Books: May Week was in June — Black Tie, White Knuckles |
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May Week was in June — Black Tie, White Knuckles


Back in Cambridge, I should have settled to my studies. It hardly needs saying that I was unable to. Instead of disappearing into the University Library I disappeared into the language laboratory. If I could have my way, I would still be down there, learning Persian by now, or perhaps Basque. The language laboratory was my bunker. In it, like Hitler in his last days, I could plot the manoeuvres of phantom armies and hide from the implications of the flashes in the distance, the trembling of the earth, the drone from overhead. Another bunker was the Copper Kettle, which at that time began rivalling the Whim as a hangout for the aesthetes. Internally, the difference between the two places was no more striking than that between, say, the Deux Magots and the Flore. Through the big front windows of the Copper Kettle, though, a diarist could look across at King’s while he sucked his pen. Establishing rights to a small table by the simple expedient of piling my books on it, I sat for hours bringing my journal up to date and pursuing my brilliantly successful strategy of adding depth to my view of Shelley by reading anyone except him. Wittgenstein induced the same passion as Croce but at a different temperature. Wittgenstein was liquid helium. Saturated arguments crystallised out as aphorisms. I read him as literature: an approach which, I much later realised, is probably the correct one for anyone except the professional logician. Nowadays I can see his sentences, each resonating like a leaf of a xylophone made of ice, as part of an Austro-Hungarian imperial tradition which he fits as surely as Schnitzler or Klimt, as well as part of the larger German aphoristic treasure-house that includes Lichtenberg, Schopenhauer and Goethe himself. But if that whole expressive effort is now one of my touchstones — one of the things I would like my work to be like — then Wittgenstein was the way in, and still rules that long corridor by a tall, uncompromising head. It is so hard to register the thrill of discovery. You have to think yourself back to a time when part of what built you was not there. You have to unbecome yourself. This much I can say for sure, however: Wittgenstein’s demonstration that the multiplicity of the self could not only be lived with, but could actually be an instrument of perception, was a revelation to me, and partly because I already knew it. The things that influence our lives don’t necessarily just give us the courage of our convictions — they usually help to alter those, or at least refine them — but they do usually make us feel better about our propensities. Croce had made me feel better about being unable, or unwilling, to distinguish between high art and popular art. Wittgenstein made me feel better about being unable, or unwilling, to construct a coherent self. Intelligence had pulled him apart. In Sydney, when I was first a student, Camus had helped console me for the feeling that my life was in pieces. Everybody’s life, he said in The Rebel, feels like that from the inside. I had acknowledged his assistance by cultivating an existentialist air of amused resignation: a set of the eyebrows which incorporated, no doubt too successfully, the concept of the Absurd. But a wish that the pieces might one day be reintegrated was hard to quell. Now here was Wittgenstein, whose personality was in a million fragments. They shone. I got his aphorisms by heart. They were a star catalogue. Croce had carried me away. Wittgenstein carried me back to myself. There must have been a self there of some kind, or I wouldn’t have been able to register these comings and goings. I luxuriated, however, in the awareness of an undiscovered country in the mind. Every man his own terra incognita. With the slim volumes of Wittgenstein’s output piled up like poetry, I sipped coffee, scattered ash, and soaked up the Philosophische Bemerkungen like a parallel text of the Duino Elegies. It was a cool love and that could be why it has lasted. Even today, in moments of depression, I still visit Trinity College chapel and commune with his brass plaque. Now he was depressed, and look what he got done. How? Because he knew that his unhappiness was only personal.

Other bunkers were the various cinemas, at which my attendance increased, as if that were possible. The Cambridge Review appointed me film critic. In London, recent cinéaste publications such as Movie magazine had already imported the Cahiers du cinéma approach into English. In Cambridge, it was still unheard-of for anyone to take Hollywood movies as seriously as continental art films. Treating movies and films as if they were part of the same continuity was a kind of heresy. As always, heresy made for more sparkling copy than orthodoxy. There was no particular posturing involved on my part. The propensity to take popular art seriously was in me by nature. Week by week in The Cambridge Review I would talk about Fellini or W. C. Fields, Kurosawa or Don Siegel, as if they were in the same business, which I believed they were. I explained, perhaps too confidently, why Fritz Lang’s best film was not Metropolis but The Big Heat. I was tireless. I was tiresome. I was omniscient. I was a pain in the arse. But my Cambridge Review film critic’s job, though unpaid, was invaluable practice at writing a thousand-word column each week. Employing my Footlights monologue training, I shaped each column as a performance, with a set up, an early pay-off, a development section, a late pay-off and a closing number. I learned that it wasn’t necessary to cram one’s whole Weltanschauung into this week’s piece: save some of it for next week. Above all, I learned how to make the writing not sound like writing. If a parenthesis grew to such a length that it would have sounded unnatural read out, I recast it as another sentence. I tried to make every sentence linear, so that the reader never had to look back This trick, the essence of writing for the theatre or television, is not so necessary when writing for the page, but readability depends on it. Well before my year as a film critic was up, I had evidence that I was getting somewhere. Since everyone, even the dons, went to the cinema, everyone had his own opinion. Since everyone, even the dons, saw The Cambridge Review, he wanted to discuss his opinion with me, especially if his differed. The Cambridge Review had an illustrious heritage. It had prestige. But that wasn’t why I enjoyed writing for it. What I enjoyed was the communal aspect. It was like preaching a weekly sermon and then having to justify it to a rebellious congregation filing out of church. There was an aspect of showmanship that suited my temperament, and an aspect of obligation to the complexity of events which suited the only sense of responsibility I had. Already the evidence was accumulating that whatever I eventually wrote, I wouldn’t be writing it in an ivory tower. A circus tent would be more my pitch. So even when I was lounging in the dark I was thinking about the hot lights. The only reason I was hiding, I told myself, was that I was in a false position. My ditherings were nothing to those of my nominal thesis subject Shelley, whose two-volume biography I finally got around to finishing, with some alarm at the erratic nature of the hero I had chosen. Here was another lesson. Since then I have selected my role models with more care.

In the underground maze which I mentally, and to a great extent physically, inhabited, the connecting tunnels that led from the language laboratory to the coffee bars to the circuit of cinemas led on, I need hardly add, to Footlights, where I would finish the day by adding to my already monumental bar bill. With Barry Brown now safely installed as President, I had no duties except to fill my self-elected office as elder statesman and wise counsellor. After a special screening of The Bank Dick in the clubroom I gave a detailed lecture on the art of W. C. Fields. ‘He never led,’ I announced, as if I had learned the lesson myself. ‘He just let himself be overheard.’ Ruthlessly exploiting my friendship with Joyce Grenfell, I arranged for her to be guest of honour at the Footlights annual dinner. The first great lady most of the club members had ever seen in action close up, she wowed them with her perfect manners. I was pretty proprietorial about her afterwards. Far into the night I laid down the law about Ealing comedy. Why had it gone so far and no further? Because the social forces that gave it shape held it reined in. Why were the Americans so much more penetrating? I had my theories. I expounded them. Another round? Put it on my card.

Looking back, I can now see that I must have been a bit of an Ancient Mariner, telling tales of old that held people riveted only because I had them pinned against the wall. Yet some of the time I spent haunting the place was spent well. Atkin and I seemed always to be writing at least four songs at a time. One of the best things about our collaboration was that I received more instruction than I gave. Atkin’s justified enthusiasm for the Beach Boys and the Lovin’ Spoonful he passed on to me. An instigator, he organised the recording of a limited-edition disc of what we fancied to be our best songs. The edition was limited to whoever could be persuaded to fork out for a heavy shellac pressing in a cardboard cover. A surprising number of people did. Atkin and Julie Covington did the singing. I forget where the recording sessions took place, but remember well that they didn’t happen in a proper studio. The venue must have been somebody’s college rooms. I recall that a grey blanket was hung up to make a sound booth. The sound quality was frightful. Julie’s voice came purely through the static as it would have come purely through a war, but in all other respects the disc caused us misgivings even in our moment of creative euphoria. We distributed it with solemn warnings to ignore its limitations. This was a grave mistake. Nothing except a finished product should ever be put up for judgment. Art is a matter of deeds, not intentions. That art was what we were involved in we had no doubt, and might even have been right. The title of the disc was taken, in all solemnity, from Eliot: While the Music Lasts. Later there was a sequel called The Party’s Moving On. Today, copies of both change hands at too high a price for either me or Atkin to buy them up and melt them down. Our songs always had fans. Just why the fans, over the next six or seven years of hard work, never accumulated into a listening public big enough to keep us alive, had better be the subject of another, and different kind of, book. This is a book about becoming, not being, and it is getting near the end, because by this time my extended apprenticeship was clearly in its terminal phase. If I wasn’t quite ready to ply my trade, whatever that was, I certainly couldn’t go on preparing for it much longer. There was a credibility problem. In London, among Nick Tomalin’s hard-bitten Fleet Street friends, I was known as the world’s oldest student. In Cambridge I was known as an aspiring Grub Street scrivener living cheap on college food, or a would-be theatrical assiduously preparing for his advent into the West End. These contradictory views both had something to them. I was caught in the middle.

As a Footlights sketch writer and performer I might have, and perhaps should have, gently faded away at this stage. To inspire an Indian summer of activity in this area, Tony Buffery returned from post-graduate studies in psychology at Toronto. When an undergraduate in Cambridge he had been the member of the original Cambridge Circus cast who had pulled out because he wanted an academic career. In his absence, many Footlights cognoscenti, Eric Idle included, had assured me that Buffery was the most inventive cabaret talent ever: not as aggressive as John Cleese, perhaps, or as intellectually wide-ranging as Jonathan Miller, but with an ear like Peter Cook and a mind from outer space. Though some of this sounded like legend-building, it is always interesting when people adverse to that activity make a common exception. When Buffery returned to Corpus Christi as a don, I was ready to find him remarkable, although I didn’t expect to see much of him. After a week of the port and walnuts, however, he was up the wall, over it, and into Footlights as if he had never been away. Very tall with thick glasses and curly hair like Harold Lloyd, he was so lacking in arrogance that the young made him nervous. He couldn’t have been more approachable, so I approached him. Partaking of the strong Footlights oral tradition by which fragments of sketches are passed down from one intake to the next, Idle had once told me a killing line from a Buffery sketch in which the Queen Mother, played by Buffery in a floral hat, made a speech to open a redbrick university, which was gradually revealed, as the speech proceeded, to have very little going for it. ‘Plans have already been drawn up to equip the seventeen-storey science block with a lift. Or a staircase.’

‘He used to take the laugh after the bit about the lift,’ Idle had explained, ’and then hit them with the staircase. They were helpless.‘ Remembering this vivid fragment, I now asked Buffery what had come next. ‘I can’t remember,’ he said, with a slight stutter. ‘I kept changing it all the time and never wrote it down. I remember she said: “I name this library, Library.” They liked that. But I never finished anything. Lacked discipline. Still do, really. Why don’t we write something together?’

I had some notes for a sketch about the Olympic games in my pocket. After my tried and tested winter sports number I wasn’t too keen on the idea of another monologue. Maybe it would work better as a two-hander. I read out some bits of it to Buffery, suggesting that we could share it out for two voices. ‘No, you do the words,’said Buffery, with a light switching on behind his spectacles, ‘and I’ll be the athletes.’After a grand total of about two hours’ rehearsal we tried the number out at the next Footlights smoker. From off-stage I supplied a BBC-type commentary full of the usual wretched optimism about British athletes who had no chance. Buffery kept crossing the stage in various personae. He was the German superman Hans-Heinz Reichstagger. He was the Russian female javelin thrower Olga Stickintinskaya. He was Tomkins, the perennial British loser with the pulled hamstring who might have done so much better. Hidden in the wings, I sometimes lost my place in the script, so entranced was I by the way Buffery became these people. Without leaving the ground, or not by much, he could mime Reich-stagger doing a sixteen-foot pole vault, clicking his heels in mid-air as if he had suddenly met a superior officer. Russell Davies was still the most protean performer I had ever met, but in his case there was one dour and reticent personality holding it all together. Buffery had multiple selves. By day he was a scientist, probing the human brain to find out which sections of it did what. By night, as a performer, he was a dozen other people. He was also a married man with children. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde weren’t in the running. Neither of them ever made anyone laugh. Buffery made people laugh until they ached. If he wanted to work with me, I would be crazy to turn the chance down.

I was also, considering my other obligations, crazy to take it up. My best excuse was that the collaboration provided a modicum of extra income. The Footlights fielded a cabaret team which would perform anywhere in Britain for a suitable fee. When half the fee was given to the club and the rest was divided amongst the participants, it was an unsuitable fee, but it helped me believe that I could earn my own living. It was more fun than supervising undergraduates in Sidney Sussex and easier on the nerves than trying to sweat a thousand words for the New Statesman into a gleaming block of lapidary prose — both of which things I was doing as often as I could, although without showing any signs of digging my fingers into the slipping side of the pit of debt in which I helplessly trod slime. I was still in hock to Footlights and now that I was an ex-President the Senior Treasurer tended to clear his throat significantly when we met. A don from Selwyn called Harry Porter, he was a sweet man and a great friend, but neither the university bye-laws nor his own impeccable probity allowed him to encourage the notion that a club could be a bank. My levels of expenditure effortlessly outsoared my levels of income. Even the train journey to Oxford cost money. When Françoise moved to Cambridge in order to become a don at New Hall, domesticity loomed, with all its requirements of financial equilibrium. Also there was the challenge of performing away from the home patch, where the audience would not be so indulgent.

I was right about that. At Goldsmith’s College Ball in London, John Cleese, by then an ex-Cambridge professional and already well known, was the first act on. His monologue was brilliant. The huge audience, pissed and impatient to dance, barely heard him out. I watched one purple-faced student at the back of the crowd shout ‘Harold Wilson!’ over and over while Cleese was performing. Cleese was pretending to be a wartime air force officer in a hurry to recruit new pilots. ‘Can anyone fly a B-17? [Pause] All right, can anyone fly a B-16? [Longer pause] A B-3? [Very long pause] Can anyone drive?’ I was wide-eyed at the perfection of his delivery, and at his courage, because during all the time he was at work, this florid dick-head at the back was shouting out, ‘Harold Wilson! HAROLD WILSON!’ Then a newly-formed band weirdly known as Cream came on to play a set. I had never heard such a noise. Until then, my idea of an electric band had been the Dave Clark Five. Cream were more like an earthquake. Loudspeakers the size of coffins emitted sound that compressed the air. It was a beat that hurt. Buffery and Atkin and I, our throats dry from the impact of the tumult, retreated to our dressing room to consult. Our dressing room was, literally, a toilet. ‘We can’t go on,’ I shouted thinly. ‘We have to,’ croaked Buffery. He was right, as usual. When we were announced, the hissing was not universal: it came only from those who had heard the announcement. Luckily the ginger groups in the audience found it easier to attack each other than us. High up on the stage, we were hard to reach except with bottles more accurately thrown than the vast majority of those that flew towards us. Buffery’s song about Richard III made a few nice girls laugh. Riding on the shoulders of their partners, they were within earshot. Our Olympics number, however, went for nothing. Working on a bare stage, Buffery had no wings to disappear into and reappear from, while I found it impossible to raise my voice above the growing brouhaha, in which the only words that could be heard clearly were the first and last names of the Prime Minister, piercingly repeated like a horn motif in a Mahler symphony. We managed to make our act look meant, though. An objective Observer would have found it impossible to tell if we were failing. Perhaps we were succeeding at some mimed ritual.

The Footlights cabaret team was well rehearsed and usually got away with it. Often we did better than that. Natty in our dinner jackets, we felt pretty pleased with ourselves as we sang a planned encore after slaying them for a solid thirty minutes. Audiences who had once been undergraduates themselves liked us best. There could be an awkward amount of chippy social edge if they thought we needed reminding of our advantages in life. Facing some revelling groups, we wondered why we had been booked. Apart from the Goldsmith’s inaudible non-event, which could largely be put down to bad acoustics, we had but one unarguable disaster, explicable only in terms of a mistake on somebody’s part. Coming

after a string of successes, it was a failure on a scale that builds character, but while the fiasco was in progress we would have given a lot for a hole to open in the floor so that we could have disappeared into it, still waving and singing. The audience was composed of the farmers of Needham Market, a town within easy driving distance of Cambridge. We imagined the kind of prosperous farmers who drove Aston Martins and in January took their elegant wives to ski at Davos. When we came dancing into the dining room, the farmers were all sitting there as if a giftless artist had drawn them. They didn’t have the word ‘Farmer’ written on their hats, but there was something on their shoes that looked like loam. Perhaps loam was what they had been eating. They looked glum and we did nothing to cheer them up. Buffery and I did our Olympics number to less reaction than we would have earned by slowly deflating a large rubber raft. The farmers looked resigned, as if waiting for the death of a sick cow which had never been very valuable when well. It wasn’t just that they didn’t laugh. They didn’t smile. They hardly breathed. A carefully planned half-hour of entertainment was all over in seventeen minutes. When we went dancing off, there was a perceptible difference in the quality of the silence. Throats were being cleared in relief. As we stood white-faced outside in the foyer discussing the details of our escape, a representative of the farmers’ committee joined us. ‘Do you get paid for this sort of thing?’ he asked with open scorn. ‘We certainly do,’ said Buffery. ‘The agreed fee. And we might as well take it in cash, if you can arrange it.’ I was very impressed with that. It was a good lesson all round. Jokes aren’t necessarily pearls just because they fall before swine, but a deal’s a deal. A performer always feels guilty when he fails. If his guilt overcomes his business sense he will quickly starve. To flop is already penalty enough. Don’t punish yourself. The audience will do it for you.