Books: North Face of Soho — 10. Pasting It Together |
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North Face of Soho — 10. Pasting It Together


One way to get serious would have been to do something about Louis MacNeice. Alas, my few pages of notes reminded me all too vividly of my PhD thesis about Shelley, an opus that had never advanced far beyond an outline. A good general tip for would-be writers in any field is to beware of outlines. If you keep going back to elaborate the outline, instead of getting to work on the first of its listed topics, then the outline has become a substitute for the project, which will never get done. It works like a cargo cult: the natives lay out bits and pieces of junk in the rough shape of an aircraft, and wait for it to fly. They start fighting over who gets the window seat. But the thing never stirs, and eventually the jungle closes over its forlorn outline. Even on that level, my MacNeice outline looked skimpy. Lacking the nerve to tell Charles Monteith that I had got nowhere, I told Ian Hamilton instead. As he did so often, the world’s least practical man came through with the right practical advice. He could do that for everyone except himself. On this occasion, while we both stood in the Pillars drinking beer for starters and Scotch for chasers, he cut my tale of woe short with his trademark amused sneer and said the thing that had never occurred to me. ‘Give them another book.’ This, he said, would help cure my chief problem. I had a blurred image. I was arousing resentment on all sides by playing with every toy in the kindergarten. The literati, in particular, were pissed off because I was writing articles out of what seemed no particular qualification except an urge to take their space. ‘Everybody knows who you are, but nobody knows what you do.’ I can remember these sentences of his because they stung. His advice was that I should collect all my literary pieces into a book, give it a title that made it sound as if it meant business, and thus promote the impression that my whole miscellaneous activity was part of a plan. ‘Everything changes when you get a book out,’ he snarled. ‘Suddenly you’re an author.’ The Edmund Wilson piece, he suggested, would be a good lead-off for the book. Here, I made my own contribution to the scheme. ‘I could call the book The Metropolitan Critic.’ He nodded. ‘Perfect. Sounds confident. Sounds arrogant as hell, in fact. Let the bastards argue with that.’

For the first time in my life, I sat down with a large pair of scissors to cut out my recent articles from their respective magazines and newspapers. There were quite a few that didn’t make the cut, as it were. Already forming the resolution not to write anything that I couldn’t at least consider for future publication in book form, I consigned them to the scrap heap. Those which I thought passed muster I further cut into column-width strips and pasted them onto sheets of foolscap. Haunted by distant memories of unsuccessful school projects, I nervously contemplated the crinkled and blotched strip running down the middle of each page, leaving room on each side for corrections, for rewriting, and for toning down. Plenty of that last thing proved necessary. Phrases which had only last year struck me as beaten gold now looked gimcrack. Actually too many of them stayed in, but I failed to spot them for the same reason that I had written them: lack of tone control. On a charitable view, faults of tone are the inevitable consequence of early exuberance: only a dullard is infallibly decorous from his first day. On a less charitable view, faults of tone are the deadly product of a tin ear working in combination with a loose mouth. But as I cut, pasted, and cursed far into the night, I could congratulate myself that a further stage was being reached. Somewhere inside the bumpy pages that piled up like popadoms, a picture was forming. This was the literary commentary of someone who had no academic job, no prospect of official preferment, and indeed no obvious credentials except as a common reader. Clumsy or not, it was all done for love. The finished manuscript just fitted into a box-file that bulged when I buttoned it shut. I tried to suppress the sceptical inner voice that said the box-file would become an actual book only if Faber agreed. Otherwise, like so many other unpublished authors, I would be merely toting a manuscript, like that mad don I used to see around Cambridge, endlessly carrying his stack of old newspapers on their random journey to nowhere. And my manuscript didn’t even look like a manuscript. When I unbuttoned the box, the top pages came burgeoning upwards as if the paste were yeast. The Andromeda Strain! It’s growing!

But Faber went for it. Charles Monteith, who must have guessed long before that the MacNeice project had the same chance of becoming operational as Blue Steel or Skybolt, even looked pleasantly surprised to be getting something out of nothing. He muttered dark obscurities about the difficulties of transferring the contract, but I was able to mutter back that my agent would be taking care of that. Yes, I had finally acquired an agent, or rather an agent had acquired me. Young, pretty, and still assembling her first roster of likely prospects, Christine Pevitt of Farquhar’s had been following my work and roped me in at just the right moment. I often get asked by young writers about how one goes about getting an agent, and the answer is that I have no idea. Look busy enough and an agent will get you. She herself will probably be only at the start of her career, and on the lookout for clients. Later on, her client list will be full. Never mind: when you, the hungry young writer, succeed in getting a few big pieces published in magazines, or in placing a manuscript of any kind with a publisher, some hungry young agent will probably turn up. But agents themselves don’t place manuscripts with publishers, or at least they didn’t in those days. Publishers didn’t take recommendations from agents, from other writers, or from anybody. Publishers were in the business of looking for publishable manuscripts, and they had paid readers of their own to aid them in the search. Similarly, the editors of magazines and newspapers commissioned articles directly from the writers of their choice. The agent’s job was to look after the contracts, from whatever source, making sure that writer’s take was negotiated upwards to the limit of what the market would bear, and that the resulting cash was collected in due time, instead of being conveniently left in the publisher’s bank to earn interest for him instead of the writer. All this was quite a big enough job without the agent becoming a star too. Nowadays some of the agents are stars, occasionally rather bigger ones than most of their clients, and we are told that they handle a lot more than these mundane details, even to the extent of creating new talents out of nowhere. It seems more likely that they poach from each other names already established, and that all those routine requirements I just mentioned still apply. But the work is so painstaking that you can’t blame the occasional agent for welcoming an attribution of glamour, which the culture-page journalists are increasingly eager to grant, even when the agent is not, as so often, a personable woman. In fact the unpersonable men have become the biggest charisma-merchants of the lot, sometimes even carrying code names, like terrorist masterminds in the kind of movie that Bruce Willis turns down so they get Jean-Claude Van Damme instead. (Imagine some dweeb adjusting his tie while he looks into the mirror and mutters, ‘They call me the Vulture.’) Though some of today’s big-name writers have undoubtedly benefited from the kind of agent who is shown to the best table while demanding top dollar, whether the agent’s job has really changed all that much is a matter for doubt. But in those days there was no doubt: the job was quite big enough, and no agent, however cunning, could turn a duffer into a desirable publishing proposition, just as no makeover, even if it includes plastic surgery, can turn an ordinary but glamour-struck young woman into Natalie Portman. This is only a brief disquisition about an extensive subject, but I put it in writing here because so many new writers, when they encounter their first disappointments, are driven to conclude that the reaction of the publishing world to their sincere and self-sacrificing efforts must be some kind of conspiracy, which could be circumvented if they had the right representation. There is no such conspiracy. There is only a market, which you can get into only by having something to sell — and something to sell means something that people want to buy.

That last bit is the poser. Quite apart from the obvious nutters, many a good soul has come to grief through failing to accept that nobody very much wants what they have to give. Since the necessary determination to press on in spite of failure — a determination that any artist must have — is indistinguishable from the futile determination to persist in a hopeless cause, the possibilities for self-delusion are almost infinite. You can even take universal rejection as a sign of your essential seriousness. You will take it to the grave, but there are worse ways to waste your life. With any luck, however, the penny drops, and the aspirant redirects his courage into one of the support branches of the art form in which he longed to shine. It is a desirable outcome. If all the accomplished but not especially interesting would-be writers became schoolteachers and taught grammar, the country would be on the road to recovery. The sky has more stars than it knows what to do with, but it can’t do without gravity. I can give myself credit for realizing this quite early on, although for a long while I was too arrogant to give credit where credit was due. But I did manage to notice that almost everyone who gave service in the cultural world was an unpublished novelist, and that most of the published novelists had been forced, over time, to accept the fact that they might as well have stayed unpublished. After they accepted it, they turned, reinforced by self-knowledge, to other and more beneficial things. They had made something useful out of rejection, which is a far harder test of character than to make something useful out of acceptance.

For the moment, I had been accepted. The Metropolitan Critic was on its way to being a book. Somewhere in a back room at Faber in Russell Square, the popadoms were out of the box. Christine was in no position to renegotiate the MacNeice contract’s tiny advance, but she did somehow manage to rewrite the small print so that I was neither prosecuted for non-compliance nor deprived of the fee for delivery. As I remember, the total amount of money involved was about a hundred pounds — worth ten times as much in those days, but still not a lot. The author, however, felt as if he was rolling in it. Part of this euphoria was relief. I had been sprung free from a haunting bind, in relation to which everything else had been a displacement activity. Now I could concentrate on the displacement activities as if they added up to the main event. In practical terms they got in each other’s way, but at least I wasn’t pursuing them all as a means of dodging a promise. In Cambridge my elder daughter was up to about the fifth rung of the climbing frame. She won’t thank me for saying that to me she looked more heroic than Sir Edmund Hillary at the peak of Everest. To mention her pixie hat will cost me a drubbing, but I can’t leave out how, from my invigilating position on the park bench, I gazed upwards — well, if not precisely upwards, still a bit better than straight and level — with a mixture of pride and alarm. By the nature of my work and the nature of my nature, I was an absentee father who might as well have been serving in a nuclear submarine. If my wife was not to be crushed flat by the combined burdens of scrupulously fulfilling her duties as a don while simultaneously bringing up not just one of these things in pixie hats, but two of them, then I still had to make a big score. The book, when published, would, of course, make me millions. The music business would make me zillions. But not, in either case, yet.

* * *

Meanwhile there was enough to pay the nanny: my one unarguably valuable connection. Myself useful only for lifting heavy objects, I tried to do my share of the cooking. I mastered the art of divvying up a batch of mincemeat into small dollops and frying sixteen mini-burgers at once. Nobody except me wanted to eat them and they went straight to my waistline. My shoulders were still the widest part of me, but the body of the Australian surfing hero was no longer what it was. I got some useful weight training when I helped shift our stuff out of the flat at New Hall to a small house in St John’s Road, near Jesus Green. Staggering along with one of about fifty tea chests full of books, I could fancy that I was doing my bit. But being the helpmeet ate into my time for being the good provider, which seemed the more useful role, considering the fact that I couldn’t even unpack the books without sitting down to read one of them, and then putting even that aside while I worked on a poem. Even a student of Dante, who was famed for his ability to concentrate on his poetry when swarms of Florentine factional street-brawlers were stabbing each other all around him, is likely to grow impatient if her nominal soulmate sits fiddling with a rhyme when he is meant to be carrying a refrigerator. As he offered to do, by the way. That’s the worst of living with artists: they volunteer to do things, and then they glaze over when the rapture hits them, and they’re gone, even when they’re still there.

So I was in no fit state to turn down a windfall. After the first year the Observer had offered me the same freelance contract again, with a gratifying but not very startling increase. It might have been more startling if I had not negotiated the contract myself, without benefit of an agent, but my first contact with a newspaper editor was always personal; and even after I was fully armed with representation I was to go on, until recent years, with keeping my newspaper deals to myself. I had noticed that a newspaper will up the stakes just to cut down on the paperwork. They might be screwing you, but in such intimate circumstances you stand a good chance of screwing them right back. Both of you are screwing the agent, who needs to be tolerant about being cut out of the loop, but since the marketability of her asset is likely to increase, all three parties gain. At that first try, however, I had not gained all that much. Staff members might have thought otherwise. Sitting chained to their desks as I came and went, they tended to forget that they were also sitting on their pension. I never forgot it. Never much good at being properly fearful for my own future, I knew no inhibitions about being fearful for the future of my family. I had heard too many stories about the loved ones of some famous freelance being reduced to beggary. Tiny upturned faces in pixie hats! With the column steaming along from week to week, there might have been enough money going into the bank, but only just enough, because it was coming out again just as fast. How to get ahead of the curve?

The nagging question was made more so by the sudden prosperity of a friend, Bruce Beresford. In previous volumes I called him Dave Dalziel, for the usual reason: I was attributing to him inappropriate behaviour. But by then his youthful indiscretions were behind him. He was now a respectable, moderate man, instead of what he once had been, the one figure among his young Australian expatriate mates who could actually fulfil his priapic dreams, partly because he was so funny and good-looking, but also because — his secret weapon — he always earned some sort of salary and wore clean clothes. This sound practical initiative was a reflection of his realism, which, among the dreaming young, is forever in short supply. Realism had driven him to accept that if he wanted to make a feature film, the best place to finance it would be in Australia. The success of the ‘Barry McKenzie’ strip in Private Eye had opened a window. Barry Humphries, creator of the Bazza character and author of the words, had realized that if Nicholas Garland’s pictures added so much, then moving pictures could add more. He and Bruce cooked up a script together, and Bruce flew home to raise the scratch. The Australian film industry being non-existent at the time, this was no easy matter, but Bruce, with typical persistence, had got it done. Philip Adams, later a huge name in Australia as an expert on everything, was a big help as producer, but he wouldn’t deny that Bruce and Barry were the magic combination, perhaps partly because their combined first names sounded as if they had been inscribed on the scroll at the bottom of modern Australia’s coat of arms. Together they had the right idea for the actor to play Bazza: a singer called (wait for it) Barry Crocker. Tall, gangly, and lantern-jawed, Crocker even looked like Bazza. It was like finding, to play Superman, an actor who could fly. The film was to be made in London and Bruce had a role for me. (I’m flashing back a bit here, as Bazza might have said: this first Barry McKenzie film was made in 1972, in the first year of my TV column.) I was disappointed to find what the role was. I would be playing someone who had passed out at a party. Bazza would step over my inert form. But at least I would be on the screen, even if appearing only one step above the carpet. And the pay was good: for a couple of days’ work, ridiculously good. Extras who lay down got paid more than extras who stood up, because lying down counted as a stunt.

Having found that out, I was able to watch Bruce in action as he marshalled the teeming forces of a full-scale feature movie. In cruel fact, all directors look impressive when a film is being made, even if the results look nothing of the kind. The generalship involved is automatically awe-inspiring. I was stunned by how a contemporary I thought I already knew could be so in control of events. It made me wonder if I would ever achieve the same focus. Responding to the challenge, I put a lot into preparation for my role, practising endlessly to lie down at the right angle. When Bazza stepped over me, he was stepping over an actor who was not just pretending to be unconscious, but inhabiting unconsciousness. I had submitted myself to immobility by finding the essence of that motionless state within my soul. When the movie came out, I wasn’t mentioned in the reviews. In the relevant sequence, indeed, I thought that the camera unnecessarily favoured Crocker even in the long shot, and in the close-up the audience had to imagine, from the expression on the star’s face, that he was stepping over an unusually convincing unconscious person. But the movie, called simply The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, was a success, especially in Australia. The Australian film industry as we know it today was launched, and I felt that I had played my part. When Bruce hinted that there might be a sequel, in which my part would grow even bigger (talking like Bazza is almost impossible to stop once you start), my nostrils flared.

During my agonized wait for film stardom in the sequel, there were other things to do. Some of them helped with the mortgage, but as usual I felt especially drawn towards the ones that didn’t. Lest I give the impression that I was always looking for a financial angle, I should record here that, in matters of a central stipend, my best reason for following the money was self-knowledge: given the chance, I had a dangerous propensity for lavishing prodigies of concentration on activities that not only failed to pay, but that I had to pay in order to pursue. Foremost among these activities was poetry. Mentally I was still living from one poem to the next, as I had before and still do today. But in the long list of editors unaccountably dedicated never to caring for what I wrote in verse form, Ian Hamilton was included, and that was a blow. Though he would print as much of my prose as he could extort, he inspected my proffered poems as if they were not even counterfeit money, but tiny banknotes hand-drawn in coloured pencil by a child. ‘I don’t,’ he muttered, ‘like this kind of poetry.’ As his own poems proved, he favoured personal feeling, in the range between depression and desperation. Playfulness was the enemy. The typical poem that he thought legitimate, whether written by himself or by the handful of other poets for whom he felt respect (often, in the Pillars of Hercules, there was a quorum of them, looking like a morticians’ convention), was no more playful than running blindfold across a busy highway.

He particularly loathed my poems when they tried to be funny and serious at the same time. He himself could be a ferociously funny parodist, but he kept his parodies in a separate category, and published them under a separate name. The name was Edward Pygge. Established poets lay awake in fear at the thought of being parodied by Pygge. Generously, Ian offered me the use of Pygge’s name if I wanted to try the same trick. Immediately I saw the possibilities, and in the course of a month turned out Pygge versions of several different poets whom I thought were being denied the denigration due to them. When I showed Ian the manuscripts his reaction was gratifying. At the supposedly personal lyric poems written under my own name, he had sneered. At my Pygge poems he sneered again, but with the occasional baring of the teeth, a revelation which I had learned to recognize as a sign of uncontrollable mirth. Sparsely scattered in the jaws of a heavy drinker and smoker with an aversion to dental appointments, Ian’s teeth were at odds with his otherwise darkly handsome face. They were dark enough, but they didn’t fit the picture, so he usually kept them under wraps. If they were on show, he was either going to bite somebody or else he was amused. In this context, it had to be the latter.

Suddenly we were getting on at a new level. We had always got on, but often against the odds. In personality he was naturally dominant and I was naturally submissive. But I didn’t like myself for being submissive, and I would like still less whoever made me feel so; and I would always eventually rebel, usually choosing the most unsuitable moment to declare independence. These quirks from both of us had led to several clashes already, with bad blood slow to drain away on either side; and the clash arising from our respective views of poetry was worse than all the others put together, because it never subsided below the level of threatening to break out all over again. As so often happens with boon companions, we were very unlikely friends. When two male friends both write poetry, the sensitivities go even deeper than sexual rivalry.

In that department, rivalry with Ian was pointless anyway. Other men, when running after women, found that they had to run faster because the women were running towards him. Though a star footballer in his daydreams, in his personal appearance he was one of those rare poets who actually look the part. He looked doomed. He didn’t look unhealthy, which was unfair considering his habits of nourishment. These have been described by better hands than mine, and none of them needed to exaggerate. He really did order complete meals and do nothing with them except rearrange the food on his plate with a fork. He really did remove the lighted cigarette from his mouth only to replace it with the rim of a glass of Scotch, maintaining that steady rhythm throughout the day and far into the night. But he looked as fit as a welterweight contender, an impression added to by his broken nose. In the eyes of women, his nose was broken at exactly the right angle to indicate many a gallant fist-fight against their oppressors, and his thick black hair begged for their soothing fingers. His hair was a particular affront to those of us who were losing ours. Many years later, at a moment when his permanent financial crisis had reached the catastrophic point where he was being sued by the solicitor he had hired to help him out of it, his hair turned white and fell out in clumps; but typically, and unforgivably, it grew back again, and just as black. No, until the very end he never looked sick, or even frail. But he did look condemned. He had the knack of embodying self-destruction in an alluring form. He looked as if he needed to be saved, like Venice. Women keen to save him arrived from all over the place. They would give him their front-door keys, which he put on a key ring that shook the floor if he dropped it.

There can occasionally be some point in taking a moral stance about a man’s sexual behaviour, especially if the man is oneself. But there is no point in taking a moral stance about a man’s sexual attractiveness. If he’s got it, he sure as hell didn’t steal any of it from the rest of us. Ian lost several friends because women they desired fell for him instead, but those friends were foolish. It wasn’t his fault: which, of course, made the fact more infuriating still. At the height of his pulling power, he never had to do anything to get a woman he wanted except fight off the ones he didn’t, so as to give her a free run to the target. Her rate of acceleration could be disconcerting if you thought she was with you. I can honestly say, however, that if I bore any grudges against him in that area, they didn’t go any deeper than generalized envy. One got used to it. There was an occasion when we both did a reading in Oxford. I did my usual thing of entertaining the audience between poems. Ian just read his poems, saying nothing directly to the audience except, ‘Can’t you shut up in the back?’ When it was over, a beautiful young blonde graduate student came up to us and hung gracefully on my every word about Auden and MacNeice while Ian sat impatiently glowering. I suggested to the poetry-mad young vision that she should drop into the Pillars of Hercules next time she was up in London. When she did, I lurched forward to greet her at the door. I was all set, in my role as guide to the lower depths, to answer any questions she might have. She had only one. ‘Is he here?’

I wasn’t even surprised. In the area of poetry, however, there was a gulf between us that could easily have remained unbridged. I only partly believed that what he was doing in poetry was as necessary as what he was doing in prose, and he didn’t at all believe the same thing about me. If your friend takes your woman off you, he merely doesn’t care about your feelings; but if he makes it clear that he thinks you are wasting your time with poetry, he doesn’t care if you live or die. There had been a dozen occasions when our friendship might have been over, if we hadn’t made each other laugh. It worked like a marriage, which can survive anything except lack of good will. But even the good will had been often under stress, and we would have called it quits sooner if the Edward Pygge connection had not intervened. As we stood there at the bar of the Pillars, we were joined by Pygge, the phantom impresario, in the spirit of a new enterprise. The scurrilous Pygge papers, an untidy array of typescript hedged about with pints of beer and glasses of Scotch, clearly had theatrical possibilities. We could do some of these voices ourselves. The rest could be done by Russell Davies, who could do anything. He could also write parodies to a high standard. Yet more Pygge products were in prospect! The very consonant ‘p’ became a provocation. At that moment, Davies himself walked in out of the gathering dusk, picked up my Pygge parody of the Welsh bard R. S. Thomas, and read it out with the appropriate accent. All within earshot fell about. The barman looked puzzled, but he probably wouldn’t be coming to the show anyway. We already had a name for it: the Edward Pygge Revue.

I always loved that stage direction in one of Ring Lardner’s little surrealist plays: ‘The curtain comes down for seven days to denote the passing of a week.’ To denote the several weeks it took to prepare the Edward Pygge Revue for its one-night run, let me make a slapdash collage of some of the other stuff I was busy with at the time. The more slap the dash, the greater the fidelity to a period of confusion. Looking back on it, I can see that this was a formative moment. In most of our formative moments, we do nothing much except lie around in a daydream, like a snake measuring itself for a change of suit, and we find our future purpose through discarding the false purposes of the past. But there are other formative moments when so much happens at once that there is no order to it, or even a chronology: opportunities arrive like a hail of bullets, and a circus performer who had previously to catch only one bullet at a time in his teeth finds himself snapping desperately at a fusillade. One of the bullets he swallows, and it turns out to have transforming properties, even though it tastes at first just like another mouthful of lead. Full of metaphors no less extravagant than that, my book The Metropolitan Critic finally came out. For stylistic brashness it invited the pillory, and its exterior appearance might have been designed as a provocation. Almost full size, my self-approving face, enriched with untrimmed sideburns, appeared on both front and back, as if appearing once were not more than enough. But some of the reviews were good, and one of them was better than good.

It was written by Philip Toynbee for the Observer. Before it was published, Miriam Gross kindly showed it to me in galley proof when I came into the office to write my TV column. Toynbee had praised me in sumptuous terms. His piece was the literary equivalent of ‘Roll Over, Beethoven’. The new boy from the Australian bush, according to Toynbee, was a prodigious combination of style and exuberance: the ant’s pants had met the bee’s knees. George Orwell, look to your laurels. Dr Johnson, the jig is up. Montaigne, rien à faire. It went on like that. After memorizing the piece like a poem, I spent Friday night getting smashed in the Pillars, striving to share my secret with no more than one person at a time. As I explained to Ian that I was finding it a struggle to reconcile literary integrity with blazing success, was there an element of respect in his usual sneer? ‘You’re a very complicated character.’ No, it was an element of contempt. But he would have to live with that. Lying on the floor of the last train to Cambridge, I rehearsed the speech that would prepare my wife for the life-changing impact of the Observer on Sunday.