And, as usual, I was riven by longstanding guilt for not letting him row my boat.
Livingstone was a brilliant thinker, with doctorates in science and literature. He was a highly respected marine biologist and South Africa’s leading poet, a writer of world standard. He and his lover, Monica Fairall, a former Miss South Africa, were guests that my wife June had invited to a little party on our 31-foot sloop, which we were preparing for a long overseas trip. Among the other guests, recognized authors, journalists, and broadcasters, was a young woman who had been studying Yeats at university in Ireland. She was an admirer of Livingstone’s work and beside herself with excitement at the thought of being able to meet him and discuss his work, and poetry in general, with him.
I rowed the guests out to our mooring on Durban Bay in our old Mirror dinghy. I had to make several trips and go carefully because the screws holding one rowlock had worked loose and no amount of tightening with a screwdriver would firm them up again.
I wasn’t worried about losing the use of one oar completely, because I was an accomplished sculler and the Mirror’s transom had been specially fitted with a rowlock for this purpose. But in fact the day was calm and I managed to get everybody safely on board without having to revert to sculling.
We soon discovered, however, that our poet friend was having a bad day. He turned inward and wouldn’t speak to anybody, much to the disappointment of the young lady studying Yeats. He sat disconsolately on deck on his own, just abaft the mast, and wouldn’t be mollified by talk or consoled with drink.
Eventually, however, he asked if he could go off on his own in the dinghy. I asked him if he could scull with one oar over the stern.
“No,” he said.
“Then I’m sorry,” I said. “The damaged rowlock might give way completely and you might find yourself stranded somewhere.”
He didn’t protest. He didn’t say anything. He just glared at me.
I went below and tried to inject some jolliness into the somber conversation, but it was uphill going while that brooding presence skulked overhead. There was nothing June or I could do to save that particular party.
After the party, after we had transferred our glum guests to the shore, I said to June: “I should have let him take the dinghy. Exercise might have chased away his emotional devils, and he might have come back in a better mood. You have to give some slack to brilliant men like him no matter how rudely they behave.”
“And you might have had to call the police boat to rescue him,” June pointed out. “Besides, we had no other way to get ashore.”
To this day I regret not letting him go for a solo ride in the Mirror. Who knows what poetic fancies he might have conceived along the way. He might even have written a poem about me. (Maybe he did. I don’t understand his work very well. It’s way above my fire-make place, as they say in Afrikaans.)
My copy of Selected Poems is signed by Douglas Livingstone and inscribed to June and me “with love.” But I rather suspect he didn’t feel much love for me the day I told him he couldn’t go for a row in my dinghy.
Today’s ThoughtI don’t think I am any good. If I thought I was any good, I wouldn’t be.
— John Betjeman, People, 2 Jul 84
Tailpiece“Did you get the license plate of the hit-and-run driver who knocked you down?”
“No, but I’d recognize my mother-in-law’s laugh anywhere.”
(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)