We've been sitting
round trying to cook up publicity gimmicks to
help launch Lee's book.
"The Daily Mirror's promised to come and take pictures if we can think of a story," he said.
"Pictures of like what?"
"Us girls, for instance, all in bikinis."
"That's not news," Tony said. "Us
men in bikinis, that's news."
"Not in Hampstead, ducky..."
And so on. "A Terminus Place" is
set in Eastbourne. Although full of opportunities for good funeral
directors the town has little to offer school leavers.
HAVE JUST BEEN ACCEPTED AS A BUS CONDUCTOR Lee cabled me after he'd left
school with several O-levels and a Duke of Edinburgh award. Now, although
my son can't be more than about 22, all he has to do to earn a hundred
pounds is wave a few photographic assistants around and press a button.
"Entertaining the client, that's the fattening part of the job," says his
brother and partner Peter. They're very close these days though they only
met quite recently. They work on everything from
My Weekly to Avon cosmetics.
"Join us on the yacht for the weekend, dad," Peter invited. They've got
this inflatable rubber yacht. The more people you put in the more it
stretches. There seems to be a weekly conspiracy to find me a girl-friend.
"These five-year affairs are no good," Lee said. "What you want is a
really strong relationship with somebody older. Somebody about thirty." He promised
to look out for something if I'd come up with some advertising ideas for
his book, which is where the round-table conference started.
Pamela said: "Supposing we all borrow babies and pretend Lee's the
father." The trouble with that is they'd never get anybody to disbelieve
Not many people appreciate that most new novels by new novelists remain a
closely guarded secret between the publisher, the author and his friends.
He's lucky if he gets one review, good or bad, in a national paper. If
he's acclaimed as another Tolstoy, a small number of bookshops will order
one copy on sale or return. "Never
mind Tolstoy," Lee said. "I want to be a famous
Bill Johnson's publicity idea was the best. You put one copy of the book
inside a mock-up bomb-casing and bury it in the sandpit of an infant's
playground. You could see the child's excitement as he uncovers it with
his little spade. The teacher's heart attack, the great evacuation,
bomb-disposal squads, telly cameras, crowds - then the tense, inch-by-inch
extraction of the novel. Title, author's name, price, all with national
coverage. Of course, something would have to go wrong with such a perfect
"Knowing my luck," Lee said, "it would explode and kill somebody."
Time was when the publication of a new work of fiction was a literary
event and authors were lionised by the quality. A J Munby, Victorian
diarist, poet and barrister, describes in Derek Hudson's "Man of Two
Worlds" a typical dinner with Swinburne.
"After dinner, when I was alone in the back drawing room, he came to me
and kept up a long and earnest talk, or rather declamation, about the
merits of Walt Whitman and W B Scott. Having taken a little wine - not
much more than a pint - at dinner, he was off his balance at once, and
absolutely raved with excitement; leaping about the room, flinging up his
arms, blowing kisses to me, and swearing great oaths between whiles..."
The same behaviour today would cost Swinburne his licence at the very
least. "Oh yes, sir, we're a poet are we? Well, we'll get that bloody hair
cut for a start..."
To get the author's true social standing in 1972 wait for some personal
calamity when he's on the ground with his arrogance swiftly ebbing away.
"There's something I've always wanted to say to you, old chap," says old
friend number one. Now the crows of common sense flock down to pick the
seeds of despair from the overfamiliar scarecrow.
"Have you ever thought of taking a proper job?" asked flatmate Therese
(remember the night I took her to the nightingale wood?) when
my girl went away. "I'm
sure she would come back." So if you're a writer you're out of work?
In the past few weeks I have discovered that many people believe that the
things they enjoy in their spare time are created in somebody else's spare time.
For the thoughtless, art is a picnic and golf balls are
made on Sunday afternoons.
"We have the kind of audience," Sean O'Riordan explained when I first
wrote for ATV, "that really believe the actors
make up their lines as they go
This is the audience, these are the people, who get a disrupted writer up
on his feet and rupted.
"Don't please be offended," said Irma, who is tall, beautiful and part
Javanese, married to George the tax man: "But heartbreak really suits you.
You look like Jason King." Her mother hid Irma and her sisters in
cupboards when the Japanese occupied the island; at night they took food
into the jungle for the guerrillas. "You
must bring the corn inside the room
- that will bring Maggie back," Irma said. I've got this corn I picked on
The Last Picnic outside the window in a stone jug we bought in Portugal.
Irma was also going to burn a candle for me. "As long as it doesn't make
too much mess," I told her.
Maggie's home-made candles used to gush hot multi-coloured wax over the
carpet. The rest of her art gallery still here in this room, her constant
search for identity and expression, includes a
montage of bottle-tops, tin-lids, corks, stuck on a board and
sprayed silver, a fish drawing, 12ft. by 6ft., covered in "morve"-coloured
cellophane and one of those paintings you spin on a turntable as you drip
on different lacquers - "It's a birrud (bird)," she always insisted. She
did it in the Champs Elysée when we were flat-hunting in Paris. Hanging on
the bed-screen is her school duffle-coat; my briefcase is her school
satchel poorly inked on the inside of the flap "M. McD Standard 5".
"It's nice to see you're getting her right out of your system," said Ted
Willis, who sang his own folk song over our "One Man's Week". Well, of
course, the secret is in keeping really busy. I've been running around
trying to stop other couples from taking separate holidays. Bill and
Dianne, Paul and Sara, Mike and Sue, Gussy and Daphne, Pat and John, Mick
and Jan, John and Marian, Ronny and Rose. Absence makes the heart grow out
of sight, out of mind.
"But we can't both leave the shop," Jan explained. They have this
crazy boutique the "Well Inn" in Welwyn (get it?). They hit the press when
they gave away a bottle of scotch with every shirt they sold for Father's
Day (Bill Johnson's ideas always hit the press or
my novels). To keep Mick and Jan together I offered to run the shop
for them; I mean I
understand scotch now. Mick Harrison used to be a milkman until things
went wrong. What happened was he sold his first stories to Pan Books, poor
chap. I'm afraid he'll finish up like me.
"Here, try these," he said. They're fitting me into South Sea Bubble
unisex gear ready for this strong relationship; rather the way astronauts
wear space-suits for a dangerous environment. But they really suit you, said a nice woman
customer who turned out to be a regular reader of mine. I hadn't got them
on yet. The changing room is so small you have to change a bit at a time.
"What kind of image shall I project, dad?" was Lee's next problem
of becoming a novelist. "Shall I be eccentric? And what can I do for a
life story?" I think he's resentful that I've been using up all his
material. "Where was I born, for instance?" I told him
he could use my little blue peaked cap; twice I've been mistaken for
Edward Heath, though luckily both shots missed. "You don't remember where
I was born!"
Of course I remember where he was born. I am his father after all. I just
have to think, that's all. "You do something for me," I told him, "and
I'll do something for you." This makes it ixie-pixie, as this Scottie lass
used to call it. And if you turn to the beginning you'll remember I'd
never have met her but for a great father-son arrangement we have
in our family.
"I thought you were born in
St Albans?" girl Lee said. Rot; Lee's never been born in
St Albans. We've got life
stories we haven't even used yet.
(The Guardian, Saturday 5 August, 1972)