In London​ fifty years ago – the seedy 1970s – no writers I knew had money. This I found reassuring because I was so hard-up myself. My credit was so bad I didn’t qualify for a card and paid for everything with pound notes or bad cheques. No writers I’d heard of had money either – not real money. Big money entered the British book world some years later, an American intrusion that upended the business – indeed turned it from the break-even passion of tweedy, literature-loving, mostly older men (and Norah Smallwood) into an enterprise dominated by accountants. Until then book writing was, with a few exceptions, small-scale and poorly paid. Publishing was not the corporate scheme Americans eventually made it, but still the cottage industry it had always been – or so it seemed to me, living precariously on a backstreet in Catford.

Instead of being paid serious money, writers were treated to rituals of gratitude and expressions of friendship: lunches and launches. Long lunches were bonding ceremonies and a form of homage, ideally one o’clock to around four at a good restaurant, starting with a schooner of sherry, ending with a tulip-shaped glass of port, and two or three dishes in between, not including a luscious dessert or an aromatic cheese board. Such meals left me dizzy and thankful. I fainted in the upstairs stacks of the London Library after overdoing it at one of them.

When London publishers launched a book, which many did lavishly then, the party was well attended by people glad for an evening out with limitless wine and splendid hors d’oeuvres. I would be invited because I was a book reviewer and I might review the book being celebrated, and chances were I probably would. Reviewing was appallingly paid, but you could augment your earnings by selling your review copies at Gaston’s in Chancery Lane for half the published price.

At one of these parties I saw Doris Lessing – hair in a bun, shapeless dress, clunky shoes – frowning as she walked without hesitation across the room and introduced herself to Norman Mailer, whose book was being launched. At other parties I saw Angus Wilson, Kingsley Amis, Stephen Spender and others, writers whose work I knew but whose faces (like those of most other writers) did not resemble the photographs on their book jackets. I praised their work, I tried to make an impression, but my talk was seldom literary. I solicited trivia from these esteemed writers – trivial-minded of me, I suppose, but these personal details made them seem human and approachable. I encouraged Wilson to gush about riding around Iowa where he was teaching. ‘Always passenger-motoring,’ he said. ‘I love passenger-motoring.’ Spender told me at one party that he’d come by bus, and as a pensioner boasted of his buckshee bus pass: ‘I ride free!’ I thought: he will watch the hawk with an indifferent eye, on the 46 bus.

The homesick and untethered South African exiles in North London – among them Dan Jacobson – gathered to meet the chic and tiny Nadine Gordimer, just in from Johannesburg, and to sample the trays of vol-au-vents and finger-friendly desserts, iced fancies and decorated chocs. Iris Murdoch, white-faced, bluff, confident, sometimes turned up and nibbled. V.S. Pritchett was usually a guest with his wife, Dorothy, a laughing teasing couple. ‘That’s very Irish,’ Pritchett murmured of Murdoch’s wearing a shabby mackintosh throughout one evening. There was Brigid Brophy and her girlfriend, and, somehow, her husband too, who was grand and titled but looked pleased to be invited. Journalists showed up, of course. That was also the point, a reward in advance for a little ink. They were greedy in their drinking, without pretence or pause, laughing and hooting and flirting with the pretty girls – publicists, friends of friends, girls in the know and on the make.

I was on the make myself. I pumped Pritchett for stories of Tennessee, where he often taught at Vanderbilt University – for the money, as he frankly admitted, like Amis in Nashville and Wilson in Iowa and like V.S. Naipaul, who hated having to teach creative writing in Uganda but was still short of money. Jonathan Raban taught at Smith College in the early 1970s but loathed it. ‘Never again,’ he said, no matter the money. A number of writers, Anthony Thwaite among them, taught in Kuwait or the desert emirates and had stories of segregated classrooms and beheadings.

‘You’re a traveller?’ Dorothy Pritchett said to me, and, giggling in anticipation, ‘Do you have a rooksack?’ Puffing his pipe and casting his eyes up, Pritchett said, ‘I’m shrinking. It happens when you grow old. You’ll see,’ and laughed. I wanted to write a book that Pritchett would review, so I lingered and asked him about his travels. He was a happy man, having just published the second volume of his autobiography to great praise. He wrote diligently and published often. Even so, he still needed his spells of teaching in America to stay solvent on Regent’s Park Terrace.

One thing about living in Catford, I reminded myself: it might be scruffy and bleak and far from central London and full of criminals, but it was a great bargain, and living there didn’t require me to get a teaching job in the US to support my writing. And it was safe; seedy but sedate: the Catford burglars committed their crimes in the wealthier parts of London, where the pickings were better.

At these parties, after a few glasses of wine, I would drift through the crowd, look for a young woman standing a little apart, and introduce myself. Though my name was never recognised, she would probably say, ‘You’re an American,’ and smile, which was enough. At two successive parties I met the same young woman, who gave her name as Molly and told me she was an artist. This alarmed me – I imagined big, baffling canvases I’d have to comment on. But no, she explained that she wanted to build a reputation by drawing the cartoonish illustrations for the Recipe of the Day in a newspaper I didn’t read. She hoped to meet someone at one of these parties who would help her realise her dream.

‘Of drawing a cartoon?’

‘Pic-shah,’ she said. ‘Of food. Initially, at any rate.’

She was beautiful, with a boy’s haircut like a feathery bathing cap and winter-pale skin, greeny-grey eyes and full lips, a black turtleneck, the sort of very short skirt that was stylish then, and black tights. No jewellery, not even a bracelet or earrings, unreadable as far as money was concerned. We talked about food – she wasn’t much of a cook, she said, but she loved London restaurants. Somehow we got onto the subject of desserts, and she mentioned some she wanted to illustrate.

After this first meeting I made a point of buying the newspaper she’d mentioned and saw an example of the kind of drawing she meant: above a recipe, a small sketch of a loaf of bread, two slices stacked near it. The next day a spatchcocked chicken; ingredients another day, including a bulb of garlic, boldly done in black ink. This imagery was Molly’s ambition (‘Initially, at any rate’).

‘That Tory rag,’ my wife said, seeing me engrossed, my finger on the drawing. ‘Imagine your paying money for that.’

‘Six pee,’ I said.

‘What a wicked waste,’ she said. And on the evening of the next launch party, as I left the house saying I had a train to catch, she said, ‘You’re not taking the car?’

‘Train is quicker.’ Catford Bridge to Charing Cross, fifteen minutes between trains.

‘We should sell that banger,’ she said. ‘My father always said you bought a pup.’

‘Good, I’ll sell it,’ I said, and thought: money.

At that party, as I’d hoped, I saw Molly again. I lingered to talk with Pritchett, who said, ‘I never read in bed’ – helpful trivia. Then, bypassing the other writers and journalists, I darted straight to her. ‘I’d love to see you draw garlic.’

She pursed her lips as though rejecting my enthusiasm, but I knew she was pleased in the English way, dismissive, not wishing to show it; she took a few steps, like dance steps, then smiled at me again.

‘To remind me of the Kremlin,’ I said. ‘Those bulbous tower tops.’

‘Onion domes, you mean.’

She was beautiful, the sort of woman I wanted to detain with chitchat just to stare at her. She was dressed the same as before – black jumper, short skirt, black tights – and now I had a word for her: elfin.

‘I understand why you talked about food last time – your mention of desserts.’

‘You remembered.’

‘Spotted dick. Apple crumble. Syllabub. Trifle.’ I touched her shoulder, her jumper warmed by it, warming my fingers. ‘Unforgettable. You want to draw them.’

‘I want to eat them. I adore pudding,’ she said. ‘Afters are lovely. Profiteroles are heaven.’

‘Let me buy you some. Where do you find them?’

‘Chez Victor. Overton’s. Wheeler’s.’ She became paler, her eyes widening as she pondered. ‘The sweet trolley.’

All this time, as we talked about eating, she was smiling. I stared and didn’t mind that she hadn’t asked me a question. I had nothing to say. I was glad that no one had seen us, all the distinguished guests talking loudly among themselves, that stage of a party with the drinks free, when the room becomes a roar.

‘The best ones are at Boulestin.’ Seeing that I didn’t react to the name, she added: ‘In Covent Garden.’

‘Let’s have lunch there.’

‘That’s awfully sweet of you.’

It was what my editor did, to show the depth of his seriousness – offered memorable eating opportunities and companionship. After a long lunch we liked each other more; I was conscious of his belief in me and felt somehow indebted. We talked about the future and, slightly drunk, I became candid and revealed my writing plans. There was a sort of anthropology behind the long lunch. I’d spent the previous nine years in Africa and South-East Asia, places where eating together evoked sympathy and understanding as a bonding ritual in societies where money was scarce but food had social value.

A few days after the party, I sold my car, the old Singer Gazelle my father-in-law called a pup. I showed this small grey banger to a man in a used-car lot in Lewisham and said, ‘How much will you give me for it?’

‘That moh-ah? Ask the guv’nuh.’ He removed his cigarette from his mouth, inserted two fingers and whistled.

A bearded shaggy-haired man in an anorak rose from a folding chair a little distance away and frowned at my car. He walked round it, squinting. ‘Bonnet,’ he said as a command. I sprang open the hood and he squinted some more and lifted the dipstick. He sat behind the wheel looking uncomfortable, then he drove it out of the lot and was back in a few minutes. ‘She’s pinking in second gear.’

‘How much?’ I said.

‘The oil’s like tar,’ he said, instead of answering my question. ‘Wing mirrors are bust. Bonnet’s shocking.’ He lit a cigarette, taking his time. ‘Panel-beater’s dream.’

‘It runs OK.’

‘Yanks have low standards,’ he said, clamping his teeth, expelling smoke. ‘Sixty quid.’

‘Come on, man.’

‘Sixty-five, best I can do. It’s a flipping gift, mate.’

I gave him the keys, signed some forms, and accepted a thickness of bills, mainly ragged blue fivers. On my way back to Catford, walking to save the bus fare, I stopped at a phone box – why did they always smell so foul? – called Molly and invited her to lunch at Boulestin the next day.

She was sitting at a corner table when I arrived, a few minutes late. She was sipping from a flute of wine.

‘You’re so funny,’ she said. ‘You didn’t make a reservation.’

‘Forgot.’ But I hadn’t forgotten. I didn’t realise you needed to. Not being able to afford it, I’d never arranged one of these London lunches myself. It was always my editor, who always paid. I assumed you just showed up and they said, ‘Right this way, sir.’

‘They had a cancellation, which was why we have this super table.’

In a back corner, intimate, away from the other tables, Molly raising the flute to her lips, emptying it.

‘I hope you don’t mind. I ordered a piccolo of champagne.’

‘That’s great, I’ll have one myself.’

Hovering nearby, the waiter said, ‘As you wish, sir.’

‘I’ll have another,’ Molly said. ‘Or should we get a whole bottle?’

‘Whatever you say.’

‘Let’s let it depend on what we order – fish or meat.’

‘What’s the menu look like?’ I tapped the thick book lying in front of her.

‘This is my sketchbook,’ she said, smoothing its cover with her hand. ‘Shall we order first?’

When the champagne was served and the menus presented, I said, ‘Cheers.’

‘God, I hate that expression,’ she said.

‘So do I, really,’ I lied.

She tapped her glass against mine. ‘Chin-chin.’

Seeing Molly studying her menu, I opened mine and scanned it in bewilderment, not recognising any of the dishes. All I wanted to do was order my meal, so that I could talk to Molly. But she was running her finger over her menu, item by item, and turning pages, and murmuring to herself, actually studying the dishes. I was too baffled to choose, so when the waiter returned I said, ‘You first.’

She did not respond at once, but finally with a sigh said, ‘I’ll start with the terrine of foie gras. Then I think some consommé and the pheasant Normandy.’

‘Excellent choice, madam. Game chips?’

‘That would be lovely.’

He scribbled then turned to me. ‘Monsieur?’

‘Soup for me. Fish soup.’

‘And for your entrée?’

‘Just’ – my head swam, the menu blurred, I put my finger on the word ‘boeuf’.

The waiter leaned to see where my fingertip rested and said, ‘Gardiane de boeuf’ and scribbled. ‘Bon. And the wine?’

Molly said with authority, ‘You’ll want white for your soup. White burgundy.’

‘May I suggest the Montrachet?’ The waiter tapped a numbered item on the wine list.

‘Super,’ Molly said. ‘And I think a Bordeaux with my pheasant. This Margaux’ – she pointed. ‘We can share. Though you might want a Côtes du Rhône with your main – it’s a Rhône dish, is it not?’

‘Exactly, madam.’

He scribbled and at last I had Molly to myself. She plucked open her sketchbook. I loved her slender fingers, chafing the pages.

I saw figures in black ink, expertly drawn, some with comical faces, and on successive pages recognisable vegetables and cuts of meat. What a relief that she had talent, that I could frankly praise her pictures. She was not only accurate, she was funny, she was satirical, she was far better at this than whoever was doing the illustrations I’d seen in the newspaper. She turned pages, I praised each one.

Her foie gras was served, my soup, the first bottles of wine.

‘Isn’t this a lovely little slab?’ she said, poking at her terrine.

I spooned my soup, I turned her sketch book sideways. ‘That’s funny.’

On facing pages I saw women in odd postures, slumped in chairs, their feet on hassocks, some with their hands behind their head, legs apart, others leaning against the wall, or playing billiards, sitting clumsily on the edge of a billiard table. One of the women looked familiar – the glasses, the pipe, the waistcoat.

‘That’s the way men sit or stand,’ Molly said. ‘Women don’t sit like men. I thought it would be funny to show women that way.’

‘That one looks like me.’

Molly blushed. ‘Oh, but they’re women,’ she said.

‘They’re kind of fun.’

Yet that one in glasses was me, and it was satirically posed, with mocking exaggeration, a rumpled young mannish woman, looking shallow and opportunistic, a chancer scanning a room full of florid partygoers.

I was shocked by her wise eye. This ‘drawing food’ ambition of hers was just a line. I could see she was a gifted satirist, and like all satirists unsentimental. Her sketches of the parties, the drinks, the men flirting, the platters of dessert, the trays of wine glasses – she might be softly spoken and sweet-looking, but she was clear-sighted, she missed nothing. I was dazzled, but I was also intimidated, because she’d drawn me.

‘Fun,’ she said, seeming to like the word. She hummed a little, remembering. ‘I roomed with an American girl once. She was always “dating”.’

Molly made it sound like deedeen, a devastating approximation of an American accent.

‘Maybe that’s what we’re doing now.’

‘You reckon?’ And then she tossed her head back and laughed. ‘You’re so funny!’

The main course was served, her pheasant, her wine; my beef, my wine. I’d forgotten the names, but that didn’t matter. I couldn’t take my eyes off her, yet I became fearful when she looked closely at me, as though sizing me up for a sketch. The white-gloved waiter kept refilling our glasses.

‘You went to art school, I guess.’

‘Of course.’ She was so dainty, picking her pheasant apart.

‘Who’s your favourite artist?’

‘Passionate about Bacon. Such a messy life. I see him now and again at Wheeler’s.’

‘His stuff in the Tate,’ I said. And I knew I was out of my depth. ‘It seems to me kind of hallucinatory.’

‘That’s the one thing it isn’t,’ she said, placidly separating flesh from bone, and then went on eating. She knew I had nothing to say about Francis Bacon and was faking it, which was awkward. But then she was placing her knife and fork on her plate of bones, the carcass of her pheasant, smears of blood. She framed it with her pretty hands. ‘That’s a Bacon.’

After the plates were cleared, the waiter carrying them away, stacked on his arm, I said, ‘Dessert.’

‘Profiteroles,’ she said, but slurring the word and saying it the French way with three syllables and no ‘s’.

‘Gâteau for me.’

Before the waiter served the dessert he removed everything from the table and cleverly unfolded a new tablecloth, as expertly as a sleeping-car attendant manipulating sheets in a couchette.

‘Heaven,’ Molly said, dabbing chocolate from her lips.

‘You could draw them.’ I was not only drunk but sleepy.

‘I intend to.’ She sounded sleepy too.

I ordered coffee and said, ‘Coffee doesn’t sober you up. It makes you a wide-awake drunk.’

She hadn’t heard. With her head down she was sketching on a fresh page something I couldn’t see, something I was afraid to see. I became aware of a heavy saucer on the table, with a piece of paper on it: the bill, folded over. I tugged it towards me, and opened it and found the total: £57. Instead of counting out that amount, I removed a five-pound note from the thickness of bills I had been aware of in my pocket throughout the meal and placed the rest of the blue notes on the saucer.

‘That was such a treat,’ Molly said. ‘And now I fear I must fly. I’ve an appointment on Fleet Street.’

I wanted her to go away and not to see any more of me, but not wishing to be obvious, I felt I needed to make a gesture. I said, ‘I’m headed in that direction. We could share a taxi.’

I hailed one on the Strand and as we rode east, past Somerset House and towards the Old Bailey, I leaned over and kissed her, hurriedly, like clumsy eating, tasting chocolate on her lips.


‘No. That was very nice,’ she said. And then the taxi stopped and she got out, and hurried away.

‘You can drop me here,’ I said to the driver, looking at the meter, as we approached Ludgate Circus.

‘Anything smaller than a fiver?’ he asked.

‘It’s all I have.’

In the train to Catford Bridge I saw my reflection in the window and didn’t recognise it. Living in Catford was like living underground, like failure, like being buried. I was only happy writing, but I was discovering that the writing life is not compatible with anything. Away from my desk I was a trivial-minded and reckless young alien, a bad husband, accurately portrayed as the chancer scanning the room in Molly’s sketch.

I never saw her again, but I was sure she would succeed as a brilliant satirist who saw through fakery, and that her work would be admired and celebrated, and that my future was at best nebulous. I remember the helpless feeling in my stomach, like the intimation of food poisoning, when I got home and my wife said, ‘Good riddance to that car. And we could use the money.’

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