Books: May Week was in June — Hit of the Fringe |
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May Week was in June — Hit of the Fringe


In the week before rehearsals for the Edinburgh Fringe began, I was scheduled to work, for the usual small but significant financial reward, as Dave Dalziel’s assistant in the Sisyphean task of keeping Keith Visconti’s film from being cancelled. I needed the cash. The New Statesman printed my Italian diary, but the cheque vanished into a party. Expresso Drongo was now well into its second year of shooting. On behalf of its director, Dalziel had applied for yet another extension to the original grant so that the film’s budget could be expanded to meet its burgeoning projected costs. In Hollywood terms, the overruns had taken off. As head of the production board’s operational unit, Dalziel had a persuasive voice in the allocation of funds, but finally it was the board that decided. As chairman of the board, Sir Michael Balcon told Dalziel, in the friendliest possible way, that the film had better enter its post-production phase fairly soon, or else it would have to be shut down — and, by implication, Dave’s office along with it. Dalziel, in his capacity as Balcon’s protégé, felt a crushing sense of obligation on top of his already burdensome professional commitment to finishing what he had started. He was a worried man. At work he maintained his usual cool air. At home he would stare into space. This was made hard to do by the continuing presence of half a dozen Nigerian ex-government officials in exile, but he managed it. In these worrying times for him and Cathleen, I think I helped by eating any scraps of food that might otherwise have been left lying around. My old friend Robin having unaccountably declined to take me in, I was sleeping in the Dalziels’ loft. It wasn’t a very big loft but my needs were simple, Cathleen was probably more pleased than she looked when I sat up drinking with her husband late at night. It could have made all the difference to his morale. He was a man tinder threat. He needed someone to confide in. The main thing he had to confide was his dawning suspicion that Keith Visconti was insane. ‘He’s a few bricks short of a load,’ said Dalziel abstractedly. It was the first time I had heard this expression which now appears in dictionaries of Australian slang. Either Dalziel made it up, or he got it from Bruce Jennings, and he made it up. From his suite at Claridge’s, Jennings would arrive by Rolls-Royce to help soothe Dalziel’s anguish with a jeroboam of Krug. They would spark each other off, I was content to be an auditor. ‘Of course you could always have Keith killed,’ Jennings would suggest. ‘The problem would be disposing of the body. Physical contact not advisable.’

In consequence of all the dire warnings, a new urgency could be felt on the set of Expresso Drongo. A tricky scene was being shot in which Nelia, in the role of the woman seated at the table in-the coffee shop, rises from the table and crosses to the window in order to check up on whether another woman, perceived in the distance, is the Other Woman, In the finished film Nelia would be playing the role of the Other Woman as well. For now, she was still the woman at the table. So that Nelia might adopt the right eyeline when she reached the window, I filled in for the Other Woman, Keith Visconti made me stand the right distance away and then rehearsed Nelia in the tricky transition from the table to the window. The camera would be tracking with her, which involved all sorts of problems in focusing and lighting. Just solving these would have been-finicky enough. Keith made things more complicated by deciding that Nelia’s eyeline was not at the right height, I was a touch too tall After Keith called ‘Action!’ I would have to crouch slowly so that Nelia would be looking at the right place. The first time I crouched too late, so that Nelia’s eyes slipped downward. The second time I crouched too far, so that it seemed as if she were looking, Keith said, at a dog. The twelfth time Nelia and I both got it right but a lamp blew out. It went on like that for days, with Keith always finding another reason for calling ‘cut’. Dalziel spent a lot of time with one hand over his eyes. Nelia wasn’t bothered. Her capacity for not being bothered, I had by now decided, had less to do with inner serenity than I had once thought. Nor could it be put down to avarice. Although it was true that as long as filming lasted she had employment, what really enabled Nelia to retain her equanimity in conditions of stress was her almost complete lack of a brain. Either that organ had been surgically removed, or it had been cut off from all information. She was a monster. By the third day — the big day when I, doubling for the Other Woman, had to turn and walk away — I could feel Nelia’s eyes on my spine as if they belonged to Catherine Deneuve in Polanski’s Repulsion, currently packing them in at the Academy. Dalziel still strove to convince himself that Expresso Drongo, if it ever got finished, would have the same effect. He was whistling in the dark. You could tell he knew it. Deep down, where it counted, he was on the rack.

Dalziel would take Keith aside for urgent talks but found it hard to shout into his face. Keith had still not taken a bath. He was even less nice to be near than he had been a year before. ‘You can’t stand over that guy without a ladder,’ said Dalziel. ‘And his breath! It smells like a dead bear’s bum.’ We were sitting in the Jaguar, which had been taking us back to Brixton until something went wrong again in the transmission. Waiting for the RAC man in the middle of Knightsbridge, we watched the girls go by, or rather I did. Dalziel, the married man, had either lost something of his former keen interest or thought fit to conceal it. Perhaps already feeling the weight of gravity myself, I found a certain melancholy invading my fond regard, like smoke drifting into a beam of light. The female figure was at its slightest since the 1920s. Some of the girls had white lips to match their high lacquered boots. Hairstyles were like tight black helmets. A challenging length of leg still showed between boot-tops and mini hemlines, but otherwise the feminine element had become hard to find. On the most obviously fashionable women, creations carried out in Piet Mondriaan plastic had been imposed, drawing their bodies up into an unyielding grid. The sense of confinement was palpable, or would have been if you were allowed to touch it. These flattenings and polishings, this kit of structures, made beauty less unbearable to look at, but to be thus rescued from the desperation of longing was to be made lingeringly sad.

Girls in uniform. There was a regimentation to this vaunted spontaneity which made ‘trend’ a more descriptive word than it was meant to be: a viscous, inexorable flow in one direction, The generic word ‘pop’ made me feel old before my time. It sounded like the unavoidable fate of a bubble. But still there, at the centre of the largely manufactured pop era, was popular music, and that was too abundant to stifle, too witty to ignore. With doom staring him in the face, Dalziel threw a tumultuous Thursday night party at the house in Brixton. The Animals shouted from the loudspeakers. The Nigerians danced. All the Australian expatriates were there, Johnny Pitts, the rebel guitarist of the Downtown Push, for a moment resurrected Leadbelly from the distant past, before forgetting the words and falling sideways. Dibbs Buckley drew a mural in the loft. Bruce Jennings arrived with his next wife. He hadn’t married her yet, but he was already calling her by his last wife’s first name: a sure sign, with him, of impending nuptials. Dandyishly clad, in show-stopping form, he spoke as if he were still on his first drink. ‘I did indeed peruse your obiter dicta on the subject of the Venetian painters, young Clive,’ he pronounced with a vulpine leer, ‘and I rather got the impression that you had known them personally. One of the two of Canaletto’s working drawings are in my possession. There is a drawing of a virile head which at one time led me to suspect that the great man had spent some time in Australia. Now, of course, I realise. He caught your eyes exactly. Not an easy task.’ In fact he was on his last legs, but there was no guessing until he fell, and the only way you could tell that he was falling was if you knew he didn’t dance. He went down with arms flailing, taking his next wife with him. Since everyone else was dancing in roughly the same manner, nobody realised Jennings had fainted. His next wife, pinned under him, cried for help but was not heard. In the clear space around Keith Visconti, I danced with Nelia. I had gone off her, yet there was no denying her gentle beauty, so spiritual-looking if you did not know her. She smiled at me fixedly, no doubt thinking of John Newcombe.

Next afternoon at the NFT there was a BFI production board screening for the board members and journalists. This was an important day in the career of Dave Dalziel. All the short films on which he had given technical advice, and for which the BFI had provided the facilities, were to be screened one after the other in a programme which he had carefully planned so that a finished fifteen minutes of the Keith Visconti film would be next to last, as a quiet interlude before the final, powerfully rhythmic San Francisco, a ten-minute documentary montage to the music of an unknown pop group strangely calling itself Pink Floyd. In the crucial spot just before Expresso Drongo Dalziel had carefully placed a short puzzle picture which would ensure that a simple story of a waiter bringing a woman a cup of coffee would come as a welcome relief. The puzzle picture had been directed by the well-known experimental writer J. D. Sullivan, who committed suicide a few years later, some said because of too much competition from other experimental writers. At the time we are talking about, J, D. Sullivan still had the only game in town. His Arts Council grant for experimental writing had been renewed year after year while he turned out a succession of defiantly unreadable experimental books. Years before John Fowles ever thought of it, J. D. Sullivan had written a novel with alternative endings. He had also written a novel whose chapters came loosely arranged in a box, so that you could rearrange them in any order you pleased, or, some cynics had suggested, so that you could throw away the ones you didn’t like. He had published a novel with a hole through the middle so that you could read the last page while you were reading the first. There was nothing experimental that J. D. Sullivan had not done as a writer. Now he wanted to be an experimental film-maker. I had been in on the meeting at which he had first expounded the idea of his film to Dalziel. It had taken place in a Japanese restaurant in Soho. Sullivan, a big man with a bull neck, had explained why Shakespeare was really no good as a playwright. ‘People don’t talk like that, do they?’ he had asked, stabbing a piece of raw fish with his chopstick. ‘Do they?’ he had asked again, looking at me. I had had to admit that they didn’t. J. D. Sullivan was well organised. Everything Dave taught him, he learned immediately. The film got made. A heavily compact assemblage of cross-cut imagery, so intricately elliptical that it made your brain ache like a sore foot, it had authority: it looked meant in its meaninglessness. You could tell, when the screen filled with rotting flesh, that bourgeois society was being somehow criticised. When a building collapsed, it was a fair inference that a rotten social system had been rumbled. J. D. Sullivan’s film was a testament. It was dissatisfied. It made you dissatisfied. Above all, it made you dissatisfied that it went on so long. Though short, it lasted for ever. Even Expresso Drongo would seem sprightly by comparison. A nice sweet dose of Nelia’s impassive face would be just what the doctor ordered.

At the screening, J. D. Sullivan’s film was barely half over before it became obvious that the packed audience was inwardly begging for relief. They were squirming under the impact of J. D. Sullivan’s pitiless symbolism. ‘We’ll be starting with the shot where Nelia’s sitting there with her legs crossed and her mouth slightly open in anticipation,’whispered Dalziel loudly. ‘She looks like she’s thinking about the pork sword. Ought to go down well.’ A female journalist seated in front of us turned round in what I guessed was outrage. Dalziel didn’t notice. He was a tense man. A lot depended on the extract from Expresso Drongo being well enough received to warrant further financing. Otherwise the single most expensive project the BFI had ever backed would be remembered only as a dead albatross slung around Dalziel’s neck. There was cause for hope, however, as the end titles of J. D. Sullivan’s film came up, superimposed over a close-up of a calf being born. Polite applause from the audience was punctuated by the occasional muffled cry of ‘Thank God’.

For the lovely face of Nelia, that mystery so haunting until solved, a place had thus been prepared, in the audience’s collective mind, as yearningly welcoming as the wall of a monk’s cell primed with fresh plaster so that Fra Angelico might draw an angel. What we saw next, however, were the words A MAN ALONE, un film de Alain le Sands. Dalziel’s seat snapped back. He would have been off and running to the projection box if I hadn’t stopped him. Caution was the right reaction. If Dalziel had reached the projection box he would have strangled Alain le Sands and thus attained the wrong kind of fame, as a murderer, although it would have been the right thing to do. Alain le Sands was in there, of course. Craning back awkwardly over our shoulders, we could see his wildly grinning face looking out through one of the observation ports. What we suspected at the time later proved to be untrue: le Sands had not held a gun to the projectionist’s head. Le Sands had merely turned up during the screening with his can of film under his arm and convinced the projectionist that there had been a last minute addition to the schedule. The projectionist, like many in his trade, had been too blind to notice that le Sands had the eyes and teeth of a fanatic. A Man Alone unspooled its familiar, incompetently captured obsessions. It turned out, though, that le Sands had acquired a hitherto unprecedented sense of proportion. His film was no longer a fragment of a feature. It was now a complete short film, with an ending to go after its beginning. There was a last scene. It was set in Soho. There was a doorway. From it emerged Dave Dalziel and myself. A rear view of Alain le Sands lurched towards us. His dialogue was roughly as it had been on the day, but new words had been dubbed over Dalziel’s moving mouth. ‘Your film is too challenging, Mr le Sands,’Dalziel seemed to say, ‘too dangerous to our establishment values. It must be suppressed.’ We got into the car and sat there while Alain le Sands lectured us through the windshield. A shot from another angle, obviously secured at another time and with a different car, enabled the lecture to last longer. ‘The true creator thrives on frustration,’ orated le Sands. ‘You and your cohorts can no more stop this new upsurge of ... than ... thus ... ’

Surprisingly few among the audience laughed aloud while A Man Alone was on the screen, but everyone was well prepared to pick nits by the time the extract from Expresso Drongo came on. The effect was not as planned. Though Nelia looked suitably serene, gratitude for tranquillity was not the prevailing emotion. There was widespread, vocal disbelief at how long it took to be served a cup of coffee. The exquisite touch of the shooting and editing provoked no applause. San Francisco saved the day for the screening as a whole, but Expresso Drongo, one felt, had run out of its borrowed time. As the crowd dispersed, Dalziel received many congratulations from board members and critics. There was no word of praise for Keith Visconti. Even Alain le Sands was held to have more talent. ‘You’re on to something with le Sands,’ said one film critic from behind the dark glasses he was famous for never taking off. ‘I like the way his camera work always declares itself. Like to do a piece on him. Give you a bell.’ Dalziel nodded glumly. ‘That coffee commercial,’ said Sir Michael Balcon, ‘is the only really big mistake you’ve made, David.’ Dalziel was downcast. As always there was his lovely car to distract him. This time the Jaguar started at the first turn of the key. We had almost reached home before the engine fell out on to the road. Not even the sudden, total loss of power and the shriek of scraping metal from under the car made it easy to believe, so we got out to check up. This was lucky, because the fire started with a thump. A puff-ball of flame filled the front seats where we would have been sitting.‘The guy who sold it to me had great timing,’ said Dalziel thoughtfully. ‘I only just finished paying for it.’ A woman in a nearby house had already rung the police. She came running out with a bucket of water. Dalziel waved her back, telling her it would only help the burning oil to spread. Watching his strength in adversity, I wondered if I had what it took to succeed in the theatre. For a writer to stay true to his gift, provided he has one, is not as hard as writers are fond of making out. To keep going in any of the collaborating arts requires steadfastness. Misfortunes sooner or later must occur. I caught the train back to Cambridge in a pensive mood. Luckily, when I got there, the task of putting the Edinburgh Fringe Footlights revue together was so pressing that there was not time to brood. Compressing the two-hour May Week spectacular into a one-hour intimate late-night revue, I had every excuse to trim the cast. I might have done this more gracefully, but to lighten the ship was certainly the right approach. As I remember it, the number of on~stage participants went down from about sixty to about six. New opening and closing numbers were written. The Fantastograd Russian Dance Ensemble number was cut in half, making it twice as funny. Julie Covington was unavailable for Edinburgh that year, but Homerton had produced yet another lovely singer called Maggie Henderson, and she was enrolled to sing the two best of the spotlight songs which Pete Atkin and I were continuing to turn out with a great show of dedication on my part, and real dedication on his. Actually, when I look back on it, I realise that I was then understating, rather than overstating, the amount of work we were all putting into every number. I got very little sleep. There was no need, although I behaved as if there were, to purse my lips and make tired noises. My tired eyes must have conveyed the message. My wisdom teeth were the only part of my body that physically collapsed. They started to ache and there was no time to fix them. Finally, in the Footlights clubroom, with the whole cast singing and dancing its way through the intricacies of the closing number, the moment came when I had to go to hospital or pass out with pain. The orthodontist at Addenbrooke’s hospital looked into my mouth and said, ‘How long is it since youVe seen a dentist?’ I told him. He nodded.‘Well get the wisdom teeth out straight away. They’re all impacted. But you’ve got plenty of other things wrong that you’d better have seen to fairly soon. Fact is, it’s a while since I’ve seen anything like this. I’d like to get some photographs of your mouth for a paper I’m doing. With your permission of course.’ I signalled my compliance, unable to speak because by that time he had my mouth propped open with a metal jack. The wisdom teeth were cut out under general anaesthetic and I was back at work next day with enough stitches in my rear gums to make it feel as if I were half-way through swallowing a rattan mat. On a diet of antibiotics, Dexedrine and creamed potatoes, I finished rehearsals and we headed north in a fleet of cars. Once again I was Richard Harris’s passenger. While he drove all the way to Edinburgh I sat hanging in my seat belt, delirious. In a day made dark by rain, huge illuminated signs said THE NORTH. I dreamed my primal dream of inadequacy, the one in which I am trapped with no pants on up a tree in a playground of the girls’ high school. They pretend not to notice me. Many hundreds of times I have woken up sweating from this dream, without ever being able to decide which kind of fear it is meant to embody, the fear of being humiliated or the fear of being ignored.

In Edinburgh the latter fear receded, temporarily if not permanently. The Footlights late night revue was the hit show of the Fringe. This was not as remarkable an occurrence as I was later able to make it sound. There were hundreds of events on the Fringe. Most of them were starting from zero and not likely to get even as far as square one. The universities were able to mount a concerted effort, and of the universities Cambridge was the one with the glowing theatrical tradition, so the audience came anyway. And of the various plays and shows put on by Cambridge, the Footlights was the one with the internationally resonant name. The theatrical correspondent of Die Zeit had us on his must-see list. In Lauriston Hall, the best venue on the Fringe, we were the last show of the night for an audience that had spent the early evening being less than thrilled by the official production of The Rake’s Progress in the Assembly Hall. Sold out for every night of the run before we even opened, we couldn’t lose. It is nice to be able to report in all objectivity, however, that the show was pretty good. If it was running tonight and had my name in the programme, I would still be proud of its precision, energy and sheer glamour, although some of the material would look more out of date than the flared trousers, zipped boots and velvet jackets that adorned the male members of the cast. Most of these items of clothing have since come back into fashion, if only as parody. Much of the apolitical, would-be surrealist verbal humour, however, would now seem irredeemably passe. Striving to separate itself from previously successful styles, it sounded like all of them without attaining any lasting originality. In the technical sense, it was reactionary. The writing was attempting not to do things — always a choking brief. It was trying not to sound like the Goons, like Beyond the Fringe, like Cambridge Circus, like ten other things. Almost the only area left open was television parody.

My own best monologue, delivered by Jonathan James-Moore far more funnily than I could have done, was a lampoon of one of those BBC winter sports commentators who wore white sweaters and beanies and told you nothing useful. (Nowadays they wear parti-coloured Goretex anoraks and tell you nothing useful: they have gone down-market without uprating the info.) This was my first fully effective monologue from end to end. I had kept cutting it and sharpening it up until there wasn’t a line in it that didn’t work. Having a thousand people a night laughing as one at every gag was a great pleasure, and the editorial rigour I developed in this way was to stand me in good stead in future years. If I hadn’t written those monologues, and especially that one, I would never have known how to write a thousand-word column with a cumulative effect. But when you took the thing apart, it was standard stuff. I was merely doing a more refined version of what I had been doing since I was in high school — raising a laugh by guying some recognisable, self-revealing speech mannerisms on the part of the prominent. My winter sports commentator, Alexander Palace, patronised foreign competitors while confidently predicting success for the British ones. Everyone knew that this was what BBC sports commentators did, so there was a yelp of recognition when a fictitious BBC sports commentator stood there doing nothing else. To this day, the laugh of recognition remains the one I seek. It comes from values communally shared. At its best, that kind of humour can push back a barrier, by articulating what is already suspected but nobody has yet dared to say. At its worst, it is complacent. At the time we are talking about, I was more comfortable than courageous.

In retrospect the discrepancy between what was going on in the world, and what I was prepared to say about it, seems glaring — at least to me, the only person really interested. Then, however, I struck myself as adventurous enough in what I wrote, and for stagecraft I was ready to take any kudos going. After the evening performance of Love’s Labours Lost there was only thirty minutes to erect the Footlights set, so it had to be simple. I made a virtue of this, personally designing a three-piece hardboard screen like a triptych, with a doorway in each of the side panels. The screen was painted white and covered in learned graffiti done by me and Atkin with black and red felt-tip pens. Slogans like IT DON’T MEAN A THING IF IT AIN’T GOT THAT SWING (Duke Ellington) and MEREDITH IS A SORT OF PROSE BROWNING, AND SO IS BROWNING (Oscar Wilde) proclaimed our ideals of catholicity without eclecticism, a universal intensity of effect, etc. Lit brilliantly by the Fresnel spotlights on the gantries, the screen looked like the wall of a loft that had been inhabited by all the students in history. In its disfavour it could be said that it was exactly the appropriate setting for a clever-dick undergraduate revue, but it had a conspicuous virtue. The next act could be prepared behind it and come on in the dark through one door before the previous act had finished going off through the other door, so there was no gap between numbers. This gave an exhilarating effect of speed. The jazz band led by Robert Orledge could be positioned conspicuously in front of the screen and still leave plenty of acting area down-stage. To isolate a monologuist or singer, all we had to do was switch off the spots and floods of the general lighting and switch on one of the two limes positioned high in the gallery at the back of the hall. Picked out in the soft circle of a lime, Maggie Henderson sang a song by Atkin and myself called ‘If I Had My Time Again’ to such effect that Harold Hobson, the Sunday Times critic, made public love to her in his column. I was proud, no doubt too proud, of the precision of all these effects. Nothing was allowed to go wrong. It turned out that Jonathan James-Moore, after he had finished his winter sports monologue, had trouble getting off the stage in the dark. His spectacles didn’t work without a modicum of light. On the first night, he groped his way into the drum-kit, turned around, and groped his way off the front edge of the stage, which was about four feet from the floor. He fell into the front row and sat there between two members of the audience for the whole of the next number. They were stunned, but not as stunned as he was. The risk was eliminated from the second night onwards. Someone was detailed to go out and get him and lead him off. Every move, including this, was plotted on the stage manager’s chart. I monitored the show every night, ran drills each day to eliminate faults, and one way and another indulged myself in the role of overseer.

Actually all these refinements, once the aim of slick, high-speed, value-for-money, stop-for-nothing efficiency had been decided on, were matters of simple mechanical deduction. I had more right to be proud of the production numbers, in which cutting and long rehearsal had improved already successful pieces into gosh, how-did-they-do-that? coups de théâtre. Squeezed to half its original length and re-rehearsed so that every move was a gag, the Fantastograd Russian Dance Ensemble made the ideal pre-closer. Russell Davies did one of those Cossack dances performed in the sitting position, with the cocked feet kicking sideways as if at two soccer balls placed a couple of yards apart. He had never had any dance training but once he had seen or heard anything, he could copy it. When he folded his arms, squatted and kicked, the audience rose to its feet in a panic. After about a week of bringing the house down, Davies mildly complained that his feet were hurting a bit. I slapped his back with comradely understanding and discovered only several nights later, when he held up one of his boots in the dressing room and blood ran out of it, that he had been kicking his way towards hospital. His dedication to the show went beyond the heroic. Suicidal was a better word. The whole cast was motivated like, fanatics.

It was my misfortune, however, not to be in the show. Having my name on it wasn’t enough. Even after running drills and re-rehearsing for a couple of hours a day, I still had too much time on my hands. The Scottish National Gallery had some useful Poussins but I couldn’t look at them for ever. At the Traverse I joined in discussions, usually unasked, but the Americans from the La Mama company liked their own voices too, and they had a social revolution to proclaim. I saw matinee performances by other revue groups. Some of them were rather better than I was prepared to allow: the Scaffold, for example, were on at the Traverse and performing material which must have made our stuff look class-ridden to anyone with an objective eye. But most of the revue groups, especially the ones from other universities, were just less disciplined and more thinly cast versions of ours. There was no point going on with the search. Anyone who saw everything on the Fringe would end up in a basket. So with Daryl Runswick and his band I organised a poetry-and-jazz programme for the afternoons, featuring my poetry and his jazz. It is a matter of regret among poets, however, that poetry lovers, or at any rate poetry lovers who turn up to poetry readings, are not a glamorous bunch. Everything E. M. Forster says about his fellow music lovers applies with bells on to poetry lovers. They wear personally-knitted beanies. They bring their own sandwiches. Intoning my translation of Montale’s The Sunflower while the Daryl Runswick trio backed me up with dulcet riffs, I gazed out over the thinly populated hall — they all sat a long way apart, so as to facilitate concentration — and resolved to try something more ambitious next year. That I would be back next year I didn’t doubt. It felt like home. Like all those who have left home, I know exactly how home feels when I find it again, wherever that might happen to be. Haunting the second-hand bookshops, swaggering along the Royal Mile, taking an ill-advised short-cut through the Grass Market late at night in the sad hour before the alcoholics so far gone that they were eating boot polish had crawled away to sleep, I treated Edinburgh as if it were at my feet. Actually I was at its. The strict romance of the city had found a suitably compliant devotee.