Books: North Face of Soho — 17. Nice Bike, Captain Starlight |
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North Face of Soho — 17. Nice Bike, Captain Starlight


You will have noticed, during the preceding book, that I was more than once jolted by harsh reality into the feeling that I had not yet achieved anything substantial. But that doesn’t mean I skimped what I previously did. I have done my best to give this book a beginning, middle, and end, and now here are a few paragraphs by way of a coda. Clearly another volume will be necessary: more than half my working life was still ahead of me, and it would turn out to be full of stories about the stars, whom I met in great profusion, and not always when they were at their best. If I can’t keep the reader interested while I tell stories like those, I won’t need anyone else to turn me off at the wall: I’ll pull the plugs myself. But the previous chapters contain the story that matters most about the author. These were the years in which I really learned my stuff. Later on I just got a bit better at avoiding the big mistakes. But, as I have tried to show, without those big mistakes I would never have learned anything in the first place. The graph of your increasing profit from your own errors is the only authentic measure of progress.

Everything else is just time passing on the way to death, which has since overtaken quite a lot of people mentioned in this book. Some of them I met only briefly: Lord Bernstein, Lew Grade, Maurice Richardson, Edward Crankshaw, John Weightman, Richard Boston, Bill Grundy, Noele Gordon, Johnny Mercer, William Shawn, Burt Lancaster, Robert Mitchum, Peter Sellers, Richard Burton. Some I worked beside long enough to know their character, and almost always to be grateful for it: Russell Harty, Ken Tynan, Donald Pleasence, Barry Took, Willy Donaldson, Richard Findlater, Helen Dawson, Charles Monteith, John Wells, William Rushton, Viv Stanshall, Spike Milligan. Others were close to my heart: Jonathan James-Moore, Alan Sizer, Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin, Terry Kilmartin, Ian Hamilton, Amanda Radice, Mark Boxer, Terence Donovan. In all categories and in every case, I was surprised that any of them should leave without my permission, but I rarely railed at fate. Although I was so annoyed with Donovan that I boycotted his funeral, I still thought that he had had a fair spin. Unless they die young, I hardly notice. Probably I just got too used, too early on, to the idea that living a reasonable span was a luxury, and that the thing to do, as Montaigne once insisted, was to live every day as if you would die tomorrow. I grew up with the Grim Reaper as a house guest. Every night he sat down with us to dinner in the glassed-in back veranda, the stave of his scythe bumping against the plasterboard ceiling. He stank a bit, but he was part of the furniture. I felt old when I was young, and feel young now I am old. I have never had a very well-developed sense of chronology. I just know that the dice roll and the river flows. I didn’t know, while the period recorded in this book was going by, that some of the best things in it were already on their way out, never to return.

In Fleet Street, the age of hot metal was coming to an end. I loved the old technology, but there was never any doubt that the new technology would take over, although it took a futurologist to predict that a newspaper office, of all places, would become as silent as an aquarium. Since the spanking new equipment was not only a lot quieter than the clattering junk it superseded but also much lighter and far less demanding of total space, here was a neat example of how an economy, as it expands, actually gets smaller. When the print unions tried to keep the change under their control, Rupert Murdoch saw his chance. He broke the unions and saved the diversity of the newspaper business. If he hadn’t done so, London would now be essentially a one-paper town, like New York. But when he broke the unions he broke Fleet Street as well. Freed from their shackles to the obsolete investment in the Linotype machines and the heavy presses, the newspapers took their offices wherever the rent was cheap, and within a year Fleet Street was no longer a real place. By now it is just a memory.

Roughly the same thing happened to my other great romance, the Modish London Literary World. The hard-core personnel of the Friday lunch became first busy, then successful, then celebrated, then world famous. Just as the venue had moved uptown from Mother Bunch’s to the Bursa Kebab House, it moved upmarket from the Kebab House to Bertorelli’s in Charlotte Street, and finally it moved from Bertorelli’s into limbo, and from there into legend. Like a star that grows more brilliant in its dying days, the Friday lunch had gone nova. Some of the remnants still get together once a year, to make promises, never fulfilled, about meeting more often. But it should be said that the centrifugal forces that eventually pulled the thing apart had nothing to do with ill will. It was lack of spare time that did the trick. Quarrels were always repaired, and still are. The intelligent and the talented always look like a mafia for the simple reason that they value each other’s friendship. That was the point that the bunch who came up next had trouble grasping. The Modern Review crew thought that our lot had smoothed the way for each other. It was never true. We cared too much about our own integrity, and I, for one, could always count on receiving my fiercest criticism from among my friends. (After he read a serialized instalment of my royal epic, Christopher Hitchens was actually being quite restrained when he said, ‘You don’t really believe all this shit, do you?’) In time, the new guard learned that the only road to the top was the one on which the goods are delivered. We could have told them, but they weren’t listening. Youth rarely does listen, although the most gifted among the young are invariably those who have the capacity to take a lesson in when it hits them over the head. I suppose this book is meant to prove that I was once like that. I must have had something, or why would I have so often been brought whimpering to my knees?

There is a false equation there, of course. Not everyone who gets knocked out comes back, and some who fail deserve to. But for those who learn in the hardest way that they are not cut out to do the thing they love, there is always the opportunity to do it some service. And for those who can do the thing they love, but who encounter a disheartening setback, there is the chance to rediscover the solid discipline that should always underlie bravura, and which is sometimes eroded by the photon stream of the spotlight. Success can weaken anyone if it goes too long uninterrupted. The muscles go, like an astronaut’s in space. The experienced practitioner knows this, and gets more interested in both himself and his craft when the going gets rough. A big crash is just a concentrated version of what is happening all the time as he learns his business. He learns by falling short, and finding out why. Anyone who can write can write better. But he can do so only if he realizes his mistakes. The most common and most destructive mistake is to neglect the simple for the sake of the spectacular. Some of my favourite works of art are stunning for the wealth of their technique. In the garden of the Nymphenburg Palace, the dwarf architect Cuvilliés built a little pavilion called the Amalienburg that is almost too beautiful to look at even in the detail of its decoration, and in its totality almost makes you believe in the inherent virtue of the human race. But the first thing it was designed to do was to keep out the rain. When the writer is licking his wounds after a public disaster, he has been given time to remember what he was put on earth to do. He might one day make history and might even make a million pounds, but the first thing he must do is make sense. Sometimes it helps to write nothing at all for a while, rather than even one more sentence that tries too hard to impress. Let the field lie fallow. After my defeat in the West End, I drifted around the house in Cambridge looking exactly like a zombie. For a while my dead eyes saved me from being asked to carry heavy objects upstairs: what wife wants her new chest of drawers covered with scraps of decaying flesh? But somewhere in the throbbing haematoma that had once been my brain, calculations were being made. It was at this time that I had the first glimmer of the plan, finally carried out twenty years later, to include my own enthusiasm among potential threats to the family finances, and to build in a protection barrier so that I could not get at my own money when hit with yet another idea that would duplicate the effects of the Italian Renaissance while helping to save the baby seals in the rain forest. This train of thought had the merit of putting the family first: a reliable way of getting the emphasis away from myself, and thus partly nullifying the characteristic that had got me into trouble in the first place. People who dress up as Superman don’t always jump off buildings under the impression that they can fly, but the costume and the air of superiority are powerful hints that they might. The advantage of having a couple of children scooting around the place is the reminder they offer that you used to be one of them. You used to be a lot closer to your instinct. Whatever creativity you might have developed since, your instinct was where it came from.

The little people in the pixie caps were big enough to have bicycles by that stage. The bikes were second hand and needed a coat of paint. I did the painting. I gave each bike a basic colour — one shade of red for the larger and another shade for the smaller — and then started to embellish this basic coat with little painted stars of silver and gold. There were four-pointed stars, six-pointed stars, and the very rare eight-pointed stars with the peripheral dots. I couldn’t stop adding stars until each bike was a candy constellation prettier than a wizard’s wagon and the owner was crying with impatience to get on it and ride away. But the owners brought their friends home with more bikes for me to paint. As I kept painting compulsively onward, frosting the spokes with silver and making the seat-post a barber’s pole for leprechauns, the anguish of defeat melted. A wrecked project can hurt worse than heartbreak, so it is no wonder that some people give up altogether, even though their talents would have merited another chance. Noel Coward was right when he said that the secret of success is the capacity to survive failure. The failure can hurt so much. But unlike heartbreak, which really is a dead loss, failure has a function. It asks you whether you really want to go on making things. And I wanted to go on making beautiful bicycles. Finally I had made enough of them, and knew it from the moment when, applying silver dots to the perimeter of an eight-pointed gold star, I found myself thinking: I’ll write about this one day.