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This is your life, p.4

This Is Your Life, page 4


This Is Your Life

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  ‘It’s pronounced Co’burns, actually,’ said the grubby rock chick.

  Confusing class friction aside, the alcohol was soon working its magic and everyone was chatting and laughing. Norman was moaning to me that Panda’s parents didn’t like him.

  ‘Just because I’ve got a skull and crossbones on my helmet.’

  ‘Well, you must admit it’s an unusual place for a tattoo.’

  My brother was deep in some political conversation with another of my friends. Dave was a gruff and cynical Yorkshireman who had stopped voting Labour long before anyone else, not because of any yuppy hijack or abandonment of socialist policies, but because the Labour Party had adopted the red rose as its symbol. ‘The red rose of bloody Lancashire!’ he snorted in disgust every time politics was discussed. ‘What’s wrong with the white rose of Yorkshire?’ It was not that Dave was someone who bore grudges; he just needed a little bit longer before he could forgive Lancaster for winning the Wars of the Roses in 1485.

  Despite living about as far from Yorkshire as it was possible to get, he continually tutted at Southern prices and the lack of foam on his beer while castigating us soft Southerners for needing namby-pamby luxuries like coats. An almost obsessive fear of being taken for a ride or being ripped off made him so cynical that he believed old ladies in the High Street collecting for guide dogs were only pretending to be blind. You’d show him a report from some third world charity saying, ‘Hey, Dave, did you hear, they’ve stamped out smallpox world-wide.’ And he’d tut and say, ‘Typical drug company scam.’ His outrageous statements compelled you to challenge him and then you’d find yourself stuck in a pointless argument, which was Dave’s favourite means of communication.

  ‘How can you possibly say there is no such animal as a badger?’ shrieked my astonished brother.

  ‘It’s true. They’re made up. An invented species,’ asserted Dave.

  ‘That’s ridiculous. Of course there’s such a thing as a badger.’

  ‘Have you ever seen one?’

  ‘Well, no, but. . . there are lots of people who have . . .’

  ‘Lots of people say they’ve seen flying saucers and all. Doesn’t mean they exist. Norman, have you ever seen a badger?’

  ‘Well, yeah, on nature documentaries and stuff.’

  ‘Doesn’t count. I saw a flying saucer on the telly.’

  ‘I saw a badger in a flying saucer once,’ I added, a bit unhelpfully.

  ‘Actually, I have seen a badger,’ announced Nancy. ‘Well, a dead one, squashed on a road.’

  ‘Any hoaxer can forge a dead badger. It’s like corn circles. That would have been put there for the very purpose of making you think there was such a thing as a badger.’

  Eventually my brother was forced to concede that it was possible there may not be such a species as a badger and he attempted to change the subject. Five minutes later I heard him exclaim, ‘How can you possibly say nothing happened in the 1940s!’

  I was sitting next to Nancy who announced that the photos of our holiday were finally back from the developers. Every August a crowd of us went camping in Normandy, and thanks to Nancy’s camera we had a great record of what her thumb looked like extremely close up. The more blurred efforts had oval stickers on them indicating what the problem might be: Problem: Lens obstructed. Solution: Do not let Nancy take the photos. Keep Nancy as far away as possible from anything vaguely technical.

  ‘This could be the next big idea in photography,’ I suggested. ‘First they develop the disposable camera. Now Nancy’s gone one better and taken disposable photos.’

  The evening wore on and everyone was laughing and joking as novelty cards and little joke presents were unwrapped and I realized I was really enjoying myself

  ‘What did your brother get you, Jimmy?’ said Nancy.

  ‘Oh, well, we don’t get each other presents any more .. . I just get them for the kids,’ I said diplomatically.

  ‘Except this year,’ cut in my brother, looking mischievous and producing an old shoebox from under his chair.

  ‘Although this isn’t actually from me,’ he continued. ‘It’s from you . . .’

  A present from myself? What on earth was he talking about? And then from the box he carefully withdrew a large bundle of old letters wrapped in a faded ribbon and passed them over. Silence fell around the table as I stared, puzzled, at the pile of letters in my lap. The envelopes were all addressed to me, but in my own handwriting. At least, it was an early incarnation of my own handwriting, self-consciously adult and overelaborate in its loops and fountain-pen swirls. The pages inside were typed on an old-fashioned manual typewriter. And suddenly I remembered. These were letters from me, to me, written more than twenty years before.

  As I scanned the first epistle a vague memory stirred, that in my early teens, during a particularly boring summer holiday, I had not only planned my future life but had written letters to my adult self, setting out every step of the way. Lots of teenagers keep secret diaries recording all the things they have done. I had written down all the things that I was yet to do. It wasn’t that I had been a precocious teenager, I’d just written my autobiography in advance. Mixed in with this epic teenage fantasy were warnings against some of the unbearable habits that grown-ups develop. Some of the pitfalls I had managed to avoid: I hadn’t spent thousands of pounds building a conservatory, for example. But that might be because I didn’t have a garden on which to build one. I didn’t make my kids look around the inside of churches on holiday, but that was because I didn’t have any children.

  ‘What are they, what do they say?’ said Dave.

  ‘Oh, it’s just some old letters . . .’ I said dismissively, realizing that everyone had been sitting there in silence watching me read and waiting for an explanation.

  ‘I found them in the box of our stuff that Mum got out of the attic,’ explained my brother. ‘It appears that in the absence of a proper childhood pen friend, Jimmy wrote a whole series of letters to himself as an adult, to be hidden away and read once he was a grown-up.’

  There was a buzz of interest around the table.

  ‘Well, lucky you didn’t post them,’ said Dave, ‘or they wouldn’t have got here yet.’

  ‘No doubt you’ve read some of them?’ I said anxiously.

  ‘How dare you!’ said Nicholas. ‘I’ve read all of them.’

  ‘Oh, read a bit out! Read a bit out!’ demanded Nancy.

  ‘Yes, well, now they are back in the hands of their rightful owner,’ I said, putting them back in the old shoebox and pointedly replacing the lid, ‘so if you think I’m about to expose myself to your ridicule you can just forget it.’

  There were groans and pleading but I was unmoved.

  ‘I knew you’d say that,’ said Nicholas, pulling some pieces of paper from the pocket of his blazer and announcing, ‘which is why I have some edited highlights for this evening’s entertainment!’ and a huge cheer went up as he put on his glasses and unfolded a few sheets.

  ‘Read it out! Read it out!’ chanted the dangerous drunken mob and he regally gestured for them to be silent.

  ‘“Dear James”,’ he began with a grin.

  ‘James?’ heckled Dave. ‘Oooh, very posh!’

  ‘“As a multimillionaire, it is very important that you should not forget those less fortunate than yourself. . .”’

  This ignited a roar of derision from around the table. He read the opening sentence again while I attempted, and no doubt failed, to adopt the expression of a good sport who was happy to take this sort of thing on the chin.

  ‘“Despite being so wealthy, you should not be tempted to waste your money buying yourself a Rolls Royce or a Ferrari.”’

  ‘Well done, Jimmy, you’ve stuck to your principles there!’ shouted Dave. ‘Does it predict the Nissan Sunny with the coathanger for an aerial?’

  ‘No, no – it’s all here,’ Nicholas continued, suppressing his own mirth. ‘“Instead, you should get a smart but unpretentious car
like Uncle Kenneth’s Austin Princess, perhaps, and then just give your money away – not all of it, obviously, just a bit, like a thousand pounds or something, to carefully chosen charities that don’t spend too much of their money on administration.”’

  For some reason this last detail triggered another huge explosion of laughter. Norman convulsed so much that he fell off his stool, while I merely smiled and nodded and attempted a long-suffering tut at my own adolescent foolishness. For a second I had hoped that Norman’s drunken backwards lunge might deflect the attention away from myself, but this pack of hyenas had already selected their victim and were shrieking and howling for more blood.

  ‘“However, it might be advisable to have tinted windows fitted to the Austin Princess in order that you are not repeatedly recognized off the television as you try to go about your everyday business without being constantly mobbed by your fans.”’

  The laughter was out of control now; it had tipped over into frenzied hysteria.

  ‘“The important thing is not to look down upon ordinary unfamous people just because they seem to have such dull and uninteresting lives. Many of them, especially vets and people like that, do good and important work, and though it may not seem very glamorous to you, if it wasn’t for all of them being so ordinary, it would be impossible for you to be so special.”’

  ‘Don’t look so miserable, Jimmy,’ said Nancy. ‘You’re not a bit like that now.’

  ‘What, millionaire superstar?’ said Nicholas. ‘You can say that again!’

  It was then that a terrible thought struck me. It wasn’t what I’d written that embarrassed me, it was the obvious and enormous gulf between what I’d hoped to become and who I now was that made me feel so humiliated. The letters included the imagined script for my appearance on This Is Your Life. But with all the details of a showbiz success story that was not to be, these predictions were more like my own personal ‘This Isn’t Your Life’.

  Further lines were read, but I was no longer listening; instead I was staring at the scene of myself surrounded by friends and family all shrieking and banging the table and drunkenly braying for more. Pretending that it was still all in good fun, I eventually managed to snatch the remaining letter off Nicholas and quickly placed it inside the box. I answered a few serious questions about whether I remembered writing them and what I was going to do with them now. Perhaps Carol could see from the expression on my face that her husband had gone too far in front of all my cackling friends and so she rather belatedly attempted to come to the rescue.

  ‘Well, you never know, this time next year he might be famous. He is writing a screenplay, aren’t you, Jimmy?’

  ‘Are you really?’ said Nancy. ‘What about?’

  ‘Oh, it’s early days at the moment. I’d rather not say.’

  ‘Come on, Jimmy, you can tell us,’ pleaded Norman.

  ‘You’ll only take the piss.’

  ‘No we won’t, go on, what’s it about?”

  ‘Umm, no, really, I don’t want to risk somebody else stealing my idea.’

  ‘We won’t tell anyone, honestly,’ whispered Nancy.

  ‘You’ve got to practise telling the story, Jimmy – pitching your idea is one of the basic skills of the screenwriter,’ said my brother.

  Nicholas was right, and having been made to feel such a failure, now I was desperate to do anything to restore my pride. The glass slipper had been produced – once they all saw how well it fitted I’d be the one who was laughing.

  ‘OK. It’s just that the whole thing is reliant on the idea, really. It’s a comedy but it’s a sort of thriller as well.’

  ‘OK, buster, you’ve got two minutes!’ said Nicholas, miming a cigar in an unconvincing impression of a Hollywood movie mogul.

  ‘Right, imagine this: a millionaire tycoon decides he is going to murder his wife. But when he goes home to kill her, he discovers his wife has been kidnapped!’ There was a buzz of impressed interest around the table and I continued. ‘Everyone is saying, “Pay the ransom!” but this guy refuses. He says, “No, we’ve got to stand up to these bullies!” Only we, the audience, know that really he’s hoping that the kidnappers will do the evil deed for him!’

  I held my hands out ready to accept a little round of applause but my brother just unleashed the four devastating words: ‘What, like Ruthless People?’

  ‘Er – I never saw that. What happens in that?’

  ‘A rich man comes home early to murder his wife and discovers she’s been kidnapped.’

  ‘Stop it, that’s not funny’

  ‘And everyone says, “Pay the ransom,” but he says, “No, we’ve got to stand up to these people.”’

  ‘Oh yes, I remember that,’ chipped in Nancy. ‘Danny de Vito, Bette Midler. It was quite good.”

  I tried to salvage my precious project from this devastating revelation. ‘Yeah, but in my story the joke is that the kidnappers are the ones who are desperate, because they’re stuck with this really unbearable hostage, so they keep lowering their ransom demand to try and get rid of her, but the husband won’t pay a penny.’

  ‘Yes, that’s it, that’s what happens, it’s all coming back now,’ said Carol.

  ‘Oh yes, I think I rented that once,’ Dave added, unhelpfully.

  I’m not sure if I said anything else for the rest of the evening. Oh no, that’s right, about an hour later I distinctly remember mumbling ‘Sure’ when Nancy whispered, ‘Are you all right, Jimmy?’ I sipped my pint from time to time, feeling the laughter and chatter becoming separate and distant, like the echoey shouts inside a municipal swimming pool. I didn’t want to be there any more. Just before closing time a big cake was produced and everyone sang ‘Happy birthday’ and I blew out the solitary candle. Yet another year effortlessly extinguished. Yeah, happy bloody birthday, Jimmy. Bloody Danny de Vito. He bloody nicked my idea, the bastard. When I eventually staggered home I read a few more of my teenage letters, describing a wonderful life of fame and success and money and adoration. And then I went to the bookshelf and looked up the offending film in my movie guide. There was an exact summary of the plot on which I had been pinning all my hopes. Ruthless People. Four stars. See, I knew it was a good idea.

  And then I tossed my screenplay into the dustbin.


  27 Elms Crescent,

  East Grinstead,

  West Sussex,


  Dear James,

  I know it is only two days since I last wrote but I was just sitting down to start my project on the Tudors and I thought I’d quickly write another letter to you before I start. No doubt most of my class will leave their projects right until the beginning of September but I think it is far better to get it out of the way early on rather than have it hanging over you all summer and then rushing it all at the end.

  I don’t know where you will be going on your summer holidays but I imagine it is somewhere really hot with a fantastic apartment that leads straight out onto the palm-fringed beach, but there is also a lot of very interesting culture and history there as well in case it rains. I’m sure you are certainly not the sort of person who’d make your kids spend two weeks at their grandparents’ and call that a summer holiday. Also, because you are not a male chauvinist pig, you sometimes let your wife choose what she would like to do on some days, so the two of you do not spend the entire holiday arguing. You treat her very much as an equal but fortunately she likes to do exactly the same things that you do anyway. Your wife is like a feminist, but beautiful as well. But not beautiful in a tarty way. In fact, she is actually very intelligent and it would even be all right if she wore glasses like Felicity Kendall did occasionally in The Good Life.

  Your children are much more like you were. They are not all bossy like your brother Nicholas. You are a good parent who realizes that your children are more mature than you give them credit for and they are allowed to watch programmes that may offend some viewers, especially those watching in family groups. Your wife would nev
er take your son to get his hair cut at a woman’s hairdressers where his French teacher was having her hair done at the next mirror.

  I suppose the trouble with your level of fame is that it seems like there is nowhere you can go where people don’t recognize you! Some people will probably envy your wealth and fame but it’s hard for them to understand that the grass always seems greener on the other side. From where they are it might seem much nicer being really rich and having a huge house and being able to buy whatever you want and having everyone love you and giving you whatever you want all the time. From where they are that must seem like a really attractive lifestyle. But they’re only looking at the positive side of all that, they don’t think about the downside, like having to give autographs sometimes.

  There are pros and cons to every lifestyle, I’ll write again soon.

  Mine sincerely,


  The depression I felt on the night after my birthday was no doubt deepened by the realization that the teenage Jimmy had had such high hopes for me. The more I read of these hubristic letters, the more I sensed that I must be a terrible disappointment to myself. I suppose if you are going to attempt to predict the future, there’s no point in prophesying the mundane. Nobody would have been very interested in Nostradamus if he’d written: ‘And in the land of the Angles, there will be much drizzle, And a great nuisance shall be felt, when no buses come for ages and then three come along at once.’ When we watch toddlers playing with Lego we say: ‘Oh look, he’s going to be a great architect when he grows up.’ Not: ‘He’s going to work for a building company, but be mainly based in the office, sorting out everyday software problems on their integrated network system.’ So I understood why I had foreseen such an exciting life ahead of me – it must have been more fun to write about. And now I was supposed to smile at my naïve fantasies and think, Well, thank goodness none of that came true, thank goodness I’m where I am now. Except I didn’t feel like that at all. I still would have loved to appear on This Is Your Life and listen to a catalogue of my successes and pretend to blush as it was revealed how much tireless charity work I had put in to help the otter sanctuary. I still desperately yearned to be someone. Here was Jimmy Conway’s success story, and that was all it was: a story.

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