January 2, 2014

Take a Cup of Kindness for Auld Lang Syne, Peter O’Toole, and the Librarian on the Bench

DVD rev

By Stuart Mitchner

“In My Life” started out as a bus journey from my house to town … and it wasn’t working at all …. But then I laid back and these lyrics started coming to me about the places I remember.”

—John Lennon

For the first time in the 10 years that I’ve been writing for Town Topics, we’re printing on New Year’s Day and I’m thinking about the words and music people all over the world still sing at the chimes of midnight. The earliest known manuscript of Robert Burns’s poem “Auld Lang Syne” is in the permanent collection of the Lilly Library in my hometown, Bloomington, Indiana, a place that for me is synonymous with “old long since” or “long long ago” or “days gone by,” among the numerous listed English versions of the three-word title of the poignant New Year’s anthem.

This year of columns began with Ravi Shankar, who died December 11, 2012, and now 2014 begins with Peter O’Toole, who died December 14, 2013. It’s been my good fortune to see both the musician and the actor in live performances in India and Bristol, two of “the places I’ll remember,” a line John Lennon claimed for posterity when he wrote “In My Life,” which is, if you think of it, a perfect Beatles “Auld Lang Syne” — “All these places have their moments/With lovers and friends I still can recall/Some are dead and some are living/In my life I’ve loved them all.” It’s fitting that Paul and John were not in complete agreement about whose song it is. No one doubts that John wrote the lyric, but as he admits, the “middle eight melody” was Paul’s contribution. John sings it with such feeling that ownership is not an issue. Paul is in the spirit of the song. So are all four. Listen to it now, with John and George gone but never forgotten, and take “a cup of kindness for old time’s sake” those of you were fortunate enough to be alive when the Beatles recorded Rubber Soul and began their all too brief Golden Age only three years after Peter O’Toole made what must be the greatest debut in motion picture history.

Enter O’Toole

Memory being the subject of both “Auld Lang Syne” and “In My Life,” I’m recalling the most memorable theatrical entrance I ever saw, 40 years ago at Bristol’s Theatre Royal. By “memorable” I don’t mean most moving, dramatic, or grandiose. “Impressive” won’t say it either. Even “eloquent” doesn’t describe the moment Peter O’Toole took the stage as the title character in the Bristol Old Vic production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. A decade after Lawrence of Arabia, O’Toole was performing for the first time in 20 years on the stage where his career took off with a Hamlet that brought critics like Kenneth Tynan hurrying over from London to see for themselves what all the excitement was about.

The stage direction for Vanya’s entrance is not complicated: “He has been asleep after dinner and looks rather dishevelled. He sits down on the bench and straightens his collar.” While the right costume can replicate “rather dishevelled,” the instant O’Toole crept limply, brokenly, decrepitly into view, a one-man theatre of the absurd, he delivered the character. It was a “To Be Or Not To Be” of head-to-toe, benignly disordered body English. As he took several breathlessly unsteady steps forward, everything about him, every inch, was skewed, untuned, amiss, his face in a transport of uneasy lassitude, eyes lost, at sea in a dream world, a Chaplinesque loser you can’t help hoping will carry the day in the end; you feel for the actor and character as one being, you’re on their side, they have you. The applause that erupted the instant O’Toole made his gracefully ungainly entrance may have been inspired by the movie star who had come home to the theatre and the city where he’d found himself as a young actor, but when the ovation soared toward a cheer, it was for the Vanya he’d delivered without a word, the dreamer, at once closeted poet, cosmic victim, fool, and indolent prophet. It was as if Chekhov himself had slyly taken the stage.

When asked if he has any news, Vanya says “I don’t do anything now but croak like a raven.” When the beauty he’s futilely in love with observes what a fine day it is, he says, “A fine day to hang oneself.” The play’s barely begun and you already know Vanya is its embattled Hamlet.

That our year and a half in Bristol coincided with Peter O’Toole’s season of three plays and one reading at the Old Vic was one of those rare strokes of good fortune. I made passing mention of the actor’s fondness for the city in my October 30 column about a recent return visit. The pleasure of seeing plays in the Theatre Royal wasn’t just the low cost ($1.75) and the quality of the staging and performances, it was the cozy old place itself. As O’Toole told an interviewer, “the ships come right to the stage door of the theatre in Bristol. It’s a jewel … a little 1760 affair built without a facade, built in a corn merchant’s house. The Puritans had closed it, but with the issue of a little silver coin you entered into magic. You would go through the corn merchant’s front door, then his bed room, and after that — Paradise. The Paradise the Puritans tried to forbid …. It’s the most beautiful theatre in the world …. But I’m rambling. Such a fixée for me, Bristol is.”

Think of the Auld Lang Syne midnights when O’Toole raised a glass to those early days at the Bristol Old Vic, especially after the triumph of Lawrence: “Bristol became my home,” he told the interviewer. “I was accepted there and it’s where I became me. You see, when I left Bristol, I was famous, and the city haunted me.”


No doubt about it, the past year of columns has a certain Auld Lang Syne quality, with prose cups of kindess to the memory of giants like Wagner and Verdi in their bicenentary years and to Richard Nixon on his centenary; birthday toasts to Grand Central Station on its 100th, Proust, Kafka, C.F. Cavafy, D.H. Lawrence, Rainer Maria Rilke, James Agee; farewell toasts to stars like Deanna Durbin, Julie Harris, James Gandolfini, Eleanor Parker, Audrey Totter, and Joan Fontaine; to Princess Grace and rocker Lou Reed, Spenser scholar Paul Alpers, and Dostoevsky biographer and longtime Princeton resident Joseph Frank, not to mention conductor Colin Davis. Even fictional characters like Walter White and Nicholas Brody have come and gone and been remembered.

Remembering a Librarian

The death of a Joseph Frank or a Peter Lewis is major local news and so reported, but every now and then, as happened this year with bibliophile Peter Oppenheimer, you begin to wonder why you haven’t seen an “old Princeton acquaintance” on the street only to receive the shock of the news off the record, without benefit of an obituary. This is how I learned about reference librarian Terri Nelson, who retired in 2010 after 22 years at the Princeton Public Library and died this past July at 66.

Terri started out as a children’s librarian around the time my son turned 13, let his hair grow long, began wearing army jackets with peace buttons, and listening to sixties music. Like all Princeton kids of various ages, he was fond of Dudley Carlson, but the sixties person who knew what he was feeling and where he was coming from was Terri Nelson, who had gone to school at Berkeley and had opinions about politics, race relations, and rock and roll. While I got to know Terri, a fellow Hoosier, through volunteer work with the Friends of the Library Book Sale (I regularly set aside Princeton-related materials for her), my son knew more of her Vietnam-impacted story than I ever did.

According to Ellen Gilbert’s Town Topics article (“A Passion for Genealogy Inspires Princeton Librarian’s Seminars on the Past”), Terri’s fascination with genealogy was inspired by the discovery that her family could be traced back to the Starbucks of Nantucket — meaning, of course, the family of Captain Ahab’s steadfast first mate, not the coffee makers. In July 2008 when the article appeared, Terri was not only overseeing the Princeton Room and numerous online resources on Princeton and African American history (including a site devoted solely to Paul Robeson), she was teaching classes on genealogy whose students included two Mayflower descendants. According to Library director Leslie Burger, Terri was also instrumental in designing and maintaining the library’s “very first website.”

The comment from one of Terri’s colleagues at the library, who remembers her as “a brilliant person whose life was tragic,” reflects the complex story behind the familiar figure seen over the years by people driving down or idling on Sylvia Beach Way behind the new library. As John’s song says, “All these places have their moments.” Perhaps you remember her as the lady on the bench, smoking a cigarette, a lonely community cameo worth a special thought at this time of the year, a special cup of kindness. 

The Peter O’Toole quotes are from an interview with Roy Newquist in the collection, Counter Point (Rand McNally 1964). The story about Terri Nelson can be found at www.towntopics.com/jul3008/other2.php. The John Lennon quote is from the Playboy interview.