Peter Davison: Meetings With Remarkable Minds

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Part Three: Meetings With Remarkable Minds

The loss of my three months preparation time meant starting to teach ‘Scholarship’ to the fourth-year honours class immediately (in which Germaine Greer and Clive James, both far more intellectually distinguished than their alleged teacher, loomed large). And the first-year course started on the Thursday. I had never given a lecture before, and, indeed, never even heard a university lecture. After the initial shock of addressing some 6-700 students that proved advantageous. I had no preconceptions about ‘how to teach’ but I had witnessed plenty of drama from before and the sides and back of stages. The Thursday lecture was repeated at night and this, though at first daunting, proved excellent training. I had no time to adapt what seemed to go poorly in the morning and found that the repeat lecture often, in contrast, went well. Many, many years later one of my very best friends who, with his wife, was very kind to us on our arrival (and with whom I have remained in constant touch ever since) told me that, having had trouble with the reception of his lectures had been advised by a student to ‘Go and hear the new Pom lecturing to first year’.

Preparing, lecturing, and tutoring were very taxing in that first year especially as before long I was roped in to help an Australian neighbour run two football teams for local children. Sheila was suffering under a head teacher notorious throughout New South Wales and it was obvious that a return to England was on the cards. I thought the best hope I had of an academic post was to complete a PhD. I could not proceed with work on Shirley (and, indeed, a colleague who had gained a scholarship to study in England took that as his topic). I was very interested in contemporary drama and had introduced Pinter’s The Caretaker to our first-year students. I had also had a book published in the USA on music-hall song and so I wrote on contemporary drama and the influence on it of popular drama. I worked on my thesis at night sleeping only 2-4 hours a night (my experience watchkeeping in the Navy proved beneficial) and got to know our milkman (who delivered to us during the night) rather well: we often enjoyed a whisky together. I started writing on New Year’s Day 1962 and handed in the thesis the following October. My supervisor was away in England on leave throughout the year so it was very much a shot in the dark. It was examined by leading drama scholars at Bristol University and King’s College London. Surprisingly, it was the first PhD in English Literature awarded to anyone at Sydney University and a pleasant fuss was made of the whole family at the award ceremony.

However, things came to a crisis when our fourth head of department, the late Sam Goldberg, arrived from Melbourne. He insisted on bringing two friends, a husband and wife, even though the university’s rules about employing related couples had to be overlooked. They were to teach Shakespeare which meant those of us currently engaged in that work could be dispensed with. Further, Sam was opposed to comedy and contemporary drama apart from Samuel Beckett. That meant that almost all my teaching was removed at a stroke from the syllabus. Things were brought to a head at a meeting of the Literary Society. Sam used these meetings to demolish the work of the paper-giver even if – especially if – he or she were a member of his own staff. The occasion that led to my fall from Sam’s grace was described by Terry Collits in the Australian Book Review of May 1999. ‘Once’, he writes,

the paper-giver demolished him: it was an evening when two staff-members gave papers on the Theatre of the Absurd. One was on Pinter, the other on Beckett. Goldberg clearly wanted to use the Sydney Literary Society for his own agenda as he had done in Melbourne. . . . He backed Becket hard and as a consequence mounted a case against Pinter and (by association) his unfortunate defender. But he made a basic tactical error when he questioned the claim that Pinter was funny. ‘Is he really funny?’ said Sam, with slow Socratic cunning. Whatever were Goldberg’s intellectual strengths (and they were formidable) two of his blind spots were live theatre and comedy. In a rich London accent and theatrical verve to match, the would-be victim read and performed a crazy Pinter speech; the audience fell about and Sam froze in frustration; we all went off for a drink and laughed till we cried (p. 26).

I was that intended victim. So far as I recall I gave a recitation (a performance would exaggerate my abilities) of Davies’s speech in Act 1 of The Caretaker in which he goes all the way to a ‘monastery’ in Luton where he was told they gave away shoes. I enjoyed the evening but retribution was swift. I was ordered into Sam’s office the next day. It was dimly lit except for a bright light which shone on me whilst I was quizzed by Sam. What did that set-up recall?! I was told in no uncertain terms that there would be no more teaching for me though I could offer a few tutorials to the more backward students. It was obvious that I must go. By chance I had been offered a job at UCLA but was having great difficulty in getting the appropriate visa. I had applied for several posts in England but had not much hope that I would be successful. Then, out of the blue, came that message from Terence Spencer. I was offered a Fellowship for a couple of years at the Shakespeare Institute. in Birmingham. My pay was stopped at Sydney at the end of December 1963 – even my pension contributions were seized – and after a fortnight touring New Zealand the whole family took the Rangitane from Auckland for Tilbury. It was some months before my appointment came through and I spent much of the time combing through manuscripts that led to the production of King James’s Book of Bounty, the attempt by Sir Robert Cecil and Sir Julius Caesar to restrain the King’s profligacy who, as J.W. Gordon put it in his Monopolies by Patents of 1897, was most unwarrantably diverting the stream of English wealth into the channel of Scottish well-being. My account of all the documents involved was published in The Library in 1973 and my ability to transcribe and elucidate the texts in their much over-written Elizabethan hands was what convinced the then owner of the manuscript drafts of Nineteen Eighty-Four, Daniel G. Siegel, that I could be trusted to transcribe them for publication in 1984.

[Part Four (I) Follows]