Anthony Rudolf (Class of 1960)

Anthony Rudolf was at City of London School between 1953 and 1960 and went on to graduate in Modern Languages and Social Anthropology from Cambridge. As a poet, editor, translator, memoirist and literary critic, he is the author of more than 30 books. His works include the acclaimed ‘The Arithmetic of Memory’, a fascinating memoir of his 1950s childhood and a reflection on the nature of memory itself.

What was your first experience of work?

My life after University was a succession of jobs that I wasn’t really committed to. I was reserving my energies for my literary life. I knew that my destiny was to be a poet and literary writer but I always needed a day job.

My first job was with the British Travel Association, based in Chicago. I visited travel agents and motels in the Mid-West of the US and showed them slide shows promoting Britain. After six months of that, I wanted to be back in England for my literary stuff.

Later, when I was in my 30s and had a young family, I got a job at the BBC World Service – behind the scenes – that gave me time to pursue this other life as poet, translator, editor and literary person which I did for 23 years. I ran a small publishing company of my own too.

I have written quite a lot but almost nothing has earned me any serious money. So I am not a role model for anyone whose intention is to do a serious and useful job in the world.  Having said that, maybe I was ahead of my time – the gig economy and working for 25 different people seems more standard now.

What was your family background?

All my grandparents had been Jewish immigrants in the 1900s. They spoke broken English and I loved going to see them in Stoke Newington. My family was steeped in the Labour Party – my father, who was head of his own accountancy firm, stood to be a Labour councillor and both my parents did a lot of work stuffing envelopes for the local Labour party –Harold Wilson (1960s Labour prime minister) was also a member: he lived two streets from us in Hampstead Garden Suburb.

Can you remember your first day at CLS?

I had a friend from my Sunday School Hebrew classes, so I waved to him. I didn’t know anybody else but I soon got to know Michael Duschinsky – who is still a close friend of mine over 60 years later. The Jewish boys at CLS were a large minority - as they still are - and we all lived near each other. There were separate prayers after assembly for Jewish boys.

 In the first year class, Old Grammar, we had a wonderful teacher called Reggie Hatton – a kind and fatherly figure. Throughout the school, we were, for the most part, well taught by decent people.

The CLS intake was from all over London, nor was it only or even mainly posh boys. We met girls from the girls’ school on the journey in. But it was inconvenient that the sports grounds were in south London. One year, all of us playing tennis, including the master, were from north London, so it was agreed to move the tennis there instead.

I was in the School team for fives and tennis. I played for my House in about eight sports: soccer, tennis, cricket, fives, rugby, gymnastics, chess…

I loved cricket and still do. I played for my house against [future England captain] Mike Brearley, whose father was a teacher at the school. We would buy our cricket equipment from [legendary England batsman] Jack Hobbs, who had a shop on Fleet Street.

Can you remember your last day?

We threw our caps in the river, which was the tradition.

Which teachers inspired you at CLS?

Practically all the teachers in those days spent their entire careers in the School. Some of them were very eccentric. Some, like the Reverends Ellingham and Oakley, had been there before the War.

I was in the Modern 6th. We had a very good French teacher. Pat Whitmore: he had been in the army and his bearing was military. He was a good natured-man.

Which A levels did you do?

French, Russian and English. I was in the first 200 people in the country to do A-level Russian. It had only just been brought in. It was designed that you could do it in two years from scratch. And in 1959 we went to Moscow and Leningrad on the first-ever School trip to Russia ­– I mean, the first by any British school. Which was interesting.

Years later, I went to Ukraine to visit my grandfather’s village and I found I could still speak Russian. It came in useful. I mean, I had translated Russian books a long time ago but not recently. I still use my French all the time.

If we could travel back to be a child in 1950s London, which aspect would really surprise us?

After school, we used to go to Puddle Dock, where the Mermaid Theatre is now. You could go and trawl in the mud there; it wasn’t officially forbidden but it was frowned upon. You would find all kinds of things washed up. Roman coins. Clay pipes. A dead sheep once. We didn’t find any great treasures.

There were bomb sites everywhere. There were unsafe, bombed buildings on the river by where the Globe is now. It was illegal to go onto a bomb site but we still would. You probably wouldn’t be found out.

What was the point where you decided on your career path?

It’s practically impossible to answer… but maybe not until University. I started translating poetry and I got to know a French poet. He asked if he could read my poems and I said I hadn’t written any. So that triggered something in my brain. I made a semi-conscious decision that the life of the mind was more important than the life ‘out there’.

What has been the most satisfying response to one of your books?

The best is when a complete stranger writes to you. The best letter I had was from someone who had read ‘The Arithmetic of Memory’ and said, “I have no connection with your world but I connect with the way you remember your childhood - we all grew up with a house and a garden and a school…”

Which of your books feels most successful to you?

Probably my collected poems, European Hours. But Silent Conversations [a reflection on a lifetime of reading books] means a great deal to me, too.

If you were offered six half hours on Radio 4, which subjects would you cover?

My heroes and heroines, including Primo Levi [author of ‘If This is A Man’, a memoir of life in Auschwitz]. In the early 70s, I was the first publisher of his poetry in English. I was ahead of the game. His other books were published by big publishers, but I did his poetry and we got to know each other.

Which personal qualities would a current pupil need to follow in your footsteps?

I pursued the things I loved but a lot of it was unpaid and I had to subsidise it with work that I had no interest in. To live like that, you have to hold your nerve against parental and economic and social pressures. I had a young family.

I made a decision that it would be worth spending my life doing this and if I didn’t write anything of interest, I still wouldn’t regret it. The alternative was to become a lawyer or some other kind of professional man or a teacher and I was never going to do that.

You make your choices. Sometimes, you don’t realise it’s a choice until later. I suppose the crucial one was at Cambridge. I fell in with these literary people reading English who all went on to become academics or writers and something deep within me clicked. I felt - that’s what I want to do.

You must meet people whose careers have been solidly lucrative – do you sense they don’t understand your choices?

[laughs] Well, that’s their problem, isn’t it?