Part of a two-week series on the pull of bad influences in our lives and in the culture.
I don’t remember all that much about my first year at university except that it was the year we converted from pounds, shillings and pence to “decimal currency.” I shared ground-floor rooms, overlooking the Third Quad in college, with a bearded, bear-like chap I called (for reasons which need not detain us) Eighty Two. He was impossibly good: for all practical purposes a saint. His father ran a school for the blind. He had just spent part of his gap year (though the term wasn’t in use back then) in a 12th-century French monastery, l’Abbaye du Bec Helouin, in Normandy. He had thick black eyebrows and soulful, molten brown eyes. He smoked a pipe, and he played the violin in the university orchestra even though he wasn’t reading Music but Philosophy, Politics and Economics. Despite that he was so unbearably good, as well as being insufferably modest about his accomplishments, he was actually a very lively guy and we got along well, at least until the summer, or so-called “Hilary,” term, when we fell out (an incident involving wine, a girl from Scandinavia and a locked door—my fault).
It was at the end of the summer term that I first met the man who so insidiously diverted my life from its natural course. I needed a job for a few weeks so that I could take a trip to Europe, which was the thing to do in those days. I had a place to stay, because an old school friend of mine had digs on the outskirts of town and offered to sublet while he was away. But economics dictated that I should find a roommate to share the rent. And, somehow, that was how Jake turned up in our rooms one day after lunch.
Jake was a colonial, a third-generation Kenyan. I’d vaguely noticed him around college during the year. He was conspicuous for his sheepskin coat, which he’d had made from local sheep by a tailor in Naivasha. He was tanned and buccaneering, with a striking resemblance somehow to both Marlon Brando and Paul Newman. He spoke in a deep, resonant voice with the colonial accent I remembered so affectionately from my own childhood in Africa. I took to him instantly. We found jobs on a construction site out of town and he bought, for 50 pounds (half of which I was supposed to pay him back) an Austin A35 van to take us to and from work. Because we were low on cash, it often ran out of petrol, and so he called the van Sukuma (which is a Swahili verb meaning “push”). Also, the only brake that worked was the parking brake, which made it tricky when we jaunted up to London to see a test match (cricket being one of his passions).
On the face of it, Jake was nothing like 82. He wasn’t Good at all, and Doing Good In The World was a fair way down his list of career priorities if it appeared there at all. Oddly, though, he was a romantic in very much the same way as 82. Only instead of, say, Gandhi or Che Guevara, his heroes were Henry Miller and Lawrence Durrell, maybe even in a small way Papa Hemingway. Jake’s firm ambition was to be a writer. With his garrulous tongue and dandified style—the tailor-made sheepskin coat was only one fanciful item in a wardrobe which included pink velvet trousers, a black beret, a kanzu for bedtime, sandals made out of old car tires, and a midnight-blue velvet waistcoat with pearl buttons—he had all the trappings and glamour of one destined for greatness in this role. His mother, with the help of a sugar daddy, ran a gallery and cultivated young artists. His father raced in the East African Safari Rally, a grueling 4,000-mile bush race of exactly the type a macho Hemingway character would undertake if he weren’t into bullfighting or killing other large, fierce animals. And his girlfriend, with whom he actually had real sexual relations, was an air hostess (at least until she was killed in a crash at Haile Selassie International Airport, Addis Ababa in 1972, an event which only heightened, by its tragic overtone, his credentials as an aspiring young novelist.)
Even his choice of degree was unusual in that Jake was reading a course, newly established in that year, called Human Sciences. There were all sorts of interesting disciplines under this umbrella, and Jake discoursed enthusiastically and with seeming erudition on Niko Tinbergen, Mary Douglas and especially Claude Levi-Strauss who had invented something radical-sounding called Structuralism. Fellow Kenyan Richard Dawkins, then a nonentity in the wider world but still a rising young star in academia, was one of the lecturers in the Human Sciences faculty, and Jake took tutorials with his extraordinarily good-looking wife. All this was very impressive to a lowly biochemist whose rare moments of study were confined to non-riveting subjects like Glycolysis & the Krebs Cycle.
I don’t remember all that much about my second year at university because I was drunk most of the time, along with my newfound friend.
One evening in The Bear, Jake hatched a scheme.
“Listen, Muguruki,” he told me (the nickname being an ironic usage, meaning “wily old man”), “you’ve got to get away from these fucking etiolated Englishmen. Come on safari, ‘ey? You need the wide-open spaces, mun, or you’ll go fucking nuts. Levi-Strauss says…”
And so in order to take a vacation in East Africa along with a motley crew of other students, I sobered up and took jobs—on the night shift in a commercial bakery for Christmas and Easter, and in the summer watching an automatic lathe turn out steel components in an engineering works.
It was perhaps on this trip when Jake’s insidious influence was finally cemented. Riding on the roof of the Land Rover across the Serengeti, nights around the campfire surrounded by wild beasts, weed on the beach under the Southern Cross, that sort of thing. The high point was Lamu, an ancient Arabian island port with more seedy enchantment and romance even than Durrell’s Alexandria. Dhows loading mangrove along the corniche in front of the town. Idlers in the market square, shadowed by an old Portuguese fort. Lemonade at Anwar Coldrink’s. Donkeys braying in the alleys of the labyrinth. In the dusky evening, muezzins calling the faithful to prayer from the minarets. More weed.
All this glamma was too much. If Jake could be a writer, why not I? To warm up, I began to keep a diary. I read a lot of novels, looking for tips on how to write one. I found Beckett particularly inspiring: apparently, it didn’t matter—in fact it was a boon—if you were boring and incomprehensible. Thomas Pynchon, also: the storyline obscure? So much the better! And, of course, Henry Miller (whole paragraphs of adjectives—a Thesaurus, some vin ordinaire, hey presto) and Lawrence Durrell for the wistful, iambic prose. Some time later I was emboldened to start scribbling. A “novel of ideas,” naturally, since I lacked a real narrative. Finally, I bought an old typewriter, taught myself to type—most people didn’t in those days—and began pecking like a pro. Only the red part of the ribbon had any ink, and I single-spaced to every margin for to save paper, so my manuscript, overwritten with tiny handwritten corrections, was not only unreadable but also almost illegible. When everybody else left university to become accountants, I took a job as a night porter and continued on my great work while the world slept. Jake left me his velvet trousers and record player.
With the benefit of a few decades of hindsight, the folly of this sorry saga is painfully obvious. Unless he’s a veritable prodigy, only a fool will attempt a novel in his twenties. Who so wet behind the ears has anything interesting to say? I suppose Evelyn Waugh (even he burned his first attempt, after Harold Acton observed there was “too much nid nodding over port”—a lesson EW clearly took to heart); but a satire of one’s contemporaries is different, perhaps. And if Nature is telling you to be an accountant, you should pay heed and don the green eyeshade. It takes more than a pair of pink velvet trousers to make a writer.
Unfortunately, the disease has never entirely left me. Even now, I occasionally toil—my fourth effort. Jake was much more sensible. He quit writing after a year and made a bundle taking investment bankers and royalty on luxury safaris. Eventually, he bought a house on Lamu, which has now become a kind of playground for wintering European aristos. He ambles about the town and is treated himself like a local pasha. He’s the only one of my fellow students I keep in touch with. Bad as ever, bless him.
Previously in series: Bad News Brenda and Drunk In China
Carl Hegelman is a nom de guerre.