Primrose Hill Revisited – the complete book online - chapter six

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chapter six

A stream of stragglers, a tributary of the great throng flooding Trafalgar Square, trickled along Primrose Hill High Street. Lank-haired, disaffected youth mingled with well-dressed middle-aged men and women. Some held children by the hand. They were not chanting, just strolling along chatting good-naturedly, festooned with Union Jacks, carrying their home-made placards and packed lunches and thermoses in cloth shopping bags, as if they were on their way to a fête. Claudia gave them a thumbs-up sign and some of them waved back.

There was a spirit of revolt abroad in the land and the people were united. This time the shoe was on the other foot. It was the British revolution against American imperialism. For Bunker Hill read Primrose Hill. She should do a piece about it.

It was all down to that odious little creep in Downing Street. He came in on the promise of helping the poor and all he’d done was to put the economy in hock to the Americans. And the price they exacted was to secure his supine support for the War in Vietnam. All right, he hadn’t sent any troops yet, thank God, but that was probably only because the Americans wouldn’t come up with the right price for a brigade or two. And after selling out the nation’s soul to them the Yanks let him down anyway and he had to impose currency controls and devalue the pound after all. The ‘pound in our pocket’ that he had pledged to defend until the end. Well, maybe this was the end. What kind of a Continental holiday could you have on fifty pounds?

The Americans were taking over our culture, too. Name any British film — Tom Jones, A Hard Day’s Night, Alfie, Georgy Girl — all the takings went to Hollywood. All right, if we can’t afford it a case might be made for funding our cultural activities from abroad. But the price is too high. They impose their culture. That appalling What’s New Pussycat?— a drooling adolescent sex maniac’s daydream — that was a so-called European co-production, which means Hollywood in the driver’s seat, and so was Blow-Up. She had to admit she didn’t have a clue what that was about. And she wasn’t alone. The critics were clearly mystified, though, prostrated before the throne of Michaelangelo Antonioni, few would raise their heads to see that the king was naked. Frankly, she reckoned he’d missed the boat by a few years. All that tinsel about ‘swinging London’ and dolly birds and priapic young upstart photographers – well she did know a few of those — but they were rapidly becoming old goats. The thing was, the mood had changed.

That Time magazine article came out a couple of years ago this month and by that time already you wouldn’t have been seen dead in Carnaby Street anymore. The King’s Road was still buzzing, but both were already tourist clichés. All that outrageous originality was gone. What passed for an iconoclastic gesture in those tourist meccas was a pop-art Union Jack plastered on a wastebasket. You could blame The Who for that. They started the trend for fags dressing up in flags. But it certainly freaked out the Americans. You’d go to prison for that over there. They were very uptight about their patriotic symbols.

She turned through the gates and into the park. The early hint of spring had drawn human swarms out of the villas and blocks of flats and on to the paths. Dogs rambled. Joggers panted by. Lovers held hands. Couples who used to be in love now wheeled pushchairs. Children whined because their dads would not relinquish the helms of the tossing kites. Clouds raced across the sky, a psychedelic sun blinked on and off, but it brought her no exhilaration. I’m already too old for spring, she thought. Wankler was clueless. He was an apparatchik. If his boss passed wind he would salute. Is that how he lost his hand? But he was right about one thing. She didn’t understand young people any more. She didn’t understand Jenny for a start. Oh, she understood her game all right. The signals of untrammeled ambition were as subtle as Belisha beacons. What she didn’t understand was her chutzpah. How could she hope to compete in a man’s world without education, intelligence — well, she had a certain street wisdom — or sensitivity? In a word, she had no class — just a brazen, mocking style, a kind of aura of universal, unfocused resentment. You could almost smell it. It was a kind of heady scent the younger generation exuded, mingled with joss sticks.

They stuffed the emptiness of their minds with garbage. Like the copy of Oz that she carried under her arm. Stephen had introduced her to Richard Neville. He was an amiable bloke with a sort of whimsical line in irony — one of three Australian lads not long out of sixth form, if they had that Down Under — but without the remotest trace of intellectual rigour. He was the Pied Piper of underground philosophy, a sloppy, irrational pudding which he and his mates concocted as they went along. Their magazine was amateurish. They didn’t pay their staff and it couldn’t possibly make money. There was only the occasional ad for sex manuals or a penis-enlarging gel called Magnaphall. It was embarrassing to be seen in possession of Oz. Not out of prudery, but because it suggested you had no analytical faculty. The magazine had neither editorial standards nor competence. It was printed on bog paper in tiny, lines of smudged type splashed with clanging blots of colour slopped out of a paint-pot like a Jackson Pollock. It was laden with those sinuous pseudo-Art-Nouveau drawings which everyone seemed to agree was the art form that acid visions came in, as if they were branded dreams synthesised in the laboratories of Aubrey Beardsley. No one actually read Oz — you’d burn your brain out — it was more of a fashion statement to show you were in the groove. Which was doubtless why the young man she was going to meet had selected it as their mutual identity badge.

Her feet began to drag. Why I am doing this? The truth was it was not just a job. Somewhere deep inside her was a silly schoolgirl. Her stomach began to churn ever so slightly. It would be so simple to turn back. But she would never know the other future that lay on the top of the hill. A certain psychic momentum, perhaps the childhood maxim that you must finish what you’ve started — be it a plate of Brussels sprouts or a Lenten resolution — propelled her into motion again. She walked slowly up the hill. But without resolve. The scenes around her dimmed as if a screen had been drawn over them. The shouts of the children and the barking of the dogs faded. She felt seized by a trance. As on her wedding day, when she sat in the back of Stephen’s Rolls-Royce, turned to stone, gripping that envelope, all the way to the church. As when she sat at her school desk staring at the waves of tender green leaves tossing outside the window. “Considering a vocation, Claudia?” Sister Mary Eustace interrupted her drowsy reverie and the class laughed. She had no intention of becoming one of Christ’s black-robed, chalky-sleeved harem. She was dreaming of the Big Relationship. Unbending, white-faced Sister Mary Eustace seemed impossibly ancient, but had probably been no older than Claudia was now. Her colourless lips were always tightly set, but something must have parted them, because, though already married to the Sacred Heart, she later eloped to Chicago with the local bookie’s runner.

There had been no further news from Chicago and Claudia’s parents were uninformative, so Claudia had to find out about love all by herself. With Russell, she had confused intellectual passion with the other kind. And then there was the tragedy of Hope. Yet the torch still flickered in the tabernacle of Claudia’s heart. And then, suddenly, Stephen appeared at a dinner party, charming, accomplished and powerful. A whirlwind courtship. And then disaster. Now the door to the tabernacle was firmly latched. May the padlock rust.

She was not anti-American. But it was a nation of cruel contrasts. A country that could produce a John F. Kennedy to light a beacon for the world, and ineluctably, a crazed assassin to extinguish it. There was much to admire about the nation. Their egalitarianism, their social legislation, their easy manners showed the way of the future to hidebound, class-ridden, stick-in-the-mud Britain. Their citizens felt free and the equal of anyone. They had big horizons. They recognised no ceilings. They were tremendously ambitious and ferociously energetic. But these were the innocent virtues of children. And like children, they were also immature, insensitive and easily tipped into aggression. Worst of all was the sheer materialism. It was as though they knew no values that could not be preceded by a dollar sign. Worth about four shillings in her childhood and now worth eight.

She’d have to tone it down, of course. Wankler would purse his lips like he was sucking sauerkraut, shake his square head and utter two of his favourite phrases: ‘damn and blast’ — ‘it’s a polemic’. And of course the German board of directors loved all things American. Troy’s homage to Athens. To the Germans we were just a quaint little historical backwater populated by a curious race wielding rolled-up umbrellas and wearing ‘melons’, as they insisted on calling bowlers. We won the war and so preserved our worm-eaten institutions. They started afresh from Ground Zero without any cultural baggage and followed the Americans. And now we’re having to catch up.

America was the fount of the future. Like it or lump it.

It was crowded at the top of Primrose Hill. A knot of foreign tourists gawked at the shimmering skyline where St. Paul’s was now outranked by the NatWest tower. To one side stood a comic strip character, the American L’il Abner — a raw-boned hillbilly hewn with a hatchet by a rustic Michelangelo. He had an honest gaze, a lock of black hair dangling over his brow, and a cheeky grin that pierced right through you. He had presence. But it was muffled in that horrid, shapeless, purple, nubbed Burton jacket, the knitted not-quite-matching tie and the scuffed brown moccasins. These things could be changed. But he was far too young.

Naturally she smiled. Because she had been thinking about things American and suddenly he rose up out of the ground, young Abe Lincoln. You can’t see your own smile but when she thought about it afterwards she knew it had been a very natural smile. Because she remembered feeling a sudden thrill of pleasure and delight. Because the coincidence was so perfect. And because he was so disarming. So naturally she smiled.

 

It was a smile of recognition from someone he had always known, or always knew that he would know, a smile that seemed to say ‘Thank God, you’re here at last.” It streaked like a ray of sunshine parting the clouds to dazzle his eyes. A less confident man would have cast a glance astern to see if her eyes were meeting those of someone behind him. Jake returned the smile and thumbed the white carnation in his buttonhole. She looked down at her own red carnation and frowned. He held up the copy of the Times. She shook her head and held up a copy of Oz. But she kept smiling. And he stepped forward and suddenly she was right there in front of him.

“I guess I got the signals mixed.”

Something inside her stirred to the sound of his voice — not the raw mid-Western accent, but the timbre, the personality of it, a kind of deep sincerity. Herr Wankler had been right. Claudia had forgotten what going out on dates was all about. Her heart rate fluttered. She felt embarrassed and keen and flighty all at once, like a girl even younger than she had said she was.

“It’s my fault. I’ve never done this sort of thing before.”

“Me neither.”

“Actually, I’m doing a bit of research.”

“It’s really my room-mate’s date.” Ouch. An uncouth put-down. Claudia, no longer in control of the expressions that flitted across her face, knew that she had signalled her chagrin. And then knew that he had caught the signal, because he came in quickly with a serviceable apology.

“An audition came up all of a sudden. He asked me to pinch-hit for him.”

“Your flatmate’s an actor?”

“We both are.”

“You’re American.”

He flashed that easy grin. “I’m working on the accent.”

“What brings a Yank to London?” He glanced at his shoes. He didn’t want to answer that. She lowered her eyes, too. And suddenly the shoes were gone.

A gargantuan young woman had him by the elbow. “Snap!” She poked his chest with a copy of the Times. He was at least six-foot tall, but her greasy, blonde-streaked beehive hairdo towered over him. She wore a bulky jumper the colour of a dribbled breakfast. Pinned to it was a crumpled wad of white paper posing as a carnation. April Fool.

The behemoth dragged him down the hill, chattering a-mile-a-minute. He glanced over his shoulder and threw Claudia a rueful little smile. Just as a balding gent with the bloodshot eyes of a lustful walrus rearing above the brush of a military moustache and wearing a trilby set squarely on his head bounded up to seize her by the arm. He flourished a copy of Oz and wore a red carnation pinned to his fleece-lined suede leather car coat, and had clearly deducted at least twenty years from his age.

 

From kite-height, the two newly-met couples dwindled towards east and west as they descended their separate paths.