Primrose Hill Revisited – the complete book online - chapter seven

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chapter seven

From the wireless came the familiar rasp of Jack De Manio. Whilst giving a sermon at St. Giles’ Cathedral the rector of Edinburgh University had resigned because students were demanding the contraceptive Pill, though, being Malcolm Muggeridge, from his woolly rhetoric it was not clear whether he was in favour of them getting it or not getting it. This may have been owing to the poor quality of the sound through the closed bedroom door, though on the other hand, Malcolm Muggeridge had not reached his current position of eminence by being unequivocal. She was awake. He held the tea tray against his hip with one hand and knocked on the bedroom door with the other.

“Come in, Russell.”

He set the tea tray on the floor, pushed the door open, rapped both door jambs twice with his knuckles, retrieved the tray and entered.

She leant forward to kiss his cheek and he smelled the remembered warmth of slumbrous sheets. “Thank you for being my white knight”.

“The man was a proper bounder.”

He had heard the thump of the diesel engine as the taxi pulled up. He had heard the front door open, but it didn’t close. He had stood on the kitchen stool to peer out the high, small window overlooking the outside stair leading up from the basement. Two dark forms swayed against the light of the streetlamp. Claudia was granting a generous goodnight embrace. No, she was struggling. She raised her hand and the man caught her by the wrist, launching his face forward into her bosom. Russell grabbed his cricket bat and stepped out of his door.

The man was heavy-set. He wore a flowing moustache and a trilby. His face glowed pink in the glow of the outside light and as Russell stole up the metal stairs he could hear him growl through his panting. “You act like a headmistress. But I bet you wear naughty red knickers.”

Suddenly he shrieked and doubled over, his hands flying to his groin. Claudia squirmed across the threshold, but the man, still bent at the waist, lunged forward like a rugby prop, and thrust a foot in the door.

Claudia shouted over his head. “Thank you for a memorable evening. Now go home!”

The man pressed his weight against the door, and the sliver of light that escaped into the night widened. Russell stole up behind and gave him a tentative poke in the ribs with the end of the cricket bat. On the third poke, the man turned round and Claudia slammed the door shut. The man wavered uncertainly, then put up his fists and advanced. Russell took a step back into the stairwell.

Overhead, a window sash opened. When Russell looked up, so did the man, and so received Hope’s weighted punch-bag clown full in the face. He tottered and fell down. He got up and kicked the clown. When it bounced back, he took a swing at it, missed his footing and fell again. Russell retreated half-way down the stairwell, forgotten. After a final kick at the clown, Claudia’s date weaved off down the garden path and through the gate.

Russell had watched as the man stumbled and fell against the wing of a parked car. He thumped the bonnet of the car in anger, as if it had collided with him, and not he with it, and then staggered off into the dark. An engine started up and the car moved off through the glow of a streetlight in the opposite direction. It was a Rolls-Royce convertible. Russell had seen the glint of a chauffeur’s visor, but the back seat was empty.

As it was Monday morning Russell had expected to see her already at work, propped up in her bed in her dressing gown, wearing her reading specs, and making notes. But she was lying down in her skimpy pale blue nightie, eyes focused on the ceiling rose, a half-smile on her face. He set the tray down on the night table and poured out two cups of tea. She sat up and he handed her one, and perched on the edge of the bed with the other. Now she was frowning.

“Trouble a t’mill?” The smile came back, as it always did when he talked cod Yorkshire, though now her pleasure was faint, and was swiftly driven away by the returning frown. She made a fist and pulled it up and down over her crotch. Russell nodded. “Wankler?”

“He wants me to copy the worst sort of American drivel. All that in-your-face sex, narcissism and self-indulgence. How to consume. How to claw your way to the top of the dungheap. How to be a super-bitch.”

Russell took another sip of tea and considered that. “Giving women power. It sounds a promising editorial formula. Wankler may be right.”

“A huckster can always attract a crowd by appealing to people’s base instincts. But they’ll drift away if you don’t offer them something more intellectually nourishing. An appeal to their social concerns . . . ” Claudia’s eyes floated to the ceiling rose once more. Russell knew her train of thought had merely paused to take on fuel, and took on another sip of tea himself. “Look”, she protested, “I’m all in favour of the emancipation of women, the freedom we all have now — both men and women — from sexual repression, but there are limits.”

“They have St. Augustine on their side.”

“Who has?”

“The new libertarians. He said the only authority was to love, and so do what you will.”

“Okay, there’s room for debate. As the editor of a responsible journal, my job is to explore the context and consequences of the new permissiveness, not just wallow in it like a pig in shit.”

They were on familiar ground now, so he inserted the trigger words. “The sort of article one might read in Nova, or Queen.”

“Exactly. Take the high ground. An editorial position that recognises women have something between their ears as well as between their legs.”

“Will your readers follow you up to the high ground?”

She moaned. “You sound like Wankler. He says America is where it’s at.”

“What does that mean in the Queen’s English?”

“America is the future.”

Russell took another sip of tea, reflecting. “It’s America or Russia. And America offers the proletariat more enticing illusions. Wankler’s right about that.”

Claudia’s teacup rattled on its saucer. “Will you please stop saying that?”

“Saying what?”

“Wankler is right.”

“We’re certainly not in the game anymore.”

“What game?”

“The future. We tried that. It didn’t work. You could write about that.”

“What?”

“About why the future hasn’t worked.”

 

Russell was right. Nobody believed in the future any more. The brutalist utopian tower blocks that had sprung up all over Britain a few years ago as symbols of a new, modern society were now bleak, decaying, rain-stained sepulchres. Monuments to a misplaced modernism. Ronan Point in Hackney, one of those erections flung up in the false dawn of swinging London, fell down two months after it was completed. A corner wedge of the tower block collapsed, killing five people, injuring ten and leaving bedsteads backing onto the open air on eighteen floors. Is it a symbol of the nation paying the price for the pleasures of self-gratification? The tumbling tower as an image of post-coital depression?

It’s yet another shock to those of us who trusted the men in white coats. After the thalidomide scandal that deformed hundreds of children. After the Torrey Canyon, the world’s largest ‘supertanker’, struck a rock in one of the world’s most familiar seaways and contaminated a hundred miles of coastline with crude oil.

Whatever happened to Mintech and the ‘white heat’ of technology that was to put the ‘great’ back into Great Britain? Remember the dazzling dawn of The Sun? It was supposed to be the new chronicle of a New Age. Keeping us up to date on all the fabulous mod cons of the bright new future: new kitchens, new homes and new cars zooming around the new superhighways that were being built around the new towers for living in the sky, and soon we were all going to be flying about with rockets attached to our backs. (They would have come in useful to the people living in Ronan Point.)

But the gas leaked out of the ballyhoo balloon, and the circulation of The Sun sank back to the level of the old Herald it had replaced. The exposed entrails of the highways wind around the gutted city centres of Birmingham and Manchester. But the only people zooming about in the new Jerusalem are television myths: Patrick McGoohan in his Lotus Elan, Simon Templar in a white Volvo sports car, and John Steed and Emma Peel in their stately vintage Bentley, chasing villains around a futuristic landscape in conspicuous luxury, while Raymond Baxter on Tomorrow’s World cautions the rest of us about those ludicrous breathalyser tests.

What did we ever see of the future? The Post Office tower? A fitting symbol of a nation that worships at the altar of hedonism. The tallest building in Britain is topped by a pretentious penthouse revolving restaurant, created by Sir Billy Butlin, a man knighted for his services as an operator of amusement parks. Its menu is truly excruciating, in the worst possible frenchified manner. All italics and capitalised nouns, braying such exotica as L’Avocado au Fruits de Mer, Le Caneton à L’Orange, Les Choux de Bruxelles, Les Poires Belle Hélène. You even get a cheesy certificate that testifies, over the manager’s printed signature, that ‘the Bearer has dined in orbit’.

Would she have to translate the menu into English for her audience? That would rather ruin the jibe. A familiar, troubling moment of self-doubt. How well did she really know her readers? Perhaps they would squeal with delight at the prospect of receiving a signed Certificate of Orbit to frame and hang on the ‘lounge’ wall next to the flight of wooden ducks.

Wilson had called it a ‘socialist- inspired scientific and technological revolution’. Well, Billy Butlin’s restaurant is still revolving, so the top people can stir their G&Ts without lifting a finger, but everything else seems to be in a downward spiral of economic failure, cultural decadence and the everlasting gloom of a night in your bedsit if you haven’t got a shilling for the meter.

Because that’s the problem. As a nation we’ve run out of shillings. We’re enormously in debt to the rest of the world. Our industries are rusting away, because we won the war and didn’t have to build them all over from scratch. Our unions are hidebound and bolshy. And management is out to lunch. Perhaps at Billy Butlin’s restaurant.

In our vanity, or rather Jim Callaghan’s, we squandered all our sterling reserves trying to prop up the ‘pound in our pocket’ at an unrealistic level, so we imported more than we exported, and then had to devalue anyway. And we’re still trying to maintain the illusion of our derelict empire with an overstretched army, a dodgy currency — and a Royal Mint with a hole in the centre. That last quip was a straight crib from the book by Anthony Jay and David Frost, but it was too perfect to leave out. They’d be grateful for a credit.

It was, the man said, ‘socialist inspired’. So what have the social effects been? Capped wages, roads so full of metal you can’t ride safely on your pushbike, city centres disintegrating, and ethical collapse. The Establishment has abandoned morality to the urges of feckless adolescents. Kim Philby thought Britain so degenerate he fled to Russia and George Blake unpicked whatever technology exists in high-security prisons to flit out of Wormwood Scrubs and join him.

Do you trust the men in white coats anymore? Or do you think they’re coming to take you away?

Even as she pulled the cover over her mental typewriter she could hear Wankler’s protest. Please, Fräulein Claudia, it is polemic. Women are not so interested in big issues. They are interested in personal things. And as a company we cannot afford to be political, how do you say it, to grind our hatchets? And Basil, the ad manager, would climb the wall. Our advertisers are focused on the youth market. This sounds like we’re not a part of it. And what would Butlin’s think? Butlin’s don’t advertise with us, she would reply. And Basil would roll his eyes and say, but they might some day, and I can’t afford to scratch anyone off the list. Indeed not. It would curtail his expense account lunches. And so the article would be spiked. Not by Wankler, not by Basil, but by herself, as sobriety re-infiltrated her brain.

As Claudia heaved a sigh and found herself gazing out the window at the trees swaying in the breeze around Primrose Hill there leapt into her mind the image of a tall, black-haired American rustic with a great smile.

“So, why are you smiling?”, asked Russell, as he collected the tea things.

“There was another man yesterday.”

“Will you see him?”

Claudia shook her head. “He’s barely out of short trousers. Pants. An American to boot.” She frowned. “Wankler has given me a fortnight to get my act together, as he now phrases it.” Then she sighed. “He’s probably not frightfully keen on women anyway.”

Herr Wankler?”

“The American on the hill. He’s an actor.”