Travels with My Triumph
In 1992 I telephoned Channel 4 to offer them my proposal.
“It’ll need a helicopter. A Steadicam guy. Back-up in a Jeep.”
It was late at night after a trying evening, so I left the pitch on their answering machine.
I slept until noon the following day. When I surfaced, I began to clear up thinking nothing much of it. In fact, I was retching on my electric toothbrush when someone rang.
I didn’t get the name. “From Channel 4?”
“Ah. Good news.”
“And you are?”
“Jamie, it’s about your proposal. Are you good to talk?”
“I have the map in my head. Take it from me. There’ll be thrills and a few spills.”
“We need the details. All the costs. An idea for the market. Get it on paper.”
“Sounds like an unscripted, part-docu format?”
“Listen to me. I know what it is. I can’t brand it for you enough. Travels with My Triumph. Chopper, six man crew. All the fun of the south American jungle and no return. That’s not important.”
“Sure. But it goes through..”
“It goes through hell, Channel 4, and comes out if it. Bat out of Richmond.”
There was silence for a while. I thought she’d hung up and I started to laugh.
“Jamie. I have a producer in this room called Peter. He’s signalling to me. To ask if you’d like to come in. Maybe it’s better to discuss this face to face.”
I remained courteous. “Well, at last. Peter’s the man who gets things moving.”
“Thank you, Jamie.” The girl gave me a time later in the afternoon, and I hung up.
“Peter, hi. Jamie Medina Blake.” A small office on the fourth floor, Charlotte Street. I shook the man’s hand. The girl was there. “Sorry I’m late. Bloody Jimmy Knapp. Buses. Always buses.”
I draped my courier bag off the chair and set my helmet on the desk, gloves pouting out of it like small leather turkeys. A conversational totem. An offering. Or an ombudsman.
Peter was the type, you know. Baggy, trendy suit. Watchful. A bit of a fringe. Bet that’s seen some Daz, I thought. I sniffed, rolling a shoulder and narrowing my eyes. A Masonic signal. Brothers in arms.
The man bade me into a seat. I wondered if the girl would get us coffee, but it was Peter who leaned back to consult a designer sideboard behind him.
“Jamie. Have you been a presenter? Would it bother you if I filmed our discussion?” It was then I noticed the camcorder slotted onto a tripod.
“Oh, for sure. Take it away.”
Things were moving now. I felt a lightness against my guts that I hadn’t felt since full employment. I looked at the window where the clouds themselves seemed to be unravelling with happiness.
I locked Peter in the eyes when he returned. I liked the man. The little light at his shoulder seemed to confirm matters. I was ready for this.
“Born for it, Peter. Presenting. The street’s my am-dram.”
“Jamie Medina Blake. Where did you bike in from?”
“Richmond. Bonnie Richmond.”
“Nice. Could you just give us all, I mean, all the background you feel we need?”
“Londoner. Pretty much. Dad Argentinian. Never torn during the Falklands. A Maggie man but he rooted for the Argies. I was more divided. I got it at school. He’s a diplomat by the way. Often away.”
“What about the rest of your family?”
“I have the house to myself. Me and the Ozrics. We should talk soundtrack.”
“Banking until last year. Giving sick companies the kiss of life. Sub-continentals. Deutsche Bank walked in and ate us up. Lock stock. Currently resisting offers. You’re only here once. Get a chance to put things into sky-wide perspective. Once twice three times a lifetime. I’m lucky.”
“Hence the travels?”
“It’s no holiday, Peter. TwMT is one man’s journey into the heart of darkness, the jungle and probably the Antarctic. I’ll say no more but this will be a televisual one-off.”
Peter looked at me stilly, like a man in a deep understanding with another man. He knew I was ‘4Real’, as they say. And he knew that I would go the distance.
Of course, she was there. Her chair drifted closer in irritating increments until I was forced to look at her.
“Jamie, we talked earlier. On the phone.”
I wanted to give her some space, so I didn’t respond in any way.
“My name is Susan, and I’m the lead producer for this kind of programming here at Channel 4.”
I reached across to check the ten-finger turkey.
“Can I ask about the message you left on the answering machine last night?”
“Where’s this going, Peter?” I looked at him. We had something agreed. We were that close to it.
“Jamie, as you were talking, I couldn’t make everything out. Just elements of it. I had to listen very closely.”
Staring mutely at some far-off corner, Peter seemed a man lost. A fey, pointless zombie. I tensed forward, wanting to shake him out of it, to get things moving.
“Jamie. I listened closely. I could hear something in the background. It was a woman’s voice. But crying out. Underneath or far away. She sounded distressed, Jamie.”
“Oh, that thing.”
“What thing, Jamie?”
On the Hammersmith flyover, with the wind shaking me, I made a promise to myself that I would raise the issue of brand placement early in the conversation. It’s an innate part of the temperature, Peter. The background is the foreground. We need to be open about the risks and paradox. It’s probably post-modern, Peter. Awards.
“Can we talk placement? I’d rather hit you with a pitch.”
“Can you see this?” I gestured to my leg.
“Look closer. What do you see?”
“A leg. A knee. A pair of jeans.”
“A pathway. Perfected by a craftsman.”
“A crease. In 501s.”
“We don’t put creases in 501s.”
“Jimmy Knapp.” Peter called suddenly, for no reason, from his dreamscape. “Jimmy Knapp put creases in your jeans.”
“Her name’s Rafaela.” Back in the game. The game of knowing. I was brimming with laughter.
“Some sort of housekeeper?” Someone was incapable of moving on.
“It’s a Kato-Pete Sellers relationship. Don’t worry. She’s out now.”
“Out of her room. The cooler. Thinking time. She’s probably pumping slot machines in Wimbledon with dribble.”
Part way through the reveal Susan made her apologies and vanished. I can safely say we weren’t devastated. Unfortunately, matters had turned to filling out an inconclusive and non-committal two-pager. Peter said everything would need review and it wasn’t his decision, and blah investment, and pow-wow monthlies and yes whatever.
“This isn’t why I’m here, Peter.” To illustrate, I steered the dreary template off the table, mouthing ‘fuck this’ as I did so.
“Really?” Peter leaned back, allowing full visibility of the light at his shoulder. Both of us knew that he was challenging me to show him exactly what I was made of.
It turned 17:00:00 and the evening air felt hard and cold. As if a part of some druidic tradition, we circled about, suspended in centrifugal wonder.
“Trophy 900. New touring model, three cylinders. Reserve gas capacity of 1.3 gallons. Chrome-bezeled clocks have a retro feel. The clock is a reassuring feature, especially on a touring platform.”
After my ‘how to’ on handling officials expecting a bribe, with Peter as a hapless if half-hearted bastardo, and in a crucial turning point on the map of rapport, we agreed to a drink.
“Yes, of course.” Peter and I continued our walk together along the mews.
“One man stood up for me, Peter. One man took my side. In the whole bloody company.” My voice was croaking, and I was getting emotional. Over his shoulder, the pub was filling, and the swampy blues music spun by a DJ with laughable sideburns was getting louder. I leant closer and made my pint swirl as I stared it out.
“I have kompromat on the square mile that would perm your head. If that’s an angle you ever want to consider. Another show, perhaps. But feed me in.”
We had blown across Fitzrovia, where it was too bitter to sit outside. “So, this is where it happens. Where Dr Faust sells his vowels to Carol Vorderman. You’ll find me a tough negotiator, Peter. After you,” I remember smiling.
But now, the sound of my own voice was beginning to worry me. I looked around. “I want to be clear. I’m taking this idea to market. The offer’s on the table for a limited period. Americans who can handle it.”
Peter looked about to speak so I took my chance.
“We’ve got something here, Peter. We’re doing this, aren’t we? This thing is happening.”
His lower lip, his jaw, flexed into some sort of thinking chin, and his pale eyes faced forward till I could only see the whites. He stayed like this, drawing with a finger, working it out, on the tabletop.
He seemed about to speak when someone patted his shoulder and he looked and patted them back. A tall, well-dressed couple I couldn’t make out, looking down at us. “..Nick at the Rathbone Hotel. Round seven thirty. If you’re interested.”
Peter turned a quarter in my direction. “Well, I’m..”
“Go on, Peter. I’ll be going soon.”
“..can’t allow you to drive.”
“Come with us.” The woman then said.
It was hot and nudging 20:45:00, and the faces and voices were still several shades of meaningless, and I wanted to open a window.
“People prefer dogs and cats to people. Cos they’re uncomplicated and we’re selfish fuckers.”
“They don’t work on tv. Forty hours of hit and miss. Five seconds of funny.”
“It’s about the owners.” “We love looking at ourselves.” “Whoever makes animals work breaks the mould.” A laugh at nothing. “Abso-fucking-rhubarb.”
A grand table in the smaller bar at the Rathbone Hotel had been reserved. Art deco flavours with disco sheen and a Nick and a Wendy and a Colin, and a Peter over there and a Jamie sitting in a silver finish French-style mirror. A Susan arrived with a Lance, and someone warned me of an impending ‘Peachy’ or ‘la Peche’ or ‘Pechemeister General’ and Colin giggled weakly at what I presumed to be an in-joke.
“Pour them in a mould. Dog lollipops. They do it in the Congo.” I was musing quietly.
“What was that? Sorry we haven’t really been introduced.” The Wendy had returned from the bathroom and sat down for a cigarette.
“I said you have to make your audience feel good about themselves.”
“Pete mentioned you’ve got a production company. Outdoorsy.”
“I’m getting into furniture. French style reproduction in silver.” I blew her smoke away.
“Make people feel good about themselves.”
“Are you okay?”
“I’ve been trying to listen.” I gestured at a mire of mixed conversations around the table. Someone was talking about nose-to-tail eating and someone was protesting. “Are you vegetarian?”
I shook my head. “If people eat less meat, less animals get bred for consumption. Nothing goes out to play on the M1. Nothing. It’s between not existing at all, or a few months in Treblinka, light and fucking sound. Consumerboys. They need more than a new recipe book.”
“I can see where that’s coming from.”
Wendy was wearing a salmon-coloured dress and a turquoise headband. I felt guilty bringing her down. Clearly the old dear had herself prepared for a night out.
“And what are you? Another producer?”
“Adaptations.” She reached into her bag and brought out a book. “This is about a lazy Russian nobleman, Oblomov. For the first fifty pages he’s lying in bed. He manages to get out and make it to a chair. Not to give it away.”
“That sort of crap drives me up the pipe.”
“But does it? When you ask people what they’ve taken time over, they usually never have.” She returned it to her bag. “It’s funny.”
“Is Peter new?” I demanded. “Is he all there? Is there anyone else who isn’t Susan?”
“Why? Not new, no.”
I repeated my pitch, pretty much as I had on Charlotte Street. “One man in the elements, against the jungle, baking plains, the freezing snow and no respite. Where’s the British sense of adventure?”
“What happens if you don’t get attacked by rebels or contras? It might end up just you. Riding along on a bike for an hour.”
“It’s more than a bike. It’s a promise.”
“As a presenter they like a show reel. Maybe start small?”
I popped open my eyes but felt inaudible. “Clapham Common. A tricycle.”
“Show these people something they haven’t seen.”
“Here’s something I can guarantee.” I reached into my courier and brought out my revolver, an old Browning BDA, which I held on my lap as I demonstrated it to Wendy. “Infantry small arms. Argentine issue, likely an officer.”
She jolted and raised her hands unsteadily, which I didn’t ask her to do. Perhaps it was a joke. Someone around the table swore and the faces turned to look at me. Two pushed back. Peter asked me if this was bloody necessary. If what was necessary?
I showed off the Browning and smiled. “I’m just.. Wendy.. Contras.” I must’ve gestured the muzzle at her. Someone tried to grab my arm and I pointed it at him. “No need. Stay calm.”
“For fuck’s sake.” Behind me, the staff ran out and I slurred at them to stay calm and stay there.
Why didn’t I just put the Browning back into my fallen bag and laugh? I stood up to do this but when I stood everyone else did. And the only thing I could think of to persuade them to return was to sweep the gun up and down and say ‘pretty please’ in a sarcastic, girly tone.
“Pretty please with lollipops.”
Lance burbled a flat ‘Yes, sir’ as he took to his seat, but seemed to be signalling something in code to Wendy.
“What was that?” I was referring to his nods and glances, but he cried ‘Yes, sir’ more abruptly, locking both hands behind his head.
I looked at Wendy, who was poised as if to run. “At least we’re out of bed.” I joked. “I’m out of bed.” I loped downwards towards the courier bag, to return the gun, and that’s when two of them overwhelmed me.
Today, you’re likely to find me on the sunny side of Plaza San Martín, in the northeast of Buenos Aires. My father died while I was serving a sentence for manslaughter, and I came over to have my own, private funeral, and I stayed.
José de San Martín was an Argentine general commemorated for fighting for independence from Spain. He also served as Protector of Peru.
The light is very clear here but I suspect there have never been enough painters to exploit it. In some ways, I find the country more promising than Europe, whose history seems to have been written, the last ebb of its lava set. There’s still a feeling that something might happen here. But, when I open my eyes, after twenty minutes of meditation, the apartment blocks and the banks and the steady hum of traffic, and even the turns of the big Moreton Bay fig tree, seem to ask me what I would want to happen.