Excalibur by Dennis Potter

BOMB 27 Spring 1989
027 Spring 1989
 Olivier Richon, Imprese, From Near and From Afar, 1988, C-print, 35 × 32 inches. Courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery.

Olivier Richon, Imprese, From Near and From Afar, 1988, C-print, 35 × 32 inches. Courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery.

Uncountable miles from where any possible City of Gold might even now be sending out its fugitive gleams, but only two or three hundred yards from a tired church clock routinely bing-bonging the muffle of an advancing dusk, the self-dubbed Pilgrim and man-of-letters Sir Ronald Morston was engaged in what he called the refreshment of his soul. That is, he was half-listening to the poetry which his plump daughter was tonelessly reading to him on the close-shaved grass at the side of what was once the Manor House of more settled days. “Lawn Tennyson” he named this activity when in a better mood, always expecting his guests to laugh, and never wondering why they should roll their eyes.

On this particular evening, the scent of lavender in the air had failed to sweeten the old man’s spirit. He was sniffing and snuffling a lot, shifting morosely in his wicker chair, and lifting up the distinctly yellowish glare of spiteful eyeballs to the thickening sky.

The gradual draining of the light in these long days of late summer put him too much in mind of the vengeful rhythms of the nonconformist hymns he had not sung since his childhood: doleful and self-abasing dirges issuing from pale faces and an asthmatic harmonium. A rotting flotsam insisting in a slowly rolling tide that what the good Lord God had given, the good Lord God was jolly well going to take away. And sorry about that, you chaps.

Swifts by the dozens were cascading out of the chasms of withdrawing light in their usual manic fashion, skidding and diving around the steep overhang of his ivy-clad house. Bloody birds! Why did they have to make so much noise! An idiot pitch of excited screaming which interfered with what he always termed, in a slightly nasal tremor and almost an outward splay of the hand, his “circadien dip” into the “limpid pool” of English literature. Sir Ronald was known to be a cultured man, ever ready to furnish an appropriate quotation. A few apt phrases to alleviate but then to lengthen the silences of the dinner table.

What a contrast! he thought, in a curmudgeonly shift that also moved his buttocks. He was comparing the giddy spill of the birds to this even more irritating pudding of a woman droning away with no trace of zest in her posture or her voice from the other garden chair.

Child of my loins. Sniff. Fruit of my desire. Snuffle.

Poor Clarissa was as grounded a creature as any he had ever come across in all his long years of private living and public service. How in heaven’s name did she get like this? Look at her! A middle-aged woman made of suet. Dear Lord, she’s even sprouting some sort of moustache on the flap of her upper lip. Why did she let herself go? Whose fault is it?

Why, hers, he answered himself, in almost the exact same moment. It was far too swift to be a genuine exculpation, but the vigor of it allowed him to spoon a pinch of his malignant attention back to what the poor drab was actually, and so badly, reading.

Thick with wet woods,” she was intoning, “and many
a beast therein,
And none or few to scare or chase the beast:
So that wild dog, and wolf and bear
Came night and day, and rooted in the fields,
And wallow’d in the gardens

As a diversion against the ennui drifting in towards him on the laden raft of her flat syllables, Sir Ronald tried to track the words as they came out from the pale edges of her tight little mouth. He wanted to separate labials from sibilants and vowels from consonants. Little tiles on the Scrabble board, rattling in his brain.

—“Her own brood lost or dead, lent her fierce teat
To human sucklings; and the children, housed
In her foul den, there at their meat would growl

How peculiar, he thought, that such a big, such a fat face should have quite so narrow an aperture. A little nick in a pumpkin. Her mother’s mouth was not like that. It used to look rather mean now and again, that’s for sure: but it had also been, once upon a time, a shining red bow, stretching in slippery pleasure across the greedy promise of her slight overbite.

He put his fingers to his earlobe, remembering a pink rasp.

—“Till, straighten’d, they grew up to wolf-like men,
Worse than the wolves. And King Leodogran
Groan’d for the Roman legions here again

If I were deaf, he supposed—which God forbid, came the swift addition, with an atheist’s fervor—but if I were, would I be able to pick out the difference between “worse” and “wolves” or even “groaned” and “Roman” by the shape of Clarissa’s lips? No. Not to save my life. Shouldn’t think you’d be able to pick out the beginning of a kiss from the end of a spit, come to that. Not with a mouth as small and tight as that one. A pussy cat’s bottom.

But the rhythm of her voice had changed. He blinked, and paid attention.

“What?” he said.

“Are you really listening, father?”

“What on earth do you mean? Why do you think it necessary to ask? I cannot imagine why you should think I’m not. It refreshes my mind!”

“Yes, father.”

“And properly humbles my spirit.”

She knew all this by heart. The two remarks invariably went together in his mouth, even when, as now, his swathing glare seemed to show that they were totally devoid of truth.

“Yes, father.”

“Pray continue,” he said, with a little creak of wicker.

Clarissa was almost suffocating with boredom. She knew from the way he had been pulling at his ear that his mind was not wholly on the verse. Everything seemed such a waste of time and energy. Her throat was dry, and she wanted a drink: instead, she had to drown in Tennyson’s ink. Ah, if only someone could pull her from the cold bosom of this lake.

She tried not to hear the high-pitched cries of the plunging swifts, for fear that the sound would too accurately represent the noise she herself wanted to make.

“Yes,” she said, “all right.”

Clarissa turned a yellowing page, with a rustle he deemed to be contentious.


And Arthur yet,” she continued, “had done
no deed of arms

The long lines flowed down the page without the mirrors of rhyme to send back any additional light from the garden around her. As she read on and on, paying no heed to the sense of the words, the big old house seemed to loom above her like a dark crag pushing up out of an endless grey sea.

She allowed herself the smallest of exhalations. Enough of a sigh, as it happened, to make Sir Ronald glare again, and once more creak the wicker of his chair.

The sound of my nerves, she thought.

“If it’s too much trouble,” he began to say, petulantly.

But Arthur,” she responded, “looking downward as he past,
Felt the light of her eyes into his life
Smite on the sudden, yet rode on, and pitch’d
His tents beside the forest. Then he drave
The heathen; after, slew the beast, and feel’d
The forest, letting in the sun, and made
Broad pathways for the hunter and the knight

Clarissa’s mind flickered under the words, a small flame at the stub of a candle. Oh, if only the light of someone else’s eyes would smite all of a sudden! If only the gate would squeak on its hinge, and footsteps crunch on the gravel.

The same words had also broken through to her listener, and been quickly blown out of shape by a gust of anxiety.

He had awoken out of a dream during the previous night with the sort of startled gasp which wipes out exact memory of what it was that had been so alarming in the narrative of his sleep. All he could grasp, as the images flowed away from him, was that a woman he had never met pointed a finger at him while he walked along a crumbling path at the edge of a high white cliff. Undoubtedly, an accusation, and a dangerous one. The light of her baleful eyes smotehim, yes, on the sudden, yes, and then, as he came down the stair, he saw the white of an envelope lying on the mat, as though it, too, were part of the dream, part of the threat.

The envelope held a typed letter with an enormous scrawl of a signature. Some nosy bitch who wanted to come and ask questions. Perhaps she was already on her way. He would have to be careful. In this day and age people were more interested in looking under stones than using them to build something solid and properly commemorative. Wonder what she really wants? Wonder what she looks like? Say what you like, a chap still judges a woman first of all by what she looks like. How she’s upholstered. The titties, eh?

His brain went heh! heh!, but mostly in the back of that part of it responsible for maintaining memory. The sniggering ghost of an old and well-hidden salaciousness.

But her letter gave no clue as to her age, or the length and shape of her legs, or whether she was ever likely to open them for um, ah, heh! heh!, one of, what she say?, “one of the most significant figures in—,” all that, yes, and quite right too. It was important not to be forgotten. But you never knew what they were really after nowadays.

He reflected, as the Tennyson droned on, upon the fact that there was money to be made in exposure. My God, the things he knew about his former colleagues, now knights of the shires and captains of industry. The paper had lost all sense of decorum. Most of them, even the once good ones, seemed to be owned by Australians, Canadians, refugees, and similar sorts of money-grubbing riff-raff. It was best for everybody to close ranks and keep quiet. That’s how England works.

She’s probably one of those dried-up academics. He had often come across the type during his working days. One of those musty, library-cloistered females with small stains on her blouse or jumper or whatever. A little monkey face and little monkey habits, turning and turning some paltry scrap of detail pulled down from one of the lower branches of the old Out-of-Context tree: a bloody forest, that. Getting hold of some scrap of so-called information, some alleged insight, and turning and turning it in her paws like a nut with a soft shell, which she’d chew up and splatter out from her busy mandible. Except it would be skin and bone. My skin. My bone.

And Arthur” Clarissa droned, “passing thence
to battle, felt
Travail, and throes and agonies of the life,
Desiring to be join’d with Guinevere,
and thinking as he rode

Oh, yes, Sir Ronald swivelled his thoughts, oh, yes, I like this bit. If she would read it properly.

Shall I not lift her from this land of beasts
Up to my throne, and side by side with me?
What happiness to reign a lonely king,
Vext—O ye stars that shudder over me,
O earth that soundest hollow under me,
Vext with waste dreams?

There are certain parallels there with my own travail. Sir Ronald mused.

Particularly when it comes to the nature of my misunderstood or ignored, deliberately ignored, yearnings. Oh, I leap up. Who pulls me down?

Probably one of those dried-up, yes. And once they got hold of something, they never let go. Biography or quasi-biography has become a whole new industry, and most of it posited on scandal. They don’t hesitate to lift up a stained bedsheet, or plunder a private letter. Knock, knock, who’s there? Seamus. Seamus who? Seamus All.

“Hello Ronnie, darling,” cooed a tarty voice at the opening door, with a waft of perfume, “Where’ve you been, sweetie?”

And I’ll bet she talks about it, dragging down the smoke from her lipstick-stained cigarette, and laughing that laugh, and tinkling that little bracelet of tupenny-ha’penny charms at her long wrist. Ho!

I wonder what became of her? Wonder how many men she had. About as many as go to a football match. Mind you, she—

These Researcher Types. Once they get hold, they never let go. Supposing she knows about that—place—in Gloucester Terrace? White stucco front. Long gloomy stairs. The door opening at the top … by God, those springs used to creak!

And they never understand, beneath it all, the essential purity and selflessness of a life given over to the service of literature and the arts. No, that’s the truth. When you put everything in the scale. When you weight it all up. Look at me now. I mean, look at me. Listening to—

Thereafter—as he speaks who tells the tale
When Arthur reach’d a field-of-battle bright
With pitched pavilions of his foe, the world
was all so clear about him, that he saw
The smallest rock far on the faintest hill,
And even in high day the morning star.
So when the King had set his banner broad,
At once from either side, from trumpet-blast,
And shouts, and clarions shrilling unto blood

“Unlike you!” he said, suddenly, and with extraordinary venom.

Clarissa stopped reading. She held herself still, and then looked up with slow and puzzled eyes, then lowered them again, exactly as though she were once again the child awaiting her daily dollop of sarcasm from the Great Man, her father.

Sir Ronald had “never allowed a finger to be laid” on his children by way of punishment. Children, he said, are not small adults, nor are they clever animals: they inhabit the same moral order as ourselves. He had once contributed what he imagined to be a greatly admired chapter to a symposium on the education of the young, in which he said that neither condescension nor overload were appropriate: the teacher, or better still, the parent, should identify the points of apparent difficulty or actual dissent and then enumerate possible solutions on the fingers of one hand, and only one hand.

In practise, he had deployed sarcasm as though it were an artillery gun.

“Clarions,” he jeered, “shrilling unto blood.”

“Father?” she asked. “You’ve got trumpet blasts,” he said, on all digits. “You’ve got shouts.

You’ve got clarions shrilling unto blood. There they are at battle, swaying this way and that, and what do you make it sound like? The bloody laundry list!”

“But if I—” she began.

Are you pretending to be a fish on a slab? Well, it’s a damned good imitation!”

“If I try to read with any—any sort of life in it, you say I’m trying to act. You say I’m spoiling it, coming between you and the words. What am I supposed to do?”

Sir Ronald made his chair creak, pouted, and threw out his hands in open-palmed astonishment.

“I’m sorry, father,” she said, quickly.

“What a plaintive young woman you’ve become!”

“I don’t feel quite right in myself today,” she said, feeling his eyes too fiercely upon her. She knew that she should not capitulate, but could never manage to avoid it. The years of belittlement had shrivelled her spirit.

“I shouldn’t have thought,” he was saying, in a characteristic formulation, “that you would have felt it necessary to add peevishness to your other—ah—qualities, my dear.”

Clarissa correctly translated the weasel of “—ah—qualities” into the wolf of “failures.” She passed her hand briefly across her damp forehead, and felt the stone roll behind the bone.

“I’m sorry, father. I’ve had this sort of down feeling all day long. A headache. That heavy thing down on my head, you know. It must be the weather.”

The wicker crackled again, but less vigorously. She waited. At the edge of her vision, the birds whipped and swerved above her, gobbling down the gnats and midges. Why, she wondered, don’t they ever collide with each other: we humans certainly do.

“It’s not so much the heat,” he said, apparently mollified, “it’s not the actual temperature. It’s the humidity. Like those hot flannels they try to give you on an aeroplane. It’s been like having one of those things held against your face all day long. We get a muggy sort of spell like this at least once a year, and yet we always complain that we’re not used to it. You mustn’t become too plaintive, you know. There’s too much whingeing and whining about things which cannot possibly be changed. I would have thought your long acquaintance with good literature would have induced in you at least a tincture of equanimity.”

“Well, it’s a bit cooler now,” she said, still sounding apologetic. Tincture? she thought. Tincture! Oh, my God, he gets worse …

“Oh, but there are some extraordinarily vivid red streaks in the sky over there, beyond the apple trees.” He gestured and measured, continuing to speak as though squeezing each word to get the juice out of it. “It’ll be another hot day tomorrow, you mark my words.”

They looked at each other across the grass, and each felt a similar depression. Has it finally come to this? Are we reduced to talking about the weather? In that tepid and yet obscurely hostile way the English keep for conversation with strangers? One sentence dribbling after another until the sky, indifferent, has emptied itself of whatever pleases or offends.

Clarissa took a firmer grip on the book, but it was not much of a prop, as literature seldom is. Indeed, her father’s perpetual blatherings and posturing injunctions had long since inoculated her against the claims of art. The slightly foxed pages of the old book felt sticky under her fingers. She dropped her head again, back into the well of boredom, but the spikes of the letters which made up the tangle of words suddenly bent and wavered like a hedge in a high wind.

“Um,” she said, at the back of her throat.

“Yes? What is it?”

“The light isn’t all that good now. Perhaps we can leave it until tomorrow—?”

“Tomorrow?” on the creak of his chair. “What? Stop now, do you mean?

This beautiful light. The glare has gone. Absolutely ideal. I wish I could get the lamp on my desk as good as this light is at the moment!”

“Um,” she said, at the bottom of her soul.

“Well?” he challenged, in that sour and spoilt tone against which, she felt, no defense could ever be mustered.

Not knowing what more to say, or how to get up and walk away, Clarissa resumed reading aloud, in the same flat diction he had scorned, although she had no intention to offend. The wind had stopped blowing the letters, and the thin hedge of words marched down the page. Row upon row of neatly ordered thorns in ten syllable strands, stretching from one small horizon to the other.

Poor old devil, she thought, in muted consolation, as the thorns bit and cagged at her lips. He’s got no one left now, except me. I must, must, try to understand him, try to be kinder to him.

Vext with waste dreams?” she read, accidentally resuming at the wrong place, “for saving I be join’d
To her that is the fairest under heaven
I seem as nothing in the mighty world,
And cannot will my will, nor work my work
Wholly, nor make myself in mine own realm
Victor and lord. But were I join’d with her,
Then might we live together as one life,
And reigning as one will in everything
Have power on this dark land to lighten it,
And power on this dead world to make

She stopped reading, abruptly. It wasn’t because she had already delivered these lines without either of them noticing. For no reason she could think of, let alone accept, her eyes began to prickle and to moisten.

She made a tiny noise, imagining it, for the moment, to be one of helpless supplication. The cries of the swifts were coming now from inside her head. And then she made another soft, barely audible sound of distress because the trees at the far side of the lawn had begun to sigh with her own pain. The day was shrinking itself about her, pressing in at her marrow.

“Really, Clarissa!” he was growling, in his worst chair-shift of petulance, “what on earth is the matter with you now? You look like Simple Simon on his way to the fair. Can I offer you a pie, or what? If you don’t want to carry on, then for goodness sake say so.”

But even as he spoke, he began to acknowledge with a fold of his arms and a bend of his mind that the gravelly tetchiness of his voice had too easily become his usual way of addressing her. He allowed himself to suffer a small pang of shame. She was a good old stick, when all was said and done.

Sir Ronald, self-chastened, was actually in the process of adjusting his expression into a less querelous sag, when, flying through the air like a bird with folded wings, the book hit him, hard, on the fleshiest part of his nose.

“Bastard!” she cried.

An immobilising incredulity was by so far the most immediate of his reactions that Clarissa, for all the drag of her weight, had time to gather up the book from where it had fallen before he was able to let out a shout of agony and affront.

And power on this dead world,” she began again, as though nothing at all unusual had happened, “to make it live.
Thereafter_—_as he speaks who tells the tale—
When Arthur reach’d field-of-battle bright
With pitch’d pavilions of—”

“Oh,” she said, successfully putting down her terror. “I’ve read this bit, haven’t I?”

“You wicked girl!” he screamed, cupping his hands to his face, and discovering the horror of blood.

“Still,” she said, almost managing to be utterly matter of fact, “It’s a nice bit. I might as well carry on. You don’t mind hearing it again, do you?”

“Clarissa!” he sobbed, the blood suddenly splattering.

With pitch’d pavilions of his foe” she continued
the world
Was all so clear about him, that he saw
The smallest rock far on the faintest hill,
And even in high day the morning star …

At first not much more than a violent smear on his shaking fingers, stickied with sudden slime from his affronted nose, the blood had opened up into a gush that could not be staunched. Bright red spots appeared on the white flannel of his neatly creased trousers, and then on the minty cream of his shoes. As he pulled his hands away from the injury once more, a mucilaginous slime stretched in strands between his fingers.

Sir Ronald sobbed. Sir Ronald groaned. And he swore violently. But she did not dare to lift her slow eyes from the page, nor change in any manner the steady pace of her delivery.

“So when the King had set his banner broad,
At once from either side, with trumpet-blast
And shouts, and clarions shrilling unto blood.
The long-lanced battle

“You wicked, wicked bitch!” he cried again, but less coherently, as in an amazement of fear he rushed across the daisy-spangled lawn and along the flagstones towards the safety of the house, bent double, and both hands clapped urgently to his still blood-pumping nose.

“—let their horses run,” she was continuing,
“And now the Barons and the Kings prevail’d.
And now the King, as here and there that war
Went swaying: but the Powers who walk the world
Made lightnings and great thunders over him,
And dazed all eyes

“You’re mad!” Sir Ronald cried, in muffled choke, at the door. But by now she was able to take not the slightest notice, still steadily swimming across his “limpid pool” with the regular strokes of someone getting a second wind.

“—till Arthur by main might,” she said, as he plunged on into the house, leaving a speckle of crimson droplets on the stone of the step, “And mightier of his hands with every blow—”

Sir Ronald was still trembling, with what he hoped was only indignation, when after much splashing, dabbing, and groaning he came back from the bathroom (blood on the white tiles!) to his now little-used study.

The shadow of a lilac tree stooped across the far wall. The long ranks of leather-bound books on the other three walls, the expanse of mahogany desk littered with mostly blank papers, the ivory telephone squatting amongst them, the curving ebony of the pipe-rack: everything he looked at was not, to him, the same as when he had last been in this room about an hour ago.

What has happened? he asked himself, in a flutter of panic.

The study window faced out at a cock-eyed, almost jaunty angle onto the slope of the lawn where they had been sitting, the former Chairman of the Arts Council and his plain but dutiful daughter, in the kind of domestic configuration which he occasionally claimed (to others) warmed his “tired old heart.” In Who’s Who, Sir Ronald listed his hobbies, simply, as “My Family.”

He edged his way across the room and stood in the bay of the window. Christ in Heaven, her head was still bent over the open book! Her lips were still moving, moving! What did she think she was doing?

For a moment, insectoid and yet weirdly gelatinous blobs floated in front of his eyes. He heard a rattle of air in his chest. He put his hand against the sill for support and stared at her through the glass until the blobs dissolved of their own accord. They became nothing more than a fly bumping against the pane. Now, he was able to see that she was rolling plucked blades of grass and some daisy heads between the fingers of her free hand, as a little girl might.

What has happened? came the question again, drumming in more than his head. Which one of his has gone barking mad?

Very carefully, so as not to be heard, he pushed the window up a few inches. The frame squeaked, for all his caution. The perilously admitted flow of air from the dusk of the summery garden smelt to him of dead roses and of the blood still clotting within the swollen pendule of his nose.

Clarissa’s voice came sweet and clear across the grass.

And near him stood the Lady of the Lake,
Who knows a subtler magic than his own—
Clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful.
She gave the King his huge cross-hilted sword.
Whereby to drive the heathen out: a mist
Of incense curl’d about her, and her face
Wellnigh was hidden in the minster gloom

And, oh, the way she was reading! The flat tones had become a lilt, a song, encompassing awe and melancholy. It was as though another spirit had taken hold of her. Who is she? What is she?

“—But there was heard among the holy hymns
A voice as of the waters, for she dwells
Down in a deep: calm, whatsoever storms
May shake the world, and when the surface rolls.
Hath power to walk the waters like our Lord.

Such grace! he thought. Such intelligence. Such feeling!

It terrified him. He tried with a sudden grappling claw of a hand to close the window, but his arms had lost their strength. He wanted to turn and run back into the depth of the house, anywhere. Every instinct demanded that he get himself behind a stout door with a key that could be turned.

But his feet were not willing to obey. His eyes, losing their yellow, stayed fixed on the somehow no longer cumbersome young woman reading aloud on the lawn to nothing and no-one except the droop of the flowering bushes and the cries of the tumbling swifts.

There likewise I beheld Excalibur
Before him at his crowning borne, the sword
That rose from out the bosom of the lake,
And Arthur row’d across and took it—rich
With jewels, elfin Urim, on the hilt.
Bewildering heart and eye—the blade so bright
That men are blinded by it—on one side,
Graven in the oldest tongue of all this world,
‘Take me,’ but turn the blade and ye shall see,
And written in the speech ye speak yourself.
‘Cast me away!’ And sad was Arthur’s face
Taking it, but old Merlin counsell’d him,
’Take thou and strike! the time to cast away
Is yet far-off.’ So this great brand the King
Took, and by this will beat his foeman down.

Clarissa had come to the end of the section. She stayed still for a moment, then shut the heavy book with a soft thud, and placed it on the grass beside the chair with a delicacy of movement that felt like a discovery to her.

“Take me” echoed in his head as he stared out at her. “Cast me away!”

She smiled a secretive smile, and looked steadily across at the house, examining it as a prospective purchaser might. Perhaps she would have her own room painted in a brighter colour, so that what had threatened could once again beckon. And, then, as her gaze moved down the ivied walls, she saw the pale face staring back at her from the window of her father’s study. For a moment, it looked like an image of death.

Oh, dear, she thought, without anxiety, he’s not long for this world.

And then the last rays of the now almost descended sun burnt suddenly upon the window, blanching out the ghostly figure, shattering the pane of glass into painful fragments of light.

Clarissa sat very still listening to the no longer plangent cries of the birds, and waiting for the last of the sun to drown in its own fire. Soon, the first cool darkness would mantle her. Oh, she would sleep tonight!

Her smile suddenly widened like the slash of a knife across the soft white pastry of her face. Take thou and strike! There was, after all, a great deal to be said in favour of Lawn Tennyson.

She thought of how much she was looking forward to the next day’s reading.

Dennis Potter wrote the television series, The Singing Detective, also the screenplays for Pennies from Heaven, Brimstone and Treacle, and Christabel, shown on PBS in February 1989. Vintage books will publish his novel, Blackeyes and the screenplay of The Singing Detective, as well as Ticket to Ride later this year.

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BOMB 27, Spring 1989

Salman Rushdie, Polly Apfelbaum, Dennis Cooper, James Nares, Penny Arcade, Mats, Alexander Kluge, Robert Greene, Nancy Shaver, Abbijane, Terry Kinney, Michael Tetherow, Bill Barrette, and Carmelo Pomodoro.

Read the issue
027 Spring 1989