Books: The Blaze of Obscurity — 31. Epilogue: The Return of the Metropolitan Critic |
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The Blaze of Obscurity — 31. Epilogue: The Return of the Metropolitan Critic


So I did a fade. In my telling of it, I may have overdone the neatness. The milestones in life are seldom so squarely cut. Well before the end, before it had become fully clear that the network, driven by its hunger for the youthful demographic, wanted the celebrity culture and no other kind, Richard had put feelers out to the BBC. But Alan Yentob, even if he had wanted me back, was in no position to pay the tab for my whole organization. He had just got through forking out the down-payment for a couple of newly emergent front-men and the total bill had left him traumatized. (One of these fledglings cost the Beeb millions until it was at last realized that he had nothing to offer except a built-in grin, and the other, although he can at least put his own sentences together, expects us to be astonished when he doesn’t swear.) For me, Yentob was the executive who had had the boldness to buy in the magnificent German series Heimat and screen the whole thing on BBC2. If a man as clever as that made a decision that was not in my interest, I could have no quarrel.

Besides, I didn’t really want to continue. The will was gone: not so much because I had ceased to enjoy the limelight, but because I wanted to be alone again with my writing. Most of the essays in my collection Even As We Speak were written during the transition period when I was getting ready to leave mainstream television, but the book came out after I had made the jump, and its publication marked, in my own mind at least, the moment when my erstwhile persona, the Metropolitan Critic, made his comeback. I didn’t expect the reviewers to say the same. I expected them to review my book as if it had been written by Bruce Forsyth. But in the event the response was gratifying, even though the fact that I had definitively kicked the crystal bucket was slow to sink in. I had no beef about that, and still haven’t. Most of the television faces hang in there if they can. I am always careful not to speak against the ones who go on forever. Terry Wogan will be worth the money if he broadcasts from an iron lung. There are plenty of presenters who agree with the press that there is no life beyond television. Most of them end up trying to convince themselves that their new spot on a cable channel, with nobody watching, is even more exciting than their old spot on a mainstream channel, when everybody watched, but there are always a few that look as if they are only fulfilling their destiny when they grow old and die on the big-time air, still twinkling as they go.

I wouldn’t have been one of them. I had other things I was longing to do, and I would have cared little if they came with no celebrity factor attached. After too many years of pestering the stars while they glowed and faded, it had become all too apparent to me that celebrity, unless it was based on real achievement, would always decay at the same rate as time marched. I made that the major theme of my next book of essays, The Meaning of Recognition. That book, too, got a thoughtful press, whose general effect helped to eliminate the impression that I might be mourning for my lost prominence. In the tabloids, it was not long before the nametag ‘TV Clive’ was transferred from me to Clive Anderson, who had started his career as my warm-up man but was now the go-to guy for any show that needed fronting by a flip lip. So I was relatively safe from the attentions of the gossip writers. For as long as the press is free, there will always be the concept that a private life is an offence against the public’s right to know; and the turnover merchants will thrive as a consequence. They wouldn’t enjoy being turned over themselves — a fact which tells you all you need to know about the putative legitimacy of their trade — but there is no point complaining. All I can say is that I don’t envy them their job. The lucky ones get sick of their work; the unlucky ones come to regard it as normal; and it is hard to know which fate is worse. But now they were busy chasing faces they could see on the screen, and my face had gone missing.

The profile-writers, however, were still on the case. Television executives don’t place much value on the press profiles of a star, but for publishers such attention counts for a lot, and the more ‘thoughtful’ the profile the better. Alas, the thoughtful press profile is the one I hate most, because I am just no good at sitting still to be summed up. After moving from the Barbican to a loft across the river, and lining the loft with books as a soldier might stack sandbags to heighten the rim of his foxhole, I had dreams of being left alone, but it still hasn’t worked out that way. The profile-writers still get in. I sincerely wish I could make their job easier, but I can’t. They still want to know what I am really out to achieve, and they tend to get impatient when they find out that I don’t know. The best of them are highly intelligent, but the sum total of their attentions was already driving me to distraction as the next thousand years got started. I wouldn’t be seeing many of those years in person, so any time wasted hit me hard. I can’t complain, however, about the general tone of the press I have been getting in recent years. Even those Australian journalists who once accused the expatriates of treason are nowadays likely to concede that we flew the flag. For those of us who took off so long ago to find out what the moon was made of, the most dangerous part of the flight used to be the re-entry. You had to get the angle exactly right, or there would be flames in the sky. The press liked nothing better than a mismanaged homecoming. Now, however, there is a welcome waiting. I cherish my share of the approbation. Besides, what the press says never matters as much as what the common people think. Whenever I am in Sydney in these last, less hectic years, I sit down to write at one of the open-air tables of Rossini’s cafe on Circular Quay. Kindly saying that they are sorry to interrupt, passers-by thank me for my books or my television programmes. If I didn’t enjoy being interrupted, I would sit somewhere else. Once a performer, always a performer. But the writing still gets done.

One of the penalties of living out your allotted span is that some of the people whose existence you relied on will cash in their chips. ‘At my age, of course,’ Anthony Powell once told me, ‘they start dropping orf like flies.’ During the later part of the time span covered by this book, Kingsley Amis died. He could be tough company, especially towards the end, but I always revered him. Terry Kilmartin, of whom I thought the world, died too. When I spoke at his memorial service, I tried to tell the story of what a privilege and an education it has been to have him as an editor. Peter Cook I knew less well but I had never doubted that he was a formative influence on all of us who aspired to putting a commentary into comedy. My wife and I were skiing at Aspen when we got the news. At a restaurant high up on Ajax, Barry Humphries suddenly appeared, clad in the splendid ski-suit that kept him warm as he rode up and down the mountain in the chair-lift. He must have skied about ten yards on the whole trip, and was perfectly ready to make a joke of it. But for once he looked bereft. He said, ‘Peter Cook died.’ I didn’t know what to say. Barry, by a heroic act of will, had saved himself from the menace that nailed his friend. But Peter would never have gone on drinking unless he wanted to get it over. The same applied to Dudley Moore: he chose other means, but to embrace extinction was his aim. I know the impulse well, but nobody succumbs to it unless they feel that their work is done.

Bad news travels fast among those in the same business. Not long after the computers surprised us all by ringing in the new millennium on time instead of announcing a re-run of the Battle of Hastings, I was at some literary festival or other. I met Al Alvarez in the bar of my hotel and he said, ‘Ian Hamilton is very sick.’ Always a picture of health even when his latest physical adventure had left him busted up, Al loathed the idea of illness taking a friend, and so did I. Ian had cancer and he died soon after. He had been the key man at the start of my literary career and I felt cut off from my beginnings. It made going on with the end-game feel all the stranger. More recently, that feeling was redoubled when Pat Kavanagh died, from a brain tumour that struck at only a moment’s notice. Her memorial service was a gathering of all the people whose lives she had enriched, and I won’t pretend to have grieved more than they did, and still do: but I had always been grateful for the work and thought she put into helping give shape to my literary career. To dedicate my book of essays The Revolt of the Pendulum to her memory was the best tribute I could think of, when my only consolation was that she had not, at least, been cut down young; even though she was always young, at any age, just as she was always beautiful.

Ian went too early, but at least he had lived a life. Lorna Sage, who had adored him as so many women did, also went too early. The woman with the most enchanting name in the literary world had a way of flattering the male writers in her life with her admiration, but few of us realized soon enough that she had the power to write rings around us. When, just before her death, her autobiographical memoir Bad Blood was published, it left all of us wondering whether we would ever do anything as good. Had she lived to write a few more books like it, her position as the dominant female voice of a generation might have been assured. But she got far enough to make her voice count.

Terence Donovan frightened me by choosing to die. I had always thought I understood him, and then he proved that I had never understood him at all. The cockney photographers had always impressed me with their boldness. Unlike the invading Australians, for whom the British class structure was no obstacle because they had never seen such a thing when they were young, the cockneys had to fight their way up. They did it with good cheer. David Bailey, with whom I collaborated both in print and on film, could deal out withering sardonic punishment for any loose word, but his company was a constant delight; and Donovan was a belly laugh every minute. I had thought that such a funny man must be full of joy. His dreadful suicide was a bad blow but at least it was a mystery.

When Sarah Raphael went, it was no mystery at all. Chance, which I knew all about, had simply reminded us that it is our only ruler. But why choose her, when she was still in the opening stages of a career that might have changed the modern history of her art? She caught a cold; the cold turned to something worse, and then to something worse still, and she was gone. The shock was terrible. Ustinov, Pavarotti, Pinter, Ayrton Senna, Olga Havel, Dirk Bogarde, Katharine Hepburn, Alan Coren, Kenneth MacMillan: they have all gone, but they went in the fullness of their achievement. Sarah was only at the beginning of hers. The loss blew like a freezing wind into hundreds of lives. For her funeral, the chapel was an atoll in a sea of people. I was one of them, and when I saw the faces of her parents I found it hard to keep my feet. For her father, an adept of the classical languages, it must have been as if the concept of tragic irony had been redefined for him by jealous gods. Only a month had gone by since I had made my exit from television and I had not yet begun to construct my website, but the day would come when I would ask his permission to include, in the site’s gallery section, a pavilion devoted to his daughter’s work. At several meetings to discuss the project, we became even closer friends. The friendship had begun through mutual wonder at his daughter’s gift, and it grew through mutual grief at her death: but my share of the grief, thank God, could only be a tiny fraction of his.

Perhaps it would be better to leave God out of it, because His casual violence, if He exists, can have no excuse. Better always to blame chance, which is without a mind. When chance takes the older and fulfilled, it can seem wise and even benevolent, but when it takes the young and the barely begun, its arbitrary vandalism stands revealed. Wendy Gay sent me her first short stories to look at. I was, I really was, going to get back to her and tell her that they were full of promise; but I was short of time. Not, however, as short of time as she was. She was out cycling and she was killed by a lorry. The driver said that she didn’t see him. It could be said that he should have seen her, but such arguments are just whistling in the dark. To know just how dark the dark is, you have to lose a daughter. I rang her parents and said the most useless of all things. ‘I only wish I had something useful to say.’ They were nice about it, but I would have done better to say nothing. The truth was that I felt guilty. When the young die, I always feel guilty, because I have been granted a long life. So was my mother, and when she at last died, after having lain in the nursing home for several years, I tried to be thankful that she had lived to see her son achieve at least some of the things that her husband might have done if his life had not been cut short. But the story of her passing will be told at its proper length in the first chapter of my next, and presumably final, volume. The end of her life marked a new beginning for mine; the last of my new beginnings.

Nor is this the place to tell how I wrote Cultural Amnesia, published my collected poems, went back on stage, re-launched my song-writing career as Pete Atkin’s lyricist, found a new position as a broadcaster on BBC Radio 4 and built the first few levels of my multimedia website — which might prove to be my most characteristic means of expression, if only because, having made a start with it, I have no real idea of where it might end. All I need to say now, in closing, is that I would have been far less well equipped for any of this if I had not done twenty years of television first. At the time it might have looked like a false trail. In our family we have an expression about the trail to Kublis. The expression can be used about any of us but is most commonly used about me. At Davos, near the bottom of the mountain, it was possible, at the end of the day’s skiing, to take the trail back to town, or else, by mistake, to take the trail to Kublis, a little town much further down the valley. The trail led for miles over fields that were cow pastures in the summer. When the snow was thin the cow pats would be near the surface. The effect of skiing over a cow pat is to stop the ski while the skier goes on, often to fall face down in the cow pat after next. The complete trip could take a couple of hours and the trip back up the valley by train took another half hour on top of that, so the victim would arrive late for dinner and be greeted by universal mockery. All of us took the trail to Kublis once but I was the only one who took it twice. On the second trip the snow was particularly thin, which made the cow pats easier to spot in the moonlight but also provided a surface consisting mainly of grass and dirt. I was sobbing with fatigue when I arrived in Kublis and only just caught the very last train. Having missed dinner altogether, I was not regaled with the full chorus of derision until breakfast. Many a time during my years in television I heard, from one or other member of my family and often from all of them at once, the expression, ‘He went to Kublis.’ But I still think that it was the most instructive way to reach Davos. How else would I have learned so much about cow pats, or acquired the all-important skills to ski on dirt?

I might have forgotten to say that I had a lot of fun in mainstream television. But I would have been glad to be in it even if the whole thing had been a sweat, because the long-term pay-off was a sum of practical experience that has served me well. Much of the fun was provided by the personality of Richard Drewett. At his funeral service in 2008, the chapel was packed with quondam ferrets. Some of them had arrived in limousines: they were the new hierarchs. All of us who spoke drew on the fund of running gags that he had brought into being and made part of the texture of our working lives. Right to the end, even as he wasted away to nothing, his merriment was always there. When he was being lifted onto the trolley that would take him into the last hospital room he would have to see, he whispered, ‘Any chance of an upgrade?’ This book has been, in its largest part, the story of the career he gave me in television. He was convinced, and helped to convince me whenever I wavered, that it was worth doing in itself; but he could not have foreseen that it would be crucial in what happened to me next. From the practical matters of putting a studio show together, I learned more about the structure of writing, and of the necessity to make every word count; and from the films we made when we travelled, I learned more about the world. The films were only little things. Making documentaries about Hugh Hefner and Naomi Campbell didn’t turn me into, say, Bill Forsyth. But they did turn me into a more informed critic, who could appreciate a miracle like Local Hero not only on the level of its bewitching lyricism, which everyone enjoys, but on the level of its construction, which not everyone can see. And from all our films, and from all our other programmes, and from all the other experience that my measure of fame had made possible, I brought home a stock of memories that made me a much more cogent writer in general.

Sometimes the memories lasted in my mind only as particular images, in the way that our dreams are assembled from fragments. But the images are sharp, and all the sharper when they are reduced to trinkets. In that regard, everyone is a dreaming swimmer. As time runs out, we might remember the precise mentality of a treasured friend in the winding of a watch, and the death of a princess as a single earring that was found in the crumpled dashboard of a crashed Mercedes. In my last essays, my last poems, my last anything, these granules of recollection will provide the substance. I might never live to write my novel about the Pacific War: the book to which, in my mind, I have already given its title, The River in the Sky. But one tiny part of it is already written, even if not yet written down. Once, in Japan, on the shore of the Bay of Toba, I watched the sun rise over the pearl farms, and saw the still, pale water turn to silver fire. There was no camera there to catch it, but I was there. I would not be able to do the things I do now, and might do next, if I had not done those other things first. It was sheer luck, of course, that I lived long enough to start again. I have always been a lucky man. Try to forgive me if I pay myself the compliment that I was wise enough to know it.