Rush, Christopher: Sex, Lies and Shakespeare

Well, they told me sex was being discussed in Morningside. It was so implausible that your intrepid international correspondent dropped the tequila bottle and jetted back to Scotland for the Monthly Book Group.

Just in time to hear the proposer say that the author had been recommended to him on the golf course. And indeed he already knew the author, who had briefly taught his son English, and had found him very lively, likeable and intelligent. The subject matter of the book  – coming of age in a Scottish fishing village – also linked well with the Group’s recent discussion of “The Silver Darlings”, and its forthcoming discussion of “A Dance Called America”.

Christopher Rush was born in St Monans in Fife in 1944. After primary schooling in St Monans, he went to Waid Academy in Anstruther, and this volume of his autobiography dealt with his experiences there. (Jocky Wilson, the darts player, who had just died, had also gone to Waid a few years later). Rush had read English at Aberdeen, and had excelled. He was offered a research fellowship at Cambridge, but had chosen to go into school teaching instead, and had spent his career teaching English literature in Edinburgh. He was the author of over a dozen books, comprising poetry, novels, short stories, biography and an autobiographical trilogy of which this was one volume. The film “Venus Peter” was based on one of his books.

His first wife, an author and biologist, had died in 1993. Distraught, he had travelled, following Stevenson’s “Travels with a Donkey” route through the Cevennes. He was now remarried – to a Russian lecturer in English literature and stylistics.

The proposer had enjoyed reading the book, and could identify with the sort of adolescent sexual experiences described (other than, alas, the climactic scene with Kirsty Miller). The use of poetry and songs helped keep the book alive. One interesting comment on the book was that he wrote better when praising people than when complaining about them. But the book rang true in showing how much one’s school experience was dependent on the individual teacher, who could have such a large inspirational or negative effect.

So what was the reaction of the Group? Well, some gazed fondly on the rosy cheeks of youth Rush conjured up; some found a pustule or two marring the youth’s complexion; and nobody seemed to agree on quite what the youth looked like.

One, for example, thought many of the experiences were magnificently vivid. For example the description of Honeybunch, the statuesque vagrant who was stripped and washed, was a breath of fresh air in the first section. Otherwise he did not much care to be reminded of sweaty 11 year olds jostling to go to the school toilets. For him, the second part of the book, once Rush had had his epiphany about Shakespeare, worked better. For another, however, the evocation of the long lost days as a young schoolboy was the most engaging part of the book.

What about the “Sex”, then? Most recognised only too clearly the adolescent fumblings of their youth, and the intense importance that minor triumphs had for them, although some had been glad to put these memories behind them. Rush certainly evoked such moments very effectively. But was there not something slightly uncomfortable about them being recreated with such relish by a man in his mid-sixties? Would the book have worked better without the epilogue bringing the much older persona of the author before us? Or had his editor merely stipulated that sex was what was needed to sell books – the Monthly Book Group had certainly been keen to read the book on the strength of the title alone.

“Lies” then? Well, perhaps in an effort to justify the catchy title (derived of course from the film “Sex, Lies and Videotape”) Rush makes a few comments about the “lies” of his early spinster teachers – such as that if you worked hard at school you would have a better life (so that’s a lie??).

But we did wonder if the lies extended more covertly to Rush being an unreliable narrator, consciously or unconsciously, at some points. Was that why so many of the girls seemed to vanish into thin air? Was the appalling Croxford – arch manipulator, sexual explorer and general villain – quite as extreme as that? Was he really a son of the manse and a leader of choirboys? Well, some of us at least had known  a Croxford at school….

Did Rush’s voyeurism really pull out the plum of the best looking female teacher in the nude? Hmm… voyeurism at that age was not unusual, and his frightened departure had the ring of some element of truth in the tale…And Honeybunch was a plausible character, but the scene with her in the wood less so….

And above all did he comprehensively nail Kirsty in the summer fields in the splendidly evoked (“pornographic”? No! – “explicit”) scene at the end. Definitely not, because we were all too jealous…

As for Shakespeare, we liked the remarkable story of Rush’s epiphany when watching Olivier’s Richard III on a little black and white television. The tale of his consequent obsession with Shakespeare, and transformation from dunce to dux, was compelling. The sonnets had thus been drawn to the attention of one of our number, and, in our own mini-epiphany, he would now explore them.

We could have done with hearing more about Rush’s insights into Shakespeare, but the best on offer was to read his book “Will”, which might soon become a film. Similarly, it would have been interesting to hear more about St Monans’ life and about his parents, but for that we would need to consult the other volumes of his autobiography.

There was no doubt Rush could write in simple, effective prose, as in the moving story of death at sea, or as in this description of Kirsty:

there she was, just coming in…stuck between her sober parents like a gorgeous book between two Bibles. She filled the whitewashed whispering silence of the old stones with a loud shout of colour. The Old Kirk was a Spartan Presbyterian barn. And there she stood – in a poppy-red blouse with a large wide-brimmed hat and shoes to match. Her skirt and jacket were like morning milk…”

However, for some he often over-elaborated his prose. “Why use one word when fifteen will do?” asked one unruly pupil.

Another member confessed to not enjoying the book at all – he found it irritating and self-indulgent. It was perhaps the most erudite prose he had ever read. Often a literary allusion enhanced an image, but he felt Rush was more inclined to drown an image. In describing his early experiences the speech might be child-like, but was accompanied by prose with showy literary quotations, which he could not resist putting in. It seemed a quite inappropriate style to adopt when writing about a teenager. The author was self-conscious all the time. The book just did not ring true, occupying a territory half-way between autobiography and poetry.

On the other hand, another suggested, there was a much better balance between style and subject matter once Rush was writing abut his Shakespearean period.

Another aspect that some disliked was the sense of self-importance, or at least self-absorption, of someone who had done nothing very remarkable, but felt it appropriate to write a trilogy of autobiographies. This sense of self-importance was revealed unwittingly in the Epilogue. To get agreement to refer to her in the book, he phones up Judy (she of the erotic private organ recital) who remembers nothing about the treasured event. “Did she know that I’d become a writer? No, why should she care? Did she care? Scarcely. Would she like me to send her some of my books? Not really.….”

However, to his credit, Rush has the honesty to record this exchange and to admit: “For a time I felt crushed, humiliated, bewildered – and a right silly old fool”. He goes on to reflect, like Julian Barnes recently, on the distortions and selectiveness of memory, of how “we protect ourselves from the cold by harbouring illusions, a polite philosophical word for lies…

Where there was more consensus was that Rush brought to life a rich and engaging gallery of characters. For at least one member that was the main strength of the book. All their foibles and eccentricities – such as those of the remarkable Dr Ogg – were brought out delightfully. Most were approached with a warm Shakespearean empathy, but Rush’s empathy did not extend to the spinster teachers of his early years in Waid Academy, such as the dread Fanny Fergusson. He did not attempt to consider what experiences might have led her to be as she was – for him, she was still the complete villain as seen through the eyes of childhood. But perhaps we were all like that in relation to teachers we disliked.

So how was it that – post-epiphany – Rush now had the best teachers in the world? As recorded Alistair Mackie and Alistair Leslie seemed between them to have offered a higher standard of English Literature teaching than any of us had encountered at school. Was this a new breed of enthusiastic young male teachers replacing the dessicated spinsters, as Rush suggests, and as one of our number had also experienced in a rural school? Or was it that an enthusiastic student finds much more to commend in his teachers than a switched–off student? Or, suggested one from the profession, that teachers become more inspired and inspiring with the fifth and sixth years as the students become capable of offering some intellectual challenge?

Hmmm…..too difficult, at least for your jet-lagged correspondent, who had reached the end of his vino rosso rotgutto. Just a little pause to peer at the empty glass and the ever-attentive host was at my elbow opening a fine bottle of Glenesk Pinot Noir…

Don’t ask me about the rest of the discussion, I was dreaming……….. “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” I was whispering to Kirsty Miller in a field of butttercups….