Books: Falling Towards England — Beyond the Valley of the Kangaroos |
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Falling Towards England — Beyond the Valley of the Kangaroos


My new home was nondescript, in the strict sense of there being nothing to describe. Wallpaper, carpets and furniture had all been chosen so as to defeat memory. About twenty people were in residence. Most of them were failed South African and Rhodesian farmers with an accent so harsh it made mine sound like Sir John Gielgud’s. You met them not only at breakfast but in the evening as well, all sitting together watching ‘Tonight’ on television and shouting at the black man who sang the topical calypso. We were downstairs together because there was nothing we were allowed to do upstairs in our rooms alone. The list of rules forbade cooking in one’s room, taking already cooked food to one’s room, or taking food that did not need cooking to one’s room. No visitors were allowed in one’s room at any time for any reason: if one died, one’s body would be allowed to decompose. Breathing was allowed as long as it made no noise. The same applied to sleep. Anyone who snored would wake up in the street. The proprietor had not made the mistake of retaining the original thick internal walls. They had been replaced by twice as many very thin ones, through which he and his lipless wife could accurately hear, and, some lodgers whisperingly warned me, see.

The danger of noisy sleep, however, was largely obviated by the difficulty of sleeping at all. One blanket too few had been carefully provided, and the central heating, although it visibly existed, was cold to the touch and had to be topped up by a two-bar radiator which failed to glow the first time I switched it on. When I nervously complained about this it was pointed out to me that the radiator was on a meter. Having never seen a meter before, I had thought that the grey machine squatting heavily in the corner was part of the house’s electrical system. In a way it was, but making it function was up to me. I put in a shilling and the radiator came on. Gratefully I took off my top layer of T-shirts and running shorts, preparing for bed. The radiator went off. When I put in a florin the radiator glowed and fizzed for a bit longer but what the meter really liked was an enormous half-crown piece, a beautiful coin whose aesthetic appeal was enhanced by its then considerable purchasing power. I hated to see it go, and felt even worse, an hour or so later, when the meter, by instructing the radiator to dim out, signalled that it would like another coin the same size. The whole idea of paying to keep warm would have struck me as ludicrous if I could have stopped shivering. My teeth chattering like castanets, I doubled the thin pillow over my head to muffle the noise, so that it must have seemed, to my landlady poised outside in the corridor, as if I had ceased rehearsing for the title role in Carmen and started pain-training a rattlesnake.

My plan had been to take a low-paying menial job during the day and compose poetic masterpieces at night. After due reflection I decided that it would be preferable, at least initially, to take a high-paying job in journalism and sacrifice a small proportion of the masterpieces to expediency. From the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, Angus Maude, I had a letter of introduction to one of the Herald’s previous editors, John Douglas Pringle, like Maude an Englishman but unlike him now back in London and editing the Observer, a newspaper whose every issue I had devoured in Australia six weeks late, and which I was now able, with admiration increased still further by understanding, to read on the day of publication. I had vowed never to use this letter of introduction, which Maude had pressed on me against my declarations of artistic purity. Crammed randomly among the socks in my giant suitcase, it had become rumpled, but a glass ashtray heated at the radiator soon ironed it relatively smooth. Cleaning up the scorched ashtray with my toothbrush took somewhat longer. Armed with the letter and with a tartan tie thoughtfully added to the Hawaiian shirt, I went to see Pringle at the Observer’s building in Blackfriars. Eyeing my incipient beard with what I took to be grudging appreciation of its bohemian élan, he asked me what languages I could read and I said English. He asked me what I wanted to do and I said write features. As I ashed my duty-free Rothmans filter on to his carpet, he pointed out that he already had a building full of young feature writers who could read at least one foreign language, wrote perfectly acceptable English and had the additional virtue of knowing quite a lot about Britain, since they had been brought up in that country, i.e. this country. My ejection from his office followed so shortly upon my entrance into it that the two events were effectively continuous. What made it more galling was that I could see his point. There wasn’t really very much I could contribute to British journalism. On the other hand there probably wasn’t very much it could contribute to my artistic development, so perhaps this was less a set-back than a reprieve.

Back at what I had by now learned to call my digs, the problem of laundry loomed large. Open at the foot of my bed, the giant suitcase had nothing left in it that had not already been classified at least twice as too dirty to be worn, and some of my socks were twitching where they lay. So I bundled the whole heap into one of the landlady’s threadbare pillowcases and crunched off along a pavement of newly refrozen slush to the nearest launderette, otherwise known as the coin-wash, or — inaccurately but more evocatively — the bag-wash. (Strictly speaking it was only a bag-wash if you left somebody else holding the bag, and if you stayed to tend the machine yourself it was a coin-wash, but as usually happens, the fine semantic point gave way before the attractions of sonority.) The launderette had two rows of seats down the middle, back to back, so that everyone could watch his or her machine. The place was jammed and I had to wait for both a machine and a seat. During the waiting time I read the instructions. Large coins would be required for the machine and smaller ones to obtain a cup of soap. When my turn finally came I loaded the machine with a convincing nonchalance, poured in a cup of soap and sat down between two South Africans who were smiling to themselves. I could tell they were South Africans because (a) when they talked across me it was like being beaten up, and (b) two people from any other nation would have arranged to sit beside each other if they wanted to conduct a conversation. After ten minutes of going gwersh gwersh my machine proffered an explanation of why my companions had been smiling, snorting and clubbing each other with verbal truncheons of crushed Dutch. The window in the front of the machine having whited out completely, the flap in the top popped open and a gusher of suds began gouting out, enveloping the machine and advancing inexorably across the floor. It was an albino volcano. The South Africans were beside themselves and I was between them. They even laughed with that accent. Finally the woman in charge of the establishment came wading through the foam and added the antidote, some form of contra-detergent which killed the suds off inside the machine. I was handed a squeegee with which to contain the gleaming cloud around it.

After the second rinse, my clothes were ready to be slopped into a plastic basket and transferred to a centrifuge which would rid them of excess water. I was interested to note, during the transfer, that my shirts had taken on some of the colour of my socks. The South Africans had noticed this too and were reaching across my temporarily empty seat to hit each other with rolled-up copies of the News of the World, having apparently given up hope of reducing each other to unconsciousness by voice alone. The rattle of the centrifuge drowned out their merry cries. Next came the tumble drier, which required a large coin for half an hour’s tumble. It had a bigger window than the washing machine and gave you a better show, but at the end of it most of my clothes still felt wet, so I put in another coin and set them tumbling again. Resolving to bring a book next time — Prescott’s The Conquest of Mexico in three volumes would be about the right length — I occupied myself with observing how the yellow tint of the window was making my whites look tea-coloured instead of the pale bluish-grey they had been when I put them in. When the drier at last finished its second stint I opened the window and found that all my drip-dry shirts had indeed gone slightly saffron in colour — clearly as a preliminary to catching fire, because they were so hot I could hardly touch them. There was a riot of harshly accented laughter in the background.

When I got the shirts back to what I hated to call home, they proved to be not just aureate in hue, but brittle in texture. I put one of them on and a cuff broke off. The nylon polymer had been transformed into some friable variety of perspex. Another worrying aspect was the pillowcase, which I should have washed along with its contents. I would have to sleep holding my nose. But at least my personal linen was now fragrant enough to allow me a night out with the Australians at a party in Melbury Road, on the Holland Park side of Kensington High Street. This was perilously close to Earls Court, which I had vowed never to enter again, but as an evening’s distraction it beat watching television with the Voortrekkers. The previous evening there had been a play about a black African freedom fighter earning the respect of the security police by his bravery. Whenever the weary policemen stopped hitting him there were shouts of protest from my fellow lodgers. The uproar reached a climax when the black was allowed to make his dying speech without being assaulted. ‘Thet’s what’s rewning Efrica,’ said a voice from a winged chintz chair, ‘litting a keffir talk to them like thet.’ Another chintz chair agreed. ‘Thet’s right,’ it said. ‘They mist not be allowed to enswer beck.’

Far from sure why I had come to England at all, I was nevertheless certain that it hadn’t been in order to hang out with my compatriots, but unaccountably I now craved their well-modulated tones. With a gallon tin of brown water under each arm I climbed the stairs to the top-floor flat of a house in Melbury Road which had held a large Australian expatriate contingent since the time of the Pre-Raphaelites, one of whom had rented the studio in the back yard. There were fifty duffle-coats draped over the banisters and about a hundred people frantically twisting inside the flat itself, data which suggested that each couple had arrived sharing the one coat. The girl to whom I had sworn eternal fealty was half the world away and I was feeling friendless, but this new style of dancing, in which the partners did not actually touch each other, was a heaven-sent opportunity to move in on other men’s women. I had been practising the Twist in my room and because of the necessity to remain undetected by the landlady’s sonar I had developed a finely calculated frictionless style, in which my feet trembled noiselessly on the spot while the rest of my body alternated between drying its back with an imaginary towel and pointing out the approach of hostile aircraft. All this was done in a closed-eyed trance, but I can’t believe that I looked any more ridiculous than the rest of the men and certainly I inflicted far fewer injuries through inadvertent karate blows with the flying feet, although, my rapidly and randomly extended pointing fingers were admittedly apt to make contact with somebody else’s eyeball. A polite squeal resulting from just such an infringement brought me face to face with one of my erstwhile girlfriends, who had already been in London for a year, working as an editorial assistant for a publisher. Unfortunately she had embraced Catholicism in the interim, which turned out to mean that I was not allowed to embrace her. It was quite an accommodating broom cupboard that I backed her into — much larger than the sort of thing we had been used to in Sydney — but she warded off my beer-breath, bristle-chin importunities with a regretful knee and insisted on going home with the English publishing type who had brought her, some woofling galah with a Morgan.

Next evening I took her to see Hiroshima mon amour and we became the only couple in history ever to see that film and not get into bed together afterwards. We sat on it instead. Her bed-sitting room in Chalk Farm was cosy enough if you didn’t mind the crucifixes. ‘You saw nothing in Hiroshima.’ You can say that again. She looked prettier than ever in all that wool. Even her tights were made of wool. It became clear that they would stay in place. But she was generous with something more substantial — practical assistance. Rupert, the goof in the Morgan, was looking for a free-lance copy editor. With my Sydney Morning Herald training I could do it on my head. Helping myself to more of her wine, I explained my firm intention not to compromise. But the duty-free cigarettes were running low and at this rate even my bed and breakfast would soon be too expensive. A temporary sell-out might be advisable. Having finished off her reserve bottle of banana-skin Beaujolais, I took the typescript she had given me and set off on foot through the cold, foggy night towards Swiss Cottage. Navigating by a sure Australian instinct for the lie of the land, I saw quite a lot of Maida Vale, and got home in good time to be locked out.

The typescript was for a children’s book about dinosaurs. ‘As massive as a modern home and weighing many tons, Man would have been dwarfed by these massive creatures . . .’ I spent the next two days sorting out tenses, expunging solecisms and re-allocating misplaced clauses to the stump from which they had been torn loose by the sort of non-writing writer for whom grammar is not even a mystery, merely an irrelevance. Short of rewriting the thing entirely, I couldn’t have done the job better, so it was with confidence that I posted the doctored script, together with a covering letter stating that a mere thirty pounds a week would be about the right rate, in view of the fact that I would be working only casually, in between my own literary projects.

Hampstead Heath was a slush curry of dead leaves but lent itself readily to the creative meanderings of young writers with high expectations and cold hands stuffed into duffle-coat pockets. In the next few days I joined this ambling band, ploughing a lonely furrow to criss-cross with theirs. On a park bench padded with newspapers I sat shivering while a new kind of poem formed in my notebook. It was a poem I could understand. Until then, most of my poems had been devotedly incomprehensible. Now they were becoming comprehensible, a transformation that would have allowed me to detect their sentimentality if they had not been so true to my feelings, which were sentimental. But I was warmer than I would have been in my room, and when inspiration failed I could always make the short pilgrimage to Keats’s house. It looked compact and elegant among the leafless trees — compact and elegant like him. He wrote the ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ there, but although I was mad about his odes at that time, the ode I was maddest about was the one on Melancholy. Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud. I thought of that line when I was walking down Frognal and the rain caught me with nowhere to hide. So I got back home soaked, just in time for the evening post, which informed me that I hadn’t got the editorial job. Apparently what I had written in my covering note — that the thing needed rewriting entirely — was what I should have done. So once again I had been saved from selling out. Drying myself in front of the radiator while the meter ate half-crowns like Smarties, I tried to feel relieved, but it was getting less easy all the time.