Many is the time I have hauled Quentin Crewe into a restaurant on my back, his wrists crossed under my chin, his voice chattering into one ear or another. As I did so, I often caught a surreal glimpse of myself as some kind of hunter of human game, bearing to the cannibal feast one more main course still alive and thrashing. ‘Q’, I am happy to say, is still alive and stirring things up – not least in this quirky and curious autobiography.
Muscular dystrophy, the wasting disease which has possessed him since childhood, does not always impose quite such awkward and undignified means of entrance. As he recalls here, he has sometimes been afforded locomotion in the imperial fashion befitting some oriental potentate of Classical times arriving to negotiate with Pompey the Great. From time to time, he made an appearance at a Royal Gala of the Covent Garden Opera House, being chaired up the grand staircase on the cradled hands of Martha, the first Mrs Quentin Crewe, and Nancy, the second Mrs Alan Brien, two American women of dazzling good looks, one dark, one blonde. He looked as if he thought it the only way to travel.
One lunchtime, depositing him at his table, I shall never forget. I posed him a question I had long wanted answering. In a Fleet Street full of friends and colleagues for ever complaining about the cards dealt them by Fate, loudly demanding, ‘Why me, for God's sake?’ here was a dying man, sinking every decade to a lower plateau of control over his muscles and sinews, yet retaining, round the clock so far as I could see, a wonderful cheerfulness, equanimity and absence of self-pity. When I first met him on the Evening Standard, he usually walked around the office with a stick, making it seem like some intricate, elegant dance. Indeed, if I remember aright, he had taken the floor at his own wedding. But then, one day he was in a wheelchair. He would remain there for the rest of his life. In early days, he piloted a huge, flashy gas-guzzler with specially adapted hand-controls he flicked about with casual insouciance, as if playing an electronic fun-fair game. Then again came the day when this was no longer a skill he found safe and easy, so he began to employ a long succession of drivers who increasingly were to double as minders, batmen, porters.
He disguised the technical problems of co-ordinating hand and eye, body and mind, like a conjurer, by misdirection and diversion of attention. Few acquaintances, almost no strangers, saw through the trick. How did he do it? I asked that lunchtime. In his position, I was certain, I could not mimic that invariable good humour even for a few hours. I would instead be evil-tempered, depressed, unpleasant. If not suicidal, then homicidal. He laughed. Then he flipped out a cigarette from its gold case, juggling it into his long, dangerous holder, lighting it as if it were a bomb fuse. Next he manoeuvred his aperitif to his lips. These actions were performed with an acrobatic grace that was almost mesmeric. Only if you stared rudely, close up, did you notice the tiny feats of balance and counter-balance, one muscle nudging another, the force of gravity covertly supplying extra power at key moments, that were involved in the complicated journeys. ‘Two things,’ he said ‘One. When I didn’t die at 16, as most people with what I’ve got do, I took in that I was nevertheless doomed to get worse and worse. I was tempted to become moody and malicious, resentful, nasty. Very soon I discovered that would get me nowhere. A few people come back for a second, even a third helping. But no more. Nobody needs a friend who is always a burden, complaining, whining, making you feel guilty. So I had to become what they wanted me to be. Saint Quentin, brave hero, happy martyr. Then people liked being with me, doing things for me. It made them feel good. Makes you feel good, carting me down the aisles. So you can feel a bit of a martyr too. Admit it.’ I admitted it.
‘Two,’ he said. ‘Don’t forget, you are dying a bit every day as well. Your plateau may last a bit longer than mine. But you still sink a sizeable notch or so every decade. Soon, you’ll need spectacles. You won’t stand when you can sit. You’ll stop being able to hear what people say at parties. You’re hobnailing your liver, sooting up your lungs.’ He squinted at me, clinically. ‘Already, I should say, you are past your best. If you hang on long enough, you may even be glad of a wheelchair yourself.’
Until then, I had gloried in what the crippled Alexander Pope bitterly, and brilliantly, categorised as ‘all the arrogance of superfluous health’. For the next thirty years, there was not a day when I could not get up and do a day’s work. But Quentin made me grateful for every one of them, never taking for granted my ability to survive all the ambushes that lie ahead for the ageing body. That is not to say that his colleagues, especially on the Standard and the Mail, did not speculate, sometimes in rather gross terms, about his physical drawbacks. Would you, we would demand of each other over late-night drinks, swap Quentin’s disabilities for his advantages? For his privileged status was unmistakable. Not just an Old Etonian, but a blood relation, so it seemed, to almost everyone in the upper – that is, the newsworthy – class. Whoever we were hunting down with a telephone, a Who’s Who and an envelope of press cuttings would turn out to be a ‘cousin’: if not a relative, a schoolfellow; if not a schoolfellow, a neighbour; if not someone who lived near his family in the country, then someone he had ‘known all his life’.
We had been to schools whose old boys were never heard of again, even by us. Our relatives were more likely to be an embarrassment, not a recommendation. The query with which Mark Boxer, usually lying on the floor, was later to unnerve insecure talents seeking work from the Sunday Times – ‘Tell me who you know’ – was meaningless to us in the Fifties. We had to manage with a landlady and barman as references. No wonder those of us who had waited out in the rain, trying to negotiate an interview through the letter box, barely muffled an oath when we reached the sanctum and found Quentin already drinking and chatting with the newsy name, the famous face. And it was not just the gossip items or the showbiz exclusives, hoovered up these days by human vacuum-cleaners from among other people’s floor crumbs, that Quentin gleaned in his columns. He also rode an inside track in the clubs and the salons where sexual, political and financial scandals leaked one into another, and everyone who was anyone was enjoying the current ‘tease’ – the U codeword for what the rest of us would stigmatise as a painful slander or a crude hoax.
As we follow Quentin Crewe on into his sixties, we become connoisseurs of the intricate weave of English upper-class social life, its members knitted together by a score of colourful, indestructible threads (marriage, widowhood, remarriage), crisscrossed with darker strands (incest, bastardy, divorce, adultery, bigamy), the whole bonded with reinforced seams (schoolboy crushes, war camaraderie, Oxbridge intrigues, City partnerships), and so providing the most resilient safety-net known to sociology. Once the insider has bounced a few times he realises he will never be allowed to hit the haul sand of the arena, however spectacular his tumble from trapeze or tightrope.
For us outsiders, the most common question faced on home visits to the provinces would be ‘Have you met Princess Margaret ... yet?’ At Quentin’s we grew used to finding Koestler, Bernard Levin, Peter Sellers, Ken Tynan, Keith Richards – but none of these quite counted as in her league. As Quentin observes here, with a pretence of puzzlement, ‘even in supposedly relaxed and liberal circles, very few managed to behave normally with royalty.’ This, he goes on, afforded much amusement to himself and the Princess. They divided his friends into those who ‘like Dr Johnson meeting Queen Anne would bow so low they could see back between their legs’ and those who would ‘say aggressively: “I’m not going to call you Ma’am, you know.” Such encounters typically attract Quentin’s feline eye and claws, and there is plenty of room for comedy here. Few low-bowers had the excuse of being a High Tory royalist like Johnson – many passed in the pub as radicals and iconoclasts. Not many Ma’am-refusers actually refused to behave with courtier-like courtesy. But then Princess Margaret would not have been amused if they had. In those days, she was still surrounded with I strong taboo that seems incredible and ridiculous today. I blush to remember how potent this daunger could be even for someone like me, raised as a Republican by an Irish socialist father. But then monarchism is the last refuge of the pauper and ‘little Margaret Rose’ was as often invoked around our council estate as ‘Our Lady’ in Naples. Scarcely a girl had not kept a cuttings-book of her magazine pictures. Early earmarked as naughty Madcap Meg of the royal soap, she infiltrated the proletarian unconscious so deeply that I had sexy dreams about her even after I had escaped to Oxford, Freud and Marx,
Little wonder then that atavistic panicseized me when I responded to a politely peremptory tap on the shoulder at a Quentin party and stared down at this imperious imp miming the need for a flame for her fag. My lighter was out quicker than a Special Branch pistol, but, embarrassingly, failed to ignite. ‘There is a very interesting story about this lighter,’ I improvised, as she inclined to a rival match. Out of eye contact, I realised I had no interesting story about it, or indeed at that moment any other possession or part of mine. I made no excuse and left.
But enough of what might have been in Well, I forget the rest, but is not. It was Quentin, dictating an obituary against the clock, who pointed out to me that the journalist’s problem is not to find people who knew the deceased and are willing to talk, but to find those who are willing to talk about him rather than about themselves. I have noticed the same tendency with reviewers of autobiographies. I may be demonstrating it now. What is the reward here for all the readers who have never met the author?
I think they will soon feel they have known him all their lives, this mercurial adventurer often seeming able to be on both sides of the fence at once. A naive sophisticate who favours the poor and obscure while hobnobbing with the rich and powerful – fired by Bill Hardcastle, Mail editor, he complains to Mail presslord, Rothermere. (‘My eldest brother Shane’s widow had been married to him for a spell’). Over lunch, he condemns his boss. (‘ “He must go,” said Esmond, with what, in anyone else, one would have taken for determination.’) A handicapped peripatetic, consumed by wanderlust, who has to plan tiny domestic chores the rest of us would hardly notice, he lightheartedly launches expedition into wild, empty quarters of Africa and Arabia that would daunt a team of veteran explorers. Turned landowner, he proposes to build an Italian hill village, complete with lake and circling wall, on three hundred acres of his inheritance, according to the highest principle (‘we decided to have no cars’) – only to be defeated by bureaucracy and corruption
It is difficult at times, I found, not to resent someone, often represented as short of ready cash, whose first marriage of three is to a beautiful American heiress with whom he takes a honeymoon which lasts a year. I was made uneasy at his story of how, on assignment in Jamaica covering Prime Minister Eden’s convalescence at Ian Fleming’s Goldeneye (‘I knew the house because my eldest brother Shane’s widow was now married to Fleming’), he resolved to prevent a fellow correspondent making the disastrous mistake of marrying their hotel’s black receptionist. They agreed on a Liaisons Dangereuses-style wager. If ‘Q’ could seduce the fiancée, the colleague would break off the engagement. ‘Q’ won. But then 1 could hardly help admiring this eccentric Sunday Mirror columnist who survived seven years feeding his readers with thoughts on the French Revolution and the nature of the pithecanthropus while also providing a covert, subversive Agony Uncle service in which his emotions became increasingly involved. After describing the dilemma of a Welsh miner’s daughter pregnant in exceptionally ghastly circumstances, he ends: ‘I suppose at some risk to my job, I arranged the abortion.’
Quentin Crewe’s style is not particularly vivid or distinguished. Occasionally, when seeking to pay a tribute to someone still around, his language takes on the stiffness of a ransom note dictated at pistol point. But the material almost always triumphs. When capturing a good story, his journalistic eye is a cine-camera. Here is an extract from his office-movie of friend (and employer) Jocelyn Stevens in proprietorial mode. After an editorial conference in the Savoy Grill, he would call a meeting to complain about expenses,
scourging himself into a state of manic rage. His pale face would gradually suffuse with red and he would rise up and down, bending at the knees, so that he looked like a furious cockerel on a carousel. His voice would soar higher, until it broke into a sob at the pitiable thought of how our extravagance was ruining him. Sometimes he would beat with his fists on his desk and at others lie on the floor in a stiff anger, thumping and thumping on the thin carpet so that the plaster on the ceiling of my room below fell in flakes.
Such tantrums, he assures us, were less worrying to the staff than to Jocelyn himself, ‘who had insanity in the family’.
The other competitive ego aboard belonged to Mark Boxer. Quentin preferred his ‘ice-cold spikiness, very telling in its accurate cruelty’, even though it was prompted ‘by envy and jealousy’, to the ‘blind lashing out’ by Jocelyn Stevens, born of ‘some sad inadequacy’. Totting up the scores reminds me somewhat of settling the precedency, Johnson fashion, between a cobra and a rattlesnake. In the end, Quentin chose the one most likely to volunteer help with his disability. Jocelyn always tried to avoid giving a hand or a back. Mark was always willing to carry him to my office, ‘giggling as he stumbled and we teetered on the steps’. Indeed, he says he divides all his fellows by this test. I wish he could have expanded a little more on the pull of his relative passivity and its effects on the rest of us, particularly women. I suspect the role of the shorn Samson, the wounded Nelson, the blinded Mr Rochester, radiates a strong aphrodisiac appeal. But I take comfort from the conviction that he has not forgotten the rest, and a future volume will provide even more chapters as funny and peculiar as most of these.