From the Balliol College Annual Record 2021
The Prisoner of Rubato Towers: Crazed Memories of Lockdown Life in the Plague Year Richard K. Heller (1966), Xerus Publishing, 2020 Seamus Perry (Professor of English Literature, Massey Fellow, and Tutor in English)
Persons of my parents’ generation would sometimes say of a contemporary, ‘Well, he had a good War’, a phrase which clearly conveyed a sharp nicety of judgement though I admit one which was quite lost on me. Did you have a good pandemic? I have lost count of the number of times I have heard sentences beginning, ‘Well, one good thing to come out of the pandemic is . . .’ – and then something unspeakable such as ‘it has really focused minds on our decision-making processes’ or ‘attendance at general purposes committee has been significantly improved’ or ‘it has demonstrated that you don’t really need tutors at all to deliver the course in a fresh modern way’.
A rather more enjoyable thing to have come out of the pandemic is The Prisoner of Rubato Towers, Richard Heller’s chronicle of his enforced solitude – although ‘solitude’ is not quite the right word as the book is full of characters with whom Heller energetically bickers and banters, quite undeterred by the fact that they are purely figments of his imagination. During the protracted period that university administrators insisted on calling ‘these challenging times’, many people must have felt that their relationship with normality had become a bit skewed, and Richard Heller picks up on this pervasive sense of pandemic irreality and takes the thing up several notches.
The company he invents for himself to keep is very provoking. His main interlocutors include a carping pedant called Prodnose, a character first introduced to the world by J.B. Morton writing as ‘Beachcomber’ in the Daily Express. ‘I felt like a drowning camel from whom the last straw had been removed,’ Heller laments at a low point. ‘But surely a drowning camel would welcome the removal of a straw?’ Prodnose interjects, ‘Or had he woven the straw into some form of primitive lifejacket? Please explain.’
No less irritating is a resident mouse called Mortimer who, having originally turned up selling the Big Issue, is now aspiring to become an author himself and has taken to wearing a silk dressing gown and using a cigarette holder. While Heller’s own literary fortunes stall, the mouse lands a lucrative contract from Little Brown (because he is little and brown) for a book of uplifting aphorisms entitled Keep Squeaking Through: this is doubly galling as the sayings in the book are mostly transcriptions of things Heller mutters in his sleep, life-affirming maxims such as ‘When your life has jumped on the wrong bus, have you thought of changing your destination?’ or ‘To you it may be a thistle, but to Eeyore it’s lunch.’ They are joined after a time by a lettered cockroach who bears a strong resemblance to ‘archy’ from the old archy and mehitabel series of Don Marquis, except that archy has now taken to the haiku as a form, with decidedly mixed results as this effort in memoriam of Dame Vera Lynn might suggest: ‘what a great trouper/she did not scream or complain/to see a cockroach’. A goldfish, expert in bridge, muscles in later on to add to the cacophony.
Heller spends much of his incarceration failing to make any headway on his autobiography, My Goodness, How I Roared! (regularly abbreviated to MGHIR), a title indebted to the great Pooter. An initial obstacle to progress is entirely self-created: Heller decides the book must begin with the letter ‘X’ which after a few false starts inspires him to the ambitious opening, ‘Xylophones in the distance played a spectral rhumba.’ (‘The day gone, and you have barely finished one sentence,’ remarks Prodnose.)
But there are many other distractions, not least politics. Heller doesn’t succumb to Covid but he does contract another, milder virus which he names after Peter Mandelson, one of his principal bêtes noires, whose candidacy for the head of the World Trade Organisation is the recurrent subject of much intense ire. His loathing for Mandelson is only rivalled by his contempt for Trump (or rather ‘T. Ronald Dump’) and his positively visceral disdain for Boris Johnson: I can report that no slack has been cut for a fellow Balliol man. ‘Gnat-brained dullard who needed water wings in the gene pool . . . feckless fustian fleabrained foul fiend Flibbertegibbet . . . the Pericles of piffle’: you get the idea.
By contrast, the solicitude of his advice to Keir Starmer is without bound. Starmer, as readers of the Record will be interested to learn, turns out to be one of the funniest men in England, ‘Cheeky Keir, the Bad Boy of the Halls’; but Heller impresses upon him the need to present a sober, counter-Johnsonian face to the British public, and Starmer reluctantly agrees to follow the plan. The cockroach offers some uplifting campaign material: ‘keep calmer / vote for starmer’. But Heller is not one to think within the box and another candidate for high office suggests herself: ‘Alexa would be a very popular Prime Minister,’ he remarks at one point. ‘Alexa, save the NHS.’
Besides politics, some details of the world without do squeeze through, though sometimes they are so crazy that you wonder if they actually did happen, like the theologically adventurous headline with which The Sun is said here to have greeted the Prime Minister’s recovery from Covid at Eastertime in 2020 – ‘Now it really is a Good Friday!’ Life in Rubato Towers drifts in and out of reality in a way that reminds you of the diary that Auberon Waugh used to write for Private Eye in which figures from public life mingled on uncertain terms with episodes of soaring fantasy. ‘I saw Elvis not long ago outside my local supermarket,’ Heller says, a familiar claim no doubt, but raised to a new power by the follow-up: ‘He was riding Shergar.’ A helpful footnote explains: ‘A famous racehorse, kidnapped in 1983 and never seen again.’ (Incidentally, the footnotes, notionally included to help foreign readers through so impenetrably English a mode, are very diverting, ranging from the significance of Brian Rix to the nature of Boots lending library.)
The Queen’s birthday comes and goes, but this time, alas, without Heller’s customary attendance at her party where he would normally have played ‘her usual favourites from the Doors on the piano’. At other audiences with Her Majesty, we learn later, they would customarily run through ‘all her favourite songs by Britney Spears and her sister Asparagus’. The shadowy figure of Asparagus Spears exists entirely because for Richard Heller, as for Shakespeare (according to Dr Johnson anyway), ‘a quibble was to him the fatal Cleopatra for which he lost the world and was content to lose it’. He is the fastest pun in the West. He recalls advising a marine biologist to select the cutest of the manatees in her care and to name it Hugh – because ‘if anyone harmed him it would be a crime against Hugh Manatee’. He tells Joe Biden (who phones up unannounced at one point) that he should call his campaign biography ‘My Time’ because then the cover would read ‘Biden My Time’. (Biden hangs up.) Dame Vera Lynn is remembered as the author of an austerity-era recipe book entitled ‘Whale Meat Again’; and among Heller’s own projected titles is an ambitious study of performing dolphins of the past to be called ‘Great Ex-Cetaceans’. He is irrepressible: ‘Nobody knows the truffles I’ve seen’; ‘Fondu at last, as Mr Stanley said to Mr Livingstone. MGHIR!’
Unperturbed by the noise of fornicating urban foxes (who go on to commission a descendant of Charlie Chaplin to produce a porn video based on their antics) and blithely undistracted by the neighbours banging on the wall as he thumps his untuned piano (‘Tuna, tuna everywhere, but can I get one for the piano?’), Heller offers us a seriously dotty self-portrait in stoic resilience. He has some good bits of advice which we could all take to heart, such as: ‘Self-isolation is the time to go back to all those Great Novels you meant to read and discover why you never read them in the first place.’ But he does not brag about his insights any more than he does about his lifetime achievements, not the least of which, as we learn, was successfully effecting the revival of spats for afternoon wear. I wonder who was responsible for that.