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This is your life, p.17

This Is Your Life, page 17


This Is Your Life

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  ‘Er, well, a bit, I suppose,’ I replied, slightly disappointed that my preparation seemed to have been a waste of time.

  ‘Remember my questions won’t be in the final edit.’

  ‘Oh yeah, sorry,’ and then I took a breath. ‘When I look back at those days, it’s like there were no role models left, there was nothing to believe in, it’s like, there were – no more heroes.’

  And in the broadcast version they cut from me saying that line straight to ‘No More Heroes’ by the Stranglers and that was the only appearance I made. She had attempted to get me to idly muse that we had felt that we had No Future and that Something Better Change and that Teenage Kicks had been so hard to beat, but then she became suspicious that I was onto her when I attempted to tell an anecdote that ended with the line ‘And so I said to him, “Yes, Sir, I Can Boogie”.’

  I watched my appearance on the programme and decided that at least I wasn’t as underwhelming as most of the other ‘celebrity’ contributions on the show. Who are all these people? I kept thinking as I fast-forwarded through the tape they sent me; I’ve never heard of half of them. I decided that the way to avoid being one of these anonymous rent-a-quotes would be to make as many appearances as possible and then I’d be a slightly famous rent-a-quote.

  I took part in a live discussion on breakfast television. The depletion of cod stocks in the North Sea had caused several tabloids to do features on the possible extinction of the traditional British fish and chips and they decided this was the sort of thing that demanded my particular expertise. On the phone the researcher explained to me that since they had three serious pundits, they thought Jimmy Conway with his famous fish routine might be able to add a lighter note to the proceedings. So I found myself sitting in the green room with a Conservative from the House of Lords, a desperate trawlerman who’d come down from Hull and a Green MEP from Holland. All the guests for the various other items were in there too, flicking through that morning’s newspapers or sipping endless cups of coffee. The Ethiopian ambassador was asked if he was the skateboarder, and then another researcher said, ‘No, he’s famine – skateboarding’s in make-up.’ ‘Are you HRT?’ they said to the Dutch MEP before adding, ‘Oh no, sorry, you’re all fish aren’t you?’ Our microphones were clipped on and during the news and weather we were quickly ushered onto the sofas by a floor manager, and then the presenter said, ‘Has cod had its chips? With me are four people to discuss the end of a great British tradition.’ I sat there waiting for her to ask me something while the two politicians talked non-stop and then finally she said to me, ‘Jimmy Conway, what’s your take on all of this?’ and I looked skywards and said, ‘Cod! I mean, what a stupid fish that is! They keep swimming into trawler nets and they taste delicious. All those millions of years spent evolving, you’d think they would have had the sense not to taste so nice, wouldn’t you? So, cod, you’re going to be extinct. Well, whose fault is that then? Just accept it and move on!’

  The presenter looked a little shocked and when she realized I had stopped suddenly faked slightly too much laughter before adding, ‘Thanks very much and now here’s Kelly with business breakfast update.’ I have a feeling I may have said ‘dodo’ instead of ‘cod’ by mistake but either way it suddenly didn’t feel very funny with the environmentalist and the trawlerman sitting there beside me. He’d come all the way from Humberside and hadn’t said a single word. He’d been asked a couple of questions that had both been answered by the politicians and he never got his chance again. ‘Yeah, I wondered if four guests might be too many for this item,’ said the researcher to him nonchalantly when he complained that his entire crew had avoided putting to sea so they could watch him stick up for their industry. ‘Never mind, hopefully you’ll get longer next time,’ she said as if there would ever be a next time for him. So the poor fishing industry never got defended but hey ho, not to worry, at least Jimmy Conway found out that he still didn’t have a fish routine.

  Because very few of Britain’s broadcasting organizations, national newspapers, PR companies and media players seemed to be based in Seaford, I found myself regularly having to stay in London for several days at a time. My parents seemed delighted to have me there and Betty didn’t seem to object to eating organic dog food. Although Mum was always exhausting, there was a definite shift in my parents’ attitude towards me. Previously when Mum began her monologues you never knew where that hurtling train of thought might end up, but now when I overheard her conversations with her network of friends I could guarantee that the success of her youngest son would always somehow be incorporated into the narrative.

  ‘Oh, hello, Marjorie, it’s Val here, we had a wonderful day at the Eden Project, Brian Lacy was very brave and walked all the way round which is very hard when you’ve got one shoe built up two inches higher than the other, people do tend to stare of course I suppose it wasn’t so bad when platform shoes were all the rage, even if it was just the one, mind you I always thought that was such a dangerous fashion, I’m surprised Ben Elton didn’t keep twisting his ankle, not Ben Elton, I mean the other one who sang ‘Crocodile Rocker’, you know he did the song at Diana’s funeral, I do think it’s good the Queen is finally accepting Camilla, poor Charles has to be allowed to get on with his life it’s so hard being in the public eye, but Jimmy seems to handle it very well, did you see him on Breakfast Television this week, a very interesting discussion about fish, a big Mercedes picked him up from the house with a proper chauffeur and everything although he didn’t have a hat, six o’clock in the morning he rang the doorbell, I must do you my cod mornay before they’re extinct, John Elton that’s it, not Ben Elton, John Elton I knew I’d get it in the end, I wonder if they’re brothers.’

  Now my mother’s stream of consciousness would always incorporate my latest appearance or interview. It wasn’t so much a stream of consciousness, really, more of a torrent, a Niagara Falls of consciousness.

  Mum had spent the past year planning the party for their golden wedding anniversary – an event I had been dreading because of the amount of defensive self-justification it would have involved on my part. ‘Are you still working part-time at that language school Jimmy?’ ‘No plans to settle down and have children yet, Jimmy?’ But the change in my fortunes meant that in the event it was my brother Nicholas who seemed to be thrown on to the defensive.

  ‘So, Nicholas – what is it like to have a famous younger brother?’ he was asked while standing right beside me.

  ‘Yes, he seems to be doing quite well at this comedy lark,’ he said through gritted teeth. ‘Shame he won’t let any of us come and see him.’

  The party went off very well and I managed to remember which elderly family friend was suffering from which fatal condition. Brian Meredith said hello and I said, ‘I’m very sorry to hear you’ve got – er, Parkinson’s, is it?’

  ‘That’s right.’

  Yes! I thought to myself, delighted with my excellent memory. I correctly matched the illness to the pensioner throughout the evening until I thought Ray Dowie had Huntingdon’s when in fact he and his wife had just moved to Huntingdon. He only had a hiatus hernia. Damn!

  Now they had seen me on the television they all imagined I must be some sort of millionaire. ‘So, are they paying you well, these TV people?’

  ‘Oh well, mustn’t grumble,’ I replied evasively.

  ‘What car are you driving these days?’

  ‘Well, I don’t do much driving to be honest – they tend to send chauffeurs to pick me up,’ I parried, determined not to reveal that I was still driving the same rusty Nissan with its own in-car pond under the carpet.

  ‘So are you still renting the house in Sussex, or are you thinking of buying somewhere, maybe something a little more substantial?’

  I sometimes think it would be simpler if we all walked around with our incomes tattooed on our foreheads so that people didn’t have to play this elaborate game of twenty questions to place us on the salary scale. The television appearances did pa
y, however, and often a lot more than I would have got for a whole week’s work at the language school.

  My hours at the school had always been fairly flexible but I was stretching Doreen’s patience with the number of times I was arranging for other teachers to cover for me. We were sitting in Doreen’s office. Unlike most people, her desk was not covered with hundreds of scraps of paper. There was just a lamp, a telephone and a large wicker basket containing two panting miniature schnauzers.

  ‘Peckish, Jimmy?’ she asked, unwrapping a couple of Walnut Whips.

  ‘Ooh, yes please.’ I loved Walnut Whips.

  Then she took the walnuts off the top and passed them over to me as the dogs wolfed down the remaining chocolate and lightly whipped marshmallow filling.

  ‘They don’t like the nuts,’ she explained. ‘It’s funny how things go, isn’t it, dear? Before you started this comedy lark I’d had you in mind to possibly teach at a new language school we’re setting up in Kuwait.’

  ‘Kuwait? Didn’t that end up being part of Iraq or something?’

  ‘No, dear, there was quite a big war to ensure that it wasn’t part of Iraq, if you remember. My nephew’s found me some premises and the pay would be more than double what you’re getting now. But I don’t suppose you’re interested now you’re an up-and-coming comedian.’

  ‘Er, well – that’s very flattering, Doreen, but um ... to be honest, Kuwait, I mean, you know if it was the United Arab Emirates that might be different.’

  ‘Really?’ she said.

  ‘No, I was joking.’

  ‘Oh, right, well, that’s your main job now, I suppose. Are you planning to stay on here part-time at the school or will you finally be moving on to better things?’

  The dogs on her desk were staring at me. They expected a straight answer to this question.

  ‘I dunno. I hadn’t really thought about it. But don’t worry. I’ll give you plenty of notice.’

  My wages at the language school depended on the number of lessons I taught, but my regular income was just enough to keep me in dog food, even if dinner guests often expected something nicer. Of course, I had various other investments. My foreign currency reserves would have been worth a small fortune if any of those drachma coins or lire notes had still been legal tender in their respective countries. The success of my other investments was dependent on the correct six balls falling out of the machine on a Saturday evening. So when I was asked if I was interested in meeting an advertising agency who’d had the idea of getting me to do some stand-up comedy for a television commercial and when I was told how much money would be involved if I became the face of the campaign I had to give it very serious consideration. The ad would involve two days’ filming. To earn the same amount of money at the language school would take sixty-two years and three months.

  ‘Half a million pounds’ was the figure I had heard on the phone. There were all sorts of other words and phrases, such as ‘residuals’ and ‘dependent on repeats’ and ‘if the contract is renewed’, but none of them had lodged in my brain quite as firmly as the phrase ‘half a million pounds’. I tried to imagine what on earth I could buy with so much money. My imagination knew no bounds: that amount could buy me half a million of anything in the Mr One Pound shop. In fact, I could buy Mr One Pound outright, except that as a long-term investment it was probably a bad idea because in a few years’ time you’d have to change the name to Mr One Euro, which didn’t have the same ring, quite apart from having to cut your prices by forty per cent.

  It was so much more money than I could ever possibly spend that I thought I’d probably just give a lot of it away. All my friends were so short of cash all the time it would be great just to share it out among us and see all our problems simply melt away. I tried to picture the faces of Norman and Chris and Dave and, most of all, Nancy; it could so transform her life if she wasn’t always struggling to buy Tamsin everything she wanted. I didn’t need much money. I’d just get myself a nice house and a decent car and that would do me. Just a house and a car and some new clothes. And a laptop computer, and maybe an MP3 player, but not a flash one or anything. And a CD writer – it would be great to do compilation CDs of all your favourite songs. But apart from those few essentials for myself, I’d just give the rest away. I certainly wouldn’t waste it on anything vulgar or extravagant. I mean I know a jet ski might seem like a rich boy’s toy and, sure, we always used to sneer at the yuppies who whizzed up and down the coast on them, but in practical terms it would probably be a really quick way of popping over to Brighton, so in many ways a jet ski would be a sort of investment.

  No, no, I had to tell myself, I didn’t want any of that rubbish. If I was going to do this commercial I’d do it for my friends. Nancy had had Tamsin at the age of nineteen and not spent any money on herself since. What was two days’ work to me? I’d spent longer than that trying to put up a curtain rail for her. Anyway, I hadn’t even landed this commercial yet. I was getting carried away. The producer from the advertising agency wanted to meet me to discuss their idea. ‘Do you know the Savoy Grill?’ he asked me. Unsurprisingly I didn’t know the Savoy Grill, although it sounded very expensive. I hope the cost of this lunch won’t be coming off my fee, I thought. As it turned out he wasn’t talking about us having lunch together but a ‘working breakfast’. This is like a normal breakfast but instead of feeling guilty about sitting in the café before going to the office, you get to feel self-righteous about what long hours you’re working instead. I did actually have plans for eight o’clock on Tuesday morning: I’d planned to be in bed asleep, but I feared they might not consider this a sufficiently important appointment to justify moving their meeting.

  I turned up embarrassingly early and found myself sitting alone at a table waiting for the posse from the agency to arrive. Glancing around at the other diners I realized that the Savoy Grill did not have as strict a dress code as I’d imagined, so I propped my big menu up on the table and slipped off my tie.

  ‘Jimmy, hi – you beat us to it,’ said a tall man in jeans and a T-shirt, holding out his hand for me to shake. ‘I’m Piers,’ he said as I stuffed my tie into my jacket pocket and surrendered my hand to a vigorous squeezing. There were six or seven of them who introduced themselves to me and then proceeded to order coffee and croissants.

  ‘Coffee and croissants, Jimmy?’

  ‘Er, sorry, I was a bit early, I’ve already ordered,’ I said as double egg, bacon, sausage, black pudding, mushrooms, tomatoes, baked beans and two slices of fried bread were plonked down in front of me. ‘Er, I decided against the croissants. Trying to cut down on my wheat intake, you know. Excuse me, are these fried slices rye bread?’

  ‘No sir,’ apologized the waiter. ‘We can do you some rye bread if you prefer.’

  ‘Oh not to worry,’ I said magnanimously.

  With nobody else eating and the focus so completely on me, I did my best to carefully time the moments when I popped a big forkful of food into my mouth. Somehow I got it wrong every time. So when Piers said, ‘What did you think of the show-reel we sent you, Jimmy?’ I just raised my eyebrows and mimed an enthusiastic ‘pretty good actually’ sort of face while inside frantically chewing away at large pieces of sausage and bacon. Six faces were staring down the table at me to see what their guest was going to say about their edited greatest hits and I worried that it must look as if I was deliberately stalling for time because I hadn’t liked it. I tried to mime a more detailed response combining a seriously impressed expression with vigorous nods but my repertoire was soon exhausted and I was reduced to having to do an apologetic point at my bulging mouth. This managed to elicit a rather forced smile from the woman who’d brought her own herbal tea bag.

  Finally I managed to say that I thought it was really good and hoped that would be the end of the matter, and they seemed reassured as they all popped sweetener into their black coffees. ‘You didn’t think it was at all a bit same-y?’ said Lucy. The bastards! They had got me a second time –
a whole slice of fried bread folded over a large piece of egg was working its way around inside my mouth. I managed an outraged surprised grunt at the very suggestion that it was all a bit same-y, then shook my head vigorously, furrowing my eyebrows in a serious emphatic way. I was communicating like Guy the Gorilla, though with slightly worse table manners.

  It transpired that they had sent me their show-reel because it was they who were trying to impress me. I had gone along imagining that I’d be trying to persuade them to put me on some sort of shortlist but it turned out that the agency were on a charm offensive. They were desperately trying to convince me that I really ought to do this advertising campaign and be paid hundreds of thousands of pounds for a couple of days of work. Boy, did they have to twist my arm.

  ‘The idea, Jimmy, is that the ad opens with you on stage in this comedy club, and you’re getting laughs, you know, and then we reveal that you’re surreptitiously writing a text message on your mobile phone at the same time. And the strapline is: “Visit the bank while you’re at work today. Text message banking from the C and P.’” A forkful of fried egg was hovering in midair, waiting to see if he was going to ask me a question or begin another monologue. ‘I know what you’re thinking,’ said his assistant, though this was unlikely because what I was thinking was: ‘Phew! Managed to eat my egg in time!’

  ‘. . . you’re thinking, which bit of my stand-up do they want me to use?’

  ‘Er, yeah, well, that is an issue I suppose,’ I conceded.

  ‘Is there any particular routine of yours that springs to mind?’ asked Lucy. I placed my hand on my chin and feigned an exaggerated ‘thinking hard’ expression while staring into the middle distance. ‘Ummm . . . well . . . well ... let me see.’

  ‘What about the fish stuff?’ ventured Piers.

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