I was lucky. The job I had been trying for came up. It was through the usual friend-of-a-friend, and it was on the Chelsea Clarion, a glorified parish magazine that had gone in for small ads and had established itself as a kind of marketplace for people looking for flats and rooms and servants in the southwest part of London. It had added some editorial pages that dealt only with local problems— the hideous new lamp standards, infrequent buses on the Number 11 route, the theft of milk bottles—things that really affected the local housewives, and it ran a whole page of local gossip, mostly “Chelsea,” that “everybody” came to read and that somehow managed to dodge libel actions. It also had a hard-hitting editorial on Empire Loyalist lines that exactly suited the politics of the neighborhood, and, for good measure, it was stylishly made up each week (it was a weekly) by a man called Harling who was quite a dab at getting the most out of the old-fashioned type faces that were all our steam-age jobbing printers in Pimlico had in stock. In fact it was quite a good little paper, and the staff liked it so much they worked for a pittance and even for nothing when the ads didn't materialize in times like August and over the holidays. I got five pounds a week (we were non-union: not important enough), plus commission on any ads I could rustle up.
So I quietly tucked the fragments of my heart somewhere under my ribs and decided to get along without one for the future. I would rely on brains and guts and shoe-leather to show these damned English snobs that if I couldn't get anywhere else with them I could at least make a living out of them. So I went to work by day and cried by night and I became the most willing horse on the paper. I made tea for the staff, attended the funerals and got the lists of the mourners right, wrote spiky paragraphs for the gossip page, ran the competition column, and even checked the clues of the crossword before it went into type. And, in between, I hustled round the neighborhood, charming ads out of the most hardbitten shops and hotels and restaurants and piling up my twenty-per-cents with the tough old Scotswoman who kept the accounts. Soon I was making good money—twelve to twenty pounds a week—and the editor thought he would economize by stabilizing me at a salary of fifteen, so he installed me in a cubbyhole next to him and I became his editorial assistant, which apparently carried with it the privilege of sleeping with him. But at the first pinch of my behind I told him that I was engaged to a man in Canada, and, when I said it, I looked him so furiously in the eye that he got the message and left me alone. I liked him, and from then on we got on fine. He was an ex-Beaverbrook reporter called Len Holbrook, who had come into some money and had decided to go into business for himself. He was a Welshman and, like all of them, something of an idealist. He had decided that if he couldn't change the world he would at least make a start on Chelsea, and he bought the broken-down Clarion and started laying about him. He had a tip-off on the Council and another in the local Labour Party organization, and he got off to a flying start when he revealed that a jerry-builder had got the contract for a new block of Council flats and that he wasn't building to specification—not putting enough steel in the concrete or something. The Nationals picked up the story, with tongs because It stank of libel, and, as luck would have it, cracks began to appear in the uprights, and pictures got taken. There was an inquiry, the builder lost his contract and his license, and the Clarion put a red Saint George and Dragon on its masthead. There were other campaigns, like the ones I mentioned earlier, and suddenly people were reading the little paper and it put on more pages and soon had a circulation of around forty thousand and the Nationals were regularly stealing its stories and giving it an occasional plug in exchange.
Well, I settled down in my new job as “Assistant to the Editor,” and I was given more writing to do and less leg-work, and in due course, after I had been there for a year, I graduated to a by-line, and “Vivienne Michel” became a public person and my salary went up to twenty guineas. Len liked the way I got on with things and wasn't afraid of people, and he taught me a lot about writing— tricks like hooking the reader with your lead paragraph, using short sentences, avoiding “okay” English, and, above all, writing about people. This he had learned from the Express, and he was always drumming it into my head. For instance, he had a phobia about the 11 and 22 bus services and he was always chasing them. I began one of my many stories about them, “Conductors on the Number 11 service complain that they have to work to too tight a schedule in the rush-hours.” Len put his pencil through it. “People, people, people! This is how it ought to go: 'Frank Donaldson, a wideawake young man of twenty-seven, has a wife, Gracie, and two children, Bill, six, and Emily, five. And he has a grouse. ”I haven't seen my kids in the evening ever since the summer holidays,“ he told me in the neat little parlor of number 36 Bolton Lane. ”When I get home they're always in bed. You see, I'm a conductor, on the 11 route, and we've been running an hour late regular, ever since the new schedules came in.“ ' ” Len stopped. “See what I mean? There are people driving those buses. They're more interesting than the buses. Now you go out and find a Frank Donaldson and make that story of yours come alive.” Cheap stuff, I suppose, corny angles, but that's journalism, and I was in the trade and I did what he told me and my copy began to draw the letters—from the Donaldsons of the neighborhood and their wives and their mates. And editors seem to love letters. They make a paper look busy and read.
I stayed with the Clarion another two years, until I was just over twenty-one, and by then I was getting offers from the Nationals, from the Express and the Mail, and it seemed to me it was time to get out of S.W.3 and into the world. I was still living with Susan. She had got a job with the Foreign Office in something called “Communications,” about which she was very secretive, and she had a boy-friend from the same department, and I knew it wouldn't be long before they got engaged and she would want the whole flat. My own private life was a vacuum—a business of drifting friendships and semi-flirtations from which I always recoiled, and I was in danger of becoming a hard, if successful, little career girl, smoking too many cigarettes and drinking too many vodkas and tonics and eating alone out of tins. My gods, or rather goddesses (Katharine Whitehorne and Penelope Gilliatt were outside my orbit), were Drusilla Beyfus, Veronica Papworth, Jean Campbell, Shirley Lord, Barbara Griggs, and Anne Sharpley—the top women journalists—and I only wanted to be as good as any of them and nothing else in the world.
And then, at a press show in aid of a Baroque Festival in Munich, I met Kurt Rainer of the V.W.Z.
Five: A Bird With a Wing Down
THE rain was still crashing down, its violence unchanged. The eight-o'clock news continued its talk of havoc and disaster—a multiple crash on Route 9, railway tracks flooded at Schenectady, traffic at a standstill in Troy, heavy rain likely to continue for several hours. American life is completely dislocated by storms and snow and hurricanes. When American automobiles can't move, life comes to a halt, and when their famous schedules can't be met they panic and go into a kind of paroxysm of frustration, besieging railway stations, jamming the long-distance wires, keeping their radios permanently switched on for any crumb of comfort. I could imagine the chaos on the roads and in the cities, and I hugged my cozy solitude to me.
My drink was nearly dead. I kept it just alive with some more ice cubes, lit another cigarette, and settled down again in my chair while a disk jockey announced half an hour of Dixieland jazz.
Kurt hadn't liked jazz. He thought it decadent. He also stopped me smoking and drinking and using lipstick, and life became a serious business of art galleries and concerts and lecture halls. As a contrast to my meaningless, rather empty life, it was a welcome change and I dare say the diet of Teutonism appealed to the rather heavy seriousness that underlies the Canadian character.
V.W.Z., the Verband Westdeutscher Zeitungen, was an independent news agency financed by a cooperative of West German newspapers rather on the lines of Reuter's. Kurt Rainer was its first representative in London and when I met him he was on the lookout for an English Number Two to read the papers and weeklies for items of German interest while he did the high-level diplomatic stuff and covered outside assignments. He took me out to dinner that night, to Schmidt's in Charlotte Street, and was rather charmingly serious about the importance of his job and how much it might mean for Anglo-German relationships. He was a powerfully built, outdoor type of young man whose bright fair hair and candid blue eyes made him look younger than his thirty years. He told me that he came from Augsburg, near Munich, and that he was an only child of parents who were both doctors and had both been rescued from a concentration camp by the Americans. They had been informed on and arrested for listening to the Allied radio and for preventing young Kurt from joining the Hitler Youth Movement. He had been educated at Munich High School and at the University, and had then gone into journalism, graduating to Die Welt, the leading West German newspaper, from which he had been chosen for this London job because of his good English. He asked me what I did, and the next day I went round to his two-room office in Chancery Lane and showed him some of my work. With typical thoroughness he had already checked up on me through friends at the Press Club, and a week later I found myself installed in the room next to his with the P.A./Reuter and the Exchange Telegraph tickers chattering beside my desk. My salary was wonderful—thirty pounds a week— and I soon got to love the work, particularly operating the Telex with our Zentrale in Hamburg, and the twice-daily rush to catch the morning and evening deadlines of the German papers. My lack of German was only a slight handicap, for, apart from Kurt's copy, which he put over by telephone, all my stuff went over the Telex in English and was translated at the other end, and the Telex operators in Hamburg had enough English to chatter with me when I was on the machine. It was rather a mechanical job, but you had to be quick and accurate and it was fun judging the success or failure of what I sent by the German cuttings that came in a few days later. Soon Kurt had enough confidence to leave me alone in charge of the office, and there were exciting little emergencies I had to handle by myself with the thrill of knowing that twenty editors in Germany were depending on me to be fast and right. It all seemed so much more important and responsible than the parochial trivialities of the Clarion, and I enjoyed the authority of Kurt's directions and decisions, combined with the constant smell of urgency that goes with news agency work.
In due course Susan got married and I moved out to furnished rooms in Bloomsbury Square in the same building as Kurt. I had wondered if this was a good idea, but he was so korrekt and our relationship was so kameradschaftlich—words which he constantly employed about social situations—that I thought I was being at least adequately sensible. It was very silly of me. Apart from the fact that Kurt probably misunderstood my easy acceptance of his suggestion that I find a place in his building, it now became natural that we should walk home together from the nearby office. Dinners together became more frequent and, later, to spare the expense, he would bring his gramophone up to my sitting-room and I would cook something for both of us. Of course, I saw the danger and I invented several friends to spend the evening with. But this meant sitting by myself in some cinema after a lonely meal with all the nuisance of men trying to pick one up. And Kurt remained so korrekt and our relationship on such a straightforward and even highminded level that my apprehensions came to seem idiotic, and more and more I accepted a comradely way of life that seemed not only totally respectable but also adult in the modern fashion. I was all the more confident because, after about three months of this peaceful existence, Kurt, on his return from a visit to Germany, told me that he had become engaged. She was a childhood friend called Trude and, from all he told me, they were ideally suited. She was the daughter of a Heidelberg professor of philosophy, and the placid eyes that stared out of the snapshots he showed me, and the gleaming braided hair and trim dirndl, were a living advertisement for “Kinder, Kirche, Küche.”