Books: North Face of Soho — Introduction |
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North Face of Soho — Introduction


A few days ago, in the beautiful city of Valletta, I was helping a two-year-old boy paint a portrait of his equally beautiful mother. As I vainly tried to demonstrate the concept of using only a small amount of pigment on a fingertip at any one time so as not to get blobs and streaks of red paint all over himself, her, me and the floor, I remembered something. I remembered the afternoon when, at the more advanced age of five, I was helping my own mother make extra Christmas decorations. There were some manufactured ones left over from before the war but they needed supplementing. We made paper chains. The interlocked loops of coloured paper were fixed by a blob of paste, applied with the fingertip. She left me unsupervised for about ten minutes and I got paste all over the kitchen table, her chair, my chair and the chest of drawers. When she saw the mess she leaned suddenly against the tall cupboard that held the crockery. I heard some of it rattle. But I remember all that now only because the texture of the red paint on the same finger reminded me of the white paste. The dizzy speed with which the echo of a sense memory kills time continues to astound me. I suppose that one day, not very far away now, I will die of the astonishment. If this fourth volume of my memoirs sometimes plunges back into even earlier times than those evoked in the first, it will be because the beginning of my life draws nearer as the end approaches. Perhaps they are the same thing: a loop of paper that will finally be closed by the paste of silence. Stand by for other perceptions equally cheerful.

Soon it will be forty years since my undergraduate career at Cambridge finished and my professional career began. It feels like forty minutes. Quite commonly, people who make a splash at university aren’t much heard of afterwards. For a long while I looked like being one of those. Overnight success took more time than even I can credit, but when the dust of the effort finally cleared it turned out that I had hit two different kinds of jackpot. I managed to become a small part of the British media landscape, and also to be thought of as part of the Australian expatriate movement. Such a movement never really existed — most of us who sailed away did so in order to foster our individuality, not to gang up — but the myth was a tenacious media standby, and especially in the Australian press, whose more enthusiastic practitioners, a bit hazy in their sense of history, are capable of putting Dame Nellie Melba and Cate Blanchett in the same kitchen, for a cup of tea and a chat. The post-war Australian expatriates were looked at with suspicion by their countrymen early on. Later, they got too much favour. My own view is that, of those among us who sailed away to England in the early 1960s, those who soon sailed back again did best. This especially applied to the theatre. In earlier times, a long and powerfully talented line of Australian theatre people stretching from Robert Helpmann to Michael Blakemore had done the right thing by staying abroad, because there would have been no chance of creating a context for themselves had they gone home: Australia just wasn’t ready for them. But in my generation, people like Ken Horler and John Bell — to name only two among the many I knew personally from my days at the University of Sydney — did better for themselves, and far better for Australia, by leaving English theatre to the English and going home to start an Australian equivalent, which they were able to energize by what they had learned, and especially by what they had learned to avoid. Nevertheless, with all that said, I still think that the stay-away Australian expatriates have made a respectable contribution. Posterity will have its own ideas about who ranks where. Sometimes, when I am reading one of the marvellous little novels of Madeleine St John, part of whose genius was for avoiding all publicity, I think that the only lasting fame for any of the rest of us will reside in the fact that we once knew her. But one way or another we have all made a fist out of our time away. The nice thing is that the Australian literate public largely agrees. So for my share, and more than my fair share, I have lately had their appreciation to add to the welcome I always enjoyed in Britain.

This wealth of acceptance has been a lot better for me than rejection, on which I would have lacked the moral strength to thrive: so it would be churlish to deny that I did all right. On any objective scale, I can’t complain of having been ignored. But it’s the subjective scale that can haunt your waking hours, and even deprive you of sleep. On that scale, I have only seldom, and never for long, felt that I got my career into focus after I was obliged to make my way in the wider world. I made a living, and I made my name: made it, indeed, in several different fields, first in Grub Street and Fleet Street and then later in television, which only those who just go on and smile would ever call Easy Street. But I still don’t feel that I have Made It, in the sense of knowing exactly what I’m doing and being comfortably certain of doing it again tomorrow. This might seem an absurd claim, a counter-claim, a claim to lack of claims. When I look along the shelves of my books and videos, even I can see that I have been quite busy: whatever the quality or lack of it, there is certainly quantity. And there is my name over and over, usually written vertically, so that I have to turn my head sideways. The crick in my neck is evidence that I am not shy about doing so. An onlooker might say that I have Done Something. But I’m still not entirely sure about the ‘something’, and not at all sure about the ‘I’. If I were, I might be less thrilled about seeing my name in print. Ten letters in two groups of five, it still rings a bell of reassurance for its owner. But why does he need the reassurance?

Who is this character? Perhaps, as I write these introductory paragraphs, I am in a trough of uncertainty, but I have a suspicion that the troughs join up in a long line which has always been there and will continue to the end. Always a keen student of other people’s careers, I reached the conclusion quite early on that there is often a discrepancy between the outer show of confidence and the inner assurance. In my own case, I think, the discrepancy is about as large as it can be without a fragmentation of the personality. There might even be a possibility that my personality remains intact only because it never fully formed: an embryo disguised as a golf ball. Whatever the truth of that, I can assure the prospective reader of this volume of my unreliable memoirs that the same principle applies as applied in its predecessors: a principle to rely on. Each of those volumes was an instalment in a serial confession of how I learned to do the right thing only by doing all the wrong things first. This volume will work the same way. The only essential difference between my professional career and its long period of preparation is that I have benefited from the opportunity to blunder on a larger scale. The main benefit has been in immediacy. When I told a story in the school playground and my audience didn’t laugh, I could always blame them for not getting it. When I screwed up on television with ten million people watching, even I got the message straight away. To be fair to myself, if I had got nothing right at all, there would be no achievements to show, whether good or bad. But the reader can be sure that this will be no parade of self-satisfaction. It may, of course, have self-aggrandisement as an underlying motive, just as conceit almost always underlies a show of modesty. But the conviction that informed the first three volumes will be even stronger in the fourth. The conviction is that, though the desire to entertain is not to be despised — if only because the capacity to do so is rare — it rates quite low on the scale of social importance, a long way behind dentistry and not necessarily very far above the ability to clean lavatories. Most of those who make a living from it are very lucky, and I am even luckier than most.

The best an entertainer can hope to do, when writing about what he does (and nobody asks him to do that: he decides to do it for his own reasons), is to be instructive. As a consequence, this book will be full of homilies about what to avoid. These homilies are sincerely meant, but with one proviso, which I hope is a saving grace: if I myself had avoided all these things, I would probably have got nothing done at all, because the errors were essential. There is hope, therefore, that young people contemplating a career in the arts and the media might find guidance here, and those less young people who have run into difficulties might find consolation. For readers leading normal, and therefore more important, lives, there might also be the consolation of any evidence I can offer that those of us who have been granted a disproportionate ability to express ourselves may not always have the best selves to express. I hope to get all the way to my grave without committing any major crimes, but within the limits of the law there are very few human failings that I have not embodied. Some of them I can’t specify without embarrassing other people. But if I did not embarrass myself, this book would be too far short of the truth to repay reading, or to be worth writing. The older I get, the more time I spend wishing I had done things differently. I wish that could be different, but there you go. Or rather there I go, still trying to clean up the paste with the good lace doily from the chest of drawers.

London, 2006