Primrose Hill Revisited – the complete book online - chapter fourteen

Article Index

chapter fourteen

For once, Claudia craved Belinda’s company. She did not want to be alone with that sophomoric hunk of testosterone. Trust Belinda to be perverse. She simply dumped him on her and hailed a taxi. Something about him made Claudia uncomfortable. He seemed an innocent, without side. But he was pushy. Was he playing up to Hope or was he simply childlike? Remember what Stephen said about actors: nothing, but nothing, is more important to them than their careers. They would put their grandmothers on the game if it meant a juicy part. They are always on the make. The supreme egoists. He should know.

The three of them set off through the gates of the park, Claudia trailing behind. Jake broke into a silly walk, a kind of loping hop — Groucho Marx riding an invisible hobby-horse. Hope, hooting with delight, took his hand and they tried it together, Hope stumbling in happy confusion.

The best strategy was to regard him as Hope’s playmate. Having allotted him a role as child-minder, a weight lifted from her shoulders and her vague unease vanished. He could serve his original research purpose, too — to bring her up-to-date on the youth market.

Why had youth suddenly taken over the world? It all started a few years ago when, as Macmillan liked to remind us, we never had it so good. Suddenly, even youth had money. They had jobs and they bought things: transistor radios, records, clothing, motorbikes, and grooming products. They went out dancing and drinking and, unlike their elders who had given up films because television meant you didn’t have to get up off the sofa except to change channels, they flocked to the cinema. For traditional reasons. They didn’t have their own sofa to snog on.

Youth became big business, and teenage magazines sprang up to exploit that business. Not the old Beano and Dandy. New mags deliberately targeting girls, with names like Romeo, Mirabelle, Valentine, Boyfriend, Honey and 19, and they sell lipstick and bras and sexual advice. The lads’ modest literary needs, like their fathers’ are serviced by enthusiast magazines about cars and bikes and train-spotting, plus the ones the newsagents kept on the top shelves.

So a youth market grew that had not existed before. But somehow, when she wasn’t looking, the children had taken over the nursery. Why is everything now not only aimed at youth, but driven by youth? Today, young people design clothes and own the boutiques that sell them, and staff the youth magazines that advertise them. They run vertically integrated businesses. They not only perform pop songs but write them themselves. Mind you, being able to sing doesn’t make you write like George Gershwin, but they’re big hits anyway. Maybe because youth also start the record companies that distribute them. So they collect the royalties and set the style every which way. Youth starts all the fashion trends and they’re directed at youth — not just in clothing, but in music, art, photography, home decoration, furniture design —

Hope shrieked. Claudia was used to it, but other heads turned. She was almost a woman now and her cry sounded like a woman in peril. But it was only a prolonged squeal of childish delight as Jake, arms outstretched as a Frankenstein monster, stumbled rigidly towards her.

Okay, you get the point. Teens and twens are in charge. Not in politics yet, not in the financial world, not at the controls of economic power. But in anything to do with culture or the media, youth is in the driver’s seat.

Fine. I’m easy with that. One hundred per cent. It’s fresh and it’s challenging and it’s democratic. I have only one question. Where are they leading us? Because youth seems to be all about things. This generation, from the day it could stand, reach up a grubby paw to the sweet counter and say ‘I want’, has bought things.

They don’t aspire to self-improvement, as their parents did, only to self-aggrandizement. Average church attendance, even once a year, is plummeting. The new Meccas are the Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition, the Motor Show and the Boat Show, where attendance rises every year. And the things they want us to buy are less and less durable. Our parents bought, or even made, clothing and furniture that was meant to last. Now everything is expendable. Paper clothes. Inflatable furniture. Disposable nappies. Everything is subject to the fleeting fits of fashion. Car of the year. Flavour of the month. Record of the week. Catch of the day. Man of the hour. Spur of the moment.

Now Hope was the knee-locked monster and Jake was doing an athletic impersonation of a fear-stricken chicken.

Carefree, sybaritic youth gambolling through life with a limited span of attention is a fun image, but it’s all about instant gratification: I want it all — right now. So we’ve become a nation addicted to the never-never. Neverland, you will recall, was where Peter Pan came from, the land of eternal youth. I hope it has a better international balance of payments position than Britain. Because, as you read the headlines, don’t you get the feeling that the era of abundance is over? That it was over even before Labour took office — although they were afraid to break the news to us — because in the run-up to the election Reginald Maudling simply made a grab-bag of his last budget?

And while free-wheeling self-indulgence is a great strategy when your gliding downhill with the wind behind you, climbing up a cliff-face into a howling economic gale requires a group effort, where more communal values are required: co-operation . . . and compassion.

God, she was writing a sermon. Was it even possible to take a long-term responsible perspective these days without sounding like your own grandmother? And who was she kidding? Wankler would crucify her. Consumerism paid all their salaries. The company owns one of those teen-age magazines that teach twelve-year-olds how to snag (and snog) a man. And we advertise Johnson & Johnson disposable nappies. Half of her readers swore by them, the other half thought the first half weren’t proper mothers. She didn’t have a view on that herself; Russell looked after that sort of thing when Hope was an infant.

It was a circle she couldn’t square. She wasn’t spiritual — not the least bit since her Saint Theresa phase at boarding school, which was cured by sneaking over the fence and down to the cinema during Saturday afternoon walks — but she was a humanist, and people like Hope had no place in the materialist society her own magazine was propagandising — and something was desperately wrong with that.

The three of them stood at the top of Primrose Hill. Hope was holding a lolly in one hand and the hand of her new friend in the other, watching people strolling over the intersecting paths, and she said something remarkable.

“It’s just like ‘Snakes and Ladders’.”

“How do you mean, darling?”

“People go up and then they go down.”

Hope slipped Jake’s hand and danced away to some private rhythm, sucking her lolly.

Claudia spoke almost to herself. “Sometimes she comes out with the most amazing insights.”

“Then, she’s improving?” asked Jake.

Claudia shook her head. “There was an accident. Hope will always be a child.”

And then he completely wrong-footed her. Men can’t handle other people’s emotions. She had expected him to mumble ‘I’m sorry’. What he said after a moment’s reflection was “In a way, maybe that makes her a very privileged person.” He didn’t smile; he was absolutely serious.

They both regarded the London skyline. He was civilised enough not to enquire further, yet forthright enough, standing where a couple of weeks ago they had been transfixed by each other, to bring up what they had both avoided. “So, how was your date?”

She temporised. Awkwardly. “My date?”

“We were standing right here.”

His look was too candid. She dropped her schoolgirlish pretence. “You were just about to tell me what brought you to Britain.”

“And then, wham! I was bushwhacked.”

“You were hesitating. You didn’t want to tell me.”

He scuffed a toe in the gravel before answering. “The war.”

“You’re a draft-dodger.” He hung his head and kicked an imaginary stone. An actor’s stratagem or a childish guilt? It was only polite to give him the benefit of the doubt, and she responded like a parent. “Bully for you!”

“I’m not very proud of it.”

“It takes more courage to stand up for your principles than to serve warmongers.”

“Principle didn’t come into it.”

“That war is obscene.”

“I had to get on with my career.”

“Your government is slaughtering innocent people every day.”

“When Richard Burton was my age he was acting Laurence Olivier off the stage.”

“It’s neo-imperialism.”

He raised his head finally and met her eyes. “Well, I suppose you can’t just let the Commies take over the world.”

She felt her face flush with anger. “My God! Who trained you? The Actor’s Studio or the CIA?”

They walked on in silence for a little while with Hope trailing after them until he broke the silence. “For a minute there, when we met back there on top of the hill, I thought I’d got lucky.”

Here it comes, a great crude American put-on. Put him back in his cage. “I hope I haven’t disturbed your relationship with Belinda.”

“I don’t have a relationship with Belinda.”

Lying sod. He was on the make. “Your part in her play, I meant.”

“I’m sorry you didn’t like it.”

“I didn’t say that.”

“I think it has a lot of artistic merit.”

“I have no opinion on it one way or the other.”

“So, why did you turn it down?”

Claudia stopped and confronted him. His open gaze was disconcerting and, as before, she found herself speaking more sharply than she intended. “Do you know why Belinda came to see me about the play?”

“As a potential backer?”

“Is that what she told you?”

“She didn’t tell me anything.”

His bovine placidity was so patently disingenuous that she found herself working up into a lather. “My God, are you some sort of empty milk bottle, to be carried about in a crate from threshold to threshold? Don’t you ask why?”

“Okay. Why?” He was incapable of taking offence, which was infuriating. She didn’t like herself for it, but it increased her contempt.

“It’s about me.”

“Oh,” he said and she could read his mind in his face — leafing through the pages of the playscript, transforming the malevolent character of Belinda’s antagonist into her own form and face and spirit, with particular attention to the love scenes.

He frowned. “And she needs your permission to dramatise it?”

“She wants my co-operation. And I’m afraid I can’t give it.” His head hung and he was scuffing the pavement with his shoes again. Loafers, the Americans called them. She was being too hard on him. “I’m sorry for you, if you’ve been counting on it.”

“Maybe if I spoke to Belinda, I could get her to change what you don’t like. Is it the seduction scene?”

Bingo! She could read his transparent mind. “I don’t think it would help for you to get involved, thank you. I’m sorry.” She touched his arm, then withdrew her hand hastily. Touching was a hateful, ingratiating habit she thought she’d broken.

He produced a bright smile. “Chances come and go. Just like ‘Snakes and Ladders’.”

Oh really? An opportunity to test his mettle. “So, if you want to get on, you’ve got to load the dice in your favour.”

To her surprise he shook his head like a solemn child. As if she’d questioned the existence of Father Christmas.

“As we say in Okoboli, cream always rises to the top of the bottle.”

“Maybe that’s how actors get ahead in Oklahoma . . .”

“Okoboli. Iowa.”

“Over here they nick the milk bottle off the doorstep.”

Hope had trotted halfway down the hill. They started after her.

“Mind if I ask you a personal question?” he blurted.

She did mind, of course, at the instinctive level. But at some other level she wanted to know what it was he wanted to know about her. So she compromised on a verbal slap in the face: “Americans always do.”

Unfazed, in the American way he went straight to the point. “If you’re married, why are you going out on blind dates?”

“Research.” One word. That was all she had to say because it was none of his damned business. But then to her distress she found herself adding “And I’m not married.”

The radiance that brightened his face showed that was a Great Big Mistake. Hope ran up. She was not above using Hope, who could not contradict her, to get herself out of pickles. They had already had tea so “It’s time for her bath,” was the excuse she invented, and looked at her watch without registering the time. She removed the used-up lolly stick from Hope’s mouth and wiped her hands with the packets of moistened tissues she always carried with her on their walks.

“Can we go to the zoo?”

“Some other day, darling.”

“Can Jake come?”

Jake squatted down beside Hope and took her hand. “What about next Sunday?”

The bastard. The bloody opportunist. Hope did a little jig. “Please, Mummy, please.”