Frank Kermode interviewed by Alan Macfarlane 19th February 2008

0:09:07 Born in Douglas, Isle of Man, 1919; my mother's family was totally obscure and I never met any of them; father's father died young and his mother died when I was very small so I never knew a grandparent and I had no brothers or sisters until I was twelve, when a sister was born; not very close to her as I went away when she was five, and then the war came and I didn't go back; mother was a farm girl from a village near Douglas; she would point it out when we went for walks but never went there; father's father was an organist, probably part-time; there was some Welsh connection with a sea captain called Pritchard, which was my father's middle name; my father was called up in 1915 when conscription came in and I was just the right age to be called up in 1939, so our youths were deeply affected by the two wars; while my father was away in France during the First World War his mother remarried; they had a shop which we would now call an off-licence, and the man she married staged a robbery at the shop and stole the stock, so she was bankrupt; father returned from France with no shop or money, took temporary jobs, and then got a job as a store keeper and stayed there for the rest of his career; he retired after the Second World War, which was a sad time as my mother had dementia and he was diabetic, and died of it at about seventy; they had a stronger connection with my sister as she still lived there; the Isle of Man is my home territory and I sometimes feel quite strongly about it, but not often; I find that when I go there I feel depressed and am always glad to get out of it; I am sure my father never read a book in his life; my mother had a kind of interest in poems; there was a Manx poet, T.E. Brown, a friend of Quiller-Couch and a master at Clifton; now almost totally forgotten as he wrote in Manx dialect; my mother used to recite some passages of Brown's poems when I was young

7:54:08 I was at school in the thirties when everybody was very poor; at my early schools you could tell the difference between those of us whose parents had enough to live on and those who didn't because those who didn't wore clogs; the clogs were issued by the town; I did not wear clogs and belonged to the leather-wearing classes; I went to the grammar school, Douglas High School; it was a good school with teachers who were quite good at getting pupils through exams; few went to Oxbridge as they couldn't afford it; there were no scholarships; the teachers mostly came from the old Victorian universities, Leeds, Liverpool, some of them were ex-servicemen; one or two boys whom I knew had parents who could support them at Oxford or Cambridge but mine certainly couldn't; I won a scholarship to Liverpool University so I went there; at school I do remember a teacher called Pendlebury who was waspishly bad-tempered, but liked poems and liked you for liking them; there was a very romantic young French teacher who use to croon Lamartine; there was a certain amount of savagery among the teachers; we all got beaten frequently; I was more than a year ahead of the class that I was in, consequently I had finished with school far too early having done what they were there to provide, so they didn't know what to do with me; regrettable as I needed some help at that point; the school did not have a good library; it didn't have teachers who had the time to teach Greek; I should have had a year or two luxuriating in a wide field of study but I didn't; I did try to add Greek and had decent Latin, good English and fairly good French; I read a lot and had a good life, cycling with a friend, Quayle, with whom I discussed books; he went to Oxford but died in his fifties; I was very keen on sport and music without being very adept at either; played football and cricket, but we were a poor school with poor facilities; I did play the clarinet and violin, but badly; certainly my interest in music has been absolutely central; in the early days we had a gramophone at home and I became a fan of Elisabeth Schumann; I had no structured knowledge of music at that time and it was only when I got to university that I was instructed in these things; I became an assistant at the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, either selling programmes or showing people to their seats, so I got to hear all the concerts for nothing; there were two a week in the season so I got to know the repertoire; I did really know quite a lot about some things, still there is an awful lot of music that I can't claim to know; also, one had one's favourites which would certainly include the Mozart operas, Beethoven, Schubert, so the focus is on Viennese; I used to listen to music when writing but now I find I can't do it

20:20:05 Went to Liverpool to read English; the truth would be that if I could have gone to Oxford or Cambridge I would have done; however, Liverpool did a very conscientious job with good people including the necessary Leavisite; given some idea of what the subject was about and also a lot of hard philology which has dropped out, people here don't do much of it; we had severe Anglo-Saxon and Middle-English courses; we also had to learn a new language so that was where I began Italian, which I have kept up; I think it was a good three years; again, you probably learn as much or more from the best of your friends, which I think was the case with me; as a kind of inspiration of what it meant to be a truly literate person I think my example would have been another undergraduate; the whole period was somewhat overshadowed by the war; I went up in 1937 and I was in the Navy by 1940; they could have called me up earlier but they gave me a year to finish the degree course; the mechanics of my entering the Navy was rather odd; I had a series of summer jobs and one was as a purser on one of the ferries ; the ship on which I was serving was commandeered by the Navy and because they needed people to sail these things they just commandeered the crew; I was given an emergency commission; I remember talking to Alan Ross, who was a war hero in fast motor boats and won the D.S.O., being amazed to learn that I actually received a commission without having had any training whatsoever; it made me a useless acquisition to the Navy for quite a long time; however, I had nearly six years at that; at Liverpool, the part of the course which is the best test of literary ability is one borrowed from Cambridge, namely the analysis of text passages, where teachers exposed their own sensibilities; there is a move to do away with this here; there is a compulsory paper in the tripos still; I do remember actual episodes; a young man called Arthur Humphreys who had been a Commonwealth Fellow at Harvard, who later became Professor at Leicester, impressed me; I remember a particular poem of Yeats which we tore apart; the most impressive contemporary there was Peter Ure who was a conscientious objector and spent time in prison during the war, where he wrote a book on Yeats called 'Towards a Mythology' which was published in 1946; he refused to go into the auxiliary services until he had served his sentence and then joined UNRA and had an amazing career in Greece; he rapidly learnt modern Greek and became the head of UNRA for the whole of Greece; during the war I was in Iceland for two years, and he would send me a book a month; the books that he sent were quite a testament of the taste of a serious young man - things like Virginia Woolf 'Between the Acts', Auden 'Letters from Iceland'; later, he and I were appointed at the same time to lectureships at Newcastle; I did not stay there very long but he did for the rest of his life; he died at fifty; given his age he had achieved more than anybody else in the profession

32:08:00 During the war I had a lot of time for reading; I watched a programme last night on Kamikaze on which I have a special interest as I was there; I was never actually under attack; after the European war was over I was in an aircraft carrier which was sent to the Pacific; of course, the Americans didn't really need us; the British fleet that went was huge though dwarfed by the American fleet; the Americans took the brunt of the Kamikaze attacks; film kept me awake as I had not visualized it for many years, had some difficulty explaining to myself why I was there; at the end of the war we went to Hong Kong which had been occupied, to take off people from the prison camps; I was put in charge of this operation; the camps were mixed; Ballard's book about Shanghai is very similar; there were lots of very young children born in the camps so I had this extraordinary gang of men, women and children to look after; I had Japanese working parties; the aircraft carrier that I was in was not a fleet carrier, but a smallish one; we had to find space not only for a full crew but for all these people; we had to find water for them, which was a real headache; we had people at the showers with stopwatches; they were all really ex-civil servants or business people who had been caught in Hong Kong at the beginning of the war; they were all suffering from beriberi, all miserable, and all expected home comforts which they couldn't get; by the time we got to Sydney there was quite a lot of discontent to deal with; I was so glad to see the back of them all; certain colonial habits asserted themselves when they got into a British atmosphere; they demanded so much; I was trying to explain to them that our sailors were going without showers in order that they should have them, but they still wanted more; I was given an insight into aspects of the colonial character

37:55:19 The early part of the war I spent two years in Iceland; we were trying to lay a boom across a very beautiful fjord which had a gap of nearly two miles; seemed a reasonable proposition to lay a boom in order to give the ships which came into the harbour, including the Russian convoys, a peaceful night or two free of submarines; although we were supposed to be good at boom laying we were completely unequal to the conditions; we were a depot ship containing thousands of tons of metal in various forms; every time we got it nearly done a hurricane would come down the fjord and blow it all away; we would then have to wait for another boom to come up from Glasgow which would take about three months; meanwhile we had nothing to do; we got 48 hours leave every two months when you could go to Reykjavik which was an extremely dull town; there was an English bookshop which specialized in the old Everyman library which kept one sane; people did go crazy; there was no leave from Iceland, not even compassionate leave; I remember a man from Hull whose wife and children had been killed and he wasn't allowed to go home, so there was a lot of misery; I was invited to a big celebration in the Isle of Man, the Tynwald Ceremony on July 5th where the laws are read in Manx, with a procession to an artificial hill in the middle of the island; deputies (rather than Prime Ministers) come to this and they asked some fairly well-known natives like me to come and join the party; I had a very good time as I sat at dinner with Mary Robinson, who was delightful; I also sat beside the Deputy Prime Minister of Iceland and told him of my years in his bailiwick; he asked if I would like to come back and I said no

42:29:21 After the war I started a Ph.D. but never actually finished it; I got a job and that seemed to be why you wanted a Ph.D. in the first place; went to Newcastle in 1947; I was extremely ill-equipped for it as I hadn't done any serious work for nearly six years; we were given a tremendous load of teaching; people say they are very overworked now, I can't understand them; John Butt was my boss and a wonderful example of someone who knows how to work and did far more than his share of teaching; I was landed with the Shakespeare course and so limited was the accommodation that you had to give the lectures twice; that meant you were giving a lecture a day pretty well; John would say in his gentle way that students kept hearing about I.A. Richards but didn't know anything about him, and asked me to lecture on him with two days notice; but you did that kind of thing and everybody worked extremely hard; I had gone immediately back to Liverpool when I was demobbed; I had no money and I had a graduate fellowship; the man who taught me happened to be the only absolutely top class scholar that I ever worked with, Donald J. Gordon; a brilliant career broken up by alcohol; a disagreeable man in many ways; I mention him in my autobiography, 'Not Entitled'; title partly about a prevailing sense I have of not being entitled; Gordon was a Renaissance scholar and that was what I wanted to be; I began on the poet Cowley who flourished about the time of the Restoration, who wrote part of an epic poem called 'The Davideis'; its adorned by thousands of notes, trying to meet the requirements that epics should be instructive in a universal kind of way; there is tremendous learning packed in the notes and my task was to find out where he got it all from; it was rather disappointing to find much of it was taken from a popular encyclopaedia, as though he had looked it all up on the Internet; however, working on his work gave me a familiarity with books I would never have come across otherwise, such as treatises on marriage in the early sixteenth century, which was enjoyable

48:30:10 I am very unsystematic in my own work; I do take notes but I don't take them carefully enough and sometimes find that I don't know which book they came from; I often thought that I should change my life in that respect, but it is too late now; took notes on a typewriter most of the time, or pen or pencil; not arranged in folders but in heaps; curiously enough, these American colleges which try to buy your work rather like them to be messy so that they can give someone the work of sorting them out; some have already gone to America; I had a big library but it met catastrophe; I lived in Luard Road and then divorced and was living alone there; decided to move to Pinehurst but 2000 of my books were destroyed in transit by a mix-up between the city garbage people and the removers; they got the boxes mixed up and they ground the best part of my library to pieces; I wouldn't have any room for them now, however they were the best of my books; it happened eleven years ago; the insurance company was generous so I went out with the notion of replacing some of them, but I gave it up; I had an incomplete list but this opened up an appalling prospect of what was gone and what was irreplaceable, annotated things and things with important inscriptions, also manuscript material from important people; you get over it quickly; I remember sitting outside the house in Luard Road thinking this was the worst day of my life, but shortly began thinking of all sorts of things much worse

53:30:06 Was at Newcastle for two years; Gordon went to Reading to a very tiny department where he had a lot of power, so he summoned me; I was glad to join him and enjoyed Reading very much; it was a tiny unit of people with many common interests which they were willing to share; covered the Renaissance specialists so Italian and good mediaevalists; Joe Trapp who became director of the Warburg Institute, now dead, Gordon, also dead, in fact everybody is dead except me; I was there for eight years and then I went to Manchester in 1958; my best books were written in the sixties and seventies; I enjoy writing once I get going but I find it difficult to start something; starting a book seems impossible but even starting a review, I will find all sorts of things to do around the house before starting; never decided on a set amount to write a day, so enormously variable; a book of mine which was important for academic success was 'Romantic Image'; I had been asked to give a lecture when at Reading on a poem of Yeats; I gave a lecture on In Memory of Major Robert Gregory and while I was writing I saw the sort of thing I wanted to say; in the course of the summer vacation I had written the book; this has never happened to me at any other time; I wrote on a typewriter (now on computer), and as many drafts as I need; of course, the facility of correction on a computer mean that lots of drafts are abolished before you get there; I go on changing them to the very last minute; I was changing something in a proof yesterday; I think working in silence is best for me though I have tried music; walking would shorten the time left for writing; I don't drink until I have finished writing for the day