Header overlay

Healing Laughter

Share this

Rereading can be exhilarating or disappointing: it is rarely neutral. For me, revisiting P. J. Kavanagh’s account of his first thirty or so years, The Perfect Stranger, has been enjoyable as well as enlightening. Of course, even the first time round any book is edited as we go along by personal preference and perception. And when, as in this case, nearly half a century has passed, it’s likely that the reader’s perspectives have been modified by personal experience, and that some of the detail will have been forgotten.

I had not remembered, for instance, Kavanagh’s excellent aphoristic touches – finishing-school girls in Switzerland ‘sitting on their dull virginity like a golden egg’; the comment that the jazz saxophonist Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker ‘made poetry seem word-bound’; or that two friends ‘were made not to understand each other’. Nor had I retained a proper sense of the book’s range, from Butlins to Bali, from Korea to Oxford to Spain. I also appreciated afresh his poet’s lively eye that can, for example, see a duvet as ‘a vast white sandwich of air and feathers’.

I first read The Perfect Stranger in 1966, the year of its publication, when, as a young graduate, I had gone to teach in Kenya. Though Kavanagh is nearly twelve years older than me, I found much that I could relate to, particularly the restlessness of youth and uncertainty about what one might make of one’s life, along with an unfocused desire to write – perhaps even to write poems.

The book begins with a lively run through the author’s childhood and schooldays (though brought up in England, Kavanagh had Irish parents: he is the son of the ITMA scriptwriter Ted Kavanagh), a spell as a Butlins redcoat and trips to Switzerland and Paris. Then comes a brilliant and comic account of the assorted idiocies inflicted by National Service: he is particularly good on the social frontiers written into the equation, notably the com

Subscribe or sign in to read the full article

The full version of this article is only available to subscribers to Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly. To continue reading, please sign in or take out a subscription to the quarterly magazine for yourself or as a gift for a fellow booklover. Both gift givers and gift recipients receive access to the full online archive of articles along with many other benefits, such as preferential prices for all books and goods in our online shop and offers from a number of like-minded organizations. Find out more on our subscriptions page.

Subscribe now or

Rereading can be exhilarating or disappointing: it is rarely neutral. For me, revisiting P. J. Kavanagh’s account of his first thirty or so years, The Perfect Stranger, has been enjoyable as well as enlightening. Of course, even the first time round any book is edited as we go along by personal preference and perception. And when, as in this case, nearly half a century has passed, it’s likely that the reader’s perspectives have been modified by personal experience, and that some of the detail will have been forgotten.

I had not remembered, for instance, Kavanagh’s excellent aphoristic touches – finishing-school girls in Switzerland ‘sitting on their dull virginity like a golden egg’; the comment that the jazz saxophonist Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker ‘made poetry seem word-bound’; or that two friends ‘were made not to understand each other’. Nor had I retained a proper sense of the book’s range, from Butlins to Bali, from Korea to Oxford to Spain. I also appreciated afresh his poet’s lively eye that can, for example, see a duvet as ‘a vast white sandwich of air and feathers’. I first read The Perfect Stranger in 1966, the year of its publication, when, as a young graduate, I had gone to teach in Kenya. Though Kavanagh is nearly twelve years older than me, I found much that I could relate to, particularly the restlessness of youth and uncertainty about what one might make of one’s life, along with an unfocused desire to write – perhaps even to write poems. The book begins with a lively run through the author’s childhood and schooldays (though brought up in England, Kavanagh had Irish parents: he is the son of the ITMA scriptwriter Ted Kavanagh), a spell as a Butlins redcoat and trips to Switzerland and Paris. Then comes a brilliant and comic account of the assorted idiocies inflicted by National Service: he is particularly good on the social frontiers written into the equation, notably the complex skirmishing and tacit understandings underlying relations between officers and NCOs. The fatuousness of National Service turns serious when Kavanagh is posted to Korea. His experience of war there is rendered in the form of a short story written at the time, ‘Boy with Gun’. Impressionistic, effective in its distancing use of the third person, it conveys the surreal vividness of battle (which, it transpires, was one of that war’s best-known clashes, the Battle of the Imjin River). Wounded and evacuated from Korea, Kavanagh got a place at Merton College, Oxford, simply by dint of writing to the Warden to ask for one (exceptional, even for the long-ago world of 1955). He read English, did some acting and met the daughter of Rosamond Lehmann, Sally, whom he was to marry. For me one of the highlights of the book is his description of her at their first encounter, on the landing outside his room – a matter of recognition as much as discovery – which begins:
It is difficult to describe someone who is surrounded by a special nimbus, perceived at once. But as this girl had the same effect, in one way or another, on many others, I must try. She had soft yellow hair, greeny-blue eyes, lovely eyebrows below a broad, quiet forehead and the most perfect mouth I have ever seen; underneath her skin there were golden lights.
The rest of the book is dominated by Sally, the story of their love running alongside the need to earn a living and Kavanagh’s growing awareness of the importance of writing and the feasibility of reconciling this with practicalities. Here he is at his interview with the man at the university’s Appointments Board:
I . . . broke it to him as gently as I could that what I really fancied was somewhere warm where they paid a living wage and there wasn’t too much work. He suddenly became a very old man, his head sunk into his shoulders – dragging a weary hand across his face he gestured weakly with his spectacles for me to leave him. As I tiptoed towards the door he groaned into his blotter: ‘Try the British Council.’ So I did.
There follows a job in TV, marriage, a miscarriage, happiness – and then, in September 1957, the British Council indeed, and a post in Java. Teaching in Kenya nine years on, I found Kavanagh’s picture of a society characterized by administrative delays and arbitrary authority entirely credible, as also his thoughts on the passing nature of settlement and any manifestations of ‘culture’:
Without constant vigilance books, pictures, records are eaten and rot in front of your eyes, posing the question: Do these things matter anyway? Everything is struggling to get back to its original primaeval chaos. You let the bats cover you with slime, or you mend the windows. This is above all true in a country which has thrown away a third-rate Europeanism and has not yet found anything to replace it, its own culture buried past revival under three centuries of exploitation.
An account of a visit to Bali brings the story to within half a page of its end. And that last half-page is so unexpected, so powerful, that it haunted me for a long time. When, having mislaid or lent my copy, I bought a later edition of The Perfect Stranger, I discovered that it included an author’s Foreword written twenty-five years after the book was first published. In it Kavanagh describes his reaction to suggestions that he should write a sequel: initial astonishment, given that the book’s conclusion seems so final, but then an acknowledgement that ‘the book is a kind of narrative and everyone likes to know the end of the story’. He goes on to explain that he thinks of The Perfect Stranger not as an autobiography but as being about ‘the facts of love and death’, seen as essentially impersonal, however personal their application. He understands that readers may find the book moving (as I certainly do) but would prefer, as a response, a sense of ‘some kind of healing laughter’. And though the book’s first title was, he tells us, A Memorial, he sees it as of a piece with his life since that time – remarriage, children, journalism and the writing of novels as well as poems. All this has been ‘a continuation of the glimpse, the gift I was given by another person, and never a separation from that’. This chimes with his refusal at the end of the book to offer any clinching conclusion: ‘A man believes different things at different times, or perhaps different versions of the same thing. Most of us . . . try to live in the present which is only today’s version of the past.’ As I sat reading in Kenya, I could not know that part of this process of continuation – of continuity, really – would be the chance to get to know P. J. Kavanagh. We read together at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature in 2009, when he included poems from his 2004 collection Something About. Here there are poems that refer directly to Sally as well as one, ‘Constancy to an Ideal Object’ (a title taken from Coleridge), that also echoes the notion of healing laughter:
– our visible world is a grave pun, I never doubted we live in a serious joke –
The Perfect Stranger has both the wisdom and the lively wit of this ‘serious joke’ without ever being sentimental or portentous.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 45 © Lawrence Sail 2015


About the contributor

Lawrence Sail is a freelance writer. His most recent books are Waking Dreams: New & Selected Poems (2010) and Sift: Memories of Childhood (2010)

Share this

Comments & Reviews

Leave a comment

Customise this page for easy reading

Sign up to our e-newsletter

Sign up for dispatches about new issues, books and podcast episodes, highlights from the archive, events, special offers and giveaways.