Books: The Blaze of Obscurity — 10. Keeping the Balance |
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The Blaze of Obscurity — 10. Keeping the Balance


Like a tour of duty as entertainments officer in a nuclear submarine, filming got me away from home, but home was waiting for me when I got back. Leading a balanced life got harder all the time. The first hazard was the fame factor, which seemed to consist entirely of drawbacks even when they were construed, by others, as privileges. Straightforward irritations were relatively easy to handle. In the streets, large tattooed artisans whom one would not ordinarily have wanted to meet shouted, ‘’Ere! Ain’t you that Clive Jenkins?’ The temptation to say, ‘Go screw yourself, my good man,’ had to be resisted. Even the nicest version of this instant familiarity involved a lot of autograph-signing and dozens of involuntary conversations every day. It didn’t happen in Australia, where my programmes, because they had been made in Britain, were resolutely kept from the screen by an ABC executive who took pride in protecting the Australian public from my disloyal voice. As a result, Australia was a reality check: when I went there on literary business, I got the mildly enthusiastic reaction appropriate to someone whose books have been read, or at any rate heard about. These bursts of normality served to underline the sheer weirdness of what happened when I got back to Britain and found myself shouted at by a whole building site full of workmen if I failed to stop and answer their questions about ‘them Chinese’. (After several aborted interchanges I deduced that by ‘them Chinese’ they meant the Japanese game-show contestants.) Walking on, instead of stopping, was the only way to save something from the day, but the penalty was to be followed for half a block by loud shouts of ‘Aren’t we good enough for you any more, Clive?’ In Soho one afternoon, Martin Amis was walking beside me when that question came raining down from above and he was fascinated. He still tells the story now, and I remain convinced that the hellish atmosphere of his middle-period novels was partly generated by that momentary revelation of mediatized insanity. One of the most unsettling aspects of being public property on that scale is that you are always addressed by your first name even when the message is abusive. ‘Clive, you’re a tosser.’ At such moments I felt bound to agree, but if I had stopped to discuss the matter I would not have been able to call my life my own.

That Faustian feeling of having sold your life to the Devil is the real explanation behind the self-destructive behaviour of the younger celebrities. They got what they wanted, and it drove them nuts. As an older hand, I was better able to compute the odds, but staying clean wasn’t easy. Sometimes wine, women and song look like the only place you can hide. (This can be especially true when you are out on the road, and stuck for the day in unfamiliar streets thronged by thousands of strangers all calling you aggressively by your first name. Any soft, kind voice sounds like a port in a storm, and artists on tour are often trailed by tabloid snoops in the hope that loneliness will lead to folly.) Since I would never have gone into show business in the first place if I had lacked the conviction that I was the natural centre of attention, to be a recognizable face fed a primal urge, but it could sap the very confidence it was meant to boost. ‘Why are people suddenly so keen to ask me to dinner?’ It must have been a question that nagged even Einstein.

Yet I quite liked being invited out into the beau monde. For one thing, in the border territory where gracious living meets the arts there are invariably more than a few women who are works of art in themselves, and I have always enjoyed the outlaw feelings that come with making a beautiful face laugh. For a heady instant you are Zorro, standing outlined in a window arch. A little less paunch under the cummerbund might have been appropriate, but for the moment I felt up to the part of making the great lady giggle. She didn’t have to be a countess. She sometimes was, but the fun was just as intense when the woman on your left or right was, say, Alison Lurie. (‘Write a strange novel,’ she said to me, and I did. I wrote The Remake, thereby loading myself into a circus cannon after first having taken down the net.) At higher altitudes, where the British aristocracy hung out with the super-rich, the yield in verbal interest seldom matched the visual splendour. I didn’t hear much said that I couldn’t have made up after being injected with enough novocaine. On the other hand, there were pictorial aspects that I was glad to file away for future use. Some of the grand houses in London have stretches of garden behind them in which you could land a light aircraft, and you would never suspect the layout was even there just from looking at the front door. One night, in one of these game reserves for the privileged, I saw a vision crossing the moonlit lawn between two marquees.

She was the acknowledged supreme young beauty of the day. In that year her name was Charmian Scott, and her mere existence was a reminder that you can’t make that sort of thing up. You have to see it. In fact you have to see it before you can even imagine that there might be something you can’t make up. She was wearing an off-the-shoulder ivory and white ball gown and when she turned into profile the length of her perfectly straight nose looked like an echo of her collarbone. Now was the time to quote Keats, but my throat was full of wood shavings. Clearly, radiantly, she had been sent to Earth to marry a duke. A few months later she did, which made me feel better about not having said anything. Not that anything I could have said would have made the slightest impression, which was the real trouble with the whole scene. It was like being in a masque written by Milton, but the level of conversation was usually even worse. There was always some drawling Adonis sitting opposite me who wanted to save me from talking to the women I sat between. ‘I must say that the things you get those Chinese chappies doing are a bit ripe.’ I could hear better things than that on a building site.

Educated in a hard school to appreciate the fragility of their advantages, the renegade East European aristos were far better value. Nothing could beat a multilingual high-born widow who was ready to show her kinship with artists and philosophers by inviting them regularly to dinner, usually for the only civilized conversation they would have that week. This was far preferable to hearing from the landed gentry about land, or from financiers about finance. The most glittering salon was run by Diana Phipps, whose original surname was recorded in the Almanach de Gotha. Tall, stately and uncannily charming, she had a gift for getting the bright sparks together and giving them a taste of the high life without cramping their style. At the same table as David Hockney, Philip Roth, Harold Pinter and Sir Isaiah Berlin, it was flattering to be treated like one of the boys. Lord Weidenfeld was the London host who was most famous for inviting everybody at once, but here he was a guest, and obviously glad to be keeping company with people who spoke his language, which was the cosmopolitan language of the old European cafes — not of cafe society, but of the cafes themselves, the places where the bohemian intellectuals once gathered before the two great waves of totalitarianism washed the brains out of the old cities. Eavesdropping while he compared notes with Alfred Brendel about the precious wreckage of the culture from which they came, I mentally composed a reading list as they talked, and a quarter of a century later I am still working through it. Brendel, who was just about to launch into his second recording cycle of the Beethoven piano sonatas, had strips of Elastoplast around his fingertips. I couldn’t have envisioned that under hallucinogenic drugs. The most startling surrealism is always real. Brendel, whose knowledge of literature is on a level with his mastery of music, told me that I should read the essays of Alfred Polgar. I had never heard of Alfred Polgar, but it was at such moments that I knew I had come a long way from Kogarah. When I was roaming the grounds of some stately home I had merely come a long way from the front door, and there was nothing but a general impression. Here, all the impressions were specific. The names had faces and their mouths were in action. Harold Pinter, an actor to the core, would present his profile even if you were sitting in front of him, but his voice was a thriller: deep, resonant, the rumble of a gravy train. When he found an excuse to quote from Philip Larkin’s great, late poem ‘Aubade’, Pinter would invariably quote the whole thing, to riveting effect. A political tirade, however, would sometimes inspire less unanimous assent, and a discussion might ensue during which his wife, Lady Antonia, who could get that kind of thing at home, would gently go to sleep, right there at the table. Her narcolepsy was a genuine affliction but it came in handy to block out boredom. Philip Roth was wide awake, alert to Pinter’s opinions, and hated every one of them. At one point, when Pinter was blaming America for the destruction of Carthage in the third Punic War, Roth stood up and stormed out, taking Claire Bloom with him. It was a spectacular case of ‘Darling, we’re going home,’ and I was there to see it. Noticing everything, I made a conscious effort to remember it all. If I couldn’t take out a notebook and jot it all down, at least I could pay attention. But I also noticed the number of writers present who had begun to grow less productive a generation ago, and I quickly figured out where they had been. They had been here, entertaining each other instead of the public. Social life was a trap. Either you had a social life or you got things done. But the woman who taught me that would never have been in a position to teach it if she hadn’t known all there was to know about the douceur de vivre, and I was glad to be instructed, although sometimes the lessons were painful. ‘People don’t want to be charmed. They want to charm.’ It was a way of telling me to shut up and listen. Learning to keep my mouth closed occasionally as an aid to keeping my ears open, I became more sensitive to nuance, perhaps the most important French word in the English language.

Nearly all the terms in the English language that cover the subject of social grace are French, strangely enough. The British have almost no native vocabulary for the guiding precepts of the sweet life. If you rate comme il faut above savoir faire, as indeed you should, you will find it hard to say so in everyday English. Luckily I understood the phrases, even if I couldn’t pronounce them. At such moments in their careers, men who have risen in the world often consecrate their elevation by starting a second marriage, usually after contriving to demolish the first. As Cyril Connolly — important critic, repellent man — once put it, ‘The woman with whom one shares one’s early struggles is rarely the woman with whom one wishes to share one’s later successes.’ The frozen symmetry of the expression is enough to show what’s wrong with the idea. There is a certain realism to it — far too many of the marriages in my generation cracked up on that very rock — but the realism is bloodless. Nor was Connolly wise to neglect the possibility that the woman with whom one shares one’s early struggles might decide that one is a twerp, and kick one out, being in possession of a mind of her own.

The advantage of having had a taste of the high life is that you are not thrown for a loop when you are offered a whole plateful. As a writer I thought that there were things I had to find out about how the world worked — one of the Devil’s opening moves, when subverting the soul of an artist, is always to present the artist’s thirst for privileges as a vocational duty — but I was too committed to my stock of common memories to trade it in for keeps. The family holidays continued to provide a steady stream of such treasure. The death dive at Bormio and the throbbing thumbs of Davos were regularly supplemented by the yield of stories from our annual fortnight in the sun at Biarritz. In the glory days of Biarritz, back in the nineteenth century, it probably rained less often. The Empress Eugénie would not have permitted more than a certain level of precipitation. In the early twentieth century, when Picasso was there, none of his paintings of prancing sea nymphs featured rain. For us, it rained almost all the time. The littoral of the Bay of Biscay is always a full ten degrees centigrade less hot than the Côte d’Azur anyway, but when you add rain to the cool, you can wonder why you came. Then the sun comes out again and you remember. On a sunny day the Côte des Basques was pretty without parallel: the sable d’or as soft as talcum, the sea like stretched shantung beyond the neatly foaming breakers, the tamarisks at evening glowing gold beside the pathways that led back up the cliff to dinner at Les Flots Bleus, a restaurant where everyone except me ate piles of moules six inches high. Our friend and landlord Michael Blake-more still invited, year after year, his actors and playwrights to join him at the beach. You would see Tim Pigott-Smith, still in character as Merrick from The Jewel in the Crown, snarling at a plate of moules. The lovely Nicola Pagett smiled at moules as if she hoped to charm them open. Robin Dalton, agent to John Osborne, negotiated with moules. Michael Frayn inspected a heap of moules as if the task was to deduce its molecular structure. My wife and Rhoisin Beresford could get through a hundred moules between them, the shells piling up like a midden. All these people were fascinated by moules. I could not stand moules. What else did the damned things do except lie there on the seabed imitating legless cockroaches while they ingested effluent?

But I loved everything else about Biarritz, and precisely because it was so predictable. Despite its grand name, resonant in cultural history, it was as small-time as the pair of warped espadrilles that the pretty girl finds in her cupboard in Mr Hulot’s Holiday, my nomination for the title of best film comedy ever made. I was Mr Hulot reborn, with the difference that I had got the girl, and right at the start of the movie. Sunning themselves almost naked on the sea wall, there were pretty odalisques to whom less time had happened, but the woman I had married could still remind me, when she stood in the shallows outlined in her floppy hat against the oncoming twilight, of our first day together on Bronte Beach in Sydney, back there when she was hearing some of my jokes for the first time. For all too many men, and I am one of them, the realization can be a long time dawning that you won’t really get to meet that beautiful young woman you just saw in the art gallery, because you already met her many years ago, and now you are getting old. With enough power and money you might conceivably persuade the beautiful young woman to become yours, and it will all be new again, but only for a while. It’s the oldest story in the world, and what makes it a mockery is that you have missed the point: in a marriage you can’t constantly regain the sense of discovery, you can only learn to value what has already been discovered. If it all depends on novelty, a marriage is doomed anyway: it can only work if you both enjoy the subtle shades of the time-worn.

And there were our children, surprising every day, getting bigger each year but always finding new ways of doing the same old things. On the few days of sunshine they added to their collections of pebbles and shells. Where the rocks met the beach below the esplanade, I still built a driftwood house on the same spot every summer, perhaps out of the same bits of timber. The topping out of a driftwood house was always signalled by my stretching a big beach towel over its rafters, to protect its potential occupants from the sun. As if a field gun had been fired at the clouds, the rain would instantly begin to fall. But the children knew what they had to do. In the year that Uncle Martin was there, they could perch on high stools in a bar and watch him play Space Invaders. But in any other year they had to go to the Musée de la Mer and pretend all over again to be spellbound by the exhibits. While I sat alone under the awning of our favourite cafe on the Rue Gambetta and started on a new book, my wife was shopping in Bayonne along with the other wives, and the children were in the Musée de la Mer checking out the current living arrangements of the same old starfish. Even at home in England, the whole family still calls a threatening sky ‘a potential Musée de la Mer situation’. At one point we skipped the Biarritz trip for about a decade, having succumbed to the vain illusion that happiness might lie elsewhere, in a climate more reliable. But eventually we went back, because the Biarritz climate was reliable: reliably variable. When a family holds together, its members will develop a language to enjoy even the boredom. When a family breaks up, no amount of excitement will compensate. In my time, I have seen an awful lot of good men make the big decision, and I’ve heard an awful lot of small change hit the floor. But the small change is precious. Perhaps I’m a miser.

Staying married to one person is undoubtedly a lot less expensive than getting married to someone else, but it still has to be paid for, and although we were by then well off, it was never easy street. Nor, however, was the cash flow any longer the chief consideration. My price as a television face meant that I could go on publishing books with low financial yield, such as Other Passports, the book of my collected poems that Cape bought out in 1986, and that Picador turned into a paperback the year after. For a poetry book it did well, and the paperback even got into the spinners at the airport, which made me feel better about life as I passed through the terminal on the way to being filmed doing undignified things in some destination not notable for valuing the fruits of the intellect. When you’re hauling yourself out of the mud after take six of failing to ride the yak, it helps if you can remind yourself that you have recently published your collected poems. (‘His occasional flashes of sensitivity may be surprising to many who have seen him making an arsehole of himself on TV’ — Times Literary Supplement.) But the satisfaction was all spiritual. Unusually for a book of its type, Other Passports went on selling steadily for seventeen years, but when it finally went out of print I did a few calculations and worked out that the total return for the book would have kept my family alive for about a week and a half.

The best thing about my rate of remuneration on television, however, was that it was transferable. On television, recognizability is hard currency, and by now I could think of swapping channels if the need arose. It seemed to arise when Michael Grade, chief executive at LWT, went to the BBC. As soon as Michael parked his dynamic form behind his new desk, where his scarlet braces were nicely set off by the shine of the mahogany, Richard was one of the first people that he called. We piled into Richard’s BMW and headed for BBC Television Centre as if being simultaneously wooed by the Sirens and chased by the Furies: not, as it turned out, a bad analogy for our situation, because we were leaving a scene that could have turned bad and heading towards another that would prove to be fraught with danger. For the moment, though, and as always, impulse was what drove us. Michael was the man: near him, things happened. Wherever he was, he kept an open door, and if he liked your idea you could get it on the air. At LWT, though I had achieved such prominence that my face was hanging in the corridor to the canteen along with Reg Varney from On the Buses, my position had ceased to be secure from the moment that John Birt was given an executive post from which he could think of second-guessing Grade. On a personal level I had always liked John Birt, and I like him still. I suspect that the man inside the Armani suit can remember what we both looked like back in the days of Nice Time in the 1960s. Writing a few not very successful sketches for that show, I had been impressed by how the young producer John Birt’s sideboards were even plumper than mine: and mine looked like two squirrels taped to the side of my head. Birt had a pair of dead badgers. But now, time having happened, he was the man in control, and though his temperament was still disarming, his language was becoming incomprehensible. He had already gone a long way towards perfecting a version of management-speak that not even other managers could understand. Using some formula previously unknown to science, he calculated that there could be a more efficient utilization of fixed capital resource flow, or something, if my weekly main-channel show Clive James on Television were to be scrapped. The advertising department caught him with these computations still in his hand and told him that the show made more money, weight for weight, than anything else being produced on the South Bank, so he should leave his big idea alone. Richard wasn’t supposed to be aware that the big idea had even been mooted, but somebody told him, he told me, and I immediately suggested that we should hit the silk. It’s a good rule in show business to spot the moment when the suits upstairs no longer regard you as an asset, and move on straight away. Stick around to be merely put up with and your bargaining power is draining away even if you still look like a fixture. Just because that old coffee machine has always been in the reception area doesn’t mean that it’s part of the furniture. In fact the moment it becomes ‘much loved’ it’s already doomed, because the guy who moves in at the top with a mandate for change will always change what he can if he can’t change what he should.

In less time than it took to think all that, we had completed our transition to Television Centre and were sitting down with Michael for a meeting in his huge new office. Instantly the air was full of flying superlatives: little twittering ghosts of dreams and wishes, like Tinkerbell and all her tiny classmates running wild on sports day. Bred from the playpen to be full of jokes and pithy maxims of showbiz legend, Michael is the most marvellous company even though you can never be sure, while he is talking to you, that he still holds the same post he held when he walked into the room. But there he was, apparently nailed into position, and he wanted us. He wanted us so much, he said, that his BBC2 programme controller was ready with a proposition fit to revolutionize arts television. Enter the man in question, looking like the fashionably dressed proprietor of a luxury car showroom in Beirut. Needless to say, his fame preceded him, because the most PR-conscious media executive of recent times had been preceded by his fame since the day of his birth, when he emerged from the womb into a light-storm of photoflash and an uproar of shouted questions about what he planned to do next. It was Alan Yentob.