more likely to come out of
dustbins than out of university courses. Who is C Stepan and why in a
letter in the Guardian last week did he offer his life savings to shut
me up? He's Belgian, we know that don't we, although disguising his
writing with an American accent and a fragmented
nonsensical style. And where is Paul of Brussels? Could it be that he's
the new tenant of our front double? If so, either he's got a club foot or
a monstrous pet. These are the issues of the week.
"Do you mind if I don't eat this, darling?"
Heard through somebody's door you imagine Thurber's Old Slough Foot, that four-footed nemesis,
trapped at last and served up on Green Shield china. "Up came the hippopotamus out of the slime and blinked at creation. 'Der, that's funny,' it
muttered, 'I keep thinking
Lifted, I believe, from a well-known cartoon, Rickie, our private probation officer uses
this joke as a test piece; if you don't laugh he binds you over. Now
having got you in a suitably
metaphysical state, you
may appreciate my feelings
when I go into the kitchen and find that somebody has thrown
my private aeroplane into the
dustbin. Does this
mean that Stepan and Paul are one and the same person? Don't think about
it at night.
"It's just that the new
man is looking for cupboard space," Ellie explained. I asked her
what he looked like. "Quite old. About thirty. He thinks he knows where he
can get me a mouse." She keeps on about this
mouse; before you know where
you are they want to go to
"Take the joystick out of
The rudder bar out of
Take the petrol tank out of
And assemble the engine
Remembered over about forty years this may not be quite accurate; it was
in a book called The Diary of an Unknown Aviator the manuscript of which
was found, according to the foreword, with a dead American pilot of a Sopwith Camel
which had crashed in no-man's-land. It's a very nostalgic song when you're
salvaging the past. On calm days and with a following wind this graceful
cabin monoplane with its scarlet fuselage and yellow wings lettered F R O
G has skimmed the tall
grasses of some of my happy relationships.
"Look at that!"
The sun is always shining, of course, the little plane climbs, stalls,
falls back and then recovers with one grand swoop and glides unerringly
into the next field. "You go and get it and I'll stay here..."
Girls are not afraid of cows.
My flying exploits during the war, though of course one doesn't talk about
it very much, included flying a heavy home-made balsa-wood motorised
glider with a four-inch propeller driven by eight strands of lubricated
square-section elastic. Without proper training and experience it could
take your fingers off when you were winding it up.
"I myself flew Fokkers like this," Kaiser Konrad exclaimed after he'd caught his fingers in it. This was by the
Thames at Marlow during
complicated moisture-in-timber recordings for his new kiln-drying process.
I call him Kaiser because he was a comic-opera
figure and also such a liar that I still don't believe he's dead. Whenever
he got into shtuck he sent out telegrams saying he was dead. "From the
dead they expect nothing," he used to say.
He looked like an Austrian hussar in mufti and carried his black homburg
in The George (those anaemic watery lunches) using both hands, as if it
were a heavy spiked helmet. "Are you a bloody landlord or a filthy tenant?" he would roar
at the little old waiter.
There was nothing dangerous or outrageous that Kaiser Konrad had not done
with flair and panache, though I never deeply believed in him
until after he's been sent to prison by the Canadian Government.
"Today we haff the beef," he would decide, after chewing it for analysis.
And over the tinned pears and Ideal
milk he once said: "Come to
work on my ranch in South America. Fly your own aeroplane." But what about
the wife and kids? "We shall send them telegrams..."
At a time when the country was working full stretch with overtime to kill Germans it was surprising how eager the
money boys were to back one
who had stumbled on the secret of seasoning timber in six hours instead of
six months. If after the whole complicated process of kiln boiling,
emptying, drying, evaluating and resin-impregnating, the moisture readings
conflicted with his predictions, Konrad would go into a little heavily
conspiratorial conference with the man from the ministry: "How would you
like to haff your own laboratory in Bogota?"
Another very good flying field, though not without its element of danger
if the wind is wrong, is attached to the farm at Potters Heath where they breed small
animals for vivisection. Getting your plane back is always a creepy
experience, tip-toeing around the buildings and catching the occasional
sickening whiff from the abattoir. Meeting Ingrid was a delightful
"How can you possibly work in a place like this?"
"Where is your little boy?" she replied, giving me my toy plane back. Both
questions remain unanswered, for the questions are too basic, too deeply
hidden. Born in Danzig and brought up on post-war rations, Ingrid once had the frightful
childhood experience of escaping across the East-West frontier at night
with her family.
Creeping through the woods they were detected by a gaggle of squawking
geese, had to stop and feed them their survival rations.
When you belong to the supreme race and have probably enjoyed
more than one dog or cat
washed down with your China tea, you can't legitimately get up-tight about the kind of anti-vivisection literature -
two-headed dogs from Russia and so forth - of the kind that Lahari keeps sending
me. It's a negative subject
for a writer since the public know about it already.
Dear Lahari: Could you send
me evidence of police brutality instead? Have you any pictures of
magistrates and police
inspectors holding hands? Regards to your dog and the residents. I hope
you're saving a room for me.
Lahari is probably the only lovely Indian girl running an old folk's home
in England. My flatmates do all kinds of unlikely things once I send them
out into the world. I'm still trying to work out who sends me Christmas
cards postmarked Princeton and crayoned on HM Prisons toilet paper. "It
could be Colin at Darlington College of Arts," Ellie said. "It's the kind
of thing they do superbly well."
Although younger than
me and a good deal prettier, Ellie knows far
more about literature, the
arts, philosophy, mice. She has actually read Dickens and Shakespeare,
acted in Youth Theatre productions (she hopes to get my play "The Long
Running Musical" put on at last) and knows Hywel somebody, the film star.
As Stanley Baldwin's thoughts grew through the smoke of his favourite
brand of tobacco, so my own woolly convictions clarify through Ellie's
non-stop chatter, turning into effective streams of consciousness.
Let the great big world keep turning but the invaders are already upon us.
Art nouveau melts into a coloured ice cream of consumer fantasies,
girl-dressed groups and men-dressed girls project the self-pollinating
arrogance of imbecile non-people, poets and writers with
missing hearts and freaky
inverted iconoclasts kick dead gods into some kind of banal resurrection
at the Round House while art, the only soul available, is dying for want
of talent - wait a minute.
"I said I don't like electric bass guitars. With the double-bass you feel
it's man against instrument. The result is more profound."
I'll never get it all down. She deserves a mouse. If I don't sell "Crying
Makes Your Nose Run" soon I'll take her to live in Wandsworth. One of
those nice terraced DPs (derelict properties) with corrugated iron over
the casements. Poodle would just enjoy squatting. Just a minute, we're off
"All art is propaganda but not all propaganda is art..."
That was Orwell, wasn't it? These comprehensive schools can't be that bad.
I'm a bit of a reactionary and it's high time I got spaced out. There are
such things as live poets I'm sure though I still prefer Kaiser Konrad to Andy Warhol. I have a
soft spot for con men but if I'm going to be baffled by
mystique the thud-scrape,
thud-scrape across the landing at two in the
morning is as much as I can take. My nephew Michael put his finger on it, ringing
me from Iver. He hit
the Evening News recently when a pair of trousers he bought in a jumble
sale for 5p turned out to have been tailored in 1927 for the Duke of Kent.
"I don't know whether it's in the blood," he told me, "but I've now got a
real urge to write, uncle Jack."
His sufferings as a missionary in
India (he returned weighing six stone and partially paralysed with
disease) might have produced another artless opera, a volume of blank
verse, an obscure LP with electronic backing or a peaceful tour of the
campuses banging a Hare Krishna cymbal on a shaven head. As it is I think
his instincts are right. Michael's done very well to find his inspiration
in the universal dustbin that
makes us all 36 waist, 31 inside leg.
(The Guardian, Saturday 18 November 1972)