This is your life, p.11
This Is Your Life, page 11
The comedy club was above a pub in Camden and the open spots were after the interval at around 10 p.m. I looked at my watch at quarter to ten and began my second pint. Three young lager-drinkers were huddled around a quiz machine, endlessly feeding it pound coins for the shallow gratification of being able to answer pitifully easy general-knowledge questions. ‘How smart are you?’ flashed the message across the top of the machine. ‘Not very’ must surely be the answer for anyone who fell for that one. The pub in which I was sitting managed to be noisy and smoky without having very many people in it. Oh, and it was also about eighty miles from Camden.
It is hard to pinpoint the exact moment that the decision not to go through with my plan passed from my subconscious to the conscious. That very morning I had even checked the times of trains from Brighton to London, still blithely pretending to myself that I was going to proceed with this foolhardy personal dare. Despite all the hours spent writing jokes and practising my delivery and working myself up into a state of phoney self-confidence, I wonder if deep down I ever truly believed I was going to go through with it. But by now it was a physical impossibility. I was sitting in the Red Lion in Seaford, having an ordinary night’s drinking with the usual crowd. I tried to picture Arabella miles away in a London comedy club, settling down in a seat with a clear view, her notebook on her lap, smug in the knowledge that she alone was privy to the wonderful secret that there would be an extra performer on stage that night. And not just some scrofulous hopeful, but a real master of his craft, one of the greats, but as yet undiscovered by British audiences. Had she brought any friends along with her, promising them that they wouldn’t regret it? Was she glancing around the room right now, hoping to give me a conspiratorial wink before I went on stage?
‘Of course a football is round! Dave, how can you possibly say a football isn’t round?’ exclaimed an outraged Norman. I was unfortunate enough to be sitting downwind of Norman. Panda wasn’t with him this evening; they’d had a row. She’d said you should always mount a motorbike from the left and he’d said, ‘Why don’t you have the bike today? You can take it bloody foxhunting!’
Now Dave was engaging him in an even more pointless argument.
‘Sure, to us a football might be round. That’s just the way we perceive it. It doesn’t make footballs round from an objective point of view. To a Martian it might be square.’
‘No, footballs are definitely round . . .’ pondered Chris, perhaps a bit out of his depth discussing abstract philosophy. ‘You can see them roll.’ Chris was not the intellectual of the group. He was once asked to name his favourite opera. He thought about this for a while and then said, ‘Winfrey.’
‘Yes, to us they’re round,’ repeated Dave. ‘But to a Martian they might be round.’
‘There, you said round. There that proves it. You said to a Martian they might be round,’ said Chris.
‘I said square.’
‘No, not second time. You said round, you said, “To a Martian they might be round.” Here, Jimmy, didn’t he say that footballs are round?’
‘Footballs?’ I said, my mind elsewhere. ‘Oh yeah. They’re definitely round all right.’
And Chris put his fingers in his ears to stop Dave even replying and eventually Dave got up to buy another square of drinks.
‘You’re quiet tonight, Jimmy,’ said Nancy, bringing me back to reality.
‘Hmmm? Oh yeah, bit tired. Couldn’t get to sleep last night.’
‘Are you worried about something?’
‘Me worried? Nah! Well, you know, only the usual trivial things: whether the AIDS virus will mutate and become airborne . . .’
‘Really?’ she said anxiously.
‘No, sorry, I just made that up.’
‘Just for a change. I’ve found out something else you made up.’
‘What?’ I said anxiously.
‘What you were saying the other day. Well, I took the trouble to check, Jimmy Conway. And they haven’t taken the word “gullible” out of the dictionary. You were having me on, weren’t you?’
‘No no, it’s still in Collins and everything. But it’s been taken out of the new OED they’ve just published.’
‘Really!’ she said, amazed once more.
I had been chided by my friends for repeatedly looking at my watch as if I wanted to be somewhere else and so now I threw a furtive glance at the clock behind the bar. It was half past ten and now Arabella would surely be confused that I’d not appeared. Perhaps she might attempt to rationalize my non-appearance, explaining to her friends that the club’s manager had been so delighted to have me there that he’d moved me to the top of the bill and I would probably be closing the show if they sat tight and waited.
It was not until I was finally inside my front door that I turned on my mobile to see if there were any messages. There were none. And no missed calls either. She had been too disgusted to want even to speak to me. Not only had I blown out her feature, probably forcing her to work on Saturday to cobble together something else, I had made her leave her friend’s birthday dinner early and probably humiliated her in front of those friends as well. I considered ringing her office number and leaving some elaborate excuse on her voicemail but decided that it would be far better to do the decent thing and hide. Having never given her any contact details other than my mobile phone number, I made myself incommunicado for a few days by courageously switching off the phone until after the paper was published.
And on Saturday night at around midnight I drove into Brighton where you could get first editions of the Sunday papers the night before. I bought a copy of the Sunday Times and slipped into a café to see what Arabella had filled the space with. The review section fell out and there was my face on the front cover. I could feel myself starting to shake. There I was with Billy Crystal and Steve Martin under the headline, ‘He’s having a laugh’.
It’s obviously a hatchet job, I realized – an exposé on my whole scam, now laid bare for the entire country by an investigative reporter I’d foolishly underestimated. ‘He’s having a laugh’ – suddenly it didn’t feel very funny at all. I flicked over the page and started to speed-read the feature, which occupied a double spread:
I am in a slightly tatty comedy club in North London, where the best joke of the evening so far is the amount they charge for a warm glass of white wine. I have watched a succession of comics attempting to extract comedy from the usual subjects and now as I look around the strained expressions of the audience, I can see their facial muscles are aching from endless half-hearted attempts to laugh at these mediocre efforts. But tonight the audience is about to be very surprised indeed. Because the funniest comic is the one who was not on the bill. Onto the stage walks Jimmy Conway, who proceeds to deliver one of the most inspired sets to hit the London comedy scene in years!
Confused, I read the sentence again. ‘Onto the stage walks Jimmy Conway.’ What was she talking about? Had she gone mad? It was inexplicable. I read on and discovered that my act had in fact been far funnier than I ever dared hope it could be. My now famous ‘fish’ routine was fast becoming the stuff of comedy legend, apparently. For no obvious benefit to herself, Arabella was prepared to lie to millions of people that I had gone ahead with it and got up there and performed. And I was fantastic! I was a triumph! She must have liked me so much that she’d given me the benefit of the doubt when I failed to turn up, presuming that I really was every bit as funny as my American reviews asserted. In which case, why didn’t she call to ask why I had let her down? Why wasn’t she angry that I had made her leave her dinner party early to rush across London on a rainy Wednesday night to see a stand-up comedy show? And then it dawned on me. Because Arabella hadn’t turned up either! That’s why there had been no message left after the supposed gig. She had arrived at her friend’s house on Wednesday night for a meal, kicked off her shoes and had a few glasses of wine on the sofa. No doubt the meal had been served up slightly later than she’d anticipated and eventually she looked at
I looked around the café to see if anyone else was reading the Sunday Times and if so to see if they recognized me. I gave a half smile to a cleaner, but she didn’t seem to instantly place my face. I read on, almost aghast at the improbability of my success.
Having just returned from a couple of years spent building a cult following in the United States and Canada, Jimmy Conway is once more delighting British audiences with surprise appearances at ordinary comedy clubs across the country. With Conway there is no hype, there are no agents, no PR campaigns, no lager adverts or dodgy series on Sky One. Yet he is rapidly gaining a reputation via the best publicity machine in the business – word of mouth.
‘It’s just the way I like to do things,’ he says when I meet him for drinks in one of London’s trendy media clubs. Most celebrities are shorter than you imagine, but Conway is tall and good looking, with striking blue eyes and that hangdog scruffiness which is so often the sign of a great artist.
I was good looking! It said so in the paper! As for the scruffiness of the great artist, I privately had to concede it was more likely the sign of a person who was just scruffy.
‘The ordinary venues are the lifeblood of Britain’s comedy industry,’ he explains, ‘but they are being bypassed by television and big theatres who are grabbing the few big names and leaving the grassroots to wither away’ Except that now audiences know that if they go to enough clubs then eventually they will be treated to a surprise guest appearance by one of the funniest men in the country. Imagine going along to see Doncaster Rovers and discovering that David Beckham has decided to turn up and play for them this week. And Conway doesn’t even expect a higher fee than the other performers. For the first time the comedy club promoters are laughing as much as their audiences.
While reeling in shocked delight at this unwarranted praise, I still found room to be puzzled by some of the comments in this almost perfect profile. Apparently I had admitted that underneath all the jokes I was probably a very sad person, and that I drank Guinness as a way of connecting with my Irish roots. But these were mere quibbles. The piece was prominent, with big pictures, great captions and the profile was so much better than it could have possibly been if we had both turned up to the gig. Now I was somebody. I had arrived. I read the entire piece again, more slowly this time, savouring its idolatrous climax:
The Los Angeles Times described Jimmy Conway’s most famous routine as a comic ‘tour de fish’. But even this does not do justice to the highlight of his finely polished set. They said that comedy was the new rock and roll. Well, here comes comedy’s punk. I have seen the future – and it’s funny.
‘You bloody liar,’ I giggled delightedly, astonished that a journalist on a national newspaper could be so casually and brazenly dishonest. Now I noticed that the entire article never mentioned which comedy club Arabella was at, or who the other comics were – she covered herself by being deliberately vague. It was difficult to categorize all the different emotions I felt reading this profile of myself. Like any great trauma there were several stages. Shock was followed by incredulity, then excitement, then enormous gratitude, which finally gave way to the final stage: pride. Yes, I was very proud of how funny I was. It was all there in black and white. ‘Well, you know, you’ve deserved it, Jimmy,’ I joked to myself. ‘Let’s face it, you’ve put the work in, you’ve played all the clubs, you’ve served your time – no one deserves this more than you.’
Arabella sent me a short scribbled note a few days later returning my original photos.
Hope you liked the piece. Sorry I didn’t stop and chat the other night; had to dash back to friend’s birthday meal. But thought you were great, etc., etc. Photos enclosed. Comedy Store rang and asked if they could have copy of that picture of you performing there for their Wall of Fame. Keep in touch. Yrs, Arabella
PS Several people in the office say they think they remember seeing you before you went to America. They said you were great back then as well!
Shucks, yeah, I suppose I was.
27 Elms Crescent,
In his song about fame, called ‘Fame’, David Bowie asked fame what its name was. I thought about that long and hard today. Then I decided that I didn’t have the faintest idea what he was talking about. But the kids from Fame said, ‘Fame – I wanna learn how to fly’, and that’s definitely true. it would be much easier to do that sort of thing if you were famous.
But becoming a celebrity isn’t just about being able to get flying lessons or whatever. It also gives you the chance to do some real good in the world. For example, if a worthwhile cause was having problems raising money, you could come along and go, ‘Hello – let me help! I’m famous, you can use me to publicize your charity.’ And all the girls who work at the charity would be really grateful and feel so lucky that you’d come on board and then the newspapers would take a picture of you shaking a can for the disabled people or whatever, and you might even, sort of stand next to a disabled person to show that you don’t mind doing that either. Then you’d be in the paper raising money for charity and everyone would think, ‘Oh, that’s good!’ I mean, ‘that’s good, that charity’, not ‘oh that’s good, good old James Conway is doing work for charity’. Although there’s no point in doing it anonymously, because otherwise you might as well just be an ordinary person shaking a tin in the High Street and that takes ages just to get a couple of quid.
I always think that the more you put into something the more you get out of it. Except those fraudulent pyramid-selling schemes, of course. You’re better off putting less into them, or nothing at all in fact if you know they’re a swindle, which many of them are, sometimes deliberately. But the point is that far too many people these days take out more than they put in. They take out all their money, and things . . . no, not money, because they have to earn that. They take out all the nice things they buy, except then I suppose they are not really taking them, they are purchasing them legally. Well, whatever it is they are taking out, they are not putting as much of it back and it’s not on. As a famous person it will be up to you to set an example to show everyone how good you are. Because when that Fame finally comes knocking on your door the temptation will be to drive around in your flashy car and buy yourself expensive things and go to parties where everyone thinks you are great, but you shouldn’t just do all that, you should also put a couple of hours a week aside for thinking about people less fortunate than yourself. Which with a bit of luck should be just about everyone by now.
‘I didn’t know you were bullied at school, dear,’ said my mother on the phone that incredible Sunday morning.
‘It says here in the Sunday Times: “Jimmy Conway sipped his beer, almost as if the memory was too painful. ‘I first learnt the craft of comedy as a teenager. I discovered that I could deflect the aggression of the school bully with a well-timed joke, and so for me comedy became a matter of survival in the playground jungle.’” Mind you, you’re right about the jungle, darling,’ she continued without drawing breath, ‘the time I spent picking burrs out of your school jumper and they never pulled up the bindweed it always looked such a mess round the gates, but that’s state education for you I suppose, encourage the weeds as well as the roses, I wanted to send you private they had much nicer grounds at Charterhouse but your father wouldn’t hear of it after the money we’d spent on Nicholas who rang this morning they’re back from the Dordogne they’re having trouble with planning permission for the farmhouse but that’s the French for y
The habits of a lifetime are not easily surrendered and despite my sudden increase in status she still found herself moving straight onto the subject of my elder brother. I had got used to this over the years. If my mother’s butterfly brain should find itself settling for a second on the comprehensive bindweed of her youngest son it would then immediately flit off and settle on the richer nectar of the privately educated prize bloom that was Nicholas. But on this day an incredible thing happened. She fluttered back again and settled on me!
‘Nicholas saw the piece in the newspaper as well, everyone’s very excited about this secret career you’ve developed, darling, I’m so glad you had a word with Billy Scrivens like I said. One of Nicholas’s friends rang him and asked if he was any relation of Jimmy Conway, how about that? We’re all very proud of you, dear!’
How about that, indeed! All the years that I had been Nicholas Conway’s younger brother: ‘Any relation of Nicholas?’ people would always ask me, ‘Oh yes, you’re Nick Conway’s little brother aren’t you?’ and now Nicholas had been asked if he was any relation of mine. Yes! Yes! Yes! Finally I had sat on his head and let rip a stinker! Dad had a brief word; the success of his younger son seemed briefly to have cheered him up but he quickly returned to his usual subject of conversation: ‘Did Mum tell you George Howe’s had another stroke? He can’t have much longer I should think.’
by John O'Farrell have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes