Books: Falling Towards England — The Deep Tan Fades |
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Falling Towards England — The Deep Tan Fades


The foundations of Delish Buckley’s profound tan had been laid in Australia. That much went without saying. She and I had both been exposed to the same intensity and duration of ultra-violet. Even though she had done most of her elegantly splayed spine-bashing on the high-toned beaches north of Newport, whereas I had been mainly confined to the humbler inlets stretching south from Bondi to Cronulla, it had been the same free sunlight for both of us. But Delish’s tan was now being topped up by regular visits to the Bahamas, St Tropez and — the Buckleys practically discovered the place — Bali. Her tan was intact. Mine was a memory. In Australia, even during winter, one had always had, when one examined oneself before the mirror, a tide-mark around one’s waist and upper thighs. When naked, even at one’s most wan, one had always looked, at the very least, as if one were wearing a nifty little pair of white panties. But after the second year in London the hallowed demarcation line paled away, never properly to return. Stripped to the waist on a summer’s day in Holland Park, the most you could acquire was a mild pink blush. Jamaicans in Fair Isle beanies laughed as they danced past your outstretched form. At night the pink rash itched like an authentic burn but declined to alter the skin’s pigmentation. The melanin remained unmoved. You woke in the morning looking more than ever like a peeled raw potato about a week old, with a certain subtle tinge of azure to its chill whiteness. For the girls, the disaster could be staved off with a sun-lamp or, failing that, a timely application of Tan-Fastic. For the men, most of whom could barely afford to keep an ordinary electric bulb burning, there was nothing to do except become resigned. Turning pale was part of one’s commitment to the great adventure.

As so often happens in matters of morale, to give up the symbol led to a wholesale erosion of the reality it stood for. When the Chindits in Burma lost hope, they gave up shaving, and when they gave up shaving they would die of a cut finger. When we lost our tan, the emblem of our bronzed Aussie robustness, we tended to yield along the whole front of general fitness and healthy diet. Dalziel was an exception: he had never smoked and always drank less than other people so that he could give them orders in a credible voice. The rest of us smoked as much as our credit would stand. My borrowing requirement for cigarettes always ran at an unreal proportion of salary. Each time I shifted to smaller cigarettes, I upped the frequency with which I demolished them. By now I had left Players No. 6, the kiddies’ cigarette, far behind, and was smoking some brand that looked as if it should have been dangling from the lower lip of a hamster. But I sucked them in like short lengths of spaghetti.

The steady kippering of my insides had so far led to only intermittent convulsions — the average coughing fit was easily quelled by squeezing my head between my knees — but my wind already showed signs of impairment. If I ran a hundred yards for a stationary bus I couldn’t get up the stairs after I had caught it. Like most people who smoked umpteen cigarettes a day, I tasted only the first one. The succeeding umpteen minus one were a compulsive ritual which had no greater savour than the fumes of burning money. To have experienced the full thrill, one would have had to have been one’s own girl-friend, for whom mouth-to-mouth contact clearly had the same effect as sucking the exhaust pipe of a diesel truck. Smoking so many more cigarettes than you felt like smoking was supposed to indicate an addiction to nicotine, but I suspect that in my case it was merely gluttony. Call it an addictive personality if you like, but since the age of nought I had never been able to get enough of anything. First it was milk and then it was marshmallows.

Just after the war my mother was invited to an RSL social evening in Kogarah. Whereas any man who had served in any capacity could be a full member of the Returned Servicemen’s League, she, a war widow whose husband had died on active service, had to wait to be invited into the RSL hall as a guest. Such was the position of women in Australia at that time. One of the most prominent dignitaries of the local RSL lived in our street. He had spent the war as a quartermaster at Singleton, with special responsibility for latrine-boring equipment. My mother’s inclination was to wish a plague on the whole business, but she wanted to give me a night out, and the social evening had a special supper for children. A highlight of the supper was marshmallows. Several of the children ate half a dozen of these each and felt sick. I swallowed two dozen and felt fine, except when my breathing stopped. Picked up from where I was writhing on the floor, I was held aloft by giant hands and slapped vigorously on the back. Nothing happened for some time, and then a pink-and-white mass of congealed marshmallows the size and splendour of a shampoo-soaked satin cushion from Zsa-Zsa Gabor’s boudoir hit the floor with a sticky plop.

This pattern was to recur. I had better be silent about the ticklish matter of a certain famous pie, except to say that if that brand of meat pie had not been meant to be eaten in excess, its pastry would not have been so enticingly soggy, and that if the pie had not been meant to be regurgitated, the cubes of meat gleaming through its sludge of gravy would not have been so purple. But the RSL marshmallows and the meat pies happened in Australia, as an occasional alternative to good home cooking, and where the effects of gourmandise could be offset by exercise. In London there was no home cooking worthy of the name. When you were in funds you ate out. But only the people whose faces appeared in such publications as Town and Queen could afford to eat in restaurants serving food which would leave them looking and feeling better instead of worse. ‘A way of life based on the glossy magazine,’ Harold Macmillan had said in a bid to touch the common pulse, and his very words told you how remote the idea was from everyday experience.

When we felt rich, we ate in the local Angus Steak House, where a bland but plump piece of animal was accompanied by reasonably crisp chips and a half tomato cut with a toothed circumference, like a rubicund cogwheel. When we felt less rich, we might eat at a certain British chain of hamburger restaurants devoted to serving nothing else. In recent years, perhaps encouraged by competition from McDonald’s, the British hamburger has become a credit to the nation. At the time of which I speak, it looked like a scorched beer-coaster or a tenderised disc brake. Flanked by chips which, if picked up individually on a fork, either shattered or else drooped until their ends touched, the British hamburger lay there sweltering under its limp grey duvet of over-fried onions. When you cut it up, put the pieces in your mouth and swallowed them, the British hamburger shaped itself to the bottom of your stomach like ballast, while interacting with your gastric juices to form an incipient belch of enormous potential, an airship which had been inflated in a garage. This belch, when silently released, would cause people standing twenty yards away to start examining the soles of their shoes. The vocalised version sounded like a bag of tools thrown into a bog.

The British hamburger thus symbolised, with savage neatness, the country’s failure to provide its ordinary people with food which did anything more for them than sustain life. In Italy, for the same price as a typical British hamburger meal including sweet, a builder’s labourer could eat like a king — rather better in fact, because pasta dishes gain from being kept simple. Françoise, short of lire herself, and with her slim resources cut in half by my presence, always took me where the poor ate well. In Britain this opportunity was not on the cards. It was said that a poor man could eat well in Britain if he ate a British Railways breakfast three times a day, but British Railways was already in the process of putting its breakfast beyond the reach of the average wage-earner — a process which was to culminate, after the name-change to British Rail, in a successful effort to put the same breakfast beyond the reach of the Duke of Westminster. A more practical alternative to the British hamburger — more practical than climbing on a train just to eat — was the workers’ café, or kayf. Alas, not every district had one of these. At their best, the kayfs had a certain style. Men with flat caps, donkey jackets and chipped fingernails could fill up on beef and two veg plus spotted dick with custard. At their worst, the kayfs sliced the beef with the same sectioning equipment used to prepare laboratory specimens for mounting on a microscope slide. Even worse than the worst, there was Wally’s, still bubbling away like a tub of hot fat in the lane behind Warwick Road, only a few hundred yards away from Melbury Road across Kensington High Street. All too often we would end up at Wally’s because we were collectively too broke for any other solution except one: the last, the zero option, which was to eat at home.

This wasn’t so bad when the girls on one of the floors above us did the cooking, but they weren’t always available. Most evenings we would send an ambassador upstairs to explore the possibility of having our food cooked for us. Usually the girls would invite us all up and help transform our scrawny chops or dreadful packets of sausages and streaky bacon into something edible. But increasingly often they were lost in the throes of preparing a beef Stroganoff or a casserole, the centrepiece of some candle-lit dinner party for English suitors in charcoal pin-stripe suits. It got to the point where the girls would be wearing full-length gowns and jewellery. The Ruperts and Christophers would arrive in cabs full of roses. The stench of flowers on the stairs drove us back defeated into our all-male domain, where there was nothing to do except fend for ourselves, with predictable results. Supermarket food bred a supermarket mentality. I myself could account for a pound of pork sausages at a sitting. I don’t know exactly what was in the sausages, but I did know that a block of ice-cream made by the same firm didn’t taste significantly different.

Though Dalziel made sure he got to a health-food restaurant once a month, the rest of us ate junk because it was easy and I ate more junk than anybody because to keep on eating was easier than stopping. For brief spells the supervisory care of an accompanying woman led to a saner diet, but the only reason this happened was because letting her look after the food was easier than looking after it myself. It was the line of least resistance, and usually it led downwards. I had not yet begun to put on weight, but the possibility was there, like the side of a hill getting ready to slip. There was a falling feeling, especially in the scalp. My comb had hair in it. When the others told me I had a bald patch I told them it was an enlarged crown, but with a shaving mirror held at an angle over my head like a halo I looked into the bathroom mirror and saw a would-be tonsure about the size of a florin. American graduates in hair technology called this the ‘O’ effect. The ‘O’ effect at the back of my head was being approached by an ‘M’ effect at the front, where my temples, when I pulled the hair back from them with the edge of my hand, were retreating as I watched. Add this combination to my wrecked mouth, my all-over pallor and an escalating inability to make any sudden move without coughing for ten minutes, and you had a lot to worry about. And when you had a lot to worry about, the thing to do was to have a lot to drink.

Everybody I knew drank all the time, so I wasn’t unusual in that. But I was unusual, I now see, in so easily getting drunk. I couldn’t see it then because I was always either drunk or recovering. What I had was a ridiculously light head. I had no more business drinking alcohol than someone allergic to cheese has eating pizza. Unfortunately I liked the feeling of getting tight. When we all went down to the pub in the evenings, I discovered with intense pleasure that the revoltingly cheery horse-brass décor was already out of focus after the second pint of brown water. After the third pint I could barely articulate, and like most people in that condition I found articulation a matter of urgency. Trying to say something of extreme importance, I dimly registered that my tongue was moving slowly. So I started to say the same thing again, as if repetition would get the message across. At closing time it was a hundred-yard walk home for everybody else and about half a mile for me. Every few seconds I would spot the rest of the blokes and try to join them, but couldn’t find them again until I had bounced off a brick wall or a parked car. The hangover next morning would be an epic. Overnight dehydration shrivelled my eyes to raisins. Every morning my tongue was like a small sand dune abraded by a hot wind.

Nowadays, more than ten years after swearing off the demon rum, I can take half an inch of wine with a meal without seizing the bottle from the waiter and tilting it to my pursed lips. Strictly speaking, therefore, I was never an alcoholic. I didn’t need to be. Just as most people who take cocaine are not drug addicts, but behave so badly that they might as well be, so did I manifest every characteristic of the true booze artist. Except one: my leg wasn’t hollow. Or to put it another way: my head wasn’t hard enough to let my leg fill up. I got paralytic too quickly to do myself any major damage. The authentic toper bombs his brain-cells with a bottle of Scotch a day and you never notice until they take him away for a liver transplant. Me you noticed in the first few minutes. All the more unlikely, then, that the delicately poised Leslie should even contemplate an emotional alliance.

Yet it happened, although so briefly that I doubted its occurrence immediately afterwards. Probably I doubted its occurrence even during, and thus hastened its end. Though she was undemonstrative to the point of shyness, it was all too obvious that she was letting me into her life as a distraction from heartbreak. A long love affair with a married man was either reaching the usual conclusion or had entered one of the usual off-again hiatuses preceding the usual conclusion. The older and more experienced man having lost his charm, the way was open for the younger and less experienced man to pose his more easily thwarted threat. The door to her affections opened so suddenly that I can forgive myself for falling through it, but not for flailing straight across the room and toppling out of the window. Leslie would have had a civilising effect on me, given time. We made our first private-life contact not at Harmondsworth or in the Kombibus but at the London Library in St James’s Square. I was there doing research into authors’ photographs. Each week I gave myself a whole day at the London Library to dig up previously unused, easily distinguishable pictures of, say, Maxwell Anderson, Sherwood Anderson and Robert E. Sherwood. This took about twenty minutes. The rest of the day I would read. I read many volumes of the proceedings of the Nuremberg Tribunal, thereby saddening myself deeply but gaining a valuable inoculation of disillusionment — the precondition for a realistic happiness. Just on cue to help me test this theory out, Leslie showed up in one of the metal-floored book-stacks so that I could clank casually around the corner of a wall of shelves and meet her face to face. She was collecting references for one of the Peregrines she was editing. Peregrines were seriously highbrow Penguins and Leslie was a seriously highbrow person. Being that, being a woman and being in publishing, she was also seriously underpaid, but her little basement flat in Pimlico was a delight. Well used to not noticing my surroundings, I noticed these. Like everything about her the interior decoration was lightly done but not too dimity. There were postcard pictures of Colette and Simone de Beauvoir, of Alma Mahler-Werfel and Lou Andreas-Salome. Not even names to me at that time, they crowded Leslie’s mantelpiece with what she presumably took to be friendly faces. Virginia Woolf was up there on the wall, like a sad horse sticking its head in through a window. Sipping tea, I made myself at home. Helping myself to her vodka, I made myself too at home, but that didn’t matter at first. The bull had arrived in the china shop but the proprietress welcomed the diversion.

A lot went on in two weeks. With Robin either out of town or safely ironing a large pile of shirts, I took Leslie to see the newly reconstituted complete print of La Règle du jeu at the Academy. She knew much more about Renoir than I did but imparted the knowledge more mercifully than I would have done had the positions been reversed. She had read modern languages at Somerville and had a wall full of Pléiade and Insel Verlag thin-paper editions to prove it. I scanned their immaculate spines with the mixture of desire and fury with which I still look at closed books even today. Eight years had gone by since she had come down from Oxford but she still went there every second weekend. The name Geoffrey was mentioned. I imagined some weedy countertenor in a long black academic gown. Casting myself as the iconoclast — it didn’t take much effort — I trampled on her tentatively expressed nostalgia for the cloisters, the libraries and the crocus-bordered lawns. In view of the fact that I was heading for just such a haven myself, this was the yelping of a dog in the manger, but it jolted her from her melancholy. During tea at the Tate one Saturday afternoon I gave her my complete diagnosis of Britain’s post-imperial ills. In the setting of Rex Whistler’s light-fantastic murals, my oration must have sounded wonderfully incongruous. Certainly it got her attention. Resting her chin on those porcelain wrists she stared at me absorbed, as if Lenin had mounted a soap-box in Kew Gardens.

Since I was too young for her in every way, the law of diminishing returns would have set in eventually, but for the nonce she was not bored. Horrified, but not bored, What put her off, then? Perhaps it was a combination of things, tolerable as separate symptoms yet adding up to a syndrome that no woman of refinement could long countenance. My nicotine-gilded right hand might have been a drawcard on its own: the man with the golden arm. Smoke must have given my lank hair and beard a cosy smell, like the snug of an old pub. My British hamburger breath spoke challengingly of the modern Britain. Hush Puppies having attained a ubiquity which made me less defiant about associating them with the repressive footwear of the sahibs, I had bought a pair, saving money by choosing a brand called something else. Judging by how, after the first hour of having had them on, the sweat of my feet reacted with their unbreathing uppers, my new shoes should have been called Mush Puppies. After a week they were Slush Puppies. Yet Leslie was able to laugh about them as I left them outside in the area under the wrought-iron staircase.

What she couldn’t laugh at, however, was the way I started turning up half-cut as soon as I thought she was in the bag, and then getting fully cut while I was with her. She might have pointed out, correctly, that it was an insult. Instead she just drifted out of reach. Before I could wake up to what was going missing, our friendship was back to where it began. I supposed then, and still prefer to suppose now, that I wanted it that way, and so hurried the business to its conclusion. There is, of course, always the possibility, however vanishingly small, that she simply didn’t like me, but that sort of thing happens only to other men, doesn’t it? No, she was too serious, too intense, too honest, too much. After my first evening with her I was already writing poems about saying goodbye for ever. It was a bit of a blow to find out that she felt roughly the same way, yet hurt pride was lost in the relief. Writers much more exalted than I am have the same weakness. Think twice before you get mixed up with a writer, and ten times before you marry one. Writers want things to be over, so that they can write the elegy. Gray toured that churchyard on the run.