If you see a famous person on a train, you should approach them only in the buffet queueby Jeremy Clarke / January 20, 1999 / Leave a comment
Published in January 1999 issue of Prospect Magazine
About a year ago, I was sitting on a Penzance to London train reading a newspaper article about Ted Hughes. It said he had rewritten the words to some popular hymn-I forget which-and the article was illustrated with his photograph. In this photograph, Hughes appeared to be gazing meditatively out of an unseen window, allowing us to look freely at his handsomest profile. His head was tilted slightly upwards towards the light. He looked both saintly and resentful. After scrutinising the photograph, I looked up from the page for a moment to ponder him. And there, sitting alone at the next table, looking out of the window, was Ted Hughes. The Ted Hughes sitting across the aisle from me was older and bulkier than the one in the photograph, but it was definitely him. He was even showing me the same lantern-jawed profile. My immediate reaction was to wonder why the Poet Laureate should feel the need to appear as an apparition to any member of the public who happened to be thinking or reading about him. Then I came to my senses and told myself that it wasn’t such a very great coincidence. After all, Ted Hughes did live in the West Country. There was no mud on his shoes, but he had a farm on Dartmoor, I believe. Until they built an airport there, he would have to get about the country by terrestrial forms of transport like everybody else. And given the extortionate price of rail tickets, perhaps even Poets Laureate were obliged to travel second class nowadays. I watched him furtively from behind my paper. If I hadn’t recognised him as the famous poet, he would not have seemed anything other than your average Great Western Railways’ passenger: elderly, taciturn, clean, florid, conservatively dressed. He didn’t have anything to read, he just stared out of the window at the passing countryside. I watched him observe a solitary crow settle in the middle of a vast stubble field. Should I just pop over and plant myself in the vacant seat opposite him and have a chat, I wondered? There was a question that I particularly wanted to ask him. My heart was pounding just at the thought of it. But I hesitated. It wouldn’t be fair. He was too much of a sitting duck. I might bore him. I stayed in my seat and tried not to look at him. But when he got up and lurched in the direction of the buffet, I quickly followed. Here was my opportunity: I could accost him in the queue. If he wasn’t in the mood for conversing with genial members of the public like myself, once he had made his purchase, he could disengage himself without embarrassment. I stayed close behind his broad back and scrutinised the faces as we passed down the train. There wasn’t a flicker of recognition from anyone. As I’d hoped, there was a queue for the buffet. He joined the end of it, and I joined on behind. Here goes, I thought, and I tapped him twice on the shoulder with my forefinger. “Excuse me,” I said, “Are you the poet Ted Hughes?” “Yes,” he said, a little defensively. “I’ve just been reading about you in the paper,” I said. He winced. “What have they been saying about me now?” he asked. “It says you’ve rewritten a hymn.” Hughes looked relieved at this and relaxed a bit, grateful perhaps that I wasn’t yet another Sylvia Plath fanatic demanding an explanation. The buffet queue showed no signs of moving, so I hit him with a question that had been troubling me for 25 years. “Did you, sometime in 1975, go to the Bread and Cheese pub near Southend in Essex with a man called Leslie Sawyer, to meet a group of sixth form students?” I said. Leslie Sawyer was my English teacher at sixth form college. Les was a cross between Anthony Blanche and Oscar Wilde. He was probably the first committed aesthete southeast Essex had ever known. Why he’d gone there to teach English to indifferent yobbos like me was anyone’s guess. He used to look at me and lisp, “Jeremy, the only thing I envy about you is your lovely slim waist.” And once, I remember, he returned my essay about A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the comment, “Your observations about Bottom are very penetrating.” At lunchtimes, Les used to preside over boozy literary salons at the Bread and Cheese, a nearby pub. During these sessions he’d try to inculcate some sort of literary sensibility into us, while we tried to get pints of Ben Truman bitter out of him. It was a shame really; he did try. I think he saw himself as missionary bringing art to the philistine. He’s dead now. He died of alcoholism in Paris, aged 35. One day Les told us that Ted Hughes was a friend of his. “Who the hell’s Ted Hughes?” we jeered. Les sagged in exasperation. “He’s a poet,” he said with unusual dignity. “And he’s coming in here for a drink tomorrow. So please come.” The following lunchtime, when we carried our pints over to the usual table, Les was seated beside a dark-haired stranger, whom he proudly introduced to the rest of us as “the poet Ted Hughes.” Just to spite Les, we studiously ignored them both and left early. Ted Hughes stared meditatively at the buffet counter and blinked rapidly as he cast his mind back. “No, ” he said decisively, “I’m fairly sure I’ve never been to Southend. Why do you ask?” “Doesn’t matter,” I said.