The importance of famous people dying is that non-famous people get to talk about how they met them once and so bask for a moment in the sepulchral glow of the tomb, or perhaps that moment at the crematorium when the curtain slides back momentarily and you hear that ‘whoompf’ noise and get a brief sight of the jets.
I should say at this point that I never actually met Seamus Heaney on that afternoon at UCL English Department’s common room in October 1982. I was 18 at the time, a month in to an Eng Lit degree and sufficiently naïve in literary discourse to interpret the phrase ‘oh you must come to the reading’ as meaning that attendance was compulsory.
So there I was. It was rammed. I was against the back wall with a bunch of other latecomers, there were faculty filling higgledy piggeldy rows of chairs and Seamus was sitting there at the front looking demure and holding what i suppose is a traditional slim volume. Karl Miller was standing next to him, doing the honours. And, at Seamus’ feet, were the women, mainly fellow Eng Lit students.
Yes, they were sitting at his feet, maybe twenty of them, all looking up expectantly at the poet as he opened his book (with a sort of ‘here, I’m opening my book’ gesture) and began to read. I don’t know what he read. Something windswept probably, with occasional showers.
At that moment the women at his feet began to wriggle and to sway: not I think because of the magic of the words, but because they were discreetly barging each other in a subdued, increasingly frantic and strangely froglike way: there’d be a shuffle, a wiggle and a natural law party kind of hop as everyone attempted to draw closer to the poet. Also, some understated elbow work. Occasionally someone would be squeezed out of the tightening circle with what my memory no doubt misplaces as a sort of pop.
This was also the moment that I realised I wasn’t going to get on with the world of English Literature. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with squirming at the feet of a poet you revere, and I’m sure Mr Heaney didn’t take undue advantage of what looked to me like a considerable number of availability opportunities. But I left the occasion quietly, with Seamus in mid-drone, and two months later I left the course.