Donald Prescott was by nature an eccentric. He was also a wealthy bachelor who spent a great deal of time photographing models for both native and foreign magazines. One of the models he photographed most often, whether dressed or undressed, was Harding's current girlfriend, Carol Jackson, whose slim though shapely figure he particularly admired. She was also popular with the editors of a variety of successful men's magazines, and this fact had led to the formation of a sort of Carol Jackson industry for which, apparently, there was never any shortage of custom. Whatever the presentation, she could be depended upon to excite curiosity. And Donald Prescott, her favourite photographer, knew how to make the most of her. He was a dab hand at exploiting women!
At forty-five he was securely established in his chosen profession, able to pick and choose as he thought fit, and no less able to indulge those favourite eccentricities of his which had earned him almost as great a reputation as his camera. Among their number was the establishment of the 'Rejection Club' for young or aspiring authors who had garnered more than fifty rejection slips from publishers, which met twice a month in the drawing room of his South Hampstead residence, and whose members spent the greater part of the meeting discussing literature and philosophy, their own and everyone else's. At present, the club membership numbered about forty, a majority of whom had around 50-100 rejection slips to their name, though a few had as many as 200 or more. What, besides eccentricity, had prompted Prescott to start the club was a desire to find out more about the difficulties aspiring authors were confronted with, and to ascertain whether rejections followed as a consequence of a given writer's work being bad or good, insufficiently commercial or insufficiently accomplished, too truthful or too illusory, and so on. Having received approximately fifty rejections from a variety of publishers during the three years he had spent, before turning to photography, as an aspiring author, he wanted to discover whether there were others who'd had as little luck as himself and, if so, for what reasons? Thus he placed a number of advertisements in local newspapers and magazines to the effect that he intended to start a club for people with fifty or more rejection slips to their name, in order that they could get together on a fortnightly basis to discuss their problems, find out where, if anywhere, they were going wrong, and, if they couldn't rectify anything, at least obtain some mutual consolation and encouragement from one another.
All this had occurred some ten years ago and duly resulted in a steady flow of people in-and-out of the club, most of whom only stayed a few weeks but some of whom, warming to the hospitality and sympathy they received there, were of the opinion that it was in their interests to stay much longer. The condition of entry did, however, necessitate that one should produce evidence, in the form of rejection slips, to prove one's work had in fact been rejected at least fifty times, in order to preclude the possibility of anyone's bluffing their way into it. But once this fact had been demonstrated, one was free to come and go at one's leisure.
Contrary to Prescott's initial suspicions, a majority of the struggling authors who frequented his house on this basis weren't imbeciles or amateurish duffers who couldn't write to save their skins but, on the contrary, highly-gifted and serious-minded people whose work tended to be either insufficiently commercial to pander to popular taste or, in some cases, detrimental to bourgeois interests and the class system which favoured the rich and high-profiled, including those with a public school and university background, at the expense of the poor and downtrodden, who, excluded from the more glamorous or influential forms of employment, could never or rarely get sufficient media or other publicity to make them a desirable prospect from a publisher's point of view. Indeed, it had completely taken him by surprise to discover that so many intelligent writers regularly had work rejected because it was either too scholarly, too philosophical, too ideologically radical, too complex, too outspoken, too satirical, too ethnic, or even too revolutionary in its treatment of plot, characterization, style, grammar, etc., for general dissemination within the commercial framework of the free market. Reading through one-another's typescripts they learnt a great deal more about themselves and the general publishing climate of the age - sub-zero as far as any passionate relationship to intellectual heat was concerned! - than ever they would have done had the club not existed and frequent rejections obliged them to presume that their work was simply 'not good enough'. On the contrary, it was generally found to be 'too good' (both morally and intellectually), too out-of-the-ordinary to attract a large public, given the crass nature of most people's literary tastes or, more specifically, of the system which bludgeoned them into conformist mediocrity. Now this discovery at least sufficed to reassure the members of the 'Rejection Club' of their respective literary abilities, even if it couldn't alter anything in terms of their immediate or short-term prospects of being published. For few if any of the more intelligent, gifted, and well-educated ones (usually self-taught on the basis of home reading which transcended school education to an extent and in a way which made the latter seem relatively inconsequential) were prepared to sacrifice their creative integrity to the great modern antigod of popular taste, and thereupon reduce their creativity to the lowest-common-commercial-denominator on the basis of a materialistic concession to the supply-on-demand tyranny of market forces!
Indeed, as the club developed and its members became more intimate, a kind of anti-popular campaign was launched in which they vowed to write contemptuously of established authors who specialized in and profited from crime, thriller, war, horror, spy, and occult stories, kow-towing to popular predilections with an opportunistic blatancy totally unworthy of a cultured and discriminating turn-of-mind! Such authors, particularly the most commercially successful of them, were unanimously regarded as the literary scum-of-the-earth, and poster-size reproductions of their fame-wallowing faces were duly tacked to the walls and exposed to graphic disfigurement and verbal abuse as a reminder of just how contemptible they were. And, by way of reminding themselves of their common cause against commercial trash, the 'Rejection Club' sported, in large letters on a wooden plaque which hung over the drawing-room's mantelpiece, a reassuring quotation from The Soul of Man Under Socialism by Oscar Wilde, which read: 'No country produces such badly written fiction, such tedious common work in the novel form, such silly, vulgar plays as England. It must necessarily be so. The popular standard is of such a character that no artist can get to it. It is at once too easy and too difficult to be a popular novelist. It is too easy, because the requirements of the public as far as plot, style, psychology, treatment of life, and treatment of literature are concerned are within the reach of the very meanest capacity and the most uncultivated mind. It is too difficult, because to meet such requirements the artist would have to do violence to his temperament, would have to write not for the artistic joy of writing, but for the amusement of half-educated people, and so would have to suppress his individualism, forget his culture, annihilate his style, and surrender everything that is valuable in him.' Thus read the very pertinent and admirably anti-commercial quotation with which the club members sought, under Prescott's moral guidance, to boost their morale and strengthen their resolve never to capitulate to the pseudo-cultural enemy, whatever his class, but to carry-on fighting against him in the name of art, truth, spirit, intelligence, honesty, courage, idealism, etc., to the bitter end or, preferably, until such time as an ultimate victory had been won and everything low and mean was systematically consigned to the rubbish bin of commercial history. That Oscar Wilde had fought against this enemy to the bitter end, they fully realized. But so, too, had other such 'saints' of their 'church' as Baudelaire, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Huysmans, James Joyce, Aldous Huxley, Hermann Hesse, Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell, and Thomas Mann, so that it was with such courageous names as these in mind that they continued to write and dispatch typescripts not guaranteed to solicit popular endorsement.
Yet there was also another side to the club's attitude towards commercial literature which, initiated by Prescott himself, took the form of an imaginative sympathy for those exceptional publishers who, less overly exploitative than the majority of their competitors, would much rather have published only works of cultural and literary value but were obliged, through force of economic necessity, to kow-tow to commercial criteria and only publish such books as could be expected to appeal to a wide public. Here it was not so much the author whose work, though intrinsically valuable in itself, had been regularly rejected whom one was expected to sympathize with, as the publisher who suffered nightmares of depression and humiliation at having to publish so much rubbish, novelistic or otherwise, simply to make ends meet, and who, deep down, would rather have published only what he knew to be artistically and/or culturally meritorious. Instead of which, the cut-throat circumstances of life in a capitalist economy obliged him to earn the privilege of bringing out a few genuinely valuable books by publishing a host of trashy ones - much to his personal dissatisfaction!
Yes, in order not to become too prejudiced against publishers, and thereby run the risk of losing all track of economic reality, Donald Prescott reminded his fellow-rejects, from time to time, of the difficulties they faced, and of the noble intentions which the most reputable firms always harboured. The literary saint who suffered all manner of tortuous misgivings and reserves in the face of commercial pressures had to be juxtaposed with the well-intentioned publisher who, no less frequently, suffered all manner of tortuous misgivings and reserves in the face of economic pressures, before one could hope to get the two in perspective and arrive at anything like a reasonable viewpoint. Otherwise one would be deceiving oneself and doing a grave injustice to both author and publisher alike! Yet this didn't mean to say that, as a writer, one should therefore 'sell out', by sacrificing one's creative principles, and automatically commit literary suicide. If one had any creative principles at all, it was one's duty as an artist to stick by them in order not to allow commercial pressures and temptations to get the better of one. For if one didn't, there could be no question of work of intrinsic literary value ever being produced by one again! One would simply be reduced to the contemptible status of the literary riffraff - a victim of the democratic mob and an enemy of the spirit! There could be no question of any member of the 'Rejection Club' becoming that!
Such, at any rate, was how Prescott had reasoned in the heyday of his dedication to the club, which, however, had lately ceased to appeal to him to the degree it did, before he made a name for himself in photography. More from habit than genuine conviction, he still kept it going and entertained the surviving members to the extent circumstances would permit. His eccentricity in this respect had not deserted him, even if his initial enthusiasm for the cause, born in days of misery and struggle, had somewhat waned under the influence of his subsequent successes. Nowadays it was primarily to show off his latest photographs and air his prejudices on a variety of topics, from the obsolescence of horse racing to the moral vacuousness of society women, that he allowed a couple of rooms in his spacious house to be invaded, twice a month, by the leading rejects of the literary world, a majority of whom had become so set in their rebellious ways and so absolutely unable or unwilling to revise their approach to writing ... that they virtually regarded every new publication with deep suspicion, believing it must necessarily be morally bad in consequence, and would almost certainly have turned against any member of the club who deserted them in this respect, as though he were a traitor to their cause and accordingly merited the kinds of abuse and contempt ordinarily reserved for the more conspicuous examples of commercial success which hung, somewhat pathetically, from each of the main walls, as though from gibbets!
Concerning Donald Prescott's other main eccentricities, however, it is perhaps wiser not to speak at all. Although it might prove of passing interest to the odd person, here and there, to learn that he was possessed of a marked predilection for women's underclothes, particularly panties, which he collected with a zeal and pride not far removed from what a collector of books or records might experience with each new addition to his collection of cultural artefacts. Not that he went into ladies' underwear shops and actually bought them over the counter or anything like that. Oh no! They came to him via the models, including Carol Jackson, whom he had at one time or another succeeded in seducing (and he had succeeded in seducing the great majority of them). One pair of panties from each model was his requirement which, once acquired and pegged to a clothesline in one of his spare upstairs rooms, became for him the equivalent of what a scalp must have been to a Red Indian in the bad old days of intertribal or colonial warfare - namely an object of conquest.
Altogether, since he first began collecting them, just over six years ago, he now had some 330 pairs of assorted panties dangling in parallel rows of different height across the large room in which he chose to keep them - panties of every shape, size, and colour, with a number of G-strings thrown-in for good measure. And to each item exhibited in this provocative fashion was appended a small cotton tag bearing, in neatly printed block capitals, the forename of its original owner, together with the date of surrender. Thus one might have encountered, in this extraordinary museum of women's briefs, upwards of twenty exhibits bearing the name Susan, sixteen the name Christine, twelve the name Margaret, ten the name Carol, and so on, right the way down to those specimens which were as yet unduplicated, but bore such interesting and exotic names as Norma, Jayshree, Yogini, Shobhana, Shahla, Alia, Isik, and Anne-Marie. To be sure, the genuine connoisseur of panties could hardly have failed to be impressed by this collection, were he granted the good fortune to be escorted around the 'Panties Museum' - as Prescott liked to call it - by the curator-in-residence himself and invited to scrutinize the exhibits to his heart's content, listening all the while to the running commentary provided by his host as a means to enlightening him as to the character and quality of their original owners, not to mention the dubious means by which they had been acquired! Such an unprecedented spectacle could hardly have failed to elicit at least some enthusiasm from the guest whose privilege it was to witness what Prescott proudly referred to as 'The finest private collection of assorted female briefs in Western Europe', even if the accompanying invitation to take a sniff at as many of them as he pleased in order to verify, where possible, the authenticity of their current owner's claims, wasn't guaranteed to meet with his wholehearted approval! For it had occurred to a few sceptics, when confronted by these exhibits for the first time, to doubt the genuineness of Prescott's claims and to question whether he hadn't simply bought them all in various shops, at one time or another, appended name tags to them, and then cold-bloodedly invented some cock-and-bull story about his conquests, together with equally spurious information regarding the characters and physical qualities of the young women concerned, the better to impress his visitors. But the doubts of the sceptics - for the most part elderly males unwilling to believe their host could possibly have had it off with so many women during the course of his photographic career - were invariably silenced when each of them was personally invited to sniff certain of the exhibits, and accordingly verify the fact that they had indeed been worn and still bore faint traces of their original owners' person. To be sure, the smell of the museum was not, in view of Prescott's disinclination to let-in too much fresh air at the risk of undermining the credibility of his claims, particularly fragrant. But such was his determination to prevent anyone from accusing him of fraud ... that he was more than prepared to put-up with any nasal or psychological inconvenience this caused him, as well as go to the trouble of pointing out such small stains of one sort or another as could still be found on various of the exhibits, as further proof that these items were not new but decidedly second-hand.
However, the vast majority of Prescott's visitors were prepared to believe what he told them about the items in question without desiring the slightest recourse to corroborative evidence. And the vast majority of them, despite initial misgivings and private qualms at the sight of the 'Panties Museum', had come away feeling rather impressed by its curator's apparent luck with women. Only a relative handful of persons, such as recoiled from any form of eccentricity or originality out of personal insecurity or bourgeois prudery, subsequently harboured serious misgivings. And they generally declined any further invitation Prescott might make to keep people in touch with his various commitments - fetishist or otherwise.
But one of the people who never declined the photographer's invitations to visit him was Carol Jackson, who was now posing for his latest camera in quite the most slender brassiere it had ever been her privilege to wear, her head thrown back in a posture of sensual abandon, her hands crossed behind it. How many more snaps of this nature Prescott would require, she couldn't guess. For he had taken enough photos of her in a variety of different poses, and with varying amounts of clothes on and/or off, to fill half-a-dozen magazines! She was always amazed by his persistence, a persistence which he attributed to perfectionism and the correlative desire to get the most out of his models; though it was fairly obvious that his real motive was simply a love of taking photos and ordering women about - with or without clothing. And some of his orders, Carol had to admit, were not at all easy to follow! One wondered how he ever thought them up, so unusual, not to say bizarre, were the resultant poses! Really, it was a never-ending source of astonishment to her, to what lengths one sometimes had to go to satisfy men! Selling sensual pleasure to voyeuristic jerks wasn't always child's play, despite appearances to the contrary. Why, with so many men's magazines in competition these days, it was hardly surprising that one had to stretch and contort oneself to the extent one did, irrespective of whatever natural beauty one possessed and of how foolish the whole affair seemed to one! For there were indeed times when the exigencies of one's occupation gave rise to a feeling of existentialist absurdity, and one was hard-pressed not to burst-out laughing or absolutely refuse to comply with the exacting demands of the occasion. How curious men must be, Carol would think, that they should find this kind of thing, this absurd posture, entertaining! One cannot even begin to fathom them! But, as usual, the sentiment expressed in Tennyson's unfortunate line: 'Ours is not to reason why', coupled to the need to earn a living, would interpose itself between her thoughts and her actions, granting additional weight to the latter. It was as well for her that pornographic modelling was only a sideline, not the backbone of her career as a model.
"So how's your artist friend been keeping lately?" Prescott asked, as the time approached for them to take a break from their morning's labour.
"As well as can be expected," Carol replied, before settling herself down in the nearest armchair and lighting a mild cigarette with the aid of a plastic lighter.
"And still painting hard?" Prescott rejoined.
"As far as I know," Carol admitted. "Portraits at the moment."
"Portraits?" Prescott raised his brows in a show of acute surprise. "Are they any good?"
"Not bad; though I'm not properly qualified to judge, am I?" said Carol rhetorically. "However, he must have some talent for portraiture if Henry Grace is sufficiently interested to have commissioned his portrait. You've doubtless heard of him before."
The photographer smiled faintly and then gently nodded. "I've actually talked to him," he confessed. "Quite a few times, in fact."
"Really?" Carol hadn't even vaguely considered the possibility, and was somewhat surprised in consequence.
"He used to be among my most regular visitors at one time," Prescott declared, with a little chuckle. For a moment he stared unseeingly at Carol, as though absorbed in some arduous recollection, before asking: "And what, pray, does friend Robert think of him?"
"Professionally or personally?" Carol wanted to know.
The model reflected awhile, inhaling and exhaling some smoke from her cigarette. "Well, professionally he thinks very highly of Mr Grace," she revealed. "But personally ... I'm not so sure. They appear to get on quite well together - at least to the extent that circumstances currently permit them. But I haven't yet succeeded in finding out all that much, partly because Robert systematically refuses to discuss the subject with me. He absolutely forbids me to be present in the garden or, for that matter, the studio while Mr Grace is there. And Mr Grace has bloody-well been there from three to four hours a day all the past week!"
"Presumably that's the time it takes Robert to complete a portrait?" Prescott conjectured.
"I imagine so," Carol confirmed, frowning.
The photographer poured out a couple of glasses of sweet white wine and then handed one to Carol, asking: "What about Mr Grace's wife - is she there, too?"
"Yeah, Patricia accompanies him to Richmond every frigging day!" Carol exclaimed with exasperation. "Keeps him company, apparently."
Prescott had to laugh at that! It was just like Henry Grace, he reflected, to drag his wife along with him.
"What's so funny?" Carol wanted to know, becoming puzzled and slightly offended by the photographer's attitude.
"Oh, nothing really," Prescott assured her. "Just a little private joke, that's all."
"Anyway, Robert is doing his utmost to get into his latest sitter's good books," Carol declared, changing the subject slightly. "He's of the opinion that his career will thereby be considerably enhanced."
Having got over his little joke, Prescott merely smiled and wandered over to his camera, which he proceeded to gently stroke with the hand not holding a glass of wine. "Your lover must have a much higher opinion of Henry Grace and his professional influence than I do," he at length said.
Carol was somewhat flummoxed by this remark. "What makes you say that?" she asked.
"Simply what you told me," the photographer replied. "I very much doubt whether an old rogue like Mr Grace would put himself out on Robert's behalf, no matter how hard the latter tries to impress him. He's just not that kind of man."
Deep down Carol was almost amused or, at any rate, secretly gratified by the possibility that her boyfriend was making a damn fool of himself when he thought he was being most wise. "Are you sure?" she queried.
"Absolutely sure," Prescott affirmed in a tone which left no room for uncertainty. "Besides, even if Mr Grace were to do the improbable, I doubt whether his professional influence would appreciably improve Robert's prospects of advancement to greater fame. After all, a single art critic, even when well-known, doesn't have all that much clout. Doubtfully as much as your admirer may, for reasons best known to himself, like to imagine anyway."
"But Henry Grace is internationally famous!" Carol protested, feigning concern on her boyfriend's behalf. "Surely that fact must be taken into account when assessing either his potential or actual influence?"
Prescott reluctantly abandoned the camera and sat down in his customary leather-backed chair. "Oh, I entirely agree," he conceded, a glint of ironic satisfaction faintly discernible in his large eyes. "But so what? Will that make any real difference? To put it bluntly, his fame is essentially a thing of the past. He achieved it during the 'sixties, extended it in the 'seventies, and took a stand on it in the 'eighties. I doubt whether he has budged a fraction-of-an-inch in over a decade. And during that time his actual influence has been in steady decline, falling, I dare say, to a level which could only impress those of his own generation who remember his early fame and, out of self-serving sentimentality, are still inclined to equate him with it! However, to the young art critic of today and, I might add, to most of the younger generation of artists, he's a blundering anachronism, a voice to which one can listen but whom one needn't take too seriously. Even he must know it, despite his considerable capacity for self-deception. For he's completely out-of-touch with the latest developments in painterly art, never mind light art and anything else, my own photographic interests notwithstanding, which might broadly be identified with proletarian as opposed to bourgeois interests."
"But how d'you know all this?" Carol queried, still unwilling to take Prescott's opinions at face-value. After all, could she be certain, knowing as much about him as she did, that he wasn't making it all up just to amuse himself at her expense? She stubbed out the burnt-down remains of her smouldering cigarette, sipped a little more wine, as though to extinguish the fire in her mouth, and then looked at him expectantly.
"Through what I've recently read by him, read about him, heard from various artists and critics about him, thought about him, remembered about him ... oh, through so many channels," the photographer at length asserted, expressing, via a broad sweep of an arm, the general breadth of his information. "He writes well and is respected in many countries by a great many people - don't get me wrong there! Yet his influence isn't so great that he could be expected to win-over the hearts and minds of the more youthful or progressive art-lovers. On the contrary, his influence on the younger generation would be very slight, believe me! And it's above all to the younger generation that your admirer would have to appeal, if he hoped to increase his fame - not to those outmoded people whom Grace could still be depended upon to influence in some way."
"But maybe that's precisely what Robert wants," suggested Carol, recalling to mind the conventional nature of his most recent work. "Simply to be appreciated by art enthusiasts of a more traditional stamp, and thus become renowned as a champion and defender of conventional aesthetic values."
Prescott gave vent to a short, sharp burst of sardonic laughter, such as he usually only succumbed to when confronted by suggestions or comments which ran contrary to his own better knowledge. "That may be," he conceded, for Carol's sake, "but I would hardly describe the thought as one guaranteed to appeal to the ambitions of any self-respecting, progressive artist! If it's that kind of fame he's after, he might as well take his canvases to an antique dealer as to a modern gallery. Indeed, he might as well give-up painting original works altogether and concentrate on copying old masters instead. He'll be appreciated alright, but only by those philistines who know next-to-nothing about modern art and can only relate to what preceded it. In other words, people who require of art that it conforms to something intelligible to them, something pleasantly picturesque. But if he thinks he'll secure universal acclaim through reverting to such muck, and if he thinks Henry Grace will help him acquire it, then he's sadly mistaken! Just as he's sadly mistaken if he thinks that, by returning to a more traditional framework, he'll be saving art from the ogres of modernity and thereby restoring it to a healthier condition. Nothing could be further from the truth! All he'll end-up bloody-well doing is to acquire, with his rather limited fame, the contempt of all truly contemporary artists and connoisseurs of modern art for being both a fool and a reactionary down-dragging influence on the age. But don't tell him I told you that. Let him discover it for himself, if he's really determined to pursue this futile course of his."
"I wouldn't dare tell him," Carol responded. "He wouldn't listen to me anyway, having dismissed so many of his previous girlfriends for being critical of his work. He'd probably send me packing there and then."
Prescott glanced at his watch and commented how it was time they got down to some more work before lunch, since he had another model - a new one - to see during the afternoon and didn't want to fall behind with his schedule. What kind of panties she would turn-up in, he didn't of course know. But he was fairly confident that, before she left his studio an hour or two later, she would have surrendered them to his private museum and thus enabled him to expand his collection to 331. Without a doubt, he was distinctly looking forward to conquering her! For the time being, however, there was Carol Jackson to photograph again, and this time minus her bra. She had already been conquered, and on more than one previous occasion, to boot!