Wednesday, 26 September 2012


 I was in the garden studying a worm with my little son Nicolas when the phone rang. It was my agent with news of a job.
 'I’ve been asked by a publisher to find an author who speaks french fluently and has a knowledge of the fashion world to ghost the couturier Pierre Balmain’s autobiography in English for the American market. You fit the bill perfectly. Can you meet him in Paris next Tuesday for preliminary talks, all expenses paid?.
 I said yes.

 I was met at Orly airport by a chauffeur in a dove grey uniform who drove me in a dove grey limousine to the Pierre Balmain fashion house in Rue François 1er..
 A neat oriental youth greeted me in reception and bid me follow him up majestically curving stairs, into a crowded showroom where mannequins were parading the latest collection and through tall double doors to a Louis XV salon.                           
 Pierre Balmain himself was standing by the window.
 He was a heavily built man, portly, reminding me a little of photographs I had seen of Mussolini, without the lantern jaw. There was power there and expectancy that everyone would bow to his every whim. He was immaculately dressed in a blue suit and perfumed to the back of his ears, presumably with one of his own brands of scent.
 He crossed the room, shook me firmly by the hand and bid me sit down on one of the many fauteuils apparently once owned by Madame de Pompadour. He sat down opposite me.
 After introductory chatter and a discussion on how best we would work, I launched forth with a vital question.
 'I have read a great deal about your professional achievements'  I started 'but know very little about your private life. Are you or were you ever married?  'It was a way I had planned of finding out if he would talk of his homosexuality or want to avoid the subject which in those days was delicate.
 'Mon cher! 'he exclaimed as though outraged, 'I am one of the most renowned perverts in Paris!' he looked me up and down. 'You are clearly quite terrified, so let me put your mind at rest. You are not at all my type. I prefer strong, body building Italian peasants, preferably those who ride motorbikes.'
 'I am relieved,' I said.
he countered, 'don’t try to hide your inner desires from me. We all know that young Englishmen like you who are fascinated by 'le monde de haute couture' and marry models long to come out of their little closets.'
 I smiled resignedly thinking it wise not to contradict him.
 He outlined what he had in mind for the book. I learned about his childhood, his education and rise to fame which. unfortunately, suggested a dull story.
 The outcome of this tête a tête was that he found me intelligent enough to have me ghost his autobiography. He suggested we work together at his retreat on the Island of Elba later in the year. His secretary would contact me to make the necessary arrangements.

 I went home happy, finished my third thriller for Tom Boardman and, in September, flew to Rome, took a train North to the coastal town of Piombino where I boarded a ferry for Portoferraio on the Island where Napoleon had been exiled in 1814.
 I was met by Monsieur Balmain who was waiting for me on the quay side in an open white Cadillac.
 He greeted me warmly and took me for a quick tour of the island before driving up a steep road which led to his most extraordinary residence.. It was a futuristic building, elliptical in shape, a cross between a flying saucer and a giant egg perched on a cliff. He led me past a large oval swimming pool at the centre of a water garden supplied by natural springs. Inside, the villa was similar to a marbled luxury liner with views of the sea from countless windows, every piece of furniture a priceless antique, every objet d’art clearly priceless, a Degas, a  Modigliani, a van Dongen hung on the walls.
 He showed me to my room which had dove grey walls and lemon yellow curtains, 'The colours I am launching for next season’s collection, 'he informed me and, after tea on one of the terraces, served by a local young man to whom he must have given a Harley Davidson, he took me down to a basement where an elderly artisan was delicately tapping paper thin strips of gold onto an elaborate wrought iron frame.
 'As you well know I am Queen Sirikit of Thailand’s couturier,'  Balmain said to me, 'she pays me in gold leaf, and this gentleman is a Florentine goldsmith whom I employ to guild whatever I choose. This is part of a 15th century bed that belonged to one of the Medicis. By the time he has finished, it will be a quite superb piece suitable for my bedroom.
 I spent the week listening to my host, writing passages of the book, swimming in the pool, visiting the museum which had once been Bonaparte’s residence and eating very well.
 The day I was due to leave, Balmain suggested I should delay my return to England and join him on his drive back to Paris in the Cadillac, stopping in Florence on the way. It was of course an exceptional invitation, but I wanted to get back to Eve whose time was getting close.
 Pierre Balmain did not understand me preferring to go home to a domestic scene of childbirth to travelling with him through Italy and France. He was so nettled that he coldly bid me goodbye there and then, told me one of his gardeners would drive me to the ferry and went into his study closing the door. I never saw him again.
 I sent him chapters during the following months. There was a long period of silence then, two years later, his autobiography was published, supposedly translated from the French by an American but bearing some similarity to the work I had done. I had been well rewarded financially and the week of extravagance I experienced on the Island of Elba had been an insight into a world I could never afford, unfortunately it triggered off a desire in me to be more fastidious about my surroundings and be richar than I could ever hope to be in the profession I had chosen. 

Balmain's house in the Island of Elba

Thursday, 20 September 2012


It took me a week of gazing out at the dark green turbulent sea through the salt stained windows of the Selsey Coastguard cottage before I hit the typewriter keys again to start on my second detective novel.
During that time of contemplation, I did not think creatively but dwelt on who I now was - a husband and father, therefore a family man with responsibilities, a freelance author but not that ambitious, a temporarily carefree individual with enough in the bank to feel secure providing I was not reckless. It was fortunate that Eve was equally content.
We had both flirted with a little fame, photographs in magazines, reviews in the press, flattering experiences that had been fun but not vital. We’d had our fill of cocktail parties, dinner parties, fashion shows, receptions, balls and the social whirl. Happiness for both of us was now old sweaters, jeans and gumboots, sitting on the windy beach with tiny Nick, cooking mussels picked from nearby rock pools and falling asleep to the sound of the waves lapping up against our bedroom wall.
 Eve started to paint, I started to write and Nicolas grew in size and mind, gurgled, sneezed, coughed, cried and became more lovable than ever, an unimaginable joy.
 But this idyllic life did not last.
 Unbelievably, Major Bill and Doris came down on our first weekend to check that their daughter and grandson had survived without a telephone, a supermarket, friends or acquaintances close by. They could not stay with us for there was no room, but they found a little hotel up the road and joined us for lunch and dinner during which they mapped out their plans for our future..
 Eve was incensed.
 'They are never going to leave us alone!' she shouted out to the sea one night after they had left.
 And they didn’t. For the six months we were in Selsey they came down nearly every weekend. Major Bill proudly informed me that he had put his grandson’s name down for Eton, Harrow and Winchester ( I had vowed never to send my children to boarding school ) Doris warned Eve that she would have to vet the accents of any local children her grandson might play with or he would not grow up speaking the Queen’s English, and they both advised us, separately, that if I was determined to risk the family’s well being by insisting on the precarious life of a writer, we should seriously consider investing what money we had in a country property. They would look for one for us.
 Under this very irritating pressure, we jumped the gun and, whenever the weather permitted, set off in the car with little Nick in his carry-cot on the back seat and toured Hampshire and Dorset armed with sheathes of estate agents literature. We saw new houses, old houses, manor houses, cottages, bungalows, chalets, converted barns, warmed very much to the idea of the country life, and when we finally found a suitably inexpensive tumbledown farmhouse in Wiltshire and told Major Bill and Doris, they threw up their hands in alarm. It was far too far for them to come and visit us at weekends, a fact which had occurred to us.
 We could have ignored these remonstrations had it not been for the bad news pointed out later by the bank manager. Though we were in the 1960s when borrowing funds to buy houses was a doddle compared to today, without a regular income a mortgage would be impossible. With someone suitable guaranteeing regular payments however, a mortgage could be considered.
 Undoubtedly slyly aware of this, Major Bill played a trump card. If we were sensible and chose a property within a 90 minutes drive from London he would be our guarantor. Any such place would, of course, cost more than we had budgeted, but he would help us out if necessary. We were not foolish enough to turn down such an opportunity, so off we went again looking at places, but this time close by. .
 In Old Barnham, twenty minutes drive from Selsey, we found a neatly renovated Georgian cottage with three bedrooms, new kitchen, new bathroom, new plumbing, a garden with seven fruit trees, surrounded by farmland and, opposite, a beautiful Queen Anne manor and Norman church. When we told Major Bill that it was only two miles from Goodwood, he immediately agreed to sign on the dotted line. It would be the perfect base from which he could attend many happy race meetings.
 The purchase took two months to complete during which I became more and more anxious about the expenses that piled up specially as Eve now announced that she was pregnant again.
 One fine Sunday morning, however, when I was in my coastguard cottage study staring out of the window hoping for inspiration, a black Rolls Royce drew up in the driveway and out stepped an impressive bearded gentleman wearing a full length suede coat and fedora at a tilted angle. A ‘theatrical’ if there ever was one.
 'André Launay?' he enquired when I opened the door.
 I nodded.
 "I saw your show ‘If the Crown Fits’ last year and thought I should commiserate. You must have had a trying time with Robert Morley. I worked with him once and it wasn’t easy.'
 'Thank you,' I said, obviously puzzled as to his identity.
 'My name is Jimmy Grafton, I manage the Goons and my own scriptwriters agency. I heard you were living here for a while and thought a chat might be beneficial to both of us. I have a week-end place up the road, why don’t you come round for a drink ? Bring the baby, my wife dotes on them.'
 The outcome of the evening was instant relief from my financial worries for Jimmy suggested I work with him on a television comedy series - The Dicky Henderson Show -  on which he was engaged. It needed fresh input which I could probably supply.   

 We moved into Manor Cottage, Church Lane, Barnham in the Spring of 1962 where we happily settled into a very pleasant country way of life and I finished the third Boardman novel when not writing TV scripts.
 For the first time ever I started gardening, that is I bought a whole range of implements and stared at them for a long time before daring to use them. Once I got the hang of a spade, trowel, scythe and lawn mower, there was no stopping me. What had been a quarter acre of long grass started to look like a lawn, trees were trimmed, seeds and bulbs were planted apple blossom was eagerly awaited. This was the life. A couple of hours at my desk, a couple of hours of manual labour, from now on, except when Major Bill and Doris came to stay, it would just be me, Eve, Nickypoo stamping about in the new flower beds, Jimmy Grafton, Tom Boardman and dandelions.
 Then the phone rang. 

 Selsey during a storm
 Manor cottage
 Dickie Henderson

Thursday, 13 September 2012


 My plan on how to launch myself perilously into the life of a freelance author was simple in concept. Before giving in my notice to the advertising agency I would write a novel and, if I managed to get it published, seek the services of an astute literary agent who would find me work for ever.
 It took me a year of burning the midnight oil to write the book which started off as a sinister mystery but ended up as a light hearted thriller concerning an inefficient  private detective who becomes involved in the doubtful murder of a fashion model. I gave it the title - She Modelled Her Coffin
 I sent it to the director at Macdonalds who had commissioned my cartoons. He contacted me a month later to tell me he wasn’t interested but that he had passed it on to a small publishing house responsible for `The British Bloodhound Mysteries.́ I had never heard of them but, when another month later, a Mr Boardman, who owned the company, asked me to come to his office for a chat, I was more than happy to do so.       
 I found Tom Boardman to be a genial pug faced American in tweeds and a cloud of smoke, puffing at a pipe in a poky little Soho office untidy with piles of dusty books, discarded manuscripts and abandoned cups of coffee,
 'It’s good, it’s good. A kinda loony Raymond Chandler,' he said before I had even shaken his pudgy hand. 'I’ll take it on if you can follow it up with five more featuring the same crazy detective. The book trade likes sets of six and so do lending libraries.'
 He suggested a few changes, said he would publish it within a few months, He’d have a contract ready to sign the next day.
 Now an about-to-be-published-author, I wasted no time searching for the astute literary agent and a friend of a friend pointed me in the direction of Richard Gregson, a tough, aggressive and very ambitious character who did not suffer fools gladly. In time he was to become a successful film producer, marry and divorce Natalie Wood      ( who re-married Robert Wagner and then drowned in suspicious circumstances ) and be mentioned by Anthony Burgess in his autobiography as a man who - `reminded him of the kind of army officer who is eventually killed in the field by his own men.'   Richard immediately advised me to leave the world of advertising, sold an option of the film rights of I Married a Model ( the film was never made ), had me write three episodes of Emergency Ward 10 a popular hospital soap at the time, and sign a contract with ATV tying me down to developing a six part comedy series based on an idea by Robert Morley who would play the lead roll together with his real life mother in law, Gladys Cooper - two very respected high protane thespians..
 The story, which I did not think too original, concerned the monarch of a mythical kingdom who has money problems and relies on his beatnik daughter to keep him out of trouble by inventing doubtful tourist attractions. I was to come up with comic storylines in which the characters came into conflicts with each other.  I managed to do this and, on the first day of rehearsals Robert Morley, with his ungainly bulk, triple chin, fierce eyebrows and famed for playing pompous windbags, took me aside, sat me down in a corner, sat himself heavily down on a chair in front of me and tapped my knee with an authoritative extended index finger.
 'Now dear boy, your storylines are excellent, your plot development perfect, but overall there isn’t enough of my kind of humour to please my many admirers, so unless you object, and even if you do, I will add a few things here and there and hope you won’t be hurt.'
 Before I could say anything he stood up, gripped my shoulders in way of a friendly hug, I thought, but in fact it was to make sure that I wouldn’t get up myself and bother him from then on.
 Screened the following April, If the Crown Fits, as the series was called, was not a complete disaster but hardly a success. The best notice I got was in the Daily Mail for the fourth episode :
 'This Ruritanian series is as unfunny now as it was when it started. For this Robert Morley cannot blame his scriptwriter.'
 The scriptwriter, however, was at fault.
 I had been witness to glaring continuity mistakes made during the rehearsals, I had missed opportunities for funnier lines, and had not spoken up enough because I lacked confidence among these experienced professionals. I had, in fact, felt quite uncomfortable in their company. Memories of Gert and Daisy at the Café Royal came to haunt me. ‘Try writing for others, you’ll be good at that...’ Well maybe I wasn’t.

 Between the end of rehearsals, the recording of the show and its screening, my domestic life took a turn for the chaotic. Grumpy old Grandmere Launay died in Pau, Maman’s second husband died in Nice, Pierre became enamoured of a woman younger than my mother so was kicked out of her life and Eddy reached the age of sixty five and retired from his beloved food trade.
  As Maman inherited a small fortune from her late hubby and, following in her dentist father’s footsteps, had developed a liking for casinos, Simone and Eddy sold Weir Pool and winged it quickly to Nice where they invested her money in a Cote d’Azur mansion where all three settled down to a life of never ending disagreement.
 Meanwhile Eve and I finally left London with our boy child and, seeking a feel for the raw natural life, rented a coastguard cottage in Sussex which was so close to the sea that on stormy nights massive waves thundered against the retaining walls sending gallons of foamy white spray over the roof.  

Monday, 3 September 2012


A few weeks ago I went to Malaga airport to meet an important person who was flying in from Los Angeles. I waited at the arrivals barrier with all the other anxious people expecting family members or friends and, when a new wave of passengers appeared through the gates, I sensed a very slight buzz of interest in the crowd, nothing too obvious, but enough for me to stand on tip toe to see what the minor fuss was about.
 Among the travellers was a tall, lanky individual sporting a silver and gold embroidered velvet jacket, a purple porkpie hat pulled down over his long hair and serious dark glasses hiding his eyes. He definitely looked like a rock star, and very nearly was one, but in fact this eccentric individual happened to be my son, Nick Launay, successful record producer.
 'Droopy !' he shouted.
 'Nickypoo !' I shouted back.
 A few eyebrows were raised, but who cared ? Warm, deeply affectionate hugs followed, the tears of joy welling up uncontrollably.
 During the drive home I learned that my little boy would be in Europe for a month, London for a meeting with a record company, somewhere in a South of France studio to work on a new album with Nick Cave, New York for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, then Seattle or Vegas,  or was it Sidney, Australia ? His year had been hectic and the pace was unlikely to slow down.
 Once home he unpacked and looked around, checked if there were any new coffee table books,  anything he hadn’t seen before and I caught myself ridiculously fussing like a mother hen, apologising for the roughness of the towels in the bathroom, the absence of a Kleenex box in his bedroom. When he travelled he stayed in 5-star hotels after all.
 We went down to a beach restaurant for lunch and the conversation centered on the dissimilarity of our lives. His, which was too chaotic, mine now nearly too peaceful. We both had a need to be creative but in his world it was all musical sounds and rhythms and involved other people while in mine it was words and just me alone.
 His iPhone buzzed, a text he answered straight away, then his puzzlement at me only having a simple mobile which I invariably forgot to take with me anyway.
 'I don’t need to communicate with anyone every minute of the day,' I explained.
 'But you’re missing out on so much. There are so many aps that take you into realms you wouldn’t believe.' 
 'I no longer want to go into realms which I won't believe,  besides I wouldn’t be able to see half the stuff that comes up, even with my glasses.'
 Back at the house we settled down on the sofa together and he opened up his lap top and flicked dextrous fingers across the screen showing me photos of  lunatic Hollywood parties he’d attended with girls in amazingly elaborate costumes. Every time there was the launch of a new film they apparently dressed up as the characters.
 'Any permanent partner ? ' I asked tentatively.
 'Difficult' he said. 'I mainly record at night so don’t have the chance to socialize much. But that shouldn’t worry you unduly.'
 He then checked his watch and said he had to Skype someone.
 I left him alone and sauntered out into the patio and thought back to the day he had been born and when Eve had brought him home for the first time.  He had taken over our lives, changing everything from our body clocks to the contents of the fridge. It was extraordinary that the chubby little baby he had been had grown into a tall asparagus with such long hands and feet.
 My mother had come to see him and I had watched her cradle him awkwardly in her arms. 
 'I’ve never liked babies,' she'd said as though I didn’t know. 'He has the same ear lobes as Paul, your real father,'  she’d gone on, then added. 'He also has your eyebrows, so he probably is yours.'
 One day I would perhaps write about a woman whose obsession with her illegitimate son completely ruins her life and that of others
  Eddy did not see the boy till we spent a week end in Pangbourne a month later. He managed the meeting very well, making friendly clucking noises at the newborn as though he didn’t really want to throw him into the river. An unkind supposition, for I was very aware that the encounter was not at all easy for him.
 In an earlier ‘Post’ I mentioned that I had feared fatherhood would limit my ability to write. Cyril Connolly’s quote 'There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall' had started haunting me again, but on reflection I realized that it was not the fear of the child’s demands that might upset me but parental love - a totally new and profoundly emotional experience. Far from wishing to get away from this new little person I found myself so besotted that I did not want to be separated from him for a minute. I still didn’t want to be separated from him, but he could hardly come and live in Spain, or not yet anyway..
 I went back into the house. Nick was talking to someone on the other side of the world. I realized couldn’t keep up with what he was up to and I didn’t understand how he had managed to produce so many albums. His web site is daunting.  With a wife and two children he’d taken the risk of going freelance and hadn’t looked back. I suppose I’d done the same in a different way.. 
 When he was six months old Eve and I had taken him with us to stay with friends in a country cottage far from the madding crowd. Eve had said 'I’d really be perfectly happy to live like this for the rest of my life.'
  'You’d get bored after a while,' I’d suggested.
  'I’d try and paint a bit, read a bit, and you could drift off into your fantasy world not knowing where you really were and write books.'
  It was a dream, precarious, but one which I'd felt I should consider.  If I was not tied down to an office we could leave London. If I could write a book and get it published, if I could get a literary agent to find me regular work..... if...if..if.......   

Nick Launay