Memoir

“Don’t I know you?”

I AM OF course no stranger to celebrity. "Famous name," the lady at the library greets me when I produce my borrower's card. I nod, graciously.

Yes, a famous name, but for someone else. It could be my collected works are ranked along the shelves, or, perhaps even better, out on loan. Maybe.

It used to be torture at school. "Anna Neagle," they would call out. She was Michael Wilding's regular co-star. And who now remembers Anna Neagle? Well, the lady at the library. Later he married Elizabeth Taylor. I saw her once, walking down the lane beside my college in Oxford. I nearly went up to her.

"You may not remember me. My name's Michael Wilding."

But she had a burly bodyguard each side of her, so I didn't.

 

OXFORD, OF COURSE, was full of celebrities and celebrity seeking in the early 1960s. Oxford meant privilege, class, aristocracy. The English dream. The aristocrat as celebrity. Lord Gowrie was the first lord I met. Aristocrat. Titled person. Or was he properly called the Earl of Gowrie? Aristocrats and their correct titles were not something of which I had any personal knowledge, other than hearing my aunt's adulation of them and my father's scathing counterblasts about the idle rich. My mother's position was something else again. Her father had worked for one and she accepted the social order and its valuations. But occasionally she would recall how she told Lord Hindlip what a disgrace it was that their house was so damp and her father so ill with rheumatism.

Anyway, Grey Gowrie. To complicate things he was an aesthetic lord. Literary and languid. An Oxford celebrity. Editing Isis, the undergraduate weekly.

"Oh, Gawd, what a bloody business," was his usual expression. He would sprawl at his editorial desk and run his hands through his hair.

His editorial staff all parodied him.

"Oh, Gawd, what a bloody business."

Those who mocked him most were fellow Etonians. No doubt they felt secure. It was they who stuck galley proofs of his poems on the office wall, with annotations. They who initiated the hourly parodies. They could catch the accent more precisely, of course. They who remarked on his markedly unEnglish appearance. A goulash of racial genes. That came from Ben, a fellow Etonian anxious about his own ethnic identity.

The consensus was that Gowrie's poetry was to be mocked. But who would know? What did any of them know about what was good poetry? I had expected a university full of Audens and Isherwoods. Well, Ben endlessly anguished about homosexuality. Again, it was something obscure in the Midlands, though no doubt existing like aristocrats and ethnic minorities, but not visible unless you knew the codes, not expressed unless you knew the secret language. Like the signs gypsies and tramps were reputed to leave on gateposts as to the sort of reception they might get in this house or that. At Oxford there were a fair number of languid and aesthetic types who may have been homosexual, and a fair number of hearty rugger buggers who probably were too. But it wasn't an issue. Ben would occasionally take up abortion law reform as an issue to be addressed, but no one seemed to be campaigning about legalising homosexual activities. Presumably it all went on much as it had done in the public schools, a cosy coterie as long as you avoided agents provocateursin the public lavatories. There were stories about the 20 divinity students being provoked and arrested in the St Giles public lavatory near the Martyrs' memorial, but whether that was a recent event or something from the mists of myth was never clear. A backdrop of talk was present. Far more present, indeed, than any backdrop of poetry. Where was the literary world, where was the excitement of a creative coterie? I hung round the Isis office, but except for Gowrie's poems on the wall the main note was political – undergraduate politics, Oxford union politics, national politics – rather than literary.

A poet did come in one day. She was haranguing Gowrie about getting her book of poems reviewed, or about getting people to come and hear some distinguished visitor whose name I did not know. She was not an undergraduate, but married to some university person. She seemed undignified for an older person, hyperactive, hysterical, monomaniacal, poetic characteristics new to me, though later to become all too familiar. There was so much that was new. She quite put me off contemporary poets.

"Hold it there," said Gowrie. "Don't move."

He was languishing behind the editorial desk examining his new Land

camera, instant, large, menacing.

"Your hands," he said.

He shot them.

I sat there self-consciously, blushing, my hands clasped together.

We waited for the print to develop.

Gowrie studied it for a while.

"Marvellous," he said.

The hands? The technology? The aesthetic innovation, a Warhol avant le snap?

He passed it across. I would have preferred him to have kept it in his portfolio. But I took it. Preserved it for years. A black and white study that gradually faded, the hands immersing beneath the prismatic tints of an oil spill.

 

GOWRIE HELD A luncheon party in his rooms. It was the only Oxford luncheon party I ever went to. Reading the biographies of writers of the '20s, many years later, I found that such luncheon parties were the thing. In the '20s. Perhaps in Gowrie's milieu they still were. Though what Gowrie's milieu at Oxford was, other than the Isis, was not something I ever knew.

The editorial staff milled about Gowrie's rooms, a rather splendid set on the ground floor looking out, even opening out, it seemed, on some secluded lawn. If I had not known it before, I realised it then, that there was a system behind the allocation of room in the colleges. Having a title clearly entitled you to the best.

Gowrie reclined on a couch and held forth. But his staff was a rabble, a crew of misfits and deserters. He should have been wearing an eyepatch and a bandanna. Books were scattered around everywhere, many of them review copies he had appropriated without reviewing them. Some of them were reappropriated, along with some of his own books, first editions, signed copies from literary figures he knew in London. He was always off to London for literary parties or assignations.

Gowrie spent an anguished week in the office, asking everyone if they had taken his first-edition Animal Farmor his signed whatever, and would they return them. They never did. It was the only luncheon party he gave for his staff.

Shortly afterwards he was rusticated. For spending too many weekends away or having women in his rooms or something, whatever they rusticated you for in those days.

He used to drive down from London to the Headington roundabout and hand over his editorial to one of the staff who had bicycled out to meet him. Rustication prohibited his closer ingress. The staff member would then bicycle back into Oxford. And Gowrie would roar off in his Alvis to an assignation in Swansea or a literary occasion in town.

"Swansea, really," Ben would say.

But in his places of assignation as in his editorial policies Gowrie was eclectic, even democratic. His Isisbecame notorious for its harbouring of the proletarian. Harbouring rather than promoting. But there we were, writing about being working class in Oxford, expressing our alienation, our sense of exclusion, our innermost insecurities. Maybe not the way to get ahead. It was at exactly that moment the rector of my college gave an interview in The Times, maybe even wrote an article, announcing there was no class feeling at Oxford. Well, I never met him, did I? Not on the invitation list to the afternoon teas or select luncheons the rector gave for the former pupils from the public school of which he had been master. A celebrated one, it should no doubt be added.

But why acknowledge that ranking, why concede that fame? That was what we were doing in Gowrie's Isis,wasn't it, refusing to concede the privilege of the privileged? Or were we in fact confirming it by announcing our own exclusions? Gowrie's motives were never known. Perhaps from his lordly heights he felt it all anthropologically interesting. Perhaps he felt alienated as an aristocrat and saw something kindred in the plight of the proletariat, as distantly above the confident middle classes as I felt beneath them. He was hardly a man of the left. Later he became a Conservative minister. He achieved his moment of national celebrity when he issued a press statement that one could not live in Central London on £35,000 a year, and resigned.

"Oh, Gawd, Mike, what a bloody business. I'm absolutely broke, lend me a fiver, would you?"

That was what you did at Oxford; that was why you went there, to lend titled figures fivers. It was never returned. But you wouldn't expect it to be. That was part of a university education. That was part of being a celebrity.

 

IN DUE COURSE I edited Isis and wrote an editorial about the inevitable end of the monarchy and had my own moment of celebrity by being interviewed by Paris Match. But that was as nothing to the celebrity who walked into the office one lunchtime. A couple of undergraduates had been found in bed together: the girl had been sent down, as being kicked out forever was politely called; the boy was rusticated for the rest of the term. That was how things were in those days. The metropolitan media swarmed down to report on the scandal and a seedy-looking individual came to talk about it with me for television news. I said the editor was not around and I couldn't help him. That was how one behaved in those days, refusing to co-operate with scandalmongering media. ITV News was not going to help the girl's plight, not in 1962.

That was how I refused to speak to David Frost. The most celebrated male celebrity of my generation. He had been a celebrity at Cambridge, editing Granta and appearing in cabaret; now he was making it as a television reporter and appearing in a nightclub five nights a week. No wonder he looked pale and seedy. What a squalid end to a promising undergraduate career, I reflected.

I was similarly confident in my predictions for the young Germaine Greer, undoubtedly the most celebrated female celebrity I ever met. I remember sitting in the old muniment room at Sydney University, invigilating the Cambridge entrance examination she was taking. What will become of the poor girl? I wondered, assuming she gets admitted. The English will freeze her out. They will never accept that loud, assertive, full-on manner.

It is the nature of celebrity culture that its celebrities should be endlessly discredited and endlessly bounce back. Celebrities ideally are flawed. They must be shown to have gone astray, and to suffer for it. Their lives must be vulnerable to scandal. The need to raise individual figures to iconic status goes along with the satisfactions of iconoclasm. What is the point of having an idol unless it can be broken?

I remember seeing Bob Ellis waiting for the bus to Pittwater at the height of his media celebrity. His publishers were being sued for defamation in the Abbott & Costello affair; his sperm count and DNA were under the microscope. I thought I should make a point of greeting him, lest he felt like a pariah.

"It's incalculable, you could never quantify it," he told me. "You could never buy that exposure. The news,The 7.30 Report, the repeats, no publisher could afford that publicity. If that doesn't sell books, nothing will." He regaled me, and the other passengers, for the next hour with the satisfactions of it all. He did not seem at all like a pariah.

These judgements might seem to discredit me as a commentator on celebrity culture. But if celebrities can be publicly discredited and bounce back, surely there is room for commentators on celebrity to err and yet continue. I continue to have thoughts on the subject. We all do. That is what helps sustain celebrity culture.

 

I SUPPOSE MY beind bachelor of the month in Cosmopolitan was a bid for celebrity. I was dubious about it but my publisher assured me it would sell books. I don't know that it did. But publishers seem to find it easier to sell books by celebrities than make celebrities out of writers. The career path now is to become a celebrity first and use that status to market a book.

"Do I get to get all my clothes off?" I asked. "You can if you like. But we only need a head and shoulders shot."I got one fan letter, from someone who later embraced the Prince of Walesin the surf. The closest I ever came to a royal embrace. Even closer than Princess Margaret asking me if Living Together was really about a ménage à trois.

And then there was the time I was giving a reading in Florence, Alabama, when the motel proclaimed "Welcome to Michael Wilding" on its huge, illuminated sign. I walked from the forecourt and through the foyer in utter terror, feeling the eyes of the world, or at least the eyes of Florence, Alabama, fixed on me. Perhaps the funny cigarettes a fan had been plying me with all afternoon exacerbated the sensation. Perhaps he wasn't a fan but the local entrapment officer. I put my head down and ran for my room. I recalled Jack Kerouac's dictum that a writer should observe, not be observed. That, I resolved, should be the way of the future.

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