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.