me the pleasure of possession. It was mine. No teacher or lecturer had introduced or explained it to me. Nobody else in my spotty circle knew it. Titus and I were sole and soul mates.
OK, this had happened to me before. Larkin was only half right; it wasn’t that “getting my nose in a book/Cured most things short of school”. There had already been times when it – temporarily – cured all things, including school. But this time, I’d found it pretty much by myself. Titus was also my first real experience of the pleasures of incantation. I’d never learned lines off by heart before (except for chunks to quote in exams, and they had no more sensuous or emotional impact than ab[c-d] = e+f). Now I had these iambics that strutted and leered and bellowed. The fact that they were third-rate iambics had no relevance. My scrawny shoulders went back; my Brylcreemed head came up. A force-field of words crackled around me. I started to learn other lines from other, better works. It became a habit and an emotional resource.
The play verified other clichés as well. Reading could mean discovery. (It was so important to know a book that your peers didn’t. It still is: look at any Year’s Best Books list, and marvel at the obscurities.) It could mean – of course – a vicarious identity. Like the characters in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, you became your book; it was a surrogate personality. If you were lucky, it was a personality that pulled girls. So I didn’t just recite Aaron the lascivious Moor. I totally was Aaron – with acne.
When I read the notes to my Penguin Titus, I learned still more. Authors could absorb things from other authors. In this case, it was from Seneca, Ovid, and some “Lamentable and Tragicall” Italian stuff. Shakespeare, like our English teacher, evidently read like a drain. Maybe there was a point to it. At the end of the year, working in the Napier wool-stores, I read Seneca, and made sure the permanent hands could see me doing so.
Titus Andronicus showed me an arrogant young professional learning his ropes. Learning how to jump in time and place; how to alternate moods, styles, registers; how to mix the public and private worlds. There were tricks and skills in this writing business. Nobody had ever realised that before me. Titus was also a bridge of sorts between low lit (what I then read for pleasure) and high lit (what I read for assignments). It helped me realise they were parallel universes which could meet before infinity. It helped me smile tolerantly when I came to watch Silence of the Lambs. It introduced me to the hard-working second-rate, which I continue to read with huge enjoyment. Hell, I continue to write it with huge enjoyment, and the NZB editors are not allowed to delete this sentence.
I’ve still got a copy of Titus Andronicus, in the Arden edition. Has an author ever been more elegantly and economically presented in print? I took it down while I was writing this, and read it for the first time in …30 years? I was right. It’s bloody awful.
David Hill’s adult short fiction selection, Hill Sides, will be published this year by Mallinson Rendel.