Books: The Remake — Part 2 |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

The Remake

PART TWO : Lost in the Barbican

From this viewpoint the labyrinth is not something which has grown from nature, it is a work of art. This means that it is a human copy of something. Daedalus built it. What kind of plan did he follow? He thought: there is a Minotaur, and I must invent something which he can move freely in, but not get out of.

Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Die Welt als Labyrinth

‘Would you like some tea?’ For a strange moment I thought the Mole was an air hostess. Enough light spilled between the drawn curtains for me to look up and see her polished hair as she sat on the edge of my bed. She had taken off her jacket. I could see enough of her long-sleeved, roll-neck silk blouse to deduce that her breasts were as large as they could be without being out of proportion. Longing has a mind of its own that works at high speed even when the rest of the brain is dazed. I lifted one hand — I was lying on top of the made bed, with nothing over me — and brushed the back of it across where her nipple must have been in its lucky cloth cage. The sensation of touching hard rubber would have been unexciting if I had been touching hard rubber, but since I knew I wasn’t, it wasn’t. Concentrated softness is not hardness.

Tea, I said,’ she said with put-on haughtiness. ‘Just for that you’ll have to come downstairs for it.’

Less bleary-eyed after splashing my face in the bathroom, I was able fully to appreciate the way she graced the kitchen. I couldn’t believe the time that showed up digitally on the VCR machine. I had to check it against my watch. Most of the afternoon was gone. While I had been asleep, the Mole, it transpired, had been to lectures and tutorials.

‘Amanda,’ said the Mole in much the same tone as I might have mentioned Veronica.

‘What about Amanda?’ Obviously I was meant to ask. It was the least I could do for someone making tea with such care. Making it a treat, and looking a treat while doing it.

‘Amanda is such a wally. She’s in my tutorial group and she is such a wally.’

‘In what way does Amanda’s wallyhood manifest itself ?’


‘No thanks.’

‘I wouldn’t have given you any anyway. Too much of you there in the middle. She’s just such a dumb-dumb. The stupid things she says. It takes up half the time. We’ve only got an hour, and half of it goes on discussing her stupid remarks.’

‘Like what?’

‘The stupid things she says. You’d swear she’d only read the Cole’s Notes. She says things like, “It has been said, has it not, that there is a frequent use of coincidence in Hardy’s novels.” It’s the “has it not” that gets me.’

‘I can see how it might.’

‘She thinks I fancy her, too. Fat chance.’

‘Is she pretty?’ I asked with feigned casualness, as fascinated as I had ever been by anything in my life. This was prime information. Stars more red than they should be are going away from you. Stars more blue are coming towards you. I had learned that when I was a child. But until now, in middle age, I had never experienced a girl like this as a totality, the way she looked and the sounds she made. Coming towards me. Not going away.

‘Not my type,’ said the Mole firmly, adding a parodic snooty nose to show that she knew she was being superior. Her nose, I estimated, running mental calipers over it, was at least a size too small, but well chiselled without looking like a bob-job. Its smallness was probably a help in making her so photogenic. Cecil Beaton had said that even Grace Kelly would not have been so photogenic if her nose had been larger.

‘Too dumb?’

‘No, it’s not that. I could fall for a clueless girl if she was pretty enough. Just like you in that regard. It‘s just ... ’

‘Too boring?’

‘Too pretentious. She isn’t content to be clueless. Chance says that saying nothing is better than saying something that means nothing.’

‘Does she share your ... has she made a pass?’

‘God no. She’s as straight as a road. But a girl who knows a girl I knew told her about me. And what a wally she is.’

‘The girl you knew?’

‘The girl who knows her. Damn. I forgot to get the white wine vinegar.’

Deputised, or having volunteered, to cook dinner for Chance and me, the Mole had brought home a range of simple but high-quality foodstuffs to supplement what was already in the refrigerator. But the list of what she still needed ran to nine items when she had finished writing it down on the back of a handbill announcing a charity raffle in the vestry, if not the chantry or the pantry, of St Giles’s Cripplegate. She assured me that all these things could be acquired at Safeway. Under the list she drew a map of how to get there. It looked like an integrated circuit, but by following the turns meticulously I became merely confused instead of desperate, and eventually arrived at the Arts Centre, from which the supermarket was almost in line of sight. By now it was nearing five o’clock and the huge shop was crowded. You could see the impact which modern merchandising had made on the old street of small shops and its intimate way of life. No impact. Old women who would once have gathered to yap endlessly in front of the greengrocer’s now gathered to yap endlessly at the corner of the vegetable counter. The only difference was that they had trolleys and you couldn’t get past them. Another sociological axiom knocked on the head.

Alienation, though, became a reality after I had collected my specified items and made a bid to get out. I was ready to pay cash. Those in front of me in the queue for the Express check-out (9 ITEMS OR LESS said the sign illiterately) had all opted out of the cash nexus. Everybody had a cheque book and wrote in it at length. One woman must have written a short story on her cheque stub. These long delays for prose composition were punctuated by longer delays when the price had to be found for items which had been placed in the trolley without the presence of a price sticker having first been verified. When the check-out clerk found one of these items on the conveyor belt she had to examine it for a long time from all angles. Clearly she was only a trainee. Why had a trainee check-out girl been assigned to the Express check-out? Would British Rail assign a trainee driver to an express train? Yes. After mentally photographing the item in four dimensions, the clerk asked the clerk on each side of her what they thought it might cost. They were trainees too. Then she pressed the button on her Tannoy and sent out a call for help. In the course of time a young man approached and she showed the item to him. He, also, examined it from all angles, as if making an independent assessment of what it actually was. He went away. While he was away, the customer’s pen was poised over the cheque book, waiting for le mot juste. Either the young man came back after a long time or he did not come back at all. The only way you could tell he was not coming back at all would have been to wait until he didn’t. The disembodied voice might have been his, however, which eventually mentioned a price in the check-out clerk’s car. Slowly she turned and transmitted it vocally to the customer. At last the cheque was filled out and handed over to the check-out clerk, although for some reason the transfer seldom took place before the cheque stub had been filled out to match. The cheque having changed ownership, the clerk now began to study it as if it were a love letter already familiar and now to be cherished for its every delectable quirk. Having tested its merest syllable against her fond memory, she slowly added some observations of her own with a ballpoint pen. My impatience was as pure as fear. It had been a long time since I had been in a supermarket. When I finally drew abreast of the check-out clerk I was surprised — or would have been surprised, if I had not been consumed by anger — to see that the cash register subtracted the total price demanded from the amount of money I offered and told her how much change to give me. The last check-out cash register I had seen had not been quite so smart. The human being was now entirely superfluous. So what was she still doing here? Then I found out. ‘Ear!’ she announced loudly. ‘You’ve a sinus?’ I looked blank, like a man who has just wasted half an hour of his life and then been asked a question about his facial anatomy. ‘You’ve a sinus what’s on a telly?’ As I told her that I was indeed the scientist on the telly, I strove to convince myself that here was a sample of the mass attention I had sought, and that I should not despise it. But self-pity had joined frustration, leaving no room for self-reproach. Not since my wedding day had I been obliged to queue for provisions. For years they had all been delivered to the house in a cardboard box. Lauren had organised it. To a large extent she had paid for it. But to an even larger extent she had organised it. I got a sudden urge to call Cambridge.

I was impressed at the time — I’m not just saying it now — that I could harbour a new desire so distant from the need to burn down Safeway. All you want from a store except a conflagration. But it wasn’t their fault. Hence my rage. It was my usual rage at not having spotted the obvious. The non-express check-out queues were the ones to join. Those people with trolleys loaded like Jumbo jets full of pilgrims were the experienced shoppers, less likely to choose items without price stickers, more likely to have their cheques and stubs filled out before the clerk had finished the tally. Getting behind two or even three of the big spenders would ensure quicker progress than queuing up behind five or six of the small fry. I had missed the too-obvious point. Failed the IQ test. Overinterpreted the stellar signal. Ah, Veronica!

Back in the flat, I handed over the provender to the Mole and entertained her with a calm account of my adventures. She was padding barefoot around the kitchen in a silk dressing-gown. When she laughed I tried not to notice that she was wearing little underneath. I left her to her work and went to Chance’s office, where a telephone call to Cambridge revealed that Lauren refused to talk to me. My daughter was not at home but my son explained that she was not talking to me either. He then advised me to stay off the line for at least a week. ‘It’s raining shit up here.’ I told him not to swear and he told me that I was no longer in a position to give orders, merely to suggest a course of action. I could tell he got that from his mother.

I could also tell that he was relieved when I said I had to cut the call short, on the grounds that it wasn’t my telephone. Back in the kitchen that wasn’t mine either I was enrolled by the Mole, who wasn’t mine either, to open a bottle of excellent wine — a Château Fonplégade Saint Émilion Grand Cru 1967, which was not mine either. Chance had boxes of the stuff stashed in the cupboard. The bottles had never been unpacked and laid down somewhere cool. The most that had been done for them was to lay the boxes sideways. But the Mole assured me that everything got swilled down before it could spoil. ‘Anyway, he gets most of it as presents. For speeches and things like that. They give it to him instead of money and then we all drink it.’

‘Who’s we all?’

‘Oh, everybody. Everybody comes here. Keep cutting the garlic while I do the vinaigrette.’

‘Do we need this much?’

‘It’s good for you. It brings out all the poison.’

‘Too late for that.’

‘Stop being so dramatic.’

‘Stop being so bossy.’

‘It’s my function. Chance loves how I boss him around. I wish he’d let me live here all the time. I could really get this place organised.’

‘Are you trying to talk him into it?’

‘More or less.’

‘Well, here’s hoping.’

He’s hoping? No, I am.’

‘No, here’s hoping.’

‘Here’s hopping?’

‘No. It’s an expression. Here’s hoping. It means that something is to be hoped for. Don’t you know that expression?’

‘No. Should I?’

‘Stick with me, kid. You’ll learn a lot of ancient slang.’ Such as: stick with me, kid. We might not feel old when the policemen start looking young. We might not even feel old when we meet girls born after the Second World War, and then after the Korean War, and then — like this one — during the Vietnam war. But when they can’t understand a word of what we say, then we feel old. Pervaded by an embarrassed feeling that my vocabulary had gone out of date like flared trousers or the crinoline, I put off until another day my projected inquiry into just what exactly the Mole did for Chance apart from getting him organised. It went without saying that she slept with him, but on what basis? Was she a bed-warmer for Angélique? Did she want to be his next wife? Perhaps Chance was the one to ask. Perhaps neither. Hanging on by the skin of my teeth, I was in no position to demand an account of the sleeping arrangements. I already felt guilty about not having made a bigger contribution towards paying for the supplies which the Mole was expertly transforming into the kind of meal she had been taught to create at her Swiss finishing school. Could Lauren cut off my credit and cash cards? And if she could, would she? If she did, I would find out soon enough. If she didn’t, I could never find out she wouldn’t, unless she talked to me. I would just have to go on using them until they became useless. And even if they didn’t, they would always feel as if they might.

This interior monologue had nothing in common, except for its self-generating circularity, with the Mole’s exterior monologue, which mainly concerned the other girls in College Hall, where she lived, as opposed to here, which she only visited, except out of term time, when she lived here instead of there, but not really. The other girls were introduced to me one by one and their characters differentially sketched. The star catalogue very quickly became too fascinating to ignore. Sexuality, proved or suspected, was given prominence. There were wallies you couldn’t imagine doing it. There were super wallies you could imagine doing it with anyone, even a Dutch businessman just back from Nairobi. There were some classy girls who were unfortunately straight as roads. One very pretty girl was ready for anything but unfortunately she had hands like plates. The Mole demanded refinement. She liked beautiful hands. She had them, too, but while she was saying this I was doting on her long, straight dancer’s feet. She made my heart feel like a microlight aircraft, like a solar-powered car with bicycle wheels, like a silver-foil-clad satellite spinning up from the Space Shuttle. She took me out of myself. It was one of her many gifts.

‘I’m going to have a bath,’ she said, with the intense but detached interest in herself that I could already see was usual, ‘and get changed. Put on some music.’

‘What would you like?’

‘Take your pick.’

There being too much to choose from, I put on the Shostakovich cello concertos again, selecting the second, slow movement of the First Concerto and turning up the volume so that she would be able to hear it upstairs. As the cello unspooled its first long thread of melancholy, the word ‘Yum!’ came floating down, haloed with tiled resonance, like a sweet echo. Usually I don’t enjoy being introduced to things. And really I knew quite a lot about music, for a passive listener. I could read it, for example, which Chance couldn’t. In childhood I had put in my years as a flute prodigy. But my tastes ran only as far as early late romanticism, and those poor persecuted Russians had always struck me as too late. It would be unsettling to find myself newly receptive, starting again. Trying not to be swept up, I poured myself a Punt e Mes, freighted it with ice and sought quiet distraction. Though it was still not dark outside, it was already seven o’clock. I turned on the television for the Channel 4 news, keeping the sound down so that the Mole would hear only music. A standard rape and murder came at the top of the show. A relatively minor bombing was beaten into second spot. Apparently an Arab terrorist had blown himself up in Athens airport, killing or maiming the entire family of the leading Egyptian expert in bone cancer. The unintentional massacre was being claimed as a victory anyway, by a breakaway group sworn to punish Yasser Arafat’s flirtation with Zionism. The Princess of Wales was on early, bending close to old women in wheelchairs. The eternal sadness of the Russian cello made temporary sense of it all by evoking worse fears and even more arbitrary deprivations. With the lights off in the room, the large television screen and tiny diodes of the audio stack illuminated little beyond themselves. Swamped with shadows, I looked out and down through the glass wall into the oncoming evening. Across the walkway above the ornamental lake, people were arriving for the night’s performances at the Arts Centre. Incongruously eager in that setting, they moved like extras in Metropolis or Things to Come released for a meal break. But the brick esplanade in front of the Guildhall School of Music had emptied of its daily students and there was no one in the little park except a solitary jogging figure in trainer shoes, sloppy joe and white shorts, his excess bulk detectable even at that range. Rather theatrically I kept watching him instead of turning around to greet Chance’s arrival.

‘Pathetic sight, isn’t he?’ asked Chance at my shoulder.

‘One of ours. Bit before your time. Knew him at school. Name’s Clive James.’

‘Is that him? Lauren got lumbered with him at that party you had here. Sad sort of guy.’

‘The last freelance literary journalist. Does sports reports to keep going. Writes critical essays. Odd bit of television guesting on book programmes. Strictly hand to mouth. Writes poetry that sounds the way reproduction furniture looks. I have him up here for a meal when he’s starving. Not that he shows any signs.’

‘Sometimes malnutrition makes them swell up.’

‘Mole’ll make sure it doesn’t happen to us.’ The lonely runner had convinced me, as if by telepathy, that I must do something about my own weight. Chance was a model of what could be done if the Mole was available to help do it. She hadn’t precisely dressed up, but she had dressed well, mainly in black silk jersey. In the dark room she was the hardest thing to see and the easiest to look at. With the machines shut off and no light added except for some cupcake candles, our small round dinner table took on the overtones of a Supper at Emmaus by Rembrandt, unless I mean undertones. The food was sickeningly healthy. There was a salad to start, followed by a salad, with salad on the side. Proud to have had a hand in preparing this, I was glad enough to help eat it, but without the red wine I might have missed red meat. Not all the light in the Mole’s childish face was indebted to the candles. She had a triumph to report. Apparently she had been the star of her tutorial on the novel. All I had learned about this was the bit about Amanda’s wallyesque opinions on Hardy, so I was jealous. The Mole had held back the best of her news for Chance: clear proof of love. Here I give only an extract from her monologue. You must imagine the verve; the way she kept talking even while coming and going with plates and wooden bowls; the pleasure of self-discovery. Chance listened, not just with the nearest thing to patience I had ever seen him muster, but with an apparent determination to enjoy the fleeting moment even if it took an hour.

‘And I was the only one who was really talking about Les Gommes because all the others were only saying what they’d seen in this book on the nouveau roman. Except the hopeless wally Amanda who hadn’t even read that. And I said, Chance are you sending me up?’

‘Contrary. Fascinated. Wondering if you’re going to go straight up in the air and hang there humming like a flying saucer.’

‘Your eyebrow was raised.’

‘Astonishment. Go on.’

‘And I said, obviously the narrator is trying to make this distinction between art and reality, keeps showing, you see, what happens is, while the protagonist is chasing around looking for the perfect rubber, not that kind of rubber, Joel, you’re as bad as him, the shoe kind, he sees in the window the model of an artist, um, painting this picture of a Greek temple, and looking at, or sposedly looking at ... ’

‘Sposedly?’ asked Chance. ‘I’m sprised.’

Supposedly looking at, shut up, a scene of, a photograph, ironically representing reality, of a twentieth-century cross-roads. And I thought that just as an artist, and the model artist, is representing a representation of a reproduction, because it’s a copy of a painting, the actual narrator talks about a model artist, which is a representation, as if it was reality, and gives a series of contradictory reactions. Do you see?’

‘Yes. I see,’ said Chance, and I believe he did. He knew all about this: he had already heard, long ago and from less engaging sources, the dull clear signal of which the Mole was giving him a version wildly scrambled, vividly chromatic. She was practically dancing by now, half-way to her feet, waving her beautiful arms, doing Balinese poses with her fingers to give these airy notions the life she thought they deserved. Perhaps they did, if they could do so much to excite her.

‘The model artist seems to be static ... ’

She froze, being static.

‘ ... but if you analyse it closely ... ’

She narrowed her eyes and held one finger in the air, analysing closely.

‘ ... most nineteenth-century novelist novels, I mean realist novels, pretend to narrate reality, but this doesn’t. It shows that reality can never be represented, and that’s what metafiction does, what self-reflexivity does, it shows, that, um, and the main point about metafiction is that it’s the actual writing, the process, rather than the product ... ’

She leapt a foot high and a foot sideways, landing in a crouch, with the emphatic forefinger held forward, almost touching Chance’s nose as he pretended to deliberate.

‘ ... that produces the realism! Good point? Am I clever? And everybody else had just read those chapters about the nouveau roman, but they hadn’t read Robbe-Grillet, and they hadn’t got the point at all.’

Suddenly she laughed, not about anything she had already said but about what she was going to say next.

‘Do you know what wally Amanda called Robbe-Grillet? Robert Grill-it! Seriously! I mean, that girl has no clue.’

‘Not like the Mole,’ drawled Chance proudly, as his protégée — was that what she was? — sat down with her chest heaving and her face on fire. Ethereal, flush’d and like a throbbing star, said Keats, who had felt the cosmos in his lungs, flammantia moenia mundi. The flaming walls of the world. My flaming oath. Knowing that I was a dog in the manger, I employed my trick memory for a devastating quotation.

‘It was decided that Emma must be prevented from reading novels.’

‘But Flaubert meant that she shouldn’t have been reading sentimental novels,’ said Chance with a sudden access of polemical force, a snapping into focus. ‘Robert Grill-it and the rest of them aren’t sentimental. They might be a mob of posturing jerks, but they’re not giving the customer an easy ride. Look how they’ve helped to wake this Mole here up. Emma’s novels put her to sleep. They were the real white arsenic.’

Chance’s habitual cropped and compressed speech had suddenly expatiated into bravura. I could tell that one of his famous filibusters was coming on. Without wishing to prevent this, I did my best to forestall it, making my case for the way literary studies had become pseudo-science, a sophistical poison which had corrupted first the teachers, then the students, and finally the writers themselves. In all humility I strove to suppress, or at any rate soft-pedal, the consideration that my viewpoint was a vantage point. I was a real scientist contemplating the havoc wrought by voodoo; an astronomer dismissing astrology. Careful not to hurt the Mole’s feelings, I nevertheless argued with some cogency, even if I say so myself. Was I not doubly qualified, the expert in real critical inquiry on the one hand, and the ideal common reader on the other? Also I had my act well polished from many a Cambridge dinner table, not excluding high table at my college. Trinity, especially between terms, was a watering hole for the kind of conference-trotting post-humanists who could decode a text in nothing flat but couldn’t read a book to save their lives. I had always made a point of reminding them — or, in some cases, apprising them for the first time — that on my territory they were fish out of water, whereas I on theirs was a duck in it. The Mole had no choice but to hear me out. Chance chose to, for half a glass, and seemed actually to enjoy my peroration.

‘And finally,’ I said, ‘in this short version of what should be a long and, it goes without saying ... ’

‘Apparently not.’ But his smile was tolerant.

‘ ... more subtle argument, I have to point out something about the exact sciences which decisively separates them from anything pretending to be science. The exact sciences don’t try to sound scientific. They sound the way they do from necessity. Occam’s Razor applies. They are Occam’s Razor.’

‘I know what this is!’ piped the Mole, about an octave higher than her usual excited voice, which was never very low. ‘But I can’t say it out loud.’

‘It means there should be no needless multiplication of entities,’ I said helpfully, doing a good job, I thought, of saying it in the way she would have said it if she could have said it. ‘The determination of structuralism, post-structuralism or any kind of literary analysis I’ve heard of except plain ordinary criticism — their determination to sound scientific is the clearest indication of what’s wrong with them. And the whole thing feeds back,’ I concluded rather feebly, ‘into literature itself and screws it up, so that when a man like me tries to take a holiday from the flux of facts and re-create himself in the hard, enduring subtleties of humanely observed and considered life, all he finds is more damned theories, only this time without any rhyme, reason or motivation beyond the aggrandisement of some pretentious author who doesn’t realise that his theory of reality, or whatever it is that his theory is of, is, and must be, immeasurably less interesting than his instinctive understanding, whose nuances he won’t, he can’t possibly, register or even conceive of in the first place if he spends his whole time representing the representation of a reproduction, saving your presence, Miss Mole.’ She looked a bit less awe-stricken than I would have liked.

‘No wonder they gave you so many medals,’ said Chance in a show of honest admiration. ‘You said “flux of facts” without a tremor. And you’ve made a strong argument generally. But it’s bullshit, for the following general reasons.’

‘Tell me the general reasons,’ I said, miffed.

‘I’m going to tape Auf Wiedersehen, Pet,’ said the Mole, rising.

‘It’s not fair,’ I said. ‘While she’s fooling with that machine, you’re rehearsing your eloquence.’

‘No need to,’ said Chance with a temporary return to ellipsis. ‘Got most of it learned off.’

‘All set,’ said the Mole. ‘We can’t miss this episode. Patrick hasn’t told Gudrun that his wife’s coming over for a visit.’

Lifting his full glass, Chance took the kind of deep swig that you have to bite off at the end. It was just a taste of his old habits, when I was the young star student and he was out there in the great world, holding court at Vadim’s in King’s Cross the year before he went to England. Hot nights, T-shirts, khaki drills, Hong Kong thongs. My first dissipations. Why were you a Catholic, Joanna?

‘You’re more right than you realise about literary theory,’ Chance began. I recognised a favourite technique of his, but for the moment I sat silent. ‘You could have gone further, and said that in literary matters any technical analysis which precedes judgment makes judgment impossible. Assessment of quality is either a priori or it doesn’t happen. It’s a whole-soul response. If you study One Hundred Years of Solitude for its representation of reflexivity or whatever, you’ll end up like a certain Mole who thinks it’s a work of art instead of a load of crap.’

‘It is not,’ squealed the Mole with delighted anger. I was very jealous. This was evidently a standard disagreement between them.

‘You will come to believe,’ Chance went on, ‘that the author of One Hundred Years of Ineptitude is doing something marvellous when all those undifferentiated characters walk out of one end of the village and keep walking until they walk in at the other end of the village some time later, not having walked around the world but merely having been forgotten by their supernaturally gifted author between chapters. You will come to believe that the author is practising some kind of conscious minimalism when he calls two women by the same name — as it might be, Maria — and differentiates between them by making one of them pick up dirt and eat it. As Maria eats dirt despite the protests of Maria, a third woman, called Maria, arrives from the East having previously left for the West, whither she had gone to visit her cousin, Maria. You will persuade yourself, because the alternative is unthinkable, that the author, Ferdinand Imelda Marcos ... ’

‘Gabriel García Márquez!’ the Mole insisted, aware that she was whipping a humming top.

‘ ... is practising a realism beyond realism.’

‘Magic realism! That’s why it’s called that!’

‘ ... a magic realism which does away with the tired notation of verisimilitude. You will not allow it to occur to you that he is, in fact, a fuckwit.’

One night a week, sometimes even two nights, I had been drawn to the foot of Joanna’s staircase in Sancta Sophia, to meet her and take her up to the Cross and back again afterwards to somewhere dark near the college to pet heavily with my hand between her thighs and one finger gone missing, a fevered amputee. But not even that thrill would have been enough to keep me away regularly from my log tables, slide rule and gooseneck lamp. Only this live bait could lure me towards Bohemia — the prospect of Chance Jenolan unleashing a long solo, like Paul Gonsalves in ‘Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue’, Duke Ellington at the Newport Jazz Festival, 1956.

‘Witchdoctors like Derrida dismiss themselves by the way they speak,’ Chance went on. ‘It’s the language of sophistry and nothing sensible can be said in it even by accident. But you can go further. An apparently more lucid pundit like Barthes is usually talking flapdoodle too. Quite apart from the fact that he isn’t as good as he’s supposed to be at noticing things. He noticed, for example, that the Hollywood movie of Julius Caesar was full of American actors who signified that they were Roman by combing their hair forward. But he noticed wrong. The Hollywood movie of Julius Caesar was full of English actors and anyway Romans did comb their hair forward, so what else could the actors have done, comb it backward? Barthes’s acolytes didn’t notice how rough and ready his noticing was, because they themselves noticed even less than he did. And that was really why they liked him. Because he let them off real criticism, in which it is possible to be inadequate, to go wrong. The real reason why any form of structural approach, up to and including deconstruction and whatever the Hell comes after that, is not and can’t be science, is that you can’t go wrong. Nothing anyone says, using those methods, can be disproved. As Joel will explain to you some other time, Mole, this is the very opposite of science.’

‘Will you? Will you tell me about that?’ Momentarily dragging her eyes away from Chance’s mouth, she smiled straight at me, as if digging money out of Daddy. I would have told her anything. When Paul Gonsalves played his tenor sax solo at Newport, the Mole must have been about minus eleven years old. An arrow through the heart.

‘But as Joel will also tell you,’ Chance went on, ‘falsifiability is only what separates science from non-science. It doesn’t separate sense from nonsense. There is no inherent reason why somebody taking a structuralist approach shouldn’t discover real things, and no reason for you to fear, Inspector Mole, that your investigations into this field have been without fruit. As I was careful to say before: though Derrida always talks baloney, Barthes only usually talks baloney. It’s not entirely uninteresting to be told, as Barthes tells us, that a sonnet by Baudelaire has a preponderance of two initial consonants in its opening quatrain. On the other hand, how interesting is the symmetry which the author has created unconsciously, compared with the symmetry, or lack of it — the real structure, if you like — which he has created consciously?. How interesting is our theory of the book compared to his theory of the book? And here we reach the point where Joel, having run out of gas, pulled off the highway and pretended to admire the view.’

He knew I was enjoying his performance, but couldn’t know I was also enjoying the memory of him a quarter of a century before, in his first-floor front room in Glebe with the cast-iron balcony caked with green paint, before anybody except a few eccentrics thought of preserving the old architecture. The Duke Ellington Newport LP was an old American pressing with a thick cardboard cover, split along one edge. ‘Listen to this bit,’ Chance had said as Gonsalves drove on, surprised by his own inspiration. ‘Hear that slap-slap sound? It’s Joe Jones, hitting the edge of the stage with rolled-up newspaper.’ Yeah. Go. The raw wine we drank was called Red Ned. When Chance’s girl arrived I had to leave. Barbara. I walked all the way home to Bellevue Hill and they must have been exhausted before I got there.

‘You can reject the theories of the critics but you can’t reject the theories of the creators. They make real discoveries which, once known, can’t be, if you’ll forgive me, unknown. Once you’ve read what Henry James says about the author’s point of view, you can’t get back to a state in which you never heard him raise the question. And not reading his critical articles and reviews won’t get you out of hearing him raise it. The whole question is all there in his novels. One of the things his novels are about is how the novels were written. You might say that such preoccupations are part of what makes him a monumental bore ... ’

‘Is he?’ inquired the Mole. ‘Don’t I have to read him, then? Oh good.’

‘He is, but you do. Start with Washington Square the way I told you. Part of what makes him a monumental bore, but he took the novel forward. The arts don’t progress, but they do develop. And ignorance about the question of the author’s intentions won’t be enough to get you, or him, back to a state of innocence where the author’s intentions don’t matter. It’s true that the artist must retain his simplicity, but he can do so only by perpetually returning to it, back down the corridor of sophistication.’

‘The second simplicity,’ I contributed.

‘Exactly. The musicologist Alfred Einstein, whom the Mole is under no obligation to distinguish from the physicist Albert Einstein, since she can play the cello and I can’t, said that Mozart attained the second simplicity. Having learned everything, he was able to work again from pure instinct. Every artist must aim for that. But unless he’s talented to the point of genius like Mussorgsky or Le Douanier Rousseau, he can’t stay pure by dodging school. Every real novelist dreams of an unselfconscious novel. Imagine how much easier it would be for a character to give a long speech that the narrator remembers in detail, if it just didn’t occur to you that the speaker’s propensity towards monologue and the narrator’s uncanny memory will both have to be justified. And yet isn’t that why we find Aldous Huxley’s novels not only unfairly neglected but unintentionally funny? Not just because his characters talk like encyclopaedias. Real people, including Huxley himself, have talked like encyclopaedias. But Aldous tried to pretend that Gustave had never existed. What dates Point Counter Point now had already dated it when it came out. It was a technical throwback. Because the real complexities of counterpointed dialogue were all there in Madame Bovary, never to be simplified again except as sentimentality. And as much as you might want your straight uncomplicated narrative, Joel, Gustave is there to prove you can’t have it. There are whole stretches of Madame Bovary to prove that you can’t have it. Whole chapters with no identifiable authorial voice at all. All done with the shift of viewpoint, with transitions, with the play of tone. Impossible not to be delighted by all that. Impossible not to see what he did as an increase of opportunity to get at the truth. More ways to do what a novelist should do — write a book that can’t be turned into a movie. More ways to be good. And, of course, more ways to be bad. Just like in painting, where if there had never been any evolution towards abstraction, the field would at least have been cut down to people who could draw. But any duffer could set himself up as an abstract expressionist, and now any writer with nothing to offer can call it self-reflexivity. The nouveau roman makes a virtue of leaving out things that the author doesn’t really know how to put in. Which is why, although the Mole doesn’t know it yet and we won’t tell her, the nouveau roman is washed up. Even the Frogs are fed to the teeth with it. They’d rather read Simenon, and they’re right. But Simenon is no primitive. He’s technically sophisticated to the nth degree. A novel’s technique has to be part of its subject, and no way out of it. There can be no such thing as a novel written merely to be enjoyed. The very idea is sophisticated. Naivety can’t be willed.’

The Mole gazed at his moving mouth adoringly, as Barbara had once done. The lovely, frail, un-Australian-looking Barbara, who would have been in her middle forties now, but cancer had taken her last year — very quickly, I had heard, like a shark attack. ‘You can have exactly one of these each,’ said the Mole, holding an unwrapped sweetmeat towards the admired mouth, ‘and don’t ask me where I’ve hidden the box.’ We were well into the coffee by then.

‘Numb of whiff ... ’ Chance went on.

‘Don’t gobble.’

‘None of which means that any artist in any field mustn’t do his or her best to make the great return from self-awareness to selfless inspiration. The work of art that has nothing except its technique for subject matter is a dead duck, like almost all avant-garde music since Verklärte Nacht. If Benjamin Britten walked out of a concert by Harrison Birtwhistle, why should I stay? And don’t tell me that Debussy wanted to do the same to Stravinsky.’

‘I wasn’t going to,’ I said for punctuation.

‘I, for one, would be sad,’ said Chance, ‘if this here Mole were to spend her life reading nothing but Robert Grill-it and working on her theories about the representation of a registration. I like to think that War and Peace will make her less eager to explain the book and more hospitable to the possibility that the book is explaining her. But meanwhile she is sharpening the powers of attention that she will one day bring to greater literature, and she has learned that even those simple narrative forms which she, like you, truly adores, are the products of conscious art.’

‘Can we watch Auf Weidersehen, Pet now?’

‘Knew you were going to say that.’

‘Can I have my feet tickled?’

‘A voluptuary.’

They spoke as if I didn’t exist. With the screen and one last candle the only lights in the room, I sat in an armchair and Chance sat at one end of the long leather couch, the Mole lying along it with her feet in his lap. He tickled her feet constantly except when he reached for the remote control to zap the commercials.

‘Mole knows everything about these characters. Also an expert on Coronation Street, Dallas and Dynasty. Ought to be doing a media studies course somewhere, except who needs it? Ask her something about the sex-life of Dex and Alexis. Alexis wrecks Dex with sex. Ask her ... ’

‘It’s starting again. Shut up and tickle.’

When it was over they got up to go to bed. The Mole bent to kiss my forehead and disappeared upstairs. Chance lingered for a moment. ‘Stewart Granger and Robert Taylor,’ he said.

‘I can’t.’ I couldn’t.

‘And Ann Blyth.’

All the Brothers Were Valiant.’ Two men, one woman and a lot of sea water.

‘Nice work. Talk properly tomorrow.’

‘Good night, you lucky bastard.’

‘You’d be surprised. Night.’

I stayed to finish my glass of port and have another. Chance’s television set got the whole world. It was connected to a dish aerial up on the roof. I watched CNN for too long and went to bed with hot eyes. Tears made them feel better.

Late next morning I woke up with a sore head and some perspective. I had, after all, known the Mole only twenty-four hours. Not long, even by her standards. Chance was gone. ‘Fend for youself,’ said a note. The Mole was gone as well. She had gone to learn more of what she needed to know before Chance told her she didn’t need to. Was that their arrangement? A pattern began in which I rose late each morning, asked myself these questions, and set about answering them by sipping guiltily at a paragraph or two of one of her love letters. Why didn’t she keep them in her college room? She must have been afraid that a friend would read them.

Dear Mole of Discretion,

Don’t think it’s fun here in Cannes. The fun does not come in cans here in Cannes. It comes in very expensive bottles. First of all, I miss you. Angélique misses you too, but not the way I do. She spends her day being interviewed by French television in their al fresco studio on the Croisette, opposite the Majestic. They ask her about her new film in which she is a professor of philosophy in love with Gérard Depardieu who plays a multi-storey car park, or possibly works in a multi-storey car park: I am not sure and find it hard to care. Nobody could be more magnanimous than she is about playing a role that Catherine Deneuve didn’t need, Stéphane Audran wouldn’t touch, Fanny Ardent was too tall for, Nathalie Baye not old enough and Isabelle Adjani too animated. Yesterday at Eden Roc I talked to the American producer Gus Disting about Robert Browning. He thought I meant the man who invented the gun. Meanwhile I crave you. I’ll be the cello and you be Pablo ... ’

But I promised to quote no letters. Nor will I quote from the diary which I started about then. I could have bought a floppy disc and composed my diary on Chance’s idle Amstrad, but I had a regressive urge to use pen and paper, to make a book. Venturing out as far as Chancery Lane, I bought one of the same Chinese notebooks that Veronica had done her figuring out in. Flying Eagle Brand. Made in China. Everything I learned about Chance and the Mole I put into it, making daily entries. It was a deliberate exercise in anti-solipsism. That feeling I had with them, and especially with her, of getting out of myself — I wanted that when they were not there, and the diary gave it to me. It got the spotlight off me. It put me in the cooling dark. I had enough time on my hands to lose track of it. The diary gave me direction. My crise à quarante ans became a story. There were characters, and a kind of narrative, except that nothing much happened to the narrator. The weather moved further into summer, with the odd fine day to bear the calendar out, before clouds came scudding back behind the tall towers. The Mole moved from term time into the long vacation, already studying hard for her final year. She went to her parents in the country for three or four days at a stretch — an aeon, an epoch.

Chance moved mysteriously. He had an office at the newspaper which had first refusal on his work, and another office at the television company which transmitted his programmes, but if you called him at either you were told he was probably at the other. If he went to Paris for lunch or Salzburg for the weekend, I would find out when he got back. He would say in the morning that he was going to the National Theatre for talks with Peter and come home in the evening saying that he had been to Glyndebourne for talks with Peter. The discrepancy gave me two chances to guess that he had not meant Peter Rabbit, but the vagueness went beyond cool. He was becoming secretive. The Barbican was his fortress. I wondered why he had let me into it. Dear Flying Eagle Brand Diary, why has he let me get so close? Am I the eunuch in his harem, or just the human back-up to his answering machine?

Shostakovich was our composer that summer. It often goes like that, a musical fad binding you together. At Caltech it had been the Lovin’ Spoonful. The year I met Lauren we all sang ‘Nashville Cats’ out in the Mojave Desert under a sky streaked with meteors — portents, I now realised, of the Mole’s birth. Lauren still called me a Nashville Cat in bed, or had done until recently. We both suffered so for John Sebastian when he forgot the words at Woodstock. Bartók was our serious man. The Third Piano Concerto. Written in America, Lauren reminded me. She loved her country all the more, the more I loved it less, in that year of Search and Destroy, of helicopters over the Mekong Delta. Thwack thwack. She gave herself to her biochemistry, to her music and to me. I could never get her genuinely interested in jazz but she loved pop. It pleased me to chase classical with pop, like Scotch with beer, and I was glad the Mole had the same instinct. Not that I could even recognise the names of her fave raves. I had always thought Sade was a poxed old French libertine whose idea of a good time was to pour hot wax on a serving girl’s flayed rump. It took the Mole to tell me that Sade was a black girl singer who pronounced her name Shah-day. But trusting the Mole’s musicality I listened and was well rewarded. ‘Frankie’s First Affair’ was at its prettiest when the Mole was gently dancing to it, but sometimes I put it on when alone, although not as often as I searched for my favourite bits of the steadily unfolding Russian. The Eighth String Quartet put me in a trance, which I suppose was hard to distinguish from my usual state of immobility, except that instead of just not moving a muscle I had glazed eyes as well. One bleak wet summer afternoon the Mole came in and found me like that, wrapped in Russian sorrow. His sorrow for millions of his murdered countrymen and mine for myself. All my symphonies are tombstones. Where had he been all my life? How had he managed to accomplish so much with everything going against him? Thought I, who had had everything going for me, and accomplished nothing.

‘You shouldn’t listen to that on your own,’ said the Mole. ‘It gets you down.’

‘It’s the pommy weather. You call this a summer? Look at that grey filth.’

‘Let’s take Chance’s big umbrella and go for a walk. I know where it’s tropical.’

She did, too. The Barbican arts complex looked like a hardened missile silo mixed up with a Cape Kennedy firing room. In addition, there was an off-world element, a sort of scaffolding-and-glass canopy sticking up at one side like a detached section of the Beaubourg parked in space. From outside, this high-tech gazebo was only just identifiable as some kind of botanical conservatory. Mainly you saw just the glass and the pipes: the green stuff might have been stored scenery from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. From inside, I now learned, it was a real forest, growing on several levels, with pools and streams and spilling terraces. The doors were locked but a man behind them, who was arranging a hose that squirted from hundreds of pin-holes only a few inches apart, turned when he heard the Mole knocking on the glass and smiled as if his day was made. Straight-backed in her blue suit, she put her high heels into the third position, clasped her hands palm-down in front of her as if reciting, and bobbed down about an inch in silent supplication. The doors opened as if she had said ‘Sesame’. Their guardian bantered heavily about how the responsibility would be all ours if we were attacked by the jaguars or the alligators. Then we walked on, the Mole having taken my arm, I pacing our step with the tapping ferrule of the folded umbrella, slowly along a brick pathway between ferns. The air was already hot. Beside the first pool we paused to watch the carp.

‘Big and lazy,’ I said for something to say.

‘I’m glad you think so. When Chance first brought me here I said I thought they were big and he said they were only little ones. Because he’d seen the ones in Kyoto. He said these ones were just bait.’

‘Usually he’s pretty careful about not crushing you though, isn’t he?’ More so than he ever was with me, I could have said.

‘He’s getting better. I stick up for myself. It does him good.’

‘You’ve improved him. You should charge a fee.’

‘I do.’ I didn’t like the sound of that, but it turned out she meant something different. ‘I pick his brains all the time. And he can be very patient with me, considering how impatient he is really. I ask him really dumb Amanda-type questions and he tries to answer them. He says it’s good for him and I should keep it up. It keeps his mind off his troubles.’

‘And what are those?’ What are those compared with mine, I meant. From the first big pool there was a streamlet about six inches wide leading to a smaller pool. One carp had made the transition and obviously had no idea how to get back. A big fish in a little pond. Perhaps the man with the hose would come along and turn the poor fish around, like a locomotive on a turntable.

‘It’s so hard for him. He has to spend so much time deciding. Everyone wants something from him. Nothing is simple. I think that’s all I’m for. I’m a rest for him.’

‘Does he love you?’ I asked, as if I had never read his letters.

‘In a way. Yes. I suppose he does. I think he picked me up as a toy for Angélique, because you know she’s a bit inclined that way too.’ No. I didn’t know. But of course. How could anyone so obviously unambiguous be anything but ambiguous? People who didn’t spend their whole day working for a living picked these things up straight off. The rest of us came chugging along, miles behind the action, arriving so exhausted at the old news that we greeted it, slack-jawed, as a revelation. ‘But I couldn’t really bear it with her. She’s so rough. Nothing like as refined as she looks. And then Chance discovered that he just liked having me around.’

‘Do you love him?’

‘As much as I’ve ever loved a man.’

‘In your long career.’

‘Don’t be so snide. I meant, as much as I can love a man.’

‘Because you like women best.’

‘Oh no. I like both kinds. But I do love a woman best. Have done since school.’

‘What’s her name?’


‘How often do you see her?’

‘Never. I don’t see her any more. But I can’t get over her.’

‘Does Chance know about this?’

‘Oh yes. Of course. He’s a terrific help. If we go along those stepping stones we come to the rude cactuses.’

She went ahead, turning once to put her finger to her lips, as if we were sneaking up on something. The cactuses were indeed rude. Jade loofahs that had penetrated porcupines, avocado dildoes that had been up echidnas, they ruined the mood in which I could probe further about the grief of lost love, but I profited from the gaiety and held her hand on the way home. Our clasped palms retained a pocket of hot moist air, while the rest of our bodies readjusted to the chill evening. For a little while I felt less marginal, as if I were included. But hearing that she wasn’t fully his didn’t make her mine, so to care for her could only mean more desperation. Out in the open, we crossed the metal bridge over the ornamental lake and climbed the stairs to the main walkway, where two police constables, one of each sex, came strolling towards us, as if on a gangway into Noah’s Ark. I dropped the Mole’s hand and took the arm it was attached to. She giggled.

‘Am I meant to be your daughter?’

‘Belt up.’

‘Do you think I could meet her?’

‘I’m not sure that even I’m allowed to.’

‘Are you afraid I might seduce her?’

‘I’m just afraid generally.’

One morning I was up early to phone the children before school. There was no school. It was half-term. I had lost track. In fact I had never had more than a vague idea of when school started and stopped. Lauren had taken care of all that. But Donna must have been working on some assignment, because she asked me a question.

‘Daddy, where’s the Bristol Channel?’

‘It’s out West in Wales somewhere. Near Bristol. Where did you think it was?’

‘I thought it was part of the Channel. You know, the English Channel.’

‘Haven’t you had any geography lessons about England?’

‘We have geomorphology.’

‘Yes, but don’t you learn the names?’

‘Oh sure. Isthmus. Promontory. Spit.’

‘I mean the names. Like: Wales, Bristol Channel, Cambridge, Madingley Road.’

‘We learn to recognise the shapes.’

‘Can I speak to your mother?’

‘She said she doesn’t want to.’

‘Tell her it’s about school.’

Lauren’s voice, for the first time in so long that it was like the first time ever, sounded primly in my ear. She had always been proper. Her deportment was a containment building. Never any beads and headbands for her. Even at the height of the student thing, her biggest concessions to social revolution had been straight-legged corduroy jeans, Weejuns penny loafers and an English pullover. When her friends had big posters of Marcuse on the wall, her idea of an icon was Linus Pauling. There were plenty of hippy girls from rich families. But Lauren’s family was as strait-laced as only old Hollywood could be, holding on to its Eastern manners as if the West was still a frontier. They had a barn in Connecticut to which the house on Mulholland Drive was only an annexe.

‘Yes?’ She bit the word off at both ends.

‘They aren’t teaching her any geography. They’re teaching her geomorphology instead.’

‘You mean you aren’t for it?’

‘How could I be for it?’

‘Well, it’s science.’

‘Jesus, what’s the point of knowing how to recognise a fucking isthmus if she can’t find her way there to see the fucking thing? What’s she going to ask them for at the fucking railway station? A day return to the fucking geomorphic formation?’

‘Don’t be foul. As it happens, I think you’re right. I’m not getting what I thought I was paying for. A common condition all round.’

‘How much money have I got?’

‘Haven’t you called the bank?’

‘Too scared.’ I mixed an element of contrition into this, but it came out sounding merely cute, so I back-tracked. ‘Couldn’t you make her go to ballet again? She’s so round-shouldered. Was when I last saw her, anyway.’

‘Look, I don’t really want to discuss anything.’

‘Couldn’t ... ’

‘No, we couldn’t. I’ll look after everything that matters and you just look after yourself, OK?’ She hung up before I even got a chance to ask Benjamin about how he was making out with his Amstrad. I had wild dreams of linking his machine to Chance’s by telephone so I could send long messages at night.

By day I explored the geomorphology of my environment, its concrete cliffs, its caves and canyons. The Barbican was a 1950s architect’s idea of the shape of things to come. Like all visions of the future it had dated fiercely. If the rents had not been kept high it would have been a vandalised, windblown wreck like Le Corbusier’s original folly in Marseilles. A thousand times bigger than that, the Barbican was riddled with design faults down to the smallest detail. You needed a diamond-tipped drill to hang a picture. The ornamental lake was just too shallow to keep fish healthy and just deep enough to drown a child. A leaking roof in a sub-podium flat meant that half a square mile of brick walkway had to be taken up and put back. It had all been done in good faith, which led to the most unsettling aspect of all. Designed before security became a consideration, the place had a hundred separate entrances and they could all be opened by anyone’s door key. Chance’s fortress had no defences except confusion. Despatch riders trying to deliver parcels would be admitted by the car-park porter and then wander the corridors for ever in search of their inner destination. You would see one of them in his copious black rubberised clothes and impenetrable helmet, and then half an hour later, in a different part of the building, or the same part of a different building, you would see the same one again, his radio squawking as he checked doorways through his visor. Once in, there was no resistance, nothing to stop you circulating. Thus I could wander for hours from level to level of Heathrow-scale car-parks, through power-rooms where huge machines saying gumph gumph masticated the effluent of many garbage disposal conduits, over catwalks and under waterfalls, along residential corridors that looked like Alcatraz with carpets. There were secret gardens at ground level, monochrome from lack of light. High up in window boxes swathes of flowers spilled, hanging gardens from a brutalist Babylon. I saw things through windows: a bald man in white pyjamas aiming karate kicks at a punching bag, a naked fat woman stroking her breasts with a cat.

In the nearest car park, on the second level, there were three Lincoln Continentals parked side by side, filmed with dust, their tyres soft. The car-park attendant said that they had belonged to the embassy of a small African country which had changed governments, and that some geezer would eventually come to take them away. ‘Better be three geezers,’ I said helpfully, ‘or the same geezer will have to make three trips.’ But I was already alone. One of the Lincolns had a bicycle twisted into the back seat.

Dear Star-nosed Rodent,

Rio is everything I hoped for and worse. This had better be the best carnival ever staged. My designer, who was supposed to be taking notes with his minicam, ate some of the hotel food, so now I’m carrying his minicam. The brown boobs on the girls at the Oba Oba Club bounce with a resilience you might quite like, but even the hoofers have a shelf life of about a week. Any other beautiful girl stays firm for three days maximum, then turns squishy. The fruit rots on the vine here. The wet heat sucks the life out of everybody except the muggers. I’m in the oldest hotel on Copacabana beach, of which you have no doubt heard. But you will not have heard that the sand shelves like a cliff at the surf’s edge, that the waves fall vertically to obliterate anyone crazy enough to go in swimming, and that no swimmer could get to the water anyway, because he would be mugged as he stepped on to the beach, even if wearing nothing but a G-string. His balls would be removed and sold at the nearest squash court. Even in the early evening, to walk on the footpath along the esplanade is to have one’s wrist-watch instantly misappropriated, possibly with the wrist attached. Muggers operate in gangs of six. On the classier Ipanema beach, further down the coast, they don’t mug you on the sand. They come right into the hotel lobby and do it there. As I stand near a policeman and gaze out over all this mayhem, my eyes fill with tears because of the hydrocarbons pumped into the air by thousands of tiny cars each driven by a would-be grand prix star wearing a gold medallion and a watch that looks like the one I lost the previous evening. I lift weeping eyes to the mountains and find them teeming with hovels which give off visible puffs of hepatitis germs like a sick man smoking. Up there, even the goats have Aids. As I lift my eyes even higher, I see, as if through a film of oil, a sky scarred by hang-gliders, drug-runners’ helicopters, satiated vultures and Europe-bound airliners in which I am not a passenger. So I go back to my room, draw the curtains, turn up the air-conditioning from INADEQUATE to FEEBLE, lie down on the off-white sheet and take myself in hand, thinking of you, sancta simplicitas, your polymorphous perversity, your non-proselytising advocacy of life’s joy. I know who you miss most and I don’t mind. It even excites me. But I need your full attention. When you shrank from Angélique I felt the possible loss of you like a blow to the heart. Then I found out that you wanted me for my essential self. Lucky, lucky me. Don’t worry: I know you like the hoopla, too, and I’ll make sure you get some of that. You’ll see the Copacabana muggers one day, in all their glory. But the important thing to me is that you enjoy my voice. You identify it and enjoy it. While I — this will be difficult for you to understand — am having trouble finding it. Can’t hear it. All the time I get better at husbanding my energies, at doing more with less sweat, or anyway less with more effect. And you, born organiser, help smooth the way. But you can’t imagine what I would stand to lose, if I lost my response to the small things, the way Angélique took away my taste for water. Writing becomes harder for me all the time. This is my longest piece of prose for years. There is an article about that bastard Brecht on my desk that I must have started when he was still alive. More of that later, however, because ...

He didn’t stop there, but perhaps I should. Nothing can tell us what two people are like when they are alone together, not even their letters to each other in which they evoke that very thing. The same subject came up, with a twist I didn’t anticipate, when Chance took me out to lunch. The Mole had been away for an endless long weekend, Chance had been home for two days in a row, and perhaps he couldn’t face another of my healthy snacks. All the ingredients had been bought within the guidelines of what Chance called the Mole’s gruel rules, but there could be no doubt that I lacked her flair in their final preparation. ‘Garrick’s got a table for two in the Coffee Room,’ said Chance. ‘Somebody must have died.’

‘Are we getting a taxi?’ I asked in the lift. I was increasingly reluctant to set foot outside the perimeter.

‘Car,’ said Chance, which was not strictly true. Admittedly it was only a Granada, and therefore nothing beside the three Lincoln Continentals, the Rolls-Royces, Jaguars, Mercedes and Porsches that stretched away into the concrete distance of the car-park level as if they had been stored against atomic attack. But the Granada had a telephone in the back and a driver called Eric in the front.

‘Garrick, Eric,’ said Chance, and Eric saluted with a silver hook instead of a hand. It was just like the movies.

‘What I like about the movies,’ said Chance as we purred down the concrete ramp into the traffic, ‘is their fundamental illiteracy. Not just the routine illiteracy of the hacks, but the way even the geniuses are at war with words. Got a tape of an interview with Francis Ford Coppola I must show you. He says his pictures aren’t made to please the hoi polloi. Eventually you realise he means the élite. He says ‘part and partial’ when he means part and parcel. I love that. Can’t resist the evil attractions of all that. The way it’s got nothing to do with real writing. The Godfather movies are wonderful, but not because anybody involved can write. They can construct a scene, but they can’t compose a sentence.’

‘Come on,’ I protested, already aware that he was deliberately winding me up out of my depression. ‘There are some very intelligent writers even in Hollywood. In fact especially in Hollywood.’

‘How many times have you seen Tootsie?’ he asked, his eyes resting on a neatly clad lady legal type — silk blouse, dark suit, lacquered shoes with bows, rather Moleish but a bit older — who was contemplating the problem of crossing London Wall without the benefit of traffic lights. She smiled at Chance as if he were an old friend. ‘These women look more American all the time.’

‘Twice in the cinema,’ I said, honestly trying to be accurate, ‘and four times on video.’

‘About the same for me. It’s a miracle, isn’t it?’

‘It’s perfect.’

‘Who wrote it?’

‘Sydney Pollack directed it.’

‘Yes, but who wrote it?’

‘Wait a second.’

‘If I wait an hour you won’t be able to tell me. Nobody I’ve ever asked ever could. Nobody remembers the writer.’

‘Weren’t there two writers?’


‘So what does that prove?’

‘Proves that if Sydney Pollack and Dustin Hoffman have each other plus three writers, they don’t make another disaster like Straight Time or Bobby Deerfield. Pollack is a marvellous director. Three Days of the Condor is put together like a compact disc player. Not just the way it’s edited. He edits in the camera. Deserves his fame. But he needs writers. Squads of writers. Great thing about Hollywood. Nobody doubts that the writers are just cannon-fodder. Neither do I. Love the whole idea.’

‘You’re just being perverse.’

‘No, it’s a genuine longing. Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs.’

‘You don’t want to be treated like that.’

‘You mistake me. I want to do the treating. Direct a big movie. Not like my polite written-and-directed-by art-house nice little features. A great big monster movie with a chain-gang of writers. Throw us out here, Eric. It’s only a few yards.’

‘Edie Adams and Natalie Wood,’ said Eric as he got out to open the door with his hook.

Love With the Proper Stranger,’ said Chance after a slight pause for pretended thought. ‘Can you pick Dr Court up at three o’clock and take him home? Is that where you’ll be wanting to go, Joel?’

‘Yes.’ Home.

‘Eric’s a Steve McQueen expert,’ said Chance as we walked up past Moss Bros to the top of Garrick Street. ‘Won’t see a movie that hasn’t got Steve McQueen in it. Makes it a cinch to play Stars with him.’

‘A chauffeur without a hand is a real attention-getter,’ I ventured. ‘How did he lose it?’

‘Lost it being a chauffeur, as a matter of fact. Crash killed his employer outright. But he’s got the enormous advantage of a Disabled Driver’s Licence. Means I can park anywhere. Park in front of Buckingham Palace if I want to.’

‘That’s brilliant.’

‘Learned the trick from Adam. Adam Faith. Think it was David, David Merrick, who said that being driven around was the only point of having money in New York.’ Chance gave his minimalist wave to the bearded man guarding the steps of the club. ‘While since I’ve been here. Nice and quiet. Usually I’m at the Groucho but I’ve got so many of the young guys gunning for me I feel like Wyatt Earp. Better here. Scarcely anyone under eighty. Worst can happen you bump into Bulwer-Lytton or somebody. Hello Robin.’

Somewhat contrary to Chance’s billing of the show, the Coffee Room gave the impression that all the BBC and ITN news and current affairs programmes had pooled their leading on-screen personnel in order to receive a delegation of the country’s most prominent newspaper editors, literary figures and political theorists. It was a senatorial display, an effect reinforced by the total absence of seated women, although a few females hurrying about dressed as waitresses dimly suggested that the human race had some sexual means of reproducing itself.

‘Mainly lawyers and publishers,’ said Chance, against the evidence of my senses. ‘Actors only come in late at night after the show.’ He gave a little wave to Donald Sinden. ‘Recommend the potted shrimps to start.’

We were at a small side-table between windows. As if he were a spymaster keeping an appointment with his best agent at a rendezvous remote from any overhearing ear, Chance, pausing only to transmit our orders to the waitress, adopted the tone in which deadly secrets are revealed.

‘Good place to talk, this. Only thing you’re allowed to do except eat. If you produce a piece of paper and pencil they throw you out.’

‘Why is that?’

‘Club rule. Garrick must have hated writers. On the rare occasions when I can’t get out of a business lunch I usually have it down at Chewton Glen. But talking to my old wing-man is more important than business.’

‘You wish to unburden yourself?’ I asked, suddenly as frightened as a man at his own execution. I thought he was going to ask me to move on. I couldn’t have faced that.

‘Be surprised how I miss the opportunity to come clean. Never saw you as often as I wanted to, but when I did I could always spill the beans. Mainly because you’ve got your own life that doesn’t compete with mine.’

‘It sure as Hell doesn’t.’

‘That’s temporary. You’re off balance. You’ll recover. But with all my Eng Lit friends — I mean my English literary friends — I’ve run out of road. They frown on the way I diversify. Frown quite genuinely.’ He made it clear by the way he emphasised these last two words that he had taken the possibility of uncontrollable envy into account, but had generously dismissed it. His sense of humour never vanished, but when his conceit exceeded it he scared me.

‘Trouble is,’ he went on, ‘that makes me fair game. Plus the general idea that I’m too big to hurt. Every little supposedly revealing statement gets seized upon and held up to ridicule. Your friends make fun of you behind your back, fine. What else are friends for? But they do it when their friends are listening, and the friends tell acquaintances, and the acquaintances tell William Hickey. If my dearest friend among my fellow-novelists asks how many copies my last book sold, and I reluctantly tell him — arm up behind my back, like this — I read next day that I’ve been boasting about my sales figures. Means I can’t say anything.’

‘But that’s the price of fame; isn’t it?’ I suggested compassionately, somehow reminding myself of Esther Rantzen. ‘Didn’t Robert Redford say that when a man is famous beyond a certain point, he can’t say anything right?’

‘He was right, but I’d be mad to say so to anyone except you. AUSSIE LOUDMOUTH COMPLAINS OF FAME. Compares himself to Hollywood star. And the journalists on the culture beat are the most trigger-happy of the lot. In almost every case they’ve got an unpublished novel in the bottom drawer. I haven’t given an interview in five years. Haven’t answered a single question. They ask me the time of day, I say No Comment. Drives them crazier than ever. One young bloke in the Sunday Times wrote a whole column about how I wouldn’t talk to him. Said I’d fucked up my talent by going on television. That night — not the next night, that night — I turned on the television and there he was, doing What the Papers Say in a funny voice. These guys are holding me responsible for leading their fantasy lives.’

‘And leaving them out.’ I was stoking his self-esteem, but not without guilt. If my own ego was dangerously unprotected, his, I could now see, had constructed a defensive system of such depth that it could be distinguished from paranoia only by its being so obviously open on one flank. It was a Maginot Line whose Belgium was his sense of the ridiculous. ‘I don’t suppose your complicated private life helps.’

‘That’s the easy part.’

‘Haven’t they got the Mole story yet?’

‘They’re still coping with the Angélique story. Press is much less bother in that respect. If I look that lucky, nobody wants to believe my luck. But I think it just looks vague and confused. Which it is. No story. Not a lot happening. Nothing to get a grip on.’ I couldn’t believe he believed this, but he said it as if he did, as if it was a viable proposition. ‘Mud-slingers have to see pubic hair before they can get to work. But a low profile doesn’t stop the cultural commentators. If they see you kiss your mother they start reinterpreting your entire oeuvre. One of the reasons why I can’t get started on another novel. All those biographical speculations. Never did an interview without being asked who was who. And of course the truth is that you physically just can’t base a character on someone in real life. The roman à clef is a contradiction in terms. Not because there’s no key. Because there’s no lock. It’s a lake. Life isn’t a mechanism. You can’t make a scale model of it. Whole thrill of art is to compress life without scaling it down. Pack it tight into its own spaces. Couldn’t stand the way talking about my work left it desecrated. Wait a sec. Wrong word. It’s not a shrine. De-created. Undone. Literally deconstructed. So I stopped talking about it. Which built up the mystery. What will he do next? Has he got a secret plan? Well, I have.’

He paused to take in a mouthful of Perrier water. There had also been short pauses for food, but these had played no part in his oratorical timing, so I have not attempted to record them. This pause, however, had a rhetorical function.

‘Secret plan,’ he went on, ‘is to get shot of the whole responsibility. Reckon I’m bankable enough by now to do a great big bad movie. No more of those little ones I write and direct in my role as the Bill Forsyth from Balmain. And I like Bill Forsyth. Way I love Preston Sturges. Civilised, literate, proportionate. But that’s what I’m sick of: those things. There’s something bigger, more liberating waiting for me out there. Calling me forward. Fame driving me forward like a rail gun. In the direction I’ve been resisting. Destiny more horrible than Hemingway’s. Monstrous than Mailer’s. Where the Performing Self takes over. Personality everything. Words nothing but décor. A Felliniesque mega-movie shot mute. Professional suicide?’

‘Of course it would be.’ I was appalled, even though his diction, more choicely Euphuistic by the moment, suggested that for this man to eschew verbality would be less like shrugging chains from his wrists than chopping off his hands. ‘Good. Sick of my profession.’ Putting down his fork, from whose prongs he had just subtracted a lamb’s kidney with his teeth, he thoughtfully palpated the loose skin under his jowl. ‘Temptation to get rid of this. Have a little tuck. Mustn’t succumb. Hair transplant’s enough.’

‘You’re having a hair transplant?’

‘Already started one. See these?’ He leaned forward and with the edge of his hand pulled back his wispy fringe to reveal two lines of dots in the no man’s land between forehead and scalp.

‘Looks like braille. Is it a secret message?’

‘Plugs. Follicles taken from the neck. More to come after these settle down.’

‘I can see why you run out of people to confide in.’

‘Except the girls. Or at any rate except the Mole. Angélique of course is a rabid, card-carrying intellectual. If she didn’t think I was André Malraux reborn she would have poisoned me by now. You like the Mole?’

‘I love her.’ Afraid but defiant.

‘Hard not to, isn’t it? Don’t get her too confused. Somehow I don’t fancy the idea of hitting the sack with her and you.’

‘Same here.’

‘Funny that, isn’t it? Militant poof would try to convince you and me that we really fancy each other, deep down. We not only know that we don’t, we know, both deep down and shallow up, that the very idea is not all right. Yet we also feel that for the Mole and her lovely pal Penelope it somehow is all right.’

Is she lovely?’

‘Ethereal. Makes the Mole look like Henry Cooper.’

‘I’m still not sure it’s all right except as a relief from us.’

‘That’s enough to make it as all right as it needs to be. This is a man’s world, and just look at it. No wonder they adore each other. Sometimes I think I’d like to try one last novel with a whole chapter about two of them checking out each other’s expensive underwear for fit, texture, sensuality. That looks delicious, darling. Can I help you? Smoothing fingertips. A dream of gentleness. Ecstasy without agony. No cut, no thrust. Peaches and cream. Dove’s-wing kisses.’ He pointed his knife at me to mark a transition. ‘Next chapter, next flat, same time. A 100-year-old lady is being robbed, set on fire, raped and dismembered by half-a-dozen National Front Mohawks alienated by their restricted access to tertiary education. All of human life is there.’

‘Sounds like you’ve already started it.’

‘No, the book that gets everything in can’t be done. Not any longer. Not by me. Lost my anonymity, and they won’t let me have it back. But I wouldn’t mind feeling the thrill again. Loved that feeling of fitting one technique inside another. Character quoting another character’s diary that quotes another character’s letter. The ellipsis here that earns a rhapsody there, the bravura passage that rips them up like a Liszt cadenza. Is it not life? Is it not the thing? Loved it. Maybe loved it too much. My face flushed when I wrote. A day away from the book was agony. The book. A box of tricks that felt like a living thing because its driving force was your feeling for life and it always came through. Your essential simplicity that shone through the complication and put you to shame.. Vision you couldn’t analyse because it was yours. Now I can and it isn’t mine. How’s your diary going?’

‘Huh?’ I made the noise through a plug of lemon sorbet. I would have preferred the bread and butter pudding but, like Chance, I could feel the tug of the leash by which the Mole led her masters.

‘Mole dipped into it,’ Chance explained. ‘Stopped when she realised what it was. Girl of honour. Moral genius, in her way. Wouldn’t tell me a thing about it. What is it about?’ He had the generous look he adopted when the time came to recuperate from the serious business of talking about himself by indulging in the light relief of talking about you.

‘About a man living on charity.’

‘Nonsense. Can I see it?’

‘I can’t imagine anything more boring for you than for me to show you my diary. It would be like telling you about last night’s bad dream.’

‘Maybe it’s a book trying to be born. Give it a title. Very important, titles. Sylvia Beach said that was the main reason why Hemingway was such a sensation even from early on. His titles hit you from the other side of the bookshop. In Our Time. The Sun Also Rises. A Farewell to Arms.’

Green Hills of Africa,’ I insisted, ‘is the best one. No. Across the River and Into the Trees is the best one. Worst book. Best title.’

‘Some of the short stories are even better,’ said Chance. ‘“Hills Like White Elephants.” “A Clean, Well-lighted Place.” “A Way You’ll Never Be.”’

‘“God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen”,’ I contributed.

‘Yes,’ said Chance. ‘He puts the comma in there to tell you, first time you ever thought of it, that the “merry” is an adverb and not an adjective. Makes you re-examine the phrase. Lights it up. “Up in Michigan.” “Big Two-hearted River.”’

‘“The Snows of Kilimanjaro”,’ I pronounced, definitively. Smiling at each other in shared, purely impersonal pleasure, we paused in silence for the time it would have taken a shotgun blast to stop ringing in our ears.

‘Mishima’s titles are good in translation,’ Chance went on. ‘The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea.’

‘There’s the title of my diary.’


The Failure Who Fell from Grace with the Sky.’

‘This thing about the star’s got you down even worse than being thrown out, hasn’t it?’ It sounded enough like an invitation for me to tell him the whole story, which I did for the rest of the event, meaning it was my turn to watch him eat. But as he did so he gave frequent signs of listening, to indicate that I wasn’t wasting my time. He didn’t know much about cosmology, but he knew what he liked. He liked the words. Sometimes he would stop me and make me say something again. Light curve. Ionisation zone. Instability strip. Deep minima. With many interruptions my story got itself told, and reached the usual conclusion: Veronica was the wrong person to make such a discovery because she had done it without love.

‘Maybe that’s what made her the right one,’ Chance said upon reflection. Upon insufficient reflection, I thought, and with unforgivable frivolity, if not the deliberate aim to wound.

‘How so?’ I asked, and he saw my anger.

‘Forgive me. Thinking of myself, as usual. Just thinking of something I once heard Eugenio say. Eugenio Montale. It isn’t the man who wants to who continues the tradition, but the man who can: and sometimes he’s the man who knows least about it. Often occurred to me even when I was mad keen to write, and nowadays I can’t get it out of my head. Maybe I like it all too much. Know too much about it. Chi lo può. The man who can do it. He should travel light.’

‘You’re completely contradicting what you said at dinner that night,’ I protested sullenly, still stung.

‘No. Just turning the coin over. Didn’t mean to get your goat.’

‘You didn’t,’ I lied. ‘I just don’t appreciate the implication that Veronica’s total lack of insight is somehow a proof of genius. Science doesn’t work like that.’

‘Neither does art,’ said Chance, putting his crumpled napkin beside his half-empty cup of coffee and signalling for the bill. ‘But the closer an artist is to the centre of things, the less insight he needs. Rodin let Rilke do the thinking. Rodin never thought about anything except lunch. Which he thought of briefly before lunch and stopped thinking of during.’

‘Mine was excellent. Once again I am indebted.’

‘Don’t be mawkish. Try and feel better about yourself. Marriages get hiccups. Careers have setbacks. No tragedy.’

‘Your two cars are here, Mr Jenolan,’ said the waitress who brought the bill.

Kingsley Amis was the centre of a group at the head of the long common table. On our way out, Chance stooped beside him and said, ‘Spencer Tracey and Katharine Hepburn.’

‘Don’t be ridiculous.’

‘And Charles Buchinski.’

‘No idea, of course. Obviously a trick.’

Pat and Mike.’

‘All right. Who was Charles Buchinski?’

‘Changed his name later to Charles Bronson.’

‘Get out.’

At the foot of the steps, two cars were waiting, as advertised. The sun was out for once, making Eric’s hook sparkle as he leant back against the Granada’s roof. His silver-rimmed dark glasses should have made him the centre of attention, but one’s glance swerved away immediately to the other car, a pink E-type Jaguar two-seater looking so factory-fresh that the brilliant chromium wire wheels threatened to strobe while standing still. It must have been a replica, or else a complete rebuild. If the latter, it would have had its first heyday at about the time its driver was undergoing toilet training. She was almost certainly a very beautiful girl but her make-up, hairstyle and jewellery made it hard to tell. She looked as if a peacock torn apart by chain shot had spattered itself all over a frogman. Chance in all seriousness introduced this apparition as Presley Schaufenster.

‘That’s a snazzy car,’ I said.

‘She bought it in Santa Monica,’ said Chance, circumnavigating its long nose. ‘Presley is the most fantastic designer since William Cameron Menzies and she will now take me to her new studio in Docklands, which you’ll see at a later stage.’

‘Are you an American?’ I asked, because she was looking up at me and I wanted to make her purple mouth move so as to see what colour it was inside.

‘She never talks,’ said Chance, getting in beside her. ‘But she thinks in German. See you soon. Los.’ The Jaguar’s four exhaust pipes, like Pan’s pipes full of water, bubbled away into the distance before I had even settled into the back of the Granada behind Eric. There was a day when I would have got into the front seat beside him, Australian-style, but I had been away a long time.

Dear Flying Eagle Brand Diary,

I had a bad dream last night. They’ve given me a little room of my own now, with scarcely anything in it except tea-chests full of books and a single bed with a duvet. So the Mole got her room back. But I hate duvets. I’m either too hot or too cold. This time I was too hot. It was a warm night even with the window open. My hair soaked the pillow case, leaving patterns of fossilised fern. When. I got to sleep, I dreamed of trying to get to sleep. I saw myself walking naked into the Mole’s room. She wasn’t there. Either she was upstairs or she was away. So at my leisure I could get one of her little white G-strings out of the top drawer and look at it. What a life it led. Imagine its typical day. Then there was a thunderous knocking on the door downstairs. It should have been two flights down but I went down endlessly, as if descending the inner staircase of a castle keep. Chance and the Mole were behind a barricade of furniture, watching the door vibrate. ‘They’re already in the corridor,’ said Chance calmly. ‘We’ll have to make a break for it along the balcony.’ The Mole giggled. It was because I had forgotten to put on my trousers or underpants. I had everything else on, including a silk Liberty tie so smooth that the knot kept working loose. But the breeze blew around my private parts. I crossed my hands in front of than but it was awkward running along the balcony like that, so I was glad to be last, behind the Mole’s lovely flashing ankles.

A bunch of them were coming the other way along the balcony. They had changed. In my dreams when I was young, they always wore the familiar black ceremonial regalia with silver insignia while they came for you with heavy weapons. The flamethrower’s name said what it did. Flammenwerfer. Whoosh! A ghetto blaster. Now they still wore black and silver but they looked like big children with painted heads. They were decked with feathers and wampum, swathed with Inca trinkets. They didn’t shoot. They just sprayed the walls and left litter. Crumpled cans of Classic Coke. Everything was ancient history to them. How could anyone be called Presley Schaufenster? What next? Mickey Maus? Goofy Kesselring? Tweetypie Seyss-Inquart? Somehow I knew that she had designed their costumes. They might have been born yesterday, but you couldn’t fool me. That style was pure Triumph des Willens pre-Columbian post-Cheyenne Cargo Cult Punk.

We cut back to the right through an empty flat and out into the corridor, behind the bunch who were still besieging our door. They turned and ran after us. There was another bunch of them in front. Caught. Blindfolded. Wet bag thrown over my head and drawn tight at the neck. I called for help to Chance but he didn’t answer. I could tell that in my dream nothing awful would happen to the Mole. No electrodes, no branding irons, no screams bubbling with blood. The dream wouldn’t be as bad as reality could be. Reality was in South America or South-east Asia or the Middle East. It was worse than you could imagine. That was its point. A dream was to help you stop imagining reality. That was its point. My fears were only for me. The easiest kind, really. I can remember thinking of the feeble disarray my unconscious mind must have been in, if this off-focus fantasy were all that its repressive mechanisms could come up with in order to protect it. No, she would be all right. I would be all right too. I could wake up from this any time I felt like it, so when they took off the bag I didn’t find it particularly hard to hold my head up bravely, even though I was seated precariously on the rail at the front of the balcony of the Barbican Arts Centre’s main theatre and the curtain was going up on a scene that could only be described as pure Hell.

The stage space was a vast cube of black night in which haloed points of luminosity diverged slowly towards me. It was a torchlight procession. A Busby Berkeley production number. Down in the stalls, Chance was bent over a producer’s improvised desk, a big square of chip-board braced to the back of a row of seats. He was talking into an intercom but of course I couldn’t hear him. The music, the singing, they were too voluminous. They were horribly ample, with the disproportionate heartiness of one of those numbers in Die Meistersinger when the guilds of the city are swept up into an ecstasy of self-identification. The chorus was belting out some sub-Brechtian song about the decline of Britain. I couldn’t move because I would have fallen off. And I knew that there was worse to come. The most hellish moment of all would be when the tenor, who was prancing in a silver suit across the stage with his back towards me, turned to the auditorium, took off his sparkling top hat, and, an octave above all the others, sang. I had to get down before that happened, but with my hands tied behind me it was difficult to do so without falling. One of my guards wet my face with a damp cloth in case I tried to escape through sleep. Then the tenor turned around, took off his hat, threw his arms wide — there was a cane in his other hand — and hit a piercing high note. It was Dick Powell. Oh no! Not Dick Powell! Anyone but him. Not the painted lips! Not the upturned nose! Not the over-enunciated articulation that made Julie Andrews sound like Marlon Brando! Please! Don’t!

I woke up wanting to pee and rather pleased that I hadn’t done so already, considering how sharp was the remembered smell of an oil-cloth sheet. But I woke up sitting beside Chance in the stalls, so I was still dreaming. The stage had gone silent. I should really wake up soon. Should in the sense of ought to. Ought to in the sense of must. Don’t want to wet the bed. Chance was doing something interesting. While still talking quietly into his throat mike he was writing a letter. He didn’t know that I had already read it.

Dearest Tunnel-dweller,

If you promise not to go on being angry with me, I promise not to get too interested in the long shapely legs of the woman who runs the American Colony hotel, where I wish I was staying instead of this place. But in Jerusalem at any difficult time you have to make up your mind who you want to be shot at by, and for the moment I think it better to stay in a pro-Jewish hotel and be bombed by Arabs, than in a pro-Arab one and be bombed by Jews. Don’t worry, I’m only joking. I’d be at the American Colony if it wasn’t full of a BBC TV crew making a series about the Dead Sea Scrolls. As it is, the lady in question meets me in her little yellow Porsche and gives me a lift back to Jericho past the Bedouin encampments scattering rubbish over the escarpment. We pass with a smooth roar through the efficient Israeli army road-blocks on the way down through the cutting to the Dead Sea. As always, the Arabs are more aesthetic even in their squalor, but if I were a Jew I don’t suppose I’d mind looking butch either. I’d want an M-16 of my own even if there was no road to block. The lady sat on the bonnet of the pretty car and took photographs while I undressed to my boxer shorts — the ones with pink and blue stripes, très sportif — and cast myself into, or rather on to, the Dead Sea. I didn’t even dent it. Just lay on top of it like a dugong on a zinc slab. There was a lot of girlish laughter which I wish had been yours.

Try to realise I grew impatient with you only for a tiny minute, and then only because you had grown impatient with me. ‘To be brutally frank,’ you said, handing back the book I had given you, ‘I think this is a bit past it.’ Well, of course it is. It’s called An Essay on Criticism not because he hasn’t heard of Alexander Pope but because he’s trying to be trad. As I told you, but you didn’t listen, Hough was in a Japanese POW camp from the fall of Singapore until the end of the war. Even if the book were less well-argued, less full of the clear reasoning it can’t hurt a Mole to hear, it would still be appreciable for being written from the urgency of such an experience, from the earned right to defend the valuable, the need to preserve it. If you were reading history, and were equally bombarded by clever theorists, I would urge you to read the Dutch historian Peter Geyl for the same reason — because he was in Buchenwald, where he saw what history really is, where the false teaching of it can lead.

I know that you have your work cut out just to keep up with all the books-about-books you have to read, so that you barely have time for the books they are about. I just wanted to give you a taste of some writing-about-writing that really has a reason for being there, instead of merely furthering a career. I presumed, I know. My timing was wrong. I can’t be perfect. You make me want to be. Take me back into your thoughts. I, too, have my doubts and fears. Though I fear nothing so daunting as those final exams of yours which are a mere two years away, nevertheless I am not untroubled by anxiety. My new book I told you about, the thriller provisionally entitled Bad News Travels Fast, is so badly stuck that I have had to abandon it. There is a weight on my soul that not even the joy of knowing the exact circumference of your nipples can shift. I have not forgotten how to write, but it could be that I have forgotten how to want to. (Years ago, when you were being born, when the nipples were the merest bee-stings, an Italian director called Antonioni made movies in which the leading character said things like that. Said them eventually, after a lot of walking about. At the time I smiled knowingly, unable to conceive of a writer running out of will.) Hoping this letter has made you repentant as well as jealous. I say So Long. Outside in the street I hear the toot of a yellow Porsche. (Critic: Is he outside in the street too? Would a green Porsche toot differently?) This letter is meant to be a tease, don’t worry. Nobody but you gets nearer my heart than Yasser Arafat to the Knesset. Colonel Gadhafi riding a camel would come no closer to the Wailing Wall than anyone else but you to my affections ...

He wrote as fast as I could read, and I remember reflecting, in my dream, that this probably held true in reality. In my peripheral vision and sub-threshold hearing I had been dimly aware that one rebarbative act after another had occupied the stage: horses doing dressage to the music of James Last, a sheep-dog trial with commentary by Jeff Bridges (‘Hi! I’m Jeff Bridges’), Jim Lilywhite reading from his poems, Sir Richard Attenborough receiving an award, Vanessa Redgrave singing ‘We Shall Overcome’. But now the orchestra — conducted, I suddenly saw, by Leonard Bernstein employing his full range of body English — erupted into a triumphant fanfare by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Dick Powell and the Busby Berkeley chorines swept back in two kick-lines hinged at either side of the proscenium arch. As in a production number for a nominated song on Academy Awards night, with additional atmospherics reminiscent of Hitler arriving in Nuremberg, down a ramp of moonlight through the constellated void came the pink E-type Jaguar driven by Presley Schaufenster with Chance in the seat beside her, smiling sideways in admiration. The Mole was sitting on the rolled-up soft top with her legs down behind the seats. She was blindfolded. She didn’t know. I turned to where Chance should have been and found myself nose to nose with Veronica. She was contemptuous of me beyond all reason, just because I had made a joke about H. S. Leavitt, the woman astronomer who established, in 1912, that the periods of the Cepheid Variables in the Magellanic Clouds were related to their magnitude: the brighter the Cepheid, the longer its period. I had innocently remarked that it was no wonder a woman scientist should be good at periods. This was a fairly good joke; by dream standards — when you consider that running endlessly up a down escalator with your pants around your ankles counts as a fairly good joke, by dream standards — but Veronica wasn’t having any. ‘Can’t you even try to imagine what it must have been like for her,’ she snarled, ‘surrounded by men like you, only worse? Men with pants?’ I looked down. She was right. I still had no pants. There was no defence except in attack. ‘Anyway,’ I countered, ‘Anyway, it took Harlow Shapley to get the distance, because he got the absolute magnitude. Anyway.’ Veronica shook her head. ‘He got, as you put it, the zero point wrong by one hundred per cent.’ My mouth was open to reply but it was full of spit so I had to swallow. The Jaguar had reached the front of the stage and stopped rolling. The trumpets were pointing straight up and blaring. Dick Powell was going crazy. His top C rang out like a fart in church. A man with a tray of opals leaned down from behind me and asked me to pick the real ones from the fakes. I didn’t like his breath. I had never liked his breath. Death-breath. It was my father.

Continue to PART THREE