Books: May Week was in June — Frisbees Fly at Dusk |
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May Week was in June — Frisbees Fly at Dusk


Not that the cast members of the May Week revue were anything like as neurotic as their director — a post to which I had been unanimously elected by the Footlights committee. Since any member of the committee who voted against me would have felt himself obliged to resign on the spot, the unanimous vote was no surprise. I took it as a compliment. I also, I can safely say, took it as an obligation. Night and day, with the exception of the examination period, the whole of Easter term was devoted to rehearsals. Ruling by decree, I had stipulated that the cast would be large. Like many another despot in history, I had talked myself into believing that democracy could be imposed by ukase. I should have known better. I did know better, but was carried away by a personal conviction that the club had had its mind on London for too long. Small-cast revues with one eye on the West End had arrived there looking would-be professional and not much fun to be in even when they were funny. A large-cast revue would be a sign that we weren’t out for ourselves as individuals. There would be no stars, just a happy ensemble. Though I loathed all of Brecht except the Weill operas, I had been mightily impressed by the Berliner Ensemble when it came to the Old Vic. As Macheath in The Threepenny Opera, Wolf Kaiser had writhed against the bars of his gaol in a suitably alienated manner, yet it was the inventiveness of the group movement that had stayed with me. It was like the circus. I liked circuses, too. Though sketches, as always, would be the basis of the show, what attracted me most was the prospect of getting that large cast into concerted action, of creating group effects, of — not yet a word made dreadful by pious use — improvising. In the cast there were tall men, small men, thin men, fat men. There were four girls, one of whom was Julie Covington. Normally she would have been the star of the show. In this show without stars I at first looked on her conspicuous ability as a limitation. She was pretty, she could act, she could sing and she could dance. All of that rather got in the road of my general plan to have big production numbers in which nobody would stand out. All day in the clubroom and far into the night, while the smell of fish rose from below like an oily miasma, I carried on like Kim Il Sung, motivating my huge company to perform as one. Possessing an overbearing personality anyway, and fired by the powerful ideals of social engineering, in my ideological determination I was hard for those youngsters to resist. Luckily for us all, they resisted, or there would have been a débâcle.

The show was called Supernatural Gas and sold out the Arts Theatre for the whole two-week season. Every Footlights May Week revue always did. At least this one didn’t do less. There was oblique evidence that the show was not, in advance at any rate, judged an outright flop. Positive evidence that it was entertaining came from the audience’s laughter, which was quite frequent. It might have been more frequent if I had placed due emphasis on the sketch writing. Some of the monologues had not been worked on sufficiently since they had done the usual round of the club and college smokers. Ideally a monologue should be the unique experience of the person who writes it, who, also ideally, should be the same person as the person who delivers it. In reality, scarcely anybody under the age of ninety is self-critical enough to do his own cutting and rewriting. Throughout the Footlight’s Dramatic Society’s modern history (we had better forget about its ancient history, which was spent, almost exclusively, screaming around in high heels and beads) the best monologues had been worked on by so many hands that they amounted to group creations, like the pyramids or the atomic bomb. I would have done better to apply my group motivation approach to the sketches as well. Instead, I confined it to the production numbers and the mute movement routines. Actually these took so long to rehearse that there was no real prospect of keeping the cast together for further periods of group script editing, desirable though that might have been. Getting the cast together at all proved far more difficult than I had expected.

Russell Davies was in nearly every sketch and musical number. Though the aim was to distribute the plum parts equally, in cold fact he was the best man available for almost everything. No other performer was disgruntled if I replaced him with Davies. Even more gratifyingly, Davies was not disgruntled, or did not seem so. Rehearsing continuously all day and far into the evening, however, he began finding it harder to get up in the morning. We had to send a taxi for him, and it got to the point that if the taxi driver failed to wake him up he would sleep on. It was typical of Davies that he could not bring himself to point out the connection between overwork and narcolepsy. I had underestimated his modesty, and he my insensitivity. The mêlée of an urgent group activity is not as good a time as it is cracked up to be for people to find out about each other. I needed his abilities, so I treated him as if his energies were infinite. They almost were. As for his powers of invention, they seemed to have no limit at all In a big production number called ‘The Fantastograd Russian Dance Ensemble’, he played the victim in the Dance of the KGB Interrogators. I was very proud of the whole number and had a satisfactorily dictatorial time making everyone bounce around shouting ‘Da!’ with their arms folded, but there could be no doubt that the way Davies looked suitably grateful while being straightened out by the heavies — the way he made an actual dance of it — was a work of art which brought a lump to the throat. All that inventiveness being lavished on a single moment which would live, at best, in a few thousand memories! Having him to hand was so gratifying that I forgave him his strange habit of falling asleep in his chair and needing to be shaken awake every time the next number to be rehearsed required his presence — which was, in effect, every time.

Robert Buckman, later to be famous as the Pink Medicine Man on television, was the youngest member of the cast and presented the opposite kind of trouble. He was so energetic that you had to hold a cushion over his face to slow him down. I could cope with him, however, by shouting at him loudly. This did not work with a strange young man calling himself Rusty Gates, who had done some very droll, off-trail sketches in dub smokers but who now, having been cast for May Week, revealed an enhanced capacity for obliquity that made him hard to comprehend. He grew his hair in a page-boy cut. He addressed me as ‘man’. When he arrived, always progressively later, he crossed one brothel creeper randomly over the other so that there was no telling which wall he would walk into. Either he would stop just short of the wall and address it as‘man’ or he would make actual contact with it, but never at sufficient velocity to cause pain. Finally, when he was arriving so late that his eventual appearance was the same as not having turned up at all, he would walk in so slowly that each foot was in the air long enough to make you wonder if paralysis had struck. Even though he is now a highly respected theatre director, he won’t mind my saying all this, because his abstracted manner of that time was part of the political position which he has since pursued undeviatingly and with great success. He was the first homegrown English hippy I had met. He regarded me, correctly, as hopelessly square. Certainly I was too square to realise the significance of the hand-rolled cigarettes he smoked in such quantities. In Strad’s company I had had the odd puff myself without realising that there was a new religion on the way which would have devotees and would scorn dabblers. Rusty Gates was a hard man to rehearse. He had a manifest contempt for the material. In retrospect I was to decide that he was three-quarters of the way to being right. At the time I regarded him as a disciplinary problem. I condemned him to the worst role, that of the perambulating HP sauce bottle in a clever number called ‘Cinquante Sept’, written by two exceptionally tasteful young men called Ian Taylor and David Turner, who later on were to do show business a serious disservice by staying out of it. The song had everything. In later days, when I knew more about pacing a show, I would have made it the finale and poured on the effects. As it was, the song had almost the entire cast in it. Even Jonathan James-Moore, who couldn’t sing at all, delivered a spoken announcement in the middle of the number. He just read out the label of an HP sauce bottle in a sepulchral voice. He would have brought the house down if it hadn’t already been down. The house was already down because of Rusty Gates. His arms imprisoned inside the giant HP sauce bottle, from which only his feet and his closely framed face protruded, he was supposed to toddle out to centre stage and stay still. But a man who, under the influence of the dreaded weed, had an ideological objection to walking straight even in daylight, was unlikely to toe any given line while clad in a papier mache HP sauce bottle. He wandered around the stage arbitrarily, leaning over at angles from which recovery should have been impossible. The rest of the cast moved smoothly aside to avoid him. It all looked quite meant if you were not the choreographer. I was, and got foolishly annoyed.

Looking back, I am annoyed in a different way, for having become obsessed with technical effects at the very moment when a new maturity of content, made possible by the waning influence of the Lord Chamberlain, was not only possible but called for. The truth was that the theatre, which I had approached, correctly, as a temple, had turned out to be, in the first instance, a box of tricks. Immediately I had become fascinated with the tricks, to the detriment of my sense of proportion. The things that could be done! Normally inhibited young people could be organised into kick-lines wearing funny hats. They could be slung on wires and flown around. They could be made to disappear through trapdoors. Things could be done with lights. Julie Covington looked so elegant singing in a spotlight that I spent hours arranging a slow fade to silhouette and forgot about the songs she was supposed to be singing. Luckily they held the audience, but she deserved better. The whole cast deserved better. I could do it now, but you can’t go back into time except through memory, and even that form of transport is dangerous when the question turns on what might have been. At the time it seemed that I had nothing to reproach myself with. Quite the reverse. The show was greeted, if not hailed, as a success. Well, a half-success. It seemed to me that the Six Day War, which broke out at the same time, was a secondary occurrence. I was very pleased with myself and might have modelled my swagger on that of Moshe Dayan. Every night of the run I saw the show and gave notes, but spent little time in the day cutting or re-rehearsing. (In later years I would have rebuilt the show every afternoon until there was not a flat spot left in it.) The mysterious May Week that lasted a fortnight and took place in June was a mystery no longer. It was a time for youth to celebrate itself. I was a tiny bit past being a legitimate celebrant. That just made the feeling sweeter. While the exhausted cast slept the sleep of the just through the long morning, I would walk the gravelled paths of the backs, clutching the jewel of Pembroke’s library, Aubrey Attwater’s copy of the Leopardi edition of Petrarch. At ease on a bench, with Trinity’s Wren Library in clear view and the river dotted with drifting clumps of girls, I would part the gilt-edged pages and imagine myself Rotto dagli anni e dal cammino stanco. Broken by the years and by the tired road. God help me, I fancied that what I had faced and conquered had been adversity, instead of just another self-set challenge, easily encompassed.

Marenko and the Americans should have been a healthy antidote. Accompanied by Girton girls who had been carefully chosen and gallantly presented with a bunch of carnations each, they loyally attended the revue but didn’t pretend to be impressed by anything except the logistics of mounting such a huge venture when everyone involved was supposed to be studying. They, the Americans, were still studying every day, even though, for some of them, the last examinations were over. A sound mind needed a sound body, however, so in the afternoons they were to be found down in the meadow behind the Mill, benefitting immodestly from the sunlight. Marenko looked so magnificent with his shirt off that a Newnham girl, nowadays world famous as a romantic novelist, rode her bicycle straight into the Cam. For Marenko, exposing his torso to the sunlight was a quasi-sacred act which he called ‘baking bod’. At lunch in Hall he would propose this Azteclike ritual to the assembled company. ‘Why don’t we all saunter down to the Mill and bake bod?’ Delmer Dynamo having copped out on the excuse that his new set of the Nonesuch Dickens needed its pages cut, we would trail down to the meadow and lie around. At one of those meetings — which would have been a bit Kraft durch Freude if not for the high quality of the laughter — the first Frisbee I had ever seen was produced, A large black plastic dish with its name, WHAM-O FRISBEE, applied in gold, inevitably it had been imported by Strad. It turned out, however, that all the Americans could make the thing perform. Strad could make it go about fifty yards and then hover like a black and gold halo over Marenko’s head. Marenko favoured an underarm flick of the wrist which sent the enchanted disc zipping along about three inches above the ground for an improbable distance until, instead of crashing, it rose remarkably into the air, tipped to one side, and slotted into Strad’s upstretched hand as if drawn there by a string. To my shame I went crazy with frustration at being unable to make the bloody thing fly straight. Moving my wrist forward as instructed, I merely delayed the disc’s inexorable swing to the right. The accursed object moved to the right like Sir Oswald Mosley. It headed for the Cam like Hitler for the Rhine. Observant young ladies laughed from beneath the willows. When Marenko, like a languishing Discobolus, airily unleashed a fizzer, there were long sighs from the dappled shade. ‘Blow it out your ass!’ cried Delmer in the distance, appearing in slow stages from the direction of the Mill as he grappled intermittently with a prematurely opened deck-chair. Boatered, blazered and monocled, he sat in full Wodehousian splendour, sending up puffs of smoke from his cigar while his pipe-clayed white shoes acquired grass stains that looked as if they had been brushed on by Monet. When I fluked a straight throw he applauded like a member of the MCC. ‘Oh, well propelled, old fruit! Well chucked!’ The ten-day idyll seemed to last a year. There was the Footlights tour to prepare for. The details must have taken at least a week. Probably it was less than a week, then, that I basked in that perfect light. My whole soul baked bod. At the lawn parties I basked in glory while adroitly dodging Consuela. For someone of my temperament, going over the top is a necessary step towards coming to terms. Those were the days when I gave way to the dementia of celebrity. Critics who think I am out of control now should have seen me then.

And then it was over. Though the tour was no disaster, it was no triumph either. The small-cast show with one eye on London, the kind of show I hadn’t wanted, was the kind of show the provincial audiences had wanted. It meant nothing to them that the large-cast revue gave the less talented an equal opportunity to share the stage with the more talented. The audience wanted an unequal opportunity to laugh and admire. Sketches which had held the stage in Cambridge ran to comparative silence in Nottingham. They didn’t exactly die the death, but they contributed nothing except running time. Standing in the back of the auditorium and wondering how to patch things up sufficiently well to keep the show on the road and some of the cast from suicide, I became a worried man again. At the end of the long vacation I was due to take an abridged version of the show to the Edinburgh Fringe. At that juncture I would have a chance to re-cast along less egalitarian lines. It would be an act of mercy. Performers out of their depth drown. Though they do it in air instead of water, you can see them struggle. Beginning at last to take in, at the level of experience, the lesson which I should have been able to learn at the level of theory, I packed my carry-all and headed for Venice. Françoise was studying there again and as usual she would make all the arrangements, but this time I was not entirely a free loader. In Venice there was to be a major exhibition of Canaletto, Guardi and the rest of the view painters — the Vedutisti. To Nicholas Tomalin I had proposed that I should cover this event in a piece for the New Statesman. He had agreed. It was a commission. The piece would be paid for. All I had to do was write it.

I wrote it with suspicious ease. Françoise and Venice were at their most beautiful. The wine at Trattoria al Vagon was cheap and plentiful. When I arrived at the exhibition I felt happy and confident. The paintings of Canaletto looked happy and confident. The paintings of his nephew, Bellotto, looked less happy and less confident. Canaletto was light blue but Bellotto was dark green. Guardi was dark blue with too much pink. He was neither happy nor confident, Guardi. You could tell just by looking. I am afraid that my analysis of this entire, quite important movement in Italian painting was all on an elementary, not to say infantile, level. With a set length of only fifteen hundred words in which to express my opinions, a paucity of information was an advantage. As far as I can remember — it wasn’t far even at the time — I wrote the piece in a matter of hours. Looked at again today, it has a speciously authoritative bravura which I can only envy. Nowadays a piece the same length, on any subject, would take me at least a week. My brain has grown sclerotic, my wind short, and with experience I have become more fearful instead of less, but the main reason for being slower to get things done now is that I know more about them. Possessing more information than will fit easily into the space, I must sweat at the task of choosing what to leave out, and of making what I put in imply the rest. Though often accused of putting everything I have in the shop window, it is no longer among my vices. In the days when I did, I wrote like lightning. At the bar at the foot of the Rialto, Françoise read the finished piece through, suggested a few corrections, and looked, I thought, slightly ashamed, as if she had taken up with a confidence man — which, at that time, was exactly what I was. Not only was I out of my depth, I was staging an aquacade instead of calling for help. She particularly deplored, I suspect, my knack of suggesting that what I was saying was only the tenth of the iceberg that showed above the water. She was well aware that what showed was all there was: the tip of an iceberg floating on a raft. Dead on cue, seven gondolas lashed side by side emerged from under the bridge. Full of Americans, they rode low in the water while the massed gondoliers provided choral accompaniment to a plump middle-aged tenor who stood in the prow of the central gondola facing backwards. His mouth opening wide enough to swallow a melon, he uncoiled the high wailing melodic line of a love song. He was a professional and so was I. You have to start somewhere, and you can’t do so without taking the risk that you might one day end up somewhere else than the place you hoped to reach. A scholar takes a job. A writer takes.a chance. Carefully I explained this to Françoise over several carafes of wine paid for by her. Arriving at the post office, where with her help I planned to send the piece off to London by registered mail, I was feeling pretty dauntless. During the long process of acquiring the right stamps, stickers, sealing wax and bits of string I gradually sobered up, until by the time the parcel was ready for acceptance I had qualms. What if it got rejected? Why, indeed, should it be accepted? Three days ago I had scarcely known the Vedutisti from the Watusi, Canaletto from a can-opener, Guardi from a mudguard. All I had ever done was look at the pictures. That, basically, Françoise assured me, was all that anyone had ever done. She was a model of strength as I sat there sobbing. The Italian post offices were temples of bureaucracy in those days, sufficient all by themselves to cause a breakdown in civil order. Constantly mutating meaningless regulations ensured that your parcel, when you finally got to the head of the queue, would never be accepted the first, second or third time. Even when you had the right gauge of brown paper, thickness of string and redness of sealing wax, unless you timed your run for the end of the day they would have introduced some new rule about writing the address four times or tying the thing up with a pink ribbon. Coping, Françoise grew cooler as I grew angrier. Finally, when I was down on the floor on my knees, pounding my fist into the tiles, she was smiling seraphically at some official in a cap. He was the one who said there was no problem; of course we shall accept your parcel; he couldn’t understand how the difficulty had arisen; was the signorina’s friend perhaps the victim of some unfortunate mental disease?

In debt to my college and with a long, long vacation ahead before the next grant cheque came through, I was dependent on Françoise for the necessities of life. This drain on her resources left nothing over for travel, so we were obliged to hitch-hike. In her two-piece raw silk suit and high heeled sandals, Françoise must have been the best dressed hitch-hiker since Lola Montes. On the approach roads to the autostrada, Italian male drivers of expensive sports cars were eager to break the law and stop, especially if they thought she was alone. I encouraged this misapprehension by hiding myself behind a bush. If there was no bush available I would conceal myself in the nearest depression, feeling pretty depressed myself. In shallow holes lined with dried mud I would cower cursing. When I heard the shriek of brakes I would dustily emerge and shamble forward. Some of the drivers looked a bit pissed off but very few of them tried to cancel the deal. A guy with an Alfa Romeo Giulia ti got us to Bologna in no time. The next bit was the hard part. The recently completed stretch of autostrada down from Bologna through the mountains towards Florence had instantly established itself as one of the most frightening experiences in modern Europe. There were three lanes each way. None of them was a slow lane. Articulated trucks with two trailers in tandem swung out from lane to lane without warning just as you were trying to overtake them. The chance of getting cut in half was very high, even if you had a great big car with plenty of hot lights to flash in the mirrors of the trucks. The car that picked us up was a little Fiat Berlinetta whose driver thought he was Eugenio Castellotti, the late lamented Mille Miglia ace revered in Italy for the flair he had shown in driving at 150 miles per hour on the footpath when the road was full of spectators. When a truck pulled out, our boy would try to duck inside, ignoring the possibility that the truck might try to go back to where it had come from, thereby crushing us against the wall of a tunnel or propelling us a thousand feet down into a rocky gorge. All this was happening at about ninety. The hard shoulders of the road were littered with wrecks. Particularly affecting was a Lancia saloon divided into two widely separated pieces. Françoise had insisted on climbing into the back seat with me. Our driver kept turning around to compliment her on the perfection of her Italian and insert his nose into her cleavage. Meanwhile I attempted to draw his attention to the imminent death looming in front. It was a nice exercise in relative time. We got to Florence in a few hours, having aged ten years.

This time Florence was only a staging post. After a night at the Antica Cervia I humped our two bags out to the autostrada and we hitched south to Rome. The driver was a gentleman who had a kind word for my Italian as well as Françoise’s. That did me the world of good. I forget what make the car was, but in a quiet way of business it was a road-eater. It wasn’t an Alfa or I would have remembered. Though the Alfas were fast, they floated sideways on their suspension and had to be steered all the time. This car ran like a train. Probably it was the big Fiat, the one with four headlights. The driver was stopping in Arezzo for a couple of hours. He offered to take us on if we cared to wait. We visited the Piero della Francesca frescoes. I’m glad I saw them then. Later on they were over-cleaned and almost rained. At that time they were as much as I could take in at one sitting — or, rather, standing. I just stood there, with that unmistakable feeling of being returned to the source, of starting again. A clear outline filled in with colour will always be my ideal. Admiring the cinquecento for its intellectual daring, nevertheless I am a quattrocento man at heart. I like that odour of the workshop; of wood shavings and glue. Behind it, of course, is the odour of the classroom; of paint on the finger. I remembered how I had once decorated the margins of my schoolbooks, and wondered if, had I been born four hundred years earlier, I would have decorated churches. It would have been a perfectly satisfactory occupation, apart from the occasional heresy hunt and visitation of plague.

Rome hove into view and there was a whole new Renaissance to contend with..This was where even the Florentines came to make it big. The Vatican was their Hollywood. All the paintings were in wide-screen processes. There was nothing smaller than Cinemascope. The candle smoke of centuries having not yet been expunged from the Sistine ceiling, it was up there like a brown cloud, but what you saw stirring in the murk was enough to keep you going, and Christ came hulking out of the Last Judgment like a line-backer unexpectedly carrying the ball. With Françoise’s help I was picking my way through Michelangelo’s sonnets. I had all the makings of a Michelangelo bore. It was Raphael, however, who did the permanent damage. By being so much more transparent than his paintings in oils, the wide-screen frescoes in the ‘Stanze’ convinced me that there is a desirable lightness in art which must be planned for so that it is not perfected away: refinement, beyond a certain point, kills itself. That, or something like that, I wrote in my ever-ready journal. Somewhere off the Via del Corso, Françoise had found a room which had once been the bottom half of another room twice as high. Using that as a base, we went out on art orgies. We had a Bernini binge. I fell for him where Daphne flees from Apollo, in the Galleria Borghese. Until then I had been under the impression that I hated the Baroque. By the time we were relaxing over an iced coffee at an open air cafe in the Piazza Navona, I was Baroque-berserk. The horse’s head in the central fountain I thought the wittiest thing I had ever seen: light, fluent, poised, graceful, alert with the accepted tragedy of passing things. Anticipating the rejection of my piece about the Venetians, I was planning a second assault on the New Statesman by way of an uncommissioned Italian diary. I had already done a short piece about the autostrada down from Bologna. Now I added a thing or two about Bernini. This time I made strategic use of a semblance of honesty, admitting that I hadn’t thought much of him before. (The admission that I hadn’t known much of him before might have unsettled the reader.) This affectation of candour struck me as quite touching. It reminded me of a poignant moment, much earlier in my career, when I had shyly put my hand up to confess that it was I who had broken wind. At that stage in Italy’s continuing history of inflation, coins of small denomination were made of an alloy so light that they almost floated. When we threw our coins into the Trevi fountain they took a long time to flutter to the bottom. I wrote a poem about it. Françoise couldn’t complain that I wasn’t responding to the country she loved. I responded to everything about it, with an intensity that left Shelley himself sounding as if he had gone to Disneyland instead. What she might legitimately have complained about was that the huge two-volume American biography of Shelley which I had humped all the way down there with me remained unopened. I had my answer ready. To know how Shelley had been overwhelmed, I had to be overwhelmed. Why don’t we ask the waiter to just leave the whole bottle of Cinzano here?

After Rome it was Naples, where we set a new all-comers record for not getting robbed. We had nothing to steal so it was easy. Had we possessed anything more valuable than my two-volume biography of Shelley it would undoubtedly have been whipped. This was the town in which, after the Italian surrender but before the end of the war, a fully laden Liberty ship had been stolen, and the skills learned then had been inherited as an art. In a sensationally hot late morning we were sitting at an open air table in front of a café. The open air tables were divided from the street by a line of bushes in concrete tubs. Françoise, whose task in Naples was to visit the museum that had been made of Croce’s house, was mugging up on the catalogue. I was busy trying to unknot the syntax of a Michelangelo sonnet. Neither of us was especially delighted when we were joined unasked by Brian C. Adams and his newly acquired wife. They had driven down all the way from Cambridge in order-to break into our idyll. What they didn’t realise, as they sat there, was that the Neapolitans were breaking into their car. It was parked in plain sight of as all, about ten yards away on the other side of the bushes. All we could see, though, was the top half of the car, which proved not to be enough. Our visitors having turned out to be unexpectedly charming in this alien context, they left us with a cheery wave which was shortly succeeded by a squeal from her and a low, unbelieving moan from him. It could be deduced that the thieves must have crawled along the side of the car, forced the lock, and hooked out the cameras, wallets and passports. Harder to figure out was how they had removed all four of the car’s wheels without making any noise. The car was supported on neat piles of bricks, like an art exhibit. Françoise was at her most diplomatic talking to the Polizia Stradale. Gallant in their blue jodhpur suits and white Sam Browne belts, they were clearly prepared to give our friends a motorcycle escort in any direction, as long as Françoise came too. Alas, there could be no question of restitution for lost property. Yes, they realised that to the outside Observer it might seem remarkable how such a thing could occur in full view of everyone in the street, including the traffic policeman. That sort of thing happened. They forgot to add that in Naples it happened every ten minutes, and had been happening since the famous day in 1943 when the American ship went missing from the harbour. Having returned to our table while these fruitless negotiations went on, I was writing in my notebook. My New Statesman Italian diary had acquired another episode.

Relishing the freedom of the unencumbered, after a ritual visit to Pompeii — the heat was so great that I felt I had once shared in its demise — we hitched all the way back up the boot to Florence, where we paused to count our money and lick our wounds. All of the former had belonged to Françoise and was now gone. All of the latter belonged to me. She still looked like a haute couture mannequin. I was showing the effects of several weeks of diving into ditches every time we heard a powerful car in the distance. When we checked into the Antica Cervia I was ready to quit.

The staff of life was waiting for me. Tightly rolled up in plain brown paper, like the baton of a Field Marshal in a people’s army, were two copies of the New Statesman featuring my article on the Venetian view painters. It was the leading piece in the arts section at the back of the magazine. It covered one and a half pages. My name was in the contributors’ list on the front cover. I drew Françoise’s attention to these points before settling down to read the piece several hundred times. Even then, in the middle of being carried away, I reminded myself of myself: of how, when my first short book review had come out in the Sydney Morning Herald, I had bought ten copies of the paper so that there would be one left over for posterity if I were to suffer nine fatal accidents. Before that, there had been my first poem in honi soit; and before that, the first thing I ever published — a contribution to the Sydney Technical High School Journal which I had based loosely on a piece in an old war-time issue of Lilliput, borrowing only the plot, the names of the characters, the descriptive prose and the dialogue. If, in later years, I had become more capable of making up my own words, I had become no more capable of staying calm when I saw them in print. Debarred by nature from becoming blasé, the best I could manage was an affected air of detachment, and even that fell apart at a moment like this, when an important new step had been taken. I saw, stretching ahead, the dazzling prospect of a professional career as a freelance journalist. After telling Françoise all about it until she fell asleep, I sat up all night completing my Italian diary piece in long-hand. Next morning I mailed it to the New Statesman. A whole issue would have to go by without me in it,, but there was just a chance that I might catch the one after that.

The article safely on its way to London by plane, I followed it by road. Françoise was due to live in Cambridge during the next academic year, as a don in New Hall. This was a major development which would entail, on my part, some large-scale personal stock-taking. For now, until term started, she would be staying in Florence, I, on the other hand, had to get back to London to earn a much-needed week’s wages on Expresso Drongo before I went back up to Cambridge to begin rehearsing the Footlights late-night revue for the Edinburgh Fringe. Richard Harris, known as the other Richard Harris to distinguish him from the then up-and-coming film star, was an architecture student and Footlights actor-singer who was heading home from Florence at that very time so as to submit himself to my dictatorial discipline. He had a large heart to go with his small car — a glorified Mini that had a vertical radiator grille effect stuck on the front so it could be called a Wolseley, With him and his stuff in the car there wasn’t really any room for me and mine, but I soon talked him out of any Qualms, After two solid days of filling in forms at the bank, the New Statesman cheque had been turned into Italian money. All of this I gave to Françoise as part payment of my debt, before borrowing it all back again to pay for my share of the petrol I also generously offered to navigate, What I couldn’t do was share the driving, because I had never learned to drive. This fact became especially regrettable by the time We were winding up towards Bologna through the same hideous stretch of autostrada on which Françoise and I had already faced death coming down the other way. It was getting dark and Richard was tired. When it became evident that would soon be cut in half by a road train if we kept on, he filled Into a lay-by and we sacked out in the open. If this sounds only mildly adventurous, it is because I have not sufficiently evoked the scene. There was only just enough flat ground to sleep on. A cliff led down to a tumbling river far below. The edge of the cliff had been inaccurately used as a latrine by many a desperate driver. Avoiding all that, we were obliged to lay down our heads within a few feet of the hard shoulder. The wheels of the passing trucks were near enough for us to hear them fizz angrily over the roar of the diesels. On the crappy edge of the precipice, with our naked heads presented towards the sizzling wheels of the juggernauts, we stared straight up and pretended to sleep under the stars, or under where the stars had been before the clouds had covered them. When rain started falling out of the clouds, we retired to the car and tried to sleep sitting up. The result next morning was that we couldn’t stand.

Things got better during the day. We stopped in Geneva and I took a dip in the lake, defying a sign that said it was forbidden. I drew a small crowd of curious people. Richard was curious about their curiosity and asked them why they found me so fascinating. A small girl with pigtails and steel-rimmed glasses said that the last man who had gone swimming in the lake was already dying when he climbed out. His skin had turned bright pink, she said, with blisters that dripped pus. Apparently the lake was so polluted that there were no bacteria left in it. Nothing was alive in there. Apart from the fact that she said all this in French, she looked and sounded exactly like one of those terrible girls in Hitchcock movies who point out unpleasant truths. Until we lunched next day in Besançon, I spent the whole time taking my pulse and checking the colour of my tongue in the rear-view mirror. The restaurant wouldn’t serve us a half carafe of wine, so I had to drink a whole carafe, because my companion was driving. I felt better after that, and slept most of the way to the Channel ferry. On the ferry I once again had two shares of drinking to cope with. The next thing I saw was London. Either we had got there in twenty minutes at an average speed of 600 mph, or else I had slept the hard-earned sleep of the navigator. Young Richard showed scarcely a sign of his ordeal. Already a gap was showing up between me and those only a few years younger. There were physical things they could do that I couldn’t. For instance, some of them, after having had a certain amount to drink, could walk quite a long way before bumping into a wall. I couldn’t. Something would have to be done about that sooner or later. Perhaps I could get the walls moved further away.