Books: The Blaze of Obscurity — 19. It Would Be An Honour |
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The Blaze of Obscurity — 19. It Would Be An Honour


I like to think that there was no inner conflict in my own case, when I was offered membership in the Order of Australia in 1992. The decoration is conferred by the Australian government. Mine, however was to be pinned on me by the Queen at Buckingham Palace. This invitation was bound to confirm me as an irredeemable Establishment figure in the eyes of the Australian media commentariat, but I didn’t mind. By their standards I was already an irredeemable Establishment figure, so why fight it? I would have turned the gong down if my family had objected but they were already buying new hats. And my mother was pleased. Back there in Kogarah she was in the process of being moved into a nursing home on a permanent basis but she had more than enough energy still on tap to convey her approval. Always among her chief fears was that I would not be able to earn a living, and here was a new accreditation that might help get me a proper job. There was a certain amount of raucous comment from my Friday lunch cronies about the honour having been conferred for Services to Television rather than Services to Literature, but I could put up with that.

Harder to put up with was the fancy dress. I looked stout in the morning suit but the effect might have been alleviated if there had been no top hat. There was a top hat. It looked no more appropriate on me than it had looked on Hitler when he called on Hindenburg. The women in my family, who could give the effect of a trio of Furies even at the best of times, fought laughter as they took turns being photographed with the paterfamilias in the forecourt of the palace. Luckily, once we got inside, they were led away to join the audience of massed relatives while I was briefed, along with a bunch of other recipients, by Black Briefs in Waiting, Master of the Rigmarole. He was admirably succinct. It was the clearest set of rules I have ever had explained to me about anything. One advanced to meet the Queen. The Queen would hang the medal on the hook in one’s lapel. The Queen might ask a question while doing so. Answer it. But when she extended her hand, the audience was over. Shake the hand and walk away backwards. Try to extend the acquaintance and you would be hauled off with a hook.

I would like to say that it all went wrong because that would make a better story. But it went like clockwork, which, I suppose, is what’s wrong with it. Why lavish so much protocol on something so trivial? But the answer is in the question. It’s trivial for her, who has to do it thousands of times a year, and it’s trivial for us, who must live for other satisfactions or else be sorely disappointed. But it’s not trivial in itself: or rather, the triviality has weight. It stands in as a comparatively benign substitute for all the corruption that might be unleashed if people did their duties for no rewards except those of palpable substance. The great critic and thoroughgoing bastard Cyril Connolly always thought that he was being amusing when he told the story of how he had expected the Queen to know something about what he did for a living when she gave him a medal. But he was mistaken in two different ways at once. The Queen couldn’t be expected to keep up with literary criticism, so there was nothing funny there. And if Connolly wanted his listeners to laugh because his expectations had been ridiculous, he must have been very confident that they were interested in what he felt: there was nothing funny there either. On the other hand, literary criticism had been honoured, in the same way that keeping a neat and honest set of housing-transfer certificates gets honoured when a civil servant receives on OBE for thirty years of service. The protocol is the prize. It’s a tradition, and has the advantage of not having been invented yesterday. (Some of the British traditions, including most of the coronation ceremony, were indeed invented yesterday, but they were concocted out of scraps left over from the past.)

I was getting my award at just the right time in my own history. Very slowly, too slowly, I had been graduating out of contempt for the inherited order’s injustices to gratitude that it was not more unjust. Object to the inherited social structure by all means, but object in detail, and always in the knowledge that an enforced wholesale alteration would be unlikely to ameliorate the condition of those you claim to speak for, and very likely to make it immeasurably worse. That, briefly, had been the story of the twentieth century, by then nearing its unlamented end. My increasing knowledge of recent history, which I never ceased to study even when out on the trail of tinsel glory, has been doing its work, along with the mere fact of growing older, and so less confident in my ability to change the world all by myself. Both for Britain and Australia, the constitutional order looked worth preserving, the Royal family included: the Royal Family whatever its limitations. (The Queen still knows next to nothing about literary criticism.) Unbroken even by the moment of death, the permanent existence of a monarch sets a limit to ambition. If I bend my knee to the monarch, I don’t have to bend the knee to anyone else. This knowledge would come in handy if I were ever to meet Rupert Murdoch, who would dearly like to rearrange the established order so that he could have a say in who would hold the office of head of state. He is a baron, and in my homeland there are many barons like him. At Runnymede, the great charter, by putting the monarchy beyond contest, limited the power of the barons in perpetuity, to the inestimable benefit of the common people. Barons are ambitious men. As an ambitious man myself, I know something about what goes on in their heads. They want the world. The wisest of them learn to temper their wish, but the wish is basic.

Perhaps I should explain, at this point, that it was the constitutional function of the Royal Family that attracted me, and not its personnel. In the mercifully brief time when I was occasionally bumping into them — almost always it was at an awards ceremony in which my function was either to present an award or to look brave when I lost — I liked my Royals bright, which cut the field right down. There were many commentators who thought that the Princess of Wales was no brighter than a forty-watt bulb that tinkled when you shook it, but I couldn’t agree. I hadn’t met her again since our first encounter in Cannes, because the distance between her and Charles had steadily grown to the point where, if you saw him, you never saw her: it was like matter and antimatter. My romantic view of the assured succession took a bit of a bashing on the several occasions when my wife and I invited Charles to dinner and he turned up alone. When he invited us to dinner at Sandringham, he was alone there too. By then even I could hear the hooter announcing that there was trouble at the mill. But though I was pleased and flattered to see the Prince occasionally, and admired his thoughtful concern, I had plenty of intelligent men among my friends, and some of them outranked him, unless you were put off by the fact that none of them would be King one day. I also knew more than my fair share of bright and beautiful women, but none of them outranked Diana for fascination. It wasn’t just because of her position, either. She would have been the centre of the action even if she worked behind an airline check-in desk, an effect that could not be ascribed merely to her beauty. The picture of her standing in front of me in Cannes had never left my mind, but it was partly because of the accompanying soundtrack: in two minutes she had convinced me that I was a clever chap, she had enrolled me in a conspiracy to despise Robert Maxwell — looming like a rotting whale elsewhere in the crowded room, he seemed unaware that she had drilled him with a glance — and she had scattered showering sparks of conversational delight. Clearly in love with the whole idea of off-trail chat, she had evinced the rare knack of persuading her interlocutor that he — in this case me — was a necessary voice in her private campaign to stir things up. One of the things that her lovely eyes shone with was glee. It didn’t occur to me then that her taste for mischief could have been akin to madness, but I would have been up for more of the same even if it had. She had only been working the room, but not even Jackie Kennedy in her heyday at the White House had worked a room leaving such a trail of charmed lives.

Diana had an even bigger room to work at Buckingham Palace one night. It was somebody’s birthday, I forget whose. It could have been Charles’s birthday, but it might have been the Queen Mother’s: she had hundreds of them. Anyway, all the royals of Europe were there, along with the regulation sprinkling of media celebrities. They had the fame factor of Elton John at the very least, however, so I don’t think I was there on that ticket. Perhaps I had been invited because I was bald, and Charles, whose hair was merely growing thin, wanted a few reminders around him that a man could lose the lot and yet retain the will to live. The sheer extent of the shindig I won’t try to evoke. If you can imagine St Pancras Station crammed with a cast painted by Alma Tadema and wired for sound, you’re getting near it. Sufficient to say that after too much champagne I needed to take a slash and headed for one of the royal men’s rooms, which was a second cousin of the Garrick club’s dining room and had a line of solid marble urinals stretching for the length of a cricket pitch. Such was the traffic that every urinal was occupied except one. I took up my position to strain the potatoes and was lucky to get most of the job done before I glanced sideways in each direction and finally noticed that I was the only man present who was not a crowned head of Europe. After I washed my hands I was passed a towel by a flunky who must have been a television fan, because he gave me the appreciative smile that he had just withheld from the King of Norway. But equally clearly he was wondering how I had got in.

Back outside in the teeming ball-room, the field of gravity had been altered by the arrival of Diana en grande tenue. You could see immediately why she was bound to have, vis-à-vis the standard Royal set-up, the same effect as the invention of the jet engine on the history of powered flight. Suddenly all the putatively glamorous aristocrats looked ordinary. When it was my turn to chat her up, I was doltish enough to say ‘Care to dance?’ She said no. Already a dead man, I found it easy to take my life in my hands. ‘So can I take you to lunch instead?’ She said yes, give me a buzz.

It was as easy as that. Explaining my rationale to the women in my family in advance, I said that as a writer I had to know things. At least one of my listeners rolled her eyes towards the ceiling like a judge hearing from a lifetime burglar that he was a student of objets d’art, but there was no veto. Perhaps the sheer incongruity of the project had wrapped me in a mantle of seriousness, as when a man who proposes to ski down the Eiger blindfolded while reciting the ‘Immortality Ode’ is interviewed on Newsnight Review instead of being locked up for observation. My first lunch date with the Princess happened at a Notting Hill Gate restaurant called Kensington Place, one of her standard hang-outs. She was on time to the minute. (In this and every other respect, her manners were perfect: at the end of any lunch her credit card had always to be beaten from her hand, and her bread-and-butter thank-you notes, to anyone for anything, arrived next day and were always more than a page long.) I got cast immediately in the role of funny uncle and had a wonderful time making her laugh. Too few years later, after her untimely death, I said my piece about Diana, and eventually it was published in my book Even As We Speak. If I can be permitted the luxury of a cross-reference to one of my own books, anyone interested can find in its pages most of what I am competent to say about her, and after that book was published I never spoke of the subject again until now. But the reader of a book of memoirs has a right to hear, at the appropriate chronological point, anything that the author can legitimately say about his own history, so I should say this much now. I loved her dearly, even though I hardly knew her.

Though I was always apt to think a beautiful woman intelligent until the facts proved otherwise, which they quite often did, I didn’t dote on the Princess just for her physical attraction, which was far out of my age-range, and anyway not that remarkable: as someone who had to deal with people like Helen Hunt and Charlotte Rampling for a living, I knew what physical perfection looked like, and Diana didn’t have it. For one thing, her nose was on sideways. But what she did have was lit up like Christmas, from an inner fire that was really the fire of curiosity. She was interested in everything. It was as if she had had not just a deprived childhood, in a household where she was groomed for a dynastic marriage by neurotics whose own ideas of conjugal union might have been derived from a horse-breeding manual, but a childhood without any intellectual stimulus whatsoever, like Kaspar Hauser, the savage infant. Released into the world, she was voracious for news about what accomplished people did. She was interested in accomplished artists, accomplished doctors, accomplished coal miners. This worshipping curiosity, coupled with a wicked knack for reflecting a man’s ideal self back to him, made her intoxicatingly flattering as a companion. I was slow to see, however, that she was making the fundamental mistake of taking it all personally. With no security of her own, she dreamed habitually of ‘becoming herself’, as the fashionable saying went; and of doing so in any or all of those fields of achievement that were opening up continually in front of her. You’re a sky-diver? Can I go sky-diving too?

I recognized her, because I have the same personality flaw myself. I have been that way all my life. When I first heard David Oistrakh play the violin, I wanted to be him. When I first saw Greg Louganis dive the inward three and a half somersaults from the tower, I wanted to be him. Even today, I would like to be Roger Federer. But I know I can’t, and I have something else to do. Diana had nothing to fall back on. Eventually, had her life not been cut short, she might have built a base for herself more solid than that conferred by her ability to make men who could do marvellous things fall in love with her: a base of realism, founded on a more certain knowledge of what she could get done, through her position, by her unusual and true talent for empathy. But at the time I knew her, she was far from being sure about any of that, and it was all too clear that the multiplicity of her yearnings was scrambling her brains. It would have been easier for her if she had been unattractive. But that’s just a way of saying that she would have been better at being herself if she had been someone else.

Alas, she was who she was, with all her charm, and so the charm was a deadly gift. I was on the receiving end of it, and I know. Not that she flirted, even for a moment. Older men who say they are no longer attracted to younger women are almost always lying, but a wise older man does not expect that the same force will operate in the other direction. Certainly it didn’t in this case. But she was charming anyway. Why was that? When interrogated at home, I wasn’t just trying to save my skin when I said that I thought her more than a touch ga-ga. I had heard her tell obvious untruths. She told me that she had not cooperated with her unofficial biographer when it was quite clear that she had. Such whoppers would have been understandable had she been in show business, where finessing the truth is a recognized survival mechanism. But she wasn’t in show business, or at any rate was not supposed to be. I had seen her turn the same atomic smile on the waiters that she had just been using on me, and the news was already out that she had been lavishing a ration of her personal magic on every editor in London, in the dangerous belief that men incapable of loyalty would remain servile even if they were fed the whole carcass. To put it briefly, I thought she was childish. But as I loftily explained to the household furies when they grilled me, the days of her eating disorder were over, she was well fed, she would live for a long time, and I thought she had the capacity to learn. She was one of those people who start off with no wisdom at all and have to learn everything by trial and error, but so was I. I got some sceptical looks, but I suppose the manifest absurdity of the friendship conferred a certain plausibility, and anyway, it wasn’t as if she hadn’t bedazzled every man she met, with the possible exception of her husband. (And, I might have added had I but known, every other senior Royal who had seen her in close-up long enough to know that she was a ticking fruitcake.)

There was no safety in numbers, however. If she had enrolled, one by one, every man in the country among her admirers, they all would have had their faces in the newspapers. There were even journalists who got their faces in the newspapers because they had been seen talking to her. To be seen eating with her was a signal for a press stampede, and she and I had scarcely reached the second course of our first lunch before a Range Rover full of photographers and reporters arrived outside. It went on like that for what seemed like years. How long was it, really? Not long enough. I would have liked to know her forever. But it was just the occasional meeting. She had an infinity of people that mattered to her more, and I had things to do. But already I could see myself when I was ancient and doddering, summoned to the palace when she was Queen, no longer in her first youth but still insistent on hearing my jokes. Though there were rumours about the possibility of a divorce, I didn’t see how it could happen. And there would surely be an accommodation. (In the Spectator I published several articles about the necessity for this, presuming to speak as one with authority, and not as the scribes.) There would always be time. I already knew that time was finite for me, but for her it would be infinite.

To know her took an hour a month at most, and every other moment was crowded. There lay my real anguish. It was too crowded. Television was eating me alive, but I couldn’t back out of it, not just because it paid the bills but because I was still trying to get it right. More cursed than ever by the desire to practise everything as an art form, I was trying to give shape to a storm of light. It can’t be done beyond a certain point, but I was still keen to know where the point was. Anything else I could do would have to happen in the wings while I did that. The weekly show and the End of the Year show were based in London so I could always write in the back seat of the car on the way to and from the office or the studio. The travel programmes were less forgiving. For writing poems, it was easy enough to find some downtime while I travelled to the location and sat around between set-ups. One of the poems, about the life of W. H. Auden, took months to assemble. I wrote pieces of it all over the world. But Tina Brown, the latest editor of the New Yorker, took the finished thing and gave it a whole page to itself, with the opposite page occupied by a Richard Avedon portrait photo of Auden that made the whole splash look very grand. So I had got the thing done. Writing essays was harder, especially if they needed research, but since I travelled light I could always carry a few books with me in my hold-all, and I was steadily getting better at keeping the thread of a prose argument in my head until I could get back to the notebook on the desk in my hotel room. Keeping the thread was sometimes difficult when I had been stoked up by the action during the day. The action was seldom dangerous but it could be unnerving, thereby inducing an adrenaline squirt that doesn’t agree with the sedentary process of nutting out an essay about Gerard Manley Hopkins. And just occasionally it was dangerous, though it was never meant to be. My producers had a vested interest in keeping me alive, and some of them could barely be restrained from tasting my food before I ate it.