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Sweet Tooth


My name is Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) and almost forty years ago I was sent on a secret mission for the British Security Service. I didn’t return safely. Within eighteen months of joining I was sacked, having disgraced myself and ruined my lover, though he certainly had a hand in his own undoing.

I won’t waste much time on my childhood and teenage years. I’m the daughter of an Anglican bishop and grew up with a sister in the cathedral precinct of a charming small city in the east of England. My home was genial, polished, orderly, book-filled. My parents liked each other well enough and loved me, and I them. My sister Lucy and I were a year and a half apart and though we fought shrilly during our adolescence, there was no lasting harm and we became closer in adult life. Our father’s belief in God was muted and reasonable, did not intrude much on our lives and was just sufficient to raise him smoothly through the Church hierarchy and install us in a comfortable Queen Anne house. It overlooked an enclosed garden with ancient herbaceous borders that were well known, and still are, to those who know about plants. So, all stable, enviable, idyllic even. We grew up inside a walled garden, with all the pleasures and limitations that implies.

The late sixties lightened but did not disrupt our existence. I never missed a day at my local grammar school unless I was ill. In my late teens there slipped over the garden wall some heavy petting, as they used to call it, experiments with tobacco, alcohol and a little hashish, rock and roll records, brighter colors and warmer relations all round. At seventeen my friends and I were timidly and delightedly rebellious, but we did our schoolwork, we memorized and disgorged the irregular verbs, the equations, the motives of fictional characters. We liked to think of ourselves as bad girls, but actually we were rather good. It pleased us, the general excitement in the air in 1969. It was inseparable from the expectation that soon it would be time to leave home for another education elsewhere. Nothing strange or terrible happened to me during my first eighteen years and that is why I’ll skip them.

Left to myself I would have chosen to do a lazy English degree at a provincial university far to the north or west of my home. I enjoyed reading novels. I went fast— I could get through two or three a week— and doing that for three years would have suited me just fine. But at the time I was considered something of a freak of nature— a girl who happened to have a talent for mathematics. I wasn’t interested in the subject, I took little pleasure in it, but I enjoyed being top, and getting there without much work. I knew the answers to questions before I even knew how I had got to them. While my friends struggled and calculated, I reached a solution by a set of floating steps that were partly visual, partly just a feeling for what was right. It was hard to explain how I knew what I knew. Obviously, an exam in maths was far less effort than one in English literature. And in my final year I was captain of the school chess team. You must exercise some historical imagination to understand what it meant for a girl in those times to travel to a neighboring school and knock from his perch some condescending smirking squit of a boy. However, maths and chess, along with hockey, pleated skirts and hymn-singing, I considered mere school stuff. I reckoned it was time to put away these childish things when I began to think about applying to university. But I reckoned without my mother.

She was the quintessence, or parody, of a vicar’s then a bishop’s wife— a formidable memory for parishioners’ names and faces and gripes, a way of sailing down a street in her Hermès scarf, a kindly but unbending manner with the daily and the gardener. Faultless charm on any social scale, in any key. How knowingly she could level with the tight-faced, chain-smoking women from the housing estates when they came for the Mothers and Babies Club in the crypt. How compellingly she read the Christmas Eve story to the Barnardos’ children gathered at her feet in our drawing room. With what natural authority she put the Archbishop of Canterbury at his ease when he came through once for tea and Jaffa cakes after blessing the restored cathedral font. Lucy and I were banished upstairs for the duration of his visit. All this— and here is the difficult part— combined with utter devotion and subordination to my father’s cause. She promoted him, served him, eased his way at every turn. From boxed socks and ironed surplice hanging in the wardrobe, to his dustless study, to the profoundest Saturday silence in the house when he wrote his sermon. All she demanded in return— my guess, of course— was that he love her or, at least, never leave her.

But what I hadn’t understood about my mother was that buried deep beneath this conventional exterior was the hardy little seed of a feminist. I’m sure that word never passed her lips, but it made no difference. Her certainty frightened me. She said it was my duty as a woman to go to Cambridge to study maths. As a woman? In those days, in our milieu, no one ever spoke like that. No woman did anything “as a woman.” She told me she would not permit me to waste my talent. I was to excel and become extraordinary. I must have a proper career in science or engineering or economics. She allowed herself the world-oyster cliché. It was unfair on my sister that I was both clever and beautiful when she was neither. It would compound the injustice if I failed to aim high. I didn’t follow the logic of this, but I said nothing. My mother told me she would never forgive me and she would never forgive herself if I went off to read English and became no more than a slightly better educated housewife than she was. I was in danger of wasting my life. Those were her words, and they represented an admission. This was the only time she expressed or implied dissatisfaction with her lot.

Then she enlisted my father— “the Bishop” was what my sister and I called him. When I came in from school one afternoon my mother told me he was waiting for me in his study. In my green blazer with its heraldic crest and emblazoned motto— Nisi Dominus Vanum (Without the Lord All Is in Vain)— I sulkily lolled in his clubbish leather armchair while he presided at his desk, shuffling papers, humming to himself as he ordered his thoughts. I thought he was about to rehearse for me the parable of the talents, but he took a surprising and practical line. He had made some inquiries. Cambridge was anxious to be seen to be “opening its gates to the modern egalitarian world.” With my burden of triple misfortune—a grammar school, a girl, an all-male subject— I was certain to get in. If, however, I applied to do English there (never my intention; the Bishop was always poor on detail) I would have a far harder time. Within a week my mother had spoken to my headmaster. Certain subject teachers were deployed and used all my parents’ arguments as well as some of their own, and of course I had to give way.

So I abandoned my ambition to read English at Durham or Aberystwyth, where I am sure I would have been happy, and went instead to Newnham College, Cambridge, to learn at my first tutorial, which took place at Trinity, what a mediocrity I was in mathematics. My Michaelmas term depressed me and I almost left. Gawky boys, unblessed by charm or other human attributes like empathy and generative grammar, cleverer cousins of the fools I had smashed at chess, leered as I struggled with concepts they took for granted. “Ah, the serene Miss Frome,” one tutor would exclaim sarcastically as I entered his room each Tuesday morning. “Serenissima. Blue-eyed one! Come and enlighten us!” It was obvious to my tutors and fellow students that I could not succeed precisely because I was a good-looking girl in a miniskirt, with blond hair curling past her shoulder blades. The truth was that I couldn’t succeed because I was like nearly all the rest of humanity— not much good at maths, not at this level. I did my best to transfer out to English or French or even anthropology, but no one wanted me. In those days the rules were tightly observed. To shorten a long, unhappy story, I stuck it out and by the end managed a third.

If I’ve rushed through my childhood and teenage years, then I’ll certainly condense my time as an undergraduate. I never went in a punt, with or without a wind-up gramophone, or visited the Footlights—theater embarrasses me—or got myself arrested at the Garden House riots. But I lost my virginity in my first term, several times over it seemed, the general style being so wordless and clumsy, and had a pleasant succession of boyfriends, six or seven or eight over the nine terms, depending on your definitions of carnality. I made a handful of good friends from among the Newnham women. I played tennis and I read books. All thanks to my mother, I was studying the wrong subject, but I didn’t stop reading. I’d never read much poetry or any plays at school, but I think I had more pleasure out of novels than my university friends, who were obliged to sweat over weekly essays on Middlemarch or Vanity Fair. I raced through the same books, chatted about them perhaps, if there was someone around who could tolerate my base level of discourse, then I moved on. Reading was my way of not thinking about maths. More than that (or do I mean less?), it was my way of not thinking.

I’ve said I was fast. The Way We Live Now in four afternoons lying on my bed! I could take in a block of text or a whole paragraph in one visual gulp. It was a matter of letting my eyes and thoughts go soft, like wax, to take the impression fresh off the page. To the irritation of those around me, I’d turn a page every few seconds with an impatient snap of the wrist. My needs were simple. I didn’t bother much with themes or felicitous phrases and skipped fine descriptions of weather, landscapes and interiors. I wanted characters I could believe in, and I wanted to be made curious about what was to happen to them. Generally, I preferred people to be falling in and out of love, but I didn’t mind so much if they tried their hand at something else. It was vulgar to want it, but I liked someone to say “Marry me” by the end. Novels without female characters were a lifeless desert. Conrad was beyond my consideration, as were most stories by Kipling and Hemingway. Nor was I impressed by reputations. I read anything I saw lying around. Pulp fiction, great literature and everything in between—I gave them all the same rough treatment.

What famous novel pithily begins like this? The temperature hit ninety degrees the day she arrived. Isn’t it punchy? Don’t you know it? I caused amusement among my Newnham friends studying English when I told them that Valley of the Dolls was as good as anything Jane Austen ever wrote. They laughed, they teased me for months. And they hadn’t read a line of Susann’s work. But who cared? Who really minded about the unformed opinions of a failing mathematician? Not me, not my friends. To this extent at least I was free.

The matter of my undergraduate reading habits is not a digression. Those books delivered me to my career in intelligence. In my final year my friend Rona Kemp started up a weekly magazine called ¿Quis?. Such projects rose and fell by the dozen, but hers was ahead of its time with its high-low mix. Poetry and pop music, political theory and gossip, string quartets and student fashion, nouvelle vague and football. Ten years later the formula was everywhere. Rona may not have invented it but she was among the first to see its attractions. She went on to Vogue by way of the TLS and then to an incendiary rise and fall, starting new magazines in Manhattan and Rio. The double question marks in this, her first title, were an innovation that helped ensure a run of eleven issues. Remembering my Susann moment, she asked me to write a regular column, “What I Read Last Week.” My brief was to be “chatty and omnivorous.” Easy! I wrote as I talked, usually doing little more than summarizing the plots of the books I had just raced through, and, in conscious self-parody, I heightened the occasional verdict with a row of exclamation marks. My light-headed alliterative prose went down well. On a couple of occasions strangers approached me in the street to tell me so. Even my facetious maths tutor made a complimentary remark. It was the closest I ever came to a taste of that sweet and heady elixir, student fame.

I had written half a dozen jaunty pieces when something went wrong. Like many writers who come by a little success, I began to take myself too seriously. I was a girl with untutored tastes, I was an empty mind, ripe for a takeover. I was waiting, as they said in some of the novels I was reading, for Mr. Right to come along and sweep me off my feet. My Mr. Right was a stern Russian. I discovered an author and a subject and became an enthusiast. Suddenly I had a theme, and a mission to persuade. I began to indulge myself with lengthy rewrites. Instead of talking straight onto the page, I was doing second and then third drafts. In my modest view, my column had become a vital public service. I got up in the night to delete whole paragraphs and draw arrows and balloons across the pages. I went for important walks. I knew my popular appeal would dwindle, but I didn’t care. The dwindling proved my point, it was the heroic price I knew I must pay. The wrong people had been reading me. I didn’t care when Rona remonstrated. In fact, I felt vindicated. “This isn’t exactly chatty,” she said coolly as she handed back my copy in the Copper Kettle one afternoon. “This isn’t what we agreed.” She was right. My breeziness and exclamation marks had dissolved as anger and urgency narrowed my interests and destroyed my style.

My decline was initiated by the fifty minutes I spent with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in the new translation by Gillon Aitken. I picked it up straight after finishing Ian Fleming’s Octopussy. The transition was harsh. I knew nothing of the Soviet labor camps and had never heard the word “gulag.” Growing up in a cathedral precinct, what did I know of the cruel absurdities of communism, of how brave men and women in bleak and remote penal colonies were reduced to thinking day by day of nothing else beyond their own survival? Hundreds of thousands transported to the Siberian wastes for fighting for their country in a foreign land, for having been a prisoner of war, for upsetting a party official, for being a party official, for wearing glasses, for being a Jew, a homosexual, a peasant who owned a cow, a poet. Who was speaking out for all this lost humanity? I had never troubled myself with politics before. I knew nothing of the arguments and disillusionment of an older generation. Nor had I heard of the “left opposition.” Beyond school, my education had been confined to some extra maths and piles of paperback novels. I was an innocent and my outrage was moral. I didn’t use, and hadn’t even heard, the word “totalitarianism.” I probably would have thought it had something to do with refusing a drink. I believed I was seeing through a veil, that I was breaking new ground as I filed dispatches from an obscure front.

Within a week I’d read Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle. The title came from Dante. His first circle of hell was reserved for Greek philosophers and consisted, as it happened, of a pleasant walled garden surrounded by hellish suffering, a garden from which escape and access to paradise was forbidden. I made the enthusiast’s mistake of assuming that everyone shared my previous ignorance. My column became a harangue. Did smug Cambridge not know what had gone on, was still going on, three thousand miles to the east, had it not noticed the damage this failed utopia of food queues, awful clothes and restricted travel was doing to the human spirit? What was to be done?

¿Quis? tolerated four rounds of my anticommunism. My interests extended to Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Nabokov’s Bend Sinister and that fine treatise by Milosz, The Captive Mind. I was also the first person in the world to understand Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four. But my heart was always with my first love, Aleksandr. The forehead that rose like an Orthodox dome, the hillbilly pastor’s wedge of beard, the grim, gulag-conferred authority, his stubborn immunity to politicians. Even his religious convictions could not deter me. I forgave him when he said that men had forgotten God. He was God. Who could match him? Who could deny him his Nobel Prize? Gazing at his photograph, I wanted to be his lover. I would have served him as my mother did my father. Box his socks? I would have knelt to wash his feet. With my tongue!

In those days, dwelling on the iniquities of the Soviet system was routine for Western politicians and editorials in most newspapers. In the context of student life and politics, it was just a little distasteful. If the CIA was against communism, there must be something to be said for it. Sections of the Labour Party still held a candle for the aging, square-jawed Kremlin brutes and their grisly project, still sang the Internationale at the annual conference, still dispatched students on goodwill exchanges. In the Cold War years of binary thinking, it would not do to find yourself agreeing about the Soviet Union with an American president waging war in Vietnam. But at that teatime rendezvous in the Copper Kettle, Rona, even then so polished, perfumed, precise, said it was not the politics of my column that troubled her. My sin was to be earnest. The next issue of her magazine didn’t carry my byline. My space was taken up by an interview with the Incredible String Band. And then ¿Quis? folded.


Within days of my sacking I started on a Colette phase, which consumed me for months. And I had other urgent concerns. Finals were only weeks away and I had a new boyfriend, a historian called Jeremy Mott. He was of a certain old-fashioned type—lanky, large-nosed, with an outsized Adam’s apple. He was unkempt, clever in an understated way, and extremely polite. I’d noticed quite a few of his sort around. They all seemed to be descended from a single family and came from public schools in the north of England, where they were issued with the same clothes. These were the last men on earth still wearing Harris tweed jackets with leather patches on the elbows and trim on the cuffs. I learned, though not from Jeremy, that he was expected to get a first and that he had already published an article in a scholarly journal of sixteenth-century studies.

He turned out to be a tender and considerate lover, despite his unfortunate, sharply angled pubic bone, which first time hurt like hell. He apologized for it, as one might for a mad but distant relative. By which I mean he was not particularly embarrassed. We settled the matter by making love with a folded towel between us, a remedy I sensed he had often used before. He was truly attentive and skillful, and could keep going for as long as I wanted, and beyond, until I could bear no more. But his own orgasms were elusive, despite my efforts, and I began to suspect that there was something he wanted me to be saying or doing. He wouldn’t tell me what it was. Or rather, he insisted that there was nothing to tell. I didn’t believe him. I wanted him to have a secret and shameful desire that only I could satisfy. I wanted to make this lofty, courteous man all mine. Did he want to smack my backside, or have me smack his? Was he wanting to try on my underwear? This mystery obsessed me when I was away from him, and made it all the harder to stop thinking about him when I was supposed to be concentrating on the maths. Colette was my escape.

One afternoon in early April, after a session with the folded towel in Jeremy’s rooms, we were crossing the road by the old Corn Exchange, I in a haze of contentment and some related pain from a pulled muscle in the small of my back, and he—well, I wasn’t sure. As we walked along I was wondering whether I should broach the subject once more. He was being pleasant, with his arm heavily around my shoulders as he told me about his essay on the Star Chamber. I was convinced that he wasn’t properly fulfilled. I thought I heard it in the tightness of his voice, his nervous pace. In days of lovemaking he had not been blessed with a single orgasm. I wanted to help him, and I was genuinely curious. I was also troubled by the thought that I might be failing him. I aroused him, that much was clear, but perhaps he didn’t quite desire me sufficiently. We went past the Corn Exchange in the twilight chill of a damp spring, my lover’s arm was about me like a fox fur, my happiness faintly compromised by a muscular twinge and only a little more by the enigma of Jeremy’s desires.

Suddenly, from out of an alley, there appeared before us under the inadequate street lighting Jeremy’s history tutor, Tony Canning. When we were introduced he shook my hand, and held on to it far too lingeringly, I thought. He was in his early fifties—about my father’s age—and I knew only what Jeremy had already told me. He was a professor, a onetime friend of the Home Secretary, Reggie Maudling, who had been to dine in his college. The two men had fallen out one drunken evening over the policy of internment without trial in Northern Ireland. Professor Canning had chaired a commission on historical sites, sat on various advisory boards, was a trustee of the British Museum and had written a highly regarded book about the Congress of Vienna.

He was of the great and good, a type vaguely familiar to me. Men like him came to our house to visit the Bishop from time to time. They were annoying of course to anyone under twenty-five in that post-sixties period, but I rather liked them too. They could be charming, even witty, and the whiff they trailed of cigars and brandy made the world seem orderly and rich. They thought much of themselves, but they didn’t seem dishonest, and they had, or gave the impression they had, a strong sense of public service. They took their pleasures seriously (wine, food, fishing, bridge, etc.) and apparently some had fought an interesting war. I had memories of childhood Christmases when one or two of them would tip my sister and me a ten bob note. Let these men rule the world. There were others far worse.

Canning had a relatively subdued grand manner, perhaps to match his modest public roles. I noted the wavy hair, finely parted, and moist fleshy lips and a small cleft in the center of his chin, which I thought was endearing because I could see, even in poor light, that he had some trouble shaving it clean. Ungovernable dark hairs protruded from the vertical trough of skin. He was a good-looking man.

When  the introductions were over, Canning asked me some questions about myself. They were polite and innocent enough— about my degree, Newnham, the principal, who was a good friend of his, my hometown, the cathedral. Jeremy cut in with some small talk and then Canning interrupted in turn to thank him for showing him my last three articles for ¿Quis?

He turned to me again. “Bloody good pieces. You’ve quite a talent, my dear. Are you going into journalism?”

¿Quis? was a student rag, not intended for serious eyes. I was gratified by the praise, but too young to know how to take a compliment. I mumbled something modest but it sounded dismissive, then I clumsily tried to correct myself and became flustered. The professor took pity on me and invited us to tea and we accepted, or Jeremy did. And so we followed Canning back across the market toward his college.

His rooms were smaller, dingier, more chaotic than I expected, and I was surprised to see him making a mess of the tea, partly rinsing the chunky brown-stained mugs and slopping hot water from a filthy electric kettle over papers and books. None of this fitted with what I came to know of him later. He sat behind his desk, we sat on armchairs and he continued to ask questions. It could have been a tutorial. Now that I was nibbling his Fortnum & Mason chocolate biscuits, I felt obliged to answer him more fully. Jeremy was encouraging me, nodding stupidly at everything I said. The professor asked about my parents, and what it was like growing up “in the shadow of a cathedral”—I said, wittily, I thought, that there was no shadow because the cathedral was to the north of our house. Both men laughed and I wondered if my joke had implied more than I understood. We moved on to nuclear weapons and calls in the Labour Party for unilateral disarmament. I repeated a phrase I’d read somewhere—a cliché, I realized later. It would be impossible “to put the genie back in the bottle.” Nuclear weapons would have to be managed, not banned. So much for youthful idealism. Actually, I had no particular views on the subject. In another context, I could have spoken up for nuclear disarmament. I would have denied it, but I was trying to please, to give the right answers, to be interesting. I liked the way Tony Canning leaned forward when I spoke, I was encouraged by his little smile of approbation, which stretched but did not quite part his plump lips, and his way of saying “I see” or “Quite . . .” whenever I paused.

Perhaps it should have been obvious to me where this was leading. In a tiny, hothouse world of undergraduate journalism, I’d announced myself as a trainee Cold Warrior. It must be obvious now. This was Cambridge, after all. Why else would I recount the meeting? At the time the encounter had no significance for me at all. We had been on our way to a bookshop and instead we were taking tea with Jeremy’s tutor. Nothing very strange in that. Recruitment methods in those days were changing, but only a little. The Western world may have been undergoing a steady transformation, the young may have thought they had discovered a new way of talking to each other, the old barriers were said to be crumbling from the base. But the famous “hand on the shoulder” was still applied, perhaps less frequently, perhaps with less pressure. In the university context certain dons continued to look out for promising material and pass names on for interview. Certain successful candidates in the Civil Service exams were still taken aside and asked if they had ever thought of “another” department. Mostly, people were quietly approached once they’d been out in the world a few years. No one ever needed to spell it out, but background remained important, and having the Bishop in mine was no disadvantage. It’s often been remarked how long it took for the Burgess, Maclean and Philby cases to dislodge the assumption that a certain class of person was more likely to be loyal to his country than the rest. In the seventies those famous betrayals still resounded, but the old enlistment methods were robust.

Generally, both hand and shoulder belonged to men. It was unusual for a woman to be approached in that much-described, time-honored way. And though it was strictly true that Tony Canning ended up recruiting me for MI5, his motives were complicated and he had no official sanction. If the fact that I was young and attractive was important to him, it took a while to discover the full pathos of that. (Now that the mirror tells a different story, I can say it and get it out of the way. I really was pretty. More than that. As Jeremy once wrote in a rare effusive letter, I was “actually rather gorgeous.”) Even the elevated graybeards on the fifth floor, whom I never met and rarely saw in my brief period of service, had no idea why I’d been sent to them. They hedged their bets, but they never guessed that Professor Canning, an old MI5 hand himself, thought he was making them a gift in the spirit of expiation. His case was more complex and sadder than anyone knew. He would change my life and behave with selfless cruelty as he prepared to set out on a journey with no hope of return. If I know so little about him even now, it’s because I accompanied him only a very small part of the way.

Sweet Tooth
by by Ian McEwan