Books: Falling Towards England — Autumn of the Expatriates |
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Falling Towards England — Autumn of the Expatriates


So we got notice one day and a new home the next. It was the house in Melbury Road, whose palatial ground-floor flat had suddenly become vacant after the landlady’s husband died of old age. The landlady, who had run an all-female orchestra during an earlier incarnation, instantly moved into the basement, where she kept open sherry for any of the orchestra’s alumnae still capable of dropping by. Her name was Geraldine and she was, for a landlady, unusually accommodating, probably because of her close spiritual connection with ‘hot’ music, a renowned sweetener of the soul. An already heavily peopled house was thus made free to rival the demographic density of Shanghai There were three floors of Australian girls above us, Geraldine and her heavily lisping visiting female ex-clarinettists below us, and Dibbs Buckley living in the backyard studio with his gorgeous wife Delish — a name whose accent fell on the second syllable because it was short for delicious.

The backyard studio had been added when the house was owned by one of the Pre-Raphaelites — either Holman Burne-Jones or Edward Everett Hunt, I can never remember which, having conceived, as you might have gathered, a hatred for the Brotherhood and all their works which has endured to this day. But the Pre-Raphs knew how to look after themselves. The studio was a split-level pavilion befitting Buckley’s status as incomparably the most successful young Australian expatriate. Sidney Nolan had taken decades to break through but Dibbs, while the dust from the rubble was still rising, made his entrance through the same hole with a Qantas bag over his shoulder. The Marlborough Gallery was selling his pictures as fast as he could paint them, which was very fast indeed, because he worked in sequences. Golden-haired, rugby-nosed and as restless as a surfer on a wet day, he chose a theme, painted every possible variation on it, and then sold his sketchbooks and preliminary drawings along with the pictures. Before sending the drawings off for sale he would deck them out with quotations from his current reading. Privately I thought this practice a slightly premature assumption of immortality but publicly I smoked his expensive cigars and drank his even more expensive imported Australian beer, while doting, like every other red-blooded male of Dibbs’s acquaintance, on the seraphically lovely Delish — an admiration which in my case she didn’t pretend to reciprocate. Mortification was eased by the fact that she plainly didn’t care much for any of us. Unusually for a woman, she didn’t favour even Dave with a soft eye. She would smile at him occasionally, but it was only a refrigerator door opening.

Delish was a van Eyck angel in jeans and T-shirt, but she had a hard business brain and could spot anyone who would waste her husband’s time a mile off. Dibbs’s propensity to sit around drinking and yarning with his less luminous fellow countrymen she regarded as a tolerable, or at any rate inevitable, subsidiary urge, but she had a clock running somewhere in the background and always made sure he was dead on time for dinner with Sir Kenneth Clark. At the end of the day’s work, if the late autumn weather was fine, we would gather around the great oak in front of the studio to drink away our respective memories of Penguin Books, luxury cars that broke down on the M1, the rigours of Cornwall’s Erections and an enormously demanding sequence of paintings about Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies. The arguments were more heated than illuminating. Dibbs would hail the greatness of Matisse, I would explain that Matisse was essentially derivative, Dibbs would correctly insist that the circa 1906 Matisses in Leningrad were of an unparalleled grandeur, and I would pour scorn all the more eloquently for not having been to Leningrad and knowing nothing about the subject. Meanwhile Dave had the blacked-out look he got when he was mentally working on a screen-play and Reg wondered openly how these egomaniacs could breathe the same air. It was a pleasant pastime, which for the rest of us went on after Delish had appeared, whispered in Dibbs’s ear, and taken him inside. But when, half an hour later, the two of them would emerge transformed — Dibbs in a dinner jacket with his aureate locks carefully tousled, Delish in silver sandals and some dream of a plum-juice silk sheath held up by nothing but her perfect breasts — the pastime was shattered by reality. They were off to the opera and we weren’t. The dregs in the tins of beer tasted like aloes.

But the air of prosperity emanating from the backyard studio was contagious. Before winter had taken its grip, Dalziel had signed off from Cornwall’s Erections and signed on as a supply teacher. Reg handed in his chauffeur’s cap and took the same route to respectability. Though they never knew what school they would be teaching at tomorrow there was usually work, and, more important, always a decent pay-packet. Australian supply teachers were in good repute, especially if they taught English, because among the natives the ability to spell and parse their own language was already becoming scarce. Each morning the three of us left for work looking the height of bourgeois conformity. My beard was still in place but the effect was tempered by Reg’s spare tweed jacket, which he eventually let me have at a low price after I had burned a hole in the sleeve. At the end of the day we would converge again out of the cold, exhaling puffs of steam but with enough spare energy to get on with real life. I worked at my poems, Reg chipped away at the opening sentence of a novel which might well be finished by now, and Dave, with Dingoes willing co-operation, transported the increasingly less rough assembly of The Man from the Organisation from one borrowed editing room to another. Dinner was meat — not hunks of meat, as in Australia, but pathetic scraps of meat, as in Britain — which the girls upstairs transformed into edible dishes by heating it in secret ways and adding bits of stuff to it. There was a lot of wine. The evening usually grew into a party. Life had acquired a certain rhythm.

Spencer disrupted it. When left behind in Australia, he had been bisexual, broke, and an expert at wasting his outstanding verbal gift. Now, suddenly, he was married to an heiress, had arrived in London by aircraft, possessed money to burn, and was set on making the West End the jumping-off point for an assault on world theatre. He wanted me to collaborate with him on the writing of a revue. Once written, the show would be financed by his wife’s father, whose name in Australia was synonymous with a brand of fly-paper which hung in every home. For almost fifty years (Pam, Spencer’s wife, was a child of the tycoon’s third, or it could have been fourth, marriage) money had been accumulating in the family vault with the tempo and volume of flies hitting sticky paper across Australia’s three million square miles of hot rock. Now the cash would be put to creative use. Spencer explained all this to me while he manoeuvred a second-hand but sumptuous Armstrong-Siddeley Sapphire towards the terrace house he and Pam had taken in Hampstead. A whole floor of the house had been fitted out as a study. High-quality cigarettes and alcohol, purchased on Spencer’s Harrods account, stood within reach of a casual hand. The typewriter was the size of a grand piano. Here we settled down one Saturday and discussed what we were going to write. We were still discussing it on Sunday. Pam did the cooking, which consisted principally of examining the tin of jellied pheasant until she found the instructions for getting it open. Spencer and I did the talking. Nobody did any actual writing but it was early days and careful planning was held to be a virtue. The show, provisionally called The Charge of the Light Fandango, would galvanise the comic theatre out of the complacency into which it had been plunged by the inexplicable success of Beyond the Fringe. Spencer and I found it hard to agree about most things but on that point we concurred: the audience must not be truckled to. The current fad for undergraduate irreverence, we knew, merely flattered their philistine self-satisfaction. We would provide something less palatable.

But success lay in the future — rather further in the future than either of us could possibly imagine. Meanwhile here was a quasi-creative way of justifying a succession of drunken winter weekends. One could get smashed and call it a theatrical experiment. Theatre, always absurdly overvalued in London, was at that time spoken of with religious awe. Some of the older actors deserved the worship they attracted. I saw Gielgud in The Cherry Orchard and thought him as good as the play. Somehow I got to Chichester and saw Olivier’s Othello. When he ripped the crucifix from his neck and flung it aside, you knew that it had flown straight down the gangway to his dressing-room and hung itself on a hook: the physical energy was volcanic but precise, like his articulation of the words, which his super-spade accent coated with bitter chocolate but did not blur. Put out delight and den put out delight. Exactly what he did put out, the sexy devil.

Alas, it was already the twilight of the great actors. The producer was the new king. This was all right if the gimmick fitted: Peter Hall’s Troilus and Cressida, previously known as Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida,lost nothing by being put on in a sand-tray and Dorothy Tutin looked good barefooted, kicking granular silicon all over the Americans in the front stalls. For Peter Brook’s all-leather King Lear, however, Paul Scofield had been encouraged to adopt a gravel voice. From the circle of the Aldwych I couldn’t hear what he was talking about. He looked like Tugboat Annie on a wet night and sounded like a cement mixer. Even worse, the director had run the first three acts together without an interval. There was no way of knowing this fact in advance unless you had bought a programme and I had bought a couple of extra pints of bitter instead. In the exact centre of a very long row of people, by the end of the first act I was ready for a pee. By the end of the second act I was ready for emergency surgery. When the third act followed without a break I knew that something would have to be done, possibly in situ. I held out as long as I could and then started crawling across people’s knees. On stage, Gloucester was having his eyes put out. In the circle, there was a man struggling desperately sideways towards the exit through an entanglement of legs, like one of those American footballers in training who have to run very fast with knees high through piles of tyres.

I made it to safety approximately in time, but as I stood there — or, rather, reeled and swayed there like a man watering his lawn with a hose which had been unexpectedly connected to a powerful artesian well — it began to strike me that the capacity of my bladder was perhaps incompatible with the quantities of liquid I was attempting to put into it. Over the next decade I attempted to solve this problem by forcing even more liquid in, on the assumption that this would enlarge the receptacle. Common sense, which might have suggested that this was the wrong approach, was vitiated by the method itself. When I finally embraced abstinence it was because of the simple urge to work a longer day. Thus, without joining Alcoholics Anonymous, I was at last able to leave Piss-Artists Notorious. But that’s a much later story. At the time we are talking about, I was a man out of control, sobbing with relief in a urinal while the lights were going out on the Third Servant as he fetched flax and whites of eggs for Gloucester’s bleeding face.

The return to my seat in the audience was effected by the same route employed on leaving it. At least nobody mistook my performance for part of the production. But following hard upon producer’s theatre came the theatre of group improvisation, one of whose hallmarks was that the actors were practically never on the actual stage, but were continually roaming up and down the gangways looking for trouble. New York’s Living Theater had come to town and its collectively inspired cast spent the whole time in the audience provoking hostile bourgeois response and thus unveiling the insidious nature of US imperialism, although there was rarely any mention of the especially insidious aspect of US imperialism represented by the Living Theater. London’s typical literary couple — he a novelist, she a cookery correspondent or vice versa — would sit dutifully attentive in their aisle seats while a naked six-foot white actor with a beard, or a naked six-foot black actor without a beard but with an earring, thrust his bottom in their faces as a challenge to their honky values. Afterwards they would invite him home to insult them further, consume all the liquor in their stripped-pine drinks cabinet and violate their teenage daughter.

Dibbs and Delish Buckley varied from this practice only by inviting the whole cast. Our nostrils invaded by an unfamiliar sweet odour, Dave, Reg and I went out into the yard one chill night and found it inhabited by murmuring people in fancy dress, passing, after one dainty puff each, an oddly defeated-looking roll-your-own cigarette around in a circle. Having included herself for some reason in this silent pow-wow, Delish looked especially exotic, like a Dior mannequin in a hobo camp. Unasked yet vociferously confident, I joined the circle, making sure, when the butt got to me, that I dealt with it properly. I sucked it to a stub in two jumbo drags. ‘Who is this asshole?’ whispered a huge black man standing by the oak tree. I knew he was black because I couldn’t see him against the dark trunk and I knew he was huge because the voice came from high up. Delish gave me one of those downward waves of the hand with which she customarily apologised for the provincial behaviour of her husband’s hangers-on. She had beautiful hands, incidentally: deeply tanned but glowing with that edible, enviable golden health which Modigliani gave his odalisques while he was dying. Cruel one, I pursue thee over the rolling billows. Horace said that. Someone must have put him through it.