"What do you want
me to do exactly?" asked a secretary I'd just hired from a Luton agency.
Just a bit of copy-typing. "What, in a converted ambulance?" We're going to work in Berkhamsted
woods. "But why a pinafore dress?"
I was writing "Hearts and Flowers" for Jay Lewis. I could see the whole
idyllic scene and it didn't include a secretary in trousers. In the event
(believe me there was no event) the converted ambulance cost me £30 a
week, the girl £15, the dress £7. It rained on three days and the only
time we got close to a relationship I was waved down to an accident and
took a cyclist to Luton and Dunstable hospital. What did I get out of it?
Like breathing on a mirror during a coma, this idiotic behaviour is proof of being alive. But the raging
of the blood must be
justified with the excuse that a writer needs to get away from it all. What he
means is that he wants to get close to it all. Away from
it all is the place you live, typewriter on one side of the room, bed the other. If nothing happens in the
middle you might as well be a
"Up here, where the air's very clear
And the hills slope away nigh down to the bay,
Is very like heaven..."
...wrote Ford Maddox Ford ("The Saddest Story"). About the same cottage,
his wife Stella wrote: "The pipe which brought our water from the spring
would freeze and burst, the kitchen was damp and draughty, and it was
always cold upstairs. Two litters of pigs, 30 hens, 20 ducks, three goats
and the old mare were eating us out of house and home..."
Who can spot the deliberate
mistake? It was in taking his wife, of course. "Do you have any
undisclosed properties?" asked the Official Receiver's examiner
when I went bankrupt. Without "undisclosed properties" there most
probably would not have been a bankruptcy for him. I've moved into so many places I've never used that the combined
rents, the forsaken furniture, filing cabinets, duplicating
machines, and - as it turned out - incompatible
secretaries would have bought a riverside manor and a cruiser. And another
undisclosed getaway place.
"When will you be working here?" asked the lady who let me a room in South
End Green last summer. Never, but I'll pay the rent for six months just in
case I get a crazy getaway impulse. Scott Fitzgerald (time I found another
writer before I get accused of an identification problem) was always
sloping off to downtown hotel rooms in Baltimore.
"Never mind the back rent," said the vicar's wife I rented a room from in Cambridge, "just take this book and read it cover to cover." I don't
know whether you've ever been given C S Lewis's "The Screwtape Letters"
with intent. I think they were first published in the Manchester Guardian
and are dedicated to J R R Tolkien. The handwritten inscription is from "Katherine to J Stead".
"Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the
safest road to hell is the gradual one - the gentle slope, soft underfoot,
without sudden turning, without
milestones, without signposts. Your affectionate uncle, Screwtape,"
one of the letters finishes. And they are all addressed to somebody
The allusions are all too subtle for my simple mind, but I expect the
vicar's wife had detected that I am religious. I always turn taps off, and so on.
This terrible urge to get away conflicting with the equally terrible homesickness
to get back can keep you running all your life. I could never be happy in
heaven unless I could go to hell as well.
Anyway, if you can't afford tow homes, the next best thing is to do a
revamp job on what you've got. "I couldn't live here," Barby said, "with
half the ceiling blue and half nicotine." Which half shall I change? Now
that I've decided to get married (and stop getting married without
deciding) the window-shopping has started in earnest.
"No, of course I won't
marry you," Jolanta said. "I don't know what I'm
doing from one week to the next."
You get some very flippant answers to serious questions these days.
"Nobody's going to marry you now," said Margot; "you're not an individual,
you're half a couple." I still have this tendency to hold open doors and
make too much coffee. However, on strong repeated advice from
well-wishers, I had already decided to drop the subject of you-know-who
for good and all when I got a call from Gus Campbell, a well-known
"Did you know punters are laying odds on your little weekly gallop, Mr
Story?" He sounded genuine and he had no wish to be cynical but he
admitted that until now he had never noticed that the Guardian had any
other pages except the racing page, which he considers the best in the
country. "I don't reckon the chances of a 34-year old Belgian stud in an
Anglo-Scottish field. As the outsider in a three-horse race I'll lay five
to four on Paul, evens on you as a good stayer over long distance, and six
to four against Maggie staying longer than October 10." I asked him why the date but got lost in technicalities. "A 27-year old
Scottish filly will always come romping home," he assured
Comforting for me, but
I wouldn't advise anybody else to put their shirt on it. Meanwhile on yet
another preliminary canter something happened to Poodle which I'm sure
you'll find disturbing. She got her name changed to Dogg with two Gs by
this pretty and rather youth-hostelly girl I'd taken to the Three Hammers.
"Look, she knows it already. She's wagging her tail!"
I've got the kind of dog who wags her tail when you kick her in the face.
Once you find a woman with the same even temperament you've got yourself a
"Time Out," said Florian, "that's the place to advertise." Advertise? I
don't want a relationship with the kind of person who replies to
advertisements. Specially if I've written them. "But you've got an age
problem," he said. "Even your dog is seven-nines are sixty-three." So what
- Burt Lancaster is six-tens are sixty.
The things that go on between people, as I'm sure Gilbert and Sullivan
must have thought, have nothing to do with age.
"Bon appetit!" said our new friend.
I changed the dog's name back to Poodle quite quickly. People who say bon appetit, who
take the glasses back to the bar to ingratiate themselves
with the bellhop, who mention Dutch painters, who think everybody you meet
in the street, even dustmen, are all human beings with their own problems,
who get into cars with strangers in the name of travel, or give their
last pound to a tramp, are already older than me and Poodle together, end
"I tell you exactly what to do," said girl Lee. "Nothing."
Lee has just started her own door-to-door gentleman's hairdressing
business in Hampstead. While she's waiting for lucky clients to find out
about it and want their hair trimmed every day, she is acting as my
chauffeur. My brakes went last Sunday and I managed to hit a tree rather
than run into the River Ouse. The AA did their usual efficient thing of
coming out and finding they couldn't do anything.
"You want a complete new servo," the
man said, before leaving us 70
miles from home. I crawled it back to Hatfield and again got the AA to it.
"We can't get the wheel off," this one said. He reckoned the nuts
must have welded themselves on with the heat. I crawled it back to Hampstead
where a young fellow from Mobyle, round the corner, had the trouble
diagnosed and under repair - no new servo, no welded nuts - within 24
hours. "Of course, the RAC is really better for this sort of thing," said
the AA man from Huntingdon. "They guarantee to get you home."
I'm sending their membership application form to Brussels and then placing
a bloody great bet with Gus Campbell.
(The Guardian, Saturday 12 August 1972)