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Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Kindness of Strangers

I was thinking today about the series of evening appearances by visiting writers that I attended while studying English & American Literature at the University of East Anglia from 1999-2002. The prestigious reputation (if I say so myself) of UEA's School of English & American Studies gave it the chance to draw some stunning literary heavyweights to give readings and be interviewed in front of us students, right there in Lecture Theatre 1.

This is Lecture Theatre 1

Guests that I had the chance to see first-hand for only a few pounds a ticket included not just major UK-based authors like Kazuo Ishiguro, Jung Chang, and Dame Muriel Spark (authors of four of my very favourite books between them - respectively The Remains of the Day & When We Were Orphans; Wild Swans; and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie); but also writers visiting from overseas - like Joseph Heller, and even Arthur Miller. Arthur Miller! A man who not only wrote some of the most celebrated plays of the 20th century, but who of course was also married to Marilyn Monroe - which surely is no less impressive an achievement. And this man sat down and read from his own works, was interviewed by one of my lecturers, and took questions from the audience - just so that I and my fellow students (plus some interested Norwich locals) could hear him.

Arthur Miller in conversation

It was a rare privilege (not least because Heller, Miller and Spark all died within a few years of my seeing them), and one that makes me value my time at university even more in retrospect. What a wonderful sense of community writers have - to traipse around the world sharing their talents with others for what must be pretty limited financial gain - and often ending up speaking to audiences which are frankly beneath them intellectually (a fact Joseph Heller tacitly acknowledged when the floor was thrown open to the public, by pre-empting what must depressingly be the most common questions he hears: "No I didn't have anything to do with the movie of Catch 22; Yes I liked it."). Christopher Fry was full of anecdotes about 'Larry and Vivien' and the golden age of British theatre - and at more than 90 years old he was still willing to come out and share them with us on a rainy winter's night.

I admit to falling somewhat into the trap of youth by subconsciously assuming that life would always afford me opportunities like this - taking for granted that such titans would always present themselves on my doorstep and for my entertainment and betterment - and it's only now that I look back and appreciate it fully. But I'll always have my signed copies of Catch 22, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, etc. I'll always be able to remember that when I told Muriel Spark that Brodie was one of my favourite books, she looked genuinely thrilled - as if nobody had ever said it to her before - and said "Really?" in a delighted tone, (especially gratifying from someone who had a rather legendary reputation as 'difficult', to put it tactfully). And not only do I have those memories and mementos, but these experiences contributed immeasurably to my love for literature. When I saw Joseph Heller, I had never read Catch 22 - but I soon did, and it blew my mind. When Frank McCourt (then a million-selling celebrity with the success of Angela's Ashes) told us that he hadn't started writing until late middle-age, it expanded my notions of what I could do with my life. And most impacting of all, having the chance to see and even speak to people who had so shaped the world of literature and wider culture before I was even born, went some way to helping me understand the sometimes thrilling, and sometimes terrifying, truth of Faulkner's words:
"The past is not dead. It's not even past."

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