When we left Pilcrow, John was approaching the end of adolescence. He had progressed through a couple of institutions where he was more or less a prisoner, he was beginning to come to difficult terms with his family and he was eager to discover a version of “independence” in the world. He had also discovered an interest in Hindu mythology as a possible antidote to his constricted circumstances — the Stills’ impact severely restricts his options — and was eager to explore that as a way of escaping his present circumstances.
Cedilla does not disappoint on any of those fronts. The massive brick of a volume conveniently breaks into five parts:
Part One — hospital operations to implant the beta-versions of artificial hips with the new McKee version:
McKee’s breakthrough came while he was tinkering with cars and motorbikes. He thought it was a shame that you couldn’t simply replace components in the body that wore out or broke, and he wondered if it might not in fact be possible. His was an engineering perspective, and he set out to solve a medical problem in those terms.
There is a lot of pain and drugs in this section of the book (which links it back to Pilcrow) but what we are doing is transferring John to a new set of circumstances. He is still seriously hobbled but the new hip machinery works — to the point where he can pass a driver’s test and has acquired (through the resources of his dominating Granny) a Mini Cooper. And done well enough on his leaving exams that he has been accepted into Cambridge.
Part Two — before that, however, he has a “gap year”, although in John’s case it is a gap five weeks.
Despite his disabilities, John, inspired by his reading, wants to go to India to meet his guru (long dead, alas, but he still has a following). John’s father is now working at BOAC and negotiates a deal with his colleague at Air India so John can head off to explore his spiritual guide, even though both parents think this is lunacy. I’m going to avoid details and quotes but will conclude that our hero has a most interesting time under the influence of the widow of the author who directed him there. Alas, the spiritual discovery that he sought is not found.
Part Three — so he returns to take up his place at Cambridge.
For me, this was certainly the best section of part two of the John Cromer story. He enters as a Modern Languages student (German and Spanish) and is immediately swept up in the University’s desire to be “accommodating” of the handicapped, but only so accommodating. John is installed in some rooms on the ground floor of Kenny Court at Downing College. He will spend the next three years (except for the inevitable term breaks) here, learning that his notion of independence is perhaps somewhat out of step with the real world.
The University had a motto, of course, but it was a bit on the cryptic side: Hinc lucem et pocula sacra. Roughly, ‘This is where we receive enlightenment and imbibe holiness.’ But the Latin doesn’t make a complete sentence and you have to supply the missing grammar. Hinc means ‘from here’. Good — I’m in the right place. And the next bit is about light and holy tipples (poculum being a diminutive meaning a goblet or the liquid it contains, so ‘little drinks’) and it’s in the accusative, so someone is doing something to the light and holy tipples — or will do something or has done something. ‘Getting them’ is as good a guess as any, and I suppose it may as well be ‘us’ that does it. It’s all rather frustrating — or to put it another way, good practice for construing Sanskrit scriptures.
The best part of this section is when a rowing team adopts John as “Cox”, not for the rowing but for a Cambridge drinking competition — a pint each in eight pubs, all drunk in one hour, no peeing allowed, John to keep time on a stopwatch to make sure they keep pace. They trundle (well, stumble is probably more appropriate) John in his wheelchair down the street on one of their practice runs and abandon him in a pool of vomit at the next-to-last tavern. It is almost enough to make John teetotal.
Part Four — but there is still his family.
We have come to know Father (ex-RAF and very military), mother (needy) and siblings from volume one and they show up again, but in supporting roles only in this volume. The confrontation with his parents has been presaged in volume one and, in fact, does not occur until late in this volume — but John does eventually break free. That may or may not be a good thing.
Part Five — and he discovers his sexuality.
At Cambridge, increasingly aware of his attraction to sexual experience with men, John joins CHAPS — you are going to have to read the book to discover the twisted reasoning that produces the acronym of this addled gay group. Suffice to say, it is a collection of confused, maturing boys who are having trouble finding their way in the complex straight world. Given that he has to be carried in the meetings and then put into his wheelchair, John is even more removed than most of them from the real world. But he does discover his particular leverage.
When I reread all of that, I have to ask: Why would anyone want to read this book? Especially given that it implies a commitment to read four, very long books.
So here’s an answer. Mars-Jones, as he constructs John’s story, also constructs a picture of the times, in the same way that John Updike did with his Rabbit foursome in the U.S. and A.S. Byatt did with her U.K. tetralogy some decades previous to this. The best parts of both of Mars-Jones first two volumes are not in the central story (although I like that well enough) but in his digressions from the story line. Even the parts set in India (which were the least interesting for me) contain the kind of icy observations that make the reading worthwhile.
Do you want to read this book? Well, if you are interested, you need to go back to Pilcrow and start there — the projected four volumes will need to be read in order. Should you undertake that project? I can only say that I am glad that I am enrolled and on my way — but I have a lot of time available for reading. You might want to wait until volumes three and four come out before making up your mind. Then again, why not join the voyage in progress?