Books: Unreliable Memoirs — Fidgety Feet |
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Unreliable Memoirs — Fidgety Feet


Nor, in my last year, did I prove to be any better as a student than I had been as a bus conductor. I no longer saw fit to attend any lectures at all. But my extracurricular activities flourished, following the principle that I could be infinitely energetic in those areas where it didn’t matter. The Revue that year had my name in the programme thirty-two times. As well as writing most of the sketches, I was assistant producer to a man called Waldo Laidlaw, an advertising executive who was prominent in fringe theatre. Spencer and Keith Cameron despised Waldo’s stylishness but I couldn’t help being fascinated. He ranked as the local Diaghilev. Under his aegis, the Revue’s costumes and decor took on an unmistakably self-confident look — a fact which could be easily detected by the naked eye, since Waldo was in favour of turning the lights right up. Most of the numbers I wrote were so embarrassing that I can’t recall them even when I try, but others had the sort of half-success with the audience that fans the desire to go further.

By now I was writing a good half of honi soit every week. The letters column was full of protests about things I had written. The letters of protest were nearly all written by me. A certain kind of cheap fame accumulated, in which I pretended not to wallow. More significantly, the Sydney Morning Herald asked me to review books. The editor was Angus Maude, who at the time was serving out the bleak years after Suez, before returning to Britain and resuming his climb to influence. I owe Angus Maude a great deal. The bread of exile must have been bitter enough without having my cocksure ignorance to cope with on top of it. The first reviews I wrote for him were too pig-headed to be publishable. His simplest course would have been to forget the whole idea. But by a series of gentle hints he induced me to write within the scope of what I knew, so that I could turn out a piece which, while it did not fail to be dull, was at least seldom outright foolish.

Tom Fitzgerald, editor of a new literary-cum-political weekly called the Nation, was the next to pick me up. He had already hired Huggins. Fitzgerald treated me with great patience. A man of real learning, he also had the gusto to value keenness even when it was uninformed. In Vadim’s, the King’s Cross coffee bar where he held court, I would join the table late at night and pipe fatuous comments from my position below the salt. The other, more venerable literary men present stared deep into their glasses of Coonawarra claret or hurriedly reminisced, but Tom went on being tolerant even after the catastrophic week when I succeeded in reviewing the same book both for his magazine and the Herald. The Gaggia espresso machine hissed and gurgled. The six-foot blonde waitress swayed and swooped. Huggins blew in with a sheaf of new drawings. This was the life. The Royal George started seeming less attractive, especially when you considered that Emu was likely to be sitting in it. He had a new way of staring at me that made me feel cold and sticky, like a very old ice-cube.

Getting my name in the papers helped ease the transition from the last year of university to the first year of real life. My honours degree in English was scarcely of the highest grade, but there was no need to tell my mother that the result was really less impressive than it looked, and besides, in the same week that the results came out the Herald offered me a job. I was only to be assistant to the editor of the magazine page of the Saturday edition, but it felt unsettlingly like success. As if to redeem myself for betraying their uncompromising standards, I spent many evenings that summer with Spencer and Grogan, bucketing across the Harbour Bridge in Grogan’s wreck of a Chevrolet to crash parties on the North Shore. Unfortunately I found it less easy than they did to hate what was to be found there. The young men of the North Shore might exceed even the Bellevue Hill mob in their partiality for cravats and suede shoes, but some of the girls were uncomfortably appealing. I resented their gentle manners but not from superiority. What unsettled me about the people of the North Shore was the way they all knew each other. I was, am and will continue to be until the grave, incurably envious of all families.

But I was flattered to find that my name was already known. While Grogan was being thrown out and Spencer was being aloof in a canvas chair beside the swimming pool, I would be queuing at the wine cask or holding forth near the barbecue. It seemed to me that the girls hung on my words. It seemed that they were positively leaning sideways to drink them in. Then the lawn would swing up and hit me. After just such an exploit a girl called Françoise drove me back to town. She was a diplomat’s daughter. Infuriatingly she could read Latin, French and German, looked marvellously pretty and would not let me sleep with her. She offered something called Friendship instead, which I grudgingly accepted. After vomiting into the glove compartment of her Renault Dauphine, I felt I owed her the time of day.

My year at the Herald can be briefly recounted. The editor of the Saturday magazine page was a veteran journalist called Leicester Cotton. He was a sweet man whose days of adventure were long behind. We shared a partitioned-off cubicle just big enough to hold two desks. While he got on with choosing the serials and book excerpts which would fill the main part of the page, it was my task to rewrite those unsolicited contributions which might just make a piece. All I had to do was change everything in them and they would be fine. Apart from the invaluable parsing lessons at school, these months doing rewrites were probably the best practical training I ever received. Characteristically I failed to realize it at first. But gradually the sheer weight of negative evidence began to convince me that writing is essentially a matter of saying things in the right order. It certainly has little to do with the creative urge per se. Invariably the most prolific contributors were the ones who could not write a sentence without saying the opposite of what they meant. One man, resident in Woy Woy, sent us a new novel every month. Each novel took the form of twenty thick exercise books held together in a bundle. Each exercise book was full to the brim with neat handwriting. The man must have written more compulsively than Enid Blyton, who at least stopped for the occasional meal. Unlike Enid Blyton, however, he could not write even a single phrase that made any sense at all.

But the contributors most to be dreaded were the ones who came to call. Down-at-heel, over-the-hill journalists would waste hours of Leicester’s time discussing their plans to interview Ava Gardner. Any of them would have stood a better chance with Mary, Queen of Scots. Even the most sprightly of them was too far gone to mind spoiling the effect of his wheeler-dealer dialogue by producing in mid-spiel a defeated sandwich from the pocket of his grimy tan gabardine overcoat. One character used to drop in personally in order to press for the return of articles which he had never sent. Another was in charge of a pile of old newspapers so heavy that he had to drag it. He was like a dung beetle out of Karel apek. Our office was a transit camp for dingbats. Every form of madness used to come through that door. It was my first, cruel exposure to the awkward fact that the arts attract the insane. They arrived in relays from daylight to dusk. For all the contact they had with reality, they might as well have been wearing flippers, rotating bow ties and sombreros with model trains running around the brim.

No wonder Leicester was relieved when his old journalist friend Herb Grady dropped in. Herb Grady bored me stiff with his endless talk of old times but at least he looked normal. He used to come in every morning about an hour before lunch, which he took in the Botanical Gardens. He was retired by then, so I assumed that the small leather case he always carried contained sandwiches and a Thermos of tea. I could imagine the tea growing cold even with its silver shell as Herb reminisced interminably on. Leicester didn’t seem to mind, however. Then one day, as Herb was getting up to leave, the hasp on the leather case snapped open and the sole contents fell clattering to the floor. It was a single ice-skate.

Probably because I found the work easy to cope with, I felt as if I were marking time. Like most people who feel that, I hung around my old haunts. That year I directed the Union Revue. Despite my tenaciously lingering pretensions, those items emanating from my pen attained a hitherto unheard-of perspicuity. I also discovered within myself a knack of delegating authority — which essentially means recognizing your own limitations and deputing others to do well what you yourself would only muck up. The show was called A Rat up a Pump. It came in on budget and showed a profit. The audience, if it did not go home happy, at least stayed to the end. At the back of the hall I preened unobtrusively, praying that one of the actors would get sick so that I could go on instead. The one who did was the cast midget. Since all the sketches he was in depended for their point on his diminutive stature (he was about eighteen inches high in his elevator shoes) trying to get his laughs was something of a challenge.

It was the only challenge of that year. Even Françoise finally yielded, although wisely she never ceased to be suspicious. I rather liked the idea of being thought of as a shit — a common conceit among those who don’t realize just how shitty they really are. In retrospect I wonder that she put up with me for a single day. The boredom must have been tremendous, since on top of all my other affectations I was going through an acute Salinger phase, starting off as Holden Caulfield and ending up as Seymour Glass. She managed not to burst out laughing when I casually declared my intention of learning Sanskrit. She no doubt guessed that some other influence would drive that remote possibility even further into the distance, although it could have given her no pleasure to discover that my next persona, when it arrived, had been borrowed from Albert Finney in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Lurching from the cinema with my hands crammed into my pockets to guard them from the northern cold, I waited for my breath to form a cloud before my face. Since it was ninety in the shade, this was not on the cards, but the Flash of Lightning was a long time hanging up his cape.

Things were getting a bit too easy. On the other hand, there was growing evidence that they were also getting a bit meaningless. There was nothing I knew worth knowing. Françoise was a model of tact, but occasionally she would unintentionally reveal that she had actually read, in the original language, some of the authors upon whose lack of talent I pronounced so glibly. Unable to fool her, I could not hope to go on fooling myself. Slowly it began occurring to me that the ability to get things done was a combination of two elements, the desire to do them and the capacity to take pains. The mind had to be both open and single. I had always shared the general opinion that Dave Dalziel, one of my student contemporaries, was faintly ludicrous, since he was so fanatical about films that he kept notebooks in which every film he saw was graded according to twenty different criteria. Then he suddenly started making a film using all his friends as actors. It took a year to complete. I had turned down his invitation to write the script. Someone else did it instead. When I saw the film I was envious. It was no more awful than my own work. More importantly, it was there. Abruptly I realized that Dave Dalziel was there too. What he had done once he would do again. It also occurred to me that those who had laughed at him loudest were the least likely ever to do anything themselves. Not that Dave kept his public short of reasons to shake their heads over him. One weekend about a dozen car-loads full of aesthetes and theatricals drove south to hold a bush picnic near Thirroul. I was braced in the back of Grogan’s Chevrolet along with Bottomley and Wanda. Spencer was in the front seat, navigating. Navigation consisted of tailing the car in front — never easy with Grogan driving, since he was unable to go slower than flat out. Despite looking as if it had been gutted by a hollow charge, the Chevrolet could do a true eighty. Dave’s Jaguar Mk IV went past us as if we were standing still. Dave was standing back to front on the driving seat with his head, shoulders and torso all protruding through the sunshine roof. He was waving a bottle of wine at us. That night around the campfire I learned that his long-legged girlfriend had had one foot on the accelerator, one hand on the wheel and the other hand inside Dave’s trousers. Something else he told me that night was that he believed his future lay in England. He seemed to know exactly where he was going. Thoughtfully I helped to put the fire out by hurling on it and crawled into a sleeping bag with Wanda. Kissing her was like cleaning an ashtray with your tongue.

Huggins came back from a trip to Europe. In London he had actually met T. S. Eliot. Within a month he was on his way to New York, riding in one of the Boeing 707 jet airliners which had by now succeeded the old Stratocruisers, Super Constellations and Douglas DC-7s in the eternal task of shaking our house to its foundations. In Huggins I could clearly see the reality of talent, as opposed to the rhetoric of pretension. What he said he would do, he would do. What he did was in demand. He was on his way.

Something told me it was time to move. I still don’t know what it was. Is it restlessness that tells us we are not at rest? Such questions invite tautologies for answers. Actually we all got the same idea at once. It was just that I was among the first of that particular generation to make the break. Suddenly everyone was heading towards England. We were like those pelagic birds whose migratory itinerary is pricked out in their minds as an overlay on the celestial map, so that when you release them inside a planetarium they fly in the wrong direction, but still according to their stars. I drew my severance pay from the Herald and bought a £97 one-way passage on a ship leaving at the very end of the year. As I should have expected, my mother, when I gaily informed her of my plans, reacted as Dido might have done if Aeneas had sent a barber-shop quartet to tell her that he had decided to leave Carthage. She was simultaneously distraught and insulted. But my callousness won out. Plainly I would get my way even in this. How could I be sure of that, unless I had been spoilt? So it was all her fault, really.

In that summer of 1961 I was seldom home to be made impatient by what I considered her unreasoning grief. During the week I slept on sundry floors, infested the coffee bars and swam with Françoise at Brontë and Bondi. At the weekends I went north with the Bellevue Hill mob to Frank Chine’s old house at Avalon. Gilbert Bolt’s cousin used the place as a weekender. Consisting mainly of verandas, it could sleep half a dozen people comfortably and a dozen uncomfortably. We swam all day at Palm Beach, got drunk at night and were woken in the morning by the whip birds and the kookaburras. The girls wore sandals, white shorts, T-shirts and a dab of zinc cream on their noses. Walking back from the shops with meat for the barbecue, they were apparitions in the heat haze, dreams within a dream. I never drew a sober breath. The mosquitoes who found a way inside my net at night got too drunk to find their way out again. On Christmas Eve I woke at ten in the morning with a shattering hangover to find that my bare feet, which had been tilted skyward over the rail of the veranda, were burned shocking pink on the soles.

The last days ticked away. I packed in an hour, carefully ignoring all advice about warm clothes. The ship sailed on New Year’s Eve of 1961. She was called the Bretagne — an ex-French 29,000-ton liner now flying Greek colours. The point of departure was the new international terminal at Circular Quay. After nightfall the farewell party swarmed all over the deck. All around the quay echoed the confused noises of music, laughter, sobbing and regurgitation. The water around the ship was lit up so brightly it was as if there were lights below the surface. It was a cloudy pastel green, like colloidal jade. The deck was jammed. Hundreds of people were leaving and thousands had come to see them off. Johnny Pitts should have been going. His intention had been to go to Cuba and ‘fight for anarchy’. Unfortunately in the place where his passport application required him to state his profession he had put ‘Anarchist’. So he was not allowed to leave.

But the whole Push had turned up anyway. If the Push didn’t crash it, it wasn’t a party. They brought the Royal George jazz band with them. All the Bellevue Hill mob were there. One of the two rugby players sharing my cabin was of their number. Some of the Bellevue Hill mob were there to say goodbye to me as well. Spencer and Keith Cameron, Wanda and Bottomley turned up specifically to wish me luck. My mother was there. Françoise was there too, not saying very much. Probably she was still pondering my valedictory oration of the day before. On Bondi beach, with her neat body sheltering me from the sandy prickle of the Southerly Buster, I had intrepidly told her that I would be gone five years, and advised her to forget me. I suppose I expected to be admired for this heroic stance. As with all instinctive role-players, my first expectation was that other people would recognize the scene and play their part accordingly. Nor, to be fair to myself, could I see why anybody should miss me. Excessive conceit and deficient self-esteem are often aspects of each other.

The last craneloads of shish kebab and moussaka came swinging aboard. The party was reaching its frenzied height. The jazz band shouted ‘Black Bottom Stomp’. I stood crammed into a bunch with my mother, Françoise, the ever-polite Keith Cameron and half a dozen other well-wishers. Every other passenger was surrounded by a similar tight circle. Suddenly a narrow path of silence opened towards us through the crowd. She always had that effect. It was Lilith. She might have said ‘Armand Duval, where are my marrons glacés? but all she said was ‘Hello.’ After suavely introducing Françoise to her as my mother and my mother as Françoise I steered her to the rail.

‘Won’t Emu miss you?’ I croaked offhandedly.
‘He knows all about you,’ she said, looking down into the bright water. ‘Don’t worry. I told him that if he killed you I’d never speak to him again.’
‘Why did you let me?’
‘I just liked your slouch hat. What do you call that thing in it again?’
‘A bash.’
‘Anyway, by the time you get back, I’ll be old.’
‘Don’t be silly,’ I said, believing her. She turned around and looked up at the deck of the Harbour Bridge. I followed her gaze. She was looking at the blue cobweb. Then we did one of those quick, awkward kisses where each of you gets a nose in the eye.

Then she was gone, the crowd making a path for her as it always did. A siren went. They piped all visitors ashore. Drunks fell off the gangplanks. Could my loved ones tell from my eyes how much less I felt than they did? Catching my streamer as she stood with thousands of others at the rail of the dock, my mother was as brave as if she had never done this before. Which ship was it that she was seeing? Was it her husband or her son who stood at the other end of the swooping ribbon that grew straight, then taut, then snapped?

The lake of white light between the ship and the wharf grew wider. Behind the crowd on the roof of the dock I could just see Grogan jumping up and down. He appeared to have no clothes on at all. As the year turned, the tugs swung the ship’s prow down harbour. From the stern I watched the lake of light divide into two pools, one of them going with me and the other staying. Passing between the Heads was like being born again.