Books: Falling Towards England — Soul for Sale |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

Falling Towards England — Soul for Sale


Never, I had vowed, would I sell my soul to an advertising agency. Not even if I was starving. Not even if I had no ceiling over my head. Yet starvation was only one step down from the breakfast I was getting every morning, and the ceiling over my head had South Africans on the other side using it as a floor. Waldo invited me to a party he was throwing for all his flash new friends in English advertising. I went along in order to be disgusted by their materialist values. There were plenty of materialist values on display, starting with the traffic jam of early production model E-type Jaguars parked out in the street. The men were reasonably easy to sneer at, with their elastic-sided, chisel-toed Chelsea boots and girlish length of hair. As usually happens in such circumstances, the real challenge was presented by the women. One of them was called Brenda and she was so glossily pretty that it was hatred at first sight. Unfortunately she was clever and funny too, so it was not easy to remain hostile. She was married to some pipe-sucking Nigel who tried to interest me in how David Ogilvy had once told him that if you fouled the air in somebody’s bathroom, all you had to do was strike a match and the atmosphere would instantly return to its pristine sweetness, even if the bathroom were as big as an aircraft hangar. I can remember this with such clarity only because I was in the process of falling in love with his wife at the time. But she was married, and would have been even more frightening if single. It was clear just from what she had on her that it took a lot of money to run such a woman. The time had come for a modification of values. Faust was ready to negotiate. Casting Waldo as Mephistopheles, I drew him aside and asked him how to set about becoming a copy-writer. Since he had had to endure my callow jibes against his profession many times in the past, it was big of him to answer this question with useful information instead of the horse laugh. Apparently there was a vacancy coming up at Simpson, Sampson, Ranulph and Rolfe. He would get me through the door and from then on it would be up to me.

Reassured, I danced a few times with Brenda and tried not to be disappointed when she had to leave early with a gouged eye. She and Nigel climbed into a ludicrously small new car calling itself a Mini. With my bump for technology I could tell straight away that such a glorified toy would never catch on, but still I couldn’t imagine anything more desirable than being in a very small car with a girl like Brenda. All it would take would be a few scintillating jingles, and vroom-vroom. ‘You’ll piss it in,’ said Waldo. ‘Just remember to cover your mouth when you belch and don’t stub your fags out on the Axminster.’

Waldo was as good as his word and I had barely a day to prepare my spontaneous utterances before reporting to St James’s Square and being ushered into the suave presence of SSRR’s senior partner and creative chief, the legendary P.H.S. ‘Plum’ Rolfe. He had Hush Puppies on his feet and a tweed tie around his neck, but the tie was loose and his feet were on his desk, so it was possible to relax — something I would not otherwise have found easy to do, because I was a bit worried about my wardrobe. The suit from Singapore had still not arrived and by now I had begun to wonder if the green sports coat and the wrecked shoes were quite the thing, especially as my scorched drip-dry shirts tended to shatter no matter how carefully I buttoned them up, making my façade look like a vandalised housing development unless I not only arranged the tartan tie to cover the damage but contrived to keep it that way while lounging casually in a chair. But Rolfe seemed to like my poems. While he was opening my old Sydney University magazines to the places marked, I tried a few rehearsed spontaneous utterances and he liked them too. It was even more encouraging when he turned out to like the unrehearsed ones still better. He told me to send him a five thousand word essay on why I wanted to be an advertising man and then come back again in a fortnight.

Having written the essay that same evening, I went next morning to the Mayfair branch of the Bank of NSW and raised a £50 overdraft on the strength of being a hot job prospect for a top agency. Since I had no account at the bank and was clearly opening one only in order to see the assistant manager and touch him for a loan, it will be appreciated that my powers of persuasion were benefiting from a surge of confidence. No doubt the beard helped. Looking less like an oversight by now and more like an act of defiance, it must have presented an overwhelming challenge to the assistant manager’s bourgeois inhibitions. I should have asked him for a hundred.

A small part of the ensuing desert of vast eternity I was able to spend marching from Aldermaston with Waldo’s advertising contingent. Actually we didn’t march from Aldermaston. Like 90 per cent of the marchers we marched from just outside London, but it was called marching from Aldermaston and felt wonderful. That was the whole point, I need hardly say: feeling wonderful. The whole thing was essentially a religious festival. It wasn’t politics, it was performance. I was aware of this even at the time, since my radical socialism, which in my own eyes made me an implacable outsider like Bakunin, necessarily included a deep hostility to the Soviet Union, which I already knew, long before Solzhenitsyn’s revelations, to have been a murder factory on a scale barely hinted at by Khrushchev’s speech to the 20th Party Congress in 1956. No amount of stupidity on America’s part could allay the uncomfortable feeling that unilateral nuclear disarmament had no more in common with multilateral nuclear disarmament than insanity had in common with sanity. But solidarity between opposites being possible for as long as it remains ineffective, the party got bigger and louder while you watched. I danced along with the Ban-the-Bombers because they were the nicest people. I even sang with them, which was the ultimate tribute to their sweetness, because those songs were terrible. ‘Ban the Bomb, it’s now or never / Ban the Bomb, for ev-er more!’ Actually I just moved my lips. Like a Shadow Cabinet Minister pretending to sing ‘The Red Flag’ at a Labour Party Conference, I was too bashful to pronounce the words. But I was there, acting out a fantasy because it was more fun than what I knew to be truth. Brenda was there too, of course, and the chance to stride along beside her would have taken me on a pilgrimage to Lhasa if necessary. It turned out she had all the same doubts as I had but was there because of Nigel, who was there because everybody else was. If the Sixties ever had a real beginning, an emblematic event that set the tone for an epoch, that was it — thousands upon thousands of nice people all behaving as if the irritable shrugging off of awkward facts was a kind of dance. Indeed just such a dance soon came in on the heels of the Twist, and was called the Shake.

Flushed with virtue, I turned up in St James’s Square on the appointed day with my shirt cuffs protruding just the correct inch from the sleeves of my green jacket, an adjustment made easier by the fact that they had parted company from the actual shirt. The Singapore suit, had it arrived in time, would undoubtedly have been an advantage, but once again Mr Rolfe looked reassuringly bohemian, smoking no hands while he leafed through my essay. He had never read a more convincing case, he said, for how primal creativity could be combined with a job in advertising. He had no doubt that I could write Australia’s answer to Paradise Lost in the evenings while concurrently promoting cornflakes all day. What he and Messrs Simpson, Sampson and Ranulph were after, however, was someone who wanted to do nothing else except promote the cornflakes. They wanted someone for whom the poetry was not separate from the cornflakes, but actually in the cornflakes and of the cornflakes. Like Frosties, I suggested: the sugar wasn’t separate from the cornflakes, it was in them and of them. Rolfe said I had hit it exactly, but didn’t give me any extra points for the insight. ‘Face it,’ he said, smiling without dropping the cigarette, ‘you aren’t modest enough to be corruptible. Getting rich isn’t what you’re really after. You’d always be writing something for yourself on our time.’ He had the great gift of making you feel that you had been turned down because you were too good, so I didn’t start feeling miserable until I was outside in the square, where I had a hallucination, startling in its clarity, of Brenda retreating into the distance while waving to me from the passenger seat of a speeding Maserati. The pavements, though cold to my perforated shoes, were dry for once, so I walked all the way home to Swiss Cottage, feeling more ill, broke and woebegone all the time. The Singapore suit was waiting for me when I got there. It had been forwarded from the OVC and was wrapped in thick brown paper through which several peep-holes had been torn, presumably by customs officers. The conviction nagged me that if I had been wearing it I would have got the job. At least it would ensure that I got the next job.

Unwrapped, the Singapore suit was impressive for its weight of cloth. When I put it on and stood in front of the sliver of glass which the landlady evidently supposed to constitute a full-length mirror, I looked the image of bespoke respectability. You had to hand it to those oriental tailors. They might be flatterers — ‘What muscular forearms,’ they had whispered as they plied the tape measure, ‘what powerful thighs’ — but they knew how to cut cloth. Then I lifted my arms to adjust the mirror, and discovered that I couldn’t see. The shoulders of the jacket had immediately risen to engulf my head. When I put my arms back down, vision returned. Perhaps I had just moved too suddenly. Tentatively I lifted my right arm. The right shoulder of the jacket went up past my ear. Ditto for the left side. Even more slowly I lifted both arms. Blackout. There was no spare cloth in the armpits: the gussets, or whatever they were called, were missing. Presumably it was the Singapore style of suit, designed for a subtle oriental people not much given to gesture. Anyway, if I kept my hands by my sides it looked quite good.