I grew up in a bookish household, an unruly youth, given to grand obsessions and romantic melancholies. I’ll spare you the details.
We lived in Walmer, a village that served the Kent coalfields. The 1984 miners’ strike was a seismic event, and one that divided the community. There was no doubt which side we were on; I remember ostentatiously reading The Communist Manifesto on the school bus. But my first intellectual passion was Asian philosophy, inspired by my maverick Religious Studies teacher, Mr Sewell, a Methodist minister who camped out alone on the cliffs in a home-made bunker to protest against the nuclear arms race. I read The Upanishads, The Bhagavad Gita and The Dharmmapada in Juan Mascaró’s translations and felt I’d found the heart of the universe. On a visit to a specialist Indian bookshop in London (opposite the British Museum, with an astrologist upstairs), I discovered the great Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore in William Radice’s translation of the Selected Poems. The ‘gold-lit country’ of Radice’s Tagore resonated with me instantly: the tenderness, the loss, the fading revelations. Later, I found Tagore’s own translation of his Stray Birds in our local second hand bookshop, a beautiful ramshackle den down by the sea, run by an enthralling old roué, known to us as ‘Crazybeard’. Tagore is an uneven translator of his own work, but the first lines of Stray Birds have stayed with me: ‘Stray birds of summer come to my window to sing and fly away/And yellow leaves of autumn which have no songs flutter and fall there with a sigh’.
Tagore turned me on to poetry. My father was a good occasional poet (though his real art-form was the pub anecdote, a genre in which he remains to my mind unrivalled), and he had an eclectic collection of verse. His favourite (and forever one of mine) was Constantine Cavafy’s Collected Poems in Rae Dalven’s translation, a volume marked, he would sometimes recall, with a splash of vodka and lime, spilled by an old lover he never named.