Books: The Blaze of Obscurity — 23. Company Store |
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The Blaze of Obscurity — 23. Company Store


To start your own media facility, however, you need a business brain. Luckily I had one, in the form of Richard Drewett. On my own, I could barely organize my own lunch. But Richard could have organized D-Day. It was a talent, and a talent will always express itself to the full if it can. Out in Sydney, where Richard was acting as my manager while I did some stage appearances, we sat beside the swimming pool of the Regent Hotel and worked on a name for our company. After two days and a stack of lists, I was the one who got struck by lightning. Richard was mad about classic watches. He had a collection of them, and would occasionally give me one to mark a significant occasion, even though he knew I never collected anything, was not interested in the value of objects, and would inevitably lose the gift or leave it lying neglected. (The only reason I have a drawer full of his gift watches is that I also neglect to throw anything out.) On every trip in any direction, Richard collected high-quality things, which he called ‘stuff’. In the duty-free shops he sought out the best stuff with the most favourable discounts. He had a collection of cameras. He had a collection of antique model cars that he added to in every city in the world. Richard never missed a bargain. He was systematic, for example, about keeping track of his air miles. I never did and still don’t. After a quarter of a century of flying everywhere, I probably could have piled up enough air miles for a free trip to the Moon. To the despair and wonder of my frugal family, I just couldn’t be bothered. It’s a bad character flaw and I’m sorry for it. I continually buy a new cheap watch because I abandon the old one when the battery runs out or when the wrist band rots through. You might ask why I don’t just reach into my drawer of Richard Drewett Presentation Classics, but they all need winding. My carelessness about what I strapped around my wrist was a particular puzzle to Richard, who wanted his watch to say ‘Cartier’ at the very least, even if he had to wind it every five minutes. ‘Do you realize the workmanship that goes into a thing like this?’ He was winding his latest treasure beside the swimming pool when suddenly the perfect name hit me. Watchmaker. It was a pun. We would make people watch. And it was a simile. We would be meticulous craftsmen. It was neat and sweet. It was perfect. Richard said, ‘That’s it.’

So we built a company called Watchmaker. It was a huge job of organization and thank God it wasn’t up to me. Richard and I were equal senior partners but he did the heavy lifting, starting with the working capital, which came from the Chrysalis corporation, by means of a management buy-out deal, timed to reach fruition in five years: a deal which I still don’t understand today even in its smallest part. The simplest interpretation I can manage is that Chrysalis would share in the production fees we received from the television companies and when the lustrum expired near the end of the millennium, Chrysalis would reward us by buying the company back from us. You understand? Neither do I. But Richard, a very practical man, had it all taped. He was so practical that he realized we would need a junior partner as a programmes executive. From the several candidates we had in mind, we chose Elaine Bedell primarily because she had the fire to face us down whether separately or together. She started off by demanding a salary and a share fifty per cent bigger than the highest figure we had conceived of. There was no way of paying it without giving up some of our own whack, but we did it anyway.

After that, the fun started. Luckily I missed most of it. I just went to the office each day and tried to be grateful as it was steadily transformed from an empty space into a thriving community with all the right filing cabinets. Our first, temporary, office was a large suite of rooms in a building somewhere in the Ladbroke Grove area. The building was so anonymous that I can’t even remember where it was, and seldom could remember at the time. I had to be delivered to it by car from my flat in the Barbican: from one dead zone to another. I still marvel at the patience of a bunch of people who could devote such meticulous labour to moving all their stuff into a place that they would soon have to move out of, but before we could switch to a permanent office on a whole floor of the Chrysalis building we had had to make our first programmes, just to stay in business. In those short five years of Watchmaker’s existence there was a whole string of Postcard programmes made practically back to back, and that tempo was at its height in the very beginning of the company, so that I was filming when I wasn’t flying, and flying when I wasn’t filming.

The Bombay Postcard was typical of the tight new approach. We poured the effort into preparation so that not one precious hour on location was wasted. Mumbai, still called Bombay in those days (it is still called Bombay now by everyone in the city who doesn’t care about nationalist posturing, which effectively means everyone), hit me right between the eyes from the moment we moved into the Taj Mahal Hotel and I realized that most actual Indians had the same chance of seeing its lavish interior as they had of being invited to a White House ball. The story of the city was poverty, all right. The problem was not how to tell it, but how to tell anything else. Poverty got into everything. Anything that wasn’t soaked in poverty had a view of poverty just outside the window. In streets that were already shanty towns, there were shanty towns in the gutters. All you had to do was point the camera. It was pointed by John Bowring, a well-fed Australian cameraman/director who was surprisingly light on his feet. He could do a smooth travelling shot while running backwards downstairs. When we filmed in the Pacific area we always used him because, based in Australia, he was less expensive on flight costs. Also he was exceptionally efficient, so the savings were doubled. And he was cheerful, which really helped. He had seen everything the Far East had to offer in terms of human suffering, but in Bombay even he sometimes surfaced from the eyepiece and said ‘Christ almighty’ after seeing something in the frame that passed all imagining for sheer misery. Yet that wasn’t the whole story, even then. There was a new energy getting set to burst, rather like the bombs which terrorists were planting as their contribution towards solving the insoluble. If there was going to be an answer, prosperity was it, and prosperity was visibly getting started. Some of it took a ridiculous form, laying the place wide open for a standard City of Contrasts commentary. (In television documentaries, the phrase ‘city of contrasts’, along with ‘land of contrasts’, comes just behind ‘meeting the challenge’ and ‘time was running out’ as a sign that you won’t be hearing anything remarkable.) If only to keep faith with the poor, I would try to do better than that.

The fine ladies of the social elite, all in their saris, gathered in a function room at the Hilton to check out Pierre Cardin’s collection especially designed for India. Draped on loosely stalking imported models, none of his designs looked even remotely as good as the saris in the audience. Pierre Cardin himself, a carefully restored listed building in a suit, made an appearance at the end of the show, prancing on with the massed models and reaching down from the catwalk to make contact with a tiny percentage of the population of India, which he congratulated on its taste. I thought his own taste was exceeded for elegance by the merest fishwife, who could be filmed at the sea’s edge as she came swerving though the uproar and the filth, her gracile figure infinitely poetic in an emerald sari as she balanced a basket of cuttlefish on her finely chiselled head. John Bowring caught her on a long lens against the gathering dusk and I already knew it would be the last shot of the finished movie, the shot over which I would narrate my conclusions. The beauty among the squalor was the key to the film’s texture.

Other signs of incipient prosperity were a lot more fun than the irrelevant Frenchified frocks, which I knew I was going to call, in voice-over, the exact equivalent of coals to Newcastle. The burgeoning of a new Bombay could be seen at its most outrageous in Bollywood. Not yet world-famous but soon to be so, already the Bollywood system was generating half a dozen films a week and we went out to the main open-air set to include me in one of them. (This inclusion principle, by the way, had been pioneered long before by George Plimpton, and I lay no claim to its invention, although Plimpton, who had a solid literary background, seldom gave his television narrative the depth of his journalism: an opportunity which I thought was there to be taken.) In a musical drama telling the standard story of an attack by pirates on the stronghold of the runaway princess, I played a man with a moustache, a sword and pointed hat. The film was about as ludicrous as I was, but it was vital. The whole business was teeming with life. And the set itself was fascinating. It was a castle made of lath, plaster and cardboard, the whole thing painted silver. It must have cost fourpence and it looked like ... well, I can’t say it looked like a million dollars, even to the camera. It looked like a million rupees, which was only a few hundred quid, but all kinds of stuff was going on in its courtyards and on its battlements, and going on all the time. Everybody had a real job, even if it was only carrying props about. You would see a dozen blokes go tottering by carrying the components of a plaster pavilion. Miming their hearts out to booming dance tracks, some of the female stars were working on three different movies simultaneously. There were whole chorus lines of sinuous soubrettes with bare midriffs, the fake jewels plugged into their navels glittering like a sexy galaxy. The sense of purposeful occupation was a big contrast to what was happening in the streets of the city, which was nearly nothing, multiplied by millions and stirred into chaos. If a taxi broke down, a thousand people would gather to watch the driver failing to fix it. All of them found the camera even more fascinating than the taxi, so there was no choice except to make rubber-necking a theme of the movie. John Bowring was uncannily good at picking faces out of the crowd. When his eye was glued to the eyepiece, he had the precious gift of being able to scan with the other eye and spot opportunities. Very few cameramen can do that.

We filmed at a school for pavement children. Most of them, with no home except a traffic roundabout or a piece of tin in the gutter, had been employed collecting and sorting rubbish before they had been rounded up by the cops and forcibly enrolled at the school. Where they might go next, nobody could say, but it didn’t look hopeful. Outside the school there were hundreds more urchins trying to get in: these didn’t need to be rounded up, because they had been lured by rumours of a free sandwich every day. Filming inside the school playground late one morning, I spotted, among the shouting crowd of dust-balls at the gate, a particular face, and asked John to get a shot of him. I knew already that the question of what would happen to him would be at the core of the movie. I didn’t yet know that it would also be at the core of a novel, but I figured it out before we left the city, and I wrote the first chapter on the plane home.

The urge to write The Silver Castle was my first big clue that the Postcard format, much as I treasured it, would eventually not be sufficient to make me feel that I was covering a subject. Some subjects need a deeper texture than film to ponder, and poverty is one of them, because the camera always glamorizes it no matter how honestly you shoot. For one thing, a picture doesn’t stink, so that when you get a close-up of tots playing in a puddle of raw sewage, their paddling pool will just look shiny, without wrenching your guts. And anyway, I was telling a story about my real, non-media self: a story which would have been an indulgence on film. The hopeless little boy at the gate could have been me. If I had been born in Bombay, minus the advantages I had inherited without effort in democratic and prosperous Australia, I would have had no chance. As it turned out, the novel had no chance either. I still don’t quite see why. Perhaps there were just too many novels about India written by real Indians. I thought The Silver Castle by far my best stretch of fictional writing. As usual, most publications handed it for review to their resident wag, on the principle that a television face who had produced a book was asking for the same treatment as a dog doing new tricks, and that the wag, suitably inspired by contempt, would produce ‘lively copy’ as he dipped into his own well of comic inspiration. (My main reason for hating such treatment wasn’t the injury to my self-esteem, but that I was always revolted by the idea of being enrolled, even inadvertently, in a conspiracy to bore the public.) But the book got some very good reviews in Britain and Australia, even from some of the older reviewers who were still wedded to the belief that media prominence had got in the way of my true vocation. Anthony Thwaite, a senior poet of real stature, wrote a review for the Telegraph that answered all my prayers. But reviews don’t sell a book, although they can certainly help to bury one. Later on I was told that if I had held the book back until Bollywood became an international news story ten years later I might have had a hit. But no complaints, and the book did well enough, after it got to paperback, to pay for itself, if no more. It just refused to take off towards any level beyond respectability, and in America it died the death even with the logo of Random House on its spine. The New York Times review killed it at birth.

With thousands of books a week to choose from, Michiko Kakutani, tenured star book reviewer for the New York Times, could choose one book a week to review and decide its fate. She chose The Silver Castle, a book which I had thought to be seriously concerned with the effects of Indian poverty. She, however, by the application of her critical powers, was able to detect that I had been insufficiently concerned with the effects of Indian poverty. Bombay, she explained, is full of poor people. Michiko has been kind to other books I have written since, so I must be prudent in what I say, and my American publishers would have a fit at the very idea of my bringing her authority into question. But really, this prostration before a guru is one of the most unsettling things about America. Especially in the field of culture, gurus acquire an absurd degree of authority. They become immortal legends without having lived in the first place. In the benighted heyday of old Broadway, the New York Times theatre reviewer, a worthy plodder called Brooks Atkinson, could kill a play in a single night. More recently, the ineffable Michiko can kill a book. She is better qualified than Atkinson ever was, but the great German man of letters Marcel Reich-Ranicki was right when he said that a critic, though he might write a death certificate, should never have the power to write a death sentence.

I had bigger trouble with The Silver Castle than that, however. I had handed Jonathan Cape what I thought was a striking novel about India, but for some reason they couldn’t supply it with a striking design. One design after another came up looking no more interesting than a panoramic photograph of Swindon. Tom Maschler was seldom on the scene any more — while retaining an advisory role, he had cashed in his pile of chips and retired to a villa in France — but on a trip back to London he agreed that the proposed final design for the book looked like nothing, and he joined me at the computer while we patched something together from material on the Web. But I regarded the company’s lack of concern as the writing on the wall, and when the new chief executive suggested that my next book of essays, provisionally entitled Even As We Speak, might have to wait for an extra year, I took it as a sign that I was being put up with. Peter Straus, the chief executive at my paperback publishers, Picador, had been saying for several years that he would like, if he could, to publish me ‘vertically’ (it meant that he would do the hardback as well as the paperback) and after a quick conversation with Pat Kavanagh I fired the signal to jump ship. My pangs of compunction lasted exactly one and a half minutes. When they take you for granted it’s time to go.

All this happened in London, where I seldom was. Mainly I was in mid-air, or what felt like it even if I was on the ground. In Mexico City there was more poverty, but it was tidier. Mexico City has more people in it than the whole of Australia and most of them are a lot less well off than the people who govern them. This imbalance has obtained since the time of the Aztecs, and even today, with the vaunted ‘permanent revolution’ solidly installed and universal justice theoretically secured for all time, the centre of the city, dominated by a cathedral steadily sinking into the earth, is still the place to hang out if you want to see what a power structure can do to a population when it gets out of hand. In the normal course of events, however, the poor people are out at the periphery. The periphery was bigger than anything we could hope to film without a fleet of helicopters. In the centre, things looked more picturesque than desperate. The begging groups who had trekked in from the hinterland put on a little circus at the traffic island, so that when you tossed some money to a couple of kids in clown costumes you could congratulate yourself you were rewarding enterprise. The rich, in fact, evoked as much pity as the poor. We filmed a wedding party for one of the unluckily privileged children of a wealthy banker at his hacienda. Masquerading as an old-style landowner in real life, in his fantasy life he masqueraded further as a cowboy, complete with tight trousers, jangling spurs and a sombrero that could have been worn simultaneously by all three of the Three Amigos. He gave us a self-satisfied interview that might have been designed to incite the next revolution. A whole phalanx of such off-putting plutocrats played collective host to us at a rodeo in an arena in the heart of the city. Horsemen in big sombreros raced towards our camera and came to a stop. At least they stopped in the right spot — I still had memories of Willie Nelson — but as with almost all horse-based activities anywhere in the world that are accompanied with many a cry of ‘Hey, Hey!’ in whatever language, there was an irreducible boredom to it all. We had planned some extra life for the scene by getting me trained to whirl a lariat. Naturally I was dressed as a cowboy in an absurdly big sombrero. It was hard to get the effect of an absurdly big hat when everybody else’s hat was absurdly big already, but my tight outfit helped. As with the other numerous facetious outfits I wore on location in the course of twenty years, the publicity stills of my Mexican cowboy incarnation are still out there in the database somewhere, patiently waiting to decorate my obituary. Before we get to the stirring scene when I twirled the lariat at the rodeo, let me digress for a moment on the tedium of being photographed.

Being photographed for publicity stills is something that should not happen to normal human beings if they can avoid it. Perhaps optimistically, I never ceased to regard myself as one of those, but I couldn’t dodge the chore. It’s in the nature of the business. If you dress up in the movie, the publicity stills show what you look like dressed up. Usually, in any medium, I learned to cope with the chores by making a performance out of them: when pushing a book on radio, for example, it takes less out of you, and makes more sense, to be prepared even if your interviewer isn’t. If he hasn’t read it, don’t tell him he’s a dunce, tell him that your book would be the most exciting thriller since Thunderball if it wasn’t marred by an excessive number of sex scenes. But there was no redeeming a publicity-stills photo session. I could have wept with boredom as I posed endlessly in this hat and that hat. I wore white suits for the sun, wetsuits for the surf, black boots for the boondocks, high heels for the nightclubs. Invariably the photographer kept on shooting until I twinkled. In real life I seldom twinkle, but when a photographer was giving me the benefit of his bedside wit I would finally twinkle to shorten the agony. ‘Smile, Clive. It might never happen. Come on, give us a smile.’ A tiny, dull gleam of weathered teeth would appear, and that was the shot they used. Gradually, over the course of decades, an archive accumulated, featuring a man whose mirth was irrepressible, a fountain of merriment at the fall of civilization. Always the shot I hated most was the one that got into print.

Strangely enough, being photographed for the literary papers and magazines was even worse. Every publication always wanted its very own portrait photograph of me, even though it could scarcely be much different from the portrait I sat for the previous week. You might think that nothing apart from my unfortunate physical appearance could make a literary portrait shot look weird, but you would be wrong. A short lens can make Hugh Grant look like a conger eel poking its head out of a hole in the coral. And once again, the photographer will want you to twinkle, even if the picture is meant to decorate an article about your book about the Gulag. (Editors call it ‘a wry smile’. Have you ever wanted to extend your acquaintance with anyone who smiles wryly?) On being told that you would sooner die in a pool of your own vomit, the photographer, conceding that you might look more impressive being thoughtful, suggests that you will look even more thoughtful if you cup your chin in your hand, preferably with one or more fingers extended upwards. Since nobody ever does this in real life even to scratch a pimple beneath the eye, the fingers-to-the-face portrait looks as artificial as can be, but that’s exactly why the photographers want it: it looks like a photograph. So they keep on at you until they get it. American female photographers are the worst. They all want to be Annie Liebowitz, and they will assure you that with your fingers to your face you look more thoughtful than their favourite philosopher, Deepak Chopra. Timidly you give in, just once, and from the several hundred individual frames that have been secured in the course of an entire hour — another chunk of your life gone — the one that the editor will use is the one where you have your fingers to your face. I have thrown in this apparent digression mainly to suggest the way in which, over the course of years, the little, incidental irritations can mount up to sap your will for pursuing a larger object. The larger object might be a more attractive prospect than, say, coal-mining, but the irritations are like the drip of water on your helmet. Eventually you will tear it off and crawl screaming back down the tunnel. But Mexico awaits, and the hushed arena in which the gringo will twirl his lariat.

Guess what, I twirled my lariat and it went nowhere. The scene was a dud, plus a funny hat. But at least, in voice over, I could contrast my lack of skill with the undoubted expertise of our chosen young bullfighter. Called something like Pedro Cojones, he was a truly gorgeous young man who would have looked good in overalls, but in his tightly fitting traje de luces, the suit of lights, he was so beautiful he looked sacred. We shot the build-up to his big day and as part of his preparation he managed to seduce the prettiest girl on our production team. Engaged to be married when she got back to England, famously faithful to her fiancé, she was a byword for strict ethics, but she wasn’t going to miss out on Pedro. Not this time. Just this once. No doubt buoyed up by his exotic conquest — the endless supply of local beauties scarcely counted in his estimation — Pedro, on the appointed day, killed one bull after another without even bending his sword. It went straight in, every time. Hemingway was fond of saying that you should not condemn bullfighting until you see it. I saw it and I condemned it immediately. Indeed I was rather glad of the transmission rule which dictated that we would not be able to show the Moment of Truth, which looked to me like the Moment of Butchery whatever way you sliced it. But Pedro sure looked good when he swung the cape, and there was no denying that the legato linking of the different passes, the faena, had a kind of poetry. This macho thing had something to it: just not enough. As the basis for a view of life, it had the incurable drawback of adding more cruelty to a world that was already choking on it.

The exaltation of machismo took a more palatable form when I interviewed the writer Carlos Fuentes in the library of his house. In Mexico City the architecture that really counts is within doors. The old public buildings aren’t bad, but inside a modern house you see a different kind of creativity, less monumental but much more human. The library of Carlos Fuentes was a masterpiece. So was his face. Carlos looks the way a writer should look but so few writers do. There are always a few good-looking writers on the scene. My friend Ian Hamilton could brood so darkly it was unfair, and the merest smile from the poet Mick Imlah — dead too soon, alas — would make women lean together to console each other for the pain in their breasts. But most writers look like the wreck of the Hesperus. Carlos, however, was up there with Benicio del Toro, or Antonio Banderas without the pout. For me, though, the centre of fascination lay in his books. There was shelf upon shelf of Aguillar editions, their spines gold-stamped on maroon morocco. I lusted after them. They were a reminder of what I should be doing.

In Mexico City I did quite a lot of it, but only with difficulty, because there was very little downtime. The New Yorker had asked me to review a new book by Daniel Goldhagen called Hitler’s Willing Executioners. The book advanced the idea that all Germans, whether Nazis or not, had been out to kill Jews. Though it might conceivably have done something to counteract the perilous delusion that only the Nazis had been in on the conspiracy, I thought Goldhagen’s thesis was even more perilous in the other direction, because the last tactic you should use in condemning racism is to indulge in a new racism of your own. I thought that this diligent young academic’s brainwave blurred the point of the whole tragedy, and I was eager to rebut it, but my argument needed a lot of backing up and of course I didn’t have my own library with me, so I had to rely on my memory when I wrote the piece. Tina liked what she saw when I faxed it through to the New Yorker but she wanted more of it, so that she could uprate it from a book review to a ‘Critic at Large’ piece for the middle of the magazine. That requirement altered the proportions of every paragraph, so I had to write it again.

It was a bit of a wrench to be working on such a serious piece of writing late at night and then heading out in the early morning for a day on the pleasure canals where punt-loads of citizens were poled about among the overhanging trees, singing the while and downing the soda pop. By then the mariachi trios, omnipresent in the city, had become our running gag, popping up all the time like a triple-threat version of Kato in the Inspector Clouseau movies, but with less musical interest. Every trio had only two songs, and both of them were versions of ‘Guantanamera’, one of those international ditties favoured by tourist parties and holiday makers who can’t sing but won’t be stopped from trying. They want to hear ‘Guantanamera’ from a mariachi trio, so that they can join in. They want to hear the song delivered at high volume from beneath big sombreros while guitars are hammered in unison, six rows of unkempt teeth are bared and skin-tight velvet trousers pop at the seams. In our pleasure-garden sequence there was no need to bring in a mariachi trio from the city in order to cap the gag. There were mariachi trios lurking in the shrubbery and hiding in single file behind trees. Stealth is part of every mariachi trio’s plan because the element of surprise is thought to be crucial, in order to maximize your delight. The essential purpose of a mariachi trio is to show up suddenly wherever you are and whatever you are doing — burying your uncle, for instance — and start singing ‘Guantanamera’. In my punt, suitably staffed with extras hired for a few pesos and a free tortilla, we got the shot when our chosen mariachi trio leapt aboard and burst into ‘Guantanamera’. Then we got the same shot from the bank of the canal. ‘Guantanamera’, they howled. Then we got the same shot from the other bank. ‘Guantanamera’, they howled again. I stayed alert, but all the time I couldn’t stop thinking about Hitler, who had the power to stop this kind of thing with a written order. There would have been three closely spaced pistol shots and that would have been it.