[Christopher, a Cambridge undergraduate, decides to buy a motor-bike]
The college tutor, to whom I had to go for permission, remarked: “don’t let it keep you from your work for the Mays.” He, at any rate, didn’t seem to find anything comic or neurotic in my purchase. I felt quite a wave of gratitude towards him as I left the room.
How I loathed and enjoyed those rides! The street outside the garage was narrow and full of traffic. My departure was always a moment of sheer terror…
Out on the long arrow-straight stretches of the Newmarket Rd it was glorious. I shouted and sang to myself and rode quite fast, at more than three-quarter throttle. Then the exhilaration of the spring air would overcome my caution; I would open her flat out. I don’t suppose, even then, that the bike did more than 55; but it was more than enough for me. I clung on, horribly scared, with the wind screaming in my ears: I wasn’t allowed to reduce speed until I had counted up to a hundred at least. Once I went into a bad wobble and very nearly crashed. I was so shaken that, when I got back into the town, I dismounted and wheeled the machine nearly a quarter of a mile, bending, every few yards, to peer and frown at the engine, so that passers-by should think it was out of order.
observations: Without getting too serious about it, Isherwood’s experiences with his motor-bike mirror quite a lot of his traits. He decided to get a motorbike with an air of showing off, then felt he couldn’t back out, and then cannot bring himself either to enjoy it wholly, or to get rid of it. He wants to be manly, and he likes danger, but not all that much. And the authentic Isherwood detail – remembering to make the passers-by think he is wheeling the bike because it is damaged. And then remembering that 13 years later.
The book is a fictionalized memoir - names are changed, but his friends WH Auden and Stephen Spender make their appearances. It tells the story of his life from public school, through university, up to around the age of 25. See earlier entry here for more detail.
He came from a moneyed background: as usually happened with these young men, he goes abroad, he does some coaching, he takes a job as a private secretary. (His career path also resembles that of James Lees-Milne, another approximate contemporary.) Like the Babe, he does some skating. The high point of the book probably comes when he deliberately fails his exams at Cambridge in order to make himself leave: The Punch-style would-be funny answers raise only a faint smile, but the history answers written as concealed sonnets and other poems are excellent:
The Papal sanction menaced the unwilling; they too would have to lend a hand at killing.Perhaps there has been a little bravado added to this section, but it is highly enjoyable.
He is funny and self-deprecating – about a trip to Europe as a teenager he says:
I was keeping a diary of our tour; how I wish I had put down in it one interesting, one sincere, one genuinely spiteful remarkHe also writes interestingly about the novels that were current then, the “cradle-to-coming-of-age narrative.” And later pours scorn on his attempt to keep a journal in the manner of Barbellion:
‘My chief difficulty was that [unlike him] I wasn’t dying of an obscure kind of paralysis – though, in reading some of my more desperate entries you would hardly suspect it: “too miserable to write any more….” “This is the end…” By these outbursts I meant, as a rule, simply that I was bored.-- all of which makes it odder that he wasn’t better at structuring and editing this book. It has passages of great interest, and humour, and intelligence, interspersed with long and dull descriptions of plots of books he didn’t write, and pretend games he played with a friend.
But it is well worth reading for the good bits.
The book ends, satisfyingly, as he sets off in 1929 to visit Berlin, the place with which he will forever be associated.
The picture shows a motorcyclist in 1930, and is from Flickr.