This is your life, p.21
This Is Your Life, page 21
It was hard to measure whether the OK! piece had moved me up another little notch in the eyes of my peers but the various invitations and requests for public appearances seemed to arrive at an ever greater rate. I said yes to all of them. Something told me this vacation on Planet Fame might not last very long and I wanted to make the most of it while I was there. It meant that I was hardly seeing anything of my old friends in Seaford. This wasn’t a deliberate policy. It was merely that there was always an exciting new invitation or event I didn’t want to miss. I knew what going down the Red Lion for Dave’s birthday was like. I’d done it many times before, but I could hardly turn down a free ticket to the opening night of a new musical based on Apocalypse Now. They had a full-size helicopter on stage and real Vietnamese food at the after-show party.
Having sat through the whole of Napalm!, I made casual chit-chat with the other stars whose invitations had probably pushed out some of the people who’d actually worked on the production. Where I had once stood on the edge of circles hoping someone would introduce themselves to me, now the circles magically opened and other famous faces greeted me as if we were European explorers meeting in darkest Africa. There was a pecking order, of course, and there were certain megastars you knew you had to wait to be introduced to. I couldn’t exactly go up to Robert de Niro and say, ‘Hi, Rob. Jimmy Conway. You probably recognize me off the text message banking advert. Honestly, isn’t filming a dreadful bore sometimes?’ But for the celebs who were feeling nervous that their careers might have peaked or for those who were a couple of rungs behind me, Jimmy “Talk About Floppy Disks!’ Conway was exactly the sort of person to be seen with.
I found myself sipping champagne beside some cravat-wearing luvvie and he gushed so enthusiastically I could feel my face turning red.
‘Oh, Jimmy, can I just say I saw you do a turn a few months ago and you were absolutely brilliant.’
I didn’t know what to think when people said things like this to me. Were they completely deluded or just so full of showbiz bullshit they went round casually lying to everyone they met?
‘Oh, thanks very much. Glad you enjoyed it.’
‘Yes, you were very funny, really. I think the words “comic genius” would not be overstating it.’
‘Golly. Thank you.’
I was embarrassed now. I wanted to talk about something else.
‘Where did you see him?’ cut in a voice behind me. It was Mike Mellor, the skinhead comic who’d failed to graduate from charm school. He was wearing a T-shirt with his own picture on it.
‘Ooh, now – it was a while ago and they’re all so similar, aren’t they?’ said Malcolm. ‘But what I do remember is that he was very very funny. I mean, that fish routine, well, it’s just a classic, isn’t it? An all-time comedy classic. Up there with the greats, darling!’
‘Was it in London?’ he persevered.
‘Um, yes, I think so. Was it in North London somewhere maybe?’ he said, hoping to be provided with the name of a comedy club.
‘Jongleurs Camden?’ I suggested.
He clicked his fingers and pointed at me.
‘Jongleurs Camden! That was it! Yes! Brilliant, really funny. I nearly came up and introduced myself afterwards but time and place, darling, time and place . . .’
‘Yeah, it was a good gig, that one.’
‘You’ve never played Jongleurs Camden,’ said Mellor.
‘Sorry?’ I said, though I’d heard him perfectly.
‘You’ve never played Jongleurs Camden.’
‘Haven’t I? Oh I dunno, like Malcolm says, these clubs all merge into one, don’t they? Maybe it was Jongleurs Battersea then.’
‘You’ve never played that either. My missus works for Jongleurs. You’ve never played either club or at any gig I’ve ever been to in the past five years of doing the circuit.’
I stammered for a moment, unsure how I might defend myself from Mike Mellor’s knowing accusation.
‘Yeah, well, I mean . . . You know, I’ve never seen you either, Mike, but what does that prove? Malcolm here enjoyed my set, didn’t you, Malcolm?’
‘Very funny, you must try and catch him, really.’
‘Sorry, I should have introduced you. Malcolm, this is Mike Mellor. He’s a stand-up as well. Maybe you’ve seen him. Mike was runner-up for Best New Stand-up at the British ‘Biz Awards . . .’ I gabbled and then kicked myself for provoking him further. Mellor bristled uncomfortably to be reminded of this.
‘No, I can’t say I’ve had the pleasure. But congratulations. That’s still very good. Who were you runner-up to?’
‘Er, Jimmy was best newcomer,’ sneered Mike to his shoes.
‘Sorry, I can’t hear you, darling. Who was it?’ insisted Malcolm.
‘It was Jimmy here,’ he was forced to repeat. ‘Jimmy Conway.’
Mike Mellor had seemed to hate me from the first time he saw me. A month earlier he had come up to me at a Comic Relief football match and said, ‘That gag you do in the advert about Mr Spock’s ears – you’re going to have to drop that because I do Star Trek, that’s my patch, you’re trespassing on my material.’
I sighed and said, ‘Oh beam me up, Scotty!’ and that didn’t seem to endear me to him any more. ‘What, so Gene Roddenberry has given you exclusive rights to make jokes about his characters, has he?’ I went on.
‘No, but it would be like me doing stuff about fish. You just don’t nick another comic’s subject matter; that’s how it works on the circuit. Not that I’d expect you to know that,’ he said pointedly.
‘What if there was a creature that was half fish and half Vulcan? Could I make jokes about that?’
He thought about this. ‘Not if it was on Star Trek,’ he said earnestly. ‘But if it turns up at the fish counter at Sainsbury’s, then it’s yours – I’d steer completely clear.’
Mike Mellor always reminded me what a fraud I was. If my advert had featured me just talking to camera as myself then I might have felt I was now justifiably famous, but because I was clearly being shown at work, doing what ‘Jimmy Conway’ did for a living, the lie that I was a top stand-up comic was being amplified. I never felt completely at ease whenever Mike Mellor and I were at the same event. He Knew. I could feel it every time he was near me. I don’t understand how he came to know, or whether he had just had some inspired hunch, but I just sensed that He Knew. I learnt that he was asking other comics if Jimmy Conway had ever appeared at a gig they were doing; I saw him chatting with a promoter and pointing in my direction, and while he was out there actively compiling evidence against me I felt that my great secret was in danger of being exposed.
I had known for some time there was only one way out of this. Soon I would have no choice but to go out there and do it. If I wanted to sustain my celebrity comic persona, eventually I was going to have to tell jokes in front of a live audience. And the prospect completely terrified me. But it was to happen sooner than I expected. Stella Scrivens was at the same party. I’d wanted to talk to her but I was waiting for the tabloid photographers to move away so that I didn’t have to spend half an hour justifying myself to Nancy.
‘Hi, Jimmy,’ she said, giving me a big kiss as flashbulbs exploded. ‘I’ve got a big favour I’ve been wanting to ask you.’
Mike Mellor was eavesdropping from where he was skulking beside the vol-au-vents.
‘I’m organizing a big charity gala at the Palladium, all the top stand-ups, music acts and everything, raising money for Star Appeal in memory of Billy. Would you be up for doing ten minutes of your set for us?’
‘Er, yeah, sure,’ I shrugged. ‘I’d be delighted. Is ten minutes all you want? Because I can do more if you need . . .’
‘That’s great. I’ll see how we go – I’ve still got a couple of slots to fill.’
Both of us could feel Mike’s glare boring into us.
‘Er, what about Mike here?’ I blabbed out of sheer embarrassment.
‘Er, well, I’ve sort of got my full quotient of co
‘Not to worry,’ said Mellor, staring directly at me. ‘I’ll make sure I’m in the audience.’
So that is how I came to agree to perform in front of two thousand people. I was to make my stage debut at the highest-profile comedy event of the year. I felt like someone who’d been going around claiming he was a black belt in judo and had suddenly been confronted by a gang of terrifying attackers and now everyone was looking at him to beat them all up. I was informed that the event was going to be filmed for a video release, then it was going to be televised, and then I learnt it was going to be transmitted live on BBC1. Each piece of news was presented to me like some fantastic new development that would do so much to help the charity, but all it did was make me want to have a sex change and become a nun in remotest Paraguay.
The date was set. The middle of September. A whole year since I’d first pretended I had known Billy Scrivens, I was now going to attempt to follow in his footsteps for real. Live on stage in front of two thousand people. Millions of TV viewers watching live at home. ‘I can do it!’ I said out loud at home in Seaford. ‘I am going to be a bona fide star at last!’ I said to the dog. ‘I’m going to be huge! I’m going to be a great success, I’m sure of it!’ and she snuffled and panted and turned her head on one side and wondered why I was lying on the floor underneath my bed.
27 Elms Crescent,
Oh God, oh God, oh God. It’s the last day of the holidays and I haven’t done my history project on the Tudors and I’m really going to be for it and I’m scared of going back to school tomorrow.
By now, James, you will probably laugh at the things you used to worry about when you were thirteen. Like the fear you once had of getting into trouble or making a fool of yourself, or anxieties about whether people liked you or not. You will have probably learnt that you can only overcome your fear of something by doing it. Like if you have a terrible fear of heights, for example, and you made yourself jump off a tall building then you might overcome – actually, no, you would die, so that is not a very good example, but generally speaking if you are scared of something you should try and force yourself to do it.
Like last year when I was being bullied by Kevin Fraser. My teacher talked to me about it and said, ‘You have nothing to fear but fear itself.’ And then he gave me a smile and said ‘All right?’ and I nodded and that was that. I had nothing to fear but fear itself. Oh, and Kevin Fraser punching me hard in the face, I thought, I did still have that to fear. And being kicked by him when I fell over. I couldn’t help feeling that was still quite a frightening prospect as well. And him bending my arm up my back and nicking my dinner money and chucking my PE kit on top of the bus shelter. In fact, the more I think about it, I don’t think Mr Stock could have been listening, because it wasn’t fear itself I was frightened of, it was definitely Kevin Fraser.
But if your fear is of something that’s actually not very frightening or genuinely dangerous, in that case you should force yourself to do it. Unless you have a genuine phobia or something, that’s different. That’s a recognized medical condition and those people need sensitive counselling to help them snap out of it and pull themselves together.
Most people don’t achieve their dreams because they just never plucked up the courage to give it a shot. It’s like that song: ‘You’ve got to have a dream, if you don’t have a dream, how you going to have a dream come true?’ Although my main dream is being in the Arndale centre with no clothes on, and I’d rather that one didn’t come true, thank you very much.
‘Imagine if they had a Star Trek character that was half Vulcan and half fish . . .’ I declaimed into the microphone, a little laughter in my voice, shaking my head in disbelief at the foolishness of such a notion. ‘He’d be, like, totally logical most of the time, except when you put a little worm on a hook right in front of his nose . . . Then that little fishy side of him wouldn’t be able to resist it, would it? “Hmmm, interesting, captain, I appear to have a giant rusty hook piercing my cheek causing me immense agony and massive internal haemorrhaging”.’
With one hand on the flex, I lowered my microphone and took a well-earned bow. This particular microphone doubled up as the shower attachment from my bath and admittedly the only audience was my own reflection in the large cracked mirror above the sink. It was impossible to know whether this routine was hilarious or stupid made-up nonsense. I mean, there’s no such thing as a Vulcan and fish can’t talk. Surely the audience will spot both of these basic flaws in my premise half a mile away I’d thought this new material was quite funny when I’d first written it down, but then I had to consider the other possibility, which was that I was quite probably going insane. And wasn’t Star Trek all a bit passé now, a bit of a comedy cliché? Up and coming young comics of the twenty-first century didn’t do routines about Star Trek. They did routines about Star Trek, the Next Generation.
I had changed my entire set half a dozen times and this particular script was not made any easier to read by the fact that it had been torn into pieces and then sellotaped back together again. A psychologist might say that I was having a panic attack, but that suggests a short period of intense anxiety and my permanent state of terror wasn’t like that at all; I was having panic sieges and panic marathons. Even though the gig was still over a month away, my pressure-cooker head felt that it could stand the worry no more and that I should abandon the whole idea. In fact, I had been close to doing this when I had stumbled across my name in an article in a Sunday newspaper. A critic writing a negative piece about the general state of comedy in Britain had casually added as an aside: ‘Even Jimmy Conway is not as funny as he used to be.’ What? How dare he! I thought. Who does this bastard think he is? ‘Jimmy Conway is not as funny as he used to be.’ I was exactly as funny as I used to be, which is not funny at all. He had absolutely no right to write that about me without seeing me first. It was a moral outrage of the first order. I’ll show him, I thought. He’ll eat his words when I storm it at the London Palladium. And then I sat down to try and work out exactly which hilarious and original jokes would ensure that I stormed at the London Palladium and a wave of fear and paralysis came over me once again.
It was the balmy month of August and the celebrity social calendar seemed to be suspended. Seaford was full of grockles trying to extinguish the raw glow of their sunburnt bodies by throwing pints of cold lager down their throats. It became an effort to walk out of my front door. I’d be recognized and forced to be friendly and cheerful towards endless strangers who knew me. The holidaymakers’ resolute determination to get drunk gave a dangerous edge to their overfamiliarity. One night on the way home I was stopped by a kebab-eating drunk with a huge beer gut under his Chelsea shirt, which made me think it unlikely that he actually played for them. He kept grinning and pointing at me as he searched hard for the precise words to describe my exalted celebrity status.
‘Oi! You’re that fucker off the wotsit!’ He had grabbed my arm so that I could not get away until he had shown me to his friend.
‘Oi, Terry, look – it’s that fucker off the wotsit!’
‘Fuck me, so it is! Oi, mate, say it. Go on, say, “Talk About Floppy Disks!”’
‘No thank you.’
‘Fuckin’ say it!’
‘No, I don’t want to.’
And then his excitement flipped into anger that I had broken the terms of my celebrity contract.
‘You think you’re fucking great, don’t you, you stuck-up twat!’
And he hit me in the mouth with such force that I fell clumsily to the ground and cracked the back of my head on the pavement.
‘And he’s soft as shite! Talk About Floppy Disks!’ and they laughed and left me there tasting the blood between my teeth.
For a while after that I felt besieged inside my
‘How’s your mum?’ I asked her.
‘Fine,’ grunted Tamsin, perhaps irritated that I should want to talk about Nancy rather than her.
I could tell she wanted another session with the doggy psychiatrist. She was patting Betty as if she hadn’t seen her for ages and they’d just spent an hour together. Betty really ought to have got out a notebook and put her glasses on.
‘Good dog, what a good dog,’ said Tamsin, plonking herself down on the sofa.
‘Betty, what do you think your daddy would say I asked him a favour?’
‘Well, I can’t say until I know what it is.’
She wrestled with the dog some more, allowing Betty to lick her face so much I worried the dog might get tetanus.
‘I was wondering if I could take Kelvin to one of your comedy gigs,’ she said, still looking at the dog. ‘Then if you like came over afterwards and said hello and chatted to me and I introduced you to Kelvin, then he might be more interested in me after that.’
‘I’m sorry, Tamsin, that won’t be possible.’ Her face fell as if all her hopes had been built up on this one idea, as if it was her last chance to hold on to the boy she thought she loved.
‘You know I never say where I’m going to appear. And besides, it’s you Kelvin should be interested in, not me.’
‘But I know a celebrity!’ she implored. ‘That’s the only interesting thing about me.’
by John O'Farrell have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes