Books: Falling Towards England — Back to Square One |
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Falling Towards England — Back to Square One


Homosexuality was not Dave Dalziel’s problem. Many people called him mad, but nobody ever called him queer. You would have been able to tell he had arrived in England just by how the girls at Melbury Road went starry-eyed. They stopped giving each other haircuts copied from Mary Quant advertisements and started making group appointments at the hairdresser. Dalziel, for as long as I cared to remember, had drawn women like mosquitoes to a sleeping man. It wasn’t because he was good-looking, although he was. It wasn’t because he cleaned his nails and dressed in spruce clothes, although he did. It was because he was obsessed. Dave Dalziel was movie mad. He was determined to be a film director, although there had been no Australian film director since Charles Chauvel, mainly because there was no Australian film industry. Very well, an Australian film industry would have to be created.

Meanwhile Dalziel was in Europe to learn more about the craft of his art. He had a short-subject script to shoot and a rich friend, Reg Booth, who would finance the project at the price of being allowed to star. Actually Reg was rich only in comparison to the rest of us, so the money had to be deployed with great care. Dalziel worked all day on preparing this movie. In what spare time he had he saw other movies. He breathed, ate and slept movies. As a consequence, women went silly about him, It was because he had no time to be silly about them. The rest of us chased women and looked foolish doing it. He let them chase him and looked fine. I would have hated him for it if he had been less good company, but if you allowed for his occasional patch of near insanity he was too funny to pass up. Like all truly entertaining talkers he rarely told jokes. He just had a way of putting things. There was a big party on the top floor at Melbury Road to mark the official end of summer. Dalziel suddenly materialised and addressed me as if we had parted only the day before.

‘I hear you’ve been living with a horse’s hoof’ he drawled. It emerged that he and Reg had just taken a flat in Warwick Road, on the other side of Kensington High Street, and were looking for a third man to share the rent. ‘Here’s your chance to play Harry Lime. Also we need someone to keep the landlady quiet, who is a MONSTER. How would you like to slip her the pork sword?’

He always talked like that. The metaphors were so mind-boggling that you found yourself doing what he wanted. A dominant personality doesn’t have to believe in its own will. All It needs is the inability to recognise the existence of anybody else’s. My suitcase and several string-handled paper shopping bags full of books were downstairs in the hall. Dave, Reg and Robin helped me carry them to Warwick Road, although Robin, to my annoyance, clearly would have been glad to carry the whole lot just to be near Dave. Reg won’t mind my saying this, because many times in the following year we bent elbows at the pub for the specific purpose of discussing Dalziel’s demoralisingly unfair share of charm, which we were agreed gave rise to, or was possibly even caused by, grave simplicities in the brain. Reg also won’t mind my saying that his script was no world-shaker. Even as I moved into the Warwick Road flat, principal photography was about to begin. From the way Mrs McHale, the middle-aged and bitterly irascible landlady, stood permanently by the staircase with her arms folded, you could tell that a top-floor flat with three heterosexual young Australian men in it was already well beyond the limits of what she would ordinarily be prepared to put up with. If her lips had been any more pursed they would have fallen off. You could also tell, from the way she tapped her prominently veined and sinewed foot, that she thought the young men had too many visitors even in normal circumstances — especially female visitors, whose presence necessitated her taking up an invigilating position on the landing outside our flat so that she could make frequent unannounced entrances through the door compulsorily left open. In the week before the camera turned on page one of the script there were a lot more visitors of both sexes. Mrs McHale’s foot became a blur. Young actresses auditioning as extras arrived in miniskirts which Mrs McHale clearly regarded, not without reason, as tantamount to nudity. Men with silver boxes full of hired equipment and tea-chests full of scavenged props endangered the threadbare carpets and crappy wallpaper which Mrs McHale cherished as if the Victoria and Albert Museum could be restrained from appropriating them to its collection only by armed force. We called her Hearty McHale, in the way that a wrathful deity is given nicknames to make it less awful. What she was calling us was beyond guessing, but at the annual World Landladies’ Rally in the Munich beer hall she would no doubt have plenty to say when her turn came at the banked microphones. They get like that,’ said Dave wisely, ‘when they don’t get enough of the veal dagger.’

Applying listlessly for jobs during that period, I had plenty of spare time to help with the movie, and for acting as substitute focus-puller while playing a small part I got ten pounds for each week of the fortnight it took to shoot. The film, written by Reg with additional dialogue by Dave, was a mystery about an unnamed man, played by Reg, who works as a hit-man for the Organisation and then finds out that the Organisation is trying to eliminate him, etc. Called The Man from the Organisation, it would have been the least mysterious mystery in the world if not for my focus-pulling, which gave some of the shots — the really vital ones, too expensive to be done again — an extra quality of ambiguity. Yet my acting was precise, even pedantic. In the key scene where I impersonated a passer-by in the street who turns to look at the seriously wounded hero, I walked the prescribed eighteen paces, paused for the three seconds required, and turned looking puzzled, exactly as instructed. Next day’s rushes showed how exact I had been. You could see me silently counting to eighteen, moving my lips as I counted to three, and then looking as if I had been asked to expound Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. ‘You’ll have to do it again tomorrow unless we can get George C. Scott,’ said Dave, making a note. ‘Asking you to play someone you’re not is like asking King Kong to play the Moonlight Sonata.’ He was right. In later years my acting has improved, if only in the sense that I have got better at being myself.

During that hectic fortnight I learned a little about filming and a lot about Dalziel. I could see now that he wasn’t always mad. Sometimes he was just concentrating. When he ignored what you were talking about and started a new conversation in the middle of your sentence, it was because he hadn’t heard you. He attacked one crisis after another without any sign of artistic temperament. In sharp distinction to the rest of us, he didn’t behave like an artist at all. He behaved like a truck-driver who has to get a load of perishable goods to a certain destination by a certain time. His creative resources were considerable, but invisible because fully committed. There was nothing left over with which to pose. Perhaps the logistic demands of his medium had matured him early. In my own medium, which makes few practical demands beyond the securing of an adequate supply of stationery, coming down to earth takes longer. But here again, and as usual, it was probably a matter of personality. Dave was simply the way he was. Once his single-mindedness had looked like dementia. Now it looked like obduracy. It didn’t take a prophet to realise that one day it would look like talent.

Photography completed, The Man from the Organisation moved into what Dave called its post-production phase. In other words work stopped completely while they figured out how to pay for the editing. Reg was no longer rich and had to get a job as a driver with a luxury hire-car firm. This came in handy for allaying the spleen of Hearty McHale, because when Reg temporarily parked a Daimler or a Bentley in front of the house she got the idea that at least one of us was in funds. Reg spoiled it all one evening by forgetting to take off his cap. Dave, with characteristic practicality, had already arranged a short-term job in a Hammersmith builder’s yard called Cornwall’s Erections. He had underestimated, however, the physical labour involved. At sunset he would come reeling home too tired to wash off the grime. Usually there was some adoring woman who had been hanging around with no other aim in life beyond swabbing the caked dirt off his shoulders and bowed neck. When there wasn’t, Reg and I took over. Even with these emollient side-benefits the job was clearly another case of Dalziel’s extraordinary dedication to the task in hand. It made me feel queasy about borrowing money from him. Most of what I had earned from filming was already owed, which induced an anxiety that made me smoke more. Nor could it be denied that Warwick Road was situated less in Kensington than in Earls Court. I was back to where I had started, except lower down. Winter was almost upon us and I felt like the pariah of the pack. Even Robin, most generous of attendant angels, was looking at me with a curled lip.

Luck landed me my best job yet. A long, insane letter I had written to Penguin Books suggesting that they publish my collected works — I had left it unclear whether these as yet existed — won me an interview with one of their junior editors, a sleepily bright PhD type in her late twenties. Called Leslie, she immediately sussed that I was a bull artist but kindly suggested I might lower my sights and apply for a newly created menial job which would involve looking after the file of authors’ photographs. Two heavily academic Pelicans had recently been published, written by Professor J. M. Thompson and Professor L. N. Thompson respectively. L. N. Thompson’s photograph had ended up on J. M. Thompson’s book and vice versa. One of them had been nice about it but insistent. The other had been merely insistent. The cost of stripping the covers off both editions and starting again had been very large, hence the decision to put the matter beyond doubt. Coached by Leslie, who advised the Singapore suit and my disintegrating but respectable pair of Chelsea boots with the chisel toes, I put in for the job and actually got it. I didn’t tell them that I would be going up to Cambridge the year after next or even next year if I could swing it. Perhaps I was calculating that Penguin would go into liquidation in the near future or that my well-attested capacity to screw up would militate against permanence, but more likely I was just being, without particularly meaning to, deceitful. It can get to be a reflex.

The job was a cushy number. Once I had the few hundred photographs sorted into the right envelopes and the envelopes arranged in alphabetical order, all I had to do was sit there in my cubicle, wait until a request came down for a picture of, say, Malraux, and then make sure I didn’t send them a picture of Maurois, Maurras, Mauriac, A. L. Rowse or Mel Tormé. You had to be careful with the Bloomsbury bunch because they all looked the same, as in a horse-breeder’s catalogue. Otherwise it was a doddle. The only drawback was that Penguin’s combined office, factory and warehouse was located in Harmondsworth, near Heathrow. The journey each way had to be done by Volkswagen Kombibus, from and to, in my case, a pick-up point in Cromwell Road. Among the dozen people on the bus there was always the languorously aloof Leslie. The driver of the bus was called Ted and was in most respects indistinguishable from Fred, the feeble-minded fascist of the Holloway Road light-metal factory, except that Ted had a richer source of material, namely the multi-ethnic pedestrian population of the London pavements. Looking everywhere except straight ahead, he never drew breath. ‘Oo, lookit a nig-nog. Nar, ease a greasy wop. Garn, you poxing wog, get out of it ...’ The minibus load of liberal young ex-Oxbridge editors cast their eyes resignedly to heaven. Leslie regularly did her best to shut him up but always with adverse results, stupidity being the source of his motive power. If he couldn’t curse, he couldn’t drive. He had to spout his racist filth or the van would drift to a halt. I liked the way it bothered her. Me it amused. He was perfect, and anyway I believed, erroneously, that it was only the quiet men who were the real killers.

The working week took on a nice rhythm. After breakfast with the boys I would catch the bus, listen to Ted, look at Leslie, barricade myself into my cubicle and doze off, stirring only to work on a poem or take a long, slow look at a photograph of T. S. Eliot in order to eliminate the possibility that it was George Eliot in trousers. Lunch in the canteen offered virtually unobstructed views of Leslie. In the warehouse it was more or less obligatory to steal books: there was a pulp box in which you could find defective copies of almost any title, and usually the defects amounted to no more than a few pages inaccurately trimmed. Back to the cubicle for a read and a sleep. Then home in the bus, with the prospect of watching Leslie getting stroppy with Ted. I liked her principles. I liked her wrists.

If the working day had a somnolent rhythm, the nights and the weekends were hyperactive. Even Dave, once he had been helped out of his inky bath, was always ready for the party. The party was never at our place, because Hearty McHale, rather than see us enjoy ourselves, would have called for an air strike to destroy her own house. But there was always a party on at least one floor of the house in Melbury Road. You could hear the music from the end of the street.

Journalists were writing a lot of stuff about the Sixties by that time. Harold Wilson was not only Prime Minister, he was still popular. He was not only still popular, he was almost credible: preaching the white heat of technology, he was Prometheus in Hush Puppies. A nation whose technology was white from frost-bite warmed itself at his words. The glossy magazines carried more articles each month about the new aristocracy of the classless cockney photographers in whose hairy arms the creamiest women of café society lay helpless. The articles were illustrated with photographs of the photographers taken by the photographers themselves. The pictures were very contrasty, making the women’s faces look like Kabuki masks, while the photographers looked like East End criminals. There were pictures of East End criminals looking like company directors. In the text there was invariably a lot of talk about the disappearance of class divisions, the adduced evidence being that a pacey young designer from Tower Hamlets had married a duke’s daughter. There would be a picture of the duke’s daughter wearing the young designer’s designs. Located without any connecting tissue inside the perimeter of the bleached-out facial area, her enormous black-rimmed eyes and grainy grey mushroom mouth looked surprised at her own daring: three blots on white cardboard. The vacant were being given carte blanche to adore themselves. Once the enviable had looked human but hard to get at. Now they looked inhuman and further off than ever.

For those of us with our noses pressed to the glass, the reality of the swinging new era was a dance party to which you brought your own bottle. But as the news about the allegedly effervescent London reached Australia, ship-loads of would-be revellers and social revolutionaries came sailing towards the putative action. Inevitably they all ended up at the bottle party. People I had left Australia to get away from started turning up in bunches — intellectuals who had read three books; writers who had read no books at all and would never write one either; pub singers who would forget the words of their sea-shanties unless you were unlucky. They filed on to the buses at Southampton and debouched into Earls Court by the well-drilled platoon.

Less organised on principle but no more reticent, those members of the Downtown Push who were still young enough to travel arrived in dribs and drabs. The woodwork was the whole world thick but out of it they came crawling, still full of theories about the repressive mechanisms of a society which allowed them to indulge their every whim. Grecian Ern Papadakis arrived, his famous book on Trotsky as yet unpublished, mainly because it remained unwritten. Not far behind him came Ross Peters the Prestige Pie-eater, an expert on Reich’s orgone theories who had once received a letter from Reich himself. There men were legends and had the women to prove it: lank-haired, taciturn creatures with approximately depilated bare legs, their shoulders hunched from constant listening.

One night at Melbury Road, half cut and wholly content in the midst of the writhing throng, I had just finished shaking to a Beatles track when I was horrified to hear the actual living squeal of Johnny Pitts, the Push folk-singer who had for ten years unsuccessfully attempted to emigrate from Australia so as to go to South America and — I quote the wording of his passport application — fight for anarchy. At last they had made the mistake of letting him out, and now he was here. As usual he thrashed his guitar, whined a few bars about bad working conditions in some American correctional facility, and fell sideways. Somebody put the Beatles back on and the crowded room danced again, but it had been a bad moment. Sitting exhausted in a corner with a woman kneeling at each arm and another soothing his forehead from behind, Dalziel suddenly looked haunted. The past was catching up.

But you could always outrun it. One place we ran to was the Iron Bridge Tavern, deep in the East End. Queenie Watts and a friend of hers called Shirley sang jazz there every Saturday. We used to go down there in Dingo Kinsella’s apology for a car. Dingo was a spidery journalist serving a one-year stretch in the London bureau of one of the Sydney newspapers. This meant that he was being paid an Australian salary, which in turn meant that he was, by our standards, wealthy. If he had drunk less seriously he would have been driving a Facel Vega at the very least. As things were, he locomoted in what must have been the last roadworthy example of the old upright Ford Popular. A car that had never been popular with anybody I knew of, it held all of us in acute discomfort. Dingo drove the way he drank, as if he wanted to die. But since the Popular’s top speed wasn’t much higher than that of a walking man, we were all agreed that it was worth the risk. Every Saturday, Dingo would give three toots on the horn and we would all pile out of the house to go looking for the car in the next street. Hearty McHale refused to let him park the machine even momentarily in front of her salubrious establishment, lest property values should be lowered still further.

On the way down the long East India Dock Road to the pub the car would weave from side to side in a sine curve of about ten feet amplitude and a hundred feet pitch. At the Iron Bridge we would listen to the happily shouting trad band until time was called and we were thrown out. On the road home the car ran straight and level, because when Dingo got blotto beyond a certain point he seized up solid. Turning corners remained a problem, which we could sometimes solve by getting him to close his eyes and talking him through it. In a faster car this would have been fatal. To us it was just part of what Bruce Jennings might have called a Rewarding Experience for the Young People.