From the archive
What first grabbed my attention was not Kermode sitting there in his tennis whites, but rather the large near-to-flowering cannabis plant growing from a Chinese pot on his desk facing a bay of windows. It was the summer of 1977 and I had been escorted by his then wife to his study to settle the terms on which I would paint the exterior of their house in Cambridge. Over the next five weeks, two things about the everyday Frank Kermode made a lasting impression.
The first was his power of concentration. He was struggling to finish The Genesis of Secrecy by the end of August, when he would be departing for Harvard to present the book as a series of lectures. The windows in front of his cannabis plant were in deplorable condition. I suggested that I work on them when he wasn’t writing, but he insisted my presence would be no problem. So for several days I scraped, puttied and painted never more than six feet in front of him. Not once did he show the slightest annoyance.
The other thing that made a lasting impression was his unconventional sense of social hierarchy. An ambitious conservatory was being built on the back of his house and twice a week its self-important architect arrived with two lackeys trailing at his heels. I soon noticed that whereas Kermode insisted I address him as ‘Frank’, he seemed happy to remain ‘Professor’ with the architect, whom, in a slightly condescending tone, he addressed by his first name. Then in the third week a carpenter arrived to set right various botched jobs in the house. It was immediately apparent that he was a master craftsman, and Kermode took to following him around the house, watching him work and engaging him in conversation. The tone Kermode took with him was almost deferential.
In my last week at the house the Chinese pot vanished from Kermode’s desk. Later I spotted it on a kitchen counter. All that remained of the plant was two inches of stem.