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
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