Books: North Face of Soho — 2. Gateway to Grub Street |
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North Face of Soho — 2. Gateway to Grub Street


I was in demand for that kind of work, partly because I had established a fatal reputation for getting it done at short notice. Now that I was theoretically free to pursue a career as a journalist, Nicholas Tomalin of the New Statesman would send the kind of book my way that nobody in his right mind wanted to review. Could I do it by Tuesday? When I proved that I could, Richard Boston of New Society recognized a potentially useful candidate for reviewing another book in the same doomed category. Could I do it by Thursday? The evidence rapidly mounted that there was a new contender in town for the post that every literary editor needs to fill: the trick pony who can work like a draught-horse. In no time at all I had become a denizen of Grub Street. Naive American scholars sometimes go looking for Grub Street but it has never existed as a geographical entity. Grub Street is a collection of periodicals that deal with literature and of newspapers that have literary pages: a collection of those, and of the people who edit and write for them. Grub Street is like a small Great Rift whose favoured watering holes continually change position. In the times of Swift and Dr Johnson, the gathering places were the coffee houses. In my time, they were the pubs.

In Fleet Street, the pubs were near the newspaper offices: sometimes so near that the drinkers could feel the vibration through the pub wall when the presses started rolling. But a Grub Street pub could be anywhere. The most important one was in Soho. At the Pillars of Hercules in Greek Street, Ian Hamilton set up the drinks while he persuaded me that I was ideal not only for providing unpaid articles for his acerbic little magazine, the Review, but paid articles for the Times Literary Supplement, of which, wearing his other hat, he was the literary editor. Though the contributor would see his name on a cheque, he would not see it in print: the TLS still had its policy of anonymity in those days. The news, however, would soon get around if you could review a whole batch of new poetry books in a thousand words and make the piece more readable than most of the poetry. That part of the challenge wasn’t hard: then as now, most of the poets were writing verse only because they lacked the sense of structure to write prose. The hard part was to get it done. The work would have been easier if Hamilton had been less scrupulous. Right there in the Pillars, he would blue-pencil your copy while everybody else watched. Everybody else included his other reviewers and sometimes, hovering dangerously at the rim of the scrum, one or two of the poets whose slim collections I was presuming to hose on. Hamilton wouldn’t kill a phrase on that account — often he would show you how to sharpen it up — but he never let a slack sentence go by. It was invaluable training. I should say at this point that I was smart enough at the start to spot the difference between curatorial editing and blithering interference. Curatorial editing I could benefit from, and to some extent still need even today. My style, if such it is, works by packing stuff in, not stretching it out, and there is always a danger of trying to say too much at once. Hamilton, his own prose a model of sardonic limpidity, had an unerring eye for the slipshod simile and the overblown cadence. The final work of excision and emendation done, I would go on drinking with Hamilton and the others, buying my round along with them but getting drunk much faster. At that time, the Pillars still closed after lunch along with all the other pubs, but there was an upstairs club a few doors away where the diehards would go on soaking until the Pillars opened again for the evening. My light head and frequent visits to the toilet soon became notorious.

The light head would prove to be my salvation in the long run, but I was foolish enough to be ashamed of it then. If I didn’t exactly fall over, I certainly bounced off the walls on the way to and from the can. Come to think of it, I did fall over, but not exactly. I fell in various directions. Once, on the last train to Cambridge, I slept all the way to King’s Lynn and had to come back in a cab, at a price that the payment for the latest piece would barely cover. My wife, who had been unaware that I had ambitions to recreate the leading role in The Lost Weekend, was not impressed. But the piece was safe in Hamilton’s pocket. Now suitably shaved, sponged free of its indignities, it would go into the TLS, where I would read it with satisfaction. Other people must have done so too, because the invitations kept on coming in. Charles Monteith, the revered senior editor at Faber and Faber, sent a written request that I should call by to see him. I had better sense than to think he was after my poetry, which I knew he had never seen, because a collection of it had been sitting for more than a year on the desk of an editor in a less illustrious house — one of those editors who are so enthusiastic about your manuscript that they will do everything they can to persuade the board of directors to take a chance on an unknown, and are reasonably certain that the green light will be given just as soon as there is an economic upturn on Wall Street and a general withdrawal of Soviet troops from Eastern Europe. (Such skills for procrastination should be cherished, because they have saved many a young poet from sending out to die a slim volume that was never fit to live.)

But I could scarcely hope that Monteith was after a whole book of prose. He was, however. Sweetly pretending not to be disconcerted by my appearance — I still suffered from the delusion that a satinized polyester tie looked good with a fake Viyella shirt — he suggested that I might consider taking a crack at writing a biography of Louis MacNeice, a Faber poet, not long dead, whose reputation was already cooling in the shadow of W. H. Auden’s. In one of my poetry reviews for the TLS I had invoked MacNeice’s precision of imagery while condemning some respectable windbag’s vagueness in the same department, and Monteith had been so taken with my choice of paragon that he foresaw a whole monograph fuelled by the same admiration. Foolishly, so did I, although I already knew that I was short of spare time, and that none could be made available at the price Monteith was suggesting. There were no big advances in those days, but the sum he proposed was more like a retreat. I would practically be paying him. The offer, however, was too flattering to resist. So I didn’t resist, and thus once again made a commitment that I couldn’t come through on without removing other commitments from my diary. The offence was made easier by the fact that I had no diary. For several years I had kept a journal and would go on keeping it for several more, but a journal dealt with the past. A pocket diary for noting future appointments had never been part of my equipment. I was still under the impression that I could trust my memory. How I had ever got that impression was a bit of a mystery, because there had been evidence since my schooldays that any fixture more than a few hours ahead would disappear from my mind, especially if it entailed an inconvenience. People with that characteristic should above all get out of the habit of saying ‘yes’ when asked to do things. Since I invariably said ‘yes’ in order not to disappoint, I was effectively mixing malleability and fecklessness — binary ingredients of a powerful explosive. Eventually I was to learn some measure of reliability, but only because the explosions accounted for so many innocent civilians. For the moment, however, the MacNeice biography joined the list of things I would do soon, once I had dealt with the things I must do that day, because they had been promised for yesterday.

Perhaps the idea that I might have a place in literary life had scrambled my brains. Scrambled them even further, one might say. Back there in Sydney I had loved my evenings in the King’s Cross coffee bars. One of them was called the Platypus Room, Another, Vadim’s, was named after its New Australian proprietor, a poet manqué. It should hardly need saying that he was no relation to the Vadim who, back in faraway Europe, would not long later seduce a long line of beautiful young actresses culminating in Jane Fonda. Our Vadim had shortened his name from something like Vadimskapolonskiewicz. Still working hard on his English, Vadim would strain valiantly through the hiss of his Gaggia espresso machine to eavesdrop on the conversation of the half-dozen literary journalists who counted as the city’s intelligentsia in those torpid days before the arts boom. But as the new boy I was sitting below the salt, and forced to do much more listening than talking. The London scene was on a grander scale, and although I was a new boy all over again, I could do all the talking that my tongue allowed before the beer and wine numbed it at the root. The Pillars of Hercules was the focal point, but there was a glittering periphery. At Nicholas Tomalin’s house in Gloucester Crescent, Camden Town, there were big guns to be seen. The area had already been colonized by some of the people who would make it as famous as the old Bloomsbury. Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller were both in the area, working on the new careers that would take them beyond Beyond the Fringe. But the chief attraction was Nick himself. Unplaceable in the usual social order, he had limitless charm to go with the three qualities that he had notoriously said every journalist must have: a certain amount of literary ability, a plausible manner and rat-like cunning. His charm was the first quality you noticed. Well-connected and beautifully constructed young women fell for him, which made life all too interesting for his wife Claire, but obviously she adored him. It was impossible not to. Young men felt the same, partly because he was a good enough listener to make them feel that they might be almost as fascinating as he was. When you spoke, he had a way of looking sideways and downwards through his heavy black horn-rims that convinced you he was doing so only in order to favour his good ear, not wanting to miss a word. (In fact he had a bad neck, but typically he turned the affliction into a point of style.) What impressed me most was the way he had come to terms with what he saw as his lack of originality. If he couldn’t make things up, like a proper writer, he would find the best way of writing down what happened in front of him: corporate fraud, voyages by mad yachtsmen, wars. Actually, of course, this determination was deeply original in itself: he was in at the start of what would later be called the New Journalism. Headed by his famous piece about Vietnam — he had made the notes for it while looking sideways through the open doorway of an American gunship at vibrating miles of jungle stiff with armed men in black pyjamas — his collection of journalism still reads well today, and at the time he seemed to some of us the embodiment of a possibility: permanent work in an ephemeral medium.

Not that he didn’t enjoy the passing moment for itself. I made myself popular with him one summer evening when I got the time wrong and turned up an hour early for dinner, bearing a dubious gift of two bottles of cheap white wine. It wasn’t Piat d’Or, which hadn’t yet established itself as the would-be sophisticate’s cut-price bring-along. It was some variety of Liebfraumuck with a label full of gothic lettering. Nick saluted it gravely as if it were a prize-winning vintage that I had bankrupted myself buying, and actually smiled when I put both bottles in the garden fountain to cool. ‘In Australia,’ I explained, ‘we used to sink the stuff in the river and fish it out later. Sometimes we got more bottles out than we put in.’ He guessed immediately that there had been a party in the same spot previously. He loved the idea and told people the story later on as something typical of me, the boy from the bush who could quote Wittgenstein. He was creating a role for me, as he did for everyone. As roles go it wasn’t bad, and when I realized I was stuck with it anyway I tried to make the most of it. Not fitting a category: it was a category in itself. Nick, a dazzling example, was one of the first to see it as a social trend. The media meritocracy would be the next Establishment. Most of this I would figure out only gradually and much later, but I could tell straight away that Nick was something new. It meant a lot to me that he seemed to think the same of me. He nodded assent, instead of snorting, when I declared that a literary career could and should draw sustenance from involvement in show business and popular music. My theory that any genre could be practised as if it were a field of poetry prompted some gratifyingly thoughtful puffs on one of his black cigarillos — from both of us, because I was helping myself to his supply. When we fished the first bottle of wine out of the fountain he even pretended to enjoy it as much as the champagne that Claire had been serving us previously, although at the first sniff of my stuff he must have known that it was battery acid. The man who broke the story on the European junk-wine scandal wasn’t going to be fooled by a label that looked like a page from Martin Luther’s Bible. But he didn’t even flinch.

Yes, the literary world should have been enough. But I had already noticed that it was full of casualties. Even the byline journalists tended to die poor after the salary was switched off, and among the poets it had never been switched on. There would have been good reason to think that a more abundant source of income might be worth seeking. Hitting four deadlines a week, I was earning scraps that added up to a pittance. Also I often had to stay up all night to hit them. When I tried doing that at home in Cambridge, the woman who had already realized she had married a maniac was kept awake by a typewriter yammering away like a rivet-gun. (It’s one of the ways that a writer’s life has most profoundly changed since computers came in: writing used to be noisy.) In Swiss Cottage the noise didn’t matter so much: I was just somebody having one essay crisis after another. But I could tell by the way the boys brought me the occasional cup of instant coffee that I must have looked like someone on the road to ruin. It was instinct, however, and not reason, that led me to keep the theatre thing going. Like a broken love affair, it was begging to be fixed. Eventually, I was convinced, the songs I was still writing with Pete Atkin — in his own small room off the next landing, he was bent over his guitar as he set my latest lyrics about death and destruction — would make us both big money. Meanwhile, the current Footlights bunch, still at university, asked me to direct their Edinburgh Fringe revue on a professional basis.

I did the job with passable results, but there was a bigger job on the near horizon. Still the dominant powers on the Fringe, Oxford and Cambridge teamed up to mount a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to tour the American colleges. The play was to be directed by a professional, Richard Cottrell, who was excellently qualified: his production of Richard II had been a huge hit at the official Edinburgh Festival and later in the West End, with the young Ian McKellen making himself famous in the leading role. I had seen McKellen’s performance in Edinburgh and been suitably stunned by how his Olivier-like athleticism was compounded with the ability to float a line like Gielgud. I had seen both Gielgud and Olivier on stage earlier in the decade, but they were in separate plays. McKellen was both of them, made young again and sharing the same body. Cottrell had provided McKellen with a set in which the furiously posturing boy monarch could descend from the upper levels in a series of leaps to appear suddenly on the forestage like Spiderman arriving in a gay nightclub. The future knight was still years away from outing himself but his performance left little room for doubt, just as the production left nothing to be desired for its verve and grace. If all theatre had been like that I would have spent much less time at the movies. The Oxbridge bunch were lucky to have Cottrell aboard, because in normal circumstances a director of his calibre is wasting his time marshalling the limited abilities of amateur players: it’s like hiring Michael Schumacher to drive a minicab. But Cottrell, still manfully scraping the money together for his Prospect Theatre Company, agreed to take the Shakespeare job on. Since the Oxbridge bunch also wanted an accompanying revue as part of the tour package, however, he specified that he would direct that only if he could be provided with an assistant director, script doctor and dogsbody — someone steeped in the revue business, about which, he was honest enough to say, he knew little and cared less. Headed by my old friend Jonathan James-Moore, the Oxbridge people approached me. I wasn’t hard to find. The whole deal was going to be rehearsed in the Footlights clubroom in Cambridge and I just happened to be standing outside in Petty Cury with my hands in my pockets, whistling. The fee was more than I could earn by reviewing ten different hopeless books so I said yes, reflecting that if I reviewed the books anyway, I would double my money.

Scarcely an hour of rehearsal had elapsed before I realized I should have said no. Though Cottrell was large-hearted in saying that humour was not his forte, he was also definite about having the last word. There was a power struggle right from the jump, which I was bound to lose. I didn’t much like his ideas, he positively hated mine, and the helpless cast were caught in the middle. For them, what should have been a joyous conjunction of two separate undergraduate revue traditions turned into the most miserable time of their young lives. Most of them were also in the Dream production and the difference must have been startling. Cottrell did a dazzling job with the play. In an opalized Athenian forest designed by Hugh Durrant, he deployed the student actors almost as if they could act. The cruel truth about university actors is that although they often go far, they rarely do so as actors, mainly because even the most gifted of them have chewed up essential years that they should have spent at RADA learning to speak, move, and fence, or even at Raymond’s Revue Bar learning to stand in a spotlight as if they belonged there. Apart from Julie Covington, who made an enchanting Peasblossom, only a few of the Dream cast went any distance in the professional theatre later on. Some showed up on the small screen, but as presenters and newsreaders rather than actors. (An exception was Mark Wing-Davey, who eventually grew an extra head to play Zaphod Beeblebrox in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.) Michael Wood, now one of the most prominent historians on television, deployed a fine leg as Oberon but would spend his future in tight jeans, not loose tights. Others became bank managers and academics. But they all had bliss to look back on. In that pixillated forest, they had been touched with a magic wand.

When they came back to the Footlights clubroom to rehearse the revue, the contrast was brutal. At the end of the rehearsal period, the revue was ready to go on in the Arts Theatre, and it even held the stage, but the critic for Varsity was not the only member of the audience to note that the cast looked as if they had all spent the previous week beside the death-bed of a loved one. Three nights into the run, after three days of re-rehearsing some of the sketches in the attempt to make them funnier than a mock execution, I spat the dummy. One of my last memories of the resulting shambles was of James-Moore, called Jo-Jo for short, throwing up in the washbasin of his dressing room. Many years later he was a power in the land, in charge of comedy at BBC radio, but I bet he didn’t forget how his own lunch looked when it was staring back at him. It took me almost as long to get a realistic perspective on what I had helped to let them all in for. Too much of it had been my fault, a truth that I wasn’t then equipped to consider. When it mattered, I had spent too much time taking umbrage and not enough taking pains. I should have settled for my subordinate position, done what was required, and, above all, put the welfare of the troops first. But I threw a tantrum instead, right there in the Green Room of the Arts Theatre, the gift of John Maynard Keynes to civilization. I foamed at the mouth and smashed my fist into a mirror. It was the right target, I now realize, because the true culprit was on the other side of it. The fact of the matter was that I was nowhere near as good at dreaming up sketch material for an ensemble as I had thought. My only reliable ability was to dream up material for myself. The tantrum was an excellent example. Bugsy Siegel would have recognized a gifted imitator, especially when I climaxed the routine by threatening to kill Cottrell. Luckily he was elsewhere at the time, but when he heard about it he put his foot down. Either I was removed from the picture or else the American expedition would not include him. Since the production of the Dream was what really mattered, Jo-Jo and his colleagues had no choice. Effectively, I had already fired myself, by converting my tantrum into a nervous breakdown.

I owe my wife the courtesy of leaving her as a background figure in this book, along with my daughters, who would combine to lynch me if I went into detail about their virtues. All three women in my immediate family are united in the belief that private life and publicity are incompatible, and I agree with them. One of the dire consequences of the celebrity culture is that this belief has come to seem perverse. So much for the celebrity culture. But I can say this much: over the next two weeks, my wife got into training for her first baby. I went to bed and stayed there, like Stalin when he got the news that the German army had invaded his country after all, despite his express instructions that it should not. The shock of reality had reduced me to immobility. I sent long groans towards the ceiling while doing nothing except grow a beard. I groaned louder at the effort of turning my pillow to the dry side. I could just about make it to the bathroom on my own. Otherwise I didn’t go anywhere, even to the kitchen, where the refrigerator lived which in normal circumstances I could never pass without stopping to look in. But I was indifferent to what I put in my mouth. As long as it was a cigarette, it would do. As soon as I could raise myself on one elbow, I got busy starting small fires in the bedding. For a while I couldn’t even read a book: the first time since World War II that I had been unable to do so. The Guardian took me all day and the Observer took me all Sunday. Finally, from one of these papers, I noticed that there was a four-volume collection of George Orwell’s journalism due to come out. I must have grunted at the right moment, because the complete set was brought to me as a gift, ready-wrapped in its jackets of deep Socialist red.

From the first page of the first volume, I was on the road to recovery. Many years and a much bigger bank balance later, at just the moment when she felt the walls of the house were closing in, I bought my wife a 3 Series BMW, and suddenly she was out and about like Emma Peel in The Avengers. It was only a partial return for the perfect timing of that Orwell set. Most of the essays I knew by heart already, but here they were in the weekly context of his indefatigable toil. Here was the proof that it took effort to write plain prose but, if you could do so, the results might have the effect of poetry. A simple-seeming sentence could have a cadence to remember. There was also the matter of Orwell’s political sagacity. He could be batty on the side issues but on the big issue he was right. It was the main reason he remained relevant, because those who had been wrong had spread a pervasive influence, and some of them remained in business even in old age. While sticking his head above the parapet in the Spanish Civil War, Orwell had said that it wasn’t enough to be against the Nazis, you had to be anti-totalitarian, which meant being against the Communists as well. The latter part of this message continued, after more than thirty years, to be a pill hard to swallow for thinkers on the Left. Even if they were ready to accept that Stalin had been conducting a massacre of the innocents, they still wanted to believe that there might be a vegetarian version of absolute state control. Orwell’s central belief was thus enduringly unpopular even among those who shared his detestation of capitalism.

No fan of capitalism myself — there had to be something easier than working for a living — I had nevertheless been raised in a house where that central belief of his didn’t need to be stated, so when I read him at length it was like a long verification of what I had always felt. My mother and father, both of them prime examples of the suffering proletariat in the 1930s, would have left me a Communist heritage if they had thought that there was anything to it. My father’s copy of Bellamy’s anti-capitalist classic Looking Backward was in the hall cupboard waiting for him while I was growing up. He never came home to read it again, but its presence was a reminder of his championship of workers’ rights. Yet my mother assured me that he would have detested the idea of giving the state unbridled power over the individual. Like my father, she had met the Communists before the war when she was working on the production lines, and remembered their tone of voice. But when Prime Minister Menzies staged a referendum to outlaw the Australian Communist Party in 1952, my mother, during a single dinner of beef, potatoes and cabbage, gave me a political education that has lasted me a lifetime. She told me how she had voted in the referendum earlier that day. She had voted against Ming’s move to outlaw the Commos. (In Australia, Menzies was Ming and the Communists were the Commos for linguistic reasons we won’t go into here.) She thought the state should not be given so much power to repress opinion, even if the opinion was wrong. That, she said, was the principle my father had fought and died for, and the only reason why his death had meaning.

Still in short pants at the time, I struggled to comprehend, but I was so fascinated that I ate the cabbage. Since the right not to eat cabbage was one of my own most jealously guarded political tenets, this was a large concession, and a tribute to my mother’s quiet passion. At the time she spoke, George Orwell had only recently published Nineteen Eighty-Four, so my mother was up there with him at the heroic forefront of intellectual adventure. I remembered that moment as I lay there in my smouldering bed, at last telling myself to get up, get out and get going. Above all, the collection was a persuasive demonstration that periodical journalism could be built to last. Much of it had been written for publications of restricted, or no, circulation. I resolved to despise no outlet that would print my work. I also resolved that the theatre thing could still be fixed, if I could just avoid my previous mistakes. With these two resolutions — the first questionable, the second suicidal — firmly in mind, I cast the charred coverlet aside and went back to work. If my wife could go on functioning as a conscientious don while nursing her mental wreck of a husband, the least I could do was persevere. One thing I can tell myself, from this distance, is that I was always pretty good at getting busy again after a catastrophe. I was just bad at realizing that being too busy had got me into the catastrophe in the first place. Hamlet had said it to the corpse of Polonius: ‘You find that to be too busy is some danger.’ But Polonius wasn’t listening, and it turned out that Hamlet wasn’t either.

The idea that periodical journalism could be built to last was never likely to apply to Oz magazine, but I deluded myself into believing that it could. A new wave of hungry young Australians had hit London, having the immediate effect of making the young Australians who were already there feel that they were getting old. Perhaps that was what drove me to say yes when they asked me to contribute to Oz. Richard Neville, the editor, was dedicated to the belief that Play Power could transform politics. I never believed that — I had enough trouble believing in his hairstyle, which he had apparently copied from Bette Davis in All About Eve — but I did think that this new emphasis on youth, music, soft drugs and less uptight sex might have an ameliorating effect. My stance, however, was to contend that all thoughts of actual revolution were the kind of nonsense that could be excused only through ignorance. I soon found that Neville and his confrères had plenty of ignorance to excuse themselves with. They seemed to have read nothing but Naked Lunch. But my counter-revolutionary polemics were printed anyway. Usually they were printed in white type on pink paper with an oil-slick overlay, so that there was no danger of the stoned readership actually reading them. Germaine Greer’s contributions, by contrast, were printed clearly, often accompanied by startling photographs of their author. One photograph showed her with her legs behind her neck: an advanced position even for a swami. In a previous volume of this memoir I gave Germaine the name Romaine Rand, on the principle that if I was going to attribute foul language to her it would be ungentlemanly to use her real name. In the context of Oz, however, it would be ungentlemanly not to, because by that time her habitual and madly entertaining subversion of linguistic decorum stood fully revealed as a big component in a political attitude that was transforming the speech of the country. I admired her boldness, and still do. Though she sometimes seemed to harbour the impression that ordinary young women could liberate themselves if they became groupies for the sort of American rock band that looked like a pack of rapists in search of a fresh victim, she was undoubtedly striking a blow for freedom from stifling conventions. Her weak point, obvious to everyone but her, lay in her generous confidence that women, if they could be released from bondage, would all prove to be as creative as she was. Girls, you don’t have to spend all that time wiping the poop off the back end of your child. Hand it to your grandmother while you write a symphony.

My own view, that the shattered conventions might one day become objects of nostalgia, sounded pretty stifling even to me. Luckily nobody could decipher what I said. There was quite a lot of it, and later on I was careful to reprint none of it. Long before the Oz trial at the Old Bailey I had tacitly opted out of the Youth Culture: my hair, as it were, didn’t make the cut. Even when accompanied by the soft music and pastel swirling smoke of psychedelia, propaganda for a consensus of individual rebellion had no appeal to me as a genre, and it was clear that protesting against rebellion in a rebel publication made no sense at all. When Richard Neville and Felix Dennis appeared in court, it became obvious that this was a mere prelude to their appearance on television. In other words, the trial was a stage: a stage on the road to institutionalized protest, although nobody at the time could guess that Dennis would one day be a publishing tycoon on the scale of Robert Maxwell and Conrad Black, if a bit more careful with the petty cash. The judge, confidently mistaken as English judges so often are, informed the court that Dennis was clearly of low intelligence. The judge lived long enough to find out that he had been wrong by many millions of pounds, but it was never a case of two worlds colliding. It was the one world, hiccuping on a breath of fresh air. The fresh air turned stale later on, as it was bound to do. Social changes get nowhere if they are not needed, and when they succeed they soon cease to be news. Not having been really a part of it, I was easily out of it, with no regrets except that I no longer had an excuse to gaze at the angelic face of a young woman who rejoiced in the name of Caroline Coon. She was billed as the scene’s expert on drugs. I suppose she knew a lot about them for the usual reason — that she had taken a lot of them — but although I had no idea of what she was talking about I loved watching her delicately sculpted mouth when she spoke. No expert about clothing at that stage (certainly I was no expert about my own) I could nevertheless not help noticing that her revolutionary outfits were composed of cashmere, suede and silk, all hanging on the lissom figure of a debutante by Boldini. She was draped across two-page spreads in the colour supplements and the glossies almost as often as Germaine herself. Here was a revolution for men to die for, but strictly in the spiritual sense.

Orwell had said that you could see what was wrong with radical movements by the kind of women they attracted. By that test, the Youth Culture had a lot right with it. There was a great deal of glamour about. One of the spin-offs of Oz was an Alternative Newspaper called Ink. If anything, it had even less editorial judgement than Oz — the itinerant Australian journalist Leon Selkirk even managed to sell it his standard scoop about the missing uranium, a story that he had been carrying around for years — but the office was full of Biba-clad lovelies from the shires wondering what keys to press down on the electric typewriters, which like all the other equipment had been bought instead of hired, thus guaranteeing almost immediate insolvency. None of the girls was more beautiful than the paper’s cultural editor Sonny Mehta, whom I had known at Cambridge. (In May Week Was in June he appeared as Buddy Rajgupta, so that I might cover myself against the potentially libellous implication that he had done no academic work at all.) Though Sonny was much more focused as a newspaper executive than he had been as a student, the newspaper was doomed from its inception. But I enjoyed his company as always, and later on the connection was to pay off in a big way, as I shall relate.

At the time, my whole activity as a writer for the Alternative Press added up to a no-no. Lest I doubt the fact, Karl Miller of the Listener pointed it out firmly, although ‘no-no’ was not the kind of word he would have used, either then or later. A classically educated Scot, a rebel angel from Dr Leavis’s dour Empyrean who gave the impression that he had found its irascible ruler insufficiently serious, Miller had no time for the light-minded. The Listener was still the printed voice of the BBC as Lord Reith had once conceived it, and Karl Miller was universally acknowledged as a worthy successor to the paper’s founding editor, J. R. Ackerley. Miller had all of Ackerley’s discerning attributes and none of the frailties. Miller, you could be sure, would never have a love affair with an Alsatian dog. (Ackerley did, and recorded his emotional commitment in a book whose sex passages take some swallowing even today.) Such was Miller’s reputation that to be invited to write for the Listener was a sure mark that one had arrived at the point where Grub Street’s reeking gutters turned to polished marble. I entered his office at Langham Place with roughly the feelings I had once had when asked to call on the Deputy Headmaster of Sydney Technical High School. Miller had a similar reputation for severity, although it was fairly certain that he did not keep a cane. But at our first meeting he throttled back on the withering impatience and confined himself to the laconically sarcastic. He made it clear that my involvement in the Alternative Press was a waste of what in a less barbaric context might almost be mistaken for a certain effectiveness in English prose. According to him, there was no such thing as an Alternative Press, there was only the press, which was either responsible or frivolous; just as there was no such thing as Experimental Writing, there was only writing, which was either competent or worthless. Some of what I had done for the New Statesman and the TLS, he told me, could have been regarded as competent if I had curbed my exuberance. He had already printed a radio script that I had written and delivered for Philip French, BBC radio’s omniscient arts editor. (The Listener was contractually obliged to reprint a quota of radio scripts, an obligation which sometimes weighed heavily on Miller, but he carried out the duty faithfully, quietly subtracting the solecisms from some eminent professor’s would-be mandarin diction.) My script, however, he informed me, had been marred by deficiencies of coherence, which he had felt bound to expunge. I could have said that there had been plenty of other deficiencies of coherence that Philip French had expunged first, but for once I had the sense to shut up and take the compliment. Proof that it had actually been a compliment, even if expressed like a rebuke from Captain Bligh, was provided by what happened next. Miller asked me to try my hand at writing a critical column about radio once every four weeks. There were three other radio critics, he explained, who each also wrote a column every four weeks, the collective thus furnishing the paper with a column every week. While he searched my face for signs that I might not have grasped the mathematics, he further explained that the work had to be taken seriously: I must listen to all the important programmes, analyse their qualities, point out their shortcomings, and provide a concise summary with no deficiencies of coherence. It was easy to assume that the critic I was replacing had died under the strain.

Philip French had a gentler nature but he was just as punishing on the facts and details, partly because he already knew more about everything than all his contributors put together. Both men were models of conscientiousness, and I could have learned even more from them had I been as good as they were at concentrating on one task at a time. As it happened, I added their deadlines to all my other deadlines, in the belief, sadly correct, that a freelance writer could accumulate his piece-rate fees into a living wage only by working until the night sky paled. My typewriter squeaked as it ran out of oil, its ribbons frayed as they ran out of ink. In order to make marks through a dry ribbon I hit the keys extra hard, thus gradually turning the platen into a cylindrical Rosetta Stone. (How many people are left who know what a platen was? And where did all the typewriters go? In what vast quarry do their rusting frames coagulate?) In those days you needed carbon paper to keep a copy and I can remember choking back a sob when I discovered that I had put the carbon paper in backwards. (In childhood, I had sobbed the same way when I spilled flavoured milk into my box of crayons. In the course of time we cry for different things, but we always cry the same way.) As the plaintive note of these parentheses suggests, there was thus some reason for dreaming of a big score that might get me into another financial league, and so buy me some time to finish that book on Louis MacNeice, or anyway start it.

The big score didn’t have to be in the theatre. It could be in the movies. Part of the Oxford and Cambridge Theatre Company disaster had included a proposed film of the revue, to be supervised by me because Richard Cottrell, after taking one look at its proposed financial backers, sensibly didn’t want to know. The backers, or at any rate the people who said they could get the backing, were a bunch of grandees from the Lord’s Taverners, one of those charitable outfits that do good things for the deprived. Along with a sprinkling of dedicated and efficient philanthropists, such organizations are invariably haunted by a shambling squad of superannuated burghers in continual search of some pointless event that they can have meetings about. It was just such a bunch of blazer-wearing drones who had put themselves in charge of immortalizing our revue on celluloid, thus to benefit their charity from the inevitable worldwide sales. Normally they would have had no means of advancing such a project beyond the stage of getting all of You Young People (that was us) packed together in the Arts Theatre boardroom so that we could admire their Hush Puppies and silk cravats while they told us how diverting Prince Philip had been at their last annual lunch. But they had an ace in the hole: one of their new members was Jack Cardiff, the veteran cinematographer who had been responsible for the look of Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes. Perhaps in the hope of meeting Prince Philip at next year’s lunch, Cardiff had come over from Switzerland to make the film. Success was therefore assured.