Books: North Face of Soho — 4. Early Steps in Opposite Directions |
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North Face of Soho — 4. Early Steps in Opposite Directions


So ended another fiasco, but I could tell myself that it was a sideshow compared with the interview I had only recently endured with Karl Miller at the Listener office. While wrestling day and night with the screen treatment of The Jade of Destiny, I had contrived to miss almost everything that mattered on radio, and this time the shortfall showed up unmistakably in my column. Miller carpeted me for a dressing-down that felt like the worst moment of my professional life to date. He did not look beautiful when he was angry. ‘If you don’t want to do this job properly then for God’s sake move aside for someone who does.’ Though he was immobile behind his desk, the effect of his words was of Rob Roy McGregor running towards me swinging the broadest of swords. None of Dinwiddie’s rapier thrusts: at this rate my head would be coming right off. Caving in immediately, I offered feeble apologies along with a moist-eyed goodbye, backed out of his office and scuttled down the corridor, with the intention of drowning myself in the nearest pub. I had not reached the stairwell, however, before I was overtaken by Miller’s secretary. As I recall the scene, she was holding one of her shoes in each hand, but I admit that my memory tends to dress the picture. Probably she just had the gift of sprinting in high heels. I was requested to return to Miller’s office immediately. ‘His bark,’ she said, ‘is far worse than his bite, you know.’ No doubt Vlad the Impaler’s secretary said the same about him.

Back on the carpet in Miller’s sanctum, and blowing my nose on the Kleenex his secretary had supplied, I detected a slight shift in the editor’s anger, although his words were no more mollifying than before. ‘If you can’t take a cross word, you shouldn’t be doing this sort of thing.’ He was right, of course. Even today I will do a lot to get out of a face-to-face disagreement. I could ascribe this debilitating characteristic to a desire to be perfect, and a concomitant disinclination to hear any evidence that I am not, but a simpler explanation could be moral cowardice. When I hear the characters in The West Wing reading each other the bad news about themselves in that typical American way, they strike me as being braver than samurai. Please, leave me to my illusions. Convicted of dereliction and touchiness in two rapidly succeeding rockets from the magisterial Miller, I was ready for the scrapheap. But then the message changed along with the mood. ‘It’s obvious that you don’t listen to radio as a matter of course. I expect it’s because you’re too busy watching the television.’ He called it ‘the’ television, as if it had only recently been invented. ‘Perhaps,’ he said tentatively, ‘you might consider writing about that instead.’ Instantly I saw a path into the clear. I did indeed watch television the way I smoked and drank. In Swiss Cottage I would channel-hop throughout the evening before I settled down to hit deadlines until dawn. In Cambridge there had been a television set in the Footlights clubroom and I had watched everything, even Match of the Day, until transmission shut down for the night and our barman went home. Only then would Atkin and I go up onto the little stage and start working on a new song. I was a pioneer couch potato. I had even been on television a few times: not as often as I had been on radio, but often enough to get the bug.

In Australia, television had not arrived until the late 1950s. It made a primitive start. The first television news announcer prepared himself with two weeks in Hawaii to acquire an American accent. ‘I’m Chuck Faulkner. Here is the nooze.’ In that context of discovery, I had been a panellist on a dire discussion programme about the arts, chaired by a woman in a beret who billed herself as ‘a Left Bank bohemian from way back’. Actually she was from the outback, where she must have got a lot of practice at talking to herself. The few words I managed to get in uninterrupted were not very well chosen, but I was enchanted by the whole idea of my mouth moving in vision. In England, a couple of my Footlights shows had reached the small screen. My monologue was cut from one of them, to my petulant grief, and in the other I had not been a member of the cast, but in my role as director I was allowed to sit in the control gallery, where the technical palaver enchanted me. As in a hospital, it doesn’t matter whether the person giving the orders is competent or not: the jargon sounds great. ‘Ready with the close-up on camera two. Show me the wide shot, three.’ It was like watching a movie about submarines. Torpedoes away! And now here I was in Karl’s headquarters, being asked to register my interest. I knew instantly that I could bring an almost insane enthusiasm to the task. Knowing also that Miller might be afraid of exactly that, I managed to make my cry of assent sound suitably judicious. Incipient tears helped. I was well aware that I had barely escaped professional injury.

It was a reminder of how often, and how unjustifiably, I had been spared physical injury in my childhood. As I recorded in Unreliable Memoirs, it was the merest fluke I landed flat on my back, instead of at a damaging angle, after I jumped off the roof of an unfinished council house while dressed as the Flash of Lightning. There were other narrow squeaks that I failed to include in that book because I had forgotten them. For some reason they come back to me now with ever-increasing vividness. Many a time, after instructions from my mother that I should check the bottom of the muddy river before diving into it, I dived in without checking. It was the boy from the next street who became the quadriplegic, not me. When, late one evening, I rode my bicycle flat out over the bridge across the creek in the park — I was crouched for speed, my legs a blur — I had no idea that the park ranger had closed the bridge by putting a heavy wooden bar across it until next morning. I found out the hard way, but it could have been harder. The wooden bar hit me exactly in the centre of the forehead instead of converting my skull into a head-hunter’s ornamental ashtray. I came to with nothing more serious than a bruised brain. Nor has the same capacity to flirt with doom been sufficiently absent from my adult years. Not long ago I stepped idly in front of a turning London bus whose Sikh driver must have had the reflexes of a fighter pilot. When I looked up and saw his turbaned head bent over the wheel I thought he was praying, until I noticed all the upstairs passengers gathered together at the front window. I should have prayed myself, giving thanks. Similarly, the number of times in my life when inattention should have led to professional ruin, or, more mercifully, to professional death, is too embarrassing to recount in full at this point. Enough to say that when I backed out of Miller’s presence, like Anna from an audience with the King of Siam, I was all too conscious of having once again been spared. I had no idea, however, that it was a turning point in my career. You realize these things only later, and I am a bit impatient with memoirists who claim to have foreseen their destiny. I have never been able to foresee very far beyond tomorrow. Even when I lay a long plan, it is never in the expectation that I will live to see it fulfilled. I remember too well the day that the Flash of Lightning lay winded in the sandpit of the building site, breathlessly wondering if he dared to lift a finger.

Call no man happy if he has never been ordered to go home and watch television. Watching habitually yet writing only one column per month, I would have all too much to talk about, rather than, as with radio, all too little. Had I been doing nothing else, I might have choked on the abundance of stimulus, but luckily there were plenty of other things to distract me, quite apart from the ghost of Louis MacNeice, who would visit me during my afternoons of sleep to tell me that everyone else in his part of the underworld had a biography and they were all wondering what had happened to his. The ghost wore a trench coat, like Humphrey Bogart. Soon I would get started, but first there were all these articles and reviews to attend to, and a request from BBC radio to interview C. P Snow. It was kind of them to ask, because not long before I had turned up a week late to interview the ballet pundit Richard Buckle. The producer, normally a very decorous woman, had called me a stupid bastard. Tacitly conceding that she might have hit on the explanation, I bought my first pocket diary, into which C. P. Snow’s name was duly entered, with the date, time and place. Humming with efficiency, I even made time to reacquaint myself with the dizzy excitement of one of Snow’s novels. ‘Part Two: A Decision is Taken. Chapter One: The Lighting of a Cigarette.’ There was also a request from Stella Richman of London Weekend International that I should call in at her office off Savile Row. London Weekend Television, or LWT, was one of the two London franchises: I knew that much. But I had no idea of what London Weekend International did. The name sounded enticing, however, and the office was promisingly placed, opposite a tailoring firm called James & James. It turned out that Stella Richman, on behalf of the parent franchise, was charged with the discovery and development of new and unconventional talent. Elegantly groomed, she was very nice about not minding that I knew so little about her. Actually any aspiring television critic, no matter how green, should have known that she had a distinguished track record as a producer. She, on the other hand, knew a daunting amount about me. She had been keeping cuttings on our recent Footlights adventures and had even attended one of the few evenings at Hampstead Theatre Club when I had not looked like a rat packing its tiny bags on the deck of a sinking ship. She declared that my proved ability to marshal the talents of young writers and performers could prove valuable for television. Clearly she had either not heard of the Oxford and Cambridge Revue imbroglio or else chosen to ignore it. Even more cheering from the viewpoint of my twitching ego, she had decided that I myself might have ‘presence’ on screen. ‘Nobody would call you handsome, but you have a face.’ Though the same could have been said with equal justice to Lyndon Johnson, I still liked the sound of that.

I would have liked it even better if I could have appreciated the leap of imagination it must have taken on her part, because I had put on my best front for the visit — brown velvet jacket, fawn corduroy trousers, zipped boots, tartan tie with the paisley shirt and new beard quite recently washed — and thus could have been auditioning only for the kind of role that required the wearing of a rubber suit, like the Creature from the Black Lagoon. But Stella (first-name terms were mandatory from the jump) was engaged in the search for potential, which is almost always a matter of discounting the visible actuality. She wanted me to suggest some small programmes that I and my closest colleagues might like to do. I had two ideas right there on the spot. One was for a kind of miscellaneous arts programme done as a two-handed exchange between me and Russell Davies, widely acclaimed as the most gifted all-round writer—performer that the Footlights had hatched since World War II, or possibly since World War I. Stella said that I didn’t have to sell him to her: she had seen him in action and thought he was the goods. ‘Yes, we could do that with two cameras. Get the pilot right and we can make a set of six for a half-hour slot.’ Clueless as I was, I had no inkling that Santa Claus had just run me over with his sleigh and left me buried under a heap of toys, so I forged on with another idea, meant to be more attractive because I wasn’t asking to appear in it. How about a song show with Julie Covington and Pete Atkin singing the songs that Atkin and I had written? I explained that not all of our songs had been featured in the stage shows, but Stella was ahead of me. ‘Yes, I’ve got the records that you made in Cambridge.’ Before I had time to apologize for their low-budget production values — they had been made on a single tape with hung blankets to adjust the sound balance — she was saying: ‘Three cameras. We could do half a dozen of those as well.’ She proposed contracts for both shows, with another contract for an option on my further services. I had no agent at the time, but who haggles with the Fairy Godmother? I guessed that she would look after me well: a guess that was to prove correct. I have sometimes been wrong about a father figure, but at sizing up a mother figure I have been right almost every time. Qualified mother figures have the knack of getting you to eat the cabbage, if only by forbidding you to touch it. You can see it in their eyes: they see through to the boy and make a man of him. So there I was once again, happily committing myself to more work than I could possibly handle. But I was also committing myself to something like a salary. For a moment I wondered whether I should be bothering with literary journalism at all.

But only for a moment. Back downstairs in the street, I was already considering the possibility of plunging forward into the new dream without letting go of my previous gains. A double career, that was the ticket. James & James: it was up there on a sign. Though a chance at television stardom was too good to pass up, my instinct — for once functioning helpfully — told me that in show business I would never enjoy the precious freedom to be alone. I had already noticed that television worked like an army, with fifty people pushing paper for every soldier holding a rifle. In journalism, it was just me, the blank sheet of paper, and the cigarette dangling romantically from the lower lip. The attraction, I think, wasn’t so much that nobody else could share the glory, as that nobody else could get hurt. In a solo activity I might be disappointed, but in a group effort I might be disappointing: a much more unsettling prospect. So back I went to the typewriter, first to knock out an outline for the programmes as Stella had requested, but then to review other people’s programmes for my Listener column. I flattered myself that to be engaged in the first activity made me more of an expert on the second. Actually I was fooling myself. As yet I knew very little about the practicalities of making television, and it probably would have acted against me as a reviewer if I had known more. In any field of criticism, there is nothing more damaging than knowing a little bit about how the art you criticize actually gets made. If you don’t know everything, it is better to know nothing. What you do have to know is how to register your response, and your first response should be naive, not sophisticated. Was I repelled by what I saw, or was I pleased? Was I interested or not? Was I interested in what was supposed to be interesting, or was I more interested in what was supposed to be trivial? It was a matter of judgement, but the judgement had to be emotional before it was intellectual. My first breakthrough came when I realized that the most fascinating thing about the supposedly realistic police series Softly, Softly was the unreal frequency with which the powerfully built Inspector Harry Hawkins (played by Norman Bowler) opened and closed doors. In any given episode, he would open or close every door in the police station. Sometimes he would open and close the same door in rapid succession. He would leave the room just so that he could open the door, close it behind him, open it again, and come back in. He gritted his powerfully built teeth while opening and closing doors, as if opening and closing doors were a feat not just of physical strength, but of mental concentration. I wrote all this down in my column, giving him the nickname Harry the Hawk.

Taking this approach, I found myself writing with a compulsive flow uninhibited even by the thought that Karl Miller might react as John Calvin would have done to a copy of Playboy. But I was having too much fun to stop writing, and I soon discovered, when I took the finished pieces to his office, that he was having too much fun to stop reading. I can’t exactly say that he laughed aloud, but there were small rearrangements of his tight lips that were almost certainly the indication of a repressed smile, as the armour of some ancient Norse warrior might gleam within a glacier. No doubt there were calculations being made. He had three other television critics of unassailable solemnity. There was perhaps room for a fourth critic to wear a putty nose and a revolving bow tie. Meanwhile I was making calculations of my own. If I put in enough straight-faced stuff about the programmes that mattered, I could do some lampooning of the programmes that didn’t. On the Guardian, the excellent Nancy Banks-Smith had been striking just such a balance for some time, so the approach was not without precedent. What was without precedent was my next breakthrough. I started writing about television phenomena that couldn’t really be classified as programmes at all. Sports commentators, for example, were a rich source of absurdity that often had only to be quoted in order to uncover the remarkable. At Cambridge I had written a Footlights routine, brilliantly delivered by Jonathan James-Moore, about a sports commentator called Alexander Palace: one of the old school, with RAF moustache taking off vibrantly from his top lip and Olympic rings on his white crew-neck pullover. But now a new breed, harder to place by class origin yet even more patriotic, was colonizing the glass tube. David Coleman spoke in a new voice, almost in a new language. This new language was already highly developed, but nobody had yet made it a subject of study. There were social changes going on all over the screen, signalled by speech patterns, hairstyles, gestures. I tried to get some of that in. Miller, whose range of cultural reference was much wider than his strict education might have dictated (the man who printed some of Philip Larkin’s poems for the first time had also been one of the first serious critics to write about John Lennon), clearly thought I was on to something. If he hadn’t thought that, he would have lowered the boom right across my fingers. So I pushed on with the approach, even if the occasional reader’s letter might complain that untamed colonials were destroying the last values of the old Empire. There were other letters that approved. More importantly, the editor didn’t disapprove. When the piece was set up in galley, he would move his metal rule down the column line by line, still on the lookout for blemishes. Even at that late stage, a cherished sentence might be struck out. But most of what I had written stayed in place. Making him fight back a smile became a goal in life. The world was too much with him. Once when I entered his office he was in his chair but holding an open umbrella, ‘to ward off my troubles’. I was glad to see that he lowered the umbrella somewhere during my second paragraph.

Though a fresh idea usually happens quite quickly, to make it a reality invariably takes more time than we care to remember. My Listener TV column felt its way forward month by month, and there was no single occasion when I sat down and nutted out exactly where I thought it should go next. For one thing, there was too much else going on. Pete Atkin and I, still writing songs, were beginning to entertain the idea that it might be advantageous for him to make an album with a proper label so that we could both become millionaires, but the plan rather depended on a proper label having the same idea. Perhaps the London Weekend song-show programmes would help with that. But the two-man show with Russell Davies had to be done first, and before I could start with my share of writing the pilot, I had to clear my Grub Street deadlines. After an exhausting week of work I had done so, but I was in no great shape when I shambled into the London Weekend office to meet our executive producer, David Reed. Russell Davies, who was leading the same kind of life as I was but with possibly even less sense of ruthless efficiency, looked as vague as I did. We were both late for the appointment by several hours. David Reed, a small, dapper man who later proved to have a kind nature, wasn’t a bit kind that day, and I can’t blame him. In any branch of show business, there is nothing quite so depressing as to be put in charge of young people intent on blowing their opportunity. ‘Don’t,’ he said quietly, ‘waste my time again.’

From that moment I was careful not to miss an appointment with anybody, and eventually timekeeping became a fetish. Today, I would rather hire a helicopter than be five minutes late for a speaking engagement — an expensive obsession, when the speaking engagement is in the local bookshop — but that’s to leap ahead. On the day in question, Davies and I, suitably abashed, pooled our talents along with our hangovers to come up with a title and a format. The title we thought fitting was Think Twice: because there were two of us, you see, and we would be doing quite a lot of thinking. (Years later, Joan Bakewell, possibly having forgotten that I was in the show, told me she thought it was the most irritating single television programme she had ever seen, and that her irritation had begun when she heard its name.) We sketched out possible items about our interests: jazz, movies, out-of-the-way literature. Today it would be called a standard postmodern emphasis but it was unusual for the time. David Reed picked out the subjects he thought might suit the pilot and we were given a desk at which to write the actual scripts. This proved to be a lot harder than sketching the outlines. Several times, as we sat and worked, Stella Richman went by, smiling nicely at her unconventional new talent. Eventually she and David Reed gave us our very own producer, a tall and improbably handsome young man called Paul Knight. Later on, for Goldcrest, Paul Knight produced the only solid television hit that ill-fated organization ever had, Robin of Sherwood. But at the beginning of his career he got us. He was very nice about it, but also very firm. He said that most of our subject matter was beyond him, but if we couldn’t write it so that he could follow the argument, it would be beyond everybody. This was sound advice, embodying a principle I have tried to stick to ever since: the more abstruse the topic, the clearer you should be. (The converse holds: if you are reading deliberately abstruse prose, it has almost certainly been written about nothing.) Thus supervised, we wrote steadily until the day of the first pilot, which we taped nearby in a studio not much bigger than a bathroom.

I had ditched the beard by then, with some regret because it was the best of my beards to date, less like the old salt on the Player’s Navy Cut cigarette packet and more like Dinwiddie, master swordsman of the Elizabethan age. The beard had been a sign of my unwillingness to compromise, and its disappearance was a sign of how my unwillingness could be overcome by the prospect of getting more of my face on screen. The space left by the beard’s removal also left room for the knot of my tie to show: a relatively plain tie this time, although there was nothing plain about the shirt, which I remember as some sort of Liberty print on brushed nylon, fresh out of Carnaby Street after falling off a van from Yugoslavia. ‘It’s only a pilot,’ muttered Paul Knight, but he and the studio director had bigger problems with me than that. Davies took easily to the teleprompter as he took easily to everything — he could play most musical instruments as soon as he picked them up and could probably have flown a plane after a few minutes to study the controls — but I had trouble grasping the simple principle that the teleprompter would scroll its message at the same speed as I spoke. I was under the impression that I had to speak as fast as the teleprompter was going. Since reading a text aloud at high speed had always been one of my party tricks, I read faster and faster, unable to believe that the teleprompter was following me, not I it. In those days the teleprompter, not yet called an autocue, stood separately to one side of the camera, so the effect I made on screen was of a man talking rapidly sideways to an invisible window cleaner. But Stella liked the pilot even though some of her fellow executives didn’t (one of them threatened to resign) and she scheduled two days in studio to shoot a set of six.

The scheduled shooting days were only a few weeks ahead, so we had to write like a pair of convicts petitioning against an imminent death sentence. By night we wrote in pubs, in Wimpy bars, at the Angus Steak House. By day we were in our corner of the open-plan office, somehow finding room for our elbows among the coffee cups, sandwich crusts, and foully heaped ashtrays. Off to one side, behind a glass partition, sat Paul Knight, shaking his head over our scripts. Beautiful young secretaries queued up to take him coffee. None of them came near us: we had to make our own. I can still remember one of our script segments as being not half bad. It was about Michael Frayn, who had not yet begun his second career as a playwright. But as a columnist and novelist he was an inspiration to both of us. Frayn’s ‘Miscellany’ column in the Guardian had been one of the things that made my life seem worth living even during my first winter in England. The thought that I might never have to be so poor and cold again no doubt gave my share of the script wings. I wrote the exposition while Davies, armed with a copy each of Frayn’s paperback collections The Day of the Dog, The Book of Fub and At Bay in Gear Street, worked on the voicing of the extracts. His powers of mimicry were our best weapon, and the whole office would stop when he tried the voices out. My job was to provide the framework for his virtuosity.

Rehearsed in the studio, the result gave at least a hint of how that kind of arts presentation could look and sound: rich in content and unforced in vocal style, even if one of the voices, mine, belonged to a Benzedrine addict being held at gunpoint. The rehearsal came in useful for staving off at least one incipient blunder on my part. Paul Knight emerged from the control gallery to gently disabuse me of the idea that I should reinforce my vocal points with physical gestures. I had made the classic mistake of assuming that the illustrative use of the hands might be useful on television merely because it was so useless on radio. The assumption is natural but exactly wrong: rather than raise the hands into shot, it is less distracting to sit on them. Rehearsals were so prolonged that fatigue set in, which proved beneficial for me, because I slowed down and even managed the occasional pause in my tirade. A pause on radio sounds as if the world has come to an end, but on television it looks like thought. I had learned something. When we went for the tape I looked less like a man about to be shot and more like a man who had been shot already. You could call it relaxation, of a kind. Because the programmes were wiped as soon as screened — it was still quite rare to keep a tape after transmission — I can safely say they weren’t bad. They went to air in a graveyard slot where they were immune from criticism, because nobody was watching except Joan Bakewell.

The song show was to be called The Party’s Moving On. Pete and Julie were already hard at work rehearsing for it. Though required to be in attendance to help supervise the format, I had much less scripting to do, which was lucky, because the Observer had sent me a book to review. In those days the Observer was the most important Sunday paper by a long mile. Edited as a family fiefdom by David Astor, it had arts pages that left those of any rival paper for dead. Not even the Sunday Times came close. The Observer’s arts editor was Terence Kilmartin. During the war, Kilmartin had saved Astor’s life somewhere behind enemy lines. Doing a favour in return, Astor gave Kilmartin a free hand to run the arts pages as a kind of university campus. The roster of the faculty was dazzling. Although Kenneth Tynan was no longer reviewing regularly, he was still writing features. Penelope Gilliatt was the latest film critic in a line that went back to C. E. Lejeune. Katharine Whitehorn, author of Cooking in a Bedsitter, was a style-setter for woman journalists writing about all the practical matters of everyday life that had never previously got a mention. Edward Crankshaw, author of one of the best books about old Vienna, wrote on politics. John Weightman wrote so authoritatively about French literature that the French government gave him a decoration for his buttonhole. Even the man who wrote the round-up review of crime novels, John Coleman, was a recognized wit. John Silverlight, one of the section editors, was an outstanding example of a type now vanished: the expert on English usage who kept a strict eye on grammar and syntax throughout the paper. The whole thing was required reading every Sunday for the brightest million people in the country. For a Grub Street foot-slogger to get the nod from Kilmartin was like being commissioned in the field. Overawed at being asked, I over-wrote my first article to the point of sclerosis. Would-be epigrams met each other, fought and froze. Pointless erudition and strained jocularity formed a rigid amalgam. Correctly estimating that the result could have been written by no one else, I mailed it in. Fortunately Kilmartin was used to that reaction from new writers and instead of spiking the piece he called me down to the Observer office to discuss it. The office, in that era, was in the old Times building on Printing House Square, near the City end of Blackfriars Bridge, about a hundred yards south of the point where Ludgate Hill, plunging down from St Paul’s, changed its name to Fleet Street. Let’s say that name again. Fleet Street! I couldn’t believe it. Nowadays, with the newspaper offices scattered all over London, the personnel who remember when they were still concentrated in and around Fleet Street are dying off like old soldiers. At the time when I made my way to the Observer’s door, however, such a diaspora was still inconceivable. Fleet Street was a boulevard of unbroken dreams and the Observer was the dream I held most dear. If Kilmartin turned me away, the Thames was conveniently nearby. I could just jump in.

He didn’t turn me away, but he did scare me half to death. Not that there was anything terrifying about his manner: quite the reverse. Rising politely from his plain chair behind the book-piled desk in his book-lined office, he held out a dry firm hand that must have detected the residue of the sweat I had just wiped off against my trouser leg, but his face registered no disgust. It was too busy registering handsomeness. Kilmartin was as good looking as a man can be without ceasing to look intelligent as well. Of Irish origin, he was self-admittedly of the type that his countrymen call Desperate Chancer. There was a story that he once spent a night in jail in Paris after getting into a fight with the police. But none of that showed. He looked like the ideal English gentleman, in the exclusive sub-category of ideal English gentlemen who wield natural authority, speak perfect French, are charming to women and read ten books a week. It was a face to lead men into battle. There was only one item missing from the full kit of a commanding manner.

Scarcely a minute into our first conversation, I realized that he took a while to say things. Between any two words he said either ‘um’ or ‘ah’, except when either of these sounds occurred twice, in which case it would be separated by the other. The effect was to stop time. ‘Your, um, piece, ah, needs, um ah um, some, um, attention.’ By then we were sitting down, he had put on a pair of half-glasses, and he was pointing at my first paragraph with a blue pencil. ‘Where, um, you, um, say, um ah um, this, ah, hugely, ah, impressive, um ah um, novel ...’ Then an extraordinary thing happened. Suddenly several words came out uninterrupted. ‘I should have thought we didn’t need the “hugely”. I mean, if you call it “impressive” then you’re already ...’ There was a pause, as if to recuperate. After a small eternity, normal service was resumed. ‘Either, um, you’re, ah, impressed, or, ah, you’re, um ah um, not.’ We were three lines into the piece with about ninety-seven lines to go. He was right, of course, and I quickly saw that my manuscript was going to end up a lot shorter. But it was equally clear that I was going to end up a lot older. I never doubted, however, that I was in good hands. Twenty minutes later, the fourth paragraph that had given me so much trouble to get right revealed why: it was all wrong. Trying to say too much at once, I had constructed a sentence out of clauses that should have been sentences in themselves. With apologetic regret, he prised them apart. Writing in my head, I supplied new beginnings for each. ‘That, um, sounds, ah, much, um, more, um ah um, natural.’ His secretary brought tea. At this rate she would have to bring us food and medical supplies.

But he was right every time. At the speed of a glacier, my overwrought piece was brought back in touch with living speech. It was my conversational tone, he told me, that he was after: there was no need to get up on stilts. It took him a long time to tell me, but that probably helped to drive the lesson home. ‘We, um, can, ah, print, um, this, ah um ah, now.’ It would have been an affectation to show my delight, because I had realized in the first few minutes that he wouldn’t have been taking the trouble if he had thought the piece beyond salvation. But there was another wonder to come, and this time there was no holding back a laugh of disbelief. He showed me a row of upcoming books and asked me which one I would like to review next. No doubt it was the slush pile left over after the big stuff had been sent out to the name reviewers, but being granted access had to mean that I was in. Instantly I conceived a whole new ambition. Just as I aimed to write a piece for Miller that would make him smile, so I would aim to write a piece for Kilmartin that he would print without consuming more than an epoch to take me through the manuscript. Simultaneously exalted and exhausted, I limped along Fleet Street past the celebrated landmarks of my new trade. Outside El Vino’s, the most famous of all the Fleet Street hostelries, a byline journalist whose face I recognized from photographs was standing on the edge of the gutter, gathering his concentration for the six-inch descent into the carriageway. He was so drunk that he swayed in the wind of a passing cab. A hundred yards further on, I looked back, and he was still in place. But not even he could depress me. He might be standing on the edge of doom, but I was walking on air.