Michael Hofmann is one of the great poets of squalid student digs, and ‘Between Bed and Wastepaper Basket’ is one of his great poems. (It’s printed in full here: just scroll down to the end of the article.) But is it possible to trace the particular boxroom he’s referring to? Join me and my collaborator Emily – the nine-month-old baby who accompanies me on these excursions – on a trail of detection worthy of Veronica Mars herself.
Our first and most important lead was from an memoir of Hofmann in Cambridge by Stephen Romer. Romer’s ‘tuppence-worth of annotation’ is that the poem describes ‘the habits of [Hofmann’s] co-tenants in the rambling house in Chaucer Road, Cambridge’. Almost before we’ve started looking, we’ve narrowed it down to the particular road! But here our troubles began: it’s a long road, and almost every house on it could fairly be described as ‘rambling’. Back to the poem for clues.
That our poet is living among
the flimsy partitions of the servants quarters
rules out, at least, a few of the more modern houses. (And what a weirdly bad line from someone whose ear for these things otherwise seems so flawless.) Next,
high up in the drafty cranium of the house
suggests very strongly that the house has more than two storeys, ruling out a couple more. (It’s slow progress, but Mars Investigations bills by the hour.)
The breakthrough comes when the poet and his long-suffering girlfriend head into the back garden:
We went outside. Everything in the garden was rosy.
Prefabs ran down the back of the Applied Psychology Unit.
Pigeons dilated. The flies were drowsy from eating
the water-lilies on the pond. A snake had taken care of
the frogs. Fuchsias pointed their toes like ballerinas.
It’s no longer the Applied Psychology Unit – since Hofmann’s time it’s become the outbuildings of the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit – but it’s easy to identify the low-slung buildings which have replaced the prefabs, which would only be visible from a single back garden – that of 11 Chaucer Road. We were pretty sure we’d got the house.
But best to be thorough about it. Lots of houses on Chaucer Road take part in the National Open Garden Scheme, including number 11. Here it is: click on ‘View Gallery’, scroll through to the final picture and there’s Hofmann’s pond, with even a solitary water-lily visible (left hand edge of the pool, just by the clump of reeds).
By now we were almost completely convinced, but we had a look at the register of planning applications, just in case. The last two applications are the only two which date from Hofmann’s time in Cambridge, and both make it pretty clear that the property was being rented out as rooms and flats; the first, permission to convert part of the first floor to a self-contained flat, gives us the name of Hofmann’s landlady, Mrs. P. Hills.
Now we know it’s number 11, all that’s left is to identify the
boxroom shaped like a loaf of bread
in the house’s ‘drafty cranium’. (A sort of Cockney half-rhyme, that.) I think the likeliest is the rightmost of the two dormer windows; it’s that half of the house (11B) which we can be most certain was let (one of the planning applications is for the quite tactful one-storey extension on the right of the photo).
The next Open Gardens day is the 7th May; I might visit again, to see the famous pond for myself, though £7 seems rather steep, even with a free cup of home-made tea thrown in.