Sir Frank Kermode

With Frank and his daughter in Italy
Playing cribbage with Frank

My contribution to the Liber Amicorum for Professor Sir Frank Kermode published as ‘There are Kermodians’ edited by Anthony Holden and Ursula Owen.

Some years ago I mentioned to a young teacher friend of mine in Dorset that I had spent the previous day in London with Frank. He had read Frank’s work at university and had been greatly influenced by him. Eager for a glimpse of the great man he asked “What did you discuss with him?”

“Oh”, I said “We discussed pre-Revolutionary Russian writers in relation to the mysticism of Yeats over lunch and in the afternoon we dissected structuralism. We had a little time left over and we were going to discuss Pound and Joyce but we decided to have a sherry instead.”

He was so impressed I didn’t have the heart to disillusion him by telling him the truth. Frank and I still have our days in London. Frank comes down from Cambridge and I travel from Dorset. We meet at his club around twelve, have a drink in the bar and then lunch with a good bottle of wine. After lunch we go down to the basement and get on with the main business of the day. We play snooker, usually quite badly and sometimes very badly. Conversation does take place but not on the rarefied plain my young friend would like to have imagined.

Frank does not sit easily in his club. This slight anxiety about being a member of, or more accurately, having access to the portals of the Establishment springs from his inability to stop himself seeing and appreciating, with some humour, the ludicrosity of his own position within that Establishment. He has a healthy distrust of authority born perhaps out of his Manx background and reinforced by his time in the Navy.

Our friendship is not based on any shared experience of university or academic life. I left school at fifteen to become a carpenter’s apprentice but after that I did become a writer and Frank likes and respects writers, while always claiming that he himself is not one. I remember many years ago after dinner in my house in Fulham Peter Nicholls and I, full of wine and self pity, were bemoaning the fact that we had never been to university. Never experienced those wonderful three years of freedom where making a living did not matter and the pursuit of knowledge was all.

Frank got more and more impatient until he could take no more of it. “You’re both talking nonsense.” he exploded. “You both write and have your work performed. University might well have ruined you. Neither of you has any idea what you are talking about.”

He was right of course, our vision of university life was a hopelessly romantic one and hard as we tried to hang on to our sense of grievance and loss, Frank would have none of it. When he fixes you with that beady eye and asks, “What exactly do you mean?” you had better get your head together quickly and choose your words carefully.

But he is also the most infinitely courteous man I know with no sense of the “I am the great I am” as they say in Ireland. A couple of years ago my daughter, who lives in France, rang me and said a cousin of her husband was going to Cambridge for a post graduate year and could I help him out. I had met the young man, a brilliant mathematician but incredibly shy and diffident. I asked Frank to see him and two days after he arrived Frank gave him tea and two hours of his time and an open invitation to come and see him any time. The young man never contacted Frank again which puzzled and, I think, slightly hurt Frank because of the discourtesy.

The next Christmas I met the young man in France and asked him why he had behaved so badly. He blushed deeply, stammered an apology and then explained what had happened. He had liked Frank enormously; been interested in everything he had said and left determined to keep in touch. When he got back to his college he mentioned he had had tea with Frank and he then learned who Frank was. After that he was terrified of contacting Frank because he felt intellectually inadequate. I said, “But you had already met the man.” He agreed saying that he had had a wonderful time but only because he had no idea who he was talking to. He’d had the privilege of meeting the real man but the reputation got in the way.

I have sent Frank my work over the years, always with some trepidation because he does not allow friendship to get in the way of an honest and accurate opinion. If he thinks it is inadequate or not up to standard he says so and I value his judgment above anybody else’s.

I treasure his ability, in conversation, whatever the question or subject is, to dredge out of that prodigious memory store the right quote or reference to fine point the discussion or if memory fails the immediate leap out of the chair to one of the many bookcases where the fingers walk along the rows until the book is found which will clarify the problem. He always has time and interest if you ring him with a query and you hear the familiar “Ill ring you back.” I sit in my study a hundred miles away and I can see the swift movement from room to room until the book is found and then the phone rings and I have my answer.

He is a very private man and adept at hiding his pain. I spent two weeks alone with him in the Spender house in France which, sadly, is no more. It was the time of his break-up with Anita and he was hoping for a letter that would resolve the problem. Every morning he would walk up to the letter box and every morning it was empty. He would stand in his characteristic way, left hand clutching his right upper arm, right hand holding his pipe which would be puffed at for a minute or two then the composed walk back to the house.

We both had work to do and at the very beginning we set up a disciplined routine. After breakfast we would retire to different rooms not to meet again until just before one. Purely by accident it seemed we would bump into each other in the kitchen having come downstairs to make a cup of coffee. “How’s the work?” “Oh fine, fine, must get back as soon as the kettle boils.” Then it would seem rude to walk out and not share the coffee break, then as we were sitting there anyway what about one game of cribbage. Now Frank plays this game with a speed and ferocity born of three years of boredom on ships of His Majesty’s Navy during the war and he plays it for a penny a point. It seemed he always won the first game then I had to get even, which I seldom did. After several games a short walk was advisable to dispel the tension built up in these monumental battles and then a glass of wine or perhaps a pastis and then Good Heavens, it’s nearly lunch time. We both had an awful lot of work to catch up on when we got home but we had a new store of laughter and companionship to sustain us.

On one of our walks an incident happened which impressed Frank and he mentioned it to me recently as a fond memory of that time. We were on a narrow track and stepped aside to allow a line of immaculately dressed French riders to go through. As each horse passed its rider, solemnly and without smiling, raised his hat in thanks. For a courteous man such dignified courtesy was appropriate.

Frank had driven down in his brand new Rover car but somehow I did most of the driving. On narrow French hill roads his driving can be somewhat hair raising. We came out one morning to go shopping and Frank suddenly stopped demanding the keys and declaring it was his car and he was going to drive. We hadn’t gone two hundred yards when a French car came from the other direction not giving an inch and as it passed it took Frank’s driving mirror with it. The Frenchman reversed and he and Frank examined the damage. The Frenchman declared loudly and with good humour that there didn’t seem to be much harm done. Diffidently and politely Frank seemed to agree and the Frenchman was in his car and away. Back home the new mirror cost Frank a hundred and forty pounds so that was a costly piece of courtesy.

Playing games with Frank is a different matter. Squash, table tennis, cards, he plays to win with a steely determination but then he is a very determined man. After one of our snooker days a couple of years ago I had to leave early and Frank had a couple of hours to kill before he gave a speech at yet another distinguished dinner. I rang him next morning to see how it had gone and he told me what happened. With time to kill he decided to walk from Mayfair to Bloomsbury. He set off from the club and anybody who has walked with Frank will know he sets a very fast pace which younger men find hard to match. He had gone half a block when he tripped over a broken paving stone and went sprawling into the road. An approaching truck slammed on its brakes and stopped only yards from his prone figure. Bruised and shaken he was helped to the pavement where he assured everyone he was fine.
I asked him had he been to his doctor in Cambridge to have him checked and, of course, he said no. Frank going to a doctor is a rare event indeed. I then wondered whether they had been able to get a replacement speaker at such short notice and he said there was no need as he had gone on to the dinner. Any other human being would have had a stiff drink and gone home.

In the same way over the last few years he has been threatening to ease up, not do any more lectures abroad as the travelling is very exhausting and then you get the call that he is off the next day to Milan or New York or Timbuktu. He is indefatigable. At the beginning of this year when he was unwell I went to stay with him in Cambridge and his main anger was directed at his doctor who had told him that at seventy nine it was time to give up playing squash. He has a new doctor now who has told him playing squash is extremely good for him so he is back on the court.

Over the years we have shared many family holidays in France and Italy and a ritual developed which Frank claims was my doing. It’s called a `sealer’. A glass of whiskey before retiring. It is a fine tradition as long as it remains singular. When it becomes plural the next morning is a little blurred.

I look forward to sharing a sealer with my friend Frank for many years to come.

Brian Phelan.
February 2014