- So an email comes in from Speaker Finder Sue at Beeston U3A, and I am expecting the inevitable regrets etc. etc. at cancellation of my planned talk there in December. But it’s not a cancellation.
The very progressive people of Beeston had booked ‘Oprah Winfrey Touched My Elbow’ for their Christmas gathering on December 3, but instead of cancelling their monthly talks, they are resuming them via Zoom from their September meeting on, and asked me if I could still do December and join them on screen.
Technology tends to make me nervous but after ‘attending’ meetings and training for the Shannon Trust, the prison charity, via Zoom, and attending the AGM of the Broadcasting Press Guild in the same way, I’m now relaxed about Zoom get-togethers and very much looking forward to resuming my latter-day career as a guest speaker. I’m hoping I can generate just as many laughs reaching people in their own homes as I do in a hall filled with 100-150 people. We shall see.
I will have one or two tough acts to follow. September’s guest is novelist and actress Elizabeth Morton, whose husband is a past interviewee of mine – the former Dr Who and All Creatures star Peter Davison.
The other good point is that, unbeknown to the good members of Beeston, I worked for 18 months for Nottingham City Council, fostering good relations (or trying to) with residents affected by construction of the tram extension back in 2014/15. Beeston was very badly affected by the inevitable road closures, traffic congestion and business disruption. This way though, no one can get to throw any missiles my way…
It’s Tom Jones night on BBC4 tonight with a string of documentaries and concert footage (9pm start) from Later with Jools and across the decades. This photo was taken by my ex-colleague Eric Roberts, but long before 1992 when I had my second encounter with Tom at the launch of his terrific Central/ITV series Tom Jones: The Right Time. He performed acapella for the assembled hacks and proved to be a diamond geezer, both at the launch and in the series, where he invited musicians to do their thing, all people he humbly admired including Lyle Lovett, Cyndi Lauper, Stevie Wonder and Joe Cocker. Modest ratings (for then) of around five million meant it was never re-commissioned. A great pity. It was a marvellous series. I do hope some clips survive and might be glimpsed tonight.
Close Encounters of the Furred Kind – Tom Cox
I’m sat in my office typing this with my own cat, Toffo, sat on my knee. I’m wearing shorts so if he hitches himself forward an inch, he digs his claws into my naked thighs and hauls away. I’d take a photo but I’d have to get up to get my phone, which would disturb him, so no photo. These are the sort of small sacrifices cat lovers make for their moggies all the time..
If that makes no sense to you, you can skip this review as Tom’s amusing memoir is a book for cat lovers by an irredeemable cat lover and while it’s hugely entertaining for cat fans to will have zero appeal to cat avoiders.
This is Tom’s fourth entry in his best-selling series of anecdotes about life with partner Gemma and their cats Ralph, The Bear, Shipley, Roscoe and, for a limited period only, George. Tom’s mum and dad’s cats also put in guest appearances, as do mum and dad, Michael (Mick to his friends) and Jo Cox.
For me, the contributions from Tom’s dad are the funniest parts of this very entertaining book – all of them quoted IN CAPITAL LETTERS to convey Mick’s booming voice. I’d love to know if the same holds true for other readers – because Mick (a successful children’s author himself) is a pal I met as a regular swimmer at the local council pool and everything he says in the book I hear in his voice. The quotes perfectly capture his quirky, sweary sense of humour.
It reminds me in some ways of a favourite Radio 4 comedy (and there are very few of those these days), Tom Wriggleworth’s Hang-Ups, based around phone calls home to Tom’s Yorkshire dad, mum and gran. The main difference is that Mick’s humour is more knowing and self-aware than the character of Tom’s dad. As far as I can tell, at any rate.
Personally I am very fond of cats – I once ended up taking on two strays, both pregnant as it turned out, when I already had a cat, so I ended up with three adults and nine kittens – all kittens were found homes in the end, but I hope that proves my pro-moggie credentials.
Even so, the extent to which the cats dictate Tom’s life is exceptional to an almost bizarre degree, as is his tolerance for some of their more anti-social habits. Then again, observing the cats and documenting their lives has provided his livelihood in recent years, so you can’t knock it.
I’d first read Close Encounters a couple of years ago (the title came courtesy of Tom’s dad) but re-read it after running short of fresh lockdown reading matter. I enjoyed it just as much the second time around, enough to resolve to read more of Tom’s cat memoirs. You can find out more and read a sample dad anecdote on Tom’s website http://tom-cox.com/ – try http://tom-cox.com/writing/my-dad-and-the-toad-in-his-shoe/
The Communist Manifesto – Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Penguin Classics
Well, now here’s a contrast. This slim black volume in the same series as The Life of A Stupid Man (scroll down to see review) was a ‘wedding favour’ given to me at the wedding reception of son Harry and his wife Jo.
I am not, and have never been, a communist but I’m not a Conservative voter either so, with limited options left for lockdown reading, I laboured (geddit?) through its 52 pages, some of which were fairly impenetrable owing to the complexities of the ideology and political or cultural references which may have been comprehensible in 1888 but are quite obscure now.
The style is very wordy, excessively so to a modern reader, with the sole exception being the closing two lines, which form a sound bite that has survived down the ages and the first half of which would be worthy of a Dominic Cummings campaign to motivate the masses: “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.”
If only the rest of the political pamphlet were equally succinct. A couple of passages do stand out, however, as being remarkably prescient, starting with the prediction or observation that national boundaries were dissolving due to commerce and free trade – globalisation, and the push towards a more united Europe, in other words, were already happening:
“National differences and antagonisms between peoples are daily more and more vanishing, owing to the development of the bourgeoisie, to freedom of commerce, to the world market, to uniformity in the mode of production and in the conditions of life corresponding thereto.”
Eight pages on (p38), the authors talk of members of the “petty bourgeoisie” being constantly hurled back into the ranks of the proles” by competition, until they disappear as a section of society. I was immediately reminded of a tiny, independent wine shop that I used to frequent, five minutes’ walk from my former home in St Albans. When I moved away in 1991, a big new Majestic Wine Warehouse had just opened, a couple of hundred yards further up the hill.
I was sad to think the independent guy, a mild-mannered man of 50 or so, would not stand a chance with a might Majestic so close by, but I didn’t stay around long enough to know his fate. Since then, as supermarkets take on more and more lines, countless newsagents, florists, greengrocers and butchers have disappeared and it gets harder and harder to earn a living independent of big-scale capitalism.
The fatal flaw, however, in this manifesto is that Marx and Engels believed that, in the new order with all private property abolished and the state ready to fairly administer and apportion all assets, all politicians, or Communist ones, would be as incorruptible and idealistic as they are. They were presumably unaware of John Dalberg-Acton’s truism that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
They were also publishing 57 years too early to have read Orwell’s brilliant conclusion to Animal Farm, showing how a ruling elite will always award themselves privileges, no matter what: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
NB: I have tried inverting this photo at source, but whatever I do it ends up here upside down!
Big Boys Don’t Cry? Well they do, but usually in secret…
It’s Mental Health Awareness Week and I’ve just had news of a new ebook about countering severe depression in men – Big Boys Don’t Cry? by Fabian Devlin and old school friend Patrick Addis.
Both Fabian and Patrick have had periods of severe depression which they have largely kept to themselves, until now, and helping men to overcome their reluctance to talk about such mental problems is the aim of the book. Unlike most women, men are prone to keeping their anxiety and depression bottled up, which can make them desperate, sometimes to the point of suicide.
Fabian and Patrick have interviewed 60 men from all walks of life, from the former England Test cricketer Marcus Trescothick to soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome and men who have have lost a child.
Stephen Fry says of the book: “A brave and important book, providing a source of comfort and hope to anyone struggling with their mental health.”
Big Boys Don’t Cry? is launched as an e-book this week (price £10) to coincide with Mental Health Awareness Week with 10% of the proceeds going to mental health charities. Fabian hopes that the rest of the proceeds will pay for a hardback version of the book.
To buy it, just click on the link below.
Occasional accounts of recent reads
There have been rather a lot of them during lockdown – a wildly varied bunch from the writings of a suicidal Japanese genius to influential funny man Eric Sykes, the brilliantly prescient George Orwell, best-selling novelist Lisa Jewell and journalist Penny Junor, revealing all about her gifted, emotionally illiterate, impossible father, former Fleet Street legend Sir John Junor. We start with:
Eric Sykes – “If I Don’t Write It, Nobody Else Will.” An Autobiography
The first surprise in this 500-page tome comes in the initial acknowledgements, thanking actor Tom Courtenay for providing the title. They don’t seem an obvious pairing. The second comes soon after on finding that Eric was born in 1923 in Oldham and grew up (a) very poor and (b) with a broad Lancashire accent – which had been completely subsumed by the time most of us got to know his film and TV work in the Sixties and after.
Another surprise – it’s a very straight re-telling of Eric’s life story, strictly chronological and, considering his decades of success as both a comedy writer and performer, with very little humour. What few comic asides there are mostly fall rather flat.
And when Eric was out of favour with the BBC come the late ‘70s and the advent of ‘alternative’ comedy, a humiliating encounter with Bill Cotton and other BBC execs when trying to pitch ideas doesn’t quite elicit the sympathy it should, because you half-suspect they were right, his time had perhaps passed. Even so, they should have treated such a distinguished comedy veteran with much more respect than they did, if Eric’s account is accurate.
So, not a funny book but, for students of comedy, certainly a fascinating trot through post-war British comedy history and a revealing insight into the Sykes back story. This is partly because I don’t ever remember reading let alone writing an interview with Eric. His life was a closed book to me, until I opened this one.
The poverty and emotional deprivation of his early life (his mother died in childbirth) are quite shocking as he details his early years. War service as a signalman brought entry to ENSA and he met Bill Fraser – later to star in hit sitcom The Army Game and its sequel, Bootsie and Snudge, with Alfie Bass.
After his real-life demob, Sykes went to London in bitter winter weather with no plan, virtually no money and no overcoat. He was cold, hungry and desperate when he bumped into Bill Fraser again, who took pity on the waif and engaged him as a writer, paying him some immediate cash. Ironic that Bill, who became famous for playing snide, bullying Sgt. Major Snudge, was so kind and generous in real life. No comedy script came from these fist wages, but Bill earned Eric’s lifelong gratitude.
Sykes shared an office with Spike Milligan for more than 40 years and, unusually for a creative type, seems to have had his head screwed on business-wise, setting up a scriptwriting agency which prospered for many years.
Sad to say though, despite his talent and his close friendships with many of our comedy greats, I didn’t like him that much when I’d finished reading his book. My younger brother Howard Keal (not the singer) is also a journalist and did get to interview him – the opportunity never arose for me and I suspect Eric didn’t like giving interviews. No doubt his deafness didn’t help. Howard met him when Sykes toured regional theatres performing his long-running two-hander with Jimmy Edwards, Big Bad Mouse. Howard’s impression? “Grumpy old git.”
Why I Write – George Orwell
A small-format book of just 120 pages, first published in 1946 but consisting of essays or political treatises variously written in 1931, 1940 and 1946.
The cover quote is the key to by far the longest piece and most overtly political piece: The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius: “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
It was so true then and in the era of Trump and Boris is even more true today.
As someone who mostly reads thrillers or comic novels, this was rather heavy going at times yet it was compelling, because Orwell’s insights are so profound and in some ways so prescient.
The main essay, The Lion and the Unicorn, was written when the outcome of the war was by no means clear, when in fact we were losing, and badly. He makes the argument that capitalism has inherent weaknesses when up against totalitarianism, because while our arms factories were still flogging weapons to fascists almost up to the day war was declared on Germany, the aims of industry (profits for shareholders) and the state (victory at all costs) were hardly compatible.
He suggests that we will only win the war if we are all in it together, and we can’t be that if some folk go hungry on rations while others swan around in Roll-Royces and fur coats, buying anything they fancy on the black market.
To narrow the gap, he advocates a Socialist (not Communist) revolution – he was later to eviscerate communism so brilliantly in both 1984 (written in 1948) and Animal Farm – and advocates six key points including
- the nationalisation of land, mines, railways banks and key industries
- A minimum wage and a limitation of incomes so that those at the top earn no more than 10 times what is earned by those at the bottom (sounds good to me!)
- Reform of education – (to help provide equality of opportunity and create a less unequal society).
- Dominion status for India, leading to independence
Much of this came to pass, of course, or at least in part, with Labour’s landslide victory in 1945, nationalisation of coal, steel and rail, comprehensive education and the NHS, until so many of these markers were reversed by Mrs Thatcher. And much of it didn’t, while it must also be acknowledged that nationalisation brought its own set of problems, accompanied by a growing imbalance of power in favour of trade unions until Mrs Thatcher so brutally reversed that.
The shortest essay, A Hanging, is an unsettlingly vivid account of a hanging of some poor wretch in Burma in 1931. It’s a potent reminder of why the death penalty should never be allowed in any civilised country. Except for litter louts, of course.
The Family Upstairs – Lisa Jewell
I was a bit sceptical about this intriguing page-turner at first, partly because most of the favourable reviews printed on the cover and inside were by readers rather than critics (though fans included Ian Rankin and there was one national newspaper review – the Guardian called it “creepy, intricate and utterly immersive.”
The other doubt was that the jumps between seemingly unconnected groups of characters and time periods threatened to lose me in the very early stages, but perseverance soon paid off. The mystery involves the story of what happened in a large London house that left a well-cared for baby in her cot while three corpses lie decomposing in the kitchen. Who was looking after the baby, and where did they go? It becomes increasingly difficult to put the book down until you find out.
Unusually, and refreshingly for me, there is a journalist involved in the plot’s later stages who is a good guy, whereas most journalists cast as supporting characters in popular fiction are scuzzballs of the first order. Perhaps he is a little too good – the inordinate amount of time and energy this journo devotes to unravelling a story that fails to produce anything he can sell does make you wonder how he ever manages to put food on the table or fuel in the car, but it’s a minor quibble over what is a damn good read
Home Truths: A Life Around My Father – Penny Junor
I confess, I’ve always had a soft spot for Penny Junor, ever since I used to watch her presenting The Travel Show on BBC2 in the 80s, the harder-nosed antidote to the glossy brochure travel puffs provided by Judith Chalmers in ITV’s Wish You Were Here. I interviewed her circa 1987 and found her quite delightful as well as highly intelligent and, I confess, very agreeable to look at when on TV. (The interview, sad to confess, was only a phone encounter).
I’ve never read Penny’s books on the Royals – too much of a Republican for that – but just 17 years after it came out in paperback I have recently read this brutally honest account of the and career of her father, Sir John Junor, who for an incredible 32 years was editor of the Sunday Express. Fleet Street editors seldom last much longer than football managers, so this was a prodigious achievement, unlikely to ever be repeated.
John Junor was certainly gifted as a journalist, columnist and editor, as well as immensely industrious and a man of great charm and charisma. On the down side, when he wasn’t being kind or charismatic he could be a cruel, neglectful husband and father and a bullying editor. He could be a monster, and frequently was one.
This must have been a painful book to write. Quite apart from her battles with her father, Penny recounts the tragedy of her talented brother, who died young through alcoholism and estranged through Penny’s heroic attempts to help him face up to his addiction.
There are lots of memories of Fleet Street in its boozed-up, post-war heyday and I was there myself just long enough to know how far the stories of excess and outrageous behaviour ruing true.
It’s difficult for a journalist, fascinated by all newspaper anecdotes involved, to judge much interest Penny’s account of her father’s life, career and relationships will hold for a non-journalist, but for me it was riveting. As for the family life it so frankly reveals, TV soap operas seem tame in comparison.
The Life of a Stupid Man – Ryunosuke Akutagawa
This small-format, slim volume (54 pages|) is one of the strangest books I’ve ever read, but it certainly has style. I’d never heard of Akutagawa but he was/is Japan’s most revered author. Their equivalent to the Booker Prize is named after him, and he wrote Rashomon, the short story behind Kurosawa’s epic film. He committed suyicide in 1927, aged just 35.
By far the longest item is a 15-page period piece – Akutagawa is the ackowledged master of the Japanese short story – about a young man armed with sword, bow and a quiver of arrows travelling alongside his wife, who rides their horse, when they encounter a notorious bandit. The husband ends up dead as a result, after being tied up and made to watch the rape of his wife.
A series of testimonies are given to the investigating magistrate and the wife and the bandit give wildly differing accounts, while the spirit of the husband’s account is radically different again.
A comment on the unreliability of human perception or the mendacity of people put in extreme situations? Whichever one applies, it’s a very stylish, thought-provoking story.
The ultra-short stories told in the final part, The Life of a Stupid Man, reflect the gloom and despondency of the author’s final year(s) and can be as little as three lines long but often contain arresting images or intriguing ideas. My favourite, Marriage, is reproduced below, involving a wife’s witty, or cunning, riposte to an interfering aunt and a charmless husband. I take the meaning to be that she gave the offending flowers to the aunt, effectively spiking her guns. And, incidentally, I didn’t know what a jonquil was – turns out it’s a type of small daffodil:
The day after he married her, he delivered a scolding to his wife. ‘No sooner do you arrive here than you start wasting our money.’ But the scolding was less from him than from his aunt, who had ordered him to deliver it. His wife apologised to hmi, of course, and to the aunt as well – with the potted jonquils she had bought for him in the room.
The death of Honor Blackman at the age of 94 comes as sad news today. I interviewed Honor back in 1990 as the glam sixty-something grandmother in ITV sit-com The Other Half. She was charming and fun at Central TV’s London press launch for the programme – sad to say I have no surviving cutting or computer record of the encounter.
Bizarrely, what I did have for many years – until about
Two years ago – was the antique oak table she dined at during the wrap party for the series, which was held at the home of series producer Christopher Walker in the village of Kneeton, just outside Newark, where I moved in 1991.
Honor was, for me at least, the main attraction at the launch, outshining co-stars Joe McGann and Diana Weston, and I wouldn’t normally interview a sit-com’s producer – Christopher Walker in this case. The Other Half was unusual though in that it was an Anglicised version of a hit US sit-com, about an ex-baseball player (played by Tony Danza, from previous hit sit-com Taxi) turned-housekeeper for an affluent divorcee and her kids. For the UK it was changed to an ex-soccer player and Honor B played the divorcee’s lively mother.
So for once I interviewed the producer as well, asking him about the particular challenges of converting US gags and situations to suit a British audience.
Move on a year or so and I and my family move to Newark to a handsome Victorian house and we scour local antiques centres for antique furniture to fill it’s high-ceilinged rooms. Newark Antiques Centre sells us a set of chairs, and they put us on to a table for sale at a private house in the nearby village of Kneeton. We go to see it, agree to buy it (for £1,000 !!) from the wife of the household, and hire a van so that we can come back and collect it.
When we do we get chatting and I must have mentioned that I was a journalist who wrote about TV. Mrs Walker then tells us that her husband was at work but that he also was in TV – and was the producer of The Upper Hand, so that’s when I realised that I’d not only met him but had interviewed him the previous year. Small world.
Mrs W told us that the wrap party took the form of a dinner party for the cast at their home and the actors – including Honor – had sat around this very table for their supper. I did love that table, and it came with me when I got divorced in 2005. By 2018 it had been bleached by the sun and needed an expensive bit of restoration work. I would have gone for that, but partner Mary wanted a more contemporary look, so the table had to go.
‘Brown’ furniture being very much out of favour with the fashionable, I sold it along with the chairs that had cost £600 – 40 quid the lot. Two years ago you could barely give such items away. Now they are coming back into fashion, too late, alas.
For a tribute to the late Honor B, here’s a link to the Guardian’s obituary: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2020/apr/06/honor-blackman-james-bond-pussy-galore-avengers-dies-aged-94