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My meeting with Victor Gollancz


Winning the Harper-Wood studentship
Frederic Raphael Writer
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Before I left Cambridge that last summer term, Renford Banborough, my philosophy supervisor, said to me, 'If you want to be a writer', which was now fairly well known, 'why don't you apply for the Harper-Wood studentship' – this is very important – 'why don't you apply for the Harper-Wood studentship?' So I said, well what do I have to do? 'Oh', he said, 'you would have to go and see Hugh Sykes-Davies, he lives over there, across Chapel Court'. He said, it's run by John's, he said, you know, we have to announce it to the university, but he said, we do it in very small print, so nobody ever knows, and we sort of run it. So would you like to have it? It wasn't quite true because the previous year Tom Govern won it and he was actually a Trinity man, I think. But anyway, it was in the gift of St John's. So I said, 'What do I have to do?' So he said, 'Well, you have to go and see Hugh'.

Hugh Sykes-Davies was an English don, he was an Apostle of the same year and vintage, though not the same tastes, as Guy Burgess and Blunt and MacLean. And he was a bit of an eccentric and he'd been a communist, and he wrote a book called Rats, a novel called Rats, which ended with the hero deciding that he would leave the human race and go down into the sewers and join the rats on the grounds that they were a bit cleaner in their habits and more just than human beings.

So I went over to see Hugh Sykes-Davies. He had a feud with the housekeeper of the... of St John's, because he kept his curtains drawn during the day, and she said it faded them. So Hugh said all right. So he opened the curtains, but then he always walked around his rooms naked and in full view of the people in Chapel Court. And since he was a very corpulent, red person, of not particularly distinguished physique, the housekeeper eventually decided to allow him to re-draw the curtains. So I went up to his rooms and he said, 'Do you want this... Harper-Wood thing?' And I said, 'Yes, because I did... Because you see, I feel the novel has something to offer to the world which is different from the academic. On the other hand…' And he said, 'Yeah, well, I mean, it's 350 a year – is that OK? So – it'll last you a year, but you'll have to travel. Do you mind travelling?' So I said, 'No, no, no, no! I'm extremely keen to travel'. 'All right then, no trouble. So you're going to write novels are you?' I said, 'Yes, yes', I said, 'Well, the novel which I am ...' He said, 'That's fine'. So I left his rooms after about five minutes with 350 quid, 1954. That today would be I don't know how much, but plenty. I mean, like £5,000. Much more than my scholarship! So actually I suddenly didn't have to worry about what I was going to do. This was even before going to London with the Footlights.

So then I went and did my finals and I did okay. And I'd been told that nobody in the Moral Sciences second part of the tripos gets a First. Two-one is the best you can hope for. So when I went to look at the result with Tony Beecher, I expected to get either a 2.1 or a 2.2, and actually I had a 2.1, but it did not make my day because Tony Beecher, against all predictions, had got a First. And so had a man called Andor Gom, who it is alleged owed his first name 'Andor' the fact that his father wasn't sure which sex he was going to be so he'd said we'll call him 'Andor'. I don't know whether that's true, whether Andor is a proper name for Scotsmen or whoever it was that he was.

Anyway so I came chagrined but not shattered, because I had 350 quid and frankly as between a First in Moral Sciences and 350 quid, I knew which side my bread was buttered.

Born in America in 1931, Frederic Raphael is a writer who moved to England as a boy. He was educated at Charterhouse School and was a Major Scholar in Classics at St John's College, Cambridge. His articles and book reviews appear in a number of newspapers and magazines, including the Los Angeles Times and The Sunday Times. He has published more than twenty novels, the best-known being the semi-autobiographical The Glittering Prizes (1976). In 1965 Raphael won an Oscar for the screenplay for the movie Darling, and two years later received an Oscar nomination for his screenplay for Two for the Road. In 1999, he published Eyes Wide Open, a memoir of his collaboration with the director Stanley Kubrick on the screenplay of Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick's final movie. Raphael lives in France and England and became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1964.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: Rats, Hugh Sykes-Davies

Duration: 4 minutes, 19 seconds

Date story recorded: March 2014

Date story went live: 13 August 2014