Books: Falling Towards England — The Warping of the Ninth |
[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]

Falling Towards England — The Warping of the Ninth


Failure felt like liberty, so heady was the air. Not only had I to change jobs, I had to change residence as well. Moira had been and gone like Julie Christie in Sparrows Can’t Knack or The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Liar. Another one just like her would be along soon if you waited, and twice as soon if you moved on. All the new films were the same one with a different title: middle-aged entrepreneurs with second houses in up-and-coming Marbella were making money by convincing the young that money didn’t matter and the moonlight flit equalled romance.

My landlady, who had probably wanted nothing from me except a sounding board for her justified complaints about her pig of a husband, had not got even that. Instead of bidding me good riddance she put me in the way of a new job and a roof to go with it. An old Oxford chum of hers was starting up, from an address in Chelsea, a prestige publishing house cum second-hand book service. In the first-floor library of his double-knock-through Georgian house I sat to be interviewed, my arms in the sleeves of the Singapore suit held carefully to my sides. He did all the talking. Visions of the future were conjured up: we would be a combination of Bertram Rota and the Officina Bodoni. He would be the management and I would be the staff. Within a short time I would be a company director. Salary would be a matter of agreement from time to time, but I could take it for granted that I would not want for money, make sense? Each of his successive verbal flights was tagged with the rhetorical question ‘make sense?’, short for ‘Does that make sense?’ And at that moment it did make sense, although I should have been more worried about the white foam at the corners of his mouth. A no-longer-young semi-titled Englishman is not necessarily suspect just because his complexion is as purple as beetroot and his eyes pop, but if he spits foam without noticing then it is a safe bet that there are other things he isn’t noticing either.

His name was Maurice Dillwick. The name Dillwick was famous, not because of him but because of his father, one of those hereditary peers who defy probability not only by donating their services gratis to the public weal but by being rather good at it. The old man had organised shadow factories during the war, organised their demobilisation afterwards, helped nationalise the coal industry, helped rationalise the steel industry, and acted as the kind of benevolent Lord Chamberlain whose civilised tolerance served to perpetuate an inherently stifling institution and thus enfeeble the English theatre for longer than necessary. His was a greatly successful life in all respects but one: his son, though clever, was not quite clever enough to distinguish a passion from a fad or a vocation from a phase. While his father lived, Maurice was kept on short commons, rarely being given more than a few hundred thousand pounds at a time with which to pursue his career as a racing driver, a film director, an explorer or a spy. When the old man hit the soup one day in the House of Lords dining-room, Maurice inherited so much money that not even he was able to lose it all at once, so each new enthusiasm could be pursued until he got tired of it. At the time of my recruitment he had already been a publisher for a year.

Not a lot of publishing had been accomplished in that time. That was where I would come in: with my fresh approach, uncluttered by stiffly traditional practices, I would give the project a no-nonsense internal structure. In being stimulated to these fantasies about my prowess, Maurice was perhaps aided by two extraneous factors. One was that George Russell had responded to yet another request for a reference, sending, by return air-letter, an encomium which would have sat extravagantly on the shoulders of Pico della Mirandola. (That I ever wasted my professor’s time by such demands is of enduring shame to me, and that I should have drained his energies in connection with this particular mare’s nest is something I will have to answer for at the last trumpet.) The other document in my favour was a letter from Encounter, signed by Stephen Spender himself, accepting my suite of five poems about porpoises. Maurice was almost as impressed by this as I was. He immediately had me cast as the Christopher Brennan of my generation. (From his days as proprietor and editor of Negozio nero, an international arts magazine which had cast its net even wider than Botteghe oscure but with less accuracy, Maurice had retained an acquaintance with the principal names in the not very long honour roll of Australian literary history.) As a man of letters I would give the new firm — called provisionally Editions Dillwick — not just an internal structure but an antipodean boldness. He appointed me a company director forthwith.

Promoted from staff to management within a week, I still had no cash in hand but was compensated by being given a back room of the house in which to set up my suitcase. My room, like every other room except the second-floor suite in which Maurice slept and dressed, was piled waist-high with stacked books, the stock of a second-hand book dealer whom Maurice had saved from going bust. The second-hand book dealer was an ageing but still sexually active old poet called Willis Cruft who had once, in Alexandria during the war, written apocalyptic verses which Tambimuttu had found bad enough to publish in Poetry London. Nowadays Cruft did not ask for much in life except enough cash to drink wine, run a string of Chinese girl-friends and attend the occasional Sibelius concert at the Festival Hall. Maurice having bought his stock from him for an indeterminate sum, Cruft was obliged to wait around in the hope of extracting some petty cash from time to time. Meanwhile, as a company director of Editions Dillwick, he was included in our three-way talks on how the books piled on the floor might be dispatched to the waiting world. His certain knowledge that there could be nothing immediate about this process was tempered by the necessity of not dampening Maurice’s enthusiasm. Realism and feigned optimism thus fought an eternal war in his features, which were already deeply cragged by decades of too much wine, too little success and whatever had gone on in Alexandria.

We three directors of Editions Dillwick sat down around a tea-chest full of the standard edition of Bernard Shaw (the red binding, lacking three volumes) to plan the company’s future. Maurice called this convocation the Think Tank. Two hours went by while Maurice discarded all our suggestions for the design of the firm’s letterhead. More unsettling was that he discarded his own suggestions with equal vehemence. It quickly became apparent that Maurice could not hear an idea without becoming enthusiastic about it, and that he could not become enthusiastic about it without turning against it. What was not yet apparent was that he was like this in large matters as well as in small. But when the builders arrived it all started to become clear, to others if not to me.

Maurice had contracted a building firm called Piranesi Brothers to refurbish the house throughout while the books were still in it. In Maurice, the newly emergent Habitat design ethos had found its ideal lay exponent. He wanted all the old wallpapers out, all the wood stripped and stained, and every plaster surface painted white. The inevitable result was spots of paint-stripper, varnish and white emulsion all over the green New York edition of Henry James (spines of some volumes cracked). Maurice accused the Piranesi Brothers of plotting to work slowly and ruin his stock. The Piranesi Brothers would retire to the first-floor bathroom, barricade themselves in and privately agree that Mr Dillwick was a nutter. Little did they know that Maurice was taping everything they said and compiling a dossier for the future court case. When they drove off in their Dormobile to another job, Maurice would trail them in his green Jensen to find out where they went, then conceal himself and take photographs of them as they hatched plots to spatter Pamastic all over our priceless second editions (endpapers slightly foxed) of the Complete Poems of Alice Meynell. It was about this time, acting from an instinct far quicker than lagging thought, that I wrote off to the LCC telling them they would be wise to come through with my Cambridge grant straight away, because I had no other plans and might well become a burden on the social services.

According to Maurice, the Piranesi Brothers were conspiring to cheat him. According to common sense, they were merely, like all small building firms, running several contracts at once in order to turn an honest profit. But common sense had no chance against Maurice’s superior intellect. The dossier grew ever fatter. It bulged with photographs, legal documents and transcriptions of taped telephone calls. Finally even Maurice must have begun to notice that he was overwrought, because he gave himself a holiday. ‘I’m bored with these builders,’ he averred, foam much in evidence. ‘I have to get away and think about the overall shape of the company. I’ve been pushing myself too hard on a day-to-day basis, make sense?’ It didn’t, because he hadn’t, but if that was the way he felt, who was I to argue? Having bought a new Jensen just like the old one except for a sparkling set of Borrani wire wheels, he disappeared towards the south of France, leaving me in charge.

In charge, that is, of a house full of loose books and frustrated builders. Willis Cruft sensibly declined to consider any advice I might have about how the situation could be retrieved. Correctly diagnosing Editions Dillwick to be an irredeemable folly, he gave himself to Sibelius and the relay of Chinese girls still flying in from Hong Kong. I should have listened to him when he said that things would only get worse on Maurice’s return. I preferred, not very passionately, to believe that they would get better. Meanwhile I was in the position of Grand Admiral Dönitz in the few days between Hitler’s suicide and the surrender of Germany — I was exercising supreme power over a shambles. To my credit I did not keep up the telephone surveillance on the Piranesi Brothers. My dereliction was in clear breach of Maurice’s departing orders, but I would have felt contemptible doing it and anyway I couldn’t work the Grundig. To my shame, on the other hand, I went on spending my expense money — there had still been no vulgar talk of salary — instead of handing Maurice my resignation. Handing him my resignation while I was in Chelsea and he in Antibes would not have been easy, but to stay on was taking candy from a baby.

My typical day was spent making tea for the decorators and standing close behind them so I could catch a dollop of varnish before it fell on the cover of The Apes of God (reprint, two signatures out of order, otherwise fair) and halved its already negligible value. In the evenings I wooed an Australian girl called Robin who had a marvellous clear skin and was teetering on the verge of deciding not to be a strict Catholic. To encourage her in that direction I took her to see every Buñuel movie in town. When Los Olvidados was on at the Chelsea Arts cinema I took her there two nights running but still couldn’t slide my hand between her breasts without getting my wrist tangled in the chain of her crucifix. My large talk about being a director and chief executive of Editions Dillwick didn’t work the trick either. The letter from the LCC which I had hoped would excuse me two years of waiting for Cambridge only excused me one year. My determination was plain, they said, but it would have to wait until the October after next to attain its object. This was a disappointment. Another letter capped disappointment with disaster: Stephen Spender wrote to say that the number of poems accepted for Encounter was now so great that he could see no prospect of printing mine in the foreseeable future. He could, however, arrange to have them published immediately in another magazine, whose name, if I remember correctly, was Periphery, or perhaps Margin. I wrote back to say that I preferred the original arrangement, which I regarded as a promise, and that the unforeseeable future would do me fine. Perhaps my language was too forceful, because I received no reply. The word ‘galah’ is an acceptable term of mild remonstrance among Australians. The English, not knowing what a galah is, tend to take offence.

Downcast, I forgot to be the anti-Catholic polemicist and company director. My real self, such as it was, showed through. Robin must have decided either that she liked it or that she might like it after a few things had been done to it, because she hung her scalloped-edged white slip over the back of a chair and took me to bed. Or rather, I took her to bed, the bed being mine: there were books stacked all around it and I spent a lot of time reassembling the collected works of Hugh Walpole after Robin fell over them on her way back from the bathroom in the dark. She looked marvellous dressed in a towel and a crucifix. It made me feel like the hero in one of those Nouvelle vague films that were coming out just about then. I lay back like Jean-Paul Pierre or Pierre-Jean Paul or whatever the twerp’s name was, the sheet tucked around my waist and a cigarette dangling dangerously from my lower lip.

Very dangerously, as it turned out. The damage to the sheet was extensive and I could easily have burned Robin to death. There was worse. Availing myself of Maurice’s stereo, I had been listening half a dozen times a day to his two-disc set of Beethoven’s Ninth conducted by Toscanini. The adagio, in particular, sent me into a trance. What delicacy, and yet what drive! How little rubato and yet how supple! It was in just such a mesmerised condition that I left the two records on top of the switched-on amplifier while I took Robin to the pub, there to help her overcome her inhibitions about drinking by showing her what an entertaining fellow I became when inebriated. Having helped me home, Robin was the first to notice that the Toscanini records had acquired crinkled edges. As well as making me feel iller — iller, that is, than how ill I felt from the whiff of molten vinyl, as well as how ill I was already feeling anyway — their patent unplayability made me feel inadequate. Doubtless Maurice had too many toys: but I was in a position of trust. ‘Position of truss,’ I explained tearfully to Robin. Late that night, without her knowledge, I zig-zagged down the corridor through the cairns of books and transferred the warped discs from the top of a stack of albums to the bottom, partly from the slim conviction that the weight would flatten them out, mainly in the pious hope that Maurice would never twig. After all, he had so much stuff.

Robin understood when I told her that I had to go to Italy. Françoise, the girl I had left behind in Australia, was now studying in Florence and could no doubt arrange accommodation while I spent a week recuperating from vinyl poisoning. I could tell that Robin understood because she didn’t physically oppose my going, and in those days I construed absence of explicit opposition as a whole-hearted endorsement. I was careful to borrow some spending money as additional evidence of her goodwill. The petty cash left behind by Maurice would cover the plane ticket, and I planned to hitchhike after I got to Milan. But there would be cigarettes to buy. Robin was the first to appreciate that a New Wave hero must have his cigarettes, which in Italy, I had heard, were hard to obtain. In my jeans, T-shirt, combat jacket, beard and dangling cigarette I reckoned I looked the sort of tough customer the Italians would take seriously. To complete the ensemble I had a bang-up-to-date pair of new shoes. Black winklepickers so long in the toe that the distance from the front of my foot to the front of the shoe was greater than to the heel, they looked dazzling down there. Even while staring straight ahead I could see the toes of my shoes in my peripheral vision. Equipped to kick the brains out of a fly, I had to walk with my feet slightly sideways, like a ballet dancer. Somehow I reached Gatwick, boarded a Dan-Air DC7-C charter flight, and headed for that far-off country the British call Europe.