Books: North Face of Soho — 1. Blotto Voce |
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North Face of Soho — 1. Blotto Voce


In the closing pages of the last volume, I got married. The ceremony marked a rare outbreak of normality in my life. It was symbolized by my personal appearance. I was clean-shaven and had a hairstyle in reasonably close touch with my head. I was wearing a rather good-looking dark grey suit specially purchased in Carnaby Street. For a suit whose price had not been high, it was elegantly understated. There was no excess cloth, and at that time there was still no excess flesh. The suit’s drainpipe trousers had drainpipe legs inside them. Posing in front of a full-length mirror, I had to say that the suit was well chosen. Usually people who choose their clothes badly never realize it when, once in a while, they accidentally choose well, but my powers of self-assessment must have been blessed by the felicity of the event. I vowed to look after the suit for a long time, in keeping with its manifest high quality.

After the next occasion on which I wore the suit, I noticed that the cloth had frayed on both legs in the area of the upper thigh. After only a single further occasion, the crotch fell out. Perhaps some mental projection of deep-seated anxiety about my fitness for marriage had eroded the fabric. Freud probably had a word for it: Trausertraumerei. But a more likely explanation, I slowly realized, was that the suit had been cheap because its materials were flimsy. By dead of night I dumped the suit into a garbage bin, and it was never mentioned again. I’m not sure that Oxfam, in the late sixties, was as yet accepting discarded clothes, but even if it had been, I still would have hesitated. The thought of some poor tramp wandering around with his balls hanging out would have put me off.

After that sartorial hang-up, as it were, I rejoined the mainstream, in the sense that even when dressed for best I looked like a comedy of errors. If, during the course of this volume, I refer to my mode of dress as if I looked outstanding, the reader should grasp in advance that standing out, in that period, was unusually hard to do. We all looked like that: or, at any rate, the younger men did. The Duke of Edinburgh never dressed to get attention. If he didn’t, why did we? It is a very hard thing to evoke an era. Pick up a notebook and a pen right now, stick your head outside the door, and command yourself to evoke your era. How, for example, would you capture your era’s atmosphere of squalid menace in public places? Where would you start? As the sixties slithered into the seventies, the streets were still almost incomparably safer than they are now, but the post-punk body-piercing hoodies of today look diffident, almost self-effacing, compared to the young males of that time. With few exceptions, we all looked more amazing than anything seen in Britain since the Restoration brought in horned wigs and stilt heels. You can’t really tell from photographs how universal the bizarrerie actually was, to the extent that nobody noticed because everybody was doing it. In a photograph there are usually too few people to give you the full impression, or else, if there are a lot of them, they are too far away. At the time, the unaided human eye, with its depth of field greater than any camera, could see, all the way to the horizon, nothing except young men dressed to make a cat laugh.

After the disintegration of the dark grey suit I joined them in their frenzy of bad judgement. The fashion dictated long and thick sideboards to the hair, as if the head had been joined on each side by a small sofa deprived of its covering and tilted on end. There were velvet jackets, flared trousers, zip-sided boots. With the possible exception of the hair, all these elements entailed a lavish use of industrially generated materials, especially polyester. It meant that the average young male was carrying a greater proportion of artificial fabrics than an airliner’s interior. My own range of shirts included an electric-blue number that made the unwary spectator’s eyes ache. As its proud owner, I thought it looked particularly good with a cravat. The cravats I favoured were of a chemically derived material printed with a paisley pattern. I had a whole rack of them. Today, my wife still remembers them as ‘those cravatty things you used to wear’, so obviously they were not without impact. They sometimes delivered electric shocks when touched, but so did almost everything else I was wearing. When charged up by walking for long enough on the right kind of nylon carpet, I could be seen in the dark, but that still didn’t mean that I looked unusual. Almost everyone under forty looked something like that. It was the style of the time. Some of you may remember it. But those who don’t will have to imagine it. For them, the best way I can think of to sum it up is that it was an era of dandies without taste.

So much for the evocation of the exterior life. The interior life, as always, was more personal. Even I could see that the first consequence of getting married was the necessity to earn a living. Until then I had lived like a student, which is another way of saying that I had lived like a bum. Such a way of life would still be my first choice today. When life gets too much for me I have no trouble identifying with the man dressed in a pile of rags as he sleeps in another pile of rags somewhere against the concrete wall of a London underpass, just far enough away from a puddle of his own urine. Wedded to paucity, he rarely makes the mistake of trying to improve matters. His Tokyo equivalent is a construction worker from out of town who sets up home in a Shinjuku underpass, sleeping in a spanking new cardboard carton and sharing a small stove with his fellows. Somehow or other they all have access to washing facilities and even a laundry. They sit around in circles passing bottles of Kirin beer while they tell stories. They are as neat and cute as a blossom party of junior accountants in Ueno Park. Too much effort. I prefer my London guy, but if I succeeded in getting him to swap lives I suppose I would soon spoil the borrowed simplicity. The rags around my feet would be an invitation to do a soft-shoe shuffle. I would write a monologue, pull a crowd, get an agent, and it would all begin again.

After I was married, though, it was still in question just how I would pull the crowd. I was reluctant to let go of Footlights and for a while it looked as if I might not have to. Had I been wise, I would have quit while I was behind. It was a body blow when the most successful Footlights revue I ever directed for the Edinburgh Fringe was not allowed into London. Professional companies would have envied some of the notices we got. There were several commercial bids to bring the show in, but the actors’ union, Equity, had recently imposed a strict embargo on university students being granted union membership merely because they’d had their names in the Sunday papers. As some of my cast members were keen to remind me in later years, I chose the worst possible tactics when arguing our case with the Equity tribunal. I pleaded eloquently that all of us were really only on our way to serious professions and wouldn’t be in this theatrical caper very long: therefore it would not be a case of denying food to more deserving mouths. My own mouth deserved a kicking. What I should have said, of course, was that we were all dead serious about the theatre and ready to wear greasepaint until the grave. For some of us it would have been true. It might even have been true for me. Even today, I feel most at my ease when I go on stage. Even though I don’t do much more than read out my own stuff from memory, the discipline of turning up, waiting around and going on gets me away from everything like nothing else. And some of our people really had a gift to explore. They weren’t just looking for a bolt-hole. But my advocacy sank them. Advocacy, if it is to work, usually has to be on behalf of a cause that would win anyway. Our cause was probably lost from the start. But it soon became clear to me that I had done the opposite of helping to win it.

The guilt was compounded by the further realization that it hadn’t become clear soon enough. While the case was being heard, over the course of several days at Equity’s Lubyanka-like headquarters somewhere in the back-blocks of Bayswater, the revue in question, with its West End offers pending the decision, was running on an edge-of-town semi-amateur basis at Hampstead Theatre Club. In those days, Hampstead Theatre Club was a glorified pre-fab perched in a car park near Swiss Cottage tube station. Boiling with frustration at the uncertainty of our status, I did not adjust easily to the unglamorous conditions. At Lauriston Hall in Edinburgh we had played to a packed house every night, with extra houses twice a week to take the overflow. Edward Heath had attended. Either soon to be, or having recently been, Prime Minister, he came backstage afterwards to declare himself amused. (‘Amusing,’ he said, shifting his shoulders to indicate amusement. ‘Some of the turns were really quite amusing.’) At Hampstead the really quite amusing turns went down well enough, but perhaps I should not have included myself in the cast. The second-string critics who came were sufficiently tolerant, but there were none of the hosannas employed by the first-string critics in Edinburgh. Most of the tickets sold but there weren’t all that many tickets to sell. From the tiny stage, I couldn’t help noticing that the auditorium was not much bigger, and therefore contained few people even when full. The people, in their turn, could not help noticing that the fourth chap from the left, the one with the Australian accent, looked as if he wanted to be somewhere else. The Equity frustration came to a head when I was finally told that not only would the show be denied access to a West End theatre, but that I, if I really wanted that Equity card, would have to change my name, because somewhere in the North of England there was already a Clive James playing tuba for a novelty act called the Wurzel Bashers. Eventually the latter stricture was rescinded, but it was definitely no go on the larger issue. Towards the end of our Hampstead run, I had to tell the cast that the dream was cancelled. Without exception, they took it better than I would have done if one of them had been telling me.

To console myself before we went on stage that night, I had a few beers, and then a few more. The first one would have been fatal, because I can’t take even a single drink before I perform or else the words grow fur. Having had half a dozen drinks at least, I went on to stuff up my opening monologue so thoroughly that not even I knew what I was talking about. There is no more dreadful feeling for an actor than a tongue out of control. Some drunken actors can live with it, but only because they feel even more dreadful when they are sober. More dreadful than the feelings of the drunken actor, however, are the feelings of the audience. Not long before that evening, I was in the audience for a late-night symposium at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh. The symposium had a panel of featured guests who included Patrick Wymark, at that time a star of stage and screen. A talented actor with a splendidly grating voice, Wymark was well known in the profession for his ability to go on stage at night after spending all day drinking one pint of milk after the other, each pint with a double brandy mixed into it. Most of the legendary British thespian drunks — Trevor Howard, Hugh Griffith, Richard Harris, Richard Burton — tried to make a point of waiting until the show was over before they hit the sauce. There were always a few, however, who were already loaded before the curtain went up, and who went out to the pub to refuel between scenes. In the West End, where some of the theatres are tightly packed together, there were several cases of a pissed actor going on at the right time but in the wrong play. Apparently Wymark was not of their number. A coping toper, he could stay upright in roughly the same spot and say the words in roughly the right order, always with the gravelled timbre that drew all ears to him. But his elocution was the giveaway. In the crowded Traverse on the night in question, speaking on the topic of the social role of the artist, he told an endless story about how people had once laughed at the man working up there in the Sistine ceiling. The audience was held breathless for twenty minutes until he got to his punch line. ‘And that man ... was Leonardo da Vinci.’ Even then, nobody laughed. They knew he meant Michelangelo, but they had been reduced long before to the depths of horror and pity by the way the words were coming out. ‘Sistine ceiling’ came out as ‘sixteen Ealing’. I knew exactly what was happening in his mouth: his tongue had turned to a sea cucumber. You would have thought that I would have got the message about myself then. Actually the penny didn’t drop until years afterwards, and on that night in the Hampstead Portakabin it simply never occurred to me that life was possible without getting fairly regularly plastered. I was only a few minutes into the evening, however, before I abandoned the notion that a performance was possible. The audience had realized already, and so had my cast. Since I had previously threatened to fire any of them who turned up drunk, I had no choice except to call a meeting after the show and fire myself. Nobody protested.

I should have left it at that, because the evidence was in. Looking after other people, in the sense of working on their behalf, was not my strength. I could work with other people — a glib tongue and a desire to be liked would always easily combine to ensure that — but I couldn’t look after them. Really this should have been no surprise, because there is nothing more rare in show business than the talent to handle talent. But I lacked it to a lethal degree. My sense of responsibility was insufficiently developed. I found it hard enough to look after myself. The comparative sloth of my years in the forgiving cloisters had been replaced by a frantic multiple activity of which the theatrical venture was only a part. Except when I was at home in Cambridge, I had no time even to eat properly. So I ate improperly, especially when I was writing. Much of the writing was done in London, in a tiny room high upstairs in a Swiss Cottage house full of my Footlights contemporaries: the very ones I had made a show of leading to universal success, and who had generously decided not to lynch me when I failed to do so. It was a big night when some of us ate together at the Angus Steak House, where the halved tomatoes were notched like automotive spare parts to indicate luxury. More often I stoked myself with fast food while hitting my second-hand Underwood typewriter. I forget now what the fast food was. I was already forgetting it while I ate it. I don’t think Kentucky Fried Chicken had yet invaded Britain. It was probably the British version of fried chicken, which had the same relation to the later American version as the Wimpy hamburger had to a McDonald’s Big Mac: i.e. it was begging to be superseded by anything that at least tasted of something, if only of sugar. I vaguely remember sinking my teeth through a crust of crumbs to encounter a rubbery nothingness while I hunted and pecked at the typewriter keyboard with my free hand. The warm tissue having been washed down with even warmer beer, I went back to touch-typing flat out as I transcribed the handwritten draft of my latest article or book review. When dawn came I ate cornflakes.