Books: North Face of Soho — 5. Night of the Killer Joint |
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North Face of Soho — 5. Night of the Killer Joint


But it was my effort in Grub Street that had led to my first toehold in Fleet Street, and, for a while yet, Grub Street would continue to be my main base. There could be no base more shaky: it was like Khe Sahn in there. You had to be on the alert twenty-four hours a day just to hold the perimeter, or you would wake up sharing your sleeping bag with several small men in conical hats. To keep up with the punishing requirement of putting an income together out of piecework, the temptation was to find a neutral style and just fill the various spaces as specified. But my instinct dictated otherwise. I tried to give each piece everything, composing it as if it were a poem, with every word considered before it was placed, as if I were a mad bricklayer building a garden wall out of precious stones. If I had known how to write with less effort I might have written more. Luckily the extra lolly from London Weekend took off some of the pressure, so that I never got to the point, quite common among veterans of the genre, where I was not only jobbing all over the place but doing each job with cheap materials, like a cowboy plumber. It thus became possible for me to overfulfil a specification: a possibility which, I later concluded — once again I didn’t realize it at the time — is one of the keys to attaining a recognized competence in any field, and also of escaping from it when the moment comes.

If you just do the minimum you will get stuck. Give it the maximum and you will make your employer feel that you are doing him a favour, instead of he you. An example of this was when Ian Hamilton asked me to do a round-up review for the TLS of Edmund Wilson’s last few books. I thought Edmund Wilson was not just America’s most comprehensive man of letters, but the greatest critic alive anywhere: and now he was on the point of death. Writing about him anonymously for Britain’s most hallowed literary institution, the TLS, I would be giving him a send-off worthy of his stature. (One measure of the stature was that his English publisher had gone on bringing out his books right to the end, even though they went straight to the remainder shops: heavy evidence that commitment to quality can be a commercial disaster.) Anonymity would work for the venture instead of against it, because it would be the institution talking, and not just some Australian swagman humping his bluey through the early stages of the road to Hullaboola. Hamilton would have been content if I had wrapped the task up in two thousand words. I gave him eleven thousand, plus a suggested title, ‘The Metropolitan Critic’. Hamilton cut it back to ten thousand, kept the title, and the piece ran, filling several pages of the paper. I’m not sure what the effect was on Wilson — I like to think it was not necessarily a bad sign that he died a few days after the tribute appeared — but it had a stirring effect on some other established writers, who might have quite liked the idea of one of their number being celebrated as a crucial figure in modern intellectual history. If him, why not them? No doubt inspired by motives rather more exalted than that, Graham Greene asked the TLS chief editor Arthur Crook who had written the Wilson piece. Crook having spilled the beans, I duly received a letter from Greene himself, telling me that he, too, held a high opinion of Wilson, but that he was very glad someone so young should have written the opinion down. Flatteringly avuncular, Greene suggested that I might consider the discursive critical essay as my destined field of operations. The piece wasn’t as long as the letter I wrote in reply, which was probably the reason I never heard from him again. (I had not yet learned that any writer, even when much less prominent than Greene, is swamped with correspondence and should never be communicated with at any length greater than a single paragraph. A single sentence is plenty.) Still, I had that first letter from him, and there were many other letters from other people to back it up. I had done something right, and had done it, not with one eye on my ambitions, but by submitting myself to an obligation.

The lesson was not lost on me, although I was a long time figuring out the full range of implication. The range can be summed up thus: given the choice between personal opportunism and public duty, go with the duty. The rewards might not show up straight away, but they will outlast the quick returns for cynicism. Since rewards are still in mind, that interpretation might seem opportunistic in itself, but only because of a supervening paradox: virtue resides in the taming of a baser instinct, not in its elimination. Our baser instincts act in our interests, to get us fed, to make us loved, to keep our children safe. For all but the saints, neglect of one’s own interests limits the power even to be altruistic. One gets more free time, but only to interfere. It must have been just about then, in her Observer column, that Katherine Whitehorn wrote, ‘You can recognize the people who live for others by the haunted look on the faces of the others.’ I didn’t have to write it down: it went straight to memory, which may have displaced some of the words, but the balance of the sentence was unforgettable. With the best writers for the Sunday papers and literary magazines in those days, one of the pleasures was their confidence of aphorism — a confidence generated, as always, by the receptivity of the audience. The resonant sentence has been a basic form throughout the history of philosophy; a form in which all the best writers sound the same and time collapses into a permanent present. Consider one of my favourite moments from Seneca, his warning to the tyrant: you can kill as many enemies as you like, but your successor will be among those who survive. It’s an insight anyone can have, but made penetrating by the compactness with which it is put.

I loved the idea of talking that way on the page. It had only dimly occurred to me that the same sort of thing might be possible on radio, and as yet I had no idea at all that it might be possible on television. (Not for me, at any rate: it was already the quality I admired most in veteran broadcasters like Rene Cutforth, Robert Kee, Charles Wheeler, Ludovic Kennedy and numerous others in those great days of the overqualified front man.) But the success of the piece on Wilson was the beginning of my confidence in a tactical approach to print journalism by which I might get away with combining the apparently antagonistic roles of wiseacre and smart alec. After all, if a reasonable proportion of the audience read such a long piece to the end, I must have got the tone right. Otherwise there would have been cancelled subscriptions en masse.

Thus glowing with self-esteem, I was better equipped to handle my status as gooseberry when Pete and Julie went to studio with The Party’s Moving On. Though my name was on the roller somewhere as writer and script editor, the humbling truth was that my contribution had ceased to be useful after Pete had set my lyrics to music. Needing the full range of cameras and lights, the shows were taped at the old Rediffusion studios in Wembley, a district no lovelier then than it is now. All the tapes were wiped long ago, so once again it is safe to say that the results were good. They had enough impact at the time to help Pete get his first recording contract, with Philips: part of a tangled story that would have dominated my life in the first half of the 1970s if I had been doing nothing else, and came close to breaking my nerve even though I was. More of that later, because, for the moment, The Party’s Moving On shows were sheer euphoria for the two of us who had written the songs, and I shouldn’t let those real feelings of satisfaction be blunted by the unearned maturity of retrospect, which is always a false perspective if it invalidates past emotions. It’s like belittling a lost love: you are calling yourself stupid for ever getting into it, when actually you were at your best, and you would not be wiser now if you had not been foolish then. When I watched Pete and Julie singing our songs, I was as proud as I have ever been in my life: I thought we were all on the road to immortality. The long truth was that we had no chance of general popularity as song writers, but in the short run it felt as if we had, because there was our stuff, right there on television. As Pete would be the first to admit, Julie was the radiant centre of the appeal. She looked and sounded like a blessing, and you would have sworn — you and almost any showbiz executive who saw and heard her in action — that she was headed for great things. Whether or not she would accept her destiny was up to her. If, in the course of time, she did not become one of the biggest stars in the world, it can only have been because she chose not to.

For those of us less gifted, the choice is not so open. We have to chase our luck or else run out of it. Making the dreary train journey to Wembley for what often seemed no good reason, I soon found that my opinion of myself as a spare wheel was not shared by Stella, who gave me all kinds of credit for the song shows, which she somehow decided I had been supervising by telepathy from my position in the canteen or, more often, the bar. Any impression of mental puissance might have been increased by the fact that I was usually to be seen working hard with notebook and biro, shaping up a new book review or a linking script for BBC radio’s Kaleidoscope, on which I had graduated from occasional contributor to semi-regular front-man. In aid of these projects, books would be stacked up on the table at which I sat. For television executives, who are more likely to err through an excess of respect for the clerical life than through a deficiency, there could have been no more convincing evidence of cerebral fecundity. People must have tiptoed to Stella’s office and told her that I was reading, writing, drinking and smoking simultaneously. Stella in her turn must have been further convinced that she was hatching a new Leonardo da Vinci. She informed Paul Knight that I was to be regarded as the key man, the potential presiding genius, for a new series of light-entertainment shows that would exploit the coruscating talents of all my young graduate colleagues. The conversations between Paul and Stella took place high up in LWT’s office building near the studios. Had Paul but known it, this was the exact moment to strap on his parachute and step out of the window. Even if, the parachute given insufficient time to deploy, he had arrived in the car park at terminal velocity, the quick journey downward would have been less painful for him than what was to happen next. But he didn’t know that yet. Later in his career, he would be better equipped to detect the shadow of an oncoming turkey. I can take some credit for sharpening that awareness.

Back in the Angus Steak House in Swiss Cottage, I got together with my troops. In a kind of Round Table conference with yet another notched tomato-half as a centre piece, we persuaded ourselves that a good title for the new spectacular would be What Are You Doing After the Show?. It is never a good idea for a title to ask a question, because in the event of mishap the question is an open invitation for sardonic onlookers to supply the answer. As time would prove, the answer to ‘What are you doing after the show?’ was ‘I am going to crawl away behind a dung-heap and die in agony.’ But we didn’t know that then. Prescience came after the event, as it almost always does. Before the event, we were high on the possibilities of replacing the moribund traditions of television variety with the teeming, tumbling enthusiasm of our bright young selves. We were partly right about the moribund traditions — if The Black and White Minstrel Show wasn’t still on the air, it hadn’t been off the air long — but we were wholly wrong about having the wherewithal to replace them. My troops were clever and in some cases brilliant, but as far as material went, they had just about enough new ideas in stock to furnish a single show. It should have been evident to me that the series would run out of substance soon after it was launched. It would be a Chinese paper skyrocket. More accurately, considering the size of its budget, it would be a huge new ship sliding backwards down the slipway and continuing its trajectory until it disappeared under the waters of the Clyde, leaving a lot of people with rattles in their hands silently examining a vast area of foam.

Perhaps this likelihood, not evident to me at the time, should have been evident to those who had hired me, but it would be unfair to blame them. After all, I had done my share of talking them into it, and nobody who has ever complained about his unique vision being stifled has a right to object when the supposedly repressive forces remove the pillow from his face and give him permission to rise up and strut his stuff. Later on I made a lot of bitter comments about how Stella and her executives had no real idea of what originality was. Stella, in particular, kept saying that she wanted ‘something new, like the Laugh-In’. At the time, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, freshly syndicated from America, was making everything else on British television look horse-drawn. The show was fronted by the two men with their names in the title. Their names were practically all they had to contribute. A pair of cocktail-lounge hacks as far below Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis as you could get before arriving at Abbot and Costello, on screen they reprised their perennial on-stage relationship in short front-of-curtain numbers between sketches featuring the show’s true talents, a bunch of young eccentrics ranging from Arte Johnson to Henry Gibson, by way of Lily Tomlin and Goldie Hawn. The ideal Laugh-In sketch was scarcely longer than its own punchline. I learned a lot from watching, but the part that I should have studied harder was the roller. The names of the writers went on for ever. In other words, the onscreen talents, almost without exception, were not writing their own stuff. So when our executives said they wanted ‘something new, like the Laugh-In’, there were actually asking for a large-scale operation without any logistical support.

But I could have pointed that out, had I been wiser. Paul Knight would have listened. A bit later on, as the disaster unfolded, he was the first to spot that we needed to recruit other writers pronto. Any writers: V. S. Naipaul if he was available. Had I foreseen the necessity, I could have cast myself in the role of co-ordinator and catalyst. On the Laugh-In, that very role had been played by an Australian wanderer called Digby Wolfe, who remains, to this day, one of the unsung heroes of a TV revolution. (Another was Ernie Kovacs, whose fame as a performer eclipsed his influential originality as an ideas man.) In an earlier phase of American TV, programmes like Your Show of Shows had a table of writers so numerous that Mel Brooks, Woody Allen and Dick Cavett were lost among them. But the tumult could be kept under control by the central ego of the single star, such as Jackie Gleason or Sid Caesar. The Laugh-In, with a whole bunch of stars, needed someone to channel its writing staff. Digby Wolfe was the right man. From this distance, I no doubt tend to idealize him, but I should be quick to say that my estimation of his importance did not come from him. Indeed I never met him. He would have been hard to know anyway, as the buccaneering showbiz writers so often are. But I know them as a type, and have fondness for them. Buck Henry was one of them. Terry Southern was another. Southern was unclassifiable until he hit the big money in Hollywood. Not surprisingly, considering his personal habits, the big money hit him right back. By the time that there were no substances left to abuse, he had disappeared into an endless mess of aborted projects — first finished but useless, then unfinished, then half-finished, then unstarted. But the essence of the man was never on the screen anyway: not even in Easy Rider or the best bits of Doctor Strangelove. The essence was in Candy and The Magic Christian, and in some of the factual stories in Red Dirt Marijuana. I never stole anything from him but I admired his colloquial tone. (Listen to Aunt Livia in Candy and ask yourself if Ring Lardner, J. D. Salinger or Philip Roth ever eavesdropped on everyday conversation with quite so acute an ear.) It was easy to guess that Southern’s judgement of pitch had a lot to do with his itinerant life. He was a pirate. Fancying that I, too, sailed under a black flag, I forgave him too readily for his compulsive urge to screw up almost every task he took on. I should have realized that he had not forgiven himself: hence the capacity for self-destruction. Though a direct product of his fecklessness, his appetite for mind-altering drugs was a proclivity I was less inclined to be understanding about, and had no urge at all to emulate.

The evidence of what drink could do to me was by that time impressing even me, and there was obviously something wrong with the logic of replacing alcohol with dope. The counterculture’s growing population of drug experts were vocally certain that marijuana provided a more benevolent high than alcohol. There may have been something to that argument, since even today I know people from that time whose long-term relationship with the weed has lent them a lasting mellowness, in sharp contrast to the many drunks I have known who crashed early, and — the worst aspect — took innocent civilians with them. I may go into this subject further at the appropriate moment. For now, enough to say that the notion of hash as a substitute for alcohol, whether the proposal is valid or not, must surely be dependent on the premise that the intake of sweet smoke should be moderate.

Unfortunately I found that my intake of funny cigarettes was no easier to control than my intake of ordinary ones. I never exactly lit one joint off another, but there was only a short pause for contemplation, right up until the point when a state of suspended animation left me deprived of power to reach for a cigarette paper, lay down a line of tobacco, and sprinkle it with expensive crumbs. At somewhere about this time, our colony shifted from Swiss Cottage to Gibson Square, a rundown but finely proportioned Georgian feature of the not-yet-fashionable Islington. I can’t remember a single detail of how we made the move, and you can guess the reason. I’m fairly sure that I had to be carried. At Wembley I was never high in the daytime. Circumstances there were so desperate that I would probably have sobered up within seconds even if I had arrived stoned. At the rate it was going, What Are You Doing After the Show? would run out of material entirely somewhere in the middle of the third instalment. The performers were too busy rehearsing to come up with new sketches even had they been inspired to. Since I was not on screen myself, in theory I had plenty of time to write material, but somehow, even under the gun, I found it hard to write lines for anyone except myself. Thus I became a large part of the problem. I thought I knew the answer: persuade any Footlights writers, present or past, to rally to the flag. Paul gave me carte blanche, and a budget, to do the persuading. The prospect of getting paid lured some of them to attend meetings at Wembley. But I had forgotten that most of the Footlights writers I had known in recent years had never produced more than three sketches a year for term-time smoking concerts, and, of those three sketches, only one would make it into the May Week revue, where it was usually performed by the writer himself, and not always to a storm of applause. Now engaged in the early stages of a career in the responsible professions, but still hankering for a time when they had trailed small clouds of thespian glory, these wistful luminaries seemed keen enough for the task. But when they went away to write something for us, they usually came back with something suitable only for themselves. Often they did not come back at all, which left me making explanations about their mercurial individuality.

Even more humiliating, I arranged a meeting with my fellow ex-President of Footlights Graeme Garden at the Salisbury pub in St Martin’s Lane, where I did an upright version of going on my hands and knees. The vertical grovel tended towards the horizontal as I finally grasped that he had no reason to take the bait. He, Bill Oddie and Tim Brooke-Taylor had something else in mind. They had already slogged for several years each in sketch shows and were cooking up a format that would sustain itself without the exhausting search for a punchline. Eventually The Goodies would out-rate even Monty Python. The standard gag about The Goodies was that half the ratings consisted of Orson Welles, who for some reason found the three bumbling chums exquisitely amusing. But the standard gag was simply envy talking. Liberating its three stars from the deadly treadmill of sketch humour, The Goodies was a solid hit. It was still just an idea at the time when I was begging for my life from Garden, but it was a real idea, and he had needed only to hear my sales pitch to realize that our idea wasn’t. Paul Knight, with typical realism, analysed my dilemma on the basis of results. Leafing through the pitifully small heap of our scripts, he told me the truth. ‘We are in deep shtuck.’ I had seen the word printed, but had never heard it said, so I hadn’t known that it was pronounced to rhyme with ‘book’. Perhaps provoked by the way I seemed to relish what he was saying rather than being disturbed by it, he went on to explain how most of my admittedly gifted colleagues invented material only when the mood took them, and that what we now needed were professionals, who would turn the stuff out against the clock. He then amplified on his preliminary remark. ‘We are in deep, deep shtuck.’ I savoured the expression even as it plunged me into gloom. I liked his style. For some reason he also liked mine, even though I had helped get him into the profound ordure that would close over our heads if something drastic were not done soon.

Having determined the true nature of the emergency, Paul whistled in the first two of what would eventually be half a dozen writers previously unknown to us even by name, but who had solid track records as suppliers of material to the sort of variety shows we theoretically despised. The first two were called Mike and Dave. They were very young. Their attire seemed designed to demonstrate that the 1970s would be an era unprecedented for its ill-judged extravagance of men’s clothes. I won’t go into details about the synthetic materials and the clash of colours. Enough to say that when Mike and Dave stood close together they created static. If you scanned them from their platform boots upwards, your capacity for response was already sapped before you arrived at the part where their faces should have been separately visible. Standing up, they were already hanging loose. Sitting down, they were a shambles. A luxuriance of hair, sideboards and moustache, punctuated by two pairs of rimless dark glasses, made it hard to tell if they were awake or even alive. They spoke in a relaxed, combined mumble that transmitted little beyond an abstract amiability, but they proved commendably flexible in adapting their writing style to ours. Indeed they did so with daunting ease. The same proved true with most of the other writers who were brought in to join them. After our first studio date yielded a show that made it clear we were already running out of our own stuff, reinforcements arrived by taxi. Without exception they were object lessons in professionalism.

Long before I grew older and wiser, I could already see that these peripatetic writers were the essential logistic element of British comedy, as crucial to a long campaign as the PLUTO pipeline was to the Allied invasion of Europe. Today, if you want to get the history of what happened in British light entertainment from music hall and ENSA onwards through radio and into television, you would be wasting your time asking even the best qualified academic. The people to ask are jobbing script doctors like Barry Cryer. In the course of about a hundred years Cryer has written for almost every comedian and tells a better story than all of them. But he has always been too canny to squander his personal stories on the air. Instead, apart from a little touring stage show that fits into a suitcase, he largely confines himself to after-dinner speaking, by which he makes unimaginable amounts of money. Laconically recounted, his anecdotes stem from hands-on experience of every showbiz era since Ralph Roister-Doister devised the first greased-pig-and-flaming-fart act at the court of Edward II. In our era, Cryer was working on every show in the building except ours. We couldn’t afford him. Sometimes on the elevated railway platform at Wembley I would meet him. He was comfortably insulated by a fleece-lined car-coat against the wind. Even at that slightly earlier stage of his long career he could have been travelling in the back of a Rolls had he wished: but like most of the more prudent people in show business he believed in keeping the costs down. As we gazed out over square miles of urban blight that the Luftwaffe had never summoned the energy to bomb, he kindly predicted that the biggest thing I would have going for me in my career was that I performed my own stuff, so I would never be able to fire my writer, even if I felt like it.

Though he phrased this as amiable banter, actually he was touching on a theme crucial to the whole field of comedy in whatever medium. But the theme is rarely mentioned, because the cult of celebrity gets in the way. It is really quite useless to talk about the career of Tony Hancock, for example, without taking notice of the fact that he did not write his own stuff. His talent was solely for delivery. Fatally for him, he grew much too fond of being called a genius, and much too reluctant to admit that a proper script was essential. Ego duly eroded judgement, and he got rid of his best writers, Galton and Simpson, hoping to prove thereby that he had never needed them. His subsequent decline proved that the need had been desperate. Morecambe and Wise, on the other hand, were always smart enough to admit that they relied on the writing of Eddie Braben. Trace back the tradition of television comedy and you arrive at the radio studios where a hidden elite of writers served nearly all the famous names. Within the business, the writers were famous names themselves. A comparable figure to Cryer was Barry Took, who had always done valuable work as a radio writer behind the scenes. But the moment came when he was offered executive power in television, and he saw the virtues of taking a rest from the hard graft of personally turning out the funny stuff. Instead, he would supervise other people while they did it. Unfortunately for me, this was the moment. Rupert Murdoch was on the point of taking over at LWT. Stella Richman was feeling the cold. What Are You Doing After the Show? was less than a triumph — the few people watching it were still waiting to find out what it was about — and Barry Took discovered, no doubt to his alarm, that one of his new executive duties was to make our bright idea look worth its budget.

He was in a difficult position, but it’s a rule of the game that if the man in charge of you is in a difficult position, it will never feel quite as difficult as yours. Barry Took had a lot of experience in script construction and unlike many weathered veterans he was not jealous of his turf. Later on, as a light-entertainment executive at the BBC, he helped the Monty Python crew when he could easily have hindered them. Showbiz journalists, who are always looking for an angle, often identify Took as the secret genius behind Monty Python: an opinion which, when it began to circulate, he was understandably slow to contradict. In cold fact, and in a far more complicated story than any journalist had the patience to unscramble, the Pythons, one and all, had climbed bloodily through a string of less original shows and had learned to look after themselves individually long before. But when they finally got together, undoubtedly it was Took who made sure that the door was held open while they trooped through it. He thus had some right to have his name embroidered on the nappy of their brainchild. He would probably have done the same for us if our brainchild was still in the womb. But it was already in the world, and it was ill. Took, therefore, was not just in the position of marshalling talent. He had to supply some talent of his own. Talent he unquestionably had, but he lacked the further talent of being tactful about it. He knew better than us. He might have been right about that, but by sending our stuff back for review after Paul Knight had already approved it he inevitably trod crushingly on our immediate mentor’s well-shod toes. The suave Paul was a hard man to ruffle, but when he emerged from his first one-on-one meeting with Took he had a disturbing new variation on his standard theme of despair. ‘We,’ he said thoughtfully, ‘are in deep Took.’

At one point Paul confided to me that any potential faith he might have had in his new commander evaporated when he ran into him in a lift. ‘He started imitating Skippy the Kangaroo.’ No doubt Took, for whom the aforesaid Skippy was an important item on his curriculum vitae, had merely been trying to establish an atmosphere of ebullience, but Paul wasn’t the ebullient type. Everyone who prattles would like to drawl, and Paul was a drawler. As a consequence he gave Took the jumps. With our two big wheels turning out of synch, the whole engine shook itself to bits. After a particularly disastrous script meeting at which Took informed me and the assembled company that our latest batch of scripts needed the kind of excellent jokes once so prevalent on Round the Horne — he recited several of these from memory — I told Paul that I saw no point in staying. Paul let me go with depressing ease. He was well aware that I had played a large part in creating the problem that Took was failing to solve. Deprived of my help, the show looked no worse than before. Though there were plays by Ibsen that were funnier, and several Noh dramas with more pace, very few of the people who continued to tune in actually sued for damages, and apparently a financial problem accounted for the family that committed suicide. But it was a mercy when the show was taken off in mid-series. When the Murdoch buy-in was a done deal, one of the first things he did was to pull the plugs on What Are You Doing After the Show?. It seems that his own answer to its interrogative title had been: ‘Not wasting my money.’ There is never any argument with that, and any young writer who thinks there is had better stick to poetry. I always have, by the way. Especially in bad times, it can help to be alone with the pen and paper, working on a self-contained creation that the money men can’t stop. But it might also be something that they will not publish. Best to have something in the bank, then, before you start feeling brave.

Unjustified self-righteousness helped to ease my retreat. I did some of my usual talking to the troops about how ‘the system’ had conspired to frustrate us. But experience was already playing its valuable role of chastening delusion, and this time I spoke less fluently. It might even have been that I spoke less. A help towards taciturnity, and perhaps towards heart’s ease, was the dreaded weed. Mike and Dave resembled the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers not only in their appearance but in their unlimited supply of high-octane dope. Either in Swiss Cottage or in Gibson Square — I forget which, and given the circumstances I would have forgotten the location even had it been Easter Island — they showed up one evening with what they called a baggy. The baggy turned out to be a sack of hash so thick and rich that you could have bitten into it like a bar of chocolate. Today a stash that size would get you executed in Singapore, and in Thailand they would want to execute your relatives as well. From then on, I and selected members of my squad got used to lighting up with Mike and Dave. I should hasten to say that Pete never touched the stuff, perhaps because he had noticed how it robbed me of my judgement. The lyrics I composed under its influence were the nearest I ever got to writing perfect nonsense, and after trying out a few chords he would wait for the sober version. Nevertheless he was tolerant, which he had to be, because the sweet smoke was everywhere, turning the house into one big tunnel for the Marrakesh Express. We would never have got away with it at the Wembley offices, which were open plan, but at home the very air was heavy with the perfume of burning angel’s wings. On the day I resigned from the show, Mike and Dave promised me a present for that evening. When they arrived at Gibson Square, they had the present in a flute case. Reverently they opened the lid. Inside, lying in a trough of worn blue velvet, was what they told me was the World’s Biggest Joint. The flute case could have been a suitcase and the super-joint would still have been prominent. In the context of its modest container, it looked majestic, like a zeppelin. Mike and Dave, guiding their creation out of its hangar, assured us that the calculations for building it had been precise: this was as long and fat as a joint could be without collapsing under its own weight. Much of the weight, it was explained, consisted of the active ingredient, sprinkled on the loose tobacco to a density never previously achieved by man. ‘You have to imagine,’ murmured Dave, ‘a car-park full of tumbleweed, and then there’s this rain of shit.’ They bent close over their masterpiece. Mike’s voice came, as always, from a distance. ‘We make these all the time,’ he mumbled. ‘But this is the biggest.’ Dave lit a match.

If this book were pure fiction, I could say that my encounter with the super-joint marked the end of my period of Experimenting With Drugs. (Nobody ever explained how stoking yourself with proven narcotics could plausibly be called ‘experimenting’, or why the expression ‘experimenting with alcohol’ had never been heard even from the kind of drinker who wakes up in the police station after driving his car through a bus queue.) In truth, however, the facts are seldom so tidy. My terminal experience didn’t take place until the next night. On the night of the super-joint, I deeply relished every drag. Hidden in the stereo system of the living room, Sandy Denny sang ‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes?’. She could sing that again. Grouped around the dining table in the kitchen, we passed the super-joint around from hand to hand, or rather, in the early stages, from both hands to both hands. The quality was as outstanding as the quantity. After a few turns I was coining philosophical aphorisms, and after a few more turns I couldn’t understand them either. One of the dangerously charming effects of pot is that it lends your most banal comments an alluring depth in your own ears, which is probably the main reason you make exactly the same comments again. Drunks can usually tell that they are being boring but they can’t stop. Pot-heads really believe that they are Socrates or Dorothy Parker. At one point, offering unsolicited comments on Cocteau’s experience with opium, I attempted to quote his aphorism about the only useful help you can give to an aspiring young artist: open the door and show him the tightrope. ‘Open the door,’ I said very slowly, ‘and show him the tide.’ I had run out of energy, but Dave nodded in agreement. ‘That’s good. Room full of ocean. Who was that again?’ With a last burst of effort, I said the name again. ‘Cock. Toe. Cocteau.’ Mike said he had once worked with him at Thames Television.

Next morning I woke up in bed, but felt unusually hot. It was because I was still fully dressed, including shoes. My head felt clear, however: much more so than it would have done had I been drinking. After a hard day at the typewriter, carving into the first of the half dozen deadlines I needed to catch up on, I began to fancy that I had life well worked out. If I could just wean myself away from the sauce to the grass, I would have a dependable release from the anguish of writing that would not interfere with the brain that produced the words. Look at the piece I was writing now, for example: how vibrant in argument, how bold in its use of metaphor! I was alone with my inspiration. The boys were all off in Wembley for the studio day of the final show, and would not be back until late at night, after the inevitable wake. Tough on them. After dining on fish and chips — the fish identical in texture to the chips — I knocked out the final paragraph of the day. It seemed to me that Swift had seldom been so pungently clear, Burke so meticulous in his control of rhythm, Hazlitt so universal in his understanding. Then I settled down in front of the television with my notebook and the makings of a small joint. Compared with the super-joint, of course, all joints were small, but this one really was quite modest: no bigger than a gorilla’s little finger. In consideration of its diffident proportions, however, it seemed permissible, nay mandatory, to be generous with the magic sprinkle. I crop-dusted the tobacco with the prodigality of an American child decorating a scoop of ice-cream with uninhibited use of the toppings supplied. If these metaphors are mixed, they are no more so than the ones I had been concocting during the day, in the flow of a creative confidence I had thought uncommonly lucid. As you will have already guessed, I was still high from the previous night. But I had no means of knowing that, because even my movements in rolling this shyly harmless new spliff were of uncanny precision. The finished product was as tight and neat as a fresh tampon. Almost a pity, really, to set it on fire. At the time there was a catchy Californian expression: ‘Don’t Bogart that joint.’ I not only Bogarted that joint, I Lee Marvined it. In about ten minutes it was gone, and in about twelve minutes so was I.

As I recall, there was not even a brief period of tranquillity before the unpleasantness began. The wave of nausea came straight up the beach, flooded the highway, knocked down the motel, and washed me upside down into the trees. Ever since childhood, the moment I knew I was about to vomit had been a blessed relief from the agonizing hope that it wouldn’t happen. This time the moment of certainty never came. I just felt that the fish and chips were stuck between floors. Meanwhile I myself was steadily ascending, yet for some reason the ceiling got no closer. I was falling upwards, yet not moving. Once again, it would have been a relief if I had. I could nestle against that plaster rosette up there and wait until my stomach made up its mind. But I was pinned to the couch. After about the time it took to build the Sydney Harbour Bridge, I managed to manoeuvre through ninety degrees, hoping to feel better if I lay down.

I felt almost incomparably worse. It was like being taken out to sea by a rip tide. Theoretically you should go with the rip until it brings you back in further along the coast, but there are sharks out there, so you try to swim against it. You get very tired: too tired to lift an arm so that the lifesaver can see you. Lounging superbly in his elevated chair, the lifesaver is checking out the apricot bottoms of the bikini girls on the beach, choosing the one that he will peel and slowly suck the juice out of back in his room while the Great White is biting you in half. The thought that you will soon die is overwhelming. I was having exactly that thought on a ratty mock-leather couch in Islington. I was sweating peanut oil yet my hands were dry: how could that be? My sinuses were full of molten lead. Somehow I knew, without being able to reach down and verify the fact, that my genital area was being redeveloped as a shopping mall. The project would take years to complete, but I didn’t have that long. My life would end in another five minutes. And then another five. All right, another ten. The television screen said goodnight and shrank to a fizzing white dot, the universe ending with a small bang and a long whimper. Time must have a stop. But it doesn’t. We do. I do. What a way to spend eternity, with a growing but forever unconsummated belief that you are about to dump your guts. When the boys finally came rollicking home and asked me what was wrong, I had to answer them with the shortest words I could think of, the words widely spaced by long clenchings of the teeth, as though I were posing for a very old camera with a long exposure time. The clenched teeth held back a blob of ectoplasm the size of a water bed that I could feel occupying every cubic centimetre of my alimentary tract. ‘Joint,’ I said. ‘Too,’ I added. ‘Much.’ From far away there came a voice. ‘Christ, it’s an overdose.’ Then another voice. ‘Never. You can’t O.D. on pot.’ The first voice again: ‘He can.’

The first voice was right. People who say they have an addictive personality are usually just transferring the blame for their deficiency of resolve, but if there really is such a thing as an addictive personality, then I have one. The night of the killer joint was just further proof of a propensity that had been manifest since childhood. Partly as a result of my marijuana experiments, I was able to avoid the harder drugs that were soon to become fashionable. The mere thought of heroin made me remember what had happened to Frank Sinatra in The Man With The Golden Arm when I first saw the film at Ramsgate Odeon in the early 1950s. Actually I had quite liked the thought of being soothed against the luscious bosom of Kim Novak. Sexual experience looked like a good thing to have, even at the cost of sticking a needle in your arm. But the drastic result of the needle being withdrawn looked all too convincing, and from that time forward the cold-turkey episodes of my life — cutting out my daily packet of Jaffas, for example — had been accompanied in my mind by a Saul Bass title sequence and the music of Elmer Bernstein. As to cocaine, I could never see the point, because the people I knew who were burying their heads in heaps of white dynamite seemed to attain no higher state of mental alertness than the one that I was doomed to live in all the time. At one point a medical friend, kindly acting as an unpaid consultant in a period when I was actively shopping for some means of relief from my perennial melancholy, assured me that although it was unlikely that I was naturally secreting C17H21NO4, there is indeed such a thing as a constitutionally determined hyperaesthetic state. The idea checks out with my introspection, to the extent that I have time for it.

To put it in non-technical language, I have a metabolism like Colombia. Unfortunately it is no better governed, and will immediately demand industrial amounts of anything it likes the taste of. In the first volume of this memoir I recorded how I had been the only infant in my district to overdose on marshmallows. In my early teens, down at the local shopping centre, I bought my mother a box of Winning Post chocolates for her birthday — if I have told you this before, it is because the shame has never left me — and ate nearly all of them before I got home. (Presenting her with the almost empty box, I said that there had been an accident. Her reception of the story armed me for life against any reliance on the classic excuse about the dog that ate my homework.) In late adolescence and early maturity, I quickly outstripped my contemporaries as a smoker, and would have done so as a drinker had I possessed a hollow leg to match my thirst. Even today, I can’t buy a roll of Extra Strong peppermints — indispensable equipment for the secret nicotine addict — without swallowing them all one after the other after chewing each no more than twice. Don’t Bogart those sweets? What else are they for? No use asking me to be moderate. Just steer me towards something safe that I can overdo. After a whole roll of instantly inhaled Extra Strong peppermints, for instance, the lips develop a chlorinated tingle, as if after drinking from a swimming pool. Nor does high expense temper the intake. A pot of caviar, no matter how big, rings empty in a few minutes, even though, absorbed at that rate, the soft black buckshot converts the interior of the mouth into a whaling station. Cursed with this tropism, I have never found anything strange about the more decadent Roman emperors and their raging quest for satiety. On the contrary, I marvel at Nero’s restraint.