Books: The Blaze of Obscurity — 8. Economy of Effort |
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The Blaze of Obscurity — 8. Economy of Effort


This capacity to finance a fragile element by building up a bank with a more robust element was equally crucial in my continuing career as a writer. Jonathan Cape, in the person of its senior editor Tom Maschler, was ready to publish my books of essays, which didn’t really make any money, just as long as I went on writing autobiographies that did. My second book of memoirs, Falling Towards England, risked queering the pitch: it was set in the 1960s, which everyone supposed to have been a fun time, but the way I told it I wasn’t whooping it up at the party, I was shivering outside in the cold with my nose pressed to the glass. Luckily the public went for my story anyway, and Cape had renewed reason to go on publishing my less profitable essay collections just to keep me happy. Maschler was no profligate, but he was canny enough to know that a happy writer might write more books of memoirs and even a couple of novels that would get on the bestseller lists as Brilliant Creatures had done. That second hope was duly screwed when The Remake came out to be greeted by universal execration. One of the London reviewers kindly said that it wasn’t a real novel but it was more enjoyable than most novels. I would have settled for that, but he was the only critic in the country who said anything like it. The critic who said that The Remake was a boundary-busting excursion into the ironic formal possibilities of the post-modern novel was working for the Jerusalem Post.

None of this would have mattered if the public’s reaction hadn’t so exactly echoed the critical reception. The book tanked. Later on I was to learn that it had taken away some of the readership I had already acquired for my first novel, so that my third and fourth novels had to start out in a smaller market, populated by those who were not afraid of experimental novels. Most people, very sensibly, were. I remain proud of all four of my novels — indeed The Remake, the infectious catastrophe, has some stretches of writing in it that I would have to pedal hard to equal now — but there can be no doubt that as a total effort they barely featured in the black ink of Cape’s account books. Still, enough of my titles had been commercially successful to convince Maschler that it would be worthwhile publishing anything more marginal that I might come up with. Both to me and Cape, however, it was important that my books of essays would earn prestige even if they earned no money, because the publisher himself is always engaged in a balancing act: he wants some of his writers to be news stories in the heavy papers, so as to protect the house against the charge that its other writers are only there to please the crowd.

From that angle I was a reasonable prospect. I couldn’t complain about the critical reception of my non-fiction books. In the heavyweight journals they were usually given to the best-qualified reviewers and almost always taken seriously, to the extent that there were polite sighs of regret that I should be wasting my time on television. But exactly there lay the problem: a serious man wasting his time can easily find himself regarded as a timewaster trying to be serious. Most of the adult papers had already grown the arts equivalent of a gossip column by that stage and in these new message boards any coverage of my work always began with the assumption that a would-be Hamlet had been stripped of his paint to reveal the clown. Obviously I would be running this risk for as long as I tried to circle the ring with one foot on each horse. But there was no quick way out of it, because the relationship which applied in television between the studio show and the filmed specials, and which applied again, in the literary field, between popular writing and serious criticism, also applied, in my total working economy, between broadcasting and literature.

I was no economist, but even I could do the sums. Taken for all in all, my books did well enough, but if I had done nothing else then they would all have had to do well, and even better. Failing that, I would have been up against it, and my family along with me. My wife was a respected academic who would always be in demand from the leading universities, but an academic salary weighs only so much on the property market. The same is true for books, even when successful: getting overcommitted to property is one of the standard financial mistakes those writers make who get an early hit, and then discover, when the tax bills come in, that they are under fatal pressure to write another. It was television that made a civilized life possible for my family, and made it possible for me to write only from inner compulsion, and never to a market imperative. As a clincher, it was television that made it possible for me to go on writing poetry, ever and always at the heart of my desire. If I had done nothing except write books, there would have been no time for poems, because any poem pays less than nothing even when it earns you a cheque. In 1982, with the kind encouragement of Karl Miller, I had serialized a long ottava rima poem in the London Review of Books, of which he was then the editor; and Cape later published the poem as a slim hardback under the title of Poem of the Year; but the advance for the book would barely have bought me a sack of apples, and the royalties added up to a resounding zero. I still rate it as my best long poem and have never begrudged the months it took to compose, but financially it was less than a dead loss. Money and time are forms of each other, and there is no poem that does not cost the poet a hundred times what he gets paid for it. Poetry, the centre of my life, has always been the enemy of my material existence, and even now, after fifty years of writing it, it is still trying to put me out of business.

The foregoing disquisition might make it seem that I had everything weighed up. The opposite was true. I was working from instinct. Nowadays I sometimes get the credit, and often the condemnation, for having invented the idea of a multiple career, but I had no such idea in my mind, or even the time to think about it. Empire-building was the last thing I aspired to. For an empire you need a central stream of royalties and residuals, like Dolly Parton, who could never have built Dollywood if she had not already sold millions of records, and would not now be giving gazillions of dollars away to charity if she had not first built Dollywood. Television paid well, but the era when programmes would go on selling forever on tape and disc had not yet arrived, and we were all paid upfront in what amounted to a permanent buy-out of our rights. (Benny Hill got rich from foreign sales because some condescending executive decided there would never be any, and tossed him the rights as a sweetener.) So it was a good deal but a limited one, and anyway, there was never any question of my having got into television by calculation. I got into it because I loved it, and I was well aware that I had been lucky to be given the opportunity. After all, I didn’t look the part.

Despite a rigorous programme of pounding myself into the floor at the gymnasium three times a week, I was permanently overweight by at least a stone. I was never really overweight enough for the journalists to call me ‘fat’, but when they called me ‘portly’ I had no comeback. The kind of journalists who think a word like ‘portly’ has a sprightly, irreverent ring to it haven’t really got any opinions worth bothering about, but I did my best not to give them an easy target. Also I thought I owed it to younger viewers not to scare them to death by the way I looked. I was working, however, with intractable physical material. Even had I slimmed to the proportions of Clint Eastwood, nothing would have coaxed my eyes out of their deep cavities: when I smiled on screen, it was the silent agony of a man facing a sandstorm. My hair, thin on top, had to be cut close if my head were not to look like a hard-boiled egg being squeezed in an astrakhan glove. Thus shorn and shaved, my features had the general air of belonging to a bureaucrat whose idea of a thrill might be to install a new accounting system in a regional office. This appearance was reinforced by the blue suit that was introduced for Clive James on Television and continued into the studio show. Not through inertia, but from inspiration on Richard’s part, it was decided to retain the blue-suit look for the Postcard programmes. Later I coined a term for them — ‘blue-suit documentaries’ — but as usual there was no defining plan going in, only a descriptive term that we applied later. Wearing the blue suit on location simply made sense. If I wore it in every scene, any shot could be cut into any sequence, thereby providing a useful reservoir of coverage. In hot locations, when I had to abandon the jacket and roll up the sleeves of my blue shirt, we maintained that look in as many scenes as possible, for the same reason. Wittgenstein once told his new landlady that he didn’t mind what he ate as long as it was always the same. For the presenter of filmed documentaries, the same rule applies: it doesn’t matter what you wear as long as you don’t change it. Two identical copies of the blue suit went with me to Dallas.

Of the several American cities we made films in during our first decade, Dallas undoubtedly was the least interesting, but it was a hot prospect for the network, because the executives had not forgotten that I had made a running gag out of the American television soap opera of the same name when I was a critic, and the time was not far in the past when even the BBC made a news story out of J. R. Ewing getting shot. By the time we got to the real Dallas, however, it had left the television Dallas looking like a hick town. There weren’t many men wearing cowboy boots like J.R. and there were absolutely no women staggering around sloshed like Sue Ellen with her lipglossed mouth working away as if she were giving oral sex to the atmosphere. Instead there was business efficiency on all sides. Here was a sunbelt city as a new model for globalized America. Clusters of tall glass buildings hummed with computers processing electronic money. Everything was highly organized except us, partly because Terence Donovan was in charge.

Richard had forgiven Donovan for his slapdash approach to our film about the Paris catwalks because the results had been so wonderfully glossy. For Dallas, Donovan, shuffling hugely on Richard’s carpet, promised that he would put a clapperboard on every shot, so that the editor would not be once again reduced to dementia as he tried to synch up sound and picture. Donovan remembered that promise but he forgot all the others. He wasn’t dishonest, he was simply inspired, but you don’t want a director to be inspired until after he has done the housekeeping, and this elementary requirement was one that Donovan could rarely bring himself to meet, because he was so easily bored. About fifty floors up in a glass skyscraper freshly built by the magnate Trammel Crowe, we interviewed one of the sons of Trammel Crowe in his office, which looked out on a panorama of other skyscrapers, many of them also built by Trammel Crowe. The skyline thus provided the perfect backdrop for interviewing the favoured heir of a man who was building a city, but when I looked back to see what Donovan was up to I could tell by the angle of the camera that it wasn’t pointing at the buildings. After the first change of magazines, I took a squint through the eyepiece and found out that it was pointing at a bare stretch of Arkansas. While the son of Trammel Crowe took the kind of phone call in which phrases like ‘Meet you in Geneva’ crop up with no artificiality at all, I whispered to Donovan that we needed the buildings.

‘Nar, we don’t want that.’

I tried to tell him that we did want that.

‘Nar, everybody does that.’

Thus was the problem laid bare, loud and clear. Donovan didn’t like shooting anything ordinary. When the footage of the son of Trammel Crowe interview got back to England, Richard took a look at it after it came out of the bath and he went off his head. Donovan got the news down the phone and behaved better after that, but he was always better at capturing the look of the thing than at getting the story. Luckily the look of the thing was a local form of hard currency. The fine women of Dallas spent much of their lives being ‘best dressed’ for charity events, which took place at the rate of three or four per week. Some of these best-dressed women, notably the beautiful Nancy Brinker, who was married to the inventor of the Chili’s chain, had started out as models anyway. But they were all classy numbers and their frocks were beyond belief: Chanel, Givenchy and Dior couture originals were their equivalent of combat fatigues. (Armed with my experience of the Paris catwalks, I got a lot of traction with the women by being able to name the designers without asking, but any advantage was offset by the effect on the men listening in, who automatically assumed that I was a faggot.) The preposterous intensity of it all made for terrific pictures, and satire could not have improved on the endless speeches, in which everyone at the event was thanked individually for her donations to charity, as if people with billions giving away thousands were running Jesus Christ a close second in the magnitude of their sacrifice. I have always tried to be suitably respectful of the way the elite in any American big city centres the whole of social life on charity. A great deal of money flows towards good causes. But those involved, when they are not attending the fund-raising events in the evening, do nothing else with the day except get ready to attend, and there is little energy left over for what you might call the life of the mind.

Most of the conversations were about hair. Radiantly well-groomed women talked strident balderdash about what was happening on top of their heads. Being American instead of English, they talked it louder when the camera was on them. Donovan got the shots. But at a society party held in the hospitality room of the hotel where we were staying — which just happened to be Dallas’s number-one boutique hotel, the Mansion on Turtle Creek — he forgot to get the shot which would tie me together with the visiting film star, who just happened to be Sophia Loren. She was in town to help the Crystal Ball Committee judge their best-dressed competition. Her advice could have been obtained in no other way except in return for an astronomical fee, and now here she was at the Mansion doing the social bit that always goes with the paid appearance and helps to make the fee seem smaller by taxing it with tedium. All the women present were dressed at least as well as she was but none of them were making any sense whatsoever as they yelled into her face, updating her on the latest news about hair. We got a few hundred feet of Sophia looking alarmed, as well she might have done. What we didn’t get was a single shot to prove that I was at the same party as she was.

The Mansion on Turtle Creek had a hex on us. We were staying there at a discount, but the discount was the only thing that went right. It wasn’t Donovan’s fault. It was the fault of whoever had decided that Dallas needed a single-storey Hollywood-style hotel of unbelievable luxury. Unbelievable luxury, even when tasteful, is for Arab princes, Russian racketeers and other people with more money than sense. Normal human beings are uncomfortable when the en suite bathroom has enough towels for a symphony orchestra. The hotel was owned by the daughter of Caroline Hunt Schoelkopf, the richest woman on earth. The daughter, who was in town for precisely one day before she flew on to open a new hotel in Bogota, was the one responsible for making the Mansion’s dining room the top spot for the best-dressed women to get together for Sunday brunch and eat half a strawberry each while the harpist played ‘Stardust’ and they discussed whether Trammel should buy Lichtenstein. But it was my idea to interview the daughter beside the hotel’s swimming pool. I couldn’t blame Donovan for that.

For reasons unknown, I had failed to notice that the hotel was directly under the flight path for the final approach into one of the main runways of Dallas Fort Worth Airport. Perhaps the wind had prevailed in another direction for the previous week, bringing other runways into use and leaving this one out. Perhaps the hotel itself had soundproofing to match its air-conditioning, which maintained the guests at such a delicately judged temperature that it was the outside air, when you emerged into it, that seemed to have been produced by a machine, possibly a blast furnace. Anyway, the swimming pool was out there under the sky. The daughter, looking very fetching in one of Jil Sander’s first brushed-cotton trouser suits, sat neatly relaxed in a cane chair, showing the kind of confidence that comes to you when, having been born into a family of enormous financial power, you are encouraged to prove yourself by managing every hotel the family owns, up to and including the Mansion on Cobra Swamp in Kandahar, and, having successfully managed them, you are given them for your birthday.

She also showed patience, which was very good of her, because the planes, with all their flaps out and howling in low gear, were going over every couple of minutes. ‘So when did you realize that your family was ...’ Pause for whine of approaching jet, howl of jet going over, whistle of jet sinking very gradually into the distance. ‘Well, I guess it was when my father bought the Dallas Cowboys and ...’ Pause for whine of another approaching jet, etc. If we had been filming with two cameras the noise would have mattered less: we could have written it into the story or even made a joke of it. But when you have only one camera, you have to shoot the reverses on to the interviewer afterwards, and unless the background noise of the questions matches the background noise on the answers, you can’t edit the results. Hence the advisability of finding somewhere soundproof for the shoot if you can’t get into a studio. It was a lesson that I was pleased to learn, but learning it was expensive. A few more stuff-ups like that and we would have lost the movie.

We made just such another snafu when we interviewed Nancy Brinker chez elle. She lived in the size of house that you would expect the wife of the founder of Brinker International to own, but you wouldn’t have expected the standard of interior decoration to be quite so high. Were there any Gobelins tapestries left in France? There were also cases full of real books, an item of property often absent from the decor of the American rich. The only tip-off was that it was all too clean. As for the chatelaine, she was a dream come true: cultivated, articulate, poised, funny. Donovan was so enchanted he had the idea of linking together the shots of her with suitably ethereal fades and mixes, leaving out the predictable reverses on me. We were short of time so I went along with it.

By the time we got back to London, Richard had already discovered that there was something strange about the Nancy Brinker interview. A beautiful woman was being interviewed by a ghost. On the other hand, the daughter of the richest woman on earth was being interviewed in the middle of an air-raid. But what had really wound him up was the society party where Sophia Loren was present but I had somehow failed to get myself into the same shot. About that he was, in his quiet way, apoplectic. To repair all this damage, we had to park the film for a year until the weather was right and then go back to Dallas, with Donovan conspicuously not in our company. With the same sunlight, and with me wearing the same infinitely valuable cheap blue suit, we got all those tedious but necessary covering shots — arriving at the hotel, leaving the hotel, arriving at the Chili’s franchise, leaving the Chili’s franchise — which Donovan had so sedulously dodged. We also went back to the Brinker palace, where we discovered that Nancy’s pet decorator had repapered the walls of the room where we had interviewed her, so that when we shot the reverses that we needed, the wall behind me would look different from the wall we had already filmed behind her the previous year. It would have been a lot simpler just to ask her to do the interview again, and I’m sure the future United States Chief of Protocol and Ambassador to Hungary would have said yes: gracious diplomacy was among her countless virtues. But she had just been diagnosed with breast cancer and was confined to quarters. So we would have to make do with what we had. Doubtless it would cut together somehow: I could always say that she made a point of decorating each end of a room differently.

But what really counted was that we got back into that hospitality room in the Mansion on Turtle Creek. Richard talked a few of the society people from last year’s bunch into dressing up again. Since they rarely dressed down, they found it no trouble to comply. In America, everybody loves being in the movie. They crowded around me while we got a shot of me staring symthetically at exactly the right angle to meet Sophia Loren’s haunted glance as it had been captured the year before in the same room. I did a little smile to match a little smile from her that we already had in the bank. Actually she had been smiling in fear at some crazed woman raving about the beneficial effects of having split ends sealed shut by laser surgery and sprayed with ionized platinum, but the viewers wouldn’t suspect that, especially after I wrote a suitably wistful line about intimate eye contact. If all this ducking and weaving had been taking place today, the tabloids would have loved to have a story about how I faked a close encounter with Sophia Loren, but in fact we weren’t making up the shot, we were just getting the shot we should have got first time around. Much of the final work in a movie shoot always consists of getting the shot you should have got. You have to keep the ethics in mind — rescuing a sequence is one thing, telling a lie is another — but you always have to keep the ethics in mind anyway. To work in any art form requires an ethical decision every five minutes.

When we took the repair kit back to London all the patches fitted and Donovan’s name as a director was saved, but Richard refused to use him again. I agreed, but couldn’t help thinking it was a pity. I loved Donovan. He was so sweet and funny. But he was a star director, and in a presenter-led documentary special the man with his face on the screen had better be the only one with the artistic temperament, otherwise you will all be very soon be sharing an extended stay at the Mansion on Shit Creek.