Monday, May 9, 2011

Chapter VIII The Bathos of Robbie Fields

Some 10 years ago, I started writing my memoirs when going through the aftermath of my twin brother's death. There were many chapters left unwritten, some of them as they dealt with emotions still raw after 30 years. This is one of those chapters that I held off writing until now. The last thing I wanted to do was write a kiss and tell so I have attempted to be discrete where possible. Some of the writing may seem glib but I have had to confront some painful episodes where I wish I could have acted with more consideration for others' feelings.

1973 was an awful year for me. Actually the awfulness started in August 1972 with my falling asleep at the wheel of a car on Interstate 10, not far from Las Cruces, New Mexico.

My father would not forgive me for some years (even though it was someone else's car that I had wrecked) and it cost me the not inconsiderable sum then of $50 per month that he had been giving me to supplement my university grant.

It was hardly the preparation I needed for re-sitting my failed Philosophy examinations at Warwick and the academic authorities there turned down my request for an Aegrotat pass,
a waiver on account of an all too apparent medical condition. And I had returned to nearby Leamington Spa to find that my steady girlfriend Gail M. had taken up with someone else during my absence in America. So I soon found myself turfed out of Warwick, my only option to bunker down in my mother's London flat, shell shocked.

The fact that my mother told her friend Frank Kermode of my plight, which resulted in my eventual late matriculation to the English undergraduate course at University College, London,
did little to boost my crushed self esteem.

I regressed sexually.

Instead of going out with girls my age or older at college, I was back in London as a 19 year old with my Westminster friends now 17 and going to their parties. Michael Zilkha famously failed to invite me to one of his soirees or luncheons with the admonition : "You're too depressed, Robbie".

There just wasn't a vibrant social life at UCL, unless you were in hall, communal student accommodation where it was hard not to strike up a conversation.

My love life lurched from one emotional disaster to another.

There was a very special friend whom I had known for some years and had on occasion snogged who, out of the blue, presented herself naked on my bed and requested me to deflower her.
I thought I was showing respect by declining her invitation but I had, instead, put her in an awkward situation. A milkshake at the Hard Rock afterwards only froze our mutual understanding further. After a few wild years, she did settle down and went onto to have a fabulous marriage.

Yet, not long afterwards (or was it before?), I had deflowered a different but just as willing girl on the same bed after only having met her at a party the previous weekend. This time I was the cad , telling her the next time she called that I wasn't ready for a committed relationship.

I was an unfeeling brute, so I thought in the aftermath each time, incapable of understanding these girls' own emotional needs.

There was fall out, too. The spurned girl's best friend at the time had just started going out with my best friend Patrick Wintour. Patrick understandably dropped me and we were never able to resume where we had left off. I still feel a heavy emotional debt to Patrick after all these years, especially as I was not "there" for him when he went through his own emotional hell at the time of his parents' divorce.

The Wintour house at Phillimore Gardens had been a special moment in time with our "group" , myself, Patrick, Roger Cohen, Marcus Campbell with drop ins like Mike Hamlyn, Sean Gough, David Bernstein , Mark Newlands amongst many others gathering every weekend before charging off to parties. Not forgetting Patrick's sisters , Nora and Anna (though the latter was far more a fleeting presence) and Kate Arnold Forster, herself about to join the Westminster Sixth form.

The seduced young girl became a psychiatrist. And it has occurred to me that she might be the one who could uncork the not insignificant feelings of self reproach I have stored from a thousand different but recurring situations in my life.

Not all was gloom. For the second year running, Roger invited me to stay in his room at Hotel Belvedere in Wengen over New Year's. We travelled as a threesome in my 1961 Morris Minor "Horace", Roger, I and Mark Newlands. We made it as far as Zermatt where Mark Newlands and I had an unforgettable experience with Gisela from Giessen and her friend Gabi. Even more fun was Wengen that year, highlighted by high jinks with a group from Roedean. But sadly, on the drive back through Germany, "Horace" threw a rod and died a noisy, oil spewing death in a side street near Strasbourg main railway station. So my days were over of driving friends to parties or to weekends in the country.

So all this is a preamble to what transpired in the spring of 1973, some months and various casual relationships later.

I had begun to settle in at UCL with the powers at be allowing me to progress past the introductory courses. I would now be taking seminars with 2nd and 3rd year students, even ones led by the man himself, Frank Kermode, catching him in his final year at UCL.

I was no longer at my mother's house but staying in my twin brother's large mansion flat. We even held a party or two there. Roger's younger sister Jenny and Nick Robson's sister Cathy were on this kick of eating bacon and tomato toasted sandwiches.

It may have been David Bernstein who invited the gang to St Paul's girls school to see his sister Jane act in, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which I had seen both on the West End stage and in the cinema and probably even read the original novella the previous year during my book a day reading kick at Warwick. There would be the bonus of a cast party afterwards.

I remember sitting in the second row as in front of me and no doubt terrifying the actors on stage were "Pierre" and "Napoleon" from the BBC's hit dramatisation of War and Peace. Yes, that infamous "Welsh cunt", as Olivier so invectively called Tony Hopkins, accompanied by the truly great and comparatively unfeted Ian Holm. I never found out whose daughter they were supporting that evening.

Terror struck early, as the flaming haired Jane Bernstein (who matured into the writer Jane Wells), possibly playing the ill fated Mary Macgregor, found there was no desk and chair for her to sit at ... on stage. I can only say, Jane, that when I played the Constable in Fiddler On The Roof on a different stage some 20 years later, I made do without the horse.

At some point in the evening a girl off stage caught my eye and I made a mental note to find her later at the cast party.

Well the play was a hoot, despite the keenly felt absence of Maggie Smith. We must have caught a cab to the party location, out in Chiswick as I recall. I was in fine form, no depressed air about me. As I and my friends came up to ring the front door bell of the suburban villa, I was asked to wait outside. Meanwhile my friends ventured inside. Roger probably came out after a few minutes to explain that I was not actually welcome at the party but he would do his best to clear up the misunderstanding.

I was dumbstruck. Rather than being a trouble maker, I tended always to ingratiate myself with those hosting a party, especially if I had come along as a friend of a friend.

So I waited. In the chilly night air, far from central London. And waited.

It must have been an hour before I was welcomed inside. And there, as soon as I turned the corner, leaning against the wall was the girl who had caught my eye earlier in the evening in the school hall. By herself, as though she had been waiting all this time for me. It was wonderfully incomprehensible, for this girl was simply stunning looking. Light auburn hair, wearing tight fitting slacks with lambswool sweater, with delicate curves in the right places.

She drew me right to her. There was no mistaking that she wanted me and I just fell, hook, line and sinker. For the duration of the party we were inseparable. We kissed, we embraced passionately. I was not interested in finding a discrete corner to go to. I was blissfully happy and thought my bliss would never end, it would stay on a sky high plateau of fulfilled desire.

We must have talked. Or did we skip the routine questions of age and background? It would have been unusual if we had. We rode back together to London in a minicab, she was on my knees and I remember Jane Bernstein in front making a negative comment or two that sailed right over my head.

I was in love. I had her name and number and I was going to invite her out. Then I called.

"I'm sorry but I won't be able to see you", she explained.

"What did I do?", I pleaded. "I just won't be able to ..."

I thought of buying her a gigantic ruby ring, doing anything to get my hands on money to impress her.

It was my turn to be utterly crushed. That summer term at UCL turned mainly to dust. I avoided tutorials and when finally I was cornered and had confessed my romantic failings, my tutor actually cut me slack. Maybe he had been too close to some of the all too prevalent suicides at Varsity, instinctively not pushing me over the edge.

Rather than pursue an active social life, I started work as a hotel floor service waiter
on the graveyard shift, accumulating enough money to rent a flat very close to that elite girls' school. But I did not stalk her.

My friends must have been very patient with me. That summer I was invited to stay in a grand hotel in Biarritz by one friend but I had already spent all my earnings on my new flat. Maybe I had misunderstood a simple invitation to take tea if I happened to be passing by on my Inter Rail pass! Something did wither inside of me that year and made me question my sexuality. I came to my 21st birthday, terribly unsure.

I threw a party for myself before Christmas, a week or so before my actual birthday on the 29th. The party was notable for my punching out Chris (Paul) Huhne who had tickled me a bit too aggressively when we were seated on my tatty couch. Somehow we became very good friends afterwards and he threw some outrageous parties at his South Kensington mansion flat. But once Christmas was over, I decided on solitude for my birthday. I travelled to Scotland, possibly hitchhiking there and found myself at the youth hostel in Inverness, thus I spent my birthday alone. But I had a piece of paper with my new friend Becky Fraser's telephone number scribbled on it. Well, there I was the day after my sullen birthday calling, expecting to be brushed off ....

"Yes, we're coming into Inverness to go ice skating ... we can meet you there and please join us."

I was invited to spend Hogmanay at Eilean Aigas with the Fraser family. I had heard of but had never met Becky's mother, Lady Antonia. It tuned out we knew someone in common, Lady Antonia's best friend, the writer A.S. Byatt whom I knew as Toni Duffy, from her work teaching in the English department at UCL. In any event, Lady Antonia had me sit close to her at one meal, "I love the pain of child birth", she cooed and I knew henceforth I could only love women, for she was the idealised mother of 6 who oozed sensual warmth. Her then husband Sir Hugh was very kind to me under his gruff exterior and patiently introduced me to the delight of drinking Bell's.

Besides Becky, I also knew younger daughter Flora from her time at Holland Park School. Now she was looking and acting quite mature for a girl still under 16. The girls had a coach house to themselves and were intent on fun. I doubt if I provided anything other than gossip, especially demanded about my old school mate the cherubic looking Adam Harvey, whom I had never seen at any parties, but here he was the hot topic of the day among two of the most desirable young ladies in London society.

The several days I spent at Eilean Aigas were magical. I was taken sightseeing, fed beautiful food, met other members of the Pakenham/Fraser extended family. If there were cracks in the family, they were most certainly papered over at this time. Upon my return to London, my friends saw that I was clearly smitten with Lady Antonia and they did their best to tease me with tall tales of other boys consummating their passion with her. But I knew my desire for her would go unexpressed, unfulfilled, unrequited but provide a romantic template for the future that beckoned.

I saw Lady Antonia many years later in the foyer of a London theatre accompanied by her second husband Harold Pinter. She neither recognised me nor connected to anything I might have said, but I shall never forget her generous spirit that Hogmanay when my own was touching bathos.

So when I came some months later in mid 1974 to be greeted at the Brook Green bus stop by a pretty freckled girl wearing a knitted cap, I had no idea who she was until she told me her name, Jane; the girl who had sat on my knees before kissing me goodbye.

I thought the pain was gone but it has lingered all these years. I never stopped thinking of her, asking vainly for news. Even decades later when searching the Internet for news of her, any findings would be obscured by the massive attention received by her actress cousin, Helena.

And now 35 years later, I have stumbled upon the truth.

I cannot be sure if I did not wish to hear it previously or if Jane fibbed a little about who she was, all those years ago, in that Chiswick villa. It was obvious to everyone and common knowledge to some but I was blinded to everything but desire.

Jane Bonham Carter came out of the shadows in 2005 as she was elevated to a life peerage as Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury. She was born 20 October 1957. Never married, no children, but lives with her partner (Lord) Tim Razzall, some 14 years her senior..

Jane was barely 15 when we met.

I had no idea. I thought her 16 or 17, already in the sixth form. No wonder that Jane Bernstein was upset at my zeroing in on her contemporary. That additional difference of 1 year in age made for an embargo on any romantic notions I might have had as a then 20 year old.

So ist die Liebe.

work in progress

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