Books: Falling Towards England — The Green Gladiolus |
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Falling Towards England — The Green Gladiolus


Dressed as a deliberate caricature of an English gentleman from the late gasolier period, Bruce Jennings had been in London longer than anyone and was both appalled and delighted that the rest of Australia now seemed bent on joining him. He was appalled because, without being in any way servile, he had submitted himself to Europe and was by now ten years deep into a love affair that the new arrivals looked determined to consummate in five minutes. He was delighted because they provided him with raw material. I suppose Reg and myself were included in his field of observation. But Jennings’ interest in Dave was more than just clinical. He recognised a fellow talent. His memories of home sharpened by exile, Jennings was the first Australian writer-performer to exploit the Australian idiom for its full poetic value. He had a fine ear and the learning to back it up. Dave, though an avid general reader, had only the ear. But Jennings valued Dave’s ability to fish a phrase up out of childhood and throw it flapping on the table. ‘Fair suck of the pineapple,’ Dave would say in protest when I tried to hit him for a quid at Wally’s, and Jennings’ eyes would go shiny. He’d forgotten that one.

Wally’s was the greasy spoon in a lane behind Warwick Road. It served plates of fat. You could have sausages in your fat or fried eggs in your fat. You could have the sausages and the fried eggs together, but it meant you got more fat. We ate at Waliy’s most evenings because the price of cooking at home was a stream of protest notes from Hearty McHale about noise, smells, smoke, fire and the lettuce leaf so vandalously trodden into the hallway carpet. Wally’s was a strange place to find the fastidious Jennings — who was known to take luncheon at Rules in the company of his admirer, John Betjeman — but he dropped in a couple of times during the period when he and Dave were discussing the possibility of a movie. I secretly laughed this possibility to scorn, not yet having realised that the ability to plan in the long term, while retaining the capacity to tell a long-term plan from a wild dream, is crucial to success in any of the collaborative arts. I thought they were both a bit nuts.

Jennings left you in no doubt of his brilliance, though in some fear that his monologues might never end. A career drinker, he would stand balefully in the middle of a party, the only man present in a Turnbull & Asser shirt, antique Chavet tie, pin-stripe double-breasted Savile Row suit, Lobb shoes, black fedora and a monocle. ‘Des is the name,’ he would loudly confide to an invisible interlocutor, ‘Des Esseintes.’ And indeed he was the hero of A Rebours to the life, a Count Robert de Montesquiou de nos jours, creating himself as a work of art. He didn’t have the living tortoise inset with turquoises but no doubt it was on order. Meanwhile he had everything else, and I was wide-eyed even as he stood there swaying. When he fell to the floor he would usually take a couple of people with him. Laid to rest on a sofa, he would sleep until the party thinned out. Then, with just the right-sized audience, he would start a closed-eyed, resonant muttering which might consist of nothing but brand-names and radio jingles from the far Australian past. ‘Rosella Tomato Sauce ... Twice As Nice If Kept On Ice ... Sydney Flour is our flour, we use it every day ... I like Aeroplane Jelly, Aeroplane Jelly for me ... You’ll sleep tight ‘cause you’ll sleep right, on a Lotusland inner-spring mattress ...’

Years later I was to realise that this was the most original side of his mind talking. He was rediscovering and reordering an Australian language which had never had any pretensions beyond the useful and had thus retained an inviolable purity. It was the language written on bottles of cough medicine and packets of junket powder: a vocabulary without any value beyond common currency, and therefore undiluted by aesthetic pretension. With a sure instinct reinforced by his dandyish collector’s erudition, he had realised that not all the ephemeral was evanescent — that there was such a thing as a poetry of trivia, uniquely evocative for a country whose art was hag-ridden by a self-conscious striving towards autonomous respectability. Jennings was already well embarked on a salvage expedition to raise a nation’s entire cultural subconscious. The obtuse among his country’s intellectuals — a high proportion — thought he was lowering the tone, and belittled him accordingly. He armoured himself by polishing his façade still more brightly, Delacroix, said the doomed Jean Prévost in his wonderful book about Baudelaire, was a dandy not because he wanted to impose his superiority but because he wanted to defend it. Similarly Jennings retreated ever further into his own effulgence, taunting his detractors with the dazzling pages of an open book — the lexicon of their lost youth.

At the time, however, I couldn’t get interested in any of that, since it concerned Australia, and Jennings’ Australia, through being so vivid, only lit up what I was still trying to leave. It was Jennings’ Europe that attracted me. Jennings could tell you what Satie had said about Ravel. I knew what Hemingway had said about Gertrude Stein, but Jennings knew what Gertrude Stein had said about Picabia, because he owned the letters. He also owned a Picabia. For Jennings, the side-trails of the old international avant-garde were a stamping ground. I thought then, and still think now, that it is more important to be familiar with the major artistic works than knowingly conversant with the minor artists, but Jennings wasn’t as easy to fault there as one might have thought. Just because he knew a lot about Honegger didn’t mean that he was an ignoramus about Haydn. Jennings was formidable. I didn’t envy him his talent, being conceited enough to believe that I had some of my own. I did envy him his well-stocked mind. Actually I should have envied him his talent too: stocking your mind isn’t the same as stacking crates in a warehouse. It’s a gift.

So is being a landlady. Either you run the show, or the show runs you. Hearty McHale was determined to be mistress in her own house. It followed ineluctably that we were on borrowed time. We were careful to have no parties. We rarely cooked anything more complicated than half a pound of frankfurters. But we were an epicentre of unpredictability. Hearty McHale’s mental equilibrium depended on a silent house full of closed doors, with nothing moving except rent. The only acceptable noise in her establishment was the restrained clamour made by money as it transferred itself from the tenant’s wallet into the owner’s bank account. From there, according to rumour, the loot went to Spain and was sunk into a block of flats affording a view of the sea to any British mountain-climbing holiday-maker equipped with powerful binoculars.

Such was the system which our mere presence disturbed. If we had been trainee Trappists we might have lasted longer. As things were, the crisis came closer every day. In the evenings I would stagger upstairs with heaps of Penguin books for my growing library. When one of these heaps collapsed in my arms, an extruded copy of The Psychopathology of Everyday Life inflicted minor but detectable damage on the hallway rubber plant. Hearty McHale reacted as if I had thrown a phosphorous grenade. She had already warned me that the beams under my area of the floor were not designed to hold up the British Museum reading room. Books, however, were a negligible irritant compared with women. Reg had a very quiet Australian girl-friend whom he planned to, and subsequently did, marry. Mostly he visited her instead of she him, but she turned up in Warwick Road on two occasions and for Hearty McHale two meant two hundred. Robin came to me at least once a week because it was not practicable for me to take to her the clothes that needed ironing, darning, mending, replacing, etc. Unless these missions of mercy could be accurately timed by the synchronisation of watches and the use of semaphore from the top window, they necessarily entailed the ringing of the downstairs front doorbell, which Hearty McHale interpreted as the prelude to nuclear attack.

But it was Dave’s female admirers who tipped the already precarious balance. When he loved them and left them, some of them failed to get the point, and came looking for him. Reg and I spent a lot of time sitting in the kitchen with a lissome yet decidedly hysterical actress called Bambi who was reluctant to believe that Dave had had to depart suddenly for Easter Island. Leaving one cigarette still smouldering in the ashtray on the kitchen table, she would light several others while compulsively searching the flat. Reg would trail her, catching the ash in his cupped hands before it hit Hearty McHale’s moth-eaten though purportedly invaluable carpet. Dave was curled up in the loft above the bathroom. He was so tired after a day’s work at Cornwall’s Erections that he didn’t care where he slept, so it was all right for him. But it was tough on us, and finally we rebelled. Perhaps we were offended by what he could afford to turn down. An evening came when we declined to stall Bambi and she caught him still in the bath. It was the luxury bubble-bath we gave him each Friday. Friday was pay-day and we would count his money as he lay in deep foam after another dedicated week of selfless toil. Taking the sponge from me and the loofah from Reg, Bambi arrogated to herself the task of cleansing and anointing the exhausted hero. Reg and I retreated to the kitchen for half a bottle each of Woodpecker cider, a few hands of gin rummy and some ill-disguised fits of jealousy. When Hearty McHale burst in, her pulsatingly veined feet were about six inches off the linoleum, thus indicating the speed she had attained going up the final flight of stairs. She evinced the special fury reserved for when it was Dave who was receiving the female visitor. Brushing our feeble reassurances aside, she headed for the bathroom, with Reg and me close behind her and making as much noise as possible so that Dave might take warning. The bathroom door was locked from inside but Hearty McHale had a ring of duplicate keys, like a warder. She threw open the door. Bambi was nowhere to be seen. Dave sat there in deep white suds looking suitably shocked. Some of the items in his pile of discarded clothes were suspiciously diaphanous at a second glance but otherwise there was no sign of anything untoward. Had he lowered her out of the window on a rope of knotted towels?

The long, interrogative silence was broken by the splutter of Bambi surfacing. Mesmerised by her cap, epaulettes and half-cup brassière of glistening foam, I had a pang of envy that I can still feel as I write this. Reg positioned himself to catch Hearty McHale’s falling body but she was made of sterner stuff than that. The network of veins stood out in relief from the tops of her feet like the roots of gum-trees on the bank of a dry creek, but if standing on your dignity is what really matters, you can even have apoplexy in the upright position. Skinflint means what it says.