If your life were a literary genre, what genre would it be?
Variously, my answer to that might be melodrama, gothic, or screwball comedy. I’d settle on picaresque. (Picaresque, adjective – “relating to an episodic style of fiction dealing with the adventures of a rough and dishonest but appealing hero.”)
In fact I am a sub-genre, summed up in four words: Becky Sharp. Auntie Mame.
If you’ve not already made the acquaintance of Ms Sharp or Ms Dennis I recommend you immediately seek out Thackeray, Vanity Fair: A Book Without A Hero (1847), and Patrick Dennis, Auntie Mame: An Irreverent Escapade (1955). No, screen adaptations will not substitute, though credit to Rosalind Russell.
I found Mame when I was about 10, in my Dad’s old books, at his childhood home. It only now occurs to me how like Auntie Mame his Auntie Maude was, and how like Patrick Dennis my dad. I found Becky at maybe age 11, on my mother’s bookshelf, a gift from her father.
I blame them all.
My Mame-ishness goes way back. Now that I’ve got the balling rolling, so to speak, it’s hard to know where to start. I don’t usually represent myself as sexual catnip, let alone as “sexual napalm” (John Mayer, Jessica Simpson – I’m not even Jessica Rabbit), but I have been a kind of sexual aerosol can for a certain type of much older man for much longer than is seemly. Which is why the early chapters of Becky Sharp’s career, in the home of the aptly-named Sir Pitt Crawley, make me roar with laughter.
My Orientalist fetish, shared with Mame in her younger years, likewise goes way back.
So I’ll start in my very early 20s, when my wardrobe comprised not much beyond four loose silk Chinese pants, two embroidered Chinese cheongsam-style fitted tops, a padded Chinese jacket, and four spaghetti-strap camisoles in Chinese silk. I’d trot about Sydney, Australia, in some combination of the above, with flat black slipper shoes and my dead straight hair cut with a harsh fringe (bangs).
One day, I was stopped in Sydney’s CBD by an elderly, tall, somewhat portly Chinese man. He asked why I wore a red Chinese jacket. I explained I like red, and Chinese silk, and the jacket was warm. He understood. We had a conversation. He gave me his business card and suggested I call him. I took the business card and mentally decided not. After all, I lived in the red-light district Kings Cross. If I were a call-girl, I’d operate differently.
If the important-looking gentleman had not already disclosed that he owned a major company based in Macau, the business card did that job for him. I don’t recall whether it was a textiles company or casinos. Maybe textiles, given his interest in my silk.
Either way, even at that young age I had an inkling he might be very, very rich. It’s only now, now I’m old, that I wonder whether I really would have ended up trafficked in the White Slave Trade had I phoned him later. (Politically utterly incorrect. But that’s how I thought then.) I was risk averse in some ways then, fool-hardy in many others.
Fast forward 15 years or so, to what I fondly call my Becky Sharp years. (Anyone waiting for the X-rated stuff, sorry, not sorry for the long preamble.) Now I am in London. I still wear silk brocade. I am working as marketing director for an advertising agency located in posh Knightsbridge. I am engaging in sexual misadventures all over Adland – see linked blog post, Mad Men I Have Known (wait for me to write it). I am ostracized by my colleagues, who believe me to be bonking our CEO. I am not. I am merely besotted with him.
Our agency is handling sponsorships for Euro ’98, the pan-European soccer tournament. Our agency is almost wholly men, suddenly revealed as football fanatics. The men at our agency watch each match England plays, on a TV in our office, desks wet with beer; the air rings with huzza’s.
I am excluded.
Outside, in Knightsbridge and Belgravia, streets are deserted. Everyone is either at home watching the match, or watching in pubs, or elsewhere altogether visiting their stately piles.
Alone, I walk the streets of Lowndes Square, priciest real estate in London. Alone, except for one tall, somewhat portly, rich-looking old man.
I have no recall at all of how the conversation was initiated. It probably went something like this:
[Dialogues lines are interchangeable]
“Why are you out on the street alone? Are you not watching the football?”
“Why don’t we walk together to the pub and watch it there?”
“My goodness that pub is CROWDED.”
“Why don’t we watch it at my place, instead? I live right here.”
There was a bit in between let’s-watch-at-the-pub and let’s-watch-at-my-place – the bit where the tall man somehow got to disclose that he was a jet-set Eurotrash polo-playing friend-to-the-famous Hungarian art collector merchant banker millionaire. He might have given me his business card.
His home was indeed right there. Perhaps I should say his homes, plural. Turned out he owned three adjacent properties in Lowndes Square: one as his private residence, one to house his collection of antiquarian artworks, one to house his wife’s collection of mid-C20th European Modernist originals, and also a private office (is that four?)
His wife was visiting her family in central Europe. (You will note I am attempting to disguise details to preserve this man’s anonymity in case his children read this. I am not trying quite as hard as I might, but I am trying.)
As it happens my undergraduate degree is Fine Arts (Hons), Sydney University. I am susceptible to art. Never, outside a museum, had I seen art such as this man owned. I swear I swooned.
The first art object I saw in the first room, the antiquarian room, was a C14th Persian silk brocade textile. As you might guess, that got my heart thumping. Then when he showed me his C7th Anglo-Saxon wooden god statuette – an amazing rarity, wood perishes – I was a goner.
His study wall was covered with antiquarian Russian icons, illegal to export from Russia. “At heart I’m a Magyar peasant,” he murmured. He’d fled Hungary when Russian tanks rolled in, 1956.
Threading our way through corridors to the den with TV, I identified original Sonia Delaunay paintings and I think Chagall. I’m not sure if I lost consciousness then or when the Campari was downed.
Next I knew (I believe that’s the literary formula), I was fluttering my eyelashes as I came to, and the banker was rifling through an antique cabinet’s drawers to find me a small something in lieu of money to give me as a gift. He settled on some truly gruesome C17th German embossed silverware coasters. I know that’s what they were as I saw some in the Kremlin museum. Didn’t care for them there, either.
The coasters went into a bag to be donated to Blackheath op shop.
For a few weeks I’d receive calls from the banker fretting about how hard it was for him to visit me in Blackheath. Then he had the brainwave of visiting me at my Knightsbridge workplace. Coward that I am, I hid in my enclosed private office.
“Shall I get rid of him?” my secretary asked. (Yes, I had a secretary in those days.) I nodded meekly.
I’m not proud of any of this. If I were more Becky I’d have ridden it for all it was worth. In the end, I’m more Mame, and Mame at heart was a romantic.
I still had my platonic crush on my CEO, and we were both of us punished for that.