First published in The Guardian on Monday 27 May, 1974.
Scanned and submitted to the site by Roger Stanger
I am very good on deliveries. I always deliver within a few minutes of the stipulated time.
“You’re not very good on delivery are you?” somebody in television once said.
These are the rewards you get when other people bearing your name mess it up. Nobody is going to stop and work out which Stawry is which. I am the prompt delivery Stawry. What I deliver is another matter. In a pub in Great Portland Street yesterday I believe I had another first without knowing it. I woke up suddenly just now and knew who it was. The man in the white suit with the mop of grey hair; rather short, rather old, but with a sexy young chick artificed for beauty in the stage manner.
They were both artificed for beauty in the stage manner. They might have come across from the Palladium in their stage clothes, stepped aside from some great comic fiction in order to drink and hob-nobble at the long bar amid all the grey people at half-past two on a Monday afternoon.
“Who is that?” I asked my son.
He said he didn’t know.
Soon the lovely got up and kissed the white gent and departed and next moment another lovely artificial chick was in her place. I saw that they were coming from a group farther along; there was a line of communication going on. A half-familiar man in a leather coat came over and touched the star’s arm and he got up and walked across to the group, joining his nucleus; a good deal of reverence seemed to emanate towards him. He seemed shorter when he walked and his white suit a little old-fashioned in its cut.
“Some sort of film producer,” said my son.
If it is who I think it was his photograph has been stuck to my wall with this new plasticine stuff that doesn’t mark for many months now. Sixtyish, grey skin, untidy moustache; the sort of face that wants to be something, commanding or handsome or unforgettable. A writer’s face. Now he was being kissed again. He didn’t seem to respond but just accepted it, like a tree accepting initials. You would think he was a famous film producer or film star or impresario or somebody like S. J. Perelman or Groucho Marx or a brothel owner - someone important and useful and possibly renowned that you would like to get to know. He would have the kind of name you dropped afterwards. I now think I know that name.
“Have another scotch, Dad?” asked my son. “No thanks. I want to work this afternoon.”
For a week now I have been trying to write a short story about the fountains of Rome. It is really about Maggie, like this piece you’re reading now.
“You pretend to have an obsession about Maggie so people won’t find out that you really have got an obsession about her,” said one of my unerring friends.
My recent masterpiece, Morag’s Flying Fortress, which Hutchinson’s are bringing out next spring and Arrow books two years after that, by which time we shall all be too old to care, is about Maggie; this time a true study, a love story, a work of some character depth. Let me quote:
Sandra was always happiest when we had booked into a hotel. All associations are left behind, you are on a desert island and you belong only to each other. You are loving each other, you are doing things you would not normally do, workaday; too many days of the year go past in a dull routine clockwork manner. You are in a prison and you are not aware of it. The porridge seems normal, the evenings seem like freedom, the nights like passion or rest; you are doing nothing special, looking forward to nothing special, because you do not care for it just now. You are too free to have to give thought to freedom. But now you have run away from all that. Ahead lies dinner and here comes the aperitif brought, chest high, by a Chinese waiter. We could have a Chinese waiter in Chalk Farm; it just never occurs to you. You have bathed and dressed with some care, you are feeling extremely solicitous of each other’s well-being. Doing strange things has made you slightly strangers and politeness and romance begins to overgrow familiar clearings, hard-trodden.
“Do you feel alright, Alec?”
“Yes, thank you.”
“The drive was not too much for you?”
“I enjoyed it.”
“So did I...”
I love you. I love you too. I love you more... Do you begin to recognise the symptoms? If this is love, what is it we have at home all the time? At ground level. And how long has your partner been sawing away at the bars? How far has she got with her tunnel? The dog perhaps can tell you. When she lies with one ear half-alert, when all apparently is quiet and peaceful, then somebody is digging a tunnel. Switch on the tape I have in the museum and you will hear Sandra ask me if I would like some coffee. She asks me six times in ten minutes and there is no reply except the rustle of pages. And then, heartbreaking to hear now, she breaks into a little highland song of her childhood.
The book is not really about Sandra and Alec, it’s about Maggie and Jack. So is the Gatsby review I did for Gerry Isaman of the Ham and High and so too two recent articles for the Radio Times, one ostensibly about Maurice Druon the French novelist and ex-minister for cultural affairs, one ostensibly about crocodiles in London Zoo. Soon they are sending me to South America to write ostensibly about football. I asked Bob Smythe, who is the features editor on the Radio Times which, with 11 million readers, has more reader-power (money) than any journal in the whole world, if he would pay for me to go to Fresno, the grape capital of the San Joaquin valley and write ostensibly about Saroyan, and he said he would try.
“I think he’s a writer, Dad,” my son said, in the bar of the Younger house in Great Portland Street yesterday afternoon. “Look at the way he looks at people when they’re not looking at him. You do that. What’s the musical writing team - Hammerstein and Goldspink or something?” My eldest son Peter Lang is a photographer.
Besides being known, inaccurately, for being not very good on delivery, I am also known accurately for being an expert on William Saroyan. Miles Kington of Punch magazine rang me on Monday morning at ten past twelve.
“We’ve got a piece in from Saroyan. It was posted in Paris with an address on the Rue Talbot - is that his genuine address? I mean it reads like Saroyan but it might be a clever forgery.”
What he was really checking was, dear old Miles, whether I was safely home in Hampstead; there’s about one person in the universe could do a clever forgery of Saroyan and that’s me. This short story about the fountains of Rome that I’ve been trying to write for a week is very much Saroyan country. It takes place in a hotel room for one thing. It is not generally known that every now and then writers go and hide in hotel rooms. Very often there is some kind of crisis taking place in their affairs; or anti-crisis which is worse. For example you may remember The Young Man And The Great Northern Hotel Mouse; or the way Scott Fitzgerald would drive downtown with his typewriter and be in a crummy room where nobody could look in and hope he was getting on alright.
People who stand around in pubs telling you they are writers are not writers. You are as unlikely to see a writer as you are to see an otter or a badger in the daytime; away from their writing writers turn into something else. The man in the Younger bar in the white suit could have been a writer in disguise or he might have been the deposed president of a banana republic who got out just before the rebels arrived taking with him the cream of the place harem and a few corrupt friends.
“Okay, I’ll see you then,” I heard one of the girls say. “See you,” he said. He protected his left arm when she kissed him.
It occurred to me that he was holding auditions.
The thing about the Rome story is this, as it will never now be written: I was there trying to get away from Maggie. When I got back from America and the Bahamas in February or March 1968, where I had also been trying to avoid her, my son said: “Maggie has been really miserable.”
“Don’t let her know I’m back,” I said. What I did was trade in a first-class ticket from New York bought by the film company for a tourist ticket so that the difference paid my fare on to Rome. I stayed at the Hassler Hotel at the top of the Spanish Steps and then at another hotel I forget the name of in a smart marble block overlooking Vatican City. Here I was alone on Monte Mario with a view of snow-topped mountains on the other side of Rome and some kind of fumes coming from the heating that gave me constant asthma. The girl who wanted to travel more than anything in life was typing in Baker Street. This is the birthday card I got from her while I was there:
“Take good care of yourself. Sorry I missed you in London. I love you. Maggie. X X X”
The story I wanted to write was about my efforts to keep her out of my life and then about finally falling in love with her to the extent that she is the only thing that makes sense of being 57, in the book I put it this way:
Sandra MacPherson is perfect but she did not realise that I knew it. She did not know that I had sufficient quality to deserve her. She related me to my past history and she failed to see it, not being an engineer herself, as nothing else but the path I had trodden to find her. Any other man who has suffered less, or given less suffering, in order to qualify for her love will, in the long run, fail her. A unique woman of her immense inner stature needs the hardened, toughened, tempered article to sustain her love, faith, fulfilment from here on to the grave. And enough shortcomings and weaknesses and vanities and infidelities to feed her fine outrage.
Since Auberon Waugh spilled the beans about Alan Brien and Jill Tweedie, obsessions are not so frowned upon; just the same I never admit that I’m still writing about Maggie after two years next month (June, 1972 marks the spot). Asked what the new book is about I’m inclined to give the peripheral contents.
“It’s a comedy about thalidomide children. How the drug was invented by Hitler’s scientists as a macabre penultimate solution for his Jewish problem. How it was later taken up by the major Powers as a bio-chemical war weapon in the form of a gas and a water pollutant. How it hit society through an industrial espionage mix-up and how the chief ghastly purpose of the drug was explained away as a side-effect.”
“But I thought it was about a girl who finds a Flying Fortress American bomber in a wood.”
“Yes, it is as well. And it’s about how the American and British survivors of the crash think they are in occupied Belgium and wipe out a platoon of Home Guards. They then steal a boat and escape back to Germany - and get caught.”
“Belgium? It’s not another bloody Maggie story, is it?”
Anyway, Maggie is now in India. She’s probably married a travel agent. Lee and Lee girl got married last Saturday at St. John’s, Hampstead and the rest of Maggie’s old flat mates were drinking champagne at La Gaffe afterwards - you remember Donna, Lynn, Mary, Haidi, Eileen the tax inspector from Cardiff.
“I had a card from Maggie in New Delhi last week,” Eileen told us. Nobody seemed surprised. India, the Trans-Siberian Railway, those lousy infected Kalahari lakes were all part of what she considered interesting holidays. The Scots have no comfortably inhibiting working class attitudes; they refuse to know their place. Even so, as I was telling Poodle only yesterday, a lot of world explorers, mountaineers, Egyptologists - according to the GLC wall plaques around Hampstead - end their days walking their dogs around the Vale of Health pond.
“He could be an explorer,” Peter said, in the Younger bar in Great Portland Street. “Or what about a white slaver?” I said. This would explain the auditions, the wounded arm, the kisses, the hob-nobbling, reverence, wealth and so forth. Then, as I say, I woke up at six o’clock this morning and I know that I had been in the presence of William Saroyan himself. Near enough to touch him.
Copyright © the estate of Jack Trevor Story 2002 Not for reproduction. Copyright in all work by Jack Trevor Story is the property of the author's heirs. Permission for use of this material can be obtained through Jackie Edwards (Story), Peter Story, Lee Story or Michael Moorcock. Reproduction of copyright material whether in text, visual or audio form by unauthorised sources strictly forbidden.