Books: Falling Towards England — Into the Hinterland |
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Falling Towards England — Into the Hinterland


There was enough left of my overdraft to finance a change of residence. My Swiss Cottage landlady, clearly not charmed by the misshapen ashtray or whatever had happened to her pillowcase, had raised the rent, perhaps also because the end of winter was in the air, with a congruent diminution of revenue from the electricity meter. It was time to rent my first bed-sitting room. In those days a bed-sit all to yourself could be had for three pounds a week, a significant amount less than I was paying at Swiss Cottage. As I compose this sentence, it costs about thirty pounds a week in London to share a two-room flat with three other people and each of them wants to interview you personally before okaying you for the short list, after which the final selection is by written examination. Even allowing for the way money has declined from twenty times its current value in as many years, lonely life was more possible then. Nowadays the young and broke are lucky to sleep on the pavements, while the unlucky ones get chatted up in a pub by a kind-looking chap, taken home to his place, strangled, cut up into small pieces and flushed down a drain. Comparatively little of that was going on in my time. John Christie had merely killed the sort of older people that nobody would miss. The sort of younger people that nobody would miss were not yet on the scene.

Pretty well the worst that could happen to you was to answer the wrong advertisement, which I duly did, ending up in a first-floor horror of a room at the high end of Tufnell Park Road. The other side of the Heath was not necessarily the other side of the world. Kentish Town was only just up the hill and already showing signs of gentrification. But gentrification hadn’t touched my room. Putrefaction, yes. Trying to guess what colour the wallpaper had been before the attack by the brown virus from beyond the planets, I vowed that my stay in the Tufnell Park area would be a short one. Somehow, if necessary by a temporary submission to capitalist values, my fortunes would be transformed, after which it would be a small flat in Knightsbridge with easy access to Harrods food hall.

Or perhaps a large flat in Chelsea. At about this time I presumed on my slight acquaintance with Joyce Grenfell to get myself invited around to Elm Park Gardens for a much needed proper lunch, involving such luxuries, long missing from my diet, as beans, lettuce and other foodstuffs coloured green. It was our second meeting. I had first met her when I was a member of the Sydney University Journalists’ Club and she had come to Australia on a theatrical tour. We had sent her a luncheon invitation which she threw us into a panic by accepting. Since then I had written her a barrage of tiresomely clever letters which she had been kind enough to answer — probably, I am now able to see, as a means of doing penance, because her nature was so saintly that she looked on duty as a blessing. Semi-bearded and weirdly clad, I sat there in the otherwise immaculate kitchen of her flat, explaining revolutionary socialism while consuming her food. She asked me if there was anything I needed. What I needed was an independent income in five figures, but to my credit — there was so little to my credit that I feel justified in the boast — I didn’t put the bite on her. Instead I informed her that everything was going according to plan. I had shaken myself free of materialist values and the results were already showing in my poetry. Some recent examples of this I read to her unasked. She countered by trying out one of her new sketches on me. It was the one about the old lady who posts the dead rabbit through the car window. I laughed helplessly, but while walking home suffered from bitter afterthoughts. Her work was so obviously the finished product, whereas everything of my own, though it struck me as masterly in the hour of its composition, seemed fragmentary only a few days later. The contrast was made doubly galling by my secret agreement with Ken Tynan’s published opinion that the Grenfell school of revue was irredeemably genteel and therefore belonged in the dustbin of history, along with the plays of Terence Rattigan and of almost everybody else except Brecht. You could tell that she was a historical back-number by the way she lived, with all those carpets and cushions and a portrait of her mother by Sargent up on the Regency-striped wall. There was even a woman to wait on table. Comfort and good manners stood revealed as an expression of privilege, and the fact that the privilege had all been worked for just went to show.

None of that back in Tufnell Park, at the cutting edge of the bohemian experience. Though spring was on its way, there were still enough cold nights left to demonstrate what was involved in the change from electricity to gas. Over the basin — an early Sung dynasty ceramic artefact which had been pieced back together by a blind archaeologist — there was an early-model Ascot gas water-heater with several levers which had to be swivelled in the right order when the thing was ignited. If the correct procedure was observed, the machine merely exploded. But if you got it wrong you could be in serious trouble. Even the radiator, or fire, ran on gas. It consisted of a single lattice-work pipe-clay heating element standing vertically in the cusp of a metal reflector, which would have thrown the heat forward had it still been shiny, but which was now, and obviously had been for a long time, black enough to absorb any bold calorie that might threaten to escape from the barely pink glow of the clapped-out element operating at full throttle. For cooking, there was not only the mandatory free-standing gas ring but a proper stove, this latter item having been billed as a luxury extra which could well have warranted the bed-sit being advertised as a flat with kitchenette.

The first hour of the first night revealed that all the bedclothes provided were insufficient to keep my feet warm. Lying there fully dressed with the blankets bound tightly around my feet and knotted, I reluctantly calculated that the gas fire would have to be left running as well. With my feet still bound I hopped over to the gas meter, inserted half a crown, lit the fire, hopped back to bed and lay down. After twenty minutes the element had done little more than assume the colour of a raspberry ice lolly, so I hopped over to the stove, lit that too, left the door open so that the heat would pervade the room, hopped back to bed again, and was just manoeuvring myself into the horizontal position when the fire and the stove both gave a mutter, sputter and guttural pop. It was a total flame-out. The Swiss Cottage electricity meter had been merely a gourmet. The Tufnell Park gas meter was a gourmand. It was Moloch. Obviously it melted the cash payments down for their constituent bullion and gave no more gas than was in the coins themselves.

Winter was almost over but abject poverty was clearly only just beginning. My book-buying habits were no help. From Australia I had brought only one book with me: Studies in Empirical Philosophy by John Anderson. The scrupulous realism of Anderson had been either a direct influence on, or a cause of reaction in, almost every Sydney University student of recent years except me. Typically I had failed to avail myself of his instruction while he was still giving it out free every day in the form of lectures. But on board ship, with the man himself safely dead, buried and falling ever further behind, I had submitted myself at last to his magnetic force. Though I was to be a long time making myself proof against the urge to escape from reality into righteous anger, and am perhaps not entirely immune from its blandishments yet, the example of Anderson’s critical scepticism struck deep. ‘It will be a sign of renewed progress, then,’ wrote Anderson in his devastating critique of Marxism’s philosophical pretensions, ‘when we see revolutionists divesting themselves of the idealistic elements in their philosophy and embracing a consistent realism. Meanwhile, it is the philosopher’s business to be realistic, to attack idealism wherever he finds it, to consider constantly what is the case.’ Anderson’s was the voice of reason. But the voice of poetry had not lost its power to intoxicate, especially as embodied in the works of Shakespeare, whom I now rediscovered with a fervour explicable only in terms of my new geographical proximity to his old stamping grounds. True, Tufnell Park had not been the location of any of his several theatres. Indeed if you were to construct a map showing all those purlieus of London even tenuously relevant to Shakespeare’s life, there would be a large blank area of which Tufnell Park would be the centre. Not even in the rarely performed Henry III Part 4 does anyone say ‘Brave friends await full-armed at Tufnell Park.’ Nevertheless I heard the whispered echo of his light tread everywhere, and when, in a Charing Cross Road second-hand bookshop, I found a set of the four-volume Nonesuch Shakespeare in the small format, the consideration that it cost exactly as much money as I had in the world was outweighed by the sensuous allure of the gold-stamped buckram half-bindings, marbled boards and opaque paper. Although it rated nowhere as a scholarly text, the set when stood upright on my rickety linoleum-topped bedside table helped to make my cell look intentional in its austerity, as if it belonged to St Jerome rather than Caryl Chessman. The effect was further enhanced by the purchase of Louis MacNeice’s personal copy of Practical Criticism, by I. A. Richards, which I found spine-upright on a trestle table outside the bay window of a small bookshop in Bloomsbury. On the end-paper was the price in pencil, half a crown, and MacNeice’s signature in faded ink. Perhaps the bookshop owner could not read. I bought the book for its resonance as an association copy and added it to my table-top library.

Even when bought as bargains, this library’s constituent volumes were costing me money I didn’t have. To compound the felony, the very books which were eventually to teach me a measure of humility had at first the effect of encouraging me in the opposite, so that I pursued the life of the mind as if the world owed me a living. If the mind develops at all in such circumstances, it is likely to do so leaving certain gaps, one of which will be the failure to realise that to borrow money without the intention of paying it back is a form of theft. I, on the other hand, believed that property was theft — a more glamorous idea altogether, and one which encouraged the notion that if you could induce an acquaintance to give you some of his property in the form of money you were practically a policeman. Luckily I was circumscribed in my begging from friends, first of all by a shortage of friends and then by their own shortage of cash. Sources of small-scale loans with which to pay back large-scale loans were drying up. But I was determined to live the artistic life, and there were quite a few extremely artistic activities which could be pursued at no expense, if you were prepared to walk there instead of ride. Every time the National Gallery held the British people to ransom by announcing that a Leonardo cartoon would go to America unless they stumped up, I would walk to the gallery, study the great drawing on display, and generously insert into the collection box some small-denomination aluminium coin from Singapore or Port Said. If the White-chapel Gallery held a Barbara Hepworth retrospective I would trek down the Holloway Road to the East End and spend hours caressing her brass volumes and bronze volutes with a famished eye. The famished stomach I placated with fish and chips bought from a glorified roadside whelk-stall just near the gallery. The stall featured a lot of other weird stuff along with the whelks, including what looked like cross-sectional research samples of a prehistoric worm colony trapped in a glaciated bog. These, I was told, were jellied eels. While I was being told this, a small bow-legged man in a flat cap came shambling up, purchased some of the jellied eels, and began, with quivering, palsied hands, to cram them into his asymmetrical maw. He assured me, between noisy mouthfuls, that a life-long diet of jellied eels had made him what he was.

Kenwood House was another free treat, not just for the pictures but for the Adam interiors. I began to have an eye for the clean sweep and jocund formality of the plaster ceiling in a grand English house, perhaps impelled by the contrast it presented to my ceiling in Tufnell Park, which looked as if a loosely stretched and seriously crumpled old tarpaulin had been stuccoed with night-soil. Whether Kenwood House had an eye for me was another question. Certainly my appearance would have startled the original owner if he had still been around to greet his guests. Winter by now was transforming itself into spring by way of a transitional period consisting mainly of mud. The air, if not exactly balmy, was too warm for a duffle-coat, so I was wearing my new combat jacket, bought from one of the many army-surplus stores along Holloway Road which were still occupied with distributing the excess production stimulated by the Korean war. This combat jacket was not the American quilted kind which actually kept you warm. It was more the British kind whose chief function was to get dirty. But clad in it I could imagine myself looking interesting and dangerous; not a man to be messed with. Anyone taking due note of my now more-than-half-formed beard might have decided that I was a man who could be depended upon to mess with himself, but to distract the world’s attention from my head there was what was going on around my feet. These were enveloped in a pair of shoes given to me by Joyce Grenfell. She said that they had been given to her husband but that they had not fitted. She was a woman who never lied in her life. In this one case there might have been an element of diplomatic inexactitude. I suspect that they had fitted, but that he had rejected them for another reason. With thick uppers and an invulnerable three-ply sole, they were well made — far and away the highest quality footwear that I would enjoy for many years to come — but they were tanned a colour so reddish it was almost strawberry. It was another episode in my long history of unsuitable shoes, a story which is not yet closed and would need a book of its own. Let’s just say that even now, when I have learned to dress as plainly as possible, I still get so impatient with the whole time-consuming business of covering up exposed skin that I will buy the first thing that catches my eye, and that when it comes to shoes the first thing that catches your eye is the last thing you should ever put on your feet. It is almost better to be an impulse shirt-buyer than an impulse shoe-buyer. I have worn shirts that made people think I was a retired Mafia hit-man or a Yugoslavian sports convenor from Split, but I have worn shoes that made people think I was insane.

Anyway, when I turned up for my next attempt to land a job, that was how I looked — like Judas Iscariot deserting across the 38th Parallel in shoes stolen from a clown. A wine merchant called T. H. Lawrence (I remember it wasn’t D. E. Lawrence but was something equally unlikely, so it must have been T. H. Lawrence) placed a classified advertisement for a young man to learn the wine trade. Required qualifications would be a degree in the humanities, physical strength, and an interest in fine wines. The first qualification I certainly had. The second I still had in part, despite the effects of eating fat-fried food every night in a dark room. The third was more of a problem. At the time I left Australia it was already on the verge of becoming one of the great wine countries of the world, but I won’t pretend that I was in any way au courant with the incipient viticultural breakthrough. My idea of a fine wine was one that merely stained your teeth without stripping off the enamel. In Britain I had discovered Woodpecker cider and resorted to wine only when it was on offer free at Melbury Road parties, where it usually issued from a large green bottle marked with the name of the Hungarian composer Janos Riesling. Nevertheless I had picked up a certain amount of technical chat and reckoned I could get away with a short interview if I kept it laconic. Since the address was that of a country pub in Kent, I eschewed the Singapore suit. Also the red shoes were the only ones I currently possessed. To wear them in combination with the Singapore suit would be to set up a contrast in colour which even I could see was a blow to the optic nerve. If I kept my arms to my sides, the dark cloth of the Singapore suit lulled the viewer’s eyes as they travelled down my person, which only made the dissonance more stunning when it was revealed that I was standing in two bidets full of strawberry soda. The combat jacket made for a more meant-looking ensemble, in my opinion. This opinion could have been mistaken but I doubt that it would have made any difference if I had arrived suitably attired for an investiture. When I finally fetched up at T. H. Lawrence’s rustic hostelry after long, lost detours up and down winding hedge-lined single carriageways, the proprietor came to the door, took one look at me and quite obviously loathed what he saw happening on the lower part of my face.

‘Oh dear,’ he snapped. ‘Beard.’ Generously I stood nonplussed, instead of retaliating, which I could have done by pointing out how hard his blue blazer and handlebar moustache were trying to make me think of the Battle of Britain, an effect undone by his extreme brevity of stature. He might very well have flown against the Germans, but only on the back of a pigeon. I either managed to bite all this back or else never thought of it, probably the latter. Scott Fitzgerald’s Nick Carraway says at some point that any demonstration of complete self-confidence draws a stunned tribute from him. Even today, when some oaf who has confused rudeness with blunt speech tells me exactly what he thinks, I tend to stand there wondering what I have done to deserve it, instead of telling him exactly what I think right back. In those days I was even more easily wrong-footed, not having begun to realise that the boor has a built-in advantage which can be countered on the spot only at the cost of becoming a boor oneself. I used to worry about having no quick answer, and was thus bereft of self-esteem as well as of speech. So when T. H. Lawrence asked me what I thought of the recent French and German vintages I was not best placed to give a convincing summary. My mumbled generalisations got me as far as the bar, but there he poured a glass of yellowish white wine and asked me to taste it.

‘This is a 1960 Trockenbocken hock from Schlockenglocken,’ he rapped, or words to that effect. ‘Selling it through my club for a quid a bottle. What do you think?’ I sniffed it, said it had a nice nose, sipped it, said it had a nice bottom, and sank the rest of it in one. ‘You know bugger all about wines,’ announced T. H. Lawrence matter-of-factly, in the clipped tones of a veteran Spitfire pilot telling the duty officer that the new boy on the squadron had made an unauthorised solo pass over Rhine-Hopstein airfield at nought feet, copped a packet of light flak, and flown straight into a petrol tanker. ‘Wasted your time coming down here. Wasted mine too. Gut my hedges for lunch and we’ll call it square.’

Starting either side of the pub’s gravelled forecourt, hedgerow stretched in each direction along the roadside for as far as the eye could see. With the clippers provided, I went at it and in less than an hour had trimmed a surprising amount of hedge — something like one and a half square yards. T. H. Lawrence the wee Wing Commander didn’t help by periodically emerging from his ops room to laugh good-naturedly at my efforts and confess his wonder that an Ossie (sic) should be so inept at the kind of activity which must be fairly standard in the Backout or Backthere or whatever it was called, har har. Like many Englishmen of his class and IQ, the Sanforised Squadron Leader was either incapable of pronouncing the word Aussie correctly — i.e., with a ‘z’ sound instead of an ‘s’ — or else did not want to, for fear of spoiling the priceless joke whose other elements included the Outback, kangaroos, and the hilarious fantasy of people walking around upside-down. ‘I expect you Ossies see plenty of kangaroos in the Backout when you’re walking along upside-down’ was a standard line, invariably preluded, postluded and punctuated by self-applauding shouts of laughter from a large mouth held six inches from my face. T. H. Lawrence’s version of the same theme differed only in that his mouth was held six inches from my chest. Stripped to the waist and seething with misdirected fury, I clipped like a maniac and got the whole hedge trimmed in time for a late lunch.

My lunch was served on a trestle table in the open air. A piece of stiff white cheese smeared with yellow pickle had been clamped in a vise of partly refreshened bread. There was also half a pint of brown water. These victuals were brought to me with a practised display of weary magnanimity by the abbreviated Air Commodore himself. I had been hungry and thirsty until I saw these things. But the sun was almost warm and there was the additional pleasure of watching the farmers arrive for their midday break. It was a highly traditional sight. You got the sense that it had been going on for a millennium. From Lagondas, Graber-bodied Alvis Grey Ladies and V-8 Aston Martins they emerged barking in tweeds. ‘Nigola!’ they yelled. ‘Over heah, Nigola! I say Nigola! Over heah!’ Yet their wives and mistresses made me want to keep my eyes open, even if my fingers were in my ears. Merely quacking while their menfolk bayed like hounds, they looked all the more desirable for their daunting self-assurance. In London I had seen nothing like them. Perhaps it was the district. More probably it was spring. Sitting out there with those wonderful, hand-woven, gentleman’s-relish women under the same sun, I was made invisible by my appearance, like a satyr in an old engraving who blends with a gnarled tree-trunk and its attendant shrubbery. Thus I could catch the perfume of their corduroy and cashmere as they yelped to each other about banging along to Harvey Nichols for a spree. Lust and envy made their usual explosive mixture in my soul. If one of those long-striding creatures had smiled at me I would have thrown back my head and given the warrior-call of the bull ape. But nobody infringed my frustrated privacy except the miniature Marshal of Air Vice, Group Captain T. H. ‘Taffy’ Lawrence, Distinguished Self-Service Restaurant and Bar.

‘Finished? Good. There’s a path around the back. Show you.’ I thought he was showing me a quick way to the railway station, but it turned out that he was showing me the back boundary of his property, another hedge almost as long as the one in front. I could have done a bunk the minute he left me alone. Defiant, defeated anger required that I stay and make a job of it. By the time I had finished, the afternoon was almost spent, but the countryside was still a pretty sight as I walked back along the winding single-lane road to the station, occasionally leaning back sourly into the hedge while fast cars full of contented, well-dressed, well-fed people treated the road as if they owned it. Which, of course, they did.