Centuries turn not
on industrial revolutions, wars, or the passing of a monarch, but on
common man and his attitude. God help us all. But He's also got an
attitude according to His race and colour. Sang George Lashwood, the famous comedian, in 1897, during Queen Victoria's assault on Africa, and commemorating
the "feats" of the 21st Lancers at Omdurman:
"She's been a real good
And a real good wife;
The best of monarchs in
the whole creation;
Respected and revered,
And by her foemen feared,
So hats off to the mother of the nation!"
"He was my dad," said
Betty Lashwood, with justifiable pride, for in another part of the
scrapbook little old New York welcomed him with joy and billed him above
Dan Leno and Nellie Wallace and Sophie Tucker, William Morris's current importations from the old country. Cooking us supper in this foreign neck of the
woods overlooking the ocean, she added: "His patriotic songs used to bring
the house down."
They would certainly bring a few houses down today, given the jelly.
"Have you got a room facing Brussels?" I asked Betty when I
moved in. She said she wasn't
sure, she'd have to borrow a compass. I think there's a conspiracy between Betty and her beautiful
blonde Cornish friend Barney, who runs a coat shop in the tourist
district, to fatten me
back to my original weight and send me home with a child bride. Oscar in
the Ostend fish market had done his best for me, but I can't live on my
own on a diet of hot moules (mussels to rhyme with Brussels). "Go to the
Café Aisne and see what you can pick up," I was advised.
How one's life can suddenly turn turtle, dear reader. You must have
wondered what the hell I was going to do next, and quite frankly so did I.
You can do a number of other things, but you can't settle down and write
just anywhere, and yet here I feel so much at home my new book has reached
page 101 and I'm about to push the villain into the smoking volcano crater
of Mount Taidi in Tenerife. What a time I'm having.
"Paul! Lookout!" cries Doctor Stroh. But
Lorraine - one of the
guinea-pig patients on this tour of survivors, who has got him confused with the
man who walked out of her life before she could walk out of his -
pushes him in the
middle of the back. "I feel so much better for that, doctor," she laughs
afterwards. It's an original theme. I don't think it's been done before
(certainly not my way), on the rather academic
subject of how these £10 Kinsey-type sociological volumes get to be researched and written, selling like hot pornography.
In the golden mornings
I walk down through the pine forest, full of
magpies and jays, across the sands to the Café Aisne where Angie
Ruth serves me dry
martini and gin with ice and lemon at the equivalent of about two
shillings. She is not beautiful, but attractive with her straight long
hair parted in a kind of vulnerable way with a little childlike
tortoiseshell slide over one ear. But beyond this she has the kind of
exposed breasts that fill your mind for hours afterwards. She also has a
big foreign-looking dog that looks at you as if hoping to be allowed to
"He is very good with children," she says. That's the whole rotten point
about that kind of dog.
I told her I've got these two enormous Great Danes; well, you get funny
looks if you tell people you've got a poodle.
There are ten books in
my room, all by a French woman, Madame Robert Henrey: all perfect examples
of why I stick to six favourite authors. As I left them all behind in
I don't have much choice. Starting, as I usually do, on page 180 (of
"Spring in a Soho Street") the dialogue undoes the work of weeks and all
Betty's cooking. I'm a great back-slider.
"My shoulders are my chief worry," said Pamela.
"I have the same slight defect as my mother. Every girl has something she
would like to change..."
Who's going to pay for Maggie's nose job if she marries a clerk? It'll
take him a lifetime to sell the film rights. What's the use of pretending?
Why don't I just pick up a phone and offer a thousand pounds to come back
so we can get our column back to normal (she used to do the background
snores if you remember; now she's a star). I could pay it in weekly
That's after I've paid the crash repairs on the car; oh yes, I had this
stationary crash as if the damn thing hasn't cost
me £300 in the past
month. I was chucking the last case on the back seat before leaving
Hampstead when a car
skidded off the road and rammed my American £200 door. He was an Indian,
of course; you feel sorry for them straight away.
"What can I do? This is not
"Your car isn't scratched," I pointed out. A strange transformation
took place when his panic died down. He told me I'd got my door open; I
wasn't even on the road. If the door had not been open I would now have
been legless, incidentally. I knew there was something you had to do in a case like this, but because I only had an
hour to get to the airport I got it the wrong way round.
Instead of taking his name and address I let him
take mine. So quite apart from finishing the novel I'm in no hurry to go
back to England. I'll probably find a sack of rice in the post. They say
everything goes in threes and that's just about all it takes. To finish
everything I mean - cars, people.
"Why don't you stay here?" Barney suggested. Expatriates treat you like
an author and I can't get used to it. She's paying the rent, Betty's
feeding me and lending
me her car. The only trouble is, without any problems, what would I have
to write about? Drink is so cheap and licensing laws a thing of the past,
it's hardly worth hitting the bottle. A few
months of this soft life and you'll find
me on the nature notes page.
Time I heard from Jane; a new padwife and we'll be hanging in there again,
waiting for the sky to drop.
I think I'll get Maggie to write to Jane and give me a bit of a build-up.
There must have been something about me she found appealing. And on the subject of fiction I just had
this letter from Bertie Van Thal containing a justified rap on the knuckles: "The
news you give me about your book is excellent. I'm
not sure that, having just found a marvellous theme when half the book is
written, you should equate it with 'Gatsby' which was undoubtedly the
product of much planning!"
Funny he should mention that because the theme
that emerges when a book is coming to the boil turns out to be an
integrated stew of fortuitous bits and pieces which at the beginning
seemed instinctively right but irrelevant. What happens, and this is how
you know whether or not you've got a book, is that your subconscious becomes pregnant enough to start the birth, but only during travail does
the impregnation become
manifest. Suddenly you've got a baby.
It's still not Gatsby, though I shall continue to want to have written
that perfect book. What the new book is among several other things, is my
first second-person novel and it's about a mogul. Apart from all this it's
a great feeling to be in the middle of a novel after four years and one is
inclined to make extravagant statements
to one's agent in the hope that he might find an extravagant publisher.
Phone rang at that precise
moment and it was
Betty Lashwood saying she'd be home at nine - she works in Barney's coat
shop at the moment to help out, what with me to keep - and would I like
the car. Now shall I drive round to The Point and stare out Angie Ruth's
dog, or shall I drive to Brussels and bang on Maggie's door and sing her
that little song that used to
make her laugh:
"Ah'm fisherman Jack,
coom back from me smack..."
I'm no George Lashwood, but I do have touch of the old nostalgias.
(The Guardian, Saturday 16 or 23 September 1972)