This is your life, p.7
This Is Your Life, page 7
Back in Seaford, of course, I was already a little bit holy myself Following my distinguished appearance on the BBC news, a tribute which, I am proud to report, was also included in that night’s specially extended evening bulletin, every single person I knew or had ever known had heard the good news: that Jimmy had been modestly keeping mum about a friendship with Britain’s biggest TV star. Everyone wanted to talk to me to console me, to buy a few shares in the death of Billy Scrivens, to make this shared national experience have something to do with them. ‘Yes, a friend of mine is going to the funeral. . .’ they’d say to their workmates when the subject came up. ‘I’ve been trying to help him come through it but it’s very hard for him, you know, with the telly and newspapers reminding him of what’s happened every five minutes.’
They had suddenly discovered that they had a place in this solar system. At the centre was the supernova Billy Scrivens. Around that star had revolved various planets, including, as it turned out, their friend Jimmy Conway, around whom they orbited themselves. And suddenly I noticed that the various satellites that looped around me were all at their closest proximity all at once, all in full view, lined up and shining brightly into my life. After the lunchtime news the phone rang continuously for the whole of the day of Billy’s death and for every day in the build-up to the funeral
The second friend to call had been Chris. Chris was a very nice person, but he’d never been the same since he nodded off on the beach at Rio de Janeiro. He’d been victim to a gang of criminal surgeons selling human organs on the black market. They must have whipped his brain out while he was asleep; there was no other explanation. He was the only person I knew to get a negative score in an IQ test.
‘Hey, Jimmy. You were just on the television!’
‘Yeah, it’s weird.’
‘You must have run home really quickly’
‘I was expecting to get your answerphone but you’re back already. That’s amazing!’
‘No, it wasn’t live . . .’
There was a pause while Chris thought about this.
‘Right. So they know the news in advance, do they?’
‘I thought the news was live.’
‘Well, most of it is, Chris. But it’s amazing what they can do with modern technology these days.’
‘Yup. I’m with you. You’ve got your home phone diverted to your mobile, haven’t you . . .’
The next caller took me slightly longer to place.
‘Is that Jimmy?’ said the voice of an elderly lady.
‘Hello, dear, it’s Audrey Lacy’
‘Audrey Lacy. Brian and Audrey – your Mum and Dad’s friends. You sound different, your voice has broken.’
‘Oh blimey. Hello, Audrey’
‘Brian and I just wanted to say how sorry we were about your friend Billy Scrivens dying like that.’
‘Oh. Right. Yeah.’
‘Your mother had only just let on that you were friends with Billy Scrivens when she rang at eleven o’clock last night. So then when we heard the sad news on the wireless this morning, well, we just had to ring and say how sorry we were . . .’
‘Oh well, um, thanks, Audrey. Nice of you to ring. Yeah, it still hasn’t really sunk in yet.’
There was a momentary silence during which I suppose I had expected her to say goodbye.
‘So, was he like that in real life as well?’
‘Always joking and playing practical jokes on you and such like?’
‘Er, yeah – he was just the same,’ I confirmed, and she seemed to have found the solace she’d been seeking.
This was a reassurance everybody demanded of me. That the friend who beamed out of their television set had not been deceiving them, that they’d been right to take him into their hearts. In the course of various conversations about ‘me and Billy’ I had found myself being forced to embellish my fantasy with little details about things we had chatted about or done together. ‘No, we never talked about ideas for the show; when he was down here he wanted to get away from all that.’
More than one person volunteered to accompany me to the funeral. ‘You know, just in case you need a bit of support or whatever.’ Honestly, these morbid groupies, they’re so voyeuristic; it’s sick, it really is. I’d got myself a ticket, I mean an invitation, and they hadn’t, and that was all there was to it.
Although I began the morning with plenty of time to spare, the hours were rapidly slipping away from me. I popped into Mr One Pound because I seemed to remember they had some cheap plastic belts but I quickly found myself being press-ganged into assisting Edna Moore who lived next door to the language school and for whom every aspect of the modern world always seemed completely baffling.
‘Oh hello there, Jimmy, could you give me a hand, dear, I’ve forgotten my glasses again – I can’t read any of the prices.’
Obviously I was perfectly happy to find the time to assist a widowed pensioner like Edna, I didn’t mind at all, nothing could give me greater pleasure than explaining the complex pricing system in the Mr One Pound shop.
‘Jimmy – how much is this?’
‘That’s a pound, Edna. Everything in here is a pound. That’s why the shop is called Mr One Pound, because everything you see costs exactly one pound.’
‘Oh I see. What about this?’
‘That’s a pound as well. Everything here costs a pound.’ In the background a tape loop was endlessly booming out the message: ‘It’s all a pound at Mr One Pound, everything costs a pound at Mr One Pound.’
‘What about two of these?’
‘That would be, um, two pounds for those two items, yes, I think that’s right. Two pounds.’
‘I only want one of them.’
‘That’s one pound then.’
‘A pound for one of these? Haven’t they got anything cheaper?’
I ended up carrying Edna’s bags up the hill to her house, which left me less time than I had planned to walk the dog and somehow I managed to turn a leisurely drive up to London into a frantic race against time. There are some social occasions at which you are not expected to arrive at the time stated on the invitation; indeed, it’s actually quite cool to walk in a little bit late. Funerals, however, are not one of them. In Debrett’s Guide to Bereavement Etiquette it is most definitely not the height of good manners to burst in through the doors towards the end of the ceremony, elbowing past the pall bearers going in the opposite direction down the aisle with the weight of the deceased on their shoulders.
Fortunately I just made it, but I had cut it so fine that I found myself trying to do the slow dignified walk into the church at the briskest pace possible. Behind temporary crash barriers, dozens of photographers and TV cameramen leered out at the invited guests. A soap actress was ahead of me and they called out her names, both real and fictional, and flashbulbs exploded like party poppers but she didn’t stop for them. This was not the BAFTAs or the Oscars; it was a colleague’s funeral. Though she did glance both left and right, towards both sets of photographers, as she walked slowly in. I suppose if you are going to spend that much on a fancy black hat you are going to want people to see it. It occurred to me that she probably didn’t shop at Mr One Pound very often. I was next up. They raised their cameras once more, looked at me through their lenses and then put their cameras down again. ‘Is this a celebrity?’ said the first action. ‘Nope, it’s not . . .’ said the second.
Just inside the church a couple of girls were collecting invites and cross-checking them against the lists on their clipboards. I was momentarily nervous that there might be some sort of test to check that everyone really did know Billy Scrivens, such as, ‘What was his favourite drink?’ or, ‘What was his first job in television?’ As it happened I knew the answers to both these questions; l
It was a large, impressive church, a fine example of the unmistakable architecture of the period known as ‘the olden days’. Every pew was packed. The trouble was that from the few remaining seats at the back, the view was terrible. You could see the vicar and the organist and everything, but you couldn’t see the congregation. The back of one celebrity’s head looks pretty much like another, with the exception perhaps of Mr Blobby and Tinky Winky, neither of whom seemed to have been invited from where I was sitting. It was only once I was in place that I noticed an usher starting to fill up the two rows of pews along the side of the church. You must be able to see everyone from there, I thought. So after a moment’s hesitation I squeezed past the mourners beside me and fought my way for the best view in the church, or second best after the photographer who was clambering to the top of his squeaky metal stepladder. Some of my fellow mourners looked a little perplexed by my suddenly clambering across them, but I shook my head sorrowfully, bravely biting my bottom lip, and so my reasons were not questioned. In fact, everyone seemed to be wearing the same courageous expression: a clenched, sad smile that greeted fellow mourners with the message, ‘I know, yes, I understand, it’s nice to see you too, but how dreadful it had to be in these circumstances.’ There was real grief on famous faces. The photographers from Hello! were having a field day.
Once I had a clear view of the whole church I was amazed and thrilled by the number of celebrities who were gathered in this one building. Would it seem a little improper to ask that weeping Spice Girl for her autograph right now? Maybe I should wait till the hymns to ask that bloke from Coronation Street if he gets found guilty in that court case. There was what’s-his-face from Manchester United, behind him was a newsreader who was posing a question (a cooking query maybe?) to the presenter of Mastercook, and just behind them looking slightly different in her glasses was Norma Major, wife of the former prime minister. Even the people who weren’t famous looked as if they ought to be. Their suits were smart and fashionable and they had an air of importance about them that made me conclude that the people I didn’t recognize probably wrote out the cheques for the people I did. As well as most of today’s top twenty there was a sprinkling of golden oldies, people who had been at the peak of their careers ten or twenty years ago, some of whom I’d completely forgotten about. There was that actor who was in Upstairs Downstairs, for instance, although he was obviously trying to play this down because now he was wearing modern clothes. And then my eye would wander again and I’d be brought bang up to date once more: coming in last of all were the really big stars, Kylie Minogue, Prince Edward, two out of six ‘Friends’ and the Dalai Lama. The young girl with the clipboard looked at his invite, ticked off his name and said, ‘Take a seat on the left, please, Mr Lama.’
It was almost as if the more famous you were, the less time you could be seen to be kept waiting in the aisles. But I suppose that’s just the way it happened to work out. I can’t believe they were sitting in their cars around the corner till the last moment. Each face prompted a different Pavlovian emotion from thousands of hours spent watching television. Seeing England football stars made me instantly think, ‘Goal! England are safe!’ Seeing the bad guy from EastEnders made me want to shout, ‘You bastard, you broke your poor mum’s heart!’ Spotting a TV quizmaster recreated the sensation of, ‘Ooh, I know this one, don’t tell me!’ One or two of the stars seemed to have a slightly resentful air about them, as if deep down they rather objected to being cast with a mere walk-on role in this particular drama. ‘Why should Billy Scrivens be the centre of attention?’ they seemed to be thinking as flowers were placed around his coffin. ‘It should be me up there.’
Edging his way past the official photographer and stepping over the cables, the world’s most nervous vicar tentatively shuffled up before his celebrity congregation like some rep actor suddenly finding himself auditioning in Hollywood. For most of his sermons he must have felt confident that he was the best public speaker in the room, that he could project his voice and bring out the meaning of the text better than any of the dozen or so pensioners dotted about the otherwise empty pews. But just glancing around today’s packed congregation I could spot the winners of three Oscars, four BAFTAs, and the TV Quick Award for Best Daytime Weather Forecaster. The vicar was trembling so much he could barely get his words out. He rushed through his first reading, desperate to make it to the first hymn, at which point he looked even more thrown because this new congregation sang up with such projection, clarity and feeling that he must have thought he had been transported to the front row of Phantom of the Opera.
It seemed strange to be worshipping some unimaginable made-up God in a room full of living, breathing deities. How bizarre that we had gathered together in a church, the religion of celebrity hijacking the temple of the previous established faith. Billy Scrivens had toured the sick and incurable in hospital and had touched them; was it not him we had come to worship today? In this century it was not the illuminated saints in the stained-glass windows we venerated, but the figures shining brightly through our television screens. Did not more believers worship at the altar of television on Saturday night than ever entered a church the following morning? In every home in every street we gathered around the god-box to hear the gospel according to St Oprah, for yea, daytime television is the truth, the light and the way.
The organist missed a few notes, the sermon was irrelevant and overlong, and frankly the whole show was a rather amateurish production. It was only at the end of the service when the speakers relayed Billy Scrivens’s TV theme tune that the atmosphere picked up and the audience started to respond. When the jaunty tune finished everyone spontaneously applauded. It was quite moving. We were at a funeral in a church but this was show business and it was Billy’s lifetime curtain call. Take a bow, Billy Scrivens, you put on a great show, you gave us some great laughs, thank you.
As the applause died down six people took their places on either side of the coffin. But not six ordinary people, not undertakers or Billy’s relations. No. Standing by ready to lift and carry out the coffin were six of the most famous celebrities in the country, each one from a different sphere of entertainment. There was the premiership’s most expensive footballer, the lead singer from Britain’s biggest boy band, a team captain from a top comedy panel show, the hottest British actor in Hollywood, a leading member of the cabinet, and just in front of him the winner of Big Brother.
If you’d wanted to arrange the perfect celebrity photograph, the vision of these six stars solemnly and humbly carrying Billy’s coffin out of the church would have been it, I thought, as the official photographers eagerly clicked away. Once the coffin was taken outside, it was placed in a hearse and whisked off to a private cremation that would be taking place away from the public gaze. No details of this part of the proceedings were provided on the service sheet, but I knew that if it was for Billy Scrivens, it wouldn’t be just any old conveyor-belt ashes-to-ashes job; he’d have the luxury cremation, a sort of executive super-cremation plus, with every frill and comfort laid on for the customer’s convenience and peace of mind. It was hard not to be jealous of him, but I just had to accept it: this was how the other half died.
While all this was taking place everyone filed slowly out of the church, showing their sorrow and their best sides to the waiting paparazzi. Th
My excitement at being alone in this strange company was beginning to wane and with no one to talk to at the party I started to feel awkward and self-conscious.
I hovered on my own for a while next to a plant, which proved disappointingly inadequate camouflage and so I attempted a faint half-smile to various people walking past. Their internal computers quickly scanned my face, instantly calculated my importance to their careers, registered the score ‘zero’ and swiftly redirected their eyeline to the next person along.
Hanging around beside the various groups of industry movers and shakers, I could overhear various snippets of what I presumed must be typical TV conversations: ‘Yah, I’m doing a new Channel Four series called Icons Uncovered – you know, a sort of dish-the-dirt-on-the-modern-saints thing. We’re exposing the real Anne Frank – there’s some evidence that the blank diary wasn’t given to her after all, she borrowed it off her sister and then failed to replace it. It’s dynamite . . .’
Another pitch was going on behind me. “We’re trying to salvage the ratings for current affairs. I’ve got in the producers of Pop Idol and Soap Stars and we’re holding auditions for people who want to become real-life politicians. The winner stands as an independent at the next by-election and with all the TV publicity we reckon they ought to walk it.’
I noticed an abandoned glass of champagne on a nearby table, which sat there fizzing away for ten minutes. I was dying for a drink and finally I strode past it, deftly picked it up and continued on my way as if I’d just spotted someone I needed to talk to. I glugged it back and my nerves began to ease. I found the purposeful searching-for-a-work-colleague technique quite an effective means of feeling less self-conscious. I walked from one end of the room to the other, exaggeratedly craning my neck, looking for this elusive imaginary friend, and then when I got there, I walked all the way back doing the same thing over again.
by John O'Farrell have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes