We called him “The Duke” in part because his name was one letter away—one small alphabet letter, in fact—from the great jazz man, Ellington; and in part because he was, like his near namesake, a jazz fanatic. His name was Elkington.
If you have been following The Buddha Diaries this past week, you’ll know that I have been obsessing a bit about school day memories. This is one of them.
The Duke was by far the coolest boy in the school. He was reed thin, with a face as pale as a porcelain plate, and short, dark hair curled tight and close to the head. I remember little about him until we both moved up from the common room to the “dens”—little individual studies ranged the length of a narrow corridor that were assigned as a mark of privilege to senior fifth- and sixth-form boys. Elkington’s was directly across the corridor from mine. He had a portable record player on which he played music that, in our day, seemed outlandishly avant-garde. This, by the way, was the early fifties. In England, at that time, the names were known to only a rarefied few of the intelligentsia: Dizzy Gillespe, Charlie Parker, the be-bop crowd. Elkington had them all on Blue Note, in the coolest sleeves you could imagine. He even deigned to show an interest in smoother jazz--the likes of Gerry Mulligan, George Shearing, and Dave Brubeck. But distinctly less so.
He was one of those people who seem blithely able to get away with breaking all the rules. He smoked. He drank. He played his music loud. He even managed to make the school uniform look cool, wearing his trousers tightly tapered, like the Teddy Boys of the day. He was the editor of the literary magazine, of which I was some kind of associate editor. It was he who had the temerity to write to Evelyn Waugh, an “Old Boy” of the school, asking if that great literary giant would submit a piece for the magazine. Waugh responded, tartly. His card, as I recall, said that he had learned little at our school other than to be lazy and unhappy, and that for this reason he was unable to accede to Elkington’s request. Elkington wrote back promptly, asking if he could publish Waugh’s response, and if he could have the assurance that he would never write for the school magazine, to spare future editors the disappointment. Waugh’s card came back, and I do remember this one, word for word. It said, Yes to both questions, and was signed EW.
An aspiring poet and intellectual, I did my best to keep up with Elkington, but it was a lost cause. I smoked—and got caught and caned for it. That never happened to Elkington. I drank. I had my corduroy trousers tapered, but succeeded only in looking absurdly un-cool. I read Auden and Isherwood, James Joyce. I wrote poems about man and the machine. In defiance of house rules, I stayed up late one night and painted murals on my den walls—including the huge blow-up of one of those blue and white Matisse cut-outs that I thought was quite successful.
In short, I tried everything to emulate Elkington's cool. But I could never quite make it, and my slavish admiration was returned by my hero with frankly cruel contempt. In the school dining hall, he was unsparing with his witty barbs at my expense. He abused my attempts a friendship and turned my eager innocence against me in front of those I was most desperately seeking to impress. I loved and feared and hated him all at once. One of the most acute of feelings I recall on leaving school was the relief of not having someone so close to whom I felt so painfully inferior.
Then, when I arrived at Cambridge, a year or so later, there he was, more cool than ever. Of course, I was anxious once again to keep up with his coolness. I’m sure he was into drugs: though I would have had not the first idea about how to lay my hands on a marijuana cigarette, I would bet he smoked them daily. He showed me how to break open a nasal cold inhaler and use the contents to achieve a benzadrine high. I introduced him to the girl I had (still innocently) fallen ridiculously in love with, and he coolly stole her from me. He was the hero and the nemesis of my youth.
You’ll recall, perhaps, that I could remember nothing but last names, because during my school years we never used the first. But I did know Elkington’s. It was Chris. So I googled him yesterday on the Internet and came up with this obituary. He died three years ago in Tanzania, a jazz fan to the last. I have been thinking about him ever since, with gratitude for the strange role that he played in my life. I have never managed to be as cool as Elkington, but at least I have learned, over the years, to be more accepting of my lack of cool. The Duke, I discovered finally, was never who I am.