Books: The Blaze of Obscurity — 18. Wheels at Speed |
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The Blaze of Obscurity — 18. Wheels at Speed


The obvious answer was to buckle the learning period into the subject matter of a show. The chance to do this came when someone proposed a Postcard programme called Clive James Racing Driver. The Adelaide Grand Prix had invited my participation in the Celebrity Saloon Car Challenge race, one of the sideshow races to the main F1 event. The Adelaide organizers had been inspired by the knowledge of F1 that I had demonstrated when narrating the annual FOCA (Formula One Constructors’ Association) video round-up for Bernie Ecclestone, who more or less owned the whole GP circus. Richard, who had known Bernie since he was only a millionaire, had rowed me in on the narration job before Bernie had a chance to find out that I couldn’t drive a golf cart. But I must have talked a good game. The Adelaide people clearly had no clue. Without bothering to disabuse them, we worked out a format where I would qualify for my road licence in England at the start of the programme so that I could move straight on to the racing-driver school in Adelaide, there to learn track technique along with the other celebrities, who had all been driving ordinary cars on the road ever since they were teenagers. It would be a good joke to watch me learning what they learned, provided I didn’t kill myself or anyone else when we zoomed around the speed bowl. But before I did any zooming in Adelaide, I would have to learn to drive an ordinary car in England, and the question arose of how we could make my driving lessons visually entertaining. Who would do the teaching? Richard, searching further into his contact bag, came up with the answer: Stirling Moss.

I thought this a brilliant idea until Stirling came shouldering into the office and said, ‘How in God’s name did you get this old without learning to drive a car?’ He was one of those intensely confident men who, slightly shorter than average, are always the tallest person in the room, so that you find yourself looking up to them with your head bowed. I was only partly lying when I told him it had all been his fault. When I was at Sydney University in the late 1950s Stirling had come out to New South Wales for a one-off non-championship Grand Prix. The local media contracted its usual case of severe backwater fever and turned the event into the biggest story since Frank Sinatra had been blacked by the Australian trade unions after referring to the women of the local press as a pack of hookers. Suddenly it was social death not to have an international racing driver as a dinner guest, with the suave Stirling as the top catch. At fashionable tables he would tell tales of the Mille Miglia, the great race in which, at the wheel of the Mercedes 300SLR racing sports car, he had averaged a hundred miles an hour over a thousand miles of ordinary Italian roads. The society ladies had no idea of what he was talking about but they could smell the heady cocktail of fame and danger and they leaned towards him like falling flowers. On the big day, the entire stratum of Sydney high fashion decamped to the circuit as if it had been Royal Randwick. With the side-panels of his car removed so that he could cope with the heat, Stirling won the race in such an heroic fashion that I resolved on the spot never to bother with doing badly what he could do so well. Also, I reminded him, he had cynically capitalized on his glory to get off with the University’s leading beauty of the time, who had proved tenaciously resistant to my poems but had given herself to him five minutes after she smelled the petrol on his breath. ‘You mean Veronica Minestrozzi? What a cracker. I did the whole race semi-conscious.’ He gracious in his dominance, I flattering in my respect, two blokes had bonded. A rapport had been formed, which came in handy when I proved to be an unusually inept pupil.

Luckily he was an excellent teacher. Experts rarely are, but Stirling was one of those people who enjoy the discipline of putting hard-won knowledge into terse form. With a cameraman, a sound man and a lighting man all crammed into the back of our Mini, Stirling came up with one line after another that we could put straight to air. I don’t even have to refer to the finished film: I can remember everything he said. ‘When you come to a turn, get your changing down done first. Keep the clutch out and do all your braking in a straight line. Then let in the clutch and you’re already accelerating into the turn.’ It was just like Bill Walsh talking about blitzing the quarterback. I love that kind of talk and even today I still store it up whenever I hear it, because it all applies to the making of art: the economy of means, the concentration of effort, the exploitation of momentum. Stirling would have laughed at my suggestion that he was a natural philosopher, but he was. (At the time of writing, he still is: whenever there is a big crisis in F1, the press go to him for his opinion: he’s the Old Man.)

When I took my test, the examiner was rather startled by my velocity from point to point and told me he would have failed me if I had hit anything, but I didn’t, so now I had a road licence. Our next move was to the old racing circuit at Donington, where Stirling got me started on a bit of speed. Nissan was in on the deal and provided a nice little number that really went. Stirling was in the passenger seat and was telling me not to overdo it at the very moment that I overdid it. We went off the track at about ninety and spun on the grass for some time. The camera got a shot of Stirling’s profile while he was in the very act of remembering the spin at Goodwood which had ended his racing career. Although his bones were successfully put back together he came out of the hospital with double vision: not bad enough to keep him off the road, but no more racing. He had had nearly died that time and clearly thought that this time might finish the job. When the car came to a halt in a cloud of steam I started apologizing and am still apologizing today whenever I see him. But he agreed to show up at the racing school in Adelaide to give me a few final tips before I went for my certificate of elementary competence.

In Adelaide all the celebrities congregated at the old speed bowl to get their first taste of the real thing. Flameproof overalls, visored helmets and thin-soled driving shoes led to a lot of posing before we even got into the cars. I particularly liked my driving shoes and took to wearing them to breakfast at the hotel. The retired World Champion James Hunt caught me at it and sent me up. ‘Breaking them in, are we?’ I liked Hunt, but my fondness could have had something to do with the fact that he was no longer in control of his life. We are usually relieved when somebody with great abilities loses the thread: it does something to lower the standard by which we are asked to live. Hunt had been a wonderful driver but never truly dedicated, and now, in the twilight of his career, when he was picking up small change by hanging around the circuits and decorating the set, the knack for dissipation which had led him astray in the first place was visibly trying to finish him off. One of the airlines had banned him for pissing in the aisle. His fans applauded this action as an example of his supposedly maverick nature, but it was more likely that he had just let go because the toilets were occupied. Anyway, even in the wreckage of his glory he still had his authority as a genuine champion, and I kept the memory of how he mocked my shoe-modelling moment as a reminder that posturing seldom goes unpunished. They were great shoes, though. I’ve still got them somewhere, at the back of a cupboard.

The cars, too, looked quite serious in their numbers and decals, and when the engines fired the atmosphere got all charged up with the cheap rhetoric of derring-do. Actually the cars, Nissans again, weren’t as fast as they sounded. The Pulsar model can be dauntingly quick on a public road after it has been stolen by your daughter’s bad choice of boyfriend, but for this occasion, on the batch of Pulsars assigned to us, the taps had been screwed down even further than the exhausts had been opened up, so that the cars would sound like the crack of doom while going quite slowly. But they would still cruise on the ton, and when you went into the long banked asphalt turns of the bowl you had to keep the car balanced or it would bounce off the outside wall and came back across the track at just the right angle to T-bone one or two of your fellow students. Stirling’s instructions about straight-line braking proved useful. Having been taught from the start to do it right, I didn’t know how to do it wrong, while some of the celebs who had been driving on the road their whole lives were suddenly all over the place. Fiercely competitive in this as in everything, I was proud of keeping up, but I also, uncharacteristically, kept a sense of proportion: it was clear that Rowan Atkinson, for example, could really do this kind of thing. In civilian life he had a collection of Aston-Martins and had made a point of learning to drive even heavy goods vehicles to a professional standard. (Has there ever been, in all of history, any other headline comedian with an HGV licence?) The racing instructors didn’t have much to teach him as he flew around without a squeak or squeal: nothing spectacular, just smooth precision. As in a ski class, I made a point of watching only the best students when I wasn’t watching the instructor himself. The instructors were all veterans of the old-time speedway when the cars went sideways through the dirt corners, and I was a bit awed by their tips on how to ride the brakes: it was an offence against the gospel according to Stirling, but I thought they must know something. After all, they were still alive, and some of them must have chased gangsters with the Keystone Kops. When Stirling dropped out of the sky and climbed in beside me, he was horrified by my new bad habits and chewed me out right in front of the camera. ‘Christ, who taught you this? Are you trying to kill me again?’

I slept badly that night and when it came to race day the Grand Prix circuit looked awesomely twisted, with hard concrete edges and a main straight long enough for a Boeing 747 to get airborne. I made a mess of qualifying, partly because I couldn’t make my mind up about the brakes but mainly because, let’s face it, nearly everyone else was faster than me except the marathon runner Deke Castella. The gauntly laconic Deke could do quite well on foot over a distance of twenty-six miles or so but he hadn’t done much more driving than I had. Up at the front of the grid were people like Rowan and at least one of the insanely aggressive Australian cricketers the Chappel brothers. After you name-checked your way through a couple of dozen people who were all celebrated for baring their capped teeth on national television you got down to the dregs at the end, and finally to me and Deke. It felt good to leave him standing when we all took off. For several laps I wasn’t bad through the turns and I had learned Stirling’s trick of relaxing on the long straight when the car is going flat out. (‘The engine is doing all the work, dear boy, not you. So that’s when you take it easy for a bit.’) The little Pulsar was barely doing a hundred knots but it felt like contour-flying in a jet fighter as the concrete wall raced by only a few feet away. When a bunch of cars are all going at full chat in the straight they seem, relative to each other, to be floating like jellyfish, and there’s the clue to what you should do: nothing. Let the car do it. Adjust your helmet with both hands if you want to. The car will steer itself, the speed holding the wheels nice and straight. At the same point, the F1 drivers, when they were racing tomorrow, would be doing a lot more than double the speed but they would all be peeling their vision-strips, wriggling their gloves to get more comfortable, writing letters home, etc. I was doing a bit of the old casual devil-may-care attitude myself when unexpectedly Deke’s car appeared out of my blind spot and floated past me.

That wasn’t supposed to be happening and I was mightily cheesed off. After the usual frenzied braking at the end of the straight he dived into the blind right-hander well ahead of me at what seemed an inadvisable speed. It was. A few hundred yards further around and I discovered his car in the middle of the track, facing the wrong way and emitting steam. He had rammed both walls in succession and shortened his car by several feet at each end. Luckily the bit that he was sitting in was a strong cage, but everything else was crumpled up. As I went skating by, now assured of not coming last, I had visible cause to remember that a stunt race like this one was no joke. In the inaugural event the year before, Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits had banged himself up badly enough for the rest of the band to gang up on him and ban him from racing, lest he put a crimp in their earning power, which was larger than that of most small countries but would not remain so if the star turn had to play the guitar with his teeth. In my race, now mercifully winding to an end, a few other cars slowed themselves down by hitting something or each other and I went past them too, gaining the places that the timid earn when the bold get wrecked. Our cameras were there to see me finish, ingloriously but safely. Actually we didn’t need the footage. The Australian TV channels covered the whole event and pictures of me at the wheel had gone out all over Australia, to remarkable effect. Nobody was impressed and the women were particularly indifferent. Except, of course, for my mother, watching the race in Sydney. She passed out cold from fright while the cars were still revving on the grid.

Even the most well-behaved woman can lose her head when she meets a proper driver, but not when his car is no more powerful than her lawnmower. It isn’t judicious competence that switches on a sensible female’s baser instincts: it’s the taste of danger. The apparently glib expression ‘only the brave deserve the fair’ is validated by an underlying truth. Danger evokes the reality of death, and when death is in the room women of otherwise impeccable decorum can be visited by a sudden urge to reproduce the human race. (In more recent times, after the World Trade Centre collapsed, firemen found themselves being approached by women out of the social pages of Vogue.) I went to Adelaide several times in those years, but unless I have lost count, that was the year when Ayrton Senna won the heart of Elle McPherson. Hero of Brazil and messenger of the gods, Senna was so impressive he didn’t need to say anything. Elle was a well-brought up girl and not easily carried away, but those are the very women who decide to go briefly crazy when they run into a man whose overalls smell of high-octane petrol and carry a certified written guarantee that he will plunge for their sake into the gullet of oblivion. Elle followed Ayrton all the way to São Paulo while every other heterosexual man in the world gritted his teeth like a missed gear-change. Even the other F1 drivers were ropeable on the subject, although without exception they were accompanied by at least one fashion-plate girlfriend at all times except when actually driving. When they drove, they were alone, which was, of course, part of the attraction. Given a whiff of that magnificent solitude, women with astronomical IQs revert to the thought processes of a butterfly: impregnate me now. The whole F1 atmosphere is as sexy as hell despite the fact that almost nobody understands the technical details. The standard of engineering is always way ahead of the current state of missile technology but the basic deal is as elemental as chariot racing. Once you get interested in the mechanical aspect as well, the GP circus can be hard to leave alone, and some surprisingly eminent civilians become dedicated petrol-heads.

One of them was George Harrison. At Adelaide I saw him trying to be inconspicuous in the depths of the McLaren pit. Some upmarket rubbernecks with pit passes — the platinum card form of accreditation — swarmed around him and asked for an autograph. Turning them down, he fascinated me with his answer. ‘It’s Thursday.’ What a perfect ploy! It gave them the idea that he would have fulfilled their request had it been any other day in the week, but that today was sacrosanct, like Ramadan. Always the most thoughtful Beatle, Harrison was a canny operator and I was glad to have his acquaintanceship, however fleeting. Back in England, he read in some press profile that I was teaching myself to juggle. I never got very good at it, but I got past the elementary stage of juggling three balls in a circle and had moved up to four. It takes patience because you continually have to chase the balls you drop, and they all have an insatiable desire to roll under the couch. The answer to this is to train with soft balls that stick where they land. (Readers who are working on their own double entendres at this point are advised to give up: all the jokes had already been cracked by the time Chaucer saw his first juggler, Dickon Dawkins, who also did a show-stopping trick with two starved voles and a pullet down his tights.) Typically, George Harrison had guessed my problem and sent me a set of luxury leather soft juggling balls that flew like real ones but didn’t roll an inch when they fell. He also got in touch to ask me whether I would consider playing a gangster in one of his movies. His production arm, Handmade Films, was one of the British film industry’s rare success stories, largely because of his perseverance and judgement. (Withnail and I, Mona Lisa, Time Bandits, Privates on Parade, The Long Good Friday and Monty Python’s Life of Brian are just some of the films that would probably have never existed without Harrison’s nose for a project.) Bob Hoskins had the gangster market wrapped up, but for just that reason he had created a vacancy, because he wasn’t always available, even though he sprinted from one set to the next like a Bollywood soprano. Harrison pointed out that from certain angles I looked roughly like Hoskins: bald, thick-necked, patently libidinous. I pointed out that I couldn’t act and Harrison said: ‘I know that, but your head’s the right shape.’ He also said something about how millions of people associated my face with merriment, which would make the switch more effective when I dealt with rebellious lieutenants by issuing instructions that they be incorporated into the cement foundations of a building project.

Suddenly I could see it all: me in the back of a black limo, pressing the button to lower the window and smiling in a sinister manner at someone on the outside while threatening him with grievous bodily harm. A bit of the old grievous. I could hear myself saying it. I would have said yes like a shot if an actual role was coming up, but it never did. If it had, I probably would have been unable to do it, because of TV commitments. That was the downside of doing TV season by season: it locked you into vast blocks of time in which you couldn’t do anything else. Later on, Jane Campion, the brilliant film director from New Zealand, wanted me to play a fast-talking Australian lawyer in her movie Holy Smoke. The part would have required two weeks in the Queensland rainforest with Kate Winslet. It was bad enough having to pass on an invitation from the Princeton Institute of Advanced Studies to lecture about Primo Levi, a gig that would have done a lot to make me feel that I was still, from the literary viewpoint, in the swim. But Kate Winslet in the rainforest! I had to turn it down and I still haven’t got over it. In the course of time I interviewed Kate Winslet in the studio — she was, I need hardly note, utterly unspoiled, articulate and enchanting — and when saying goodbye to her afterwards I told her how close she had come to spending two weeks in the rainforest with me. She smiled nicely but there was something in her eyes that spelt gratitude. For those who make a living in show business, regret for what almost happened can be the second most dangerous emotion after envy, and it’s a safe rule that if you can’t get your disappointments in perspective you will never last. In retrospect I think I have been not too bad at resigning myself to the chances missed. But I would like to have proved to that divinely talented creature that I, too, had a gift for acting, just as I would like to have proved to Ayrton Senna that I was hell on wheels. To do the latter, of course, I would also have had to develop my latent capacity for science, in order to distil an elixir of life that would have made me a few decades younger and a lot braver.

But I really loved it, being behind the wheel of a fast car. I hadn’t been back in England long, however, before I proved to myself and all concerned that I had no business being behind the wheel of an ordinary car on a public road. Ordinary cars didn’t come more ordinary than ours. By that time we had upgraded from a Mini to a Golf, which, though bigger, was possibly even less impressive in its surge of acceleration. Even my wife, who by nature favours the secure over the spectacular, sometimes wondered aloud whether the Golf had been the right purchase. We would all get into it, wonder why it wasn’t going, and then find out, by close observation of the surrounding scenery, that it was. But with me at the controls the Golf became a weapon whose potential lethality was plain to all but the driver. The moment of truth came when I drove my elder daughter to Oxford for the new term. Passing through Milton Keynes, I drove twice around the wrong roundabout while my daughter made muted noises of apprehension. Kindly she waited until we had arrived at New College and unloaded her stuff — as always, I was good for lifting weights under female supervision — before she started reciting a list of all the times that I had nearly got us wiped out along with the numerous innocent civilians who were lucky to be going home in one piece. Shaken, I decided then and there to quit domestic driving on ordinary roads. I would save it for the screen. The whole family voted their assent with such unanimous alacrity that I felt I had no right even to be cast down. I have never driven on an ordinary road again, except when making a movie, which is a different world, where the budget pays for the damage and you are effectively preceded by a man with a red flag.

That being said, my new ability to make a car go roughly where I pointed it proved crucial when we made Postcard from Miami. At the time, the American police series Miami Vice was a big hit on British television, so our high-level executives were naturally keen to establish a thematic connection for promotional purposes. By that stage Richard’s insistence that I attend a gymnasium twice a week had begun to pay off, and it didn’t seem entirely implausible that I should be visiting Miami in order to pick up tips on a possible career as a fashion-conscious cop. I would have to be a fashion-conscious cop in a very ordinary blue suit, but at least I was roughly the right shape. My appearance was further enhanced by my reclining position at the wheel of a Ferrari Testarossa sports car, hired for two weeks at a heartrending fee. The Miami Vice stars, Philip Michael Thomas and Don Johnson, were always tooling around in glamorous vehicles and I would do the same, thus to blend into the atmosphere of rehabbed Art Deco hotels, fresh-from-the-carton Architectonica skyscrapers, white beaches, blue water and the scribbled dribble of neon on balmy nights. The benefits of having a proper international road licence were now apparent. Without one, I would have been feebly hailing taxis. In the Ferrari, I looked independent. I even looked dashing. The Ferrari dashed at only a fraction of its potential because I didn’t know how to get it out of second gear, but since it would do fifty in first there was plenty of speed to play with if I ever needed it. I did my best not to need it. Buses honked at me, impatient to get by. With the red-headed classic engine emitting a frustrated version of its characteristic coffee-grinder scream, I proceeded at the pace of a steam roller. But in my dark glasses and low-slung bright red car I looked the part while we shot miles of coverage to establish me as mobile in Miami and ready for action: lean, mean, dangerous and perhaps a little stupid.

The Ferrari footage was the link material for various episodes, which fell roughly into two categories: dead serious and utter nonsense. It was nonsense when a huge ex-Marine taught me to load and fire a .45 automatic. It was serious when I interviewed an ex-CIA agent who had been firing a .45 automatic for most of her life. An elegant blonde built along the lines of Christy Turlington, she could have stepped out of the annual Swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated. But she would have still been with the Agency if the PR arm of a Colombian drug cartel hadn’t blown her cover. Now she earned her living by writing books and teaching people like me to waterski, something she could do at championship level. The desire to show off to her, coupled with my usual urge to dare all for the camera, had an astonishing result. Most first-timers don’t stand up on the skis within the first hour, but there I was, upright at the first attempt and skimming along the blue water beside the white wake of the speedboat from which she, bikini-clad, waved back to me in encouragement, and, I thought, admiration. Off to one side, our camera in another speedboat was getting the shot. It was a moment of triumph and it received its due reward. After my skis got crossed, there was a somersault of large radius that ensured the unyielding water would receive my descending behind at precisely the right angle to inflict a sea-water injection of stunning power. Shafted, I was hauled aboard. ‘Not many people do that on their first day,’ she said. ‘Congratulations.’ I smiled back, as a man will smile who has just been sodomized by a speeding pillar of salt.

She gave me a revealing interview, though. It was all about drugs, illegal immigrants, Latin American politics and everything else that Washington was spending billions on failing to cope with. She didn’t say that last part but it was obvious that the whole thing was out of control. Off camera, I caught her speaking beautiful Spanish and asked her whether she had learned it as a child. Not at all: she had learned it in adulthood, with a self-devised programme of discipline by which she had set out to memorize the words for all the parts of the body in the first week, and then all the colours and seasons in the second week, and so on. I was abashed, and took the tip. From then on I was much more systematic about learning complete sets of words. (Left, right, ahead, behind, up, down: it’s an essential early set to learn in any language.) She was lovely, my secret agent, and she was very bright: a tremendous human asset which America was rich enough to waste.

It was amazing, the wealth of gifted people they had on hand. There was a young customs narc who looked like Steve McQueen. He too was careful not to say that the war on drugs was long lost, but he didn’t have to say it. He took me out on a fast boat. Fast meant really fast: with two engines bigger than the one in my Ferrari, it could catch the Cigarette boats that ran the drugs into Miami by night. On our day out, he just trailed a big gin palace into the river mouth while he told us why it was worth a search. ‘See that guy at the back who’s checking gear? It doesn’t need checking. He’s checking us.’ As so often with the Americans, this was dialogue you could put straight to air. We filmed the narcs as they swarmed all over the target boat and came up with nothing. The day before, they had busted anther boat with about ten million dollars’ worth of cocaine stashed in its air-conditioning system. (‘Don’t worry. If this boat had been dirty we wouldn’t have let you film it anyway. It would have screwed the case.’) With so much powder being picked up, the inevitable inference was that many times as much was getting through, on its way to reducing a few thousand mothers’ daughters to snivelling wrecks. It wasn’t a war, it was a process, and the most you could do was to dress the process up to make it look reasonably good for the forces of virtue. That, essentially, was what a show like Miami Vice was all about: it gave a pastel tone to stark horror. Real drugs do ugly things to people but on television the actors playing the cops make it all look cute.

Looking cute was Don Johnson’s cross. With me in the Ferrari and the crew in the van, we called on him one day when he had some downtime between jumping cutely out of a car with a gun in his hand and rolling cutely on the special grass that would not stain his pastel-blue jacket. His African-American partner, Philip Michael Thomas, was invisible in the trailer, waiting for the day, which then seemed impossibly far off, when a brother would become President of the United States. But Don Johnson was available and generously ready to play along. (The ruthless rule is: a big enough star will give you his time for free but the one who calls for his agent is the one you don’t want anyway.) Don Johnson was, and still is, a disciplined performer with the full American song-and-dance background, but he already knew all too well that he had the part because he looked so good in lipgloss. I could go on for ages about the harsh laws of an actor’s life, but the quickest way of saying it is that while most of them get nowhere, those who get somewhere seldom get what they want. Don Johnson was a seriously accomplished actor and after he got off the pretty treadmill of Miami Vice he made at least two movies to prove it. In the reasonably successful Guilty as Sin he was very believable as the too-handsome villain and in the almost unknown The Hot Spot he was even better as the lawyer ready to kill for Jennifer Connolly. (Though it could be said that Gandhi would have been ready to do the same, Johnson made it subtle.) But he never got out from under his television image. It can be done: it started with Steve McQueen, James Garner and Clint Eastwood, and more recently George Clooney is a powerful example of the TV star graduating to big-screen hero. But on the whole, success on American TV is a straitjacket. Don Johnson’s straitjacket was beautifully cut — nobody ever looked better in pastel poplin, light tan chinos and Gucci loafers with no socks — but he was a prisoner. Later in his career he came to the West End to play Nathan Detroit in Guys & Dolls and the London critics, who uniformly panned the production, were nevertheless astonished that he could sing. But of course he could. He could always do all that stuff, and instead he had spent his best years jumping in and out of cars and shouting, ‘Go! Go! Go!’ His example gave me a lot to think about. Somehow, although my working life was theoretically a version of paradise, I was forever planning my escape, like a citizen of Havana.

The biggest story in Miami was the Cubans. Though this was a political theme of such complexity that it could hardly be unravelled in passing, my producer Beatrice Ballard nicely succumbed to my demand that we trawl for vox pops in Calle Ocho, still officially called 8th Street but by now populated exclusively with people speaking Spanish. Calle Ocho was the main stem for all the Cubans who had transferred themselves from the workers’ paradise of Castro’s imagination to the opportunistic inferno of America’s brutal capitalist reality. Her instinct, however, proved right. Among the one and a half million Cubans who had survived the trip by crowded boat, open raft or rubber inner tube, there were too many head-cases with well-rehearsed stories who would hog the camera even if you pointed it away from them. As if the Bay of Pigs disaster had never happened, they spoke loudly and continuously of secret missions to go home in fully armed glory, an eventuality for which they trained in the Everglades by practising unarmed-combat routines against alligators while fire-bombing small areas of swamp with Molotov cocktails. The best way to handle the Cuban-exile story was to interview Gloria Estefan, which we did. A mainstream chart-topper as well as being by far the most popular singer in the Spanish world, she had a smart mind to go with her talent, and — rarer still, this — good manners to go with the smart mind. She couldn’t have been more cooperative, but the best part of the story came by implication, just from the setting. We arrived by boat to visit her at home. She was living on a little island with an entry fee of many millions: a community gated by open water. ‘I’m hardly ever here,’ she told me, ‘but when I’m out on the road it’s nice to know that I’ve got this to come home to.’ She waved sweetly at an acre of emerald lawn. The only conclusion to draw was that if you were content to play music for the Buena Vista Social Club and eat meat once a month, then Cuba was for you, but if you wanted to be a star singer on a world scale, then you had to go to Miami. The whole of Central America was heading for Miami. That was the story.

America’s magnetic attraction for the disadvantaged of the region remained a hard story to tell because of the assumption among intelligent people everywhere that America had caused the disadvantages. This assumption was largely a false one. Mexico, for example, wasn’t poor because America was rich; Mexico was poor because an endless succession of permanently revolutionary governments could waste any amount of American credit while pursuing employment policies which ensured the migration across the Rio Grande of every worker with the ability to swim or even wade. But the assumption kept on being reborn because among the intelligentsia of any free country the idea lingered tenaciously that the established order under which they themselves flourished was essentially a fraud. There had been a time when I had parroted such opinions myself even though not really believing them, so I was familiar with the mechanism by which one can profess a set of beliefs while harbouring contrary desires. This anomaly is prevalent in the field of show business, and especially prevalent in the theatre, where histrionic abilities are plentifully available to facilitate the cover-up. A radical playwright who accepts a knighthood after a lifetime of vilifying every aspect of the society that made him rich will look indignant if accused of hypocrisy, and his admirers will soon learn to go easy on the mockery if they wish to keep his favour. Among the admirers will be almost all the actors, who are scarcely likely, of their own free will, to get on the wrong side of someone who might write them a part. The almost complete absence of objections to his acceptance of an honour will soon strike the playwright as unanimous approval, and any inner conflict is quickly put to rest.