Books: Falling Towards England — Soft Landing |
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Falling Towards England — Soft Landing


When we got off the ship in Southampton in that allegedly mild January of 1962 I had nothing to declare at customs except goose-pimples under my white nylon drip-dry shirt. This was not because I had been prudent in my spending but because I had spent the last of my money in Singapore, plus twenty pounds I had borrowed from one of my cabin mates — and which I still owe him, come to think of it. The money had gone on a new suit which I didn’t actually have with me in my luggage. The tailors in Singapore’s Change Alley had taken my measurements and promised to send the finished suit after me to London. This had seemed like a sensible arrangement, so I had handed over the cash, thereby depriving myself of any leeway for a spending spree later on in Aden. I thus missed out on the chance, seized by most of the other Australians of my own age on the ship, to be guided by the expertise of Arab salesmen in the purchase of German tape-recorders and Japanese cameras at a fraction of the price — something like five-fourths — prevailing in their countries of origin.

In the crater of Aden, while my compatriots knowingly examined the Arabic guarantee forms for machines whose batteries were mysteriously unavailable, I hovered in the heat-hazed background, sullenly attempting not to catch the remaining eye of a beggar whose face had otherwise been entirely chewed off by a camel. It had been very hot in Aden. In England it was very cold: colder than I had ever known. The customs men did a great deal of heavy-handed chaffing about how you cobbers couldn’t really call this a winter, ho ho, and what we would look like if there really was a winter, har har, and so on. Their accents were far funnier than their sense of humour. They all seemed to have stepped out of the feature list of an Ealing comedy for the specific purpose of unpacking our luggage and charging us extra for everything in it. My own luggage consisted mainly of one very large suitcase made of mock leather — i.e., real cardboard. This compendium was forced into rotundity by a valuable collection of tennis shorts, running shorts, Hawaiian shirts, T-shirts, Hong Kong thong rubber sandals, short socks, sandshoes and other apparel equally appropriate for an English winter. The customs officer sifted through the heap twice, the second time looking at me instead of at it, as if my face would betray the secret of the illicit fortunes to be made by smuggling unsuitable clothing across half the world.

As the people all around me were presented with huge bills, I gave silent thanks for being in possession of nothing assessable for duty. The ship’s fool — a pimply, bespectacled British emigrant called Tanner who was now emigrating back the other way — was near tears. In Aden and Port Said he had bought, among other things, two tape recorders, a Japanese camera called something like a Naka-mac with a silver box full of lenses, a portable television set slightly larger than an ordinary domestic model but otherwise no different except that it had a handle, a stuffable leather television pouffe for watching it from, a hi-fi outfit with separate components, and a pair of binoculars so powerful that it frightened you to look through them, especially if you saw Tanner. Most of this gear he had about his person, although some of it was packed in large cardboard boxes, because all this was happening in the days before miniaturisation, when an amplifier still had valves. The customs officer calculated the duty owing and confronted him with the total, at which he sat down on his boxed telescope and briefly wept. It was more money than he had in the world, so he just signed away the whole mountain of gear and walked on through a long door in the far side of the shed.

A few minutes afterwards I walked through the same door and emerged in England, where it was gently snowing on to a bus full of Australians. There was a small cloud in front of my face which I quickly deduced to be my breath. The bus was provided by the Overseas Visitors’ Club, known for short as the OVC. The journey by ship, the bus ride to London and a week of bed and breakfast in Earls Court were all part of the deal, which a few years later would have been called a Package, but at that time was still known as a Scheme. The general thrust of the Scheme was to absorb some of the culture shock, thus rendering it merely benumbing instead of fatal. As the bus, which strangely insisted on calling itself a coach, headed north — or west or east or wherever it was going, except, presumably, south — I looked out into the English landscape and felt glad that I had not been obliged to find my way through it unassisted.

The cars seemed very small, with no overhang at either end. A green bus had ‘Green Line’ written on it and could therefore safely be assumed to be a Green Line bus, or coach. The shops at the side of the road looked as if they were finely detailed painted accessories for an unusually elaborate Hornby Dublo model railway table-top layout. Above all, as well as around all and beyond all, was the snow, almost exactly resembling the snow that fell in English films on top of people like Alastair Sim and Margaret Rutherford. What I was seeing was a familiar landscape made strange by being actual instead of transmitted through cultural intermediaries. It was a deeply unsettling sensation, which everybody else in the coach must have shared, because for the first time in twelve thousand miles there was a prolonged silence. Then one of the wits explained that the whole roadside façade would fold down after we had roared by, to reveal factories manufacturing rust-prone chromium trim for the Standard Vanguard. There was some nervous laughter and the odd confident assurance that we were already in the outskirts of London. Since the outskirts of London were well known to embrace pretty well everywhere in the south of England up to the outskirts of Birmingham, this seemed a safe bet.

A few ploughed fields presented themselves so that the girls, still pining for members of the ship’s crew, might heave a chorus of long sighs at the bunny rabbits zipping across the pinwale corduroy snow. After that it was one continuous built-up area turning to streetlight in the gathering darkness of what my watch told me was only mid-afternoon. Enveloped in many layers of clothing, people thronging the footpaths seemed to be black, brown or, if white and male, to have longer hair than the females. High to the left of an arching flyover shone the word WIMPEY, a giant, lost, abstract adjective carved from radioactive ruby.

There was no way of telling, when we arrived, that the place we were getting off at was called Earls Court. In those days it was still nicknamed Kangaroo Valley but there were no obvious signs of Australia except the foyer of the OVC, crowded with young men whose jug ears stuck out unmistakably from their short haircuts on either side of a freckled area of skin which could be distinguished as a face, rather than a neck, only by the presence of a nose and a mouth. Here I was relieved to find out that I had been assigned to the same dormitory room as my cabin mates, at a hostel around the corner. So really we were still on board ship, the journey from the OVC foyer around the corner to the hostel being the equivalent of a brisk turn around the deck, while carrying a large suitcase.

The snow was falling thickly enough to replenish a half-inch layer on the footpath, so that my black Julius Marlowe shoes could sink in slightly and, I was interested to notice, be fairly rapidly made wet. It hadn’t occurred to me that snow would have this effect. I had always assumed snow to be some form of solid. In the hostel I counted up my financial resources. They came to just a bit more than ten pounds in English money. Ten pounds bought quite a lot at that time, when eight pounds a week was a labourer’s living wage and you could get a bar of chocolate for threepence, a chunky hexagonal coin which I at first took to be some form of washer and then spent a lot of time standing on its edge on the bedside table while figuring out what to do next. Improvising brilliantly, I took some of the small amount of money over and above the ten pounds and invested in an aerogramme, which I converted into a begging letter and addressed to my mother, back there in Sydney with no telephone. Her resources being far from limitless, I did my best not to make the letter too heartrending, but after it was finished, folded and sealed I had to leave it on the radiator for the tears to dry out, after which it was wrinkled and dimpled like an azure poppadum.

Dinner in the hostel made me miss the ship-board menu, which until then I would have sworn nothing ever could. What on earth did a spotted dick look like before the custard drowned it? A glass mug of brown water was provided which we were assured was beer. I sipped fitfully at mine while everybody else watched. When I showed no signs of dengue fever or botulism, they tried theirs. Having rolled inaccurately into my bunk, I discovered, like my two cabin mates, that I couldn’t sleep for the silence of the engines.

Next day there was still a tendency to cling together. I was in a three-man expedition that set out to find Piccadilly Circus by following a map of the Underground railway system, starting at Earls Court station. To reach the station we had to travel some way on the surface, keeping a wary eye out for hostile natives. It was a relief to find that in daylight at any rate a sizeable part of the local population was Australian. At that time the Earls Court Australians had not yet taken to carrying twelve-packs of Foster’s lager, and the broad-brimmed Akubra hat with corks dangling from the brim was never to be more than a myth, but there was no mistaking those open, freckled, eyeless faces, especially when they were sticking out of the top of navy-blue English duffle-coats religiously acquired as a major concession towards blending into the scenery. My own duffle-coat was bright yellow in colour and would not have helped me blend into anything except a sand dune, but luckily it was hanging in my cupboard back in Kogarah, Sydney. Or unluckily, if you considered how cold I felt in my light-green sports coat with the blue fleck. Or would have felt, if I had been less excited. But we were going down in a lift through a hole in the ground to another hole in the ground which would take us under London to Piccadilly Circus. Piccadilly! I even knew what it meant. It was a tailor’s term, something to do with sleeves. No doubt the tailors had started a circus when times got tough.

Knowingness evaporated when the tube train pulled into the station. The train was so small that for a moment I thought it was a toy — another component of the Hornby Dublo table-top layout, except this time under the table. You almost had to bend your head getting into it. The electric trains in Sydney were sensibly provided with four feet of spare headroom in case any visiting American basketballer wanted to hitch a ride without taking off his stilts. He might have stood out because of his colour, but at least he wouldn’t be bent over double. In this train he would be bent over double, but at least he wouldn’t stand out because of his colour. Half the people in the crowded carriage seemed to be black or dark brown. They were dressed just the same as the white people and often conspicuously better. I had entered my first multiracial society, all for the price of a tube ticket. If I had come from an apartheid country, I would have had a kit of reflexes that I could have set about modifying. But coming from a monotone dominion whose Aborigines were still thought of, at that time, as something between a sideshow and an embarrassment, I had nothing to go on except a blank feeling which I hoped was receptivity. A sperm whale feeding on a field of squid — not giant squid, just those little squidlets that form its basic diet — cruises along with its mouth open, taking everything in. That was me, open-mouthed to new experience. The sperm whale looks the same when drowning, of course: going down and down with its gob wide open and the pressure building up and up. By Knightsbridge we were making nervous jokes about a journey to the centre of the earth. The escalators leading to the surface at Piccadilly were like sets from Things to Come. Then we popped out of the ground and stood rooted to the mushy pavement by the Sheer Englishness of it all. ‘Coca-Cola’ said a wall of neon, glowing as if day were night — a fair assessment of the overcast morning.

But Eros was sufficiently evocative all by himself and we set off for Buckingham Palace with high hearts, going by way of Nelson’s Column and the Admiralty Arch. The Mall showed pink through the churned slush, St James’s Park was a spun-sugar cake-scape with clockwork ducks, and a flag on the Palace indicated that She was at home. The Guard obligingly began to change itself just as we arrived, the Coldstreams handing over to the Grenadiers. Tourism was still under control at that time so it was possible to catch the odd glimpse of the participating soldiers, instead of, as now, seeing nothing except the rear view of Norwegians carrying full camping apparatus and holding up cameras to fire blind over the hulking back-packs of other Norwegians standing in front of them. Needless to say we did not regard ourselves as tourists. Whatever our convictions, we were children of the Commonwealth, not to say the Empire. One of us rather embarrassingly stood to attention. It was not myself, since I was a radical socialist at the time, but I understood. It was something emotional that went back to Chad Valley tin toys, Brock fireworks and the every-second-Christmas box of W. Britains lead soldiers. I remembered my set of Household Cavalry with the right arms that swivelled and the swords held upright, except for the troop leader whose sabre stuck out in line with his extended arm while his horse pranced. When his arm worked loose and fell off I wodged it back on with a gasket of cigarette paper. I can remember remembering this while the band played ‘British Grenadiers’, and can remember how wet my eyes were, mainly from the cold that was creeping upward from my feet. At first they had been numb. Now they felt like something Scott of the Antarctic might have made a worried note about in his diary if I had been a member of his expedition. As the officers on parade screamed at each other nose to nose from under their forward-tilting bearskins, it began occurring to me that the climate was going to be a problem.

Or part of a larger problem, that of money. There was more sightseeing in the next few days, with the National Gallery putting everything else in perspective. Indeed it put its own contents into perspective, since here again, even more strikingly, there was a discrepancy between the actual and what had been made familiar in reproduction. The Rokeby Venus, for example, was supposed to be the size of half a page in a quarto art book, not as big as the serving window of Harry’s Café de Wheels at Woolloomooloo. She looked a bit murky at that stage — they cleaned her a few years later, and perhaps overdid it — but her subtly dimpled bottom, poised at the height of the viewer’s eyes, made you wonder about Velázquez’s professional detachment. Though most of the rooms in the gallery were still a mystery to me, I was confident enough, or ignorant enough, to decide that Art with a capital ‘A’ was going to be a source of sensual gratification on all levels. At the Tate Gallery I was relieved to find that the Paul Klee pictures were roughly the same size as in the books. But just to reach the galleries by tube was costing money, and meanwhile time was running out.

There was a grand total of eight pounds left and it didn’t help when I lost the lot, along with my prize yellow pig-skin wallet, at Waldo Laidlaw’s wedding party. Arriving out of the sky in his usual grand style — absolutely nobody else you knew could afford to fly — Waldo instantly married one of the girls from my ship. Apparently it had all been arranged back in Australia. The party was in the as-yet-unfurnished shell of a ground-floor flat in that part of Camden Town where you could overlook Regent’s Park if you could find your way on to the roof. In Waldo’s words, overlooking it was easy, because you couldn’t see it. All the Australian advertising types were there, the women unattainably well-groomed and the men sporting Chelsea boots, an elastic-sided form of footwear I had not previously encountered. I was the only one dressed for the Australian summer, with three T-shirts and a pair of running shorts on under my Hawaiian shirt and poplin trousers. Feeling the heat of the crowded room, I took off my jacket, left it in the bedroom on the bed with the overcoats, and prepared to dance.

A hit record called ‘Let’s Twist Again’ was playing over and over. Several people among the sophisticated throng had already reached exhibition standard in dancing the Twist. I think I could have matched them through sheer inspiration, but my shoes were in bad shape and tended to stick where they were, cruelly restricting my rate and radius of swivel. In the kitchen there were big tins of brown water you could open with your thumb. I treated the stuff with the contempt it deserved, pronouncing its alcoholic content to be minimal. Pronouncing its alcoholic contender be mineral. Pronouncing my own name with difficulty. After kneeling in the toilet for some time with my head resting in the bowl I felt fighting fit again and all set to lie down. It was then that I found my wallet missing and did my best to spoil Waldo’s celebration by telling him that one of his guests must have lifted it from my jacket. It was courteous of him to arrange a lift home for me instead of throwing me in the canal. When I sobered up a couple of days later it became evident that the wallet must have first of all dropped through the large hole which had developed in the bottom of my jacket’s inner pocket and then fallen through the detached lining into the street before I even got to the party. It was still a good jacket otherwise though, with leather buttons like scout woggles.

So the week at the OVC hostel was all used up. One of my cabin mates, the one who had stood to attention in front of Buckingham Palace, moved out to fulfil his ambition of becoming a British officer who would protrude from the top of a rapidly moving armoured car while wearing a beret. At Sydney University he had been an actor but it was now clear that this training had always had no other purpose except to further the attainment of his real aim in life. Though his hyphenated surname would probably have got him the job anyway, it couldn’t have hurt his chances that he wore clothes like Dennis Price and talked like Terry-Thomas. I had little patience with his hunger for military tradition but hated to see him go. My other cabin mate was in London to study music. Having made his arrangements, he now moved off and started doing so. Talking grandly of my intention to take a small flat in Knightsbridge, I managed to get some loose change off him before he left, but not enough, and since he was the very man I had touched in order to finance the Singapore suit I could scarcely dun him for a more substantial contribution. A postal order from home would be another week arriving. The snow in Hyde Park was not deep enough for me to build an igloo and my suitcase, although absurdly large when carried, was too cramped to live in. So I lugged it around another corner and occupied the living-room floor of two girls from Sydney’s North Shore who had known me at university. After a year in London they were still in Earls Court. I was in no position to mock their lack of enterprise. They were well brought up, well spoken, well equipped and well organised — too well organised to put up with a permanent hobo camp on their parlour carpet. Curmudgeonly, this reluctance, because each evening after helping to drink their wine I generously offered to sleep with either or both. But they shared their meals with me, stuffed my shoes with paper before drying them in the stove, advised me on the purchase of a blue duffle-coat, and helped me look for somewhere to live.

Gently they discouraged my notions of seeking a maisonette in Bayswater or a mews house in Belgravia. There was a bed and breakfast boarding house in Swiss Cottage that wanted only three pounds ten shillings a week. When my postal order came, the girls very kindly drove me there. It was a long way from Kangaroo Valley and when their Volkswagen Beetle splurged away along the overlapping lines of grey slush I stood in the snow beside my mock leather suitcase and felt that I was ashore at last. My boats were burning and I was too far inland to see the flames. I resolved to grow a beard.