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James McBain

A Self-Portrait

I was at a party at a friend’s house in Dublin a few years ago, celebrating her birthday. It was too late and the conversation moved too close to us, to age and ambition. After a while, and for whatever reason, perhaps just whiskey, she suddenly saw the infinite possible lives that her choices had frustrated. These alternatives were real for a moment, instead of her children, academic career, and her friends who had gathered to mark their relationships with her and not the fact of her birthday itself. It was genuinely moving and so, in need of something to tame the unsaid, she hit upon the maudlin idea of using biographies of the Romantics to gauge her life. So she’d outlived Keats and Shelley, soon she’d reach a greater age than Byron ever knew. And yet she was still to make a mark on the world, terrified of just passing through and leaving it untouched, unaltered, unscathed. She hasn’t, of course, and I follow her now. But I remain fascinated by her need to imagine herself through comparison with others, whether with their bodies and lives and also their deaths, or the bodies of writing that sustain them in an echo of the medieval chantry. And I love the curiously human fact that she chose not to compare herself to Wordsworth.

It’s quite daunting to attempt to represent oneself on paper, to be forced to come to terms with a life and the many choices and beliefs that have helped to shape it. And there’s an issue too of how much of a life is in some sense oneself and how many of our ‘flaps and patches’ really belong to somebody else entirely. I frequently use other people’s words to express myself, for example, an occupational hazard I suppose, or just of a life prefaced by postmodernity. But those words don’t stand in opposition to experiences or things at all, rather they’re probably closer reflections of them than I could discover myself. Eloquence, I’ve found, is far from being synonymous with insincerity.


I’m currently in my second year of a D.Phil. at Magdalen, researching the relationship of Early Tudor Drama and Law. It’s a connection I’ve been fascinated by since I was first introduced to a new species of play that frequently adopts legal diction and circumstance to consider and represent its social and intellectual concerns. At the same time, early modern law was far from the statutory body of rules and precedent that we have today; much closer perhaps to a system of identifying and classifying things and actions. And legal training at the time was incredibly rigorous – a vocational pre-cursor to the Erasmian revolution that offered a renewed curriculum for grammar schools and played such a recognised part in sixteenth century Literature. The plays I work on are always considered to be of minor interest or value, but as evidence of the mediation of the Renaissance in England they’re actually vitally important. And I like the fact that there are only a handful of genuine experts in my field, whereas it would probably be humanly impossible to read everything written about Shakespeare in any given year.

I’ve never felt professionally ambitious, I just want to be able to understand more than I do now and I’ve been lucky that my curiosity has kept me going so far. I’m very ambitious to live by the sea one day though, where I’m happiest of all. My girlfriend, Jen, and I surf, albeit incredibly badly. Most of the time, when not merely bobbing along as expensively clad flotsam, we giggle as the other gets dumped and washes up sometime later. And it’s freezing cold, even at the height of summer. But I love the first shock of immersion each time, the inevitability of it that still can’t be anticipated. The thrill is impossible to recreate and remember as well, pleasure that’s as forgetful as a bruise. It seems crass after the tsunami, it is crass after the tsunami, but I find the danger of the sea incredibly seductive, even the Channel. It’s an illusion most of the time, the rip seldom pulls at your legs strongly enough to induce fear. But it can do and I like that; it gives a good sense of perspective. And we also love the sedate calm it provides, to sit on the beach at the very edge of the country and concentrate on tides and colours and nothing more. It’s a happiness that hasn’t changed for as long as I remember.

I can’t recall ever wanting to be an academic when I was growing up, though I didn’t know of any until I first went to university. I think my gravitation towards it is an indication of how my priorities have changed in life. My future plans when I was younger were almost exclusively materialistic; I was destined to be a lawyer, very much for the financial rather than intellectual rewards at that stage. I went as far as having a place at Cambridge for Law, but even before the time of my A-Level exams, I knew that I actually wanted to read English instead and forfeit my ideas of vast wealth in favour of ideas themselves. It’s easily the best decision I’ve ever made. But I don’t know how much my later decisions to carry on in the subject is for the work’s own sake and how much due to the fact that I’ve been influenced by some brilliant academics and their experiences in forging a lifestyle that allows one the space to think.

I feel very lucky to have studied in Dublin and Paris before coming to Oxford. One of my Dublin tutors, Professor Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, is an extraordinary poet and as often as I think of Ireland and friends there, I seem to return to her poem ‘Deaths and Engines’, particularly its end:

One day you will find yourself alone
Accelerating down a blind
Alley, too late to stop
And you know how light your death is,
How serious the survival of the others.
You will be scattered like wreckage;
The pieces, every one a different shape
Will painfully lodge in the hearts
Of everybody who loves you.

It’s odd that it takes the sudden shock of death to acknowledge the shape of each other in our lives, or even the thought of it and the shape of our own, as at Amanda’s birthday. It’s a call for recognition that is partly answered by the promise of Raine’s poetry to ‘grant...the world that is taken for granted’. Eiléan is a brilliant academic and teacher too; we sometimes used to pretend not to understand her ideas completely so that she’d continue to speak whilst there was time. And, one term, she rearranged her days, despite being Head of Department and immensely busy, so that we could reschedule a very early morning class. We probably performed marginally better in the afternoons, but it was much more a typically generous and understanding gesture and I’m glad that I remember that along with her scholarly achievements.


I’m very happy at the moment; I’ve no reason at all not to be. That said, the pattern of my life taking shape simultaneously makes me think of its wholeness. The knowledge that I’ll never have time to see, do, experience, read as much as I’d like to doesn’t stop me dwelling on the frustration of an ending. I’m terrified of dying, or of death rather, of no longer being. I’m not unusually morbid, but I tend to think of things in their entirety, and I find myself constantly conscious of my own fragility. It’s a good excuse to spend time finishing books, just in case. When I’ve read a book I’ve enjoyed, I feel the need to read everything the author’s written and then put it into some sort of order in my mind. There’s a marvellous quotation from Erasmus, who somewhere wrote, ‘when I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes’, which is advice I follow. (I wonder if it matters that I first saw the quotation in a bookshop?) I buy far more books that I can really afford. And our house is growing too small for them all. But I’ve a vague notion of them someday serving as a variant of a commonplace book, that a library will one day function as a memory for me of a fraction of what I’ve loved in my life. And then they’ll belong to somebody else.

I actually don’t know if the worry is of dying or death, or both. There’s an obituary programme on the radio sometimes, I think it’s called ‘Brief Lives’, which my dad complains has recently become politically correct, no longer giving each subject’s age or cause of death. And he’s right, in part. It has a similar effect to those Victorian headstones that record how someone somehow ‘fell asleep’. But it doesn’t stop one imagining the worst – although the reverse is also true. I almost knew a girl at college who committed suicide and is now forever accompanied by the rope that chafed the fibres of her throat.


It seems a little self-indulgent to talk of love, which is perhaps where its pleasure lies. One of the playwrights I’m researching, John Heywood, has a brilliant interlude, called A Play of Love, in which the four possible situations of romantic love are dramatised: a lover who is loved, one who loves but isn’t loved back, one who is loved, but doesn’t love and finally a Vice character who neither loves nor is loved. It’s irrelevant to the text, but I think we probably shift between these roles throughout our lives, if we’re lucky, and perhaps sometimes we play a different role to that which our close friends and family might assume we do. The basis of that love, however, seems to me far harder to define than to find. Unrequited love seems particularly fascinating, raising the question of whether love can always or ever be a shared experience, rather than merely something felt at the same time. Does the fact that someone doesn’t care that you exist diminish the power of the reaction when you see them? When someone brings tightness and fear to your stomach and a sudden knowledge of recklessness. There’s a realisation that you could forever alter lives in exchange for a fraction of her, yet you’re not reckless enough to talk to her, somehow. And I think that people understand the word ‘love’ very differently; it’s a word like ‘happiness’ that represents a sum total and a ‘catch-all’, a solid block of colour and a subtle shade. I once knew a man who claimed to love his wife so much that he held her so closely she died.

Familial love’s always seemed much easier to me. My older brother’s wife is about to give birth and, entirely vicariously, I suddenly feel the need to mature; the pregnancy’s a genuine joy but also somehow terrifying. I think it’s because I’ve always assumed that I would have children, and I hope that I will one day. But the more I think of my parents, the more I’m daunted by their example. I have friends who grieve for an apparently failed childhood and blame their parents, which in various cases is either justified or is an entirely rhetorical pose. But my childhood was almost impossibly good and somehow beyond my grasp. I don’t know how my parents made decisions about my two brothers and me, how they shaped their lives around us and made sure we knew we were at the centre of them. I don’t think I could ever thank them properly. I worry, needlessly at the moment, that I couldn’t be as good a parent as mine continue to be.


I’d like to live in Paris again, it’s probably the city I’ve felt most suited to, for lots of reasons. I lived in a tiny room at the top of an apartment building south of Montparnasse, a chambre de bonne, and college was in the Marais so I crossed the city, following the river, each day. A walk to work meant that I could call into the Louvre, when the weather was grand I could read in the Luxembourg Gardens, we used to meet for coffee in Place des Vosges. I was a tourist, and also something more – I felt I had a greater purpose than to trap as much as I could in a lens as if to prove to sceptical friends at home that it really existed. Students in Paris can buy annual passes to the galleries for the equivalent of a few pounds and then one can slip in and out at will, as if belonging there. And so it was a surreal privilege. I’d always wondered, when I’d visited Paris before for just a few days at a time, whether it was as beautiful as I thought, or whether I was just responding to taste, believing what my culture had told me to be the case. I’m sure that both ideas are symbiotically true, but Paris’s beauty is definitely somehow in its animation. A few times, mostly on the Ile St Louis, there’d be a fashion photographer, helping a girl shin up a tree or effect some unlikely pose that, in Paris, somehow seemed natural; the city as stage.

I guess a similar thing is true of Oxford, but not quite. And it’s not just because I feel in a slightly different position here. It’s a delight to live in a city that’s so attractive – though it amuses me to see tourists standing, sometimes for ages, waiting for people to vacate the frame so as not to ruin their shot; the city as museum? I’m beginning now to feel at home here, or at least welcome. When I first arrived, and the city and university were one in my mind, I was reminded of the atmosphere of the village where I grew up in Lincolnshire, a community of villagers who reluctantly shared their space with others. I found the initial anonymity in Paris exhilarating, especially after Dublin. Trinity’s often described as an oasis in the midst of the city, a garden, walled to keep the world out much more than to keep students in. There’s even recent talk of a distinct college accent as a token of its remove, ‘Trinity English’, a slight variant on received pronunciation, which apparently used to be as conspicuous as uniform. Very few students live on the main site, the authorities pondered over priorities and put tourism first, but most of us lived in the same districts and so the effect was the same. In Paris, for a few months at least, I could move around without being recognised at all, or only by familiar faces from the quotidian trip for bread and news. And yet I was simultaneously greeted incredibly warmly at college, apparently without assumptions, fellow students and staff were instead just interested in who I was, what I thought – though I suppose I could just have been exceptionally lucky. At first in Oxford, it seemed that if somebody wasn’t known, it signified that they weren’t worth knowing. I know better now.


I don’t know why, or even if there is a reason, but I realised recently that almost all of my friends are women. My close friends certainly. I’m never sure whether I’m guilty of ‘categorising’ friends, I’d hate to think so yet I do seem to have people whose friendship means entirely different things to me. I love the luxury of an honest opinion, however brutal. And I have friends whose effortless sociability I’m envious of...I’m greedy to enjoy evenings with them, which inevitably ring with drunken laughter. Others offer incredibly good conversation, happy to talk about shared passions of films, books, friends – or the latest plotlines in Neighbours. I’m wondering now what parts I play in my friends’ lives.

I wish I could see more of many of my friends, literally. It’s easy to get lost in work and forget to find time for people. And it’s a purely practical thing in many cases, perhaps that we live in different towns or countries. But a telephone call, however intimate, particular or necessary, is pale and frustrating without physical presence. I’ve always been fascinated by the way that people express themselves as much as by their speech, I love to watch friends’ lips and eyes and I feel comfortable and relaxed when able to do so. When I’m on the phone I tend to fidget and stalk around the place – I don’t know why. It’s sad to miss aspects of my friends’ lives. Most of my closest friends are from time shared at university where propinquity gave us the gift of time, enough to waste extravagantly or use to chart change in ourselves, like happy witnesses to the rhythm of a lover’s body.

And then there are lots of other people I spend time with, and who I would certainly describe as friends, such as those at my running club, but about whom I know almost nothing, other than a delight in a shared activity. I’m taking part in the London Marathon in April for Breakthrough Breast Cancer, though, if I’m honest, my motivations are far more selfish than charitable. I’ve come to love the peace and thoughtlessness in the gym or on the road and I like the fact that each run is an experiment to be considered and recorded afterwards. Most of all, I want to understand why Jen loves to run so much and hopefully be able to share it with her. She’s much better than I could ever be, she used to run for Northern Ireland as a girl and her ability now, after years of doing other things instead, speaks of talent as much as commitment. But I’ve already learned that the challenge is of the mind as much as the body, though obviously that counts too. There comes a point, quite soon for me at the moment, where it starts to get painful and there’s a struggle, akin to a species of psychomachia, to ignore or enjoy it and keep driving oneself forwards. The closer I move to understanding it, the more I love Jen’s courage.


In many ways, my working life is mostly spent alone. But I seldom feel lonely, much more frequently restless. It’s exciting to be working on something new, to work towards being able to understand, and then explain, a play in a different way. Sometimes work is about perseverance, having to keep chipping away, so to speak. At other times I feel the need to think clearly and that isn’t quite so easily done, although I try to help myself by working from home as often as possible. I read a diary entry by the mathematician Marcus du Sautoy recently in which he wrote about the benefit of working at home, being able to ‘slip in and out of thinking of maths and doing other things’ and I agree completely. There are, of course, many distractions but they tend to break the day up and curiously bring everything into focus.

I haven’t made my mind up about academia yet. Forster’s remark about an expert being one ‘who knows more and more about less and less’ is clever and right, but also wrong. I think it’s an individual choice to head for the easily defended impasse. I recall reading something that Tony Nuttall wrote about the study of Humanities, about how reading Greats didn’t mean simply understanding literature, though of course one does that, but is also fascinated by the business of warfare, architecture, agriculture and drains. I think that’s the ideal for my study in many ways. I work with words, whether of literature or law, with philosophy and theology, with complicated conceptions of identity and representation. But it’s also earth and love and blood at stake. And there’s contact there.

But that isn’t to say that I’m not simultaneously uncomfortable with academic study too, with its requirements and nature. My work frequently traces a concern for the stability of meaning, the fear of linguistic failure, the ultimate threat of the impossibility of truth being anything more than a temporary contract. And then one reads, for example, Marber’s perfect observation that the human heart ‘looks like a fist wrapped in blood’, and its more meaningful and true than conventional academic work can ever be. It suddenly seems a path to a life half-lived, at best making frames for someone else’s pictures. I wish I could paint above all things, or draw, or somehow find shapes or make something. But I can’t. In fantasy I can close my eyes sometimes and imagine being able to portray myself like Lucian Freud, with an easel smudged with colours and rooted to the ground by the heavy burden of his boots. But then I open my eyes, and I’m just the voyeur again, trapped on the outside of my desire.

Lucian Freud
Lucian Freud


I’ve lived with this self-portrait for a couple of weeks now and remain a little surprised by how different it is to living with my own idea of self. It seems cold, distant, clothed in a skin too many. I’ve decided though that my reaction’s also an inextricable part of me and of my life so far. I expect far more of myself than anybody else and so I wouldn’t really be content with anything I’d written. But I hope it’s also honest of a portrait’s nature as riddle, like our reflections of all people that we each interpret, of their motivations that call out to be parsed, their silences interrogated. Nothing but the truth is the most one can ever hope for. The rest is up to somebody else.

February 2005