Books: North Face of Soho — 7. Square-Eyed in Darkness |
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North Face of Soho — 7. Square-Eyed in Darkness


The opportunity of restoring it to chaos soon arose. At the Observer, Terry Kilmartin was printing my book reviews with sufficient frequency to attract the attention of the editor, David Astor, whose position at the paper was made no less influential by the fact that his family owned it. The paper was looking for a critic who could give the TV column the same sort of currency as the film column. When Penelope Gilliatt wrote the film column, people read it even if they never went to the cinema. The Observer bigwigs naturally assumed that the paper’s intelligent, upper-crust readership couldn’t possibly be watching television regularly. How, then, to make the TV column into a talking point like the film column? They decided that they were looking for a TV critic with a similarly identifiable prose style. Actually they already had a stylist on the job, Maurice Richardson. But Richardson was getting to the end of his career. Early on he had been a substantial name, author of a little classic of humour, The Exploits of Engelbrecht. Richardson was never as prolific as Paul Jennings, but he was in the same camp as a colloquial fantasist, and at his best he was of the same rank. Unfortunately he had developed idleness into an art form. He had got to the stage where making a minimum effort shows up in one’s prose as a repetitive bag of tricks. He took on a book review mainly with an eye to selling the book afterwards, and had grown so dependent on the book-reviewer’s classic perk that he would raid Terry’s office at lunchtime for books he could sell even when he wasn’t going to review them. His long voyage was ending in a slow shipwreck. I had already seen a few similar cases around Fleet Street and was starting to wonder how I could avoid the same fate for myself. The recurring picture of decrepitude seemed always to be connected with alcohol. There was a conclusion to be drawn from that, but the prospect of drawing it was so depressing that it drove me to the pub, where Terry would assure me that it was a bit early to start worrying about the end of my career. Terry, who found the English social consciousness tedious, enjoyed the company of off-trail vagabonds. By the way he laughed in disbelief, I could tell that he found my naked ambition refreshing, especially because I seemed less ambitious for anything in particular than for everything at once. As for me, I had found yet another father figure.

But this father figure gave me no clue that the job of TV critic was about to fall vacant, and that I might be up for it. Instead, I was invited to lunch by two of the paper’s senior staff, Richard Findlater and Helen Dawson. The lunch took place at Bianchi’s, the most written-up media restaurant of the period. The word ‘media’ might not yet have arrived in the language as a singular noun, but the actual thing, regarded as a collectivity, most definitely had arrived in the social fabric, although its personnel had not yet taken to writing mainly about each other. If you ate in Bianchi’s you were part of the new communications meritocracy. Until recently I had been part of the communications underclass which ate at Jimmy the Greek’s. Still haunted by the identical cockroaches that had blocked the way to the toilet during my first year in London, Jimmy’s was on the same block in Soho as Bianchi’s. In fact its distance from Bianchi’s could be measured only vertically, because Jimmy’s was in the basement and Bianchi’s was on the first floor, practically in a straight line upwards. The distance was about fifteen feet but it could seem like fifteen miles to a young man with aspirations. People could lose their hair and gain an extra stomach as they made the climb. (Only Melvyn Bragg ever arrived at the top looking the same as when he left the bottom. In fact he looked younger. Eventually he arrived in the House of Lords looking as if he had just finished a game of conkers. Nobody has ever been able to figure out how he does this.) Breathless from the climb, I was pointed to the table by the front window where Findlater and Dawson were sitting. On the way I stopped to satisfy the curiosity of Nick Tomalin, who was holding court at a table of his Sunday Times cronies. Ever the investigative journalist, he asked me how I had got in. I told him that I had no idea. His tilted glance sparkled with suspicion through his thick glasses as I moved on. It was my first experience of table-hopping, a practice that I later came to disapprove of. But apart from murder, bank robbery and rape there has never been much I disapproved of that I didn’t try out first, and I was aglow with that wanted feeling as I joined my hosts. The padrona, known only but universally as Elena, had just brought them a carafe of wine. Included in the round of introductions, she told me that she never missed an episode of Cinema, collected my book reviews in a special folder, and had not realized that my body, now visible at full length without the restrictions imposed by the small screen, would have such an athletic appearance, although she should have guessed it from the strength of my features, so unusually definite for one of such sensitivity. It was easy to see why she was the designated den mother of a thousand male misfits all thirsty for flattery. Her face glowed with maternal concern. I thought I detected the same fond look in the eyes of Helen Dawson, but for some reason her smile had developed a curl of the top lip. Findlater stared into the far distance, perhaps remembering what it had been like to be young, clueless, and still thrilled to have set foot on the road ahead. He was all too aware that the road ahead led around the block and, unless you were lucky, back down to Jimmy’s.

Sharp cop, vague cop. It took me a while to figure out what these two were after. Unnervingly familiar with my monthly Listener TV pieces, they asked me why I treated the mass-entertainment programmes at the same length as the important stuff. I told them what I thought: that the mass entertainment was even more important, because a popular programme actually embodied social values, whereas prestige programmes merely examined them. By then this was a theme that I had worked out in detail, and I spared my hosts none of the nuances as the wine started to do its work. As I banged on, Findlater’s eyes glazed over like the devilled kidneys he and I both chose for a main course. Later on I was to realize that his eyes were usually that way: I had merely failed to notice. There had been a time when Findlater, as a theatre critic, was level-pegging with Kenneth Tynan, but an era had passed, and now Findlater was one of those figures who haunted the corridors as they worked out their time. His very availability for this mission to size me up was in itself a bad sign, because Helen Dawson, lunching off a leaf of lettuce, was clearly the brains of the outfit. Her tongue was keen to match. Even when she approved of what I said, she spoke as if I were trying to sell her a used car, and she met any loose opinion with plain scorn. Her level of aggression was rare for a woman in an English context, and would have been rare for a leopard in an African context.

Not long later, that must have been one of the qualities that made her appealing to John Osborne, who was unusual among playwrights in his propensity for staging a scene in real life. Indeed he got to the point where he would rather do it there than in the theatre. After he married Helen Dawson, their conversations must have been like the plays he might have written instead. They lived in a large country house, which no doubt gave Osborne plenty of extra rooms in which to conceal himself. In Bianchi’s I was at the future Mrs Osborne’s mercy. Feeling as if I were somewhere in the middle of Act Two of Look Back in Anger, I nevertheless pressed on, as if stimulated by her sour interjections. The penny dropped when she asked me if I thought I could keep up a weekly schedule. Writing once a month in the Listener, she informed me, I might be able to scrape a thousand words together from intermittent viewing, but writing once a week would be a full-time job. At last it occurred to me that a full-time job was on offer. Suddenly I became taciturn. It was because I was stunned and frightened, but it must have looked as if I was indifferent. Not for the last time in my life, it didn’t hurt to let the bait drift by instead of lunging at it. Findlater came momentarily into focus. ‘What can we do to persuade you to come to us?’ Mentally I replied that a large salary would help. Then I heard myself saying it. ‘A large salary would help.’

Helen Dawson liked that. It was her kind of talk. ‘How about an ordinary salary?’ At least that’s how I remember what she said. She might have said, ‘Don’t be a prick.’ Whatever she said, I felt emboldened to explain that my stint on Cinema would not be something I would willingly give up if Granada renewed my contract after the first series, so I would be letting myself in for working night and day. It was clever of me not to say that I was already working night and day. In fact it was more than clever: it was an outright suppression of the truth. More accurately, it was a lie. But with my remaining powers of reason, I thought it might be better to secure the offer first and then figure out what to do next, rather than pointing out the impossibilities in advance. The sharp cop must have known that she was being hustled, but perhaps she was pleased to meet a whippersnapper who was ready for anything. Findlater, who had snapped his last whip long ago, was calling for the bill. The effect of waving to the waitress took all the energy he had left. His companion’s parting shot was something about how refreshing it was to meet an Aussie so patently on the make. She even pronounced ‘Aussie’ correctly, which was an unusual skill among English journalists in those days. But her sardonic bent carried the virtue of honesty. The job, she said, was mine for the taking. Suddenly I was looking at the furniture of Bianchi’s as if I had become part of it. In the distance, the suspicion framed by Nick Tomalin’s horn-rims had become a certainty. He was smiling at an angle.

I can remember the restaurant, but I can’t remember how I left it. Whether horizontal or vertical, I should have been feeling ten feet tall. A more reasonable estimate, however, would be ten millimetres, because even in a state of euphoria I could see a problem looming that would tax my reserves of moral courage a long way beyond the limit. Karl Miller would have to be told, and told before rumours of this offer reached him. Since Fleet Street ran on rumours the way that a sperm whale ran on krill, I had about a day to get to him before I found him sitting there with a cocked shillelagh on his desk. Asking myself to do this was like asking myself to get to a dentist just because a tooth was hurting, or to open a brown envelope just because it was marked FINAL NOTICE in red. But a dimly flickering sense of rectitude told me that for once I had better shape up to a potentially unpleasant confrontation. Next day, after only a few tours of the block and an unprecedented visit to St Whatname’s in order to study its entablature, I entered Karl’s office to face a character analysis that began with flagellation and went downhill from there. On a technical level he was so brilliant that he must have had his stuff ready. Perhaps he had figured out that if I was turning up before my next piece was due I could only be there to tell him that I wouldn’t be writing it. More likely, he had already heard the news overnight. The Observer’s internal security was not great, and he had close friends in the building. Either way, he was well prepared with invective. There was none of the standard headmaster stuff about letting myself down along with the school. Instead there was quite a lot about treachery, duplicity and the spiteful biting of the hand that fed. The same man I had seen sitting behind his desk with an open umbrella above his head to ward off his troubles showed no humorous self-deprecation today. The deprecation was all for me. Falsely assuring me that he lacked the words to express his contempt, he invoked historical parallels with Culloden, Vichy France, the suppression of the 1956 Hungarian uprising, and other episodes in which devious opportunism had played a role. The historical overview expanded to embrace the cosmic: Satan himself had probably been an Australian. In his peroration, he expressed his relief that at least he would never have to clap eyes on me again. But just before I left, he wanted me to know that I shouldn’t feel too certain that my readiness to serve the enemy would ensure a glittering future: Vidkun Quisling had once felt the same about his prospects in Norway. Awaiting the disloyal, he reminded me, there was a circle of Dante’s Inferno which punished them with each other’s company in perpetuity, so deeply shut off from the civilized world that nobody virtuous had ever heard their screams. Never, he whispered hoarsely, never did any of them return to the sweet light of day. Finally it was all over and I was removed from his office in sections.

Later on, when I recounted the episode to fellow writers of more experience, I was told I had got off lightly. By Karl’s standards, it had been a caress, and indeed he was speaking to me again after less than a quarter of a century, telling me fondly that he had always found my sensitivity and diffidence quite touching. At the time, I was poleaxed. A reluctance to tell people what they don’t want to hear has always been among my worst weaknesses of character. It still gets me into trouble today, but early on it led me into a kind of paralysis, and would have earned me a crippling reputation for deviousness if I had been less lucky. This confrontation with Karl was proof that the reluctance had a deep purpose, because to overcome it might hurt, and I was ill-equipped to take the hit. Above all, I hated making an enemy. Ian Hamilton, reigning supreme at the Pillars of Hercules like John Calvin in Geneva, once told me that he counted it a bad week if he didn’t make a new enemy. I told him that it was one of those things I couldn’t understand about him. I told him that I brought suffering upon myself and others by a psychotic inability to say what was on my mind. Sipping a Scotch through his fixed sneer, he said, ‘You’re a very complex character.’ Instantly I realized that he wouldn’t mind making an enemy out of me either, if it came to the point. Cravenly I vowed to myself that it would never come to that. But it had come to that with Karl. Remembering his anger, I lost sleep. But I was going to be losing plenty of that anyway. When I told Arthur Taylor that I planned to take on the Observer TV column, in addition to Cinema, he said, ‘You’re going to do that?’ as if I had outlined a plan for splitting myself in half so as to be in two places at once. In attempted mitigation, I explained, with some element of truth, that with a steady commitment in a Sunday paper I could cut back on some of the casual journalism that had been filling my spare time, and thus lead a more efficient working life.

He swallowed it because he had to. My Granada contract specified exclusivity only for television. There was nothing to stop me taking on a full-time job in any other field: nothing except sanity, which was clearly not among my attributes. As for the Observer, they could not restrict my outside activities either, as long as I did not write about television for any other weekly newspaper. They could have controlled more of my time if they had taken me on staff, but David Astor, after one look at my beard, nylon corduroys and brown reinforced wool tie with electric-blue shirt, had instructed his accounts department to offer me only a freelance contract. Himself a picture of the gentlemanly Establishment — even his underwear must have been tailored in Savile Row — he probably thought that anyone who turned himself out like me could not live long. Eventually I heard that it had been Terry who persuaded Astor to offer me any kind of extended deal at all. Astor had a solid track record of hiring refugees from Europe, but they were in flight from persecution. I was an Australian in flight from nothing except ordinary standards of personal appearance. In fairness, however, it should be said that Astor was a genuine connoisseur of writing. I would like to think that my writing, even though still in a raw state, had something that would have led him to set aside his fastidious objections even if his most trusted troops had not told him that he should. But perhaps this is wishful thinking. A freelance contract, after all, was close to being an invitation to drop dead as soon as possible. No staff privileges, no pension, no nothing except a fixed fee each for forty-eight pieces in the year ahead, the deal terminable at any time with only three months’ worth of fees as a pay-off. If I had had an agent, she would have told me to get a lawyer. If they had ever fired me, I would have been on the scrap heap, because it would have been plain for all to see that I had tried and failed. But I didn’t plan to get fired. In the same way, my hero Evel Knievel, when he took off from the ramp on his motorcycle to leap high in diamanté-studded white-leather outline against the dazzling nightscape of Las Vegas, didn’t plan to end up in hospital with his bones being joined back together by metal pins.

Although careful, for once, to play myself in slowly, I got lucky with the Observer TV column from the start. By 1972 the sports commentators were operating in full force and the screen teemed with real-life characters richer than anything in the soap operas or the police series. A fashion parade of sheepskin-lined car-coats and sporting hats, David Coleman, Ron Pickering, David Vine and Alan Weeks continued to be reliable sources of unintentional innuendo. (‘And once again Tompkins pulls out the big one!’) Heart-rending in their unguarded patriotism, they provided one quotable double entendre after another as they praised British contestants not for how well they played the game, but for having taken part. (‘And he is inside Podborski! He is inside Podborski by a long way!’) I won’t indulge here in too much quotation from myself. What I wrote in those years is available in my 1991 collection On Television, or would be available if the book were available. It is out of print now, but there are still some young would-be writers who are kind enough to look for it second-hand. When they find it, they are bound to conclude that many of the contemporary references have gone out of date. But history consists entirely of contemporary references that have gone out of date, and what I was writing was a kind of social history, as it was transmitted through the voices, clothes, hairstyles and mannerisms of the people on screen: not the actors in the dramas, but the permanent staff who were bringing us their interpretation of reality, and creating a whole new alternative reality by doing so. If my approach clicked, it was because the audience already thought the same, but had not previously written it down.

The key element of the column’s gratifying impact was that its readers were already talking that way at home. They had not only been watching much more television than the Observer bigwigs suspected, they had incorporated television’s repertory cast of presenters and pundits into their folklore and frame of reference. They made cruel jokes about Fanny Craddock. The thinly rewarded jingoism of the sports commentators (‘And Wilkins quite content with his fifth place. He can build on that’) was as hilarious to them as it was to me. Thus one of the best things about Britain — the readiness of its educated class to see the funny side of a fading dream — worked in my favour. I covered the serious programmes too, and indeed, right from the start, I spent more time praising than blaming. The praise drew a bigger response when it was unexpected. I thought, and said, that the unknown women who had written, produced, and directed a series like The Girls of Slender Means were worth all the famous males in the West End. When I praised many of the popular programmes as if they were more serious than the solemn ones, it was meant as the endorsement of a value, not as the mocking of it. Good comedy, I argued, was better than bad drama because good comedy was more dramatic, and almost always better written. Sometimes I spelled such principles out in what was meant to be an aphorism, but gradually I learned to illustrate them by implication.

There could be no doubt, however, that outright denigration was the most fun to read, and easiest to remember. If I am remembered as an attacking critic, that was the reason. It was never really true, but there is no point complaining now, and I had no call to complain then. Letters flooded in. Journalists commonly call any number of letters greater than two a flood, but this really was a lot of mail. It was waiting for me on my desk every Friday morning when I came in to type up the column. Until I was instructed by the management to answer every letter, I dealt with the correspondence by putting it in the bin after having read it. Since most of it was literate and thoughtful, and some of it was signed with names I would later have recognized, to dump it was unwise as well as intolerably rude, but I have always had the twin bad habits of treating praise as my due, and the acknowledgement of it as a depletion of precious energy. Nowadays, I try to be more grateful, but a considerate personal letter is still likely to go into my Must Answer By Hand file, where its paper will dry and its ink fade as the years elapse. In the early seventies I just automatically ditched everything, using youth as an excuse. In the early seventies I was already in my early thirties, so the excuse was getting rusty. But I had trouble grasping that all this attention was quite real. (Being unable to accept praise gracefully is quite compatible with needing a lot of it: in fact the second failing is often a direct product of the first.) I felt the same way about life itself: if I stopped running even for a moment, there would be nothing to hold on to. The speed was keeping me upright. Compulsively productive, I couldn’t even get drunk without working on my next piece of writing somewhere in the back of my addled brain.

With time off for my Cinema obligations, and for all the literary journalism assignments that I had promised to cut back on but in fact allowed to increase, I was writing the TV column in my head all week, even as I made written notes in my workbook while actually watching the little screen. Much of the viewing I could do at home in Cambridge. This would have made me popular if it weren’t that a man watching television all the time was effectively as absent as an astronaut orbiting the Earth. On the Thursday night I was in London, going through my notes and deciding on the running order — the right term, because my column was essentially a one-man Footlights smoking concert in miniature form. It needed an opening number, a monologue, a love song, a knockabout sketch, a closing number, and a spontaneous encore. And they all had to happen in a thousand words. That took thought, which I recorded as a skeletal frame, listing and shuffling the desirable events, outlining the themes, joining them up with arrows. Next morning, I was in the open-plan office at my assigned desk, which during the week had been used by other people doing other things. Nothing in, or on, the desk, was my property, not even the typewriter, into which I fiddled my first sheet of self-carbonating paper at about ten a.m., with the deadline set at noon. Double spaced, a thousand words filled three and a bit sheets of foolscap. I filled them as if they had offended me through their ever having been empty. For two hours my hands were a blur, reappearing in focus only when I ejected a full sheet of paper and reached for the next.

I was soon told that I was an infuriating spectacle while doing this. Manning desks all around me and far into the distance, there were a lot of full-time journalists slogging dutifully at their mandatory tasks, and for them it was no pleasure to see a part-time carpet-bagger earning the full whack in two hours, hammering away as if being fed his whole piece by dictation through an electrode implanted in his skull. Apparently the least prepossessing element was my tendency to rock with silent laughter at my own jokes. There was a reason for that. The jokes were the last aspect to form on the page. I had the line of argument already worked out, but when a tricky thought suddenly condensed into a gag I was surprised every time. When the piece was done, I took it to Findlater for editing. Out in the middle of a nominally open-plan office with acres of people all subject to one another’s scrutiny, he had managed to build himself a cubicle out of filing cabinets and bookshelves. Inside this cubicle he might or might not be hiding. Invisible even when he was there, for much of the time he was absent, slowly stalking the corridors, where he would meet other, similarly venerable corridor-stalkers who were taking leave from self-constructed cubicles of their own. But he was usually in residence at the appointed time to receive my copy, on which he would make a few marks with an antique fountain pen — almost certainly a school prize — that looked as if it weighed a ton. It moved as if inhabiting the gravity field of Jupiter. The marks it made were usually helpful but he had a bad tendency to put a comma in at random near the middle of a sentence if he thought it had been going on too long. Because I had already devoted several years to developing a style that would crack along instead of hanging about, extra commas affected me like mosquitoes that had got in under the net on a hot night. Ready to fight for once, I would demand that the commas be taken out again. The demand no doubt sounded more like a tearful plea, but Findlater found it easier to comply than to resist. Lying back in his chintz easy chair — how had he got it into the building? — he looked up at me as if wondering at his own part in creating a monster. But he took out the commas. Later on, after Findlater had finally faded away altogether and his cubicle had been dismantled, Terry Kilmartin personally took over the task of editing my copy. Though untroubled by my calculated dearth of commas, he proved a much harder nut to crack if he thought that some extravagance I had committed needed to be taken out. Much of my lexical intemperance had already been torched out of me by Karl’s acetylene scrutiny, but there was plenty left for Terry to purse his lips at. He stared at me over the top rim of his half glasses as his blue pencil softly struck. Findlater rarely questioned an excess, perhaps aware that anything stupid would be picked up later, at proof stage, when Terry would see the piece anyway. Findlater wanted a quiet life. The trouble he had gone to in order to secure it was impressive even to a tyro. He had everything in that nest of his except a hip bath. Burrowing my way out, I would go to lunch.

Lunch, at first, I usually took at the Black Friars pub, an Observer haunt only a few steps away. John Silverlight used the place to run an informal seminar on English grammar for all who cared to listen. Many did, in those blessed days when the precision of the language, in the city where it first flowered, was still thought essential to its beauty. Terry was often there and we would eke out the beer with a few sausages. After a couple of months we took to lunching à deux at Mother Bunch’s, another Observer filling station, where you could order an actual plate of something, instead of eating it with your fingers. Later still, the occasion acquired extra personnel, as I shall relate, but in my first days as a working visitor to the paper I was regarded, and regarded myself, as a strange bird strictly passing through. This worked my way, because I was allowed to break rules. It was correctly supposed that I didn’t know what the rules were. After lunch I went back to read my proofs. Sometimes there had been drastic subtractions because the legal department, which had been separately reading my carbon copies (they were called ‘the blacks’), had objections on grounds of libel. Some of these objections struck me as foolish. In a paragraph about the burgeoning human traffic on the peak of Everest I had written: ‘Régine has plans to open a restaurant up there.’ The lawyers pointed out that unless she really did have such plans, she could sue. I thought she would be more likely to send us a case of champagne, but I had no choice in the matter.

Quite often the lawyers were right, and saved my skin. Other subtractions were done by Terry. In most cases he was right too. I would put in a plea for a cherished phrase and sometimes save its life by allowing a slight modification. None of this was regarded as troublemaking. It might even have registered as an uncommon care for detail. The trouble started with what I did next. It was an unwritten rule that no journalist could enter the downstairs composing room where his prose, after being set up in type, was laid out on the flat table called ‘the stone’. Unaware of the rule, I would turn up at the stone to see what they were doing with my stuff. In the days of hot metal it was a compositor’s skill to read the blocks of type back to front, like Leonardo’s mirror writing. I had the same skill from my stint at the Sydney Morning Herald in the year after I left university and before I sailed for England. Charged with putting the leader page to bed every Friday night, I had learned quite a lot of the technicalities. The Observer compositors, every one of them a member of the only union that could hold Fleet Street to ransom, found themselves being instructed to make adjustments. If I found a line turnover was interfering with the balance of a sentence, I would ask for an extra word to be set up and inserted, or another word to be removed. When a new midshipman turns up on the gundeck to suggest a better way of loading the cannon, the gunners have only two courses of action: either to pitch the little bastard over the side, or else to adopt him as a mascot. Unbeknownst to me, the compositors had a quick chapel meeting and decided on the second course. I got adopted, and for as long as hot metal lasted I was allowed to turn up and help sling the lead that was turning my voice into print. Unaware that it was a privilege, I took it as a mutual recognition of the fact that the piece wasn’t finished until the presses rolled. When they rolled, they shook the building. I had already left, but I knew exactly what I would see under my name on Sunday morning.