Books: Falling Towards England — Prelude to the Aftermath |
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Falling Towards England — Prelude to the Aftermath


You could tell how winter became spring by the way the pile of manuscript paper representing The Charge of the Light Fandango doubled in size, from two pages to four pages. There had never been four pages to match them. Spencer and I had once written obscurely but here was the evidence that we had grown out of all that. Now we wrote impenetrably. We were producing the first truly post-Cubist material in the history of comedy. Any idea that made us laugh we would hone and refine until it didn’t. Then we would try it on Pam to make sure that it met our standards. If she looked sufficiently bewildered, it was in. If she laughed, we took it back for a rewrite.

Despite the unnerving proximity of the lost Leslie, I was also feeling pretty cocky at work. Sir Allen Lane had given over the day-to-day management of Penguin to a whizz-kid called Tony Godwin. Actually Godwin was already in his forties but it was a symptom of Britain’s post-war condition that anyone given power before his hair turned white was called a whizz-kid. Godwin’s hair was worn long and thick to frame his Caribbean sun-tan, with a candy-striped high-collared shirt, kipper tie and waist-hugging charcoal mohair suit all conspiring to connect the heavy head with the lightweight shoes. A star player in a gentlemen’s game, Godwin was clearly very bright. His neglect of the back catalogue was to have deleterious effects in the long term, but there were enough attendant lords who could have looked after that aspect if they had seen its urgency. In the search for new titles, however, he was truly adventurous. He brought in a young editor called Tony Richardson — no relation to the film director — who took the unprecedented step of commissioning a book about the Beatles. I liked Richardson’s company. More surprisingly, since he was so fastidiously quiet, he liked mine, and over coffee in the canteen would take time to explain his concern with trivia. Instead of dismissing popularity as a sure sign of the meretricious, he wanted to find out what lay behind it. Laden with first-class academic honours, he was properly suspicious of mere trendiness — the word was new then — but equally averse to the ivory tower, which he thought was a dead weight. The energy of the ignorant fascinated him. He was a deep young man but it turned out, alas, that a lot of his reticence was economy of effort. He was ill, and soon died. Hardly having known him, I missed him, and some people who knew him better never quite got over the loss.

So the two big ideas I had discussed with Richardson I took to Godwin himself. Penguin had published the occasional science fiction novel in the worthy British tradition but there were vast American sources which remained untapped. There was a boom on the way and Penguin could get in first. The same applied to books about the movies — not boring studies by Paul Rotha about Film or Cinema, but books about the movies. I wrote Godwin a long memo on the subject. To his credit he took me out to lunch on the strength of it. I must have put my case badly. Proving to him that I was a fanatic in both fields was probably a mistake. Dismissing his driver and taking the wheel of the big Jaguar himself, he drove us to a secluded pub. Seizing my opportunity before he got the car into third gear, I spoke continuously, but instead of raving about twenty different science fiction writers with names like Cordwainer Simak and swooning over twenty different film directors with names like Ray Siodmak, I should have been judiciously enthusiastic about a maximum two of each. ‘We might do a bit more science fiction,’ Godwin said, in a tone of voice that told me my cause was lost, ‘but I don’t need a buff who knows all about the neglected minor novels of Kohl and Pornbluth. I need an editor who can see a big project all the way through without wasting my time and the company’s money.’ Dandyish himself, he perhaps took my beard as a sign of unsoundness. He would have been right, of course. ‘Pohl and Kornbluth,’ I said feebly, knowing that he had slipped up on purpose as a contribution towards letting me down lightly. Still, the pub lunch had made a change from the canteen. In the canteen I would have had a tray full of ordinary food and some excellent views of Leslie. In the pub I got a piece of stale French loaf with a dead shallot laid out on it, a dollop of shepherd’s pie like a rhino’s diarrhoea, and a good solid dose of rejection. By and large it is our failures that civilise us, but one doesn’t want to take that principle too far.

Up until that point I had taken a relaxed attitude to my job, but from then on I became positively somnolent. With the arrival of spring it became easier to get a good day’s sleep just by resting my head on the desk. Come autumn I would be back in those groves of academe outside of which, it was becoming increasingly clear, I was unqualified to function. Meanwhile there was one last summer of hard labour to be lived through. The vie bohème at Melbury Road reached its peak, and, as usually occurs when happiness is perceived as such, began instantly to melt away. On weekends we drank at Henekey’s in the Portobello Road. Ella Fitzgerald sang at the Hammersmith Odeon. Gallas and Gobbi were in Tosca at Covent Garden. Not even Nick Thesinger could get in but we all saw the show on television, which was black and white in those days but made Callas look all the more dramatic. The girls on the top floor had a television set that gave you quite a good picture if you hit it with your clenched fist at the right angle. I spent hours in front of it and would have been hard put to disagree with anyone who accused me of wasting my time. Only a decade later did it turn out that I had been engaged in formative studies.

As a luxury we would dine out at Jimmy’s in Soho. Jimmy’s was a basement restaurant in Frith Street. Bianchi’s, the restaurant favoured by successful people in journalism and television — not yet collectively known as the media — was further along the street and two floors up. It was said that those two floors were the longest climb in London. It cost more than ten times as much to eat at Bianchi’s as at Jimmy’s and I liked things well enough below ground. The place had started life as an air-raid shelter but had gone down since. Yet the low price of the lamb chops was not reflected in their taste, which was made only more piquant by the number and size of the caterpillars in the salad. On Sunday afternoons, with attendant women reading heavy newspapers on the sidelines, we played soccer with a tennis ball in Holland Park, adding our profane cries to the clattering of the peacocks who otherwise carried the full burden of disrupting the open-air concerts.

Reg went missing from the team when he got a message from Sydney saying that an ex girl-friend had died after an illegal operation. Though it was nothing to do with him, he blamed himself for having been away, a reaction which suggested — correctly, as things turned out — that he would be going home for good. In those last pre-Pill days, the possibility of a back-street abortion was the unstated but inescapable sub-text of the revels, whether you were a shy tyro in Sydney or an experienced roué in London. One of the girls upstairs at Melbury Road was caught out during my last few weeks in residence. Her English company director suitor was long gone. I got the job of taking her to the appointment, waiting for her in the dark parlour which served as a reception area, and taking her home when the deed was done. Her sense of loss afterwards would have been food for the moralist. Yet what struck me, and strikes me still, was her fear beforehand. I wish I could have said better things. Thank God for changed times. The contraceptives weren’t hard to live with if a lady didn’t mind playing hostess to a small floppy frisbee full of hair-gel and a gentleman didn’t mind dressing part of his anatomy as a bleached frogman. But a misfortune could bring misery. The way out of the misery could bring tragedy. Women took that way out because the alternatives were impossible. Today people need to be reminded that the choice is not between legal abortion and the supposedly edifying effects of bringing up an unwanted child. The choice is between legal abortion and illegal abortion. To know something of what an illegal abortion was like, you didn’t need to have seen a girl’s corpse after an unsuccessful operation. Ail you needed to have seen was a girl’s face on the way to a successful one. They never put the appointment in their diaries. They always wrote the address on a piece of paper, so that they could throw it away afterwards.

Society was to blame. Actually, on this point, it was, but I held it to blame on most other points as well. My radicalism, now further fuelled by semi-regular reading of the New Left Review, found expression at the London School of Economics, where I turned up unasked to the weekly student debates and joined in from the floor. The standard of articulacy was not high. Neither was my standard of logic, but that deficiency made me more prolix instead of less. Harry Pollitt’s son Brian, an ex-President of the Cambridge Union, was the star guest one night. He had inherited his father’s politics but a privileged education had obviously softened them. When my turn came to speak I pointed out, truly if not wisely, that egalitarianism would remain a dream as long as places like Cambridge existed, Pollitt agreed that Cambridge should be levelled forthwith but put in a plea for the retention of King’s College Chapel. He had his tongue in his cheek and knew it. I had my head up my arse and didn’t, but to some of the less perspicacious students present I must have sounded like the more committed revolutionary. After the debate, two of them approached me and told me proudly that while earning extra money on the building site of a new housing development they had been deliberately fiddling with the wiring so as to hasten the downfall of capitalism. With sudden visions of some old lady switching on the immersion heater and blasting herself to kingdom come, I instructed these teenage saboteurs to get down there next morning and put things right pronto. Shivering in the summer midnight as I waited for a bus back to Kensington High Street, I resolved to abandon the revolution then and there. This might sound like easy come, easy go. But I doubt if I was ever the sort of harebrained dabbler with ideas who turns up in Dostoevsky and Conrad. My convictions were strong enough. Yet my instincts were even stronger, and they were all against any notion that ends can justify means. I had what it took to be feckless, but realpolitik was beyond me. So it needed only a little event to overcome a big idea. Many reluctant liberals would have similar tales to tell about their retreat from radical certainty. There is no mystery involved. The solidarity of the Left is a mirage. The common ground between revolutionaries and parliamentarians is made of air. Its transparency can be rendered apparent by a very small fact. You can be in a demonstration, someone near you will bend to pick up a stone, and you will realise that you are in the wrong place. Being obliged to remember from that day forward that your fine ideas weighed less than a pebble will never be comforting, but always salutary.

Not having yet informed Penguin that I would soon be doing a bunk, I shamelessly took my annual holiday as a reward for all my hard work. Françoise was waiting on Florence railway station and her joy at seeing my beard again can be imagined. This time there was no question of compromising her reputation at the pensione. Instead we took a room at Lastra a Signa, a suburb on the edge of town, where I compromised her reputation with the entire district. The room was an ex-bathroom which had been converted by adding extra tiles to the ceiling. The landlady made it clear that only the recent double hernia sustained by her hod-carrying husband had led her to even consider offering this wonderful abode to an unmarried couple. Unlike her husband, however, she had the forbearance not to join the crowd of menacingly staring locals who followed us in the street. Usually he was in the forefront, no doubt to make up with persecuting zeal for the compromise which had been forced on his wife by his economic weakness. For a man with a serious physical disability he certainly knew how to spit. It was like that terrible scene in L’Avventura when Monica Vitti gets followed around by a town’s whole population of deprived males. Françoise’s good looks, however, though sufficiently startling, were not quite enough to explain the element of potential homicide informing that massed masculine gaze. It was my beard that had tipped them over the edge. They probably didn’t like my shoes, either — a new ox-blood pair with gold buckles at the sides. The shoes had cost not much more than five pounds, so I don’t suppose the buckles were real gold. But they weren’t superfluous. They were holding down the straps. It was the straps that were superfluous.

Incipient hatred of all Italian males was staved off by deeper acquaintance with Leopardi and Enrico. Leopardi had been dead for some time but his poetry, painfully construed by me with Françoise’s patient assistance, was a revelation. Enrico’s paintings perhaps lacked the same hard-won authority but he was alive. He was the lover of Françoise’s friend Faith, a fine-boned English modern languages graduate who had come to Florence in search of Petrarch and stayed on to live with Enrico. They had a farmhouse on a winding road out past Fiesole in the northern hills. Enrico helped buy the food for Faith to cook. He also helped cook it. He had a boules court set up in the back yard, near the chicken coop. His Italian was fast and funny yet so clear that I could feel my grasp of the language improving as I listened. He spent a lot of time on helping me to speak it — far more time than any truly committed artist would have had to spare. The truth was that his temporary job as an art teacher was becoming a full-time job and that both he and Faith had fallen victim to happiness. Instead of achieving their ambitions, they had improved their lives. It was all such a waste, I would tell them as I drank their wine. Françoise agreed with this analysis, or anyway didn’t disagree.

Back in England, I found Dalziel on the point of leaving for Africa. A job as head of the Nigerian Government Film Unit had come up and he had decided that a couple of years spent making a documentary every two weeks about politicians giving speeches would still be better experience than living on hope in London. The rough cut of The Man from the Organisation got him the job. The Nigerians thought it was a true story but liked the close-ups. I hated to see him go, but in only a few days I would be gone myself. Dibbs had already left for New York, where his sequence of paintings featuring Delish on a massage table had created a sensation. The masseur was variously Freud, Einstein, Kafka and Elvis Presley, with appended texts from each. Dave shared my scepticism but characteristically cut through to the heart of the matter. ‘If he spent less time writing down quotable quotes he could learn to draw,’ said the new head of the Nigerian Government Film Unit while packing his canvas hold-all. ‘But he’s got the colour. Especially that sky blue. It looks just like home.’ Warning me not to get lost in the books, Dalziel moved out. His parting words were typically lyrical. ‘Don’t put a dent in the beef bayonet.’ Until three replacements moved in I had the flat to myself. At Penguin I had given my notice, which was eagerly accepted. Leslie seemed to mind least of all. They would have been even keener to see my back if they had known how close I had come to supplying Bertram D. Wolfe’s photograph for the cover of a book by Bernard Wolfe. At least I hadn’t sent them Virginia Woolf. But only a frantic sprint down the corridor and a degrading last-minute tussle with the art-editor had averted the same sort of catastrophe which I had been hired to prevent in the first place.

Down at the Iron Bridge I told Dingo all about it as part of a campaign to amuse him on his last night. Unaccountably he had decided that the place to be an Australian journalist was Australia, so he was not attempting to renew his appointment. He told me all this through the din caused by an ancient male singer who upgraded his performance of ‘Mule Train’ by hitting himself on the head with a tin tray. Not notably more smashed than usual, Dingo sold me the Ford Popular for a shilling. A non-driver, I didn’t want it for transport. I wanted it for a monument. By dead of night, Dingo steered it to the designated spot, and there we left it to rust — in front of Hearty McHale’s. The first phase of my career in London was thus summed up as having had nuisance value and nothing more. I went home to an empty flat.

My suitcase looked eager to be away. Stained white with dried rain, even my shoes were itching to be gone. By now they were Gush Puppies, but they would take me to safety. On the flag-stones of ancient courtyards they would find a sure footing.