Primrose Hill Revisited – the complete book online - chapter thirty-one

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chapter thirty-one

Regent Street. Implacable winter weather. It had begun to rain during the Christmas sales. On St. Valentine’s Day it was still pouring. And now it was March that roared in the stoney wilderness of the West End, its cold spittle pouring from cornices, swelling across pavements before windy gusts, rushing through gutters and gurgling back up again from blocked drains. An army struggled down these streets, undaunted legions of shoppers defying the grey barrage to advance upon the ramparts of the spring sales under a bright jostling armour of multi-coloured umbrellas. Their ragged progress was as relentless as the weather; the weak and the cowardly forced to take refuge in doorways and under awnings, stragglers pushed out over the kerbs to splash into the puddles spreading beyond the margins of the march. From one of these ponds an amphibian family emerged — a sturdy young middle-aged couple and two querulous offspring — dripping under soggy newspapers held over their heads. They blundered past the young man standing on the corner bearing a placard on a pole stuck down the back of his pea jacket, pausing just long enough to envy the novel sheltering device mounted on his head — a small but locally efficient umbrella — and to read the wording on his sign: ‘Spring Umbrella Sale — 50 Yards’. Turning, they bent eastward into the downpour along Great Marlborough Street in the direction commanded by the red arrow on his sign.

Beneath the sign Jake crossed his arms and hugged himself and stamped his feet, reflecting on the semiology of his new employment. The last sign he had carried, though non-professionally and with a sense of mockery, had read ‘Yanks Go Home’. It was neither philosophy nor argument, merely a complaint, but at least it possessed a clarity of message. Whereas the posters of protest devised by the would-be red warriors of the LSE and the Hornsey art College were idle gnomic whimsy. ‘Revolt or Fester.’ ‘The shit heap is smoldering.’ ‘Don’t just stand there — wank.’

The British liked to turn serious issues into games. Through long practice in negotiating the intricacies of their social class system they were naturally drawn to obfuscation and he could appreciate their reluctance, faced with the complexity of moral choice in a dying empire, to commit themselves to any course of action whatsoever. They didn’t want to ban progress exactly — except for the bomb — they just didn’t want it to be so efficient. They preferred to muddle through. Hence, the implausible idiosyncrasies of their cranky telephone system, the non-absorbent toilet paper and the mathematical absurdities of their currency. Though he appreciated the ambiguities of morality, on balance, he preferred direct, pragmatic signification that could attain a result: his red arrow would lead the rain-drenched family to a solution.

And so, muddle-headed, they turned to drugs. Not the soaking wet family, but the art school drop-outs of his generation. This was the panacea that would purge their parents’ guilt of empire-building and their own envy of imperial glamour and purpose, and inure them to the dull mundanities of the world they had been bequeathed. Using this magic substance, intoxicated with a sublime sense of the commonality of humanity, they could reach out a finger, like Adam, and touch the eternal mysteries of life. But the prize remained tantalisingly elusive, like the golden ring on the merry-go-round — sorry, roundabout — grasped for, but unseized, and which you knew was really brass anyway, and good only for another free ride on the circuit of delusion. When the drugs wore off it was like emerging from a vivid dream. The illusion of omniscience, of having penetrated to the inner meanings of hidden truths, dissipated like fog in the sun, leaving only a dull pain of regret, like a morning hangover, and a few gleaming shards of memory, portentous symbols or cryptic phrases that had seemed of cosmic significance, now meaningless. Drug-taking was a dead-end street entered through a mirror. And it was bad for your health. Horatio Alger would not take that path.

Youth culture was the sort of thing Claudia loved to discuss. Another reason for loving her. Nothing to do with sex or romance. But because she was a genuine, concerned human being. Love is another opiate. All you need is it. Well, yes, that’s fine and dandy, if you’re talking about being in love with one particular person. But, as Claudia pointed out, you also need money, a home, a job, a career plan, a future — and if you’re in love with Claudia — the ability to support a retarded child and an ex-husband. But what the drop-outs meant was loving the whole world. Which was a bit difficult since you hadn’t met most of them and some at least were held to be deeply unpleasant. They would say you didn’t need to know anything. If your heart was filled with love for all humanity, everything would turn out all right. Which is to ignore a few basic facts: the heart can’t think, it has historically poor judgement, no recording apparatus, not even a very good memory. The power of love to recreate the world was in fact, an idea that was old hat even in Okoboli. The public library shelves had held a whole series of books for girls about Pollyanna, an orphan girl who went about making everyone feel glad because she was so sweet-tempered. It was so syrupy he only read one of them. And there was a silly board game based on the book. Hope would love it. Maybe he could find one somewhere.

What, really, was the result of the underground counter-cultural movement: the protests, the provocative sit-ins, the agit-prop theatre, the outrageous magazines that cocked a snook at the bourgeoisie? Was any of it going to change society? A lot of it seemed to be about kids having fun at their elders’ expense. It was hard to believe that protests so playful and frivolous could have any real impact on social changes that were evolving anyway from deep-running economic and historical causes. You could argue that poking the bourgeoisie in the eye with a burnt stick actually retarded liberal progress by outraging the generally fair-minded British public. The counter-cultural movement may have brought some issues to the fore, but not all publicity is good publicity.

In any case, you don’t change who runs the country or who owns it by changing the culture, just by putting on plays that break all the rules. You’ve got to load a musket. Which the Brits should have learned when they lost the American colonies. Where the Marxists got it wrong with their structural theories was believing that political power, economic ownership and public morality were all congealed in the same ball of wax. They saw art and language as instruments of political oppression, the proselytising catechism of capitalism. Because that’s the way it worked in Russia, where you were not allowed to express yourself. The state ensured that all artistic expression served propaganda purposes. So they believed if a vanguard of enlightened students dismantled the culture, the workers would throw off their chains and capitalism would collapse. But in Britain, the Queen’s subjects, thought not qualifying as citizens, were not exactly robots. If you attacked the values imposed on them by their society, the discontented and the disenfranchised would not run out into the streets with Molotov cocktails. Agit-prop theatre folk hurled abuse at conventional ways of doing almost anything, attacked American imperialism and did their physical utmost to convert stolid middle-class theatre-goers into radicals through sheer embarrassment. What happened? Some people wrote irate letters to the Times, and a few mad parliamentarians, from the safety of their parliamentary privilege, said the offenders should be hanged. But the workers at the Ford factory in Dagenham did not close ranks with the privileged whingers of the art colleges and throw up barricades in Pall Mall. The working classes, in fact, are the staunchest defenders of traditional political arrangements such as the monarchy.

A sudden deluge swamped his shoulders. His sign had poked up into an awning and dislodged a waterfall. He stamped about, trying to shake the water from his clothes. His arrow followed, now directing the shopping hordes towards Regent’s Park and magnetic north.

The protestors devoted a lot of energy to mocking consumerism. The dazed protest of the flower children against a plastic world, imported from Hashbury, San Francisco had been a shock to British parents only recently emancipated from household drudgery by the wonders of melamine and nylon. Their be-ins and love-ins and smoke-ins haven’t changed anything but the demonstrators. The ambitious ideals, long hair, way-out music, and weird costumes are just so much advertising. Most of the protestors, most of the time, seem to have their tongues lodged in their cheeks when they aren’t probing each others private parts. There is nothing spiritual about unbridled hedonism, nor about promiscuity as an appropriate refutation of bourgeois repression. And very quickly the rebels sell out. There’s cash to be harvested from these illusions: in drugs, in the gear, in the creative affectations.

Since he’d come to Britain the bourgeoisie had stopped wearing bowler hats, so that John Steed in The Avengers was already an ironic anachronism. But the same people Anthony Sampson had catalogued in the Anatomy of Britain were in charge. There was no sign of an economic revolution, no hint of a political revolution. The proletariat was still watching television, perhaps because they had been elevated to starring roles in Coronation Street, Steptoe and Son and Till Death Do Us Part. The class structure remained intact. Apart from a more relaxed attitude towards sex, mainstream culture was unaffected, and language, though it was more forthright now, had not been deprived of its cultural associations.

The general mood of the British people remained unchanged. They did not take their culture seriously. He could think of only one dramatic work that had effected social change. That was the television play about a single mum who was evicted and had her children taken away. Cathy Come Home, directed by Ken Loach, had led to the founding of the charity, Shelter, for homeless single mums. In general, the British preferred nostalgia to current issues: they watched Upstairs, Downstairs and The Forsyte Saga, Dad’s Army, The World at War, and endless exhumations of the spirit of Dunkirk and retellings of the blitz; their poets were Philip Larkin and John Betjeman, celebrants of the unchanging mundane and unadventurous Metroland, while, at the pop level, the Kinks sing about the ‘Village Green Preservation Society.’

The counter-cultural movement was a fizzle. In its ashes it had left a depressed and cynical generation. The alternatives now seem to be to abandon your ambitions and drop out and live in a wigwam, or put your ideals on the back burner, shave off your ‘tache and your beard, and apply to join the rat race.

A huge golf umbrella decorated in wedges of primary colours like a pie chart appeared before Jake. Beneath it was Roy. He shouted over the whistle of the wind and the dampened roar of the traffic, “I heard you got a job in advertising.”

“You still working for Stephen Gurney?”, Jake shouted back.

“I’ve been demoted to general ‘Teasmade’ and ‘Step-and-Fetch-It’.”

“At least you get tea. You could be in advertising.”

“I’ve come to step-and-fetch you to audition for a role.”

“That bastard wouldn’t give me a roll in a breadbasket.”

Behind Jake the umbrellaless family returned, much moister, took fresh bearings from his sign, and scuttled north up Regent Street.

“He’s putting together a touring company for ‘A Bird in My Porridge’.”

“What about Simon?”

“It’s an overseas tour. You couldn’t pry Simon away from Stephen with an oyster knife.”

“Stephen Gurney hates my guts.”

“In the theatre a true professional rises above the personal level.”

Roy had never sounded quite so pompous. Where was his irony? Jake could expect nothing from Stephen Gurney’s camp but humiliation. Yet, his ego had already collapsed. He now lay stretched out and drained on the floor of himself. Their darts could not puncture him. What’s more, auditions were held indoors. In warm, stuffy theatres. With the chance of a cup of hot tea.

When the bedraggled family returned, still streaming under the negligent protection of The Daily Telegraph, to inspect Jake’s sign again, it was propped up against the railings, its arrow aimed at the raging heavens.

Roy left him in the lobby. “I’ve got to go be tea-lady. Break a leg, Jake.”

The casting director was the white-haired satyr Jake had last seen when he threw him out of his room in Simon’s flat. The other actors trying out for the part called him Mr Woolley.

Jake was the last to audition. It was the same part he had read for in this same theatre, to this same man, almost a year ago. But he had lived a year in Britain since. Now he understood the speech. His interpretation on stage was nuanced and ironic. “Truth is what people chalk on pavements. Then it rains. What we’re after is the speculative truth. That which might be, could have been, should happen, or at any rate cannot at this moment absolutely be denied.”

Afterwards he made the long walk up the aisle to Mr Woolley, who was absorbed in doodling on his clipboard. Jake sneaked a look. Mr Woolley had a fair drawing talent. His pad was covered in homoerotic drawings.

Mr Woolley was oblivious of him. “Next, please,” he called out. Into silence. Apart from the two of them, the theatre was empty.

Jake was too tired and exasperated to be polite. “So?” he said.

Mr. Woolley replied without looking up. “The part’s already filled.”

Jake found he could still rise to anger. “You goddamn fairies have got it all sewn up, haven’t you? There’s no way you can get anywhere in the theatre except on your knees.”

Now Mr Woolley looked up, but without a hint of recognition. “I like spirit in a young man. What did you say your name was?”

“Jake O’Sullivan. Remember it, pansy.”

Mr Woolley narrowed his eyes, then pursed his lips, and opened the jacket of his heavy, wool pinstriped suit. A gust of stale perfume and sweat pursued the slip of paper withdrawn from his inside pocket. Mr Woolley glanced at it and then looked up.

“The part is yours.”

Jake’s deflated ego rose from the floor, inflating but befuddled.

“I don’t understand.”

Mr Woolley gave his hand a warm squeeze. “Somebody up there likes you, love.”


He never did get a cup of tea, but in his tiny office off the lobby Roy poured a bottle of warm bubbly into two paper cups. He passed one to Jake and raised the other in toast. “What did I tell you? Mother knows best.”

“When do I leave?”

“First of the month.”

Joy fled from his face. “I can’t.”

“What do you mean?.

“I’ve got a date.”

“You’re joking.”

“I’ll catch them up later.”

Roy shook his head. “No way. Not for Olivier in spangled tights.”

“Then I can’t accept the part.”

Roy smote his forehead. “You’re bonkers.

“You got an envelope?”

“You going to write a suicide note?” Roy shook his head in wonder as he passed Jake an envelope. “Think it over. Then come and see me. Next week at the latest.”

Jake inspected the envelope with a frisson of irony. It was imprinted ‘Stephen Gurney Productions’. He took a card out of his inside breast pocket, slipped it into the envelope and started to write an address on it. “I don’t suppose Stephen Gurney Productions could lend me a stamp?”

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