Books: Falling Towards England — Statistical Catastrophe |
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Falling Towards England — Statistical Catastrophe


Having seen an old friend fall so conspicuously on his feet should have tipped me off that I was falling on my head. Incredibly this was a fact that I had still not faced. It was finally brought home to me by an episode which strikes me even now as so shameful that I have to struggle, as I begin to tell it, against the urge to hide behind chalk-white make-up and a putty nose. But whereas it is simply good manners to make a story about one’s ordinary human failings as entertaining as possible, one’s extraordinary human failings require less self-indulgent treatment. What I did next couldn’t be glossed over with ten coats of hand-rubbed Duco. I took a job on, mucked it up, panicked and ran. That’s the long and the short of it. There was a girl involved, but that makes it worse, because she in no way approved of my behaving badly, and the only reason she couldn’t help me behave better was that I didn’t listen. Remorse, remorse. But let’s not jump the gun.

Once again the job was in Bloomsbury, just around the corner from Woburn Walk, in one of whose bow-windowed little houses W. B. Yeats had once written poetry, and in another of whose bow-windowed little houses Ezra Pound had once played the bassoon. Whether the second activity helped or hindered the first has always remained an open question, but to the inward ear of my imagination this was a mighty conjunction of creativity, as if Goethe and Beethoven, instead of slipping through each other’s grasp, had settled down in the same street to write Faust as an opera. I couldn’t walk past those bow windows without shivering, and indeed still can’t. Twenty years ago the shiver was at least partly caused by apprehension. The job had something wrong with it. It was too easy.

My employer was some official outfit called the Association for Commonwealth Institutes, if it wasn’t the Institute for Commonwealth Associations. Its headquarters were in the usual Georgian terrace house. From the architectural viewpoint, Bloomsbury had been raped twice, once each by the Luftwaffe and London University. The attack by the University had been the more merciless, but there were still a lot of Georgian terraces left. Few of them, however, were quite so elegant as the one housing the Institute for Associations. With the credit obtainable from friends on the basis of my prospective first week’s wages minus stoppages but plus rebate, I bought a pair of black chisel-toed Chelsea boots to go with the Singapore suit. Entering the building, I felt that I needed only a bowler hat and a tightly rolled umbrella to make me look the complete Establishment figure. If I had had the hat, hanging it on the hat-rack in the hall without being rendered temporarily headless by my suit would have entailed a pretty energetic combined jump up and lunge sideways, yet the idea was sound. Even the beard, after suitable attention from a pair of nail scissors, looked like something that might have been approved of by the Navy, instead of fired at on sight.

Once having entered the building, I bent to my task. This I did literally, because the task was spread out on one of those familiar large mahogany tables, except that this time I was on my own. The task was a large chart in which I was to enter, against the names of all the institutions of higher learning in Britain, the number and provenance of all the Commonwealth students attending them. At the end of the scheduled two months, the task would be completed by my tallying the total number of entries, thus to give a set of figures which could be read out by the responsible Minister in answer to a parliamentary question already tabled. A cinch. Nothing to it. All it needed was a level head.

For years after the disaster I tried to convince myself that a level head was something I possessed naturally and that I lost it only because of Pandora. In cold retrospect it becomes apparent that a man with the Medusa touch will wreak havoc whether he has help or not, but at the time of the explosion, and for as long as the debris was falling, I couldn’t help believing that the whole débâcle had at least something to do with Pandora’s legs. Pandora’s legs had the rest of Pandora on top of them, which didn’t make things any easier. The man in charge, a nice old thing in a three-piece suit with a watch-chain, had explained the chart, shown me how to analyse the data sheets, made a few sympathetic remarks about how my new shoes must have been hurting, and left me alone. It was all plain sailing for about an hour, and then Pandora opened the door to ask me if there was anything I wanted. Instantly I wanted Pandora. Her severe expression only added to her appeal. Those career-girl glasses were something cruel: when she looked at you it was like having your photograph taken by the police. Their frames were so big that she was getting both your profiles to go with the full face. But her mouth was all the more intriguing for being set in a firm line. From there on down she was Jaeger twinset, pearls and plaid skirt with a safety pin, but it was all put on over a figure twanging with whip-lash energy. Millicent’s sensuality, the memory of which now began a rapid retreat into the past, had been languid, passive, receptive. Pandora’s was the other thing entirely: avid sinuosity on a hair-trigger. And whereas Millicent’s legs had been merely poetic, Pandora’s were rhapsodic. They came tapering down out of the hem of that glorified Black Watch kilt like a pair of angels nose-diving with their wings folded, did a few fancy reverse curves of small radius so as to recreate the concept of the human ankle in terms of heavenly celebration, and then swooped at an only slightly less vertiginous angle into a pair of black lacquer stiletto-heeled court shoes with little bows near the toes. Stiletto shoes had come on even further in the previous few months, to the point where prospective airline passengers were asked not to wear them. Airliners kept crashing in the Andes and when the search party finally managed to cut its way through the jungle it would find the usual fuselage full of skeletons, except that at least one of the skeletons would be wearing stiletto shoes which had to be extracted from the metal skin of the pressure cabin with a pair of pliers. Pandora’s heels were like that. Looking at her for the first time with roughly the emotions of the Flying Dutchman meeting her namesake, I suddenly and strangely remembered a more than usually weird case study in Havelock Ellis about a man who got his rocks off by lying down and having women stand on his vital areas without removing their buttoned boots. If Pandora were to co-operate in such a venture, there could be no doubt that the experience would prove terminal, but what a way to go. Pinned like a butterfly. This ambiguously disturbing prospect was made even more unsettling by her air of severity. Though she didn’t look as if she would be much interested in your pleasure, an interest in your pain was clearly not to be ruled out.

I was maligning her, of course: it was just the glasses. Having foisted one of my fantasies on Millicent, I had immediately set about foisting a different fantasy on Pandora. But there could be no doubt that the detachment of her manner was more effective than a provocation. To indicate that there was nothing I wanted, I raised both hands as if to fend off help, while saying: ‘No worries.’ What I said came out muffled, but her reply was witheringly clear. ‘Is there something wrong with your clothes? What happened to your head just then? You looked like Charles I.’ I told her the story of the Singapore suit, a would-be self-deprecating routine which by then, after so much practice, was in a high state of polish. Any normally equipped English-speaking female could be depended upon to laugh aloud at least twice during this comic tour de force, but Pandora didn’t crack a smile. This was particularly galling in view of the fact that her line about Charles I had been pretty good. Not perhaps a miracle of invention, yet tellingly delivered from the dead pan. Pans didn’t come deader than Pandora’s pan. I was gibbering. What could I do to break the pack ice on that minatory face?

The answer was nothing, but I didn’t find that out before trying everything. There was a Howard Hawks season at the National Film Theatre. I took her to see His Girl Friday, one of the funniest films ever made. She sat there like a world champion poker player. Her studied indifference might have had something to do with the way I rolled in the aisle. (Anyone who rolls from side to side in the aisle might be doing so naturally, but to roll up and down the aisle is an affectation.) If that was so, however, why did she agree to go out with me again? And she always said yes to going out, just as she always said no to any form of physical contact. When I asked her if it was the beard she said it wasn’t. Then what was it? One night we went to the Royal Court to hear Lotte Lenya sing Brecht and Weill. Lenya’s voice was in rags from laryngitis and the tube trains arriving and departing under the theatre sounded like a fault in the earth’s crust, but the acrid lilt of ‘Surabaya Johnny’ proclaimed the inexorability of desire. Pandora invited me back to her flat for coffee. I told myself to stay calm and it would all drop into my lap. It did, too: a steaming hot mug of Nescafé. Nothing else. Perhaps it was a tactical error to give her my standard lecture on the evils of capitalism. I gave her the short version — less than three-quarters of an hour — but before it was half over she was saying ‘Really?’ in the middle of each sentence as well as at the end. When I tried to kiss her on the way out I rammed her spectacle frames. It was like being thrown against a windscreen.

History was leaving me behind. John Glenn went into orbit but I stayed earthbound. Britten wrote his War Requiem. Basil Spence built Coventry Cathedral, which briefly held the title of Most Hideous Building in Britain before the new London Hilton pipped it for top spot. The Mariner unmanned space mission left for Venus. The Moulton small-wheeled bicycle appeared on the streets of London, giving the miniskirts of its female riders a further boost towards the belt. When a girl’s tights came towards you on a Moulton, they were making scissor movements at eye level, especially if you were on your knees sobbing with lust. The air was pulsating with libido, but somehow Pandora hadn’t heard the news. I knocked myself out trying to impress her. There is no point trying to impress women — if they are listening to you at all, then they are already as impressed as they are ever going to get — but this fact takes some of us a long time to learn and even then it is easily forgotten in the stress of frustration. Pandora wasn’t impressed with what I knew. An Oxbridge education had equipped her to say ‘Really?’ on those occasions when she was told something she didn’t know already. When Pandora said ‘Really?’ it was like being flicked in the face with a wet, sandy towel. Equally clearly she was not impressed with my looks, clothes or earning potential. No doubt it was out of fairness that she always paid her share, yet her manner implied that she was subsidising a gypsy. So there was nothing left to impress her with except a revolutionary new method of calculating the number of foreign students.

Why this did not impress her mystified me at the time. My formula was a breakthrough in sociologico-statistical methodology comparable to those diagrams by Pareto showing causes and effects all linked up with arrows. With four different coloured pencils I approximated the increment against the asymptotic co-ordinate. The chart looked like Stravinsky’s holograph manuscript of Le Sacre du printemps overlaid by a computer print-out of the Walt Disney Organisation’s payroll. My employer, Mr Niceold Thing - soon, if all went well, to be Sir Niceold Thing — dropped in to see how my work was going and pronounced himself dazzled. ‘But doesn’t this slow everything down terribly?’ he asked. ‘Only,’ I explained patiently, ‘in the initial stages. It takes a few weeks to do the transpositions, but then all you have to do is read off everything in the right-hand column and you get the whole answer in a few minutes.’

He wasn’t as convinced as I was, but he needed to be only half as convinced as I was to be convinced enough. Instead of ordering me to forget the new method and just get ahead with the old one, he retreated looking trustful but worried — never a good sign in a commander. He probably blames himself for what happened and I must say that there are moments when I agree with him. They are weak moments. Pandora, after all, told me outright that I was breaking a butterfly on a wheel, or words to that effect. ‘Making a meal of it, aren’t you?’ Without lifting my head I converted the five Sierra Leone students at the Bradfield Polytechnic into a green Greek gamma with a pink circle around it. ‘Just put down the tea, smart-arse,’ I retorted. It was part of my new plan to relax her with obscene banter. It wasn’t working any better than the old plan, but it wasn’t working any worse either, which made it a potential step forward.
‘Would you like a cake?’ she asked with what sounded like less than total indifference to my destiny.
‘Sticky cake or crumbly cake?’ I riposted, edging the pink circle with yellow.
‘No, not cake. Cake. Cake-Akela. Thought you might be hot.’

I looked up to see that she had brought two bottles of the familiar American beverage in its sensually draped and fluted bottle. This was tantamount to a love-tryst. I followed it up immediately and once more crunched the bridge of my nose into her spectacle frames. If she had not been turning away as I lunged forward with my eyes closed, the hinge where the ear-piece joined the main frame would not have cracked open and spilled the tiny brass pivot. A long way above me as I crawled around looking for it, she kept saying ‘Really’ without the question mark, which made it sound even worse.

Getting her back to the mood of relative abandon in which she had voluntarily brought me a fizzy drink took weeks. My first English summer was now at its blazing height. For an hour on end the sun would shine. In the parks at lunchtime the English males would bare their potato-white bodies to what they had heard described as ultra-violet rays. Pandora appeared in a new range of dresses which apparently she usually wore only when in Cannes or Nice with Daddy. When we walked in Lincoln’s Inn Fields the allegedly pitiless sunlight did nothing to unfreeze her cryogenic face, but at least it silhouetted her legs through the thin gingham so that I could see the shapely shadows heading upwards. When I tore off my shirt, the remnants of my Australian tan made a remarkable impression on her. No impression. None. In desperation I switched back to the indoor approach and took her to see the Lycergus Cup in the British Museum, hoping that the sunlight slanting through its delicate green and pink calyx would touch some deep, repressed, Dionysian impulse in her Apollonian soul. It didn’t.

Not making it with Pandora, I was fatally distracted from the more portentous truth that I was not making it with my job either. By the time the awful facts sank in, it was too late. There was no hope of assembling my multicoloured symbol-scramble into an intelligible order: not in the time available, and probably not within the foreseeable duration of the known universe. Neither was there time to go back and start again with the ordinary method. Somebody normal might just have managed it, but my morale had collapsed. With the parliamentary question only ten days away, I turned up at work, looked obliquely at the chart, sat down and wrote poems. Every time my employer stuck his head through the door, I brusquely assured him that any moment now, with a stroke of a pencil, the scheme would yield its results. Pandora no longer made her daily appearance. Putting my hand on her bottom in the British Museum had been a terminal mistake. She was looking at the Elgin Marbles and for a blessed second I thought that I was feeling them: cool, firm, curved even in their planes. Then her favourite word, only this time with an exclamation mark, echoed through the museum like a polite gun-shot, or a door that had never really been open clicking finally shut.

There was only one honourable course: to go to the boss and make a clean breast of my failure. So I took the dishonourable course. On the third last day before the deadline I did not go to Bloomsbury. I went to Birmingham instead. On the credit side of the ledger — the sole positive entry — may be put the fact that I didn’t do a midnight flit from my digs. Fronting up to the landlady fair and square, I paid her a month’s notice and no arguments. A committed sherry-drinker who was invariably blotto by eleven in the morning, she failed to recognise me, which made it easier. Toting the cardboard suitcase, wearing the Singapore suit, sweating into the Chelsea boots which already had holes in them, I headed for Euston and the train that would take me north to sanctuary. The ticket cost me the last cash I had, but I was cleaned out in the metaphorical sense only. My soul was heavy with the fluid of a molten spine. After such knowledge, what forgiveness?