Primrose Hill Revisited – the complete book online - chapter twenty-five

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chapter twenty-five

In the German way, the event had to be marked, of course, with a formal celebration. So that night they all went out on a jolly. If you can so call a ceremonious dinner for eight (Claudia and six solemn German men who laughed only on cue from the seventh) in the stately dining room of the Vier Jahreszeiten hotel, followed by a night at the opera. Not the Marx Brothers film, which might have relaxed her, but the real thing. They knew she liked opera and perhaps that’s why they had chosen this form of after-dinner entertainment, but all she wanted to do now was fly back to Blighty and throw herself into the relaunch of the magazine. After getting a good night’s sleep. Instead, she sat in the front row of a full house at the rebuilt Hamburg State Opera House, a splash of colour in the centre of a rank of seven grey suits. The audience, on average, was of pensionable age: wealthy, respectable, respectful, over-dressed, culture-obsessed burghers of the ancient Hanseatic city. They had been her age when the war started, and somehow they had survived it. She couldn’t possibly nod off. They would probably send her to a special camp for cultural re-education. Herr Wankler aimed a grimace at her over the programme he clutched in his artificial hand. It was the smile of the guard who twists your wedding ring off your hand as you clamber down from the freight train.

After a rich dinner, a day’s labour of making bright conversation to humourless apparatchiks and too much celebratory wine, not to mention the schnapps for afternoon tea, Der Fliegende Hollander was a soporific blanket. Heavy Wagnerian chords surged about storm-laden seas. The scenery was painted in the colours of mud and lead. The bulky prow of a huge ship oppressed the stage. Stout singers weighed down in thick oil-slickers or coarse peasant dress dragged about bemoaning the burdens of their hearts. Even the curtains were heavy.

The story, though, was wonderfully romantic. The young maiden, Senta, has fallen in love with the captain of the vessel, The Flying Dutchman, who has been condemned to sail the seven seas until Judgment Day, unless he should find a woman who will love him faithfully unto death. He thinks himself forsaken by Senta, and rushes off to his vessel. She has been faithful to him, but is held back. By others. By society. By the doubts and suspicions this dashing foreigner stirs from her own cultural prejudices. How tragic. How like her own tawdry affair with Jake. Even the age gap. Though that was reversed, and there was no suggestion that the Captain was a bisexual.

 

Young people nowadays claim not to believe in romance. The magazine was going to have to be a lot more hard-boiled. And yet, she wasn’t sure whether, at heart, they weren’t the same as any other generation. What did they believe in? Young people despised religion, of course, which they saw as just another form of institutionalised privilege. A fair point, considering that two-dozen bishops were members of the House of Lords. Youth was too independent-minded to bow its head to the rituals of the established church. Well, she had no quarrel with that; she had rejected her own faith because she couldn’t square it with reality. But while she just muddled along, trying to work out what was honest and fair — what might be the most civilised course of action in any individual case — youth shackle their independent minds to belief systems far more bizarre than the amiable pieties of the Church of England. The children of privilege, favoured by a university education, wallow in the juvenile mysticism of fairy stories dreamt up by slightly cracked Oxbridge dons about quasi-religious quests. The Beatles sit at the feet of gurus and make gnomic pronouncements full of eastern promiscuity. And just about everyone believes in horoscopes. Which had been a big fad three centuries ago before the dawn of the scientific age. No, that wouldn’t do — the magazine carried a horoscope column. Jenny ran her social life by it.

Youth searches for inner understanding and personal karma and individual self-expression, but does transcendental meditation fortify against materialism, like some mystical Sanatogen? Or is it just another kind of packaging to sell colourful clothes and cheap smellies and hallucinatory record albums?

Young people always feel neglected and disenfranchised until they grow old enough to be admitted to the Establishment. But now, youth is in the driver’s seat. An image from an art school slide lecture swam into her vision. Like the icy-eyed, blonde Aryan pilot at the centre of Diego Rivera’s monumental mural in the Palacio de las Bellas Artes in Mexico City, youth has its hands on the controls of the future. The media is fixated on youth and with a disapproving, disingenuous mixture of outrage and prurience, has assisted in popularising a youthful counter-culture: the psychic cult of the individual — self-absorbed, self-indulgent, self-dramatising, self-mutilating.

Auden predicted this outcome in that poem in which Herod pulled off the implausible feat of justifying the slaughter of the innocents. Our latter-day innocents have not been sent off for slaughter in a World War. They have been permitted to thrive. And, so, as Herod prophesied — more or less — the rule of reasoned intellect is trampled by rude untutored instinct. Facts dissolve into subjective feelings induced by drugs or paranoia. Inspiration into the ultimate meaning of life arises from the dreamy patterns of coloured bubbles in the transparent tubes of lava lamps. Resentment displaces idealism as the wellspring of art; artistic intention trumps artistic talent. Random scatterings of paint blobs are valued more highly than Old Masters. Aspiration is displaced by irony. Young men mock patriotism by wearing the kind of brocaded uniform jacket their grandfathers died in. Youth has torn down all the statues. Men mounted on horses, generals, statesmen, wise men and heroes now serve only as targets for stage farce and television satire. In their place new idols are presented to us to worship, untarnished by breeding or accomplishment. Divine origin is assigned to flying saucers, straight lines in the desert and schizophrenic outbursts. Steeped in vinegarish bathos, the rod of justice corrodes and dissolves all guilt. The sociopath rejoices: I can do as I please because it pleases God to forgive me and that suits me down to the ground. Sin has been abolished along with judgement, reason, and ambition. The new aristocracy are victims and idiot savants; the new role models are the weak and insecure: the promiscuous child-mothers, the patricides, the fog-brained drop-outs on speaking terms with dahlias. The new philosophy of youth holds that if you melt your own brain in mystical belief all the problems of society will vanish as well.

Or something along those lines. Russell would know exactly what it was that Auden had meant.

Why was it that whenever she got on the subject of youth culture she began to sound like a Fascist with a bus pass who wanted to send them all to Dachau, or at least into two years’ obligatory National Service? She, a good card-carrying Primrose Hill liberal? Well, she did draw the line at communist or fascist oppression of the individual. And all this new claptrap parroted in the citadels of middle class Marxism like the Institute of Contemporary Arts and the British Film Institute sounded suspiciously like the old mantras of the 1950s Hampstead New Left wing of the communist party. That’s the dialectic trick, you see, to outrage you so much you step into the caricature they’ve drawn of you. And isn’t it ironic that a political system that regards the individual as a dispensable cog in the tractor wheel of destiny is now selling the philosophy of individualism? And youth is lapping it up.

Take the Beatles. Cheeky, talented young lads from Liverpool, but essentially decent. It was the early Beatles that she and most other people loved. Free, irreverent, questioning and tuneful. But now music has become introspective and threatening. It has all gone frightfully cosmic. All these musical entertainers are taking themselves so seriously and they know nothing — like those solemn, hare-brained diatribes by Tariq Ali in Black Dwarf. We all used to love the Beatles. But the weirder the Beatles have got, as they’ve descended into obfuscation with the Magical Mystery Tour and the Sergeant Pepper album, the more remote they’ve become. She wasn’t opposed to their urge towards artistic development; it was the arty, pseudo-intellectual, gong-rattling their efforts produced. They seem to be getting more and more popular with fewer and fewer people. They’re almost a cult. She had an image of future generations of youngsters who’d never known the Beatles filing in procession down to the EMI studios on Abbey Road to lay wreaths. It’s salutary to bear in mind that the entire youth counter-culture is a minority taste. Britain’s most popular performing artist has never been the Beatles, but Cliff Richard. For all the hype it wasn’t the Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields single that made number one in the charts, but the anodyne, romantic ballad Release Me by the darling of the working mens’ club concert rooms, Engelbert Humperdinck. And more people bought the Sound of Music record album than ever bought Revolver or the raddled musings of Sergeant Pepper.

Claudia’s head jerked. Twice. Her powerless eyelids hung like the steel shutters of a shop window, a mere slit above the pavement. She dug her fingernails into the palms of each hand and her eyelids nudged upwards. She tethered them by hoisting furrows in her brow. The end was in sight. The captain reveals to Senta who he is: the wretch condemned to wander the sea for all eternity. He thinks that will terrify her and he casts off. But he does not realise the true depth of her love. She leaps into the sea. At this demonstration of her faithful love, the phantom ship sinks and somewhere in limbo the lovers embrace. And sing another long duet.

Struggling to suspend the ballast of her eyelids, Claudia had the distinct impression that, as they sang, the ample soprano confined within the tight-fitting bodice of a quaint Norwegian dirndl and the baritone resembling a walrus in an oil-slicker were rising several feet above the stage and descending again. Alternately. Her head jerked forward once more.

 

Jake woke with a start. He was cold and wet and cramped. His back ached. A wet mist drifted down from the black sky, glittering in the pool of light from the street lamp by the bus-stop. Jake stood up and took a turn around the bench, thumping his arms and dancing to warm his blood. He sat down again, yawned and rubbed his eyes. A single window was still alight in the upper storey of Claudia’s house.

He must have dozed again for an instant, because he didn’t hear footsteps approaching. Suddenly the policeman was standing in front of him. Jake’s hand made an involuntary jerk to touch his jacket pocket.

The policeman blinked at him. “The bus doesn’t run after midnight, sir.” He was very young, younger than Jake. The same one who had chased him out of the phone booth.

“I’m — waiting for someone to pick me up.”

“Soho Square would be the place for that, sir.”

Jake stumbled for words. “A car. For an early shoot.”

The young policeman blinked again. He pointed his truncheon towards the bulge in Jake’s jacket pocket. “You don’t happen to have a firearm about you at the moment, do you sir?”

Jake slowly withdrew the binoculars from his pocket. “Bird-watching.”

“Owls, sir?”

All known species of birds fled his mind except the most familiar. “Pigeons.”

“That would be Trafalgar Square, sir.”

A downstairs light winked on in Claudia’s house. Jake’s eyes flew to it and the policeman followed his glance. He tapped the binoculars with his stick. “I’d be mindful where you pointed those, sir.”

Jake nodded and the policeman moved off. Wide-awake now, Jake forced his tired eyes to focus. A light winked on. Then another. Jake rubbed his eyes. Finally, every window in the house was alight. To make sure he wasn’t dreaming, Jake stood up.

A hand came down on his shoulder. Jake turned with a start. It was Russell.

“Fancy a cup of tea?”

Russell’s tiny bachelor pad, entered from the outside basement stairs, was obsessively neat and austere — a bracing contrast to the cosy jumble of Claudia’s sitting room above. Apart from the visually disturbing op-art paintings hung on the walls, it could have been a monastic cell. Russell put the kettle on, went to the foot of the stairs and called up.

“You can turn all the lights off now, love. And hop right back into bed. Nighty-night. Sleep tight.” Russell turned to Jake with a smile. “She got very worried when she saw the policeman come up.”

“Claudia?”

“Claudia’s in Hamburg. Confronting the Hun.”

Jake panicked. “Did you say ‘becoming a nun’?”

Russell shook his head. “That wouldn’t suit her at all. I’m the monastic. Which is why, ultimately, we were incompatible.”

Jake received his tea. “You’re employed to look after Hope?”

“I don’t seem to be employable anymore. I look after Hope and write poems.”

“You’re a lodger.”

“More than just that, I hope.”

“A friend of the family?”

“It is my family.”

“You’re Hope’s . . .”

“Father.”

“And Claudia’s . . .”

“Ex-husband.”

“She didn’t tell me.”

“Didn’t she? I wonder why.”

“Why did you — I mean, weren’t you happy together?”

Russell took a long sip of his tea. “That’s hard to say. Happiness. Happenstance. Haphazard. Hapless. They’re all from the same Greek root. The Greeks felt happiness meant being favoured by the gods. Something over which you have no control. Today, we think it’s a state of mind. Something we can achieve. But it seems to me that some people are naturally more disposed to be happy than others. They keep their eye on the doughnut. Others see only the hole. I think one’s default position on the emotional scale between optimism and pessimism is genetically rooted. Mine has always been on the dark side. My aspirations are low, so I don’t feel unhappy. But I feel a lot of sadness. My poems are quite depressing.”

“I’d like to read them.”

“I’ve not been published. Unless you count the greeting card verses. But if you’d like to hear one . . .”

Jake nodded. Russell closed his eyes and recited, like a man speaking in a trance.

 

“Love strikes without reason

In the summer season.

Summers pass, flowers die

The love that lasts

Comes bye-and-bye

Growing, out-of-season”

 

Russell’s voice choked. Jake studied his tea while Russell wiped his eyes and found his voice again. “I wrote that poem the day Hope had her accident. I used to take her to the swimming baths. That day we were there alone. She was in the shallow end and I was writing. And I was absorbed when she lost her bananas.”

“She lost her mind?”

“Her flotation device. A belt of yellow wooden floats, like bananas. She got out of it somehow and it floated off and she went after it. And I didn’t notice until suddenly I realised it was very quiet and I saw her, face down, at the bottom of the pool. It was only a few seconds — and it destroyed her life.”

“I’m sorry.” Jake wanted to say more than that, but could not find the words.

“I was responsible. The marriage was already doomed. It was an arranged marriage.”

“Arranged by your parents?”

“Arranged by society. You go to university. You get a job. You’re expected to get married. Have children. It was what one did. Sleep-walking. Claudia married me because I shared her romantic dreams. But she didn’t realise quite how — uninterested — I am in women. Nor did I, really, until I tried it. I’m not homosexual. It’s just that I’m not very interested in — that sort of contact with people. And after the accident, our relationship just collapsed under the immense burden of guilt. I got depressed. I felt worthless. I couldn’t concentrate anymore. Couldn’t do a proper job of work. I was guilty, but she felt guilty. Because she wasn’t there when she was needed.”

“You’re divorced?”

“I insisted on it. To give her another chance.”

“But you still . . . live together.”

“Hope needs looking after. And I come in useful to scare unwelcome men away.”

“I didn’t know. She never told me you’re her ex-husband.”

“Maybe she didn’t want to scare you off.”

“Does that bother you?”

“Claudia is a lusty woman. I don’t mean that just in a sexual way. She is passionate about so many things. Truth. Justice. Knowledge. Politics. People. She has a great appetite for life. And part of that is she needs a man who can challenge her. It pains me that it’s not me. But I love her. And I know that she has a lust — there’s no other word for it — a lust for fulfilment that I could never supply. I love her in a different way.”
“That’s what your poem’s about. The difference between romantic love and — something deeper — how would you describe it ?.”

“I just did. What kind is yours?”

“I don’t know. I just . . . love her.”

“Do you have difficulty sleeping?”

“Yes.”

“Loss of appetite?”

Jake nodded. “I’m losing weight.”

“The world is a different place because of her?”

“Everything’s in technicolor.”

“You think of her all the time?”

“Nothing else.”

“The balance of your mind is disturbed. You sit on a park bench in the cold all night to try to catch a glimpse of her.”

Jake nodded.

“Jealous?”

“Of every man she sees.”

“There are two-and-a-half billion women in the world, but you only want to be with her.”

Jake nodded again.

“Have you felt like this before?”

Jake squirmed. “A few times.”

Russell smiled. “So, it will pass. It’s an illness. Like a virus. No, a kind of mental illness.” He threw Jake a sharp glance. “Where do you stand on the Scopes trial?”

Thanks to the determination of the courageous Miss Simpson, science teacher, Darwin’s theory of natural selection had been admitted to the curriculum of Okoboli High School and to the town library and Jake knew what answer Russell wanted: “Scopes was right.”

Russell nodded. “I have a theory that romantic love is in our genes. It’s clearly illogical to be swept up by the obsession that just one person is the only one for you. It’s not a sound evolutionary strategy to restrict your choice of mates. Still, it might have an evolutionary purpose: to bind two people together long enough to have offspring. They generally cool off afterwards.”

“Did you feel like that about Claudia?”

“As you say, everything was in technicolor.”

“And now?”

“Now I love her in a different way. The way I love Hope. The way I should love the human race.”

“I love her that way as well. That’s why it’s different this time.”

Russell grunted. He poured himself another cup of tea. “She can be very bossy, you know.”

“I know.”

“Bitchy, even.”

“When she’s feeling got at.”

“You don’t ever want to let her take you for granted. She thrives on challenge.”

“Is there anyone else?”

“No. She’s hard to please.”

“But she goes out on blind dates?”

A touch of pride welled up in Russell’s voice. “I make those up. For the magazine.” He poured Jake another cup of tea before continuing. “Claudia is a great romantic. She feels romantic about you. But she’s afraid you’re bisexual.”

“I can explain that.”

Russell shook his head. “Women think differently than men.”

“You have a theory about that.”

“I do. They think more with their brainstem. The primitive reptilian part that gives rise to emotions. Fear. Need. In Claudia, it’s in constant opposition to the logical brain.”

“That’s a problem we all have to deal with.”

“Claudia’s emotions are stronger than her reasoning.”

“Who’s to say which should guide your life?”

“Not me.”

“She found out I live with a homosexual. He hasn’t come out. He uses me for cover. The first thing he did was to take me down to Sussex to meet his parents.”

“Roy.”

“Simon. Well, Roy’s there most of the time.”

Russell was puzzled. “She said it was Roy. Roy was Stephen’s boyfriend.”

“The man she left at the altar.”

“Belinda’s father. You know him, of course.”

Jake shook his head. “I’ve never met him.”

“He’s producing her play. Didn’t you ever wonder why?”