Forty years ago today I arrived in Dublin, set on seeing
Ireland as part of my OE but with no other aim in life
unless it was to write poetry. I had come across the
Irish Sea by ferry from Wales overnight, and caught a
train from the port of Dun Laoghaire. It was 8 o'clock
on a Sunday morning when I stepped out of Westland
Row station and into a dank dark Dublin. It seemed to
me then like a medieval city. I was quite alone, perhaps
as alone as I have ever been in my life. I knew just one
person there, and when I had walked to Stephen’s
Green, and found him gone from the address given,
I was even more alone. I'd been counting on him to pay
back some money he owed me.
Not sure what to do, I wandered through the deserted
streets to the sound of church bells proclaiming mass.
Here and there, a black-shawled woman hastened along
the pavement to prayer. I must have walked back to the
station, looking like easy prey for hustlers, because a
man approached me and recommended a bed-and-
breakfast place where I might stay. I did so, spending
money I could not afford while trying to find my lost
and hopefully well-funded friend. This I did by hanging
around the gates of Trinity College, where he was a
student, waiting for him to turn up. After three days, I
think, he did; he had little to spare himself, but possibly
feeling responsible for this indigent Kiwi who had
turned up out of the blue, he put me up in his rooms at
Trinity for a few nights.
If the city seemed medieval, this ancient university was
like something out of the Dark Ages. It was very, very old;
very, very cold. I huddled shivering in my friend's rooms
while he went to classes; looking for something to read, I
came across a paperback: The Magus, by John Fowles.
I had never heard of it. I started to read. I read for nine
hours straight, got some sleep, then finished it in four
more hours. It set my imagination on fire. I almost
physically devoured that book—for once in my life, the
cliche was true. I was absolutely ripe for this novel that
seemed to peel back the layers of life, mystery by
mystery, until...another mystery was revealed. It was
written, Fowles has said, for people like I was then:
callow young men with heads full of poetry and inflated
ideas about themselves. I shall always be grateful to it,
though. The life-wisdom it taught me and the imagery it
implanted in me have never gone away.
No doubt everyone has a book or perhaps a film that did
something like that for them when they were young.
The Magus was mine.