Books: North Face of Soho — 16. Beyond the Attack of the Killer Bees |
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North Face of Soho — 16. Beyond the Attack of the Killer Bees


I burned it writing my autobiography. In Cambridge I would sit in the Copper Kettle, writing down my memories of being a failure at high-school mathematics while Stephen Hawking hummed past outside with equations for the birth of the universe spinning in his head. In the Barbican I would sit in the sill-free window and conjure the kookaburras of childhood while ducks came in to land on the lake for the next round of their world crapping championship. It would have been slower work if I had delved deeper into my psychological condition, but a cautionary instinct, which might well have been part of the condition, kept me safely on the surface. Nevertheless I could spot the occasional stain of grief soaking through. Quickly I would cover it with the moon-dust of tall stories, some of which I had been telling for years. Veterans of the Footlights club room or the Kebab House literary lunch would have been able to recite some of them along with me. It was not the first outing for my routines about Australia’s deadly snakes and spiders. But it was the first time they had been put to paper, and it was soon clear to me that the structure of the narrative had benefited from long rehearsal. There was an episode about billycarts which had once actually been written down, when I was doing my year as a junior literary editor on the Sydney Morning Herald in the late 1950s. On that first flight, the episode had been called ‘They Fell Among Flowers’. This time it was incorporated seamlessly into a larger narrative, but there could be no doubt that the hurtling, booming, disastrously crashing billycarts had set the tone for the book long before the book occurred.

The book was an animated cartoon. Although I liked to think that the story being told was roughly in line with the emotional facts — all the confessions about awkwardness and inadequacy were untrue only in the sense of being understated — it couldn’t be denied that some of the details sounded a bit exaggerated. As when I spoke, these embellishments, when I was writing, tended to arrive out of the blue. Suddenly they were there, and too good to leave out. The secret (as always, it was a matter of tone control) was to trim and time the extravagance of an embellishment so that it would be congruent to its setting, lest the readers withdraw their consent to being had. But being had they unquestionably were. It seemed best to come clean that I knew this was happening. So I called the book Unreliable Memoirs. Since this initiative was tantamount to calling my own sworn testimony a pack of lies, there was no automatic professional acceptance for the finished manuscript. Pat Kavanagh, still wary about the idea of someone who had done nothing writing a book about how he had prepared himself for not doing it, now had another reason for suggesting that I shelve the manuscript for ten years. Tom Maschler ominously assured me that the small print run he had envisaged could be made smaller yet: five thousand copies should be plenty. But I noticed that they had both laughed, even against their better judgement. There is no more precious laughter than that, and even today I am still out to write the kind of book I most like to read: the book I despise myself for being unable to stop reading.

So I wasn’t completely devastated, only almost, when Penelope Mortimer jumped the gun by about a month and posted an early review denouncing Unreliable Memoirs as a crime against humanity. She didn’t precisely dance on my grave, but she did march up and down on it while declaring herself insulted by my self-proclaimed satisfaction at excusing conscious falsehood with would-be drollery. The insult, apparently, was not to her alone, but to all serious writers. It was an insult to literature itself. Whether literature itself was an activity that Penelope Mortimer could plausibly be thought of as representing was open to question. (As an admirer of her novel The Pumpkin Eater I rather thought she could.) But the month that followed would have felt like a year if the unofficial buzz had not been building up. The publicity lovelies at Cape told me that the pre-production copies had all been stolen instantly. Apparently this was a good sign. Then the broadsheet reviews started to come out, and most of the reviewers quoted so much of my stuff that there was scarcely room for theirs: an even better sign. John Carey, who had once buried The Metropolitan Critic, hailed Unreliable Memoirs as the written equivalent of sliced bread. Instantly I revised my opinion of his critical prowess upwards. To my delight — for once I managed to enjoy the moment — the book went straight into the bestseller list and took only three weeks to reach the top spot. But what kept it there for months on end was undoubtedly a guest appearance on Parkinson.

Parky, at whose expense I had made far too many unreasonable remarks in my TV column when I was starting off, would have had ample reason, after I sat down opposite him on the set, to pull the lever that dropped me through the trapdoor to the waiting crocodiles. But he took Chinese revenge. He told me, and the watching millions, that my book had made him laugh. He said he particularly liked the episode about the dunnyman. Visited by my guardian angel, I suddenly acquired the sense not just to agree that it was a nifty stretch of writing but also to quote a few bits from memory, climaxing the act with the bit about the dunnyman tripping over my bicycle and engulfing himself with the contents of the full pan. In the studio audience, the ladies in the knitted hats had the choice between dying of shock or howling in approbation. They did the latter, and out there, in millions of living rooms I couldn’t see, other people were doing the same. I could hear them. They made my feet vibrate. On television, a successful gag doesn’t just click, it thumps. From that moment, I was made. In future years, the irony did not escape me that the delicate little boat of my literary fortunes had been launched on a wave of liquid shit.

The commercial success of Unreliable Memoirs ensured that those future years could never become financially desperate, although it was never true that I could have lived on the royalties of that book alone, or of all my books put together. You have to sell on the scale of Jeffrey Archer or J. K. Rowling to get rich as a writer. I try not to tell journalists what Unreliable Memoirs sold because they would be unimpressed by the figure. People assume that any book they have heard of sells a million. In cold fact, it is a lucky book that sells a thousand, and I know of one literary memoir — in my review of it I called it a classic, and still think I was right — that sold fifteen copies. Unreliable Memoirs did eventually sell a million copies, but it took about twenty years to do so. The nice thing is that it is still going, as if it doesn’t know how to switch itself off: it’s like a broken washing machine that goes on with its spin cycle until the house falls down. Why it should have attained such longevity is a nice question. My own guess is that the British readers simply like to hear stories about a warm country, but the book is a steady seller in Australia too, where evocations of sunlight are like coal to Newcastle. Perhaps I succeeded in one of the things I consciously tried to do: evoke what it was like to be young in the free countries after World War II, when all the adults could still remember their lesson in the value of liberty. It was a story of simplicity, and as time goes by there is nostalgia for that simplicity, so the hankering for a clear account of it doesn’t fade. Counting the initial hardbacks along with the later paperbacks, there have been about a hundred printings so far, but that word ‘printing’ is the tip-off. All those books were never anywhere all at once, not even at the warehouse. Supplies get renewed according to demand, and over time the figure alters upward to denote a quantity that nobody has ever actually seen. You can just count yourself lucky that the number advances. It would have advanced more quickly if Sonny Mehta, who was chief editor at Pan Macmillan’s highbrow label Picador when the Cape hardback took off, had not persuaded me that the paperback should be in the Picador ‘B’ format rather than the Pan pocket-book size. A pocket-book would go on the rack and sell faster. A Picador would go in the spinner and sell more slowly; but it would, he assured me, sell forever. So far he has been right. The number continues to advance. Sometimes I visualize it going in the other direction as people start to hand their books back. They can, if they wish, but I can’t return the money. It all got spent. Only in television did I make enough to keep something. I suppose I could have gone on with regular journalism and kept raising my price, but there might have been a limit to what the market would stand, and would certainly have been a limit to my satisfaction. Much as I respected journalism as a form, I was starting to fancy myself as an Author. Not even I, however, was conceited enough to believe that I could always expect a hit. After all, I hadn’t expected this one.

On the television front, the prospects were now looking good enough to raise the question of whether I could plausibly continue to be a TV critic much longer, lest I be faced with the awkward likelihood of having to review my own programmes. For LWT, Barry Cox asked me to write and present a documentary about Sydney. I didn’t do my part of it all that well. There was a lot of clunky walking around my childhood haunts while I droned on about the past. A sequence set in Luna Park had me pointing out that it was a funfair while the camera was showing it to be a funfair. I said that it was falling apart while the camera closed in to show that it was falling apart. But I quickly saw that I could have done better if I had talked about something else while the pictures were talking about themselves. Unfortunately Barry, when we got back to London with the footage, made the mistake of telling me that he thought me hopeless when talking to camera. I thought I was just bad, which is not quite the same thing. Another LWT executive producer, Richard Drewett, thought I was even worse than Barry said. But Drewett also thought that ways could be found to ensure that I would improve. I should hasten to say that Barry had probably taken the more responsible view. It is an expensive business, pouring in the resources while someone improves on air: a company can bankrupt itself while it waits for a few new presenters to come good. But Drewett was running an outfit called Special Programmes that was actually briefed to do the irresponsible thing. He had been given the job because he was a miracle man with the practicalities and a reliable inventor of high-yield formats: the first Parkinson series and the Audience With specials had both been his idea. If the unpredictable was required, he was the man to call on. A racing-car nut who had been put out of competition by a smashed foot, Drewett now slaked his craving for danger by building programmes around me. I sometimes had to be hosed out of the studio when things went sideways, but he got me into the salutary habit of sitting down with him after the programme and analysing exactly what had gone right or wrong. For quite a while the wrong outweighed the right. A meticulous producer called Nick Barratt was assigned to me for a short series of little clip-shows about television. I almost drove him nuts with my new and purely nervous habit of stopping dead in rehearsal when I fluffed a word. I chewed up time as if I was paying for it myself. In my defence I can say that the set might have been designed to make me as nervous as a trainee human cannonball. I had an egg-cup plastic chair into which I fitted like Humpty Dumpty, an impression added to by my excessive weight and the new, tailored three-piece suit that had been chosen to suit the set rather than my figure. But the show got better despite these drawbacks, and there was talk of a future one-hour version of the format, perhaps to be called Clive James on Television. I liked the sound of that.

Even in its short version, though, the show about television did something to offset the debacle of a series called A Question of Sex, which I fronted with Anna Raeburn, Fleet Street’s all-time most-presentable agony aunt. The two of us sat around — or, even worse, stood around, or, even worse than that, walked around — pontificating about the differences between the sexes, as established by various scientists, some of whom came walking on in white coats, threading their way along complicated paths between large styrofoam models of chromosomes marked X and Y. Various animals were wheeled on in cages, supposedly to demonstrate their different approaches, according to gender, to such tasks as ramming their heads against a rubber button in order to earn the peanut. Unfortunately some of the animals were apes and the only task they had in mind was screwing each other. Denied the opportunity to do this, they retired to the back corners of their cages and would not come forward even when threatened. Anna and I coped stoically, I thought, especially when compared with the senior executive, whose name I have finally succeeded in forgetting after years of hypnosis. He went berserk, shouting into the floor manager’s earphones and finally appearing in the studio so that he could shout at everybody. He did everything that the apes were supposed to do when excited. Finally the studio crew declined to go on. Since the apes had decided the same thing already, there was nothing left to do except wrap up the episode. Eventually, after much editing, a truncated version of the series got to air, where it was universally ignored. But I actually learned a lot from it. Apart from gaining confirmation for the basic principle of never working with a senior executive who has a more volatile artistic temperament than you, I started getting the measure of how to be an asset on studio day, rather than a liability. The show had a studio audience, and during the frequent pauses while the apes were being unsuccessfully persuaded out of their corners, or the scientists were being taught to walk and talk simultaneously without knocking the chromosomes over, or the senior executive was being put under sedation, I had an opportunity, indeed an obligation, to keep the people in the bleachers happy. In the course of time I got good enough at doing it to dispense with the services of a warm-up man. Although I hadn’t formulated it as a rule yet, here was an example of the importance of turning a disaster into a training ground. It’s only a variation of the Czech philosopher Martina Navratilova’s great central maxim that applies to all creative activities and not just to her own sport: What matters is not how well you play when you’re playing well, it’s how well you play when you’re playing badly. With those early shows for LWT, I got my average up.

The television shows were only in an embryo stage but they had the useful effect of getting me away from the Observer often enough so that I didn’t get bored with what was becoming, after ten years, a predictable weekly task. Perhaps the effect was deleterious: with fewer distractions I might have faced facts sooner. As things were, the nimbus granted me by Unreliable Memoirs made it easier to follow up any prospect that took my fancy, thus conferring a feeling of invulnerability which was potentially dangerous, had I but known it. Exactly the same feeling led Napoleon to invade Russia. He was pursuing one of his own sound principles — the army that never leaves its defences is bound to be defeated — but he pursued it too far. I was still well short of doing anything conspicuously crazy, but the descent to hell is easy. Not that it felt like hell when I teamed up with David Bailey to produce a series of illustrated profiles for Ritz magazine. Ritz proved to be short lived, partly because its owner and editor was a Willy Donaldson type who was always moving on, and who is now probably somewhere in the Andes, running an export agency for condor eggs. But the magazine’s quick demise was a pity, because it was the most convincing British example ever of a glossy magazine on newsprint — a form that otherwise only the French have ever mastered. Newsprint makes female glamour look more human and therefore, to my mind, even more glamorous. Bailey understood that — he is a very sharp character, behind his thuggish persona — and did some of his best photo shoots. One of them was of the young Meryl Streep, then in the early stage of her career.

Having spotted her on her way up and persuaded her to sit for her portrait, I ushered her into Bailey’s house in Chalk Farm and he asked, well within her hearing, ‘Ooze iss?’ Usually he could be depended on to be kidding when he said stuff like that but this time he wasn’t. Luckily she loved the idea of posing for someone who had never heard of her. The following week she received me for lunch at Claridge’s so that she could fulfil the written part of the portrait. For any actress, no matter how intelligent — and they don’t come any smarter than Meryl Streep — the pictures are always more important than the words. The last thing any actress needs is some hack speculating about her inner life. But this actress couldn’t have been more gracious. Highly literate as well as funny, she talked easily of modern English and Irish poets as well as of American ones. Well aware that I was dippy about her, she told lots of stories about her wonderful husband after she had ordered the sole, asking for it to be boned. Forever green about the finer points of life, I thought ‘boned’ meant with the bones left in, so I neglected to ask for the same thing, because I wanted them taken out. Still determined to play an indispensable part in the life of this angelically lovely and lyrically gifted person, I began an anecdote designed to illustrate my poetically sensitive nature, an aesthetic responsiveness enhanced, rather than injured, by my easy familiarity with the literary world. By then I had discovered the bones in the sole, but I was operating on the assumption that I would be able to tease out enough of the flesh between them to provide a few bone-free mouthfuls so that I could talk safely while I ate. ‘And then,’ I said, ‘Lowell hauled this enormous manuscript out of his pocket and began to ark! Ark! Ngggh!’ A trident of needle-hard small bones had gone vertically into my palate. I had to reach in and pull them out individually. The next twenty minutes were agony until she insisted that I order something else and quit trying to be suave. I liked the way she did that.

I liked her too much, of course. As ever, the combination of beauty and talent reduced me to an idiot. Bailey, who was surrounded by celestially lovely women at all times, used to get a big bang out of seeing me bite the back of my hand. One evening I walked into Langan’s Brasserie for a business dinner and without warning I was confronted by the spectacle of Bailey lolling on a velvet banquette with Catherine Deneuve on one side of him and Marie Helvin on the other. It was such an assault on elementary justice that I closed my eyes with the pain. When I opened them again, Bailey was laughing his head off, a rusticated cherub with a bad shave. But it was another cockney photographer, Terence Donovan, who dug deeper into my psychology. Donovan was physically very big: six feet plus of judo-trained muscle packed into a Dougie Hayward grey suit, he made his drop-head dark-blue Rolls-Royce Corniche look like a pedal car. It was his delight to take me for rides around London while he wised me up on the realities of life in the spotlight. ‘Them upmarket birds are going to go on doing your head in,’ he announced, ‘until you realize that they’re just human. I mean, they do a poo every morning, don’t they? What you need is Paris.’ Donovan, a married man himself, was by no means impervious to the allure of a bright female. Not all of the models were dumb. There were several famous ones who were as bright as he was, and Donovan, though he had quit school early, was fully as clever as Bailey. But Donovan clearly had life in perspective, otherwise he would have turned into King Kong’s dangerous younger brother the first time he saw Tatiana Patitz with her clothes off. So I respected his opinion.

Donovan had directed a movie in Japan that had crashed in flames. Now he was eager to get started again by directing a television documentary. Drewett thought it would be a good idea if I should make a programme about the Paris cat-walk shows, because the material would be so attractive that I could spend most of my time in voice over, with no need of the dreaded ‘piece to camera’, a clumsy technique that he and I were agreed should be avoided by anyone, let alone me. Drewett took a punt when he assigned me to the job, but he took an even bigger punt when he hired Donovan to direct. Donovan had the entrée into the Paris fashion world, but he was easily bored, which is a dangerous characteristic in a film director, because there is a lot of humdrum detail that can’t be skimped. For the Clive James Paris Fashion Show, the first mainstream television programme ever devoted to the subject, Donovan invented a new kind of shot by which the camera was positioned at the end of the catwalk and the models were filmed walking towards a long lens. A long lens slows things down, so the models appear to float. The shot later became a staple and is now seen in every film or TV show about the catwalk ever made anywhere in the world, but I was there on the day Donovan thought of it. He was that original. Unfortunately he was also very impatient, and didn’t want to do the standard bread-and-butter shots of me arriving at the shows and leaving, or ringing the doorbell of Sonya Rykiel’s apartment and walking away afterwards, or, as he put it, ‘any of that’. In other words, he was out to make a film that couldn’t be edited. I was still too green to realize the importance of what Donovan was leaving out. But when Drewett heard about it he was on the next plane to Paris, where he revealed an unsuspected but impressive command of French. He needed only English, however, to tell Donovan what was what. I saw straight away that Drewett could do what I couldn’t. His hands were trembling; he didn’t actually enjoy speaking uncomfortable truths; but he did it. I decided right then that he was the man for me, and I hope it is not giving too much away if I say that he was the executive producer on every television programme I did for the next twenty years.

Donovan took his knackering well. He grumbled a bit but he got on with the business of doubling back to secure the dull stuff we couldn’t do without. And he was still unbeatable on the exciting stuff: the backstage sequence at the Lagerfeld show (now a legend in the television industry, because it was never allowed to happen again) was made possible by Donovan’s physical strength. He held off the security men while I sat there being filmed as the models went skidding by half naked. But Donovan still never managed to get a clapperboard on anything, so the van-load of unsynchronized film and audio tape that we sent back to London took about a year to sort out, leading directly to a senior editor’s death from a heart attack. I persisted, however, in thinking of Donovan as the model of sanity and good will. A few quirks aside, he walked and talked as if he had the secret of happiness. The day would come when he would take his own life, and I still can’t believe he did it. Dear man, he was so funny: one of the funniest talkers I have ever heard. And like all genuinely funny people, he was funny because he was perceptive. He had seen the look of longing in my eyes and he was right about the cure. In Paris I was bombarded by so much beauty that I finally learned to listen. Gradually it became apparent, from the flow of prattle, that a young woman of heavenly appearance was not necessarily Mary Cassatt or Berthe Morrisot just because she could paint her nails successfully. The great beauties are certainly works of art, but that doesn’t make them artists. The lovelier the woman, the less likely it is that she created herself: the genius belongs to nature, not to her. But it was still very satisfying when Donovan and I, taking a casual break for lunch between the chaos at Yves Saint Laurent and the riot at Thierry Mugler, strolled into the Coupole and sat down at the best table in the place: satisfactory because we had walked in arm in arm with Marie Helvin and Jerry Hall. There were a couple of British male gossip columnists at the next table and I saw one of them die. His body still ate, drank, talked, and eventually walked, but his soul was gone. I knew just how he felt, but I was over it. Well, almost.

While the Paris programme was in its long agony of being made ready for editing, I had so much going on that I might have forgotten it existed. But when all the miles of film and tape were finally synched up, a process began that I couldn’t, once I had tasted it, get enough of. Richard encouraged my presence in the editing room, which was still no more advanced than the one I had grown familiar with in my days at Granada. Younger readers will find it hard to realize that the footage could not be digitized and edited electronically. All the film and sound still had to be cut and spliced physically. But this time it wasn’t bits and pieces of a Hollywood movie: it was our movie, in its raw form. With alternative takes for almost every shot, there was an infinity of choice at war with a paucity of means. So it took hours in the editing room to put even the shortest sequence together. ‘If we can get that shot of me shambling down the boulevard to echo that shot of Jerry swaying down the catwalk at the Kenzo show, the audience might like the contrast.’ ‘Then we’ll have to get out of her shot a few frames earlier, before she starts to turn.’ Today, you could try the effect in thirty seconds. Then, you had to place the order and come back tomorrow. But when every tweak took so long to do, it had to be thought about hard. It was like the difference between handwriting and a word processor: there was more initial resistance from the medium, so you had to be definite. I got a lot of free tuition in the business of choosing which frame of film should go where and when. Thus I knew every foot of the rough cut when the time came to record the first draft of a commentary. It was a long, intricate, and enthralling business and it should have kept me sufficiently busy. Perhaps fatefully, however, there was enough time left over for another project.

The news media had been banging on for a year about the pending royal marriage. Most of the coverage was absurd but I was sufficiently in favour of constitutional monarchy as a political institution to contemplate a fourth mock epic, which would express, I hoped lightly, my views on the subject, while exploiting the comic potential as people lined up to bow, scrape, cluck and sniff. Still far too fond of giving my mock epics alliterative titles, I called the project Charles Charming’s Challenges on the Pathway to the Throne. I had, of course, no idea that the marriage itself would be one of the challenges. The piece seemed harmless enough as it grew, but it rapidly began growing too fast, like a pet baby crocodile. With illustrations once again by Mark Boxer, the poem became a newspaper serial, a book in Britain, a book in America, and then — the step into the unknown — a West End stage show. If the show had been on the small scale of the Pygge and Prykke pantomimes, danger might have been averted. Though radical acquaintances such as Christopher Hitchens would have given me the bird, the bird would have flown inside a charmed circle. But a team of impresarios moved in, and several backers, among them the erratically generous Naim Attalah, put up the money for a month’s run in a proper Shaftesbury Avenue theatre. The West End! Here was something to write home about. When I did write home about it, I assured my mother that her little boy still had his head screwed on. I had, but if I had shaken it I might have heard a rattle where the screw was working loose.

Once again, I was the narrator, and Dai kindly stepped forward to play all the male parts including the Prince of Wales, for which role he developed a tone so strangled that he put his vocal cords in jeopardy: he would practise whole speeches with his teeth locked together, the words emerging only from his sinuses. So far, so normal. The innovation lay in asking Pamela Stephenson to join the cast. Pamela had become famous for the improbable combination of elfin prettiness and comic skill she brought to the BBC TV show Not the Nine O’Clock News. She liked my script, and from the minute she came on stage at the first dress rehearsal in her Bruce Oldfield silver dress, everyone involved on the finance side liked her. It was one huge love affair all round right into the previews, which were smash hits. The audience howled and raved every night. I started regretting not having invested a few grand. Say, ten. Maybe twenty? I gave cocky interviews, in which I counted chickens by the squadron. Australian correspondents interviewed me in my black tie on the afternoon of opening night. Television cameras, after they had finished circling around Pamela like sharks, waited for me down corridors. Out in the street, they pointed their lenses upwards to capture my name. It was up there on the front of the theatre: my name in lights.

Well, you guessed it, but you can’t possibly guess the details. As Count Ugolino tells Dante in the Divine Comedy, yes, my death was terrible, but let me tell you how terrible it was. The preview audiences had been a cross-section of the general public, and their manifest delight had led me to believe that the press-night audience would react in the same way. But the press-night audience was a cross-section of the press, plus a cross-section of the backers’ families and friends. Naim Attalah, in particular, seemed to know almost nobody except platoons of well-bred English young ladies who said ‘Oh, really?’ as a sign of enthusiasm. The relatives of other backers seemed to consist mainly of people whose command of English had been only recently acquired. From the moment we started to recite, you could hear a discreet rattle of knuckles cracking from the number of people sitting on their hands. Lines that had earned a gale of laughter on the preview nights now were lucky to get a titter. The first time that I paused for a laugh that didn’t come, a violent attack of flop sweat came instead. Under my jacket, the sides of my white shirt were suddenly soaked, and by the end of the first half even my shoes were full of water. During the interval I needed a complete change of kit, and I was already thinking that I might need a complete change of address, not to mention of personality. How had I got myself into this, and other people along with me? It wasn’t as if I hadn’t learned this lesson long ago. But I had lulled myself into forgetting it, and now, suddenly, there was an even harder lesson to be learned. Pamela and Dai taught it to me. They gave me a lesson in keeping my nerve, and on the whole we got through the evening with a show of confidence. Indeed I thought we had done better than get away with it. There was solid applause at the end, and people ‘came around’ afterwards to say they thought it was something new under the sun. Rowan Atkinson said that he had been roped in by the impresarios and hadn’t expected to enjoy it at all, but he really had. Alas, none of these people were writing the reviews. The press were writing them instead, and the press killed me. The worst review came from James Fenton, who said it was the most embarrassing evening he had ever spent in his life. What made it the worst review was that it was also the best written. I tried to believe that I would have put it more kindly had I been reviewing him, but I had signed up to take my chances in a theatrical event, not group therapy.

The press decided the matter. The word of mouth from the previews was good enough to keep the thing going, but from the second night the audiences started getting smaller. It was a big theatre, so if you had watched a speeded-up film of the auditorium from night to night you would have seen an increasing emptiness seeping down from the gallery to the back of the stalls, and then rolling forward until finally, on the last few nights, only a few of the front rows were occupied. Every night of the run my two brave cast members, when they took up their beginners’ positions, would find me looking through the peephole in the front curtain as I counted the house like the quartermaster at Rorke’s Drift counting cartridges. To keep the thing running for the promised number of nights, I had started putting my own money into it, chasing bad money with good in the full knowledge I was doing so — and in the full knowledge, also, that the money belonged to my family. Dai was uncomplaining as always, and Pamela was saintly. At the shining start of her career, the last thing she needed was to be imprisoned in a flop. But she went on every night and gave me a continuous lesson in how to lavish everything you have on the people who attend, and to forget those who don’t. After all, the fewer tickets you sell, the smaller the number of people who know or care that anything has gone wrong. Among those who did attend were some very intelligent people who told me afterwards, either personally or by letter, that they thought the venture original. These paragons, however, were just a few voices in a mighty show of indifference.

The catastrophe would have been complete if it had not also been the making of me. Had it happened sooner in my life, I would almost certainly have cut and run. But I stayed with it, all the way to the end, even though I accepted quite quickly that the critics had been right. Mark Boxer had warned me even during the triumphant previews that the show was too big to be attractively small but too small to be big: for a ticket costing that much, the West End audience wants to see something that fills the stage. Words alone, no matter how cleverly written, won’t do the business. Those critics who had found my political opinions absurd I still thought narrow-minded, but their objections would have been only incidental if I had swept them off their feet. I hadn’t done so, and now I was off my own feet — flat on my back, in fact. I retired to Cambridge and made myself useful around the house: always a tacit confession that I was severely wounded. Those in residence did their best not to look accusingly at the man who had robbed them.

Luckily I had other irons in the fire. By their combined glow I could dimly see the way ahead. When the Paris Fashion Show went to air, it was watched by an audience that would have packed my West End theatre every night of the week for fifty years. Drewett said we could do a lot more stuff like that, but it would be a full-time job. William Shawn wrote asking me to review Robert Hughes’s new book The Fatal Shore for the New Yorker. If I myself need convincing — and for a while I did — here was evidence that there were things I knew how to do. Surely people would not be asking me to do these splendid things if I really was as incompetent as I felt. Even more encouraging, for the long run, was the growing evidence that there were things I knew how to avoid. The impresario Michael White wanted me to write a screenplay based on Unreliable Memoirs. I said I would if I could direct the film. Such a degree of hubris was not unfamiliar to him, but he agreed, and there was a token fee of five thousand pounds to seal the deal. Educated by my West End fiasco, however, I thought again about a project that I wasn’t sure I could deliver on, and I gave the money back. White told me that it was the first time anyone had given him back the money. That felt like progress.

But I still felt that the time had come for more demanding pursuits than regular journalism, even if they were less certain. Helping to cut film in the editing room had given me the taste for composition on a larger scale, in more than one dimension. My TV column had got to the point where I was feeling the lack of room when a serious subject came up. When I wrote about the much-derided American series Holocaust, and predicted — correctly, as it happened — that its soap-opera qualities might be the very element that would ensure its beneficial effect in Germany, Conor Cruise O’Brien kindly said that I should be writing that kind of thing more often. The implication was that I wasn’t writing that kind of thing often enough. Journalism had me trapped with its money. Each year Harry Evans of the Sunday Times called a meeting to make a bid for my television column. With rare acumen I always got him to stage the meeting over lunch at the Garrick Club, a notorious stock exchange for Fleet Street gossip. The news that Harry was talking to me was back in Donald Trelford’s office before we had finished our dessert. Only after that did I enter into a new salary round with the Observer’s corridor-stalkers. I could still convince myself that I was worth what they paid me, but surely the day would come when I would give short weight. My time in Fleet Street reached an unmistakable peak with a brace of Postcard essays I sent back from China. I joined the press corps for Margaret Thatcher’s visit to Beijing, where she talked with the Chinese leaders about the upcoming handover of Hong Kong. The two Postcard pieces, one written in Beijing and the other on the flight back to England from Hong Kong, were, from the technical angle, the most taxing efforts I ever pulled off as a journalist. The first one, in its entirety, I phoned back to the Observer from the Beijing post office, which had equipment with Alexander Graham Bell’s name still on it. Perhaps benefiting from the pressure, the two pieces, which collectively carried the title ‘Mrs T in China’, were the best writing I could do. I knew as I wrote them that I would never do better in the genre. On the RAF VC-10 from Kai Tak to Heathrow, I put the draft of the second piece aside for half an hour to write a little play about the tour. Mrs Thatcher and the Downing Street personnel were riding at the front of the aircraft, with the press in the zoo section at the back. The Downing Street people, the Prime Minister included, came back to watch the play. Anne Robinson, in those days still a mere journalist, played Mrs Thatcher. It was a stunning performance, although perhaps not quite as amazing as her current imitation, on The Weakest Link, of a woman nothing like as nice as her real self — and, let it be said, more than a touch younger. As Anne’s talented voice made the lines I had written swoop, howl, and whine through an authentically Thatcherite tessitura, I knew that I would always go back to the theatre, but also that I would never again forget to keep it small, like this: like a cabaret. You have to get the expectations down, not up. Then the words become a plus, a wealthy return on a cheap ticket, and nobody notices that nothing has been spent on costumes and sets. Mrs Thatcher quite enjoyed being sent up, incidentally. She was already at forty thousand feet, and anyway she never minded satire, as long as it was accompanied by abject worship and total agreement.

But the thing about the China trip that would eventually have the most drastic effect on my life was working too deep inside my soul for its implications to be considered yet. The mainland schedule had been crushing, and in Hong Kong we were granted a couple of days to recover the use of our credit cards. (‘We’re back on plastic,’ said one of the female journalists. I wish I could remember her name: she was a poet.) While the tireless Mrs Thatcher bustled around visiting military bases and reassuring the locals that the Communists would behave when they took over or else she would get her friends the Americans to drop atomic bombs on them, we of the press caught up with our real lives. It was my first time in Hong Kong, and after an hour in a foam bath at the Hilton there could be no doubt about what had to be my first destination. I caught a cab out to the Australian Military Cemetery at Sai Wan Bay and visited my father’s grave. I have visited that quiet place many times since then, and after my mother died two years ago I have even felt able to write about it, but the memory of that first visit is still clear in my mind. Down the hill between the terraces of headstones, the long lawn that tilts down to the sea, I walked to find his name and number. When I did, I fell to my knees and cried. I cried to heaven, which never listens, but has the excuse that it never causes anything either. There is only chance. I cried as I had never cried since I was very young. It was the dates that did it. Already I was ten years older than he had been when he was killed. Time to get something done.