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The Warp

Italia Prize (1)

In the aeroplane, heading out towards Rome, I read a newspaper article suggesting that Britain should have a Ministry of Diaster, prompted, I suppose, by the huge floods there recently have been. How appropriate, and might it not well be that such a Ministry, within a very short time, would find that it had taken over almost the whole of Britain?

Ken and Tony are in the plane too, coming with me to pick up the Italia Prize award we’ve won. Unlike most of these awards, this one pays good money.

Tony is saying how many great comedians have come from Liverpool, Tommy Handley, Ken Dodd, Arthur Askey and many others. Everything formed a subject for their jokes, the football, the working men’s clubs, the docks, everything. ‘You’d have to be a comedian to live there.’

We climb down out of the plane onto the hot runway.

We’re installed in a very smart hotel. A smooth young man tells us we’ve been invited to a concert. ‘What time is the concert?’

‘Oh, you can go any time.’

Thinking that this concert must be somewhere in Rome, not too far from where we are staying, we say we’ll have a rest and leave at 6.30. At 6.30 a car arrives and at 7.30 we are still stuck in impenetrable Roman traffic jams. Finally we’re out in the country. We arrive at the immense courtyard of an old palazzo, lit by live flames flaring into the night. Passing through a series of fabulous rooms with painted walls and up glorious staircases we arrive at a vast chamber on the first floor, supported by pillars, lit like the rooms below by flares, and containing mainly men in suits whose badges proclaim them as coming from what seems like every television station in the world.

Here is Huw Weldon with his head coyly on one side, behaving with a studied gallantry. Dressed in a dark blue suit, he lingers coyly round those women whose dresses have low decolletage, mouthing out compliments. ‘Oh, madam, may I say so, how very pretty you are tonight.’ ‘Oh, how very charming, madam, how very delightful. May I say it?’ And then he kisses their hands.

Frank Gillard, a high up official in radio, accosts me and, as we plunge forks into a blancmange-like pink mess which is probably pounded-up salmon I’d say, discloses that, like me, he has a farm in the country.

The whole scene is magnificent, the rice is inedible. Gillard says, ‘When I’m on the farm I cease to have any faith in the value of the job I’m doing at radio. In what way exactly does radio make people’s lives richer or fuller? When I’m on the farm I realise that that is true life, true existence and the other thing is only an excresence.’ These days he’d probably have added the concept that radio and all the rest of the media are just another example of contamination and pollution.

An ancient Italian is led up to us by a smooth P.R. type, who explains that he doesn’t speak any English, but ‘This is the man who originally invented this Italia Prize Festival twenty years ago.’

There are a succession of media men’s wives sitting coyly round tables saying, when introduced, ‘You mustn’t talk shop, especially on this occasion.’

Next day, Huw invites us to lunch in an Italian restaurant at the foot of the ascending slope of the Spanish steps, very close to where Keates lived. With his brown eyes looking out piercingly from either side of his hooked nose, he says, ‘They have a really most delightful delicacy here.

Prosciutto con figlio. I really do recommend it. And then to


follow, they have a curious dish, basically it’s spaghetti made with eggs and bacon.’

What I wrote about Huw in my journal now seems to me simplistic; ‘Why does he have to get back on the aeroplane? Back to his treadmill? Offered life, he prefers death. Offered freedom, he prefers shackles. And, as the sun rises round the curve of the world and provides a scene where he could stretch his humanity, he prefers to play games, and shuffle with his international colleagues for pecking order round the conference centres of the world.

‘And so he’ll get back on his plane, that silver equipage that will carry him off to other festivals, more coy lingerings in the corridors of the conference centres of the world.

‘He spends too much of his life in aeroplanes, cruising from one international conference to another, everywhere being cheerful, pleasant, polite, making contacts, gushing over grievances. A sort of media diplomatic corps.

‘Through the tapestry filled corridors he tiptoes, a coy smile on the side of his face. There’s a contrast between his shy, coy, brittle, social world and the vast opportunities of his position. Represented by Tony and Ken, the young men over whom he has control.’

He tells us how he once nearly joined the Foreign Legion! It all started in a brothel.

‘It was in an extremely lavish Paris brothel, somewhat like, say, the Savoy. The girls had green fluffy things round here,’ he says, pointing at his waist, ‘and hanging out from them they had green flying fluffy straps which they could raise to put over their fronts (pointing at his breasts) or lower as required.’

‘For example, if they felt cold,’ comments the female psychologist who is one of his guests.

The girls hovered around him, according to Huw, vying to carry him off with them, a great fluffy prize.

‘And there were about a hundred men there in the brothel,’ says Huw, ‘all of them just sitting round and not doing anything. Everyone was discussing the Munich crisis and one of the girls said ‘I don’t know what to do about my three kids down in Lyons that I left with my granny.’ And by six o’clock in the morning we decided that we must do something about the international crisis, we must go and join the Foreign Legion. And so we took a taxi to the barracks, and signed our names in.

‘But luckily a burgeoning bureaucracy had begun to take root, even at the Foreign Legion. We were kept waiting for hours for someone to enrol us, and by 10 a.m. we were sober enough to leave without having joined the legion after all. What an escape!

‘A touch of prosciutto con figlio? It is a speciality

and quite delightful.’


The walls of the café where we are sitting are lined with huge mouldy mezzo-tints of ruined Italian buildings.

The woman psychologist is also out here to pick up a television award for a programme she was in. There is a searching and vibrant vitality about her. An American Jewess, she has the hawk-like features of a predator. There’s a lot of mascara round her eyes and she wears her exotic dress low. She later tells me ‘I’m one of those few people who can say with conviction, “I’m wonderful!”’

Leaning over from where she’s sitting next to him, she’s running her hand up and down Huw’s arm, while gnawing at his ear. A friend she’s brought with her, sitting on my left, explains, ‘She’s a very provocative girl. She’s leading the conversation into the area of sex because she wants to make Huw discomforted.’

Her award is for the part she played in a television documentary about a psychological experiment she was engaged in, one that involved the teaching of a damaged man who never had spoken to speak, by shouting at him. Huw, so her friend confides, had refused to commission it some years ago, but it had more recently been television without the top brass knowing (just as ‘Cathy’ had been). The programme had been successful and Huw had been disturbed, initially, to hear that it had won an award, but was putting a brave face on it.

The friend also confides that she is one of the psychologist’s former clients for whom she’d effected a dramatic cure from mental illness. As the psychologist munches Huw’s left ear, and carresses the muscles of his upper arms, Huw is nonplussed. Should he ask the woman to stop what she’s doing? And yet, of course, there is something rather pleasant about it. Should he perhaps respond and munch her ear? He doesn’t know what to do but disguises this well.

Now, even more alarming to Huw, the conversation has switched once again.

‘Yes, when I masturbate, I have tried once or twice to see whether I can turn myself on by looking at pictures of men, but it is no good,’ says the psychologist. ‘Masturbation only works for me when I think of my own body and how beautiful it is.’

Huw masterfully conceals his mounting alarm. Nervously, he hands round postcards of Michaelangelo’s ‘David’, all identical.

The woman psychologist says, ‘Most of my clients, when I have been going at them for a while, begin to masturbate. Sometimes I try to think of men when I’m masturbating but that doesn’t work either.’

The meal is nearing its end. Ken is saying, ‘I feel that there is such a lot of talent around in the BBC that you’d expect more talented productions to come out as a result of it. There is much more talent than the productions to come out would suggest.

This line of conversation is very unacceptable to Huw. Rapidly he rises to his feet. ‘It’s time to go!’ he exclaims, leading us out into the sunlight. I lead a race, which Huw does not join in, up the huge Spanish steps.

A man in a grey shirt, wool knitted tie and baggy grey trousers is lounging back in the car as once again we are speeding out of Rome to some unknown palazzo in the darkness. He’s called Nick Rhodes and is an instantly spottable Home Service Radio type.

Huw is also in the back of the car, his rather chewed ear against the speaker of a quadrophonic sound system, snatching a moment of sleep. Suddenly, as if directed straight into his brain, sound blasts of some Italian radio commercial bursts forth directly behind his ear. His whole body recoils in shock. Then, regaining consciousness, he mentions, ‘Rome is such a pleasant city.’

The award-giving ceremony. We are picked up from our hotel by harrassed young women in charge of ill-tempered chauffeurs. We arrive at a palazzo which has sculpted bees modelled in solid gold buzzing about in the ceiling and a friendly bronze lion crouching in the corner. I recognise this as a place which, open to the public, Nell and I had visited ten years ago and had stood in that room, hand in hand, and me never thinking that one day I would return here in different circumstances.

There are three television cameras, one of which is tilting up to the ceiling to get a revealing shot of the bees and cataclysmic frescoes. The huge Renaissance room is filled with mid-twentieth century grey stackable chairs, and people.

We realise that we are too early, and go out again to have camparis in a crowded bar down the road, then back, threading our way through assembled traffic policemen in their gleaming white uniforms with quaint empire builder’s white helmets, and the mounted police with their smart blue uniforms and silver swords.

When we get back we find that the room has filled up with top brass television mandarinate from around the world.

There is a very loud fanfare from three recorded trumpets and then loudspeakers emit a series of announcements in Italian, explaining to us, among other things, that we are participants at the twentieth anniversary of the Prix Italia, as if we didn’t know it already.

Tom Stoppard, the writer, has also come to pick up an award. He strolls over and says, ‘Have you met the Neopolitan journalist yet? I think he’s exactly as he should be, like a three-layered coloured ice cream. I told him I was going to find you three to introduce you to him.’

I get talking to an Italian television director who says, ‘I never tell anyone that I am engaged in the arts. As a boy growing up in Switzerland I trained as a ballet dancer and nobody likes ballet dancers in Switzerland. Now I always introduce myself as an insurance salesman.’

At the end of the speeches we, the winners, are lined along chairs amongst statues along one side of the room, and wait to be shepherded up to the stage.

The most popular entry comes from the other side of the iron curtain, from Czechoslovakia. The applause goes on and on and the man stands up and bows again and again.

In the blinding flare of the television lights as we go up to the stage to pick up our awards for ‘Cathy Tourne a Casa’, someone interviews us for British radio. What I say is hopeless but Tony comes up with something good, that social problems should also get a place in the international prizes. Then it is all applause, and bowing, and afterwards, drinking in the vast halls of another palazzo, I wander out into the cool garden.

Someone tells me the following story; ‘At the Expo Fair in Montreal a guy was waiting while his girlfriend went to the toilet. She didn’t come back. He went into the ladies to look for her and found nothing. Then he saw a stretcher on which was a young woman being carried out of the Exposition. He asked what was happening and was told that she’d been taken ill and they were rushing her to a hospital. They tried to brush him off but he refused to let that happen and he removed the mask that was covering her face, saw it was his girlfriend and insisted on going too. The ‘hospital’ they took her to was not a real hospital but an ordinary house. Outside it they dumped the stretcher by the road and abandoned her.

‘Some hours later, in a real hospital, the girl said that a group of people had come in and stood round her in the toilet and then she had felt a slight prick in her bottom and that was all she remembered.

‘She and her boyfriend reported the incident to the police, and as a result of what had happened the police were able to uncover a white slave market of vast extent.’

Walking through the scented gloom of Rome, we are back on our own.

Every morning in our hotel the English guests say to each other, ‘What a wonderful day it is! Aren’t we being lucky?’ The Italians don’t say that, they know every day is likely to be a fine day.

As we are eating spaghetti in a cheap restaurant the following night we get talking to a couple of young women who have noticed that we are smoking cannabis. They tell us they are driving down to Positano in a couple of days, and invite us to join them. Ken and Tony refuse. I accept.


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