Books: The Blaze of Obscurity — 5. Pause to Regroup |
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The Blaze of Obscurity — 5. Pause to Regroup


Back in Cambridge with my family, I strove to atone for my recent absence by telling stories of Africa at the dinner table. To my disappointment, my rare carved wooden rhinoceros aroused only a mild interest, although it is still there today, looming in a small way on the shelf under one of the windows to the back garden. But I scored a hit with my evocations of the charging elephant and the narrow escape from the killer crocodile. People under a certain age go for that kind of thing. Phrases that I planned to use in my commentary were duly tested. I also learned, to my surprise, that a family holiday was due. But first I had to edit the film. I took my tested phrases with me into the editing room and soon found that very few of them fitted. Since electronic editing was still in the process of being invented, all the footage was hanging there in the form of strips of celluloid, a forest of potential. But after the relevant bits had been loaded into the editing table it soon became apparent that several scenes I had thought were in the bag barely existed. The elephant charged and I ran, but we were in different shots, so I might as well have been running on Dartmoor. The crocodile charged and I ran again, but again there was nothing to prove that these things were happening on the same day or even the same continent. It was nobody’s fault except mine. I should have realized the necessity of staying close to the camera and keeping it behind me, so that it could pan easily with the animal while keeping me in the frame. Off to the side, the camera would miss the connection. Richard was in charge of the editing and tried hard to convince me that kicking myself was useless.

Eventually I cooled down and started to earn my money by writing a narrative that would tie the fragments together. Most of the raw material was impressive, even beautiful, but I had been counting on the moments of action that made me look all set to take off at high speed when danger threatened. When jumping with the Masai I looked sufficiently silly, but I had always thought that the real story lay in the moments when I was included in the picture along with the prospect of death, so that the viewers would share my impulse to hit the ground running. Those moments weren’t there. Richard was very good at getting me beyond what I had always thought and into the realm of fact. He had a phrase, ‘Let’s see if we miss it,’ which made it easier to take the disappointment when a sequence that had required a lot of hard work to shoot had to be cut out. All the scenes set in Nairobi hit the floor. I didn’t mind losing those, but when I said that I was sorry we had ever shot them in the first place Richard had the right reply: they would have come in handy if the animals had been rained off. It was a long, hard edit but the results were pretty good. Next time they would be better. There had to be a next time because already I was convinced that writing words to pictures was the most fun that a writer could have when not being handed an Academy Award by Sophia Loren.

One principle I had already grasped was that the words could punctuate the pictures and vice versa. Measuring sentences to fit a sequence or even a single shot, I relished the freedom of not having to say that a charging rhino was a charging rhino. I could say that its horn would end up in an aphrodisiac cocktail glass in Hong Kong if it didn’t end up in me first. Windows of opportunity opened up one after the other. It was an interplay. This principle came in handy when we started planning a weekly variety show composed of interviews, with a top section reviewing the news. To go with some footage we had of the Soviet leaders reviewing the May Day parade in Red Square, I wrote a sample fantasy and Richard went for it.

This frivolous approach to world affairs would not have impressed my fellow regulars at the Friday lunch. At various locations, the Friday lunch was still going on and would do so for some years yet, but increasingly the demands of our respective careers were pulling it apart. When the up and coming are still in the early stages of their ascent, they cling together for warmth, but higher up the mountain, even though it gets colder, they start going their separate ways to the top. They just get too busy. It was our timetables, and not our different views, that put the first cracks in the old camaraderie. Different views there had always been. Kingsley Amis regarded James Fenton as an agent of the Viet Cong, an impression that Kingsley had perhaps gained from the fact that Fenton had arrived in Saigon riding on a North Vietnamese tank. Their contrary opinions did not stop them making each other laugh, and even when they weren’t laughing they had the common background of a deep knowledge of English poetry throughout its history. Martin Amis was of the opinion that the mere existence of nuclear weapons was enough to rot our minds with subconscious dread. I agreed with Robert Conquest that nothing except nuclear weapons could have stopped the US and the USSR from going to war. Ian McEwan and Mark Boxer also thought that atomic bombs were bad things and that peace was a principle. I believed that peace was just a desirable state of affairs. Christopher Hitchens thought I was a propagandist for global nuclear war. I gave chapter and verse to prove that I had got my concept of an armed truce from Raymond Aron. Terry Kilmartin, who had known Aron personally and translated some of his major works into English, said that I was overdoing my admiration for a philosopher who had after all, um, ah, ended up ‘a bit right wing’. I said I was still a leftie. Peter Porter said I was certainly to the right of him. Russell Davies, speaking in the voice of Sir John Betjeman, said that only the Queen’s opinion counted. The clashes of opinion were mighty, but the rule of the table was that you couldn’t fight your corner without making it amusing. The ability to quote helped there. Allusions flew like paper bullets. Craig Raine, modelling a hairstyle based on an explosion in an armchair, was so hard to interrupt that I wanted to stab him with a fork. To judge from the way he was waving his own fork, the feeling was mutual. Piers Paul Reid, secure in his Catholic faith, got cooler as the quarrels heated up. He was a Jesuit at a conference of evolutionary scientists, relishing the shades of folly. Julian Barnes, as has always been his wont, said just enough, and it was always good. Otherwise he sat stonily amused, like an Easter Island statue watching a restaurant scene in Mr Hulot’s Holiday. With the talk as the main dish of the feast, nobody noticed what they ate, and Ian Hamilton, as usual, never even ate it. He just smoked and drank simultaneously. Smoke was part of the landscape, as on a misty moor haunted by voices.

Having realized that some of my best friends were still slow to abandon the notion that the totalitarian regimes in the East, despite their impeccable record of victimizing the common people they were notionally in business to protect, had somehow questioned the validity of liberal democracy in the West, I found myself writing with more urgency on the subject of the totalitarian mentality and its implications. My thesis was that true intellectuals in the West, or indeed anywhere, would have to attain a clear view of the past if they were to work beneficially in the present. My own view of the past was expanded considerably by a recently acquired ability to read Russian. Helped along by the sheer beauty of the language, I had gradually elevated my level of reading somewhat beyond the level of cat-sat-on-the-mat. A big help in coping with the initial stage was that the one thing the Soviet Union was really good at was publishing cardboard-covered teaching aids full of pictures of cats sitting on mats. Since Russian is the kind of language where there is a different verb for cats sitting down slowly, cats sitting down suddenly and cats just sitting there, it is very easy to have your heart broken before you get to the far edge of square one, so I had some reason to bless the Kremlin. But now that I could read the dissident and exile texts in their full range, other reasons for admiring the regime were looking thin on the ground.

Christopher Hitchens, whose sense of humour was of such a quality that he could quote from P. G. Wodehouse and make him a lot funnier than he was on the page, was less cheerful when I quoted Lenin’s written opinion that the party must rule by terror. Reacting sharply to the suggestion that the foundations of state terror were already well laid before Stalin took over, the Hitch still saw merit in the revolutionary tradition. Later in his coruscating life as a commentator he modified that view, but at the time he had no trouble in making me feel like an incipient Tory for placing my faith in historical institutions: it was not, after all, as if I, with my relatively poor memory, could easily quote Edmund Burke in my defence, whereas the Hitch, who had a memory like a library, could quote Tom Paine until the cows came home and turned the milking shed into a commune. But I think I was rather better at remembering the words of the dissident Russian sociologist Alexandr Zinoviev, who said that any society which placed collective rights above individual rights was a lawless society, and that was that. The words, in the original language, had cost me almost as much trouble to read as they had cost him to write, so I was unlikely to forget them. (When I met him one day in Geneva shortly after he had been expelled from his homeland, he complimented me on how I had quoted him in an article but asked me why I had found it necessary to make the point. ‘Does not everyone think that here?’ Bad guess, tovarisch.) Thus armoured, I could persist in believing that a naivety based in reality was better than a sophistication based on a fantasy, and I pressed on with my intention of expressing what I felt in the form of connected thought.

As one essay succeeded another, I found I was getting better at it. In the field of discursive, expository writing, practice helps. Time brings fluency, or at least the appearance of it. With experience and accumulated knowledge — I was still reading a great deal, a habit I retain today, although my always unreliable memory has begun to weaken — the actual practice of writing got more difficult, but that was a good sign. (Thomas Mann defined the writer as someone for whom writing is harder than it is for other people.) As a reward for persistence, the finished product became less clotted, more transparent, and therefore easier for the reader to remember from paragraph to paragraph, the unit on which I based my style. (Writers who compose only in sentences, even if the sentences are vivid, soon strain the reader’s patience: sensible people are not long amused if they are flicked repeatedly with a wet towel.) The relative success of my first novel Brilliant Creatures didn’t distract me from my ambition as a factual writer. Some of its reviewers thought that a television performer had no business writing a novel of any kind, but there were others who approved, even if they had to do it through gritted teeth: always the best kind of approval to have. In both Britain and Australia, the blessedly literate educated reading public made up their own minds, and the book, after its honeymoon period as a bestseller in both hardback and paperback, went on to sell more than a quarter of a million copies in the course of its life.

But if I could publish Brilliant Creatures again now, I would have to annotate its contemporary references. It was a commentary on the times. Even in the first flush of its vogue I never thought of myself as a career novelist. I sat down every week with people who could do that better. I knew that the best use of fantasy in my writing was to make factual statement entertaining. What changed for me, in those years, was my notion of the range of fact over which entertainment was possible. It could go wider, if not deeper. My first two books of essays, The Metropolitan Critic and At the Pillars of Hercules, had got me somewhere. The essays I was writing now got me further. A few years later I collected them in my third volume of essays, From the Land of Shadows, the first of my books to make my political position explicit. There were many people, some of them uncomfortably close to me, who were ready to insist that my political position was somewhat compromised by the physical position of Japanese game-show contestants staked out on a beach for the crabs, but I was determined to keep going with my balancing act.

It was a balancing act performed on the run. The weekly studio show consumed a lot of energy even before it got to air. It was hard enough just to sell the thing. Jeremy Isaacs, not yet equipped with a knighthood, was at that time still in charge of Channel 4, which he had created from scratch. He agreed to meet me and Richard at the Garrick Club. It was a club rule that you weren’t allowed to do business at the dining table. You weren’t even allowed to take a piece of paper out of your pocket. When I got elected to the Garrick after the usual wait of several years in the queue, I cravenly allowed its prestige to impress me, and for a long time the place came in useful if I wanted to hire a room for an anniversary party or something like that, but eventually I had enough sense to ask myself what the hell I, of all people, was doing in a club that did not admit women unless they were on a leash. I saw a bunch of sozzled old men camped under the grand staircase, boring the daylights out of each other, and I had a sudden urge never to be one of their number. So I resigned. Hardly anyone ever resigns from the Garrick. I know that my friend Tom Stoppard did after he figured out that he was going there only once a year and therefore paying several hundred pounds in membership fees for a single lunch, but hardly anybody else has ever been on the exit list. Most luminaries are on the entry list, and once they get in they stay there until they have to be carried out in a black plastic bag. But that’s exactly what’s wrong with the place. It’s essentially a well-decorated nursing home.

At the time of this meeting, however, I was still susceptible to the aura of an inner sanctum. Isaacs, whom I now count as a friend and neighbour, fitted right into the Garrick’s trad decor. He did quite a lot of quoting in the original Latin. But he listened, and he bought the show. It was still a paper project and we couldn’t even show him the paper, but he had imagination. This was the man who gave Verity Lambert the green light to make The Naked Civil Servant, which remains, to this day, the single most adventurous television programme I have ever seen. Like Sir Michael Balcon at Ealing or Lord Bernstein at Granada, Jeremy was one of that great line of British Establishment Jews who had been cultivating the nation’s artistic garden since the heyday of Benjamin Disraeli. It was not yet apparent that the line would soon lose its confidence and finally die out. What Jeremy said, went. He gave us his word and we knew it was as good as gold. Many years later, when he was in charge of the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, he took the word of a BBC producer on the assumption that it was as trustworthy as his, and the new boys stitched him up a treat: o tempora, he no doubt said echoing Cicero, o mores. What times, and what customs. But on the day he met with us the times had not yet changed: the grandee had spoken, and we were in like Flynn. There was still a lot of work coming up, however, so the family holiday would be a welcome break.