Books: Falling Towards England — The Birmingham Decision |
[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 — The Birmingham Decision


Head of the Department of Psychiatric Medicine at the University of Birmingham, Professor William Trethowan had a wife, two teenage daughters, a son in short pants and an unexpected bearded visitor holding a cardboard suitcase. ‘What’s wrong?’ was the first thing he asked. I shrugged. ‘What happened to your head just then?’ was the second thing he asked, but in a detached manner, not pressing for an answer. He had an apparent lack of concern which people in trouble who found concern inhibiting would seek out, so I was far from being the first unannounced runaway to darken his door. At Sydney University, where I had first met him, his house had been a hostel-cum-clinic for highly strung would-be poets. An eminent English doctor of medicine who talked like George Sanders, played jazz trumpet, was generally interested in the arts and had a wife both keep and competent to produce the first Beckett and Pinter plays Sydney had yet seen — it was a challenging proposition for Australian students who were accustomed to a solid show of philistinism even from the Arts faculty. My neurotic but divinely gifted friend Spencer had arrived for dinner at the Trethowans one April night and not left until August.

I can give Professor Trethowan his real name and occupation because there was nothing professional about our relationship even at this, the lowest moment of my life, when I must have so closely resembled one of the case studies that could never be discussed outside his office. When I asked for refuge and time to think, he gave me both freely, plus unlimited access to his precious collection of old Vocalion 78 rpm records featuring Benny Carter. If I had asked to have my confession heard he would no doubt have granted that wish also, but whether from a Protestant upbringing or an innate suspicion of my own theatricality I have never been able to believe in that particular method of purging a sin. In my experience the sin is still there afterwards. Whenever the late and unlamented Albert Speer said ‘I should have known’, I always recognised my weaker self staging a carefully underplayed tantrum in which maudlin exhibitionism palmed itself off as atonement. Of course he should have known. That was his crime: deciding not to. Yet although I could honestly plead innocent to any charges of mass murder, the relative puniness of my transgression did not alter its absolute reprehensibility. For a while I contemplated emigrating back to Australia. At that time an Australian visiting Britain had all the advantages of British citizenship, including the opportunity to emigrate home again at a cost of only ten pounds sterling. Many of my compatriots who ran out of funds and hope used this escape route. Even as I thought of it, a change in the law closed the loophole for good, as if to ensure that I should not outwit my destiny. So there was nothing left except suicide.

As the last of summer strove tenaciously to keep the potted plants alive in the pedestrian areas of Birmingham’s new Bull Ring shopping complex, I would trail my way from one zebra crossing to the next, tour the art gallery, gaze at the Pre-Raphaelites (not as many as in Manchester, but more than enough) and consider the various possible means of my forthcoming voluntary exit. There is something about the Pre-Raphaelites which makes me contemplate self-inflicted death even when my conscience is clear — something to do with the way they managed to predict every shade of lipstick on a modern cosmetics counter. But this time I was definitely, or at any rate pretty seriously, planning to rid the world of my presence. Adopting a mysterious smile which enjoined complicity, I presented my four-volume Nonesuch Shakespeare to the younger daughter and my cherished association copy of Practical Criticism to the elder. I was saying goodbye to the treasures I had laid up on earth. Now nothing remained except the final act. When I sat down to write the letter which would explain this decisive step to my mother, however, I had a lot of trouble with the opening paragraph. It wasn’t easy to hit the right tone.

There was another difficulty. Either I loved life, or I couldn’t take my misery seriously enough. Perhaps there was, and is, a connection. To be incorrigibly ebullient might entail a congenital inability to assess the shambles around us in its correct importance. Since on this occasion the shambles had been wholly caused by me, I could hardly escape being at least shaken. It never came to choosing between the sleeping pills and the slashed wrists, but there was food for deep and severely troubled thought. My first thought, now that I had resolved not to end it all, was of how to get my books back, but on second thoughts I decided to regard their loss as a down payment on the appropriate propitiatory offering to the gods. This matter decided, it began occurring to me that my grand schemes for working by day and writing by night all had a fundamental flaw — my lack of qualifications for working by day. Unless the task was of the simplest and most undemanding, my mind wandered. Even at that stage, after so many years of evidence, I had not yet realised that there could be no task simple and undemanding enough, but at least I now resolved not to take on anything which could not be successfully tackled by a ten-year-old child. I had overestimated the age bracket, but the idea was right.

Another right idea was to negotiate my way back to some sort of institute of higher learning. For the lost soul, the university is the modern monastery. On top of that, it had started to dawn on me that my years as a student at Sydney University had been fruitful in everything except actual study. I needed time to read seriously, and working all day was no more favourable to heavy reading than it was to writing. Also I hadn’t been able to get out of my mind a story my Cambridge friend had told me about the poet Gray. It was to do with his epoch-making switch from one Cambridge college to another. At Peterhouse they had made an apple-pie bed for him once too often, so he had crossed the road to Pembroke. That journey of about twenty yards was, apart from one brief visit to a country churchyard, the biggest thing that ever happened to him. I needed to be somewhere where a twenty-yard walk was an adventure and you could spend your life polishing a single elegy. Dreaming of Cambridge should normally have been an activity on a par with my previous plans to take a flat in Belgravia. But strangely enough I had a possible way in, or up. My capacity for wasting time at Sydney University had attracted the amused attention of the Reader in English, George Russell. Humanely learned in Old English, Middle English and the European Middle Ages generally, he had a lot of information to impart; all of which I managed to ignore. I still recollect with shame how, in a seminar, he opened Ernst Robert Curtius’s European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, raised his hands above it as if he were breaking communion bread, and called it a great book. The shame springs from the fact that twenty years were to go by before I bothered to find out that he was right. But he must have thought I had promise. Every week Françoise and I were invited to his house and there I was gently but firmly introduced to classical music. In return for being allowed to assail George and his wife Isabel with my Thelonious Monk LPs, I was obliged to at least consider the more accessible quartets of Vivaldi. Always I got dead drunk on George’s well-chosen wines. My comportment must have been less brutish than I remember, because he told me — or rather told Françoise, so that she could tell me when I sobered up - to get in touch with him if the day ever came when I wanted to settle down and read seriously, an activity for which he thought I had a considerable, if entirely unexplored, talent. At Pembroke College, Cambridge, they might possibly take me, he ventured, on his recommendation. His own career at the college had been so distinguished, he neglected to add, that even if I turned out to be an utter goof they would still be in profit.

At the time, and for a long time afterwards, I thought nothing of this offer, believing that the cloisters were no framework for a serious artist. But in Birmingham, living on charity, with autumn crowding glumly in and nothing in view except further proof of unfitness for everyday life, the serious artist was ready to think again. So I composed a densely packed air letter to George Russell begging him to get me in out of the cold. It was a carefully phrased effort, a concentrated masterpiece of the epistolary art, and I sincerely trust that he never kept it. He must have acted on it immediately, because within two weeks Pembroke wrote to offer me a place. They had been just as unquestioningly welcoming to Gray, of course, but with better reason, because although he probably cut no great figure as he came sulking across the road with an armful of his bedding, he at least had a few elegies under his belt.

Thus was I offered on a plate what many native-born Britons have to strive for and often in vain — a fact of which not one of them has ever sought to remind me. God knows what George Russell said. He must have told them I had discovered the lost books of Tacitus, squared the circle and was on the verge of developing a unified field theory. But my assumption that to be given a place would ensure an automatic grant proved incorrect. The responsible authorities wrote to say that I could indeed receive a grant, although only after being resident in London for three years. This meant at least two more years of proving myself unemployable. There was nothing for it except to go back south and begin my sentence, Professor Trethowan and his wife, gracious as always, refrained from cheering aloud when I announced my departure. They merely looked very, very happy, as if a weight had been subtracted from their shoulders and added to their refrigerator, which I had been helping their children empty for too long. If it occurred to me that I had been a shameless free-loader, I merely added the realisation to my burden of guilt, as you might toss an apple-core into a skip full of rubbish. ‘When you finally get to Cambridge,’ said my host in farewell, ‘head straight for the Footlights. It’s your sort of thing, believe me.’ I don’t think, at this distance, that he meant my future was on the stage. I think he meant that it wasn’t in the cloisters; but I prefer to regard this remark as one more instance of his acute psychological insight. The Viennese essayist Friedrich Torberg once poured out his troubles to Alfred Adler, who told him that with so much going wrong he had a right to feel lousy. Torberg immediately felt marginally, but crucially, better. Bill Trethowan had the same knack. He knew I had a bad conscience and he didn’t pretend that it could easily be made good. The gnawing conscience, the agenbite of inwit, helps us know ourselves. Showing an unprecedented measure of dignity, I refrained from putting the agenbite on him for my bus-fare. Instead I took his daughters aside and fixed a price for the books I had already given them. Kisses all round and I was gone, hoping I looked like a devil-may-care vagabond. If only we could really tell what impression we make. Probably there would be no living.

The bus from Birmingham’s Digbeth deposited me in Hammersmith’s Talgarth. Digbeth, Talgarth: it sounded like one of those Anglo-Saxon chronicles which mercifully exist only in fragments. I was a stranger in a strange land, a wanderer reduced to his essentials, with only a suitcase for shelter and the light of my red shoes to steer by. Yet fortune, ever ready to rub in the message that what she holds back from the deserving might be given to the undeserving if she is in the mood, chose this moment to smile. There was a party on at Melbury Road. In quick succession I was offered a place to sleep and a job which might have been tailor-made.

My benefactors were dancing together. One of them was Babs, an Australian girl actually living in the top flat of Melbury Road at the time, and the other was one of her several English admirers, a dandruffy man in a crumpled three-piece suit who had trouble getting people to remember that he was called Trevor. His main problem was that nobody understood what he did. Computers were his field and he talked a lot about how they were going to revolutionise the world, to the point that ordinary people would have a computer in the house, and so on. All this would have sounded like nonsense even if he and Babs had not been dancing the Shake while he was saying it. But he had a room for rent in his flat, available as of now. When I asked him where the flat was, it was as if I already knew the answer, and was only seeking confirmation. ‘Tufnell Park,’ he said. ‘Up and coming area.’ Babs, who was now twisting while Trevor was shaking, was even harder to hear because she was going up and down instead of just vibrating, but I gathered that a job in one of the Lambeth public libraries would be open from the next Monday and with her recommendation I would be a dead certainty. She had worked there herself the previous year and the librarian would do anything she told him to. Trevor, to whom the same clearly applied, nodded vigorously, but that could have been the music. ‘All you have to do is put books on shelves,’ shouted Babs, ‘For you, it’s tailor-made.’ My recent experience of tailors might have warned me, but there was too much noise and too much beer. There was a plastic barrel of it in the kitchen with a little spigot that you could lie under.

Trevor had one of the new Minis, With my suitcase across the back seat and my soused body hanging in the front passenger’s seat belt like the corpse of an executed revolutionary, I went back to Tufnell Park. Nor was it even a different part of Tufnell Park. Trevor’s flat was just around the corner from where I had been before. I felt like a rat going back to Tobruk, to a place I returned to only in order to be bombed out of. Page 45 of the London A–Z had become my map of the world. But my allotted room couldn’t have been cosier. Beside the bed there was space for the suitcase if it stood upright. There was also space for me if I stood upright, as long as I stood upright on the bed. Time for that tomorrow. The problem now was to lie down without getting hurt. I started by kneeling and then did the difficult next bit by twisting myself sideways so that my mouth hit the pillow at an angle which allowed breathing. You can tell when it works because you wake up again next morning.

On the weekend before my new job started I paid two important calls. The first of them was to say goodbye to Pandora, who told me that she was under the impression I had said goodbye already. It transpired that she and Niceold, to save the Minister from parliamentary embarrassment, had worked together for two days and a sleepless night in order to accomplish what I had failed to do in two months. When I laughed nervously at this information she used her favourite word with no emphasis at all, like a death knell tolled by a cracked bell underwater. I backed out on all fours with a last, long, longing, hopeless look at her intractable ankles. The second call was on Joyce Grenfell and wasn’t much more successful. My account of recent events drew the bare minimum of appreciative laughter. Never one to preach, she none the less made it known that in her view those who regarded themselves as gifted had fewer, not more, excuses for behaving badly. Characteristically she had seen through at a glance to the centre of my self-indulgence. Satan’s opening remarks are almost always about how talented we are. As I left her, I was already chewing over the implications. They were too many to swallow that day or, as I can now see, that year or that decade, and perhaps the lesson has not fully sunk in even yet.

There were several Lambeth libraries, of which the one with the putative sure-fire job for me was in Brixton. A bus from Holloway Road went straight there, taking only nine years for the journey. By the time I got there I would have needed another shave, so the beard was a plus. Clad in the Singapore suit, I evidently impressed the librarian, whom I will call Mr Volumes because at this distance I can’t remember anything about him except the way he spoke. He spoke very loudly. Even for a road-worker wielding an unjacketed pneumatic drill he would have spoken loudly, but in a librarian his voice was truly startling. In all other respects he was a shambling buffer but then this stentorian voice came out. ‘YOUNG BARBARA SAID YOU WERE JUST THE MAN. WAS SHE RIGHT? EH? EH? WHAT?’ I did a lot of nodding, got the job, was shown out of the office into the reading room, and stepped on the delicately tapering right hand of Lilith Talbot, who was kneeling down to shelve some books with a lithe grace never employed on shelving books up to that time.

In Sydney, Lilith, the glamour girl of the Downtown Push, had memorably divested me of my virginity, something which had been of no use to anyone. As the personal property of the notorious gambler Emu Coogan she had not been able to go on with our affair - or that was what she had said, perhaps letting me down lightly. But now, in despair at Emu’s continued indebtedness to the standover men (apparently he had spent a night chained upside-down to one of the Mosman wharf pilings, listening to the rising tide) she had run away to England. Her intention was to recuperate from years of stress. Instantly I saw my own role in her recuperation.

She didn’t see it the same way, so I had to reconcile myself to our renewed friendship remaining chaste for the immediate future. Meanwhile I did everything I could to ensure that my presence bulked large in her life. During the morning shelving session we would shelve as a team. ‘CANOODLING AGAIN, YOU TWO?’ Mr Volumes insinuated gleefully, whereat the sleeping tramps at the reading table would come up out of their chairs mumbling automatic apologies. This was embarrassing but it helped get the idea into Lilith’s head. Also I took her out a lot, principally to the National Film Theatre. She sat through a whole Vincente Minnelli season, each film prefaced by a long free lecture from me, delivered on the bus. Walking back across Waterloo Bridge in the first fogs of winter, I would deliver a further monologue concerning the finer points of what we had just seen. She seemed appropriately grateful for all this instruction, which she was getting for almost nothing. Out of my weekly wage, after stoppages, I paid for all my own cigarettes and cider, on top of most of my rent. All Lilith had to do was buy the NFT tickets and provide the occasional small loan when we dined out together.

Dining out meant shepherd’s pie and bitter at the Anchor, Bankside. The Anchor was a little sooty brick Georgian pub on the Embankment. You could sit on the wall outside and look across the river to St Paul’s. The tiny house from which Christopher Wren had once done the same thing was a few yards along on the left, on the same site as a previous house where Catherine of Aragon had spent the night on her way upriver to marry Henry VIII. Lilith and I sat there in our duffle-coats looking out over the Whistlerian nocturne, with no sound in the cold air except the muffled drunks in the pub, the dimpled gurgle of the tide turning, the chugalug of the barges, and the slurred drone of my voice telling her about the genius of Arthur Freed and the exact difference between Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. Framed in the hood of her duffle-coat, her angelic face looked as if it were receiving a revelation. It always did, of course. Long practice at listening to the gratuitous political lectures of the Downtown Push had taught her to yawn with her mouth closed, with no tell-tale flaring of her poetically sculpted nostrils.

My campaign to get Lilith back into bed would have run into trouble even had she been compliant, because there was nowhere to go. Her bed-sit in Maida Vale was on the fourth floor of a red-brick terrace house inhabited on the first three floors exclusively by landladies. It must have been some sort of landladies’ training college: they were all in there, learning how to pick up the sound of illicitly creaking bedsprings and stockinged male feet on the stairs. They had echo-sounders and infra-red detectors. The layout chez Trevor was theoretically permissive but in practice hopeless. Trevor’s large room contained Trevor’s electronic gear, Trevor’s weirdo junior-scientist friends, and Trevor. He slept there on a convertible divan: one of those things that doesn’t look much like a sofa, but after you fiddle with it for a while it doesn’t look much like a bed. To uproot Lilith from polite drinks in the living-room and lead her off into my adjacent roomette could be for one purpose only, especially when you considered that unless we climbed straight away into my bed we would have to squat on it like Indians. After a gallon or so of Woodpecker the obviousness of such a move might be lost on me, but Lilith was not only sober, she was, like all genuinely sexy women, decorous. Anyway, even this slim possibility disappeared when Trevor evicted me. Accurately pronouncing me a defaulter on my payments, he rented the room to a girl folk-singer. I could kip on the floor of his living-room until I had found somewhere else. He was very nice about it, but also very firm. I think he had hopes of getting somewhere with the folk-singer, who sang the standard Weavers repertoire with a Roedean accent. Her name was Ninette and that was the name of her LP: My Name is Ninette. She made semi-regular appearances on the Bernard Braden show on the BBC and was thus well enough off to afford a new inner-spring mattress to go on top of the one provided by Trevor for what had previously been my bed. The mattress came wrapped in a 16-ply paper bag. Autumn had by now become winter in all but name, Trevor’s fan-heater did more for his bed than for my area of the floor, and the insulating properties of the paper bag were obvious. So I moved into it.