Going to university in the 1960s was unique because the degree courses unfolded in a time just prior to the dominance and hegemony of screen culture. It was an age in which people were bearers of narratives rather than bearers of slogans. It was also a moment in history that was very sensitive to the presence of nuclear weapons and the threat of nuclear war; back then we never quite knew if we would suddenly be destroyed – blown to smithereens. And so, because there were less distractions than now and because we wanted to escape from the insanity of mutually assured destruction (MAD) we did a lot of talking and a lot of debating. We were, I think, still living in the days of an oral culture. In addition to talking, we read, listened to music, went to see plays and seriously considered choosing alternative life-styles – alternatives to the conventional ones that were on offer. In all of this we were helped by those texts that presented a critique of the established order: Nietzsche, Orwell, Marcuse, Fanon, Goffman, Laing and Illich were de rigeur.
As the discussions took place I realised that I was not at all well-educated. I wasn’t even that articulate. And this was brought home to me when I ended up sharing a house in the country with a number of students who were studying in the Arts faculty. They really could use English well. So, in my third year (of a four-year first degree course) I decided not to attend any lectures and I devoted myself to reading the classics of literature in an effort to make up for my relative ignorance and lack of education. Already the house in which I was living was functioning like an alternative community so it wasn’t difficult to spend the day reading and thinking – and all the while gradually losing contact with the world outside. Often I would sit by a log fire with a novel in my hand and, after a day’s reading, I would play bridge with the students who lived upstairs. Soon I began to live with little idea of date and time. I had no watch and no calendar. Sometimes I would even wake up in the morning and have no immediate idea of what season we were in.
I read the French writers, such as Sartre and Camus and De Beauvoir; I read the Russians and I loved the way the world slowed down as I read Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy. I read some of the new German authors and I was astonished by Gunter Grass’ ‘The tin drum’, a book that I still love. Kafka’s ‘The trial‘ was remarkable: it left me exhausted. But I also read some British writers – such as Graham Greene and Mervyn Peake.
At the end of the year, I did, at least understand what words like ‘incipient’ or ‘inchoate’ or ‘isomorphic’ actually meant. I think that I had also begun to develop an enlarged thought and some appreciation of ‘difference’.
Peake’s Titus Groan was, for me, a masterpiece. I still think it illustrates one of the very best uses of a magically evocative English language. I’m not sure I ever recovered from the experience of entering the crumbling Gothic world of Gormenghast and I eventually came to work in a place (a government institution) that resembled Peake’s labyrinthine fantastic creation. I sometimes made this plain. And that was not such a good idea: the authorities were not pleased. But probably the most significant thing about reading Mervyn Peake was that his story-telling induced a dream-like experience within which I could dwell and enjoy a psychological space one step removed from the world.