THE FADING MARGIN: serial 19.Posted: April 6, 2013
Going Up Late
It is 1948, or thereabouts, in an office overlooking St. Mary Axe in the City of London (if it were still there today, which it is not, I suppose it would be in the shadow of the Gherkin). I am sitting at my desk in the Publicity Department of the Shell Petroleum Company, working on a script for a 16 mm training film, the subject of which is crop spraying. Herbicides are among Shell’s many chemical products and it is at present the chief function of the 16 mm unit to produce films for the users of such products. There will soon be one dealing with the use of bitumen in road-making and another about antifouling paint for the treatment of ships’ hulls.
In contrast to the famous Shell Documentary Film Unit, which works only in 35 mm and is to be found in Shell Mex House, in the Strand, the newly–formed 16 mm unit is obscure and very small, consisting only of my immediate boss, James Binning (a fictional name), myself and a freelance director-cameraman called Eric. I do not get on well with either of them. Binning, who is rising forty, was not in any of the wartime uniformed services and was until recently a schoolmaster, always wears the same thick woollen tie of Cambridge blue (he is a geography graduate of St. Edmund’s College), has aggressively leftish political views and on principle insists on tinkering with everything that I write. Eric is in his fifties; an entrenched crony of Binning, he despises young men who talk the way I do and have held commissions in the services and bitterly resents my querying of his creative claims for expenses and film stock. It will not be long before one of us will be obliged to seek employment elsewhere. There are no prizes for guessing who that will be.
The year before, leaving the demobilisation depot at Woking with a rail pass and a collection of civilian clothes in a cardboard container, I had been about as well-equipped for the future as the lost traveller who is told by the apocryphal Irish peasant that he doesn’t rightly know the best way to get to where the questioner wants to go but wouldn’t start from where they are. In 1947 half-educated young men with respectable service records were ten a penny. Those who knew what they wanted (to be doctors, or dentists, or lawyers, say, or prosperous accountants) had clear ambition and known avenues of advancement to guide them. Those not so equipped were rudderless by comparison. An acquaintance from my time in Iraq had given me an introduction to British Petroleum, who offered me a job in Abadan; but I had seen quite enough of the Gulf for a while. England was where I wanted to be, a precondition which also ruled against my accepting an invitation to attend a Unilever selection process, success in which would again have entailed a posting overseas and might have required me to take a serious interest in ground nuts or palm oil.
Though half-heartedly I went through the motions of looking for a respectable job with fair prospects in a sound institution – putting my name on the books of the Royal Artillery Association employment bureau; reading the Situations Vacant columns of the Telegraph and Times – the truth was that somehow or other (it may well have been those 6th form English essays again) in the past half dozen years I had acquired notions as tenacious as they were nebulous that I might have a bent for some sort of ‘creative’ occupation, as opposed to the hard grind of being an ambitious organisation man. For the moment, there were vague ideas about becoming a film director – a David Lean (Brief Encounter, Great Expectations), or a Carol Reed (The Fallen Idol). Or if not in features, a maker of documentaries – a Robert Flaherty, perhaps, whose Louisiana Story would be his classic of 1948. It did not take me long, however, to discover that it might be easier to pitch a tent on the lawns of Buckingham Palace than to break into the film business. The labour unions that ruled the industry were omnipotent and unyieldingly restrictive. It was not impossible that patience and persistence might have secured a foot in the door, but I was short on both virtues and had only the dregs of my army gratuity to exist on. Memory does not tell how I came across it, but a vacancy for a copywriter in Shell’s expanding Publicity Department seemed to me heaven-sent. Here was the best of both worlds: a ‘creative’ activity in a universally esteemed company in the City of London, with a tolerable salary and (as I learned at my first interview) the possibility of subsidised living at the Lensbury Club, Teddington. When, shortly after my arrival in St. Mary Axe, the scriptwriting opportunity presented itself, it seemed that the winds of good fortune might be in my sails.
That the trio of Binning, Eric and Buxton lasted even as long as it did was thanks not to any improvement in relationships but to the arrival in St. Mary Axe of another Cantabrigian who made nonsense of the vulgar idea that members of Girton College (at that time still exclusively for the female sex) could only be bluestockings. Aged 23, not conventionally pretty but arrestingly attractive, Annabel possessed a personality and a sexual dynamism that electrified the entire department. My first memory of her is a husky voice in the corridor singing Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’ (Oklahoma was in its first London year) before she knocked briefly and came into the office to introduce herself. A year later I was to take her to the second London night of Carousel at Drury Lane, and June Is Bustin’ Out All Over entered her repertoire of songs for moments of elation and started on its way to becoming a bittersweet souvenir that has the power to disturb me still.
Annabel had read English at Cambridge and, like me, had visualised in copywriting the opportunity for some sort of literary activity. Like me, she was not long in discovering its limitations. Eagerly recruited by Binning, who ostentatiously caused it to be seen that he regarded the arrival of another Cambridge graduate as an alleviation of his regrettable state of academic isolation in the 16 mm unit office, she was pretentiously dubbed ‘research assistant’ and too often found herself in the library at Shell Chemicals, seeking to understand such matters as the biosynthesis of lipids and the functions of acetal-coenzymes. Being the girl she was, she soon found a solution to the problem. Flattering the especially susceptible Eric (who was fond of boasting that he had made his way in the world without the advantage of any but an elementary education) by an apparently keen interest in cinematography, to my great delight she insinuated herself into our hitherto 2-man location team, among the benefits of which development was the wine which she would contribute to our country picnics where only Eric’s flasks of cold tea and my daring bottles of light ale had been before. In St. Mary Axe, the two of us shared coffee breaks, lunched together in the canteen, exchanged wittily flirtatious poems. Exacerbated by the injudiciously burgeoning rapport, Binning’s compulsion for finding fault with my work became intolerable. “We don’t want to lose you”, said the sympathetic head of Publicity, when at last I sought his adjudication. “I can’t see anything else for you here, but I’m sure they would be glad to have you at Shell Mex House”. Thus, the casual and unportentous announcement that was to determine the course of the rest of my life.
It was an almost wholly benevolent gesture.They no more needed me in the long-established and award-winning documentary film unit in the Strand than divisional ‘B’ Echelon had needed me in Belgium some three or four years before; film trade union restrictions were no less rigorous in Shell Mex House than anywhere else. Little survives in memory of what work I may have done, though I recall the occasional checking of scripts to be used in the recording of commentaries for some of the unit’s films and now and then sitting in on early viewings and making notes of what seemed to me infelicitous departures from the scripted word. There is no recollection of my being responsible for any specific part of the work of the unit or of routinely reporting to any particular individual; it was a strict necessity of my existence that I did not in any significant way trespass upon any of the prerogatives of the industry’s labour unions and threaten the smooth working of the unit. In sum, little more was asked of me than that I should try not to get in anyone’s way. Missed by nobody, I spent a lot of time reading at the public library in Charing Cross Road or browsing in the area’s scores of bookshops. When in the office, evidently busy at my desk, I wrote many a private letter, composed many a facetious piece of verse to send to Annabel and began and aborted many a more ambitious literary endeavour. What, if anything, I seriously thought I was usefully doing with myself; where I imagined it all might be leading; whether or not the lamentable lack of purpose troubled me, I can’t say. Something, I must have supposed, would be bound to turn up.
What turned up was a concatenation of circumstances which seems now to have been indispensable to a master plan. Shell Mex House was only a short walk away from the Temple, and at lunch time on fine days I used often to take sandwiches to picnic somewhere in that enclave of tranquility which lies between the Thames Embankment and the Strand. I liked the well-tended lawns and flower beds behind handsome railings, where in spring and summer engine exhaust fumes could be exchanged for the scents of wisteria, jasmine and new-mown grass. I liked the hidden courtyards, the grand imposing buildings that were the halls and residences, the huddles of humbler premises with their narrow, Dickensian staircases and name boards, the glimpses of industrious solicitors’ clerks or barristers, desks piled high with reference books. I loved and was always moved by the Temple Church with its recumbent effigies of mediaeval knights. In sum, innocent of all commercial clamour and vulgarity, here was a haven of elegant professionalism where, I recalled, John Buchan had had “pleasant chambers” with a view of the river, and according to his memoirs “at night in winter could hear overhead the calling of wild birds in their flight upstream”.
John Buchan! He had been a hero of my adolescence. As a boy, I had read some of his hugely successful novels (The Thirty-Nine Steps, Mr.Standfast, Greenmantle, The Three Hostages, John Macnab) again and again until I knew them almost by heart. As an element of my bias towards Glasgow rather than Durham or Edinburgh universities when choosing a War Office course in 1942, Buchan had in passing already been of crucial influence in my life. Now, quite suddenly, as a curtain rises to reveal a major player occupying centre stage, he became the inspiration for fancies which in that uniquely conducive environment of the Temple, in the vacuum of that essentially footloose time of my career, took instant possession of an imagination as yet barren of ideas for the future, so that it burgeoned with creative fantasies like a desert following the first rains of spring.
Buchan the barrister. Why not Buxton the barrister?! Erstwhile star of school debates, it was no less compelling than it was extravagantly absurd to see myself as a notably successful counsel—a Marshall Hall—returning wigged and gowned, admiring juniors in attendance, to my sherry and view of the river from yet another triumph of advocacy in the Courts of Justice, just across the road. And if Buxton the learned advocate, why not Buxton the best-selling author? Buchan had been published even while he was still an undergraduate at Oxford. By the time he had been called to the Bar he had……..
Oxford! Now, my lunchtime fantasies starring the Inns of Court were exuberantly conflated with those featuring the university whose dark blue I had without any good reason always preferred over the light blue of Cambridge. In a scenario that my mother would have regarded as wholly rational for the winner of English prizes at school, I saw myself capped (not wigged) and gowned in courtyards no less venerable than those of the Temple, passing unhurried hours in mediaeval libraries, sitting at the feet of the sort of luminaries whose lectures were rich in memorable aphorisms (“You must believe in God, in spite of what the clergy say”), eating convivial dinners at long tables in darkly wainscotted dining halls, dons on the dais serene. For the moment there was no coherent desire or recognisable ambition; idle fantasies had not yet taken on the substance even of daydreams. Then Annabel joined me for one of my picnics and everything changed.
To say merely that she had grown on me in the few months since our meeting would be absurd: from the moment that the singing of Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’ in the corridor had ended and Annabel had come through the door of the office at St. Mary Axe I had known that something of more than trivial interest had burst into my life. Though I greatly missed my almost daily contact with her after moving to Shell Mex House, I made frequent lunchtime visits to the City and we met from time to time for evening drinks at the flat in Chelsea which she shared with three other girls, all graduates, one from Girton, the other two Oxonians, then supper at an affordable bistro before I caught the last train to Teddington and the Shell club. Annabel’s popularity and my restricted resources ensured that such evenings were widely spaced, but they were by far the ones I valued most among my modest but busy social activities. Then one day in May we met at the steps leading up to the Master’s House, close by the Temple Church, found a place in the sun, ate smoked salmon sandwiches and surreptitiously (I was afraid that alcohol might not be allowed in the impeccably ordered Temple gardens) drank cold white wine. For the life of me I can’t remember how Oxford came into the conversation; probably by way of Annabel’s time at Cambridge. However it was, I spoke of Iraq, and Tom Kemp* and how he had urged me to go to the university. When she asked me why I hadn’t gone I tried to explain that, in as little as the idea had occurred to me when I came out of the army, I must have dismissed it as an irrelevance. “What a fool!” said Annabel. “Go now! ”
It was the end of make-believe. Citing Tom Kemp as my mentor, I wrote to Clare, but the college replied that they could see no possibility of a place in the near future. “Try Trinity”, commanded Annabel, whose uncle had been there; but Trinity’s answer was no more encouraging than Clare’s. “Overbooked by Etonians”, said a cynical friend. Blindfolded, I stuck a pin in a list of Oxford colleges and wrote to Exeter, whose response was as kindly as the others, but no more encouraging. Buchan had been at Brasenose, Hilaire Belloc at Balliol; I write to both famous colleges. Both replies further eroded any vestiges of reasonable hope with which I may have begun my quest. “Never, never, never give in”, said Winston Churchill. All the same, I still find it uncomfortable to speculate as to what might have happened if the invitation for Newhaven had not come along.
* See Serial 18
NEXT FRIDAY, 12 April, The Fading Margin Serial 20: Chapter Twelve, Going Up Late, Part Two.