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Michael's literary taste

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Jan. 1st, 1972 | 12:00 am

Michael had amazing taste in literature and poetry. He was a prolific reader. He told me to read anything and everything, as long as it was well written, and he loved second-hand books, and trawling second-hand book shops. I used to enjoy going with him. He frequently wrote useful notes and comments in books, which I used to refer to as “scribble”!

He had a lovely copy of “Wuthering Heights”, and the most beautiful book: “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam” by Edward Fitzgerald.

He wore spectacles for reading; I think the octagonal ones he wore in the Bond film were his, or modelled on them. I have really powerful memories of him looking over his reading specs at me to answer a question; the way he looked over his specs (and book or paper) was so characteristic. He never varied it! He had bookmarks everywhere. Woe betide anyone who folded over a book page!

Two of Michael’s favourite books were, “War of the Worlds” by HG Wells, and “Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck. He told me “Of Mice and Men” was one of the greatest books ever written, and read it to me when I was ten or eleven. I learned from Michael that when you read to older children, you shouldn’t be afraid of adult books. “A definitive read” – I can hear him say it!

Something else he read to me when I was ten or eleven was the “Eagle of the Ninth” trilogy by Rosemary Sutcliffe.

I don't think he would have been a fan of the "Harry Potter" books, but he would have approved of the way they encouraged children to read.

I found a very old edition of “Idylls of the King” by Tennyson. Michael passed it on to me when I was boarding school, studying “Morte D'Arthur” by Sir Thomas Mallory. It has some notes, including a reference to Kai being missing! The reference to Kai is highly unusual. Maybe I said something about wretched Mallory being boring, and Kai would have brightened it up a bit.

He would have gone through the notes with me. The chapter “Vivien” has the most comments. It must have mirrored something I was studying in “Morte D’Arthur”, and he suggests that I compare it with Homer as well. From the notes, we clearly discussed the sensuality of the imagery as Vivien seduces Merlin, who I thought was a bit gullible for a wizard!

He read “Interview with the Vampire” by Anne Rice, shortly after it was published, and gave it to me to read.

He was a great admirer of the 17th century poet, John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, who wrote astonishing love poetry. Michael always said he was a great unrecognised poet of his age. A fair amount of his poems are very graphic, but ironically Michael did not ban me from reading them, but encouraged it, because he was such an amazing poet; we tended to read them together, so maybe we read “suitable” ones. One of Michael’s favourite poems by Wilmot was “Love and Life” (1677).

Love and Life

All my past life is mine no more,
The flying hours are gone,
Like transitory dreams giv'n o'er,
Whose images are kept in store
By memory alone.

The time that is to come is not;
How can it then be mine?
The present moment's all my lot;
And that, as fast as it is got,
Phyllis, is only thine.

Then talk not of inconstancy,
False hearts, and broken vows;
If I, by miracle, can be
This live-long minute true to thee,
'Tis all that Heav'n allows.

It’s not a long poem, but it's beautiful. I know it's one of his favourites as he has marked it in the book. I think what resonated with him about the poem was the transitory nature of life. What we have is gone so fast, what's to come is in the future.

“Quality stuff, quality stuff” was Michael. Don't read or watch rubbish!

I don't think many people realised quite how bright Michael was. He chose what he (and I) read very carefully. Though he read sociology and psychology, he did not push it onto me, but encouraged me in the areas I showed interest and talent: literature and Classics. He really influenced and shaped my literary education and choices.

He was also an admirer of Cicero's writings. A self-made man, Cicero literally climbed the “Cursus Honorum” (political ladder) to become Consul. Cicero did not come from one of the old aristocratic Roman families so this was an amazing achievement. One of his favourites from Cicero is: “A room without books is like a body without a soul.”

He introduced me to Homer when I was very young: certainly no older than 13. He loved imagery, and the way similes, metaphors and epithets could conjure up amazing images in the mind, and felt that Homer was the “Father of literature.”

He should have been a Classicist, though ironically he had not read "The Aeneid" until I introduced him to it while I was at university.

A poem I remember reading with Michael is “Five Ways to Kill a Man” by Edwin Brock.

Five Ways to Kill a Man

There are many cumbersome ways to kill a man.
You can make him carry a plank of wood
to the top of a hill and nail him to it.
To do this properly you require a crowd of people
wearing sandals, a cock that crows, a cloak
to dissect, a sponge, some vinegar and one
man to hammer the nails home.
Or you can take a length of steel,
shaped and chased in a traditional way,
and attempt to pierce the metal cage he wears.
But for this you need white horses,
English trees, men with bows and arrows,
at least two flags, a prince, and a
castle to hold your banquet in.
Dispensing with nobility, you may, if the wind
allows, blow gas at him. But then you need
a mile of mud sliced through with ditches,
not to mention black boots, bomb craters,
more mud, a plague of rats, a dozen songs
and some round hats made of steel.
In an age of aeroplanes, you may fly
miles above your victim and dispose of him by
pressing one small switch. All you then
require is an ocean to separate you, two
systems of government, a nation's scientists,
several factories, a psychopath and
land that no-one needs for several years.
These are, as I began, cumbersome ways to kill a man.
Simpler, direct, and much more neat is to see
that he is living somewhere in the middle
of the twentieth century, and leave him there.

We read it together, and Michael made notes in the margin. It's a powerful poem, and again it shows the strength of Michael’s convictions on war and nuclear arms. It did not affect me in the way that “Your Attention Please” by Peter Porter did, but it still made me think. We discussed all the verses. I don't remember everything, but I always recall how serious our reading sessions were. No, serious is the wrong word, as they were fun, but I really “studied” what we read.

In our discussion about the poem that we talked about atheism. I told Michael I didn’t believe in anything. While he agreed with me, he stressed that choices must be informed, and he expected me to go away and come back to him with reasons for my decision.

I can see him so clearly leaning forward in his chair, arms on knees as we read. Sometimes he would have to juggle Alf the dachshund on his lap at the same time!

He would have been wonderful at recording audio books.


Contributed by A.S., the daughter of one of Michael’s close friends.

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