Books: North Face of Soho — 9. A Lunch Is Born |
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North Face of Soho — 9. A Lunch Is Born


This last point was part of the message I had been receiving from the Observer. The paper’s numerous corridor-stalkers were of the opinion (they spent a lot of time being ‘of the opinion’) that my exalted freedom as a critic could only be compromised by the lowly pressures of television. Exerting subtle but relentless pressure of their own, they sent the opinion down the descending layers of corridors until it reached me. Terry was disposed to ignore it. He gave me the courage of his convictions as well as my own. He had no respect for the corridor-stalkers. They reminded him (he didn’t tell me this, but I worked it out from secondary sources) of the same distinguished boneheads who had chosen to call him a troublemaker when he pointed out that the persistent absence of the preliminary safety-code group on the messages from Holland was a clear indication that the safety-code group had in fact performed its function. The people sending the messages were not our agents. They were Germans. The corridor-stalkers, persisting in their belief that no circumstance so inconvenient to themselves could possibly be true, went on sending in more agents, who ended up in Buchenwald if they were not tortured and shot on the spot. Corridor-stalkers are placemen, more concerned with protecting their position than exercising judgement. At the Observer their position was ideal: worshipping, as well they might, the publication from which they still drew a salary even though they no longer actually wrote anything, they had a free hand to cherish ‘the spirit of the Observer’. There was something to it. The Observer was still a great newspaper, and perhaps I was being cavalier in making my column look like a casual concern, instead of my main effort. Without doubt there was an anomaly when I sat at Richard Burton’s feet on Cinema and then, in the same week, talked in my TV column about his gala television appearance with Bob Hope as resembling two drunks trapped in a revolving door. If it didn’t actually feel like a conflict of interest — a conflict of interest rarely does — the point still niggled.

Add all these considerations together and they amounted to a reason to call it a day. But perhaps I was just restless. By other journalists I was already being called (‘dubbed’ as they would have put it) the Cinema man. If I wanted to escape an imposed identity, the time to make the break was sooner, rather than later. It could also have been that I was sick of the Midland Pullman. No doubt I had been remiss in not more assiduously exploring the marvels of Manchester, but apart from a few pre-Raphaelite paintings they seemed to consist mainly of George Best pulling birds in the Grapes. I hated the pre-Raphaelites and had seen enough of Best tossing beer coasters. Arthur took the news depressingly well. Never in favour of my holding on to the Observer job, he had probably concluded that my divided loyalties were bound to wear me down in the end. He made a civilized offer to try talking the Granada bean-counters into raising the stipend, but we both knew that the offer was just routine. Ego demanded that he fall to the floor, hold on to my ankles, and beg; but he had an ego of his own. So at the Midland Hotel we had one of those last suppers where you say far too much but forget it in the morning. When the morning came, the Pullman took me to London. In the future I would return to Manchester many times, mainly to present What the Papers Say, but I had renounced my chance to be a cherished adopted son of the great house. There could have been a psychological component in that refusal, because in the future I was to do it several times again, with other institutions equally venerable. They threatened to put a crimp in my lust for unbelonging. I don’t exactly like being alone, but I prefer to be seen that way. There is something about a mentoring arm around my shoulder that makes me want to cut and run. Too well groomed, that comforting presence. I can smell the grave in the aftershave.

With Cinema out of the way, there should have been time for other things. As always, the spare time filled up overnight. The success of my TLS piece on Edmund Wilson gave me a Quixotic taste for writing articles longer than requested for pay that did not commensurately increase: a whole new way of doing more for less. Spotting this, Ian Hamilton gave me a chance to write a long piece for the Review for no pay at all. Though it meant that I would be conspiring to starve my own children, I found myself accepting the assignment. How Hamilton inspired this suicidal commitment from his writers remains a matter of debate. Some talk of hypnotism, others of a kamikaze commander’s knack for instilling a sense of shame in any of his flyers who acquired the urge to come back alive. The second explanation was closer to the mark in this case. The subject was The Savage God, a new book by the redoubtable A. Alvarez. It was a treatise on how the purportedly unique pressures of being an artist in the twentieth century had led a disproportionate number of the greatest practitioners to untimely death, all too often self-inflicted. Ian asked me whether I could find time in my demanding show-business schedule to treat this undoubtedly serious book at some length. From subtle signs, I got the sense that if I turned the job down I would be confirming his estimation that the bright lights were eroding my sense of purpose. ‘Or are you too busy being sucked off by starlets?’

For length, my resulting review of Alvarez’s book left even the Wilson piece behind. I had a lot to say, and possibly too much of it consisted of cultural references brought to the siege in order to hammer at a wall already crumbling. Alvarez had a point about the number of modern suicides. But there was a corollary that he left unexamined, as if it would carry itself by default. He gave the idea that a suicidal commitment was necessary for quality. Since Philip Larkin, for example, had shown no signs of wanting to kill himself or of favouring the same course in anybody else, he was ranked automatically below Sylvia Plath. This idea seemed false to me, but not patently so: it needed rebuttal, and I piled on the historical examples in the attempt to match the easy flow of Alvarez’s prose. He had always written and spoken with the natural authority of a man at ease with the big subjects. As Philip French had once famously said, the best way for a newcomer to survive on the BBC ‘Critics’ programme was to say, at any awkward moment, ‘I agree with Alvarez.’ I was disagreeing with Alvarez and I wanted to look as if I had the qualifications to take him on. There is a possibility that my attempts to evoke the full range of cultural history since ancient Athens had an element of showing off, but a more likely motivation was nervousness. Though not very big in physical dimensions, Alvarez was a giant. This was my first giant-killing mission since I had taken on George Steiner when I was an undergraduate. I had spoiled that effort by taking far too much delight in cutting him up. He took umbrage, and in short order I saw that he had been right. (He forgave me later on, although he had no need to: the best kind of forgiveness, when you think about it.) With that in mind, I took care, in the Alvarez piece, to give the devil his due. I can safely recommend this practice to any young critic preparing to make his way forward over the corpses of sacred cows. As long as it is in defence of a value, there is nothing wrong with writing an attack: any critic would be too bland who never did. But even if responsible for some obvious pile of steaming ordure like The Da Vinci Code, most of the authors who achieve a regular following do so because of some quality. It might not be an especially admirable quality — it might just be the elementary ability to narrate some dumb story so that you can’t help vaguely wondering if the stolen virus will destroy civilization — but by saying he hasn’t got it you automatically denigrate all those who think he has, while laying yourself open to accusations of envy. Those accusations will quite often be right. After Tynan attacked Noel Coward in print, he was impressed when, after meeting Coward by chance in a hotel dining room in Switzerland, he was asked by Coward to sit down. Actually he said: ‘Tynan, you’re a frightful shit. Sit down.’ The true wording makes Coward’s magnanimity even more striking. In recording this, Tynan might have added a further truth. Though Tynan seriously thought that the politically committed theatre after Brecht had put paid to the old West End world of Binkie Beaumont (upstage French windows, ‘Anyone for tennis?’ etc.), Tynan, at a deeper level, knew that his own achievement in criticism was outweighed for permanence, and even for entertainment, by the least line in Private Lives. In other words, he was envious of Coward’s place in the theatre.

I was envious of Alvarez’s renown as a literary critic and would have quite liked some of it for myself, but I can honestly say that I had a better reason for going after him. I thought he was wrong, and wrong on an important theme: one on which the young ought not to be misled. From that viewpoint, I can regard my capacity for going overboard as a virtue. Almost always I have written from a true impulse, even when it is counterproductive. Dismantling somebody’s arguments can be counterproductive indeed — he might reassemble his strength and go for you — but you are more likely to get away with it if you remember that your chosen enemy is a human being. This is not just good tactics, it is civilized behaviour, which you yourself are trying to embody anyway, or you shouldn’t be writing. As you can tell from my tone, I could give a course of lectures on this one subject. It is because I have a lot of guilt churning. Critics who actually enjoy causing pain have an easier time, but there is a name for the uniform they should be wearing, and invariably they are soon forgotten, because memorable prose simply refuses to be written below a certain level of human decency. It should always be kept in mind that the notion of a critical ‘attack’ is strictly a metaphor. A Rottweiler attacks a human being. A critic judges what a human being does. I could go on, but it would be better to do so later, because at the time we are talking about I was still a long way from working most of this stuff out in detail.

Alvarez, when he saw an advance copy of the issue in which my piece was front-paged, thought that I had got him wrong but asked me to dinner anyway. Comfortably installed at Bianchi’s, he proved delightful company. For the young literatus on his way up the greased ramp, nothing quite beats hearing the veterans growling away about what they once said to T. S. Eliot while William Empson was pissing in the pot plant. And here I was, getting in amongst it. When the magazine officially came out, my Alvarez piece, called ‘Big Medicine’, caused a gratifying stir in the literary world. It should be remembered that the literary world was still a very tiny part of the galaxy, in those days before the Booker Prize and a dozen cultural supplements created the conditions by which its population could be multiplied by thousands of people with no literary gift whatsoever, except for publicity. When the literary world was still small, there was an automatic mitigating circumstance for the naked urge to get in amongst it. We’re talking about only a few hundred people. But they were among the brightest people in the country, and there was nothing slavish about wanting to earn their regard. While an undergraduate, I already knew enough about how the British cultural establishment worked to find F. R. Leavis absurd when he attributed a herd instinct to its literary component. The reverse was clearly the case. Cliques had often formed; there would always be a mafia of the talented; but an all-embracing orthodoxy there had never been, and couldn’t be. Nothing like the gauchiste dogma that engulfed the post-war French intelligentsia had happened to its British equivalent. The English were just too eccentric. For one thing, there were too many Scots among them. There was not much chance of a herd instinct forming when someone like Karl Miller could still hold a blue pencil. Karl had been a student of Leavis, but remembered his own roots too well to put lasting faith in clerical rule — which, of course, Leavis was trying to impose. Leavis was John Calvin in another cloak. The spectacle of a collegiate martinet accusing the metropolitan culturati of orthodoxy should have been too funny for words. Unfortunately, it was. People choked on the subject. Though patently more batty by the day, the good doctor was still draped in an awe-inspiring prestige. Bewailing this anomaly one Friday while at lunch with Terry at Mother Bunch’s, I hit on the idea of making Leavis’s mad fantasies of a London conspiracy come true by actually starting one up. Couldn’t we whistle in a few recruits and make the Friday lunch look like a plot to control the collective mind of the capital? Terry, no doubt recalling the long-lost days of the SOE, thought the idea silly enough to work. But true inspiration hit me when I thought of giving the proposed cabal a title drawn from the paranoid fantasies of Leavis himself: the Modish London Literary World.

So that’s how it started. In the long run I am fated to be written out of the history of the Modish London Literary World, because so many more illustrious people joined it: Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, Mark Boxer, James Fenton, Craig Raine, Christopher Hitchens, Russell Davies, Piers Paul Read, to name only the junior regulars. Kingsley Amis and Robert Conquest counted as senior regulars, with Peter Porter somewhere in between. Among the irregulars there were several women in the early days, but the lunch quickly settled — ossified, if you like — into the sort of all-male scene that would be frowned upon today. Perhaps I am lucky that I no longer feature in folklore as its instigator. But as I sink towards obscurity I grow less inclined to have my few original moves forgotten, and the Modish London Literary World was one of them. In the course of time its name contracted to the Literary World, and finally to the Friday lunch. The location changed, as with a floating crap-game. In the course of more time still, the frequency changed too, as people became less available, the senior participants because they were getting older, the junior because they were getting busier, almost everyone because they were either getting married and starting a family, or else (even more time-consuming) getting divorced, married again, and starting a second family while working a double shift to meet the payments on the first. But for years the thing went on, achieving endurance because it fulfilled the simple need for what the Spanish call a tertulia. It was a talking shop where you could actually talk shop, while pursuing any other topic that emerged. Quite often that meant scandal, which in that era could still be enjoyed aloud. After the gossip requirements of the expanding number of upmarket media outlets filled even the literary world with snoops, spies, and delators, you had to assume that the enemy was always listening.

Apart from Terry and myself, who recruited each other, one of the first recruits was Russell Davies, already embarked on the same sort of chaotically multiple career as my own, although possessed of many more talents to help drive him to distraction. A musician and an actor as well as a caricaturist and a writer, he had the mimetic gift that often goes with a musical ear, and the actor’s skills to project it, although he rarely raised his voice. People would come just to hear him speak in tongues. If the subject was Robert Lowell, for example, Davies would become Robert Lowell. Since the impersonation gained wit from jokes thrown in, it was better than having the actual Lowell present. (A lot better, as I was to find out.) Another founder member was the freshman novelist Martin Amis. You will notice how I avoid the air of portent. (‘Compactly stylish in appearance, already surrounded by a small cloud of glory from the succès d’estime of his first, trend-setting novel, this shy but somehow dauntingly self-assured young man was called Martin ... Martin Anscombe.’) Actually a note of portent would be appropriate, because he was clearly destined for great things. You could tell from his conversation, which was not just wise in judgement — precocity can sometimes deliver that, although not often — but wonderfully funny. Clearly, if he could get that kind of talk on paper, he would have no trouble emerging from the shadow cast by his father’s fame. For all those of us who could recite passages of Lucky Jim by heart, Kingsley Amis was a big star, but the young Martin generated his own light: he wasn’t just a planet. The effect of his conversation was multiplied by the fact that he rarely smiled to signal the arrival of a joke. There was a reason for that, beyond the requirements of elementary tact. The victim of an orthodontic condition that would eventually threaten his general health, he preferred to keep his teeth in the background. He had already developed the tic of raising his hand to his mouth when he laughed. We called it a victory if we could make him laugh before he could get his hand into position. Actually the dentition thus revealed looked perfectly ordinary, but it didn’t feel that way to him. He was carrying a permanent headache in his mouth. As his early novels were to suggest, he had nightmares of spitting his teeth out a few at a time, as if after a fist-fight. The point is worth noting for the sake of justice, because much later on, in the years of his worldwide fame, the swarming parasites of the British cultural press were to turn on him for the supposed excess of his having had cosmetic dentistry. They might as well have attacked him for having had a failed gall-bladder removed. But early on he was still living with his condition. It formed part of a general self-consciousness about his physical appearance: a self-consciousness which, when expressed in his early novels, enslaved a generation growing up in the media culture that rated sex appeal as a virtue rather than a characteristic. The paradox, in his case, was that beautiful women were drawn to him like pigeons on their way home. He only had to stand there and he was in like Flynn. He would have liked to have been a few inches taller, but the same went for Alexander the Great and Josef Stalin, and neither of them ever made a table rock with laughter. When Martin was on song, men who fancied themselves as wits laughed helplessly, glad to concede that there were in the presence of a superior practitioner. Those not so glad felt guilty at their own churlishness.

But the full flush of the Modish London Literary World lay somewhere in the future, like any semblance of equilibrium for the self-generated dogfight that I did not yet dare to call my career. Having consistently lost money with the Review, which came out only occasionally, Ian Hamilton thought of a way to lose a lot more money by launching the New Review, a quarto-format glossy that would come out every month. Swept up in this project, I initially committed myself to writing long articles. Tactically, if I had been capable of thinking tactically, this would have been a useful way of proving publicly (the TLS was still anonymous) that my name was good for something more substantial than the fizz and crackle of the TV column. Though I had foreseen that the TV column might prove more accommodating to reasoned argument than it first appeared, it did not offer the opportunity to write seriously at length, and be known to be doing so. The facts say, however, that I wrote my New Review pieces because Ian told me to, with the usual baleful implication that to turn him down would be tantamount to a betrayal of him, myself, and Western civilization. But it was my own idea to write even more stuff for the New Review under the name of Rudolph Regulus, thus to help fill the magazine’s demand for copy, which proved insatiable from the jump. Most of this pseudonymous material was meant to be funny, and I hope some of it was, but there was nothing amusing about the way I had searched out yet another opportunity to overwork. When I turned up in Cambridge, I was a second baby to look after, with the difference that I could sit up in a proper chair and smoke. I smoked so much that I needed the hubcap of a Bedford van as an ashtray. I had found the hubcap lying in the gutter in Trumpington Street, and thought: ‘That will make an ideal ashtray.’ A man who thinks like that has to be a real smoker. From then on, with the help of the hubcap, I proved I was. At the end of the day — a phrase I usually like to avoid, unless I am actually talking, as here, about the end of the day — the hubcap would be full of cigarette butts. There was another baby on the way by then, which would make three. Playing the good provider, I had some excuse to be a burden, but it occasionally occurred to me that I must have been no source of joy. When it occurred to me, I worked harder, vaguely formulating plans for making a big enough score to hire a nanny. Still enjoying the blissful dawn of the two-career-family concept, like most toiling husbands I cherished the illusion that a toiling wife could be taken off the hook by a nanny, instead of saddled with the extra obligation to look after the nanny as well. Taken off the hook? Saddled? The mixed metaphor illustrates the mental confusion.

Pete went into studio with our first album at about that time and I would follow him in, so that I could sit around watching. I was convinced that the music business would provide the really big score that would set us all free of the alarm clock forever. In the popular-music business there were only two kinds of money you could make: not enough to keep a flea alive, and more than you could imagine. At the risk of sabotaging the narrative tension I feel bound to say now that we only ever made the first kind, but in the early days I would sit in the production booth of the recording studio and nurse the expectation that the sounds being mixed on the desk would not only satisfy the demands of uncompromising artistic integrity but also generate cash flow, as if a successful oil well could be sunk in the vegetable garden of a monastery. Yet there seemed some warrant for the expectation. Our music publisher, David Platz at Essex Music, had told us outright that if we couldn’t get a hit single then our plan to make highbrow LPs would result in a long agony. Kenny Everett, however, thought we had written a hit already. At the height of his radio glory, before he rose to an apotheosis as the most original mind on television, Everett was still running a BBC show that all the bright young people listened to. If he spun your record, it could get you an audience. He took to one of the songs on Pete’s first LP for Philips, Beware of the Beautiful Stranger. The song that Everett liked was called ‘The Master of the Revels’. Perhaps seeing himself in the title role, Everett spun the disc on every show he did for weeks on end. He raved about it. Just as we were poised to take off, he got fired for making a libellous joke which allowed the interpretation that the Minister of Transport’s wife might have had an easy time passing her driving test.

We found it hard to believe our bad luck, because the one thing we knew about getting a hit was that airplay was everything. Hence the life-or-death importance of the BBC playlist. If your record was on the playlist, it wouldn’t necessarily get a bullet beside it, but if it was banned from the playlist you would get a bullet through the head. We had high hopes for a song called ‘Have You Got a Biro I Can Borrow?’. The BBC said that ‘Biro’ was still a registered brand name in Hungary and that they therefore couldn’t broadcast the word, because that would breach their house rules about advertising. Otherwise they would be glad to put the track on the playlist. Could I change the word? How about ‘Have You Got a Ball-point I Can Borrow?’ I had an attack of artistic integrity and said, ‘Over my dead body.’ Well, the BBC could arrange that. As far as that song was concerned, my body was duly dead. Unfortunately Pete’s was too. What I should have done, of course, was cave in immediately. Even the Rolling Stones would change a word to get on the air. But I still had a bad tendency to look down on the fundamentals before I had submitted to them. It made me outspoken at the wrong times. The plain speaking that I directed pointlessly at the featureless face of the BBC monolith I should have employed in the recording studio for Pete’s album, where I thought that a mistake was being made in mixing the vocal so far forward, so that the words reached the listener before the music did. Not out of modesty (definitely not), but out of a real conviction that a song should hit you in the knees first and climb to the brain later, I wanted the words to filter through, not leap out. I should have said so. It might have helped. But everybody else present, with Pete himself to the fore, was either a musician or a sound technician. I respected their expertise at the exact moment when an ordinary punter’s view, the only thing I was good for, might have altered the balance. Still, it was undeniably an ego boost to hear my lyrics coming out of the loudspeakers, and there were people saner than Everett who seemed to admire some of the results.

Nick Tomalin was prominent among them. I inflicted the discs on him and he found time to listen. (In retrospect I wonder how that last part happened: at this end of my career, young people flatteringly weigh me down with more of their first records, novels, and books of poetry than I could possibly listen to even if I did nothing else.) Nick, whose opinions I respected about the fertile ground between popular and serious culture — respected them, I suppose, because they coincided with my wishes — would recite one of my own lyrics back to me and say that he thought there would be a market for our kind of stuff if we could only get it on the air. The lyric he quoted was called ‘Carnations on the Roof’. It was the story of a dead metal worker whose hands, when he is cremated, burst into coloured flames because of the grains of metal embedded in the skin. It was my version of the Dyer’s Hand. Nick liked the idea that I had once worked in a factory and had actually seen a man like that. It satisfied Nick’s idea of journalistic authenticity, which, he believed, could only arise from the weighing and judging of observed reality. This was a pretty deep idea to follow on from hearing a pop lyric, and I thought that to arouse such a response would be a worthwhile reason to pursue our course to the limit, win or lose. The day was there to be seized. The most telling phrase that Horace attached to carpe diem was spem non pone secutas. Put no faith in the future. That idea came into sharp focus when Nick got killed.

He went to cover the Yom Kippur War. Somewhere on the Golan heights, he got out of the jeep and was no doubt glancing obliquely at an expanse of hot geography when the rocket-propelled grenade arrived. I must have been in the middle of typing up my latest TV column when the thing happened, because just as I was making my last corrections I looked up and saw Terry’s assistant literary editor, Miriam Gross, standing up and holding the telephone as if it had just stung her. Still, today, one of the most beautiful women in London, Miriam in those days was the object of all male eyes and it was not unusual to look at her on any excuse at all. But this was different. In my childhood I got early practice at watching a woman receiving the news of death, so I guessed immediately what was up, although I would never have guessed who was involved until she said his name. She said his whole name. ‘Nick Tomalin’s been killed.’ Silence raced through the open-plan office, and then the whole building, as the shock wave spread.

Scratch one more father figure. As usual I got the mental barriers up immediately. But there was no shutting out the sense of squandered promise. Later on it happened again when the gifted poet and political writer Francis Hope was lost on the DC-10 that went down outside Paris after some poor dunce at Charles de Gaulle airport jammed a cargo door shut instead of locking it properly. A ten-dollar RPG round, a door that should have been designed to open in instead of out: the discrepancy between cause and effect is part of the pattern, and a chilling reminder, for those who need it, that chance has no respect for what has been achieved. But Nick had already proved himself. What could I be said to have achieved if I were taken now? Time to look after one’s health. Time for a long, life-enhancing drag on a cigarette. But above all, time to get serious.