Meeting W.H. Auden

It was about 3.21 on a Friday afternoon in Oxford, in October 1970. The time was important. In those days, if you didn't get to the bank before 3.30 on a Friday, you were hobbled for the weekend. No credit cards. No cash machines, not even the early ones for which you used a disposable card. If you didn't make it to the cashier by half-past three, you would be reliant on borrowing from friends, or persuading local shopkeepers to cash a cheque, hard to do if you had long hair and muddy purple loons with badly-stitched patches, i.e. no girlfriend.

So I was running, up Turl Street, my Afghan coat flapping, when I passed a small, insignificant man, wearing dark glasses and a dull raincoat. His forehead was fretted with nearly parallel creases: had Botox been invented, it would have had no effect. Wait a minute, I thought, I recognise those temples. T.S. Eliot, I thought! No, he was dead. I kept running. No, W.H. Auden, it was W.H. Auden. I skidded my baseball boots to a standstill, and powered back down the pavement.

I was an undergraduate in my first term. What did I know about protocol? "Are you W.H. Auden?" I asked, coming to a brisk halt. We hadn't covered Auden at school, and I was still working my way through the Imagists. This was going to be embarrassing, I'd accosted a stranger, the seconds towards the weekend were ticking away fast.

Very carefully (and with a very courteous slowness), he removed the dark glasses with a style that would not have disgraced Marlon "Johnny" Brando in The Wild One. The man investigated what he had in front of him, but gave nothing away.

"Yes," he said.

Worse! Worse! I set my synapses to overdrive. Here I was, confronted by one of the great living names - the great living name, I had to face it - in English poetry. And here I was, practically unable to think of a single word the man had ever committed to paper.

Suddenly, it came to me, the long piece in the Penguin anthology of narrative poems, which I'd been skimming about two months earlier in a friend's room. He'd had plenty of books, and I'd had a browse. After all, I was studying English Literature, wasn't that the idea? Something came rushing up to my mouth. I looked W.H. Auden full in his battered, old-leather face.

"Letter To Lord Byron was very good," I said. It was the best I could do - it was the only thing I could do, come to that. Some memory of rhyme royal came to the rescue. I was pretty sure he'd done it.

He looked at me, and half a smile crossed his mouth. "Thank you very much," he said.

"Well," I replied, "I must go, or I'll miss the bank for the weekend." And with his smile still making its way towards accepting this bizarre compliment, I turned away fast, and started to sprint towards the National Westminster, as fast as my thin rubber soles would take me. I arrived shortly after 3.29, and the weekend's entertainment was saved.

"You'll never guess who I met this afternoon," I announced to my very well-read first-term student friends, tucking into my first lager of the evening. It was still early days for lager, too, and they'd overdone the lime. "W.H. Auden," I continued smugly.

"W.H. Auden!" they chorused, and gathered round. This was big news. They wanted to inspect the very impressive feather in my cap. "What did he say?" asked Tom, a very keen mature student in my year (he was twenty-five). I repeated the conversation, word for word. Their jaws drifted ajar. They groaned. "I needed the money!" I said. "It was about to close."

"For God's sake," said Tom. "I'd have lent you the money."

Two years or so later, I passed W.H. Auden again. He was shambling out of Christ Church, and his shoe-laces were undone. I knew several of his poems by heart by then. But my nerve failed completely. I couldn't think of a single word to say.


A curious footnote. Years after this event, I met a friend from Oxford at a Swansea conference, called Carol. "Remember that time we met W.H. Auden?" she said. Oh. We must both have been running for the bank (the memory bank seems to have been closed).