Primrose Hill Revisited – the complete book online - chapter fifteen

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chapter fifteen

“What did she say about me after I left?” Belinda’s forefinger traced swirling art nouveau patterns in the spill of red wine on the table. It drew attention to her gnawed fingernails. It told people that she didn’t give a damn what they thought about her appearance. And if they didn’t like it they could lump it.

“Nothing. Only that she hoped she hadn’t disturbed our relationship.”

“We don’t have a relationship.”

“That’s what I told her.”

Belinda rolled a fag. Why Claudia? Stephen could have his pick of women. It was the usual male need to dominate. He was obsessed with Claudia because she had rejected him. The cow. All right, she was attractive, in a conventional sort of way. She had a good brain and a career. She could have been a feminine role model. But she was so . . . uptight. So middle class. So mired in the past. Why should she give a toss what other people thought of her? She didn’t deserve Stephen. But she did seem to have a strange, magnetic effect on some men. When the Yank saw her his eyes were out on stalks.

“You two seemed to hit it off right away.”

“What has she got against Americans?”

Vietnam, for a start, thought Belinda. And Montgomery, Alabama and chewing gum and Hollywood and wall-to-wall carpeting and air conditioning . . . but why strive to enlighten the invincibly ignorant?

“What did she say about the play?”

“I didn’t realise it’s about her.”

“It’s a drama. Fiction.”

“But she is the heroine.”

“I just borrowed the plot. Like Shakespeare.”

“Who is that man she lives with?”

The chump. He was smitten. And suddenly she had a revelation. It was another proof of her father’s genius. It had been his suggestion to take the Yank to meet Claudia. He was the bait. If Claudia fancied him, he might bring her round. So typical of Daddy not to let her know of his scheme, but just let her go ahead, knowing it would happen. Well, she was her father’s daughter. She didn’t need it spelled out, and she could help it along. The Yank, like any man, like her father even, was attracted by what he couldn’t have. He was already jealous of Russell, for Christ’s sake.

“You’ve got the hots for her.” He actually blushed. “You have, haven’t you? You fancy Claudia. Something rotten.”

“I just wondered why the guy was living with her. Down in the cellar. She said she wasn’t married.”

“Why don’t you ask her?”

“I didn’t think it was proper.”

“Try being a little improper. She fancies you.”

He shook his head. “She was very critical.”

“Trust me. That’s Claudia. She’s just testing you. To see what you’re made of. She wouldn’t bother if she weren’t interested, would she?” A gleam of hope came into his eyes. She was right. He was hooked. She blew a smoke ring at him. He turned his head, eyes watering, and coughed. “You do know what an opportunity this is for you, don’t you? I mean it’s not every day an unknown actor gets his start with a starring role in a West End play.”

He nodded. “Yes, I’d really like to do the part”.

“You’ve got to work on her. She fancies you. Tell her what a big break it is for you. Ring her up and ask her out. Bell her and ball her.” She laughed at her own wit. She’d use that somewhere.

He shook his head. “She wouldn’t. Not with someone my age.”

He was right. Claudia would be too concerned about her image. “I’ll think of some excuse to get you two together. Then it’s up to you to talk her around.”

The Yank flashed his lighthouse-beam smile at her. “I promised to take Hope to the zoo on Sunday.”

Belinda assessed him with fresh eyes. Was he, in fact, not as clueless as he seemed? Her lip curled. “Claudia will have you for breakfast.”

“You mean like . . . staying overnight?”

“No dum-dum. It’s an expression. It means devouring you. In your language, she’s a man-eater. And a hungry one.”

“You really want me to do that part?”

Belinda forced herself to smile her father’s smile.

“Who else?”

 

As they walked back home over Primrose Hill Jake was pretending to be a monkey, then an elephant. Then both of them at once, having a squabble. Claudia had to laugh. Jolly good he was. Probably something they taught in drama classes these days. Hope scampered delightedly behind him, guffawing like an open drain. As she’d explained to Daphne, that alone was reason enough to have him around. He and Hope were playmates. On top of that, he was putting her in touch with the youth market. He was by no means stupid, just ingenuous. All he needed was, well, a little cultural coaching to smooth off some of the rough edges.

“So he’s a hunk?” Daphne had asked.

“I suppose that’s American for attractive,” Claudia countered.

“Sort of.”

“He has absolutely no romantic appeal, but, yes, he is good-looking in a clean-cut, varsity sort of way, if you like that type.”

“I like them cut a bit dirty myself.”

“Daphne, he’s a cub scout.”

“I hear they reach puberty early on the other side of the pond. All that good nutrition — bananas and hot-dogs.” She winked.

“It was your idea I should get in touch with the younger generation. And Hope adores him.”

“So, if you don’t mind my asking, what’s in it for him?”

“I’m house-breaking him.”

“A dangerous game. Galatea might wake up.”

The syllabus of the Sacred Heart School for Girls had not been strong on Greek mythology, so she had had to look it up. Of course. It was the Pygmalion story — the nuns had approved of Shaw because he was Irish — and Galatea was the statue Pygmalion carved, brought to life by Aphrodite. As far as history related, and unlike Shaw’s couple, they lived happily ever after.

The biggest divide between generational attitudes, of course, was sex. So, after the monkey had sent the elephant fleeing, trumpeting, back towards the zoo, it was logical for her to inquire of him, for professional reasons, “Have you seen Belinda?”

“We’re rehearsing the play. I’m not sure it’s going to set the world on fire.”

“Belinda is very talented.”

“So she keeps telling me. Have you read it?”

“Bits.”

“At the end — nothing has changed. Everybody is just as miserable as they were in the first place.”

“It would never play in Okoboli.”

“A happy ending is an American birthright.”

“Belinda needs a little happiness in her life.”

“You mean all she needs is a good screw?”

Claudia winced. She had never heard him use a casual vulgarity — Belinda was clearly soiling his innocence. She was surprised, too, by his shrewdness: that was exactly what she had meant. Which, of course, she denied. “I simply meant that if she had some joy in her own life, I think it would change her artistic outlook. She might grant her characters some decency.”

“Do you want me to get her to change the play? Would you play ball, then?”

“I’m wretched at games.”

“Well I feel like a shuttlecock. You don’t like what she’s written —”

“I don’t give a damn about her play.”

“— and she wants me to chat you up. To talk you into letting her do it.”

“I’ve told her I won’t object.”

“She says you’re being difficult.”

“She’s asked me to get involved with . . . someone I don’t want to get involved with.”

They walked on in silence, he as light-hearted as ever. Rejection, disappointment, failure — they all seemed to wash right over him. It was absolutely infuriating. She had to take the resentment on herself. It made her feel guilty. His nonchalant attitude was a kind of passive aggression.

“I know it’s a lost opportunity for you. I’m sorry.” A sharp edge to her voice that she didn’t really intend completely eviscerated the sentiment.

“Fair dos. I’ll get along.”

His easy assurance irritated. “Jake, you may be a good actor. You may be the next Richard Burton. But it’s just not enough to be good at what you do.”

“I know. You need the lucky breaks.”

“Life’s not fair or easy. It’s tooth and claw. You’ve got to make your luck.”

“You mean lie, cheat and steal?”

How had this come about? She found herself arguing in favour of the opportunism she believed he was trying to put over on her. “A bit of embroidery, if necessary,” she huffed.

“I could do that. I could do that with you right now. But I might lose something if I did.”

“What might you lose?”

“My self-respect. Call me American, but I don’t like being manipulated.”

“Nor do I. That’s why I won’t get involved. So you understand. So, if you’re not trying to manipulate me, why are you here?”

That stumped him. But only for a few seconds. “For the English lessons,” he beamed. “And because I like being with you.”

“And Hope.”

“Both of you.”

“You’ll get another break. You’re young.”

His shoulders slumped. “When Richard Burton was my age he was acting Gielgud off the stage.”

His hubris was breath-taking. This hick from the desolate plains of middle America. He was an oick. No class at all. But did class matter in the arts anymore? Gielgud was well-connected: Kensington, Westminster School, RADA, related to Ellen Terry. But Burton was a poor boy from the valleys. It was all the rage now to have working class roots and to speak like a chippie on the 159 bus. The fashion photographer is the new trend-setter. There’s Lord Lichfield and Anthony Armstrong Jones, of course, who speak perfectly, but Terence Donovan, David Bailey, Brian Duffy — they’re all macho, attractive, young men proud to display their proletarian habits. And it doesn’t half pull the birds. From every level of the social hierarchy.

It wasn’t class they had, but style. Style has plunged down market. So alongside Lord Snowdon, David Bailey includes Charlie, Reggie and Ronnie Kray as icons of style in his classy photography book, Box of Pin-Ups. The Kray brothers are murderers. Talk about dead fashionable. And their parents may be working class, but you can be sure the brothers have never done an honest day’s work in their lives.

Jean Shrimpton is a convent school gel from a well-off Buckinghamshire family. But the ‘Face of 1966’, Twiggy, the clueless, gawky, gum-chewing fifteen-year-old daughter of a woodworker from Neasden, was invented by Nigel Davis, a hairdresser, who calls himself Justin de Villeneuve because it sounds classy.

The other day, the Hickey column in the Daily Express declared that we’re in a new era of classlessness. The 14th Earl of Home has yielded the reins of the Tory party to Mr Ted Heath, the designers of men’s fashion have decamped from Savile Row to Carnaby Street, Liverpudlian pop stars weekend at ducal castles while Dukes go out to work, the ancient universities welcome the bright sons and daughters of horney-handed workmen. Privilege is smashed. Meritocracy displaces aristocracy. And a new, classless Britain is born. The hardworking lower classes have imposed their own values: open, egalitarian, invigorating.

But is it a triumph of the working class, or merely the upper classes going slumming again? The Stones and Beatles hobnob with upper class figures like the Old Etonian art dealer Robert Fraser, Old Etonian antique dealer Christopher Gibbs and Tara Browne, the Guinness heiress. The Beatles wouldn’t have known these people existed, so guess whose private secretary picked up the phone first? And as they got accustomed to the territory, Jagger and McCartney abandoned working class values (if they ever had them anyway — Jagger’s background was privileged enough to gain him entrance to LSE and Paul was a lower middle-class kid, who rubbed up against working class roughnecks like Lennon). They’ve adopted the attitudes of the upper classes. Every last one of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones has bought an elegant London residence or a sprawling country house. Bill Wyman is officially Lord of the Manor of Gedding and Thormwood, a title that came along when he bought Gedding Hall in Suffolk, built in the 15th century. It’s just another wave of parvenues mimicking the manners of their betters, like the upstart factory-owners of the industrial revolution.

The perfect metaphor of the new society was Sybilla’s. London’s most fashionable state-of-the-art discotheque. All mirrors and shifting lights, with an Australian arriviste, Alan ‘Fluff’ Freeman, as the DJ. A media concoction for the new high society. The swinging young admen who dreamt it up said it was supposed to be the stamping ground of ‘the new boy network’ of brash, talented young people from every background, people who qualified because they were good at what they did rather than who sired them — artists, photographers, pop musicians, film-makers, models, journalists and media personalities — and pointedly including the ‘hairy brigade’ of working class invaders from the East End. Sybilla’s credentials were impeccably downmarket chic. It was run by a twenty-four-year-old ex-bookmaker’s clerk from Bethnal Green who went to primary school with Ronnie and Reggie Kray and worked for them in the meat market at Spitalfields. According to Stephen, as a kind of dark background to enhance the display of glittering names on the membership list, there also appeared the anonymous pseudonyms of most of London’s top gangsters.

Stephen had taken her to the opening. Mary Quant and Alexander Plunkett Greene were there, as well as all four Beatles and most of the Stones with their new wives or crumpet, David Bailey, Terence Donovan and Celia Hammond, Michael Caine, and — Claudia gasped like a schoolgirl when Stephen introduced her — a shimmering Julie Christie. Apart from Stephen, and, very possibly, ‘Fluff’ Freeman, Claudia was the oldest person in the room. And she was impressed. Those young stars had hauled themselves into the limelight by their own bootstraps. They were the new aristocracy. Yet, most of the couples prancing in their tiny white boots and black elastic-sided boots and puffing on Gauloises or something more exotic were the same old Chelsea Chicks and Hooray Henrys with the double-barrelled names, the scions of the old aristocracy. To complete the metaphor of social evolution, one of the swinging young admen who started Sybilla’s jumped off a building in Chelsea soon afterwards without ever explaining why, the glitterati moved on and of course it’s closed now.

It could make a think-piece. Call it ‘The Mirage of the New Classlessness.’ No, it wouldn’t do. Her readers didn’t want to know the black-and-white realities about their heroes. They wanted endless confirmation and reconfirmation of the technicolor Hollywood story: Talent will out. Success rewards virtue. The aristocracy has been sent packing, anyone be she ever so humble can rise to the top. The Krays are lovable rogues with hearts of gold who take mum to church on Sundays and dispense honest rough justice throughout the East End the rest of the week. The chic have inherited the earth, you can buy the same clothes they do and, generally speaking, these days you can do whatever you want. You can reach for the stars and even rub up against one. All you need is love.

They had reached the top of Primrose Hill once more and stood watching grey weather lumbering over the Sussex downs to obliterate the South Bank.

“I wonder what Richard Burton would do in my place?” he mused.

With those burning eyes and rolling Welsh vowels he would have had his wicked way with me the day we met, she thought. What she said was, “I think he would hang on in there with Belinda. Maybe you can put some joy into her writing.”

His eyes rekindled. “Would it change your mind if I did?”

“No. But if her play doesn’t work out, she’s still a very good contact for you.”

“I’m not sure I like her very much.”

Good judgement, thought Claudia. “You can hide that. You’re an actor.”

“I’m not sure she likes me very much.”

Of course not, thought Claudia. In storybooks romance always begins with two people hating each other. She appraised his well-shaped figure and his face with its honest, open features. “You can eat her for breakfast. Just remember to keep reminding her that she’s got a tremendous talent.”

It was time for Hope’s tea. As they said good-bye she wondered why she had gone to such lengths to get Jake into bed, literally, with Belinda. A relationship with Stephen’s daughter could work wonders for him. But if she was merely giving good, friendly advice, born of guilt, why did she feel a sweet stab of self-mortification in the pit of her stomach? It was just the sad, proud ache she used to feel when she denied herself a pudding in the school dining room during Lent.