Books: North Face of Soho — 14. Tynan Steps In |
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North Face of Soho — 14. Tynan Steps In


The regular critics tried to when Faber brought out a collection of my verse letters under the title Fan-Mail. The hyphen was my mistake and so was the book, which was reviewed like the plague. People scarcely capable of writing a sentence that could be read were accusing me of being unable to write a stanza that could be scanned. For a long time I agreed with the reviewers, although the fact that those poems still appear among my collected verse in The Book of My Enemy (2003) is an indication that my opinion has reverted to what it was when I was writing them, in a trance of concentration every time. (The letter to Michael Frayn, composed in Pushkin’s cruelly demanding Onegin stanza, and the letter to Tom Stoppard, composed in the almost equally tricky Burnsian measure, both sent me to the brink of oxygen starvation: I would forget to breathe as I pieced the phrases into the intricate set schemes.) The verse letter as a genre, however, I now saw as only a small part in my total global output of comic verse. Everything for the stage, for instance, should be in comic verse. If only Shakespeare had followed Chaucer’s example! Kenneth Tynan pulled a face when I explained this to him, but by that time he looked as if he was pulling a face anyway: his habits were catching up with him, there had never been much flesh between skin and skull, and now he looked like a skeleton trying to escape. Tynan had called me to his house in Thurloe Square to discuss a project. It was our second meeting. The first had been at a Garrick Club reception not long after I joined the Observer. Tynan had been wearing a tailored green shantung Dr No jacket and I had worn one of my usual polyester paisley ensembles from the Nightmare Alley boutique on the Planet of the Drapes. Much to Terry Kilmartin’s amusement, David Astor looked at me as if I were a German paratrooper. Tynan, however, chose to address me, grandly telling me how I wrote TV criticism with such verve that I should consider ‘moving up’ into drama criticism. Our subsequent exchange is no less true for my having told the tale a thousand times. When I asked him if he could really, truly, still stand the theatre, he said, ‘I get a thrill every time the curtain goes up.’ And I said: ‘I get a thrill every time it goes down.’

Or something like that. In reality, dialogue is never as crisp. But theatre isn’t reality and I didn’t want it to be: I wanted it to be verbally electrifying. Most theatre, in my experience, was the opposite. One of the reasons I admired Stoppard so much — later on I admired Michael Frayn and Peter Nichols for the same reason — was that his plays, despite the room they made for an exalted level of visual hoopla, were so full of lines begging to be spoken. Tynan pointed out that even Stoppard had needed help in pulling Jumpers together. Since the help, in that case, had been provided by him, Tynan was speaking with authority. When we met again in Thurloe Square, however, he soon found me more opinionated than ever. In his capacity as the dramaturge who had beaten back sexual constrictions by giving the world the designedly scurrilous revue O, Calcutta, Tynan now wanted to make a similarly liberating play out of a book by the prankster, brothel-keeper, and strolling philosopher Willy Donaldson. Tynan wanted me to write the script, which being done, he would take over and supply all the other requirements. After reading the book I suggested that the play should be done in verse.

Tynan had looked pretty ill at the previous meeting, but at this meeting, when he heard my suggestion, his face moved even nearer death. Actually, that aspect was no joke. Tynan had emphysema, and it would eventually do for him, but at that stage he could still tell himself that he only had to quit smoking. There were a lot of people who loved him and wanted to believe the same thing. I was one of them: if only for his gift of phrase, I admired Tynan to the point of worship. I just didn’t think that he made any sense politically. He was one of the British theatre’s permanent supply of licensed radicals — Harold Pinter and David Hare are other prominent examples — who are allowed, and even encouraged, to rain scorn on the beliefs of the very people who come to see their plays. How this reciprocating system of gauchiste rhetoric subsidized by bourgeois self-flagellation actually works is a subject for sociological analysis that need not detain us here. Sufficient to say that Tynan was far too nice ever to realize that the sincerity of his Brechtian revolutionary principles would have stunned Brecht, who had manufactured them to please a state-sponsored market and had banked his foreign royalties in Switzerland. But at least Brecht, whose didactic plays had bored the world for decades, was safely out of the picture. Unfortunately Tynan thought that Willy Donaldson was yet another social revolutionary: perhaps not precisely of the Brechtian stamp, but promising a usefully subversive libertarian critique of the institutionalized inhibitions of Western society.

I went to meet Willy off-campus, as it were, and we soon had each other sized up. His dim little flat in Chelsea was clearly the model for the exciting brothel in the book. All he had done was build up its crumbling face with a few layers of pancake makeup. The same could be said for his girlfriend, whose patterns of speech and behaviour soon revealed themselves to have been souped up and distributed between all the exotic houris, demi-mondaines and grisettes that populated his story. Willy had the knack for the prose that floods mundane reality with a radiance it could never generate by itself. In his pages, the hypnotic hookers came swaying towards you in couture underwear, drunk on the perfume of their own armpits, their eyes alight with your reflected dreams, hungry to blend their burning need with yours. The money didn’t really matter to them. They were driven by desire. In reality, Willy’s girlfriend had a sour face painted on the surface of a veteran grapefruit, and the Band-Aids on the back of her calves where the last shave had gone wrong were curling at the edges. Her bloodshot eyes, never very large, were focused on something bad happening a few inches in front of them, perhaps the tiny pall of heat coming up from the cigarette she smoked no hands. Tynan had told me that Willy, once a tycoon of upmarket sexual commerce, had fallen on hard times. I hadn’t talked to him for half an hour before I realized that there had never been any soft times. This was it. He had been making everything up since the days when the Beyond the Fringe boys — he was their first impresario — had twigged that he was a bull artist and eased him out. He and I talked the same language. He was a fabulist. It takes one to know one.

I wrote the play anyway, and I wrote it the way Tynan wanted it: in prose. The manuscript must be somewhere among my junk. It never got any further than script stage, thank God. My main problem with the material, as they say in Hollywood, was that I have never been able to believe in self-fulfilment through sexual liberation. I believe in sexual desire as a transfigurative force all right, but I don’t think that it contributes to intelligence any more than salmonella contributes to digestion. Even now, on the threshold of the departure lounge, I still fall in love instantly with every beautiful and brilliant woman I meet; and I am still likely, if the woman is sufficiently beautiful, to think that she must be brilliant anyway, even as the evidence to the contrary becomes mountainous. I could write a book on the subject of sex, and one day, if there is a sufficient pause after it’s all over, I probably will. The book’s principal conclusion, I imagine, will be that a man whose romantic folly is infinite had better try to find himself the kind of woman who values the realism in him and knows how to bring it out, or he will end up dead, or bankrupt, or surrounded, like Willy, by the kind of faded decor into which the flannel dressing gown decorated with cigarette burns blends like camouflage. If he finds more than one woman like that then he will still be in trouble, but at least he will know what kind of trouble he is in. The idea that the rules for controlling a force could be derived from the force itself was one that only a man like Tynan could sincerely believe. Willy didn’t believe it any more than I did. He hoped the project would dig him out of a hole. I was truly sorry I couldn’t help. (Later on I was glad when he had a money-spinning hit with his ‘Henry Root’ caper.) I liked him. He forgave me for being as square as a brick under my air of exuberance, and I forgave him for peddling fake petrol. We had to forgive each other because we both pulled our cons using the same device: the spellbinder sentence, that little castle in the air.

Tynan was probably relieved when I pulled out of the project without needing to be pushed. I told him the truth: that the kind of theatre I wanted to do was a lot smaller, more like a cabaret; that it was almost all talk; and that it was mainly mine, so that I couldn’t screw anybody else up. I didn’t need to tell him that I wasn’t sure yet of how to do it. My mock epics ran for only one night and nobody could pursue a show-business venture on that basis. (The answer to that one is to go touring, but for that you need fame, either your own or borrowed: thus the British touring circuit is replete with acts calling themselves the Platters, the Drifters, Elvis Presley, and Buddy Holly — itinerant bodysnatchers who sign their real names only on the contract.) So I just looked vague on the subject. It was an expression Tynan was used to, having worked with so many actors; and he let me go without rancour. Several years would go by before I saw him again, and for the last time. (I jump forward to the scene now, out of sequence, because his greatness has been wilfully neglected and no signs of enthusiasm should be held back that might help to restore its lustre.) It was in Los Angeles. On an afternoon off from an Observer assignment I went out by cab to see him in the house he and Kathleen had taken in one of the canyons. Coldwater Canyon, I think; or maybe Stone Canyon; anyway, one of those names out of Raymond Chandler. If I had the biography here I could check up, but I hated the biography, even though Kathleen wrote it, and with a loving, forgiving hand. The biography, and the letters, helped to sink what was left of his reputation, so that now, when he is out of print, he is patronized, without a blush, by the sort of people he could write rings around. But he was the stylist of his time: the true star critic. One of the things that made him so, apart from his turn of phrase, was what he called his limitless capacity for admiration. When I said that Hemingway’s style had fallen apart in the end, Tynan read aloud from that marvellous passage where Hemingway, towards the close of his life, talked about the Gulf Stream’s ability to take in any amount of junk and still run clean again after a few miles. I could tell that Tynan was talking about his lungs; and Hemingway was wrong, of course; but the prose sounded like holy writ in Tynan’s strained voice as the hot sunlight inexorably ate its way into the absurdly green lawn. Tynan was giving me a final lesson in what lasts: the style impelled by the rhythm of the soul, breadth of feeling with a narrow focus. Any youngster who wants to get into this business should find a copy of Tynan’s first book, He That Plays the King, and do what I did — sit down and read it aloud, paragraph by paragraph. It will soon be seen that his sometimes pedestrian radical opinions were far outstripped by his perceptions, which moved like lightning to energize almost every sentence. Tynan had drama in his prose: drama far beyond anything he could do as a dramaturge. It was only fitting that his death should be a drama too. It was a fight between him and the oxygen machine. He looked at it with hatred because he knew that when he sucked on it, it would taste nothing like a cigarette.

But when he showed me out of his elegant front door in Thurloe Square he wasn’t dead yet: he just looked like it. Back in the Barbican I once more had enough spare time to wonder what my writing life would be like if I had all the time in the world. The column still provided a must-do for the end of every week. In answer to the must-do, phrases popped into my head. Would they still do that if there were no compulsion? Phrase-making is something I don’t much like to talk about because I don’t know how it happens. When I build a stanza in ottava rima, I know exactly how it works; how the fifth and sixth lines move at a different speed from the first four, how a pre-echo in the middle of the sixth line will multiply the clinching effect of the final couplet; and though there will always be surprise discoveries while I build it, the surprises will always be recognizable. But I don’t know how a phrase works in terms of its origin: I just know how to neaten it up when it arrives, how to make sure that its order of events doesn’t injure its internal economy. Somewhere about then — to put this argument on a suitably elevated plane — I described Arnold Schwarzenegger as a brown condom full of walnuts. The idea must have been a registration of his bulges and skin texture, but I still don’t know how the visual perception translated itself into a verbal creation. As far as I can tell, looking inwards from within, the gift of phrase is the semantic equivalent of something mathematical, but I don’t know whether the mechanism is clever, like the chess master’s ability to see the whole board with all its possible combinations, or stupid, like the idiot savant’s capacity for following the line of prime numbers all the way to eternity. All I know for sure is that the knack is in my life’s blood, and that if it ever failed me it would be time to turn my face to the wall.

The Schwarzenegger phrase (which wasn’t in my TV column: it must have been in an article) was an immediate hit, especially with other journalists. They didn’t try to steal it, but they often quoted it, with a generous attribution. Nearly always it was a misquote (the most common mistake was to leave out the word ‘brown’, thereby fatally depleting the visual information), but I learned, over time, to take the acknowledged echo of a phrase, even in maimed form, as a kind of sideways compliment, even if the context was hostile. The compliment became too sideways to be borne only when a journalist would attribute to me something I had never said. Some hack pasting together a profile of Kenny Everett ventured to describe him as I might have done. ‘As Clive James might say, Everett looks like a drowned rat peering through a loo brush.’ Or some such lazy mish-mash. Somehow this uninspired comparison got itself attached to my name, and I found it cropping up in unofficial profiles about me for years ahead, particularly when the author of the profile was the kind of journeyman who found it usefully contemptuous to call me by my first name and who thought that ‘Antipodean’ was a long, hard, funny word. (‘The portly Clive, the same Antipodean who called Arnold Schwarzenegger a walnut in a condom and Kenny Everett a rat hiding behind a loo brush, is sensitive about his own personal appearance ...’) In the course of time, but not in that decade or even in the one after, I learned to be grateful for any quotation of any kind, however distorted. The journalist was, after all, boosting the value of my stock in trade. On the evidence of the TV column’s buzz-making prominence from week to week, my putative knack for saying smart things was undoubtedly the motor of what I did for a living, even if I found it hard to smother the conviction that there must be something more to life. With due allowance for the difference in stature and earning power, Björn Borg, forever smacking the ball with the sweet spot of the racket, probably felt the same nagging doubt every day, until finally he rediscovered himself as the master spirit of a line of designer sporting apparel, and got married in a pink tracksuit to demonstrate artistic abilities too long suppressed.

And so, with most of the hard initial work already done, the second half of that decade played itself out: writing in the ascendant, television never quite going away, and the urge to tread the boards hard to quell. This last urge got yet another small chance to flourish when I went out on tour with Pete to help him preside over the demise of our first career as songwriters. As things have turned out, there was to be a second career, but we didn’t know that at the time. We were looking total defeat right in the face. Nevertheless the fans turned out to fill the halls at most of the dates. In places like Macclesfield, people wanted us to sign their copies of The Road of Silk and Secret Drinker. At Hull, where we went on in the Students’ Union, Philip Larkin turned up at the back of the audience. He was stone deaf by then but he said later that he wanted to see what we were up to, even if he couldn’t hear it. The people in the auditoriums were notably civilized and unfailingly attentive. It wasn’t a bad result for some pretty uncompromising writing. But it had nothing to do with a viable result in the music business. We were all too aware that the total of all these audiences was only a tiny fraction of the number of album buyers we would have needed to keep going. The last album, a patchy collection of spoofs and parodies called Live Libel (I sang one of the numbers on it: it was as dodgy as that), was half meant as a deal-breaker and fully did the job. Its cover illustration by the greatly gifted Trog was one of the best things that ever happened to us, but in the popular arts you need a mass audience, not classy trophies. Prescience would have told me that the stage routine we worked out for the tour — a song from Pete alternating with a reading or a short autobiographical extravaganza from me — would come in handy about a quarter of a century down the line, but prescience I didn’t have, and still don’t. If you know where they sell it, tell me.

Nervously convinced that I had been instrumental in leading Pete down the garden path for the last ten years, I felt guilty that things hadn’t worked out, as I always feel guilty after the collapse of a group venture — even, strangely, when I am not in it. Once again, we are less likely to be talking about humility here than about a kind of all-embracing conceit. Deep down, I am always convinced that everything depends on me. I feel the same way about the United Nations. What might I have done to help Kofi Annan this week? Cut up his son’s credit card, for example? And how did I ever let Africa get into such a mess? My credentials as an economist are at least as good as Bono’s, yet I have done almost nothing about sub-Saharan debt relief. But perhaps nothing is the thing to do. When it comes to a group enterprise in show business, nothing is almost always the thing to do. The surest way of dealing with an oncoming collective catastrophe is to opt out in advance. You can’t take anyone down with you if you don’t let the project happen in the first place. When the handsome, voluble, original, and erratic Tony Wilson kindly asked me to contribute a two-minute spot to each episode of his new show for Granada, I could accept without a qualm because nothing depended on me and I could go as easily as I came. I wouldn’t have had time to hold myself guilty anyway, because the whole show was clearly headed down the drain from its first night on the air.

Tony Wilson was brilliant. Unfortunately there was no other word for him. Much loved and admired on the Manchester club scene, which he pretty well invented, he was a local hero who would have been made a national figure by television if the mass audience had been as clever and well informed as he was. But it couldn’t be; and if it had been, he wouldn’t have been remarkable. Tony Wilson’s whole persona depended on his being perceived as more brilliant than anybody else; and brilliance, like virtuosity, has only a limited appeal for the audience, which doesn’t want to admire what is beyond its imagination; it wants to admire what it already has within its imagination, but doesn’t know how to do. When it comes to words, it wants to hear recognizable opinions originally expressed. If it wanted to hear undiluted originality, it would sit at home reading Mallarmé aloud. Tony Wilson was continuously astonishing, but a viewing public that wanted continuous astonishment would have a season ticket to Chinese opera. The same stricture would later haunt 24 Hour Party People, the film based on Wilson’s memoirs. The brilliant Steve Coogan brilliantly incarnated the brilliant Wilson, and the film was a hit with an audience of the brilliant: roughly enough people to fill the first two rows of the average cinema anywhere except Manchester, where everyone turned up along with their pets. It was the least the Mancunians could do for him, because Wilson’s other mental aberration, apart from the one by which he thought that the punters would cry out with delighted recognition at quotations from W. B. Yeats, was his faith in the romantic magic of Manchester. I don’t think his faith has ever died. Not long ago we bumped into each other one night in Paris, and while we were both talking simultaneously about how much we loved the Left Bank I floated the subversive contention that there were probably very few people born in the area who felt the same way about Manchester. I don’t think he got it, and when I ventured to translate ‘I love the Bull Ring’ into French his smile definitely died. Perhaps I got the grammar wrong.

I suppose he might have seemed right about Manchester if you lived there. Off and on, I was there a lot in those years, but I always put the return half of my train ticket just behind the banknotes in my wallet, where I could find it by feel in the dark. As well as for Tony’s show — which lasted only for a short season before the network chiefs declared that they couldn’t understand even the bits they didn’t hate — I would come to Manchester to do What the Papers Say fairly regularly. A taxing format, it provided invaluable practice at getting the words in exactly the right spot, so it was no wonder that very few journalists — Richard Ingrams and Russell Davies were always a long way ahead of the pack — could get it right. I also did the odd film-clip special when someone like Alfred Hitchcock rolled over dead. But I never became a Granada stand-by. Bill Grundy had been one of those for too long. Granada’s veteran star front-man and resident drunk, Grundy had one of those faces where the bags under the eyes acquire bags under the bags, until finally you are looking at the terraced paddy fields of a Chinese hillside. Gravel-voiced and ready to quarrel even with inanimate objects, he had an indiscriminate hostility that must have cried out to be avoided even before alcohol let it loose. We only ever had one conversation. On a train trip south to London, during one of the rare periods when he had not been banned from the bar car, he approached me, teetered for a while in what looked like a summoning of strength, and fell towards me while shouting, ‘Fuck off!’ The first word occurred in front of my face and the second behind my back. Miraculously, he did not hit the floor, but swung back into the vertical position, from which he continued to fix me with a glare made incandescent by hate and blame. But he was sober on the famous day at the studios in Manchester when he hosted the Sex Pistols for their very first television show. The Sex Pistols had been dug out from under a wet rock by Tony Wilson. Grundy, along with the rest of the world, had no idea of who they were.

Grundy’s encounter with this new cultural phenomenon became instantly famous, on the assumption that an uptight tradition had come face to face with a new anarchy. The fact that Grundy, in his lifetime, had done far more damage to his body with chemicals than even Sid Vicious would achieve before his early death was not apparent on screen, where Grundy continued to look like a model of established poise even as the Sex Pistols demonstrated their prototype version of the collective psychosis which, while it may well have given a salutary jolt to popular music, also did so much to make Britain a nastier, uglier, and more unsettling place. All I can add now is that their behaviour on screen was nothing to what they got up to backstage. The little shits were genuine, you could say that for them: they weren’t putting it on. Cooling my heels while waiting for a gig of my own, I was in the green room before they went on. I was there while they were digesting the information that Lord Bernstein would not let them on the air unless their girl mascot discarded her swastika armband.

Though it was obvious that the boys had little idea of who the Nazis had been, and equally obvious that the girl had no ideas at all about anything, nevertheless there could be no doubt that the whole bunch fully understood the moral choice before them. Either they must accede to this irrational demand from the ruling toff or else they must forgo their television appearance. As rebels, they resented the coercion. But as professional rebels, they wanted the telly exposure. A band of revolutionaries who blamed the authorities for their own compromises (they were exactly like the previous generation of dissenting young thinkers in that respect) they had, in their anger at being forced to submit, no way of reasserting themselves except to attack something. Luckily they must have decided that I was even less interesting than the furniture. So they attacked themselves. The one calling himself Johnny Rotten snarled at one of his lieutenants — I think it was Ken Putrid — and informed him that he was a wanker and a tosser. Ken Putrid told the girl Nazi that she was a slag and a cow. Sid Vicious spat vengefully into the biscuit bowl. They jabbed their bunched knuckles towards each other’s mouths, head-butted the air between them, lashed out in all directions with improbably large boots. ‘What are you looking at?’ Sid Vicious asked me, his lips flecked with foam. It was the first time I had ever heard this deliberately terrifying question, and I didn’t have an answer ready. (The only advisable course of action, I have since found, is never to have an answer ready. Replies such as ‘I thought I was looking at the model for Michelangelo’s David, but it turns out that I was mistaken’ are not to be recommended.) The volume of their acrimony was ear-splitting, the monotonous filth of their language soul-destroying, the intensity of their randomized galvanic aggression all the more unnerving because they directed it at themselves. But they all went slouching into the studio when their moment came. And later on I was told that they had merely been discussing the matter. Apparently they were always like that. Well, at least they had each other.