Books: Falling Towards England — Like a Burnished Throne |
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Falling Towards England — Like a Burnished Throne


Charlie came to my rescue, unfortunately. In that great age of the company director, Charlie was the company director epitomised. He had a one-man import-export business. He could get things for you. If you had things you didn’t want, he could take them away. Around the Chelsea pubs he was a conspicuous figure, not just because of a major squint but because of his promiscuous taste in fast foreign cars. Peter Sellers had a new car every week but Charlie had a new one every day. On Monday it was a Maserati with a body by Touring of Milan and on Tuesday it was a Mercedes-Benz 300SL with gull-wing doors. None of the cars really worked, but he didn’t own them long enough for them to stop working entirely. They stopped working entirely for the people he sold them to. While he was driving them, they went, just. ‘Hop in,’ Charlie would say from an out-of-date yet eternally beautiful Zagato-bodied 2+2 Ferrari. After you had hopped in, you would wonder why the car was going so slowly. You couldn’t wonder it aloud because of the noise kicked up by the chain-driven overhead camshafts. At the next pub, Charlie would explain convincingly how everything would be all right tomorrow, once the drip-feed venturi to the rocker-boxes had been greased. ‘Fancy another jar? Your round.’

Charlie said I could live on one of his boats: the one moored at Twickenham. The rent sounded stiff but he reassured me by saying that the boat was an ocean-going job. ‘None of your put-put boats what fart about on a river.’ As we headed west in an off-white Lancia Aprilia drop-head with my suitcase in the back, I had visions of a modest but comfortable state-room on the sort of yacht that would not be ashamed of itself if anchored in the lee of Niarchos or Onassis. And indeed The Relief of Mafeking was the biggest thing in the basin, but only because it was a coal barge. An ocean-goer in the sense that it had long ago made regular trips to and from Newcastle by sea rather than canal, my new home was so broad in the beam that it was practically circular. Charlie soon had me convinced that this was an advantage. ‘Your so-called sleek lines can’t give you this, mate,’ he said with an expansive gesture in the living space between decks. ‘What you’ve got here is width.’ As we stood there with our heads bowed, I had to agree that there was width. What there wasn’t was height, but I failed to remark this, being too excited by the prospect of the well-joined planks below and above. I hardly needed Charlie to tell me that there was no workmanship like that nowadays. He showed me how the Calor gas cooking ring worked, warned me that the toilet might be a bit tricky, and left me to unpack. Standing on deck to wave goodbye, I felt like Horatio Hornblower on the bridge of his first command. Lesser boats crowded the basin, in which the tide was so low that some of the water was hard to distinguish from mud. Presumably the smell would be less piercing when the water rose, and meanwhile the Lancia was a reassuring sight as it roared away, stopping only once while Charlie lifted the bonnet to tinker with the engine.

Flushing the toilet was no problem as long as the tide remained out. All you had to do was kick the foot-crank twenty or thirty times until with a loud kerchunga the bowl emptied into the bilges. When the tide came in, however, I was saddened to discover that the same process emptied the bilges into the bowl. By that time it was late at night and it had started to rain. The drumming of the rain on the deck was at first a comfort. But after a not very long time there was the less snug sound of the rain that was coming through the deck and dropping on my floor. It happened only where the fine workmanship of the planks was no longer reinforced by caulking. One such place was in the exact centre of the cabin, so that the puddle formed at the apex of the curved floor and distributed itself very evenly in all directions. A carefully positioned bucket could only delay this process, and anyway I didn’t have one. So I went on deck in the driving rain, got down on my knees and found the hole. An old piece of canvas stretched across would soon fix that. There were no old pieces of canvas. I laid out one of my tea-coloured nylon drip-dry shirts and weighed it down around the edges with some bits of wood whose nautical name echoed vaguely in the memory. Belittling pins? Bollocks? The whole operation took no more than twenty minutes, so I didn’t really get that much wetter than I would have if I had stood in the centre of my cabin all night directly under the leak.

Next morning another drawback revealed itself. My new home was a long way from the centre of London. Unless Charlie turned up on some errand or other I would have to go in by train or Green Line bus. For a few days I waited for Charlie but it was becoming imperative to find a job, so finally I spent a whole morning getting to town and putting my name down to be considered by London Transport for a job on the tube. They were looking for guards, not drivers. This suited me. I couldn’t drive a car but thought that I could probably guard a train, and perhaps work on the odd poem between stations. I could see myself being cheery, useful, a good man in a crisis. Trollope had designed the pillar-box. Keats, Chekhov and Schnitzler had all been doctors. T. S. Eliot had worked in a bank and Wallace Stevens for an insurance company. I would be a tube guard. Obviously I would be overqualified but I was willing to forget about that in return for a steady income and travel privileges — these latter being particularly welcome to someone living a long way away by water on a ship that could not sail. The next day, in the Singapore suit and the winklepickers, the beard trimmed with nail scissors, I sat down, with almost a hundred other candidates, for the intelligence test. Judiciously I soft-pedalled the brainy stuff, neglecting to mention my degree and doing my best to keep Schopenhauer’s name out of it. I must have done all right because after half an hour’s wait I was sent into another room for the psychological test. This time there were only about fifty candidates. The examiner sat at a desk. You were signalled forward to occupy the seat opposite him when the previous occupant had been dismissed, after a greater or shorter time. Obviously the long interviews were the more successful ones. Some of the interviews were as short as five minutes. Mine was the only one that lasted a minute and a half. I can remember the questions now. ‘Why did you leave your last job?’ ‘Why did you leave the job before that?’ ‘And the one before that?’ I can’t recall my answers, except that they were short at first and grew progressively shorter. His closing statement, I thought, revealed a lack of sensitivity which helped to explain why, as a psychologist, he had risen no higher than the underground railway. ‘You have failed the psychological test and we are unable to offer you a position.’

Failing to get down that hole was my low point. Or so I thought, assuming that the task was easy. Actually such jobs — being a postman is another one I still covet — demand exactly the sort of elementary yet responsible alertness that the congenital dreamer is least qualified to give. There is a consoling passage in Dichtung und Wahrheit about our capabilities being forecast by our dreams, although it might just mean that Goethe would have made a lousy tube guard. But I was still far short of a full self-appraisal. I was also short of cash. Robin, who worked in a Baker Street bookshop, trekked out to Twickenham often enough to keep me from dying of malnutrition, but the fares and the food used up a disheartening proportion — disheartening even for me, let alone for her — of whatever was left over from keeping herself alive. Where was Charlie?

He arrived one morning at the wheel of a Lagonda, handed me a parallel text of Les Fleurs du mal, and told me to bring my toothbrush because we were going to Paris. If I helped him load some furniture into his van in London and unload it in the Flea Market in Paris, there would be something in it for me and I would see the City of Light. The noise of the Lagonda drowned the actual mention of how much the something was. Lagondas were not supposed to be noisy. This one had gear-box trouble. But the van, to which we transferred at Charlie’s lock-up garage in Fulham, worked well enough. It was a little blue Bedford tailgate number whose rear tray we carefully filled with solid English furniture — old rosewood military chests and stuff like that. When we reached Dover, I was impressed but not surprised to hear Charlie tell the British customs men that the gear, all French originally, had belonged to his French-born great-aunt, long resident in England, who had recently died tragically of cancer, of the rectum in point of fact, so that the residue of her worldly goods was now returning to her bereaved half-sister in Auteuil. While this was being said I sat there reading Baudelaire as instructed, no doubt to give the impression of being part of the household. At Calais, Charlie told the French customs men that the stuff was all English, of negligible value as you could tell from the chipped inlays, and that it was on its way to furnish the flat of the eccentric new Paris bureau chief of the Financial Times. Behold his artistically gifted son, soon to be studying French literature at the Sorbonne. Charlie got most of this across with gestures but there was quite a bit of French mixed in. I was so dumbfounded that I must have looked artistically gifted, because the douaniers waved us through. Since the furniture plainly was English, and therefore not part of le patrimoine, perhaps they didn’t care whether Charlie was profiteering or not. Anyhow, we were soon bowling happily down the route nationale, with the poplars strobing away on each side.

Under a bright sun we made good time but it was a bit bumpy. Some of the lashings in the back came unstuck so I was standing up there to keep a chest of drawers and a cupboard from knocking into each other when Charlie tooted the horn and I looked ahead and saw Paris. The city lay low among the hills like a dry lake of violet talcum with a little pistachio model of the Eiffel Tower sticking up. It was the Eiffel Tower. Delirium at first glance.

At the Flea Market our consignment of furniture sold out straight away. Charlie handed me my commission: a wad of jokey paper napkins with coloured pictures of people like Richelieu and Mazarin. The wise move would have been to hand the money straight back to him and thus clear up what I would soon owe for rent, but instead I toured the open-air bookstalls along the banks of the Seine, bending over the green-painted bins like a starving parrot over a box of seeds. Books in French scarcely counted as a wise purchase, since I couldn’t read more than the odd word of them, but I was working on the assumption that one day I would be able to. Charlie had friends in Paris with whom we had dinner. I didn’t enjoy it much because they spoke little English and looked as if they had been left out of a crime movie starring Jean Gabin because they were too sinister. This especially applied to the women. Charlie’s mauvais garçon squint fitted right in. The rest of him fitted in too: he spoke the international language of where to get things. I couldn’t keep up. But the wine I handled quite well, needing, when I bunked down on somebody’s floor, scarcely any help to undress. A less clouded happiness came next morning, when I sat outside a café at the crossroads of the Boulevard Saint-Michel and the Boulevard Saint-Germain, drank cognac and watched the girls on their way to work. I had never seen so much prettiness all in the one place. Charlie explained how they did it, with their small wages all going on clothes and nowhere to live except a cold-water broom cupboard. ‘Your actual Frog bird,’ he announced, ‘has got eyes of her own.’ Though my own eyes were as yet untrained, I could see straight away that the silk-and-cotton-clad shop assistant clicking along on her way to the Galeries Lafayette was an entirely different proposition from her London counterpart, teetering towards C & A in a black-lacquered hair helmet, cadaverous white face-mask, laddered tights and a skirt no bigger than her belt. It was the difference between chic and shock. Calling myself studious, I ogled unashamed, until Charlie said it was time to go.

Zonked by the cognac I slept all the way to London. At Fulham, Charlie climbed into the Lagonda and went somewhere else, so with his strong hints about the desirability of a prompt rent settlement still echoing in my ears I got back to the barge by Green Line bus in time to discover how the deck looked after the tide had gone far enough out to prove the theory — common among the basin’s regular inhabitants, I now learned — that The Relief of Mafeking had been incorrectly moored. The tide was back in again but a lot of the caulking on deck had gone missing from between the planks. I found some of it in my cabin. My bed, which had been a mattress with a blanket on it, was now a mattress with a blanket and bits of tar on it. Luckily they were too old to be still sticky.

Paying a return visit as arranged, Françoise arrived at Gatwick and with her usual cool head found her way, against all the odds, to my floating palace. I would have met her at the airport, but for some reason Robin wouldn’t lend me the money. The tide was out and the yacht basin wasn’t looking its best. There was something particularly depressing about how the brown milk bottles sticking up out of the mud were full of water. Standing at the foot of the gangway, Françoise looked out of place in her blue silk blouse, pale-grey straight skirt and handmade high-heeled suede sandals. She had always had the gift of bringing order and elegance to her surroundings. This new challenge, her expression suggested, might be beyond her. Showing her down to my quarters, I made a nervous joke about Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, before remembering that Pandora was the wrong name to mention. So I switched the frame of reference to Cleopatra’s barge.

It didn’t rain, so at least we didn’t get wet. But without rain there was no relief from the heat. The tide came in and did something to tame the smell, but it did nothing for the toilet, which turned out to be the final insult. In a few days Françoise did a lot to make the place habitable and my intake of foodstuffs less toxic. I was eating salads and there was a pillowcase on the pillow. But a toilet that worked in reverse was too much. Until it should be time for her charter flight back to Italy, she went to stay with the girls in Melbury Road.

Gallantly I carried her suitcase. There was a party going on when we arrived. Robin was there, looking a bit distant for some reason. Françoise didn’t look very tolerant either so I danced with a tall girl called Joanne who had recently got off the boat. I told her that I had recently got off a boat too. Just when I had got her laughing at the story about the blow-back toilet her boyfriend moved in on her, so I found myself talking to an old acquaintance from Sydney called Nick Thesinger. At Sydney University Nick had been the star actor of his final year just as I was starting off as a freshman. He had left for England with the high hopes of his friends filling his sails, although he himself had always been realistic enough to guess that London needed Australian actors the way Newcastle upon Tyne needed coal from Newcastle, NSW. So it had proved, and within a year he had been forced into supply-teaching, to eke out what he called ‘a small competence’ of money from home. But school teaching had soon become more than just a living. ‘At Stratford, I’d be lucky to carry a spear a year,’ he explained. ‘At the dear old school I’m simply forced to play Macbeth, Hotspur and Richard III every morning, with Hamlet for lunch and Lear in the afternoon. One’s thespian urges aren’t just satisfied, darling. The relevant glands are squeezed dry.’ His teacher’s salary plus the small competence enabled him to keep a set of rooms just off Baker Street. He had a spare bedroom, into which I was invited to move as soon as was practicable. As to rent, the sum mentioned was more than I had, yet so would have been any other sum no matter how small, because next morning everything I had left went on getting back to the barge and leaving a token pay-off for Charlie. You couldn’t really have called it a midnight flit. For one thing, it was daylight. For another, the rent I owed him was more than offset, in my opinion, by the psychic and perhaps physical damage inflicted by the leaking ceiling and the retrodynamic dunny. I drew up a sort of account sheet explaining all this, weighed it down with a few coins, packed my bag and headed down the gang-plank towards the Green Line bus stop, watched by a large woman with piled-up ginger hair who was sunbathing in bursting bra and colossal pink satin bloomers on the deck of a small launch which at first appeared to be listing under her weight, but which on closer examination proved to be stuck in the mud with one side propped up by the rust-eaten remains of a wrought-iron bedstead. The nautical phase of my life was over.

The musical phase now began. Like Françoise a born teacher, Nick was one of those opera fanatics with the gift of putting you on rather than off. In Australia I had discovered jazz because nobody at Sydney University could very well escape it. Classical music had come to me later and piecemeal. On swimming parties to Avalon with the Bellevue Hill mob at weekends, I had acquired their taste for such stirring stuff as Haydn’s trumpet concerto and Beethoven’s Seventh. In London I had become intimate with Beethoven’s Ninth in the manner already related. More happily, Joyce Grenfell had taken me to the Festival Hall to see the Borodin Quartet play Beethoven’s late quartets and Klemperer conduct Bach’s Brandenburg concertos. I say ‘see’ rather than ‘hear’ because I couldn’t take my eyes off the Borodin cellist’s tapping foot or Klemperer’s right index finger, especially the latter. As the old master sat there in his wheelchair, it was the only part of him that could still move.

But these were scattered experiences and no trained voice had been involved save Söderström’s in Capriccio, heard intermittently through the machine-gun beads of my companion at Glyndebourne. Nick gave me an immersion course, starting with two scenes in Der Rosenkavalier: the Presentation of the Silver Rose and the last act trio. From the first day of this exposure, the bathroom rang to my imitation of Sena Jurinac, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Teresa Stich Randall. Lacking the vocal equipment to impersonate any of these women singly, I compromised by providing a vigorous pastiche of all three singing together. Pleased instead of panic-stricken at what he had wrought, Nick moved on to Verdi. From an old set of Trovatore the gold-rush chest-voice of Zinka Milanov reached to thrill me. Wagner was introduced through Lotte Lehmann and Lauritz Melchior singing the love duet from Tristan. Next came Wotan’s farewell and the magic fire music from Die Walküre, conducted by Knappertsbusch, whose always-advancing quietness I was taught to value above the vertical clamour of Solti’s complete Ring, released on Decca that very year. My prejudice against Solti — justified, I still believe, in the case of Wagner — was to remain fervent for years afterwards, until the lyrical flow of his Eugene Onegin made me think again. But prejudices were part of the enthusiasm, just as jealousy is part of passion. I went opera mad, and all because of Nick. He knew where to drop the needle — an especially important qualification in the matter of Wagner, with whom it is an invariable rule that the most immediately accessible bits are never at the edge of the disc.

Then there was Mozart. ‘Lisa della Casa,’ Nick would say, lying back in a winged chintz-covered chair with his eyes closed and his fingertips together, ‘is a bear of very little brain, but you have to remember that so was Wolfgang’s wife.’ And at that moment, on the highlights record drawn from the wonderful old Erich Kleiber set of Le nozze di Figaro, the lady in question would sing the first notes of ‘Dove sono’ for the tenth time on the trot. I wallowed like a hippo. It was a mud-bath in concentrated beauty. One doesn’t love literature, said Flaubert. Though he said so because he was re-inventing it and the labour hurt, he would have been right anyway. Music we can love.

But the gramophone was merely an adjunct. The main means of instruction was the opera house itself. We were in the amphitheatre or the gods at Covent Garden almost every night. The nights we weren’t, we were at Sadler’s Wells, getting into training with the English version for something that would show up in the real language at the Garden later on. Nick was in no doubt about the Englishing of a foreign opera: it was strictly a leg-up for getting to grips with the original, in which the language was not just inseparable from the melody but formed its living spine. During the intervals of Falstaff we would adjourn to the bar so that Nick could discuss with his friends how Tito Gobbi or Geraint Evans was handling the big challenge. Nick’s friends called each other ‘love’ a lot but they were all omniscient, so I assumed that they had good reasons for booing Galina Vishnevskaya at several points during Aida. Later on, however, I started to wonder whether it hadn’t been because she was showing too much leg.

Because Nick’s friends were queer without exception. Or, rather, with one exception: me. Whether through innocence or an opportunistic disinclination to complicate such a rich source of free enlightenment, I failed for a long time to rumble Nick’s true sexual allegiance. The young sailors who arrived at midnight and disappeared into his bedroom would reappear at breakfast. Perhaps he was picking up extra money teaching a workers’ extension course. Noises of wrestling came through the wall at night. Perhaps he was practising judo. At long last I realised why Nick wore such a forced smile when Robin came to call. Indeed it was Robin who told me. She also told me how unfair I was being. It wasn’t just because I had nothing with which to pay the rent that I was getting away with paying no rent. Nor did all those tickets for Covent Garden grow on trees. Even when you sat so high in the gods that the stage looked like a postage stamp crawling with ants, it still cost a lot of money to be present on the night Birgit Nilsson kept drilling Brünnhilde’s climactic notes right through the middle while Valhalla, which was supposed to fall, got caught in the scrim up which the Rhine, in the form of projected green light, was supposed to rise. She sang like a train coming while the set malfunctioned all around her. It was heroic art and it all had to be paid for. Nick was allowing himself to be taken advantage of, but I was still taking advantage. Once again it was time to move on.

Yet I was moving on with two acquisitions that would serve me well. One was an awakened love for the exultant human voice. The other was a reinforced tolerance for homosexuality. Previously I had never been against it, but had shared the usual delusion that it must be some sort of disease. After living with Nick and receiving the benefit of his knowledgeable, critical, yet wholeheartedly dedicated love of music, I came to believe that it was a necessary and valuable part of life. Two of my great heroes, Proust and Diaghilev, would have convinced me eventually. Proust’s article about Flaubert, or that marvellous essay by Diaghilev in which he takes Benois to task for the deficiency of his historical view, would have been enough to persuade me that there is a quality of intellect, a generous precision of humane judgment, which, so far from being damaged by inverted sexual proclivities, is probably enhanced by them. But the job had already been done by a not always happy, always smiling school-teacher who so munificently showed me where to find, at the start of the second side of the Beecham set of La Bohème, the duet in which Victoria de los Angeles and Jussi Björling celebrate the beatific prospect of going to bed together. I still find it difficult to believe that Nick and his sailors felt the same way, but to believe otherwise would be an impertinence. Some people are different from the rest of us, and so are the rest of us.