Books: North Face of Soho — 6. Waking Up Absurd |
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North Face of Soho — 6. Waking Up Absurd


But the night of the killer joint spelled the end of the affair between me and marijuana, and, by extension (I hope it will bear being said again), of any possible flirtation with the more serious drugs that were already creeping into the scene. At the time, the pot-head lobby was still peddling the message that their beloved weed was the gentle alternative to booze. Even today, I know adepts from the period who have built their recreational lives around hash while sidelining the bottle, undoubtedly to the benefit of their personalities. One of them, among our most prominent novelists, is the nicest man I know. He would probably still have been sweet-natured even without his rare knack for growing an infinitely renewable crop of vintage hemp in the window boxes of his apartment, but the stuff certainly didn’t hurt. The second message of the pot brigade, however, sounded dubious even then. Moderate indulgence in the gentle habit, it was alleged, would stave off any urge to get involved with smack. Implicit in this argument was the notion that getting high would somehow increase one’s sense of consequence instead of diminishing it. The time soon came when needle-freaks could be heard announcing that their consumption of brown sugar was well under control. They were seldom in a position to announce this very loudly. Quite often they were in the sitting position, drowsily engaged in the search for a vein, and often enough they were in the supine position, persuasively impersonating a dead Christ by Cranach.

Wishful thinking and drugs are variations on the same theme, so it was no surprise that nothing on the subject sounded true except when said by someone who had been all the way to the limit and somehow contrived to return. Decades before, in the truly alternative society of jazz, Charlie Parker, in one of the rare moments when he was not strung out like a line of washing, had insisted that anyone who thought he could play better when he was high was dreaming. Keith Richards is unlikely to agree with that: after all, he still plays his instrument better than almost anyone else. He could also say that the needle has given him a range of extreme insight that lends depth to his playing, although it is hard to see how music can transmit the experience of flying to get your hair cut in Switzerland and waking up in Tokyo. But no reliable account will ever come from paid-up citizens of the artificial paradise. There is a certain glamour, however, to the way they fantasize: a glamour, and even an authority. Vice always finds it easy to make virtue look naive. Yet it is noteworthy that the knowing voices of the stoned can say so little in rebuttal when a veteran adept tries to point out that the drug thing was always a mistake even though Nancy Reagan said the same. John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas, during a reprieve from the effects of combining all the habits it was possible to have, said that his long personal disaster began with the delectable fumes of marijuana, because they helped to normalize the expectation of getting high. All over the world, old-time hippies who were still dreaming about California greeted Phillips’s admonitions with an orchestrated silence. They just breathed in and waited for what he said to go away.

The same could be said about Carrie Fisher’s excellent debut novel Postcards From the Edge, which remains one of the most fearlessly penetrating memoirs about what cocaine can do to an original intelligence. It doesn’t make the intelligence less intelligent. But it does make the intelligence less able to apply itself: a high price to pay for the bruised charms of an outlaw vocabulary. The remorse that saturates the book’s enchantingly colloquial prose is concentrated in a single moment of the movie version, when Gene Hackman, playing the film director, calls the newly sober actress played by Meryl Streep into the looping studio to show her the scene she thought she had done so well, and she realizes that she made a mess of it. For any kind of artist, that’s the worst feeling there is, and drugs are more likely to ensure you will feel it than to stave it off. There might be such a thing as a self-controlled user who can still create — it was Keith Richards who could play a duet with Chuck Berry, not me — but for those of us who can use up a lifetime’s supply of anything in a fortnight, drugs are out of the question. That was the conclusion I reached when I woke up at about five o’clock in the evening on the day after the night I have described. I went down to the King’s Head and sat alone while I made my resolution. A half pint of lager in one hand and a cigarette in the other, I vowed to stick to the devils I knew. In Cambridge, when the baby arrived, I saw myself as a model of probity, cherishing in my mind a silent pledge: though I might breathe beer on you and blow smoke in your face, I probably won’t drop you out of a window or leave you forgotten in the back of a car. Not that we had a car. Come to think of it, if I didn’t double my output of journalism we wouldn’t even have a roof. Time, as we say in Australia, to take a good pull on myself.

A family would need a house, or at least a bigger flat. The wherewithal was thin on the ground. Sometimes I still dream of it: a sparse blizzard of little cheques. In reality, the cheques were bigger than snowflakes, but in my nightmares they are as tiny as the amounts of money written on them. The cheques for the monthly Listener TV column were the nearest to being a predictable event, like a female sparrow’s period. There were other cheques from the different newspapers and magazines. There were the occasional cheques for appearing on BBC radio panels, the more occasional cheques for chairing the panel, and the very occasional cheques for contributing material for a radio series like I’m Sorry, I’ll Read That Again, with which I had a loose connection but no regular contract. The songs would of course make millions one day but so far, with Pete’s first album still waiting for release, they had earned only the standard payments for being played on the radio: payments that were collected by the Performing Rights Society and extremely occasionally transformed into the smallest cheques of the lot. (Sometimes they were for less than a pound.) Nowhere among these drifts of unimpressive bits of paper was there any mention of a pension or insurance. If I got sick for a week, our whole financial system shrank to fit my wife’s not very startling salary as a junior academic. I had long been accustomed to more than my fair share of that, but always on the understanding that my creative efforts would eventually generate the cash to pay her back and to pay my way, with something left over so that the family might flourish.

That result was still in prospect, but it was all very chancy. So far the baby didn’t do much except eat, but it wasn’t hard to imagine her wanting other things: clothes, a bicycle, ballet lessons. From that viewpoint, I couldn’t afford to have flu or even a bad cold. I avoided snifflers in trains. Anxiety had barely taken hold, however, before an invitation came from Granada Television. In those days, most of the best programmes on British commercial television were produced by Granada. All Our Yesterdays, What the Papers Say and Cinema were all Granada programmes. For a long time I had been under the impression that Granada Television was broadcast from Spain: an offshore enterprise like pirate radio. Actually Granada was a company based in Manchester, where it was presided over by Lord Bernstein, one of the great generation of Jewish grandees who enriched Britain’s post-war drive to educational justice with their combination of money-making efficiency and an unquenchable philanthropic urge. Possessed of cultural taste and the financial wherewithal to spread its benefits, they played a crucial part in extending cosmopolitan enlightenment to ordinary people. They had seen civilization brought to the brink of ruin and they wanted to bring it back. Bernstein was the pick of the bunch. His flagpole programmes did what the BBC was meant to do but all too often didn’t.

Among those programmes, Cinema had the biggest audience. Michael Parkinson, otherwise the best-known sports journalist in the Midlands, had made his television name as the presenter of Cinema. Now he had decided to move south and to move on. Granada was auditioning for a replacement. The producer of the show, Arthur Taylor, was a young man of rare qualities. He had not risen to his position from the usual Oxbridge background. He had got there by natural initiative. One of the marks of his originality was that he had actually seen a few episodes of Think Twice, a feat of selective attention comparable to having noted down the number plate of the Loch Ness monster. More stunning still, he had picked me as a possible substitute for the suave, neatly dressed and very personable Parkinson. Then as later, the mark of Parkinson’s style on screen was to look as if he was hardly trying. Later on, as a critic, I was to make the mistake of echoing this common opinion in print. The fact, of course, was that he knew exactly what he was doing. But even then, when I didn’t know how he did it, I doubted I could have the same effect of taking it easy on the air. On radio I had managed to slow myself down a bit by that stage, but I still got jumpy enough to swallow the front of every sentence. Couldn’t stop doing it. Kind of verbal impressionism. In a rare fit of honesty, I conveyed some of these doubts to Arthur Taylor by telephone: briefly, because I was worried about the cost of the call. I told him that, too, and he said that a train ticket would be waiting for me at King’s Cross.

The ticket was a first-class return. Today you could fly to Budapest for the cost of a first-class return to Manchester, but the ticket represented a considerable sum of money even then. A quick mental calculation told me that if I was that much ahead I might as well drink the difference. The first-class steward, who had once worked on the Queen Mary and looked distinguished enough to have been her lover, brought supplies of excellent beer to my seat. Luckily, nerves offset some of the effects, so that when I arrived in Manchester I was able to complete the journey to the Granada studio on foot instead of in an ambulance. Nevertheless, Arthur Taylor must have wondered what he had let himself in for. I had another beard going, even more nautical than the last, plus an abundance of hair swerving down the back of my neck and sticking out at the sides, thus to offset, in my view, the bald patch that was conspicuously surfacing on top of my head like an albino volcanic island. The slurred voice emerging from these cranial enhancements might as well have been singing ‘What shall we do with the drunken sailor?’ When I told him there was nothing wrong that a hair of the dog wouldn’t fix, he told me the truth: Granada was a dry house, but there was plenty of coffee. While supplying me with a gallon of that, he mercifully neglected to say that the hair of the dog was already around my chin. He himself was clean shaven and immaculately clad in a well-cut leather sports coat, plain shirt with plain tie, and dark trousers with a knife-edge crease. My own shirt was the usual misjudged polyester paisley extravaganza, topped off with a new semi-suede belted jacket that was already showing signs of having been worn too close to a vat spitting hot oil. At no time did Arthur object to any of these features. Instead he gave me a brief outline of what would be required and led me into the biggest TV studio I had ever seen. There was almost nothing in there except a backdrop, a stool, a camera, a monitor, and a teleprompter. This was the entire kit with which Parkinson had made himself famous. If I got the audition right, it could be my turn.

This chapter would be more fun if I could say that I got it wrong. But my guardian angel descended, radiating benevolence. Later on I was told that the guardian angel was wearing the face of Lord Bernstein, who was watching on closed circuit in his office. By rights he should have taken one look and had me thrown me out of the building, with Arthur landing on top of me. But he decided to listen while I did the stuff that saved me. The script on the teleprompter was to be recorded paragraph by paragraph between a string of film clips that would be played in on the monitor. The girl on the teleprompter control desk was of heartbreaking beauty and magnificence of bosom, so even when dazed I marshalled the energy to show off to her. I had learned a few things when doing Think Twice, and I ripped through the script without a fluff. My tiny, deep-set eyes turned out to be a plus. If I held my head straight, it was hard to tell from the screen that I was glancing sideways. This remained true even after the lighting gaffer tried to give me some eyes by setting a 10K lamp (it was called a ‘brute’) on the floor in front of me, pointing upwards. It lit up my cheekbones like Bela Lugosi thirsty for blood but there was still no telling which way I was looking as I prattled on. The film clips had to be rewound in real time, so there was a pause before the next run-through. During the pause, I did something that would have been really smart if my brain had been involved. Powered by the urge to close the physical distance between me and the pretty girl, I leaned over her angora-clad shoulder and told her how every piece of link material should be rewritten. From that angle, her breasts looked like a couple of nuclear submarines nosing out of harbour, but I managed to concentrate.

Writing in my head, I slipped in a back reference to some detail in each of the clips I had just seen, plus a forward reference to some detail in the next one. I can remember how I got in a pretty good crack about Jack Palance: something about how his first meal had been the midwife’s fingers. Little did I know, as I inhaled the fragrance of the young lady’s hair and she inhaled the fragrance of my breath, that I was in the process of nailing down a job. When we did another run and I made the cameraman laugh with the re-vamped script, I still didn’t know. Later on I learned that Bernstein, from his office, had telephoned Arthur in the control room to ask if anything could possibly be done about my hair. Arthur correctly deduced that this meant Bernstein thought I should be taken on: he wouldn’t be asking for modifications to the appearance of someone he was about to reject. Arthur replied that my beard was probably non-negotiable, being, as it was, a symbol of my refusal to compromise with bourgeois values. (Actually if he had asked me about that, he might have found out that my rebellious stance was flexible when faced with the prospect of losing out on a regular income.) Arthur agreed with Bernstein, however, that the wings of lengthy back-hair that stuck out at the sides, giving the effect of two squirrels hiding nose to nose behind my head, would have to go. When Arthur raised the question tentatively with me, I was too dumb to realize that I was being offered the job. I thought we were discussing a change of costume preparatory to another rehearsal.

But over drinks in the late afternoon, the sweet facts sank in. We took the drinks at a mid-town private club called the Grapes. Arthur explained to me that Granada was dry at Lord Bernstein’s insistence. He had some old-fashioned idea that people worked harder if they weren’t pissed. Granada personnel who wanted a beer during the day had to get it at the nearest pub, and not to be observed when going there. Apparently there was a circuitous route that could not be seen either from the executive floor or from the front desk in the lobby. Threading down fire escapes and along behind annexes, this route was known as the Ho Chi Minh trail. One of the trail’s branches led to the Grapes, where alcoholic drinks were served even outside pub hours. The Manchester United star footballer George Best, then in the last phase of his career but more famous than ever, was often there, attending to his business affairs. ‘Attending to my business affairs’ was a phrase he often used when answering questions from the tabloid reporters who were seldom far away, although mercifully they could gain no access to a private club. At the time, Best owned a Manchester boutique which was inexorably going broke while he sat in the Grapes pulling birds. He was present while Arthur and I had our discussion. Sitting only a few tables away, Best was communicating by telepathy with two attendant blondes while he threw beer coasters in the air and caught them without looking. Arthur assured me that this process was known as a Business Discussion. Our own business discussion seemed equally fantastic to me. I was being offered a contract that would bind me to recording two half-hour shows every second Wednesday for £60 a week each, plus first-class travel each way on the Midland Pullman and a night in the Midland Hotel after the day of recording. There would also be a full day’s work per week in London at the Granada annexe in Golden Square, Soho, where the film clips for the shows would be marked up and the skeleton script worked out, mainly by me. It sounded like a lot of work but in those days £60 a show was big money for a beginner. A guaranteed first series of thirteen shows would produce something like a regular income even if they dropped my option afterwards.

Suddenly I was a breadwinner. As far as I can examine my own motives from this distance, the income was the main consideration, although I suppose the prospect of sudden fame was not without its attractions. The show had made Parkinson well known enough to earn the envy of his fellow journalists — the envy being expressed in the form of vituperation, as usual — and there was also the spectacle, edifyingly close to hand, of George Best and his supporting courtesans. They were looking at him as if he could work miracles. Since the only miracle he was currently working was to toss a beer coaster in the air and catch it without looking, this should have been evidence of their stupidity. But they didn’t look stupid. They looked like the kind of Scandinavian air hostess who could speak four languages and fly the plane if the pilot died of food poisoning. So it should have been clear to them that their hero, when away from the football pitch, had little to offer except a snarl of lechery. But it didn’t work that way. Fame was a universal solvent. Up went the beer coaster, and their eyes flashed as he caught it. You could tell that their underwear, if separated from their bodies, would just hang in the air, like a cloud. I said yes, and somehow made it to the Midland Hotel before I collapsed. I woke up again in time to catch a meal in the dining room before it shut down for the night. I can remember sitting there alone, trying to find my key so that I could prove to the waiter that I was allowed to sign the bill. The key, of course, was in my room, on the bedside table where I had left it after stripping my pockets. It was all very confusing. Something had gone right.

Something else went right not long later. Within a few weeks after taking over the show from Parkinson, I established a working rhythm for the first time in my professional life. Actually it was the first time that I thought of myself as someone who might have a professional life. Until then, everything had been an extension of my student days, minus the academic requirements and plus a sporadic financial reward. Student journalism in Cambridge had been a transition. Hand-to-mouth freelance journalism in London had been a further transition. This was the thing that the transitions were a transition to. This was actually it. I kept all my deadlines going and wrote more poems and songs than ever, but I also had a set task from week to week. Every Thursday I would be in Golden Square, viewing film clips all day and sketching out a commentary. Films that I hadn’t actually seen could be viewed at other times: that didn’t count as work. But choosing the clips was quite demanding if it were to be done well, and I wanted to write something more engaging than factual filler. Luckily, for a new movie the clips were already specified by the film companies, so there were no agonies of selection. There were sometimes agonies about what the film companies had been foolish enough to release, but there was no way out of that.

The day’s work was sealed by a few beers with Arthur at Soho’s most notorious drinking club, the Colony Room. Nothing about the Colony Room was more notorious than its proprietress, the notorious Muriel Belcher. She had a lot of notorious clients, most notoriously the painter Francis Bacon, but they were all outdone for notoriety by Muriel’s face, which was a study in unrelenting hatred. I somehow got the idea that she hated me in particular. Perhaps she remembered me for the day in the early sixties when I had been in there in the role of gooseberry at a meeting between Robert Hughes and Colin MacInnes. I had distinguished myself on that occasion by my unfortunate trick of increasing the volume of my voice as it lost coherence. But she had seen plenty of drunks who did the same thing. No, this, surely, was a whole new loathing. I was probably putting too specific a value on her general manner. I thought she had a way, when I was ordering my round, of looking at me as if I were the suppurating corpse of a crushed toad. But she would have done the same for anybody. She looked that way even at Francis Bacon himself, who was often to be seen hulking notoriously beside the bar. He looked like what he was, a mad painter, and Muriel looked as if he had painted her. It was a frightening symbiosis, but it made me feel part of the action.

There was more action later, when Arthur left to catch his train back north and I headed off unsteadily to the Pillars of Hercules. At the Pillars, Ian Hamilton held his usual position at the bar, all set to receive incoming manuscripts and shred them in the presence of their perpetrators. Often I had a manuscript ready to receive this treatment, but now I had more confidence than usual, because I was at the end of a day’s work that was, incontrovertibly, work. If I had done the work reasonably well, I was all set for the trip to Manchester every second Wednesday morning on the Midland Pullman. From the culinary angle, the Midland Pullman was the most luxurious thing that had yet happened to me in my life, with the possible exception of a few nights out with my future wife and her friends in a little restaurant near Santa Croce in Florence, in the days when I was too green to know that the pimps and hookers who infested the place were eating like royalty, and that those tiny slices of beef were as good and real as meat can get. Even today I am not much of a one for caring about food, as long as it isn’t trying to kill me. Sequestered in my apartment while working on a book or a long essay, I am not quite the kind of slob I might have been if I didn’t care at all what I ate. I take pride in my timing. When heating the contents of a can of stewed steak, I keep a watchful eye on the saucepan to make sure I stir the stew at the exact moment when the first bubbles appear. Sometimes I wander off, start fiddling with a sentence, and notice only from the thick smoke and the smell of a crashed oil truck that something has gone awry. But usually I remember to stay near the hob. I try to keep an aesthetic measure to my simple needs. When cutting the corner of the plastic bag of the boil-in-the-bag piece of cod in white sauce, I try to cut it in a clean straight line so that no sauce gets on the scissors. The women at home don’t let me eat cod — something about the world’s stock being dangerously depleted, apparently by me personally — so when I eat cod in my apartment it tastes like a stolen truffle. But I couldn’t care less about presentation. The stew goes into a bowl and the cod goes onto a plate, often with some green stuff added — spinach, beans, broccoli or those sweet little peas from a can — so as to stave off scurvy. The resulting visual arrangement is a legitimate cause for pride, in my view, but I don’t call it presentation. On the rare occasions when, usually for business reasons, I am trapped in an up-market restaurant, I have been known to gaze at the exquisitely arranged main course — usually a small edifice of sprigs, shavings and sprouts in the middle of the plate — and wonder aloud when the food is coming. I have never been back to any restaurant where three waiters lift the silver dish covers simultaneously at a murmured signal. They look like a brass band and you’ll be eating their sheet music.

Later on, as we move further into a context of financial adequacy, I might return to this theme, but suffice it for now to say that breakfast on the Midland Pullman was a nice change from the Angus Steak House, even though the same notched tomatoes were a feature. In those days it was still true that the secret of eating well in Britain was to have breakfast three times a day. The Midland Pullman breakfast was what the British Indians of today have learned to call an English. Nothing that could make you fat was left out. Even the bread was fried. The black pudding was an ice-hockey puck soaked in the same fat that had drowned the bacon. The sausage, when cut, bled a thick, rich crude oil. The fried eggs were scorched brown around the edges like flying saucers after a battle in space. It was all brought to your table by waiters who expected to live and die in the service of British Rail. Later on I was to see the same dedication in the Qantas stewards of the airline’s glory days: swervingly tactile Judy Garland fans who brought a deep love of choreography to the task of treading on the passenger’s feet, they would present the next bottle of chardonnay as if it were a newborn baby to which they themselves had given birth. If a Midland Pullman waiter was troubled by the spectre of lingering class divisions, he didn’t show it. You were called ‘Sir’ when asked if the massed calories already supplied were sufficient to fuel your next heart attack, or would you like an additional plate of fried bread?

Having washed it all down with a couple of beers, I would arrive in Manchester several pounds heavier than when I left London. Under my beard, my first double chin was arriving with the same inevitability as my temples were retreating, but I was still young and dumb enough to feel fighting fit. I had my script ready and I was ready to deliver it. I had kept the rule of having two beers only. They would wear off by the time we went for the tape. I hadn’t forgotten the consequences of going on stage drunk at Hampstead — I still haven’t forgotten — and I can truthfully say that I was always careful, even in my most dissipated years, never again to get tight before the show. The thought that what I did after the show might be damaging me anyway, with a steadily more devastating effect, had not yet occurred to me — partly because, no doubt, of the thoughtlessness induced by the steady massacre of the brain cells. But there were enough brain cells left over at that stage for their owner to figure out that a certain precision of delivery might be a useful characteristic to cultivate, with benefit for the reputation. And indeed I soon became pretty good at hitting the words in a visual ten-second countdown from the floor manager, and at reciting the long paragraphs without a stumble. In the dressing room before rehearsal, I went through my tongue-twister drills. ‘Unique New York,’ I intoned. ‘Red leather, yellow leather.’ There was a useful couplet from Edith Sitwell. ‘Pot and pan and copper kettle/ Put upon their proper mettle.’ If my tongue felt thick I cooled my head in cold water.

In the studio I could go for hours without a fluff. This ability was doubly important because in a clip show like Cinema a fluff could have large consequences. The clips were arranged sequentially on a single roll and were played in on time no matter what, because there were no editing facilities to clear out dead air. If a fluff screwed the cue, the clip roll had to be rewound to the start in real time. A presenter who mangled his words could be there for days on end. Hitting all the marks, I got a reputation as the One-Take Kid. Actually, in the long term, this was a dangerous reputation to have, because, after instant-start tape machines and electronic editing came in, a presenter who never wasted any time was simply setting himself up for putting too much work into the day. But at that time it was not only good manners to get it right first crack, it was a requirement. As I told Arthur over drinks in the Grapes afterwards, I was quite proud of meeting the demands. He smiled tolerantly, which was very nice of him. So I told him again. At dinner, I told the beautiful teleprompter girl the same thing. Under her angora twinset, her magnificent breasts stirred with emotion as she leaned forward and murmured something that was to live long in my memory. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever gone off anyone so fast.’ But if I had trouble accepting the fact that I was a married man with a family — a thousand years later I am still struggling with the concept — there was at least a glimmer of awareness that my working life was acquiring a sense of order.