Books: North Face of Soho — 11. Welcome to the Colosseum |
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North Face of Soho — 11. Welcome to the Colosseum


The impact was all on me. As published, Toynbee’s review of my book was only about half the length of the proof. Almost instantly I realized that Terry had been at it with his half-glasses, blue pencil, scissors, and axe. All superlatives had been excised. There was practically nothing left except a brief description of the book’s size and weight. The previous day, the Saturday, in between my usual household tasks of lifting weights and searching for the goldfish behind the bookcase, I had toured Cambridge to tell our acquaintances that they might care to catch the Observer books pages tomorrow, after they had read my column. But now they would merely be puzzled. In London, there were dozens of my colleagues who would now, at this very moment, be rolling around with aching sides. My own sides ached for a different reason. I could hardly breathe for my sense of injustice. Screwed by my own editor! Kicked into the pit by my own Virgil! My wife, who had to live with injustice every day of the week (like any other female don, she was surrounded by suavely indolent male dons who sincerely thought they were doing her a favour by loading her with extra duties just because they knew she would carry them out), was faced once again with a husband’s peculiar capacity to treat a setback as an international crisis, instead of as a petty local condition. In later years I tried to correct that discrepancy, but even today, when I have a cold, it is the worst cold in the history of the house. On that day, cruelly deprived of what I thought my due, I addressed long speeches of protest to the wall I was supposed to be painting white. I could see the words flaming back at me, as if admonishing a DIY Nebuchadnezzar: You have Been Weighed in the Balance and Found Ridiculous. Early in the following week I found some moral courage for once and called in on Terry to have the matter out, instead of letting it simmer for a few years as I would normally have done. I thought I had the moral high ground: Toynbee, after all, had actually written such and such, and to cut out his true meaning was an act of censorship. But Terry, staring at me over the top rims of his half-glasses, soon reduced my high ground to a molehill. Using far fewer ahs and ums than usual, he informed me that a regular contributor to the Observer must not be seen to be puffed by his own paper. That would, ah, do the paper no good. The molehill became a foxhole when he added that it would, um, do me no good either. He said I was no longer the oldest living student, but well established as an indecently productive and successful young critic, and that I should avoid being seen as seeking more of the validation that I had already achieved: it was as counterproductive as to go on talking the girl into bed when she was already, ah, lying in it. The trench I was now standing in deepened, and my eyes were level with the earth, when he added that Toynbee was an eternal enthusiast, had once glorified Communism in the same terms, and that his rapturous praise of a new saviour was a well-known equivalent for the kiss of, um, death. The ground finished swallowing me up when he said if he hadn’t cut the piece he would have had to kill it altogether. He was the literary editor, and ah, making decisions like that was what the literary editor, um, did. From my subterranean position, I tunnelled out under the foundations of the building and headed for the Pillars of Hercules. Already dead, I had no fear of being killed by Ian’s laughter.

But he wasn’t laughing, and he had a fate worse than death in store for me. John Carey, an Oxford don already established as the most deadly of the academic critics moonlighting in Grub Street, had reviewed The Metropolitan Critic for the New Review. Ian showed me Carey’s typescript. With memories of my unfortunate preview of Toynbee’s Observer piece still fresh in my lacerated mind, I would have been smart to leave Carey’s manuscript unread. But the chance to do the stupid thing was irresistible as usual. Besides, Ian was insisting that I should know what was in store for me, so as not to feel double-crossed when the piece was published. I didn’t quite see the logic of that. Does someone who has mailed you a dead cat exonerate himself by telling you that it’s in the post? Not that Carey’s piece was a dead cat. It was a living cheetah. My opinions that I had thought so bold were chased down, bitten through the back of the neck, and dined off for their tender parts, with the bulk of the corpse contemptuously left for the hyenas and the vultures. What made this treatment worse, I reflected bitterly, was that Carey could write. The bits of my prose that he quoted did indeed look overwrought when put beside his. (As a general rule, a review that doesn’t quote you can never hurt you, and a dullard will never quote you unless he is so stupid that he doesn’t realize how his own prose fails to shine.) As I read on in deepening despair, Ian manfully forbore to smile, and even nodded in sympathy, but there was a gleam in his hooded eyes that I had learned to interpret. In the name of editorial integrity, he not only didn’t mind making enemies, he didn’t mind hurting his friends either. As I handed the typescript back — the hand failing to tremble only because rigor mortis had already set in — he told me that I could look forward to seeing the piece in the next issue. I nodded, feebly voicing my observation that although it was not the done thing for a newspaper to praise a regular contributor, it apparently was the done thing for a magazine to make a monkey of him. ‘Yeah. It’s tough.’ That evening I got an early train.

When in Cambridge, I still spent a lot of time in the Copper Kettle, which had previously been my office when I was a skiving graduate student. Directly opposite King’s College, it was a good place to go to ground. One of Carey’s less devastating points was that the virtues I claimed for the metropolitan critic as a recurring type throughout modern literary history were rather undermined in my case by my continued attendance at the university. It would have been more devastating had it been fully true. But it was only half true. I had no attachment to Cambridge University beyond living in the middle of it. Even today, the family base is still in the centre of the city. I suppose that by now we could afford a bigger house out in the country, with a pond and a couple of ducks. But I like the way the learned buildings wall me in with their reassurance that there is really nothing wrong with sitting down for half the day to read and write. At the time The Metropolitan Critic was published, I did the reading and writing in the Copper Kettle. When I lifted my eyes from the page, there was none of the meretricious argument London always offers that the sole real purpose in life is to hustle for a buck. Through the window, I could see the crippled physicist from Caius who had recently handed in his crutches for a motorized wheelchair. Now he took less time to go past the window. There were rumours that even his colleagues were puzzled by his explanation of the universe. Later on he would lay out the explanation in a book that puzzled people by the million, but even at that stage he was clearly occupied with thought in its pure form. It was a useful reminder that the mental life must be pursued for its own sake. The reminder came in handy when The Metropolitan Critic, after selling only a few hundred copies, turned over and sank.

But the heartening truth was that my very first book had done me good. Apart from Carey’s stroncatura — my wife, while pressing cold towels to my forehead, had kindly supplied me with the useful Italian word for the review that kicks the shit out of you — the press had been tolerant at the very least. Some of the critics had been kind enough to identify a new, peculiarly Australian style that approached European culture the way Rod Laver approached Wimbledon, as if what mattered wasn’t the cut of your shorts or the angle at which you bowed to the royal box, but whether you could hit a cross-court running forehand. I liked the sound of that emphasis. It had an echo of what Nick Tomalin had once said about how the resident aesthete scores nothing for cultivation, whereas the barbarian invader scores double. Really he was saying that it didn’t matter if you talked with your mouth full as long as you were quoting Rilke in the original German. It was an insult to my country, but I took it as a compliment to me, and now I started to see the possibilities. Instead of narrowing my range of allusion to appease my critics, I would widen it to flatter my readers, who, I had guessed, quite liked the idea of someone treating the whole world of the arts as if it belonged not to any special caste or class, but to anyone with the interest and the energy, and who could possess the whole thing even though plainly having no background except the outback. (Actually, like the vast majority of Australians, I had been born and raised in a city, but in the British imagination at that time the whole of Australia was still the outback, which was somehow equipped with a beach. Later on, this outback beach acquired an Opera House and row of brick bungalows, one of them occupied by Kylie Minogue.) I resolved, however, to exploit the image only by countering its negative expectations, and never by reinforcing them. Suddenly the opportunities to take this course had increased. Now ranking as an author instead of a mere journalist — it was the journalists, not I, who thought in those terms — I had a whole new swathe of prominent outlets available to me.

Some of them were the wrong ones. I should never have tried to write for Punch, because Punch was a funny magazine and nothing but, and for me it was fatal to work in a funny context. The only way I can find a point in what the Americans depressingly call ‘humor writing’ is to be funny in a serious context. I had already formulated this rule after learning in the Cambridge Union that I should never, on any account, accept an invitation to participate in the Humorous Debate. (In the gales of forced laughter generated by an avowedly Humorous Debate, anything genuinely amusing you happen to say will be lost like a fart in a tornado.) But I was so engaged by the company of Punch’s then editor, Alan Coren, that I broke my own rule, and suffered the consequences. Come to think of it, Coren might not have been the editor. The editor could have been William Davis, a man with the same Teutonic origins as Wernher von Braun, although not as funny. Either way, Coren was the master spirit. I could check up and make sure of who was nominally in charge, but the whole episode is a patch in my memory that I would rather leave vague. The pieces I choked out for Punch are among those I never later reprinted in book form, and even at the time I had the rare experience of wondering why I had written them at all. I record this sad fact in the hope of passing on a useful lesson. If it feels like a mistake before you go in, don’t go in. Even when working with a whole heart, you are bound to have the occasional failure, and sometimes the whole heart will be the reason: caring too much can make you try too hard, and what should have sung will merely simper. But to work with half a heart means failure every time, and the results will scream the place down. I got away with the Punch misalliance, however; not just because I got out early, but because nobody you were going to meet read Punch even under Coren’s editorship; the magazine was destined for dentists’ waiting rooms, where it played its traditional role of making what happened next seem comparatively amusing. Having got out, though, I never got away from the enigma of Coren’s personality. For me he remains the most enigmatic man of his generation, because the sprawling palace of his attainments has so many rooms he has scarcely bothered to look into. He can fly planes, drive fast cars, dance accomplished jive, speak perfect German. But who is he? His writing never tells you, because its humour is a shield. He understood exactly why I could never settle in at Punch. With that kind of writing, you keep yourself to yourself. Not my thing at all.

Other outlets were an unequivocal plus. Those who had wanted book reviews from me now wanted features as well, including the Observer itself. To conduct their side of the annual salary round for my TV column, three of the Observer’s top-echelon corridor-stalkers were waiting for me in a conference room off the main open-plan office. On a glass-topped table, three pairs of Turnbull and Asser cufflinks gleamed in concert. Wearing a new brown corduroy velvet jacket carefully chosen to look as wrong as possible in combination with my chocolate chinos, I shambled into their presence. Usually their faces would have conveyed the strained politeness of Roman senators receiving a Hun plenipotentiary whose army was parked outside the city gates, but I detected a new warmth. Things went well from the start. They would up the fee for the next year’s column by a healthy percentage if I agreed to throw in four features during the year for either the paper proper or its new colour magazine. Since I would have thrown them in for free, just for the kudos, this seemed like a good deal. But it got better while it was still being negotiated. The Observer now seemed prey to the flattering belief that as the author of a book I must be in demand from other sources. Would I care to suggest an additional figure to ensure exclusivity? A decent response would have been to say that I would be flat out writing just the stuff they had stipulated, with no time left over for a postcard to my mother. But the challenge of picking my own figure for the sweetener ruled out any response at all. I hadn’t a clue. This turned out to be an advantage. Being forced to think has the effect of temporarily shutting my mouth, while my tiny eyes are too deep-set to transmit panic, and even, I am told, can make me look quite shrewd, as if weighing the odds instead of looking for the exit. Faced with a Mississippi gambler daunting in his taciturn immobility, the Observer suits reached further into the bag. Exclusivity, they explained, meant only that I could not do comparable work for any other Sunday newspaper. (Effectively, this meant the Sunday Times, the Observer’s only real rival for the liberal audience in those years.) I could write for any periodicals I wanted to. Somewhere about this point they named a figure themselves, at which my mouth began to say ‘Wow!’ but got no further than the first consonant, for lack of breath. It must have looked as if I were pursing my lips thoughtfully. Far inside my head, my eyes bulged, but the effect was to lower my eyelids and seal them shut. Having finished adjusting the exclusivity downwards, the suits went on adjusting the fee upwards. There was a lesson here: in life as in love, it rarely hurts to say nothing. By the time I summoned up the strength to nod, I was on a stipend that any unattached freelance would have recognized as top whack, and certainly no staff writer would be doing better. The staff writers, of course, had guarantees if they got into trouble, and if they croaked on the job the paper would pay for the funeral. But that was OK, because I was going to live forever. We Mississippi gamblers know how to look after ourselves: that silver derringer isn’t just for decoration. I glided away down the corridor, mentally adjusting a black Stetson.

With dependable affluence in prospect — dependable as long as I stayed healthy — I thus passed into the second stage of the freelance writer’s life. In the first stage, any job you can get looks good, so there are no choices to be made. In the second stage, you can choose between good and bad. There is a third stage, the really tricky one, where you must choose between good and good, but I hadn’t reached that yet. For now, the choices between good and bad were quite tricky enough. I wrote a three-thousand-word piece about the current state of British television for TV Week, the American equivalent of Radio Times. The piece took several days to write, nobody could read it in Britain, and in America, where it could be read, nobody wanted to. The money was good, but the piece was a dead loss. Ergo, the money was bad. There was a clicking of the tumblers. The door opened on a revelation: earning for the sake of it was a waste of time. At the opposite pole, Encounter, an outlet I had once courted in vain, now asked me for a long article about Tom Stoppard. It was hard work, and the magazine paid mainly in prestige, but I could reprint the piece. So there was more than a cheque to show for the effort. Making such decisions was no doddle but they would have been a lot harder without an assured income to back them up. To the feature articles I wrote in this new phase, I brought a determination to get the ebullience under control. The sneer of Ian Hamilton hovered before me. I could see Terry Kilmartin’s blue pencil floating like a dagger in Macbeth. Karl Miller was Macbeth, and the spirit of Professor Carey was reading over my shoulder, all set to expel a snort of sulphur. The joint was jumping with ghosts, but like all ghosts they were the expressions of a mind in search of equilibrium. As any Grand Prix driver will tell you, the car’s straight-line speed is only part of what matters: everything else depends on control. For a writer, the control is tone control. Without that, your force of expression will pull your prose to bits, leaving it wrecked by its own impetus. Writing all day and every day, I got a lot better at keeping the extravagance within bounds.

Eventually this new capacity fed back into my TV column, where I developed a useful trick of undercutting a showy sentence by following it with a plain statement, alternating the inebriation and the sobriety throughout the paragraph, as a man in his cups might stride with heroic certitude for several yards before once again bouncing off a wall. This strategy made it even easier for an enemy to quote me accurately to my detriment — all he had to do was leave out the context — but an ordinary reader, who wasn’t looking for ammunition, was able to see that I was throwing in the hoopla only as an illustration to an argument. Each week I varied the pace within the column, sometimes writing four-fifths of it as a straight, serious review of a couple of programmes about, say, WWII, before winding up with a high-speed dissection of the latest failed courtroom drama, or with a miniature quote-fest from the latest verbal accidents of the sports presenters. (‘Harry Commentator is your carpenter.’) If the main subject brooked no levity even as an appendage — a series on Auschwitz, say, or an interview with Solzhenitsyn — I would sometimes put off the vaudeville stuff altogether until the following column, timing the effects within the month rather than within the week. I was alarmed as well as pleased to discover that there were readers who would object if their favourite routines were absent too long. The mailbag increased to the point where I could no longer deal with it by my usual method of stuffing it all into the bottom drawer of my office desk and hoping that it would go away. I was supplied with a temp secretary to transmit dictated answers. Dictating them, which I did after wavering back to the office after lunch with the Modish London Literary World, often took longer than typing out the column had done in the first place. This was solid evidence that I was earning the money. It still wasn’t a fortune, but it felt like one, and all the more so because I had never expected it to happen.

Meanwhile it became steadily clearer that the fortune I had expected wasn’t going to show up. Pete had made a couple more albums of our songs. They had been, on the whole, well received, and they had also, on the whole, dropped dead. I could see a lot of reasons why we weren’t a commercial hit. One of the reasons was a circumstance I wouldn’t have changed anyway. Pete didn’t sound in the least American. It was a sad but seldom mentioned truth that most of the British singers who sold in big numbers sang ‘yeah, yeah, yeah’ instead of ‘yes, yes, yes’. Pete did not believe that the opposite of ‘no’ was ‘yeah’, or that ‘ah’ was the way to pronounce ‘I’. But the excellent Ray Davis of the Kinks didn’t sound like an American either. Although he was an exception to the rule, if there was one exception to the rule then there could have been another. Here a better reason for our continued poverty came in, which I might have pointed out if I had more guts. Though the first album had been made for peanuts, the subsequent albums — Driving Through Mythical America and A King at Nightfall, to name the two that did best — were recorded on a budget big enough to allow more lavish arrangements and some production time to spare. The big-enough budget was still tiny by the prevailing standards: in the lounging area at Morgan Studios we saw maned and booted groups with names like Yes being provided with plates of mixed sandwiches that would have cost more than what Pete spent on a whole day of recording. But even more than with the first album, I still couldn’t dodge the uneasy suspicion that the words were being mixed too far forward. One sign that this might be true was that the demo tapes often sounded better to me than the finished album tracks. The demos, done on a single track, sounded more integrated to my uninstructed ear, and an unin-structed ear is what I shared with the public. After the instructed ears had got through with mixing the multiple tracks of the studio sessions, the words always seemed to get in front of the music. I should have feigned humility, said that my lyrics were of secondary importance, and pleaded stridently for more reticent vocals. But timidity, which is always a force in itself, won out: with so many musical experts on the case, I thought I must be wrong.

There was another reason that Pete and I could agree on. The record companies, whether Philips in our initial phase or the mighty RCA later on, had no idea how to market the stuff. We never had the A&R man who might have exploited the fact that we didn’t fit. Actually this was no surprise: the truly imaginative record executives, such as John Hammond and David Geffen, are very few even in a music industry as big as America’s. Pete’s manager, Simon Crocker, was a naturally wise young man, but he was hampered by lack of power: had he been working within one of the record companies instead of just knocking politely on their bronze doors, things might have been different with the marketing, although I doubt if some of the handicaps I have already outlined could have been overcome, in the absence of a firm hand to take hold of our throats and choke out the hit single on which everything depended.

There was one more factor, however, that outweighed all the others, although I was painfully slow to admit it at the time. The insoluble problem was so close to home that I couldn’t see it. It was me. My assumption that popular music could be dragged towards literature was fundamentally wrong-headed. It was a sure-fire formula for creating unpopular music. What we were doing, even if it had been done with large resources, was strictly for a minority. The popular-music business dealt with majorities, a fact with which I never had a quarrel: I would have been glad enough, after all, to take the rewards if they had come. But I was killing us with every clever lyric that I wrote. I was even killing our chance to get cover versions, which had been the whole idea of Pete’s making an album in the first place: to attract other artists who might sing our stuff. (Bob Dylan, whose first album sold barely one copy each for every record store in America, made his first money from having his songs performed by other people.) A few cover versions might have at least given us a plastic bucket of small change to start compensating for the big canvas bags of banknotes that never came. But largely through my choice of words, our work was too quirky to be borrowed.

In addition to a few critics who wrote the kind of notices you end up quoting to yourself when the cold night gets in through the cracks around the window, there were fans who loved our stuff, and thirty years later, when our work was rediscovered against all expectation, their children, who had grown up with our music in the house, were to form the core of a whole new audience big enough to make theatre tours by me and Pete viable in both Britain and Australia, and even in Hong Kong. But part of our appeal to that original group of thoughtful loyalists was that our songs made them feel like members of an elite, and elites are death for the popular arts. Indeed elites are death for the arts in general. Everything created should be composed on the assumption that it can be enjoyed by anybody, even if not by everybody. Verdi, my pick for the greatest creative genius of the late nineteenth century, did not compose for a special class of opera lover, and from the moment when composers began to assume that only an instructed few could possibly understand what they were up to, the art they presumed to serve was a gone goose. This aesthetic belief, which is at the head of my political beliefs as they stand today, was in the forefront of my mind from the very start, although it has taken me a lifetime to make it clear even to myself. My early lyrics were an attempt to act on that belief while it was still in the birth canal, heading in the right direction but upside down.

As so often in my life, an interior suspicion that I might be on the wrong course expressed itself by a transference of energy to another area. Gradually I began to write fewer lyrics, and to put that kind of effort into verse letters, nominally written to friends. Actually they were meant to have a bigger audience than that; they were public poetry. Written in what were meant to be strict forms, they were ideal vehicles for all the literary allusions and linguistic razzmatazz that had previously been clogging my lyrics. I wrote the first of them, a letter to Russell Davies, when I was on location in Wales for the second Bazza movie, subtly entitled Barry McKenzie Holds His Own, in which I had indeed been given the promised bigger part. Upright and conscious this time, I was cast as Paddy, an aspiring Aussie film critic attached for some reason to Bazza’s entourage as he battled Dracula in Transylvania, whose sinister castles were being doubled by the Burges castles of Cardiff, kitsch replicas that had been put up in the nineteenth century like film sets for an industry that did not yet exist. (Today, no visitor to that city should fail to avoid them.) Barry Humphries had no great love for aspiring Aussie film critics and that lack of enthusiasm was expressed in the script. Paddy had few lines and they all conveyed his amiable stupidity. With Bruce’s encouragement I tarted the lines up as I went, making Paddy’s obtuseness even more salient. Some of these improvements I found quite clever — clever expressions of stupidity, that is — but later on, in the editing room, they all vanished, leaving Paddy not much more articulate than the corpse I had played in the first movie. Little knowing that my featured role was fated for the gurgler, I threw myself into the task.

My first big chance to throw myself was in a fight scene, in which I would be one of a dozen victims of Meiji Suzuki, a karate champion playing the evil oriental cook in Dracula’s castle. Dracula was played by Donald Pleasence: my first close look at an important actor actually at work, instead of just being interviewed. Beyond the standard set by the spray-on cobwebs and the prop bats, Pleasence had a haunted look, probably having guessed that this project would not add to his lustre. The humour of the first film had depended on Bazza’s being out of context in contemporary Britain: a fruitful sociological proposition that led to all kinds of speculative press coverage in both Britain and Australia, with learned articles being written about whether the arrival of Bazza on the big screen signalled, for the perennial vexed question of Australia’s conception of itself, an advance through self-mockery or a regression through self-abasement. This time he was merely out of context in a Gothic fantasy. There would be no point in trying to explain the plot now, because the script had trouble explaining it then. When the film was released, even Humphries, who had worked hard on its preparation, quickly realized that it belonged somewhere in the lower half of his illustrious CV, although I should hasten to say that it still made money. But for all concerned, realism came later. For the moment, enthusiasm ruled. Nobody sets out to make a dud movie. Humphries, still in the difficult early stages of saying goodbye to alcohol, had a tendency, when he dressed up as Dame Edna, to repair to his or her trailer and refuse to come out, having temporarily forgotten that any putative maltreatment could only have been at the instigation of a company he entirely owned. ‘Barry, come out!’ I once heard Bruce shouting, ‘You own the movie!’ But it wasn’t as if Barry didn’t care: quite the opposite. And we were all fired up by the incendiary energy of Bruce, who reacted as if everything he could see through the eyepiece was funnier than Mr Hulot’s Holiday.

Nobody’s commitment exceeded mine. According to the storyboard, Suzuki would sock me in the jaw with his flying foot, and I had to fly backwards some distance before going over in a backward roll. Determined to raise my backward roll to Olympic standard, I practised on the bare earth. Armed with distant memories of my star performance in the Sydney Technical High School gymnastics squad that won the coveted Pepsi Cola Shield, I threw myself backwards and carried out the opening phase of a backward roll. It was there, some time later, that the film’s stuntman, Alf Joint, found me. Famous in his trade, Alf was tall, handsome, brave, and magnificently athletic, a combination of characteristics that had attracted the attention of Grace Kelly during the filming of Green Fire on location in Africa. By day, Alf had doubled for Stewart Granger in the embrace of the killer ape. By night, Alf was in the embrace of Grace Kelly. He didn’t boast about it, but the news, propelled by gusts of bitter envy, ran all around the industry. It was hard not to hero-worship such a man. In Where Eagles Dare, Alf had been one of the stuntmen fighting on top of the cable-car high above the star-lit valley full of Nazis while Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood sat on the terrace of the hotel far below, sinking drinks as they laid bets on which of their doubles would fall off first. For the most successful ever Cadbury’s chocolate commercial (‘And all because the lady loves Milk Tray’), Alf had dived a full 180 feet out of a helicopter into the sea off Malta. The camera messed up the first take so he had to do it again. He toppled out of the dive and smashed his spine into a string of broken beads, so he knew exactly what a back injury felt like. Looking up from where I was lying flat, I could see his handsome head outlined against the weak Welsh sunlight. ‘Can you move?’ he asked.

In the attempt to convince him that my prostration had been planned, I tried leaping to my feet, but succeeded only on rolling onto my side. He probed with a thumb. ‘I don’t think you’ve broken anything, but you’re going to be feeling the bruise for about ten years.’ He was thirty years short in his estimate: I can still feel it now. I can also still remember exactly what he said next. ‘Bruce tells me you’ve got two university degrees. Do you think I’d be doing this stuff if I had two university degrees?’ Arising, as so often, out of hubris and humiliation, this was one of the moments that resonated throughout my later life. From then on, I was more willing to let the tennis champions play the tennis and the racing drivers drive the cars. In my daydreams I still believe that I could have done all those wonderful things if I had set my mind to it. But daydreaming is mindless; it works on wishes, not on thoughts; and in my thoughts, prompted by my aching back, I gradually came to accept that my capacity to reflect verbally on the achievements of the danger men was exactly what had ruled out the possibility of my ever being one of them. Since it had also excused me from the danger, there was more reason to be grateful than resentful. ‘When we do the number,’ Alf said as I hobbled away leaning on his arm, ‘for shit’s sake do exactly what I say and don’t do anything extra.’ Much taken with Alf ’s delightful professional term for the trick, I did ‘the number’ the next day. Taking Alf ’s advice, Bruce captured my tiny part of the fight sequence in separate shots. There was a close-up of Meiji’s horny naked foot apparently impacting on my jaw just before I exited frame to the left, drawn in that direction by Alf yanking on the back of my pants. There was another shot of me executing the kindergarten version of a backward roll, with my face registering authentic agony. In the editing room, the second shot was cut out, no doubt because it looked too feeble.

Otherwise, most of my time on set was spent waiting. The natural condition of the film actor, at whatever level, is to sit around for hours doing nothing while the practical aspects are arranged for the next few seconds of work. Wasting as much of their lives waiting as they do in sleep, the big stars are compensated with huge amounts of money, but never enough to offset the nagging impression that they are being robbed of life. The only possible cure is to do something else. Dumb stars play practical jokes, conduct love affairs, or complain about the inadequate facilities of their trailer. Some stars meditate, perfect themselves in the mysteries of the Kabbalah, fulfil the daily mental exercises incumbent on members of the Church of Scientology who have attained the status of Transcendental All-Clear Super-Brain Grade Nine, or occupy themselves with some other method of being exclusively concerned with the continuing miracle of their own personalities. Not being a star, and lacking the wherewithal for a sustained contemplation of the self, I wrote verse letters. Having wrapped up the one to Russell Davies, I began, when we changed location to Paris, another one for Pete Atkin. In Paris there was even more waiting around to do than there had been in Wales. A two-minute scene on the upper level of the Eiffel Tower took a whole day because the wrong official had signed the permission, or because the right official had signed it at the wrong angle: stuff like that. Apart from a wonderful nighttime expedition, led by Barry Humphries, to the Alcazar cabaret — the dizzy standard of the stage effects had a big influence on Dame Edna’s later career — there was almost nothing to do but wait. I spent a lot of time sitting in cafes, hunched over my open notebook while I chiselled away at stanzas in ottava rima, rhyme royal, or Spenserian measure. I fancied myself as a meticulous craftsman.

The brutal truth was that I was still measuring lines by eye and fudging the syllable count with the slovenly insouciance of a Soviet plasterer, but at least I was learning to recognize the sweet click a line of verse transmits when all its stresses are in the right spot. What I couldn’t yet do was make it happen with every line. At about the same time as we were approaching the end of our shooting schedule, Gough Whitlam, back there in Australia, was approaching the end of his government. (With typical generosity, and perhaps with typical recklessness, he appeared briefly as himself in the final, Australian scene of the movie where Bazza comes home in triumph after the defeat of Dracula.) Whitlam, when a schoolboy, wrote far more accurate formal verse measures than I did in maturity. I wish I had known that at the time, and had been able to ponder the implication, which is that exuberance, for that kind of verse, is indispensable, but not enough. Accuracy should be part of the inventiveness. But I was carried away by my flood of ideas, which is always the first desirable condition. Into my stanzaic boxes of tricks I poured all my learned irrelevancies and interdisciplinary gags. It was, I thought, a way of airing my knowledge while heading off the standard accusation, often levelled at my prose, that I was putting everything I had in the shop window. I had never thought that jibe to be fully accurate, but there must have been something to it, because while my verse letters filled up with bricolage, my TV column emptied of it at the same rate.

The TV column was still a pretty flashy number, but I got better at cleaving to a straight argument, gradually learning to trim and guide a rococo tendency to make architecture out of decoration. If my song lyrics were only partly a success in dragging the popular towards the literary, the TV column, if only because the reader response kept growing, could be thought of as making a better fist of dragging the literary towards the popular. Later on, there was a whole new generation of journalists doing the same thing. The new emphasis was given a fancy name: postmodernism. Actually it had been going on for so long that you could trace it back through time all the way to wax tablets. T. S. Eliot wrote about Marie Lloyd and the music hall; Mallarmé edited women’s fashion magazines; Love’s Labour’s Lost is a pseudo-pedantic pop concert from start to finish; and Catullus sang a syncopated blues for the dead sparrow of his mistress. But to me this carnival of the qualities felt like a big and complex event, and the symbolic centre of it was the Edward Pygge Revue.