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Forster in CambridgeRichard Shone
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Vol. 42 No. 15 · 30 July 2020

Forster in Cambridge

Richard Shone

1850 words

My first sight​ of E.M. Forster was of him coming towards me on Clare Bridge in Cambridge. It was a cold afternoon in November 1968 and Forster was on his way back to King’s College, next door to Clare, where I was in my first term as an undergraduate. He was wearing a thick coat, striped tie and flat cap, and walked with a stick. He slightly shied away against the parapet of the bridge when I went up to him, no doubt a reflection of the frequency with which he was accosted on his daily, stop-start walk. His look of quizzical apprehension changed to an amiable apology when I explained I was the Richard Shone to whom he had sent a note a few days earlier asking me to ‘drop in’. ‘Yes, of course you are,’ he said. The note had been prompted by Nancy Ackerley, a friend of mine and the sister of Forster’s great friend J.R. Ackerley, who had written introducing me and hoping we would meet. I had duly knocked on his door but there had been no reply. He examined the books I was carrying (a collection of Edwin Muir’s essays, of which he approved; Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas, at which he wrinkled his nose) and asked me to come for a drink at six that evening, before moving off towards Clare Old Court with a curiously sideways walk that made him look as though he were being gently pulled away from his intended direction by a magnet.

At six I knocked on his door and heard his light-toned ‘Come in.’ At first I could see no one in the large, high-ceilinged room with its mass of Victorian furniture, books and pictures against Morris-style wallpaper, curtains drawn, softly lit by table lamps. Then I discovered Forster in a cushiony chair by the fireplace, glass of red Cinzano in hand. He offered me one and we settled down. It wasn’t immediately easy but after some pleasantries (and after establishing that he didn’t really approve of studying English literature, as I was doing), we got on to discussing Ackerley’s posthumous, recently published memoir, My Father and Myself, which disclosed his father’s two families (unknown to each other until Roger Ackerley’s death) and Ackerley’s own sexual problems. I had read it, with great enjoyment, in a proof copy that Nancy had lent me. (Soon afterwards she gave me a bound copy inscribed: ‘Dearest Richard, I know you like this book, and you know I don’t! but here it is with my love, Nance.’) Forster had not liked it, seemingly on personal rather than literary grounds. Its self-portrait was too bleak and one-sided: Ackerley was greatly loved by his friends and this was hardly evident. Forster had written to this effect to Duncan Grant, saying that he agreed with Grant and wished he could give Joe ‘a good smack!’ But Grant hadn’t read the book yet and the letter – one of the last Forster wrote in his own hand – had been addressed to Nancy’s flat in Putney. (All this led to a three-way correspondence summed up by Nancy as a typical ‘Morgan muddle’.)

There were one or two silences, but not embarrassing ones – at least not for me. I told him about the months I had spent working at Chatto & Windus before I came up to Cambridge, and that I had seen Leonard Woolf there from time to time on Hogarth Press business. Forster venerated Woolf (‘What a life he has led,’ he once wrote. ‘And how well he has led it’). Woolf had been a great help when he had stalled in writing A Passage to India and wanted encouragement. He told me Woolf had taught him to ride on Putney Common in preparation for his first visit to India in 1912. In Hyderabad he had ‘shot through the jungle – I like the altitude.’ ‘In Hyderabad?’ I asked. ‘No, on a horse!’ And there came, from under his wispy moustache, his characteristic sneezing laugh (eyes closed) followed by an appreciative little wail.

Before I left, I asked Forster about the somewhat incongruous presence, among the family portraits and Victorian views, of a reproduction of Picasso’s Boy Leading a Horse (1906) on the far wall. He told me he’d borrowed it years before from the college picture library, which loaned students and fellows original works and reproductions, and had been allowed to hold on to it. ‘It’s all down to Duncan really, as the library was his idea, set up by Maynard Keynes.’ A pause: ‘I don’t think I’ll return it.’

I saw Forster on several occasions over the following year. He told me that The Longest Journey was the novel he was most glad to have written (it was my least favourite); that he thought that Three Guineas was a mistake (as did most of Woolf’s friends); that he felt the Rubens recently installed in King’s chapel was a ‘folie de grandeur’ – the college had, he thought, been hoodwinked by Michael Jaffé, the Rubens expert – and did not suit the chapel’s interior (‘too coloured’). He said that Roger Fry had taught him all he knew about pictures – save ‘my own feelings about them’.

Another meeting came about through the young painter Mark Lancaster. He was the first artist-in-residence at King’s, and lived and worked in the Gibbs Building. His huge studio overlooked the quadrangle and from there we sometimes saw Forster (‘Morgan’ to us) making his slow sideways progress across the lawn. Mark was a glamorous and sociable figure. For me and one or two other undergraduates, part of that glamour derived from his having worked at Warhol’s Factory in New York, tangible evidence of which was a silkscreen head of Elizabeth Taylor on his wall. He was devoted to Forster and would often retell ‘Morgan’s latest’ bon mot or lightly scathing comment on one of the fellows, on whom he turned a rather sharp eye (including Michael Jaffé: ‘I can’t think Rubens would have cared for him’).

One Sunday morning Mark gave an impromptu party for Duncan Grant, who had come to Cambridge to look at the murals he had painted in what had once been Keynes’s rooms. (They are still on the wall: naked men and women dancing and picking grapes.) It was nearly fifty years since Grant had last seen them: in 1920 they had been overlaid with panels by himself and Vanessa Bell. He was moved to see the original decorations of 1910-11 and remembered his despair at failing to finish them, throwing down his brush and bursting into tears, as he told us later. Forster delighted in this recollection: ‘Yes, with me it was my pen!’

Mark had asked a dozen or more people to the party, all of them assembled by the time Forster arrived. Almost at once he saw his old friend standing in the middle of the room. ‘Duncan?’ he called out in an unusually deep voice, containing a note of interrogation. ‘Morgan?’ Grant replied in an even deeper voice. They had known each other for nearly sixty years but now met infrequently. Forster said that the room we were in had been Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson’s and that he hadn’t been in it since his death in 1932. Grant wondered why: ‘The fellow who occupied the rooms afterwards was a terrible bore.’ Hearing them talk together was like listening to a family conversation, but one wrapped in the accents and assumptions of the past.

On another of Grant’s visits to Cambridge, in early November 1969, a group of us went in search of Forster and found him in the Senior Combination Room, asleep in an armchair after lunch. We tiptoed away, but Grant remained and made a little drawing of him in a sketchbook. On another occasion, in March 1970, a few of us, including his friend Christopher Isherwood, went to his rooms. I remember the affectionate banter between Forster and Isherwood, and their contrasting hairstyles – Forster’s a rather unruly, fine white mop, Isherwood’s a razor-sharp crew cut, on which Forster commented, asking Isherwood to turn round so he could see the full effect.

This was their last meeting. By then, after a series of small strokes, Forster was fading. One evening when I was going to have a drink with Nick Furbank (Forster’s friend and future biographer), I found his room empty but heard him call from Forster’s rooms above. He had found Forster on the floor of his bedroom. I helped Nick steer him to his armchair. He was smiling and alert and seemed concerned only that he had interrupted our evening. He amused us when, on Nick’s asking what he had done with his recently awarded Order of Merit, he said it was safely in his sock drawer. He added that lying on the floor had some advantages: he liked the different viewpoint.

After a final stroke in King’s at the end of May 1970, Forster died on 7 June. Nick wrote to me about his final days and funeral:

He was worried and miserable during those last days in King’s, after his stroke, but not from fear of death, which he often said didn’t frighten him at all: I’m sure quite truly. One feels ill in going through the things in his room. It’s not as sad as I thought it might have been, as it seems that all through his last years he was tranquilly putting his belongings in order – not apple-pie order, being Morgan. It’s rather that he gave them a last look, tidied a drawer here, left a label or message to a friend there, as a pleasant, cheerful human activity.

The funeral was odd. He had forbidden any religious ceremony, so we sat for ten minutes or so in the crematorium chapel listening to Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, the Sixth [a mistake for the scherzo of the Fifth Symphony], while the undertaker’s man twiddled the knobs of the hi-fi in black gloves. It was all rather uncomfortable; however, as we were all lining up, after inspecting the flowers in the cloister, to return to our Rolls-Royces, we suddenly saw that all the undertaker’s men had their heads in the bonnet of the leading Rolls. It was stuck immovably. The chief undertaker came up the path, smacking his forehead with his black gloves most theatrically, saying ‘Never in the twenty years …’ etc. It cheered us up no end: undoubtedly Morgan’s spirit at work.

As a memento, Nick gave me Forster’s narrow christening brush of 1879 with an elaborate silver ‘M’ on the top. And I was to pass on to Grant two lovely, spotted seashells which, as he remarked on receiving them, were very like the one in Rembrandt’s famous drawing. I still have the brush, and like to imagine the formidably doting Lily Forster using it to smooth baby Morgan’s curls 140 years ago.

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