- The Theatre of Embarrassment by Francis Wyndham
Chatto, 205 pp, £15.00, February 1991, ISBN 0 7011 3726 6
I first met Francis Wyndham in 1968, when I went to the Sunday Times Magazine looking for a job. A thunderstorm in the Gray’s Inn Road had soaked my cheap lightweight blue suit, bought in Johannesburg, and I was thinking my appearance had cost me my chance. At that time everyone – writers and photographers – seemed to want to write for the Magazine, then under the editorship of Godfrey Smith. It was both a serious and a very glamorous publication, soon to be the apogee of photo-journalism; its style was a vital part of the machinery of ‘the Sixties’ – all hard to imagine now. The newspaper itself was perhaps the best in the world, well financed, brimming with talent and zeal. Harold Evans had taken over as Editor the previous year.
Francis Wyndham and I later became close friends but at first he seemed formidable, even a little intimidating. He was already a legend among his contemporaries for his intellectual prowess, which seemed far too great for his job – he was loosely described as ‘Show-Business Editor’. He had been working on magazines for some years, but before that had seen himself as exclusively a literary journalist. There was a sense that he was mysteriously wasting his gifts: that he should be and wanted to be writing fiction, rather than visiting Joan Crawford in her film-set caravan, accompanied by Lord Snowdon. Richard Wollheim and Colin McInnes had been overheard talking about him on the balcony at a party. ‘There we were,’ said McInnes afterwards, ‘like two Chinese civil servants in the snow, talking about the Emperor.’
He shared an office with Meriel McCooey, the Fashion Editor. It was soon clear that this was the subversive cultural centre of the Magazine and the magnet for visitors in the Sixties – there was even a certain guilty look that you recognised in the figures leaving the office. But others who worked there seemed frightened to go in. Ronnie and Reggie Kray and their driver, Tommy Cowley, would drop in from time to time to visit, but that wasn’t necessarily the reason for the fear – though there were complaints from the staff after Tommy Cowley had spent the night with an assistant in the art department, that she hadn’t known who he was. For a time, there were visitors from the Workers Revolutionary Party of Gerry Healy and the Redgraves – a slightly sinister glamour of a different kind. Although essentially modest, Wyndham was also intellectually uncompromising, with a precise and confident fluency, his wit a shade on the absurdist side. This occasionally intimidated people, and earned him the epithet ‘élitist’ – although these stories give the lie to that. He could be chilling if he thought something second-rate. At one editorial conference a writer put up an idea with some enthusiasm, and Godfrey Smith asked: ‘What do you think about that, Francis?’ He replied: ‘I don’t know. I was asleep.’
There was never anything on his desk. He had a gesture, forbidding to an outside contributor, of sweeping imaginary flotsam from its surface with the little finger of his right hand, which, after a while, had raised a bubble like a small wave on the hardened laminate. He appeared to sit for long periods staring ahead of him, sometimes uttering sighs, his face cupped in his fingers and hands. His pieces – some of those in this book – seemed to arrive instantly and from nowhere, without the usual ‘process’ of writing. From across the partitions, he and the hard-working, hard-typing Meriel McCooey, both aficionados of Hollywood musicals, could be heard breaking into duets of Cole Porter or Noël Coward – Meriel in tune, Francis undoubtedly faultless with the lyrics. At six o’clock a half-bottle of Teachers would be purchased for ‘pre-drink drinks’ – a deadline gradually pulled forward to 5.30. You would hear, at moments, hysterical laughter.
He survived four editors of the Magazine, and you could argue that the best owed a large part of their reputation, although not their survival to him. Two of them, Godfrey Smith and Magnus Linklater, now editor of the Scotsman, understood his talent and also knew the dangers. Francis avoided power, but he somehow had it anyway, Without, as Linklater put it, ‘lifting a finger’, he managed to subvert the sacrosanct rules of newspaper publishing. The Magazine’s reputation on the newspaper for being frivolous, self-absorbed, anarchic, using acres of space on what appeared to be self-indulgence and money-wasting, revolved around Francis, the éminence grise. When Don McCullin and I came back from Vietnam in 1972, McCullin’s pictures appeared over 17 pages – an unheard-of spread, unbelievable today. Harold Evans, who was suspicious of Francis, never quite grasped the gestation period of the Magazine, which was around five weeks from deadline to printing. He would want to pull out articles – usually on grounds of taste – when they were already on the cylinder, at the cost of thousands of pounds. And still, infuriatingly, it attracted 50 per cent more readers than the newspaper, and made much more money.