Him and Me
Did he then see himself accurately as he then was? It doesn’t look very likely. A clue is that it’s not as I now see him; but far more important, it’s pretty clear that most others saw him less indulgently than the way he saw himself.
There are early snapshots, too fuzzy to be reliable - the rather miserable and skinny child (understandably disappointing his mother), the unsociable and largely unsuccessful schoolboy (understandably not much liked by his teachers), the poetically inclined and self-centred boyfriend of a girl who, in terms of maturity, could have been his aunt – but he doesn’t really come into focus until he becomes an undergraduate (in wartime) at one of the less distinguished Cambridge colleges.
He then, I remember, thought of himself as generally well-meaning, eager to learn and with an inkling that his vocation might be the priesthood in the Church of England. He loved exercise, but not in team sports. So it was the squash court rather than the hockey team. The single ‘whiff’ on the river rather than the college eight. He felt no urge to push his college up the university sporting lists.
He was disappointed by the lack of intellectual and aesthetic knowledge or curiosity on the part of the young men who lived with him. They seemed to have little knowledge of or interest in the music, painting and literature that mattered. They seemed to have no conceptual grasp of the subjects they were reading. His friends tended to be those in other - and in his view, better - colleges who shared his view of what a university could and should be. To the extent that he was aware of the mild hostility of those in his own college, he either was puzzled by it or didn’t care about it. It certainly did not stop him from talking ‘frankly’, as he would have put it, to those who didn’t see the importance of what they didn’t know.
As to his religious intimations, he found his college chaplain to be intellectually under-weight, a hopeless social snob and a suppressed homosexual. There was no chance of a dialogue. There were other undergraduates in the college who were thinking of holy orders, but they tended to come either from nonconformist backgrounds in which it was bad manners to question doctrine, or from C.of E. clerical families where being a vicar was a job to get on with, and once again, it was not done to question the compromise on which the Church precariously balanced.
There, so far as I can now do it, is a self-portrait of him by the then him. But, it is possible to infer from the reactions of others, a quite a different portrayal.
This, I can now see, concentrated its brush on the intellectual arrogance of someone who didn’t have much to be arrogant about. On what achievements did the arrogance rest? Someone who had already written the novel of the century, or was just about to? Someone who, with an effortless starred First under his belt from Part I of the Tripos, was just about to do it again in Part II ? A future archbishop?
To this it is, thank heavens, possible to add a life-saving sub-clause, which is that even then he did realize that there were one or two minor things wrong with his picture of himself and what he believed. Enough, for instance, to see that priesthood was not for him. Even enough to see that he might not be sufficiently brilliant as a scholar for a distinguished academic career.
But it needed many more years of touching white-hot metal (to convince himself that it really was hot) to learn more of the neglected genius that was himself. It took many burns to convince him that something was wrong with his perspective. It might even be that self-portraits (like the priesthood) were something he might best abandon.
So this is a long way from saying that at last I’ve got the portrait right. In fact the lesson is that since I’ve never before got it right at the time, I’m unlikely to do so now.
Can people change - as distinct from getting better at concealing what they are? Is it possible by an effort of will not to be that former person whom one now dislikes? How can anyone decide not to be himself - especially if his track-record indicates that his self-portraits have been unreliable? Half-way through his life St. Augustine, heroically, thought it was worth trying. I hope he’ll forgive me when I say that my favourite people are those who never seem to pick up a paint-brush. They would use time better than in writing a Memo such as this.