Sunday, September 24, 2006

What would David Niven do?

For as long as I can remember stalking secondhand bookshops, there have always been certain regulars. While scanning the shelves for the Target logo or works by Philip K Dick, I'd tick off the old Colemanballs, EC Tubb's skiffy and David Niven's autobiography.

"The Moon's A Balloon" also turned up on my grandfather's bookshelves, from which I'd been told to help myself. It was added to the Flashmans and Kiplings and histories of India, something to look into sometime. I picked it up last week while reading something else and rather got involved.

Niven's a stylised, old-school actor, at his steely cool best in "A Matter of Life and Death" and "The Pink Panther", and retaining his dignity amid celebrity car crashes like "Casino Royale" and "Escape to Athena".

He was also his pal Ian Fleming's first choice for playing the movie James Bond (you can see why Fleming was then a little nervous of the ungroomed, burly Scot they ended up casting).

The stylised manner encourages the stereotypes: A skinny weasel with a pencil-moustache that looks like he's drunk too much cocoa; A cad, a rake and an athletic boozer; The name-dropping pal to princesses and presidents.

The book does not exactly undercut this impression. Often Niven's memory of a film is to merely list the cast and say what he thought of the director. He's gushing of friends - whether Bogie or JFK - and the more famous ladies he dallianced with are deftly left unnamed.
"I apologise for the ensuing name dropping. It was hard to avoid it.

People in my profession, who, like myself, have the good fortune to parlay a minimal talent into a long career, find all sorts of doors opened that would otherwise have remained closed. Once behind those doors it makes little sense to write about the butler if Chairman Mao is sitting down to dinner."

David Niven, Introduction to "The Moon's a Balloon" (1971), p. 11.

That said, it's a lot ruder and more caddish than I'd expected, with intimate accounts of his teenage training under (or on top of) a prostitute and a later problem of frostbite of the cock. The stories are peppered with "fucks" and the odd "cunt" unbefitting a gentleman.

The stories are often very funny. At the outbreak of war, Niven - already the film star - decided to join up with the RAF. Despite his producers and managers and the British Consul advising otherwise, he travelled back to Europe. In Paris he was reunited with a fashion-house model, now living as the mistress of a "rich industrialist".

"Monsieur" has installed Claude in the apartment below his family, and so Niven's visit must be conducted in silence.
"If 'Monsieur' had had the foresight to install a pane of glass in his floor, he could have gazed down on the ridiculous spectacle of two people thrashing around below with handkerchiefs stuffed in their mouths. As it was, it was a miracle he didn't come down to investigate because Claude, towards the end of the evening, decided to freshen me up with an alcohol rub. She intimated this in sign language and fetched a large bottle of eau de Cologne. Unfortunately, as I turned over to have my back done, I knocked the bottle out of her hand with my elbow and most of its contents went straight up my behind. Shrieking agony in whispers is a difficult thing to accomplish."

Ibid, p. 206.

Reviews in the front of the book (and also on the Internet) speak of the book's witty charm. Yes, it is a merry read but for all Niven's light touch he comes across as quite a shit.

Petulant, silly antics verge on the monstrous. Expelled from school for posting dog shit to a friend, his early military career is full of daft pranks. When the RAF failed to hand him the top-job he wanted, he responds with a resolute "Then fuck you!"
"'Get out of my office,' he shouted. 'Get out!'

We were standing toe to toe when an inner door opened and an Air Commodore appeared.

'What the devil's going on in here?'

'And fuck you too!' I shouted unreasonably and made for the door and the giggling crowd outside it."

Ibid., p.209.

Even at the end of the book, he's still difficult to work with - leaving it until the last couple of minutes before a live TV play before getting into costume. And only then discovering he's locked himself out of his dressing room. This last-minute chaos clears the lines from his head, of course.

"I hate getting drunk," he protests on page 188 though eight pages later his home has been christened "Cirrhosis by the Sea" by Cary Grant. He has a surprise birthday party in a brothel and at a bash with the Kennedys ends up offering Senator Edward his trousers. We hear of friends and colleagues finished off by the booze, and Niven makes no bones about the kif and horse tranquilisers.

Which all means that when his first wife is killed playing Sardines at a party - falling down the stairs in the darkness - I wondered if he was holding back on the details. He's certainly very curt about the marital difficulties he had with his second wife - a brief mention of "another miscarriage" and a short "trial separation". Having been so articulate about his earlier revelry it feels like he's now clamming up. (Wikipedia suggests more of what was really going on...)

The book ends with Niven visited by a hippy goddaughter, who brings along a Lancashire hippy called Big Top because of his ginger Afro. Niven is sniffy about the man - who smells like "a haystack" - and about the party his goddaughter then takes him to. There's movie and live-action gayness above an antique shop, amid carriage lamps and blow-ups of Mao.

"This isn't your scene is it?" says the goddaughter and allows him to escape. We leave him alone in the night-time, panting for breath, gazing up at the moon and quoting hippy fantasy by EE Cummings.

It's a strange and bitter-sweet ending. With Niven's earlier rant about the sorry state of the film business, you feel the good times are ended. Like 007, he's of another era, a frantic-living playboy who didn't die young and so rather outstayed his welcome.

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