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D. J. Taylor, Roger Longrigg - Slightly Foxed Issue 27

Down in the Mayfair Badlands

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In strict taxonomic terms, Roger Longrigg’s long career – he published novels for over half his seven decades on the planet – looks like a throw-back, a reversion to the high-output conditions of the inter-war era when, as Alec Waugh once put it, ‘a book a year was the rule’. Certainly a professional bibliographer called in to reckon up his prodigious output would hardly know where to start. To begin with there are the dozen novels written in the ’50s and ’60s under his own name – gamey and somewhat louche affairs, including the horse-racing caper Daughters of Mulberry (1961). Then there are the psychological thrillers from the 1980s, most notably Mother Love (1983), under the alias ‘Domini Taylor’.

But what about the 1962 best-seller The Passion-Flower Hotel, which, as his New York Times obituary in 2000 notes, ‘described its author, Rosalind Erskine, as a 15-year-old at a girls’ boarding school where the students operated a brothel for the entertainment of visitors from a nearby school for boys’? Or the nine outings as ‘Ivor Drummond’ – these had eye-catching titles like The Priests of the Abomination and A Stench of Poppies – between 1969 and 1980? ‘Laura Black’ chipped in a further four, and ‘Frank Parrish’, one of his longer-lasting noms de guerre (1977–93), another eight. The list is by no means complete, and some unofficial estimates of his myriad professional guises put the number as high as eight or nine.

I first came across Longrigg’s books in the early ’90s by way of the American scholar James Gindin’s ground-breaking Post-war British Fiction (1962). At work on my own book about the English novel since 1945 – what became After the War (1993) – I reckoned that here might be a thoroughly representative route into the atmosphere of 1950s fiction, as not written by, say, Kingsley Amis or Iris Mur

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In strict taxonomic terms, Roger Longrigg’s long career – he published novels for over half his seven decades on the planet – looks like a throw-back, a reversion to the high-output conditions of the inter-war era when, as Alec Waugh once put it, ‘a book a year was the rule’. Certainly a professional bibliographer called in to reckon up his prodigious output would hardly know where to start. To begin with there are the dozen novels written in the ’50s and ’60s under his own name – gamey and somewhat louche affairs, including the horse-racing caper Daughters of Mulberry (1961). Then there are the psychological thrillers from the 1980s, most notably Mother Love (1983), under the alias ‘Domini Taylor’.

But what about the 1962 best-seller The Passion-Flower Hotel, which, as his New York Times obituary in 2000 notes, ‘described its author, Rosalind Erskine, as a 15-year-old at a girls’ boarding school where the students operated a brothel for the entertainment of visitors from a nearby school for boys’? Or the nine outings as ‘Ivor Drummond’ – these had eye-catching titles like The Priests of the Abomination and A Stench of Poppies – between 1969 and 1980? ‘Laura Black’ chipped in a further four, and ‘Frank Parrish’, one of his longer-lasting noms de guerre (1977–93), another eight. The list is by no means complete, and some unofficial estimates of his myriad professional guises put the number as high as eight or nine. I first came across Longrigg’s books in the early ’90s by way of the American scholar James Gindin’s ground-breaking Post-war British Fiction (1962). At work on my own book about the English novel since 1945 – what became After the War (1993) – I reckoned that here might be a thoroughly representative route into the atmosphere of 1950s fiction, as not written by, say, Kingsley Amis or Iris Murdoch. In fact, Longrigg’s novels were both of their age and, occasionally, rather more than that. A High-Pitched Buzz, his début, was published in 1956, the era of Suez and the Angry Young Men, to neither of which it even tangentially refers. At the same time the book’s surface detachment is faintly misleading, for the world of West End advertising and Knightsbridge cocktail parties it surveys is thoroughly patrician, a matter of pink-faced young stockbrokers in dark suits exchanging professional small-talk, of discreetly worn regimental ties and prospective employers complaining about ‘the kind of people one has to work with’: it is the matter-of-factness of the social assumptions on display that gives the comedy its edge. Set in an early approximation of the Sloane Ranger beat (‘I crossed the badlands of Mayfair and came down like a rustler on the fat cattle-country of St James’s’) it is essentially a young-man-about-town novel that might be compared to Andrew Sinclair’s The Breaking of Bumbo (1959), without the anti-imperial edge, or Simon Raven’s The Rich Pay Late (1964), without the nastiness. Henry Fenwick, its 25-year-old narrator, is a junior copywriter at the firm of Johnson and Jol, an undemanding job that consists largely of doing The Times crossword and attending to the monologues of his overbearing boss, Alec Wilberforce. In so far as he has any discernible ambitions, Henry wants to exchange the somewhat rackety equipage of Johnson and Jol for a sleeker model (‘“Advertising does sound odd. Is every firm like yours?” “Oh no, I don’t suppose so. They couldn’t all be. Quite a lot of good advertising happens, after all.”’), and to expand a high-powered social life beyond old school and university friends and girls met at deb dances. With its sharp ear for coterie slang and its absorption in the problems of where one should eat, drink and be seen, it is, among other things, a reliable style-guide to pre-Swinging Sixties London. Though not much more than half a century old, the locales into which Henry descends each morning from his Pont Street flat are as antiquated as a cloche hat: a world of astonishingly rapid car journeys from Kensington to Soho; of Bohemian night-clubs full  of grubby girls in black jumpers; of contending cigarette brands laid out on board-room tables (‘packets of Players, of Craven A, of Turf (Mr Jol’s), of Philip Morris (mine)’); of silent patronage and sexual double standards. Yet if some of the landscapes have a sepia tint, large parts of Henry’s professional-cum-social round can seem surprisingly up-to-date. On one level, A High-Pitched Buzz is one of the first advertising satires, not in quite the same league perhaps as Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936), which simply writes the trade off as the last rattle of capitalism’s swill bucket, but still a thorough-going exposé of the complicated swindle whereby commercial products are brought to their consumer. On another, it is a by no means straightforward romantic comedy of boy meeting girl and then losing girl through a series of epic miscalculations. Perfectly able to intervene in the backstairs intriguing of Johnson and Jol, Henry proves much less adept at conducting his affair with Elizabeth and, if the novel has an underlying tension, it is his inability to project the expertise he brings to his professional life into the world beyond it. Where Longrigg really excels, though, is in his dialogue, the ‘high-pitched buzz’ of the title. Like Anthony Powell in Afternoon Men (1931) or Venusberg (1932), he specializes in ‘realistic’ speech-patterns, drawn out to such exaggerated length that they become exercises in dead-pan comedy. Here, for example, is Henry eavesdropping on the chatter at a drinks party given by his friend Teddy Tothill.

‘Nigel, there’s a girl over there you ought to meet. Just your cup of – ’ ‘I have.’ ‘Oh. Has Jock?’ ‘Have you, Jock?’ ‘Yes, a long talk, most interesting . . .’ ‘Liar,’ said Teddy. ‘Come on. I must say you chaps don’t make it at all easy.’ ‘Well, you see, we’re all tired, Teddy.’ ‘Henry isn’t. All he does is sit and think up slogans.’ ‘Oh do you?’ A girl with bobbed fair hair gazed at me speculatively. ‘That must be interesting.’ ‘Yes.’

By the end of a page or three of this everyone included in the conversation has declared themselves as a kind of futile half-wit, and yet, as with Powell, it is difficult to see how the trick has been done, for the materials are simply those of ‘ordinary’ conversation. It is the same with the lovingly reproduced West End pub chat, or rather not quite, for here a class element intrudes. The pub bores represent what Henry calls ‘Corduroy Cap Conservatism’. They have been ‘commissioned during the war into obscure and inglorious branches of the non-fighting corps of the Army and the non-flying departments of the Air Force’, whereas Henry and his chums went to public schools and did their National Service in ‘smart’ regiments. One of A High-Pitched Buzz’s most telling subtexts, incidentally, is an interest in ‘smartness’, as when Henry’s pal Hugo remarks of advertising that ‘It’s smart in the wrong way. That’s the most awful thing there is.’ Dominating this collection of bar-proppers and chinless young men plotting their futures in a world still governed by their fathers’ friends, is the altogether gargantuan figure of Alec, Henry’s boss, one of those extraordinary monomaniacs in whom office life has always abounded. From the moment he first opens his mouth – in fact the novel begins with him talking – Alec stands revealed as the bore to end all bores, a vainglorious self-aggrandizer (‘I’ve been here working at top pressure from five to nine or earlier’ he complains when Henry saunters to his desk at 9.04) whose every utterance betrays his lack of self-awareness and his complete unsuitability for the position he holds: self-centred, imperceptive and doomed. At the same time, once one has stopped laughing at him, Alec is also a pathetic figure, his flights of fancy always redeemed by his failure to grasp what other people think of him. Watching him lecture a suspicious audience of pub regulars, Henry reflects that he was ‘brimming with the purest intellectual curiosity, the most benevolent anxiety to be of assistance, the most friendly desire to make new human contacts’. And yet Henry knows that the saloon-bar charivari will react in much the same way as Alec’s work colleagues react: ‘with dislike, incomprehension, and contempt’. The scene in which Henry, having worked out the ruse by which Johnson and Jol intend to get rid of Alec, unexpectedly stands up for him, is perhaps the solitary moment of moral clarity in a book which has hitherto got by on subterfuge. The novel ends in a low-key and rather circular way, with Henry installed at the much more up-market concern of Spencer-Smith (a dead ringer for J. Walter Thompson, I should say), detached from Elizabeth, whom he imagines (wrongly, we assume) to have two-timed him, and taking a header back into the social whirlpool. Throughout, neat little satirical flashes (Askew, Alec’s nemesis, is described as sitting at his desk ‘like an evil Brazil-nut’) march hand in hand with bits of poignant reportage. There is a memorable and slightly out-of-kilter scene, late on, in which he is invited for lunch chez Wilberforce somewhere near Camberley, marvels at the eccentric collection of human beings Alec has amassed around him, listens to the plot of the novel he intends to write and goes away amazed at his ‘stupidity, resilience, and courage. A ludicrous, bustling martinet, an impossible histrionic self-dramatizer, a middle-aged man with heavy commitments, starting a new and hazardous life with undiminished enthusiasm – what odd combinations (I thought) people are.’ A High-Pitched Buzz shares something of this eclecticism. It is a young-man-about-town novel with a heart, a case-study in youthful callowness with an oddly sympathetic core, at once wholly embroiled in the society it describes and somehow detached from it, a minor classic from the world of endlessly fisted packets of Craven A, subterranean coffee bars and snobbish laments about the people they’re sending us these days.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 27 © D. J. Taylor 2010


About the contributor

D. J. Taylor is the author of seven novels, most recently Ask Alice (2009). His non-fiction includes a life of George Orwell, which won the 2003 Whitbread Biography Prize. He has read more forgotten novels from the 1950s and 1960s than is probably advisable, and would like to write a history of British literary culture if anyone is prepared to subsidize it.

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