Original: Excursion in Reality - p.p. 220-2




     The commissionaire at Espinoza's restaurant seems to maintain under his
particular authority all the most decrepit  taxicabs  in  London.  He  is  a
commanding man;  across his great chest the  student  of military medals may
construe  a  tale  of  heroism and  experience; Boer farms  sink to ashes, *
fanatical  Fuzzi-wuzzies   hurl   themselves  to  paradise,  *  supercilious
mandarins survey the smashing of their porcelain*  and rending of fine silk,
in that triple  row of decorations.  He has  only to run  from the  steps of
Espinoza's to call to your service a vehicle as  crazy as all the enemies of
the King-Emperor.
     Half a crown into the  white  cotton  glove, because Simon Lent was too
tired to ask for  change. He and Sylvia huddled into the darkness  on broken
springs, between draughty windows. It  had  been  an unsatisfactory evening.
They had sat over  their table until two because it was an extension night.*
Sylvia would not drink anything because Simon had said he was broke. So they
sat for five or  six hours, sometimes silent, sometimes bickering, sometimes
exchanging listless greetings with the passing couples. Simon dropped Sylvia
at  her door; a kiss,  clumsily  offered, coldly accepted; then back to  the
attic  flat, over  a sleepless  garage, for which  Simon paid  six guineas a
week.
     Outside his door  they  were sluicing a limousine. He squeezed round it
and  climbed  the narrow stairs that  had once echoed  to  the whistling  of
ostlers, stamping down to the stables before dawn.
     (Woe to young men in Mewses!* Oh woe to bachelors half in  love, living
on  ? 800 a year!) There was a small heap of letters on  his dressing-table,
which  had arrived that evening while he was  dressing. He lit his  gas fire
and began to open them. Tailor's bill ? 56, hosier ? 43; a reminder that his
club  subscription for that year  had not yet  been paid;  his  account from
Espinoza's with a  note informing  him that the terms were strict,  net cash
monthly, and that no further  credit  would be extended to him; 'it appeared
from  the books' of  his bank that his last cheque overdrew his account ? 10
16s.  beyond  the limit  of  his  guaranteed overdraft;  a demand  from  the
income-tax collector for particulars of  his employees and their wages  (Mrs
Shaw, who came in to make his bed and orange juice for 4s. 6d. a day); small
bills  for  books, spectacles,  cigars,  hair lotion and  Sylvia's last four
birthday presents. (Woe to shops that serve young men in Mewses!)
     The other part of his mail was in  marked contrast to this. There was a
box of  preserved  figs from  an admirer  in Fresno, California; two letters
from young  ladies  who said they were  composing papers about his work  for
their  college literary  societies, and would  he send a  photograph;  press
cuttings  describing   him  as   a  'popular,'   'brilliant,'  'meteorically
successful,' and 'enviable' young  novelist; a request for  the loan of  two
hundred  pounds from  a paralysed journalist; an invitation to luncheon from
Lady Metroland; six pages of closely reasoned abuse from a lunatic asylum in
the North of England. For the truth, which no one who saw  into Simon Lent's
heart could possibly  have  suspected, was that he was in his way and within
his limits quite a famous young man.
     There was  a  last letter with a typewritten address which Simon opened
with little expectation of pleasure. The paper was headed with the name of a
Film Studio  in one  of  the  suburbs  of London. The  letter  was brief and
businesslike.
     Dear  Simon Lent  (a form of  address,  he  had noted  before,  largely
favoured by the theatrical profession),
     I wonder whether you  have ever  considered writing  for  the Films. We
should value your angle on a picture we are  now making.  Perhaps  you would
meet  me for luncheon  to-morrow at the  Garrick Club* and let me know your,
reactions  to this. Will you leave a message with  my  night secretary  some
time before  8 a.m. to-morrow morning  or  with my  day secretary after that
hour?
     Cordially yours,
     Below this were  two  words written  in  pen and ink which seemed to be
Jewee Meccee with below them the explanatory typescript (Sir James Macrae).
     Simon  read this through twice. Then he rang up  Sir  James  Macrae and
informed  his night  secretary that  he would  keep the luncheon appointment
next day. He had barely put down the telephone before the bell rang.
     'This is  Sir James Macrae's night  secretary speaking. Sir James would
be very pleased if  Mr Lent would come round and see him this evening at his
house in Hampstead.'
     Simon looked at his watch. It  was nearly three. 'Well ...  it's rather
late to go so far to-night...'
     'Sir James is sending a car for you.'
     Simon was no longer tired. As he waited  for the car the telephone rang
again. 'Simon,' said Sylvia's voice, 'are you asleep?'
     'No; in fact I'm just going out.'
     'Simon ... I say, was I beastly to-night?'
     'Lousy.'
     'Well, I thought you were lousy, too.'
     'Never mind. See you some time.'
     'Aren't you going to go on talking?'
     'Can't, I'm afraid. I've got to do some work.'
     'Simon, what can you mean?'
     'Can't explain now. There's a car waiting.'
     'When am I seeing you--to-morrow?'
     'Well, I don't really know. Ring me up in the morning. Good night.'
     A quarter  of a mile away, Sylvia put down the telephone, rose from the
hearthrug,  where  she had  settled  herself in  the expectation  of  twenty
minutes' intimate explanation and crept disconsolately into bed.


     Simon bowled off to Hampstead  through deserted streets. He sat back in
the car in a state of pleasant excitement. Presently they
     began  to climb the  steep little  hill and emerged into an  open space
with a  pond  and  the  tops of  trees, black and  deep  as a  jungle in the
darkness. The night butler admitted him to the low  Georgian  house* and led
him  to the library, where Sir James  Macrae  was standing before the  fire,
dressed in ginger-coloured plus-fours. A table was laid with supper.
     'Evening,  Lent. Nice of you to  come. Have to fit  in  business when I
can. Cocoa  or  whisky? Have some rabbit pie; it's rather good. First chance
of a meal I've had since breakfast. Ring for some more cocoa, there's a good
chap. Now what was it you wanted to see me about?'
     'Well, I thought you wanted to see me.'
     'Did  I?  Very  likely.   Miss  Bentham'll  know.  She   arranged   the
appointment. You might ring the bell on the desk, will you?'
     Simon rang and there instantly appeared the neat night secretary.
     'Miss Bentham, what did I want to see Mr Lent about?'
     'I'm afraid I couldn't say, Sir  James. Miss Harper is  responsible for
Mr Lent.  When I  came on duty this evening I merely  found  a note from her
asking me to fix an appointment as soon as possible.'
     'Pity,' said Sir James.  'We'll have to wait until Miss Harper comes on
to-morrow.'
     'I think it was something about writing for films.'
     'Very likely,' said Sir James. 'Sure to be something of  the kind. I'll
let you know without delay. Thanks for  dropping in.' He put down his cup of
cocoa and held out his hand with unaffected cordiality. 'Good night, my dear
boy.' He rang the bell for the night butler. 'Sanders, I want  Benson to run
Mr Lent back.'
     'I'm sorry, sir. Benson has just gone down to the studio to  fetch Miss
Grits.'
     'Pity,' said Sir James. 'Still, I  expect you'll  be able to  pick up a
taxi or something.'




     Simon got  to  bed at  half-past four. At ten  minutes past  eight  the
telephone by his bed was ringing.
     'Mr Lent? This is Sir James Macrae's secretary speaking. Sir
     James's car will  call  for you at half-past eight  to  take you to the
studio.'
     'I shan't be ready as soon as that, I'm afraid.'
     There was a shocked pause; then the day secretary  said: 'Very well, Mr
Lent. I will see if some alternative arrangement is possible and ring you in
a few minutes.'
     In the intervening time Simon fell asleep again. Then the bell woke him
once more and the same impersonal voice addressed him.
     'Mr  Lent? I have spoken  to Sir  James.  His car will call  for you at
eight forty-five.'
     Simon dressed  hastily. Mrs Shaw had not yet arrived, so  there was  no
breakfast for him. He found some  stale cake in the kitchen cupboard and was
eating it when Sir James's car arrived. He took a slice down with him, still
munching.
     'You needn't have brought  that,' said  a severe voice from inside  the
car. 'Sir James has sent you some breakfast. Get in quickly; we're late.'
     In the corner, huddled in rugs,  sat a young woman in a jaunty red hat;
she had bright eyes and a very firm mouth.
     'I expect that you are Miss Harper.'
     'No. I'm Elfreda Grits. We're working together on this film, I believe.
I've been up all night with Sir  James.  If you don't  mind I'll go to sleep
for twenty  minutes. You'll  find  a thermos of cocoa and some rabbit pie in
the basket on the floor.'
     'Does Sir James live on cocoa and rabbit pie?'
     'No; those are the remains of his supper.  Please don't talk. I want to
sleep.'
     Simon disregarded the  pie, but  poured  some steaming  cocoa  into the
metal cap of the thermos flask. In the corner  Miss  Grits composed  herself
for sleep. She took off the jaunty red hat  and laid it between them  on the
seat, veiled her eyes with two blue-pigmented lids and allowed the firm lips
to relax  and gape a  little. Her platinum-blonde wind-swept head bobbed and
swayed  with  the  motion of the car  as  they swept out  of  London through
converging  and diverging  tram  lines. Stucco  gave place to  brick and the
facades of  the  tube stations changed  from tile  to  concrete;  unoccupied
building plots appeared and newly-planted  trees along unnamed avenues. Five
minutes  exactly  before  their arrival  at the studio Miss Grits opened her
eyes, powdered her nose,
     touched her lips with  red, and pulling her hat on to  the  side of her
scalp, sat bolt upright, ready for another day.
     Sir  James  was at work on  the lot when  they arrived.  In a white-hot
incandescent hell two  young people were carrying  on  an infinitely tedious
conversation  at  what  was  presumbly  the  table of a restaurant.  A dozen
emaciated couples  in  evening dress  danced listlessly behind them.  At the
other end of the huge shed some carpenters were at work building the  facade
of a Tudor manor house.* Men in eyeshades scuttled in and out. Notices stood
everywhere. Do not Smoke. Do not Speak. Keep away from the high-power cable.
     Miss Grits, in defiance of these  regulations, lit a cigarette,  kicked
some electric  apparatus out  of her path, said, 'He's busy. I expect  he'll
see us when he's through  with this scene,'  and disappeared  through a door
marked No admittance.
     Shortly after eleven o'clock Sir James caught sight of Simon. 'Nice  of
you  to come. Shan't be  long now,'  he called out to him. 'Mr Briggs, get a
chair for Mr Lent.'
     At two o'clock he noticed him again. 'Had any lunch?'
     'No,' said Simon.
     'No more have I. Just coming.'
     At half-past three Miss Grits joined him and said: 'Well,  it's been an
easy day so far. You mustn't  think we're always as slack as this. There's a
canteen across the yard. Come and have something to eat.'
     An  enormous buffet  was  full  of  people in a variety of  costume and
make-up. Disappointed actresses  in languorous attitudes served cups of  tea
and hard-boiled eggs. Simon and Miss Grits ordered sandwiches and were about
to eat them  when a  loudspeaker above their  heads suddenly announced  with
alarming  distinctness, 'Sir James Macrae calling  Mr Lent and Miss Grits in
the Conference Room.'
     'Come  on, quick,' said  Miss Grits. She bustled him  through the swing
doors, across the  yard, into the office buildings and up a flight of stairs
to a solid oak door marked Conference. Keep out.
     Too late.
     'Sir James has been called  away,'  said the  secretary. 'Will you meet
him at the West End office at five-thirty.'
     Back  to London,  this time by  tube.  At five-thirty they were at  the
Piccadilly office ready for the next clue in their treasure hunt.  This took
them to Hampstead. Finally at eight they were back at the studio. Miss Grits
showed no sign of exhaustion.
     'Decent of the old boy to give us a day off,' she remarked.  'He's easy
to work with in that way -- after Hollywood. Let's get some supper.'
     But as they opened the canteen doors  and felt the warm breath of light
refreshments, the loud-speaker again announced: 'Sir James Macrae calling Mr
Lent and Miss Grits in the Conference Room.'
     This time they were not too late. Sir James was there at the head of an
oval table; round  him were  grouped  the chiefs of his staff.  He sat  in a
greatcoat with his  head  hung  forward, elbows on the  table and  his hands
clasped behind his neck. The staff  sat in respectful sympathy. Presently he
looked up, shook himself and smiled pleasantly.
     'Nice of you to come,' he said. 'Sorry I couldn't see you before.  Lots
of small things to see to on a job like this. Had dinner?'
     'Not yet.'
     'Pity. Have  to eat, you know. Can't work  at full pressure unless  you
eat plenty.'
     Then Simon and Miss Grits sat down and Sir James explained his plan. 'I
want,  ladies and gentlemen, to introduce Mr  Lent to you. I'm sure  you all
know his  name  already and I daresay some of you know  his work. Well, I've
called him in to help us and I hope  that  when he's  heard the  plan  he'll
consent to join us. I want to produce a  film of Hamlet. I daresay you don't
think that's a very original idea--but  it's Angle  that counts  in the film
world. I'm going to do it from an entirely new angle. That's why I've called
in Mr Lent. I want him to write dialogue for us.'
     'But  surely,'  said  Simon,  'there's  quite  a lot of  dialogue there
already?'
     'Ah, you don't see my angle. There have been  plenty of productions  of
Shakespeare in modern dress. We are going to produce him  in modern  speech.
How can you expect the public to enjoy Shakespeare when they can't make head
or tail of the dialogue. D'you know I began reading a copy the other day and
blessed if I could understand it. At once I said,  "What the public wants is
Shakespeare with all his beauty of thought and character translated into the
language of  every day life."  Now  Mr  Lent here  was  the  man  whose name
naturally  suggested  itself.  Many  of  the  most  high-class  critics have
commended Mr  Lent's dialogue. Now my idea is that Miss Grits here shall act
in an advisory capacity, helping with the continuity and the technical side,
and that Mr Lent shall be given a free hand with the scenario ...'
     The discourse lasted for a quarter of an hour; then the chiefs of staff
nodded sagely;  Simon  was  taken  into another room and given a contract to
sign by which he received ? 50 a week retaining fee and ? 250 advance.
     'You had better fix up  with Miss Grits the times of work most suitable
to you. I shall expect your first treatment by the end of the week. I should
go and get some dinner if I were you. Must eat.'
     Slightly  dizzy,  Simon  hurried  to the canteen  where two  languorous
blondes were packing up for the night.
     'We've been on  since  four o'clock this morning,'  they said, 'and the
supers* have eaten everything except the nougat. Sorry.'
     Sucking a bar of nougat Simon emerged into the now  deserted studio. On
three sides  of  him,  to  the  height of  twelve feet,  rose  in  appalling
completeness the marble walls of the scene-restaurant; at his elbow a bottle
of imitation champagne  still  stood in  its  pail of melted ice; above  and
beyond extended the vast gloom of rafters and ceiling.
     'Fact,'' said  Simon to himself, 'the world of  action ... the pulse of
life ... Money, hunger ... Reality.''


     Next morning he was called with the words, 'Two young ladies waiting to
see you.'
     'Two?'
     Simon put on his dressing-gown and,  orange  juice in hand, entered his
sitting-room. Miss Grits nodded pleasantly.
     'We arranged to start at ten,' she said. 'But it doesn't really matter.
I shall not require you very much in the early stages. This is Miss Dawkins.
She is one of the staff stenographers. Sir James
     thought you would need one. Miss  Dawkins will be attached to you until
further  notice.  He also sent  two  copies of  Hamlet. When you've had your
bath, I'll read you my notes for our first treatment.'
     But this  was not  to be; before Simon was dressed Miss Grits had  been
recalled to the studio on urgent business.
     'I'll ring up and tell you when I am free,' she said.
     Simon spent  the morning  dictating letters to  everyone he could think
of; they began--Please forgive me for dictating this, but I am so busy  just
now  that I have little time for personal correspondence... Miss Dawkins sat
deferentially over her pad. He gave her Sylvia's number.
     'Will you  get  on  to this number  and present my  compliments to Miss
Lennox and  ask her to luncheon at Espinoza's ... And book a table  for  two
there at one forty-five.'
     'Darling,' said Sylvia, when they met, 'why were you out all yesterday,
and who was that voice this morning?'
     'Oh, that was Miss Dawkins, my stenographer.'
     'Simon, what can you mean?'
     'You see, I've joined the film industry.'
     'Darling. Do give me a job.'
     'Well, I'm not paying much attention to casting at the moment--but I'll
bear you in mind.'
     'Goodness. How you've changed in two days!'
     'Yes!' said Simon, with great  complacency.  'Yes, I  think I have. You
see, for  the first time in my life I have come into contact with Real Life.
I'm going  to  give up writing  novels.  It  was  a mug's game*  anyway. The
written word  is dead--first  the papyrus,  then the  printed book, now  the
film. The artist must no longer  work alone. He is part of  the age in which
he lives; he must  share (only of course, my dear Sylvia, in very  different
proportions) the weekly wage envelope of the  proletarian. Vital art implies
a corresponding set of social relationships. Co-operation  ... co-ordination
... the hive endeavour of the community directed to a single end ...'
     Simon  continued in  this  strain  at some  length,  eating  meantime a
luncheon of  Dickensian  dimensions,*  until,  in  a small miserable  voice,
Sylvia said: 'It seems to me that you've fallen for some ghastly film star.'
     'O God,' said Simon, 'only a virgin could be as vulgar as that.'
     They  were about to start  one of their old, interminable quarrels when
the  telephone boy brought a  message that Miss Grits  wished to resume work
instantly.
     'So that's her name,' said Sylvia.
     'If you only  knew  how  funny  that was,'  said  Simon  scribbling his
initials on the bill  and leaving the table  while Sylvia  was still groping
with gloves and bag.


     As  things turned out, however, he became Miss Grits' lover  before the
week was out. The idea  was hers. She suggested it to him one evening at his
flat as they corrected the  typescript of  the final version of their  first
treatment.
     'No, really,'  Simon  said  aghast.  'No,  really.  It  would  be quite
impossible. I'm sorry, but...'
     'Why? Don't you like women?'
     'Yes, but...'
     'Oh, come along,' Miss Grits said briskly. 'We don't get much  time for
amusement ...' And later,  as  she packed their manuscripts into her attache
case she said, 'We must do  it again if we have time. Besides I find it's so
much easier to work with a man if you're having an affaire with him.'



     For three weeks Simon and  Miss Grits (he always thought of her by this
name  in  spite of all subsequent  intimacies) worked  together  in complete
harmony. His life was redirected and transfigured. No longer did he  lie  in
bed, glumly preparing himself for the coming day; no longer did he say every
morning 'I must get  down  to the country  and  finish that  book' and every
evening find himself slinking back to the same urban flat; no  longer did he
sit  over supper  tables  with  Sylvia, idly  bickering;  no  more  listless
explanations   over  the  telephone.   Instead  he   pursued  a  routine  of
incalculable  variety, summoned by  telephone  at  all hours  to conferences
which  rarely assembled;  sometimes to  Hampstead, sometimes to the studios,
once  to Brighton. He spent  long periods  of  work  pacing up and  down his
sitting-room, with Miss Grits
     pacing backwards  and  forwards along the other  wall  and Miss Dawkins
obediently  perched  between  them,  as  the  two  dictated,  corrected  and
redrafted their  scenario. There were meals  at improbable  times and vivid,
unsentimental  passages  of  love with Miss  Grits.  He  ate  irregular  and
improbable meals, bowling through the suburbs in Sir James's car, pacing the
carpet  dictating  to  Miss Dawkins, perched in deserted  lots  upon scenery
which seemed made to survive  the  collapse of civilization. He lapsed, like
Miss  Grits,   into  brief   spells  of  death-like  unconsciousness,  often
awakening, startled, to find that  a street  or desert  or factory  had come
into being about him while he slept.


     The film meanwhile  grew  rapidly,  daily  putting  out  new shoots and
changing  under  their eyes  in a  hundred unexpected  ways. Each conference
produced  some  radical  change in  the  story.  Miss Grits in  her precise,
invariable  voice would read out the  fruits of  their work. Sir James would
sit with his head in his hand, rocking slightly from side to side and giving
vent   to   occasional  low   moans  and   whimpers;   round  him  sat   the
experts--production,  direction, casting, continuity,  cutting  and  costing
managers, bright eyes, eager to attract the great man's attention with  some
apt intrusion.
     'Well,'  Sir   James  would  say,  'I  think  we  can  O.K.  that.  Any
suggestions, gentlemen?'
     There  would  be a pause, until one by one the experts began to deliver
their contributions ... 'I've  been thinking, sir, that it won't  do to have
the scene laid in Denmark. *  The public won't  stand  for travel stuff. How
about  setting  it in  Scotland--then  we could have  some  kilts  and  clan
gathering scenes?'
     'Yes, that's a very sensible suggestion. Make a note of that, Lent...'
     'I was thinking we'd better drop  this  character  of the  Queen. She'd
much better be dead  before the action starts. She hangs up the action.  The
public won't stand for him abusing his mother.'
     'Yes, make a note of that, Lent.'
     'How  would it  be,  sir, to make  the ghost the Queen  instead of  the
King...'
     'Yes, make a note of that, Lent...'
     'Don't you think, sir, it  would be  better  if Ophelia  were Horatio's
sister. More poignant, if you see what I mean.'
     'Yes, make a note of that...'
     'I think we  are losing sight  of the essence of the story in  the last
sequence. After all, it is first and foremost a Ghost Story, isn't it. ...'
     And  so from simple beginnings the story spread majestically. It was in
the second week that Sir  James, after,  it  must  be admitted, considerable
debate,  adopted  the idea  of incorporating with it  the story of  Macbeth.
Simon was  opposed to  the proposition at first, but the appeal of the three
witches proved too strong. * The title was then changed to The White Lady of
Dunsinane, *  and he and Miss Grits settled down to a prodigious week's work
in rewriting their entire scenarios.




     The end came as suddenly as everything else in this remarkable episode.
The third conference was being held at an hotel in the New Forest* where Sir
James  happened to be staying;  the experts had assembled by  train, car and
motor-bicycle at a moment's  notice  and  were tired  and unresponsive. Miss
Grits  read the  latest scenario; it took some time,  for it had now reached
the stage when it could be taken as 'white  script'  ready for shooting. Sir
James sat sunk in reflection longer than usual. When he  raised his head, it
was to utter the single word:
     'No.'
     'No?'
     'No, it won't do. We must scrap the whole thing. We've got much too far
from the original story. I can't think  why you need introduce Julius Caesar
and King Arthur at all.'
     'But, sir, they were your own suggestions at the last conference.'
     'Were  they?  Well, I can't  help it. I must  have  been tired  and not
paying full attention ... Besides, I don't  like the dialogue. It misses all
the poetry of the original. What the public wants is Shakespeare,  the whole
of Shakespeare and nothing but Shakespeare. Now this scenario you've written
is all very well in its way--but  it's not  Shakespeare.  I'll tell you what
we'll do. We'll use the play
     exactly as he  wrote  it and record from that.  Make a note of it, Miss
Grits.'
     'Then you'll hardly require my services any more?' said Simon.
     'No, I don't think I shall. Still, nice of you to have come.'
     Next morning Simon woke bright  and cheerful as  usual and was about to
leap from  his bed when he  suddenly remembered  the  events of  last night.
There was nothing for him to do. An empty day lay before him. No Miss Grits,
no Miss Dawkins, no scampering  off to conferences or dictating of dialogue.
He rang up Miss Grits and asked her to lunch with him.
     'No, quite impossible,  I'm  afraid. I have to  do the continuity for a
scenario of St John's Gospel before  the end  of the week. Pretty tough job.
We're  setting it in Algeria  so as to get atmosphere. Off to Hollywood next
month. Don't suppose I shall see you again. Good-bye.'
     Simon lay in bed  with all his energy slowly slipping away. Nothing  to
do. Well, he supposed, now was the time to go away to the country and get on
with his novel.  Or should he  go abroad? Some quiet cafe-restaurant  in the
sun where he could work  out those intractable  last chapters. That was what
he would do ... sometime ... the end of the week perhaps.
     Meanwhile he leaned over on his elbow, lifted the telephone and, asking
for Sylvia's number, prepared himself  for  twenty-five minutes' acrimonious
reconciliation.

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