Books: Falling Towards England — Cracking the Secret Code |
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Falling Towards England — Cracking the Secret Code


Just when you think things are as bad as they can get, suddenly they get worse. Not that there was a shortage of jobs. Though the reader of today might find it difficult to believe, twenty years ago in London there was casual white-collar work to burn. I, however, seemed incapable of getting in amongst it. By now I had my name down with the Professional and Executive register and it was amazing how many interviews they sent me off to that I mucked up by talking too much, talking too little or talking just the right amount but to the wrong person. I merely throw in this observation for the benefit of any younger reader, or for that matter any older reader, who has never got a job after an interview. Neither have I. An interview is where you sell yourself, and some of us are just bad salesmen, with no gift for correctly assessing the demand before we start matching it with a supply. If a clerk’s job was on offer, I came on strong, filling the air with abstruse literary references, when the only references the interviewer wanted were from some previous employer saying that I had performed clerical duties to his satisfaction and not stolen the clock. If the vacancy was for an editorial assistant, on the other hand, I underplayed it, saying little and looking tough, like a one-time boundary rider who, despite the circumstances of cultivated leisure implied by his now possessing a suit made in Singapore, could still mend a fence or trap a frilled lizard. It was a disaster either way, but the second method at least had the virtue of rendering the interviewer visible at all times. Employing the first method, I had always to hold the cuffs of the Singapore suit’s sleeves in a surreptitiously clenched fist while making an expansive, genius-betokening gesture, otherwise the man I was talking to would disappear as if by magic. Not long afterwards I would disappear myself, but there was nothing magic about that.

Back on the street, spring was well established and the girls of London were prettier than they had ever been or would ever be again. They were saying goodbye to the old austerity without having quite yet said the full, mad hello to Sixties fashions at their most demented. Skirts were on their way up the thigh but had not yet reached the waist. Hair was back-combed but had not yet attained the shape and consistency of a lacquered crash-helmet. Stiletto heels were long and sharp but not yet like needles, so that if a girl trod on your foot you were able to hop about in pain instead of being pinned screaming to the dance-floor. There was a new exuberance abroad, atomised libido was misty in the air, and I was out of it. No money, no prospects. Just debts, purple gums and a pair of shoes that lit up in the dark like dachshunds with scarlet fever.

But there were too many casual jobs on offer for me to go on missing out, even with my talent for being the man off the spot. Just when the only funds remaining were half a dozen Woodpecker cider bottles worth threepence each for the returned deposit, a classified advertisement led me to a London University annexe in Bloomsbury where questionnaires were being coded. A dozen casual coders were required, degree essential and qualifications in psychology desirable. Having majored in psychology at Sydney University, I was taken on as the dozenth coder. Fifteen minutes later and I would have dipped out. This I could be sure of, because, fourteen minutes after I signed on, a candidate turned up who looked as mathematically gifted as Max Planck, an impression not dissipated by the slide-rule sticking out of his pocket. It was a nice change to stand there and see him turned away, instead of being turned away myself. The man in charge, a handsome young tweed-jacketed Rhodesian called Robin Jackson if it wasn’t Jack Robinson, showed signs of regretting how things had transpired, but quixotically decided to stick by the arrangement already made. Banzai. I was in, at the lavish emolument, for the six weeks the job would last, of ten pounds a week before stoppages. What stoppages were I had no idea, and for the moment was too busy to ask.

The completed questionnaires contained the answers of thousands of people to hundreds of questions. These questions ranged from concrete enquiries about age and gender to a whole last page of abstract stuff about attitudes and values, whether liberal or otherwise. As I now remember it, which is vaguely, a statistically random sample of students was being assessed for demography, motivation, goals, height above sea level, etc. No doubt I was pretty hazy about it all even at the time. The typical respondent started off by saying he was a 19-year-old male and ended up rating the possibility of God’s existence on a scale from one to five. In other words it was a snare for Snarks, a sieve to measure water, a machine to count sand. But to convert the written answers into a given range of symbols was a mechanical matter for anyone who had ever spent a couple of years fooling around with Personality Profiles, Thematic Apperception Tests and that old standby of university psychology departments world wide, the Minnesota Multiphasic.

We all sat around a large, polished mahogany table with Robin handing out new sheaves of uncoded questionnaires and stacking the ones we had finished into a heap. After the first hour I was on automatic pilot and using up some of the spare energy by inspecting my fellow workers as they toiled. Half of them, I was pleased to note, were females. One of these, sitting at the end of the table to my left, was a very elegant young Indian woman in a gold-trimmed sari the colour of bleached pomegranate. Her name, too sonorous to be forgotten however long I live, was Saraj. Perhaps my heart would have gone out to her if Millicent had not been sitting directly opposite me. But Millicent would probably have had the same effect if she had been sitting upstairs. She radiated so much sensuality that I could still see her after I had closed my eyes.

This is neither the time nor the place to give my conclusions about the physics and metaphysics of sexual attraction. For one thing, it would take a separate volume. For another, I doubt if anything I had to say would be of sufficient originality to warrant the effort, not to mention the trouble. Most inhibiting of all, I seriously wonder if I have yet reached any conclusions, or ever will before I die. When I do die, and come to that check-point inside the gates of Hell where the horrible Minos circles himself with his tail as an indication of the infernal level to which the new entrant is assigned, it will be no secret between me and him that during my time on Earth I suffered from — or enjoyed, if that is the preferred formula — inordinate susceptibility to female beauty. It will be the second thing that he asks me about. His first question will not demand an answer. ‘Hello there, cobber! Must be a relief to be walking the right way up with no kangaroos around out there in the back! Brought your tube of Foster’s? Har har.’ But the next question will be harder to dodge.

I suppose it was a case of arrested development. From childhood onwards I had seen beauty in women as a revelation of universal truth, and now, in what should have been adulthood, I still did, which meant that adulthood felt like childhood, with childish behaviour as an inevitable consequence. There is a lot to be said for idealising those we adore, but not if it means neglecting to listen to what they have to say. A good-looking woman, as well as being the incarnation of a Platonic concept, is quite often a human being as well. One of the cockney photographers who were at that time just beginning their rise to fame recently told me that his success with some of the world’s most gorgeous women was almost entirely due to patting them on the bottom — or, as he put it, patinum honour bum. Having looked like goddesses all their lives, they had never met a man who patted them on the bottom, although they had met hundreds of men who wrote poems in their honour. Sitting at home beside my suitcase in Tufnell Park I wrote many a poem about Millicent. I never made the mistake of showing them to her, but all day at work I did my best to impress, and my worshipping eyes must have had the unswerving fervour of Hitler’s. My consolation, when I got things in perspective a bit later — about fifteen years later — was that she would probably not have been interested even if I had looked and sounded less like an aspiring disciple of Christ who had been rejected on grounds of mental instability. She had, after all, recently married a young doctor who called for her at work one day seemingly specifically to convince me of his close physical resemblance to Alain Delon. Perhaps it was Alain Delon, whose career was at that time only just starting to boom. Perhaps the reason I thought that he merely looked like Alain Delon was the tears in my eyes. Not that Millicent required anything beyond herself as a stimulus to induce weeping. Merely to glance at her was to feel the tear ducts fill and spill like cisterns after spring rain.

Her eyes would have been too big if they had not been pale blue. The planes of her face were too classically defined for lips so romantically lush, but the clarity of her cheeks showed that there was more life in her than could possibly remain calm — the blood flooded under them like a peach ripening before your eyes. Her straight dark hair was so strong that wisps of it would fight loose from the ribbon tying it back, so that occasionally, without looking up, she would have to lift one long-fingered hand to clear her vision. This movement would bring certain sections of her upper figure into play. There were several opportunities a day to see the whole of her statuesque form in motion. I preferred to avoid these by either closing my eyes or else averting them, lest I emit, as I did on that first afternoon, an involuntary groan of such intensity that Saraj offered me a Beechams Powder. Millicent had the kind of hips known as child-bearing by those people who try vainly to remind us that all these splendours are laid on exclusively for the purpose of reproducing the human race. But it was Millicent’s breasts which struck me at the time as constituting unarguable proof that the Man Upstairs was trying to find out how much he could get away with without causing a mass rebellion. Indeed at one point during a mix-up at the coat-rack in the corridor, Millicent’s breasts struck me physically. It felt like being run through twice with an angel’s tongue. But to arrange another such accident would have caused comment, and anyway idealism shies from reality, even when, especially when, the reality matches the dream. All day and every day I confined myself to dreaming. When Millicent’s hand was raised to restore a stray strand of hair, there was a slight shift of the breast on that side. It was enough to make me cram the corner of a questionnaire into my mouth and bite it to stop squealing.

Occasionally, about once every thirty-four minutes on average, Millicent would get tired of coding, put down her pencil, lift both her clenched fists high behind her head, and yawn. As an alternative to swallowing a questionnaire whole I coded furiously, branding female orphans who lived with foster parents in Wandsworth and studied bookkeeping at the polytechnic as male upper-middle-class Oxbridge history graduates with an interest in blood sports. There is also a possibility that I was trying to impress her with my coding. I was probably trying to make her think: ‘My God, can that boy code.’ In other words, I was acting like a virgin. Hating myself for it too, because I wasn’t one, was I? But I was starting to forget what not being one was like, and was not yet experienced enough to know that for any man short of senility or satyriasis, virginity is a recurring condition, and not the worst from which he can suffer, although only self-possession can make it graceful.

Since I had self-obsession instead, I was not best equipped to maintain my equilibrium. Writing badly by night and coding badly by day, I was getting less enjoyment than I should have done out of my first long taste of being alone and paying my own way, or some of it. But not even the most determined cultivation of chaos can prevent the occasional outbreak of order. Having been advised by Robin that the Courtauld Gallery was just around the corner, I began spending some of my lunch-time there. The Italian primitives would probably not have said much to me even if they had been first-rate: my appreciation of painting was fated to work backwards from a starting point in recent times, so as yet I found the Renaissance, when I visited the National Gallery, an elaborate preparation for Rembrandt, whose main achievement in turn was to have done all that could be done with darkness, so that one day the Impressionists would show the same exhaustive virtuosity with light. But the Courtauld’s Impressionists and Post-Impressionists were first-rate. The great names were represented by only a few paintings each, yet these were capital works without exception. For the first time I got beyond admiring the individual painter and became immersed in the individual painting. There was a comfortable leather bench on which I sat and stared at Manet’s girl at the ‘Bar of the Folies-Bergère’ for half an hour on end, not always in the hope that Millicent would walk in and catch me there looking intense. After the first few weeks the accumulated evidence that she was never going to visit the Courtauld Gallery had become overwhelming.

As with many scatter-brained women her handbag was a bin, out of which she would produce, when the tea-break conversation flagged, one of those cube-shaped paperback novels by which American authors in elevator shoes take revenge on their country for its having rendered them illiterate. In Millicent’s case it was always the same novel, called something like The Insatiables. She would take squares of fudge out of the bin and melt them in her lovely mouth while it formed silent words as she slowly read. She is probably still reading that book and I would be surprised if the fudge hadn’t taken its toll, although not disappointed. Usually we do not want people to flourish after they have proved that they can live without us, but Millicent was a special case. And to think I never got near her — except when, instead of the fudge, she produced from her bin one of the ten cigarettes to which she rationed herself each day. I would always lean across the table and light it for her. The table was eight feet wide, but before the filter tip of each lucky Dunhill had settled into position between those sumptuous lips I would have lit a match and be sliding across that polished mahogany like a speed skater falling headlong and face downward on the fleeing ice.

My own cigarette ration was more like twenty during working hours, with twenty more each evening. By the time I eventually quit, about twelve years ago, I was smoking eighty cigarettes a day. People who scoff at this figure have never noticed how quickly a true addict smokes a cigarette, so that the burning tip, instead of being a shallow glowing cone, is like a red hot wire. Also you get to the point of having two cigarettes going at the same time, until you reach the terminal stage when you have three of them in your mouth at once, recoiling in sequence like guns in a turret. I finally quit when I found myself at two o’clock one morning assaulting a cigarette machine which had taken my last four coins and given nothing in exchange. The machine will probably never forget my deadly flurry of right uppercuts and left jabs, but that’s another story. Even when confining myself to a comparatively moderate forty a day, however, I must have been a spectacle, with butts piling up around me and my beard turning yellow around the mouth. On my right hand, only the little finger was the colour of skin. The thumb and three remaining fingers were a startling mixture of orange-peel and gold leaf. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that the nicotine must have been turning me the same colour inside as outside. All it took was someone capable of mature reflection.

More important in the short term, which for a long time remained the only term I could think in, was that the cigarettes ate up a large proportion of the money I had left over after paying the rent and buying the ingredients for my evening meal of bacon and sausages cooked in the fat of a similar meal cooked the evening before. The last duty-free Rothmans was far behind on the horizon, like a ship disappearing towards a more affluent world. For a while I still smoked the same brand, but with tax added to the price they would have been far too expensive even if my first pay packet had not revealed the full meaning of the word ‘stoppage’. It meant heart-stoppage. Some form of emergency tax had been imposed until such time as I qualified for a rebate. Presumably one qualified for a rebate by being able, for several weeks consecutively, to read the amount which had been withheld without succumbing to cardiac infarction. This was all a bit much, especially coming on top of the weekly National Insurance slug. I had thought that National Insurance was meant to insure me, but judging from the size of the compulsory contributions the idea was to insure the nation. So I switched to Players No. 6. A lot shorter than Rothmans, they were the tiny kind of cigarette that children smoked at matinees. In recompense my daily consumption shot up to sixty, with consumption sounding like the operative word. If coughing was a sign of literary ability, I would soon be up there, or down there, with Keats and Kafka.

Summer arrived, the job ran out, and the team dispersed, some of them to take an early holiday before starting serious work. Millicent walked out of my life, swaying gently at the hips: a new recruit for the growing army of the untouched, another chapter in the history of what never happened. I took the loss stoically, screaming only when alone. One of those naturally grave young men to whose air of tranquillity I aspired in vain, Robin had impressed me with the seriousness of his enforced exile, something with which voluntary exile has little in common. I was merely on a long holiday. He was banished. But all the more devotedly he studied to be a lecturer in English literature, showing remarkable tolerance for my views on the subject, which he was well aware owed their fluency to a culpable superficiality in the actual business of reading the books. It is never heartwarming, when you are three-quarters of the way through The Wings of the Dove, to be told by someone who has read only three pages of it that it is not worth reading. Robin not only mastered his justifiable impatience, he actually helped me line up another casual job, just around the corner in Gordon Square — something about counting up all the foreign students in Britain. But the job didn’t start for another two weeks, during which I would be once again flat broke.

Telling people I was on a fortnight’s holiday and would soon be drawing pay again, I raised almost enough scratch to smoke and drink continuously, provided I got plenty of sleep during the day. Much of this sleep I got in the parks. I slept in Hyde Park near the Serpentine, St James’s Park near the pond, Green Park, Regent’s Park and Holland Park. Daringly ranging further afield, I slept for several hours in the grass at Richmond while deer cropped up to a few feet all around me, so that I woke up looking like a chrysoprase cameo. Most adventurously of all, I slept in the meadow at the Mill in Cambridge.

One of my old Sydney fellow students and drinking mates had already been up at Trinity Hall for a year, reading the second part of the Modern Languages tripos as an affiliated student. During his last summer in Sydney we had been on stage together in the Union Revue, I playing Abdullah Tracy, the Arabian millionaire detective, and he making a show-stopping appearance as the rhythm and blues belly-dancer, Fatima Domino. After the show we would join the Downtown Push at whatever party they had crashed and get drunk enough together to forget the waves of indifference which had emanated from the audience. The last time I had seen him, on the drunken night before he sailed for England, he had been wearing full Push battle order, right down to the suede desert boots worn shiny on the toes. Our faces six inches apart, we had shouted farewell on the understanding that the Poms would never suck him in. Now, in Cambridge, he was suddenly in a three-piece suit and sounded like the Queen broadcasting to the Commonwealth. His new accent cut me off at the knees.

Even with his old accent I would not have found it easy to understand what he was talking about. Apparently there were sound academic reasons why he was still up, when everybody else had gone down. Otherwise he would already have gone down and not come up again until Michaelmas, or Candlemas or possibly Quatermass. But being obliged to stay up was nothing like as bad as being sent down. There was a big difference between being sent down and going down. That was one of the first things one learned when one came up. When I heard him use the word ‘one’ I began to suspect that he had been drugged, tied to a chair and brainwashed. But after a few pints of brown water in the Eagle, plus a few more in the Little Rose — Pepys’s pub, he explained with enthusiasm and difficulty — it was more like old times. He hired a canoe at the Mill and we paddled to Granchester, where a lot of young people were sitting around. These, it was explained to me, were not up. A succession of pints at Granchester was cut short by afternoon closing time, whereupon we paddled back to the Mill. Up at Granchester the church clock had stood at ten to three but down at the Mill it was ten to five. Up, down, up, down. The itinerary was out of Rupert Brooke, the echolalia out of Four Quartets, the situation out of hand. On the meadows there were some girls sitting down who were also not up. For a while we lay down and then later on we got up. It was in this condition that I fell into Corpus Christi and looked up at where Christopher Marlowe, no mean piss-artist himself, had had his rooms. I was led into Trinity Great Court as Byron had once led his bear. In the main court of King’s I was held steady until the Chapel stopped moving. The sun was gone out of the sky but the twilight was like day, so that the dark, honey-soaked biscuit of the stone — long overdue for the thorough cleaning it has since received — looked like an edible cut-out against the brushed azure. A trembling cut-out. Up, down, up, down. A small old man who looked like E. M. Forster shuffled by. It was E. M. Forster.

That evening we ate in an almost empty hall, called Hall. But the Hall of Trinity Hall was not the same as the Hall of Trinity. Trinity Hall was not a Hall at all. Trinity Hall was a college. This was merely its Hall. It was Trinity Hall’s Hall, that’s all. I was wearing a borrowed gown which kept tripping me up while I was sitting down. I had to keep getting up to fix it, whereupon I would fall down. Brown water was served by a man in a white jacket who helped me when the potato salad got into the sleeve of my gown. Up at the high table, called High Table, there were men looking down on us. These men, I was told, were Don’s. Don’s what? It was agreed that I was too tired to contemplate going up to London until next morning, so I slept that night in my friend’s rooms. We went up a set of stairs, called a Stair, and fell down in a set of rooms, called a Set. My companion slept in or near his bed but I was not envious. I was perfectly comfortable with my left arm hooked over the towel-rail and my head in the wash-basin, although every half-hour or so there was a terrible noise, like a man singing the first few bars of ‘Celeste Aida’ into a bucket.